Tag Archives: death

an actual email i wrote tonight

to nicole:

8:37 p.m.

also.
 
whatever is RUNNING YES RUNNING in our ceilings. and walls. sounds LARGE and is moving FAST.
 
hey whatever. as long as a corpse doesn’t fall thru the ceiling i’m fine. PERSPECTIVE.

and this, my dear friends, is the silver lining of having your next-door neighbor pass away and decompose for two weeks with mere bricks separating you. nothing house-related seems too scary after that. whatever’s in our walls/ceilings (either a cat or an extremely large rat, we’ve decided; hell maybe it’s a cat chasing a rat) can die and rot and smell to high holy hell. as long as it’s not a person, it’s really fine. i can take it.

in the great words of Kevin McCallister (macaulay culkin) of home alone (one of my all-time favorite holiday movies)…

Hey! I’m not afraid anymore! I said I’m not afraid anymore! Do you hear me? I’m not afraid anymore!

then he sees his old man neighbor, screams like hell and runs inside. ha. i love that movie.

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back in baltimore

east baltimore, amtrak train window, 12/1/09

annnnnd……

our house is still kind of stinky.

it’s kind of like, if you didn’t know what you were smelling, or weren’t looking for it, you might not realize the smell. but since we do and we are, we smell it. this is disappointing after so many days away and the work the city has done (see previous entry) but we remain hopeful. the painters/carpenters are coming back tomorrow morning to finish the moulding and caulking (when you gut a house down to original bricks and ancient joists and then rebuild it, there’s always things to finish). soon we’ll have our exposed brick sealed. if the house still stinks after we do all that AND they remove parts of the first floor/basement ceiling next door, i….i don’t know what we’ll do. but as i was just telling nicole, what *can* you do?? we own this house. we live there (for now). so…we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

amtrak was crazy today. i still managed to nab a window seat tho. oh i do love a good train ride. esp. w/some good new music to listen to. so funny how i used to stare out those same amtrak windows while attending umcp going either to or from dc. i used to sort of gawk at all the boarded up, bombed-out looking houses when we passed thru baltimore. and think all the broken down industrial sites looked ugly. but now they’re sort of comforting to me, despite all the crap we’ve endured here. kind of wild now, all these years later, i’m married and living not all that far away from those neighborhoods…

while i’m thinking of it, i’d like to mention that the new music i was listening to was none other than the new lady gaga album, the fame monster, which, for the most part, is so good it literally gives me goose bumps. i shall wax poetic about lady gaga some other day, i suppose, but i must say it’s nice to have a real musician–all musician and just as much performance artist–making pop headlines these days. not since madonna has someone pushed the envelope this far. not that there will EVER EVER be a replacement for madonna, mind you (you may know about my undying love for her, winkwink). but it’s about doggone time we have something really fresh out there. plus she is a major friend of the gays (also a tad gay herself). also ppl pop out of pods in her new video (below). and she loves ellen (also below). love you, gaga! glad you hung in there. keep it up, girl. you are totally boosting my spirits.

breakdown, part 2

last night i closed out my entry on a high note: we stopped by our house in the afternoon and the death smell was lifting, thanks, in part–or so we thought–to lots and lots boxes of baking soda. and time. today we came back and the smell was worse. worse even than the day (sunday) they found and removed our neighbor‘s body. i simply cannot describe the feeling, the crushing blow this was to us, especially me.

i got one good whiff of it and then walked out, closed the door and stood out on our wet, rainy stoop and just cried. i cried and cried and cried standing there until holly came out and warned me that the neighbors would start to wonder what was going on. and i said, what the hell do i care what our neighbors think. i cried until i gave myself a headache, until my face was swollen and my lips hurt. even tho we have put blood, sweat and tears into our house, i wish it wasn’t ours. i wish we were renting it so we could just break our lease and get the hell out of here. but responsibility calls. this is our house, this is home ownership and we need to deal with it, whether we want to or not.

holly has spent a great deal of time on the phone over the past couple days trying to figure out a) what can be done about his house (empty, easy to break into, a huge fire hazard, sealed up, unventilated with rats inside and out) b) who/where he may have relatives and c) make sure all of his books are donated to the local university he retired from (as a librarian). tho we don’t/didn’t know much about him, he told us on several occasions that he wanted to donate his books to that university, but felt overwhelmed by the task of going thru them and packing them up. we offered to find ppl to help him, but he said he wasn’t interested. we think he was just embarrassed to have ppl come in his house. that’s how full of books and paper is it, apparently. (the cops and fire fighters told us there was just a narrow path for them to get to him.) maybe that’s why he kept to himself so much, never had anyone over. he was just ashamed. it’s very sad. i’m really surprised we were even able to talk him into getting an exterminator (two years ago; obviously it never worked).

