Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What I Did On My Summer Vacation In Hell

MessageAll.Ca, where this story was originally published, seems to have disappeared, so I'm rerunning this story here.  One advantage of print over online publishing is that stories don't vanish overnight, I suppose.  Given the time of year and the heat currently in the United States, it fits in well anyway though.  Here's what I wrote about the story last fall:  "My zine pal from Canada, Justin Chatwin, occasionally takes time out from running for parliament to run a cool blog called Message All. Recently, he asked me if I had any writing to share, and I dug around in the archives and found an unpublished short story. I had originally written it in 2001, but then September 11th happened and the world changed . . . er . . . maybe not. Actually I'm not sure how the little story ended up an orphan or why it wasn't published before. There's a good chance someone asked me for a story for their zine or something and then as often happens the zine never got published and by that point I had forgotten about the story. I stumbled across it a couple of years ago and liked it. Readers of The Pornographic Flabbergasted Emus will recognize the plot of the story since it covers events also referenced in the novel. That's likely why the story never appeared before. It was written prior to the novel, but since the story covered similar events and the novel was published in 2002 in zine form, I shelved the story. It stands on its own though, which is why I offered it to Justin. I'm happy to see it finally be published. It's been waiting, enduring a decade of hibernation in my computer. When the story was initially posted on MessageAll, there were a couple of typos (the title was missing 'Vacation' and the last line 'hell'), but I expect Justin will take care of them. If you've noticed the weather getting nippy, then warm up with 'What I Did On My Summer Vacation In Hell'!"

The skunks were the least of my worries. In fact, I kinda liked them. The stench they left outside the house was better than the stench my roommates left inside the house. Besides, I only had to worry about the skunks when I stumbled home drunk from the bars at night. It was the stuff that drove me from the house and to the bars that worried me more. No doubt, it was a summer of hell that would have even impressed Rimbaud in its absurdity. In fact, it felt as if I had left the normal plane of reality to vacation in Hell. It got so bad that I started to love work because when I was at work at least I wasn't home in Hell.

It began with the squirrels. Kent, Ohio is famous for its black squirrels, which an enterprising groundskeeper had brought back from Canada in the 1960s and set free on the grounds of Kent State University. Today, those furry tree-living rodents ran the town like the mafia. And now they were muscling into the house where I lived like a protection racket out of the oldest Cosa Nostra playbook. They scampered in the walls, in the ceiling, always out of sight, but never out of hearing range. They chewed on the bathtub, chattering like chickens early in the morning. They chewed through the phone line twice and did the same for the waterpipe, flooding the crawlspace underneath the house. They were also slowly chewing the house to pieces (that it was made out of cheap plastic being a glorified doublewide trailer no doubt accelerated their efforts). This caused one roommate to move out after he had a dream that he was taking a shower and stepped on a squirrel in the bathtub. The next day I returned to find the electricity turned off and the roommate gone and a hastily scrawled note half-chewed by squirrels that read “Call electric company by noon or the power goes off. I took it out of my name. Remember how we had to buy that old refrigerator together when we moved in because our landlords were too cheap to supply one? Well, it's all yours now. Have a good summer. Love, Mike. P.S./ There's a dead squirrel in the freezer.”

I took the squirrel out of the freezer by its frozen fluffy tail and threw it in the backyard. Then, we (that would be me and the remaining roommate, Jeremiah, and Gretchen, his everpresent girlfriend, who attached to him like a Siamese twin and who both liked to pretend I didn’t exist even when we were a foot away from one another) managed to stave off making up the rent of the AWOL roommate from the landlord, but in return we had to accept the landlord's brother-in-law, who had recently moved up from West Virginia, as our new roommate. I wasn't happy about it, but I agreed to the deal in order not to shell out more rent in order to live in what had become a squirrel nest, and I guess the twins did the same or figured they’d just pretend the brother-in-law didn’t exist too so it wouldn't make much difference to them anyway.

However, in addition to foisting relatives upon us, the landlord declared a jihad against the squirrels, apparently because they were now nibbling on his pocketbook by driving out tenants. He began nightly sitting on our roof with a bb gun and picking off squirrels in the surrounding trees. His children joined in and would roam the backyard molesting anything living including those of us living in the house. “Mister, if the bluejay that we tortured dies, could you bury him?” one of them asked me, then shot at me with a bb.

The landlord also used muskrat traps and crippled squirrels by the armful. The carnage was awful. Eventually the landlord triumphed and squirrels avoided the house by a one-block radius.

Unfortunately one pest had been replaced by another as the landlords had decided to sell the house, apparently realizing that the next thunderstorm would probably wash it away since the squirrels had hallowed out the walls and ceiling. Soon, hordes of prospective house buyers and realtors descended upon the house at all hours. They always claimed they’d call before they’d come but they never did. Instead, they’d call but never show up. And when they did show up, I became nostalgic for the squirrels. At least the squirrels never forced me out of the shower to explain where the cable outlets were.

It was about this time, that the landlord’s brother-in-law, Ziggy, moved in. I took him for another realtor until he announced his residency by having loud sex in the middle of the night. I awoke from a deep sleep and, of course, from the sounds of it, was jealous. The next morning Ziggy and his male lover came into the kitchen while I was eating cereal and introduced themselves, and I wasn’t jealous anymore. I’ve always enjoyed the sounds of loud sex but when I wasn’t getting any my baser nature always made me a bit envious. However, I found that loud gay sex was pure enjoyment since, being straight, I felt no jealousy. It soon became a nightly soundtrack as a steady stream of gay lovers entered the house. The roommate I feared would be a redneck turned out to be a pleasant if slightly egocentric gay club kid who partied all night and worked all day. He was a great roommate because he was almost never there.

