It’s in everything, that famous ‘unforgettable’ smell of death. It’s in the food cooking on the stove right now as I type. It’s there in any room where people are gathered. I can taste it, faintly, on my own breath. I just never noticed it before. The smell is of rust and sleep, and something like shit or rancid soil. It’s overwhelming that this is the natural state humans return to. In theory there’s nothing to fear about it. Death’s natural.
Today I cleaned up after one of our residents after they passed away. It was my first body. He had lain in bed for days before being discovered. It so happened that I’d accepted a housekeeping shift (my first in almost a year) the same day this sad discovery was made. Rex was the first man on my list of rooms to clean.
There was drama after he was found in his bed, bloated and emitting harsh odours. The smell of death passed unnoticed in the hallway that already reeked – of body odor and urine, smells only superficially tamped down by industrial cleaning agents, Febreeze and elbow grease.
The paramedics didn’t even take his pulse.
“He’s deader than dead,” one of the EMRs said. “He’s so dead he’s blue.” The two paramedics went and sat in the cafeteria and had coffee. “The cops take it from here.”
An hour later an officer arrived alone, in plainclothes and acting leisured. She was in the basement for only a brief spell.
“He’s dead,” she said, when she emerged. Foul play was not suspected. They have ways of knowing. “But don’t go in there. Don’t touch anything,” she warned. “The coroner will take it from here.”
A few hours later a coroner arrived, a woman diminutive and pony-tailed and cheerful, like Shelley Duvall in the first half of The Shining.
“You got something for me?” she said, and the boss said We sure do. Down they went together.
I don’t know what transpired then; the manager of Hill House figured it was none of my business although I asked her quietly if I could be present when the coroner did her thing, whatever it was she had to do. “Don’t you have laundry to get done?” the boss asked, rather rudely I thought; in lesser situations she did not mind anyone tagging along on her officious errands, shooting the shit, leaning on the mop for a spell, and witnessing how important she was, with her banty-hen walk and jingling managerial keys. Maybe she felt nervous because for three days no one had even noticed Rex was missing.
I did have laundry to do, of course. A corpse was a corpse, but another one of my scheduled tenants had drunk-shat all over his floor and bed sheets. But I only wanted to see the process because Rex’s situation mirrored that of my dad’s. Dead for days before he was found. I wanted to see how people talked around his body, what they decided about him. The conclusions.
Also, Rex had always been very nice to me, in his demented sort of way. I wanted to see what was happening.
The coroner left after a quick inspection, nothing unusual to report. The ambulance attendants were finally mobilized; they plodded downstairs, flopped Rex into a body bag and carted him off. They were in good spirits because this single call had technically lasted several hours, although 90% of it had been spent drinking coffee, gabbing, and reading the newspaper.
The fridge in the staff room has a magnet on it. It’s an advertisement for a local biohazard company. I figured that from this point onward another cleaner would take over. I still had 4 hours left in my shift when the manager tracked me down on my rounds.
“First off, you can say ‘No,’” she began.
I laughed. A part of me had known this was coming, based on the piecemeal aspect of how things are undertaken around here.
“You want me to clean that room,” I said.
“You don’t have to,” she said. “I can do it. I’ve done it before.”
I am starting nursing school in 2 months. I have to know that I have a stomach for things…
“I can do it,” I said. “As long as we have the right gear.” Thanks to true-crime shows and the Internet, our society is inundated with morbid facts. I knew that any days-old corpse would have left a bit of a mess.
“Are you sure,” she said half heartedly.
I knew the right answer was an indignant “This isn’t my job!” I could make the task go away. But… we are a chronically underfunded agency, and everything else around here is haphazardly executed. The whole world is like this.
And I felt oddly possessive of the task. Once upon a time I could not even look at a dead bird or get a shot without half-fainting; somehow, in the past few years, my mentality has changed. I want to do gross things, scary things, absurd things because the time passes just the same as normal. Only you come out on the other side knowing things maybe some people don’t know.
“I’ll get to it after I eat lunch,” I said. “And I have to finish some laundry.”
“Don’t eat first,” the boss said. “That’s my one word of advice.”
“How bad is it? How did he die? Should we call a special clean-up company?”
“It’s not bad,” she said. “Some fluids escaped. As they do. There’s an odour you won’t soon forget but nothing that can hurt you. The job’s easy when you think about it: absolutely everything goes into bags. Don’t look, just throw it all away.”
“Throw everything away?” I asked.
“Yup. No next-of-kin. Plus, the stink is in everything. Right into the trash.”
I tried to think how I’d do this if I had done it a hundred times before. I got a shower room ready for when I was through, with soap and towels laid out and open garbage bags (one to take my Tyvek suit and gloves; one to hold the clothes I wore beneath.) I stood in front of room 101 and zipped myself into the suit. The hood fitted tightly over my head. I put goggles on. I felt like a deep sea diver, slowly disconnecting from the surface world. I slid on the booties and the gloves and the mask, which instantly felt suffocating. My temperature became inching up and I had to take fast gulps of air to assure myself I was able to breathe.
It was snack time. Residents shuffled past me, on their way to the cafeteria for muffins. No one commented, no one asked what I was doing. I waited until the hall was empty before I unlocked 101 and slipped inside with my cart. I closed the door behind me. “Nothing I see now is different than anything already in me, that’s in the bodies of everyone I pass by on he street,” I told myself. “It’s just, like, got loose.”
I could only see half of the room because of a wall between me and the bed. But the smell hit me first, jumping in and asserting itself although it had been oddly faint on the other side of the cheap door. Rust and dirt and heat, the thick odour of dead things breeding.
