When the recession hit, triggered by a foreign divestment in the entire country after a drunk boater careened into a high-ranking Belarusian diplomat attempting yoga on an inflatable paddleboard deep in the Muskokas, corporate restructuring was swift. Each morning, I'd peer down from my office windows to the warehouse floor of Holy Scensers Air Fresheners and count the heads, trying to resolve who had been let go the day before.
At first, it was the heavy labourers. This surprised no one. You see, the magnanimous board of trustees had voted the previous month to invest heavily into groundbreaking research in the field of animal labour. Insider sources had tipped off our owners to a group of radical behavioural psychologists who, through a lifelong process of shaping via punishment and reward, had reared litters of racoons capable of folding, packing, sealing, and stacking cardboard boxes. After double and triple checks into the municipality labour codes by the team of corporate lawyers, the plan was OK'd and the great transmutation began. Each day, different members of the roaming herds of packers, stackers, tapers, and boxers below had transformed overnight, acquiring smaller, furred forms that stumbled awkwardly about the conveyor belt connecting the warehouse to the loading bay. Within a week, only a solitary human worker remained in each position, a bizarre king chaperone. These humans would spend most of their day supervising, leaning gently against the corrugated steel walls of the warehouse, stepping in only under two circumstances. First, to hold their arms out and slowly herd the racoons into the lunch room for a meal of canned tuna and dry dogfood (the humans just got tuna). Second, to guide stray racoons back to their posts when they became distracted by a strange hum or shiny flicker coming from the industrial machinery.
The workers along the assembly line were next. Over another week, fewer and fewer people showed up to spend their day cutting out the shapes of lemons that smelled of citrus, small trees reeking of fir, ferris wheels scented of cotton candy, stacks of pancakes cloying of sugary odors, pickle slices that emitted a sophisticated briney scent, bolts odoured of rust and tinny oil, and boots that stunk of new suede. Again, this wasn't as shocking as it maybe should have been to me in my office above. The unending crawl of technological automation was a greater force than even trained racoons. New large metal boxes appeared overnight and inhabited entire swaths of the warehouse floor, rhythmically punching the shapes of air fresheners out of huge sheets of scented felt. Only a sole worker remained in the revolutionized assembly line and she wasn't even a regular on the warehouse floor. She was our IT specialist who began spending her days rushing downstairs to hover between machines, refilling material intakes and calibrating margins before rushing back upstairs, restarting computers and ordering toner.
But the layoffs would not stop at the bottom of the stairs. My neighbours in graphic design left next. The two artists had spent their years at the company creating the visually satisfying line drawings printed onto our air fresheners. On daily visits to their office, I would catch them arguing over sketches of strawberries, popsicles, acorns, skyscrapers, chewed wads of gum, hot peppers, sunglasses, flexed human limbs, pentagrams, and all the iconography for our Canada Day exclusive line (mountie, maple leaf, timbit, and beaver--it should be noted that a series of protests outside the warehouse by local PTA groups calling for basic decency prevented the manufacture of this final design). One day, they were simply gone, disappeared alongside their collection of half-filled coffee mugs, paintbrushes, pens, action figures, posters, and office chairs. However, their computers remained, upgraded to serve new functions. One computer was now equipped with a proprietary USB fob that, upon paying a monthly subscription fee, gave the computer unlimited access to a community of networked high resolution web cameras in cities, parks, countrysides, jungles, valleys, canyons, rivers, and orbiting drone satellites. Upon detecting a visual "event" that surpassed the algorithmic threshold of "beautifully stunning", the computer would collect a series of stills, which would be sent via CAT 6 ethernet cables to the other graphic design computer, sitting independent of any user. This second computer was also fitted with its own proprietary USB fob, which, upon paying a bimonthly upkeep fee, provided unlimited access to automated photo processing software. Incoming webcam captures were decomposed, sharpened, and simplified into line drawings. These drawings were automatically e-mailed to members of the Board upstairs (the only inhabitants of the third floor) for approval. Upon gaining approval, new designs travelled back downstairs as digital input guides to the automated printing machines below.
Pickings were getting slim at Holy Scensers and I started making lunchtime appearances across the hall, less to entertain smalltalk and more to briefly count each of our three accountants. But they would be spared, deemed crucial by those above to tabulate, sort, and account the expected rise in profits under a new regime of animal and machine labour.
That left me. The sole member of the Committee for Olfactory Progression, as printed in flowery lettering on the plaque embedded in my office door. I was an ideas guy, kept as a creative think tank. When you saw the viral posts on social media for a stickshift-shaped air freshener that smelled of new car, that was me. A blender-shaped air freshener that smelled of macerated spinach and raspberries? Me. The Toronto Public Library-shaped air freshener that smelled of old books and coffee, delicately peppered with the aroma of grocery carts and dirty laundry? Bingo. That hut-shaped air freshener that smelled of sepulchre with just the tiniest hint of blood created in partnership with the Jimmy Hines Pizza Shack All Toppings No Crust Foundation for a Saucier World to fund housing projects in South America? You get it. On my shoulders alone, I pivoted the company from the endless competitive drudge of producing the most relatable mint smell to forging new paths into the unforgiving world of disposable air fresheners. And still, one Monday morning I walked in to find the pink slip placed neatly on my desk, seemingly traded for my company laptop, whiteboard, and notes journals, which had all disappeared.
