Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
Need a crime scene clean-up? How about a crime scene clean-up up in a hoarder’s house?
Well, free-market problems get free-market solutions. It only makes sense I ended up with Cesar. I guess you could call me the President and Cesar the VP but those are pretty prestigious titles considering the nature of our business. We’re no executives. We aren’t too proud to get our hands dirty either.
I was strictly crime scene cleanup before Cesar and I joined forces. With violent deaths at a relative low, my job was easier than ever. Seldom were the days picking brains out of stucco ceilings, bleaching bloody grout, and peeling human skin off of the undersides of subway trains. Natural deaths were common enough, but dragging Grandma’s deathbed to the dump was hardly a day’s work.
Cesar was a “sanitation technician,” though he’d also answer to “garbage man,” “shit shoveler,” and “Hey, chico, you can’t dump that here.” Stuffing dirty old clothes into a contractor bag while I sponged biohazardous who-knew-what from the floor of some geriatric death-fest, we mused at how often we ran into each other. Why not combine forces?—we were like two peas in a pod, after all. But since “The Peas” were a little too cute of a name, we decided to call ourselves “The Buzzards.” Dead bodies, toxic waste, or just your old couch; if you need it gone, Cesar and I will swarm in and make it happen. The Buzzards take on all carrion—no job too big or too small.
Well, in hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have said “no job too big.” Not that I don’t appreciate our special little spot in the police chief’s Rolodex, but those scumbags have to be belly-laughing back at the precinct. Sure, we’re the men for the job, but they sent us into hell, and they sure as hell know it. Some hoarders keep dozens of cats. Some hoarders keep decades of newspapers. Some hoarders keep spackle buckets of their own bodily waste. Helen Waltman—she kept everything.
It was an old cape house on the outskirts of Orange Oaks. Spaced way out from the neighbors, like the houses themselves knew to stay away from this one. The smell hit us at a hundred yards with the windows closed; a vile kind of rot fused with a repellent tang of death. The place was standing there like a filthy white tombstone wound with crime scene tape. No actual crime, per se, had been committed, but there had been a death. The back door had been inaccessible for years, it turned out. Once the hoard became so prolific that it collapsed over the front door, there simply was no way out for an old lady. Helen Waltman had entombed herself.
I backed the dump truck as close to the house as I could. We got out and suited up, trying to hold our breath until we got the masks on. If I had known it was going to be this bad, I’d have been fully geared up before we reached the county line. Standing on the front stoop, I could hear the living biomass beyond the door. Cesar and I stopped and looked at each other. It was clear we were in for a tough one.
“That’s a stinker in there, bro,” Cesar said.
I nodded. When a guy like me was this near to tossing his cookies, it certainly was a ripe petunia. “You hear that?”
“Hear what?” Cesar asked
“There’s always fucking roaches, bro.”
But he knew what I was getting at. There are different levels of bug problems. This one, you could diagnose before you opened the door. It was terminal.
Cesar gave me a friendly shot in the arm. “Bro, where I come from, the roaches got wings.”
“Yeah, well, I’m from New Jersey.”
The door opened with an almost pressurized release of stench. On instinct, we stood aside as if to let it dissipate. A useless gesture. I looked at him and he looked at me; silently daring each other to go in first.
“You goin’ first, bro?”
Of course, I was. I always went in first. I guess it’s on account of me being the president and all. I readjusted my breather and peeked inside. It looked like the entrance to a cave. Two shovels left on the floor; presumably the ones the cops used to dig out Helen Waltman. I stepped over the threshold, turning sideways to skirt the stacks of composting garbage. Past the sphincter of an entranceway, I spotted a chain hanging from the ceiling and pulled it. A yellowed, old light illuminated the hoard. Roaches cascaded down the walls, disappearing into the mountains of filth. At my feet lay what remained of the woman. The lucky cops—rookies, no doubt—had been kind enough to remove the body, but the silhouette of melted flesh stained the floorboards like a grisly chalk line. I’m no forensics expert, but it’s pretty clear she’d been there for quite a while before the cops showed up. It’s also clear she was lacking in the friends and family department.
