The room wiggled and writhed, as though a pre-storm wind were blowing across a pond. Wall made the mistake of breathing in through his nose, then immediately gagged. The smell was worse here; he hadn’t thought it was possible for the smell to get any worse, but it had been his experience in his thirty-two years on the planet that there’s always room for worse.
His eyes stung, and he put his gloved hands to them and rubbed, which made them hurt more. Clearly, he was not dressed appropriately for this activity. He considered walking off the job right then. The guy who’d let him in the building had been so shady he probably wouldn’t even get paid. Nothing was worth this shit.
It had smelled progressively worse in town for several weeks. Since the first thaw, actually, when the very top layer of snow began to turn crystal with slight melting. Then, as the banks receded until only the highest plowed hills clung stubbornly to their frozen ice, the smell snuck like some deranged ninjas past the bottling plant, the auto supply warehouse, to the downtown area, long the target of municipal improvement. This aromatherapy would nothing to bring more foot traffic to the card store, or the jewelry store, or the medical supply store.
It first was too sweet, with a hint of bitterness as an aftertaste, an odor like the chocolate factory used to emit back when industry seemed like the town’s future. The flavor was chalky somehow, it was a smell that slid down the back of your throat. Soon, though, it wafted further, and intensified. The sweetness turned to a decay, a mouse dead behind a wall. And then it no longer was a smell you got used to and ceased to notice. Every breath was gag-inducing. Wall took his mother to the doctor; she was convinced she had some sort of brain tumor. But could there be such a thing as a collective cancer?
The only one who didn’t seem bothered by the smell was Wall’s teenage son. Dan, no longer Danny, claimed he couldn’t smell a thing. “That’s cause you’re too high,” Wall had complained, which caused his ex-wife Dawn-Marie to sigh dramatically as though his parenting skills exasperated her. “I swear, Dad,” Dan said, his adolescent subtext undecipherable.
It appeared first in the local paper. A reporter attending the monthly town council meeting put together A, back taxes owed with B, the stench and came up with C, its source. When local law enforcement broke the door down, they were assaulted by the smell. Bison, left to rot for nearly two years in a warehouse.
Someone on behalf of the absentee owner posted a flyer in the A&P, where someone like Wall would be sure to see it. And if he hadn’t been at that moment counting out pennies for a frozen dinner (he had more money than that, even if he was flat broke, but he had cleaned out the truck and found a bunch of change that he wanted to get rid of), he might not have been the first one to see the flyer. He even saw the skinny guy’s back as he left the store. The money was good, and so Wall called the number, tearing down the flyer before the guy had a chance to hire someone else.
Forty-four tons of rotting bison meat was bound to stink, but Wall hadn’t considered the other senses it would insult. He immediately closed the warehouse. He walked out to the car where the skinny man was making calls on his cell phone, sachet held to his nose like they were in medieval England. Wall paced politely beside the door, nosing loose cement with his toe. When the man put the phone down, Wall bent over to the window.
“Yeah, I’m gonna need more equipment,” he said. “There’s some fumes, and some, like hazmat stuff squirming around in there.”
The man looked at him as though he were speaking in a foreign language. At that moment, Wall could have punched him. The force of the blow might knock his close-knit eyes together, making him into a permanent Cyclops.
“No,” he answered, the lilt of his voice a bored teenager’s.
“Really, it like, stings the eyes,” Wall smiled, trying to create camaraderie.
“Fucking hell,” the man said, and looked around the car for some place to spit. Wall stepped back so he could lob some phlegm onto the macadam. It sparkled in the sunlight.
“At least let me get someone else in here,” Wall said. “This is really a multi-person job.”
“If you don’t want it, I’m sure someone else will.”
Wall swallowed his anger. “It’s not that, it’s just, many hands make light work, you know? Can you call some of the others who applied, you know, for the job?”
The man looked at the car radio. Wall knew then that no one else in this town would do this job.
“Let me call my cousin,” he cajoled.
“Fine,” the man said. “I’ll pay him at the same rate.”
“Can I borrow your phone?” Wall asked.
