Atlanta Writers Club Presents…
The Terry Kay Prize for Fiction Winner: Albert Norton, Jr.
The smell started with me. I noticed it first on the subway, though it wasn’t so unusual at that moment. The smell, I mean: human perspiration. There’s no mistaking it, the body odor of too many people and too little air moving, in too confined a place. And though the weather was mild that day, and riders few, this wouldn’t have been memorable by itself. Sights, sounds, smells of a big city–some pleasurable, some not, but certainly not all retained in the memory for posterity.
I don’t think I’d remember it as the beginning of everything except that the smell didn’t dissipate when the doors swished open and I stepped out onto the platform. The underground stations have their own smell of creosote and steel dust and humidity and maybe that metallic smell that goes with electrostatic discharge. Sometimes added to that are people-smells like vomit or urine or even, on hot days, a waft of open latrine. So it’s not like I was living in an antiseptically smell-free world before. But even out on the platform, walking at a goodly pace, there remained that familiar scent of body odor. It wasn’t steady, at first; it came and went. I sniffed after it, wondering if I was imagining it, and then it would seem to evanescence, only to return in the next moment arrestingly strong. It was my own body odor.
It used to be that I couldn’t smell my own, for some reason, unless it was really bad, like in those days of yore when I was writing my thesis and didn’t bathe or change clothes for several days running. Once as a college freshman, I had the bright idea to just let my unwashed work-out shirt dry out and then re-use it the next time I went to the gym. It was an experimental time of life, I guess. Somehow this seemed to make sense from an efficiency standpoint. The thing was, even after several trips to the gym I never noticed the increasingly offensive re-bloom. Other people did. Body odor must be one of those things we’re more sensitive to in other people than in ourselves, as with arrogance or ignorance or closed-mindedness. What I was thinking while walking through the train station was that the smell must be pretty bad, for me to notice it myself.
I’d have still put the whole episode out of mind except the smell returned even after a thorough scrubbing. I interrupted my day further to take what I was sure were clean clothes down to the basement washer to run them through again. After all that I was still uncertain, because of what smell is: invisible and sometimes evasive. You might turn one way and smell nothing at all; then turn another and be overwhelmed. I kept doing that thing actors do, when they play the part of the carefree grubby young man: sniff at my armpits as though to decide whether the favorite shirt was still good-to-go. I was trying to confirm whether my imagination had become over-active, or there was actually an emanation like those animated green waves in laundry detergent commercials.
I wanted to conclude it was my imagination. I had things to do, and anyway what else could I do about the smell? I thought I might leave the scent to hang in the air like a question mark. You know how you can breathe so deeply trying to detect an odor that the very act of breathing seems to make it go away? That’s what I was doing. I wanted my mind on other things, so that only a genuine smell would register. I made a quick lunch. Tomato soup and a bit of the fish from the night before, all smelling just like they’re supposed to smell, including even the day-old refrigerator patina on the fish. I slurped the soup and bent to my open book. I live alone, so I leave things lying around just the way I want them. I was soon engrossed in excerpts by and about Maimonides, in a volume I happened upon at one of those books-by-the-pound places. For a half-hour I was living in the twelfth century, and not the stinky twenty-first.
But when I emerged from the book, I knew it was all real. I trust my nose like I trust my own reasoning. The smell was worse. I stayed home from work the next day and caught up on some reading, but after a while I was distracted and kind of irritable. My two rooms have always been enough, but suddenly they weren’t. I didn’t want to go out, but the cupboards were nearly bare. I found some frozen liver in the back of the freezer. It was a little dated. My mother left it with me, and she died nearly two years ago. So there was that. I thought something onion-y might improve the atmosphere, but the onions were on their last legs. One of them smelled worse than me, so I tossed it, and cut up the rest. Fried liver and onions. Took me back to my childhood. While they cooked, I opened the window. I thought the fry-smell might camouflage the fug but to my surprise the net effluvia was from the outside in.
I usually don’t remember dreams, but I dreamed of a bronze statue gone green with age, coming to life and stalking the streets but then dissipating, atom-by-atom, into the atmosphere, each noxious atom malevolent. I woke in the pre-dawn light and showered. This was how many showers in two days? Ten, maybe? I put on thrice-washed clothes and left to stalk the streets dissipating noxious green atoms. That’s what smell is, isn’t it? Physical atoms, too small to see but grouping in sufficient quantity to be detected in the sensitive membranes of the nose?
I thought I’d be mostly alone at that hour, but no. People were out in unusual numbers, somnolent plodding in the gray light. I noticed eventually that each walked alone, like me. I wondered if the smell accompanied me like a shadow, but it didn’t really. Not the smell, anyway. Not just my own personal body odor run amok. Now there was a heady, complicated combination of smells, stronger even than what I’d experienced in my little apartment. I tried to sort it out. I’m no smell-ologist, but I made headway by elimination. There are all manner of chemical smells we might find offensive but none of that was out on the streets that day. These were human smells, no doubt. The whole range of human smells, mind, so the chemical abominations might have been preferable.
