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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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.

Suit for Hire

In these uncertain economic times, your firm needs every kind of advantage on its side — not merely a strong balance sheet and efficient supply chain management, but a potent psychological edge. You need someone whose very presence communicates strength and competence to employees, partners and competitors alike. You need someone like me.

I am a suit.

I will sit at a conference table or at an elegant luncheon, in my suit, quietly radiating calm, authority and steely reserve. Leaning back in my chair at the appropriate angle, my fingers curled under my chin, I will take in everything said around me, nodding or simply fixing the speaker with a respectful and attentive gaze. At meetings, I will take notes on a legal pad tucked into a rich leather portfolio, using a Waterman pen with my initials engraved on the barrel. My handwriting is bold and angular, stylish while still preserving legibility, and you will notice how decisively I underline my major headings.

At no point will I pull out a Blackberry and begin typing on it — I do not own one, and my Louis Vuitton briefcase contains no laptop. (I am available with an optional laptop-bearing assistant; please speak to me for details.) Instead you will find a region-appropriate copy of Crain’s; my Kindle; several neat file folders containing documents of obscure but impressive purpose; a pair of Prada men’s sunglasses in a black leather case; a Netflix envelope, sealed and ready for mailing (Ratatouille, I explain with a smile; my daughter loves anything Pixar, and we ought to just buy the movie for all the times she’s seen it but we don’t like to use the TV as a babysitter); and my portfolio and pen, should I not be working with them.

I may, in a lighter moment that illustrates my humanity and approachability, show you a photo of my wife and aforementioned young daughter on my iPhone. Their names are Marisol and Kendall, respectively. I will humbly thank you when you tell me how beautiful they both are and then make a self-deprecating remark about my daughter inheriting her looks from her mother. We will both know I am lying; I am a gorgeous man, with captivating hazel eyes, unblemished skin and a jaw like the prow of a yacht.

I will politely deflect all other inquiries into my background and history. As far as you are concerned, I am a man from nowhere, a blank slate, an abstraction made flesh. (I am available with a full background, including university associations and professional organizations, for a modest upgrade charge.)

My suit itself? Contemporary and elegant, with a cool slate-grey hue, stylish lines that accentuate my physique (I work out rigorously and have a resting pulse rate of 45) and a subtle texture to the weave that you may well find yourself admiring during our many conferences, in moments when I happen not to be speaking. My silk tie is custom-made and tied in a flawless, bullet-hard Shelby knot; other knot styles up to and including a full Windsor can be accommodated on request.

As far as my handshake is concerned, I have a grip like a tiger shark’s jaws and can split walnuts between my fingers — did I not assure you that I work out? In addition to my full regimen of cardio, weights and resistance training, I also study Jeet Kune Do, the fighting system devised by the late Bruce Lee. This training allows me to precisely attenuate my handshake to communicate fellowship, encouragement or menace as appropriate to the situation. Without even speaking I can assure the lowliest hourly employee that I am firmly on his or her side; let a supplier know that he is in for toughest negotiation of his life; or so frighten an opposing counsel that his balls shrivel between his sweating thighs like a puppy cowering before a rolled newspaper.

As we work more closely together over the days and weeks, you come to appreciate the awesome intellectual resources I can command, along with my willingness to put them completely at your disposal. Soon I will begin finishing your sentences for you, and then speaking your thoughts before you have a chance to utter them. Days rush by in a blur as achievements you had previously dismissed as impossible suddenly appear tantalizingly close. You notice I never appear nervous and rarely blink. Dimly, you begin to understand that I am capable of doing, and actually may have done, terrible things. You will be grateful I am on your side.

My fingernails are immaculate, my hair perfectly in place. My wristwatch is rated to a depth of 400 fathoms as well as the vacuum of space. My shoes glisten like the hood of a black Ferrari. And I can be yours for a surprisingly modest fee. After all, what price is too high to surpass your ambitions, redraw the competitive landscape and leave your opponents broken in the dust? Contact me today for a quote.

(References available upon request.)

My Day, Had I Been a Character in a Kung-Fu Movie

9:03

Arrived at office. Changed shoes, stopped at coffee machine and chatted with copywriter about her sons, one of whom is returning to live with her.

9:07

Entered office of Ran Bao-tu, Senior Creative Director and kung-fu master of unmatched skill, nobility and judgment, for morning conference only to find room in shambles and Master Ran lying sprawled on floor, severely beaten and on the brink of death. Cradled master’s head on my knees, imploring: “Who did this?”. Marshaling last ounce of strength, master weakly named Bai Tiao-man, leader of rival kung fu school Cobra Whisper, as his assailant. Master then croaked final breath, dying.