Wall talked himself into the task ahead. He was good at talking himself into things. It had started with the job in the handicapped home in high school. He got ten extra dollars an hour if he never said no. So he began to clean up vomit and shit, help extricate objects from body cavities they should not have been in, wiped noses and hands and hosed down walls. He gained a reputation in town for being a go-to guy, a fixer. Farmers called him to help impacted cows, to assist in breach horse births. He changed bedsore bandages, emptied bedpans. And he was proud of it.
When he knocked up Dawn-Marie he was the one who insisted they marry. He stood at the altar of St. Episcopal and compared marriage to explosive diarrhea on a bedridden mentally retarded person. Marriage seemed easy in comparison, clean. Nothing about the delivery room grossed him out, and the baby, covered in blood and mucus and whatever, looked no worse than any other mess he’d seen.
In fact, what he’d liked about Dawn-Marie was her messiness. He had come to love what others were conditioned to abhor. He loved fucking her while she had her period. She was a heavy bleeder, and the dusky smell of the blood, the way her cunt felt slick in a way it never did when she was between cycles, turned him on. He could tell when she was about to menstruate; her face bloated and her breasts got huge. It was doubly exciting because he didn’t have to use a condom when she was on the rag.
But that was before he was frozen out of her bed, before she got so mad at him that anger wasn’t an aphrodisiac. Finally, she’d kicked him out of the house, and he’d been glad to go. They’d remained friends ever since, a necessity in the small town, and even got to fuck sometimes, when Milly’s was about to close and they were the only two left, drunk on JD and lonely. Sometimes they did it in her car; other times they went back to her place. Then it felt like they were married, him waking up next to her and smelling her morning breath, her groaning when he farted and turning away. He knew where the aspirin was in the medicine cabinet; she kept his cereal stocked in one of those plastic jugs so the mice wouldn’t get at it.
“Who would leave perfectly good meat to rot?” Arnie asked when he arrived. “Buffalo meat? Where do you even get 44 tons of buffalo meat?” Arnie had a tendency to ask questions without leaving time for anyone to answer him. He put on his respiration mask and kept at it, so that the questions were delivered as if on a radio imperfectly tuned. “This is what forty-four tons looks like? Woulda thought more.”
“It’s plenty,” Wall grunted. “You’ll see.”
He was actually looking forward to opening the big warehouse doors and watching the sight freak his cousin out. And freak him out it did. Wall could see his knees buckle before he recovered, his hand to his painter’s mask as though he might vomit.
“Holy fucking shit,” Arnie said.
“I wasn’t joking,” Wall answered.
“No way. No fucking way,” Arnie said. “This is fucked up. This requires, like a government agency of some kind. The ones who investigate plagues and shit. With the suits? No way I’m going in there, even if it were some kind of hazardous duty pay, which it ain’t. If you have half a brain you’ll quit too.”
“I can’t afford to quit,” Wall said. “I’m into it big with Dawn-Marie.”
Arnie spun away from the gaping maw of the warehouse, shedding gear as he jogged back to his car—work gloves, goggles, jumpsuit, mask last of all. “This smells like… like…” he struggled to find a word, wrenching open the door of his car. “You’re crazy, Wall, and not like crazy like I admire you crazy. Like actually certifiably crazy.”
Wall felt slighted. Fine, he’d do the job alone. Steeling himself, he brought the shovel to the first swollen plastic bag. It had ripped at its seam and a thin line of green meat had slithered out, like pig intestines. He brought the shovel to the bottom of the bag and nudged it under and the bag split further, glopping the mess off the shovel itself and onto the bags around it. It was swarming with maggots like ants in a stepped-on anthill. A shovel wasn’t going to do it.
Wall retreated back to his car and pulled out his cell phone, calling his skinny boss. “My cousin quit,” he explained, “and we’re gonna need like a backhoe or something, shovel’s not working.”
“Fucking hell,” the man replied.
“Have you been in?” Wall asked. “Have you seen it?”
“I’ll get you a backhoe. Sit tight,” the man said.
“And a couple more dumpsters,” Wall said. “It’s expanding all the time.”
