I reek of death. It’s in my hair. On my skin. I cannot wash it off. There’s not enough soap or shampoo anywhere to remove the smell. I am lying in a bed staring straight up at the ceiling in the dark after an hour in the shower. And I still smell it. I feel like I am always going to smell like this. I think maybe if I exfoliated myself entirely. Deforested my skin. Maybe that would help. A hairless newborn sheared like a sheep. Maybe then. Maybe.
This is an hour after I have stood for four hours in a parking lot where the Fayetteville Observer-Times sent me to cover a potential crime scene. Someone called the police because they thought there might be a body in the trunk of a car. The police were summoned by a dispatcher over the radio, and someone listening to a scanner in the newsroom dispatched a reporter to the scene. And there I was. And there was absolutely no doubt what was in the trunk. It was the horrible stench of dreams on fire. Hopes roasted black and crumbling in an oven.
Because police have gotten tired of answering lots of individual questions from reporters at crime scenes where the reporters have grimly gathered like crows, they have developed a routine. At intervals, designated officers hold brief news conferences and little drabs of information seep out despite their best intention of telling you absolutely nothing. There’s no need for a news conference to announce that a dead person is inside the trunk. That’s apparent. Even someone who has never smelled a dead person, as I was until I got there, can tell.
There is a long wait. The longest wait in my life. Someone is coming who can take the body out of the trunk. Until then, this is just a potential crime scene. It’s murder. That’s obvious. The dead body in the trunk got there somehow. Someone murdered the person. That same someone decided to stuff them in a car trunk.
Deep inside everyone lies a few trace instincts our ancestors had. Survival is one. Aversion to the smell of death is another. An aversion to the smell of death is part of the survival instinct. If someone is dead in a place, it’s instinctive to leave. Go far away, instinct warns. Walk fast or run.
I don’t leave. I don’t let myself hold my nose or gag. I am a professional. The taste of death settles down in my throat, and I feel it nesting there like a bed of warm ashes. I can tell it’s in my clothes. It’s in everyone’s clothes. The television news reporter and the boom man. All the policemen. The few times I have been in crowded smoky places and my clothes absorbed the scent like a sponge, I have washed them. They are fine to wear the next day. This is different. I peel off the clothes from the potential crime scene as I enter my apartment like a snake shedding dead skin. Wash them or get rid of them? I throw them on the floor and run to the shower. I try washing them later. It doesn’t work. And I honestly don’t know if it’s the smell that lingers on them or the memory of the smell. I throw them all away, though that happened to be one of my favorite shirts.
At some point, the body is moved from the car into an ambulance with some delicacy. Simultaneously, another reporter arrives to take my place. I have really just been a placeholder in this spot. The crime beat is not my beat. The crime reporter arrives chewing gum. She offers me some. The gum tastes like death after a few seconds. Cherry flavored death. She is a startlingly pretty blonde girl who immediately joins the rest of us in smelling like death. “What you got?” she asks, smacking her gum. “The police say it might be drug-related,” I explain. “Yeah. That’s what they always say when they don’t know why someone got killed. Except when they say it’s gang-related.” She’s a good sort. A soldier on her beat. Solid. “You can go now,” she says. So, I go. I spit out the cherry flavored gum at the car. All I can taste is death.
Later, the details of the man in the trunk emerge. But I find they don’t matter a whit. An argument over something. Possibly drug-related. They drift away over time. Just the taste and smell of death linger. There are times when I love my job, writing and reporting the news. Then there are times when it feels like a sick addiction I need badly to kick so that I can be a whole person again. A person who can relax at the end of a day, knowing there’s almost no chance of standing for hours in a parking lot smelling and tasting death.
This is a long and convoluted way of explaining how we get to New York City today about two decades later where there are a ton of things to smell. Fresh bagel smells wafting out from shop doors. Subway vapors rising through grates in the ground. Hot dogs grilling at street corner stands. Pizza being baked in huge brick ovens. The scent of sweat and glory coming from the large open window at Trinity Boxing Club on Rector Street where Avery and I once took an hour-long class in manliness and pain. All these smells and more. But no scent of death in the air so far.
When my son Avery is diagnosed with autism in Asheville, North Carolina at four years old just as we are moving to Alabama for Robyn’s new job and roughly six years after smelling death in Fayetteville, I finally let reporting go. I was unburdened, as light as a balloon.
I’ve always loved telling stories to people. But I love my son more than I love telling stories. At four, he still smells like fresh rain sometimes. I can bury my nose in him, and there is nothing but goodness. He is a blank slate to write on. I will tell another story with him. He can’t speak well, pointing a lot and mumbling sounds that want to be words. One of many small glitches that plague him. But he will be the story I tell and remember when I forget everything else.
He will be the story remembered when I am myself forgotten.
(NOTE: The smell of death is impossible to describe, but it stays with you. If you have ever smelled death, I invite you to describe the experience in the comment section. Maybe it will lighten your load a little.)