In order to stem the effects of seasonal flu, or perhaps to justify rumors of its particular virulence this year, the schools in Armenia have closed down for the next two weeks until the official beginning of the winter break. I’m sure the kids have got to be happy about that, but their mothers seem to be keeping them all inside ‘cause I haven’t seen many to ask them what they plan to do with this miraculous 2-week extension of their vacation.
In the meantime the university continues it’s scheduled courses heedless to the menacing coughs and frail looks exchanged by students and faculty alike. Luckily, I’ve already gotten myself sick so I guess I won’t have to anticipate getting sick again, at least not until the current illness abates.
The last few days have gotten slightly warmer, but have produced a particularly nebulous, grey sky, something I’m totally unaccustomed to as this place is classified as semi-desert and is usually very sunny. As a result of the weather and this nearly consumptive-sounding cough I’ve got going for me, I’ve spent the last couple of days hiding in my apartment, emerging only to buy more juice and to run only the most essential of errands. I’ve finished two books in the last two days. This, as you can imagine, complicates the task of writing anything exciting about life in Armenia. I find myself even further perplexed by the sudden appearance of predictability and normalcy in my daily schedule. I haven’t written very much for the last couple of months because it often seems as if very little worth writing about has happened. Sure, a few things here and there, but nothing to make me run home, jotting notes on my hand the whole way so as not to forget the tiniest detail.
I’m content enough, working, or rather, beginning to work on the final projects that will surely wind up my remaining 7 and ½ months in Armenia (Wow!). At present I’m not really even over-concerned with the future, as I have been in the past when suddenly everything became commonplace. Last winter, I spent a lot of time thinking about different places and people I’d like to see again, but it looks as if this winter is going to be different. I don’t want to lose sight of the few changes I’m hoping I can make before I leave, and, besides, I’ve been gone so long now that there doesn’t seem to be much reality left to draw from day dreams of San Francisco or post-Peace Corps trips to Turkmenistan or India. I’m here, and I guess after all this time, in a way, I’ve finally excepted that, until it’ll change again.
However, la recherche du temps perdu does still filter through, things that I’d nearly forgotten only to have them dredged up by a line in a book or a brief conversation, where they settle into reminiscence.
The most recent example came to me today while reading a book where the characters have to drag a damp mattress out of an extinguished house fire. This reminded me of one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever had to do. I think now with enough temporal distance between myself and the offending event, I can safely describe it.
Years ago I lived in a typical collegiate house, a big place on the east side of town, a little run down and cold as hell in the winter, but nothing too offensive. Even if it had been some kind of full-blown slum I certainly would’ve minded, but, as it was, the place we used to live on Foster Ave. was ideal for my Jr., Sr. and post-undergrad., pre-grad. days. The house was spacious, although there were not always enough rooms for all the people living there. My old roommate Jon lived on and off again in the attic and I once spent an entire summer sleeping on the couch in a room off the kitchen, awakened nearly every night by someone coming home and deciding to cook at 2 am.
"Oh," barely whispering, "that’s my roommate Jon, I guess he’s sleeping in here now."
"Why," barely curious interlocutor asks, "doesn’t he have a room?"
"I don’t know, who cares, ughh this kitchen is always so dirty, help me clean this pan will ya’?"
"Yeah, ok. Where’s the beer?"
Whereupon the noise would commence until the prepared meal would, thankfully, be taken into a room to be consumed and all the dishes dirtied in preparing it would be left for the next night, so that the same conversation could be repeated for my benefit.