There was one coin of blood on the floor.
“If you feel like you’re wrenching, leave the room,” the boss had told me. I’d looked back at her blankly. Did… she mean “retch”, or was she truly talking hillbilly-talk at me right now? My bemused look prompted her to demand, “Don’t you know what wrenching is?” and she mimicked retching sounds, holding her throat and staring at me like I was stupid.
I walked over to the coin of blood and looked to my left at the bed and my vision skittered sideways, as if I was watching a film and the camera was dropped. So much blood! The bed looked like every crime scene photograph I’ve ever looked at. Most recently I was roaming around in the Police Museum for the second time, and had been considering the factual capture of devastation managed by crime scene photographs. No artsy framing, no dramatic lighting, no exaggeration. Only the facts but so often overwhelming compared to the sanitized version of events we receive in the surface world.
There was a significant volume of fluid on the blankets. The word that came to my mind was a terminal volume. This was not a nosebleed, or any other conventional bleeding one might experience and still go on living. This was mortal. The blood soaking into the sheets was like a Clive Barker sunset, a crimson puddle graduating outward in shades of red before becoming a watery pink. It was sloppy. Fuck! And I couldn’t breathe very well. I went over to the window and leaned out as far as I could, nudging the mask aside with my wrist, although I hadn’t touched anything with my hands yet. I already felt contaminated, as if suspended in an aquarium, death particles clinging to me.
“Teeeeedddddddddddddddddddddddddddddd,” a woman stood outside in the alley, hollering up at the window of one of the residents. She was a prostitute no longer allowed in the building because of trying to rip people off all the time. She still had her ‘marks’ in the building, men like Ted who gave her money out of their welfare or pension, not even in a sexual context anymore, but just to make her go away and leave them alone.
“Stop yelling at windows!! This is a residential building!” I shouted back, leaning out the window in my ghetto outfit, the Hallowe’en version of ‘Breaking Bad: Season 1.’ “Leave people in peace!!”
“Arrgh!” I said to the room, turning my back on the alley-woman’s shocked face.
I flapped open the garbage bags and dashed into the bathroom, throwing in will-nilly all the dead resident’s grooming supplies. Shaver, toothpaste, drinking mug. I took the roll of toilet paper and threw that in too. There was an alarming number of Listerine bottles, and in they went. Mouthwash, the last respite of alcoholics after 11pm when the liquor stores close. I was being productive, getting a lot of the belongings into bags but the stained bed was the elephant in the room. I had to deal with it. There was no easy way to tackle it without getting close. I leaned over the blood and popped one side of the fitted sheet.
“Aggh!” I said, as the sheet loosened with a quiet damp sound. Flies (I had not seen them until now) drifted past my face. I pulled off each corner of the fitted sheet and pulled the bed away from the wall. Unfortunately there was fluid all along the wall, flowing down into the zone where your book might fall when you fall asleep reading. I was not scrubbing that. I was getting the blankets and the belongings into the bags and the stupid boss could take it from there. I grabbed the heavy comforter. It seemed too heavy but I knew this was psychological. I wadded it into a bag. The sheets underneath were violent colours. Fluid and blood had escaped from his bottom half. Was this really death? After a couple of days the decomposition gases would force liquid from any escape hatch. It was undignified but I tried to be reasonable, and have only sympathy not disgust. Everyone, everywhere, is full of shit and liquid. Where is it all supposed to go if functions suddenly cease? The sheets detached from the sodden mattress reluctantly. More flies. A fresh wave of smell. The saturated mattress itself, flopped to the ground and zipped into a bag. Once the worst of it was packaged up I had to move the mask aside again, and breathe at the window until the black spots left my vision.
The rest of the room was easy. Other than the way he passed, the tenant had been very clean. Odd though, to throw away everything that somebody owned! This was another instance of next-of-kin being unknown, and nothing of value to save. Only tidy clothes, hanging up neatly. A neat stack of books: the dictionary, an atlas, a guide on how to raise chickens. Empty wine bottles, rinsed and lined-up in the closet. I thought of my own home, full of scraps of paper and unworn clothes and general chaos and disorder. I resolved to throw away things, to pare my own life down and keep it that way, to make it easy on whoever might have to clean up after me one day.
I’m not trying to write this salaciously or gruesomely. I just want to remember how it was. After work, I met my husband on the Seawall as it was Friday and we wanted to sit and drink coffee and watch bicycle commuters go past. In the café was a very new baby being dangled from it’s mothers arms; he was surrounded by women who touched him and laughed over him, his bleary newborn’s eyes were still oblivious to his surroundings. I was upset, looking at that baby, and imagining a scene 65 years or so when the dead man had been new in the world and hopefully was wanted and had someone who paraded him about and showed him the world. Although he left no next-of-kin I hope he had a good time. We go, and the manner of our going seems needlessly untidy and sad. If only we could shrivel up and blow away to a kinder place, leaving no demands on a world that never took notice of us.
“I don’t understand why at the end of a life it can all be put into the garbage,” I said, looking at the baby as Rod doctored his coffee.
“It doesn’t matter. Dead is dead,” he sad, with a pragmatism I might never be able to muster. “No matter what, no matter what we leave behind, we’re gone, and the important part is having a good life, and enjoying it while it occurs. Legacies are what other people decide. Your choice is to love your life and enjoy it. The end is always terrible, but that is none of your business, because you’re out of there by then.”
Does it all come to the same in the end? No matter what we try and do, are we just a bad smell and a mess when it is all over?
“No one is special,” R continues. No, it’s just that no one is spared, I tell myself, and it is a cold realization, even though it’s something we should already know.