The Indignity


It was on a Sunday that we first noticed the smell. We lived in an apartment on the third floor of a low-rise in Parkdale, right off Queen. It was one of the few affordable rental buildings left, constructed sometime in the seventies. No one built these anymore – now only condo towers time-lapsed into being on every empty lot in the city.

Anyway, on Sunday we stepped out of our apartment, walked down the hall and opened the door to the stairwell. We cantered down the stairs and it was around the first floor that I smelled it.

“What’s that poopy smell?” I said.

“Maybe somebody pooped in the mailbox,” John said.

“Thank you.”

We set off on our usual weekend walk. This walk started out westward, through the little streets with the big houses, cool and shaded by their tall trees. Then it was north on Roncy, where we carefully maintained our distance from the oblivious senior citizens pushing canvas shopping trolleys, and the sleepy bald babies with faces not entirely dissimilar from the former. Both parties were often accompanied by grinning, panting, dogs, turning their heads excitedly from side to side. From here it was west again, onto sunny, wide, High Park Boulevard. Groups of flushed people were walking back from the park, talking and laughing. Their voices sounded clear in the afternoon sun. Most groups had a dog, a stroller, a wailing toddler who stumbled melodramatically behind them, or some combination of the three.

After passing beneath the old park gate, we turned left and headed towards our usual spot – a large field of grass, completely surrounded by high trees. Picnic blankets dotted the perimeter of this clearing, where cool pools of shade hugged the tree trunks. The centre was reserved for sprinting, screaming children, or for lax groups of frisbee throwers. Sometimes we would come here with a sheet and lay around and read, but that day we were just walking by. We crossed through the grass, over to one of the little dirt paths that lead out of the clearing. These paths tunneled into the surrounding wall of trees, and the sunshine polka-dotted us through the branches above as we walked along. The park was so big that it was never crowded, and I thought as usual with astonishment that Trinity Bellwoods park, that little square lawn, was always packed.

We exited the park heading south, then crossed the Queensway and went down towards the boardwalk. The strip of blue on the horizon rose gradually as we approached. We walked past the sunbathers and the brave few who stood waist-deep in the water. The sound of the sand rubbing between the wooden boards and our sneakers accompanied us on our way. We left the path via the Roncesvalles pedestrian bridge and walked along Queen to get back home.

It had been a hot day and I kept wiping the sides of my nose beneath my glasses. Upon pulling open the building door, the warm smell greeted us right away. We looked at each other and frowned.

“Hmm . . .”

As we set off up the stairs, we noticed that it accompanied us all the way up this time.

“As long as it’s not coming from our floor . . .” John said.

I pulled open the door to the third floor. We paused, then looked at each other, nodded, bottom lips out, brows low, thumbs up.

“We’re good. It must be coming from a different one.”

The next day we were getting ready to step out for our pre-work walk around 8 am. We were both working from home on account of the pandemic and tried to maintain a rigorous walking schedule to give the day structure.

We stepped out of the apartment and as John locked the door, I said: “I feel like I can smell it here now.”

John sniffed. “I’m not sure.”

In the stairwell we were greeted by it again, stronger this time. I laughed when John pointed out that someone had left one of those lava-lamp shaped air fresheners (the kind that twists open to reveal a solid, bright coloured soap-like substance – blue in this case) to the side of the stairs.

The Tuesday morning, it couldn’t be disputed. I raised my eyebrows at John as he locked the door.

“Yeah that’s definitely on our floor now,” he said.

“It kind of smells like if someone left a can of beans out.”

John laughed.

“Actually, you know what my first thought was?” I said.


“What if someone died? And now they’re just in their apartment. Because the smell is getting worse. I thought this at first but then I was like I’m not going to say that.”

“Yeah, yeah, I thought that too. That was my first thought. But you know what this reminds me of? It’s more like a standing water smell. When my parents used to clean out the sink in the basement after we hadn’t used it for a while, it smelled sort of like this. So maybe it’s a summer maintenance thing in the building with pipes or something.”

“Yeah, you’re right it’s probably something like that.”

On Wednesday the smell was very strong.

“I think someone died,” I said.

John put his hands on his hips and pulled his lips in to make a straight line of his mouth, an expression I took for begrudging agreement. “Yeah?”

I pictured a young man lying in the middle of the floor in an apartment just like ours, eyes open, permanently still, slowly decomposing to the buzz of fruit flies. Outside his door, life went on indifferently. The inhabitants of the building went in and out, casually joking about the smell or exchanging wrinkle-nosed glances when they encountered it. I thought I started getting whiffs of it at our kitchen table where we worked but John said I was imagining it.

I remembered a story a close friend had told me. Her mother had died a few years back, very unexpectedly and fairly young. My friend was at her in-laws’ not long afterwards and her mother had come up in conversation. They were talking about her or maybe it was about the funeral, when one of the in-laws had waved her arm, furrowed her brow, and whispered knowingly “Anyway, let’s change the subject. Let’s not talk about this before we eat.” My friend had recounted this story to me in tears. She couldn’t understand how they could talk about her mother that way – how her mother had become something so vile that the thought of her would interfere with their meal.

We go through our lives trying to carry ourselves with some level of dignity – trying to maintain a level of reserve or privacy before others. It was sad to think that in the end we wound up as a not-at-the-dinner-table subject. Or maybe as a smell lurking in the halls.

It wasn’t until Thursday that something changed. We stepped out of the apartment and looked at each other, eyes narrowed. There was no smell.

In the stairwell, only the scent of the air freshener blotted the air. On the first floor, the door to the building was propped open with a wooden wedge.

“Oh yeah, very nice. Very secure,” I said.

“Look,” John said. I turned to see that the hall door to the first floor, which was tucked behind the stairs, was propped open as well. “It was coming from the first floor.”

When we came back from our walk, I wanted to see what was being aired out – if it was one of the apartments.

“Let’s just walk through the first floor and see what it was,” I said as we re-entered through the propped open door.

John looked uncomfortable but I couldn’t help it. “I’ll be quick, quick,” I said and stepped into the hallway. I speedwalked through the hall and to the end. All the apartment doors were closed. At the end of the hall, the door connecting to the back stairwell was propped open as well. This way also led to the basement where the laundry machines and water tanks were.

“Oh, it’s not any of the apartments. They’re probably airing out the basement. So, it was a water issue.”

“Maybe,” John shrugged.

On Friday morning we noticed the doors were still all propped open.

“Wow they left them open overnight?” I said.

“I wouldn’t want to be one of the people on the first floor. Open my apartment door to see a homeless guy settling into his chamber pot in the hall.”

After work that evening, we attended to some long overdue cleaning. I gathered up the garbage and went downstairs, through the still open door, to throw it out into the three allotted bins.

As I turned back towards the entrance, I noticed a small pot of flowers on the waist-level flowerbed that attached to the front of the building. They had planted some colourful flowers in the bed a few weeks ago, but then an abrupt week of winter had killed them off. It had been empty since then. There was a small piece of cardboard next to the flowerpot and I approached to read it, expecting it to say “free petunias” or some such thing. It didn’t say that. It was a piece of cardboard about the size of an envelope, folded in half crosswise. The lower half was weighed down by a rock. The upper half had the small message written in black
marker: “R.I.P. Jimmy.”