Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Gary's Place

Nature morte in a Seattle suburb

Gary K. was born in 1918 or so, in a tiny Canadian bush town. He died in the hot early summer of 2002 in the washroom of his condominium in the north end of Seattle. Two weeks passed before he was found and the mess cleaned up. I walked through his door a couple of days after that. I have a few lawyer friends who from time to time are left in charge of the estate of a person who has died alone. Most of my time—my “day” job, though that’s hardly accurate time-wise—is spent reading and writing about books for newspapers, magazines and online booksellers. As a line of work and source of income, it’s a bit like trying to catch trout with your bare hands. Since I usually need money and don’t work regular hours, and am fairly responsible, I am an obvious candidate when someone is needed to sort through goods and help settle affairs.

I’ve done this job twice in my life. Both of the people that I’ve encountered in this way (I never actually saw either of them, alive or dead) have been men from small towns in northern Canada. They even shared the same first name (which I’ve changed in this account, along with other names). The first Gary founded an important environmental charity and was a respected old-timer who left his affairs in good order. He had few vices—at worst, a fondness for drinking and driving. He is rumoured to have spent a week in jail at the age of eighty for reversing over the picket fence of the town police chief. He was well loved and has, I think, been well remembered by his neighbours and colleagues.

However, the second Gary—Gary K.—was a much vaguer ghost. He still had a sibling alive in Canada, but he had not spoken with any of his family for fifty years. So far as anyone knew, he had no wife, no children, no lover and no friends. He had served in the US Merchant Marine during the Second World War, worked the rest of his days as a sailor and had enough money to his name to afford his own condo. That’s all anyone could tell me.

When I boarded the plane to Seattle, I was given his address, a faxed copy

of his death certificate and a few names to contact (building superintendent, undertaker, a company called Bio-Clean). I was also expected to follow up on a few leads using local telephone directories.

The contents of Gary K.’s pockets were waiting for me in a place called FirstCall Plus. The man who met me at my hotel and directed me to their offices explained that FirstCall Plus runs a “discreet operation,” and as such did not have a storefront. I took a taxi to a tiny, isolated strip mall in the residential east end of the city. I was to stand in front of Holiday Gifts and Crafts, like some modern Ali Baba, and use my cellphone to announce my presence. I phoned in. A reddish man in a blue suit emerged from the single-bay garage. He introduced himself with a wet handshake and led me in.

FirstCall Plus resembled a subdivided portable classroom: yellow-orange industrial carpet, metal shelves, grey drywall, blue doors, no windows. No crematoria or anything of that sort—contractors are relied on for the grubbier parts of the job. A grey-moustached and soft-spoken man gave me a weak coffee. Gary’s ashes were in a grey box on the desk; I told the man that I could not take them yet, but that he would receive further instructions. He gave me an envelope of documents and a package from the medical examiner’s office, hunter orange biohazard sticker slapped on the outside. I went back to my hotel.

A smell emerged from the biohazard envelope not unlike that of certain old books—a dry, leathery, unwholesome smell. It reminded me of the dust that was still rolling around downtown Manhattan when I visited a month after the terrorist attacks. This is what Gary K. was carrying when he died: a cheap pale-metal digital watch, two plastic wallets with some cash and grocery receipts, an assortment of medical insurance cards, a set of keys. Also enclosed were a few Christmas cards and letters that the medical staff had hastily grabbed while removing Gary from his condo. One was a calendar-card for 1989; another, a brief but gentle Christmas note from Gary’s sister-in-law. Another was a sincere message from Bryn Weymouth. Bryn wrote and spelled like an earnest child, sloppily and with great effort. “Your friend, Bryn Weymouth.” Finally, a letter from a woman named Rosemary Schwartz, who rented a parking space from Gary K. I made a catalogue of these objects, read part of a Nancy Mitford novel and went to bed.

