Four roommates. One bathroom. Old house.
This isn't a story about mold, mildew and other virulent life forms, though they certainly struggled for a leading role in this story. It's not a story about men missing the rim or trashcans over-flowing with unidentifiably stained tissue, though god know it could have been. Nor is it a story about 40 years of leakage onto decaying wood beams, that's another story.
This is a story about a cupboard no one ever looked in. And a bad smell. A very bad smell.
So many bathrooms in houses full of 20-something slackers smell that it hardly merits a memoir. Nevertheless, this smell only started in that league. Just a gentle suggestion of corruption warring with the toilet, trashcan and piles of spilled makeup. Nothing to worry about. At first.
But the days wear on and the smell doesn't shift or abate. It grows. The sickly sweet tang of rotting flesh arrives. God forbid, we'll have to clean the bathroom. A house meeting is called. Acrimony, accusation, attitude all battle as the roommates attempt to demonstrate that there is no way that it is their turn to engage in this horrid task. Frustration, ill-will, demands all fly back and forth until everyone agrees to do a bit. The bathroom is cleaned.
Many likely candidates are purged. Cleaning tools are rescued from behind the toilet, detoxed and pressed into use. Heavy cleaning chemicals are engaged. Layers of filth are stripped away. Hope reigns supreme. But as the odor of the scrubbing bubbles wafts out the window, the smell of death seeps back into the room, all the purer for not having to share out nostrils with the general bathroom funk.
This is all occurring in June in Texas with no air conditioning. The members of the household are beginning to skip bathing and other hygienic acts which require extended time in the bathroom. The unavoidable bodily acts are being rushed, elimination timed not to require respiration. Visitors to the house are finding excuses to leave in a hurry. The funk is creeping out of the bathroom into the hall. One of the roommates is peeing in the yard. Something must be done.
I have a shaky stomach. It is no challenge to make me queasy. I am particularly susceptible to smells. My room is next door to the bathroom. I am the almost the oldest house resident. I am bald. Somehow, these combine, in the minds of my roommates, into the perfect qualifications for solving this problem. Since there is no chance that I will be able to afford to live anyplace else, I am forced to concur.
Logic dictated that something was causing the smell (yes, I recognize the obviousness of this statement, but I had to start somewhere for goodness' sake.) Since we hadn't found it during the Great Cleansing, it had to be in the ceiling, walls or under the floor. In this part of Austin, the houses are built on 'pier and beam' foundations. Pillars of concrete (modern) or cedar (old-timey) rise 1 to 3 feet off the ground and support wooden beams which serve as the structural base for the house. There are no basements. Just a creepy, dark, dirty, animal graveyard that must be navigated by crawling on your belly with a house creaking above you and water and sewer pipes pressing close against your sides.
Crawling under houses in this manner is an experience that I have somehow repeatedly endured. I'm sure we will revisit the topic. Suffice to say that at any moment you flashlight may illuminate a dead cat skeleton, a mother possum too stupid to play dead or a raccoon weighing in at a sizable portion of your own body weight. Not pleasant.
Of course, the bathroom in the house in question resided at the farthest point possible away from the access hatch, meaning a long slow crawl encountering god knows what. My choices are limited. I go in. Broken glass, draping electrical cables, piles of lightly covered cat poop slowing aging into coprolites. I am past the halfway mark when I realize that I was too stupid to bring anything like a garbage bag along. What I will do if I discover the source of the carnal rot is a big mystery. I can't actually turn around until I get almost under the bathroom so I decide I must continue. I'm trying to calculate if I'm under the bathroom proper, the pipes look about right, but there is no smell at all. I hear a familiar sound, the toilet flushing, ominously amplified by having my ear 3 inches from the sewer pipe. My head feels weirdly cool. The toilet is leaking through the semi-rotten wood floor onto my neck. I am disgusted.
30 minutes later I have wormed my way back out of the underhouse. I am evil with the nasties I've crawled through. There is no way I am going to go take a shower. At this stage, taking a shower in the bathroom of death means technical cleanliness and emerging with an undeniable aroma of roadkill. I hose off in the back yard.