Wall opened the cargo door of his trunk and sat on it. He looked at what was left of the town through his watery eyes. It’s not like it had ever been booming, but there’d been a moment, in the late 70s, when there’d been at least some industry, steel factories and meatpacking and such. Now almost all of that was done further south.
He’d grown up here, and never really felt like doing much exploring beyond town. Sure, he’d been places, the Badlands, Vegas, Denver, Canada to fish, but he’d never really had the urge to live elsewhere. If this smell didn’t awaken that in him, nothing would. It was a kind of litmus test, he thought. If you stay during the smell, you’ll stay forever. Nice town motto that would make.
Every inch of the town held a memory for him. He’d lost his virginity to Betsy in the abandoned railshack. It was practically a by-the-hour motel, and they’d had to wait in line until the couple before them finished. Betsy had seemed almost bored, laying down the sheet she’d brought, and the towel to protect the sheet, leaving on her bra, a raspberry-satin number she’d ordered from the Victoria’s Secret catalog. She handed him two condoms, in case he had trouble with the first.
He did have trouble. He’d never seen a vagina close up before. Always it had hidden between a pair of legs, opening just enough for a finger or two before ejecting him. And now here suddenly one was, more complicated than he had expected, raw and folded. He imagined fighting his way through those folds like waking up tangled in the bedsheets, and, though curious, as he leaned in, he discovered that you can’t put a condom on a soggy penis. He’d been so hard while they’d made out, waiting outside the shack and listening to the practiced grunts of the couple before them, that he almost unzipped just to get some room. He’d even jerked off in school that day in anticipation, which was dangerous. But now, faced with the actual act, he’d gone soft, a deflated balloon.
“What’s wrong?” Betsy had asked.
Wall stalled for time. “I’m going to lick it first,” he said.
“Okay…” Betsy said. “That’s kind of gross, don’t you think?”
“They do it all the time in porn,” Wall said. Before she could look down and see his shriveled penis, he stuck his face in her crotch.
It had all the shock of jumping into a cold body of water. There was the smell, the same one he’d smelled on his hand after he’d fingered her, but more elemental, stronger and more pungent. He hadn’t expected all the hair; it was rough against his nose and chin.
At first he attempted to kiss it like a mouth, inserting his tongue into the rift. But by her squirming he realized that she’d rather he just rub that little nub, so he did that for a while. She began to buck against him and he put a finger inside her, jabbing like he was accusing her of something. She made the same noises the girl had in the video they’d rented, two shrieks and a throaty gasp, which made him wonder if she was pretending to orgasm or if all women orgasmed the same, and then he was hard enough again to put the condom on and enter her, where he lasted four thrusts before he came.
“That was great,” Betsy said.
The skinny man drove up in his Eldorado. “You’ll get your backhoe tomorrow,” he said. “Come back then.”
Dawn-Marie and Wall’s custody agreement was fairly relaxed, especially now that Danny—no, Dan—was old enough to bike between his parents’ houses. Dawn-Marie kept tabs on him, did things like doctors appointments and birthday parties, kept his vaccination records, but Wall was welcome to swing by the house whenever he wanted, and that’s where he headed now.
Usually, people complained about the way he smelled. But since the odor had taken up residence in town, no one even noticed. Dan, for example, didn’t insult him when he walked in, instead said, “Hey, Dad.”
“Hey, Buddy.” Dan frowned at him. “Your mom home?”
“Nope,” Dan said.
Wall helped himself to a Coke from the fridge. He stared at the pieces of paper magnetted to the door—a card from the doctor and one from the dentist reminding Dawn-Marie about an appointment, an old picture Danny had painted in second grade when he was still Danny, of a sloping house and an oversized dog, a Nancy cartoon about messy houses, a picture of a boy sitting across from an elephant, a Dear Abby article.
Dan was reading a textbook silently. His lips moved as he read, and he occasionally underlined parts with his pencil.
“Whatcha doing?” Wall asked.
“Homework,” Dan said.
“Oh.” Wall finished the Coke, rinsed the can, and put it in the recycling bin. “Tell your mother I said hey.”
