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A POWERFUL STENCH
I'm told my nose is my best feature. It's long and straight and has a high bridge with a bump at the top that is a perfect perch for my thick glasses. My nose is large for my face, but I have an unusually small face. That makes me thankful for my nose. No one would describe me as mousy. When I enter a room full of strangers, I can trust my nose to announce that here is a serious, thoughtful person. And by the way, where are the appetizers? Do we smell a touch of cumin?
But even though I could pick out the Chanel No. 5 from among ten other perfumes in a crowded room, there was a time when I took my sense of smell for granted. I assumed that it was indestructible. I certainly never asked myself which I valued more, my long, straight nose or what went on inside it.
My story begins on a Wisconsin interstate just before half of it veers south toward Chicago and half goes west to places you've probably never heard of - like the Wisconsin Dells, Altoona, Eau Claire - and then finally to the Twin Cities. I was driving home to St. Paul after a weekend visit with my daughter Caroline, a student at UW-Madison, when my nose began picking up a weird smell. Had I stepped in something? What could be causing this peculiar odor?
I pulled into a Kwik Trip to top off the tank and check my shoes. Nothing suspicious there. Maybe the heater fan was sucking up the smell from the engine and blowing it through the vent. Was a dead bird in there?
Ridiculous. The smell was all in my head, not my nose. Nerves. Saying goodbye to Caroline had been more difficult than usual. She was as lonely and homesick at Madison as her older sister, Alex, had been happy there. How different my girls were.
My own college years weren't exactly blissful. While other students were getting acquainted with one another, I was out foraging for plant materials, mainly tree branches of a certain shape and size, with which to transform my cinder-block cube of a dorm room into a leafy forest glade. The smells of oak leaves and pine sap soothed my homesickness for Minnesota. Years later, when my husband, Cam, and I settled down to raise a family, I couldn't wait to plant a garden. I dug up the patchy lawn in the backyard.
Gardening to me is an artistic endeavor, and a garden of one's own represents the ultimate in creative freedom. In fact, in my forties I became so greedy for that anything-goes fix I got when planning a new border or rigging up a water feature that I decided to quit my job editing a city magazine to launch a publication of my own, the Garden Letter: Green Thoughts for the Northern Gardener. When my little magazine won an award from the Garden Writers Association for the Art of Garden Communication, a category invented just for it, I realized I'd turned a corner: I was a garden writer. Before leaving for Madison I'd brought in the last of the tomatoes and potted up some herbs that would spend the winter on a sunny windowsill in our kitchen; maybe that was the source of the smell. Usually when I'm driving and smell something funny, I can track it down to my fingertips. I sniffed. Rosemary. Thyme. Lemon verbena. Chili pepper. Herbs and spices have amazing staying power on the skin, but while this strange smell in my car was persistent, it wasn't anything like the delightfully pungent scents that I carried around on my hands for hours after I'd been pressed into service as Cam's sous-chef. This wasn't the smell of a garlicky pesto or a Cajun rub.
I cracked my window and sniffed the incoming air. To my nose, Wisconsin smells wonderful after the fall harvest, maybe because I grew up around farms. My favorite aroma after pine needles fermenting on a forest floor has to be baled hay laced with cow manure.
I sniffed again. For a blessed moment I thought I'd solved the riddle of the smell. But a third sniff told me unequivocally I hadn't. This wasn't cow manure. This was sickly sweet. Hog dung, maybe?
It occurred to me that I had no idea where I was or how long I'd been driving. It's easy to miss the turnoff for the Dells, the Waterpark Capital of the World. My hands tightened on the steering wheel. This little mistake can add anywhere from a couple of hours to a whole day to the trip home, depending on when you wake up and (speaking of unpleasant odors) smell the polluted air that alerts you to the fact that you're approaching a major metropolis. Interstates in the Midwest tend to look alike, the same Kwik Trips and low-slung Frank Lloyd Wright-wannabe rest areas. So it's easy to keep sailing along on the wrong ribbon of asphalt until the tickle in the back of your nose tells you that you're not headed to the Dells but to a city of 9.5 million people: Chicago.
A huge neon blue corkscrew emerged over the treetops a few miles ahead. Please, Lord, make it be a water slide. In this agrarian part of the state, the Dells comes on like a tsunami of kitsch. put your feet up at the polynesian resort hotel and suites - kids under 10 stay free! stop by goody goody gum drop candy kitchen. we have everything your mouth can imagine! The attack of the billboards provoked my usual impulse to drive the car right through them (and maybe take out a row of those faux-log town homes and a flume ride or two). At least I was on the right highway.
