Discover more from Body of Work: Belle de Jour
Content Warning: graphic descriptions of death and decomposition
It was a while before my father’s body was found. His girlfriend was out of town, his workplace was an app based out of Salt Lake City, and he lived on his own.
His next door neighbor on one side, a sheriff in a neighboring county, kept odd hours due to her work schedule, so she didn’t notice anything was amiss at first. The day the trash pickup was scheduled, she did notice Dad hadn’t put out his bins by the curb. But instead of thinking something was wrong, she assumed she must have got the days wrong. He was that reliable. The neighbors on the other side were snowbirds who had already left Florida for the season.
A couple more days passed and the sheriff neighbor texted Dad – no reply. She noticed an unusual smell coming from the extraction fan in his attic space that pointed at her garage. She broke open his back gate, looked in the kitchen window, and saw his body lying on the floor where he had collapsed nine days before.
It took a while for them to locate me, I’d moved a few times recently, changed countries, changed name. Police eventually tracked down my husband and called him at work. He called me.
Nine days in late spring in Florida, and a house with no air conditioning. If you want to make big money in cleaning, I discover, here is the business to be in: biohazard cleanup. They don’t always do decomposed bodies, they also handle crime scenes and hoarding situations, but as soon as I get in contact with someone in Florida and explain the situation they know it’s going to be extreme.
After landing in Tampa I rent a truck and drive up to Dade City where the main county sheriff’s office is. The whole way there’s more buildings than I remember, new houses and subdivisions springing up at each exit of the Veterans Expressway. Where once a riotous growth of myrtles and loblolly pines studded with palm trees and gallberries grew, the headlong crash of the South in the Caribbean, there are golf course estates and seas of tiled roofs. Every time I come back there is more. Less of the Florida where I was raised, more of the Florida that largely resides in the dreams of the people who move here.
Once off the highway the roads are long and straight with fringes of live oaks bending over the asphalt. Next to the sheriff’s office is the jail. Prisoners in black and white striped uniforms pick litter off the lawn while uniformed men watch. On the Gulf side of the county, by Dad’s house, things these days look like anywhere else in America. Strip malls and car dealerships, chain stores and fast food. On this side you are reminded you are still in the South.
‘Alright, Miss.’ The older one passes keys and a mobile phone through the slot along with some papers. In the south you are always Miss to an older man and Ma’am to a younger one. At my age I guess I can expect about half of each. ‘Now sign that there, to confirm you received the effects,’ he says in that slow plain way of a country man.
I sign. ‘That’s all you found?’ I ask. ‘No wallet?’
He shakes his head. ‘Didn’t find one on the deceased,’ he says. Pauses. ‘There were some clothes too. You wouldn’t want them.’ The younger one shakes his head to confirm. I know in that moment, even though there was no chance either of these men had been at the scene when the neighbour called 911. That they all have heard about what was found inside my father’s house, what the condition of the body must have been. Their long straight old fashioned faces covering for the gallows laughs that must have been passed around the department already in the days from when he was found until I arrived.
From there it’s a straight shot west to the side of the county where Dad’s house is. Driving west the tall straight pines and scrub palmetto thin, the billboards and strip malls thicken, until finally the Suncoast bursts upon you as a droning crowded web of roads between the other Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.
The cleaning I’ll need to do is not something you can book on an app. This is the very highest end of the cleaning industry, the job no one wants to do but when you need someone to do it? You really need someone to do it. We meet at the house and even though the body has already been removed, the smell is strong. The cleaner hands me a pair of safety glasses and a respirator face mask that has two built-in filters. The mask has three adjustable straps and seals over the entire bottom half of my face. It looks, perhaps not inappropriately, like a gas mask from World War II. (Now that the world is intimately familiar with PPE, I can add this was a P100 respirator and anticipate more than a few readers will know what that means.) He shows me how to test the airlock of the mask even though I already know how and asks if I’m ready to go in. I nod.
I’ve been on scenes like this before. In perhaps the ultimate irony, the topic of my doctoral thesis was literally indoor decompositions. How long after you’re dead until your skin goes black, your organs turn to liquid, and your neighbors notice? I have lectured at universities and international conferences on the chemical process of death, the route a body takes as its structures break down one by one. A paper I presented at the American Association of Forensic Sciences conference a few years back dealt with the phenomenon of socially disconnected men between the ages of 40 and 70 dying undiscovered at home. This is a subject I know inside and out. Nothing that happened in this house will be new to me. But walking into a home I know the way I know this one, things are a bit more intense.