“Hmm mmm,” Dan said, not looking up. Wall wasn’t sure his son had heard him. But as he closed the door, Dan called out, “Hey, Dad?”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure.” Wall leaned back in the house, supporting the screen door with his bottom.
“How old were you when you, first, you know, did it?”
Wall’s mind spun possibilities. His son was twelve. “You’re having sex?” he sputtered.
“Nah,” Dan said. “I was just curious. Don’t worry. You look like you’re going to puke.”
“It’s that meat,” he said. “The whole town’s about to puke.”
The next morning there was no backhoe and no sign of the skinny man in the Eldorado. Wall pulled the shovel out of the back of his truck. At least he’d start while he waited for the man to get there. As he threw open the door the smell was different, softer, or more stealthy. He didn’t have the urge to gag. In some way, it was like taking another drink when your mouth was already furry. It soothed the sensation. The difference in the light between outside and in momentarily blinded him. When he regained his vision, he eased the shovel under a small chunk he’d dislodged the day before. It couldn’t have been more than 8 pounds, and he hauled it over to the dumpster, not looking at it. The dumpster towered over him, and without thinking Wall leaned back and catapulted the mess.
As though exposure to air were a catalyst of some sort, a wave of the stench hit him, even through the painting mask and snowmobile goggles. His eyes watered; he was momentarily unable to breathe. He may even have blacked out, which may have been why his aim was off, why his shoulder stopped rotating in the air, and how he came to be showered in a blanket of maggoty meat. And then he did pass out, just briefly.
When he stood up, he was covered in the slimy mess. It was not the smell that was offensive now so much as the texture of the meat, a gelatinous, runny goo akin to lumpy tapioca pudding. He brushed the maggots off while jumping up and down, hoping that would shake them. Then, desperate, he took off his shirt and pants, getting them caught on his work boots. He knelt to untie them, then realized he’d put his knee in the mess and stood again, bending from the waist. He finally got his pants off and jumped as though avoiding puddles to a non-contaminated area.
He had to get the shit out of his hair. So he undid the lid of his thermos and poured coffee over his head, followed by a Red Bull. And then he took off running down the county road, trying to put as much distance between himself and the warehouse of horror as possible.
He reached the gas station just before the police did. Around back he helped himself to the high pressure hose, aiming at himself until it hurt. He knew he must look a sight, workboots and boxers, now soaked as he made sure the water hit his equipment as well.
Joe and the new guy got out of the cruiser. “What the fuck, Wall,” Joe said.
“Man, you have no idea.” Wall shut the hose off, convinced, finally, that any possibly maggot infestation had been avoided.
“And you’re running down Route 43 naked because…”
“I’m cleaning up the meat down at the old warehouse.”
“Nope.” Joe put his hands on his hips.
“Yup,” Wall answered. “That’s why I’m covered in bison drool, or, was.”
“Town council voted last night to call in a team,” Joe delivered this information with a grimace, as though it pained him to tell Wall.
“What do you mean?”
Joe’s partner spoke up. “He means that the town’s gonna do the cleanup, with a construction crew and a materials specialist. Then they’re billing the owner.”
“The owner dumped 44 tons of raw meat in a warehouse for two years,” Wall said. “He’s obviously not that interested in taking care of business.”
“You on the council?” Joe’s partner asked.
“Fuck you,” Wall said.
“Now wait,” Joe intervened before his partner could ball his fists. “Calm down everyone.”
“We’re taking this motherfucker in,” the partner said. “Guess we don’t have to search for a weapon.”
“Got my weapon right here.” Wall grabbed his crotch. It was sore from his long impromptu jog down the road.
“Get in the fucking car.” Joe opened the back door.
“He’s not getting in our car all wet like that,” the partner said. “And he’ll freeze in processing.”
“We’re not processing him,” Joe said. “We’re driving him home.”
“No,” Joe’s partner said. “No. That’s not happening.”
“Yes it is,” Joe said, tired, as though he dealt with this kind of petulance all the time. “Get in the car, both of you.”
Both men did as they were told. The ride to Wall’s house was devoid of conversation, though the radio blasted out police calls and demanded the dispatcher’s order from Burger King.
