That was the day of the smell. He lazed in the shower, slowly massaging shampoo into the smoothness of his bald pate, out of habit, for comfort. He washed his hair that day the same way he had since childhood; though only a score of strands remained, he pushed his pink fingers through it ceremonially, the way a lonely amputee might pull an invisible, gossamer glove onto a phantom hand, stoking the illusion of parity. He turned his face up and into the spray of water to rinse foam from his forehead. Brows soapy caterpillars, eyes clenched like angry fists, breath held behind pursed lips. It was when he withdrew from the water, stepping forward and into the shockingly cool, dry space at tub’s end that he smelled it.
That smell. Familiar, discomfiting.
That smell: responsible for everything that came after.
It was never subtle. The scent was immediately overpowering. Away from the showerhead’s hot torrent, it made breath difficult, a stuttering, choking ordeal. Like trying to inhale with the head inside a hot oven. And though his immediate reaction was a sort of troubled urgency, it took him some time to realize why, to name the reek. The oppressive bouquet, it made his upper lip curl, his nostrils flair. Apprehensive, he turned back into the steam and away from the odor, scrubbed his thighs, shins and soles—showering downward as he always had, this routine of obeisance to gravity a stab at ameliorating that rebellious panic rising up his esophagus: the reverse peristalsis of fear. He twisted the knobs and stepped out onto the flattened knap of the already sodden bathmat. A cursory toweling. Two paces to the sink; he readied the razor, cream and lotion for his Tuesday ablutions. Only then did he put a name to it, the stink.
The scent was dry, abrasive; it was new sidewalk grey. It was an abominable smell, literally: the tang of something that shouldn’t be. An accident, a mistake. It soured his stomach slightly; it clung to the roof of his mouth like an intangible mold. When he winced for its flavor, he heard the blood in his ears, tympanic membranes trembling. The funk, the fetor, he realized, palm full of Barbasol, it was the smell of burned toast.
The man, he knew what that meant. And oddly, such knowledge calmed him.
Years ago, a teen, he had watched his father die. The old man: mid-sentence. Some well-rehearsed harangue about baseball free agency and the fall of the civilized world. The old man did not collapse, he crumpled. As if the skeleton had simply vanished from within his skin. July in a house without central air; two-hundred pounds of sweaty flesh suddenly limp: the sound of such a failing is billiard balls dropped into an industrial quantity of ground beef. Bones breaking. Sweat.
Embolism then eruption, the coroner explained. Apoplexy, cerebrovascular accident: stroke. His father hadn’t mentioned anything out of the ordinary, but the doctors had said it when they collected information afterwards: particular olfactory hallucinations are warning signs. After the fact, they asked, “Did he mention any odors?” The imprudence of doctors. Victims of stroke, especially stroke to the temporal lobe, they’ll smell burning toast. Before a heartattack, these whitecoats said, some victims will smell peanuts. Trivia too late. Family breakfasts, for some time after the ordeal, were exclusively cold cereal. Ballpark snacks were hot dogs or bubble gum.
His mother, eight months and eight days later. Doctors call it the Widower Effect: when one spouse’s devolving health adversely affects the other’s. Stroke to the left occipital lobe, the mother. The expression on her face when he found her—the man, her son—was a screwed sneer. Worm-colored gums visible over her smoke-yellowed teeth. As if she had been acutely aware of some rank perfume. Or perhaps he’d imagined it.
Orphaned and grown, the man, he had never allowed a toaster in his home. The first fight of his married life was just after the reception, in the hotel room and amidst the shredded envelopes and unwrapped gifts. A spat over a $200 Breville chrome four-slice from some cousin; several of the more creative barbs flung his way during the divorce: toaster-themed as well. Every life is deadly serious, but ridiculous from the outside.