My Job as a Carcass Cleaner
[extracted from Working -- Sort of]
by Bud Schmerkel
This wasn't your typical temp assignment. Then again, I'd had it with typical. That can only lead to one of two things: a personal breakthrough or a self-kicking reminder to be careful of what you wish for. If you knew me, you'd know which one I was headed for.
It all started when I followed up on a job posting called "Lab Assistant" from Craigslist. I showed up at the address, which turned out to be some house in Altadena, on the edge of where L.A.'s city life bumps up against the San Gabriel mountains. From the outside, it was just another ticky-tacky house with a number on the front. The guy who answered the door was an old codger named Bill, in his 60s or so, with gray, mad-scientist hair and black plastic glasses that were taped together in the middle. A bad pong wafted my way when he opened the door. I figured he didn't get out much. He looked like the kind of guy who was born in this place, never left the place, and figured on dying there, too. He didn't seem so pleased with me either as he sized me up. I couldn't blame him. I was a bit ragged around the edges. Still, he showed me in.
Inside, it was practically a museum. The windows were all drawn and there were skeletons of all kinds of creatures on top of dusty tabletops, mantelpieces, window sills, hanging from the long beams along the ceilings — you name it, there was some bleached white skeleton starting at you, practically whispering to you about your own mortality. It was like Noah's Ark — but dead.
The old man mumbled something about a taxidermatology conference (or something like that) which he needed to attend the next week and that he couldn't let things "go to pot." It was a bit late for that. On the way back to the lab, we passed a room where there was an old woman lying on a bed, her eyes shuts. Bill mentioned that this was his ailing mom, Delores, but that a nurse came in on occasion to tend to her and that I needn't worry about that.
The guy's laboratory was lighter, but still creepy — and it stunk to high hell. In addition to all the dead things, it didn't help that there were a dozen or so house cats roaming around the lab. On one counter were things boiling on burners; on another, a bunch of scrub brushes and buckets; on a third, a bunch of containers including a terrarium full of a bazillion beetles. "Meet the beetles," he chortled, as if he'd never mentioned that to anyone else. "Buffalo-hide beetles… flesh-eating." I guess he wanted me to be impressed, but I'd seen stuff like that in high school science class.
Bill led me to the walk-in freezer, where he kept carcasses and heads of all the animals he got from God-knows-where. There were labeled with handwritten notecards, listing such critters as coyote, wolf, fox, cougar, elk, bear, hawk, otter, shrew, gopher and rat (to name just a few). He also had an aquatic section with all kinds of marine life: seal, porpoise, shark, walrus, dolphin, marlin, etc. He pulled down one of the fox's heads and gave it to me to carry. It was heavier than I thought — not that I'd ever thought much about the weight of a fox's head. Bill grabbed a buffalo head. We exited the freezer and the heavy door shut and latched with an airy poof.
Bill made me take notes as he led me through what he called "the three B's": boiling, bugging and bleaching. First he boiled the fox's head. He stirred the other already-boiling buckets and used some tongs to extract what looked like the head of a big cat with large canines — maybe a cougar. There were some fleshy nubs still hanging off it, so he shows me how to scrub it down, then bleach it with the brushes and eventually set it out to dry in the sun. I tried to ask him a couple different ways where he got all his specimens, but he'd always dodge it with a "oh, you know… around." Maybe he went out into the mountains and shot some of it. Maybe he had a worldwide network of illicit sources. I didn't push it. I needed the money for rent at the top of the month (as in, next week) and a nice birthday gift for my girlfriend (who was particular about special occasions). I didn't need Bill getting skittish and canning me 'cause I was nosey.
The one question he seemed eager for was, "What about the beetles?"
"Ah, the beetles… they're for bigger game. I'm sure a young man like yourself will enjoy that plenty. I always keep my little buggers a tad on the hungry side." He heaved the buffalo head into a large glass container. "Now feast your eyes on this, son." He undid the cover of the terrarium, grabbed a nearby kitchen measuring cup, scooped out a cup or two of beetles and dumped them into the big glass container.
