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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I Know What Conservatives Like. I Know What Liberals Want.

Conservatives don’t like things that liberals like. That’s not surprising, nor is it surprising that the reverse pretty well applies: liberals don’t like things that conservatives like. Where the difference starts to creep in is that conservatives seem more likely to take this stance to its next logical step: going out of their way to do things that liberals don’t like, solely because liberals don’t like them — even if doing that thing ultimately harms them.

For instance, there was a great deal of attention given recently to a study that tried to persuade people to reduce their energy usage at home. Notices were sent to the highest-consuming households with gentle suggestions that the household in question could do better in conserving energy. The study found that Democratic households were likely to reduce their usage in response; Republican ones, by contrast, were likely to increase it. As noted in the linked article, Rush Limbaugh even encouraged his listeners to turn on all of their lights during Earth Hour, a gesture that certainly cost his audience many thousands of dollars in wasted utility spending. Glenn Beck told his audience not merely to refrain from using their own grocery bags, but to use as much plastic as possible. That’ll show us tree huggers!

It is a commonplace among conservatives that liberals are bereft of humor and joy, hate individual liberty and derive their sole pleasure from curtailing other people’s happiness. A popular conservative slogan goes “Annoy a Liberal: Work Hard and Be Happy.” As a liberal myself, I think it’s only fair to confess that this supposition is true. At our secret monthly meetings (which we totally have, usually in mosques or Whole Foods stores), my fellow liberals and I like to swap stories about the various successes we have had in jealously undermining the successful and the hard-working, persuading women to have abortions and redistributing as much of America’s material wealth to undeserving poor and minority households as possible. We like to strategize about which decadent cultural practice we ought to demonize next: how about off-roading, or fishing? And we speak of the true ache in our hearts when we contemplate those who are prosperous and happy, and who bear the lowest tax burden of nearly anyone in the First World. It is our mission to destroy such comforts, and we will get there one day, Dawkins willing.

At any rate, in the spirit of free discussion, I would like to confess on behalf of my fellow liberals several other activities we liberals hate, and which our conservative countrymen may feel compelled to adopt.

1. Punching Yourself in the Face
As a liberal, my reflexive compassion compels me to help people whether they want it or not. Were I to see a successful American savagely pummel his own mug into swollen, eggplant-like mush in defiance of my touchy-feely values, I would want to see him restrained, evaluated and possibly commited for his own protection. You’re not going to just let me get away with that, are you?

2. Setting Fire to $100 Bills
Little-known fact: the smoke from burning American currency is actually deadly to liberals, and the higher the denomination, the more toxic the fumes. If you were to bring a $5,000 bill to a David Sedaris reading and set it on fire, you would kill most of the audience in the space of a few seconds. You probably don’t have a $5,000 bill, so an equivalent amount of Benjamins would probably do the trick (I haven’t actually tried it).

3. Giving Away All of Your Possessions to a Poor Family
Hey, it’s the government’s job to confiscate your wealth and redistribute it! Stop that!

I offer these suggestions in the hope that my conservative countrymen will make reasoned decisions based on what is actually good for them, rather than what they imagine to be bad for someone else. If that doesn’t work, well, maybe someone will actually punch himself in the face, which would be kind of funny. Glenn Beck, care to take this one up?

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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13 Writing Prompts

1.

Write a scene showing a man and a woman arguing over the man’s friendship with a former girlfriend. Do not mention the girlfriend, the man, the woman, or the argument.

2.

Write a short scene set at a lake, with trees and shit. Throw some birds in there, too.

3.

Choose your favorite historical figure and imagine if he/she had been led to greatness by the promptings of an invisible imp living behind his or her right ear. Write a story from the point of view of this creature. Where did it come from? What are its goals? Use research to make your story as accurate as possible.

4.

Write a story that ends with the following sentence: Debra brushed the sand from her blouse, took a last, wistful look at the now putrefying horse, and stepped into the hot-air balloon.

5.

A wasp called the tarantula hawk reproduces by paralyzing tarantulas and laying its eggs into their bodies. When the larvae hatch, they devour the still living spider from the inside out. Isn’t that fucked up? Write a short story about how fucked up that is.

6.

Imagine if your favorite character from 19th-century fiction had been born without thumbs. Then write a short story about them winning the lottery.

7.

Write a story that begins with a man throwing handfuls of $100 bills from a speeding car, and ends with a young girl urinating into a tin bucket.

8.

A husband and wife are meeting in a restaurant to finalize the terms of their impending divorce. Write the scene from the point of view of a busboy snorting cocaine in the restroom.

9.

Think of the most important secret your best friend has ever entrusted you with. Write a story in which you reveal it to everyone. Write it again from the point of view of your friend. Does she want to kill you? How does she imagine doing it? Would she use a gun, or something crueler and more savage, like a baseball bat with nails in it?

10.

Popular music is often a good source of writing inspiration. Rewrite Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” as a play.

11.

Write a short scene in which one character reduces another to uncontrollable sobs without touching him or speaking.

12.

Your main character finds a box of scorched human hair. Whose is it? How did it get there?

13.

A man has a terrifying dream in which he is being sawn in half. He wakes to find himself in the Indian Ocean, naked and clinging to a door; a hotel keycard is clenched in his teeth. Write what happens next.

Originally published on McSweeneys.net.