That’s the Way It Is with Skunks Sometimes
Words by Jason Roemer Illustration by Aaron Scamihorn
At some point after the last of the snow from the spring blizzard melted, my mom accused my dad of smelling like a skunk. It wasn’t the type of thing a wife says to her husband, spitefully. He just smelled like skunk and she thought he should know.
He could smell it, too, which only made things worse. Starting with the obvious, my dad chewed his way through potential culprits like a hungry caterpillar: replacing deodorants, swapping out one brand of hair tonic for another, divvying out his dry-cleaning to three different stores suspecting it might be a “chemical” issue. It got to the point that when we’d see him marching toward with that Here, smell this look, we’d fling ourselves out the nearest door.
For two solid months, we lived and breathed B-O, slowly breaking apart the model of our suburban existence, piece by stinky piece. At first, no one was allowed to wear perfume or cologne. Not even my older brother Craig, who’d moved out the year before and was only an occasional visitor to the house for free meals and laundry. Next, our friends were banned from hanging out after school for fear that it was something in their houses that sparked an allergic reaction in his glandular system. Finally, our mom started washing our clothes in a solution of baking soda, vinegar and ammonia — a particularly humiliating course of action that took its toll on our social standing at school. We became “those kids” who smelled like sour little homeless people. Eventually, our meals and junkfood were up for grabs. We stopped eating beef cold turkey. Waffled over white versus dark meat. And fish that was previously fried and delicious was now baked beyond recognition and served alongside piles of strange new vegetables like beets and kale, which could only be eaten by plugging your nose and swallowing them whole without chewing.
But no matter what we did or how we did it, dad still smelled like skunk.
“Why are you punishing them?” Craig snapped one night at dinner pointing to me and my sister. “It’s not Sam’s or Spencer’s fault. You’re the one who stinks!”
“Damnit Cindy,” dad brustled ignoring Craig’s little show. “Are you using vegetable oil in there?”
“We’ve already gone though this, Mike. It is NOT the vegetable oil, remember? Don’t forget, you have an appointment with Dr. Gladweller tomorrow.”
“Gladweller? What’s the dentist gonna tell me?”
“Could be something in your mouth,” she sighed under her breath retrieving from the oven a baking sheet of Orange Roughy strips that had been reduced to leathery insoles.
My brother kicked me under the table. It was only a week ago that we’d been over to our cousins’ house and watched dad and his brothers get stinking drunk around a table of cards, which ended with dad telling our uncle to eat a shit sandwich. “Looks like the sandwich is in the other mouth, so to speak,” Craig cracked.
“You know, you’re a real wise-ass,” dad seethed. “You got that fifty bucks I loaned you last month? Cindy, no more dinners for Mr. Smartass over here. Gimme your plate.”
“That’s enough—both of you.”
“You know,” Craig added. “I read that a person’s job satisfaction can actually impact the body’s ability to produce certain phenomes.”
“Pheremones,” mom corrected him trying to shimmy a metal spatula under what was left of our fish.
“Yeah, pheremones. I saw it on 60 minutes. Harry Reasoner interviewed some guy in Japan who was talking about the impact his new job had on his body. His hair fell out. He developed cavities. Even grew an inch and a half. And the thing is, it all started —”
“You like teaching, don’t you dad?” I interrupted.
“I love my job, Spencer. Your brother is just trying to rattle me so his mother will give him his plate back—”
“I’m serious dad—”
“We don’t have to talk, Craig. Some of us can eat.”
After dinner, Samantha wiggled out from the table pumping her arm like a bird with a broken wing, and the three of us went upstairs to play Dungeons and Dragons in her bedroom.
“Why do you have to do that, Craig?” Samantha asked plucking her pet hamster Popcorn from his cage and flinging herself on the bed. “Dad says your on drugs again.”
I nudged the door shut with my elbow and wedged a towel under it so Popcorn couldn’t escape.
“Don’t believe everything dad says, Sam. Let’s play. I’ve got the new one, Spencer: The Gates of Death,” Craig said pulling a book out of his backpack. “You in Sam?”
“What if he has cancer?” Samantha whispered stroking Popcorn’s neck. “Maggie’s dad had it and no one knew until it was too late.”
“He doesn’t have cancer, Sam. I never finished the story at dinner tonight. Hey Spencer, get your characters ready. You’ll definitely want your first level Cleric for this. Okay. Now you guys have to promise not to say anything if I tell you.”
“Alright. Dad doesn’t have cancer. Not even close. I’ll tell you what he does have if you swear you won’t say anything? Not even to mom?”
“Craig, you HAVE to tell us NOW,” Samantha pleaded while Popcorn balanced on her shoulder.
“Samantha, you’re gonna understand this better — since you’re a girl. Spencer, just try and keep up. That story I was telling you about, it was a special about people called her-maph-ro-dites,” Craig explained, slowly drawing out the long word as if it would take on some special meaning and stick in our brains. It sounded horrible.
“Shut up, Craig.” My face grew beet red.
“It’s okay Spencer. It’s not what you think,” Craig said making his way to the door. Samantha and I avoided looking at one another until he returned with a heavy volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
“Look here,” he said flipping to a page with a strange illustration of what looked to be a lop-sided door handle. “It says right here,” he continued reading, “a hermaphrodite is a person born with both male and female reproductive organs, and, let’s see, oh yeah,” he continued moving his finger down the page. “It’s a condition that affects 1.7 percent of all births. That’s almost two people in a hundred. Hell, you’ve got that many kids in your Freshman class, Sam. Two of your stupid friends are probably going through the same thing at home right now.”
“Oh my God.” I wanted to crawl into the Popcorn’s cage and hide under his wheel.
“Spencer, I’m trying to explain,” Craig continued. “The guy on 60 Minutes said he didn’t find out he was one until he was almost 50, when all those weird things started happening to his body. And you know what the very first symptom was?” Samantha and I were glued to the end of Craig’s finger as it danced in front of his face. “Do you?” There was a long pause. “Bee. Ohhhhhhhhh. You see what I’m sayin’?”
I was only 13, but already knew enough to know that when a person says, “Do you see what I’m sayin’?” they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. But this was different; this was Craig. He was how Sam and I learned about most things worth knowing.
“I’m not lying. It’s a symptom of something called bacterial vagoneeesis.”
“So dad’s not turning into a skunk?” I asked.
“Nope. He’s becoming a girl.”
Illustration by Aaron Scamihorn