“Suburban Complaint #1988—Skunked” by Peter Dabbene

It was late at night, and the dog was barking—that is, until she suddenly voiced a squeal that made it sound like she’d been stabbed through the paw.

I emerged from the house into the chilly air of early March. Peering into the blackness of a backyard lit by a single 60 watt light, I saw Ramona, our Siberian Husky, grab an animal and shake it violently. The creature was small, no more than two feet long. And black. With a white stripe.

Then the smell hit me.

*

Smell is the forgotten sense. We spend much of our time indoors, in filtered, neutral environments, and an increasing amount of the information our brains process resides in the visual and aural sensory spectrum. While technology steadily advances, the olfactory has often fallen by the wayside, despite the best efforts of Aromarama, Smell-O-Vision, Smellable VR and other similar experiments; scent is not an easily transferable phenomenon.

Even the English language comes up short, despite wonderful words like “fetid,” “putrid,” and “noxious” to describe far-from-wonderful smells. Thus, I cannot immediately, nor, I fear, effectively convey the repugnance of skunk spray to those who haven’t experienced it firsthand, except to say that it is indeed fetid, putrid, and noxious. I can helpfully inform those wishing a close-up whiff for themselves that an ounce of “Tinctured Skunk Essence” is easily purchased online. Scientifically speaking, I can explain that skunk spray offends because it contains sulfur-based compounds related to those in rotten eggs. Less scientifically, I can opine that the stench is worse than even the worst-smelling marijuana (also known, appropriately, as “skunk weed”). Or, I can simply say that the odor awakened my sense of smell in the same sudden, traumatic way that an exploding mortar shell might awaken a sleeping soldier.

Ramona, thoroughly shocked and enraged at being sprayed with this vile stuff, continued to growl and bark at the now-dead skunk. Dogs have a sense of smell that’s been estimated at 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute as a human’s, and all of those olfactory receptors were now grappling with an utter violation of their capabilities. If the smell hit my nose like a mortar, it must have hit Ramona’s like a nuclear bomb. So yeah, I’d be pissed too. But anger wasn’t the only reason for the dog’s continued aggression.

Years before, Ramona had discovered a possum, in roughly the same sacrificial no-man’s land where the skunk met its doom. Once the possum had been dispatched, I’d chased the dog away from the creature’s repulsive, apparently lifeless body. I was about to remove the carcass, when I remembered that, like a vainglorious and excessively committed local theater actor, a possum’s specialty is the over-the-top death scene, complete with expulsion of its own odiferous bodily fluids. This process, called thanatosis, takes its name from the Greek word “thanatos” (death), and has absolutely nothing to do with purple, granite-faced Marvel villains. Rather, it refers to the convincing death-like state some animals adopt as a defensive measure, until they can safely revive themselves a few minutes, or a few hours, later. To be safe and avoid any nasty surprises for me or the garbage men, I decided to keep the dog inside the rest of that night, waiting until morning to dispose of the possum’s body. And it’s a good thing I did, because at dawn I saw that the possum had removed itself from our yard, scuttling away in the night like the soiled, beady-eyed, drunken vagrant it so resembled. The original popular name of Didelphis virginiana was “opossum,” but elision and aphesis and other linguistic tendencies have resulted in the precipitous decline of its usage, replaced by the shorter and easier “possum.” Still, there will always be a place for the “o” when people realize they’ve been fooled by the pestiferous possum’s performance and good-naturedly acknowledge the fact, not with an “Oh, you!” but an “Oh, possum!”

Since that first possum encounter, there’d been several others. Now, faced with a skunk for the first time, Ramona seemed unconvinced of its death. She’d pick it up and shake its lifeless body, then cautiously bite it to ensure it was no longer a threat. Visions of her past experiences, with possums rising from the ranks of the seemingly dead, may have been flashing through her primitive dog-mind, while visions of a nightmarish Pet Sematary-style skunk resurrection were most definitely flashing through mine.

Though I’d smelled skunks many times before, this was, to my recollection, the first time I’d seen one in the wild. I wondered briefly how the encounter had begun; it seemed strange that a skunk would be parading across the middle of the yard, rather than keeping to the shadows. Ramona was mostly black and white in color; was this was a Pepe Le Pew / Me Too situation gone very, very wrong?

