I’m worried about Mama
“I’m worried about Mama.”
Lynn sighed. She wasn’t surprised that LaShonda was worried about her mother, but she wasn’t sure why she would choose her mother’s landlord to call about it. “Honey, I can’t really — ”
“Just please check on her tomorrow when you pick up rent?”
Mrs. Thomas never talked to Lynn when she collected the rent. Her money order would be in a plastic grocery bag on the doorknob, and Lynn would have to fish it out and place the receipt inside. Sometimes Mrs. Thomas would be in the window, and she’d wave and smile at Lynn, but she’d never actually come to the door.
“She doesn’t open the door, Honey. And the law says I can’t go in there if she doesn’t want me in there.”
“Just make sure you see her, okay? She left me a weird message last night, and I’m 300 miles away, I can’t just drop everything and go there.”
If it were her mama, Lynn would do just that. Something was real off about the old woman, and even though she lived with her son, LaShonda’s brother, she was pretty sure he couldn’t take care of himself, let alone the aging matriarch of the family. Just last week she’d heard complaints from their upstairs neighbors about a smell. Mrs. Thomas had said on the phone that Terrance had left some food out and they’d get it cleaned up, and so far she’d heard no more of it.
That could be a reason to linger, though.
“…I’ll see what I can do, LaShonda. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”
“Thank you so much, Ms. Barnett.”
Lynn cringed. She’d divorced her husband six months ago and reverted to her maiden name, but most people were still calling her by his name. “I’m sure she’s alright, LaShonda. Talk to you then.”
Lynn sat in her idling car, staring at her duplex. She hated awkward exchanges, and she didn’t see how this could be anything other than awkward.
The place was out of date and could use a couple coats of fresh paint, but she didn’t like to do that kind of work while she still had tenants in the building. Better to do visual improvements while she’s looking to fill the space and maybe charge a little more rent, not while there were people in there who might take issue with the color she chose.
The plastic grocery bag was waiting on the front doorknob of the lower apartment, and she didn’t see any sign of life through the darkened and blind-covered windows.
Lynn took a deep breath and turned off the car. There was no point in delaying this. Besides, what if there really was something wrong and Mrs. Thomas was in dire need of help? She would have sat in her car in front of the house, wasting precious time.
As she approached the door, her anxiety grew. Sure, Mrs. Thomas was just a crazy old lady, but she was big, Lynn reckoned at least 400 pounds. Lynn wasn’t so light herself, but something about all that weight combined with the old woman’s obvious paranoia gave her pause. If she really was losing her mind, could she attack her?
Would Lynn be able to fend her off, given her size?
Lynn shook her head. This was nonsense. Mrs. Thomas was sweet, just a little eccentric. She picked up the plastic bag and knocked on the door. “Mrs. Thomas?”
There was no answer. Lynn didn’t really expect one. She tried again. At least see someone in the window, she told herself. Then I can call LaShonda and tell her that her mother and brother are fine. “Mrs. Thomas? Terrance?” she called, knocking a little harder. She saw the blinds near the door shiver a bit. There we go. Someone looking out. “I just wanted to check on — ” She stopped, because she heard the lock on the door click. Someone was going to open the door? This was new. Her eyes were glued to the knob now, watching it turn slowly. She swallowed as she felt the anxiety rising again.
Stop it. This is just an old lady and her disabled son.
The door opened just a crack, but Lynn took a step back as the smell hit her. There was no way this could be a little food stink. The house smelled like a sewer. Urine, feces, and a hint of mold. She had no idea how she hadn’t smelled it before the door opened.
“U-um, Mrs. T-Thomas?”
“Toilet’s broken,” Mrs. Thomas’ voice said. Lynn couldn’t see her at first, but then she looked down, and took another step back.
Mrs. Thomas was on her knees in an old stained nightgown and robe, her face at the level to Lynn’s stomach, which was doing flips from the smell and the disconcerting sight of the big old woman kneeling in front of her.
“I’m — I’m sorry?”
“Toilet’s stopped up. Need you to fix it.”
Lynn took a deep breath and immediately regretted it as the smell washed over her all over again. “O-of course. Let me just go back to my house to get some tools and I’ll be right over — ”
That must have been satisfactory, because the old woman shut the door and Lynn heard the lock click back into place. The smell lingered, but at least it was lessened with the source behind a door.
Lynn switched the money order for the rent receipt, hung it on the door and power walked back to her car, her mind reeling. Toilet stopped up? For how long, for the smell to be that strong? Was it overflowing? Why didn’t she say anything in her monthly call that the rent was ready just yesterday?
It wasn’t that uncommon for a tenant to call her because the toilet was clogged. Most clogs could be fixed with just a plunger and a little elbow grease, but anything vaguely resembling house repairs they usually contacted her for. She’d seen a few over the years that needed a little more than that, and it was almost always the renter’s fault. Her dad had had a renter throw the remains of a rib dinner in the toilet, and that clog had required the removal of the toilet altogether to get to the pipes. Cell phones and women’s menstrual products were the most common culprits for tenant-caused clogs. She could never understand why people would deny dropping their cell phones in the bowl, or fathom how they could be so dense as to flush them instead of fishing them out.