Beneath the pink form lay a note from Above.
"Dear Mr. Nez,
First and foremost, thank you for your loyal service here at Holy Scensers over the past 20 years. It has been an enjoyable and acceptable tenure. We are proud of you.
As you may have noticed, times are getting tough around the company. We have had to make major cuts to our labour force in order to continue producing our beloved and necessary product. I regret to inform you that you are the next cut we must make.
You may be thinking to yourself, "Sure, you can replace labourers with well trained urban fauna and machines. You can even replace artists with smart and affordable proprietary software. But surely you can't replace the crucible of creativity, the very source of ideas, here at Holy Scensers. Well do not worry, for we have solved this problem as well (Hooray)! Starting this afternoon, we will begin using complicated cloud-based processing matrices on the internet, provided for a minimal charge by a large conglomerate of social media firms including Guestbook, Gabber, TLK TLK, and SpyPics, to brainstorm new ideas anew. Exciting state-of-the-art neural net machine learning systems, broadly collected under the acronym TENDER (Trend Extraction Network Driven Electronic Reading), will track and collect major posting trend topics from users like you online. This trend term will then act as a hub for a neural network, which, in turn, will collate related terms that achieve a similar positive emotional scoring as derived from user search engine patterns. By pairing connected terms in this network, we will generate endless lists of bold, new air freshener scent ideas with guaranteed appeal and timeliness in this fast fashion world. For your interest, I have run a brief simulation so that you could see how our new creative process will work. Here are some of the top hits for August X5, XXX4, XX:55 XM XST:
As you can see, our revolutionary approach to scent design will produce exciting, novel, and sociopolitical challenges to the industrial scent landscape for years to come. I hope this brief demonstration has put your fears about the future of the company at ease.
Please remove all of your belongings by noon today or security will be hailed. We love you.
Smell ya later!
Kirk P. U. Johnson, Esq.
Founder, owner, human, C.E.O.
Holy Scensers Air Fresheners"
I stared momentarily at the generous spacing after "Smell ya later!", where I suspected Mr. Johnson had forgotten to provide his signature. After collecting my belongings in a neat pile on my otherwise bare desk, I wandered downstairs and sheepishly caught the attention of one of the racoon wranglers to request a cardboard box to carry my things. I was provided a tall, thin cardboard cylinder fresh off the line (we were currently using them to package stacks of air fresheners printed with the shape of Hawaii and smelling strongly of pineapple and faintly of burnt glass). Whereas my mug and employee trophies slid down neatly to the bottom of the tube, my leftover mail, plastic model of the human nose, and framed pictures of my parents had to be brutally folded, disassembled, and snapped, respectively, to fit into the cardboard vehicle. On my way out of the warehouse for the last time, the racoon wrangler mentioned that the charge for the tube would be extracted from my severance cheque, which I could expect to arrive in the next 6-8 weeks.
I knew from the second I had left the warehouse that finding new work would be hard. I had not even finished high school when I entered and won the Southwestern Ontario Divisional Smelling Bee, which I later learned to be a secretive corporate front for hiring expert noses into the olfactory industry. Holy Scensers had hand-picked me from a small pool of provincial sniffers and, via a series of vaguely threatening payments and phone calls to both me and my loved ones, had convinced me to drop out and join the company. I started out as the sole smell tester, a position Holy Scensers had invented to combat litigation stemming from a string of civil suits purporting bodily harm that arose soon after the release of their Mount St. Helens freshener that smelled intensely of vulcanized rubber. I spent the following three years at first jamming air fresheners under my nose and later, after appropriate WHMIS training into the long term dangers of industrial chemicals, delicately wafting scents off the fresheners towards my nose. The day I suggested that our Evergreen scent was far too strong, but would work if balanced with a delicate whiff of underarm sweat (and the subsequent commercial success this smell combination reaped) catapulted me upstairs into the office I had now left behind.
I had become too old to compete in the smelling circuits, dominated by youths with fresh epithelium lining the insides of their noses, unscathed by the damaging vapours of castoreum and other animal expulsions delicately combined by chemists somewhere offshore and layered on stiff felt. Sitting on the worn couch in my underwear, ignoring both the mindless programming on the television and the subtle fuzzy burning smell emanating from behind it, I decided to give up.
As if on cue, my nostrils flared in response to the sharp smell of used grease slowly filling the air around me. I got up and searched first calmly, then rabidly, about the living room and attached kitchen but the smell weakened in this direction. I paused and closed my eyes, slowly rotating my face about the small one-bedroom floor plan, shuffling in the direction of the grease smell and stopping periodically to scan back and forth, course correcting as appropriate. The smell became sharper and sharper until I bumped into the wall crudely, startling backwards and opening my eyes. The odor's origin appeared to come from somewhere behind the wall-mounted telephone. Suddenly, ringing.
