Story in Three Sentences

They met over artisan whiskeys in a bar that had once been a dentist’s office. With little to go on, she thought he could be kind to her, safe enough in his own skin to teach her to live safely in hers. It broke apart years later, amid tears and pleas and a final, raging silence, on the floor of a hollow space that had once been a whiskey bar.

Inspired by this challenge.

The Final Report of the Smell Committee

A few years ago, I wrote this story. It’s long and odd and has no chance of finding a paying market, so I thought I would finally just put it out there. You’ll find an excerpt below. The full version is available for sale on Amazon, bundled with some other pieces I’ve already published here. Because Amazon does not allow you to give Kindle books away, I have to charge $.99 for it. If you don’t want to pay, you’re welcome to download the free versions linked below; they also contain the full text of the story.

THE FINAL REPORT OF THE SMELL COMMITTEE

TO: The Board of Directors

FROM: Mr. A.V. Jascowitz

Mr. B. Sykes

Mrs. E. Drake-Avilas

Mr. T.S. Holm

Ms. T. Burke

 

BACKGROUND

On Tuesday, September 8, 2012, Joseph Schultz reported a strong, musky odor near his workstation in the payroll department of the Dubuque office. Schultz claimed that he had begun to notice the smell days earlier and had assumed it would dissipate of its own accord. Instead, it had grown increasingly palpable and had begun to significantly impact his ability to work. Facility Services investigated and noted a “faint” odor, which they traced to some old food in the nearby kitchenette. That weekend, the refrigerator and all fixtures were cleaned vigorously, and the issue seemed to be resolved.

The following Monday, September 14, Schultz reported that not only had the smell not been eliminated, it had actually grown in strength; he claimed he could now smell it in a radius of 20 feet from his workspace — a distance that encompassed nearly a quarter of the building’s third floor — and that its character had changed from a simple food-related odor to a fouler, more pungent stench altogether, one that Schultz described in a garrulous stream of emails as a “stink of death” or “what hatred must smell like.” Several of Schultz’s coworkers began reporting the smell on their own, attributing it variously to paint, cleaning solvent, new carpeting or other prosaic sources. In response to the volume of complaints lodged with Facility Services, a professional steam-cleaning service was contracted to clean every square foot of the payroll department. This operation was performed on September 22, again to no avail, and the payroll staff reported to work the following day to find the smell had returned undiminished.

With no options apparently remaining, Facility Services had little solace to offer Schultz or his colleagues, who resorted to their own methods to attempt to restore comfort to their workspace. Payroll Director Dot Freidburger organized a floor-wide effort to improve the work environment, with employees bringing in, at their own expense, a variety of air fresheners, air purifiers, potpourri sachets and other similar items. These invariably proved ineffective: potpourri turned dry and brittle within a few days; a potted fichus plant took on a peculiar chalky texture before crumbling into dust; and chemical air fresheners either had no apparent effect at all or else made the odor worse. Freidburger and her colleagues abandoned their efforts, and no further attempt was made by the employees to combat the smell.

Several emails from this period subsequently reviewed by the Committee reveal instances of poor work performance, unusual behavior or cognitive difficulties whose potential severity went unrecognized at the time. Payroll Specialist Amelia Beakman filed a quarterly Paid Time Off Usage Report that actually consisted of a thousand-word description of an erotic dream; she later claimed to have included the material through a simple cut-and-paste error and was not disciplined. Several employees were cited for failing to report to work, explaining later they had confused the day with Saturday or Sunday, though one in particular claimed, with no lack of embarrassment, that she had forgotten she was employed by the Company at all. Formerly outgoing men and women were observed to become quiet and withdrawn, and several emails sent to Human Resources took on an ominous cast. “I can’t sleep at night,” one employee wrote, “because all I think about is having to come back here and work in this smell.” Another wrote, “Do something. If you don’t, somebody will. This isn’t any kind of a threat. But you don’t understand how people are feeling here.”

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24 Cigarettes and One Pipe: Hammett and Chandler

When I was a writing student in college, I came across a how-to manual called The Essence of Fiction, by Malcolm McConnell. It was not like most other writing books I had read before or have read since. My professor, to whom I showed it, was mildly appalled at its strict focus on the mechanics of story construction, and indeed, The Essence of Fiction has no clever exercises a la John Gardener’s The Art of Fiction, nor does it inspire you to live a life devoted to creativity a la Natalie Goldberg’s excellent Wild Mind. Essence is plain and direct and even, to my old teacher’s point, rather crude, but one of its precepts has stuck with me over the years: the rule against “cigarette action.”

