Friday, October 7, 2011

the worst breath (stench of death wafting northwards)

By Tony Rauch

I can’t sleep so I wander into the kitchen to get a snack. A late night snack usually puts me out (I was busy all day, so only had an intimation of lunch and a vague allusion to supper). I open the fridge and take out a mess of random plastic containers. I end up gobbling down some taco flavored chips, fried onion rings, garlic curry, and spicy chili with extra hot peppers. I slam that all down with a heaping of grapefruit juice, then return to bed.

I plummet to sleep right off. The extra ballast really sends me down. For some reason I have the oddest of dreams (perhaps it was the onion rings). It’s one of those long, drawn-out, elaborate dreams, unfolding like a movie. In this dream I’m a doctor, but a really bad one. I stand above a patient in a dark operating room, wondering if the poor bugger is going to make it (eventually me and some other doctors place bets on who’s going to make it and who won’t. These are my golfing buddies. Someone suggests we should sell the parts of the ones who don’t make it. Someone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who can arrange the entire set up). After the surgery I go back to my office and open my desk drawer, the really big one at the bottom. Inside there’s a bottle of booze and a stack of money (I make $300,000 a year extra on the bets and a cool $600,000 as my cut on reselling the parts. Eventually I start to tip the scales, skew the odds and start to tank some of the surgeries. This nets me even more money on the bets and more money from the parts. Most people bet on the younger, healthier patients, and those are also the parts the black market wants the most, so these are the most lucrative surgeries). I take out the bottle and pull a tug of booze. Later that day I get hit by a car while coming back from a deli at lunch. I’m crossing the street, right on the side of the hospital when I’m run over. I flop on the pavement, the cold air stings as I watch the van that hit me speed off. They wheel me in to be operated on. I look up and the surgeon is me. I’m operating on myself. They lower the anesthetic mask. I thrash about. Everything goes dark.

I jump awake.

I’m in my bed. It was just a weird bad dream. I get up, but notice right off that I’m late for school. I hear the bus pulling up the block. I scramble to get dressed and run out the door. I run down the block, the bus drifting past. Luckily someone sees me and lets the driver know. But the driver never really liked me, or, well, doesn’t like anyone, so she slows and I have to run alongside the bus for two blocks and get on with the people at the next stop.

I get on, but I haven’t showered or brushed my teeth. I’m huffing and out of breath, so my stale, night-time, bad-dream, midnight-snack, no-brushing, jogging breath is basically enveloping everyone like a fog. People are ducking out of the way and waving their hands in front of their faces as I huff to collect my wind.

“What? Did somebody cut one?” I chuckle as I take my seat in back.

“No,” someone looks back to me, “It’s you, man. . .”

“I didn’t let one loose,” I shrug.

“Your breath,” someone gasps, holding their shirt to their mouth, “It’s rancid, man.”

“What crawled into you and died?” someone jumps back. Someone begins gagging. Someone coughs a sputter, about to puke. Another kid hits the floor and begins dry heaving.

I look around, watching everyone turn away, gasping and gulping for air. Most begin opening windows and moving to the front.

Some big guys walk back to me. They force my head out the window at the behest of the driver. They hold me there so my head stays out as we drive.

Once at school I walk the halls to my locker. But people still turn away, cringing and ducking from me. I fiddle with my combination lock, and it is not long before some school officials make their way through the crowded hall.

“Son, you stink,” a sad and official looking man looks down at me. He is possibly the palest person I’ve ever encountered.

They put me in a small room with some other kid. This other kid did something on his bus, hung someone out a window or smashed a kid’s face against the window or something. That was the morning rumor. Something with a window, anyway.

So we’re in this little room, and the other kid is all crouched down in the corner, because of my breath. Some tough guy. I mean the kid’s eyes are watering. And I mean it’s a pretty small room – maybe twelve feet by twelve feet, my breath really fogging up the joint something fierce.

“Maybe they put you in here to punish you,” I look around, at the wonder of it all, taking it all in, as if to think out loud: ‘how did I get here’. But the other kid just looks away, moaning. “Let that be a lesson to you,” I add calmly, looking around. “Hey, how ‘bout we see how bad I can get this,” I figure because I’m really starting to get bored now and annoyed with the whole isolation treatment. So I huff and huff, and sure enough, the ceiling tiles begin to yellow, the lights dim a notch. There is a sudden yellow tinge to the lighting, a yellowing fog to the air.