Lifting the receiver nervously, I had yet to speak a, "hello" when a strangely low voice on the other side immediately insisted her familiarity with my work and excitement that I had recently been freed to explore novel employment opportunities. I sat and listened, trying to ignore the blossoming smell of grease, which became marked with elements of silk and dying flowers. She insisted my strange talents compounded with years of industry experience made me an ideal candidate for her venture. When I asked what this new job would entail, she instead answered with a base salary and enumerated a list of incredibly generous health benefits, which seemed to focus heavily on a prophylactic plan of vaccinations and regular check ups. My subsequent attempts to extract information regarding the nature of the work itself were met with descriptions of additional benefits, including room, meals, elaborate haircare, and green space. The insistent dodging of my question slowly eroded my willingness to repeat its asking. And in light of my limited current options for employment, I admitted it didn't matter. I asked when I could start.
"First, you'll have to prove yourself. But, if you are half the nose that has been described to me, you should have no problems doing so."
Following this ominous caveat, I was given instructions to arrive (alone) at a field of children's soccer fields later that evening. Without a goodbye, a click and dial tone.
I struggled up out of the driver seat and into the gravel lot bordering the nearest soccer field. Under the surreal white brightness of floodlights, the entire field, from corner to corner, had been excavated and turned over, a deep tilling pushing the thin grass underground to bring up uneven damp clods of dark earth. In the middle of the mess, a woman wearing hip waders caked in handfuls of mud with a light grey pantsuit beneath, stood leaning on the top of a shovel, its tip dug into the fresh dirt. I marched to her slowly, generous inches of wet muck coating my dress shoes and the bottoms of my work pants with each step. As I trudged forward on the field, I noticed that the thick stench of mud was sporadically punctuated by transient smells of dead skunk and farts. I swiveled my gaze around as I proceeded, but the entire park remained empty save for the waiting woman in centre field.
Reaching the middle of the pitch, I bent forward, hands propped on the tops of my knees, catching my breath and raising my reddened face to the figure waiting. She thanked me for coming and for entertaining her next request. Handing me the shovel, which I greedily snatched with two hands to use as a crutch, she told me that 5 tanks of propane were buried among the field somewhere between 2-5 feet deep with their valves set in varying states of openness. If I could dig all 5 of them out before sunrise, I would have the job. She began, "And if you don't--"
and here I interrupted her, explaining that I understood, if I couldn't unearth the tanks before sunrise I wouldn't get the job.
She corrected me, telling me I would be joining the tanks if I could not dig them out in time. I laughed lightly as she stared back at me and then I laughed nervously as she hobbled across the mud of the field back to the parking lot and then I'm pretty sure I had stopped laughing when she got in my car and drove away.
Thinking back on that night, I realize now that I never once felt the hostage. I never considered running off or contacting the authorities. I was too busy excitedly bounding towards the closest, and what I thought was far too obvious, stink of rotten eggs. As I removed the first foot of dirt, I could even hear the audible hissing of the canister, which I tugged out from its position just another foot deeper before closing its valve and tossing it aside. It hadn't even been an hour yet.
By 3AM, I had unearthed and sealed four of the tanks but the remaining fifth had eluded me. I wormed about the mud, army-crawling from spot to spot and pausing to pass my nose over the small holes and gaps between clods of dirt, inhaling feverishly. Feeling light-headed after hours of forceful sniffing, I straightened up and sat among the muck. In the weak moonlight, I surveyed my body, which had accumulated so much soil that I could not identify where my sleeves ended and gave way to the underlying arms. If I unfocused my gaze sufficiently, I could even see a fuzzy dirt border around my visual fields. I heaved my chest up, stretching my back and lifting my nose to relish in the lessened smell of soil and worms and errant pennies and nickels and dampness. In hopes of further distancing myself from these odours that had dominated my palate for the last 5 hours, I rose to my feet and inhaled the cool air. I tried to let the crisp smell of night clean out my nose, but I pinpointed a strange contamination floating somewhere above. Seeking leverage, I rose to my toes and noticed the strengthening of the gassy implacable odour. Scrunching my nose to keep my nostrils flared I tottered around on tiptoes, clumsily dragging my shoes through dirt as I homed in on the strange, new smell. By 3:30AM, I stood at the base of the floodlight, looking up to the fifth and final propane tank duct taped around the supportive post barely 4 feet above my head. I unathletically spent the next 20 minutes shuffling up the post and pulling and ripping at the tank until it uneventfully tumbled to the field below leaving much of its duct tape behind. Hugging the metal post tightly, I looked down at the fallen tank, unable to shake the bizarre scent it leaked. I suspected the propane had expired.
Seemingly in the same second I twisted the barely opened tap on the final propane tank closed, I heard the hum of an engine approaching. Looking up, I watched a sleek, impeccable black SUV ease into the parking lot and the familiar woman, now freshly washed and wearing a new pantsuit without overlying hip waders, hop out and approach me. She introduced herself as Patricia and told me I got the job. I was instructed to strip before being liberally sprayed with the hose attached to the nearby soccer clubhouse and, bundled in a new fleece blanket, huddled into the backseat of the vehicle. Above the ground, I would never be heard from again.
Over the course of 5 days filled with endless signatures, debriefing talks, HR sessions, vaccination injections and inhalants, a haircut, introductory geology lectures, WHMIS training (apparently my prior certification had expired), and PPE fittings, I was quickly welcomed as the new nose of The DeFumes Company's Ontario Underground Division (OUD). Though the name DeFumes rung as unfamiliar to me, I learned that several of their subsidiaries were incredibly commonplace, appearing regularly in the top halves of lists ranking Canada's largest suppliers of propane, butane, and natural gas.
