by Tyler Peterson, 3:49am July 10th 2022
The sink stinks. It’s coming from the bottom of the pipe, where it bends. A slight blockage has formed in just the right place for a growing knot of food, scum and soap residue to collect, snowballing larger and larger. It’s been a problem for a while, and it’s not as if the sink doesn’t get cleaned regularly, or somewhat regularly at least. Still no one addresses the blockage. It stinks worse and worse, but no one in the family feels like taking the time to deal with it. It’s not big enough to block the sink all the way; the water still drains okay. So what if it stinks. Sinks stink sometimes. The best anyone will ever do is to splash a bit of bleach down there and hope for the best.
The smell is hard to describe. Properly defined, it’s actually a mélange of many horrible smells, finely mixed and titrated like the subtle notes of a perfume. The main body of the smell is sharp and sweet fungal odor, but there are also strong notes of earthy bacterial tang which evoke feces or sewage. There’s the nutty, salty waft of animal fat, entwined with a stale, bloodless whiff of plant fat. There’s bilious, vomity bitterness near the top of the smell, buoyed up from underneath by a sour dairy smell that sits heavily in the nose. Surrounding this bouquet, ringing it all around like a decorative wreath is something unnatural, a sharp, artificial, chemical smell, probably all that bleach that keeps getting poured down there, or some broken-down byproduct thereof. The sink stench actually remarkable in its fashion. No one who’s been near it can say they’ve smelled anything quite like it.
The source of this smell, the knot of blockage in the U-bend, ages, ripens, and matures. It bulges and forms a round sac. Now it’s restricting the water flow pretty well, but the sink always drains eventually, and the family adapts. In the course of weeks something unusual happens. Secretly, unknown to the family, a faint heartbeat forms inside the bend. The heartbeat grows stronger. The sac gets even bigger, all but blocking the entire pipe. It strains against the walls of the pipe. Stress cracks form in the PVC like long jagged spider veins. Beads of water run out of the cracks, moisten the particle board below, cause it to wrinkle and soften.
The crisis comes to a head in the middle of the day, with no one in the house. The pipe, strained to its limit, pulses with muscular contraction and dislodges a little mushroom man. He explodes out of the sink drain glistening with effluvia, flying upwards in a graceful arc and plopping wetly on the countertop. He scrambles to his feet and takes in his surroundings, his beady little marble eyes darting around the kitchen, a born schemer.
The little mushroom man skitters across the kitchen counter, each tiny footprint leaving the thin laminate beneath black with dirt and soft with unwholesome moisture. He stops and sits in a corner to think and when he rises the backsplash has grown a large black print in the shape of his ass. He hugs the wall with sticky fingers and drags himself slowly upwards, and the drywall turns brown where he scoots his belly across it.
The sink’s draining just fine afterwards, and the smell dissipates, but now the family has bigger problems. Filth and decay follow the little mushroom man everywhere he goes, as he cavorts wildly late at night, as he parks himself and lazes during the day, and though he manages to stay well out of sight, the rotted evidence of his travels is everywhere. Bluish discoloration on the tile. Thick black stripes of scrunge along all the baseboards. Spattered multicolor watermarks on the backsplash. Crumbs and dust on all the shelves. And new smells, evil smells. Nothing ever seems to air out anymore. Burned dust in the toaster, scorched butter in a too-hot pan, ripe onions on the cutting board, everything sticks around and grows, pressing inward, each smell strengthening the other.
The mother and father fret over the mess in the kitchen. They’ve not been having the best time together recently and the kitchen’s neglected state is adding an exciting new dimension to their spats. Neither one can identify any area where they’ve been slacking off in cleaning but the evidence is right there in front of them. The passive aggressions they funnel through the kitchen are more or less lost on the older kid who isn’t quite yet old enough to consciously pick up on such things, but he is old enough to detect that other kids’ kitchens don’t look this dirty. He invites friends over less and less. The younger kid doesn’t notice at all. He tear-asses happily though the kitchen on his trots around the house, having no frame of reference for what kitchens are supposed to look and smell like.
As he grows stronger, the little mushroom man’s fingers grow lithe and powerful enough to part the seal on the fridge door and pry the door slightly ajar. He slips inside the fridge like a thief in the night and sets the torch to everything in it. The clear glass partition shelves he slides his palms across, turning them cloudy and opaque with unaccountable scum. The butter he frosts with a dusting of green mold. The milk he unscrews, breathes inside, the fetid exhalation transmuting into chunky yellow curdles. The little mushroom man picks up the fruit and regards each piece with the air of a huntsman looking over a purebred whelp he’s thinking of adding to his kennel, turning them over in his hands, shriveling them with the acrid caress of his palms till they’re sickly wet and ready to burst with slime. He reclines on the cheese like a chaise longue and it turns rock-hard beneath his body, a dried-out slab, it splits here and there and white floury streaks form in the creases. A half-open can of peas he turns to nauseous yellow mush. A half-used bag of flour tortillas he opens, sniffs heartily, sucking out the air, dessicating the tortillas into tasteless cardboard shards. The cucumber needs only a gentle squeeze of his fingers before it wrinkles and begins to smell like wet leaves; he squeezes harder and foul-smelling water begins beading all along the sides like sweat. He hops into a bag of lettuce and makes merry like a kid in a sandbox; the bag fills slowly up with brown slime.