Cigarette action is McConnell’s term for the meaningless physical business a writer will assign a character in order to pace a scene. When writing a dialogue scene, you can’t simply follow one speech with another and then another: it gets fatiguing to read, and the scene gradually loses its sense of place, its physicality. (Not that that stopped Elmore Leonard.) So writers solve this by having their characters do … something. Get up and look out the window. Check themselves out in the mirror. Change positions on the couch. And, of course, light cigarettes.

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Did You Ever Have to Remake Up Your Mind?

Or, How to Convert an Atheist in Seven Extremely Difficult Steps

Faith, defined a little too simply, is a belief one holds without evidence. Perhaps that definition sounds somewhat derogatory or appears to contain an implied rebuke. But people of all stripes have beliefs they cling to for no intellectually defensible reason, whether they be common superstitions (“Crime is more prevalent during the full moon” — it isn’t), personal idiosyncrasies (“Something good always happens to me when I wear my lucky sweater”) and even moral or philosophical precepts (“If I make a point of being trusting and kind, others will be encouraged to follow my example”). Most beliefs of this sort are quite harmless, a few are beneficial and the rest are a small price to pay for the freedom to be occasionally irrational. I think it would be a terribly dull world if everyone had a solid empirical basis for everything they did. Besides, I’d probably have to stop buying lottery tickets, and I like having something to fuel my daydreams.

The snag is that a belief held without evidence is also extremely resistant to change. Christopher Hitchens once said that anything that is claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. That’s an intellectually justifiable position, but not a very satisfying one, at least not if you find yourself wrangling with someone whose judgement you otherwise respect about an issue you can’t agree on. Faith beliefs are felt in the gut; they accord with our sense of how the world operates and are the result of influences we are mostly unaware of, from our parents and families to the media messages we’re exposed to every day. Though I defend recreational irrationality, I don’t hold it as justification for never changing your mind. Resistance to evidence is usually rooted in fear: fear of admitting you may be wrong and feeling stupid, fear of having your worldview attacked, fear of having to start at square one in determining just what it is you believe. This kind of fear is unhealthy and ought to be stood up to, at least once in a while. So occasionally I undertake the mental exercise of determining what it would take to change my mind on an issue I care deeply about. Today’s issue: religion.

I am an atheist, and I am an atheist of a particular stripe: I do not believe in a god or gods. That is not the same as saying “there is no god.” The latter is a statement about the nature of reality, the former about one’s own knowledge and the limits thereof; another way of saying it might be “I have seen no evidence of a god.” This distinction is sometimes called “soft atheism” versus “hard atheism” (neither of which are to be confused with agnosticism, an oft-misused word that describes the belief that true knowledge of god’s existence or non-existence is unknowable by human standards). In practical terms, there is not much daylight between the two positions, and holders of either belief/nonbelief would be indistinguishable in how they lived their lives. The only difference is that one has come to a conclusion and the other hasn’t. In the spirit of jiggling a knife into that small chink in the armor of certainty, and in keeping with Carl Sagan’s dictum that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” here are the conditions I would require to renounce my atheism and adopt a belief in god.

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We Apologize for the Error in Filling Your Order

Dear Valued Customer,

As the chairman and CEO of BuyAbsolutelyAnything.com, I wanted to take a moment to personally apologize to you for the extreme inconvenience that resulted from a mistake in fulfilling your recent order.

I have conducted an extensive internal investigation into this matter, and could find no satisfactory reason why our fulfillment system substituted your original order of a case of Nev-R-Die D-Cell Flashlight Batteries 12-Count (KI139809) with a Live African Bull Elephant (WL897189). I further understand that the animal arrived dead in its shipping crate, and that it had actually been dead for some time, evidently long before it was dispatched from our warehouse. This was traced to fraudulence on behalf of our supplier and you may rest assured that our relationship with this supplier has been terminated and a strongly worded letter of opprobrium sent.

Of course, we realize it takes more than a strong letter to correct a situation of this magnitude. It is one thing to say that a dead elephant was delivered to one’s doorstep; it is quite another to have to deal with the consequences. I can only imagine the horror — I believe no other word will suffice — on opening the crate and being confronted with the carcass, a once-majestic beast surrounded in a blinding cloud of flies, its skin rippling with the movements of dozens of rats that had occupied the husk as though it were some ghastly putrefying mansion. I do not doubt that your children continue to have nightmares about it, nor that it raised a host of questions about life, death and the laws of nature that you had had no expectation of addressing for at least several more years. Furthermore, our customer service team “dropped the ball” in processing your return, and while the laws for transporting animal remains are admittedly obscure, that is no justification for our failing to retrieve the crate for eight days. I understand your homeowner’s association levied numerous fines against you and our legal department is currently reviewing your claims in this manner.

