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The smell of trouble between people

Can you smell trouble? Of course you can, if trouble is in the form of a skunk in your garage, a tire smoldering next door or a turkey burning in the oven on Thanksgiving morning. That's easy, but can you smell trouble between people?

Norman Mailer (1923-2007) was one of America's most prominent authors of fiction and he has written, in non-fiction, that when you enter a house, you can determine the misery of those who live there by the smell. Or if you walk in on old friends, you will realize by the odor that something's going to go bust for them -- not yet maybe, but in a month or two, or even a year or two. Further, he claims one can become aware of his own spiritual condition through his own scent.

That's an interesting idea, but I have to say that if I've ever encountered the smell of trouble, I wasn't tuned in to what the aroma meant. But once I read about it, I was eager to test the theory.

I dropped in on our friends "Slug" and "Nippy" Antag on the occasion of their 20th anniversary, pretending to wish them well, but determined to sniff out any tension between them. Everybody predicted their marriage would be bust before the leftover wedding cake got moldy and here they were -- 20 years later.

"Hey Slug," I said cheerfully, "Congratulations on your anniversary. I'll bet you and Nippy are really excited." I took a quick snort of the inside-the-house air when he looked the other way for just a second. It smelled like the odor of "I've had about as much of this nonsense as I can take."

"Oh we're excited alright," he laughed, "Nippy spilled five gallons of garlic oil on the kitchen floor and we've been mopping and laughing ever since. But no problem, I hope you can't smell it."

Not smell five gallons of garlic oil? He had to be delusional. He can't smell trouble when it's right under his nose. No wonder they're still married.

Frustrated, I dropped in on Rocky and Biff Loggerheads on the 5th of July, usually a day of serious tension after a long holiday weekend. I knew that 12 of Rocky's relatives, including his mother, "Jab" had been staying with them for four days. Biff and Jab never were exactly buddy-buddy. I visited with Biff. "How did everything go with your houseful over the 4th?" I inquired. Something unsavory was wafting through the house, but I couldn't identify it.

"Well we had a little accident," she grinned. "Rocky's mother, Jab, was microwaving some tuna for her pet cat "Snuggy" and it got a bit mushy, but she fed it to Snuggy anyway and the poor pussycat chucked it up. So there's the faint smell of cat-chucked microwave tuna here, but we all laughed it off, moved our party out to the patio and had a great 4th -- I haven't always seen eye-to-eye with Jab, but she has a great sense of humor. How was your 4th?"

I didn't answer -- I was almost gagging at the thought of harmony somehow coming out of cat-chucked microwaved tuna and refused to discuss my 4th.

Finally, in desperation I called on Rip and Chippy Bellicose. They've been living in a state of hot and cold war for 12 years, six kids and three car wrecks. I knew I could count on Rip and Chippy for the stench of impending disaster. They both were rushing out the door as I was walking up the sidewalk to call on them. It seemed that the smell of smoke and ash was in the air. "Hey, Rip and Chippy, I was just stopping to say hello, but it looks like you're in a hurry -- what's cooking?"

"We were barbecuing our favorite -- pigs feet with a side of chitlins in a calamari and egg sauce, but we burned the whole mess up. We think it's a big joke and we're going out to splurge on lobster. This is the rainy day we've been saving for and we're gonna enjoy it."

Three strikes and I was out. Mailer had it mostly wrong. I was out sniffing for misery and there was love, humor and harmony all around me. I was ashamed of myself. It could be there is a part that Mailer may have had right -- the pungent sensation in my nostrils was the stench of my own soul. So the moral of the story is this: Don't go looking for trouble, lest you discover that you're the guy stinking up the place.