While working in Miami I spent a considerable amount of time house sitting for my boss. Nearly every weekend he and his wife flew (their own plane) down to their condo in the Bahamas. They left their three Rottweilers at home.
I had always been afraid of Rottweilers until I met these three dogs. They were sweet and friendly and extremely loving. Besides, my boss’ home was immeasurably nicer than my crappy apartment.
So when my boss’ in-laws went on a month long vacation, it was only natural that they ask me to house sit for them. Their house was hidden away on a shady plot in a quiet neighborhood. But inside, their collection was more impressive than some museums I’ve been in.
The place was overflowing with history. But more than that, they were collectors. They had a wall of military helmets from every major US war. They had antique glass on every surface and original artwork covering every inch of space on every wall. It was a pleasure to spend time in their home.
And also a huge responsibility. I had only met this sweet older couple one time. They had no idea the kind of destruction I was capable of.
Somehow I made it through the entire month without a single incident. I was ready to breathe a sigh of relief. I drove home in a kind of last minute panic that evening. I had one day to pack for a week long road trip to Maine.
When I stepped inside my apartment, the first thing I noticed was the smell. It smelled like spoiled fish. I assumed it was originating in my uncle’s room. He was an avid fisher and had pole after pole propped against the walls in his room. Not mention all the tackle boxes.
I stepped into his room and took a deep, long sniff. But the smell was not coming from the bedroom. I turned and headed into the kitchen and took another deep inhale. This time I was rewarded with burning nose hairs and lungs.
As my eyes watered I opened the door to the refrigerator and searched for the offending odor. But it wasn’t in there. Next, I tried the freezer. But it wasn’t coming from there either.
I turned and my eyes fell on the pantry door. It’s white slats were impossible to read. The door was innocently closed with no hint of the horror that lay beyond it.
I gingerly reached out and slid the door open slowly, as though I were expecting a body to fall out on me. The smell was stronger now, my lungs filling with acrid stench every time I inhaled. I searched the shelves.
The smell was now unreal. Like nothing I can even describe. It still smelled slightly of rotting fish mixed with human corpse, mold, and maybe a hint of gym socks. It was pungent and burning. I needed an oxygen mask. This could have served as a training module for firefighters.
Where could it be coming from?
I tried holding my breath for as long as I could to minimize my breaths. But this only caused each breath I did take to be deeper and more painful. And then, I saw it. It was something that could only have come from a child’s nightmare. I blinked my eyes, willing it to not be real.
This was years before my heart surgeries. I was still squeamish at this point in my life.
I had left several potatoes on a phone booth before house sitting for my boss’ in-laws. They had putrefied beyond any hope of recognition. They were now a liquified mass that had soaked into the phone book.
And they appeared to be moving.
I moved closer, trying to discern what I was seeing in the dim recess of that pantry shelf. It was maggots. Thousands and thousands of maggots squirming en masse.
I recoiled in horror. I was not prepared to handle this. Not mentally, not physically, not emotionally. And the smell. I could not believe such a smell could come from a plant. I began to gag from the smell. But I did not vomit.
I searched the room frantically for some means of containing this. But my only choice was to take it off the shelf and put it in a trash bag. And I had no gloves.
I briefly contemplated going to the store to buy a pair. But I knew if I got into the car at that moment, I would drive away and never come back. I would drive away until I got the horror of what I had seen out of my mind and start a new life somewhere far far away.
I considered my new life for a moment. I would move to Belize and live in a treehouse with Sergio, my sexy imaginary boyfriend. We would drink fresh squeezed juice and make love for hours during the tropical downpours. I sighed.
And then I turned and faced my hellish reality.
I positioned a trash bag under the shelf and reached out with a metal spatula, trying to slide it off the shelf and into the bag as quickly and neatly as possible. But it was not meant to be.
The phone book was glued in place by rotten potato juices. I pulled harder, using the spatula as leverage, willing it to break free. Half of the phone book suddenly ripped away.
It hit me in the chest and trailed the entire length of my body. I saw, to my disgust, that there were no longer pages inside the phone book. It was a phone book cover surrounding a mass of maggots.
Maggots that were now wriggling on my clothes.
I walked away and I steeled myself, taking a deep breath, and went back in. I picked the phone book off the ground and tossed it into the trash bag. Then I reached into the pantry and dug my fingers behind the second half and began wiggling it, trying to free it.
The maggots took this opportunity to begin squirming their way slowly up my wrist. As long as I live, I will never be able to forget the feeling of reaching into a mass of live maggots and feeling them twitching their way up my arm.
I finally broke the phone book free and tossed it into the trash can. Then, ignoring the maggots all over me, I began cleaning the shelf. Trying to rid it of all evidence of this abhorrent experience.
I used an entire roll of paper towels scrubbing that shelf. I bagged up all the trash and walked outside grateful for the comforting smells of car exhaust and ethnic food. As I turned the corner to our building, I saw my uncle approaching.
I warned him. “Don’t go into our apartment yet. It smells awful and there were maggots.” I imagine how I must have looked to. Sweating, hair crazed and frizzy. My tone and expression the dull numbness that can only come from shell shock.
“Yes.” I didn’t have the wherewithal to explain. “I haven’t puked yet. And if you go in there, you will. And if you puke then I’ll puke. So don’t go in there, please.”
He waited outside while I made sure there was no longer a hint of stink or maggots.
I washed my hands up to my elbows. And then I did it again. And then I washed my face. And then I washed my hands and face. And I stared back into my own eyes in the mirror.
I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I was a stranger. I was someone that could be up to my elbows in maggots and not vomit. I once vomited from eating beets.
I felt something on my bicep. A weird tickling. I looked. It was a maggot. I picked it off and casually washed my hands again.
My uncle came into the room and stood looking at me for a second. “Are you okay?”
“Yes.” And the thing is, I really was.
“Want to go eat something?”
I looked at him. Despite everything, I was somehow hungry. “Yes, I do.”
And you know what? That night, less than and hour later, I even ate some potatoes.
PS: If you type ‘rotten potato smell’ into Google you will read some fucking hilarious stories. Seriously, I’m crying from laughing so hard.