I shouldn’t be so cynical. Mostly it was a wonderful place. I have so many happy memories from Foster Ave. that I really have to stretch to write about it in a negative light. In some way it seems as though I was the freest I had ever been in my life when I lived there. Just out of college, working at a great bookstore, 1st class diner right down the street to sequester myself in whenever I felt like drinking coffee and reading all night, which was frequently. My roommates were also great people. Two guys I had known since Jr. high, one of whom was never around and a succession of various people living in one of the other rooms. I had all kinds of things in those days, and it’s the only time I can remember when I actually had to debate with myself whether or not I wanted to leave. Up until this point and ever since, a move comes naturally. I feel that it’s time to go and I do, and after I leave it usually doesn’t feel as if much has changed, but when I did finally leave that place I did so amidst much internal argument and skepticism. I know that I had no other choice. If I didn’t leave that place when I did for SF I would’ve left it another time for a different place. Essentially, it was just a matter of which bus I was going to catch, not whether I was going to get on one at all. I’m glad I left. Many people I knew there have since left themselves and no one wants to be the last to leave the party (although I usually am.) Still, many of my good friends, in fact both of the guys I lived with, are still there. It’s a great place to go back and visit, to go unearthing old memories of winter nights, summer afternoons and autumn evenings. In fact it seems like every time I sit down to write something really substantial it’s a story that has come from my time in that house. They are the memories near enough to be full and rich without the gauzy covering that comes from memories when life perspective was different, for example those of childhood, or even, I hate to say it, the ridiculous stuff I did when I was 17 is also hard to center on anymore. It was just too long ago to remember without embellishing. Likewise, the most recent events often have a sheen of newness that needs to be buffed off by a little more time and experience before I can claim to be representing them correctly. Four years ago seems like a great time period for the glimmer to wear off, but also to hold the memory against obscurity. For this now we’re going to go into a dimly lit living room that hasn’t been cleaned in months.
I came in from a nice spring night, the kind where the fresh grass and the melting snow blend together on a light, clean vernal breeze, just enough so that a three block walk takes the smell of cigarette smoke out of your jacket. The door was never locked, even at night I don’t think anyone ever really considered locking the door and the familiar, but somewhat stale air of home greeted me on the threshold, a murky light and the sound of a television just out of sight, the atmosphere a mix of evening-quiet library and day-after-a-party frathouse . It was calm.
I walked into the living room and dropped into one of our enormous and battered couches, not bothering to take my hat and jacket off.
"Hey guys, what’s up, how was work?"
"Jon, we’ve got to get it out." My roommate, also named Jon announced, as if I’d been privy to the conversation that was going on between he and my other roommate Eric before I came in.
"It? What it? I…oh that. Do we have to tonight?" After I realized what ‘it’ was my spring ebullience left me.
"Yeah, Nelson (the landlord) came over and said it absolutely had to go before tomorrow. I guess there’s an inspector or someone coming over," Jon said, looking apologetic and even slightly scared.
"Well," I said, remembering that every unpleasant task must be done sometime and thereby letting a little of my former light-heartedness back in, "let’s go down there and get this over with."
There being no just cause for further delay, we slowly got up and walked toward the basement door.
Let me stop here a moment to give a little background for ‘it.’ What I’ve been referring to was a mattress that had somehow found it’s way to our basement. Even if we knew whose it once was no one would dare claim ownership of such a loathsome object. Of course we frequently hypothesized about where it had come from, all of us being sure it was the property of whoever we had lived with over the past three years that we had liked the least. My bet was on a girl who had come to live with us for a thankfully very brief period and who often accused me of plotting against her for very absurd and somewhat schizophrenic-sounding reasons. Jon claimed it came from another roommate that he had thought not very tidy and Eric, if he had any opinions, kept them to himself. Regardless, at some point this mattress had found its way to the basement floor, back behind the stairs, where it had presumably remained quite unobtrusively for some time. In fact I don’t remember ever noticing it until one day it made itself particularly conspicuous by being festooned with condom wrappers a few weeks after a party had been thrown. After this the mattress began to develop a certain repulsiveness. It brooded down in the most mildewed corner of our already filthy basement, providing refuge for all sorts of mutating insects and other assorted vermin. In fact, Jon and I had tried to move it already, about two months prior, but had dropped it and given up when a dark swarm of some spider-centipede highbred had come pouring out at the slightest perturbation.