My guide and handler throughout my orientation at DeFumes was the same woman who had called to first recruit me to and later test me on the overturned soccer pitch. Despite seeing her daily, I soon realized that she never introduced herself using the same name for more than a day. Today, on the final day of orientation, Allison, once Barbara, Tara, Shelley, Hogen (sp?), and Patricia, sat me down in an empty, dark conference room and ran through a hastily prepared PowerPoint presentation titled, "Why me?" and subtitled, "And by me, I mean you, Mr. Nez."
Gleaning from poorly worded bullet points (which she read loyally verbatim), artefacted and discoloured images of the olfactory system, illegible scans of faxed and heavily redacted memos, and corporate action plans, I was to learn about why I specifically was headhunted (nosehunted?) to play a pivotal role in the continued success of DeFumes Subterranean Privatized Olfactory Tracker (SPOT) National Project. For years, if not tens or even hundreds of years, I learned that the general public had been lied to about natural gas. Pub trivia tomes, textbooks, and fathers had forever passed on the lie that natural gas was odourless. Those knowledgeable in the industry of locating natural gas had consolidated this lie by publicly adding a sulfurous smelling compound to all packaged and sold natural gas products. I was now to consider the inclusion of this aromatic additive as a concerted effort to redefine the sensory schema of a highly valuable resource in the minds of both public and private competitors. Accepting this senselessness, other companies would invest heavily in inappropriate technologies such as geology and computer imaging to map the underworld, relying on probabilistic modeling to uncover potential pockets of petroleum products and gas.
The truth was that natural gas had an odour, but nearly no one could smell it. As-yet-still-classified human experimentation documentation from the transient and highly secretive Sears Nose Lab, housed in a series of underground laboratory spaces conspicuously absent from the floorplans of the Masonville Mall in London, Ontario, document the experimental methodologies required to produce what the papers refer to as a "sniffer", a human being capable of detecting natural gas. First of all, you must start with a child who already demonstrates profound olfactory capabilities. The Southwestern Ontario Divisional Smelling Bee. Then, through decades of acute but repeated exposures to industrial volatiles, you must peel back almost all layers of the nasal epithelium. My 20 years working at Holy Scensers. Finally, you have achieved the perfect combination of innate and acquired experiences to produce a nose in which the deeply buried RING (Regularly Inert Natural Gas) olfactory receptors lay exposed in the nasal mucosa. So what is the smell of natural gas, you may ask? It's almost impossible to explain, but subjects consistently reported something akin to expired propane. I raised my hand.
"What about using trained animals as detectors? I was under the impression that many species exhibit senses of smell far surpassing the capacities of humans."
Allison chuckled and lauded my insight before explaining that Animal Care Committees for Experimental Research across Canada had unanimously agreed that such chemical treatments to research animals would be highly unethical. I think I chuckled too.
And finally, an awkwardly blown up image of my face stolen from the Holy Scensers website graced the screen. I learned that I had been hired to lead a team of drillers on the endless search for natural gas below the Earth's surface. I would spend the workday helping guide the expansion and construction of new tunnels in what I learned was a large and complicated system that perforated much of the ground below rural Southwestern Ontario. Dumbfounded by the entire surrealness of my situation, I let Allison guide me by hand out of the room on a final facilities tour.
I was first brought to what would be my lodging for my tenure at DeFumes. A sleek metal, rounded edged cabin furnished with a writing desk built beneath a loft bed, an attached bathroom, a grey leather couch, a flatscreen wall-mounted television and, in contrast with the futuristic style of these pieces, a couple ratty cushioned chairs, filled bookcases, writing materials, stacks of clothing, and mugs adorned with what I deemed funny captions, all of which I recognized as having been moved from my old apartment to this new one.
Food was also a benefit of the job, though I use the word "benefit" here liberally. While on-base I would report to the cafeteria to be assigned my meals. Upon entering the shiny, metal mess hall, bustling with other workers murmuring and laughing over impressively loaded plates, my nose bathed in the smells of rich pasta sauces, deliciously funky seafood, freshly baked bread, and the sugar dessert buffet. My mouth watered and my eyes glazed over before Allison shook me back down to Earth (well, slightly below Earth). She held out a swimmer's noseplug. As I stood blinking at the apparatus, she ran out of patience and raised it to my face, snapping it closed over the bridge of my nose. As the smells rapidly disappeared and my voice took on an annoying twang, Allison expounded on the importance of protecting my company asset. "But I'm not a monster", she insisted, "You only have to wear it in the cafeteria."
