(Lake Tahoe Ghost Story)
Grandpa never talked much. Most of my memory was of me watching him sit on his couch and drink scotch and Ginger Ale with either the soundtrack to “Doctor Zhivago” playing on his record player or watching John Wayne in “Stagecoach.” He enjoyed these past times more than any other. I always wondered where his mind would wander while listening or watching.
Once, only once, he took me into the back room, of the retirement home Grandma and him lived in, and showed me an old schematic of a flying car. He told me that he had engineered a flying car at Lockheed, where he retired, that never took flight. He sat over the blueprint with his drink. I thought maybe I could look into his eyes but he never looked up from the blueprint. There was one moment when he looked over to pick up his drink that I quickly stole a glance into his warm caring eyes.
When I was still young, before elementary school, my parents moved to Lake Tahoe where my father worked for Ma Bell. After a year or so my father’s doctor told him that he needed to quit his job or suffer from multiple bleeding ulcers.
This Tahoe house was located on Elm Street and was a quaint little green A-frame. There was a bedroom downstairs where the heater never seemed to reach. Down the hall from the bedroom was a laundry room and a restroom. When the heater kicked on in the winter it would make a groaning sound followed by what sounded like giant bellows. After a minute or two of noise it would settle down to a quite hum. There was a living area, a dining area, and a kitchen all downstairs. Upstairs there were two more rooms and a restroom. Above the stairway was a storage area that always activated my imagination. I always felt fear when I lingered too long on the stairs under the storage area.
My Grandparents bought the Tahoe home and began to use the house as a vacation home from their retirement community in L.A. They moved into the downstairs bedroom because they could not make it up stairs. They filled the cupboards with alcohol and poker chips and invited friends up every weekend to play. Huge sums of money ended up passing over the dining room table and gallons of booze emptied.
One evening, when grandpa had too much to drink and could not tolerate his loses he stepped outside to watch pine trees sway in the wind. A light snow had begun to fall and he could see each snowflake as it was illuminated by light. He pondered the amazing mathematics involved with each individual snowflake. He also thought upon his death.
Every straight line he had drawn, explaining the proper scale of each part working as a whole, to create aircraft and rockets began to take on a deeper meaning. It was during this thought that he realized he was a finely crafted part in a bigger machine. He vowed to find a way to maintain his place within the gears of the living. At first this thought followed the path of the machines that he had worked on. But he found himself obsessed. He could not take his mind off this dilemma.
Poker games and drinking continued for many years until Grandpa found himself with Alzheimer’s. Grandma ignored his condition and never told her friends. She was convinced that it would only embarrass her and interrupt the poker games. But soon his condition worsened and she found she could no longer hide facts. As she had predicted the group began to disperse and fall away into their own dramas. Grandma was furious and could not figure out a solution. Grandpa had a bit of money saved yet not enough to support her through her silver years.
My mother took Grandpa into our new home. He lived with us for three years. Once he walked into my room and sat down at the foot of my bed.
“I have figured it out.” He was looking up at me. For the first time I was looking at my Grandpa eye to eye.
“What have you figured out Grandpa?”
“How the machinery works. How to keep it running.”
“Your car needs an oil change.” He concluded as he stood up and moved out of my room.
At the end of three years my Mother and Grandmother fought over who would take care of Grandpa. Grandmother won. She sent Grandfather to assisted living that was covered by Grandpa’s insurance so she could save money. Within the year he suffered from a kidney infection that led to kidney failure and death. I wished I could have known my Grandpa on a more personal basis but his quite nature kept him hidden behind closed doors.
I had been visiting our Tahoe cabin since High School. When I was younger I finished off all my Grandparents alcohol. I grew up and would take my kids up to the cabin to enjoy Tahoe and peace and serenity in pine trees. My kids ended up throwing away all of the old poker chips.
One visit I noticed a smell in my Grandparents old room.
When I was in the Army I assisted with many autopsies at Bayne Jones Army Community Hospital. Each autopsy would take around eight hours to perform. First, we would place the body on the stainless steel autopsy table and examine the skin for any lesions or abnormalities. Each body had a similar smell. The smell of death. A strong odor that can only be recognized if you have encountered death for long periods of time.
