Sunday
Nov112012

Ammonia

Brian Henry


 

The shed on the edge of the neighborhood was, of course, a shack, but we called it a shed because it was about the size of the little boxes attached to, or set behind, the larger, equally rectangular boxes we called houses. We'd heard competing stories about what went on there, could be found there: a dead man, black, between 60 and 90, or piles of used condoms which we thought were balloons until one of us, a few years wiser because of an older brother, finally recognized them in their post-coital form, voicing that recognition as a few of us were tugging on the latex, out of habit, one of us in the act of lifting the rubber to his lips as if to blow, out of habit. That's what we heard and told ourselves, what we remember, but I remember something else, perhaps because my best friend's mother, 30 years later, tells me what we found there, or said we found: a finger, curled into a comma, as if opening (or closing?) an endless clause. One of us—definitely not me—said he'd picked up the finger, waved it, sniffed it. The finger had a smell distinct from its surroundings. A tenth grader in my ninth grade biology class used a scalpel to lift the eye of the dissected cat to his mouth, licked it, then plucked it from its place of impalement and bounced it on the lab table. He bounced it until it landed on the floor and bounced away to disappear into the expanse of industrial white linoleum. After duly locating the bits of anatomy on the list, I—or perhaps it was my lab partner—cut into the cat's spine until its head came free. A lumpy junior-sized baseball, it would not bounce, went into the trash with the rest of the cat. Three years later, in another biology class, we—a different we this time—cut up a piglet. We'd named him Eugene, and perhaps because he had a name, or perhaps because I had slipped from one life to another, or at least the potential of another, I simply made my incisions and discoveries and nothing more. I can still smell Eugene, and the cat, and the sound of my friend's ear being bitten off in a parking lot. He was stronger and faster than his assailant, but his assailant did not follow the code, lunging straight for disfigurement. I heard the ear coming off but also could smell it—a mix of ammonia and beer and char. Less clinical than when I visited the medical college in high school and dipped my hands into the abdomen of an obese alcoholic whose enormous spotted liver I pulled out to examine. Or when I stepped into the vet school's abattoir—three horses strung upside-down, their blood sluicing into logically placed drains. Or the room of greyhounds on stainless steel tables—grey on silver, eight of them, two rows of four. Rat tooth forceps, scissors, retractors, rongeurs. The smell of ammonia and steel. My own birth I cannot remember, of course, but the birth of each of my children, can I not extrapolate from them to determine how the room smelled when I first emerged? My daughter, born six weeks early in New Hampshire. My son on time in Georgia. She was an emergency c-section, having failed the fetal stress test the day before. I slept on a folding chair, hadn't shaved that week. The room smelled tired, edgy, a major surgery to be performed and followed by a long convalescence. There was a hint of bile in the air, sweat and hair and breath. My son was beyond ready, within the window of punctuality. There was no fear, no surgery to concern us. We'd seen him regularly for months, knew him in grayscale as much as one could know someone living inside another, someone seen only on a screen. The room smelled like autumn before a cooling rain. Despite the absence of ultrasounds, despite the geographical distance,despite 1972 versus 2004, I know the room in which I was born smelled similarly. The absence of ammonia despite its certain presence. The smell of bright lights and bleached sheets, sweat and disinfectant, placenta and umbilical cord. But no, there is one difference: cigarette smoke. The finger, like a layer of the air in the room I was born in, smelled like an unemptied ashtray, a sliver of ammonia hovering just above it—lighter than the atmosphere, pungent, toxic. Its liquid form quickly evaporates when exposed to air.