The Smell of Death in August

I moved into the old house in August. August in Indiana might not be hot enough to melt the soles of your shoes, but it tries. The house was a white worn out, two story affair that was regularly populated with college kids too broke or independent or drunk to live on campus. We, the four of us, were the first grad students to fill it and the landlord seemed optimistic about the arrangement. After all, how much trouble could a bunch of poets get into?

(The man was clearly unfamiliar with the fine arts. Didn’t Charles Manson fancy himself a bit of a wordsmith?)

As promised, he’d cleaned the place out over the summer. When we’d toured it the Spring before, it was clear the poor house had been abused and insulted by previous residents. The basement had the look of a staging area for some specific and unpopular pornography. There were wet pillows.

In August, everything was painted and swept and damn near habitable. The work van was still parked out front the day I moved into the upstairs, north facing bedroom and inflated my mattress on the floor. Ah, home. I threw open the windows – noting that I’d need to buy screens to keep out the bugs.

That evening, the warm breeze shifted and I slammed the windows shut. I met one of my roommates in the hall. “Do you smell that!?”

“Smell it?!” she gasped, “I can taste it.”

It smelled like the kind of wasting sickness that steals your bowel control before it takes your life. It was like a hospital dumpster in the midst of a Cholera outbreak. The next day was worse. The temperature was climbing and every hot breeze brought the threat of vomit. It had to be a sewer problem. It had to be a family of dead raccoons rotting in a crawl space. Maybe a shut in had passed?

My roommate and I sat sweating on the front porch with our ghetto sangria (cheap red wine and coke) and giant sunglasses running through the possibilities. She was not the type to wonder for long.

“I’m gonna find the source of the stench,” she announced abruptly, hoisting out of her chair. Impressed, I followed. It did not take very long to figure out that the smell was coming from the van parked out front. I cannot overstate the fetid, malodorous stench emanating from the van. I wondered if CSI South Bend was needed.

The neighbor girl was out watering her mama’s flowers. “Guy who lived here over the summer liked to fish,” she offered. “Pretty sure he left a bucket of fish guts in there couple weeks ago. Never came back.”

We called the landlord and got apologies and platitudes. He never came. We called him again the next day and threatened to call the goddamn CDC if he didn’t remove the van immediately. This is how the zombie apocalypse starts, we said.

He sent over a kid, maybe twenty years old, wearing a Notre Dame baseball cap. It was a school kid, he said, did errands for him time to time. We gathered to watch with a pitcher of sangria and smelling salts. Some of the neighbors peered out of windows. By this time the stench was a bit of a legend, and the man who could best it would be king or something. Plus as the expression goes…”this ought to be good”

The kid slowed as he came up to the van, trudging through the thick putrescence. We were watching though, and not subtly, so he didn’t bail. He flung open the sliding door and was hit in the face was such a wall of swarming flies and stink that it knocked him back. He slammed the door shut again, thank God, then stumbled a few feet before puking out his breakfast and maybe some of last night’s tequila all over the weedy grass of our hell-strip. Then he left with the stench following him with cat calls and taunts.

sangria and stink

When he came back later, accompanied by three other guys in flip flops and ND caps, it wasn’t to move the van. He just had to share the awful horror of the stink with his friends and show it he wasn’t afraid. There are some smells so bad, they need to be experienced to be believed. There was much high fiving. The van stayed one more night, and my windows stayed shut. My air-mattress became an inflatable pool of my own sweat.

Finally, the landlord borrowed a ventilator and a hazmat suit and saved us. When he came back, I said I hoped he didn’t have to drive far.

“Not far at all,” he said. “I just parked it behind one of my other houses a few blocks that way.” He gestured vaguely. “The tenants are disgusting, maybe the smell’ll inspire them to clean something.”

8 thoughts on “The Smell of Death in August

  1. Gah! I hope it at least killed off the chiggers in your hell strip. I don’t think chiggers even exist in California.

  2. Great story, as always! But WHY would anyone leave a bucket of fish guts in a hot van in the middle of summer? Could you have got it towed? Make the owner pay for it.

  3. Haha. Yessss! Great story. The last quote is great. I have some fun journal entries from this time and about this incident. So fun. Glad you’re writing big totally owe you a letter.

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