I snoop around. There’s a mess of old crap in here. Luckily I find half a case of old milk and one of those huge crates of eggs. But the eggs appear to be way past rotten. “Figures,” I shrug, looking the garbage over. “Bet they feed us nothing but this crap. Bet they get it super cheap and pocket the difference,” I pick up a little carton of old milk, “This should hit the spot,” I shake it. It feels much heavier than it should. I open the carton and give it a good whiff. My head recoils at the pungent odor, snapping my neck back. I begin to taste it, swishing the offending stale milk around in my mouth so as to add to the potency of my new found glory. Then I crack open a few of the eggs. The eggs are all brown and gold and green colored. They taste horrific, but you know, what the heck - once you start a project, you really should see it through, and my terrible breath was my new project. I was bored after all, and if people thought my breath was bad now, wait till they get a load of me in a few minutes.

“Oh, man,” the kid down in the corner squirms around, as if trying to crawl out of the joint. His skin is yellowing too. And so are the floor tiles.

The door opens and there is one of the office ladies. Her head snaps back and she twists away. The guy in the corner shoots from the room. A hint of a light brown mist (well, maybe more of a dirty golden tone, actually) wafts from the room as if stained air. It hits the clean air and swirls to rise to the ceiling, rolling across the ceiling, turning the white ceiling tiles a slight golden brown. It is a sickening color to be sure.

“Open a window,” someone shrieks as they flee the room, “For the love of Pete.”

“I’ll do it,” I announce, thinking I could maybe be viewed as the hero.

The office lady slowly lowers to the floor, as if nauseated. She collects herself and crawls to the hallway, coughing (this was a lady who had served in some of the wars).

I step from the little room and notice the inside of the door is all yucky colored, the wood of the door actually cupping and bending. Hmm, imagine that. As I walk out of the room, I turn and see a low green cloud rolling out of the small room. The fog is almost that army olive green. It is a thick fog of exhalation from me, as if my stench is now emanating from my very pores as a cloudy mist. The vapor cloud curls across the floor, turning the floor tile brown and causing some of the tiles to buckle and cup.

I walk through the curious olive cloud to the windows and lift one open. The cool fall air sucks the warm school air outside. I can feel the air around me being pulled from the room. And sure enough, the thick olive cloud is vacuumed out as well, rolling and twisting and curling outside to swirl on the side lawn of the school. I just stand there and watch the cloud swirl in the air, finally wafting in smoky strings up and to the north. I watch it pass through a tree and see all the leaves curl to nothing, finally crinkling and falling to the ground or disintegrating into the wind as if aging incredibly rapidly.

And I can see my breath escaping the room as well, leaving as weak, yellow puffs.

Someone stands in the hallway door. I turn to see who it is. It is a custodian with a gas mask on (or maybe it’s one of those painting apparatuses that allows you to breath around toxic vapors). The custodian drops a box on the floor and points to the window. The box hits the floor with a crash and flops over, spilling some toothpaste, mouthwash, a bottle of liquor, and some toothbrushes. “Stench of death, wafting northward!” the custodian cries, then flees the scene.

I walk over to the pile of cleaning supplies and consider ending my project before it’s considered ‘too disruptive’ and they banish me to detention or exile me to summer school or something.

Later, in study hall, a pal of mine is secretly listening to the radio via a very small earpiece (he has long hair, thus concealing the listening device). He whispers updates - the news reporting most of the northern suburbs have been evacuated and the wafting cloud has begun to drift to the east, destroying a swath of crops. My friend smiles and gives me a slow, quiet, long, drawn-out, high-five every so often, “Pretty cool,” he beams, “They’re sending in the National Guard. . . Gonna try to disperse it with some giant barn fans or something. Maybe some helicopters.”

“Nice,” I whisper back and nod, “My greatest creation yet,” I smile and lean back, admiring my work. Then I start to think about ways to create even worse breath than that. Maybe I could even recruit some close friends to help, maybe create an army of us to threaten the entire county, maybe hold it for ransom. Surely such a thing must be possible, I nod to myself. Yeah, I’m sure I can pull something like that off. I take out a piece of paper and begin listing a series of demands:

1. less boring homework.

2. more cool movies in school.

3. better lunches, with good, fresh food this time. And cake. Lots of cake.



Tony Rauch has three books of short stories published – “I’m right here” (spout press), “Laredo” (Eraserhead Press), “Eyeballs growing all over me . . . again” (Eraserhead Press). He has additional titles forthcoming in the next few months.

He can be found at –

His work deals with fragility, uncertainty, impermanence, the mysteries hidden in everyday life, a sense of discovery, escape, concealment, ennui, regret, loneliness, technology run amok, eerie vibes, irresponsible behavior, confusion, absurd situations, surrealism, modern fairy tales, etc.

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