3LBE #2
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The Stinking Creep

by Michael Christie

 

One gloomy morning before leaving the thirtieth floor of his Vancouver dome for Hydroponics British Columbia, Rob Gray told his wife, Lorraine, he wasn’t going to shower.

She was shocked. “Are you serious?”

“I'm n-n-not going to use deodorant either,” Rob said.

“But that’s against the law!”

Rob sighed. He might as well have talked to the double-plastic walls. “Two-hundred years ago someone s-s-said that law’s an ass, an idiot.”

“Shh! Somebody might be listening.”

But this stance, so out of character for Rob, wasn’t going to be easily discouraged.

“Who cares?” he said. “For God’s sake, Lorraine, we’ve scented or de-scented our bodies, our c-c-carpets, our clothes, our private and public places where most British Columbians in 2057 have never experienced the smell of a p-p-pig farm or a distillery.” She wrinkled her nose. “Do you think it’s really n-n-necessary that we have fragrance cassettes, fragranced picture frames, and table-top fragrance fountains in EVERY room of this small place? F-f-fragrance! Hah!”

“Please lower your voice.”

“I w-w-on't.” He was excited now and stuttering a lot. “I'm n-n-not going to shower today. Or t-t-tomorrow either.”

“You’ll be arrested. You must.”

“I w-w-won't.”

This from a man who'd always prided himself on never making finite statements. Even after his parents’ deaths he'd managed a quiet neutrality. They had been killed simultaneously while sitting in connecting portable johns. The freakish act occurred when he was twenty-one, and now fifteen years later there remained a grotesque visual of it.

Rob and his parents with his new bride, Lorraine, were celebrating at a picnic in Stanley Park after he'd graduated with his degree in agriculture. It was a day filled with laughter before the shot rang out and shattered the peace and silence of that twilight setting, bathed in a gold and pink glow like a benediction. A drunk had been sighting a high-powered telescopic rifle and impulsively took aim at a mark on one of the walls of the johns when he'd decided to test-fire it.

Bang! End of parents.

The drunk was charged with involuntary manslaughter and testified at his trial that he didn’t know the johns were occupied. He was found guilty of the lesser crime of negligence and was given a six-month sentence in which he had to clean public toilets on weekends.

The media had a field day. They competed against each other with a lip smacking verve previously unmatched. A moratorium was called on good taste, subtlety was given a reprieve.

The news channels shouted:

COUPLE SHOT WHILE MINDING OWN BUSINESS

TWO DEATHS AN ASININE WASTE

DEFENDANT FLUSHED WITH EMBARRASSMENT

SENTENCE WATERED DOWN

But Rob wasn’t visibly upset. He was cool, magnanimous. “Best to forgive and forget,” he said to Lorraine when they got home.

Her eyes flashed. “Are you in your right mind? That alcoholic got away with murder. He was even drunk during the trial. Didn’t you see him stagger into the defendant’s box?”

“He could have been on tranquilizers,” Rob said.

“What! He reeked of booze and you know it, you wimp. People have been sent to a STINKER for a lot less.”

Submersible Treatment Centers were popularly known as STINKERS and soon he'd be dunked in one for his crime of not showering. He wasn’t to be denied.

Rob had seen the most recent chart, dutifully tacked on the kitchen wall by Lorraine, and it was similar to the tongue-in-cheek reports of his parents, deaths. The chart listed crimes that escalated from the minor (simple body odor) to the most serious (air pollution). For being found guilty of the former a person was dunked to the knees at a STINKER and afterwards smelled like an old sock. For the latter it was a dunking up to the neck after which one exuded the smell of “pizza upchuck” for a minimum of “thirteen unlucky years”. A couple of others were: computer theft, “armpit’, eight years; assault, “fish reduction plant’, five years.

The government’s P.R. department wanted the light touch so as not to offend by being threatening. Since studies had proven conclusively that only a small percentage of the Canadian population couldn’t detect either fishy or sweaty smells, the sentences were mostly confined to either of these two odor categories in various intensities.

The government had also thought of the insignificant minority that had “blind spots” of the olfactory system, and consequently was sometimes unaware of nearby lawbreakers. To rectify this, pills containing a zinc compound that enhanced the sense of smell were readily available at no charge.

The government spent a lot on public service messages:

SCARVES AREN’t SISSY

RUBBERS ARE BEAUTIFUL

STAY OUT OF CAVES

It didn’t want anybody to catch a head cold.

Rob mused on how this had all come about. Once there were costly prisons to protect the public of British Columbia like Oakalla, Matsqui, Kent, William Head, but now they were only memories. They'd been put to the wrecker’s ball throughout the province as well as other prisons in the country half a century ago to be replaced by STINKERS.

They were inevitable when one traced the roots forming as early as the 1950s. In those days it was a common but top secret practice for espionage agents to pour a substance into a victim’s drink. When the concoction was drunk, the victim developed a putrid body odor, redolent of decayed shrimp, brought about by a sudden inability to break down trimethylamine, a foul smelling chemical that excreted itself through sweat. The result: no more political dealings.

Smell as an isolator.

Many reports about the subject appeared in the next few decades. Like the classic one in Halifax.