I looked around. Household artifacts pocked with mold. Strung with clotheslines wall-to-wall, hung with black and nameless dross. Shadows swaying with the loosely-hanging lightbulb. Crawling with bugs. Composting in its own heat. I’ve said this before—and maybe I’ve meant it every time—but I’ve never before said it so sincerely:
“This is the worst one I’ve ever seen.”
Cesar was turning in circles, overwhelming himself before the work even got underway. “How does this even happen, bro? You’d think the bitch’d change her ways at some point, wouldn’t you?”
I shook my head. “People don’t change. You spend your life trying to fight who you are, but in the end…”
“Yeah, I guess no one knows better than you,” he said.
He’s right. Clean up enough pointless suicides, and you start wondering what took them so long. No one jumps off a building the first time it crosses their mind. No one swallows a bottle of barbiturates in the CVS drive-through. No one pulls a ten-pound trigger on a whim. Most people are designed to preserve their lives at all costs. Others seem programmed to self-destruct; it’s only a matter of how long they can fight it off. Eighteen years? Twenty-five years? Sixty-five years, in the case of Helen.
“If I had to guess,” I said to Cesar, “I’d say Helen Waltman was fucked up from day one.”
“Fair enough, bro. And I guess we’re fucked up now too.”
Fucked indeed. There were several roaches already crawling up my legs. You’d think by my line of work that roaches don’t bother me, but they still give me the creeps. They’re not the same as bugs to me. Bugs are alive. Cockroaches are undead.
I stomped one foot, then the other; a strategy that only works on the less-insistent buggers. The hangers-on are the hungry ones. Those, I name.
“Bob, Dave, Charles, Ted…”
I named them each as I brushed them away—clearly a neurosis, but we’ve all got our coping mechanisms, don’t we? I’ve been asked a thousand times: How do you do it, Steve? All the filth? All the death? The roaches? The big ones; the ones that sprint up your arms and legs and just stop when they find a good place to stare at you. They sit there watching; nothing but their antennae moving. Just waiting. Never turning back around. Every move they make is conspiratorial. Up to your eyes to drink from your tear ducts. Or into your ear canals, to cling to your eardrum and nibble the precious wax. I’ve seen videos of doctors excavating these creatures from the heads of their hosts; piece by malefic piece, like a crude abortion. So, how do I immerse myself in them without losing my mind? I don’t freak out. I don’t try squashing each and every one. I name them. I treat them with uncommon respect, and expect the same in return.
“You’re outta your mind,” Cesar said.
“How many bags you bring?”
“Not enough, bro. Maybe fifteen dozen.”
“Well… Let’s go get ‘em.”
We turned to head back out. On the way to the door, my eye caught the corner of a picture frame on the wall mostly obscured by garbage. A picture frame. The idea of Helen hanging a picture in there was so utterly weird, I just had to see what it was. I lifted the picture out of the mess and took it outside with me. In the daylight, I saw it wasn’t a picture at all, but a framed newspaper article. It was almost impossible to read through the stained and mold-riddled glass, but I made out this much:
HOUSE FIRE IN ORANGE OAKS CLAIMS TWO
Underneath was a faded picture of a burned-out house surrounded by firetrucks. The smaller print was illegible, but the headline gave me the gist of it.
“What you got there?” Cesar asked.
“Picture frame was hanging on the wall. Just curious to see what Mrs. Waltman considered a decoration.”
Cesar chuckled. “And what is it?”
I showed Cesar the framed article. He squinted to make out the moldering print. “Damn, bro. Who saves articles like this?”
I shrug. “I’ve seen people save newspaper clippings, but they’re usually for happy occasions.”
“Fuck yeah, man. You know who saves shit like this? Serial killers.”
“You think Helen here was a serial killer?”
“Maybe an arsonist, bro. She probably burned that house down.”
He handed the frame back to me. “Maybe you’re right. Pretty creepy.”
“This bitch is burning us, too,” Cesar said, yanking a box of contractor bags out of the back of the truck.
