The Smell

Posted on February 21st, 2012 by Viveca in New York Stories

The Smell must have started between 10:00 p.m. Saturday night and 3:30 a.m. Sunday morning. It didn’t start slowly like something rotting should have; it came on suddenly and with full force. I was sure it had something to do with circus people.

I’d left the house around 10 o’clock Saturday night to go to a party. My houseguests, old friends from the Big Apple Circus, were going to see the show that night, and we planned to meet up later. Submarine Boy still works for the circus, but the Dark Lord and his girlfriend Kidnappy jumped the lot in the middle of the night when they couldn’t take it anymore. That was during summer tour last year; I don’t remember which market. I got fired in May, so both they and I are semi-banned on the circus lot for different reasons. We’re allowed on but only if we’re accompanied at all times by someone who lives there, and Submarine Boy is happy to be that someone. He’s given notice so he isn’t afraid of the muckety mucks. He wouldn’t be afraid of them anyway.

Coincidentally, Submarine Boy had just taken me to see the show on Thursday, so I didn’t join them when they went on Saturday. It was a decent show, but I had plans. You know, important stuff. Anyway, we all left the house and went our separate ways. It didn’t smell then; not at all.

After the show, of course they got stuck on the lot. It’s hard when you haven’t been there for a while; you always run into the few people you don’t want to see, but chances are good you’ll also run into a few people you really miss. That happened to me on Thursday, and it happened to them on Saturday. Kidnappy wound up visiting from trailer to trailer, chatting with old friends for hours, while the Dark Lord and Submarine Boy got stoned in Submarine Boy’s Argosy. They were still planning to stay with me though; Kidnappy and the Dark Lord had gotten spoiled in their few months off the lot, and Submarine Boy’s trailer doesn’t even have a water hook-up right now.

Around 1:00 a.m., Kidnappy finished up her visits, and they called me to say they were going to the Coliseum, one of the circus staff’s main joints in town because it’s cheap enough, close to Lincoln Center, and serves Guinness on draught.

Anyway, I wasn’t particularly enjoying the party I was at, which was my own fault and not the party’s, but I didn’t feel like heading uptown either, so I told them I was going to a friend’s house to play bridge, and we’d meet up later. That’s the whole problem with cell phones. You can always get in touch so you never make plans. I won’t get started on that or on my geeky bridge obsession. Those are stories for another time, and this one’s already strayed far enough from The Smell.

In any case, I got hooked on bridge, our cell phones weren’t connecting (probably because his is a cheap-ass circus phone that doesn’t get reception even in the middle of Manhattan), and they stayed in Submarine Boy’s Argosy cutting up jackpots until 3:00 in the morning when they called to say they were on their way home. None of us made it to the bar that night, and I was completely sober—you’ve got to keep your wits about you to play bridge.

At the end of the deal, I left to meet them, and arrived home around 4:30 a.m. The Smell hit me as soon as I got off the elevator. It hit me all right; I know that’s a figure of speech, but it felt like a physical blow. Everything looked clean and normal, but I started gagging and tried to race through the hall. I was sure it was my friends’ fault. The first thing I thought was, I don’t know what they’ve done, but I’m going to kill them for making this smell in my home. I burst into the apartment, simultaneously trying to get out of the rancid hallway and dreading what I’d find inside the apartment. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was still astonished by what I found: nothing. The Dark Lord and Kidnappy were asleep on the air mattress in the middle of the living room with all the lights on, Submarine Boy was asleep in my bedroom, and the apartment smelled fresh as a daisy. Well, ok, fresh as a New York apartment with a cat and three drunk, stoned, sleeping circus people, but way better than the hall. The Dark Lord had fallen asleep reading my copy of Bruce Feiler’s Under the Big Top, and his sleeping hands held it carefully open to the first page. Aside from that, nothing was out of place.

There was no way I could just go to sleep having let them produce The Smell and pass out though, so I woke up Submarine Boy and demanded to know what they’d done. He swore up and down that the hall was like that when they got home an hour ago, and they were equally relieved to discover it wasn’t coming from my apartment. We weren’t going to figure anything else out before dawn broke, so we finally went to sleep.

Around 2:30 the next afternoon we all woke up. Dark Lord and Submarine Boy went out on the porch to get high, and Kidnappy, who is the bravest and most curious of the four of us, went into the hall to see whether The Smell had worn off over the last twelve hours or so. It hadn’t. She even sniffed around to try to determine where it was strongest and announced that it was coming from the apartment next door, which I already consider the apartment of death. For the first few years that I lived in the building, apartment 6B was vacant because the owner had died. I used to store things on his porch when I had parties. I’d tried to buy the dead guy’s apartment cheap before the neighborhood got hip, but neither the estate nor the bank would return my calls. Finally, it went into receivership and then foreclosure, and someone bought it last year. The owner doesn’t live there, and I didn’t know the new tenants, but I thought it was a couple—two men.

