Haz-Mat

By Laura Waldon

Essay

A dead human body, like an animal corpse on the side of the road, bloats after several days. What I didn’t realize until recently, though, is that a bloated body left unattended will eventually explode. All that pressure and built-up gas needs to go somewhere, so it finds the weakest spot in the skin and exits through it. Under force.

That was how the mortician explained it when my mother asked why there was blood and grossness sprayed all the way up to my Uncle Chuck’s ceiling and on his cabinets and refrigerator when the police found him.

Chuck, after he died, had exploded.

It was only after the neighbors noticed the mail piling up and realized they hadn’t seen him out walking Charlie Brown that Chuck’s decaying body was found slumped and partially liquefied in a pile of towels and canned mixed nuts in his kitchen.

My Uncle Chuck was weird as far back as I can remember. In fact, in our family, his proper name was Crazy Uncle Chuck. We didn’t realize just how crazy, but we would discover that later.

What we knew of Chuck was that he was an uber religious, racist, anti-gay, anti-Jew, anti-Catholic, anti-government, conspiracy theory devotee and lover of golf with an IQ far above genius. This odd, paunch-bellied, balding man stood with this head always cocked to one side, a fist against his chin to support what my parents thought was a fake neck injury.

My mom’s only sibling, Chuck lived with his mother in her house until the day she died in it and dwelt there until the day he died in it, too.He didn’t marry and only once that we know of had a girlfriend. His life outside of work, as far as we knew, consisted of the Christian and conspiracy theory books that he read, underlined, and stockpiled in his house. Horrified at the endless stacks of books that overtook my grandmother’s once beautiful abode, my mom stopped going inside Chuck’s house in 2006.

My parents, brother, and sister were Chuck’s only family in Minnesota, so by default, he spent the holidays with us.

From the time I was a child, my Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Easters were peppered with Crazy Uncle Chuck’s outrageous commentary, which came accompanied with literature—highlighted pamphlets and annotated books to help inform us of the “truths” that Chuck was compelled to share:

The government used patterns of reflective stickers on the backs of highway signs to communicate secret messages. Hillary Clinton ordered the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Twin Towers toppled not from airplane impact but from missile fire. Bill Clinton was part of a secret society of high-profile leaders who stripped naked and worshipped a giant owl in the woods.

My uncle understood these secrets and needed to educate us, his naïve family members who walked about our daily lives unaware of the corrupt government’s evil plots, idiots in our own environment.

His poodle, Charlie Brown, and his cat, Josie, were his best friends. He signed his Christmas cards to us from them. And as much as I disliked his obnoxious stories and racist comments, I pitied Crazy Uncle Chuck and the sad, quiet life that he appeared to live in his books and conspiracy theories.

When my mom called to tell me that he had died, likely of a heart attack, I learned two new things about Crazy Uncle Chuck. First, he was an obsessive hoarder who lived in a waist-high garbage house infested with rats and mice. Second, among the things he hoarded were guns and explosives: enough to take out an entire city.

Two-week-old dead body leaves behind a deep, putrid, sickeningly sweet stench of rotting protein that clings to the insides of a house after the body is removed. It makes you back away instinctively.

The morning after I arrived on a plane from Boston to Minneapolis, I was pushing a cart through the aisles at Home Depot with my mom, stocking up cleaning gear for the heavy task that lay ahead.We picked up four respirator masks for working with asbestos, a large box of plastic gloves, disposable shoe covers, and four sets of chemical-splash-resistant coveralls: our own full-body haz-mat suits.

My job, in the house, was to find Chuck’s last will and testament. Mom would look for money, valuables, and family heirlooms. My brother, Chad, and his friend, Graham, would remove the weapons and ammunition that Crazy Uncle Chuck had stashed in every room of the house and wrapped in aluminum foil—so as to go undetected by government planes. (He made note of this in one of his handwritten inventories.)

Chad was the first one to meet the police the night that Chuck’s body was found. The officers observed a number of guns and cases of ammunition in the house, but because the ones that they saw were legal to possess, Chuck’s arsenal became ours, his next of kin.