I further want to assure you that the anti-Semitic graffiti on the interior of the crate was in no way the doing of BuyAbsolutelyAnything.com and that we addressed this with the aforementioned supplier. Finally, please accept my apologies regarding the behavior of the delivery driver. We use this courier service on millions of deliveries a year and they are normally the picture of reliability. That your driver was intoxicated and repeatedly challenged your family to “step up and see if you can take” him is so far beyond the realm of what we typically experience from this firm that I am at a loss to explain it. Sometimes misfortunes come together in a “perfect storm” and that seems to be what happened in your case.

With that said, what is BuyAbsolutelyAnything.com going to do to rectify this situation? Here are the remedies I have personally instructed our Customer Service team to provide:

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A Groupon Copywriter Issues His Ransom Demands

Save a Dozen Lives in Three Easy Steps
Chicago

The word “kidnapping” actually comes from the court of pre-Revolutionary France, when marauding noblemen would don kid gloves and nab commoners right off the streets, scooping them into their carriages and force-feeding them croissants and heavy cream. As for the poor bastards lying here in the Groupon offices, they’re probably thinking a croissant wouldn’t be so bad right about now, that anything would be an improvement over being trussed up like a hog by an obviously disturbed person with a neckbeard, a sawed-off shotgun and a MacBook Air, a person who I want to assure you is quite willing to shoot the face clean off any or all of these hostages unless the following demands are met:

1. Like cigarettes in prison, the size of your yacht and those bead strings they hang over pool tables, money is a handy way to keep track of who’s winning and losing in life’s ongoing Darwinian struggle. It can also be used to buy accordion repair training, stuff an extremely expensive scarecrow or perhaps save the lives of a dozen quietly sobbing office workers, their hands slowly turning purple as the ropes binding their wrists cut off their circulation and placate the otherwise vengeful and jealous hemp gods. So go ahead and deliver one million dollars in used twenty, fifty and one hundred dollar bills, financing my new life on the lam and depriving a pica-stricken bank employee of an illicit snack.

2. Before the invention of the automobile, loose wheels careened freely through the streets, bowling over helpless pedestrians and making horses rear up in fright. Help to avert bouncing, circular chaos by providing a brand-new, fully fueled automobile with four securely fixed wheels, as well as a police scanner and dark tinted windows. Said auto should also have sufficient room to accommodate two bound and gagged abductees, who will be released only when I’m certain I’m not being followed by law enforcement, TV news crews or hostage fetishists.

3. In addition to providing a valuable way to rid the world of old tin cans, firearms can bring families together over a mutual loathing of clay pigeons or a shared passion for earmuffs and tinted safety glasses. They can also, when delivered to the foyer of the Groupon offices in sufficient quantities, aid in the escape of a copywriter who once had dreams of being the next Thomas Pynchon but who now has written so many absurd come-ons for restaurants, hair salons and health spas that he is all but incapable of expressing a thought without resorting to nonsensical metaphors or made-up history or some other labored exercise in smirking hipster bullshit. Do you know I keep a notebook under my pillow just in case I wake up at three in the morning with a new euphemism for tanning bed? Yeah. You do now. That’s why you’re going to deliver two revolvers with five hundred rounds of ammunition, a hundred 20-gauge shotgun shells, a ballistic vest and a gas mask. Also supply six fragmentation grenades, suitable for thwarting pursuing FBI agents, enticing shrapnel collectors or removing sugar glider infestations.

Bring the cash and weapons to the sixth floor of 600 W. Chicago Avenue and leave the vehicle parked outside, the engine running and the doors unlocked. No tricks, snipers, double-crosses, voodoo hexes or skunk eye. Follow these instructions and these twelve people will go on living, dutifully recycling oxygen for trees and robbing the funeral industry of sought-after revenue for many years to come.

In a Nutshell

Fed-up Groupon scribe demands money, escape vehicle and weapons, as well as renewed sense of dignity and purpose, in exchange for lives of twelve hostages

The Fine Print

Expires in two hours, at which point one hostage will be executed, followed by another hostage for each additional hour these demands are not met. Limit 1 per order. Valid only for option purchased.