* * * * * *
A few dozen sixty-gallon bags later, and we’d barely made a dent. Old Helen had been quite the collector.
Once you dug out the organic rot—everything from old banana peels to decomposing newspapers—you’d start to notice patterns here and there. A box of china dolls and stuffed animals. A set of Christmas ornaments in a labeled cardboard box. There’s a kind of subtext to these things that makes me uneasy. Things she wasn’t merely compelled not to throw away, but valued as part of something meaningful. In dealing with the dead, meaning was something best to set aside. I’d learned through the years to try and separate the destruction from the humanity beneath it. Anything that threatens that separation is a threat to my existential comfort. It’s best to compartmentalize whenever possible.
I’ve cleaned up a graveyard’s worth of remains over my career; scenes of cataclysmic violence to quiet despair. The bad ones were gross enough to be…well…gross. But there were others too dark to write off like a horror flick, or the cover of a Fangoria magazine. The quiet ones. Some had been moldering so long, they barely even stank anymore. Just the sour reek of old marrow and the rotten remnants of some failed ecosystem crawling up the walls. Like the ruins of a fallen civilization. They may not be the most repugnant cases, but they’re undoubtedly the saddest. Not only did these people die alone; they rotted unnoticed. They’d been forgotten long before they left. You can’t get more alone than that.
Sometime around when normal people are taking their lunch break, I came across another framed newspaper article. After naming and politely wiping away the roaches, I read the headline:
WALTMAN SERVICE TO BE HELD THIS WEDNESDAY
Underneath, the same picture of the fire scene. I considered just tossing it into the garbage and forgetting about it, but my compartmentalization system was faltering. Besides, I was kind of curious.
I took the picture frame out into the daylight and squinted to make out what I could of the article:
… survived by their daughter, Helen, 7, who… Vistas Home for Orphans. Services for Mary and Theodore Waltman… Wednesday, April 7th, at Woods Memorial…
Well, that explains the first article, I thought. Her parents had died in that fire; that’s why it had been so significant to her. And being seven at the time, it pretty well disqualified her from being an arsonist.
I tossed the framed article on the back of the truck and turned back to the house. Something occurred to me: Would all of this have happened if none of that had happened? I’d had Helen pegged as doomed from day-one; most of these people, I thought, were doomed to make a mess of themselves. Maybe that was just my compartmentalization speaking.
I found Cesar in what was intended as the dining room; certainly the most bioactive room in the house. He was balancing a shovelful of fly-swarmed filth on its way into a drum. Off the side dangled a matted and slimy cat’s tail. I expected we’d come across plenty of these.
“We got cats,” Cesar said.
“So this lady,” I began. “Her parents died in that fire when she was seven. She ended up in an orphanage.”
“What, did you find more articles?”
Cesar tipped the shovel, dumping the moldering cat corpse into the drum liner. A swarm of enervated flies abandoned ship. “Bitch still could’ve done it,” he says.
“Who the hell knows, bro. Why you even telling me?”
“Eh, guess I figured you oughta know. Maybe I owe it to Helen, since you’ve already besmirched her memory and everything.”
“I besmirched her memory?” He gestured obviously around the room. “Bro, I don’t even know what besmirched means, but I’m pretty sure she did this shit to herself.”
“Fair enough. Just thought I’d tell you the latest developments. I’ve always liked a good mystery.”
Cesar dug in with the shovel and immediately scooped up another cat. Half of another, anyway—it came out bisected at the midsection, leaking entrails and putrefaction.
“This cat’s besmirched, bro.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
* * * * * *
Seven dozen bags in, and I’d broken through to deeper layers of rot. I encountered some cats of my own; not one among the living. Partly eaten, some. The slimed and disjointed limbs coming loose with the slightest tug. I seized one by the tail, but the skin slid degloved from the bone. The roaches had nested deep in the mass, and scrambled to find darker recesses as I uncovered them. Most of them did, anyway; the others, I named, and brushed back into the heap. Some were the size of a dime. Others were the size of silver dollars. The big ones were the worst. They seemed to have evolved over their underlings; some awful sentience in their twitching antennae.