Until he got sick.

Then Ziggy was around day and night, mostly lying in the living room, groaning and hallucinating while watching bad television situation comedies loudly. He also started bleeding profusely from his gums and the bathroom I shared with him would resemble the operating room of an army hospital in a war zone after he flossed his teeth. Now I consider myself fairly non-homophobic, but even I started worrying about Aids when I would look at the blood streaked bathroom mirror and remember the stream of nightly anonymous sex partners.

I brushed my teeth at the kitchen sink from then on.

Oh, bugger off, you know you would too.

Ziggy eventually got better but the stench from his 72-hour delirium in the living room pervaded the house for the rest of our stay. Ziggy himself smelled great, always wearing a pleasant cologne. He soon returned to clubbing, leaving me with the Stench, which seemed to have become a fourth roommate in the house (that is if you didn’t count Gretchen, which I didn’t since she and Jeremiah appeared to be surgically attached so I regarded them as a single entity). No amount of open windows and air fresheners could drive the Stench out. And it too liked to watch bad television loudly.

Fortunately for them, the landlords had already sold the house by the time the Stench moved in or I doubt anyone with a nose would have even looked at it, let alone consider purchasing it. Even the "For Sale" sign in the front lawn leaned over as if it were gagging from the smell. The Stench had even spurred me to cough up some more money each month by just giving up on roommates altogether and renting a pad by myself.

Some things, such as sanity, are worth paying a bit more for.

For a second, as I prepared to move, it seemed as if my summer in Hell might be ending. I hadn’t been sprayed by the skunks once on my return from the bars and I had even made an agreement with the new owner of the house to sell the refrigerator to her since she was hard-up getting a divorce and needed any appliances she could get cheap.

Ah, but that brief period of calm was just the devil allowing my buttocks to cool so I'd scream that much louder when he jammed his heated pitchfork between them again.

Three days before I was about to move I casually mentioned to Ziggy that I was glad I didn’t have to move the fridge and he said, “Oh, didn’t she tell you? Someone bought her a new fridge as a present--you have to take this one with you.”

I had suspected that I hadn't checked out of the Hotel Hades yet, and the fridge was of course the cherry on top of the devilish sundae. I sprang into operation, defrosting and cleaning the fridge. First, I tried to sell it. I placed an ad in the newspaper the next day. A Chinese woman and her paranoid American boyfriend showed up and they apparently suspected that $50 for a fridge was too good to be true. The boyfriend inspected it like a fine diamond and told me they’d have to think about it and then they’d call me.

They, of course, never called.

Neither did anybody else. Scratch selling the fridge. Now I tried to give it away. I would have called the Chinese woman but in their paranoia they had declined to give me their phone number.

Ah, well, their loss. Somebody would be happy to get a free fridge, right? The Stench nodded in agreement while watching Three’s Company.

I called the local social services charity. They gladly would take it but they had no way to pick it up and it wouldn’t fit in my car so it seemed that was a dead end. Next I called an used appliance store to see if they wanted it. Nope, they had more fridges than they could handle. I called the electric company which ran a refrigerator recycling program. Nope, that program was discontinued a year ago, they told me. The Stench chuckled and asked me what I was going to do.

I told him I was going to do what I always did and go to the bar.

So I went to the bar, cleverly avoiding the skunks by climbing over a fence into the neighbor’s yard, and hatched a plan over a beer. I avoided the skunks again on the way home by swinging from tree to tree and landing on the roof of the house as the black squirrels used to do during their reign of terror and Ziggy on his way to the clubs helped me get the fridge into the front yard. I took off the door so none of the neighborhood kids would suffocate and threw it and the shelves and bolts and drawers into my car, and the next day, I drove to U-Haul and rented an appliance dolly. I drove down to the social services agency and parked. I got the appliance dolly and walked the mile or so to the old house. I had moved all of my other stuff out already and only the lonely fridge standing in the front yard was left. There were some sleeping skunks cradled in the freezer department but I got the Stench to came outside and make them run away. As I strapped the fridge to the dolly and looked at the house in the background, I got nostalgic for the times at the the old house, even the bad times like the time Jeremiah and Gretchen had moved their dogs into their room causing Mike to break out in allergic hives and me to step on dogshit indoors.

After that memory, I quickly threw my nostalgia in the trash, wiped a tear away, bid adieu to the Stench who went inside to catch a rerun of One Day At A Time, and started pushing and pulling the dolly and fridge to the social services agency. It was a long mile and my arms felt like they were going to fall off by the end. People would stop their cars and point at me. Pedestrians laughed and told me “That’s not something you see every day.”

Of course, no one offered to help.

The social services people were grateful though when I got there. Once they gave me CPR for my heart attack from overexertion, I got the shelves and drawers and other parts from my car and put the refrigerator back together. Some poor person could use it they said. That made me feel good and almost made the whole ordeal and the summer vacation in hell worth it. I went back to my new pad and passed out on the bed. It smelled good, the bathroom was nonbloody, and there were no skunks to avoid to get inside. I felt sure the summer of hell was over.

Then I heard the buzzing.

I looked up. In the frame of the window of my bedroom was a wasps nest. Hundreds of wasps moved, and flew and buzzed, separated from me only by a thin pane of glass.

I almost ran screaming from the new house, but the summer of hell had toughened me. Instead, I phoned the old house. The Stench said he would be glad to help. He came over and within a half-hour the wasps had taken down their nest and flown away. I hadn’t even known that wasps had a sense of smell.

We celebrated by watching What’s Happening at top volume then I kicked him the hell out and had a heavenly autumn.

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