She further explained that my limitations in the mess hall extended beyond the wonderful aromas. Because my nose had already been stripped almost bare by my countless sniffs and snorts at Holy Scensers, any unnecessary gustatory interference would compromise my capacity to fulfill my duty at DeFumes. Allison handed me a metal bowl and directed me towards what looked to be a gigantic cappuccino maker. Placing the bowl in the metal wire slot below, I heard a series of beeps before the screen above read, "Hello, Mr. Nez. Please enjoy your lunch. We love you." followed by the rattled tinny sound of two cups of dry, brown nuggets dropping out to fill my dish. I sheepishly removed the bowl of strange, hard pebbles and looked up to Allison for answers. She responded that this food would fulfill all of my nutritional requirements and then some. The "kibble", as it was affectionately called by people who didn't have to eat it, was a job-specific delicacy and contained several off-market supplements that would allow me to sleep less but remain alert, which Allison suggested would let me work longer days and then she did the gesture where you rub your fingers together that means money. The kibble was difficult to chew, but I learned it could be softened with a light sprinkling of water. In true fashion of risking no "gustatory interference", it tasted of absolutely nothing, though I couldn't tell if this was a trait inherent in the food or a product of my blocked nostrils. Whereas a deep sadness welled up in me as I munched, I managed to suppress it with a greater sense of importance, that my role at the company was so pivotal as to require extensive dietary care.
Allison then showed me other locations about the underground complex including a communal library, a movie theatre, and bowling alleys. My nose unclipped, I breathed in deeply, but none of these areas smelled like much of anything. The only strangeness that stood out to me along the last leg of my tour was in our final destination, the gym. As we walked through standard sets of weight racks and lifting machines, inflatable exercise balls, ellipticals, and skip ropes, Allison held out her hand and presented "the running surface". In lieu of a rubberized track or path, the gym contained a gigantic enclosed field of fake lime green grass. The few employees loose on the surface appeared to be randomly darting off among one another. It almost appeared as if the grown men were playing tag.
Ending the tour for the day, Allison left me to my room and mentioned she would return bright and early at 4:00AM the next morning to usher me to my first dig. I spent the next 5 hours struggling to pen a coherent 15 page letter to my parents to alert them to my wildly new situation. I stuffed the heavy stack of lined paper into an envelope, leaving the return address as simply my name, as instructed in my orientation, and adding 2 stamps and then 2 more stamps after eyeing the bulging mass of paper. I dropped the letter into a large, labelled mailslot just outside of the mess hall that I had noticed during my tour. I leaned in closely to listen for the falling letter to land atop a mass of other communications, but I could only hear the distancing flitter of envelope colliding against metal walls until it faded out of range. I snapped on my noseplug, ate my dinner kibble, and returned to my room obediently, falling asleep by 8:00PM in preparation for the early rise.
When Deb came to my door the next morning, I had already risen, washed, eaten breakfast in the near empty mess hall, and returned to my room, where I sat anxiously pretending to read the newest edition of Holy Scensers smells catalog, supplied to my room to fulfill "basic emotional requirements", I'm told. In the week since I had been gone, Holy Scensers had completely revamped their product lines using an almost completely humanless process. Over and over, I read the small computer-generated description for a pink freshener cut to look like an out-of-shape shirtless man that apparently smelled of fresh cut grass and peroxide when I was interrupted by a rapping at the door.
Deb led me down a new hallway into the third in a series of clunky old industrial elevators. At first, the elevator sunk downward, but after a couple rattling stops and starts, my internal senses of movement could no longer tell what direction we were going. Throughout the ride, the smell of metal and grease grew, though never to an overpowering degree. Disembarking deep underground, our surroundings now lit with dingy strings of hanging yellowed lights, we piled into the back of a military style truck alongside a pile of filthy full-body mining suits. Only when the truck stopped and the suits all rose to their feet did I realize that each contained a human being. Jumping out of the flatbed onto the dirt floor of the dank, dark tunnel, Deb introduced me to the Drill Lead. I panicked internally because the Drill Lead appeared as just another filthy mining suit, identical to those I had ridden down the tunnel with, haunted by the spirit of a human somewhere inside. The Drill Lead welcomed me to the team with a muffled almost incomprehensible voice, clapping a dirty hand on my back and pushing me towards an outfitting station. While Deb climbed into her own identical mining suit, immediately blending into the pack of Drill Leads, I would not be so fortunate. I learned that, although protective, such a full-body suit would predictably put too many layers between my nose and the natural gas deposits hiding somewhere beyond the tunnel's rock walls.
Instead, I was given a brand new forest green bodysuit, similar to those worn by everyone else at the dig site, I assumed, if you could've chiseled away the layers of caked dirt stuck to them. In lieu of the large cylindrical headpiece worn by all the Drill Leads, complete with reflective faceshield (which acted as a one-way mirror from the inside out, as to not impede the wearer's view), I was given a bright orange construction helmet, heavy duty earmuffs to stanch the sounds of drilling, and protective goggles of cheap, green-tinted, transparent plastic. Whereas all of the other pieces of protective equipment appeared fresh and new, the goggles had been so severely scuffed as to limit my view to no more than 4 feet in any direction.
Finally, the Drill Lead reapproached. They dangled a dainty pink flea collar, not unlike those lining the shelves at Petsmart, to my face. I grimaced and contested this last, humiliating piece of PPE, ensuring they understood how asinine the request appeared. I was warned that, this deep in the earth, cave mites are a serious medical threat, particularly to workers who drill with exposed skin. Furthermore, the DeFumes R&D department had found a cheap and ethical solution in flea collars, which seemed to work at least to some degree on largely understudied, subterranean species.