Such a nice parting gift.

I wasn’t close to my uncle, but my mother was distraught and grieving, so I joined her and my brother in the mess in a haz-mat suit, mask, gloves, and shoe booties. We would tackle Crazy Uncle Chuck’s house as a family.

Heaped three to four feet high throughout the house were National Geographic magazines, thousands of books, junk mail, periodicals, yellowed newspapers, unopened plastic packages of socks and t-shirts and underwear, cans of Scrubbing Bubbles, pet food, camping gear, and Folgers Coffee-sized canisters of freeze-dried foods. Black grease stained the walls around the light switches in the hallway. Mouse turds covered everything like confetti.

His orange wingback chair in the center of the living room, surrounded by stacks of books and disorganized piles of periodicals, was the only available surface for sitting or sleeping. His mattress, without sheets or blankets, was covered in more books and garbage. No room there for a body.

In the morning, I was afraid to be in his house. I felt edgy, nauseous, and creeped out about the dead body stench, which I could still smell through my mask. To add to that, all that toppling garbage provided an endless sea of rodent hiding space. Mice danced in and out of the piles, popping up to observe us and diving down into the trash when startled. It was disgusting.

I wanted to run.

My morning’s sense of fear gave way to pity for a man who lived alone all his life in a house so filthy that the police originally missed his slumped, decomposed body among the rubble in the kitchen. In my mother’s old bedroom next to Chuck’s filing cabinet, I found a flyer headlined by the prompt “Tired of being lonely?” that encouraged him to come to a Bible group’s singles’ night. In a file marked “Resumes,” Chuck had saved job rejection letters. On one, the author thanked my uncle for applying but informed him that they had found another candidate who was more experienced for the position, and they were confident that she would do a good job. Chuck had circled the pronoun “she,” underlined the part about her experience, and drew a line to the margin, where he had written the successful applicant’s name.

My pity mid-morning turned to wonder, amazement, and dumbfounded shock over the staggering number and placement of weapons that I uncovered as I burrowed my way through the trash to access the bedrooms.

Chuck had stashed daggers and pocket knives in every paper, plastic, and cloth grocery bag that littered his floors; a pick ax behind his bathroom door next to two 4-foot canisters of bomb ingredients; a pistol in a Byerly’s bag next to his bed (noted in his handwritten inventory); a Glock .40 in an NIV Bible case (also in his inventory); a rifle under the desk next to his bowling bag; a James Bond-type knife disguised as a comb in his sock drawer; spools of wire for bomb detonation.

Beneath the safety of my asbestos mask, my mouth hung open.

The final tally boasted close to 60 guns, including revolvers, pistols, shotguns, AK47 assault rifles, and two Saturday Night Specials.For these firearms, Chuck had amassed an estimated 200,000 rounds of ammunition.

To complement the firearms, Chuck’s extensive collection featured bayonets, spiked brass knuckles, police batons, stink bombs, booby trap instructions, homemade bombs at various stages of assembly, Kevlar vests, rifle sights, military knee pads, tactical knives, camouflage suits and netting, a full body haz-mat suit, and a bomb shelter.

Although the guns became ours, Chad called in the bomb squad any time we found explosives or other potentially illegal paraphernalia. The morning I was there, the police filled a suburban and a pickup truck with all of it. They couldn’t fit everything, so they came back later for the rest.

As I gathered up an armload of weapons from Chuck’s bed to truck out to the garage, Mom stood in the hallway shaking her head.

“What was he planning to use all this for?” I asked, amazed by the damage he could have inflicted. I shuddered at the thought of him snuffing out a building full of people he imagined to be his enemies.

“I don’t know,” Mom said and exhaled a deep sigh. “I’m glad he died before he could use any of this.”

In a note that my mother found later, Chuck had written that on the day when martial law was declared, he was going to turn on his tape recorder and shoot his way out of his house.