The police car had already driven off when Wall remembered that his keys were in his pants pocket, abandoned at the site.
The hidden key was not under its fake rock, which meant that Dan had used it and forgotten to replace it. Wall knocked, just in case he was inside. Nothing. So he walked towards Dawn-Marie’s.
The houses along the route were small affairs, with severely sloped roofs to keep the snow from collapsing. Most Dakotans took advantage of the short growing season to plant vegetables and flowers. Winter killed off any vegetation so the neighborhood lacked the requisite overgrown yards and empty grasslands of a ghetto. In fact, in June, it looked almost nice, people sitting on their porches, paying local teenagers to paint their houses. Wall kept his head to the ground, hoping not to be recognized.
“Wall, that you?” No such luck.
“Hey, Carol,” Wall called.
“What’re you doing?” She asked that a lot. She was said to be a little slow—the cord had cut off the air to her brain when she was born, but other than one leg that dragged a bit, Wall had never found her to be any stupider than any other town resident.
“Lost a bet,” Wall called.
“Lost it good, looks like,” Carol replied.
“Yeah, well…” Wall said.
“I can see your jewels, but I’ve seen them before.”
Wall blushed. He had spent the night with Carol, just after breaking up with Dawn-Marie, but, hell, half the town had fucked Carol. It was just his turn that night.
“See ya, Carol,” Wall called, never breaking stride.
Dawn-Marie always left her back door open, a habit from when the house belonged to her parents and was always full of children. No one would be home at this time of day, and Wall was able to sneak in the back and take a shower, scrubbing himself raw with her loofah.
He was in her robe, leafing through her mail when Dan got home from school.
“Yo, Dad,” he said, dropping his enormous book bag in the middle of the hallway where it was sure to cause someone to trip. “Mom home?” he asked.
“Cause you’re wearing her robe.”
Dan shrugged and made himself a peanut butter sandwich silently, stuffing the entire thing into his mouth in one bite. Wall wondered if he should tell him about his day, but decided that Dan’s lack of curiosity meant that he wasn’t interested. The boy looked preoccupied. He left the plate on the counter; Dawn-Marie would yell at him for that.
“Everything ok?” Wall asked.
“What?” Dan turned around, as though surprised to see his father there. “Yeah, sure, fine.”
“Girl trouble?” Wall asked, leaning forward on the counter to rest his chin in his hands.
“No,” Dan said, raising one side of his mouth in disgust.
“School trouble?” Wall asked.
“No trouble,” Dan said. “Can I go to my room?”
“Of course,” Wall stood up. He wondered if everyone had conversations like this with their children. He remembered fondly the not so distant past when Dan had so much to tell him he tripped over his words. Granted, most of it was about Motor Cross, but it was still Dan, then Danny, wanting to share with him. Now, in order to discuss anything, he had to be on Googlechat, and then the exchange was so full of abbreviations that it felt canned, generic. And he didn’t understand half of what was said, or, rather, abbreviated.
Wall debated waiting for Dawn-Marie to get home. He felt like talking to someone. But he had to get his keys from the truck. He called his cousin, who didn’t answer. He called another friend who couldn’t get off his shift. Wall had no choice.
He knocked at Dan’s door. “Danny?”
“Wait a minute,” Dan called. Wall wondered if he was masturbating. That’s pretty much all Wall did at his age. But when Dan called for him to come in, the air smelled of lemon pledge, which pointed more toward toking than stroking.
“Were you smoking?” Wall asked.
“Pot or cigarettes?” Wall asked, pitching his voice to aim for mere curiosity.
“Pot,” Dan admitted.
“Don’t smoke pot. It’ll make you stupid,” Wall said.
“Sure, Dad,” Dan’s face was inscrutable. It sounded as though he were making fun of him, but his tone was all childhood sweetness.
“Can I borrow your bike?” Wall asked.