I sighed audibly and turned my back to the Drill Lead, giving them access to my nape. I blushed deeply in front of all the watching workers and heard the plastic click of the cheap buckle snapping closed behind my neck and the gentle ringing of the small metal bell attached to the front of the collar. I saw their forms jiggling lightly in muffled laughter.
As workers climbed into their various excavation machines behind me, many of which were outfitted with gigantic conical noses exactly like what rich villains in superhero cartoons have conditioned you to think of, the Drill Lead (I assumed the original Drill Lead, but I admit that I had lost track of individual mining suits since arriving) remained outside, unravelling a strong braided cable from a winch attached to the front of the lead excavator. On the end of the cable, a tangle of industrial straps and buckles that were loosened and unfastened then tightened and refastened around my core. I was informed this harness was the final, and most critical, equipment to ensure my safety and "could...I mean would" be used to quickly pull me from danger in case of a localized cave collapse or overwhelming natural gas leak. I shuddered at the thought while watching the Drill Lead walk back and climb into the elevated cockpit of the excavator on the other end of the cable now attached to me.
And so my job began. We worked in cycles that began with my sniffing inspection of the freshly drilled rockfaces in all directions. I would hobble and struggle forward, awkwardly trying to match my pace to the rate at which the taut cable was being unfurled from the winch behind me. I tripped and shuffled and kicked the dirt as I leaned forward, my body never able to shake the desire to step slightly farther than the harness and tether permitted. Once the cable had been fully extended, I would float along the different cavern walls until I caught it, the unspeakable smell of expired propane that instantly transported me back to the upturned soccer field on that dark night. I spray-painted huge X's on the rock face where I detected the smell to be greatest. Tilting my chin down, I pressed the large button on the dirty yellow walkie talkie strapped to the harness, clearing my throat, sighing, and muttering the codephrase, "Nez knows". Immediately, giggling on the other end of the line before the rumbling of the winch started up as I stumbled backwards, managing to remain on my feet for half of the reeling journey back before catching my heel on a rock and being dragged the remainder of the distance. Once unharnessed, I stood and walked upstream into the tunnel to make way for the incoming machinery and subsequent excavation. Each cycle would include an advance of 20 m of digging and we could complete three full rotations in the morning. I had just sniffed out the next heading for the fourth dig when a bell chimed and the idling excavators behind me suddenly silenced. Suited riders hopped out of their driver's seats to walk back up the tunnel to the outfitting station, which was also furnished with a fridge, microwave, and group of picnic tables. Following suit, I began to head upstream, running to catch up to the rest of the workers before the slackened cable grew tense with my sprint and mercilessly tugged me to the floor. The animalistic sounds wrenched out of my chest by the unforgiving system of buckles and straps caught the attention of the last couple workers, who turned to laugh and watch me fumble about, pulling and squirming under the harness helplessly. A merciful worker finally jogged back, undoing the central clip of the harness, which I learned was located just above the low of my back, out of reach.
The visual hegemony of the miners was finally broken at lunchtime, when gloves and helmets were pried off to reveal a variety of smiling and laughing faces taking seats and unpacking lunch bags on the picnic tables. Deb waved me over to a seat beside her and giggled gently while teasing me about getting stuck in my harness. I nervously returned the laugh and thanked her for helping me get out of the harness. She disregarded my thanks and quickly changed the topic to lunch, presenting me with a labelled lunch bag she informed me would be available daily from the fridge of the outfitting station. Already embarrassed today by my flea collar and harness, I gently tipped the bag toward the bowl before shaking it lightly, hoping to minimize the noise of kibble clanging on metal, which might draw more teasing from my colleagues who I jealously watched sink their own teeth into sandwiches, salads, pastas, and steaks. But instead of two cups of dry, brown bits, a swimmer's noseplug and a single, solid bar slid out. Deb laughed and explained that it was much easier to package kibble into singular bars for the purposes of travel. I couldn't tell if the single crunchy brown bar was an improvement from the two scoops I would eat back in the mess hall. When Deb elaborated that workers liked to call this a "treat bar", I decided it was not better. She patted my head twice in jest as I snapped the plug over the bridge of my nose and cautiously bit in, feeling all the moisture in my body immediately absorbed by the dry, brittle substance.
Following lunch, we managed to cycle through 5 more digs before calling it quits, returning to civilian clothing and riding the series trucks, elevators, and lifts closer to, but still under, the surface. When I stumbled into the mess hall, I noticed the clock read 11:00PM. I couldn't believe how great I still felt, it seemedthat whatever supplements were added to my breakfast and lunch had greatly extended my capacity for work. I choked down my dinner and headed back to my room, a reassuring sense of a new routine lulling me to sleep.
Work continued. Everyday was replete with loud excavators taking me 20 m closer and closer to the smell of natural gas, which I assured my Drill Team was growing in intensity--we were well on the trail to a new deposit. Despite the embarrassing safety garb, I relished in having a physically demanding job trudging about the tunnels all day, which, in conjunction with sleep aid supplements spiking my dinner kibble, ensured I had a full, refreshing sleep each night in my underground cabin. Waking up happy every morning, it took me two weeks to realize we were working right through the weekends, merciless to the calendar respected by office workers above the surface. I opted not to bring it up to Samantha, as the need for any additional rest during the week felt superfluous.
