Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Odor of Death

  I spend my evenings scribbling stories and working on a novel but my day job is almost as interesting as the fantasy worlds I create. Sometimes I joke and tell people that I sell death. It's a little true and a little false. I'm a manager at a gas station.
  For days I could smell something rotten behind my store. I wasn't sure if sewer gases were wafting up from the drainage grate in the parking lot, or if perhaps a squirrel had crawled behind the propane tanks and died. Every time I thought I was closing in on the smell the wind would pick up and I would lose it.
  Then on Sunday afternoon my replacement came in looking rattled.
  "I didn't get any sleep last night," said Autumn.
  "Why?" I asked. I listened as I counted the cash in my drawer.
  "That garbage bag."  She looked at me significantly. "The one out by the dumpster."
  "I haven't been out there," I said. "What about it?"
  "It smells really bad," she said.
  "It's garbage," I said.
  "No," She said. "It smells like something dead."
  "Someone left it out there?" I asked.
  "No, I did." she said. "The trash can by pump one was almost full and when I pulled the bag out there were flies everywhere. I looked inside and there were maggots crawling all over," Autumn paused to swallow convulsively. "All over everything. The smell was really awful but all I could see was normal trash. I managed to carry it out to the dumpster but it was too heavy for me to lift. Then the smell got so bad that I had to stop and throw up. I've never thrown up from a smell before. It was terrible. I was up all night, smelling that smell. Even after I took a shower I could still smell it and I just kept thinking about what was in there."
  "Shit," I said. I thought for a second. "Shit. Shit. Shit. We have to look inside the bag."
  "What? Why?"
  "We don't know what's in there." I said. "It could be body parts or something."
  "I don't want to look in there if it's body parts. It's probably just some expired meat," said Autumn.
  "Why would someone drive here to throw away expired meat?"
  "Why would someone put body parts in a trash can by the pumps? Why wouldn't they just put it in the dumpster?"
  "I don't know. How heavy was the bag?"
  "I don't know. Heavier than it should have been. Maybe fifty pounds."
  My imagination conjured images of a medium sized dog rotting inside that trash bag. It was better than the image my mind was trying not to imagine, the body of a toddler.
  "We have to look inside the bag," I said. "It's probably just a dead pet or something, but it could be something worse."
  "Why would someone put their dead pet in our trash?"
  "I don't know, but there's something there. We have to look and see what it is," I said.
  "Fine but I'm wearing gloves. Do we have any more latex ones?"
  "I think we're out. Just wear the heavy duty work gloves that we keep for cleaning up broken glass."
  She rummaged through the emergency tools box. Underneath a flashlight and some caution tape she found two mismatched white leather gloves. She held them up. "They're both right hands."
  "Sorry," I said.
  She held one out to me.
  "It's okay," I said. "I don't need it. Just wear it backwards on your other hand."
  Autumn's face was a little green as we left the station and walked back towards the dumpster. I could feel myself getting jumpy. Autumn was no sissy girl and I knew it was going to be bad.
  It was worse than bad. There are no words to describe the smell that accosted my nose as we pulled open the door to the enclosure. I've smelled some bad things. Once, I lived in an apartment building where the sewer kept backing up into the first floor hallway. This was a thousand times worse. This was the smell of something very big that was very dead.
  Autumn pointed to the bag. It would have looked like any other garbage bag if it hadn't been crawling with maggots. She was clearly freaked.
  "It's probably just some bad meat that someone threw away," she said.
  "Twenty or thirty pounds worth of meat?" I asked.
  She swallowed and made a face.
  "It's not so bad if you breath through your mouth," I said.
  She nodded, obviously beyond speaking.
  She grabbed the bag and pulled it out into the open area in front of the dumpster so we could inspect its contents. A swarm of larder beetles scurried away from the foul puddle under the bag. If there was any doubt left in my mind about the contents of the bag, they were gone. Larder beetles ate rotting meat and nothing else. The story of how I know what a larder beetle looks like is a similarly disgusting tale for another time.
  She reached down to undo the knot in the top of the garbage bag but her hands were shaking and the gloves were too bulky to give her a good hold on the slippery plastic. I could tell she was trying not to touch the maggots crawling on the knot, even with the gloves on.
  "I can't get it," her voice was almost an octave higher than normal. "I can't get it with the gloves on."
  "It's okay," I said. "I'll do it."
  "The maggots will get on you," she said.
  "They don't bite," I said. The maggots did get on me. As I worked the knot on the bag the rest of the way open, several of the fly larva crawled onto my fingers. As soon as I had the bag open I let it go and shook my hands to get them off. For the next minute I continued to compulsively wipe my hands on my jeans, the phantom sensation of creepy crawlies on my skin.
  Autumn pulled apart the sides of the bag until we could see its contents. She stretched her arms out as far as they would go and turned her head away from the smell. Her entire face was contorted in disgust.
  "Do you see anything?" She asked.
  I looked but there was nothing odd in the bag and definitely nothing that should be making that smell. It was all just the normal trash you see in a gas station garbage can; coffee cups, fast food bags, empty packs of cigarettes, and some of the blue paper towels that we put out for the customers.
  "No," I said. My voice came out sounding like I had a cold. "Just normal trash and a lot more maggots. Can  you tip it to the side and shake it a little?"
  She did as I asked and hundreds of flies swarmed out of the bag. She shrieked and jerked her hands away.