9:08

Swore revenge in the name of my ancestors on Cobra Whisper and its contemptible, craven master, Bai Tiao-man.

9:09

Began catching up on email.

9:19

Sent Outlook meeting request challenging Bai Tiao-man to combat to the death at 5:00 pm. Request was promptly accepted.

9:30

Met with members of Media, Production and PR teams to coordinate efforts on new brand rollout scheduled for next month. Received numerous condolences and expressions of sympathy on death of Master Ran.

10:18

On way to water fountain, chanced upon my counterpart in Marketing at Cobra Whisper, who disgraced Master Ran’s good name with vile falsehoods and insults. Confrontation quickly escalated into combat. Fight ranged throughout Accounting and Human Resources, ending in front of vice president’s office, where I finally bested my opponent with rapid combination of Crane Plucks Eggs from Nest and Swift Tiger Pounce.

10:22

Stood out in lobby alone, silently mourning Master Ran, a single stoic tear streaming down cheek.

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Song and Dance Men: Dylan at 70

The old man enters the club and finds his place at a small table near the stage, taking a seat opposite an empty chair. He is short, wiry, and diminutive and a little absurd in his black embroidered cowboy shirt and dark pants. His thin face is sheltered by a wide-brimmed hat; beneath a long nose is etched a pencil mustache. The eyes, when they emerge from beneath the hat brim, are narrow and seem pressed into a semi-permanent squint; it might be tempting to call them sad, but for the way they swiftly and piercingly take in their surroundings. They dart to and fro through the club, noting the mostly empty tables and the waning daylight streaming in through a solitary window, before settling on the stage, where the evening’s first performer is ambling toward the microphone.

He is young, almost child-like, with round cheeks and curly close-cropped hair. Dressed in jeans and a coarse denim shirt, clutching a guitar with unclipped strings winding off the tuning pegs like whiskers, he might be mistaken for a roadside ragamuffin, but the grin gives him away, even more than those babyish cheeks do: a grin of knowing impetuousness, a charmer’s grin, a grin that knows luck is on its side, or fate or destiny or whatever you choose to call it. Yet how to account for the contrast between the puckish demeanor and the voice? How does someone barely distinguishable from the average small-town twenty-year-old — for it is apparent to the keen observer that the hardscrabble mannerisms are an affectation, given away with a subliminal wink — sing so forlornly, so emphatically and so unaffectedly of things he could never have experienced? The words he sings are infused with the morality and vision of an Old Testament prophet, strained through the vocabulary of an itinerant brakeman. He chides and insinuates and accuses and finally takes it all back onto himself: Ah, but I was so much older then. Always his voice prowls among the words like a hunter nosing for prey in the rocks, investigating dark corners, overturning and exposing hidden things, ignoring what lies in plain sight. It remakes old sayings and never utters the same word in the same way. Not a conventionally attractive instrument, but one that seems to say, Would I be saying these things, in this way, if they weren’t true?

This performer soon gives way to a new face — and the transformation is shocking. In place of the fresh-faced, Jimmie Rodgers-like troubadour now stands a dandified Mod in a tight-fitting striped suit, a wild nimbus of hair radiating from his head like sunbeams, his sallow face guarded by a pair of dark glasses. But the most noticeable transformation — before he starts to sing, that is — is the Fender Telecaster guitar slung high on his chest. He begins to pick at it tentatively, his long-nailed fingers not quite used to the guitar’s weight and action. From the shadows, he is joined by four other musicians, and this ensemble explodes into a roaring barroom blues, tough and loose and fearless, that batters the walls of the club. The gangly singer steps to the microphone and cuts loose in a voice like a police siren amplified through a Marshall stack; he howls, wails, croons, giggles, moans, an unfathomable conviction undergirding everything and holding it together. The words are as arresting as the voice — in fact, the words don’t seem as though they could be delivered any other way. There are torrents of imagery, as though a hundred years of newspaper headlines, shared memory and tall tales were compressed into some cultural singularity before bursting out again, coalescing into a fractalized landscape where Beethoven, Jack the Ripper and Ezra Pound rub elbows with gamblers, old widows, strutting commanders-in-chief and the unnamed lost and lonely. There is jarring silliness, surprising pathos and mystifying juxtapositions of time and place. And most piercing and memorable is a question, thrown out to the audience like an unanswerable taunt: How does it feel?

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