This job was to clean up a house lived in by a woman named Mrs. Doty. Mrs. Doty was about 80.
She met us at the door early that hot desert morning. The neighborhood was pleasant, old-ish for Arizona and well kept. Mrs. Doty was herself pleasant, a slim, relatively youthful greyed blonde, dressed unpretentiously in off-white summer slacks and matching blouse and a big brimmed straw hat. She mistook me for the crew chief, so began giving a few instructions about things she wanted saved. I said I'd be careful to watch for them. She appeared to be working outside, doing a little gardening.
This sunny bungalow -- two bedrooms, living-and-dining room, kitchen, front and back porches, laundry room, workshop, bath -- yielded a cornucopia of homey things and memorabilia. Each item told a tale of minute events in a busy and interested life, casually scattered on and on into the past.
There were porcelain figurines -- elves and animals and children and rosy cheeked grandmas and grandpas; clocks of different kinds, collections of dishes and silverware, ruffled candy dishes, ashtrays, embossed glass tumblers memento of vacation trips, even a set of fine apertif glasses; candleabras, little electric chandeliers, children's toys, old record albums by long forgotten artists, and more.
And pens and pencils! Lots and lots of ballpoint pens and pencils in little makeshift containers. All had been used -- scattered about were tablets and notebooks, lots of notes, grocery lists, recipes, old letters not yet sent, letters not yet answered.
There were things for which a solitary senior housekeeper may be forgiven: too much clothing, "must drop it all off at the thrift store one day;" too much yarn for knitting waiting to get started; old newspapers, old magazines with important stories yet to be cut and pasted; an outdated telephone directory or two, long awaiting the trash bin.
And books! Books, books, books! Had I not a job to do, I could have spent weeks perusing them. Here was a tome by Attorney General So-and-So fifty years past, this or that President's memoirs, analyses by critical thinkers about forgotten critical situations going back decades, and yet more: classics by Mark Twain and Jane Austen and Pearl Buck and others, collections from famous newspaper columnists, mystery novels by Agatha Christie, romantic potboilers from before and after World War Two, even a few by our current famous potboilists -- I can't think of her name, but her novels are still for sale at supermarket checkout racks. Danielle Steele.
Here some old bibles, there various first editions of forgotten popular novels, probably worth money to a collector. My favorite find was a Webster's Dictionary. It had no copyright date, but the hemp paper, typeface and the style of grammar suggested antebellum... wow... before the War Between The States. Maybe Noah Webster himself had published that edition!
Mrs. Doty popped in and out of the place periodically, checking on our progress and hoping we club-footed cleaners hadn't damaged or shoveled out the items she hoped we wouldn't. She was most concerned about saving her paintings -- simple landscapes of New England and imaginary scenes of the Arizona desert, where she'd moved to in the 1950s.
Second in concern was her poetry, scattered handwritten on yellow legal pads in old boxes and cubbyholes around the place. Mrs. Doty was a lifelong poetess and artist and reader. The yellow legal pads yielded leaf after leaf of her experience and her feelings about it all.
All these fallen leaves from her tree of life sat in a near-level heap of rubbish about three feet deep which filled the entire house from one end to the other. Cockroaches had burrowed long intricate tunnels through the mass of rotting papers and clothes and magazines and books. Decomposing matter under the surface of this blanketing heap had long turned to brown sludge, and below that, black sludge. Dead newspapers and magazines and clothing were mixed with foodstuffs, full containers of juices, unopened soda cans, toilet paper, even coins. Because of the high pile, there were closets which hadn't been open in at least a decade.
I yanked down curtains and threw open windows as wide as they would go. The cobwebs were little trampolines of dead spiders. The sealed doors and windows had created the most indescribable, horrid parfait of mini-atmospheres I have ever encountered.
On the top layer of fetid air was the stench of cat shit. Just below that floating stench was the aroma of rotting paper, and below that lazed the aromas of the detritus of anaerobic microbes, insects, lizards, and from the woman herself.
The bathroom toilet had been buried under piles of flotsam also at least ten years. When I finally got to clearing away enough garbage to open the toilet lid, I saw she hadn't flushed it last she used it years ago. Frail, now-ancient female poops had more or less retained their shapes.
She was still using her bathroom, emptying a plastic bucket onto the trash pile. Water leaking from the buried toilet had glued the masses of cockroach-riddled detritus and fecal matter into a black goo, a silent germ-hell a few layers down at the bottom, leached throughout the house.
Every two or three minutes, some gagging crew member declared loudly through his protective mask that he could not imagine how she managed to live in that place and breathe in it too.
