yesterday. at the gas station. just after we left our house–our smelly, quiet house–the day after they found the old man, our next door neighbor, dead (for at least two weeks) inside his house. his smoldering house full of books and papers and the smell of death–something between rotting roadkill and spoiled dairy–which has settled into every fiber of every fabric-based item in our home. the furniture. the bedspreads. the pillows. even the freshly laundered clothes folded in our drawers tucked away in our closet.
i tried to keep my chin up. i tried to keep my chin up as we placed arm & hammer baking soda boxes–the kind you put in your fridge, with the tabs so you can pull off the sides–all around the house to soak up the stench. i tried to keep my chin up as we sprayed organic citrus air freshener we bought at safeway only 15 minutes prior, remarking to holly how good it smelled, how it might really be helping. i tried to keep my chin up as she looked for something to wear to class that evening–something that didn’t stink. i tried to keep my chin up when we figured out that there was absolutely nothing that didn’t stink. (she held her breath as she put on a blue nike t-shirt. “spray perfume in the air and walk thru it,” i said, which she did, despite her thoughts that it might make matters worse.) and i tried to keep my chin up as i spritzed a bleach solution behind us as we walked out and locked the door behind us, holding my breath so i didn’t smell the stink still seeping out of his house.
i tried not looking at his front window. the one the fire fighters had to climb thru, its thin, dirty drapes parted for the very first time since we’d moved there, almost three years to the day. i tried but i couldn’t look away. the flies were still in there, but the condensation on that window had finally disappeared. i wanted so much to picture the jumpy, bearded old man we were used to seeing, but all i could imagine was what the cops described to me, despite my pleas against it. a victim of loneliness, despite his proximity to so many people. i hope he died quickly, we keep saying to each other. i hope those knocks against the wall we heard weren’t him needing help.
it finally hit me at the gas station as we stood outside our cars on our way to our wonderful friends’ place where we’re staying. the sadness of the discovery, of his circumstances, finally peeled off and all that was left was a selfish, panicked ache. the stifling weight of everything we would have to do to make our home livable again. all the laundry. all the scrubbing. the steam-cleaning. even the washer and drier smell like death.
what will we do first when we get back to the house? i thought as the gas pumped. we could wash our sheets and blankets. but how can we do our laundry and keep it from smelling as soon as we take it out of the dryer? is there a way to clean the dryer? how can we do it all at once? a laundromat, but will we be able to find a laundromat with enough washers and dryers free to do everything all at once? how will we get it there at once? could we really ask friends to help us empty our house like that? could we ask them to help fold? how could we possibly fold everything at once? could we do it all while the cleaners are there? so when we bring it back, we could put everything away in a clean-smelling house? will our house start smelling again with his sealed-up house just four layers of brick next to us? can we get the furniture and carpet steamer ppl there at the same time? how much will this all cost? how am i going to meet my deadlines? how is holly going to write her paper and do her take-home exam? how can we possibly concentrate? how bad will his house stink once all the food in his fridge goes bad? what if he left food out? how long will all of his floor-to-ceiling papers and books hold in the smell? when oh when will it finally get cold in this goshforsakin city so his house can cool the hell down? i can’t take this. i can’t take this. i can’t take this. i can’t take this. even the clothes in our drawers. even the clothes in our drawers.
i put my fingers thru my bangs–slightly salt and pepper by now b/c i’ve had this damn rash so long that i haven’t been able to dye my hair at home like i usually do–and tears came to my eyes. my hair probably still smells like it, i thought. i’d been too busy even to shower until late last night. and now i have the smell on my hands. an invisible film of death everywhere.
i couldn’t get the citrus smell out of my nostrils, out of my brain. i cursed myself for even buying it.
i looked at holly as she was putting the pump back. i walked up to her.
“honey,” i said, the tears coming. everything’s too heavy. everything’s too damn heavy. i can’t stop my mind from running and i can’t, i just can’t.
“honey, i can’t…”
“i know,” she said. and hugged me. right there at the shell station.
it smells like cinnamon and death in here, one officer joked when he walked through our house sunday afternoon. cinnamon and death. cinnamon bath and body spray. and death.
“…i can’t take it.”
“i can’t take much more of this.” even the clothes in our drawers. on repeat in my mind. cinnamon and death. damn him for saying that. even if he is brave. damn him for saying that. damn him for telling me what the old man looked like when they found him lying near his kitchen.
“i know, honey. i know.”
every single thing we’ve been thru since we bought the doggone house. the burglaries when we were renovating. the flooding basement. the flooded ceiling. the mice. the feral cats in the walls and spraying the yard and sh*tting on the roof. the friggin crackheads shouting at all hours. the violence we see out our bedroom windows. our wedding. planning our wedding. going thru it–just getting thru it w/barely any family support. our layoffs. everything. and more. so so much more. and now this.
“this is the worst,” i said to holly. she knew i wasn’t just talking about that moment. i was saying, this is the worst of everything. of everything we’ve been thru, this is the absolute worst. the smell of a lonely death seeping thru everything we own. and, at this point, our house is everything we’ve got. every single thing smells like death. everything is tainted now.
we will get thru this, her dark brown eyes said to me. she stepped away and put both her hands on my shoulders.
“i love you,” i said.
“i love you,” she said.
tomorrow we will go home. we dropped off seven more boxes of baking soda this afternoon. i bought every last one the store had. we brought in all of our palm trees from the roof and lined them up along one side of our bedroom, the wall we shared with the old man. the air will be clearer in our bedroom when we sleep there tomorrow night. his body’s gone, the smell is lifting, the plants will help clear the air. we will walk in and be brave and face this. we will reclaim our home as our own. it’s time to go back. it’s time to go back home.