By the time he got to his truck he was in need of another shower and gasping for breath. As he got of the too-small bike, he noticed that the warehouse didn’t smell any worse than the rest of the town. Were they simply getting used to it? What would happen to the meat if they left it there? Would it eventually vanish? He wondered what would happen to the maggots. He thought that maybe they turn into flies and high tail it out of there. Then he wondered how long it would take for all the meat to be consumed by the atmosphere–one year? Or less. Maybe even less. Maybe a year from now this would all be forgotten, just another town tale that the next generation wouldn’t believe.
When the alarm sounded the next morning, Wall considered never getting out of bed ever again. His head hurt, his limbs hurt. He had, admittedly, had a few too many at Milly’s the previous evening. He had been thirsty. The beer quenched his thirst only when it was sliding down his throat. Otherwise he felt parched, as though the liquid was leaving his body through some hole in his leg and he had to refuel.
But he needed the money and so he dragged himself out of bed and into the shower. He had thrown yesterday’s clothes in the dumpster, so he put on a pair of old jeans he used for projects around the house and drove down to the site.
The team was already there. There must have been thirty of them, with 6 tractors with backhoe and loader attachments sitting on top of flatbeds. The men milled about in yellow astronaut suits with electronic respirators and ski goggles that made them look like a team of bees. Someone was directing them with a megaphone, shouting names and organizing them into groups. Wall looked around for the skinny man, but neither he nor his car was there.
Wall got out of his truck and stood with the small crowd behind the makeshift barrier of two oil drums and a two-by-four. He nudged Judy, who was at the front. “What time they get here?”
“Early,” she said. “That’s a reporter for the Capital.” She pointed to a woman in a red business suit.
“This’ll probably be what puts the town on the map,” said a man who Wall recognized but whose name he didn’t know. “We’ll be known for a pile of stinking shit.”
“Bison meat,” Wall put in.
He ducked under the two-by-four and approached the man with the megaphone. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I’ve been working on the site for the past two days, and I was wondering who I see about joining the team or getting paid.”
The man looked at him. One of his eyes didn’t focus right; it stared off in a different direction as though scouting for someone better to talk to. “Team’s professional hazmat. As far as getting paid, talk to whoever hired you.”
He turned away from Wall, consulting a clipboard. Wall knew suddenly that he would never get paid for his work at the warehouse. The skinny man would be miles away by now, and the cellphone number would never get an answer. “Shit,” he swore.
“You want to get behind?” someone took Wall’s elbow. It was Joe’s partner from yesterday. Wall shook it off and glared at him, but he headed back toward the viewing area.
They had the tractors all lined up now, in a row like can-can girls. All the loading doors were opened and Wall could see that more of the plastic bags had broken with the force of the gas. The yellow-suited men stood in the doors, waving them encouragingly forward.
Of one accord the tractors lowered the stabilizers. Then they extended the booms in synchronicity, followed by an unfurling of the stick so that the bucket hovered above the mess, its teeth pointing toward the ground. The megaphone counted eighth notes while the directors slowly lowered their outstretched palms. The buckets dug into the meat. There was a small gasp from the gallery as the ooze was disturbed. The reporter in the red suit held a tissue to her nose. Then the teeth hit cement and squeaked with satisfaction.
Slowly the tractors moved back toward the dumpster, waiting patiently in line, loads curled safely into their elbows. Each arrived at the dumpster and, a graceful as a dancer, extended their arms, dropping the gunk into the metal bin where it landed with a decidedly ungraceful splat. Between bucket and bin it hung in the air, catching the sunlight like prisms, glowing with life. Wall put his hands on the two-by-four and leaned forward.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. It was. The backhoe ballet continued, man coaxing machine into contortions so painfully slow that it hurt Wall’s heart to watch.
“You’re crying?” Judy asked.
Wall hadn’t realized, but he did have tears running down his cheeks. “The fumes,” he said.
“Do you think it’s dangerous?” Judy asked. “Are we going to get cancer you think?”
“Shut up,” Wall said.
He allowed himself to continue crying as the meat was slowly transferred into the dumpster. He wanted to go get Dan, so his son could see the awesome spectacle, but he was afraid, if he turned away, that he would miss it.
Amend’s latest novel is A Nearly Perfect Copy, out from Nan Talese.