It was Sunday, and we’d already slept half the day. Kidnappy and the Dark Lord were going to have to drive back upstate that night, so I left the Super a message to please check out The Smell if he could, and we did what any tourists would do with just a few hours in New York to escape the smell of death: we went to visit the World Trade Center rubble. The Dark Lord wanted me to race out of the apartment, hit the elevator button, and call them when it came so they wouldn’t have to wait in the hallway, but if I was going to have to smell it, you can bet they were too. We almost walked down a flight to call the elevator from a different floor, but we wimped out—just in case the body producing The Smell was in the stairwell.

I spent so much time visiting the Zone and writing about it during September and October, that I must have gotten a little jaded. I was surprised to see how much progress has been made on the construction, and I was worried my guests wouldn’t be able to tell what a big deal it was. Of course they could though. They were appropriately upset by the rubble, impressed that it was still burning, and taken aback by the slews of vendors profiteering on American flag merchandise or trying to sneak a little god propaganda into your hands while you’re distracted: “would you like a magazine?” (That pamphlet is not a magazine, and there is no god.)

It was getting pretty cold though, and you can only stare at rubble for so long, so a little after sunset we headed to Amin on 8th Avenue for our only meal of the day. Out of town guests almost always want Thai or Indian, which is fine with me. Food was good, and we walked home fat and happy until we got to the lobby and remembered what might still be awaiting us upstairs. Plus, the elevator was stopped on six, my floor, and it seemed like it was stopped there a long time. The Dark Lord said we’ll probably get off the elevator to a crime scene with police everywhere, yellow “Caution” tape, and chalk outlines, but Submarine Boy thought they’d had enough time to get further in the investigation. He convinced us: “When the elevator opens, they’ll wheel the rotten body out.”

The elevator began its descent, and Kidnappy and I stepped aside from the door, afraid. Submarine Boy is 6’5″ and the Dark Lord an inch taller, but instead of staying up front, they tried to hide behind us women. The elevator seemed to be moving very slowly.

When the door opened, its emptiness was more ominous than anything that we’d imagined, and then The Smell poured out. We were six floors down, but the elevator had carried The Smell like an invisible passenger. We got on despite it, and the Dark Lord tried to hold his breath for the whole trip. Submarine Boy is a considerate smoker who doesn’t litter, so he took two butts out of his pockets and put one in each nostril, “I’d rather breathe this,” he explained, “at least I’ve got a filter.”

The Super was poking around the empty hall when we got off. I apologized for bothering him on a Sunday, but he said, “Are you kidding? You can’t live with this. It smells like something died up here.” He also said he thought it was coming from 6B. We all went into my apartment to breathe for a few minutes, and I wanted to say goodbye to the Dark Lord and Kidnappy so they wouldn’t have to wait for our smell investigation before starting their four-hour drive. They were too intrigued to leave though. The Dark Lord said, “We need to stay to find out what happens.”

The Super said the tenant in 6B had left for the weekend, and he was worried that maybe the dog sitter hadn’t come, and the dog had gotten very dirty or even died in the apartment. I thought it smelled more like the dog sitter had died in the apartment, and the dog had eaten her. And wait a minute, I thought two people lived in the apartment. The Super answered that a couple had moved in just four months ago, “but the other guy died right after they moved in.” He didn’t know how, but at least he was pretty sure it hadn’t happened in the building. Still, that’s definitely the apartment of death.

We knew The Smell started within a five-hour window Saturday night, and I couldn’t imagine how something (or someone) could start to rot that fast, so I suggested we start by investigating the stairways in case a homeless person had wandered in and then died. The Super and I checked the stairwells and surrounding floors, but they were smell-free. We were going to have to deal with the neighbors.

The Super asked me whether we should break into 6B. He had the keys. I agreed that it was an emergency, but I wasn’t willing to walk into someone else’s apartment without the police there. We were whispering our debate in the hallway, when two of my other neighbors came out of their apartments to see what was going on. They were both covering their faces to hide from The Smell. The man in 6A pointed to 6B as the source of The Smell and asked us to please make it go away. I realized I was glad to see they were both alive, and we decided we’d better check the remaining apartments for living tenants. There is only one other apartment to check besides the suspicious 6B. I knocked on the other door and was glad to see both members of the couple who lives there answer the door. They were both holding their noses. I told them I just wanted to make sure they were alive and okay and did they know anything about The Smell? They thanked me for checking on them and said they had no idea what The Smell was. The Super said they had also complained to him earlier.

