You Are the Bad Smell
                  Fiction by Kathy Anderson

      “This isn’t the one,” she said, laying her hand on my arm.  As if she was
really sorry.
      “Stick a fork in me.  I’m done,” I said.
      “No. You’re just upset. You thought this was the one.”
      “I can’t do this anymore.”
      “It’s only one house.  Maybe the next one.”
      “It’s seventy-three houses,” I said.
      “But we’ve come so far.  You can’t stop now.  Absolutely not.”
      I thought if I banged her head against the concrete steps, her skull would
not break.  That’s how hard she was.  No one could win against her.  Certainly
not me.  Certainly not her partner, who stood quietly in the corner, eyes cast
      The houses they did not buy.  The contemporary with too much sunlight,
the Dutch Colonial with a garage that was too small, the totally renovated
rancher with an ugly view, the three-story Victorian with too much carpeting,
the lakeside condo with not enough kitchen, the octagon house with too much
personality, and the corner property with too many trees were some of the
houses they did not buy.
      Seventy-three houses they did not buy.  Seventy-three houses I showed
them and I knew this game.  I knew how to play this game.  But she was
      “I quit,” I said.
      She laughed.  “We’ll take a few days off.”
      I just won’t return her calls, I thought.  “Great idea,” I said.
      To her partner, I whispered, “I’m so sorry for you.”
      I could see that made the partner mad.  But she was the long-suffering
type, even with me.
      “Not at all,” her partner said.  She held her head up high.
      They were so beautiful, these two.  Concrete Skull was a tall and crispy
blond, with a gorgeous wide smile and sharp blue miss-nothing eyes.  Long
Suffering was olive-skinned, with a full bottom lip and a way of standing that
showed off her large breasts.  Her eyes were as patient as an animal watching
for its turn at the watering hole.
      I liked lesbians, made a specialty of selling houses to lesbian couples.  
There were tons of resales on those couples.  A lot of them broke up after four
or five years and then they put their houses back on the market and bought
new ones with other women.  I especially liked couples like this one, with their
matching black Mercedes, big bank accounts and high-salaried corporate jobs.
      I liked lesbians, but I hated these two.  They were realtor cockteasers.  
Okay, I am a woman too and do not have a cock to tease, but you take my
point.  They showed you what they had, stroked you until you were so ready
you could scream, then pulled back with a perfectly good reason that was
totally bogus because the real reason they did not buy any of the seventy-three
houses I showed them was because they were sizing each other up.
      It had nothing to do with me.  They were watching each other, waiting for
the house that made one of them pant and scream.  Then one of them would
have the upper hand.  The one who wanted it the most was the one who
would have to grovel, for as long as they lived in that house.
      I know power struggles.  I can smell them in the air after twenty-three
years in the business and four marriages of my own.  The smell is unmistakable,
like a rotting carcass by the side of a road.
      “The truth is I don’t think there’s anything special enough for you two on
the market these days,” I said.  “I know you are busy women with highly
responsible jobs and I feel just terrible wasting your time like this.  We’ll have
to wait it out.  Maybe in a few months, the market will improve.  You two
deserve something spectacular.”
      Concrete Skull didn’t even show the flicker of interest that a cat has
watching a chipmunk run by.
      “Next week,” she said.  “Set it up.”
      Long Suffering walked out to the Mercedes and leaned against it, staring
intently into her cell phone.
      Concrete Skull whispered, “The truth is, I don’t know if I should be
buying a house with her.  Look at her.  She looks incredibly sexy, doesn’t she?  
But she isn’t.”
      “Why are you telling me this?”
      “I feel so close to you.  You feel like a friend after spending all this time
with me.” She beamed her big smile my way and it was like the sun coming
out on my face.  Okay, I am straight but I was not immune to her.
      “If you’re that unsure, you should wait before you look at houses.”
      “I operate on instinct.  My gut tells me to keep looking.  The house will
grab me.  The house will say, come on in, you two.  She’ll relax in this
bedroom.  She’ll attack me in this living room.”
      “That’s crazy,” I said.
      “A house doesn’t fix anything.  Definitely not a sex problem.”
      “Who says?  Maybe a house could fix something.  Maybe no one lets
it.”  She reached out and put both her hands over my hand.  Her hands were
warm.  “Help me.”
      “For a smart woman, you’re stupid,” I said.
      I thought if I insulted her, she’d go away and leave me alone.  But she
      “You’re a cockteaser,” I said.
      “So I’ve been told.  By better women than you.”  Her smile stayed fixed
on her face, but she let go of me.
      Good, I thought.  I’m finally getting to her.
      “So next week, then.  Set it up for Saturday,” she said.
      Instead, I volunteered to work at an open house on Saturday.  I was top
agent in my office.  I didn’t have to work things like this.  It was a sad, tiny
little house with a persistent moldy smell.  The owners were old.  They didn’t
want to spend any money fixing up something that they were selling.
      So the window shades were stained and yellow, the kitchen faucets
dripped, the closets were dark and crammed full of crap, and the one and
only bathroom had cracked vinyl flooring and a hole in the wall.  The
