behind the masque – a smelly situation

The arduous journey to an island far, far away was over. We are here!
Here was one of three houses on an unpaved street surrounded by mangrove trees.
Our first breath of island air filled our lungs. Sniff. Sniff. Pee-ew! What is that horrible odor?
Choking, gasping and falling to the ground proclaiming imminent death by stinky smell ensued.
And the Academy Award winning performance for best drama goes to the children of Miserable House.

A Smelly House –

All too soon we would prefer the unpleasant outdoor aroma to the ghastly indoor smells.

Exhausted we huddled together on the threshold of Miserable House #2. John inserted the key that would bring freedom from the horrible outdoor stench. But the key did not turn in the lock. Frantic jiggling and yanking on the doorknob only punctuated the obvious. We were still locked out. Standing six inches from the finish line after nine hours of too close for comfort, emotions ran amuck and four kids had a royal melt down at the same time.

Some did the herky-jerky potty dance. Others loudly proclaimed starvation was imminent. The gagging coughers were now overwhelmed by thirst. And John’s jaw tightened and began to pulsate.

Recognizing the warning signs of an imminent explosion, Mom lassoed us within her arms while moving toward a tuft of crab grass that doubled as the front yard. Meanwhile John stomped toward the house next door. Falling into the hands of an annoyed John was never pleasant. After a brief, terse conversation through a screen door, a hand dropped another key into his palm. The anticipated entry to Miserable House #2 was moments away – again.

The subsequent key worked, but the jalousie door was tightly sealed shut. Unsealed wood swells and the composition of rubber disintegrates into a sticky sealant when exposed to the brutal Florida heat and humidity. John resorted to shoulder slamming the door, which finally broke the suction seal. Our celebration lasted for a slim minute. A cloud of noxious gas exploded through the open door, as if it was fleeing it’s own smell. This was our welcome gift courtesy of the previous renters. In a very real way this was a tangible picture of our fractured family.

Bags and bags of rotting garbage, decomposing refrigerator food post identifiable, along with trash covering nearly every inch of the floor was horrible enough. However, toxic non-inhabitable status was achieved with the addition of fermented urine mixed with cat feces. It was a chemical cocktail that seared the back of your eyelids. Today a Hazmat team would condemn that house and nail a “Do Not Enter” sign across the front door. Five out of six in the family refused entry that day. A waterfall of tears, begging, yelling and bartering did absolutely nothing to alter our disgusting smelly reality. John refused to budge and decided we would stay. After all he was the one in control.

Necessity is the mother of invention and Mom took that literally. In order to deal with a severe allergy to cats she created an ingenious make shift gas mask. Daily for a month of weeks her cleaning uniform consisted of comfortable shorts, Keds, a cotton blouse and a stylish wooden clothes pin clamped tightly over her nostrils.

A House Surrounded by Jungle Sounds –

Dense gnarled trees and thick brush created an impenetrable jungle wall along the border of our side and back yard. The wooded jungle was silent during the day beckoning Tom Sawyer explorations. But, it took exactly one inky black, starless night to squelch the explorer within us. Crazy, wild animal sounds emanated from the jungle interior. Whaling proceeded screaming and signaled the next round of animal fights was about to ensue. Between battle rounds, giant spectators stomped about crunching leaves and snapping limbs. Nightly these sounds thundered outside our open bedroom windows. The lullaby of crickets didn’t stand a chance.

Island Fun for Isolated Children –

A salty island environment is not grass friendly. Our house was surrounded by compacted bright white coral rock with an oval clump of crab grass in the middle of a circle drive. Picture a big white circle with a green bulls eye. Although we seldom played in the back yard, the front yard granted us with hours of entertainment. One fallen palm tree, a casualty of Hurricane Inez, was a balance beam, vault and hurdle for the skillfully agile. However the gold medal winner in the childhood entertainment category occurred when the rain or water hose transformed the circle driveway into a gigantic slimy green Slip and Slide. That tiny playground of four isolated children was the official birthplace of barefoot slime surfing, at least that’s what we told ourselves.

