I go to the café with my machine, but I’m followed by a smell. No one else around seems to be bothered by it, and though it’s intense, acrid, sour, like my dad’s dirty toothbrush (how could he have kissed our mother after shoving that thing in his mouth?), I make myself get used to it and go back to work.
I walk home and the smell is back; I can feel it following me. It hangs behind my neck and catches up when I stop at the crosswalk by the convenience store where I used to buy cigarettes when I still smoked. I try breathing short quick breaths through my gritted teeth, but it doesn’t help. And it keeps getting worse: old socks, dirty underwear, Dad’s T-shirts after he’s been mowing the lawn, the ones he stashed in a damp forgotten corner, undealt with obligations, ever festering.
I go in the convenience store, and even though they’ve got the air conditioner set on arctic blast, everything smells horrible, like someone has decided to totally give up on themselves, won’t even ask their dad for help, and just let all that’s rotten around them collapse into tottering piles. When I ask the cashier if he can smell it, he claims he can smell nothing wrong, that they scrub the entire store down four times a day, that if I wanted to, I could eat off the floor beside the fortified wine case: that’s how clean they keep things. He waves me toward the aerosols and incense aisle so he can ring up someone trying to buy a pack of cigarettes.
I scroll through my reality checklist. Given that there’s this horrible smell I can’t seem to shake: Question #1: Am I bathing enough? Yes, at least twice a week even with the water rationing. #2: Do I have one of those stupid washing machines that makes your clothes stink because they never drain properly? No, I use the ultra hi-efficient laundromat just like everyone else. #3: Am I wearing enough deodorant? I just do what it says on the package, twelve strokes in all the necessary spots, no more and no less. #4: Do other people smell what you smell? No, and I don’t think they’re lying just to be nice to me. #5: Then am I not dealing with something fundamental deep inside me? Except for this smell that apparently only I can smell, I’m FINE, but I’m beginning to get tired of constantly having to use a checklist to make sure that’s still true.
I call my sister Emily to unload my troubles, but she’s got troubles of her own. “It’s awful! Like no one’s ever cleaned out the diaper pail, because someone’s already crammed a few down the drain and the toilet’s backed up, plus maybe child protective services is going to break down my door and find all the rotting meat someone’s been hoarding. I’ve scrubbed the whole house down twice!”
“That bad?” I ask.
“It smells like I’m the worst mother in the world,” Emily says.
I tell her about the stink that’s been following me like my most unforgiveable failures, and we compare notes. It’s a relief to know someone else is going through what I’m going through: it’s also terrifying to know that person is my sister. We look up olfactory hallucinations and wonder if they run in families.
Then I see the popup ad for this particular website in my newsfeed, claiming to be the one you have to use when you really want to get someone’s attention, and you don’t mind being thought of as an asshole. That Proust quote on the homepage, and the grimly satisfied faces of all the parents above the testimonials, is what makes me IM the URL to Emily.
“You call Dad,” she writes. “It’s your turn. And you better hurry, because I am going to fucking kill him.”
So I give Dad a call. “It’s about time,” he says in the way that always makes me feel like the incompetent teenager I once used to be but haven’t been since I was twenty.
“Did you really have to give me the Stink?” I ask. “You could have just called me. I mean, how much did it cost?”
“They had a buy one, get one free sale. Your sister should be calling me any moment now.”
The stench is now coming out of my phone like the breath of a man who would rather drink rotgut mixed with raw sewage while standing in the middle of his garlic farm as it dies of the blight than visit his ever-suffering father. “When are you coming over? It’s pledge week. They’re showing The Legends of Hip Hop tonight.”
“I’m coming over now, okay?” I say. “Can you turn it off, please?”
“No problem,” he says. “Bring Chinese food.” A few minutes later the air around me is just amazing, sweet, slightly polluted air again. I’m practically hyperventilating to get those last remnants of stink out of my lungs.
I rideshare out to our old house with my China Village bags. The lawn is immaculate, but that doesn’t fool me. The front door hasn’t worked in years; I have to crawl through one of the bedroom windows, where there’s a narrow tunnel through the floor-to-ceiling piles of unopened mail and third wave record albums and God knows what else. I hear the loud wheezing of a 73-year-old 50 Cent trying to prop up the acoustic version of “In da Club” one last time coming out of where my bedroom used to be. Here and there I see bits of our past life wedged in, stuff like Xmas and Father’s Day Cards, Lopez family Disneyland photos, bomber jackets and fast food uniform parts, plus piles and piles of heavily underlined paperback books that Dad and I both like just a little too much. Even though I know it’s not my fault and there’s nothing to be done, I feel guilty about how far things have gone.
Somehow I make my way up without breaking my leg or spilling dinner by falling through the two or three missing steps in the staircase, when two things surprise me.
First: somehow my room is clean; it’s just like how it looked before I left for college. It’s like a museum of me, with the spraypaint and posters and goth stuff I was into when I was seventeen, except for the Superlazyman recliner cocooning my dad and the wall sized screen opposite him beckoning donations to our local station before they get back to just a little bit more of Drake and his many talented grandchildren.
And second? It doesn’t smell like death, or cat piss, or gas leaks. Nor are there any roaches or flies or rats around, no skittling sounds either. It smells like jasmine, wisteria, cookies, sandalwood, flannel sheets just pulled from the dryer, Vicks, Mr. Clean. It smells wonderful. It smells like Mom. I take my shoes off and dig out the tray table I used to use to roll joints. We work our way through the garlic green beans and chow fun. For once we both just feel at home with one another.
“Did you do this?” Dad says, snapping me out of all the nostalgia, waving his arm around.
“I cleaned your room out, okay, so you’d feel comfortable. Now could you make it stop?”
“Make what stop?”
“The smell. Of your mother. It won’t change anything. It won’t fix things. It’s cruel.”
My dad is who he is, but I still sometimes wish he didn’t have to be. It’s so tangled: the desire to have the parents you should have had instead of the ones you got. There are boxes nowadays you can stash in corners where no one will ever find them, and they’ll make everyone happy in a fifty-yard radius. You turn them on and the old grief and resentments just melt away, the desire to accumulate and hold onto memories disappear as well. So the inside of your parents’ house gets to be just as nice as the outside. I couldn’t bring myself to do that: I’m not that kind of an asshole.
“I’m sorry, Dad, but that wasn’t me. Let me make some calls.”
I go out into the hallway, wedge myself into a cul-de-sac of the collected works of Ray Bradbury, and text my sister.
Emily texts me back the bill for the Smell, aka “The Mother’s Day Special,” and the nanobot vermin control service. I Venmo her half.
“And if he pulls this shit again I’m getting a box,” she texts. “I’m going to make sure they turn it up so goddamn high the whole fucking neighborhood will love themselves to death.”
“No problem,” I text back.
“You tell him that,” she texts. Several emojis follow that cause my phone to shoot flames.
“I’ll tell him,” I text, using the rapidly nodding head heavy emphasis emoji. “But next time it’s your turn to visit Dad, okay?”
Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in X-R-A-Y, Jellyfish Review, and PANK. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast, and his story “Goodwill” was picked as one of the Wigleaf Top Fifty Very Short Fictions of 2018. A collection of prose poems and microfiction, Animal Children, was published by Nomadic Press in 2020. His story, “Mom’s House” first appeared in Heavy Feather Review in December 2020. He teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts.