We had to do it ourselves yet again, but this time we knew it would be different. My sisters and I tried more than once in vain to clean Mom’s hellhole, but she was no longer alive to stop us.
“Don’t touch that!” “Don’t throw that away!” Her commands had echoed through that house so many times I swear I still heard them reverberating off the walls.
There was no way to pinpoint the odors. A noxious blend stirred through my nostrils like over-seasoned stew; like mildew, curry, and sweat dumped in a pot and simmered too long.
Each room had its own unique cloud, and they collided in the doorways. None gave way, impenetrable stink-fogs slamming against each other like bumper cars. I didn’t open the bathroom door. I gagged into my dust mask at the thought of the literal shit suspended in that air. Who knows how long it had been growing denser, saturating, snowing particles down upon the floor and sink, attaching to the wall, yellowing and browning the wallpaper until the goldfinches in the pattern started to blend into the background.
I escaped the foyer through a canyon between cliffs of clothes, and I was slapped by a blast of the living room cloud – garlicky fish perhaps, hint of mothball. It all started with newspapers. Mom obsessed over the edition from the day after Dad died, May 4th, 2009. Bold letters on the front-page declared: “Local Man Killed in Fuel Truck Crash.” Below the headline was a picture of an overturned semi with a once-shiny tanker stained black. Tall flames snatched overhead leaves and turned their trees to flashing daytime fireworks. She read that edition through and through. My sisters and I begged her to stop, but she kept going while the papers of passing days accumulated against the living room wall. She would get to those eventually, she had said. She wanted to keep up with the world, she had said, but as she sunk deeper into May 4th and the other editions climbed higher up the wall, the world she wanted to keep up with slipped further and further away.
It wasn’t just the article about my father. She read everything from obituaries to classifieds to comics. The same day Dad died, Carl Crawford stole six bases for the Tampa Bay Rays, the second-most of all time. Prior to that newspaper Mom never cared for baseball. From then on she mentioned Crawford nearly every time we spoke.
“Timothy, did you know that Carl Crawford stole six bases and scored two runs on May 3rd, 2009?”
“Yes, Mom. I know.”
“Pretty impressive, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know, Mom. I guess.”
That’s when she started with the baseball cards. Carl was the first, of course. She bought his autographed rookie card off the internet. It came in a glass case affixed with a black placard bearing a four-line gold inscription. It read: “Carl Crawford, Left Fielder, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Rookie: 2002.” She stood it at the center of the dining room table. I felt betrayed when I saw it there. My mother enshrined a man so full of life the day my father no longer had any, and on a table he had crafted himself.
I stared at Carl as my mind drifted back to days spent in the barn watching shavings of wood curl away from the lathe my father turned. Pencil behind his ear. Bubble level on the workbench. “Measure twice, cut once,” he would say, to which I never responded. I just watched and tried to absorb his craft, enjoying the scent of fresh-cut oak and the squish of wooden snow beneath my feet. As I thought about the love I had for those days and the harsh truth that I would never experience anything like that again, I wanted to clutch Carl from the table and whip him against the wall.
From there Mom built her collection. She bought baseball cards ten packs at a time to spread across my father’s table. She ripped away the foil and sifted through for Tampa Bay players, suddenly a die-hard fan though we lived in Nebraska. She said she intended to buy scrapbooks and organize the rest of them team by team.
Seven years later the cards had consumed the dining room. There were no scrapbooks; just hills of thin cardboard with faces anonymous to me. Pale glints of light through dirty windows reflected blandly off holographic cards and those with silver or gold pressed-in lettering. The collection had started on the table and spilled onto the floor until stalagmites grew high enough to swallow the legs of all four chairs. There must have been thousands of cards. Among all-stars, no-namers, and the subjects of steroid scandals, Carl Crawford remained at the center in his glass enclosure. It was clear and smudge-free, the only thing in the house not layered with dust. Some of those cards were probably worth a lot of money, and if the place weren’t such an embarrassment and health hazard I may have invited collectors to sift through the piles, but at that point shovels and industrial-sized dumpsters seemed the only reasonable thing to do.