Gliding across the slick ooze sans falling was challenging enough, but not medal worthy. Slime surfing was all about the added wow factor. A totally biased panel of sibling judges cheered and booed brave surfers and then awarded points for distance, tricks, and gnarly wipeouts. Gnarly and messiest are one in the same.  The dirtier the better…

Those in the hesitant thrill seeker or clumsy athlete category weren’t relegated to sideline watchers. We adopted a modified version that achieved the same goal – being slathered with mud. I was well acquainted with this version, because this was my tribe – the gangly, chubby ones. Our muddy fun was void of wow but full of laughter. We closely resembled squealing piglets wallowing delightfully in the green ooze. Those nearly normal moments are rare cherished memories. Even now I smile remembering the carefree feeling of giddy joy.

You’ve probably guessed this, but let me put your guesser to rest. Any indications of muddy fun like dirty clothes, filthy faces or post-fun chatter disappeared before John came home. We were learning to hide things, even fun.

Miserable House #2 was as unique on the inside as it was outside. The interior bedroom walls resembled giant concrete partitions that stopped about eight inches below the ceiling. This type of construction promoted maximum air circulation in a non air-conditioned house. At night staring at that gap a brilliant idea was hatched. The circulation gap soon became the portal used to execute sneak attacks against the inhabitants of the next room. Day or night random stolen objects were volleyed over the border wall bombarding the enemy below. Airborne pillows, gloves, blankets and stuffed animals elicited the best response from the human target. The stealthy process of locating and lifting beloved objects was as fun as the eventual reactions.

A Trouble Magnet –

At the tender age of (nearly six) it was glaringly obvious to others that I was consistently the focus of John’s displeasure. A decade of personal doubt and loathing would unfold before I understood the complex whys that had nothing to do with me. But tiny children are driven by their innocent desires. And above all else I desperately desired the withheld love and approval of the father figure in my life. It’s probably not startling that I began to adapt some identical coping mechanisms Mom exhibited in order to achieve this goal. I hesitated to engage with innocent sibling fun in the feeble attempt to lessen the frequency I was in trouble. Spectatorship granted me a false perception of safety.

Occasionally, I would throw caution to the wind hoping beyond hope that it was safe to participate. Silly me. Silly, silly me. Within minutes an adult would arrive at the scene of the crime and apprehend the guilty party red-handed. While the other grinning, guilty onlookers received a plea deal, there was no such deal offered me. Yep, none of the siblings bravely stepped forward to claim group culpability, because well let’s be honest that sacrifice is reserved only for the movies. The uncanny timing was not due to hidden cameras throughout Miserable House #2 – although it made us wonder.

The brothers and sister also adapted their own coping mechanisms that were strictly designed for their own benefit. If they could successfully entice me to participate, I became their human get out of jail free card.

Our Nightly Ritual –

Mom dutifully placed his initial allotment of beer in the freezer to chill. John would arrive in fifteen minutes, but the daily oppression arrived an hour before him. The ticking clock was both an enemy and a friend.

An unpaved, hole poked road of shell and rock prevented a surprise arrival, because sound preceded sighting and granted us a loud, lengthy warning. The precarious road conditions restricted the speed limit to a turtle’s pace as vehicles slogged back and forth dodging potholes. Our warning was the familiar sound of our Chevrolet engine along with tires pulverizing rocks that ping ponged off the under carriage of each approaching automobile.

Squeals of delight did not proclaim his arrival. Sloppy kisses and giant bear hugs were never exchanged when John opened the door, because his consistent harshness had smothered any feelings of affection, even from his own sons. Like pesky palmetto bugs suddenly exposed by the bright kitchen light, the children of Miserable House scattered before his shoes touched the welcome mat. Bugs flee the light, but humans flee the darkness.