The smell tiptoed back into my consciousness. What was it? Hot dogs? Not at this time of year. I detected a trace of dead fish. What was odd about this smell and why it was not normal was its refusal to back off. If anything, it seemed to be getting stronger, as if the fade button in the brain that makes an odor disappear after a while was broken. Could it be coming from the double latte I'd picked up at Starbucks on my way out of Madison? Had the milk gone bad?
I'd brought along the audio book of E. L. Doctorow's The March, a fictionalized account of Sherman's epic sacking of the South that ended the Civil War. Three chapters left to go. I slipped in a cassette, then decided to hold off listening until I'd gotten around the geezer in the battered pickup ahead of me.
He was driving a Chevy S-10, same model and vintage as the one I'd bought last summer for hauling brush to the municipal compost site. A twelve-year-old pickup is not ideal for freeway driving. His tailpipe was leaving quite a thick plume of exhaust. If I could just get by him, maybe the smell that had been dogging me would disappear. The pickup was in the passing lane and flanked by a late-model Buick traveling at the same speed - as if they were ballroom dancing and didn't want anyone cutting in. I bore down on the pickup until less than a yard separated his bumper from mine. The geezer finally got the hint and pulled over to the right lane. I pressed hard on the gas pedal. When the pickup had been reduced to a speck in the rearview mirror, I had to face facts: it wasn't the poisonous tailpipe. The mysterious odor hadn't budged.
My Passat was no ingénue itself. At seven years old, the car had a few bad habits, like stalling out at stoplights and turning on the check-engine light for no reason. In fact, the thing was aglow right now. The smell had a smoky and slightly chemical quality to it. I checked the heater and got the usual blast of hot air in my face but no spike in the odor's intensity. The engine sounded all right; the car was braking normally, and it wasn't vibrating the way my truck did when I pushed it over sixty-five. Plenty of gas too, so it wasn't a leak. Good. Nothing serious. The catalytic converter, maybe?
This smell had some sulfur in it for sure. It used to be that you never knew when your engine would start belching up rotten eggs. I hadn't smelled that for ages. I was tempted to call my husband, ask him if he thought a faulty converter could make a car stink. He wasn't a mechanical person, but his incredulity when I ran something like this by him was always reassuring. You're nuts, he'd say. Thinking you're nuts is better than thinking your car is going to blow up and send pieces of your body flying into five counties.
I pushed the button to get The March rolling. Listening to the descriptions of Southern towns lovely even in ruins and how the heavy perfume of a saucer magnolia had the power to bring people of different heritages and even races together took my mind off my own olfactory troubles - until a sign stuck in a tractor tire at the edge of the freeway informed me that the county I was passing through was having a festival this week and I should get off at the next exit if I wanted to participate in the Annual Firemen's Smelt Feed. The sun was sinking fast. I wondered when the smelt ran and what they smelled like and how far the smell of fried smelt could carry. Other drivers were starting to turn on their headlights. The gathering gloom slowly erased the Wisconsin hills, shrank the larger world, and made the interstate feel almost cozy, subtly altering my connection to the dwindling number of vehicles heading west.
Night pulled the shade until my solitude was complete. I couldn't wait to get home. My house, built in 1880, has been in our family for six generations. It has a pretty strong smell of its own - a blend of old carpets, dust, pets, and whatever we had for dinner last night - that would put up a fight against any intruders.
About eight miles from Appomattox, Sherman concluded his military adventure, bade farewell to his soldiers, and headed back to his family in Ohio to mourn the loss of a son killed in action just as the war was winding down. I decided not to wait for Cam's leftovers, even though he works wonders with them, and pulled into a Subway. The turkey sandwich had a peculiar taste. Was it Miracle Whip?
My husband was already asleep when I finally pulled the Passat into the garage and then crept up the back stairs to our bedroom. I fell in bed beside him, relieved not to have to tell him what had been bothering me all the way home from Madison - and was still bothering me.
The next morning, I followed Cam into the bathroom. Actually, I followed the smell. It greeted me right away when I woke up. I had an immediate impulse to open some windows, get some air in the room. Had my husband switched to a new after-shave with a lot of musk in it? No, he was still shaving. He had a towel around his waist and a wet head. His cheeks were inch-deep in shaving cream. Was that it?
“You're up early,” he said.
“Do you smell that?” I asked, trying not to notice the odor's remarkable similarity to the smell of whatever was going on in my car the day before. “Did the cat kill another mouse?”
He smelled nothing unusual. He didn't argue with the mouse theory, though. I always smell things he doesn't, and our old house breeds mice. Our distant and secretive cat makes her presence known only when she's caught one. Attempting to track down the odor to its source would be futile. We'd just have to wait it out.