My first task was to clean out the refrigerator. It was still running, still cold and humming. Dressed in a protective suit and hood and a mask, with Vick's Vapo Rub spread across my mustache to help suppress the odor, I took a shovel and cleared out enough rubbish to get the door open all these years later.
The fridge and the freezer were still packed with foodstuffs. It looked as though Mrs. Doty had planned a big party years ago and forgot about it. All the food was perfectly preserved: ice creams, little cakes, popsicles, frozen meats, frozen vegetables, various cheeses, puddings, soups, juices, milks, sodas. All of it was peppered lightly with dead cockroaches which had managed to slither through the rubber seal and die of tummy aches and hypothermia.
Nothing in this world compares to the odor of food that has rotted slowly over a decade or more. Nothing. The stench of food packed with preservatives, left in the cold to rot so peacefully that the artificial chemicals intermingle thoroughly with the organic nosegay of deterioration creates a stench no actors in a horror movie could convey. Tradition says Satan smells of excrement. He must be a naive fellow to propose no worse odor than that.
For the first time in my life, I learned the basic meaning of the word "swoon." Despite my mask and Vicks' Vapo Rub, the refrigerator-crypt's odor made me swoon. I nearly fell over backward. I stumbled out to the back yard and yanked off my mask to breathe.
I looked down. My protective booties had sunk into a couple inches of raw sewage oozing into the daylight from a long neglected septic tank. That and the all-pervasive aroma of decaying cat shit -- I can't say how many cats lived with her -- drove me further away from the house, but not from the rubbish; I tripped over a whole back yard of plastic trash bags full of god knew what in Tucson's 110 degree heat.
I took a few breaths standing at the edge of the backyard fence, went back into the kitchen and attacked the refrigerated tomb again with my wide-edged shovel, scraping and dumping all this perfect-looking stuff -- and mummified cockroaches -- as fast as I could into my garbage can. I swooned again and ran out the door to avoid falling backward into the three-feet-deep grave of layered goo that was the floor.
After several bouts of shoveling and swooning I emptied the thing. The rest of the crew were shoveling away at the three-feet-deep crap in the living room; they too had to evacuate the house when periodically I'd pull things from the cold crypt, say, a package of fresh-looking chicken now meeting new air for the first time in years and reacting with it. I'd fill my garbage can full of the poison rot and lug it outside to the roll-off.
A roll-off is a heavy steel garbage container about 25 feet long, seven feet wide and seven feet high. It holds about one-thousand, two hundred cubic feet of flotsam and jetsam. Seven men filled three roll-offs to the brim with trash on the first day, and we still weren't finished. It would take nearly a week.
The crew chief, a great big man named Roy, slapped me heartily on the back for finishing the refrigerator task. He wouldn't be so jocular when he tried shoveling out the bathroom. He was an even bigger man to attempt that himself, but when it turned out he had to rush out the front door, tear off his mask and dry-heave every two or three minutes, the rest of us pitched into the job with him.
We were afraid to vomit. We might not have stopped.
We'd go home with the stench of the day stuck in our sinuses. No amount of hosing down, bathing, showering, toothbrushing, gargling, got rid of it. I tossed and turned through the night, the pervasive sensations of that house still trapped in my sinuses, half-dreaming of shoveling, shoveling, shoveling, killing poisonous spiders roosting in the buried furniture, wondering what in the world that old woman was all about.
WHAT IN THE WORLD THAT OLD WOMAN WAS ALL ABOUT
There's something about the cockroach. A million other species are less agreeable in appearance and disposition, but the cockroach, its skittering hordes emigrating across dirty dishes like pioneers guiding their mule teams to old California, changing its pristine nature into a noisy stink forever, presents a sight that sinks ineluctably into the spine, deeper than the dread of a poisonous spider or snake. It's subtler than dread.
Long ago someone did a study: if mankind finally scorches the planet with nuclear weapons, we won't survive, but cockroaches will, trouble-free. They were alive and skittering before men stood upright, goes the story, and man's upright thinkers think it will be skittering around just as exuberantly after we bumble angrily into extinction.
The cockroaches in Mrs. Doty's house were about two inches long. Everywhere my shovel plowed into the heaps, they'd skitter out in all directions, some half-flying the way upset chickens do. They'd run to safety, then turn to stare warily at the gargantuan invader, wiggling their antennae in curiosity. They were wondering how I'd taste.
Every drawer I opened brought a flapping flurry of leaping, flying wild cockroaches. Over keepsakes, over gloves, handkerchiefs and earrings and bracelets and old photographs and pens and pencils and dust kitties they clambered, silently evoking screeching violins up and down my spine.