The repetitive patterns of digging and sniffing remained largely consistent for the first three weeks. Only the uncovering of delicate veins of translucent quartz or the odd skeleton broke the monotony of the day. On the 21st day of digging, however, as I was scouring the rockface for the smell of natural gas, my ears, a sensory organ for which I was not known for, perked to a strange rumbling coming from the tunnel's left wall so deeply that it reverberated beneath my heavy earmuffs. I hobbled over and carefully lifted one of the earcups, the vibrations instantly amplified to almost violent levels before I cringed and returned the cup back over my ear. I leaned down into the walkie-talkie, "There's a loud rumbling coming from the left face of the tunn-" but my transmission was interrupted by the startling crack of rock that broke in the wall in front of me. Suddenly, a strong pull as the winch kicked in, launching me backwards onto my ass and dragging me the entire way back to the excavator. As I was being pulled back, I caught just a glimpse of a giant drill bit puncturing through the side wall into our tunnel before I disappeared, drug around the corner back to my team.
I struggled to my feet, waving madly to the Drill Lead as they hopped down from their excavator's driver seat, "Someone is digging into our tunnel". Though incredibly muffled by the plastic faceshield, I could make out the sounds of nearly every curse word I knew reverberating around in the Drill Lead's helmet. As miners piled out of their machines onto the cave floor, learning of our tunnel's interception by another drill team, the Drill Lead graciously unclipped my harness and waved for me and the rest of the miners to follow them to the tunnel face.
It was a showdown. Another crew of drillers, homogenous in their bright yellow mining suits (which struck a stark contrast to the thoughtful forest green of our suits) stood waiting for our approach at the juncture. Beside their leader, sat a conceptually familiar team member lacking a faceshield and, instead, wearing a bright red helmet and industrial earmuffs who viciously ogled me from behind the scuffed lenses of his plastic goggles. I looked to my Drill Lead, who sensed my gaze and muttered, "...it's L'Odours, our greatest competitor". Looking back to the enemy drill team, I saw their own sniffer step forward into the empty space between us. My Drill Lead clapped a hand on my back, pausing before they shoved me gently forward, whispering, "Show them who dug this tunnel."
I glanced back to the rest of my team, who all nodded in respectful silence. The sudden shock of camaraderie lit a flame inside my chest as I huffed loudly and nodded back knowingly to them all. Dropping my earmuffs to my neck, I approached the figure waiting for me in no man's land.
Three feet away from the opposing figure, I froze, unfamiliar with what to do next. Suddenly, the other sniffer took a sideways step to the left, which I instinctually matched, and step by step we began to circle one another. He sneered menacingly, his teeth exposed, each piece of enamel framed with the dirt and grit of digging. Having now circled to my opponent's original position, I looked beyond the sniffer back to my Drill Team and, reignited by the reminder of their support, I bravely stepped into the circle between us. This time, the other sniffer matched me, step for step until we stood nose to nose. I inhaled deeply, sizing up my enemy with the sense for which I was prized at DeFumes. My lean toward his right shoulder in hopes of getting a closer sniff was matched by his own movements, and again we started to circle, this time much closer, trying to capture the odours emanating from one another. I detected a penetrating body odour. Wet dirt. Dryer sheets. And grease. Most importantly, I did not detect even a faint whiff of natural gas. I grinned and laughed, for unlike his lacking bouquet, my weeks of chasing the scent underground had literally rubbed off on me in the form a constant faint stink of expired propane all over my person. I stopped and puffed my chest out, inviting the other to detect it for himself. He leaned in and, with a deep inhale, shuddered. He took a step back from me, his posture curdling into a sheepish cower. Looking back again to my Drill Team, I did not waste a second in consolidating my dominance. I stepped forward and, for the first time in my life, connected fist to skull, collapsing the sniffer with a single shot to the jaw. He panicked, struggling to all fours and crawling past me back to his own drill team. His fear contagious, the rest of the miners adopted a cower as they slowly backed away before turning and running back to their machines. My Drill Lead laughed loudly, signalling the members of my Drill Team to come rushing, delivering hugs and headpats in celebration. High on my own success, I marched alongside the team back to their machines and watched from a safe distance as they drilled low into the walls of the merging tunnel, triggering the collapse of its intercepting entrance into our path to the deposit.
Word of my victory spread throughout DeFumes. In the mess hall, workers approached and congratulated me with smiles and handshakes. I received commendations from higher ups in the form of letters stacked neatly on my desk upon returning from work. In the tunnels, the gentle ringing of the bell strapped to the front of my flea collar ceased to be sound that was mocked and was instead now eagerly anticipated, an auditory red carpet unrolled along the tunnel floor to usher in royalty. And best of all, everyday this week, the smell of natural gas seeping from between rocks was growing stronger and stronger. We were close.