Well, that was every apartment on the hallway accounted for except 6B. We couldn’t put it off any longer. I rang the bell and waited. The Super stood behind me, and my circus friends hid in my doorway, curious, but ready to jump back inside the apartment the moment the murderer attacked. A dog began to bark inside 6B: one theory down. No one answered the bell. I waited, then heard shuffling and what sounded like newspaper crumpling. Instead of ringing again, I leaned toward the closed door and called, “Hello?”

The crumpling stopped. Silence.

I tried again, “Hello?”

After a pause, footsteps approached the door, and a man called out suspiciously, “Who’s there?”

I said, “Hi. It’s Viveca, your next door neighbor.” I might have added that I was with the Super.

The voice responded immediately, “I’m in the shower. I can’t come out.”

I called back through the door, “We just want to make sure you’re okay. Do you know anything about this smell?”

His response was not reassuring, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Nine people on the hall were gagging and complaining, and he refused to crack the door and then claimed he didn’t smell anything? I don’t think so.

We retreated to my apartment to powwow, and we started hearing all kinds of noises coming through the wall from the previously silent apartment. The first thing we heard was a vacuum cleaner. Now maybe it’s just because I’m such a bad and infrequent house cleaner, but I would never shower before vacuuming, because vacuuming often gets dirty or makes you sweaty. We heard lots of vacuuming and water running and then more paper rustling, like I’d heard from the hallway. Then he started dragging furniture around. It sounded pretty frantic in there. I stepped into the hall and thought I heard someone putting something down the compactor chute, but instead of walking over to see I waited for the person to return into the hallway, and instead they left by the back stairwell. I ran over but not in time to see who it was.

Submarine Boy placed a beer glass to the wall that joins our apartments to spy better, but he still couldn’t hear anything. Maybe he was Encyclopedia Brown, and I was Harriet the Spy, but even with Kidnappy as Nancy Drew and the Super and the Dark Lord to play the Hardy Boys we still weren’t getting anywhere on this mystery.

I had never faced anything like this, so I called the building’s vice president for a consultation (I’m the president for some reason, but again, that’s a different story). He asked what it smelled like, and I invited him over for a whiff, but he begged off, saying what he experienced earlier on the elevator was bad enough. He advised me to call the police. The apartment’s owner is on the board with us, so I decided to call him first and then the police. Neither of them answers. I left a message on the owner’s voice mail, but at the precinct office, the phone just rang and rang. Eventually I gave up and dialed 911, who do answer relatively promptly.

I apologized to the dispatcher for bothering her, and after explaining that the precinct didn’t answer repeated calls, I told her there was a horrid smell in the hall that seemed to be coming from the apartment of the only resident who wouldn’t open the door. She asked me what it smelled like, and although we had all been joking about it, I had to face it then. I looked around, saw the Super, Submarine Boy, the Dark Lord, and Kidnappy staring up at me, and I told the truth, “It smells like death.” The dispatcher told me someone will be over soon to check it out.

The Super wanted to go back down to his own apartment to smoke, but I didn’t want him to leave, so I made Submarine Boy give him a cigarette. As they headed out to the terrace to smoke, we all realized my terrace adjoins 6B’s. I announced that I was going to lean out and try to see into his apartment. The room was divided. Kidnappy, Submarine Boy, and the Super thought I should wait for the police to arrive, but the Dark Lord said the words I’m waiting to hear, “I’ve got your back.”

The two of us tiptoed onto my porch, and got hit by a blast of The Smell. The front hallway reeked, my apartment was fine, and the back porch reeked. As I leaned over the railing to peer into his back window, I noticed that his door was wide open. It may have been warm for December that night, but it still wasn’t over 50 degrees out. The first thing I saw in the apartment was a black leather cap with studs around the brim, and lying next to it was a clear glass cylinder that was all burnt on the end. As I was trying to figure out what it was, I heard movement and jumped back against the wall on my porch. A hand reached out and slammed his terrace door. I didn’t know whether he heard us. I didn’t want to find out.

We had made the call, so our junior spy time was over. We sat in the apartment and waited. No one was sure what I saw from the description. The cylinder was too big to be a bong, and it didn’t have any base, but we couldn’t figure out how he would have burnt a penis pump. We debated whether he killed the dog sitter while smoking crack or whether some sexual experiment went sorely awry. Of course we didn’t come up with any answers.