I spent most of my time in forensic science working within the Medico Legal Centre in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. Colleagues sometime saw members of their own families come through the accordion doors at the back where ambulances entered and hearses emerged. It seemed a reasonable likelihood if you worked in the same city you grew up in. I did not think someday I would be in a similar situation.
The house is a 2-bedroom ranch in a subdivision called Beacon Square, built for my grandfather in the 1950s, when West Central Florida was still an orange grove and cattle ranch backwater. A little pre-suburb carved out of the mangrove coast. Stucco walls and flat roofs and roads boasting aspirational names like Williamsburg Loop and Wiltshire Drive. Residents came down from New York and Michigan and Canada, bought plots a stone’s throw from the ocean, swapping winter freezes and mortgages for modest pastel bungalows in rural Pasco County, just north of the famous Suncoast on the Gulf of Mexico. The Greatest Generation cashing out in paradise. A promised land of orange groves and sunsets, after cattle ranches and rodeos started to disappear, before theme parks and timeshare condos started to spring up.
Over time the urban sprawl of Tampa and Clearwater crept closer, the retirees moved out to The Villages or to Spring Hill. Places where the new houses came with in-ground swimming pools and central air. Where they could incorporate as adult communities and save a fortune on taxes without having to open schools and youth centers. Meanwhile in Beacon Square young blue-collar families snapped up the houses as starter homes. Planted grass where the previous tenants had laid down low maintenance gravel.
More recently drugs and broken windows made their mark, beat up sedans abandoned on front lawns. Prosperous Florida went elsewhere. If you slip through the safety nets of society you are bound to end up in Florida or somewhere just like it, at the edge of the country, at the bottom. My dad’s family had been here through it all.
We were immigrants with aspirations who believed an education and hard work was all that was needed to get ahead in America. We were young families. Then we took a nosedive. After my parents’ divorce, and my father’s sale of his business, he spent the proceeeds on hookers and crack. When he had nothing left, he had his brother, and they had this house, mortgage-free.
But most of my memories predate the decline. We went there every Sunday of my childhood for roast dinner and reading the newspapers. Minestrone, antipasta, beef and roast potatoes, pound cake and ice cream. A cool Coca-Cola my grandfather kept in glass bottles by the garage door. When Pop-pop died, it passed to his oldest son, my uncle. When my uncle committed suicide in 2001, it went to my father. And now the house, and everything in it, belongs to me whether I want it or not.
There is a large pool of liquid on the terrazzo floor that has not only soaked down to the foundation, it’s wicked six feet up the drywall on two sides of the dining room. A trail of fluid has trickled through the kitchen and is seeping under the door into the garage. And everything, absolutely everything in the house, is infused with the cake-sweet smell of death. It will all have to go.
Usually, services like this cost $250 per crew member per day. They tell me if Dad had house insurance, they would have billed $20,000 for this cleanup – it’s among the worst decomps they’ve ever seen (I have seen a lot of decomps too and can’t disagree). They’ll have to take down interior walls and jackhammer up parts of the floor, bring in a dumpster to haul everything out, pay for the biohazard disposal, among other things.
Dad didn’t have house insurance. He owned the place outright, but with cash scarce and a leaking roof, the house was uninsurable until he made repairs that he couldn’t afford. So he went without. The guys are very understanding, they are a pair of brothers both retired from firefighting. We strike a deal: $6500, three days, they can take Dad’s trailer and ride on mower, and my husband and I will be the crew members cleaning for free.
There are two main aspects of decomposition. The first is called autolysis. This is the process of cells through enzyme action. A kind of self-digestion. The second is putrefaction, the process of microbes digesting the body from the outside. Other factors in decomposition include insect and animal alteration and mummification.
Autolysis and cell death start when circulation stops. This stasis is the beginning of cell disorganisation and decomposition. Intracellular pH drops quickly, causing the cells to ferment and produce lactic acid. Membrane structure is lost as the cells are unable to repair themselves. Hydrolytic enzymes, activated by the lower pH, cause further destruction of membranes. Cells eventually detach from one another. On the gross scale this is observable as tissue necrosis. The enzymatic self-digestion is observable earlier in tissues with high adenosine phosphate levels (intestines, heart, lungs) and later in tissues with low ATP levels (kidneys, brain and muscles).
Autolysis most likely began in my father's body some time in the morning the week before last Thursday.