The odor was sickly sweet, and I admitted to myself why it was more than a mild annoyance. It didn't smell like hog dung, dead fish, sour milk, sulfur, smoke, or musk as much as it smelled like death. Rotting flesh. Roadkill. Carrion is the polite term. It smelled the way Amorphophallus titanum (a.k.a. the corpse flower) smells when it opens. The enormous red bloom has an odor so similar to bad meat that carrion beetles stampede to pollinate it, and humans with sensitive noses can't handle the stench. When A. titanum bloomed for the first time at a conservatory in St. Paul, the event was given lots of media play. The conservatory even had a webcam installed so the public could track the flower's progress. People thronged to catch a sniff. The stench was even worse than they'd expected; it really did smell like rotting flesh. That deceptively beautiful flower got people in the door all right, but not many of them stayed long.
The stench was bad the next day and worse the day after that. Could it be a drug interaction? I'd recently switched from a beta-blocker to a different pill to control my blood pressure. Maybe this new drug didn't mix with all the other stuff I was taking - Synthroid for a thyroid condition, multivitamins, calcium and Fosamax for thinning bones. It was quite a cocktail. For the first time, I told Cam that I was scared. He offered to phone his friend Dan, a physician.
Dan tried not to sound skeptical when Cam gave him this report of nose trouble. Smells. Weird smells. “No, Dan, I can't smell anything - it's just Bon.” Dan said his wife smelled weird things occasionally too - “when she has her sinus infections, pretty awful stuff apparently.”
“That makes sense.”
So the smells were just the lingering effects of that head cold I'd had three weeks ago and only vaguely remembered? I'd been trying to write, and my nose had kept dripping on the keyboard.
Dan prescribed an antibiotic and recommended I use a steamer to open up my sinuses. The steamer cleared my head all right, but it didn't take care of the smell. If anything, the disgusting, dead-animal sweetness intensified. Bent over the device with my nose locked onto its rubber collar, I gave in to an eerie detachment. My glasses fogged up, and my mind with them.
Cam was starting to get the picture. My sinuses weren't causing this.
“What does it smell like now?” he asked.
“Imagine every disgusting thing you can think of tossed into a blender and puréed,” I finally said for lack of any other comparison that I hadn't already banged to death. “Now take off the lid and stick your nose in it.”
The steamer's rubber collar made my voice nasal and distant. Cam said I sounded like I was talking through a garden hose. My husband has a penchant for dreaming up offbeat analogies. Hoping to cheer me up, he said he couldn't stop thinking about those long-nosed monkeys in Borneo that looked like they had tubes attached to their faces.
“Everything still stinks then, just as bad as before?”
“Do you honestly want to know?” I asked.
“Of course I want to know.”
As the weeks passed and the smell didn't, Cam wondered what was really bothering me. Was it the fast-approaching holiday season? Menopause? Our marriage? Is that why I thought he smelled?
My internist too kept mining my personal life for answers. How were the girls? Was my mother still sick? When I insisted that my new blood pressure medication was causing the smell, she reluctantly switched me to a different one. She also prescribed a mild tranquilizer for my nerves. I was astonished by its cool efficiency. An invisible hand gently put my brain back in order. Anxiety was erased as completely as a set of equations off a chalkboard. I could get used to this. Hooked.
Unfortunately, the drug failed to jump-start negotiations for a lasting truce between me and “this smell thing” - which was how my doctor now referred to my condition. After I spent a few hours in la-la land (with no respite from the smell), the racing heart and roiling gut - symptoms that had become as constant as the odor itself - returned.
I wanted to keep popping those amazing little yellow pills but kept running into my inner hall monitor on the way to the medicine cabinet. Nurse Ratched on patrol. Tranquilizers are for genuine crises, she'd scold. A messy divorce, or a death, or a job layoff when you have enough credit-card debt to drive you into bankruptcy. You don't take tranquilizers when all you're suffering from is some nameless odor that no one can smell but you.
What I needed to do, I told myself, was a bit of mental tap-dancing - convince myself that the smell wasn't all that strange or scary, that it would go away, and that even if it didn't go away, I could live with it. I could tune it out as I would any other minor irritation, like low back pain, a runny nose, the pain and itch of hemorrhoids. If only living with a constant stench were a minor irritation or the sort of routine complaint you could whine about to a girlfriend whose hemorrhoids were as bad as yours.
Besides, I'd already tried “giving in” to the smell. Did I have to keep trying to give in? Yes, try harder.
I developed another theory: I was allergic to my wristwatch. I called my doctor to ask her if I should switch from an aluminum to a cloth watchband. She said she'd been meaning to get back to me. I had something called burning mouth syndrome. “It may be psychiatric in origin. Your mouth just goes nuts for no reason. Everything tastes bad. Like really, really hot.”
She referred me to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. “He'll be able to rule out anything else.” She added, “Then I'd suggest you see a psychiatrist.”