Tom, Dan, Pete, Brian…
Underneath, I found my first pieces of furniture. An ottoman, so bug-eaten and soaked with gore, the original pattern of the fabric was indiscernible. A few bags later revealed the sofa—a dead cat burial ground. Cats stuffed between cushions; melted into the upholstery. Dozens of them, some reduced to bones and dried pelts. Others in various states of decomposition.
Finally, I found a wooden chest with a padlock on it. A curious thing; I couldn’t help but wonder what, with the rest of the house the way it was, a hoarder of this magnitude would want to keep in a relatively safe place. I shouldn’t have cared; wouldn’t have cared; but since I’d seen those framed news stories, I’d become more invested in this mystery than I should have been. I’d failed to follow my own professional advice, and now I was asking myself the same question Cesar had:
How does this even HAPPEN, bro?
I aimed the blade of the shovel where the hasp met the body of the lock and brought it down. After three strikes, the hasp hung loose. I lifted out the lock and opened the lid.
Inside the chest was an old photo album. I took it out and started flipping through the pages. Scenes of a happy family. I recognized a house as the same one pictured in the newspaper clippings. Photos of Helen as a little girl. Her parents, Mary and Theodore. Her father pushing her on a swingset. Helping her mother prepare food in the kitchen. Polaroid photos with the dates jotted down at the bottom. Somewhere in the middle of the album, the pictures stopped abruptly. The last date was March, 1952: A photo of Helen, her lips pursed over the seven candles of her birthday cake. The pages after that were all empty.
I closed the photo album and just stood there for a minute. Normally I’d just throw it in the bag with the rest of the garbage, but I just couldn’t do it. I set the album back in the chest and closed the lid. From the other room, I heard Cesar cursing.
“This crazy-ass bitch, bro. How does this even happen?”
* * * * * *
By mid-afternoon, it was clear this was going to be a three-day job. Well over a hundred sixty-gallon bags of garbage were piled into the dump truck, and it was going to take multiple loads before the demolition team even got near this place.
I was still chipping away at the living room, and Cesar in the dining room. Having made a notable dent in the mess, the roaches seemed to be losing confidence. Still, there was a long way to go.
“Fuck,” I heard from the dining room. A little sharper than Cesar’s typical refrain.
“You alright in there? Tell me you didn’t get cut.”
“No, bro, I just…”
A crash. Not the typical crash of garbage into a bin, but a louder one; a great shift of garbage, like an unstable load in a truck.
“You alright in there, man?”
Another shift. Another crash.
I dropped my shovel and started fighting my way over the piles of garbage. “Cesar?”
I was nearly there when another crash sent Cesar flying backwards out into the hall. He landed with his back against a closet door, shattering slats of wood.
“What the hell happened, man?”
There was a look of horror on his face. He pointed into the dining room.
A mass of black garbage emerged from the door. Not a collapsing pile like I expected, but a figure; an immense, human figure, but not human at all. A creature. A mass of excrement, loaded with decomposing cats, chicken bones, fast food wrappers. A golem of compacted shit.
“What the fuck?”
The golem advanced on him. I grabbed for his suit and yanked him out of the hall. We landed with our backs against a heap of trash, scrambled backwards to get over it.
“We’re fucking outta here, bro!”
The golem roared, filling the room with hot decomposition. We made for the door, but my foot hit something slippery and went out from under me. Cesar and I collided and we went down hard. We scrambled to get up, but the golem bowled a huge arm through the trash piles, spraying garbage, roaches, and rotting organic matter everywhere. Something heavy hit Cesar and he fell back to his knees.
The golem was on approach. Arms outstretched, it was plowing through the heap, gathering the trash about it like a strengthening wave.
“Cesar, get up!”
Another roar, and the two of us were bowled over by a wall of filth. I felt the pressure against my chest, felt my feet lifted from the floor. I twisted my face away, spit something foul out of my mouth.
I didn’t see him. He was completely buried.
