Many years ago, I was a plumber. One day, I was called to a job on the outskirts of town. On a road I had never been on, thick dense trees lined either side. I hadn’t seen any sign of civilization for at least a few miles. “There isn’t a house out here,” I said to myself. No sooner had those words left my lips, I noticed a mailbox ahead.
I drove my van up a long curvy driveway lined with tall oak trees. The branches stretched over top making it feel like I was inside a tunnel. When I came out the other end, I passed a large fountain that sprayed water straight up before it came raining down into the stacked tiers of pools before falling into the large pool at the base. In front of me was an old Victorian-style mansion. There were more towers and dormers than I could count. The entire front had a long wraparound porch that seemed to go on forever. “This job is going to be tough,” I said out loud. “There was no telling how outdated the plumbing was going to be.”
After coming to a stop, I got out of my van and pulled up my pants. Then, I headed for the front steps. I walked up to a gigantic double door made of clear glass. There were windows all around it. I could see into the massive atrium. A large winding staircase with a dark wooden banister curled towards the upstairs. Against the wall stood a grandfather clock. Three arched doorways led into other rooms. I rang the doorbell and it made this melancholic chime. I waited but no one answered. So, I rang the doorbell again. I was about to leave when a very pretty young woman answered. She couldn’t have been a day over thirty.
“May I help you,” she asked.
“I’m looking for the owner of the house,” I answered. “I was told there’s a smell- some kind of odor.”
“Oh,” the woman said. “I called. I’m the owner.”
I had expected someone much older. I thought she’d be this decrepit woman with a walker who had lived there since the Great Depression. I noticed the way a ribbon of the women’s blonde hair fell along the side of her face. It was almost completely straight until the end where it curled just a bit. The rest of her hair was tied back in a ponytail revealing her slender face and ears. Her right ear had four piercings. Her left ear only had one. She wore a hooded sweatshirt and leggings. When she greeted me, her smile lines leaped off her face but as the smile faded any trace of a cheerful demeanor vanished with them.
We walked into the atrium. Right away I could smell it. “I smell it,” I said. “It isn’t mildew. It isn’t foul. It’s almost like the air is stale.”
“Yes,” the woman said excitedly. “That’s it exactly. The air is stale.”
“How long has it been this way,” I asked?
The woman crossed her arm over her chest and held her finger to her lips. “Hmmm,” she pondered. “It must be almost a decade, now.”
“A decade?” I practically shouted my question. “It’s been a decade?”
“Yes,” the woman answered. “It’s been at least that long but I am so used to it, it feels like it’s always been here. Maybe it has. I don’t know. Who can say about such things? I think a decade is correct but it could’ve been here for thirty years at least, back when I bought the place.”
“You’ve owned this home for thirty years?”
“Yes,” she told me. “I got a very good deal.” She nodded seemingly content with herself.
“Why, now?” I asked. “After all this time why now try to find the cause of the smell.”
The woman tapped her finger against her thumb anxiously. “That’s a good question. I guess, at first, I wanted to ignore it. I thought if I gave it enough time it would go away on its own. Then, I think I grew a little embarrassed about it. I stopped having people over and became somewhat of a shut-in.” Her blue eyes darted all around. “Now, I don’t know. I’m not sure what prompted me to call you. I saw your ad and you seemed safe and trustworthy. Sometimes I wonder if the smell is a figment of my imagination. I figured it would be good to just have someone to talk about it with so I know I’m not crazy.” Then she asked, “Would you like to check the basement, first?”
She led me to an old wooden door and down some old wooden stairs that creaked and buckled under my weight. It was pitch black, but the woman waded into the darkness and weaved through the shadows like she had every centimeter of the space committed to memory. “Watch your step,” she warned me. “There’s a lot of ancient stuff down here.”
I waited at the base of the staircase. The woman reached above her and pulled on a light string illuminating the entire basement. “Jesus!” I screamed.
The woman turned towards me. “Are you all right?”
“Who are these children just sitting around here in the dark?” I asked, nearly out of breath. There were children as young as four and then there were much older kids who were maybe eighteen. There were boys and girls of all ages in between.
“This is where I keep the things that used to bother me but don’t anymore,” the woman said. “Some of these kids were bullies. That boy over there used to pull my hair.” She motioned with her head. “That girl over there spread rumors about me. You see that boy in the corner. He was the first guy to break my heart. It was all so long ago. You understand, don’t you?”
I watched as a red-headed youngster who looked about five picked his nose and wiped it on his shirt. “I guess… I get it, maybe.”
“Well, what do you think? Is the smell coming from the basement?”
I took a deep breath. “No,” I answered. The smell was stronger in the atrium. It’s not down here. These old Victorians have lots of plumbing issues. Pipes run through most of the house in all kinds of ways. It could be coming from any room. They sure don’t build them like this anymore. We’ll have to keep investigating.”