I should have been working more swiftly, but as the cockroaches bolted for the safety of the corners of the ceiling, I'd look for clues in the drawers they'd pioneered, colonizing Mrs. Doty's life all these years. How could she sleep in that bed, a lonely island dead-level with the sea of trash she'd made around it? How come the neighbors had never noticed anything strange about her all these years? I hadn't either.
She was popular with her local church group, friendly with her neighbors -- many of whom stopped by and asked what we were doing and whether or not Mrs. Doty was all right. Apparently, none of her friends knew this about her. But at some point, the stench emanating from that house compelled the next door neighbor, a renter, to complain to the city and this brought us.
I'd read about this kind of behavior some years ago -- I don't know the psychological-lingo for it, if there is any other, but the pleasant woman I'd met at the door of that reeking old bungalow must be what was called a miser. Much buried in the rotting paper had been collected from trash cans. As the heaps grew higher, she'd trample over them to get to get to her bed. Why would she grab all this trash and hold onto it like that?
Hmmm. Here's an old application for a prayer-benefit from the Reverend Ike. I remember that charlatan. Didn't he wind up in jail? That's too superstitious for a Lutheran, which is what the other pamphlets on the dresser suggest Mrs. Doty is.
And there's an old photo of a pretty blonde woman and a little boy... who? Daughter? Grandson?
Yellow legal pads with her poems and reminiscences are scattered throughout the house. Finally, however, I open a wooden box where some are stored specially. I read one of them.
"Dear God, please let my son live," it goes, "please let my son live. I will do anything you ask. Please let my son live."
The letter to God goes on to describe what her son is suffering from, who the blonde lady and grandson in the photograph are -- the blonde lady had divorced her son and taken Mrs. Doty's only grandson far away. Mrs. Doty's son was suffering from a terminal illness, now made worse by the emotional stress. He's in the hospital, near death, at the writing of this letter between Mrs. Doty and God.
Her handwriting is even and neat and sane-looking. For that, her written words of anguish are as painful as anguish is. She has been robbed of her life with nothing to hang onto but her poetry and her paintings.
Her letters to God mention her son by name, but perhaps for God's sake, she mostly refers to David as "my son." Doesn't God know who David is? David is her only son. Don't take her son away. Please cure him of this brain condition. Through the pages of legal-pad pleas, she describes his progress. Some days she writes to God thanking him profusely, he's improved a little.
Mrs. Doty also mentions her husband to God. She could understand how God would have taken him just a month ago, at his age and his stressful years as an aviator. But please Dear God, let my son live. Bring my grandson back to me. That explains her appeals to the fraudulent Reverend Ike.
In three months from the date of this letter, her son will have died. The year is 1985. Her husband had died that January. Missus Doty has been this way for the twenty years since, not ten. She's been a shell of good cheer and neighborliness to all, prowling the alleyways at night, trying somehow to fill her house from the trash containers with what was missing.
We clear away rubbish and pry a closet door open, revealing tasteful, pretty dresses hanging neatly the way they were 20 years ago. I pull a divan up out of three feet of solid trash and count four or five fat, healthy Black Widow and Arizona Brown spiders roosting in the upholstery springs underneath it. They're meeting daylight for the first time in their lives. They don't budge even though I'm juggling their home around. We don't move because we don't have to. What're yew looking at, Bub?
I hear Roy hollering outside. "Don't you touch me! Don't you touch me!" I go out to see this man about 6'2", 300 pounds, fending Mrs. Doty off, more than a foot shorter and two hundred pounds lighter. He's actually frightened; she could be poisonous. It might be comical if it weren't Mrs. Doty, pleading with him to stop throwing her paintings away. I step in and do that. She thanks me and tells me I have kind eyes -- she has always been a specialist in reading people's eyes, she says. Yes, she can tell I'm kind.
We wrest a rocking chair up from the depths of living room trash. There remains a twenty-year-old streak of effluvia on the seat. Roy tells me that this was the chair where Mister Doty died of a massive heart attack, suddenly and at once. Missus Doty had neither time nor heart to clean it by the time her son, too, began to die and her grandson was spirited away. She had mummified her house with trash, burying the rocking chair as it was when her husband collapsed.
Emerson said that a house will retain the moods of the people who live in it. I'd pass this house now and then for a year or so, seeing no sign of Mrs. Doty. It stayed the way we left it, emptied, roughly cleaned, haunted by loneliness. There is such thing as ghost odors; in the smell of detritus drifted out wispy tendrils of her years of hidden desolation. It never went up for sale so long as I lived in the neighborhood.