by talking to three ppl that knew our neighbor–including the lone cousin he kept in touch with, an elderly woman (in her 80s) in texas–we’re actually learning a little about the quiet, eccentric man that lived–and died–alone next door to us.

he was a hermit, she told holly tonight. he loved to read, but had a problem with buying books (as in, he couldn’t stop). he was always “a little strange,” she said. and tho she told him for years to write a will, she doubts he has one. he wanted to be cremated without a service. he was a agnostic, or an athiest, she said. he really did plan on moving to texas, apparently (he always told us he planned to move to texas), as he put a deposit on a home there. she wound up talking on the phone to the detective that came here sunday night. they’re having a hard time identifying him, and the detective was inquiring about dental records. yeah. so. no wonder we can’t get the smell out of here. not to be disrespectful. but it’s the truth.

re: his empty house, turns out baltimore city is even more dysfunctional than we thought. they won’t shut off his water until “something happens,” such as a flood or a pipe burst. they won’t shut off his power until “something happens,” such as, oh i don’t know, G-d forbid a fire or something (every house on our block is connected; you do the math). and they won’t secure the place (“secure” probably means board it up, which will really really suck in terms of trying to sell or rent our place in the future, which is our plan) until “something happens,” like…robbery. or squatters. or drug addicts who are firing up crack pipes amongst piles and piles of papers. or hookers who use the space to do business. (this has happened with at least two houses across the street from us). so you can see we have a vested interest in his house. that’s why we’re happy his remaining relative is interested in finding a local lawyer to try to do something about his house. we’re in the process of locating one for her. here’s hoping something good can happen. maybe she can sell it.

so here we are. back in our house. it smells like a friggin winter wonderland here as we’re burning body shop oil non-stop. (we came up with the idea of buying one of these tealight oil things) so we’re mixing cranberry and pine and oh it smells great when its burning. but once it’s out it’s…cranberry, pine…and death! (hey, jessie, you told me i had to start joking around about things so there you go) the death smell has settled near the front door and the top of the stairs and the basement. and you stiff hard enough anywhere you can pretty much smell it. but that’s where it’s the strongest. i’m sitting on a puffy armchair that probably smells like it, too. but what the hell are we supposed to do? sit on the floor? exactly.

look, humans deal with much more traumatic things on a daily basis all over the world. but this is our little trauma right now. and yeah, doing 10,000 pounds of laundry maybe doesn’t seem like such a big deal to some of you, but it is to us b/c we’re already exhausted. and we don’t want that laundry soaking up the death smell once we’re done w/it. which it will since everything around here does. i’ve got deep rings under my eyes, and can only tolerate bad-for-me food b/c honestly, it’s the only thing i can work up an appetite for.

we’ve got a load of towels in the dryer and sheets in the washer. next up is a comforter and then some pajamas. we’ll lie close together in our own bed tonight and try to regain some sense of normalcy. we’ll try to keep pushing out thoughts of what might have happened to him, and hope to G-d he didn’t suffer. we’ll try to ignore the bad whaffs of air to seem to come out of nowhere. we’ll try to wake up tomorrow and feel normal and go on with things. b/c sometimes, most times, the very best thing you can do is not run away, but just go on with things and take everything one day at a time.

i finally had my breakdown

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 know.”

“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.

well now i feel like a giant ass

b/c the old man really did kick it.

if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know who i’m talking about: our old man neighbor, the loner, the one we always checked in with each other about–that we’d seen him around. the one i’ve been irritated with for months and months: for his overgrown yard, rat factory garage, unconnected gutters…for reporting us to the city for a bag of leftover recycling that was mistaken for trash when i don’t even know if he’s the one that reported us. the one we could have reached out to more b/c we knew he didn’t have any family or friends.

we’d been smelling something weird in the house since wednesday or thursday. honestly, it smelled like a dead mouse, but just in the front of the house. we figured this was the case, since we just hired a new exterminator and he’d set a bunch of traps. as the days went by, it got stronger. hell, just this morning holly was sniffing really deeply–reallly really deeply (ugh)–by our front window looking for clues. we lifted up the arm chairs yesterday, half-expecting to find a rotting mouse or something. late last week we lifted up the couch. nothing there either. the smell sort of seeped into the basement, too. i’d even decided i’d call the exterminator to have a look this week since we just couldn’t find anything. it got to the point that we couldn’t do anything for any period of time (homework for holly, various writing assignments for me) b/c the smell got so distracting that we couldn’t concentrate, let alone cook, and it really freaked us out that we couldn’t locate its source.

we didn’t see the old man on halloween (us three next-door neighbors: the “BGE guy,” old man and holly and i usually sit on our marble stoops each year with bowls of candy for trick-or-treaters). heck, we hadn’t seen him for at least a couple of weeks. we decided today we’d knock on his door to see if he was ok. if no one answered, we’d call 311, the non-emergency police line.