The roommates are concerned. Why haven't I dealt with the smell yet. Don't I understand their plight? Something must be done.
Acute observation is called for. I douse a handkerchief in SeaBreeze astringent cleanser and go in for a look. True, there is mold on every bit of drywall to some degree, nothing to indicate a special stash of evilness. But something is nagging at the back of my mind. Eventually, as various parts of my mind check out due to either too much funk or too much SeaBreeze, it occurs to me that the ceiling over the shower is lower than the rest of the room. Closer inspection shows that what appears at first glance to be panels are actually cupboard doors that have had the handles removed and have been painted over many many times. AHA! There must be a secret space.
I rush for tools, a trusty knife to crack the seal of the paint, paint scrapers, screwdrivers and most importantly a big hammer. With my trusty handkerchief tied around my face I go to work. The results are not pretty. I scratch, I mar, I dent. But soon, I have a screwdriver wedged under the edge of the smallish door. The roommates are waiting with baited breath down the hall, curious but cautious. I use my weight on the screwdriver to lever the door open and...
A HUGE CLOUD OF GREEN FUNK RUSHES OUT AND GRABS MY HEAD. I can vaguely hear my roommates down the hall as their screams echo past the screen door they slam behind them, fleeing the house. I am dizzy and on my knees. Somehow I manage to knock the door shut and crawl out of the bathroom into the kitchen where I stick my head in the sink, rinsing and rinsing. And yet, I know I must go back in. The job has only just begun.
Under the kitchen sink (easily worthy of another story in this series,) I find an ancient rubber Rubbermaid glove. Searching about the kitchen I am pleasantly surprised to find large trash bags. I can't imagine why, it's not like anyone ever emptied the old one, but whatever. I tear some holes and don one like a tunic. A t-shirt soaked in SeaBreeze joins the handkerchief as a secondary facial covering. I stick my gloved hand into a trash bag and turn it inside out so that I can grab with the bag. I'm as ready as I'll ever be. I'm going in.
The space above the shower runs it's entire length. I had opened one of the doors on the far end. As I pulled it open, gritting my teeth against the putrid cloud that continued to emanate, it was clear that whatever the source of this hellish smell was, it was back in the area I could not see. I would have to feel around until I found something.
I groped. Fearful of ancient rat traps, my searching hand was tentative in it's explorations. Nothing but thick dust. Nothing until the Squish. My fingers pushed right into the decaying carcass of some small mammal. Jellified flesh squished around my fingers. I had to get a good hold on it to get it into the trash bag. I tried to scoop it up, it dribbled putrescence that even a layer of trash bag and glove couldn't keep from disgusting me. I managed to lift most of it up and into the bag, pulling the whole endeavour out of the space towards me. As it emerged, I pushed the edges of the bag around it, encouraged that I might be in the end game. Then it happened.
The furry tail of a long dead squirrel, gobbets of rotting flesh dangling off the end, fell out of the bag onto my foot. It was at this point that I discovered that once you have tied a handkerchief and t-shirt around your mouth and nose, you can't successfully vomit. You can try, oh lord how I tried, but there's nowhere for it to go. And it leaves a lovely reminder of your efforts strapped to your face.
Meanwhile I've still got a semi-liquid squirrel in my hand. I wrestle with competing demands; run away, throw up, throw up some more and deal with the squirrel. Somehow I manage to pick 'deal with the squirrel.' I throw the tail into the bag, twist it shut and hike myself out to the trashcan. My roommates are sitting across the street looking like refugees. They alternate between joy at my success and horror at whatever is in the bag. I manage not to open it for them (tempting, very tempting.) Into the trash can it goes along with my glove, my handkerchief, my SeaBreeze t-shirt, my regular t-shirt, my pants and my socks (I can't afford new shoes, so I save them for a hosing later.) A quick dash to pour a load of bleach into the cupboard (actually a shortsighted thing to do since it ended up dripping through to the shower, but hey, I really didn't care at that point,) and I called it quits.
It took almost a week for the smell to completely go away, but I was forgiven bathroom cleaning duties from that point forward (not that anyone else did them either.) Alas, my reputation had now been set and my destiny was firmly associated with the funky, the dead and the rotting.