In the reality that Chuck lived in in his mind, he was protecting his life and freedom from the military onslaught that was sure to come when the corrupt government and the anti-Christ rose to power as part of the New World Order. We had long ago self-diagnosed Crazy Uncle Chuck as a paranoid schizophrenic. Not that we really needed confirmation of it, but we had all the proof we needed now.

For all of Chuck’s meticulous documenting of his guns’ locations, their date of purchase, and the gun show or individual (first name only) from whom he purchased them, the item I actually did want to find—his will—was nowhere.

By early afternoon, bitter anger took the place of my shock. I had found the title to Chuck’s car, the deed to his house, and the deed to the family farmland that he shared with my mom. But no will.

I cursed out loud as I sifted through piles of papers covered in mouse shit. “Alright, you fucking bastard, where the fuck did you put your will? Huh, asshole?” I invoked his ghost as I handled his belongings roughly, throwing everything that wasn’t important paperwork into big brown trash bags to go into the garbage.

“Thanks for leaving us this fucking mess, you jackass.”

I unwrapped the tinfoil from around a military box that, according to Chuck’s note, contained gas residue that shouldn’t come into contact with the skin. “Oh, nice, you asshole. So glad we might die in this fucking minefield. Dick.”

I thought my search was over when I found a blue tri-fold life insurance brochure with a note penned on the front: “Don’t keep in safe deposit box. Keep where family can find.” Inside it were spaces for bank account information and the location of his will and life insurance policy.

Every line was blank.

“Of course it’s blank, you fucker,” I muttered as I tossed the paper into a box.

By early evening, I had cleared a path through my mother’s and grandmother’s old bedrooms and half way into Chuck’s room. There, I hit a stockpile of weapons, and some fuse inside my brain snuffed out and another one ignited: my anger morphed into perverse delight. I was on a lethal treasure hunt, and the more weapons I found, the higher I felt.

I piled the armament in neat rows on the bed and dug zealously through Chuck’s belongings for more. I was determined to make a respectable showing, since Chad and Graham were so far ahead of me, and I wasn’t disappointed. On and around Chuck’s bed, I found dozens of foil-wrapped cases containing thousands of rounds of ammunition, 10 guns, heaps of knives (including the James Bond knife-comb), gun holsters, helicopter rope, camouflage gear, and a sack full of little vials for more explosives.

Chad had to tell me three times that we were packing up and going home before I stopped sifting through the trash in pursuit of more guns. I wanted one more big find, but Chad would win that honor the next day: a hand grenade in the bathroom.

I volunteered to drive Chuck’s car the hour out to my parents’ house. Even though I knew there was no liquefied body in the car, I stayed in my haz-mat suit and shoe booties and donned a fresh pair of gloves for the ride. I crammed my cell phone into a third glove and placed it at the center of a nest of clean Kleenexes that I laid out on the passenger seat—in place of a tactical knife that I removed before turning the ignition.

A mile from the house, we stopped for gas. Though the customers around me didn’t know it, I was daring them to say even one word about my coveralls and gloves. They were going to hear all about mice and dead body bits and guns if they did.

I started sobbing as I pulled onto the interstate and cried most of the way home.

The coiled-in emotions of the day sprung out, a ricochet of thoughts playing off each other: Discovering the smell of two-week-old dead body—and having it be a family member. Spending hours handling loaded weapons with the fear of setting off a booby trap. Sifting through a crowded mass of rodent-shit-covered garbage and wishing I could bathe myself in Lysol. Pitying my paranoid uncle for the horrid mental and physical state of his lonely life. Feeling disgust over the thought that mice likely ran through (and even ate) bits of Chuck off the kitchen floor and carried him all over the house with their tiny feet.

Mixed with that was the profound sorrow and regret that I felt for my mother: For cleaning up her own dead brother’s bodily fluids. For the guilt she felt wondering whether there was something she could have done for him. For her seeing her mother’s house and family heirlooms destroyed.

The funeral was a small gathering of Chuck’s neighbors, coworkers, and childhood friends. His body was cremated; it was really the only option.