A second odor would appear once you began to cut open the flesh from the sternum down slightly past the belly button. The skin would give after a little pressure from the scalpel and you would find yourself cutting through a layer of yellow orange fat before entering into a portion of chest and abdominal cavity. The first thing noticed when performing an autopsy was how neat and organized the organs were. Everything was in its place. This smell was strong.
We would wear two masks and would put Vicks Vapor rub under our nose to cover the odor. Once a partner of mine was so overcome that he had to run out of the room to vomit. This autopsy was an exceptionally smelly case of a women who had been murdered and hung up in old unused military billets throughout the summer. These are the odors of death.
The smell in my Grandparents room was death.
I asked my family if they could smell the odor but they could not. I asked my parents if they could detect the scent. They could not. I dismissed it as a dead squirrel under the house.
We continued to visit the lake house throughout many summers and many winters. Every visit the smell grew stronger until I was barely able to enter into the room. No one else could smell what I was smelling. My imagination had begun the decay of a squirrel. This imaginary scene curbed my curiosity and I did not think twice about it again.
Time passed and I found myself divorced and alone. I had begun to drink and smoke again. I also found myself heading up to the cabin to be alone and hide. It was during one of these visits, after I had consumed one too many beers, I decided to find the bones of this squirrel that had caused me so many years of smell. I put a headlamp on and found the entrance into the crawlspace under the house. Taking one last swig from a Vodka bottle I opened the wooden cover to the crawlspace. I could feel cold moisture from the entrance but I could not smell the odor. I pushed myself into the entrance onto the cold hard dirt and moved so my light could make out pipes from the plumbing. I looked around to determine which way would lead towards the underbelly of my Grandparents room.
I heard the heater kick on and my ears were filled with a loud bang followed by a stutter. I covered my ears and waited until the loud noise turned to a hum. The cold from the dirt began to seep through my cloths and I shivered. I moved forward towards what I considered the right direction with my flashlight. I could not see any signs of a dead squirrel only dirt floor.
Suddenly I was struck by an odor. I noticed that the world around me filled with light. It was daylight and we were following the smell. Another person was behind me as I walked. We were walking through a forest, a pine forest. Piles of pine leaves crunched with each step. We were looking for the source of a smell. An odor of death and decay. Both of us were concerned more with finding the source then what we were going to see. I pointed to my left and we both began a new trail through the shade of the pine trees.
“Over there!” I began to walk faster towards a figure resting at the foot of a tree.
When we found ourselves a few feet away we realized that this was the source of our smell. We stood directly in front of the tree and saw a man sitting. His legs seemed stiff where each of his hands rested. One hand held a handgun. We looked up at his face and noticed that his face was covered with flies and ants and other insects. Yet through the buzzing mass we could see a dark area where his skull used to be. The flesh in the back of his head began to become soft and was glued lightly to the tree. I looked down at his chest and his abdomen and jumped back as his chest lifted and his belly collapsed as vermin covered with blood and grime bore their way out of his stomach. I looked back up at his face. The insects began to thin and I saw half. Grandpa?
“What we sense is the key.” The carcass croaked from the corner of a barely distinguishable mouth.
I was standing alone in a morgue with the lights off. I looked around at the stainless steel refrigerators that held cadavers. I saw the table where autopsies took place and where blood drained into a bucket underneath. The smell of cadaver began to fill my nose. I looked down and had intestines in my hands that where slowly falling into a bucket.
“Don’t just stand there look for foreign material.” A Doctor shouted at me as a I stood. I looked up from what I was holding and tried to grab a glance of this man.
“Why?” I shouted as I found myself looking down at the autopsy table. There on the table was the body of my Grandfather bloated and engorged with water. His skin had softened around his bones as if he was melting on the table. I put my hand on his belly. His abdomen was as tight as a drum and leaked water when I touched. His cadaver began to melt into a watery pool. An odor rose from this newly formed pond. An odor of swamp, death, and decay. Slow and nauseous.
These are the things that haunt me.