neighborhood was going seriously downhill. There was a meth lab one block
over.  No one cut their grass regularly.  Next door, someone had propped
two stained mattresses against their house.
      The best I could do was burn vanilla candles for the smell and insist that
the owners go to the store so they wouldn’t hover anxiously over people
trooping through.  I didn’t care.  I was happy to be there.  Anywhere but
trapped with Concrete Skull and her little gal pal.
      Only one couple ventured in during the first hour.  I put on my honest
earnest face.
      “It needs work, I won’t lie to you.  A little paint, new rugs.  You can
see for yourself.  But this neighborhood is going through the roof in the next
year.  All signs point straight up for appreciation in value.  If you bought in
now and fixed this up a little, you’d have a hell of an investment.”
      The man had the hungry look.  He didn’t want to be poor all his life.  
His wife looked afraid.  She didn’t want to make a mistake.
      I don’t count what I said as lying because you never know.  No one
knows.  The neighborhood could take an upturn.  And a husband who
wanders could stop, just like that.  Sure.  It could happen.
      After they left, it was quiet for a long time.  I turned up the volume on
the smooth jazz CD, my music for selling shitty houses, and leaned back in
my chair.  I wondered who the lesbian couple was torturing this weekend,
instead of me.
      The door opened.  They walked in.  Long Suffering wouldn’t look at
me.  Her eyes scanned the room like one of those searchlights that stores set
up in their parking lots during closeout sales.  Concrete Skull leaned in.
      “We found you,” she said.
      “I thought we were taking a break.”
      “Break’s over.”  Her voice was flinty, like the game we used to play
when we were kids, hitting rocks with rocks to see what colors were inside.
      “Don’t you ever give up?”
      “Never,” she said.  Her partner snorted.
      Now, we’ll get into it, I thought.  Come on, Long Suffering, make your
move.  Get in there.  Speak up.  But she just turned, walked back to the car
and got in, holding her elegant round rump out on display for an extra
second before it vanished into the Mercedes.
      “Why me?” I asked.  “Why don’t you get a nice lesbian realtor?  Maybe
she’ll do better for you.  And she can come to your housewarming party, too.”
      “You know why I want you?  Lesbian realtors think they don’t have to
work hard for me.  Like just because I’m gay, I’ll roll over and buy whatever
they show me.  Like it’s about loyalty to the team instead of being about me
and my money.  Wrong.  You’re smarter than that.  It’s all about the deal.”
      I liked beating out lesbian realtors.  I pictured them trotting out secret
weapons with her—little lesbian in-jokes, little lesbian friends in common.  
And still I won.  I admit I melted a little, flattered.
      So we went on to the seventy-fourth house.  It was a spectacularly ugly
McMansion, huge, poorly designed and shoddily built, overpriced, on a barren
lot on a busy street of a brand new development built over a landfill.  But it
was new, full of glitzy features like a master bathroom big enough to hold a
party in and a temperature-controlled wine cellar in the basement, features that
distract your eyes from the particle board walls and the cheap thin paint.
      “Honey, this is it.  This is the one,” said Concrete Skull.  She smiled her
gorgeous beaming smile, charming as a kitten.  It didn’t sound convincing
even to me.  
This is a test.  This is only a test.  In the event of a real urge
to buy a house, the voice is eager, excited, scared.  So disregard this test.  
It is only a test.
      “No way,” Long Suffering said.  “I loathe the smell of this house.  You’ve
got to be kidding me here.  No freaking way.”
      “I was kidding.  I hate it too,” Concrete Skull said.  “See, honey, we
really are getting close.  We both hate this one.  So that’s a good sign.”
      They both turned to me, waiting for my applause.
      “Seventy-five,” I said.  “That’s my limit.  I warn you.”
      They both chuckled, like I was making a small dumb joke.
      I hate you both, I thought.  You are the bad smell.
      It was the seventy-ninth house where something changed.  When we
walked into the house, an elegant Colonial in the best neighborhood, fully
updated and gorgeously decorated, I felt it.  Somebody wanted this one, but
I couldn’t tell who.  I felt like a squirrel on the curb, twitching at oncoming
cars and deciding when to run.  I studied one and then the other.  Who was
      I tried all my realtor tricks.  I vanished into other rooms so they could
talk privately.  I acted nonchalant so they wouldn’t feel pressure from me.  I
studied the seller’s information sheet with just the right amount of scrutiny
and indifference.
      “It’s quite old, “ Concrete Skull said finally.  “It’s an old house.  They
are asking a lot for such an old house.”
      Aha, I thought.  She wants it.
      “Honey, what do you think?” she asked.  Her voice was a cat slinking
along a high ledge.  I didn’t remember her asking that question in any of the
seventy-eight previous houses.
      “Oh, I don’t know,” Long Suffering said.  She sounded bored but she
was paying close attention, her eyes flickering madly.  “Let’s go on to the next.”
      I wanted to hit them with an ax and leave them bleeding to death on the
Persian rug.
      “I feel a very sexy vibe here,” I said.  “Classy, subtle, but very sexy. This
is a house where you will have swank parties.  I see gorgeous women in
slinky dresses holding martini glasses.”
      “We met at a cocktail party just like that,” said Concrete Skull.
      “You pinned me to the wall,” smirked her gal pal.