For the moment, I put aside the question of unrequited love, or a star-crossed romantic rendezvous. Regardless of its cause, this was definitely a crime of passion, as the dog was continuing to insult the corpse of the skunk, with gusto.

My instinct was to get Ramona away from the skunk as quickly as possible, to minimize the goriness and mess of the inevitable corpse cleanup, limit the possibility of animal-to-animal disease transmission, and avoid any zombific, “Not Dead Yet!”-style surprises. My mistake—the first of several—was that I took her inside the house to do so. I wasn’t keen to pick up and dispose of the skunk in the dark, in full stench, and in my fatigued yet adrenaline-enhanced state, moving the evening inside made perfect sense.

As my family slept behind closed bedroom doors, still breathing warm, blissful, inoffensive air, I opened windows. I turned on the kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans. I switched on an electric diffuser loaded with lavender oil. I sprayed Lysol, and lit candles.

The dog paced, unable to escape her own stink. Everywhere she traveled, the skunk smell lingered. The therapeutic effectiveness of aromatherapy was being proven in reverse; it wasn’t so much that certain smells made you feel better, but that other smells, notably skunk emanations, can most certainly ruin your night.

I was exhausted, and saw no way to wash the dog inside the house without waking everyone and making an even bigger mess. Faced with a desperate “fight or flight” situation, I chose the latter, closed my bedroom door to keep the dog out, and went to sleep.

*

When morning came, it didn’t take long for everyone to notice the smell.

“It’s not that bad,” I said calmly, hoping my usual modus operandi of downplaying problems might do the trick. The role of low-key, “everything’s fine” peacemaker is a necessary one, countering occasional histrionic outbursts from stressed-out members of the household. Unfortunately, with repetition my responses have become rote and automatic, my reactions dulled, to the point where even a worldwide attack by space aliens would have me saying, “So what? Life goes on.” Even though it wouldn’t.

I disposed of the dead skunk unceremoniously, picking it up with a garbage bag and depositing it in the proper receptacle for pickup. Despite my efforts to cleanse and perfume the house, the odor was oppressive, and we were all eager to evacuate. The kids went to school, my wife went to work, and I took the dog for her morning exercise at the park. Stopping for gas on the way back, I saw what seemed like a strange message from my son.

At thirteen years of age, he’d developed a keen sense of when it was best to text me directly, when to contact his mother directly, and when to use the group text that included all of us, including his twelve year old sister. Usually, the choice revolved around which parent was more likely to approve some request or less likely to hassle him or administer punishment in the face of some teenage transgression. Typically, I was the harder mark, so I was somewhat surprised to see that the text had been sent only to me. I opened it and read a sentence that can only be described as cryptic:

8:56 AM I’m about to call and ask for lysol just roll with it

Then, less than a minute later:

8:56 AM Nevermind

I sat, puzzled, until I saw another text, this time from my wife. She informed me that she’d been called to pick up our kids because an offensive odor was emanating from their persons. In other words, they stunk like skunk.

They’d been politely asked to go home, shower, and return to school. My wife’s message used the word “sour” instead of “shower.” Even with autocorrect, were Freudian slips possible in texting?

It seemed we’d all been a bit nose-blinded by the lingering, ambient miasma of our house. We’d failed to detect that the smell had drifted onto our possessions—particularly our children’s school backpacks, fatefully located near the dog’s sleeping area. Though the kids had showered and changed clothes in the morning as usual, their backpacks had soaked up the stench overnight and generously redistributed it amid the buzz of the first periods of the school day.

When everyone arrived home, the immediate reaction was one of those memorable family moments that makes all the bothersome crap worthwhile—we all laughed hysterically. Once things settled down, however, the kids’ reactions were decidedly different. My daughter was mortified, while my son, given that he was dutifully shipped off to school every day without exception, thought this was a wonderful turn of events, to the point where I thought he might break out in the SpongeBob Squarepants song “The Best Day Ever.” As my wife returned to work, both kids aggressively lobbied to stay home—my son because of his general disdain for school, my daughter out of concern for what other kids might have to say.