As autolysis becomes outwardly visible, putrefaction develops. Rigor mortis is apparent after two to four hours. It will leave the body after about 48 hours. Algor mortis, the cooling of the body, is observable at a rate of 1.5 degrees per hour, provided the surrounding area is not significantly cooler than room temperature. Livor mortis, or lividity, causes the tissues nearest to the ground to fill with blood and turn red.
After several days the skin starts to slip from the body. Nails loosen.
In the first few hours after death in a warm climate, insects will have already started to invade the soft tissues. The maggots associated with advanced decomposition come from fly eggs laid days earlier.
The officers who entered the house almost a week later noted the presence of maggots at the scene. My father's lips, cheeks and eyelids were largely missing. His pleural cavity was infested as a result of the entrance wound. The fly larvae prefer the softer and exposed tissues. His skin was black, his arms and legs drawn up as if in pain, or to protect himself.
The gas that bloats the body is largely composed of hydrogen sulphide. This causes a diffuse green colouring. Other components include the toxic gases cadaverine and putrescine. They are responsible for the highly offensive odour of decomposition. Methane is also usually found.
The next door neighbour had the key. She unlocked the door for the police when they arrived. She said the smell almost knocked her over.
According to the next door neighbor, the people who removed the body weren’t so organized or well-paid as the biohazard brothers. A pair of girls, barely out of their teen years she thinks, were sent from the funeral home that handles unclaimed bodies for the county. They only had dust masks over their faces and a cheap, thin plastic body bag that split as they tried to load him onto the gurney so pieces fell out. A splash trail from the dining room to the door confirms the neighbor’s story. Florida is a state where the minimum wage is $8.46 an hour, and she guesses that’s probably what they were paid to do it. No training, clearly, and inadequate safety gear, and will they even be offered crisis counseling afterwards?
That is not a job anyone should be doing for eight bucks an hour. Not even for fifteen.
My father had been living in the house when his brother Jon committed suicide there in 2001. Jon, a brake mechanic and gun collector, suffered severe and untreated depression following a work accident where a backhoe left between gears slipped and crushed him while he was working underneath it. It happened at my dad’s plumbing shop where Jon helped maintain the fleet of trucks that went out to building sites across Pasco, Pinellas, and Hillsborough counties every morning.
Surgeries restored much of what had been damaged but Jon was never the same. And one morning, after three days of insomnia and shortly after my father left for work, he shot himself in the heart with a Deringer.
My father arrived home that afternoon to discover the body feet from the front door. He called 911. But Pasco was more rural then than it is now, and there was a big fire elsewhere. It was hours before the EMTs could get there. Hours Dad sat with his older brother’s lifeless body. When emergency services finally arrived, Dad was pulled aside by police and questioned briefly. They thought it had been a murder. Who shoots themselves in the heart?
Jon was an Air Force vet, had been a firefighter in Laos during the Vietnam War. He loved fried chicken and hot pickled peppers (like me). Every Wednesday when I was a kid he’d take my parents to the shooting range and they’d come back with Popeye’s chicken and red beans and rice. Still my favorite. He was married once, briefly, to a girl in Kansas who divorced him during the war. My mom joked it was because his dick was too big. It was years before I read The Godfather and realized where that joke came from. Jon never remarried.
Dad did that cleanup on his own. Took up the sculpted Berber carpet his father had installed when the house was built, revealing bare terrazzo (the carpet was never replaced and the floor not sealed, a fact that would cause me trouble some years later). Left the carpet and the armchair out by the curb for trash pickup. When I arrived on a flight from England, the chair was still there with a drop cloth over it. “Don’t look under the sheet,” Dad warned me. I didn’t.
Jon had prepaid his entire funeral back in in 1990. Casket, vaulted gravesite, headstone, limos. Dad and I were the only people apart from funeral home staff who attended.
When we came back from the graveside service a young black man, his wife and two kids done up in Sunday best we’d never seen before screeched into the parking lot and got out, panicked. He looked around the empty lot. ‘We missed the funeral?’ He asked. ‘Yeah,’ I said. The man had been one of Jon’s coworkers when he was at Brake-O on US 19. One time, he said, there was a huge car accident right out front. Jon ran out of the bays and into the road, pulled a woman from a burning car before the fire engines even got there. ‘I never saw anybody do anything like that before,’ he said.