The galley kitchen’s hanging vapor carried the sourness of spoiled milk and the sting of vinegar. Molasses-looking stains had gobbed on the stove and the wall behind it. A trashcan in the opposite corner vomited paper plates with crusted remains of microwave burritos, empty TV dinner trays, and greasy cardboard circles spotted with burnt mozzarella and pepperoni scabs. Draped across the pile of garbage, a shifting blanket of ants.
It was no surprise the autopsy determined malnourishment to be the cause of Mother’s death. I dared not open the fridge for fear of whatever stench grenade might explode from within.
The newspapers and baseball cards were followed by an infestation of porcelain dolls and snow globes in my old bedroom. The room my sisters used to share became a tomb for quilts and stuffed animals. After awhile it became apparent the possessions meant nothing to Mother. She did it for the buzz of the hunt. Digging around at garage sales and thrift stores like a skinny, pale, insane pirate with no map until she found what she was looking for, though it was never truly what she needed to find. She never discovered that one perfect thing to fill the chasm my father’s death ripped through her insides. My sisters and I pleaded with her so many times, trying to convince her that she had to make her own peace, that no amount of artifacts would do it for her, but after a few years we ran out of energy. We couldn’t kill ourselves trying to save her when she refused to be saved. We couldn’t let Dad pull the whole family down. He was a good man. To place all of that ruin on his shoulders would be blasphemy.
When I stepped onto the back porch a stiff spring slammed the screen door behind me. The entire property was fucked. Most of the paint had peeled from the barn which stood with a drunken slant and housed mice and raccoons. The grass had grown beyond the capability of any mower. It braided itself into Dad’s tractor in the middle of the yard where it had been left to rust when Mom ran it out of gas.
What a curse to be her eldest child. Her Last Will and Testament left me the burden of that forsaken property, complete with a house valued far below the mortgage. I could barely afford my own home and family of four. The new responsibility was not one I was equipped to handle.
I hadn’t told anyone I was going to her house that day in case I decided to go forth with my desperate plan. I looked along the porch at a collection of bicycles, tangled together by handlebars and pedals. I got lost tracing the lines of rigid orange chains back to broken spokes and flat tires, and as I thought about my sisters, one in the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis, the other obese with back problems, and as I thought about the financial security of my own future, I concluded there was no other way for us to do this.
I walked back into the house, behind me again the smack of the screen door against the frame. I breathed through one whiff of fog to the next as shallowly as I could, into the rotted kitchen, trying to step over most of the ants.
I shimmied the stove an inch away from the wall. The beaded sludge on the appliance flattened beneath my fingertips until it became strangely creamy. I extracted from my back pocket the crescent wrench I had talked myself into bringing. I thumbed the spool until it clamped around the nut that secured a hose from the wall to the rear of the oven. It took more torque than expected to pop it loose, but once the seal was broken I could turn it by hand. I did so slowly until I felt the cool, steady blow of natural gas on my palm. I slid the stove back against the wall.
I wasn’t sure what kind of home insurance Mother had, and calling the company to ask if the policy covered fire would be stupid and reckless. Regardless of whether they paid, zero compensation would still have been cheaper than recovering the house from the condition Mother had left it, and it was a hell of a lot easier on me and my sisters.
I stepped into the dining room as gas joined the stench of the kitchen behind me. I lifted Carl Crawford from the center of the table. The crowd of cards around him slipped down to take his place. I wished I could unbury my father’s table, but it would be a huge piece of evidence I had been there. I should have taken it years prior, though I doubt my mother would have let me.
As I waded into the living room through the thick mud of paper baseball players around my feet, I popped the glass case from Carl Crawford’s card, and it landed on the pile without sound. He plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers now. They call him “The Perfect Storm.” It was never personal, only symbolism drove me against him. I’m sure he’s a nice enough guy.
I pulled my lighter from my pocket, lit it, and held it up to Carl. I watched the flame along the bottom of the card, chewing away his autograph. I set his burning, collapsing face atop a stack of newspapers nearly as tall as myself, and I left.
On April 12th, 2016, the newspaper headline read “Gas Explosion Destroys Farmhouse.” The Sports section reported baseball scores and stats from the previous day, but Carl Crawford did not play.