I work from home and thrive in solitude, so I’m more motivated than most parents to get my kids back to class in situations like these. But guaranteeing non-smelly kids seemed like a tall order—one that might take considerable time, to say nothing of the relentless pleading and begging for mercy that would accompany a same-day return to school. Plus, missing a day because you smell horrible is the kind of bizarre occurrence that, with the right sense of humor, provides a fun anecdote for life. Without the humor, it’s just a permanent, lasting, personal trauma, but as Pepe Le Pew might say, “C’est la vie.”

While the children showered and changed, it was time to attack the root of the problem by bathing the dog. Four decades of questionable folk wisdom had filled my head with visions of tomato juice, but before purchasing massive quantities of Campbell’s, V8, and if necessary, Clamato, I wondered: was there a better, less expensive option? Thankfully, I asked and God—I mean, the internet—provided.

Plenty of commercial products claimed to eliminate skunk odor; a helpful website listed five of the most popular, in order of effectiveness. Sympathizing briefly with the poor soul assigned to judge that competition, I searched for home remedies and found options using water and vinegar, water and vanilla extract, water and Massengill Douche (though I wondered about product placement fees on that one), and sure enough, tomato juice—with a warning that this method might temporarily turn white pets pink.

There seemed to be a consensus, at least as far as Google was concerned, as to the high efficiency and low cost of combining 1 quart hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup of baking soda, and a spoonful of dish soap or shampoo. Along with this recipe came a warning for aspiring Skunky Brewsters—don’t seal up the mixture or it might explode. It was like something out of Martha Stewart’s Anarchist’s Cookbook.

Since all of those items were readily available at home, it seemed we had a winner. The dog, who seemed to realize she needed all the help she could get, allowed the bathing process to happen without much complaint. The words “drowned rat” accurately described her appearance at this point.

The goal of returning the dog’s preeminent odor from “skunk musk” to “baseline dog” (a smell that harbors its own innate unpleasantries) was only partially achieved. The homemade mixture was effective, but we’d heeded safety warnings to avoid using it near the dog’s eyes and nose, and since her face had borne the brunt of the skunk’s attack, the overall stench-reducing effect of the bath was minimal.

Meanwhile, my daughter placed bowls of vinegar around the house, another home remedy that seemed worth trying, even if the smell of vinegar was far from ideal. This “fire to fight fire” approach soon yielded dividends, and the house seemed, if not pleasingly odoriferous, at least back to its normal melange of food aromas, clean clothing, dirty clothing, and a little mildew, floating under an indoor cloud layer of scented essential oil mist. Given my failure to detect the offending odors that morning, though, the question remained: was the smell issue really solved, or just temporarily masked? I won’t tell you, except to say that the phrase “the end” won’t appear again for another thousand words or so. That’s not a spoiler, is it? More of a stinker, I’d say.

*

The next day, a Friday, the kids went to school as usual. It wasn’t long before the group text messages from my daughter started rolling in:

9:31 AM Please pick me up now I stink

9:31 AM Please for the love of God pick me up now

9:32 AM Please for the love of God pick me up now

9:42 AM I smell myself please just pick me up

9:42 AM Please if you love me pick me up

9:45 AM Please if you love me pick me up

My daughter, whom I love, isn’t one to invoke higher powers—or even parental guilt—frivolously. But we had conducted smell tests that morning, and everyone passed. Again, via text, my wife assured her that she didn’t smell.

10:53 AM I do it’s my backpack

We told her to put the backpack in her locker.

10:59 AM I can’t it doesn’t fit in my locker

11:01 AM I CANT

I was convinced this, especially the graduation to all-caps. was a ridiculous overreaction on my daughter’s part, and my wife, somewhat surprisingly, independently agreed. A mother’s assurances, and the promise of a relaxing bath after school, had little impact on my daughter.

11:06 AM NO

11:06 AM YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND

11:06 AM I SMELL MYSELF

There were other distractions happening simultaneously that morning, but excuses aside, it wasn’t our best moment as parents. Yes, I told my daughter to ask the school nurse or custodian for a can of Lysol, and I’m not proud. And did I mention it was school picture day?