In no time at all, the buffalo-hide beetles attacked the head, wasting no time going for the eyes and tongue first, and anything else that was overtly bloody or fleshy. They reminded me of stories I'd heard as a kid about piranhas from Brazil that could collectively devour a whole cow in minutes. I tried to keep calm but I could feel myself sweating and my jaw gaping open. It didn't help that old Bill was staring at me, gauging my reaction, practically getting off on the whole experience.
That first day was a lot of Bill looking over my shoulder. I got through a clump of various heads, and Bill mumbled something about my "catching on." On the way out, at the end of that first day, I noticed that the nurse was attending to Bill's mom. She still wasn’t moving much — if at all. The nurse would say, "Delores, hon', I need you to sit up now. That's a good girl. Are you warm enough? Now how about a little food? Delores?…" I sure hoped Delores wasn't dead. This place was already like the House of Usher.
Anyway, like most jobs, after a few days I got the hang of it and settled in. The initial awe of it passed and Bill seemed relieved that I'd finally arrived at that point. "The conference starts tomorrow, so I'll be gone for five days," he said. "But you seem to have a knack. Perhaps I'll keep you on after the conference. I could use the help." I nodded reassuringly, not clear as to whether I scored a real coup or found another dead end job. He gave me a number to reach him at if necessary, some hotel in San Francisco,
Work without Bill was fantastic. Nothing against him. I could kick back, boil a couple heads, read the paper, play with the cats and crank up the music. Every now and then, for twisted fun, I'd break out some carcassy lunch for those buffalo-hide beetles and watch them do their thing. I figured as long as I didn't make so much noise as to wake up poor old Delores, everything was copaceptic.
At least that was true until the night I stayed up late helping my friend move into his new apartment.
Malcolm said it wouldn't take long, but you know how moving goes. It was alright, I suppose. We drank more beer than we should've and schlepped box after box into his car, then unloaded it on the other end. Relative to this type of work, I was starting to be glad about my new job over at Bill's and wondered how long I could string out some employment with him after his return. Malcolm and I knocked off around 4:30 in the morning. I was up and out by 6:30 to beat traffic.
In hindsight, being so tired was reminded of those high school drivers-education movies they forced us to watch, with names like "The Final Factor." Fatigue was the first factor.
I passed by the nurse on the way into Bill's lab. She told me Delores had a tough night, but she seemed okay for now, and might groan a bit, but that was normal. I offered to keep an ear out for Delores, so when I got to the lab I left the door ajar.
I managed to get a few heads boiling on the stoves, and scrubbed down a carcass or two that I'd prepped from the day before. But then that big old wave of fatigue came crashing down on me. By contrast, the beetles were especially active today. Maybe they didn't much like the aquatic snacks I gave them a few days ago — probably too much salt. Still, I envied their energy. I took pity on them and brought out a coyote carcass and tossed in about three cups of beetles and settled into the nearby chair.
I pulled out a big wad of money that I needed to deposit in the bank after work so I could pay the landlord. I counted it; it was all there. Before Bill left, he was kind enough to pay me for the work I'd do in his absence. I read all of about a paragraph in the newspaper before I started to fade out. I remember putting my head down on the soft wad of cash on the counter and then watching those beetles swarming like a crazy kaleidoscope all over the coyote. I had a bizarre dream — something about eating Chocolate Raisinettes in a movie theatre that had a sticky, buttery floor and me not being able to unstick my feet to go to the bathroom.
The next thing I hear is a loud CRASH!!! I feel a pain on the back of my head, and when I reach back with my hand I feel that familiar, warm sensation of blood. How long was I out? Broken glass was everywhere. Did I mention that I have a bad habit of falling off things when I sleep? I must've fallen hard, because that coyote was now staring me in the face — or what was left of its face. I was sure that more blood must be trickling down my back, but when I reach behind me I feel some sort of insect crawling… — SHIT! One was on me, a beetle, going for the blood, not caring much about the broken glass on me. I could feel his little bugger teeth or mandibles or whatever they're called… digging into me, looking for more where that came from.
I freak out, scramble to my feet and began doing the spastic dance. But I step on something soft and slippery. When I look down, I recognize the fur on what could only be Bill's oldest cat, Creon — looking very dead. My foot gets tangled in the cord on the phone I'd left on the floor, and I topple backwards into the terrarium. It shatters across the floor of the lab and releases another dozen cups of the hungriest of the buffalo-hide beetles.
