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Things You Find Clearing Out Dead Strangers' Homes for a Living

How a shitty temp job landed me packing up Colin's living room, yards from the black human-shaped stain where he'd lain decomposing for three months.
July 13, 2016, 12:00am

Illustrations by Michael Dockery

This post originally appeared on VICE Australia.

I'll never forget the smell. I can only describe it as a "skin" smell. The apartment had already been gassed with bug killer for three days. Thousands of dead flies littered the carpet. A black human-shaped goo stain lay in the middle of the living room. This is where Colin had been decomposing for three months.

About a year ago, I was working for a temp agency, which had a job going at a restoration company. It was dire times and slim pickings, but I was stoked for anything.

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Typically, a restoration business is hired by insurance companies to clean up homes that have been damaged by fire or flood. You arrive in a van, you remove some shit, you clean some shit, you leave in a van. But in my first week, there was an anomaly.

A landlord hired us to clear out the place so that he could begin renovations—ripping up all the carpets, repainting. All the steps needed to prep the place to look like it hadn't housed a corpse. Our job was to sort through the contents of Colin's home and assess which belongings were "sentimental" and which should be tossed in the trash.

The entire house was exactly how Colin had left it before he dropped dead in the living room. Kept in a state of "livable filth." We never found a driver's license, but medical papers told us Colin was in his mid 70s.

Standing in his living room, I was already feeling confused about who this old guy was. He had a model Starship Enterprise on his mantle, just below a framed video cassette cover from a documentary about Ancient Egypt hung on his wall. Then in the kitchen I saw "Remembering Vietnam" magnets holding up images of bikini ladies on his fridge. My co-worker James and I then moved onto the bedroom, and things got a bit weirder.

The mark on the floor where Colin was found

The covers on Colin's bed were turned out to one side, and the bedside table drawer was open. On the walls were framed pictures of women, Woman's Weekly magazine covers. He was obviously fond of one woman in particularly. She was featured four times. Colin had a crush.

There was another frame that caught James's attention. It was the size of a credit card, sitting in the top drawer of the bedside table. It was a picture from a porn magazine. It was a young man with another young man's cock in his mouth. Colin had layers.

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It was at this moment where my legal voyeurism shifted to bitter sweet. The reality of what we were doing dawned on me. James and I were in Colin's home to wipe him from existence. His entire life was going in the garbage.

James got a call from Colin's next of kin, an estranged daughter who we learned was just a baby when Colin left her. James and I discussed how likely it was that Colin was just a shit kind of person. No family had been in contact with Colin for decades.

We moved to the back room where there were boxes of old videotapes and other defunct technologies. Peeking out from under the lid of a box was a blond wig. James opened it and was giddy. Inside was the largest personal collection of porn videos I've ever seen. Every color of the sexual spectrum was represented. Gay, straight, trans—you name it. There were movies specifically catalogued by race and body weight. An inordinate number had the word "gape" in the title.

James and I discussed how likely it was that Colin was just a shit kind of person. No family had been in contact with Colin for decades.

James was laughing. I was struggling to see the funny side—kooky Colin from the front room had graduated to full creep. This is what happens to a man who is left completely alone, with nothing left to do. James and I agreed we'd dump the shit before Colin's daughter arrived.

Colin's daughter arrived accompanied by her elderly neighbors. Everything we put aside was displayed on Colin's porch. His war chest, uniforms, journals, and books were lined up neatly. They took the DVDs, organized for someone to take the fridge later that day. And that was it.

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Without thinking, James and I did our best impression of empathetic funeral directors, nodding and speaking softly. No one had much to say, except the old man Colin's daughter had brought along. He really wanted a peek inside the house. The old weirdo kept going on about a documentary, which explained that the full brunt of the decomposition process happens in the first couple of days—how the stomach explodes and so on. He loved it.

They left in a taxi. James and I celebrated finishing our work with a cigarette on the porch. Everything but the sentimental items were thrown out, and the house was bare. I flicked through a stack of old papers, which had somehow escaped the trash can, and found they were a collection of letters. They were heartbreaking.

A poem I found among his letters

The common theme was: "Love is a lie." Colin wrote about the con of love and life. I thought again about the porn and the misplaced sexual energy. I realized having seen Colin's innermost thoughts that he was completely at odds with himself. Colin's writings were brutally honest; he denied love.

I'll never know Colin. Even if I ever wanted to, in a single day, the lifetime of a lonely old man was destroyed before my very eyes. I suspect James and I know Colin better than a lot of others through his life. So that evening I had a beer and mourned the old man just in case no one else did. It felt like the right thing to do.

Check out more of Michael's illustrations on Tumblr.