She hoped it was going to be an easy fix. This had been so unsettling already, she didn’t want to spend any more time in that place than she had to.
Thoughts of her troublesome tenants plagued her the whole trip to her house and back. Just how bad was this toilet going to be? Why had Mrs. Thomas been on her knees? She hoped she’d be able to stomach the smell long enough to get the job done. She’d been in plenty of dirty homes before, and insulting the tenant with adverse reactions always just escalated the situation. Better to fix the problem, check if there were bugs to send an exterminator in for after or enough mess to consider eviction, and get out. No need to cause a scene, that only caused more headache in the long run.
The bag was gone from the doorknob when Lynn arrived at the duplex again. She knocked on the door, and this time it opened quickly, which somehow made the smell worse. She had no time to prepare herself as it washed over her. Terrance stood in the doorway, in a pit stained white t-shirt and terrycloth pants that were threadbare at the bottom. He was big, but not as big as his mother, at least thirty, and as far as Lynn knew, he didn’t talk. He smiled at her and pointed in the direction of the bathroom.
Lynn nodded and did her best to smile back through the smell. “Is your mama here?” She didn’t know why she asked that. Of course neither of them left the house. He nodded and pointed in the same direction, which was also where the bedrooms were, so she assumed that’s what he meant. She stepped into the apartment past Terrance and did her best not to shudder.
It was bad. Trash littered the floor, food remains left wherever they were finished, and mail was left to pile on a table near the front door. The walls were covered in grime and she saw a roach skitter under an old ad for a pizza place. So, yes on the exterminator. Probably yes on the eviction, too, but she had to give Mrs. Thomas credit for always being on time for the rent. They probably need some help, just her and her boy here. She’s not too short on money as far as I can tell, maybe I can suggest a cleaner.
Lynn continued towards the bathroom, her stomach churning as the true source of the stench came into view. She opened the door, then gaped.
No. There was no way.
Well, that explained a lot, though.
They had continued to use the toilet as it overflowed. Shit and piss covered it, and the floor nearby. When that had become too much, they had begun to use the bathtub.
There was shit in the bathtub.
Nausea overcame her. Who the hell do you call for something like this? Industrial cleaners? The health department? Not them, they’d condemn the place and kick out everyone. There goes her regular rent, and maybe her property.
“Toilet’s broken,” Mrs. Thomas said behind her. Lynn whirled around and stifled a scream, brandishing her plunger like a weapon. Mrs. Thomas was on all fours, crawling down the hall to the entrance to the bathroom. She giggled and stopped when she reached it, staring down at the floor.
“Mrs. T-Thomas, do you need some help?” Lynn choked out, her voice almost squeaking.
“Need you to fix it.” She turned and started crawling away. Lynn stepped out to watch her in horrified wonder as the old woman sat up on her knees to open a bedroom door and crawled inside.
Time to leave, now, toilet clogged or not. Lynn practically ran back to the living room, but stopped when she saw Terrance leaning against the closed front door. He didn’t look at her, staring straight ahead into a nearby wall.
“I’m worried about Mama,” he said, in a perfect imitation of LaShonda’s voice.
Lynn stood stock still, unable to comprehend what was happening.
“Just please check on her tomorrow? Tomorrow? Tomorrow?” He kept repeating the last word like a broken record, stepping towards her. His face remained empty, staring past her as he approached.
The immediate danger shook Lynn back to motion, and she threw the plunger at him as hard as she could. She turned and ran, not looking to see if it hit, going for the back door she knew was in the kitchen.
As she passed through she was vaguely aware that the kitchen was worse than the living room, the stove and fridge stained and greasy, food remains everywhere. She got the door open and ran faster than she ever knew she could to the car, driving home and only dialing 911 when she reached her destination.
She just told them that she’d been threatened by her tenants while fixing something in their apartment, and that she thought something was very wrong with both of them. She left out the part about the imitation of LaShonda, because she wasn’t sure what to make of it. Had she really talked to LaShonda the day before, or did LaShonda just say the same things to Terrance? Just how mentally present was he? She’d always just assumed he was autistic or something, but she’d never asked.
When the police arrived, Terrance and his mother were gone. Part of Lynn wasn’t surprised, for some reason.
When she called LaShonda back, she didn’t answer. Lynn left a message explaining the bare bones of what had happened and told LaShonda to call her back, but she never did.
Eventually she wrote it off as two very disturbed people who really should have gotten help far before that time, and hired someone else to clean up the apartment. She answered tenant calls for repairs much less, usually hiring someone else to do that as well.
She had nightmares that Mrs. Thomas was crawling towards her down a long, dark hall, and when she opened her mouth, LaShonda’s voice would come out.
“I’m worried about Mama,” it would say, as hands pushed the jaw apart and Terrance jerkily climbed out of her mouth. “Just please check on her tomorrow?”
After a while even those faded, until almost a year later, when a plunger was left on her doorstep.
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