I grab one of the bleach brushes and try to knock off some of the beetles. I couldn't care less if I ended up looking white as a ghost. That got some off, but not all. I make a beeline to a garden hose and frantically try to spray them off, but there are still a bunch under my clothes. Piece by piece, I tear off my clothes and throw myself against the lab walls, sometimes crushing beetles and other times driving tiny slivers of glass further into my skin. The bleach seeps into my cuts, too, and stings like crazy. But, all in all, it starts to work. The damn beetles are mostly off of me now, though it isn't clear why they're suddenly disinterested in me. Not that I mind. My relief lasts all but a second. "MY MONEY!"
My precious wad of money must've fallen off the counter in the ruckus and ended up in a heap of fleshy coyote scraps. These bugs were like a goat in a junkyard — they didn't seem to care what they consumed as long as it was covered with a serving of blood.
As if that weren't bad enough…
…I noticed that the randomly crawling mass of beetles had now formed something of a line. They were done with the coyote, that's for sure. The coyote was the appetizer. Me and my money were some sort of bloody tomato soup teaser. As I stepped closer I noticed that the line snaked out the door — to the main course: "DELORES!!!"
Time slowed as I ran. Every step I took crushed a dozen or so bugs. I could see my whole cushy little job situation disappearing in the blink of an eye. I didn't care so much about that now. I didn't care if I got evicted. I didn't care if my girlfriend got her damn birthday present or not. I had to save Delores. I couldn't live with my conscience, knowing I'd been the cause of this poor old defenseless woman's—…
When I get to her room, the bugs are just starting to hop off the bed posts and climb up the sheets. I whack at the fastest, hungriest ones, knocking them off with my hands. Delores moans, oblivious to her imminent demise. It's a numbers game, and the bugs have the edge; I can only swat so fast. On the nearby dresser is some talcum powder, body oils and perfume. I grab it all and start in on those bugs. I dump the powder all over Delores. I splatter the bugs with the oil. I squirt the perfume like some demented perfume sample gal at Bloomingdale's. "Delores! For God's sake… WAKE UP!!!"
She shifts slightly, but still has her eyes shut — probably a good thing since she might have a heart attack if she woke right now. The bugs back off enough from Delores that I can run in and scoop her up in my arms. As I do, it's like the beetles begin to eye me again, since Delores isn't nearly as appetizing anymore and I'm dripping blood. I start to feel faint as they come for me.
Stark raving naked, I tear out of the room holding the sleeping Delores. Where to go? I'm limping bad now and not sure if I could even make it out of the house with Delores. As I debate my next move, a few bugs make their way up my leg. No time for the front door — quick, the freezer! I bolt back through the lab door, past Creon's skeleton, huff it into the freezer and slam the door tight.
I prop Delores up against a bear and proceed to crush the last of the pesky beetles. I can breathe steady again. Still not a peep from Delores. I have the chance to think calmly now.
The nurse would make her rounds again. Or wasn't that until tomorrow? Bill would be home before too much longer. But how comforting was that thought? Sure, it was cold in the freezer, but not too bad. Could we last the night? Pacing all night, I probably could, but what about Delores? And what about small details like the amount of oxygen left? Maybe the beetles would find enough to eat and become satiated. Yeah, now you're thinking. Then we could make a gimpy dash for the car. Yes! I take a deep frosty breath and reach my arm up to the handle. Locked. "FUCK!"
"I BEG YOUR PARDON!" blurts Delores, sitting bolt upright and cocking her head at me suddenly. I nearly crawl out of my bleached skin. I stare back at her, not knowing what to say, and cupping my privates with my hands. The first thing that comes to my lips is, "Sorry, ma'am."
"That's alright, my Angel," she says in her sweet delirium, "just close the window and hold me tight — it's getting awful chilly in here. You'll catch your death of cold!" You don't know the half of it, Delores!
What else could I do? Fortunately, I find a big old bear hide and wrap it around the both of us. I put my arm around Delores like she's my own mother, or the only other person on earth. I rub her back to keep her warm — trying to shut out any thoughts of what this would look like to the nurse, Bill or the police.
Delores snuggles up against me and just keeps saying, "There, there… that's much better… much better now… thanks, dear… there, there…"