The mother opens the fridge soon afterwards and the smell hits her like a truck. The kitchen was one thing. But how could the fridge have gotten so bad? The father looks over her shoulder, bemoans the waste and takes it upon himself to remove each shelf, slide its contents into the trash and scrub them in hot soapy water. He’s grumpy and the mother can’t blame him. She resolves to shop smarter, plan meals better, seal up leftovers more assiduously, whatever it takes.
Struggling against the little mushroom man is going to leave the mother anxious and demoralized over everything to do with the fridge. She will resort more and more to fast food and boxed dinners, fretting what it’s doing to the kids’ health but unable to overcome the quavering panic that rushes right up her throat whenever she even thinks of opening that big white door. The father tries to pick up the slack, but he’s unused to daily cooking and he privately resents the mother for dumping this on him. Meanwhile the fridge is getting grosser and grosser inside. It’s getting so bad that when the mother does rouse herself to cook a real meal, she doesn’t bother putting leftovers in the fridge but leaves the whole pot or pan on the dead stove burner to eat later, and the little mushroom man delightedly frolics in it as a field of beautiful wildflowers. The pan, without fail, meets the morning sun as a smelly, caked-on morass that the mother struggles to scrape in to the garbage can.
When the junk-sated kids plop down into their beds at night the mushroom man, emboldened and stretching his legs as he grows, runs freely around in their bedroom. He runs across the mattresses and his footfall breeds dust and mites that make the kids wheeze and cough in their sleep. His touch brings forth hidden odors trapped deep inside the mattress, stains, miasmas, ghosts of pre-potty-training accidents, spilled soup and hot cocoa from bedridden sick days, summoned out of the past. He runs his finger along the mattress’s seams and dots them with the bloody pinpricks of fleas and the black ink dots of bedbugs. Underneath the bed he dances a little pirouette and the hardwood grows a carpet of dust, and the dust sprouts an Edenic jungle populated by gray dust bunnies, tufted chunks of cat hair, wispy clouds of old down from exploded comforters and pillowcases. The little mushroom man curiously lifts up a corner of peeling wallpaper and the moisture of his breath penetrates all the way upwards. Fungal blooms and earthy scents explode beneath the wallpaper like a time-lapse film of the desert in flower after a hard rain.
Each night when he finally tires of his diversions the little mushroom man collapses in a laundry hamper, and the clothes spot with damp stinky molds that additional washings will only spread and fortify. Soon each piece of clothing they own is streaked with the fuschia and blue and green and black of exotic fungi. The children’s teachers take note of the state of their clothes. The teachers adopt that crinkled-brow look of benign concern and ask the kids whether they’re getting enough to eat, whether the water is on for them to drink and wash. The kids say yes. Two teachers discuss the possibility that they’ve been scared or embarrassed into silence. But the subject never happens to come up again. There are so many kids, after all.
The cat is attracted to the dank space under the bed and often sleeps there no matter how dusty it gets. The little mushroom man curls up to the cat’s warm body and takes a nap. When the cat wakes up, she has fungus on her skin. She tears at it with her claws and her tongue until it’s rubbed pink and raw. The broken, moist skin gets infected and begins suppurating. An ulcer develops on the cat’s lip where some of the fungus was transferred. The ulcer swells and gets painful and the cat eats less because her mouth hurts. The worried mother takes the slimming cat to the vet. An antibacterial swab is prescribed for the ulcer. The swab kills the fungus on the lip but it travels down her GI tract and swells it nearly shut. The mother brings the cat back to the vet and the vet prescribes steroids. The harried mother has to force the cat’s mouth open and squirt syringes of the strong-smelling medicine down the furious cat’s throat, and the cat, though weak from undernourishment, still manages to tear the mother’s hands and forearms to ribbons with her back claws. The steroid suppresses the cat’s appetite further, even as her GI tract returns to normal. The fungus spreads into the liver and intestines. The cat stops eating altogether. The kids ask if the cat’s going to die. The mother makes visit after visit to the vet where the rapidly deteriorating cat is subjected to blood work and imaging. The vet is flummoxed. He eventually convinces the mother to let him put a feeding tube in. Now the mother needs to mix up specially-formulated canned cat food into a slurry and squirt it into the cat’s feeding tube four times a day. She has never been able to abide canned cat food, she can count the number of times in her life she’s fed it to her cats on one hand, the smell makes her gag, but now she peels open each can and mixes it with tepid water and swishes it around and really lets that smell spread around. And as if the kitchen didn’t stink bad enough before, now she seals the uneaten portion of the can with a plastic top that never quite keeps the fishy sour smell from getting into the rest of fridge, and gets it back out at feeding time and microwaves it, not too much because you don’t want hot food going straight into the stomach, just enough that the smell collects in the microwave and blasts the entire kitchen upon opening.
