Ascent


by Lee Marc Stein

Holding his breath, Carl Yates waited in the little park adjacent to the new museum. Holding his breath because he had forgotten to brush his teeth, because there were pigeons near him and he was afraid they'd fly up at him, because he really wanted this job.

He hadn't worked in six months. It wasn't the loss of income that was eating away at him. They had given him a generous severance, and his wife was a successful portfolio manager. Carl missed the human contact, the satisfaction of being productive. For months after he was fired, he had applied for numerous marketing management positions but knew his age was working against him (though he had just turned 60). He wasn't a gym rat, city walker, or one of those who could spend his afternoons in the movies, and there was only so much reading he could do.

At 9:00, he rose from the park bench, threw his newspaper into the recycle bin near the park's exit, and walked to the side entrance of the museum. It looked like a beaten-upancient warehouse to him, and if he hadn't seen a huge "The Ol-Factory – Opening Soon" sign on the front of the building he would have thought he had the wrong address.

He wrapped on the door a few times before a young man opened it.

"Can I help you?" he asked.

"Yes, thanks. Good morning, I'm Carl Yates. I have an appointment with Mr. Barth."

"I don't know anything about that, but I can take you to him."

"Thanks," Carl said. "And you are…"

The young man looked confused, then finally caught on. "Oh, no, I don't work for the museum. My firm sent me here to work on the HVAC system."

In two minutes, they had walked upstairs and were at the door of Donald Barth's office.

Barth stood and extended his hand.

"Carl?  Come on in and have a seat. Thanks for being on time."

Carl smiled. It was one of his five principles of succeeding in business.

"So Carl, what do you know about us?"

"Well, I saw your help-wanted ad posted on the bulletin board in the basement of our co-op building and then I Googled the museum. It's the first museum dedicated to all the human experiences of smell. There was a Center of Olfactory Art that opened a few years ago, but that was limited to perfumes. The centerpiece exhibit of your museum will be the authorized replica of Cloaca Professional, licensed on an exclusive basis directly from the artist."

"Very impressive, Carl.Maybe too impressive. You're not looking to steal my chair, are you?  You seem over-qualified to be a guard or even a docent in this kind of museum. What was it you did before?"

Carl bit his cheek. He was starting to sweat already and hoped the smell wouldn't waft over to his interviewer's side of the desk.

"For the last five years, I was Vice President of Marketing for a direct-to-consumer seller of flowers and plants. We built a database of some 5 million buyers and would market to the base as well as through mass media and online."

"What happened?  Did you leave voluntarily or did they fire you?"

"I thought there was something fishy going on between my boss and the advertising agency. You know, some kind of payoff. I went to top management with it, my boss heard about it, and they fired me. I didn't put up a big stink about it because I really wanted out of there anyway.Too many instances of dead flowers being delivered."

"Vice President Marketing for such a big firm? Again, Carl, you're over-qualified. What satisfaction can a job like this bring you?"

He was prepared for this. He had actually plotted decision trees for the interview.

"Can I get to that in a minute, Mr. Barth? Let me just tell you first why I'm the smartest hire you'll make. I can do it in just four words.

He could see his interviewer thinking this from a guy applying for a $400/week museum guard job.

Carl stood up and put up four fingers and counted down each word as he said it: "I CAN'T SMELL ANYTHING!"

As he sat down again, he explained. "I haven't had a sense of smell since I was two. It was congenitally weak when I was born and then ether knocked the rest out during an operation. Look, the Cloaca itself, the 'pooh machine' as it's called, will have such a powerful smell even visitors may not be able to take it. Then you'll have the Vomitorium and the Jasmine Room and Aged Cheese Room. How are guards with a sense of smell going to take that five days a week,seven hours a day?  They may last a week or two, but that's it."

Barth looked up at him smiling. "So why do you want this job, Carl?  I assume it's not for the money."

"Right. My wife and I are okay financially – she'll work at least a few more years and is making really good money. I miss the contact with people, and frankly since I can't smell, I want to experience that through the visitors here."

Minutes later, Carl was sitting in the park again. He had the job. He would come back for a morning of training in two days and then in ten days, when the museum officially opened, he would begin working.

The training session lasted for three hours. The first hour was devoted to terrorist security – how to spot possible threats to the safety of the museum patrons and what to do about them. Carl thought it was ridiculous. Who would even raise a stink in this place when they could target the crowd pleasers like MOMA, the Metropolitan or the Guggenheim? But he had learned in his corporate life to dismiss the nonsense, and so he listened intently to the remaining two hours of the session.

The first of those hours focused on what to do if patrons got sick. This was an infinitely greater possibility than a terrorist attack. Since five of the other seven guards hired were former janitors, workers in fish markets or circus employees, there were many questions. Carl asked about professional healthcare backup. It turned out two of the would-be guards were retired pediatric nurses and one or the other would be on duty whenever the museum was open.

The last hour of training was a complete tour of the museum. Of course there was no cafeteria, but in its place were two extra bathrooms. The Vomitorium had stations for alcohol-caused vomit, bad seafood vomit, carrot cake vomit and six other varieties. The stations would be re-stocked at the beginning of each day and once a month new varieties would replace the current ones. On continuous loop was David Lynch's four minute first film Six Figures Getting Sick, evidently a precursor to Eraserhead, a film Carl never really understood. On the walls, there were reproductions of Peregrine Honig's series of paintings of people in all different manners of dress and poses as they were throwing up.

Don Barth pointed to a stairway leading up to the museum's roof garden. It was filled with vegetables including onions, eggplants and tomatoes as well as several banana trees.

