Do You Smell Something?

Posted by on Mar 30, 2008 in All things natural, Death and renewal | 0 comments

Nothing in my exciting life has inspired me to write a lengthy post recently, not my new job, my first grandchild, or my many adventures in Denver over the past months, but in that perverse way of humans, the smell under the basement steps suddenly sends me running to my keyboard. My son first mentioned the slight odor of sewage at the bottom of the stairs when I got home from Colorado Friday a week ago. I was racing through the house at warp speed trying to get clothes washed and the house back in some reasonable order after two week away, so I just agreed with him and filed the information away in “Things I gotta do someday-clean garage”.

Now our garage is an integral part of the house, with a door opening into the basement and a dark hole of a closet under the steps that divides the laundry room from the garage. The house, built in the seventies, has a dearth of electrical outlets, and poorly organized storage space, but the under the steps closet is a nightmare. It contains three bed frames, several tires for cars we no longer have, an air conditioner that my husband stubbornly refused to relinquish even after we put in a new heating/cooling system two years ago, a guitar he once used as a canoe paddle, many containers, both empty and full (don’t know, ask my husband), and a lot of other even more questionable stuff, all surrounded by pink fiberglass insulation that we ineffectively tacked up in one of our periodic efforts at energy efficiency.

Monday evening when I returned from the gym at 11 pm my son greeted me on arrival. “That smell is getting worse Mom”, he tells me with exasperation. I am too tired to do anything other than agree with him, but when you’re right, you’re right. All week we had fleeting conversations about the smell, but by Thursday I knew that it was not sewage. “Son,” I announced to him while making my lunch to take to work, “It’s something dead, something pretty big, like a rat or a cat.” Since there are six cats living in our house, we take a quick head count to make sure none are missing. We discuss this over the next few days and the whole house is skeptical of my analysis, my husband because he has lost his sense of smell almost entirely, my daughter because she spends most of her time at the gym or at work, and my son, because, well, he has no experience to prepare him for the stench of putrefication. Being at home during the day however, and stuck there with the smell, he goes on a halfhearted search for the source, poking about in the front of the closet and in the laundry room. He is looking for a rat hole or a nest of orphaned mice, their mother victim to our small serious gray cat that lives in the garage. He finds nothing and I can’t really blame him. Searching for the dead thing under the stairs is not a job even the bravest do alone.

Saturday morning with the stench not subsiding, I can avoid the issue no longer. Armed with flashlights and gloves, son and I start the search in earnest. The laundry room has a tiny hole in the baseboard, but it has long ago been covered with a board solidly held in place with a giant cooler purchased for Wedstock in 2003 and used once again for Equinox in 05. It is unlikely that we will find anything there, but pulling back the board increases our nausea, so I decide to call for reinforcements. “Go get your father,” I say, and he is more than willing to comply in order to get away form the smell, if only briefly. Everyone watches as I poke at the hole with the jigsaw I pulled from the toolbox. It is half hearted at best, and only a delaying tactic to avoid the black hole of Calcutta where we all know we are headed. Finally, all other avenues exhausted, I lead the charge. Jason gets the well-named trouble light, Dad opens the garage door for ventilation, and I squeeze through the narrow opening, already knowing what I will find.

Our sweet, but litter box challenged gray cat has lived for years in the garage, a window open slightly for her egress. Unfortunately she is not the only creature that uses that porthole in the dead of night. I have been surprised by raccoons, possums, and a host of other neighborhood cats, all of them living happily on the magical endless supply of cat chow in her bowl. I can usually tell when she is not alone by her level of agitation, except for one frequently visitor, a scrawny one-eyed black cat she tolerates better than the other wildlife. The cat is unapproachable, running like spitfire when we open the door. I often see him making the neighborhood rounds, but I doubt that he has a real home except for our garage. I haven’t seen him lately, gray cat has been avoiding the garage this week, and I think I know why.

I hand the boards and cans out the door, and assembly line style, they pile up in the already cluttered garage. The air conditioner requires someone with more muscle than I have, so son wrestles it out through the narrow opening. I fold up the table it rested on, a toddler height refuge from my husband’s childhood, and shine the light to the farthest reaches of the pit. There, behind a spare tire belonging to some unknown and long discarded vehicle, surrounded by pink insulation, is a mass of black; possibly furry, possibly animal like, possibly the source of the odor. Jason and I agree on tactics at this point, the man with a nose that is blind and deaf to smells is summoned. He arrives with a single plastic bag. I go immediately to get a larger one I know he will need. He comes back out shortly asking for plastic gloves. Son and I stand in the cluttered garage waiting for him to emerge. “It’s a cat”, comes the already know verdict from the closet. He emerges after a bit holding a heavy-laden white bag at shoulder height, well away from his body. Even when the bag is far from the house, the smell is still enormous. I send him back to clean up insulation, the itchy nest of the late one-eyed cat. Son sprays everything with Lysol, but still the odor lingers.

We spend the rest of the day in speculation as to the when, how, and why of the cat’s demise. I wonder if it was the fiberglass insulation, or worms, or some incurable disease like leukemia. I hope it didn’t give my cat the virus, although it might be a bit late to think about that. My husband swears he can smell the horrible aroma, but I think he is just remembering the way dead things smell in sympathy for the family. After I return from the gym the smell is slightly better. We spend the bulk of the afternoon outside, hacking away at a dead tree that has fallen in the front yard, grinding it noisily to mulch. It seems a day for dead things, but all around the time of renewal is upon us. The pink camellia blooms with wild abandon by the garage door, the jonquils have almost faded, the iris that I cannot kill are sending up budding shoots in the woods where I tossed them out of the flower bed. Later, showered and dressed for dinner and dancing, my husband and I chat in the car.

“What do you think it died from,” he quizzes once again.

“I don’t know, could have been so many things. I guess we were his family even though we didn’t realize it. I will say one thing though, I am glad it had a warm safe place to lie down when the time came. I’m glad we could give him that, at least.” We are both quiet for a while but I read his mind, both of us thinking about the animals that have come and gone in our lives, and our own lives, as we have surely passed our middle age marker.

“Yes,” he says, “Me too.”

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