A debt-collector there was charged with insulting behavior likely to cause a breach of the peace. He worked for a company named The Horrible Hobo whose motto was: Pay Up Or Throw Up. He would dress in rags and smear a goopy compost material all over himself. The man then waited in the reception area of a business that owed money until somebody gave him a cheque. It was his experience that he never “cooled heels” anywhere for longer than a half hour because his odor sooner or later resulted in staff mutiny. In just six months he'd collected ten million dollars.

Testifying in a court room filled with curious spectators, the man, who fortunately suffered from blocked sinuses, said in a thick, Yorkshire accent, “Full strength and with following wind, you'd get me six blocks down road. When I go home to change there’s never argument from the good lady about who gets lav first.” The judge handed down a token fine.

Another high profile report came from Toronto. City officials there wanted to spray garbage cans with a powerful, sulphuric odor to rid themselves of vagrants travelling from other cities.

“Cut off their food supply and they’ll go elsewhere,” said a councilor.

However, nothing came of it because the city could have been sued for the violation of individual civil rights which were important then. But in later years the proposal gained widespread acceptance.

Smell as a controller.

Smell. The power of smell.

All of Canada now had STINKERS.

Over the next few days Lorraine tried to talk Rob out of his crusade of not showering. She whined, begged, and lectured, but the more she opposed the deeper became his resolve so that to reverse himself would make him look like an enormous fool. That was worse than being a wimp.

There was just no backing out.

So in order not to delay the action the government would inevitably be taking against him, every morning before leaving for Hydroponics British Columbia Rob bundled up in heavy clothing and worked out vigorously on the stationary bike in the basement fitness room. He'd then lift weights, followed by the long climb to his apartment on the thirtieth floor where, successfully drenched in sweat, he'd collapse on the sofa.

“You really don't want to be taken to a STINKER, do you?” Lorraine said after five days of this routine.

When it came right down to it, he didn’t really. But a comical duty had solidly asserted itself and the rebel,s obligation was unavoidable.

“Of course I do,” Rob said. “That’s why I'm d-d-oing this.”

“I just don’t understand you these days.”

Odd that he'd never fully realized until now the depths of her banality.

But then rebels saw everything more clearly.

“Look at it as a private investigation,” he said as if explaining to a child. “This so-called, neat, flawless society of ours needs to be put under a microscope.” For emphasis he waved his hand and knocked a fragrance fountain off an end table. He picked it up and casually inspected it. “It’s all right, still in one piece.”

She ignored this. There was only one thing on her mind. “I'm not sure what you’re trying to prove. All I know is if you go on this way you’ll wind up in a STINKER, and if you do the security guards won’t let you back in here. You’re committing a crime.”

“So? So?” Rob said. “What else is n-n-new?”

As Rob’s come-and-sniff-me-out rebellion continued, he began to get baleful looks at work.

“Do you smell something funny?” said Frank, Rob’s assistant. He was a hyperactive, shifty-eyed young man who worked at an adjacent cubicle and was after Rob’s supervisor job.

Rob winked. “Perhaps it’s something in the air from the Remote Area. Pollution brought about by the acts of our government. Of course they’re above the law, aren’t they?”

An exasperated look came over Frank’s gaunt, workaholic face. He didn’t like being winked at by a supervisor who should know better, a lot better, and seemed to smell of old sweat.

“They are the law,” Frank said.

“The world was a kinder place when there was the gas chamber, lethal injection, the electric chair, the noose, the guillotine, even simple jails,” Rob said.

“This is Canada in the year 2057, and we are kind. You think frying a person in a chair or ripping his head off with a rope is kind? The modern Canadian way is much kinder. Natural ostracization.”

“You make it sound pleasant. I'm sure most of us in regular society have no idea how the criminals in the Remote Area are s-s-suffering even though their isolation is self-imposed. It must be terrible “ more than one can imagine.”

Frank chuckled. “One could go out there and machine-gun them, put them out of their misery. You know, one being cruel to be kind.”

“I didn’t say I was in disagreement with our m-m-method of dealing with criminals,” Rob said. “All I'm saying is let’s look carefully at the system, let’s examine the problem. What’s wrong with that? Too often we say out of sight out of mind.”

Frank sniffed with exaggerated innocence. “Sight? Sight?”

“Yes, and I'm sure you know that the funny smell, as you put it, is not coming from the Remote Area — but me. I haven’t showered for over a w-w-week.”

There! He'd admitted it. The unmentionable was public knowledge.

Frank shook his head in disgust and told him that wasn’t a subject to joke about. If it were true he could be reported.

One night later while Rob and Lorraine were watching TV, there was a sharp knock on the door.

Standing in the hall were two stocky police officers dressed in non-threatening gray flannels, blue blazers, and burgundy ties. Frank hadn’t wasted any time.

“Mr. Robert Gray?” the first police officer said.

This was Rob’s grand moment to be nonchalant in the face of authority. “Y-y-yes,” he stuttered. “I am. Just c-c-call me Rob.”

What a buffooonish thing to say, he thought, as soon as the faltering words were out. These no-nonsense officials would have no desire whatsoever to be on a friendly, first-name basis with somebody they were investigating for simple body odor.

“We have a hand-delivered, written complaint about you, sir,” the other said, and took an odorometer out of his breast pocket. The device was the size and shape of a ballpoint pen, a transparent tube containing a vapor-sensitive substance. The more distinct the odor it picked up, the longer the blue indicator stain reached. Along the tube, the readings were marked: “Good’, “Okay’, “Danger Level’, “P.U!”