11:12 AM Someone said I smelled like a cat

My son, I would later learn, had dealt with his own share of odor-related questioning, albeit a proportionally smaller one—presumably because he’d forced his classmates to develop some resistance to foul smells in the preceding months, by subjecting them to daily doses of off-putting essence d’adolescence. He attempted to put fellow students and staff members off the skunk track by saying that he’d “been near a fire.” His technology class was nearly evacuated, because the only explanation the teacher could offer to account for the acrid smell was that a computer cart was burning, and my son did nothing to correct that impression. This ability to feign, dissemble, or to put it more bluntly, bullshit—however raw and undeveloped—has us hopeful for law school one day, or maybe a managerial position in used cars or pharmaceutical sales. Monitoring the rest of the family’s exchanges, he now chimed in helpfully, with:

11:18 AM Can one of you just pick her up so she will stop talking

Then, realizing he might be about to blow an opportunity for another shortened school day, he added:

11:24 AM If you pick her up you have to take me too

Hmm. Definitely law school.

Showing great parental discipline and/or laziness, we picked up neither of them. I don’t walk around calling people “snowflake,” but there’s a certain amount of character-building that accompanies dealing with adversity, and according to several psychological studies, low-level traumatic experiences can prepare individuals to better handle future events. Let’s just say an awful lot of character was built that day, and our children are very well-prepared for the future.

That night, we ate sushi, my daughter’s favorite, as a kind of mea culpa for our failure to rescue her from school. We also rewashed all of our kids’ exposed clothing and paraphernalia. That process was drawing to a close with a final load of backpacks, to which I added some of my outerwear that carried a lingering whiff of skunk musk. When the backpacks were emptied before loading, however, a pen apparently escaped notice. Thus, when I opened the dryer an hour later, blue ink had fused onto the white interior canister of the appliance, in a pattern that suggested the early work of Jackson Pollack, or Charlie Brown’s late 1950s aborted attempts to write with a pen. I could replace the clothes I’d ruined, but I knew I’d have to clean out the inside of the dryer, or the next load might be permanently stained, too. As before, I consulted the internet.

One site suggested using dish soap, and warned never to use another commonly recommended remedy, nail polish remover, because of its toxicity and flammable composition. I doused the inside of the dryer with dish soap and scrubbed with paper towels for some time with little result, before deciding “The hell with it,” and switching to—you guessed it—nail polish remover. Many cotton balls later, the dryer was mostly clean and I had sucked in enough acetone fumes to make me wonder if my lungs were permanently compromised.

The final step, as demanded by my significant other, was to have our dog professionally bathed and groomed. To my wife, the word “professional” has a positive connotation, of qualified persons doing work at the height of their abilities. For me, it mainly means the spending of large amounts of money. In this case, it meant that the cost of managing The Skunk Incident was about to rise, to the tune of $79.97, a number whose novel palindromatic qualities did little to soothe my frustration. To his credit, the clerk at the front counter warned me that a traditional bath and grooming session wouldn’t get rid of the skunk smell, and sure enough, he was right.

The skunk funk lingered in the house for another week or two, gradually diminishing in potency, but subject to sudden, dramatic reappearances. These stemmed from the dog’s excursions in the rain, which seemed to reactivate otherwise dormant skunk effluvium; never have humans so longed for the classic wet-dog smell. Bathing Ramona in more of the peroxide/baking soda/dish soap combo helped, but the odor didn’t really disappear until she managed to get pine tar stuck to her head while digging in a groundhog hole near a tree. A sticky mess, yes, but a fresh, pine-scented one, at least.


Peter Dabbene’s writings have been published at Eyeshot, Defenestration, and many other online journals. His poetry has been published in literary journals, and collected in the photo book Optimism. He has also published the graphic novels Ark and Robin Hood, the story collections Prime Movements and Glossolalia, and a novel, Mister Dreyfus’ Demons. His latest books are Spamming the Spammers,More Spamming the Spammers, and The End of Spamming the Spammers. His website is www.peterdabbene.com

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