The Outing 

by Suzanne Farrell Smith

On account of the outing, they got up early. Four forty-five, a full hour before Button would wake in the same state she was in when she fell asleep the night before: crying or humming or talking to herself or groaning into her mattress. They joked about their daughter’s bookended sleeps, though they did the same. Last night he fell asleep thinking about a trip to Ireland and this morning woke thinking about windswept cliffs. Last night she fell asleep thinking about him and woke thinking about the apartment’s square footage. By five, they were both thinking about cabbage for that was the first smell of the day—the downstairs neighbor, after two weeks in the Philippines, must have come home sometime during the night and begun again with the soup. 

They fumbled, her to the kitchen for coffee and formula, him to the hallway to scoop cat poop into triple-layer odor-reducing bags. Then both to the shower, where they swapped paper masks for plastic nose plugs but still detected propane seeping through strips of towel they’d pinched around the bathroom window. She opened a new peppermint body wash. 

Button awoke moaning into her safari animal sheet. Strips of dried green mucus crusted her nose, drool drenched her striped monkey, and a wrinkle bisected her face. She had taken to sleeping face down. 

They changed her diaper, gave her a bottle, and got her dressed. Today: swimming-pool-blue onesie with a swarm of butterflies on the front, lime green ruffled skirt, and plaid blue-and-green facemask. Like all the city’s babies, Button hated the mask and yanked it from her face only to wail when it snapped back. They’d learned to knot the elastic so she couldn’t pull it very far. 

They knew what the outing would cost them. Olfaction, kept carefully dormant inside, would swell with sewer stench, subway exhaust, flowering dogwoods, fish, urine, nuts roasting, cologne, construction cement, and garbage. Always the garbage. It was as if a giant vent had closed over the city, trapping and intensifying each odor. One outing meant three days of coughing, not to mention laundry to boil. 

Despite the risk, they thought it healthy for Button to get out. Not for fresh air, for neither of them could remember the days of fresh air before the Air Department was overrun and its chief went into hiding. The occasional outings, they thought, were a healthy change for Button’s other senses. They intended to teach Button the old ways, before smell had become something you could touch and see. Good parents, they tried to plan outings on days of moderate humidity. 

The hallway wrapped them in cigar smoke and apple-scented cleaner and fresh paint and furniture polish and the puff of charred fiber from a burnt-out light bulb that very well may have burnt out a week ago. Even through their three-ply N95s, they could smell it all roiling together in a vapor bouquet. 

On the elevator, the numbers ticked down and through their masks they told each other of what they would do on the outing. The day promised the least humidity in months, so they planned a river walk. Ferries had grown popular and Button would like the horn if she could hear it through the sulfur. 

Between the fifth and fourth floors the elevator screeched, jolted, and stopped. They looked at each other. He said to wait for help, but she got jumpy and pushed the alarm button. The doorman’s voice, muffled one degree by his filter and one more by the intercom, said the elevator malfunctioned. Help would arrive shortly. 

Five minutes passed under nervous small talk. Where’s your eyes? they asked Button who pointed dutifully. Where’s your ears? Where’s your hair? Never the nose—they didn’t want to confuse her. 

The outing loomed larger and more precarious as they waited. Then Button began to cry. Her tears dampened the upper edge of her facemask. He bent to wipe them and noticed, through his own mask, something different. Not a strong smell but a faint one. Not a sickly smell, a pleasant one. It was Button, his daughter, who smelled good. Without thinking, he ripped off his mask and inhaled his daughter’s neck. 

She looked at him aghast. The mask! But he looked drunk and happy. She leaned in, tentatively, and sniffed. The scent couldn’t fill her fast enough. She slid the mask to her forehead and took a deep drag. 

They went for their daughter’s hair simultaneously, knocking their heads together over hers. They took in long trails of lavender. Fine strands got caught in their nostrils. They breathed, puffed, and sighed. She clenched her mouth and sucked in her daughter’s ears, one at a time. He nosed between stroller straps and gulped at bits of butterfly. Button giggled at her parents’ new game. 

The intercom crackled again. Sir, ma’am, we’ve got someone here to fix the problem. And four minutes after that, the elevator jerked and descended. 

They reached for their masks, subconsciously scooping air from around their daughter into the cups, then reapplied them before the elevator door slid open. The doorman stood waiting. Humidity’s going up tomorrow, he said. They smiled sadly as Button’s stroller cut a path through floor wax and refrigerant.

Suzanne Farrell Smith was named after a ballerina. She married a Smith.
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