I had continued to update my Drill Lead, who grew excited with the prospect of completing a dig, which he explained would be met with tremendous salary bonuses and extended vacation. As the smell of expired propane between excavations stunk even stronger, I was briefed on new protocols for the tail end of a dig project. Although I had learned that the odourlessness of natural gas was a lie, I was reminded that its lethality was still a reality. Accordingly, during sniff tests, as the winch would be slowly unwound, I was to remain in constant radio contact with the Drill Lead. Should the natural gas flow into the tunnel become incapacitating, I would cease to be able to maintain radio chatter and my silence would be met with my forceful retrieval by the winch. At that point, our Drill Team would have accomplished its goal and a PAckaging Natural Gas (PANG) Team would take over the tunnel to capture and transport the resource. I swallowed audibly at the possibility of passing out deep alone in the tunnel, but was reassured when I remembered the impossibly sturdy and safe harness strapped to my frame, with its only release safely out of my reach.
A new problem soon arose. Perhaps one that you, the reader, can relate to. Maybe you've had to troubleshoot a problem with your phone or were setting up a microphone or you played that game at summer camp where you see how far you can run while maintaining a yell. Your instructions are always clear: talk, keep talking. But what do you say? Maybe you describe the things around you in the room? Dark cave walls dripping with spring water, uneven chipped rock along the ground. Maybe you talk about your own life? I was born in Lucknow, Ontario, in 1992 with an incredible sense of smell that dictated most if not all of the major decisions I would be forced to make in life. Maybe you would recite lists of things you knew well? Colours? Red, Orange, Yellow, Blue, Indigo, Indigo's a colour right? Months? January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, October's my favourite you know, I am a huge fan of Halloween. The First generation of Pokemon? Bulbasaur, Squirtle, Charmander, Chansey, Hitmonlee, Caterpie, Butterfree, almost forgot Metapod. Perhaps you would elaborate on some deeply held belief you have never vocalized? I sometimes worry that a lot of my life was planned by someone other than me, with its bizarre turns and successes that won't make sense to anyone, I couldn't even write a book about it because no one would take it seriously.
Well, I tried all of that. Exhausted those options and more. And still my walkie talkie speaker chirped, "Keep talking" as I wandered along the cavern walls reeking of expired propane.
So I sought to abandon English altogether. I started singing in entirely made up words and then, after tiring of that, humming loudly into the small perforated microphone held to my collarbone. I tried to repeatedly clear my throat and force coughs, but the Drill Lead kept asking me if I was okay, which I was, I was just running out of vocalizations to use. I tried clapping but I often needed my hands to maintain my balance when I bumped into unseen rocks on the cave floor. Then, through some bizarre guttural impulse, I tried barking. Though I felt insane, a quick yip was easy on the throat, mindlessly repeatable and, on the other end of the walkie talkies, "came in loud and clear".
With the Drill Lead's approval, I tugged on my metal leash while advancing deep into the ends of dark tunnels, the gentle ringing disappearing along with me into the shadows. The Drill Lead radioed in that he had lost visual contact, which was my cue. I began woofing and arfing and yelping, the sounds strangely bouncing around the walls of the lightless tunnel. The smell of expired propane was already growing unbearable, yet I had not even come close to the tunnel wall. I alternated between howling and yipping and sniffing deeply. I started noticing new complexities of the natural gas' odour, which I assumed could only be revealed in its extreme intensity. At first, a sudden stab of a strong tinny smell, that slowly relaxed into the aromatic background, being overtaken with the sterile smell of disinfectants and bodily fluids. Yip yip. The gentle smell of a trickling stream that cut through the woods just beyond our backyard in the house I was raised in. Bark bark. The grotesque funk of the rotting rabbit carcass my sister found in the gutter by the school bus stop. Woof woof. The buried hints of kefir lime laced onto test papers detected by me alone in the Southwestern Divisional Smelling Bee. Arf arf. The smell of imitation laminate printed to look like woodgrain that covered the surface of my desk at Holy Scensers. Bow wow. The countless smells of mass manufactured air fresheners that passed through my purview in a 20 year tenure. Yap yap. And then, nothing. For the first time in my life, my sense of smell suddenly fell senseless. I felt my heart pound violently. Had I lost it? I panicked, clearing my throat loudly and remembering the walkie talkie strapped to my chest. Howl. I sniffed violently, waving my head around but caught nothing, not even the permeating damp mould smell that I found constant in the prior month. Ruff ruff. Had the delicate lining of my nose finally been stripped clean? Aroooooo. What would DeFumes do with me if they found out? A harsh bark ripped through my throat, which surprised me for I hadn't commanded my body to release it. As my olfactory system shut down, my visual system soon followed suit and what few edges of rock caught the light disappeared from me entirely. Another bark spasmed through my torso. I ceased to notice the constant weight of the harness, suit, and helmet on my body. I certainly didn't notice the rock I tripped over and collapsed onto, its hard surface pushing into my gut and forcing an absurd growl out of my throat and into the waiting microphone.
By the time the barking stopped, I wonder if I still could have been saved. In retrospect, it didn't matter for when the winch started up, pulling my body back up and then over, this time backwards, the release button of my harness fell directly onto a rock below, freeing me from its restraint. I wonder what the Drill Lead said when they saw the empty harness on the end of the cable dragged from the darkness of the cave. I should have been able to hear them through the walkie talkie, but my sense of hearing, too, had long gone.
When the higher ups decided that my body would remain deep underground, they consulted their underground maps, depicting tiny explosions of subterranean tunnels reaching out in all directions deep underground. They would have a lot of holes to choose from.