It is a peculiar thing living in tandem with death. My family’s daily life, the roof over our heads, the food in our stomachs, the clothes on our backs, every facet of our day-to-day living is contingent on someone else dying. It is a strange existence that makes you cognizant of idiosyncratic things you never would have noticed before because you weren’t privy to the stream of information that comes from a witness to the aftermath of death. Things like what you tuck into your “junk drawer”. When you die, someone is going to find it and go through it. They make some sort of assumption about who you are according to its contents. What does your junk drawer say about you?
That is what my boyfriend does for a living. He works for a company that specializes in bioremediation implemented for the removal of biohazardous material from crime scenes, unattended death, natural and manmade disasters, as well as hoarding cleanup, infectious disease, tear gas removal, homicide and suicides, and industrial accidents.
So what all that essentially means is this – when the bodies are taken away, whatever is left and is not taken with it, whatever has leaked out, spattered on ceilings and walls, oozed into the beds and floors, soaked into chairs… whatever is left behind, someone has to clean it up. If there is a drive-by shooting, whatever remains on the sidewalk or in the car, someone has to clean it up. If someone dies while in the tub and decomposes to the point they pull out exposed flesh and bones because the body is waterlogged, swollen, and parts have sloughed off, someone has to clean it up. They don’t sift through the now-discolored and body-fluid-filled water for the pieces and layers of skin that are left behind. That is my boyfriend and his colleagues’ job.
I remember his apprehension and excitement on his first job call. It was a big one and it was far from home. We live in North Carolina and he had to go to Georgia. He had his Basic EMT certification and had been looking for a position at a hospital while he worked as a grill cook, but the market was saturated and unless you had your paramedic, the jobs weren’t out there. I had already registered to go back to school to get my Bachelor’s in Creative Writing at Salem College and had stopped working as a Medical Laboratory Technician. Salem is a wonderful school, but private and expensive. We couldn’t afford for both of us to be enrolled. He had said he would work on the condition that when I wrote that big Bestseller, he got to stay at home. I tell you this so you see the warmth in him, his jovial nature. He hasn’t lost it.
He heard about the position with Aftermath, Trauma Cleaning and Biohazard Removal Specialists, through a friend at work and since he already had Hazmat training, exposure to blood and gore during EMT clinicals, coupled with delicate and high-stress client relations and some carpentry experience, he thought he would apply. He got the job. It was double what he made as a grill cook and on “job time” he actually made more than that. It was a relief. It was a career. It was a future for the both of us. His life wouldn’t be put on hold for mine.
The Georgia job was a decomp. Decomp stands for decomposition. The house was large, in the center of a clearing surrounded by old live oaks dripping in Spanish moss and not too far from Savannah. It had shiny hardwood floors throughout the home, with eggshell walls and lots of light streaming in through large wide windows. It had an open, contemporary floor plan and a kitchen filled with stainless steel appliances. The homeowner had been going through a divorce and he had committed suicide. James, my boyfriend, wasn’t certain how long the man had been there before he had been found but it was long enough that the odor had permeated throughout the house. What most people don’t know is that anything porous, fabrics, furniture, carpets, and clothes – think about books, and mattresses, sometimes even wood if it’s not sealed well, it all retains that smell. The smell of death. It can even get into electronics: TVs, microwaves, radios, computers and laptops. It can all, potentially, be ruined. It all has to go.
This house had to be gutted. He was gone for five days. They (himself, his boss and another tech) worked fourteen hours a day in the summer under Georgia’s oppressive, omnipresent humidity and with few breaks. They worked harder so they could get home quicker, so they had to stay in the hotel fewer nights, and so they had to eat fast food less often. He would soon learn how all the continental breakfasts in the hotel lobbies would begin to offer a small modicum of comfort because they are consistent and familiar, but not yet, this was his first job. He was happy to get home. When he got home, the man spoke little, kissed me and slept for practically two days.
On all jobs, first they remove the bio. They have biohazard suits they wear, or PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). Made from a blue or white paper-like material, yet much stronger, they cover them from head to toe. They wear gloves that cover the edges of their sleeves like tucking pants into socks. They have protective eye gear and a respirator that fits over both mouth and nose. It filters the air so they don’t have to breathe the odor, but sometimes the fit isn’t 100% tight and the smell gets through. The intensity is contingent upon how concentrated it is, perhaps how small the space may be. Sometimes, they walk into it before they know it’s there. That is how it happened today. They received a call and were sent to a seedier part of town. It was a hotel right beside all the strip clubs. The strip clubs that were recently in the news for a drug bust shakedown that listed a cornucopia of addiction across the Newsprint page. Having been on the job awhile now, James kind of gets a feel for what kind of call it usually is and he thought it was most likely just an overdose, given the location. They all did. They were wrong. They walked into the room to do the assessment so they could make a quote to send to the insurance company. They didn’t have any gear on and no one had bothered to warn them. They were smacked right in the face with the odor of a five-day decomp.
It doesn’t take a body long to severely decompose. Putrefaction happens after the first 36 hours. Bacteria in the body, upon death, begin to feed and emit gases. The body bloats. It swells to the point it doubles in size and the face is disfigured beyond recognition. If insects (even one common housefly) are present, they immediately are drawn to the body due to the cytokines. They are like chemical beacons from the breakdown of the cells. The insects lay eggs in the body’s orifices, which hatch into maggots within 24 hours. Cells continue to lyse and sulfur bonds to hemoglobin, turning the skin yellow/orange, then black. Fluids settle, blood pools and coagulates. Plasma moves into the skin in great plate-sized blisters. The intestines begin to break down, the bacteria there making it appear the intestines are eating themselves. The mucosa no longer manufactures mucus so the stomach’s hydrochloric acid eats through the stomach walls. Eyes and fingernails sink in, and contingent on the weather, perhaps a bit sooner if hot or a little later if cooler, around 36 hours – the purge happens. All the fluids leak from the body at the orifices and the now extremely turgid blisters pop. The maggots and bacteria can now move to this nutrient rich and odiferous soup, and continue to thrive here as well as on and within the body. This is a natural death or a death with internal trauma of some sort that wasn’t too sick. This death wasn’t very violent, nor too messy initially. Those deaths decompose even faster.