Speaking of drugs and waiting in tension made me want to offer the four guests in my home a drink, especially the Super since I wouldn’t let him leave, but since I still have the guilty conscience of my 18-year-old self, instead I started packing up empty wine bottles to hide them from the police. Eventually I remembered that it’s actually legal for me to drink wine in my own apartment. On the other hand, my circus friends had left some less legal substances and paraphernalia out in plain view all over my apartment. They seem surprised when I asked them to pack that stuff up or at least put it in their pockets. I didn’t think the police would search, and they certainly wouldn’t be able to smell anything, but it’s insulting to invite them into my home and leave drugs out in plain view. Besides, it’s as stupid as anything you see on Cops, and you never want to be that stupid. At least we all have our clothes on. How come no one on that show is ever wearing a shirt?

The owner of the apartment finally returned my call and agreed to call the tenant. As soon as I hung up with him, we heard the phone ring in the next apartment. After ten minutes or so the absentee owner called me back and said it had all been a mistake; the man’s dog was sick.

I asked, “Why wouldn’t he open the door for us?” and the owner answered, “He’s shy. He says he didn’t know you people.”

I asked, “Why did he lie to us and say he didn’t know anything about The Smell?”

The owner replied, “He sounded embarrassed. The dog had diarrhea. He said he didn’t think it was that bad, and he didn’t realize The Smell had leaked into the hall.”

I told him, “You’re not here. You don’t know what it’s like. We can’t breathe.”

The dog would have had to have exploded to produce a smell like that.

While we were still on the phone, the police showed up. 911 had sent the two tiniest police officers I had ever seen. I don’t think they weighed 150 pounds between the two of them. Neither was as tall as I am. They arrived carrying leather work gloves and sledgehammers that came up to their waists. They entered my apartment and asked us to tell them about The Smell and the neighbor’s strange behavior.

Again I started apologizing, “It seems I may have wasted your time. That was the apartment’s owner on the phone, and he says the tenant says the dog had diarrhea.”

The police looked at me in surprise and to my relief say, “Are you kidding? You’re not wasting our time. You can’t live with a smell like that! It smells like someone died in here.”

The Super had sprayed a bunch of Lysol in the hallway, so the cops hadn’t even gotten the full effect. The cops asked us a bunch of questions, and they started doing that thing cops do where one of them pays attention to you and the other one checks out the place. I was tempted to say, “Hey shifty eyes, I called you, remember? Stop checking out my friends!” but they were so little that I didn’t want to scare them. I wondered whether it’s a post-September 11th thing—that the NYPD might have dropped its size requirements to make more people eligible for the force.

When we had told them everything we could, the police put cigars in their mouths to combat The Smell, which they were expecting to be even stronger in the next apartment; put on leather work gloves; picked up the sledgehammers; and headed next door. Although we were dying of curiosity, we were afraid to let the neighbor see us since, after all, we had narced him, so we all waited in the apartment for them to return.

We heard the doorbell ring next door. We heard the door open. He let them into the apartment. We waited. We waited. We waited.

Finally the tiny two returned, and the first thing they asked is how many pets he had. The Super thought just one dog, and none of the rest of us had any idea. The police said the apartment is super clean and that they hadn’t found any bodies: “He says the dog was sick, but he’s cleaned it all up.”

My apartment is certainly not super clean, and I was wondering whether that was an accusation, when I realized that’s not why they were stalling. They didn’t believe the dog diarrhea story any more than we had, because The Smell was just too strong and strange, the dog looked fine, and there was no evidence of mess anywhere.

But there was something else going on too, and I began to place it. The police were disappointed. They wanted to find a body. To my horror I realized that I did too. So I tried to be helpful, “I thought I heard him putting something down the compactor.” The Super said a body would never fit down the chute, but the police said while a human body might not, a small animal would, which was why they had asked about other pets. The Dark Lord added helpfully that a human body would fit if you chopped it small enough, but we hadn’t heard or seen evidence of any body chopping. We tried out a few more hypotheses, but there really wasn’t anything else to go on, so the police finally left, their huge unlit cigars protruding from their tiny mouths, the mystery unsolved.

As soon as they left, Submarine Boy gave the only possible explanation: “Clearly,” he said thoughtfully, “the cops are in on it.”

(Originally posted in December 2001)

One Comment on “The Smell”

  1. joseph Siev

    Great story. I can relate!

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