by James D. Witmer
If I knew then what I know now, her words would have sent a shiver of dread down my spine. My blood pressure would have risen, my breath would have come short, and a lump of dread would have settled in my stomach.
But I didn’t know.
We had just closed on the house. It was a big, old house – listed only as “over 100 yrs” and updated sometime during the last forty. The walls were un-insulated. The siding was steel, and orange-red rust bled in streaks down the dingy grey-white panels. The yard was a perfect, sterile, chem-lawn turf where ceramic deer ogled plastic dutch children kissing. A rotting tree stump stood four-feet proud in the front lawn, surrounded by a raised bed of weedy gravel.
Inside, heavy wallpaper covered the rooms in dark patterns, except for the kitchen, which was painted (walls and ceiling!) a coral/watermelon red. The carpet, once a trendy green, was faded from the sun and grey with ground-in dust.
All of this was easy to see and, at the time, none of it disturbed us. The roof was new. The furnace and windows were recent, high-efficiency models. The rooms were spacious. Windows were large, and plenty. And over everything seven mature maple trees stretched their benevolent arms, blessing us with shade and greenery.
The rest? Nothing new carpets, fresh paint and lots of elbow grease couldn’t fix.
My first hint of something darker came the night after we bought the house. Excited to make this house our home, I arrived after dusk with a wallpaper scraper and a stepladder. Unlike the day we had toured the house, the windows had been shut tight.
Standing in the front room I smelled evidence that a cat had, at least once, missed the litter box. I made a mental note that we might want to seal-paint the floor in places, and began scraping.
The next day the smell was worse. I started opening windows, finding as I went that the odor was worst in the living room. After a few hours it was clear that the carpet would need to go before the wallpaper. The smell of cat urine was too irritating to bear while working.
I left the windows partially open that night, but the weather warmed and the smell was almost physical – almost a taste – when I opened the door the next day. I had a hammer, a crowbar, a carpet knife, tack-pullers and gloves, and my initial progress was gratifying. The tack strips along the room’s edge tore out with a satisfying crunch, and I didn’t even mind the scratches that came with wrestling them loose.
I noticed while I worked that there was a large, oily spot in the center of the room, where the previous owner’s table had rested. It was impossible to tell by smell whether that area was worse than any other, but the discoloration seemed a good clue.
Once I had all the edges ripped free, I began to roll the carpet. Underneath was a layer of thick foam padding. Starting at the longest edge, I moved gradually on hands and knees, pushing the carpet in front of me. I reached the oily spot, heaved the growing roll up and over once again, and became suddenly aware of three things:
I returned to gaze triumphantly at the room, and that’s when I realized: I have to get the padding out.
Old carpet padding does not roll neatly when it is dry. It is brittle, comes apart in patches and tufts. Gathering it up is more like wadding than rolling. When wet?
Excuse me, I mean to say: “When audibly saturated with pee?”
It comes apart in slimy gobs. It’s almost impossible to hold onto. Big chunks peel off under their own sodden weight and splatter on the floor. You can’t not get the pee all over you. The ammonia burns your eyes, which you dare not wipe with any part of your urine-smeared body. You start to imagine that you can feel the biting-thick odor accumulating in an oily coating at the back of your sinuses. And then your arms begin to burn.
At first I ignored it. What was one more discomfort, after all? But the burning persisted, grew worse, and spread up and down my arms. Finally I realized, as I dumped the not-quite-final armload into a garbage can, that I had tiny cuts all over my arms. These cuts were burning as they absorbed the salt and uric acid squeezing out of the padding.
I actually shuddered. I may have gagged a little. But what could I do? I knew what I wanted to do to that cat. In his absence, I cursed the day of his birth, swore to have the hottest, soapiest shower of my life as soon as I possibly could, and carried on.
Finally, the last of the carpet and the padding were gone. But the smell was not and, in the place of desecration, the floorboards were darkly moist.
I turned to Google to quiet the shrill fear chattering in my mind. White vinegar neutralizes the smell of urine, I learned. Simply pour a cup on top of the stain, and it would dry to an odorless discoloration.
I emptied an entire bottle of vinegar over the area. Then I set a fan to blow across it. When I returned in the morning, the vinegar was dried, but the smell persisted. And despite the fan, a three-foot square area of the floor was wet with a substance that was certainly not vinegar.
I applied the vinegar for three nights in a row, and each day found the same. Two weeks had now passed. New carpet was coming. In desperation I called a friend who owns a remodeling business: “Jeff, I need to ask a favor.”
He called me back two days later. His voice was strange as he told me, “It’s done.”
“How did it go?” I asked.
“The nastiest thing I’ve ever done.”
This from a plumber?
“The smell you mean?”
“No,” the answer dragged out of him slowly. “The fact that the boards were soaked full as sponges, with urine dripping off the bottoms into the floor cavity.”
He had to run a saw through that.
“Oh man, I’m sorry.” I felt like I should whisper.
“It’s ok,” he tried to reassure me. “I replaced that whole side of the floor with plywood decking. At least it’s finally over, and your carpet can go in.”
Finally over. I savored the words, feeling the tension of weeks slowly melting from my shoulders. And then I remembered her words, what she said to me as we laid down our pens, the sale complete:
“I haven’t seen my cat for days and days. He’ll probably be back soon.”