All my life, everything had happened with the beginning wrapped in the shroud of its own end. The only secret I could be said to hold was the sour smell uncased as I changed from work to home attire, which was different from my post shower smell and was the primary sign that time was passing.
Those above me had secretaries. I had a paunchy associate named Fleck who preceded me around the office throwing up obstacles that he could conspicuously remove. We all agreed we’d peaked a generation or so before. Societally. Mornings we rode the downtown train knowing in our hearts that, but for some individual arcs, the decisive moment was behind us. The shroud of our end was thickening every day.
My wife was a mitigation specialist. She made good money pinching the shroud so the fabric gathered heavier in parts and thinner in others. I made even better money betting which parts of the shroud would fall where. Between us stood a Chinese Wall of understanding. To pierce this wall would have been a betrayal of the trust placed in both of us.
We wore the patriotic pins of the purposefully childless. We rode the train from our small but orderly home at the top of the city to our separate offices near its fenny downtown. Sometimes Fleck met our train midway, grimacing through his mask as he stretched for the ring hanging from the train’s swaying ceiling. Did Fleck frustrate at his own odors? Did he sniff himself and the spaces he’d just left, to see what part of him remained? I had no way of knowing.
Showering, I scrubbed life into my rot. I dried myself and applied aromatic balms, sticks, and perfumes. I snugged on layered fabrics. At day’s end, I shucked my suit and showered again. Even then, removing my slippers for some evening relaxation, my nose balked with the returning scents of my own biology. My faithful wife burned candles, chewed gum, even wore her mask inside at times. By morning, all of me stank again.
I had systems of organization that I enacted onto Fleck and that he in turn distributed throughout the office. I liked to bend around doorways or angle my eyes down the slanted slats of my office blinds to watch him silently lower himself until his forehead met the glass of his monitor. Then I sprang through my door, hoping to trip over an obstacle he hadn’t thought to clear.
One such stumbling block was a junior analyst named Cassie. I caught Fleck filing after her one afternoon and quickly moved to cut the space between them. Cassie’s head was shaved on one side to reveal the top half of a tattoo that trailed down her neck into her blazer. The exposed ink was of a tree top, branches veined like nerves. I could guess the hidden part. That wasn’t what intrigued me.
I triangulated them at afterwork drinks and office parties, backing Fleck into angles more and more acute. Cassie came from a plain in the middle of the country. She was still orienting herself along the city’s vertical axes. I fixed on her hands, which kept folding back the hair on her tattooless side. When I spoke, she placed two fingers on her clavicles and massaged the little horns at their medial ends.
You can spend your whole life being shown how to hold delicate things only to learn in a single tremor the sound a stem makes when it snaps. Soon she was pregnant. For a while, my wife and I continued to play the parts we’d inherited when we first met, but more and more of me was written into other plots. Eventually, she aggrieved me out of our home, and I moved down towards the middle of the city. I held the rings on different trains, avoiding the eyes of uptowners seated at my knees. Farther down still was Cassie’s single-room apartment sweating swaths of bubbled paint. From my own apartment, I showered, dressed, and went to the office. We took separate paths to her place, where I announced my arrival with the cloud of aerosol I used to mask my movements towards her shower. Leaving, I’d let the empty can fall over a railing outside her building, hear it clank onto the gyre of refuse that circled rhythmlessly at my feet.
Weeks went by as we waited for the other shoe to drop. We disguised ourselves in our own ways, I as always with tinctures and deodorants, Cassie with billowing fabrics and well-placed handbags. But the inevitable still happened. Fleck stormed my office demanding answers. He snatched the pin from my chest and trampled it while I hid behind a potted plant. Apparently, I’d made few friends; I fled to the train station one step ahead of an angry Fleck-led mob.
Bodying my way back to my apartment, I sat down and removed my clothes, beginning with my mask, then shoes and socks. The smell of my fermented self reached me immediately, and I realized, breathing through my mouth, that my child would come to know this smell as well. It would pervade their growing years. The women in my private life could weigh the pros and cons, the smell against the rest of me, but a child would have no choice.
I showered, redressed my most sensitive parts, and made my way down to Cassie’s. We ate without speaking, the walls of her apartment wringing with moisture. I was slipping my trash over a railing when my phone rang. It was a familiar client. “I heard you separated,” he said.
Somehow, the story already permeating the community was that my wife and I, wary of word about the cracks in our Chinese Wall breaking out, had mutually parted in order to share our secrets without arousing suspicion. My firm had found out and fired me. We understood each other, said the investor, winking over the phone. He described the shroud’s suffocating weight, the need for a skill set such as my own. Where could he meet me?
Thinking quickly, I gave him the location of a friend’s office and went home to prepare.
The next day, I dressed in underwear, undershirt, pants, shirt, vest, and jacket, twirling for a spritz of cologne at every step. I wore my best mask. Arriving early at my friend’s, I received the client in confidence, spoke rounds around his ideas, and got a signed commitment. The next day I took another meeting, and made moves towards a small office of my own and a petite secretary named Crystal.
One night, palling around my old club, I spotted Fleck padding towards me from across the bar. Just before we met, his own associate moved between us.
“Mr. Stone,” said the associate. “This is Mr. Fleck. Fleck, Stone.”
We shook hands. Fleck sweat.
Cassie, meanwhile, was growing rounder. I bought a place uptown and, while my contractor and I were reviewing updates, struck upon a plan to help us start afresh. Beyond the regular mould mitigation and repainting, we are installing discreet holes in the walls with access to the ventilation system. In the final weeks before our due date, I’m steadily stuffing bits of waste, unwashed socks, food products, anything odorous, into these cubbies. The smell will slowly grow, imperceptibly, I hope, to Cassie, and by the time our little girl arrives, I’ll move invisibly through its folds. There will be nothing wrong with Daddy, or with any of us.
Jeff Bakkensen lives in Boston. Recent work has appeared in A-Minor Magazine, Oblong Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, and The Antigonish Review.