Story — From the October 2013 issue

Sic Transit

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There was a foul odor coming from the house — the odor, as it turned out, of rotting flesh — but nobody did anything about it, at least not at first. I was away at the time, my business taking me to the East Coast for a series of fruitless meetings with a consortium of inadequate and unserious people whose names I forgot the minute I settled into the first-class cabin for the trip back home, and so I had the story from my wife’s walking partner, Mary Ellen Stovall, who makes her living in real estate. We’d always wondered about that house. We went by the place nearly every day, my wife Chrissie and I, running errands or strolling down to the beach club or one of the shops or restaurants on the main road. The houses around it — tasteful, well kept, and very, very pricey — were what you’d expect from a California coastal community, in styles ranging from craftsman to Spanish mission to contemporary, most of them older homes that had been extensively remodeled, in some cases taken right down to the frame or even the original slab. But what this one looked like was anybody’s guess, because the trees and shrubbery had long since gone wild, so that all you saw was a curtain of green enclosing a gravel drive, in the center of which stood — or rather, listed — an ancient, rust-spattered Buick the size of our two Priuses combined.

Photograph by Mike Slack

Photograph by Mike Slack

As it happened, the man who lived there — had lived there — was a recluse in his early sixties whom no one, not even the next-door neighbors, could recall ever having seen. The properties on either side of him featured eight-foot walls topped with bougainvillea that twisted toward the sun in great puffed-up balls of leaf and thorn and flame-red flower, and as I say, his property had reverted to nature, so that the flat acre on a bluff with ocean views might as well have been sectioned out of the Amazonian jungle for all anybody could see into it. Isolation, that was what he had. Isolation so absolute it took that odor and a span of eight full days for the police and the firemen, who’d arrived simultaneously in response to the neighbors’ complaints, to force the door and find him sunk into his bed, his mouth thrown open and the mattress so stained with his fluids that it had to be burned the moment the coroner and the forensics people got done with him.

Why am I telling you all this? Because of what came next, what I discovered both on my own and with Mary Ellen Stovall’s help, and because I’m in a period of my life — I just turned fifty — when I’ve begun to think less about the daily struggle and more about what awaits us all in the end. Here was an anonymous death, unattended, unmourned, and the thought of it, of this man, whoever he was, drawing his last breath in a run-down house on a very valuable piece of property not two blocks from where Chrissie and I had bought in at top dollar during the very crest of the boom, spoke to me in some way I couldn’t define. Had he suffered? Had he lain there for days, weeks, a month, too ill or derelict in his soul to call for help? Mary Ellen — who was to get the listing once the surviving relative, a brother in some godforsaken place, had given her the go-ahead — claimed that the body had been practically engulfed in a litter of soda cans, half-eaten containers of microwave noodles, and (this really got to me) the blackened skins of avocados from the tree out back.

According to the ten-line story that appeared in the local paper the day after I returned, the dead man had been identified as Carey Fortunoff, and he’d once been a member of an obscure rock band called Metalavox, after which he disappeared from public view, though he continued to write the occasional song for other bands and singers, a few of whom were named in the article, but they must have been equally obscure, since neither Chrissie nor I had ever heard of them. Out of curiosity, I googled the band and came up with a single paragraph that was virtually a duplicate of what the paper had run.

There was a photo, in black and white, of the five band members in a typical pose of the era, which looked to be late Seventies, early Eighties, judging from their haircuts and regalia. They were in a cemetery, variously slouching against one tombstone or another, wearing mirror sunglasses and wasp-waisted jackets, their hair judiciously mussed. As to which one was Carey Fortunoff, I couldn’t say, though I imagined he was the one standing — slouching — just slightly to the left and staring away from the camera as if he had better things on his mind than posing for a cheesy promotional shot. And that was it. I clicked on something else, which led me to another thing altogether and before I knew it half an hour had vanished from my life. Then I went down to see what Chrissie wanted to do about dinner.

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is the author of fourteen novels and ten collections of short fiction, the latest of which, T. C. Boyle Stories II, will be published this month by Viking.

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