Some people get $20,000 to clean up a body. Some get minimum wage. And if you’re lucky enough to have a family member who dies without insurance, you get to pay for the privilege of doing it yourself. Mainly because you aren’t supposed to put biohazard fluids out with the trash like Dad did when Jon died. There are licenses, and training, and no matter how much cleaning experience I have, I don’t have any of that and wouldn’t have the necessary paperwork to do it in Florida anyway.
It turns out the supplies for biohazard cleanup are things you can get anywhere, the trick is knowing what to use and when. Cat litter in 40-lb. bags for soaking up the initial fluid. Industrial deodorants and cleaners for the smell. Fans placed everywhere. Bug bombs for the army of bluebottle flies. Brand new shovels and buckets, because they won’t be used on other jobs. Endless rubble bags for removing it all. A dumping trailer is the one piece of specialized kit.
We break up furniture my grandfather bought decades before I was born and carry out armfuls of clothes. I am lucky, Dad was no hoarder, but still. This is what a life comes down to. Four lives, in fact: my father’s father, mother, and brother all died here too. This is where American dreams end up. Your daughter and three strangers gathering everything you ever had, ever were, to throw away. The smell is so strong I won’t be able to take relevant paperwork for legal probate with me, I have to scan it then burn it. Old photographs. Beloved books. A mink jacket with my grandmother’s initials stitched into the satin lining. Everything must go.
In my Dad’s bedroom is a gun safe. I know this safe, a custom Fort Knox vault my uncle had to buy to comply with Clinton-era regulations on the automatic weapons he collected. I know the safe is bolted to the solid concrete house foundation. I know what might be in the safe. What I don’t know is the combination. My husband and the cleaners try to force the door but all we succeed in doing is triggering a secondary locking mechanism. The lock will have to be drilled out by a pro. It won’t be cheap and will have to wait for another time.
I’m good at compartmentalization. This is just a scene, like any of hundreds I have been to before, when I worked in Sheffield. The men are careful around me, respectful, but also don’t stop me from getting on with the job. I need to do the work, to clean and be useful. I manage hold it together until I open the refrigerator. Inside was all the food my father had planned out for the rest of the week, the lunches he was going to take to the jobs he signed up for on the app. Sliced smoked turkey for his sandwiches. Fruit cups. Protein shakes. A freezer of frozen water bottles to keep his lunchbox cool, ingredients for his simple dinners. No one ever thinks that’s going to be the day they die. I close the fridge and completely lose it there on the kitchen floor.
It’s hot, 90 degrees and 75% humidity, and even though the water bottles kind of smell, they are cold and wet and we need the fluid to keep going twelve hours at a time. We don’t eat the food though, we go to a sub shop nearby where we eat gyros and make phone calls to friends, banks, and the funeral home where the county will pay to dispose of the cremains in an unmarked mass site because I don't want them. The cost of the cleanup means I can’t afford a funeral, and who would come, anyway? His girlfriend visits a few times and my mom, by phone from where she lives now in New York, makes it plain she wouldn’t attend any service. Instead of a funeral he gets a cleanup. Instead of a priest he gets a probate lawyer. He died without a will, so even though I am the only relative, this will take time.
The neighbor has been collecting his mail so I am up to date with bills and paperwork. I’ll keep the utilities turned on until we decide what happens next. She asks if we have plans to move to Florida, maybe renovate the house? I say no, we like it where we live now, too much effort to move again so soon, and so on. I don’t say this: every member of my family who has ever lived in this house died in it. I am not superstitious, or at least, I try not to be. Still.
At the end of each day we go into the garage and change from the clothes we’ve been wearing inside the house into a fresh set of clothes. It’s too hot to work with a biohazard suit on, and anyway, that wouldn’t keep out the smell. At the end of the cleanup, any clothes and shoes that have been inside will also be thrown away.
One day we take a couple of protein shakes that had been in the garage. It is only after changing, returning to our hotel, and showering when we go to drink the shakes that we realize. They, too, stink of death. The deep oily funk of cadaverine and putrescence has penetrated so much. We flush the contents, throw away the containers, and put the bin outside the hotel room door.
My complicated history with my father means Dad and my husband never met in life. Now, I feel my husband knows my father more intimately than it is usually possible to know a human. Cleaning up after someone gives an insight into their lives that nothing else can.
In Dad’s phone is a number for a contact on the support team of the app where he booked lawnmowing jobs. I call her and let her know what’s happened so they can take him off the system and issue his final payments. A week later, I receive a card from head office, hand-signed by a few people. It is unexpectedly touching, and the ink on the paper perhaps the only physical contact ever made between them and him.
It will be the only sympathy card I receive.
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