“Stench No. 7” by Jim Knipfel

*Aromatica Poetica is honored to present Jim Knipfel’s true story of chasing smell as the first in our Blind Writers Project series, made possible by a generous grant from Awesome Foundation Disability*

It was around quarter to seven on a bright and warm July morning in 1996. I’d just dragged myself out of the 23rd Street subway station in Manhattan on my way to work, and was waiting to cross Broadway. Thanks to the Associated Blind apartment building down the block, it was one of the few intersections in New York equipped with talking stoplights, which saved me the treacherous dice roll of trying to guess when the crush of early morning traffic was with me.

When the shrill electronic voice began its insistent chirp, I started tapping across the street. As I did, a woman clicked past me in High heels, and as she passed I caught a whiff of something strong that trailed behind her like the ephemeral tail of a comet. It wasn’t perfume or soap or deodorant. It wasn’t anything approaching sweet or pleasant or even cloying. I’d call it industrial more than anything, with a subtext of the toxic. Of course it may well have been perfume, just not a terribly enticing one. It didn’t matter what it was. To me it was memory. I knew that smell. It meant something to me and likely no one else. It was something that rattled the knob of a long-forgotten door in my subconscious.

It was like recalling a snatch of a guitar riff from a song you know you know but can’t place. As you repeat it over and over in an endless loop in your head, praying some catchy commercial jingle doesn’t come on the radio in the other room to knock it off the tracks, you start running through all the thousands of albums in your record collection trying desperately to finger the source. It’s almost always a futile effort. The answer will only come when you stop thinking about it, you know this, but you can’t help yourself. That riff just goes around and around and around. 

Scents are different than sounds. They’re ghosts, they’re hard to hold fast and repeat in your head. When you can no longer smell them, they’re gone. Whatever it was exuding from this woman, it was an old memory and I had to place it. If I didn’t, I’d go mad. There might be hostages involved. But to place it, I had to grab it before it was gone. So I did the only thing I could do that early July morning. The offices of the newspaper where I worked were six blocks away, I was supposed to be at my desk at seven sharp, but I had no choice in the matter, and began following her.

There was nothing perverse or sinister in this, though any outsider who noticed what was happening might believe otherwise. I had no idea who this woman was, what she looked like, how old she was, how she was dressed, what color her hair was, nothing. I wasn’t interested in her, only the odor trailing behind her. When she turned north on the west side of Broadway—not the direction I should be heading if I was on my way to work—I did the same. I had to stay close enough to keep that scent—was it melting rubber? Some kind of solvent?—in my nostrils, but not so close things got weird.

For once I was glad it was a warm and humid morning. If it had been dry and cold and windy, that scent would have been whipped away in an instant. In the still and damp heat, it lingered, like the stench of piss and fermenting trash that always told you it was summer in New York. That morning this smell was unique enough it cut through the rest. Or at least I could ignore them for the moment as my monomania took hold.

Trying to tail someone when you’re blind is no mean feat, and trying to do this in Manhattan, on Broadway, as the morning pedestrian rush is getting underway is simple doomed foolishness. But I had one thing going for me. I didn’t need to see her or anything else. All I needed was that smell. Just keep it in my nose, keep huffing, keep following the scent like a ragged and eager bloodhound, and that’s all I needed. I tried to tap a little faster, praying I didn’t veer into a streetlight or trashcan or preoccupied investment consultant.  

As I tapped and inhaled, my brain was desperately trying to match what I was smelling at that moment with the singular thing I had once smelled somewhere over the past three-plus decades. Was it sawing open that golf ball in my dad’s basement workshop? Was it the insecticide I’d sprinkled on a ham sandwich inn an abysmal effort to kill myself when I was thirteen? God, was it those rubber Creepy Crawlies my sister and I used to make with that hot plate thing? Ah, back in the days when toys were incredibly dangerous. Racing as my mind was, it didn’t feel like I was getting any closer to the answer I was looking for, but I knew it was there someplace.

I wasn’t paying attention to how far we’d gone. Maybe it had only been a few blocks. At one corner I lost the scent and nearly panicked, turning my head and sniffing hard frantically in a way that must have worried some of the other people around me. Then I caught the fast-dissipating contrail. She’d made a turn and was heading further west, so I resumed my pursuit down the block. Thank god she’d hit a stoplight at the next corner, and thank god, this being Manhattan, no one stop me in the middle of my utterly insane quest to ask if I needed any help. I mean. What would they think when I asked them, “Sure, could you please tell me what that smell coming off the woman up there means to me and me alone?”

Was it the third-floor landing in the tenement where I used to live in Philly? The one outside the crack dealer’s door? Was it that noxious, viscous green mystery puddle that materialized outside my place in Madison one day and never went away? Was it the ominous toy box in the far corner of Mrs. Massey’s kindergarten class? No, no, no, no, no.

I was able to zero in on her again at the corner, but as I drew within a few feet the light changed. She headed across whatever avenue this was, and I followed. It wasn’t like I could just stop her and ask what she’d doused herself with that morning. Knowing wouldn’t help me in the least. I had to continue my covert sniffing in silence.

This sort of obsessive pursuit of a smell memory had happened to me only once before. Fortunately, that last time the odor in question was coming off the old man sitting next to me on the subway. He wasn’t going anywhere for a while, the smell hung around him like a thick fog bank, so I could relax and huff until it clicked. The moment the train pulled to a stop at his station and he stood, it hit me. He smelled just like an old trunk my grandma had kept in the attic of her decaying farmhouse in northern Wisconsin. Once having nailed that, putting the two together and stashing them away in one of the several sub-basements of my brain, I could relax, get on with the day, and forget about it.

I kept praying this woman didn’t suddenly decide to go into a store or an office building. That would be too obvious. If she hadn’t noticed the creepy blind guy with the respiratory issues stalking her yet—yeah that guy, the one with the scraggly hair and battered fedora—she would when I walked into her cubicle. And how would I explain all this too the cops? “You see, officer, it’s like this. All perfectly innocent…”

Then it struck me like a hammer to the back of the skull. I had it. This woman smelled like a plastic frog I used to play with in the bathtub of the old house in Green Bay when I was four. Nothing else in the world had ever smelled like that frog until this moment. Fill it with warm, sudsy bath water and squeeze it, it vomited a wide arc of water out of its mouth. I liked that plastic frog.

In an instant I relaxed. My steps and tapping slowed and I came to a stop in the middle of that Manhattan sidewalk, satisfied. I could file it away and be done with it. At least when it came to that smell.

Now I just had to figure out where the fuck I was and how the fuck I was going to find my way to the office.

Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, Quitting the Nairobi Trio, these Children who Come at You With Knives, and several other books. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Believer, The NY Daily News, The NY Post, The village voice and oodles of other publications. Knipfel is blind as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, which he recommends as a very shrewd career move.