Ah, that flippant touch of our government again, Rob noted. However, these two police officers didn’t reflect that image. They studied him clinically as if he were some species on a lens.

“I'm afraid you’ll have to be tested, sir,” said the police officer, and made a probing, circular motion with the odorometer over Rob’s chest, stomach, and groin area.

Lorraine looked on anxiously as the stain in the tube unhesitatingly moved up to the “P.U!” mark. It was a bright, deep blue, almost purple. And there was no fluctuation.

“You’ll have to come along with us, sir,” the first one said. “You’ve just been found guilty of Simple Body Odor.”

The police officers held power. No trial would be held. No appeal. Nailed to the cross right on his own door step. He'd manufactured his own destiny, there was no backing out.

The procedure was quick and simple. Rob was silently dispatched from the tearful, weakly protesting Lorraine to a three-story brick building in the heart of the city just a block from his own office.

In this building was a high-ceilinged area on the ground floor in the middle of which was a kidney-shaped pool. At one side of the pool where there could have been a spring board stood a hydraulic crane. Leaning against this crane with his arms folded was a burly attendant in a white lab coat with what appeared to be dried blood on the sleeves.

“Undress and put your clothes on that table over there,” the attendant ordered. He looked bored. “And I hope you’re not going to be a problem.”

Rob almost laughed at the irony of it all. Here he was about to be sentenced to carry around the obnoxious smell of an old sock because he was guilty of “simple body odor.” But he said nothing about this anomaly to the attendant because he'd probably heard the complaint dozens of times.

Far from being a problem, Rob was so caught up in his heady adventure that he eagerly did as he was instructed. He was like an excited child who couldn’t wait for Christmas Day. He smiled at the three and told them he would cooperate. They nodded. It was routine. An easy shift. Wimps didn’t lie.

So not bothering to take off their blazers or loosen their ties, the police officers belted Rob into the crane, the attendant pressed a button, and, astonishingly for a minor offense, he was dunked up to the shoulders.

The procedure took only a few ho-hum seconds, but after he'd toweled himself dry Rob noticed the fishy smell coming from him, not that of an old sock.

He was shocked and so was the attendant as he checked his clipboard. “I'm sorry to have to tell you, sir, but there’s been a mistake,” the attendant said. He was no longer bored, no longer firmly in charge. Suddenly he was deferential. “According to the schedule the pool mixture as well as the crane setting should both have been adjusted prior to your arrival. My information here is the police call was received by us, but it hasn’t been initialed by the attendant who was on shift before me. It’s a rule. Frankly I'm at a loss.”

He turned desperately to the two police officers for moral support, but they'd gone into a mode of tight-lipped disengagement. Their job was over, the matter was out of their hands, don’t look at us.

“I just came on shift and it’s not my responsibility,” the attendant said. “Definitely not my responsibility.”

Rob could hardly believe it. Was this really happening to him, an otherwise solid citizen? “People will think I'm I'm a m-major criminal,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” said the attendant.

“A m-murderer or a r-rapist!”

“Afraid so, sir. They’re both in the assault category. The most concentrated fish smells. Unfortunate.”

“Unfortunate! You stand there and say unf-f-fortunate!”

“Sorry, sir, but there’s nothing I can do. The process can’t be reversed. This rarely happens. If it’s any consolation, the government is now considering steps to take when this kind of mistake occurs.” He shrugged.

“Every system has its weakness.”

“How long do I have to go around with this smell?”

“Well, sir, I'm sorry ”

“Never mind being sorry and quit calling me 's-s-sir.' How long?”

The attendant thought. “Apparently the last person in the pool was found guilty of attacking his mother-in-law with a hatchet. Half decapitated her, but she managed, the plucky lady, to blow the whistle on him.”

“How long?”

“Five years, sir.”

“Oh, God!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Quit calling me 's-s-sir!'”

“I'd personally like to help you, sir, but there’s nothing I can do. Nothing anybody can do. It’s fruitless.”

Rob put on his clothes and left, swearing at himself for becoming a rebel, a full-fledged one. So far the view hadn’t been worth the climb. Nauseated by his own smell, Rob vomited himself dry in an alley behind a bChinese restaurant. As he staggered across Dunsmuir he accidentally bumped into an elderly man.

“You just spoiled a late supper I was looking forward to,” the elderly man snapped. He was furious. “Better get to the Remote area right away if you know what’s good for you. Who could eat after coming near you!”

“It was a mistake,” Rob protested. “They forgot to change the pool mixture. And the crane setting was wrong. I'm innocent.”

“Your kind always say that.”

The elderly man, covering his mouth and gagging, jogged off in a flat-footed way.

Rob went to a grocery store to get some mints, maybe a loaf of bread and a package of sliced cheese when he got hungry later, but the doorway was as far as he got.

The clerk had a pistol aimed at his head.

“One more step you stinking creep and I’ll fire,” she said.

She held the pistol steady, practiced, with both hands.

Rob gave her what he thought was a reassuring smile. “I m-m-mean no harm.”

“Turn around and get lost,” she said. Her pink, well-scrubbed face was etched with tension. “I got a business to run here and your overstuffed, stinking body is blocking the door.”

Despite his fear Rob marveled at her bluntness. “I can explain — p-please — ”

“I don’t need no explanations. Now lose yourself. I ain’t telling you again.”