The woman let me get to the stairs before she turned out the light. I appreciated her thoughtfulness.
We kept going until we entered another room filled with adults. “Who are these people?” I asked.
“Oh, these people? Don’t mind them. Some of them are teachers I had. The guy over there in the hat with the whistle around his neck was my old soccer coach. That gray-haired man with the stethoscope was my pediatrician.” Some of them were playing cards. Others were talking to one another. They didn’t seem to notice us.
“I’m starting to get it,” I told her. “I don’t think the odor is any better or worse.”
We walked through many rooms filled with lots of people. There were people from her college days. They were drinking and dancing even though there was no music. In one of the rooms, there was her old boss from when she waited tables one summer. I met a camp counselor and her girl scout troop leader. In the next bunch of rooms, there were over a hundred people from her old church. Many of them were kneeling and praying. Some of them were arranging baked goods onto a table. There was a tall thin man with glasses standing at a lectern. He was gesturing with his hands but no words were coming out of his mouth.
“I used to be very involved with the church when I was young,” the woman interjected. “My family and I were incredibly active. We did all the charity events. They were such good people. I’m fond of all of them. But I changed. So, did everyone in my family, really. Everyone except my sister. She’s still very active. The rest of us… not so much.” The woman smiled at the parishioners. “Are we any closer to finding the smell?” She asked me.
“That’s interesting. Was there any reason for the falling out?”
“No,” the woman told me. “I think we all had our reasons. We moved away from being active at different times.”
Running my hand through my hair, I responded to her original question. “This is a tough one. The smell isn’t particularly definable. If it was mildew, I’d be able to guess you had a leak somewhere. If it was stinky, I’d look into a sewerage issue. This isn’t a smell I’ve encountered, so I think I should be very thorough. Is it OK if we look upstairs?
The woman tapped her finger against her thumb before answering. “Yes. I think that will be alright. You seem nice. I only let a few people up there. I’m a very private person.”
In the first room, we entered were five elderly people, three men, and two women. The two women sat in rockers knitting. One of the men sat in an armchair playing with an old pipe. Another was reading a book. The oldest man lay in a bed hooked up to medical equipment. I walked over to him. “Is he alright?” I asked”
“Yes,” the woman answered. “That’s my great grandfather. I don’t remember much of him except how kind he was when I came to visit. He always had M&M’s for me. He had this infectious smile. It made me giggle when he didn’t have his dentures in. The other four are my grandparents. I have such fond memories of all of them.”
I liked seeing her interact with her grandparents. Even though they didn’t acknowledge her I could see this overwhelming love inside her. It made me feel good. I don’t know why. It made me feel good being close to that kind of tenderness. I started to think about my own home and how empty it felt sometimes. I took a deep breath inhaling entirely through my nose. “I think, maybe the smell is stronger up here but I’m also getting a little nose blind to it. Shall we keep going?”
The woman nodded and led me into the next room that had a few of her very close friends. There was an ex with whom she remained in contact all these years. There were a couple of her best friends from high school. There was the guy she pretended to date until he was ready to come out of the closet. “You seem so thoughtful of others,” I pointed out.
The woman shrugged and smiled.
In the rooms that followed I met her parents, her two sisters, and her brother. The mother and father sat at a table eating toast and drinking tea. The two sisters were on their phones. But the brother walked right up to me and shook my hand. Of all the people we met, he was the first one who spoke to me. “Are you here to find the smell?”
“I am,” I told him.
“Good.” He sounded relieved. “I noticed it a long time ago. I’ve been in most of these rooms and I don’t know where it’s coming from. I’d look through there if I were you.” The brother pointed at a door over his shoulder. “I’m not allowed in those rooms.”
I looked at the woman. “I’m very close to my brother,” she said. “He probably knows me better than anyone and he has no idea what’s causing the smell.”
“He seems to think it’s coming from the rooms through those doors,” I pointed. “Do you mind showing me?”
She nodded and led the way. In the first room was a Spanish man wearing a soccer jersey and smoking a cigarette. “Who is this?” I asked.
“Him?” The woman blushed. “It’s a little embarrassing. I studied abroad for a semester. I tended bar in this little place not far from campus in Barcelona. He was someone I met there when he was visiting in town at the beginning of a long trip to see most of Europe. Looking back, I almost can’t believe we… ya know, hooked up. I don’t think he’s my type. I mean, all he talked about was the world cup. I think I liked his eyes. He had nice safe eyes. He took me back to the hostel where he was staying… and you know…”
“You had sex with him?”
The woman blushed more. “Yes. It was all very naughty. We had to be quiet because there were other people in the room. I went a little wild during those times, for a few years, really. It was kind of my ‘bad girl’ phase.”