After the service, we packed the extra sandwiches, bars, and photographs of Chuck into the minivan. While Mom thanked the funeral director, Dad and I walked to the front of the chapel and gathered the only two bouquets of flowers that had been given for the service; one was from my parents. We stood looking down at the cherry wood box containing Crazy Uncle Chuck’s ashes.

“So should I take Chuck?” I asked hesitantly.

My dad shrugged and looked back at me. “I suppose so,” he said.

I reached down and tried the lid.

“Laura! Don’t!” Dad whisper-yelled, and stifled a laugh. He looked around to see if anyone was watching.

“I wanted to make sure it wouldn’t open and spill Chuck all over the inside of the car,” I said. The top didn’t budge. “Good,” I said.

We looked back down at the altar that held Chuck. Neither of us made a move. It was an awkward standoff.

“Should we put him in a box or something?” Dad asked, his palms upturned as he surveyed the room for a container. It seemed odd to just pick the thing right up and put it in the car.

Dad caught the funeral director’s attention and waved him over. He respectfully lifted Chuck into a small white cardboard box and handed him to my dad.

We opened the back of the minivan and set Chuck next to the Tupperwares of cookies and bars. I braced a container of chocolate chips against him so he wouldn’t slide around when Mom turned the corners too fast. I would eat those cookies the next day.

After I returned to Boston, my parents found a Vietnam-era body bag among Chuck’s possessions. He had written a note about it, cataloging it in his collection.

“I wish he wouldda crawled into it before he died,” Mom said to me over the phone. “It would’ve been a lot cleaner.”

I laughed.

“You know me,” she said, and laughed, too. “I like things nice and tidy.”

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Laura Waldon is a freelance writer, journalist, teacher, and waster-of-time on her computer. She has a BA from Augsburg College and an MFA from the University of New Hampshire. Waldon is a Midwestern transplant living on the East Coast with her spouse and, sadly, no pets. The nicest famous person she ever met was Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. You can check her out online at www.laurawaldon.com (Laura, that is—not Amy Ray).

19 responses to “Haz-Mat”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Wow, Laura,
    poor pathetic Uncle Chuck.
    Your poor mom.

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    My mouth was hanging open for this entire piece, a reaction I’ve never had before.

    So… congratulations? I guess?

    Jesus. Poor Chuck. Tough breaks on both sides of the coin, huh?

    • Laura Waldon says:

      Thanks, Simon.

      Yeah, that’s how I felt the entire time I was in Chuck’s house: mouth open, eyes wide, head shaking. It was staggering seeing the mountains of weapons and ammunition–especially when it was still all wrapped in tinfoil. It had a very alien feel to it. His distorted perception of reality was sad and unsettling.

  3. Richard Cox says:

    Wow, this was horrifying. It’s amazing the ways the mind can betray itself. I suppose the worse it got for him, the more he detached from society and reality in general. Sad and unsettling indeed.

    Your descriptions were vivid, like the confetti mouse droppings, for instance. And all the details of the weapons and the mountains of garbage and junk.

    Not sure if humor is in order here but I’m sorry the fellow liked golf. Golf has a bad enough image as it is.

    • Laura Waldon says:

      First off, I love your gravatar’s lightsaber golf club, Richard. I feel sad that I have no photos of myself wielding one. New item for life’s To Do list: photograph self with lightsaber.

      Yes: humor IS in order here. Dark laughter is what kept my family light throughout this. The night that I left Chuck’s house, I got drunk with my best friend and at 4:00 in the morning, giggling, we snuck out to my garage to look at the weapons. I laughed out loud as I pointed at the guns: “I mean, can you believe it? A rocket launcher! Ha hahahahaha!” The absurdity of it all is amusing.

      Sorry that golf always gets a bad rap. Golf and pets are the only normal things that we knew of that Chuck loved. Perhaps instead of drawing the conclusion, “Crazy people love golf,” we could look at it like this: golf is the only thing that kept him tethered, however thinly, to reality.

      I’m gonna stick with that.