The woman was getting edgier and Rob had done nothing to calm the waters. So far he'd only managed to sound like a bumbling, unconvincing character in some farce. He didn’t want to die the same violent way as his parents, and if he didn’t come across a little more credibly then that was a strong possibility.

But that was easier said than done because he was a natural at creating awkward moments: a breaker of wind in hushed registries when bride and groom were about to exchange tender vows; a cougher at plays and concerts; a stutterist and spoonerist (sometimes in combination); a stubber of toes in the dark; a ripper of pockets in doorways. The goof every instructor instinctively selected for the role of the bandaged person in the first aid demonstration. He knew he should leave immediately, not say another word. But in a last bid for sympathy a shrill plea came out.

“All I want is some ch-ch-chead and breeze — some b-bread and ch-ch — ”

The falsetto appeal, sounding like a bum’s harangue, made her angrier.

Her black, marble eyes shone with rage. “All I want is for you to get the hell out of here so I can fumigate the place. There’ll be a bunch of flies in here in a minute.”

“But — ”

“Look, I ain’t gonna argue. If you want food, then call on your friends.”

Friends? Acquaintances, yes. Associates, yes. But friends? He had no friends.

He had an unsociable life of going to work and coming home where he spent his time watching TV or gluing proudly completed jigsaw puzzles with lots of “challenging” sky and water. He wasn’t a joiner, wasn’t a participant, he was a man apart. Friends? Not one.

He looked at the pistol aimed squarely at his head.

“Please,” Rob said. “Please, I d-d-don’t want to argue either. I don’t have any friends, I really have nowhere else to g-g-go.”

Her grip tightened.

“I'm gonna count to three, jerk.” There was a firmer, quieter tone to her voice. “If I make it that far you’re dead meat. There won’t be no funeral for somebody ripe as you. You’re enough to make a maggot puke. Now for the very last time take off while you still got brains to lose.”

Rob sighed. He knew when he was licked. “Okay, okay, I’ll g-g-go. I hope you’re satisfied with yourself.”

He couldn’t resist this parting comment. A big mistake.

She widened her stance like a professional shooter taking precise aim, and her black, unreasoning eyes bulged.

“One two”

Rob took off.

It was amazing. Absolutely amazing to find himself in such a hair-raising position and that of his own making. What in God’s name had really urged him to rebel? What? Insanity? Boredom?

He wasn’t sure. But long before wrongfully receiving the dunking for a serious crime, he knew he was tired of staying in lockstep, bothered by his spurts of counterfeit energy at work. The enforced relationship, the superficial camaraderie with his fellow employees was tedious. Oh, so tedious! And it was clear that upper management's ésprit de corps was nothing more than a phony group cheerfulness as people in a movie theatre half-heartedly shared when urged in other times to sing along (“Louder! You can do better than that, folks.”) with the bouncing ball. And so as time passed, Rob just wanted to complete his mundane tasks, reciprocally indifferent to all, and then another mind-numbing day finished, get the hell out. Home to the sanctity of TV or the newest jigsaw puzzle.

But even if his rebellion likely came from boredom, he could rationalize that he was growing (wasn’t he?) — growing in direct proportion to the clean and pseudo wholesome things in this society he could do without.

But as Rob walked the skid row area mulling over this, he was certain of one thing and that was that he longed to be back in regular society. He'd accomplished what he wanted to do, proven something — sort of.

And that was good enough. He'd experienced enough adventure for now, thank you very much. But he couldn’t call a halt to it, couldn’t return to the days of ennui for five long years. Perfumes, colognes, lotions, and diets were useless in counteracting the sophisticated combination of chemicals the human body absorbed from a STINKER.

The pool attendant had said it best. It was fruitless.

Thankfully at this time of night, the city was abandoned by the business people for the suburbs so he didn’t have any further confrontations. As Rob walked in a daze along the wet, deserted sidewalks, more perplexed than annoyed about his self-induced predicament, he found himself outside The Dancing Giraffe on Powell.

It was a pub where he often drank beer as a student. He needed a drink, a hard one, in the worst way.

To protect themselves from losing their licenses and keeping even themselves out of a STINKER, pub owners hired a tough ex-wrestler or boxer who positioned himself or herself outside their pubs and displayed a government-issued odorometer.

This place had a beefy, tattooed guy at the entrance who looked like he enjoyed beating people to a bloody pulp.

Rob wondered if he should stroll past him into the pub like any other customer. He didn’t wonder long.

The guard eyed Rob as he approached then studied the odorometer dangling from a gold chain around his muscular neck.

He held up a fist. “Get out of here,” he said quietly. “Go on, I mean it.”

Rob didn’t stay around to debate. Like a beetle from a threatening shoe, he again found himself fleeing from a place where he wasn’t wanted. The grocery store clerk wasn’t exaggerating about him. He was an instant giveaway.

He was just kidding himself in thinking he could get into a small place like The Dancing Giraffe. Even people dunked to the knees for minor offences, as he was supposed to have been, were detected. Frequently these unfortunates were lucky to escape with their lives. A handful with their collective odor could make pubs so foul that the ubiquitous health inspectors would shut them down for polluting the atmosphere. A serious charge if an owner could

be proven solely responsible.

Rob wandered to the Burrard Inlet waterfront, a caravansary for huge, silent trucks resting among the clutter of metal scraps and rusted railroad tracks meandering to various dead ends. He mixed in well, he thought, as this had to be the most unclean place in Vancouver.