“I see,” I responded. I stared at the man as I rubbed my chin.
The next eight rooms we went to all had different lovers from around that time. One she hooked up with in his car. Another she dated for a week but ended it because he got a little clingy. There were a couple of guys her age but most were older. As we passed through each room, I felt the smell getting stronger. In the ninth room were a man and a woman. I looked over my shoulder at the homeowner. She shrugged. “My ‘bad girl’ phase,” was all she said with a grin. The next two rooms were also women. They were both very beautiful. One was black with long hair. The other I assumed was Canadian because she was wearing a hockey jersey and watching a Canucks game on an old black-and-white television. There were a few more rooms with men in them. One was a shirtless bald-headed guy standing by the window. He had on leather pants and was holding a leather belt. The homeowner told me how she let him choke her until he left bruises on her neck. Another man was also shirtless. He just stood there snarling and cracking his knuckles. He had rope coiled over his shoulder. “He tied me up and spanked me until my bum turned red.” The woman smiled awkwardly while she explained. “I can be a little adventurous at times. I hope that doesn’t bother you.”
“No,” I told her. “It’s good. I can be a little adventurous, too.”
The woman’s smile grew and she flipped her hand at me. She turned her head away but I still saw the grin stretching across her face. The further I went into her home the more layers I peeled back. I found myself wanting to stand a little closer to her. I watched her when she didn’t realize I was watching. I wondered if a woman like that could ever have feelings for a lowly plumber. I wasn’t sure what I had to offer besides being handy with a wrench. I fantasized about sitting at a table with her while she worked on a crossword and I read a book. We’d silently enjoy one another’s company. Maybe she’d ask me for help with fifteen across and then she’d laugh at my silly answer. Maybe I’d read her a paragraph and we’d both sit there and reflect on it.
We continued our investigation in a few empty rooms before coming to a door that had a padlock on it.
“What’s in there?” I asked
“That’s where I keep my husband,” the woman answered. “I was married once. It didn’t work out. I don’t know why I keep this door locked. I just do. I always have. I don’t mind showing you, though. You make me feel very comfortable. I want you to see.”
She took out a key and put it into the lock. We stepped into the room. There was a handsome man with a thick beard standing by a fireplace. “What happened?”
“Who can say?” The woman told me with a frown. “It was so many different things. I think I met him at a time in my life when I needed a lifeline. I needed something stable and secure to latch on to. Look at him. He’s unflappable. But after a while, I needed something else. I needed someone who could look at himself and see what was deeper, you know? With my husband what you saw was what you got. There was no art to him. When we met, I needed him. He was good for me in so many ways. There isn’t anything I can say specifically. I would have stayed with him forever just because I didn’t want to hurt him. But he figured it out. He knew he only had a part of me and that I’d never give him the rest.” She wiped her eyes. Then she asked, “Does that make sense?”
“I think so,” I answered. For the first time, she seemed lonely in this house filled with so many people. None of them got to see all the rooms. That must be incredibly hard never letting one person see all of you; giving bits to family and giving other bits to friends. Having to save some for lovers but never letting them see the parts of you that belong to your siblings or grandparents. “What is through that door over there?”
“That door?” The woman didn’t look at it. “It leads to the third floor. There isn’t much up there. I don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for there.”
I glanced at the door and then back at the homeowner. She was fidgeting with her hair. “You’re probably right,” I said. “I doubt the issue is up there. But I pride myself on being thorough. Perhaps you could let me look. I promise not to stay too long.”
The woman took a deep breath. She sighed. Finally, she answered. “Alright. We can go. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on the third floor.”
She led me up a narrow staircase. Once we reached the top, I noticed a man sitting Indian-style on a small area rug reading a bible. “Who’s that?” I asked.
“He’s someone I haven’t thought about in a long time. I thought I loved him once. No, I did love him. I wanted to be with him. We met at church back when my family and I were active. It was where my friends came from so it made sense I’d find my husband there. I believed we’d get married. I remember being so certain that this was how life was supposed to look. Back then, I had no doubts about what my purpose was. It was a great feeling but not so much anymore. He broke it off. I remember being very upset. I cried until my eyes hurt.”
“I’m sorry,” I told the woman. “That sounds awful. Why did he end things?”
The woman took a deep breath. “He didn’t like the way my home smelled. He said I was tainted. I’m not sure what he meant by that. It was so long ago.”
“I understand,” I told the woman. “That must have been devastating.”
“It was a long time ago.”
“It must have hurt.”
“Do you think we can go back downstairs, now?”
“I’m not sure,” I told her. “The smell does seem stronger up here. I’d like to root out the cause of it. What’s through that door over there?”
“What door?” The woman asked
“The one right there.” I pointed.
“Oh… that door. Nothing’s in there.”
