The Old Man and the Stench

This summer an acquaintance told me that an old man was looking for someone to help him write a book.

“He’s an old university professor, and a bit quirky,” he told me. “He’ll only be around for a few months, because he needs to return to the university and he’ll sell his apartment here, but until then he wants to get the book done.”

So I decided to check out the job offer.

I met the old man at a bar. He wore a cowboy hat and a suit which made him look like someone who’d stumbled into town straight from the set of the Dallas series. I sat down with him and we started talking. Now, as I was speaking, my eyes wandered to his suit, where I happened to notice a green stain which seemed to be a grass stain. I averted my eyes to pretend it wasn’t there, because who knew how the old man had gotten it – maybe he’d stumbled and fallen into the grass and now he was embarrassed about it.

Now, while averting my eyes, I saw other parts of his suit. A red stain, a yellow stain… Different colors, different types, so I had the instant suspicion that he’d gotten them at different times.

I tried to keep an open mind and not think he was a gross old man.

“I need someone who speaks English,” he told me. “And I need them to speak it well!”

“My English is quite decent,” I said – I don’t actually live in an English-speaking country, so it wasn’t immediately obvious that I’m approximately bilingual. “I translate from and to English. I have a serialized novel written in English which is getting published as we speak.”

“How long did you live in an English-speaking country?” he humphed.

“None at all,” I replied.

“Well, you can’t speak proper English if you’ve never lived between people who use it as their mother tongue! Writing is quite different from conversations!”

“That is true,” I said amiably. “Incidentally, I also happen to record the audio version for my novel and I talk to foreigners, including people whose primary language is English, on a regular basis.”

He studied me closely, then said:

“Well, starting with the next session, we’ll only talk in English!”

“I can start talking in English whenever you want,” I replied, this time in English.

“Eh?” he asked, cocking his head.

“That would be fine,” I said in non-English.

“Well, let’s head to my apartment,” he told me. “We’ll see there if you’ll do.”

“Most certainly.”

We went up to his apartment – I knew that my acquaintance who had recommended him would show up relatively soon after my interview, so I didn’t worry much about my safety (by which I mean, of course, that the old man looked frail and I wasn’t afraid that I couldn’t take him in a fight). Unfortunately, I hadn’t considered my sanity to be in any danger, even if it was.

He opened the door to his apartment and an overpowering stench hit me with all the force of the city’s dumping ground.

“We’ll leave the door open for a bit of air,” he said, leaving the apartment door wide open. I felt sorry for everybody who lived in the building.

We entered a sort of halway/room from where I could see the kitchen. The old man opened every window in the vicinity, including the one in the kitchen. He walked in there, stepped between the broken eggs on the floor, carried some potato peels on the soles of his shoes, opened the window, then stepped in an egg and spread the yolk and white all over the place with every step.

I think I turned pale.

He ushered me into the living room, which was a room filled with papers, there were papers up and papers down, discarded, thrown all over the place as if a storm had made them fly all over the place. There was a wardrobe in the room as well, its doors widely open and clothes spewing out as if it were a laundry basked instead of a wardrobe.

I was nearly fainting with the smell. It was sticking to my skin, climbing into my hair, wrapping its hands against my throat. Even with the draft between the open door and the windows, it just didn’t go away.

“Make youself at home,” he invited me.

If my home had been like that, I’d’ve burned it down to the ground, so I just stood there. He eventually told me to turn on my laptop and handed me a few papers which appeared to be printed. He told me to copy them on my laptop. They written in all-caps, I was to write them in all-caps, too, and I had to set very precise margins on the pages of the document, as well as use tabs for indentation. It was crazy, I had no idea why he didn’t just multiply them, why he hadn’t kept the original version on whatever computer it had been on, whether he’d used a typewriter for these – all that I knew was that I was typing away like crazy, hoping to be done with the test fast enough to run away before I suffocated, and to tell him I didn’t want his job, not for all the money in the world.

“You’ll get money according to the work you put in,” he told me. “30 cents for each page.”

