Warning: there are nasty bits ahead, dealing with both humans and animals.
You have been warned.
Greetings, WYMOP readers.
One week ago today I was at work, zipping along from door to door delivering the mail, when something happened that brought me up short. I opened a storm door—we’d been through a cool spell, and four or five flies buzzed out, the suction of the opening door jerking them rudely from where they’d been huddled into that sun-warmed space—and thrust the bundle of letters and catalogues through the slot. The spring-loaded cover snapped shut, but not before the entering bundle had displaced some of the air from inside the apartment, forcing it out in a puff directly in my face, and I smelled—
A few years ago, after striper fishing on a trestle bridge across a 4 a.m. tide, I was walking back out to my car as the sun was coming up, and found a deer on the tracks. It had either A) been hit by a train passing in the night (which I chose to believe, though I hadn’t seen the deer on the way in, and no trains had passed while I’d been there), or B) something large enough to take down a deer had been at work in the dark, maybe a hundred yards from where I’d been cutting my bait and casting my line by the bright light of a propane lantern (do you blame me for choosing to believe the phantom train option?). I was saddened at the sight (after choosing option A), but what could I do? I walked on, and the next night the deer was gone, removed by, I assume, MBTA employees.
A week later, walking in to the same spot by daylight to fish a late-night tide, I was met by a smell on the tracks. Faint at first, it grew rapidly as I walked. By the time I reached the spot where I’d found the deer the previous week, it was an eye-watering, throat-closing, stomach-churning stink, the like of which I’d never experienced, and I’d known some world-class gas-passers as a kid. I’d smelled stink bombs, hand-tossed buckets of chum out while fishing, and cleaned up after a dog getting sick from eating garbage, but I’d never encountered a stench like this. Following my nose—because I’m just as susceptible to “Hey, look at this, it’s gross!” as anyone—I moved to the side of the tracks to peer down the embankment into the bushes.
The deer lay where the MBTA people had tossed it (or, if you believe option B above, where it had been dragged to be eaten in peace), and it didn’t look good. I won’t go into the details of how the corpse had burst due to gas expansion (or, option B, something had been eating it), or how the first things to decompose were the softest bits (or, as always, option B—the more I go on, the harder it is for me to stick with option A); luckily, most of those details were obscured by the thick surrounding brush. But one thing the brush could not obscure was the odor, and that is a memory that just won’t fade. I’ll never forget the smell of—
I backed away from the door in hurry, then went to the truck for my phone.
“Hi. This is the mailman out here at [one of the senior housing areas I deliver to]. I’m not sure what to call it, other than a wellness check, so I guess I’m calling in a wellness check on Mr. F out here at number thirty-five.”
“A wellness check at thirty-five?”
“Yes,” I said. “But it’s not a hopeful one. I, uh, I think we lost him about a week ago.”
“There’s a smell.”
“Oh! I’m sending someone right away.”
And she was gone. I didn’t even mind that she’d hung up on me, as I’d realized by then that I could smell the hand holding the phone. I forget where I read it, but I’ve had a phrase stuck in my head for years: all smells are particulate in nature. This means if you can smell a thing, then microscopic bits of that thing are floating through the air into your nose, and if there are enough of those tiny bits, they register on your schnozz’s scent receptors—and humans, as a species, have shit for scent receptors. This told me that not only had I sucked in a good double-lungful of old Mr. F, that puff of air had coated my hand with a nice thick invisible Mr. F glove.
I walked, in a manly fashion but with speed, to the washroom by the facility’s laundry.
The soap dispenser was empty.
I stood there with the hot water running over my hand for about a minute, parboiling my flesh and wishing someone out there would do me a favor and turn up the water heater to a higher temperature. Something appropriate for cooking lobsters would have been nice. By the time I’d stopped scalding myself and delivered my way around the complex and back to my truck, the man from the Housing Authority had arrived.
“Okay, and there’s a lot of mail built up or something?”
“Dunno, it’s all inside. But there’s a smell . . .”
“Yeah. And it’s strong . . .”
Mr. Housing Authority went to the door, but didn’t open it; he called 911 and let the responding officer do it. While the officer was there the fire department showed up. While the fire department was there, a pair of detectives arrived. The detectives pulled me aside from the crowd to talk to me, trying to find out the last time anyone had seen Mr. F. From my answer (“Had to be last Monday, I think,”) and the state of Mr. F himself, they agreed with my first assessment: he’d been in there roughly seven days. Now there was a crowd, but he’d been alone in there for about a week.
I mentioned it to a couple of people that day, and one of them responded with a single sentence that summed up exactly how I felt about it:
Such a lonely way to go.
That’s just what I was thinking while trying to sterilize my hand: what a lonely way to go. And the odd thing was, I’d recently come to the conclusion that the whole little community that was that senior housing facility was a terrific thing, that though many of them had outlived their spouses (some even their kids), they weren’t alone in the world; they were living their own lives with other folks like themselves, all of them keeping an eye on one another.
But right in the middle of all this community, Mr. F managed to disappear for a week, slowly turning into something no parent wants their child to see, to know, to have as a memory to carry with them once that parent is gone. And I remembered my son had been worried about me recently, having heard me say I have no friends. Some people reading this may become a little incensed at that, demanding that they are my friends, and I’d have to agree with them. I would also explain, as I did with my son, that I’d misspoken.
What I meant was that I don’t have anyone I hang out with, no one I see on a regular basis. I’m part of a daily work community, and an even larger writing community, but I don’t see them socially. I like some people I work with, love some of the writers I know, but if I’m not actually at work, or at a writers’ event, no one expects to see me. I understand that, and it’s just the way I am, and it doesn’t really bother me.
I have a story coming out soon about someone afraid of growing old; the young man looks at his decrepit grandfather and asks Is that Father’s future? Is it mine? I find myself, a relatively young man from a fairly long-lived family who isolates himself within the community, looking at Mr. F, an old man dying alone, isolated within his community, and I can’t help but ask . . . is that my future?
Usually I write some kind of wrap-up, or attempt a snappy ending on these things, but not today. I can’t put an ending on it because I’m not done thinking. I liked Mr. F, and I’m glad I never actually saw him Monday, so I can simply remember him the way he always was. I’ve spoken with young Mr. F, old Mr. F’s son, and I’m glad I found his father so he didn’t have to, for exactly the same reason. Very glad. And I wonder if, someday, my own son will have a similar talk with a mailman, or meter reader, or, God forbid, a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses.
I just wonder.
Talk to you later.