Still the cat fails to thrive. She becomes weaker, bonier, tottering around the house on unsteady legs looking for all her former perch spots she can’t jump up to anymore. Bile leaks out of the spout of the feeding tube and drenches the bandage that’s holding the feeding tube in place. She finds a pile of clothes in the closet, dirty clothes that fell out of the hamper, and spews drool and urine and bile. The mother thinks she’s going to die there but against all odds the cat picks herself back up and dies back underneath the kids’ bed among the dust bunnies. She’s only under there a short time, but thanks to the noisome influence of the little mushroom man, her body bloats up fast with putrefaction gases. When the mother finds her corpse she tries to gently slide it out from underneath but the cat’s mouth and asshole burst with gases and some of the cat’s liquefied intestine slides out the back end. The mother pukes on the floor of her kids’ bedroom, screams, cries, screams.
By this time the mushroom man’s made it to the bathroom. No need to go into everything he did in there. This time there are no feints in the direction of stepping up the cleaning routine in the bathroom. They mentally write it off instead and use it as little as they can. Quick shits. Hurried showers, spaced further and further between. It seems clear that the house is nearing the point where it’s more trouble than it’s worth to keep. The father is in denial about this. The mother isn’t, but the thought of finding a new house in this market, on their income, and going through the trouble to pack everything up and move, seems impossible. The mother can’t even hold the idea in her head without having a panic attack. She decides instead to enter a profound depressive episode.
She takes days off of work. She sits in bed and plays on her phone. She doesn’t make any texts, doesn’t read any texts she gets, doesn’t touch any social media. Mostly she plays puzzle games and reads old Wikipedia pages of different shipwrecks and industrial accidents. She buys a carton of cigarettes at the store and begins smoking for the first time in a few years. The master bedroom is choked with smoke at all hours. The kids are left almost entirely to their own devices. They happily stomp around the house. They raid the pantry for dry cereal to munch on for dinner. They take bags of cheese balls and popcorn out to the couch while they park themselves in front of the TV. Their junk food crumbs nestle in the leather couch’s crinkles. Their unwashed bodies make prints in the cushions that grow shiny with skin oil. The mushroom man, burrowed deep inside the couch, spreads out his fingers underneath the cushions and his spores suffuse the couch with a musty smell, the smell of poverty and indolence. The mother doesn’t notice the couch’s new smell because she’s too busy smelling up her own bed. The funk of her body conquers the thin top sheet and the slightly thicker mattress pad and penetrates the mattress itself. The ashes from her chain-smoked cigarettes aerosolize themselves and burrow into the fabric of her pillow. The wallpaper around her bed acquires a greasy yellowish-brown hue, human exhalation, smoke, skin oil, and desperation, and the little mushroom man scales up the walls during the mother’s frequent catnaps, and his voracious tongue licks the smeared stain on the wall, driving the filth deeper into the drywall and spreading the stain further and further like a trowel until its embracing arms corral the entire room. Never having caught the mushroom man at it, when the mother looks at the walls one day and sees the whole room painted in a dead-looking, ill color, she naturally assumes it’s her own state of mind at work.
The mother stays in bed, and stays and stays and stays. Her skin starts sticking to the bedspread. Her washed-out skin becomes less and less distinguishable from the filth-darkened bedspread. Her period comes and she doesn’t bother to put a tampon in, just lets the blood run through her pajama pants and stain the sheets. No one’s seen the father in a minute. The kids run in and out of the bedroom. The snacks run out, and they raid the mother’s purse and sock drawer and change jar for money for snacks at the gas station. The mother stares at them in silence while they do it.