I had to turn at that. I had to.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “did you just say 30 cents?”

Technically, no, he hadn’t, I’m converting currency here, but you get the point. It was 30 effing cents per page, no matter what currency it was in.

“It’s a fair price.”

“Hell,” I said. “I’m a translator.” I told him my basic rates.

“Well, this isn’t translation!” he pointed out.

“No, but the point is about time and effort!” I answered. “It’s just not worth it to me to work for this sort of money.”

“Dear girl, I can pay you anything,” he told me. “It’s no issue, I just want to have the job done and have it done well.”

Which reminded me that I didn’t want the job because it stank there like no tomorrow, so I didn’t utter another peep. I was done with five pages beyond fast, ready to dash off and wondering why my polite self didn’t agree with just running away mid-interview. Then I remembered that my acquaintance would have to account for my behaviour, and I couldn’t do that to the poor guy. Even if he’d sent me into the garbage dump.

Then the old man started sweeping. His broomstick moved slowly but surely through the piles of papers he swept away from one side of the room to the other, until it was piled up in a single place.

“Someone’s coming to see the apartment soon,” he said. “I’m trying to sell it.”

I couldn’t believe he was trying to sell the infernal place, but before I could wrap my head around it and explain that I was really, really done with the transcription and wanted to go, the potential customers showed up.

I realized I’d have to spend more time with the stench that seeped into my clothes, my hair, my skin, and made me feel like a garbage truck driver.

They were a couple in their late 20s, or maybe early 30s. They wanted to start a family and he kept trying to persuade them to buy his place. I would have left the moment I felt the stench if I were them, but they were clearly more willing to stick around than me.

“How much do you want for it?” they asked.

He named his price.

“That’s too much!” they told him.

“This isn’t about money, dear children,” he told them. “I can give it for any price, money isn’t any issue, but I really must ask for a minimum of…”

I waited there, looking around at the wardrobe that had vomited the clothes out, at the piles of papers on the floor, feeling the rotten eggs and peels climbing through every corner. I wondered why the hell they weren’t running. Then I realized they were hoping to get it for about half the sum usually given for an apartment of that size – which they wouldn’t.

They eventually left when they realized they couldn’t bargain and I told the old man I was done with his pages.

“Now we must wait,” he told me. He explained that our common acquaintance would come and, since he was such a clever and technologically-capable young man, very clever, good with computers, great, amazing, smart, intelligent and horribly clever, with a bright future ahead of him, he would be able to set the margins on the document just right. I needn’t trouble with it.

Man, I could have killed our intermediary by then. Luckily, he showed up before I could suffer more. I claimed I really needed to go (which was true…) and I told him to give me a stick and transfer the files to his own laptop.

“When can we start?” the old man asked me. “When do you have time? You’re a clever girl, who…”

Oh, hell no!

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I think we simply aren’t meant for each other.”

“…What?” he asked.

I cursed my stench-destroyed brain for picking that precise ‘let him down easy’ line and thought fast about how I could fix it.

“I mean, our work styles aren’t very suited to each other.”

“What do you mean by that?” he persisted.

I shut up and stared him in the eye before I accidentally added something along the lines of “It’s not you, it’s me”. After staring at him for two seconds, I gave a slow shrug that was meant to convey all the subtle meaning that my words failed to have.

“Well, alright,” he said eventually. “If that’s how it is.”

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “It just wouldn’t work out.”

“Here’s your money, dear girl! As you can see, I’m even paying you for today, this wasn’t a free test, not at all!” He handed me three dollars, double the sum I’d earned that hour and a half.

I ran as quickly as I could down the stairs, grabbed a cab, got home as quicly as I could, locked the door behind me, undressed and gingerly carried my clothes to the washing machine, not allowing them to touch anything for fear of contamination, then dived into the shower and scrubbed and washed my hair for endless times.

And even though the old man probably sold his apartment and left in the mean time, I still feel a shiver every time I pass by his building, or by the bar where I first met him, expecting at any moment to see a stained suit, or to feel the ghost of a horrid stench.

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