The golem was closing in again. The trash heap shook with every step. I struggled to free my arms, managed to get one loose, started clawing away trash where I thought Cesar’s head might be buried. It was difficult to breathe; the weight of the garbage was crushing.
The golem roared again; a freshened wave of heat and stench. It swung an arm, eviscerating the heap of garbage and spilling me out onto the floor. I turned my head and saw Cesar lying prone. He wasn’t moving. The golem stood over us. Down its legs of compressed shit runnelled drips of the same foul liquid; a stench that presided over the hoard. It was standing in the stained silhouette where the cops had found Helen Waltman’s body.
I pushed away on my ass and elbows. A stabbing pain that spoke of a broken collarbone. Roaches crawled over my hands, but this was the least of my problems now.
The golem roared. Liquid shit cascaded down its arms and legs. It reached down and grabbed Cesar, lifted him effortlessly into the air and flung him across the room. He hit the wall and rolled onto the dead cat-couch, his head hanging at an odd angle. I fought to get to my feet, but a shooting pain in my leg sent me back to the floor.
My knee, goddammit.
I pushed away until my back was against a wall of garbage. The front door was blocked. The windows were blocked. The hallway was blocked. Cesar was unconscious, maybe even dead. And here I was with this monster. Staring at me with its nonexistent eyes. Coming toward me with its arms extended, ready to—
The golem slowed its approach. It stopped no more than six feet away.
I couldn’t believe it. Was this thing really Helen? I wasn’t sure if the thought had really occurred to me, or I’d just named it on a whim, the same way I did for the cockroaches. Maybe on instinct, I’d done both.
“I know what happened to you, Helen. I know about the fire. About your parents. It was a terrible thing…”
The golem didn’t move, but there was no other way to read its expression.
Talk… Just keep talking…
“You lost everything, Helen. When you were seven years old. You’d lost everything, and you were afraid to lose anything ever again. So you kept everything. I understand, Helen. It wasn’t your fault.”
The golem was still as a statue, shimmering with roaches as it stood listening. Could it really be listening?
In the corner of my eye, I saw the overturned chest where I’d found the photo album. I had an idea.
“I saw your album, Helen. I didn’t throw it away. It’s still in the trunk. Do you want me to get it for you?”
It was the first time the golem moved since I started talking. It turned its head toward the trunk. Something in its body language told me, yes, it was okay to go get the album.
Painfully, I got to my feet. I limped to the chest and retrieved the album. When I turned back to the golem—to Helen—she had her hands extended. Hands of wet and clammy shit the size of hubcaps. Wriggling turds for fingers.
I opened the album and placed it in her hands so she could see it. I didn’t see any eyes in the face; no features at all; still, I got the idea she was indeed looking at it. Slowly, I backed away.
“I understand you were afraid of losing things, Helen. But not everything is worth hanging onto. Your memories. The good ones. They are what’s worth holding onto.”
A tense moment as the Helen monster raised her head from the album. Had I said the wrong thing? I knew hoarders could be violently protective of their stuff; were often unreasonable when confronted with their illness. Dealing with these people was far outside my scope of practice; I’m just a glorified garbage man. The last thing I’m certified to do is provide counseling to mentally ill monsters.
But just as I was bracing myself for the inevitable attack, the Helen-monster appeared to relax. Its non-existent eyes turned back to the photo album. It flipped through the pages, one after another, turning its head left and right to see every photo. And when it reached the last page—the one dated March, 1952, I remembered—it stopped turning the pages and just stood there looking down at it. Almost tenderly, it laid its giant, slimy hand on the last page.
“That’s what’s important, Helen,” I said. “All the rest… All this garbage… It’s time to let it go. I’m not trying to take away anything important, Helen. I’m just trying to clean up the…”
It slammed the album shut, and I braced myself again. But there was no attack. Instead, it clutched the album to its chest. It hugged the book; squeezed it tightly against its gory and fecal body. Squeezing and pushing, until the album was buried in its chest; until the entire album was inside its body; pushing and smearing over it until the cover was no longer visible. I didn’t dare to move.