The city was rotting. Every human inhabitant. I realized it from the smell itself but also from the attitude of the other streetwalkers, slinking along like rats embarrassed to be caught out so early. Pedestrians don’t usually make eye contact anyway in my city, but something else in their demeanor suggested a heightened desire for solitude. I realized they were conscious of their own stink, as I was mine. I almost wanted to shout it out, to find comrades in common misery, but stink is too personal. Even if they did feel the same thing I did, we could not bond over our disparate misfortunes. We each had to bear our embarrassment alone.
Work is a mile away, and I try to walk it no matter the weather. It’s a matter of personal discipline, like eating vegetables and exercising. Plus, it puts me in the mindset of being part of a grand society: a people that does things; that makes things; that creates. My walk is over a long-ish bridge and the thought spurred me on. All that open air. There was the usual upstream breeze in play, but not as fresh as on another day. I thought about that. Maybe everything really is relative. The breeze carried unwelcome scent, but it was still fresher than anything at either end of the bridge.
At work the air conditioners were working overtime. Everyone was aware of it but pretended not to notice. We all wore extra clothing anyway, in hopes it would help control aerial discharge, so in this way we could pretend the extra-cool temps were normal. Smell, you may not know, is not just a hot-weather phenomenon. We carry around a false idea that ice-cold, wintry-green, cool-blue colors translate to flavors, and hence smells, that correspond; a freshness that might serve to suppress overheated muggy funk like that which attends the vile gray putrescence on unwashed trash cans in alleys where no breeze blows ever.
The pretense didn’t last. Work in these conditions didn’t last. Nor visits to the grocery store or bookstore, or anywhere else as far as I know. The whole world was upended. Everyone, it seemed, retreated to their personal caverns or, if going in public was necessary, we separated out equidistantly. A respectful distance in every public space. And in every queue, no cutting. There was a lot of looking down, as if in apology. Not really “as if”—apology was the dominant tone. Every mother’s child among us was conscious of his offense. We all stank. Jointly, severally, equally, egregiously.
You’d think public disorder would follow. It would have, had there been serious privation of some sort, as from water or food. Or perhaps disorder would come from sweeping political disgust. Maybe. But not from this. I knew from the beginning riots wouldn’t follow. Riots require self-righteousness. Felt wrong. Affront. We all lived but we lived individually, in our individual smells of death. Naturally, we wanted a cure. I certainly did. Let me be the only pure-smelling soul around, I thought, but let my offense lessen. I don’t know who I was talking to, I just thought this.
At about this time, though, I noticed a peculiar evolution. At work, at the grocery store, even in the now over-used park. People were changing. Downcast eyes were no longer downcast. I kind of felt this way about myself, frankly. So what if I stank? Was I worse than my fellow man, really? We shared this stench, in fact it became defining, in time. Stench was the distinguisher of mankind, and soon thinkers—perhaps bodily isolated in their garrets—began to write that we were followed by an aroma, not a stench. What is stink, stench, putrescence, but an authentic and natural estate?
A corner was turned. The new normal evolved overnight. The next morning of our lives brought with it an embrace of the stink, in all its malodorous variety. Suddenly there was on all sides what seemed to me a startling acquiescence—nay, acceptance—nay, embrace—of all things magnificently offensive to that most instinctive of reactions, olfactory revulsion. It came to this: first women, then men, augmented their naturally pungent odor, attempting to deepen it, to achieve new ranges of visceral aversion. They sought disgust on a scale hitherto unimagined.
I’m not exactly a fashionista, but I get the concept. We dress in a way to signal our membership in the tribe, and some of us put ourselves on the outer perimeter of that acceptable tribal code in order to stand out; a little but not too much. As in dress, so in everything else, even smell. I noticed among the most malodorous an uplift of countenance: the straightened posture and haughty looks. Stink was cool.
But I guess some things are so primal that even humans can’t reason their way out of it. There was an atomizing effect. To put it succinctly, we were farther apart from each other than ever, physically. And yet, the desire for society, for friendship, for companionship, for erotic love, these had not diminished a jot. These are not ultimately severable from presence in the body, as our soul-deadening experiments with social media attest. To be blunt, people wanted to, but couldn’t, come together. We lived socially on a plane of theory, you might say, and not really with other human bodies.
Back in my apartment, I contemplated all this. I could now open or close the windows, no matter. I had an air conditioner I ran sometimes—I could turn it on or not, no matter. I tried to remember the time when the air of my apartment didn’t seem to be filled with something, when air was just air, invisible and ignore-able, like television prattle or eternity. That nose on my face, though. It goes before me and arrives first.