I woke up early to make the long trip to Gary’s condo. I was met in the building’s lobby by the superintendent, James, a tall and slightly tanned Californian émigré with sandy hair and a Burton Cummings moustache. I later learned that he was an ex–drill sergeant who kept a little of the aggressive temper that supposedly goes with the job. He had been told that I review Canadian books for Amazon.com, and this put me squarely into his favour—he was a committed surfer of the Web, and, in spite of its mystical economies, the bookseller has a great deal of prestige in Seattle, its home base.

He led me through the building—one of those boxy low-rises I can never find my way around—and explained how he had discovered Gary. “One day the neighbours complained about the smell. We’ve got a lot of retirees in here, so a few go every year. I was a little scared when I went upstairs, and when I came round here there was that smell. I knew what had happened. I didn’t want to go in there, but I did. The smell nearly made me puke, and when I saw him on the toilet, I couldn’t stop it. He was all over the floor. I ran and called the cops and left things to them.”

We were now a few feet from the apartment, and the only smell in the air was the odour of fruity disinfectant. I had to try a couple of Gary’s keys to open the door. The apartment was small and it smelled, but not of rot. It was the same odour that came off the wallets, only much more piercing. I remember a hint of something ranker in the air, but I’m not at all sure if this was really there, or if it was just a trick of expectation.

The place wasn’t much bigger than a nice student apartment. The appliances were modern but the furniture was pure Goodwill—plywood table and chairs, a lump of brown corduroy for a couch. The carpeting had been torn out. What remained, a cement floor, was strewn with swatches of heavy composite fabric. James showed me the washroom. “Well, this is where it happened.” The toilet and floor had been torn out—the latter because poor Gary had seeped into the floorboards, contaminating the ceiling of his downstairs neighbour. A dark void falling between floors waited to be covered.

I headed out to the parking lot to meet the ladies from BioClean, the company that had started to sterilize Gary’s place. They were ordinary middle-aged Seattle suburbanites, dressed in track pants and sporting hairstyles that would not have been out of place in rural Canada. These were tough broads—there is no other way to describe them. They had worked in this business for several years before founding their own company. Meth labs, lonely seniors and the occasional suicide—that was their beat. Recently they had gained some notice when they were hired to clean up the remains of the lead singer of Alice in Chains. James the superintendent was quite friendly with them and later told me that he had the hots for one of the BioClean gals—“Well, she knows how to handle a stiff, doesn’t she?”

It was important to remove any and all plastics from the contaminated unit. The smell of rot cannot be removed from plastic. Something as simple as a plastic climate-control fan, I was told, could keep Gary’s smell lingering in the condo forever. Giving me a couple of paper face masks and a pair of industrial-grade leather gloves, they left me to my business.

Gary didn’t own much. He was a child of the Depression, not a consumer. Like anyone else, he had possessions that made him happy, but they weren’t chosen in order to present a front to anyone. They were simply there, selected to sate a modest sense of pleasure.

I opened the windows and the sliding door onto an empty concrete balcony. This became my home base. There were papers everywhere: in dresser drawers, on the television stand, on the kitchen table, on a set of bedroom shelves. Most were statements from Gary’s health insurance—it seemed Gary had been in and out of hospital, receiving treatment for his heart—but there were hundreds of grocery receipts like the ones in his wallet, with cryptic names and numbers scrawled on them: Bessie Smith, Trust N Luck, Randolph Tucker III. Newspaper clippings from the eighties abounded, nearly all of them anti-Reagan editorials, their key points underlined in ballpoint. The only book in the open was a beginner’s drawing manual, featuring a busty young blonde on the cover. She was wearing an apron and a frighteningly large smile as she stood at an easel drawing a kitten. Gary had tried out a handful of drawing techniques—a face in quarter-profile; a chickadee; a cardinal—twenty pages into a yellow legal pad (the first twenty were filled with more obscure names and numbers). Then he seemed to have grown bored and returned to his numbers, and more anti-Reagan quotations started breaking in. When I found a brochure for a local racetrack, I realized the mysterious names belonged to horses. The walls were decorated with framed posters of San Francisco, the sort of thing tourist information offices give away.