Overseeing this junk yard was a tall, sepulchral warehouse with dirty, broken windows at its top storeys; towns and villages for ravenous gulls — the newest enemies.

Attracted by his fishy smell, they set upon him without the slightest fear.

Dozens swarmed around him, a beating, clawing sea of gray and white.

Rob was terrified. His pulse raced and his mouth went dry.

“Get away, get away! Scat!” he shouted, and waved his arms like a madman.

It did no good.

His smell had driven them into a frenzy. The screeching birds raked him with their claws, pecked him with their vicious, yellow beaks. One ripped his cheek and drew blood, countless others went to work on his knees and ankles.

He kicked and punched them with all his might and they were immediately replaced by another group.

Rob ran for his life to the shipping office only a short distance away.

He hadn’t run since he was a kid in school. The birds flew after him, their wild shrieks deafening, more desperate. Blood streamed down the side of his face and he sobbed for breath.

Mercifully, the door of the shipping office was unlocked. He leaped inside and slammed the door on them.

He had to spend the night here. The birds circled the building for hours.

They wanted him in bite-size pieces.

At dawn Rob awoke exhausted and his back ached from lying on the cold, concrete floor of the shipping office. He'd thought about phoning Lorraine or even talking to her on the outside intercom, but what would he say? They had nothing in common anymore “ if they ever did. And of course it would be dangerous. Animals and people were now out to get him. As Frank said, natural ostracization.

Rob peeked out the door.

No birds.

The waterfront was quiet. Nothing stirred. The morning was cool with a sunlight that had a vitiated quality to it, and he was glad it wasn’t raining as it had for the last several days. But rain was the least of his worries.

The longshore workers would arrive any minute.

Rob began quick-walking away from the area knowing if he ran he'd look suspicious. Best not to draw attention to himself from any cruising patrol cars. He wasn’t sure what to do except to keep going like the outcast and outlaw he was. Similar to his parents he was in a rifleman’s crosshairs — with one difference. He was a target who knew ambush was coming.

Surprisingly he made it to Hastings Street without trouble, far away from the now roosting birds, territory, and began hitch-hiking. It was a foolish risk to hitch-hike, but at this point Rob didn’t care. Whatever happened, happened.

Car after car passed by without slowing down. Drivers gave him murderous glares.

They knew. Oh, yes, they knew.

Finally a cream colored van pulled over to the side.

I can be killed in a second, Rob thought, but then, thank God, the whole tiring, demeaning rebel business will be over.

As Rob climbed in, he did a double-take. The driver, a man in his thirties with a bonfire of red hair, wore a tuxedo.

“Where to?” the man said.

Rob studied him. Could he murder? “Well, as far as you’re going. But — ”

“Close the door.”

As they accelerated back into the mainstream of traffic, the driver said, “I wonder if you'd mind rolling down your window.” He was offhanded about it.

“We’re very confined here. It won’t do much good, but it’s a psychological thing.”

“I guess it’s obvious,” Rob said. He was feeling more sorry for himself than ever. “I know I shouldn’t be hitch-hiking, but I didn’t know what else to do. You should let me out.”

The man laughed. “Don’t worry, I have a purloined gas mask under the seat. I can wear it if it becomes intolerable.”

Rob felt his face burn. “M-m-may I ask where you’re going?”

“Don’t you recognize the uniform?”

“Uniform?”

“The tux. An innovation of our altruistic government. I’ve got over three hundred out-of-style tuxes in the back just like the one I'm wearing which I'm delivering to the Remote Area. Everybody is getting a new one today. Clothes don’t last forever you know. There’s a simple choice — look like a penguin or freeze your buns off. Actually, the inhabitants think they look sharp and one seldom sees anyone wearing tux without tie.” The driver sniffed and gave Rob a look. “Incidentally, my guess is you’re due for a long stay at the R.A. Hey, a poet and I didn’t know it. But if you don’t go there somebody will shoot you down like a rabid animal and not many questions will be asked as I'm sure you know.”

Rob sighed again. “I'm finding out. I’ve been threatened with a pistol and called a — a stinking creep. I didn’t think it would be like this.”

“It’s not well documented naturally, but many in regular society can be vicious. Lots of major criminals such as polluters, murderers and thieves, attempting to infiltrate regular society, have frequently come to brutal, haphazardly investigated deaths. Even I, a trivial lawbreaker by anyone’s standards, was attacked by a bunch of howling, bloodthirsty punks with baseball bats and I managed to get to the Remote Area half dead. Luckily a doctor found guilty of malpractice was there to treat me. I'm now a liaison, a euphemism for delivery boy, and my sentence has almost worn off. Did you notice the lingering smell of, uh, diaper pail exuding from me?”

All Rob could smell was the effluvium of rotten fish coming from the body he'd once religiously showered every day.

“At any rate,” the man went on, “my job as a liaison, call it what you will, is to make deliveries. Tuxes today, tomorrow insect repellent. Otherwise, the place as you’ll soon see is pretty much self-sustaining. The inhabitants do their own farming and, forgive me, fishing.”

The man assumed Rob wanted to go to the Remote Area and finally they came to Richmond and turned onto a narrow dirt back road surrounded on either side by dense growths of alder trees. Rob thought about all the man had told him and one thing puzzled him. He'd never known the government to be generous and he wondered about its donating of tuxes.