While the kids are at the gas station the little mushroom man runs roughshod over the entire house. Giggling, he pries his fingers into the spaces in between the floorboards. They rot inside and attain the consistency of papier-mâché. The little mushroom man forces his disgusting little toes in between the baseboard and the wall. The little space fills up with dust and debris and cobwebs and bits of old food and the corpses of roaches and mice. He wrinkles and bubbles wallpaper with the slap of his hands, he latches on to a hanging edge and pulls down with his whole bodyweight, causing it all to come away from the wall in a big ragged strip, leaving the sticky sad residue and bits of torn-away white paper behind. While the mother vegetates in bed, he forces a window shutter open, clambers up on the roof and fills the gutters and the downspout with scum and black muck and all manner of wetland ecosystem. Tree seeds germinate in the sloppy humus of the gutters and start to spill their shoots over the edge. The branches inch underneath shingles and send them scattering to the ground. The little mushroom man tears off strips of siding. He splits open undisposed bags of garbage and scatters them on the lawn.
The kids spend less and less time in the house. There’s no food, no money. They can’t watch much on TV anymore, it’s on the fritz. The internet bill hasn’t been paid, or perhaps the dampness in the house has simply rusted and eaten through the packed metal fibers of the cable line. One day the kids simply don’t come home. The power and water shut off. With less and less internal activity the entropy inside the house picks up pace. Garbage and dirt pile up on the outside of the house in mounds. Soon the back door can only be found with difficulty. The front door starts to disappear next. The mail carrier has to shove piles of brown clods and wrinkled paper garbage out of the way with her foot to put mail in the box, which is rapidly filling in with dirt. Portions of roof rot, fall in and expose the interior of the house to sunlight, and the mushroom man coaxes in birds and rodents with a stumpy beckoning finger. Wildlife roosts in the mother’s bedroom. She observes but doesn’t react. She is now fully integrated into the bed. Her rumpled yellowish face and barely-mobile eyes regard the disintegrating bedroom from the narrow opening in her comforter pile. She hasn’t eaten anything in she doesn’t know how long but somehow the wrappers and crumbs keep multiplying around her bed.
The house looks less and less like a human structure and more and more like a natural feature of the landscape. The mushroom man scales exposed beams, he oozes across bare plywood. A thick brown crust like a scab grows across everything. Dirt collects on the sloping piles around the house, and grass and other plants begin to grow all the way up to the windows. The little mushroom man throws open the windows and guides the undergrowth inside, shows it pools of nutritious humus and pools of stagnant water. Plants and fungi start growing on the floors and furniture. Ever more complex organisms begin to nest inside the house – ants, bees, snakes, field mice, robins, owls, groundhogs, deer. They lick the microbe-rich beads of dew on the walls, munch the fungus growing in a line along the door frames where the little mushroom man has dragged his belly across. They burrow in and nest in the bed whose clothes have long since disintegrated into a pile of shredded gray rags, attracted to the small signature of body heat where the mother still hibernates somewhere far underneath.
People in the neighborhood begin to develop a blind spot to the rotting house. They walk right by it as if it was always there, slowly making themselves forget it wasn’t. The children have by now wandered off like stray cats, gone begging for food at the back door stoops of other houses, eventually finding new homes willing to take them in. The father, meanwhile, who some time ago slipped quietly away from the house because he just couldn’t do it anymore, has settled into a new phase of his life, moved in with a new woman, a fun woman, a together woman. His day-to-day life is satisfying, his mind is gradually clearing; he is only periodically nagged by how he left things, and sometimes feels that he should really call and see how everything is, but he gets a huge anxiety rush which always circles back around to inertial guilt about not having called in so long. The longer this cycle continues, the harder it is to break, and the father has accepted that it may never do so. What can one do, really?
As his final opus, the little mushroom man skitters down the basement steps, walks from one end of the dark, musty room to the other, surveys the damp unfinished concrete floors, and forces those powerful little fingers of his into the cracks in the foundation. The fingers lengthen, slither through the chinks in the edifice, bifurcate, branch; concrete and brickwork begin to crumble like dry cookies. Huge masses of soil push inward. The walls bow and slant. In slow motion the house implodes. The first story rushes in to fill the vacuum underneath that the weakening structure can no longer sustain. The second story and the last intact stretches of roof are swallowed up by the brown tide and disappear. The hungry earth gobbles up every human artifact it can reach. The mound smooths. The ground levels out. Deep underneath the topsoil, the mushroom man, buried and pressed in on all sides by tons of earth and rubble, finally quiets his frantic movements for good and stretches out his limbs into the dark loamy soil. His toes lengthen to wrap around the shivering form of the mother, encrusted in several layers of filth and partially mummified, and sucks out the tiny remaining core of animal heat from her body as her consciousness finally goes dark. His hungry roots suck her corpse to a withered husk, to a bone, to a stick, until she could just be another piece of ancient dead garbage among a whole pit of it, and anchors himself on this craggy fossil as he extends his fingers above and lets them snake upward through the soil until they reach the surface, sunlight, and erupt into a thousand fruiting bodies, heavy with spores, thick and fleshy with life.