Writing: Josh Maday
The city smells like my father. The acrid tang of fire and brimstone and the taste of my own blood. I begin to say this aloud, but I stop. The sidewalk rumbles. I stand on a metal grate and inhale the warm iron-rich subway air rushing upward, listening to metal scream against metal and become the living voice of something being dragged into the darkness where it will be devoured. I imagine it is the sound of men whose exposed flesh sparked with the brilliance of flowing molten steel boiling as it hit the relative cool of the engine block forms, rejecting its predestined position in the front end of a Cadillac after being cramped inside the earth for how many million years, and opting instead to remain fluid and free for just another moment before it dropped to the shop floor, a raw bullet shaped by melting flesh, blood, and bone as it burned through, dying a little with every degree expended to sear free of the flesh, of that man’s moment of vulnerability.
My father rarely spoke when he came home from working all day at the foundry. He’d sit on the small bench inside the door, pull off his thick, grimy boots, and shuffle to the bathroom to clean up for dinner. He washed his hands with lava but even that never got them all the way clean. Black grime lined the gutters of his fingernails and veined the troughs of his fingerprints. Eventually I figured out that little bits of pumice lay deposited throughout the bar of soap. Those grains of crushed rock that had once been molten lava glowing the same sunset orange of fluid steel were what he used to clean his hands.
I asked him one day what made him smell like that, and he said, “It’s my new Andrew Carnegie aftershave. Wanna try some?” I said no and asked if the black in the wrinkles of his hands and in his fingerprints was there forever. Would he ever be able to get it off? He said he didn’t think so and that I ought to get to bed now.
'Acrid Tang' was previously published in 2012, in Everyday Genius.