  4. Marni Grossman says:

    It’s such classic, textbook crazy that it’s almost hard to believe. And yet you managed to humanize him. He was your mother’s brother after all and no amount of hand grenades could destroy that connection. Underneath all the junk, he was real. He was someone’s family.

    This was- as Richard said- horrifying. But beautiful too.

  5. Zara Potts says:

    The fact that he signed his Christmas cards from Charlie Brown and Josie says it all for me.
    How unbearably sad.

    • Laura Waldon says:

      He also used to tell us before leaving our house on holidays, “Josie loves you. Charlie Brown loves you.”

      Come to think of it, I don’t think he ever inserted an “I” in there–just his pets’ names.

  6. Oh Jesus, I just sat down to eat something called “soondae” (순대). It’s basically Korea’s answer to haggis (which makes it perfect for a Scottish immigrant in Korea).

    Moments before reading your essay I microwaved some soondae and it exploded. My cats are now extremely happy… But I feel a little sick. I wasn’t aware dead bodies could also explode.

    • Laura Waldon says:

      I’m sorry to spoil your explosive Korean haggis, David. You can tell your cats, “You’re welcome,” from me, though.

      This experience has ruined more than a few meals of mine. I’m just waiting for the day when I’m out in public somewhere and happen upon a smell similar to what I encountered in Chuck’s house and end up barfing on someone’s shoes. Embarrassing. “Sorry, but your casserole smelled like two-week-old dead body…”

  7. Joe Daly says:

    What a great job you’ve done of weaving your emotions through the horror of your uncle’s living conditions. What a harrowing experience it surely was, and I can’t imagine having to go through everything with the knowledge that weapons and explosives were hidden all over the place.

    I hope your return to Boston has been full of well-deserved relaxation.

  8. Angela Tung says:

    both fascinating and horrifying, and incredibly sad. i can’t help but think of that show, “hoarders,” and how overwhelmed the people are by their stuff and their loneliness.

    kudos to you and your family for dealing with such a rough situation. i’d have been useless. after dealing with rats in NYC, i jump whenever anything small and at feet level moves near me, including leaves and plastic bags.

    • Laura Waldon says:

      I’m a tad obsessive-compulsive when it comes to cleaning: a trait deeply ingrained in me from my mother. I used to watch that show “Hoarders” on TLC with horrified fascination, my lips drawn back in a grimace as I wondered how people could live like that.

      After being in Chuck’s house, I can’t watch it anymore. Can’t even pause on it for more than a few seconds when I’m flipping channels. It repels me in a middle-of-the-gut kind of way.

      Don’t short-change yourself, thinking you’d be “useless” in a rough situation. You’d be surprised at the things you can confront when the situation requires it–even if it does give you creepy dreams later on or make you jump at leaves and plastic bags.

  9. Uche Ogbuji says:

    The best thing about Crazy Uncles Chuck is that they have a family, and no matter how far the CUCs strain the bounds of human patience, their families ultimately underscore what it means to be human. With so much political and social polarization manifested everywhere, it’s always important to be reminded of this fact in such an, ahem, visceral way. Thanks so much for sharing, and it was very lovely meeting you in New York.

  10. Jude says:

    Oh jeez – this was horrifying to read… Thank god you’re a writer and have an outlet for this terrible ordeal you and your family had to go through.

    What more can I say except ‘poor Uncle Chuck’. It’s hard to contemplate what hell he must have lived in.

  11. Holy. A filthy story, but told so cleanly; a house (and life and mind) full of unbelievable clutter, related with not a word out of place. Well done, both the writing and the, y’know, doing.

  12. Erika Rae says:

    You did such a good job with this – (and may I just say?) – Oh. My. God.

    I like that you kept Uncle Chuck safe for the ride home by propping him against the cookies, which you ate the next day.

    I believe this story is going to stay with me for a loooooong time.

    I used to know people who made plans for what they would do when the antichrist came. This may *sound* crazy, but since I was in that world, they didn’t seem crazy. It’s all relative, I suppose. (In your case, quite literally!)

  13. discount sleeping bags…

    The Nervous Breakdown…

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