Having subsumed the photo album, the monster turned its attention back to me. But something was different now. I didn’t feel threatened. The golem seemed to be smaller now. Looking down, I saw the fetid brown liquid trailing faster down its legs. Faster still. The golem was melting. Liquefying. With an unthinkable stench, the legs puddled sewage onto the floor. Bits of garbage, bones, bottle caps, bent silverware, the carcasses of rotting mice. Moldering cat pelts sloughed off, slid to the floor. The turd fingers dropped from the hands, landed in swelling pools of diarrhea. Melted to the thighs, Helen’s torso dropped flat on the floor, became flatter still as the septic flesh drained into the floorboards. The skull of some small animal, a plastic six-pack ring, an old Chinese takeout container. The liquid shit soaking like stain into the pine planks, escaping through shakes and knotholes until the golem was no more than a black silhouette under a pile of half-digested detritus. The golem was gone. Helen was gone.
She’d finally let it all go.
For a minute or two, I didn’t dare to move. Then I heard a rustling across the room.
“Bro… What the fuck just happened?”
I ran to him, forgetting my leg was injured and tweaking it royally in the process.
“Cesar, you alright?”
“I think so. My head freaking hurts. Where the hell are we?”
“You don’t remember?”
He was suddenly aware of the state of the couch he was lying on, and got quickly to his feet. “What the fuck, bro? This place is disgusting. Let’s fucking get outta here.”
He wasn’t getting any argument from me.
* * * * * *
You’d think after a day like that, a couple of guys like me and Cesar would rethink our line of work. But, like I explained, people don’t really change. At least most people don’t. Maybe Helen Waltman changed in the end, but then again, after a little while to process this whole thing, I’m not sure any of it really happened. There was enough noxious gas in that house to kill someone, not to mention trigger a major hallucination. The way I see it, we were lucky to get out of there alive, shit-golems or not.
Cesar took one hell of a bump that day, and still has no recollection of what happened. It probably happened when he fell backwards into that closet door. I’ve thought about telling him what I saw—what I think I saw, anyway—but why bother? He already thinks I’m crazy for naming cockroaches. If I start telling him about shit-golems, he’ll probably have me institutionalized.
At the risk of losing work with the police department, in any case, I declined to go back to the Waltman house. Whatever was going on in that place, it wasn’t safe. I’m sure it took some palm-greasing, but ultimately, the house was bulldozed without a look from the environmental agencies, and several million cockroaches were left without a home.
I’m driving through a nearby neighborhood one day when the thought occurs to me: I wonder what’s going on at the old Waltman house? I’ve got nothing important to do, so I hang a right on Old Creek Road and head out to Orange Oaks.
It might only be my imagination, but when I pull up in front of the bare slab that used to be the Waltman’s house, I can still smell a hint of that stench. Sitting there in my truck, the ephemeral memories wash through my mind like a weird dream. It seems impossible that any of it really happened. It seems impossible that such a horror as Helen Waltman’s house could have been sitting there on that innocuous-looking concrete slab.
I put it in park and walk across the lawn, watching my feet for wandering cockroaches on the way, finding none. I walk up onto the porch and onto the foundation, trying to picture where I initially spotted the stain left by Helen’s remains. I walk over to the area, remembering how I saw the monster melt and soak into the floorboards. It’s a flat foundation—no basement in this one—so you’d think with a mess like that, there’d be at least some evidence of what happened only inches above. But there’s nothing.
Just like I thought. The whole thing was a crazy hallucination.
Just as I’m turning to leave though, something catches my eye. There’s an old chest sitting in the lawn, just off the side of the slab. I remember it from the cleanup; it’s the chest I found the photo album in. How’d that get left behind?
Who cares? I tell myself, but as usual, my curiosity gets the better of me. Without a good reason for doing it, I walk over to the chest and flip open the lid.
Inside, I see the photo album.
How in the world…
I pick up the album and flip through the pages. Those same happy scenes of Helen Waltman’s childhood. Swinging with Dad, cooking with mom, pictures of the old house before it burned down and changed Helen’s life forever.
And on the last page—the one dated March, 1952—a huge, black handprint.
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