“The tuxes — the uniforms — “ Rob began.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” The driver smiled to himself. “The criminals of society dressed in its finery. It’s odd at first to see men and women in tuxes chopping wood, cleaning, forgive me again, fish, and taking care of the crops. But I must give the government credit for an ingenious idea once in a while. Think of it. Hundreds of people all dressed exactly alike — velvet lapels, frilly shirts, cummerbunds. Do we mess our nests? Do we agitate? Do we think of guns and revolution? Do we murder each other and plant the bodies in the city, as we once did, resulting in bad P.R. for the government? Nope. One hardly contemplates such things when dressed in the costume of the rich at play. Even the scumbags of society are on their best behavior when they’re impeccably dressed and drinking a martini at five o, clock with little finger extended.”

Rob frowned. “I see. I don’t like to pry, but what was your crime?” He was curious about this articulate individual.

“Shoplifting. I don’t know what came over me, but I make no excuses, none at all. I was guilty. At the time I was an anthropology prof making a good salary yet I tried to steal a picayune Haida carving one in my position commonly used for paper weights. And you?”

The ex-prof looked at Rob wide-eyed as he listened to his story.

“But what in the world was your motive?” he said. “Those who want attention can become strippers in a bar or write editorials. Didn’t options like those come to mind? I'm sorry to have to say it but your defiance seems to be of a spurious nature.”

Suddenly the man was beginning to annoy Rob. Did he think he was lecturing an ignorant student?

“People always thought I was a wimp,” Rob said in a sullen tone. “So I decided it was time to prove them wrong, show them I was a somebody. I n-n-needed to make a statement. Some might say it was an act with not much thought, b-b-but — ”

The man threw back his head and laughed. “Not much thought! Not much thought! Dear God! Those given to god-awful puns might say you were and are on an odoryssey of self-indulgence.”

They sat in hostile silence until the van came to a stop.

“Here we are,” the ex-prof said, looking bemused. “The Remote Area. You’re on your own now. There’s plenty of room in Pyramid Six and some of the lockers contain a tux outfit.” He chuckled. “By the way, best not forget we’re all stinking creeps here.”

Rob got out and stood in bewilderment at the entrance of Pyramid Six. Even though the red-haired ex-prof had a point, all the same he was an arrogant jerk.

“Up yours you pompous windbag,” Rob muttered as the van sped off.

The Remote Area, which smelled like turkey gone bad underneath his own odor, was a large settlement by the mouth of the Fraser River. A fetid piece of land segregated from the buzz of day, it was once an air force base and after that a large clinic where a group of wealthy doctors practised holistic medicine. The doctors had torn down the barracks to replace them with therapeutic pyramid buildings that were later painted inside and out a hot, sanitarium pink. Rob knew the light wave emitted by this color weakened the violent in a matter of seconds. Obviously more government P.R. They wanted the inhabitants as calm as possible, didn’t want to find any dead bodies winding up in the city.

There must have been twenty of these pink pyramids each fifty feet high and made up of logs covered with an outer layer of cedar shakes.

Inside Pyramid Six, Rob was surrounded by pink. The sloping walls and false ceiling were pink. The bunks on either side of the room were pink as well as the sheets and pillow cases. Even his metal locker was pink.

He got out of his vomit-covered clothes and into a freshly laundered tux he discovered in the locker. The waist and collar were a little tight, but otherwise not a bad fit.

A young man playing solitaire at a card table in a corner smiled at him.

“Welcome,” he said.

“Thank you,” Rob said.

After this brief preliminary the young man, Carl, immediately launched into a grisly story of how he'd shot to death his sister (it just seemed like a good idea), and was forced to keep to himself because he smelled like cow dung, a pretty disgusting condition even at the Remote Area. Rob was horrified to hear him relate his guilt with not the slightest emotion and of how he'd been dunked in a one-time experimental mixture at a state-of-the-art STINKER. Rob could see Carl was actually proud of his uniqueness, an isolate among the isolated.

Rob learned the others who lived here had just gone for early brunch. Among the thirty persons, all men, in Pyramid Six was a barber who'd slashed á là Sweeney Todd a customer’s throat; five lawyers who'd gambled away fortunes using funds from clients, trust accounts; a police officer who'd accepted a bribe; a polluter, a playground supervisor who'd been grossly indecent; a president of a construction company who'd used low grade materials; a forger; a counterfeiter; an excess profiteer; a pimp. The remainder, none like Rob at all, were there for an assortment of crimes such as breaking and entering or petty fraud.

Out of the total population at the Remote Area there were a dozen women, mainly husband-killers, and they kept to themselves for the most part in Pyramid Ten. The guilty came from all walks of life and included all races and genders.

“We’re a congenial lot,” Carl said. “We do pretty much whatever pleases us. We farm, fish, play touch football when the weather is dry, write poetry, read novels, watch TV. But what about you?”

Carl gave him a withering look when Rob told his story.

“I wouldn’t tell anybody else how you got here,” Carl said as he returned to his game of solitaire. “Nobody likes a hypocrite.”

It was unbelievable that he'd been so labeled by a cold-blooded killer, and Rob was still burning at the serving counter inside the commissary.

The bubble-gum pink inside this building did nothing to soothe him. The walls and ceiling were pink. The rows of wooden tables and chairs were pink. The cups and saucers were pink. The serve-yourself tray on which he carried his salad was pink. But the color had no effect on him. He continued to smolder.