  "God, this is disgusting," I said. The odor had thickened in the air and though I knew it did no good, I raised my forearm up to my nose. The ick factor was so high by this point I was nearly trembling. I couldn't do it. I couldn't dig inside that bag for whatever was making the smell, but I also couldn't leave it there without knowing what was inside.
  Autumn was coughing in a way that let me know she was close to dry heaving. We couldn't do this. "Okay, I think we have to call the police."
  "What if it's just a dead dog or something?" She asked.
  "Then they'll laugh at us I guess, but I can't just not know," I said.
  "Okay," she said.
  "But we have to get the bag in the dumpster," I said.
  "Why?" She asked. She looked as stricken as if I'd just said that we had to eat live goldfish.
  "Because if we don't, the police will dump the bag out right here and we'll have to clean it up."
  She shuddered.
  "So we throw it away and we tell them that you didn't get suspicious until you felt how heavy it was."
  "Okay," she said.
  I moved to the side of the dumpster to lift the lid up as high as the overhanging pine trees would allow and Autumn grabbed the bag and hefted it up. She started to panic as she was tilting it into the dumpster and I let go of the lid with one hand to pull the bag the rest of the way in. It flipped as it fell and landed open-side up.
  Autumn backed away quickly and flipped out. "It was squishy. There was something squishy and it's all over me," she shrieked. "It's..." She gagged as she held her hands away from her body. The previously white leather work gloves were covered in slimy, brownish, goo. She backed away from her own hands making wordless sounds.
  "Hey, hey," I said. "It's okay. It's just on the gloves. It's not on you. Let's just get the gloves off." I wanted to take the gloves off her hands but she was right. They were coated in something noxious and I didn't want to touch them.
  She calmed enough to pull one glove off and then used it to remove the second one. "Can I just throw them away?" She asked.
  "Yeah," I said. I watched as she lifted the lid of the dumpster just high enough to toss the slimy gloves inside but my mind was elsewhere. I had seen the outline of the squishy thing inside the bag. It was around the size of a labrador. I prayed it was a dog.
  "I need to wash my hands," she said.
  While she was in the bathroom I googled the police department phone number.
  I explained the situation to the woman on the phone and we both laughed at my cowardice but she said she'd get some officers out to investigate.
  When Autumn was done in the bathroom her shirt was covered wet spots. "I think it's still on me. I can smell it," she said.
  "It's not on you," I said. "I can still smell it too. Are the wet spots on your shirt from washing your hands?" I asked.
  "Ewww," she said. "I don't know. I don't want to touch it."
  I leaned down and sniffed her. "Nope," I said. "All I smell is clean soapy water."
  She looked down to see if her pants were dry as well.
  "Oh, ew, ew," she said. "It's on my new shoes."
  The toe of her right foot was covered in the same brownish gook that had been all over the gloves. I felt really guilty for making her be the one to touch the nasty bag. I looked around for something to clean off her shoe and grabbed up the bottle of hand sanitizer. I squirted it onto her shoe until the entire toe was covered in the clear jelly then I cleaned it off with a paper towel. "All better," I said.
  We both laughed. The police were coming. They would look in the bag. We would know what was in there but we wouldn't have to see it. The relief was short lived. Every minute we waited for the answer was another minute we spent writing the ending in our own imaginations. We talked back and forth trying to come to a conclusion about what Autumn had felt squishing through the bottom of that bag. Any way we considered it, we couldn't figure out why someone would put something dead in the trash can of a gas station. We shared a cigar while we waited. The vanilla smell of the Black and Mild helped to clean the odor out of our noses.
  The police came and I went out to meet them. I felt ridiculous. One of the cops told me stories about finding corpses of elderly people that had been rotting in their houses for weeks. The other officer started digging through the garbage with a giant metal pole.
  "There's a second bag in here," he said. "It looks like a white kitchen garbage bag."
  "We don't use white bags," I said. "Ours are black."
  The bag had red drawstring handles and he hooked the handles with the pole. As he pulled the bag up and out of the dumpster, the smell intensified. A stream of brownish sludge dripped from the bottom of the bag. My knees started to shake and I had to walk away. I didn't want to see what was in that bag. I could hear ripping noises as they two officers worked the bag open.
  "There's a towel," said one of them.
  I stopped dead and glanced behind me for just a second. There was a towel. The officer who had been wielding the metal pole was now pulling the edges of a towel free from the bag. I snapped my head forward again and took shallow breaths. I kept my eyes on Autumn and walked back to the store.
  "What is it?" She asked. "What's in there?"
  "There's something wrapped in a towel," I said. I shook my head and looked at my feet. I thought I was braver than this.
  Autumn looked over my shoulder at the activity by the dumpster. "They're pulling something out of the bag."
  "Can you see what it is?" I asked.
  Autumn shook her head. There was a frozen moment of silence as Autumn and I looked at each other, both praying that whatever was uncovered in that garbage bag wouldn't give us nightmares.
  And the police officers laughed.
  I spun around to look back in their direction but they were already pushing the stained towel back into the plastic bag. I watched as one of them picked it up by the handles and lobbed it back into the dumpster.
  Autumn and I both started walking back towards them.
  "What...?" But I was interrupted by one of the police officers.
  "Fish heads," he said. "That bag was full of fish heads."


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