“May I look?”
The woman grimaced and then reluctantly nodded. I walked over and opened it. In the center of the otherwise empty room was a man sitting on a stool with his back to us. The woman had not moved any closer. “The smell seems to be coming from this room,” I told her.
“No, I don’t think so.” She answered.
“Who is this man sitting here.”
The woman appeared to be looking at nothing when she answered. “Him?” She sighed and her shoulders sank. “Well, the thing is… he’s my rapist.” She let out another sigh and her eyes began to water. “He raped me once after I had too much to drink. I should have been more careful. I didn’t even know it happened. I woke up feeling kind of funny. A friend of mine had to tell me. When I confronted my rapist, he said it was consensual. I don’t think I would have consented but I don’t know. I had been a virgin before that. I was still in the church. I wanted my first time to be with my husband so I don’t think I would have consented even if I was drunk. Is someone still a virgin if she doesn’t consent? I don’t know how that works. The man in the room next door. He wouldn’t be with me because I was no longer pure. He was set on his first time being his wife’s first time. That hurt me more than being raped, honestly. So… yeah. That’s the room I keep my rapist in.”
With every word, she spoke my hands balled up into tighter and tighter fists. My teeth ground together. Tears welled up in my eyes. I wanted to drag both men out by their necks. I wanted to watch them tumble down one flight of stairs after another. I wanted to throw them into the fountain and hold their heads under the water with everyone else in the house watching. What right did they have being in such an amazing home? But that would have been for me and not her. She didn’t want a scene. She just wanted the smell gone. I inhaled until my lungs were full. I let out a long slow exhale. “Is that when your ‘bad girl’ phase began?” I asked. “After he said you weren’t pure.”
A tear rolled down the woman’s cheek. “If I was already tainted then what difference did it make? If you want to leave, I’d understand. I won’t hold it against you.”
Shaking my head, I could feel the anguish spread across my face. “No,” I whispered. I took a step towards her and she stood still. “Nothing I can say will remove the hurt you’ve felt. I wish I could. It doesn’t make me want to run away. It makes me want to stand here with you to prove that the smell doesn’t matter. I’ve seen so much today. There is so much beauty in these walls. Even the pain that’s here only shows me how strong you are to have survived it.”
“Do you really think the smell is coming from up here?” The woman asked.
“I do,” I told her. “I’m almost certain of it.” I closed the door so she didn’t have to look into the room anymore. “But it doesn’t matter. It isn’t a bad smell. All these old houses have their own character.”
“What do you recommend?” She asked.
I rubbed my chin. “This isn’t my area of expertise. I think there are others out there more suited for this kind of work. But, if you’re asking my opinion, I think the best thing to do is to get everyone in the same room. Maybe bring everyone down into that beautiful atrium. Let the sunlight fall onto all of it. Maybe that will help to disinfect. I think if you saw how much everyone loves you when you showed them all your rooms, you’d feel better.”
“No.” The woman said sharply. “That isn’t something I am going to do. I’m sorry.”
“Please, don’t be sorry.” I took a step closer to her and she took a step further away. “It’s alright,” I said, holding up my hands. “We don’t have to do that. Like I told you, this isn’t my area of expertise. Maybe there is something else we can do. Maybe, if you wouldn’t mind too much, I’d like to stay. Floor-by-floor and room-by-room, I feel as though I’ve gotten to know you. When I look at you, all I see is this incredible person in front of me. I didn’t expect this. I told myself I was only here for a job. But the more I saw of you the fonder I’ve become. I can’t help it. I think perhaps you’ve grown fond of me, too. Please forgive me for being so forward. I’d like to stay for a while if you’d have me. I don’t mind the smell. I don’t even notice it. And I love this home of yours. It doesn’t have to be a nice room or a very large one. I’d like it if you could come by and visit me from time to time and just talk. We can talk about anything you want. It doesn’t have to be about what you keep on the third floor.”
The woman didn’t answer for a long time. She stared past the man reading the bible and focused her eyes on the closed door in front of her. I started to say, “I can show myself out” but the woman interrupted me.
“I think I have a room for you. I’ll show you to it.”
She walked me back downstairs and all the strain from the third floor left her like it had never existed. She gave me an empty room not far from her husband’s. It was small and quiet but there was a warmth in there. “Do you like it?” She asked me.
“It’s perfect, I answered.”
“And the smell? It doesn’t bother you?”
“What smell?” I answered with a smile.
She kissed me. It wasn’t a passionate kiss. It was a long slow kiss of relief. I held her close. I whispered. “You’re safe in this room. I promise. Nothing will ever hurt you in here.”
She wrapped her arms around me so tight. My arms engulfed her. I squeezed her close. She rested her head on my shoulder. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Thank you,” she told me. “Thank you for making me feel safe.”