The inhabitants, inmates, whatever, sat at the long tables, row after row, eating and drinking in their black and white tuxedo uniforms amid the pinkness. Rob thought they might just as well have worn convicts, outfits. He found a place at a table next to a plump woman — an ocean liner at dock came to mind — who beamed at him.

“On a diet, chief?” the woman said.

“No. Why?”

“That’s not much to keep a person going.”

“You won’t have much trouble, will you?” Rob said.

She had a huge chunk of salmon on her plate and beside it a heaping bowl of strawberry ice cream.

The beam didn’t leave her face. For a moment she studied him with her chin thrust out and sniffed. “I understand why you passed on the fish.”

“How do you know I'm not being cautious. The cook could have been convicted for poisoning somebody.”

She laughed. “Poison could just as easily be in your salad dressing, couldn’t it, chief? Anyway, the cook’s in my pyramid and I know her well. She’s a bank embezzler. Our only complaint about her is she sometimes ladles out small portions. Short-changes you.” She howled at that. “What was your crime, chief? Murder? Rape?”

“Neither.”

She frowned. “Then how come you smell like that?”

It was tiresome. “Because if you really really must know, they forgot to change the pool mixture. That's why. Satisfied?”

Again she howled. “Yeah, right.”

“It’s true, I shouldn’t be here.” He resented being put on the defensive so easily. “I was charged with simple body odor, but they g-g-goofed. My only crime was not showering for a w-w-week.”

Just then the ex-prof with the red hair passed by. He'd overheard. “The Gentleman’s crime is a little ego trip that went awry,” he said, dripping sarcasm. “Hoist by his own petard.”

There was a mocking smile on his face as he left, and once again Rob was taken by surprise.

“Stuff it,” Rob snarled at the departing figure.

He spent the rest of the afternoon wandering by the river where he threw up his lunch.

He sat on a log and felt as alone as he'd ever been, a suspicious resident in a strange, alien tribe. He studied the hermit crab at his feet and thought he'd better adapt like it did in habitating the shell of another creature. He needed to acquire a new persona, discard the outsider image.

There was no point in looking for trouble.

And speaking of trouble he knew he couldn’t stay by the river much longer. Gathering in a nearby tree were several excited gulls.

He ran.

Rob wanted to be in a more accepting frame of mind in his pyramid at happy hour. The elegantly dressed collection of wrongdoers mingled in small groups throughout various sections, and discussed TV programs or the touch football playoffs. But Rob just couldn’t share their interests. He wasn’t one of them, would never be.

Rob sat on the edge of his bunk, saying nothing, observing them in pity, the old persona still firmly intact. Why try to accept any of this? he thought. The answer was he couldn't. What he saw was a charade of the popular notion of high society in other times; the martini glasses upraised, single hands in jacket pockets, one foot planted forward in an exchange of what they thought was clever repartee about — TV sitcoms for God’s sake.

Idiots. They were idiots.

Nevertheless, Rob decided to mingle out of scientific curiosity. As he ambled from group to group, nursing a martini, he discovered that he could only smell his own fishy odor except when he got too close to any of them. When he did so he was able to pick up a variety of smells: cabbage, sour milk, burned rubber, ammonia.

Were they the subjects of experiments gone wrong? Who knew? Who cared?

Carl, who smelled of cow dung, the most unorthodox subject of all, was content to play solitaire in his corner and ignore the groups happily getting plastered. Despite the brutal, senseless murdering of his sister, somehow that detachment was to his credit.

Two weeks passed and although Rob tried not to make it too obvious, he liked this prison of choice less and less.

Life at the Remote Area was tiresome, irritating. Each day at five o'clock the penguins drank martinis, discussed sitcoms, made too big a deal of the weekly touch football games, ate to bursting, and slept for hours and hours.

Rob found what food he was able to keep down (even consommé soup was difficult) tasted awful because of his overpowering smell. He was losing weight, though, and that was a positive.

However, he was to change his mind temporarily about the subject of touch football being a bore and a time-waster. Just for the hell of it, he'd passed the ball around a few times with some of his fellow residents and apparently they'd spotted something in him, some hidden talent, because he was asked to play for Pyramid Six. They particularly liked his tight spirals.

He still thought they were idiots, well, most of them, but admittedly he was puffed up about the position he was going to play. They wanted him as their quarterback.

Quarterback!

It was hard to believe because Rob had never played football. He'd tried just about everything else. Tried and failed miserably. In baseball games at school he was seldom able to slide into second or third without scraping a knee or spraining an ankle. He fared no better in volleyball contests in which he constantly got his fingers caught in the net. Basketballs and soccer balls came out of nowhere and hit him in painful places. He was consistently inept and all his futile efforts were met with ridicule. They came to jeer and they went away — jeering.

So Rob felt privately elated at being chosen unanimously to quarterback Pyramid Six for the playoff game on the upcoming Saturday. Maybe they were smarter than he thought. The Remote Area might not be such a bad place after all.

The big day arrived and it was a warm, wanton afternoon with a brilliant blue sky broken by high paste clouds shaped like giant amoebas. Rob tingled with anticipation. Had he finally found his niche? As the team leader he'd call the plays in the huddle and bark out the signals. It was something he could only imagine doing — barking — as he became interested in watching pro-football as an adult.