The kitchen held simple white dishes, soda biscuits, soup, more receipts and eggs and flat Coke in the fridge. No alcohol. Among the knives were two beautiful choppers with Chinese characters engraved on the blades and a simple pattern of circles on the handles. I set these aside for Gary’s family; the only items, as it turned out, that were salvageable.

Above the counter, Gary had taped up a few snapshots. Some were of a smallish brown tabby cat, one of a dark-haired young woman who looked Lebanese. Most, though, were of an older man who reminded me of the older Eastern European immigrants that you see in many small Canadian towns or the west end of Toronto: square chest, broad grin, dress shirt, baseball cap. This man was holding a beer in every picture. None of the photographs had any names on them. I left them where I found them.

In the bedroom, apart from shelves, suitcases and boxes filled with mundane clothes, there was a box full of books: a couple of Bibles, some evangelical Christian tracts, navigation manuals and a selection of self-help books based on the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” formula. Most curious, a tiny pamphlet on the natural history of the woodpecker, explaining in detail how the existence of the woodpecker refutes Darwin, because the evolution of such an unusual physiology is impossible. I was tempted to save it as a souvenir, but it would probably never lose its smell.

Other odds and ends in the dresser: a tape recorder and cassettes of seventies country music; an eelskin wallet holding an American two-dollar bill; several hundred dollars in traveller’s cheques; more receipts; buttons and brochures from Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign; and more anti-Republican newspaper editorials. A few clippings were more poignant: Gary had, over the years, collected several death notices about men named Charles Porter—a name that appeared beside Bryn Weymouth’s in one of his old address books. It seemed that he never knew which one applied to his old friend.

A big, false leather and polyester folio bulged with documents; this proved to be the very thing that the lawyers back in Canada had sent me to find: it was crammed with more traveller’s cheques, tax documents, bank documents and insurance policies. There was no will.

Among the paperwork, however, were old photographs: Gary in Hawaii in the late sixties or early seventies, pale green shirt and khaki trousers; Gary with friends in a bar, in San Francisco, in the fifties. I knew it was him because his name had been written in blue ink on the back. In both, he looked tanned and rather handsome. An air of Rat Pack glamour. Pomade. Women. Maybe one of these friends was Weymouth. In the closet: six brightly striped polyester ties. On the bedside table: a few bottles of medication and one condom that had expired in 1991.

An envelope held a collection of paper money from the Pacific shipping routes: Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia. There were no photographs from these places, no postcards or trinkets. His logbooks were there, too, with their painstaking list of embarkations, disembarkations and pay received. I included them with the other documents, hoping that someone would want them.

I mailed one heavy box of papers to a receiving address in northern Minnesota, for the lawyers to bring into Canada. I met with a real estate agent and set the sale of Gary’s condo in motion. I visited my editor at the Amazon.com offices and ate lunch in Seattle’s Chinatown. I visited the public aquarium and bought Gould’s Book of Fish at the Elliott Bay Book Company.

I spent every night of that job in my hotel in downtown Seattle, drinking the local wine, reading book after book and thinking about Gary K. I made up theories about how well I had come to know him, wondering what I would discover next. I read the listings in the alternative weekly The Stranger, but there didn’t appear to be much of interest going on in the city that week; it was summer, things were slow. I sat and reflected on my days’ work.

Now, nine months later, I realize that the details are enough, are a kind of life history, albeit one without a timeline or narrative. I don’t need to bring an appropriate emotion or moral stance to Gary’s detritus. He didn’t cling to his life and his possessions showed no signs of happiness or misery. He chose to be alone. He had sex, maybe into his seventies. And he had enough money to go anywhere he liked and buy what he wanted, although he went nowhere and bought nothing.

Back in Toronto, I spent a month of evenings on patios telling my friends about it. I made vague noises when they suggested that I write poems about the experience. Someone else could do that, maybe. I don’t see the need.