John reserved his warmest greetings for the freezer, because it held his beloved addiction. Clutching the unopened can, he would quickly disappear to change his clothes. When he pulled the tab on the beer can, it was like a gunshot at the Kentucky Derby. He was racing toward the nightly alcohol buzz. Loathing is not a strong enough word for how I feel about that sound.

While gulping down his first beer, he retreated to the backyard with Mom trudging along behind him. John refused to drink alone. And she did not drink; yet her presence was required. Initially she protested the demand to spend hours under the tiki hut listening to his demented filth while pursuing drunkenness. That is until the revelation her presence limited his access to inflict cruelty toward us.

Each subsequent field trip he made to the refrigerator would increase our apprehension of becoming the target of his cruelty. Mom would become the beer runner so he could stay outside, safely removed from us. So the victim endured abuse in the feeble attempt to partially shelter others.

Sharing Something Lovely –

The clinic elevator had a well-deserved reputation. Slow. Today was no different. The gathered group stood with lifted chins watching the numbers slowly change as the elevator crawled from floor to floor. When the arms of the metal can opened wide, a cluster of annoyed individuals began the boarding process. Dad and I hung back attempting to avoid becoming the middle of a human sandwich. One by one the elevator riders stepped across the threshold until only we remained. Surveying the crowd my brain screamed wait, but my father blurted out the sentence that never instills faith. I think we can fit.

In order to enhance all future riding experiences, let me reiterate the four cardinal rules of elevator use for you. 1. Upon boarding step quickly to the back and fill in the perimeter. 2. Don’t exchange niceties with temporary riders who will remain permanent strangers. 3. Lock eyes on the door and specifically the floor countdown above the door. 4. Contain offensive odors.

*This copulation is based on personal elevator experiences in cities from New York to the Florida Keys. I routinely wanted to stand in the wrong place and exchange pleasantries. That folly produced several displeased reactions. Slight head jerks, condescending sideways glances and pursed lips.

Once floor five riders boarded, the random roll call for floors began, even though their number was already clearly lite. Oh brother my tank of self-control was plummeting. Clinging to positivity while touching shoulders with strangers and submerged in less than lovely odors can occasionally activate my inner snarky. It’s a lifetime battle with more wins than losses. But today I could see the blinking danger button.

There it was – the initial jolt that signified the beginning of our downward descent. Movement lightened the atmosphere. Our end of captivity was in sight, until the sound. Ding.

We traveled one entire floor and the metal door opened again. All fixed eye balls shifted briefly from the walls to the delayers of our ride. Instantly I recognized the family of three although ten years had lapsed since I last saw them. A decade of aging was kind to the son even though he surpassed the mid-century milestone. The opposite was true of his beloved parents. Each wore ravaging signs of advanced years. His mother was barely ambulatory, but could still communicate. His father rode a scooter seat and it was obvious his powerful voice for good had been silenced forever. Vacant eyes locked in place on an expressionless face told of his condition. My heart ached for him and them.

Mid-century son pushed the scooter seat into the last remaining vacancy – the middle of the elevator. And suddenly the routine ride was transformed into a memorable moment.

Instead of standing behind his dad to facilitate a quick exit with a cumbersome load, he did what 99% wouldn’t do. He left his post of readiness and slide around to stand in front of him. Speaking in tender tones gazing into his dad’s face. I will never forget eyes that overflowed with patience, compassion and love. With each gentle gesture of love, I swallowed harder. Watching him straighten his shirt and adjust one droopy sock nearly did me in. But it was the finale that unleashed a cascading flow of tears. A loving son began to comb once perfectly coiffed hair with slow, sweeping strokes of his fingertips while sharing expressions of affirmation and love.

The father’s capability to flash an appreciative smile or express words of gratitude had ceased. They were not necessary or required for the son to bestow loving kindness. Unselfish serving is permanently connected to love. One does not exist without the other.

The family of three broke rule #2 and their fellow riders broke rule #3. I am thankful we did.


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