The worst job, the messiest he has seen, he described to me frantically one afternoon when it was a little too close to home for comfort. It was again in this general area. They had been called to a large home in an expensive housing development in Wallburg, a suburb of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Winston-Salem is the city we call home. The route they took had them, literally, a mile and a half from my youngest daughter’s home.
“Things began to look familiar and as we pulled up at the caution light, I knew right where I was. I knew Melody’s was right down the road. It freaked me out. We pulled up and the Client’s sister was there, or maybe it was a friend, but the Client was gone. This woman just unlocked the door, let us in, and left. We were dealing with the CM (case manager) and he was talking to the lady that owned the house over the telephone. It was all really weird. That’s not the way things are usually done. Usually the Client is there with us, at that first assessment anyway. The house was huge. We walked in through the downstairs door, though the carport, into a man cave. There was a huge TV on the wall. It must have been 72 inches or more. There were two leather couches and several gaming systems. They had a full-size nine-foot pool table. There was a full bar. We walked through and there was a small bathroom at the bottom of a staircase, and we didn’t see a thing anywhere. There wasn’t a single drop of blood. Nothing was out of place, it was all perfect. We went up the stairs to the second level and it was all the same as before. It was a huge, gorgeous, multi-million-dollar home, it had to be. There was art all on the walls. We went up to the final floor and there were the kids’ rooms. They had a boy and a girl. The beds were made, they had toys on the bed or a shelf but for the most part it was clean. The other bathrooms and the master bed and bath, it was all spotless. Everything looked like a museum. We couldn’t find anything wrong, so we were going to leave.
As we were going down the stairs, we noticed there was one door to the right that had been closed and we had not opened it. We figured it was a closet or something, but to be sure we covered all the bases, we opened it. We turned the handle and walked into a downstairs, I’m thinking guest room or something? Right? No. As that door opened and I took one step in, it was like stepping into the set of a horror movie, but I knew it was real. I’ve never seen so much fucking blood. I could smell the blood, taste the metallic blood taste in the air. It was in large spray patterns on every single wall. It was on the door behind us. It covered the white bed. I looked at the bureau and it was splattered and hung in coagulated drops on jewelry in an open jewelry box. There was so much, it had run down the walls and pooled and seeped into the white carpet. It was in streaks, strung like someone had flung a giant paint brush. Larger drops on the wall were strung together with smaller strings like beads. We tried to imagine what weapon could have done this. It was like a puzzle, obviously a murder. It was a mystery. Was it a shotgun? Several guns? A semi-automatic? No, because there weren’t any tiny shot holes anywhere. Not one larger caliber bullet hole of any kind to be found. The only thing we could possibly imagine was that it had to have been slung off the tip of something. We decided the someone who did the slinging had been really pissed and for a really long time. That was rage. It was personal. It was everywhere. We did the quote and then left. We had to drive up to the Sheetz to get a signal on the cell to call the CM back. We waited for two hours and heard nothing back from the client so we finally left.”
They later found out that the husband had been found bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat. They didn’t get the job. We found out the wife’s father had yielded the bat. As far as I could ascertain, via Google, the arrest has been made. The wife and the husband’s sister are fighting for custody over the kids.
It is a peculiar thing living in tandem with death. I know that in order for my bills to be paid, my family to eat, to have a place to sleep at night, someone has to die. The man I love more than anyone else in the world goes off to work and deals with the most horrible and despicable results of human nature, or the saddest. Sometimes it is both, hand in hand. We have had to develop a capacity to be desensitized to it all. We talk about his days at work like we talk about my day at school or if the kids got the dishes done. We take note of things like the rise in suicides coinciding with the increase of holiday decorations and commercials on TV before Halloween like we take note of the shortening of daylight hours or the rise of the price in gas. We discuss how we hope he gets more job time the next two weeks so we can have a nice Christmas, how overtime means the difference between a turkey breast at Thanksgiving and an entire turkey.
We talk about how it’s a terrible thing that we do this and it isn’t normal, but we still do it. We say we feel bad, but we know we really don’t. We couldn’t function if we did. The weight of it would be too much to bear. What I do think about is how I have entirely too much stuff that my kids or someone else will have to sort through someday. I look at what might mean something to them and what is important to just me. I delve into my junk drawer and contemplate what is in there and why. I try to think about getting rid of what seems trivial, resolve to do it and never find the time. I tell James that we have to live until we are old and our wrinkles have wrinkles. I tell him he isn’t allowed to die first and I promise him that when I do, I will try to be mindful to keep off the king-size bed we both love so much and I will keep my fluids intact. I figure for all he does for me, that’s the least I can do.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Incunabula.
Pat Berryhill is a recent graduate from Salem College’s creative writing program in Winston-Salem, NC. She has been published in Incunabula, Change Seven Magazine, Cultural Weekly, Wicked Banshee Press, YES! Weekly, Poetry in Plain Sight, The Arrival Magazine, and will be included in the upcoming anthology The Devil’s Doorbell. She was a writer in residence at Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities in 2016 and is an AFAS artist and docent. She is the founder of the NC Writer’s Collective and Publisher and Editor in Chief of Wraith Infirmity Muses literary magazine.