The last room they visited was the one containing the Cloaca Professional. Carl was surprised it was still draped with a cloth when they entered the room, but Barth took off the cover as he talked about it.

"The Cloaca Professional was built by Belgian artist WimDelvoye to mimic the actions of the human digestive system."

Some whim, Carl thought. He wondered if Wim was a descendant of Magritte or Ensor.

"You see this series of glass receptacles hanging in a row. The machine is "fed" twice a day on one end. The food is ground up naturally the way it is in the human body, and the machine produces feces at the other end at 2:00 pm every day. The smell is so powerful many visitors can't take it."

Carl asked, "Mr. Barth, usually you have repeat visitors in a museum. Why would anyone come back here?"

"Good question Carl. It's not logical, but they do come back. I think I explained that the concept for this museum was first tried out in Tasmania. Well, some 20% of the visitors within the first six months were repeat visitors. That's pretty high compared to most art museums and much higher than history museums."

Barth wished the guards luck and reminded them to pick up their uniforms in the employee locker room. All the guards including Carl were used to uniforms of one kind or another. Carl much preferred his new uniform to the one he had worn all those years – pinstripe suit, shirt and tie. This one was a jump suit made of white polyester for easy washing and drying.  Management thought a white color would contrast well with the dirty smells.

When he showed the uniform to his wife, she laughed. "What, are you auditioning for a re-make of Ghostbusters?" she teased. But he knew she didn't think any less of him for taking this job. She had suffered graciously when he had worked for the flower company and for the three corporations before that because he was always so unhappy. She forgave his being a passive father and sometimes negligent husband. He had been much more at peace during these last three months of idleness, and now he would have something to occupy his time during the week. It could only help their already strong relationship.

The opening week at the museum was fairly uneventful. Some patrons held their noses and a few walked out of the Cloaca Professional room choking, but overall visitors were just amazed at the exhibits. No one violated either of the two rules posted by the entrance to each room: 1) If you need to vomit and cannot hold it, use barf bag in your Visitor Packet; 2) Do not watch other people who are vomiting.

Carl got to talk to two of the other guards in the locker room after the museum closed at five. One sought his advice about a surgeon for his wife. She had been having terrible problems with her knees and wanted them replaced. Carl's sister-in-law had had a good experience at the Hospital for Special Surgery, and Carl passed along the surgeon's name. He chatted with the other guard about pro football and Andy Garcia movies. They both loved Garcia's City Island.

On the following Wednesday, Carl was assigned to the Cloaca Professional. He expected the usual low hum of visitor voices until 2:00 when the machine was scheduled to excrete. At noon, he heard his name being screamed. He didn't know who was screaming or where it was coming from, but as he rushed from the Cloaca Professional toward the Vomitorium, he realized that was the source of the panic. Raul, the Andy Garcia fan, was on duty today.

The guard kept screaming until Carl made eye contact with him. Raul was sitting in a large pool of vomit. The back of his uniform resembled a child's nightmare fingerpainting which meant he had probably slipped on it,fallen on his back and then raised himself to a sitting position. "Help me, Carl" he pleaded.

Carl waded into the vomit pool, pulled Raul up and walked him to a dry spot on the floor. Only then did Carl see that there were nine patrons scattered around the room all on their knees in the ritual of regurgitation.

"What happened here, Raul?

"I don't know. Maybe some kind of conspiracy or protest. There were four of them in a circle and they all started to throw up simultaneously and none of them even looked to the sinks even though the sign clearly says they should use them. These other people here, throwing up now, I don't know if they're a second wave of the protesters or there was just a chain reaction.

"It seems like there's no air in here. What happened to the fans?"

"That damn A/C has been on the blink ever since this place opened."

Carl thought "Well we've got to get these people some air and get them out of here. But the way they look, if we take them downstairs in this condition they'll scare away anyone coming into the museum."

"So what do we do, Carl?" Raul asked.

"You call maintenance to clean this up and then go down and get a fresh uniform. I'll take care of these people."

Carl walked over to each of the nine who had now finished vomiting. "I want you to follow me in single file with the others. We're going to walk one flight of stairs up to the roof garden. You'll feel much better up there. Because you're probably a bit weak from the vomiting, when you go up the staircase, put your right hand on the bannister and your left hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you."

It was as if they had been gassed. Meekly, they followed Carl to the roof. Seven of the nine patrons thanked him; the other two wanted a refund of their admission fee. He kept them up there for twenty minutes, then led them back down to the exhibit floor.

Raul was back in the Vomitorium, smiled at Carl, and mouthed his own "Thank you."  The maintenance crew was just about finished. They had brought in two big portable fans. Carl headed back to the Cloaca Professional exhibit. He was there not more than ten minutes when Don Barth came up to him.

"I heard about what you just did, Carl, and I'm very grateful. I'm going to make you Supervisor of Guards and give you a raise."

Carl shook his head. "That's okay. It's not about that. It's about finally being of use to people."




BIO: Lee Marc Stein is a retired marketing consultant living in East Setauket, Long Island.  His poems have been published in River Poets Journal, Still Crazy, Miller’s Pond Poetry, Slow Trains Journal, The Write Room, Blue Lake Review, Blue & Yellow Dog, Blast Furnace and Message in a Bottle… and he has published short stories in Cynic Online and Down in the Dirt.  Lee is finishing a chapbook of ekphrastic poems.  He leads workshops at Stony Brook University’s Lifelong Learning program on modern masters of the novel.