There was a picnic atmosphere on the freshly cut, carefully lined field. It could have been any happy group of old timers anxious to relive the glorious moments of youth.

The reminder of where they were, however, was always underlined by the sight of their formal dress of frilly white shirts, cummerbunds, and bow ties — despite the absence of jackets.

Rob’s team wore top hats in order to differentiate it from the “visitors,” and he couldn’t let go of the image that his team mates looked like chimney sweeps in old book illustrations.

In the warm-up he found it awkward to run on the spot and do situps while wearing a top hat, and he told his team mates that.

“Better get used to it,” a woman said. “Playing without a hat is a sleeper play. That can get you ejected.”

“A small thing, I can live with it,” Rob said with a shrug.

Nothing was going to deter him. This was his moment in the sun. He reveled in his new-found authority and his team mates looked impressed as he instructed them on the opening play. In shotgun formation he'd get the snap on the first sound, roll out to the right, and throw a short button-hook to the flanker. He loved the terminology.

The play looked terrific diagramed in the dirt, but it turned out to be a catastrophe. An enormous black man, who smelled of gorgonzola cheese, barged through the line early and whacked him across the side of the head just as the ball reached his outstretched hands.

There were frenzied cries. “Fumble! Fumble!”

In his confusion Rob dived on what he thought was the ball. Players on both sides laughed heartily as he brushed himself off, picked up his top hat he'd fallen on and tried to bend it back into shape.

The referee turned his back on him when Rob complained that the first sound was his excitable breaking of wind and therefore wasn’t a legitimate signal call. The opposing team was given possession of the ball and scored a converted touchdown in two plays.

After that humiliating incident there were a great many blunders connected to Rob, all to the referee’s total indifference.

Somebody slammed him into the goal post just as he was on the verge of becoming a hero by gathering in a pass (the old flea-flicker play) for a major. He was blindsided while covering a kickoff return. In Rob’s few running attempts where he wasn’t tripped for a loss (“Ha, ha! Sorry, pal!”), and was able to gain a few measly yards, his team mates were beside themselves with joy. These slight gains were celebrated with an exuberance totally out of sync with such mild successes, and earned him a gleeful pounding on the back or a good-natured pummeling. The cut-throat barber was the most enthusiastic pummeler.

As the game wore on, the backpats and pummeling got rougher and rougher, and the five crooked lawyers, in unison, took it upon themselves to ruffle his hair after each of his many punts even though they were shanks that barely made it past the line of scrimmage. The hair-ruffling was particularly painful in the catalogue of punishments they dished out in their merry way.

Gradually the innocent playing field had become a war zone in which two opposing armies had united to turn on one hapless soldier. Both teams grinned and chortled with collegiate glee as they physically abused Rob, their insincere apologies (“Oops! Sorry again.”), as they inflicted cuts and bruises on him, a joke at his expense.

Whether it was a planned or spontaneous conspiracy against him, Rob didn’t know, but it was obvious he was one of them in name only. Each of them had committed a specific crime while he was there by whim. They knew it and, by God, they were going to punish him for it. Yes, Rob thought, all along they'd genuinely hated him. Hated him for every surly response at the commissary; hated his condescension in joining them at happy hour to nurse a single drink; hated the charitable way he'd accepted the offer to be their quarterback so he could lead them out of the wilderness. Yes, right from the beginning, opposition alike, they'd sensed his finely honed, thinly camouflaged disgust, and away from the calming influence of pink their true feelings had surfaced.

Rob was enraged by the scale of their deception. Like a fool he'd been easily conned into this situation, once more a figure of fun in the athletic arena.

Well, enough was enough. Rob took the ridiculous, crushed top hat off and spiked it.

Without saying a word, he stomped off the field. Two or three gulls overhead shrieked, but for some reason decided to leave him alone.

By a ditch a hundred yards away he heard some muffled boos through gas masks that came from a small group of sight-seers from regular society.

With them one understood only too well. They paid lip service against death penalties, but didn’t mind unofficial executions.

Rob saw himself in a quandary — he didn’t belong at the Remote Area and if he went back to regular society he'd be history.

He entered Pyramid Six, home, for what it was worth, relieved to be away from the indignities of the grid iron.

As he stood for a moment in the doorway, he thought he must have cut a forlorn pose like some character in a faded tintype. There was a tear in the knee of his pants and his white shirt with tail sticking out was covered with mud and grass stains and Canada goose dung. An extreme contrast to the neat, tuxedoed Carl who was hunched over something at the card table in the corner.

Carl looked up as the flatulent Rob Gray — jerk, wimp, hermit crab, ex-quarterback — tromboned his presence.

“What’s new?” Carl said.

Rob didn’t answer. His attention was on the card table.

“You like jigsaw puzzles?” Carl said. “This is a toughie. If you don’t mind coming near me I'd appreciate some help.”

Rob’s face lit up. “I wouldn’t mind at all,” he said. “I'm good at sky and w-w-water.”

 

 

Michael Christie has published stories in Prism International, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. He is a retired elementary school teacher, married, with two sons and three grandchildren. He writes mainly children’s books. The Christmas book Olive, The Orphan Reindeer was published Christmas 1999 by New Canaan Publishing, and distributed by Login Publishing Consortium. (The story is on a few web sites under the original title “Olive: The Other Reindeer”.)


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ISSUE #2

July 1999

FICTION

ART