we knocked before we left to go out this morning. no answer. then we knocked on our neighbors’ door (the one who lives on the other side of the old man, the aforementioned “BGE guy” and his family) to ask if they’d seen him lately. or smelled something. but they weren’t home. we knocked on the old man’s door when we got back. still no answer. we talked to a couple more  neighbors and asked if they’d seen him lately (he usually walked out to the local grocery store a couple times a week) and they all said, come to think of it, no we haven’t. so that’s when we decided we’d call 311, all the while expecting it to be nothing. he’d be alive–and mad and freaked out when the fire department kicked down his door, hell that might kill him, we figured–and we’d have wasted a whole lot of emergency responder time over a dead mouse in the wall, and we’d feel like the crazy, worry-over-nothing neighbors.

as soon as the officer got to the old man’s front door he knew. he said he could smell it from outside. plus there were flies on the inside of the windows. and condensation. (we’ve had an abundance of flies lately. it’s been odd, and i…don’t want to talk about it.) he was “95 percent sure” he said that our neighbor was dead inside the house, and had been so for some time.

soon the fire crew came, took out their ladders, climbed up and opened his windows to get in. we watched from the roof (we didn’t want to be in the house, but we didn’t want to be outside of it either; the roofdeck seemed like the best possible option, tho we noticed we could smell it from up there, too) as the firefighters and officers put on oxygen tanks and masks to go inside. that’s when i knew that our very worst baltimore nightmare had come true.

i wasn’t out there when they cracked the windows open, but when i came outside a little while later, there were still flies swarming on the formstone front of his house. the smell spilled out onto the sidewalk. it morphed into a smell that i don’t want to ever smell again. it’s burned into my memory.

i felt selfish for feeling so grossed out and disgusted. after those grossed-out type feelings passed a little, i felt just plain weirded out that we were just going on with our lives as he lay dead inside. (he must’ve had a heart attack and fallen on the ground, the crew told us.) once i got all those feelings (temporarily) out of my system, i started feeling really sad for him. that he didn’t get to die with dignity or with family around. that he was so alone in this world that the two girls next store wound up smelling something and called the police and the coroner had to take him out in a bag. that’s no way to go. then we both started feeling bad for not making more of an effort. we should have brought him hot meals, holly said. i shouldn’t have been so mad at him the past few weeks (since we got that environmental citation i suspect he turned us in for), i said. hell, the last time i saw him, just over two weeks ago, i’d say, he was standing in his doorway, wanting to say hello. he was oddly friendly all of the sudden, and i figured it was b/c he wanted to keep us off his trail (from suspecting that he was reporting our trash that wasn’t really our trash). he startled me, and i said hello and that was it. i was grumpy. little did i know that would be the last time i’d see him alive. now i feel terrible about it.

i take comfort in the fact that, in my mind, he’s not alone anymore. and with loved ones long gone. i wish the cops hadn’t thought it’d be funny to tell me gruesome details i pretty much begged them not to tell me so i could picture him as i had known him: as the white-haired, long-bearded eccentric man, always in his tan safari hat with the string hanging around his neck. walking quietly to the supermarket, always in khaki, multi-pocketed cargo pants and a dark blue jacket, always buttoned up, even on the hottest days. who mumbled about public television shows even i didn’t watch (like britcoms; oy, the britcoms) even when i worked at one (admittedly, i watch very little public television; yes, even when i worked at a public television station). who thought we were spying on him when we built our decks. the ex-morgan state librarian who tried to be friendly to us, even tho it was painfully obvious it was hard for him.

we won’t be staying in our house for the next couple days. (i’m writing this from our good friends’ house) it needs to air out. my whole head needs to air out, actually. i’m going to saline spray the hell out of my nose before i go to sleep tonight. we think our freshly laundered pajamas may have an odor to them, but honestly, what can we do? i’m going to ignore it and just put them on and try to go to sleep.

we continue to shake our heads b/c we never really thought it would come to this. we didn’t really think he’d “kick it” and then we’d “smell something.” it was always this morbid half-joke. and here’s it come true.

i’ve got to admit that this is just too much. i just want some peace and quiet. i just want all of this disgusting stuff to stop (and i haven’t even told you the half of it; i am saving some real doozies for the book). i know i joke around a lot about everything: about our neighborhood. the hookers and the dealers and the rats and the alleys. but at this point, i gotta say:  i really just want to move away and leave this all behind. i don’t want to go back to our house. i feel like everything’s changed. i don’t want to sleep there. i don’t want to live there. i feel crazy just thinking about it. baltimore, i’ve had enough. i really think it might be time to go.

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