About a week ago I was standing on my back deck when I smelled something truly terrible. It was a sweetish odor, and rotten, like a potato that is so old, it has collapsed in on itself. I searched the area around the deck, but a wind wafted the scent away and I forgot about it.
The next day the odor came back. It was even stronger and I became filled with a terrible dread. The longer I stayed outside, my nose in the air like a hunting dog following the scent of a fox, the more I became convinced that one of my neighbors had passed away and was lying undiscovered in his home. I shared this worry with my daughter, Hilary, who looked a little skeptical. After a while, though, she too became concerned about the source of the odor, though not to the same extent as I.
I was filled with an immediate sense of guilt for not noticing the comings and goings of all the neighbors closest to me. Though blessed with a strong nose, I have no memory for faces. It takes me years to remember people who live only a few doors down. It can be embarrassing when I meet them down town and don't have a clue who they are, especially when they ask after my family. I'm sure there is a name for this type of syndrome. If there is, please don't tell me.
This guilt was intensified by my Catholic upbringing, which I'm deeply grateful for because it grounds me, preventing a sense of over confidence that overtakes people absent minded enough to forget all the bad things that can happen in life. It can be a cross to bear, though, no pun intended. Anyway, back to the dead neighbor.
I probably wouldn't have been so concerned except that a couple of the neighbors live alone and the smell was just so intense, death undiscovered seemed the only possible answer. What could I do? I didn't want to walk to the front doors of the potentially deceased, bang on them and then say, 'Oh, thank God. I thought you were dead.' Even for me, that's a bit much. A possible solution came in the form of my next door neighbor. Let's call him Ralph.
Ralph is widely considered to be an asset to the neighborhood, at least to the members of my household. He is the first, and sometimes only one to check for possible burglars lurking in the back alley, for bears rattling around the garbage cans and for lending a hand with moving things, which is the height of neighborliness. He is also wonderful at reminding absent minded people like me not to forget the pot on the stove, the unwatered plants or the visiting toddler that may be wandering too close to the road. In other words, he is reliable, someone to turn to in a pinch. And this was pinching!
"Ralph!," I cried. "I smell something terrible and I think one of the neighbors is dead!" Let me pause in the story to add another positive attribute of this helpful man. He is also a writer and, though grounded in reality, has a good imagination and appreciates a melodramatic moment from time to time. He admitted that his sense of smell was not as strong as mine, but began immediately sniffing the air anyway, willing to help me figure it out. We both stood there, he in his yard, me on my deck, our noses in the air, sniffing like a pair of disapproving republicans. He looked a little undecided but in the end, we agreed that a 'wait and see' policy would be best to adopt.
This was a good thing, because later that afternoon I discovered some old meat clinging to the grill of my barbeque, which is situated under a black cover on the hottest part of my deck. If the odor on the deck was disgusting, it was nothing to the smell that drifted through the air once I lifted the lid. But what a relief.
Was I embarrassed at having jumped to conclusions? Not at all. Though Ralph had a good laugh at my expense, we both appreciated the opportunity that was almost afforded the both of us at coming to the aid of one in need, even if that one was already dead.
I'm going to use this little lesson, not to reason differently, or perhaps less imaginatively, but as a new impetus for watching my neighbors. I'll see if I can remember what they look like, and I'll try to be more like Ralph, to lend a helping hand, or nose, and be there when the people on my street really need me.