The Smell of Skunk: My Madeleine

Unlike most people I know, I love the smell of skunk. This unforgiving mixture of sulphur and alcohol that scientists call butyl mercaptan operates for me like the madeleine did for Proust. It prods to life memories that might otherwise have stayed buried in the past, and by doing so, it illustrates the complex associations between time and place, youth and age, and me, the individual person I am, and the society in which I live.

An odor so strong and piercing that every time I smell it I’m transported. It returns me to myself—I feel young again and rooted to the earth so fast and sure that nothing can dislodge me. Far from turning my head in disgust, I drink in this almighty stench and thank God for the privilege of inhaling it. If nothing else, the smell of skunk reassures me of my right to exist, here on this earth, and now at this particular and eternally unrepeatable time.

I thought of this the other morning when I went out to clear the sidewalk of snow. The woman from two doors down stopped shovelling and asked if I’d smelled skunk earlier. Yes, I said, it was quite sharp. She told me it was so strong in her backyard that her dog refused to go out. He’d been sprayed the summer before, right in the face, and it took two weeks to get rid of the smell. Even now, she said, six months later, she occasionally gets a hint of skunk off the dog’s muzzle.

Another neighbor joined us, and then another, and we spent some time discussing the awful odor. Or, they discussed while I let my thoughts drift where they would. You could still smell skunk where we stood—as if someone had just struck a match that popped but failed to ignite. Sulphur.

I could hear my neighbors talking, but I was no longer present, on this snow-covered street in Toronto. I’d returned to Miami, where I’d lived from the age of eight till when I departed for university ten years later. Our house was out in the sticks, a semi-rural area called Kendall, well south of the city, and skunk was one of the neighborhood’s characteristic odors, especially at night.

When we first moved to Kendall, every block had undeveloped lots filled with pine and palmetto scrub. People kept horses and raised chickens, and some blocks were completely given over to lime or mango or avocado groves. Snakes and lizards lived in the yards and sometimes got into the houses. Scorpions and spiders, rats and venomous toads. If you left the window jalousies open at night, the sounds that came to you through the screen were these: of the cars that dragraced up and down the unstopsigned streets, of the stray dogs that barked all night and the roosters that crowed and the mockingbirds that sang nonstop. Along with the sounds, the smells: the mingled, sweet-and-sour scent of jasmine and skunk, the smell of grass and asphalt after it rained, and the stink of urine when the mango trees came into flower and blanketed the neighborhood with that nursery scent of pee-soaked sheets.

In this semi-tropical milieu, and as I entered adolescence, the night transformed itself into a time of great mystery and promise, when the very air I breathed, freighted with the narcotic scent of tropical flowers and the ubiquitous stink of skunk, stimulated a sense of possibility that at times seemed limitless.

The adhesive skunk stench sticks to one memory in particular. When I was sixteen, I snuck out of the house one night, after everyone else had gone to sleep, and walked three miles to Coral Gables, where the folk singer Jerry Jeff Walker was performing at a club called the Flick.

I arrived at that point in the evening when Jerry Jeff was taking a break. I ordered a coffee. The place was half-empty, and—typical for Miami—no one exchanged a word with anyone else. I waited for half an hour in the silent room and then for an hour. Finally, I asked the waitress what the story was with Jerry Jeff. She shrugged and walked away. In the end, I left without ever hearing a note of music or seeing a trace of the featured performer.

The long walk back. I crossed South Dixie Highway and walked through the town of South Miami. Then I followed Red Road further south and into the darkness of a lightly populated residential area where the houses were all set well back from the road and there were no sidewalks.

I walked in the grass and gravel and tried to stay far enough off the road itself that the headlights of passing cars wouldn’t pick me up. A popular night sport in Miami at the time was to throw empty beer bottles out the passenger-side windows at any pedestrians who presented themselves. Each time a car approached from behind, I braced myself to catch a bottle in the back of the head.

At one point, I had to pass an old graveyard that was surrounded by a low wall of coral rock. To avoid the spectre of the white headstones ranged in rows, I veered out closer to the road. A car came up behind, and the guy riding shotgun leaned his head out the window and screamed as loud as he could. In the dark night, that sudden, high-pitched scream took on the shape and metallic consistency of a bayonet or spear. It pierced my back, went between the ribs, passed through the heart, and came out my chest. As my body buckled, I could feel my soul shoot up to the sky above. In a moment, I was halfway to the moon. Then whatever elastic medium connected soul to body exerted its influence, and everything snapped together again.

I walked over to the graveyard wall and sat down to collect myself. There was an odd disassociation between my mind, which couldn’t sustain a train of thought, and my body, which was ice cold and bathed in sweat. Just then, I felt myself enveloped by the smell of skunk.

I could hear a rustle in the grass at the base of the wall. A skunk was moving slowly along, its muzzle to the ground, as it dug into the sandy soil for bugs and grubs.

Left to its own devices, a skunk displays a pretty insouciant attitude, perhaps because it has such confidence in its powers of defence. All its movements are deliberate and unhurried, concentrated on the task at hand, like a scholar poring over a newly discovered manuscript. In this sense, the skunk differs from, say, the squirrel, whose hepped-up, frenetic movements, even when there’s no threat of danger nearby, betray its fear, its conviction, that the only defences it can claim are speed and insanity.

I’d never seen a skunk so close up or been so near the source of its peculiar scent. On its part, the skunk didn’t seem aware of me, or if it was aware, it didn’t care. As I watched it recede into the darkness, the animal—in its wholeness—grew less and less substantial until it consisted of nothing more than the divided white line on its back, which moved and stopped, hesitated, then moved again over the ground at the base of the wall like some liberated, unhurried spirit from the graveyard on the other side.

The odd thing was that as the skunk moved away, the odor it left behind ripened and grew stronger, as if it reacted, in some chemical fashion, with the humid night air that surrounded me. I felt cradled by the smell, and the longer I breathed it in, the more I relaxed and settled, until after several minutes, I was ready to start walking again.

All night long, I’d been worried by the thought of what might happen if my father discovered I’d snuck out. He was an insomniac who would get up several times a night to ramble around the house. He was unpredictable and prone to violence if you displeased him.

But after the scream and the skunk, I felt emptied out and fortified in a way I’d never felt before. The thought came to me that, given what I’d just been through, there was nothing left to fear. I walked the rest of the way home as if in a dream and found the door at the back of the house unlocked, just the way I’d left it. Inside, everything was quiet, and I returned to my room without incident. I got undressed and lay in bed. The window jalousies were open. I could hear cars passing on the street outside, and in the distance the sound of barking dogs. Down the street a rooster crowed, and in the loquat tree outside the window, a mockingbird began to sing, the last sound I heard before drifting off to sleep.

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