There the mattress had remained for the duration of something like three spring basement floods, sponging up the brackish basement water and vomiting it up in little putrescent rivulets and breaking out in dark moldy splotches that did not bode well for what it had going on inside. Layers and layers of wet spongy foam, pregnant with abysmal dark terrors and Lovecraftian horrors, living forms of moist and dark filth.
I had never particularly liked going down into the basement before but with the mattress, swollen with its mephitic smell and seeming to wring out nightmares from its once posturpedic convolutions, I only went down when I absolutely had to and each instance brought me closer to the certainty that one day it was going to raise itself up and belch out some sort of Jabba the Hut-esque threat.
‘At least,’ I reasoned as we cautiously descended the basement stairs, ‘at least I don’t have to try to do this alone, so after we all get Ebola they’ll at least quarantine us together.’ It is sad to note that in man’s most lonely and frightened times he often thinks of ways to bring those he cares about most down to his own dark level of suffering.
Although there was a source of light, in the basement it seemed as if the darkness was total, every corner, every crevice all but roared with it. The basement was actually constructed in a manner that seemed conducive to peripheral darkness: strange anterooms and root cellars crept up to the main room from all sides; the single 60 watt bulb was not nearly enough to dispel the ages of darkness that seemed to be festering there. Amidst this backdrop of Chaos and Night the slick and dirty tumescence of the mattress seethed its poisonous dreams.
It seemed that we had tacitly agreed on a surprise capture, because before I was really aware of what was happening, I found myself grabbing a corner of what felt like gelatinous mold and angling it toward the door.
Our attempt with three people was much more successful that our attempt with two had been previously and soon we were already to the stairs, slipping up the wooden slats as quickly as possible trying not to gag or vomit. Our task was not merely the moving of a revolting object but rather, as it soon became apparent to us, an exorcism. As we toted stench incarnate or in-pillow-ate up the stairs we were each subject to reoccurring nauseating waves of stench memory. As they say that the fermentation of the grape is capable of taking on any known flavor due to the molecular arraignment as it becomes wine, the mattress had actually developed nuances of stink that mirrored every putrid thing I’d ever had the displeasure to smell before: summer dog shit, stagnant subway tunnel urine, halitosis, forgotten Tupperware in the back of the refrigerator and endless mountains of dirty socks. The mattress seethed with these smells and bled a thin dark line up the stairs and through the living room, angry that its rest had been disturbed.
I could see from the looks on my roommates’ faces that they were also revisiting their own worst olfactory memories. We shuffled through the house as quickly as we could not daring to drop the dreadful load near any place we actually lived in the house. As the door opened and the smell of the ghastly thing mixed with the fresh air it almost seemed to come to life with stink. We coughed and gagged, no longer able to hold back our horror and total revulsion. The mattress, as if sensing that the end had come at last, almost seemed to squirm in my grasp and I nearly let go my hold in surprise.
Near enough to the dumpster we finally pitched the thing down and immediately ran back into the house in search of quicklime and bleach, anything strong enough to eradicate what was surely septic ooze from our hands.
With the deed finally accomplished we returned to the living room to brag over our accomplishment and bravery while the mattress, now bested and dying quietly in the dark, eked out the last of its mordant juices and killed more than half of our lawn.
Next time I write I’ll try to get back to Armenia instead of writing about old basement horrors, but, unless you’re really squeamish, hopefully you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it. It’s funny how such a disgusting memory can fill one with feelings of love and friendship. As I remembered this particular, otherwise uneventful evening, I couldn’t help but picture the three of us squirming up the stairs trying not to let the thing drip on us, laughing and gagging at the same time and, of course, the feeling of relief that followed when it was finally out of the house when we could return to our own peaceful musing brought about by a warm April night, when even the most distant joys seem totally attainable.