      “After you practically pushed them in my mouth.”
      “You wanted me to.”
      “You wanted it worse.”
      I watched them like they were a nature channel show where all the
animals are frolicking happily in the wilderness and you know there’s trouble
in the air, you are just waiting for the predator to pounce, for blood to be
spilled. You know it will end badly and you can’t tear yourself away.
      “Let’s write it up, girls.  You can sign the agreement right now,” I said.  
And they did.  
      When the radon test came back, Concrete Skull came to my office and
cried.  Her partner was on her way.  We were supposed to wait for her, but
Concrete Skull insisted on reading the report before she got there.
      “We are the perfect couple,” she cried, circling around the office,
bumping into chairs and walls and cabinets, knocking over the waste basket.  
“Everyone, everyone, everyone says so.  But we can’t do this one simple
thing.  I’ve done it with other women.  It’s no big deal.  Go look at a few
houses and buy one.  What is happening?  Why is this happening to me?  I
can’t stand it.  I’m being punished.”
      “It’s only radon.  Easily remediated,” I said.  “Punished for what?”
      “I stole her from another woman.  They have a baby.  I’m mean to my
mother.  I hate my father.  I’ve cheated on every woman I’ve ever been with.  
Is that enough?”  She was really wailing now, working herself up.
      “It’s only radon,” I said.  I was enjoying myself immensely.
      “I’m forty-one years old.  I can’t make any more mistakes.”
      “Everyone has some radon around here.  This house is just a tad over
the limit,” I said.
      “You don’t understand.  I am not everyone.  I can’t have it.”
      “Put a vent in the basement and we’re good to go,” I said.
      “It’s poison gas in the basement of our house.  We’ll be poisoned from
below.  What chance do we have to make it?  Do you have any idea how
many failed relationships I’ve had?  This is my last chance.  I’m not wasting
it on her.”
      “It’s not that bad.  You’re getting all carried away.”  I thought of
husband number three.  I thought he was my last chance too, but along came
four.  There were an infinite number of husbands out there, I found.  I could
have kept it up my whole life.  Hello Five.  Hello Six.  Hello Seven.
      Long Suffering showed up.  “Do you still want it?”
      “No,” Concrete Skull sobbed.  “It’s a poison house.”
      “We’ll keep looking then,” her partner said, shrugging.
      “It’s our last chance.  We’ll never find another house as good as this
one.  This was the one.  And it’s ruined.”
      “So we’ll buy it and fix it.”
      You fool, I thought.  You don’t see that there is no way to win with her.  
The house is nothing.  The house is a quicksand bog full of small dead things.
      “I’m sick of this,” Concrete Skull cried.  “I’m done.”
      “You’re done.  With looking?”  Long Suffering stood in the doorway,
legs planted wide.  Slowly her face began to change.  “With me?  In front of
      “Just ignore me,” I said.  “Do what you have to do.”  You couldn’t have
pried me out of there with a crowbar.
      I waited for Long Suffering to scream, curse, throw things.  But she
stood there silently for the longest time.  And then she crumpled to the floor,
making this odd squeezy sound, like a sharp beak was tearing at her lungs.  
She lay flat out, on her stomach, her arms around the base of my filing cabinet,
and she kept making the squeezy sound.  It was the most terrible sight I’d ever
seen in my life.  It was like watching somebody die.
      I got down on the floor beside her, first sitting, then lying flat on my belly
next to her.  I felt my tenderest organs protected by the plush rug under me,
then deeper to the wood floor and the concrete underpinnings.  I was safe
there.  I rubbed her back.  I patted her hair.  I whispered in her ear, “You’re
okay.  You will be.  You’re not going to die.”  It didn’t help at all.  Nothing
does.  Her back stayed stiff and the wrenching unbearable noise continued as
Concrete Skull stepped over us both and left.
      We waited, breathing in little tiny puffs, to see if she would circle back.  
We waited a long time until we felt the currents in the air settle down to normal
rhythms and heard the birds outside in the trees begin to sing.     


Kathy Anderson was awarded a fellowship in prose from the New Jersey
State Council on the Arts and was admitted to The Bread Loaf Writers’
Conference.  Her writing has been published in national magazines, literary
journals, and anthologies.  Anderson’s award-winning plays have been
produced in New York, Philadelphia, and Arizona.  Her website is located

On “You Are the Bad Smell”:    
For lesbian and gay couples, who are not allowed to marry, buying a
home together is often the closest legal equivalent.  The story began
from a personal experience of a long, fruitless search for a house and
started as a list of all the houses we did not buy.  In the process of
writing the story, the realtor’s voice became the frame that worked
to hang the story on.  Once I got that frame in place, the realtor’s
secret thoughts, her own marriage history, and her ultimate
compassion emerged and transformed the story into what it is.  I love
how little of the actual experience remains in the story and how the
process of writing takes you so far away from a story’s start to a
new place that is (so improbably) more real than reality.

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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 3, Number 1
(Spring 2008)

Copyright © 2008
by Leah Browning, Editor.  

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Valley Review
are retained
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