Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Fodder of the Fiction Writer: It's all how you look at it.

Reading about crime fiction has put me in a reflective mood this morning. As I'm about to dive in to removing more paneling off the walls of our "new" house (circa 1978--and all original) in preparation for the dry-wall guys to come, I'm thinking about the "temporary" residence we occupied for eight months of the last year.

In July of last year my husband took a new job and our house sold within thirty-six hours of putting the sign in the yard. Awesome. We were exultant! When we'd moved into that house six years earlier (with the assumption that our former home would sell quickly) we'd ended up paying two mortgages for twelve months. Not awesome. So, understandably, we were ecstatic to accept the offer! As quickly as we could, we moved our stuff into family barns, basements, and a large mini-storage unit--and moved our family of four into a teeny--and I mean teeny-tiny-- two-bedroom apartment "just for a couple of months" until we could find a house to buy.

But temporary turned out to be a bit longer than we had anticipated. We did not find a house to purchase until March. Believe me: it was a long winter.

When we moved in to the apartment, we re-discovered coin laundry, life without a dishwasher, and the speed at which mold can grow up a wall. The most exotic discovery of our sojourn, however, was the apartment's aroma. The apartment, especially one certain closet, emitted a smell which could only be described as "the belch of rotting death."

When you live in a rural community for most of your life you get pretty used to certain smells. I grew up on an Iowa farm surrounded by woods, so finding a dead possum, raccoon, or even a deer in some state of decomposition was not an uncommon event. I learned early on to identify putrescence from pretty far off. When the scent-in-question was located, the smell could either be ignored, (trusting that creepy crawlies and things that go "oww-ooo!" in the night would take care of it) or, if the carcass was in a particularly annoying place, and the farmer-in-charge ordained it, you could take an old shovel out, scoop it up, and throw it in "the pond."

The pond at our family farm is not a picturesque fishing hole. Nor has it held water in it, to my knowledge, outside of a flood year. Rather, "the pond" is a glorified trash heap; the final resting place of cleared limbs and brush, farm detritus, and various smelly stuff (such as wild animal carcasses) which have no where else to go. It's out of smelling distance of the house. I assume, because of its name, that "the pond" was, at one time, a small body of water; but family lore is unreliable in this area. It's a head scratcher, to be sure. But there it is. And you, my friend, have just been my unwitting companion on a world-class tangent. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

There was something dead in that apartment building. We figured it was probably in the crawlspace--and probably rather large. The scent was way too potent to be something as simple as a mouse in the wall. (Farm girl, remember? I know that smell all-too-well.) Then, one day, I came "home" and the smell was GONE.

And I was not alone.

The apartment was filled with hundreds of fat, lazy, flies. You could run your hand by these pudgy ne'er-do-wells and they wouldn't even flinch. Using a fly-swatter to kill them wasn't even a challenge. These were not the fast, annoying flies who buzz around your hair and and bump into the windows. These guys were...

Completely sated AND WITHOUT A CARE IN THE WORLD. These flies were chillin', dude. If flies smoked pot, these guys would have fit right in to that culture, their size explained by empty boxes of Twinkies and various other dime-store munchies. But there were no open boxes; no discarded plastic wrappers; no crumbs. All I had to explain the presence of these sluggish squatters was the sudden and questionable dissipation of a certain smell. These flies, my flies, were as happy and sleepy as if they'd just turned on the football game after a big Thanksgiving dinner.

And the smell was... gone.

Can you see why this would freak me out a little bit?

I called my witty sister-in-law and explained the situation. After a moment's pause, Heather said, "Don't you watch TV, Shawna?! That's how they find the body!" We discussed my various options. Call the landlord, call the sheriff's department, call the mental health facility to see if they had any rooms available...

But, in the end, I didn't call anyone. I just swatted and swept and swatted and swept some more. Eventually, I got them all. It was rather pathetic, actually. The fat flies didn't even put up a fight. At least they died happy. And, the smell was gone, so we decided to be thankful that, although the dank odor of multiplying mold spores was more noticeable now, Death Himself, was no longer passing gas in the closet.

Besides, the Direct TV guy never said he found a skeleton under the building when he visited the crawl space, so....

It remains a mystery. Was there a crime? Or just a rotting possum carcass? Or... something else? Something supernatural?

I doubt it. But it made you think, didn't it?

Or not.

In any case, I'm in a nice, big, brick house now. There are no funky smells (except on Burrito night, of course) and the flies that do come in are the boring, small-but-annoying type that bump into my windows and buzz around my head.

The good news? Every gross experience, every creeps-me-out encounter, is fodder for my writing life.

Because Fiction Mirrors Truth.


Joy Tamsin David said...


You crack me up!

Tracy Krauss said...

Oh Shawna! You bring so much to mind! I, too, have had to moe into some very close quarters on more than one occassion (I've moved 16 times since being married, thirty times all told ...)and once it was into a one bedroom appartment with three small children and me pregnant. Not comfortable. I've also had the 'dead' smell in my house more than once - usually mice, but also a squirrel. There is nothing like that smell, that's for sure! Like you said, its all fodder for our imaginations and will probably appea on the page at some point!