It started last spring after a month of almost solid rain here in the Northeast, a rarity more typical of, say, the cloud forest of Costa Rica than the Hudson River valley. It was also frightening, apart from the storms and flash-flood warnings. I mean, it was like encountering an altogether alien environment, as though the microclimate had entered upon a diabolical new course. Since I'm a dabbler in science fiction, it even occurred to me that here were the makings of a workable plot: A long period of humidity leads to the coalescence—in the very air itself—of some evil creature. Not anything as humanoid as the yeti or Bigfoot, but, instead, something that could permeate its victims rather than flat-out club them. You get the picture. Well, the humidity eventually returned to normal, and the excessive moisture evaporated (like my plot idea). As summer passed and fall arrived, I chided myself for ever having harbored such a ridiculous notion at all. Prematurely, as it turned out, to my great distress.
The dining room got hit first. I had been away for 10 days in mid-October and returned to find, on the walls, which had been freshly painted in May, a nearly uniform covering of smudgy florets. Far from the beautiful patterns of a frosted windowpane, this looked more like the dried residue of a wet dog who had shaken himself at the room's epicenter. Jet-lagged and feeling the first pinching signs of a head cold, I was in no mood for further—let alone, careful—diagnosis. I scowled at Arthur, my golden retriever, and ordered him out of the house. A week of banishment ought to serve him right. As usual with this breed—essentially Roman Catholic—he was consumed by guilt and curled himself into a fetal position on an old rug, no doubt reviewing his multitudinous sins. I got out the stepladder, filled a bucket with warm soapy water, and washed the walls the rest of the day.
It wasn't until a week later, as my cold began to improve, that I noticed something strange about the dishwasher. I still couldn't smell very well, but the odor coming out of the machine hit me like a shot of ripe Gorgonzola. A dead mouse, I concluded, reaching my hand down into that dark place below the rotator spray arm. But there was nothing there, thank heaven. I then sent the empty machine through three straight cycles one normal and two "pots and pans"—trusting in household chemistry by adding more detergent each time. But to no avail; for at the conclusion of each wash, I would sidle up to the dishwasher, slowly open the door, force a whiff through my congested nostrils, and practically fall over at the odious result.
What was going on here? While no mechanical whiz, I knew perfectly well that a dishwasher is made out of hard things, like metal and heat-resistant plastic. It couldn't be rotting like some fig in a back alley, now could it?
Confronted by a phenomenon so distinctly unnatural and intractable, I did what any normal human being would do: I wished it away. Time, I hoped, would take care of it. I'd simply eat at the local diner for a spell, avoiding dirty dishes altogether. Before long, whatever it was would surely disappear, a passing glitch in the universe. I dosed myself with NyQuil and went to bed, Arthur at the foot, his penance complete, his soul once again irradiated by a state of grace, which, unhappily, proved short of duration, as the events of the following day showed.
As a new country resident, I took it as a sign of acceptance and upward social mobility when I received an invitation to attend a get-together of the local Nature Conservancy. I already knew that the group was decidedly upper-crust (the scions of old families, surviving dowagers, successful urban lawyers desperate for their own rural gentrification, recent Ivy League graduates determined to make an impact "on the land"—people like that), so I put on my good suit and a conservative tie for what I saw as my high-society debut. As it happened, I was also asked, by telephone an hour before, if I could possibly pick up a member of the group and drive him to the event; it wouldn't be out of my way, and I might well hit it off with this young man, "also in publishing."
I obliged, anxious to make a good impression. However, no sooner had he slid into my car than a look of intense discomfort crossed his face. He immediately started punching the electric-window button at his side, but unsuccessfully, since it had stopped working six months before. I opened my window and the fresh air calmed him, though it seemed that for the balance of the ride he maintained an overly correct, even distant, manner toward me. When I offered him a ride home later, he politely declined. As I drove back alone, the reason for his strange behavior dawned on me. It was Arthur, damn it.
Anyone owning a golden retriever knows its penchant for wading in slimy ponds and rolling in deer dung. And if that doesn't produce bouquet enough, it also happens that autumn is hell on retriever skin, producing a delayed reaction to the ravages of the fleas of August. Though apparently pleasant to dogs, the resulting stench is offensive to humans and most other living things. It also rubs off on car upholstery, leaving a territorial marking of the interior kind. No wonder the poor man gagged, I thought, my cold having prevented me from sensing the problem right away.
Arthur next morning went the way of the dishwasher, three baths in a row, though in his case with rough handling, a stream of man-to-dog verbal abuse, and better result: He ended up smelling like a lotus blossom in paradise, a redolence he didn't exactly cotton to, or deserve. Smell as he might, however, this walking ball of incense, this New Age canine, was henceforth banned from the car, which I then went to work on with a foaming upholstery cleaner and the shop vac. If slowly, things were now headed back to normal. Or so I thought.
But it was not to be. For, despite fast, ventilating rides with operable windows down and two more shampoos, the ambience inside the car continued to deteriorate. Not only that, as my nose cleared, I began to sense a relationship-previously masked by my cold—between the dining room, the dishwasher, and the car. What they had in common, alas, was that stabbing reek of Gorgonzola.
The bottom line is that something diabolical did coalesce during the rainy spring, something that stayed quiet over the summer but that in autumn struck with a vengeance. I am afflicted, or rather my possessions are afflicted, by a versatile, tenacious mold. Frankly, I think I can handle the dining room and the dishwasher. It is an easy kind of warfare. However, since I was raised in Detroit, it is the car that shames me. I mean, think of it: Driving around in a car with a fungus infection. It's as though it has athlete's foot—stinky, itchy athlete's foot. I can only thank my lucky stars that the proper young man in publishing doesn't know, and never will know, the awful truth.