I’ve smelled it before.
Too often, in fact.
But it had been a while, at least at this intensity.
I was in one of our small towns last week, attempting to serve an official court paper. I pulled up to the public housing apartment complex and got out. I’d been there before. Fights, drunks, sexual assaults, eviction notices, divorce decrees.
The door was standing wide open and I was still about 50 feet away when I got the first whiff.
“Son of a bitch,” I said.
The Roto-Rooter guy looked at me as he came out. “No, shit. It’s bad in here.”
It was the apartment I was headed for, of course. I stopped. “Are they dead?”
He stared, his eyes wide. “What?”
“Well, they’re not dead downstairs, I can tell you that.”
I nodded and went to the porch. “Where’s maintenence?”
“Next door. We’re trying to figure out where the main line is getting plugged.” When he realized what he was saying, coupled with my question, his face bled color until he was solid white. “Shit.”
“No,” I said, trying to ease up the tension. “If it was a body, you’d know it.”
“That ain’t funny.”
I shook my head. “Ain’t supposed to be. Would you grab maintenence, please?”
I took a deep breath and stepped inside.
A couple years ago, I went to a possible death on the far side of the county. The house was crammed with garbage. Books strewn everywhere, empty food containers, full and rotted food containers, cat and dog feces, hundreds if not thousands of dead insects and others feasting on those.
And the smell. That thick, ammonia odor that stings the inside of your nose even as it burns your eyes and makes your throat close.
This was exactly the same.
Then, the resident, a woman in her mid 50s, was in a chair nearly dead.
Now, there was no one in any chair. The chairs were, in fact, broken.
The house was just as strewn with garbage and soiled clothes, food, broken ceramics, congealed pizza boxes. Except for a slim walkway through to the kitchen, the nastiness was ankle deep…everywhere. In the kitchen, every surface was covered with rotted food and insects. There were fingers of what appeared to be grease reaching down from the counter toward the floor, seemingly permanently frozen in that reach. There was a fly long since dead and stuck in what looked like it had once been a slice of cheese pizza.
The cat feces, rather than being randomly found as in the other house, was nicely piled. It was near the litter box, but not quite in the litter box. In the corner, piled probably ten inches deep.
And the smell. That cat-piss smell that always struck me as less a need to clean than a need to put something other than despair in someone’s soul. I’ve smelled that stench countless times while working for the Sheriff’s Office and sometimes it’s just people being nasty and contemptuous of keeping their lives clean. But many times, I think it’s people being lost and maybe dazed by the mountain range of hurt that traps them.
Upstairs, in one of two bedrooms, was a mattress. It sat on the floor, surrounded by clothes that had human feces smeared on them. Not every bit of clothing, but enough that seemed less an accident than a particular method of living.
Horrified, I called the local town police chief. He came out and said he’d been at this apartment before. The woman who lived here with her son was a military veteran, born in 1939, and the place was much cleaner than it had been on his previous visit.
“You gotta call the Department of Aging,” I said. “This could be elder abuse.”
A woman more than 70 years old, kept in this nightmare by her son? Seemed to fairly scream elder abuse to me.
“They came out last time. She said was personally clean so there was nothing they could do.”
I blinked, unable to say anything. It was worse last time and the department thought there was nothing they could do? For days after, I was unable to even understand what that meant. Nothing they could do?
“Can we at least track her down? Find out why they left the apartment so fast? All their stuff is still here.”
“Maybe she died,” he said.
And God help me I didn’t want to think it, but some tiny part of me realized that might be the best thing for her. If this was how she lived at the end of a long life, maybe it was time to be done.
Then the Chief’s jaw began to grind. “And he’d be just the type of fuck to keep getting her benefit checks. I’ll call the VA, find out where the checks are going. Don’t worry, we’ll find her.”
The son, I learned, had a bit of a problem behind the herb. Maybe Mama had died and he saw her VA check as a great way to keep his local ganja salesman well cashed.
As I was leaving, I noticed the table above the cat feces. Rickety and small, like a table for a broken vase of dead flowers. On top wasn’t flowers, but five or six toys of American military tanks. And on the wall above that were some service commendations.
And around it all was that smell.