The new guy, Isaac, heard there was a body in apartment 737. It was supposed to be hush-hush, which was easy for all the other front desk workers. To them, this kind of thing was blasé. But Isaac had only been manning the desk for half a month, and the most interesting thing that had happened in that time was the screaming match between the drunk man and the woman with the SUV Driver. Then the guy moved out in a rush the next morning, and things returned to stolid normalcy.
So the whispers about the dead body caught Isaac’s attention and pulled his mind down, down, past the front door and the desk and the camera monitors and into the grout of the tile on the floor. He couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“Young man.” Isaac jolted and looked up to find SUV Driver looking down on him. She was wearing large, oval-shaped sunglasses that had gone out of fashion when Isaac was still in high school. As she stared him down her fingers fiddled anxiously and her rings clicked.
Isaac straightened up and blinked a few times, willing himself back to alertness. His embarrassment was quickly occluded by irritation. He hated being called young man. “Yes, ma’am, how can I help you?“
As the words squeaked past his lips, Isaac winced a little. Oscar told him not to use the word “ma’am” anywhere near the middle-aged ladies, at least not the overly hairstyled white ones. Other ladies seemed to like it when a polite title was draped on them, in place of a name. If a lady wore flip-flops, long dangly earrings or a floppily brimmed hat, “ma’am” was just fine. If a young woman slipped in wearing cut-offs or a sundress, “ma’am” was also, strangely, fine. But people like SUV Driver were easily provoked.
She was on her phone for a moment, not speaking to Isaac or acknowledging him. Finally she held it up, and pointed the screen his way.
“Do you see this?” she said. “I can’t figure out how it even happened.”
Isaac squinted at the image of a shower with a window in it. The tile and caulk was new and pristinely white, which was not typical for this apartment complex. But the window was partially open, at an odd angle, and looked to be covered in dust and grout.
“Oh, hm,” Isaac said. “The window’s, um, uneven?”
SUV Driver nodded a little too vigorously. “They came in my unit and tore a HUGE hole in my wall last week, and yesterday they finally fixed it all up, new tile, new fixtures, new everything, but…look at that thing.”
She pulled the phone back. Glanced at the image. Laughed in a bitter way that made Isaac brace himself.
“Like, how can you put in a whole new shower’s worth of tile and then go and do that? It won’t budge. The window is stuck like that!”
“I mean, isn’t that the contractor’s whole job? To fix things? How do you come in to fix things and then…make a whole separate part of the apartment not work? This will kill me in the winter, you know.”
Isaac ran his palms along the underside of the desk. The particle board caught on his dry skim. It was 86 degrees outside and the lobby of the building was not air conditioned. His uniform was dabbed with swear. He imagined that having the window stuck open was pretty nasty at this time of year, too.
SUV Driver put the phone in her purse, with one final glance and another dark little laugh. She took a layer of hair in her hand and fluffed it absent mindedly. Isaac couldn’t quite tell if she was angry with him or not, but he was frightened either way.
“So?” she said.
Isaac tried to look her in the eye but found it overwhelming. Even through the glasses that made her resemble a strange, wealthy bug, eye contact with her felt unsafe. His hands kept roving under the desk.
He needed to say something. “I’ll have someone up to look at that shortly,” he said. “Miss.”
A line appeared in her brow, then receded. He’d screwed up, it seemed. Miss wasn’t right either.
“Do we, uh, does the maintenance person have permission to enter your, uh, unit?” he asked.
She was pulling her car keys out of her purse. “Sure,” she said. “I mean, within reason. I don’t want anybody poking around at 8pm or anything.”
“Of course not.”
She turned to walk away, then looked down at him again, more seriously than before. “What’s your name, Oscar?”
“Isaac,” he said quietly. He didn’t like it.
“Oh. Oscar’s the one with the-”
“Oscar’s bald,” Isaac said.
“Sorry.” She thought for a moment. “Will you go into the unit and look at it? I don’t trust these maintenance guys to do anything right. They busted the window in the first place.”
That wasn’t true. It was the contractors.
“I don’t know,” Isaac stammered. “I don’t know what to do.”
To his surprise, SUV Driver smiled. “I think there’s just a bit of caulk on it,” she said, “blocking part of the track. I just need a strong man to budge it.”
Isaac was not a strong man. Stronger than her, maybe. She used the fitness room a lot though, particularly on rainy days when she didn’t want to drive all the way to Cheetah Gym.
“I trust you more than I trust those guys,” she told him, honey in her voice. It made Isaac’s stomach twinge a little; he couldn’t tell if the feeling was good or bad. It reminded him of his mother’s ice cold bedroom, her face peering out from under the comforter with the cow print on it, her eyes a little bleary but getting better, her arms reaching for him, so desperately.
“O-okay. Yes ma’am,” he said.
“Great. Thanks!” she chirped. She walked out into the sun, keys jangling, clean white tennis shoes squeaking against the recently scrubbed floor. Isaac’s eyes fell back to the ground. He thought of the dead person in room 737.
— — -
Isaac had seen a dead body before. That wasn’t what this was about. He didn’t have a puerile, Stand by Me desire to glimpse death, to make it real for himself. He knew pretty well that death was a thing, that it was coming for him as much as anyone else.
Still, he felt compelled.
Oscar was leaning against the desk and chewing gum. He’d inhaled a whole pack of Big League Chew and now was sloshing it around in his mouth, gobs of spit squishing against his teeth and his tongue.
“Cleaning service is coming soon,” Oscar said. “Not the usual one.” His eyes went knowingly wide.
Isaac knew what he meant. A cleaning service for dead bodies.
“What happened?” Isaac asked.
Oscar shrugged. He was staring out the window but not really seeing much. “I don’t know. Shit. Heart attack or stroke or diabetes or something.”
Isaac swiveled his chair so he, too, was facing the window. A pair of dads walked by with a stroller. A teenager with a big duffle bag was dragged along by a husky mix. Oscar chewed and swallowed some spit.
“People have died in almost every unit in this building,” he told Isaac. “Used to be the alcoholics. Forgot to eat or went too far. Cirrhosis or something. Now it’s mostly old folks.“
The building was seventy years old and had once been a hotel. Then the beach had gotten grimy and tourists had gone south, to the Gold Coast. The complex got kind of slummy. It was sold to an upper-scale leasing company after the economy rebounded, about six months back.
“It’s funny, man,” Oscar said. “If you’d worked here a year ago? Bodies all the time. Okay that’s hyperbole, but. Pretty often.”
Old leases weren’t getting renewed and rooms were slowly being remodeled, piece by piece. All the new tenants were well-coiffed, with standoffish attitudes. They weren’t cruel, they just didn’t know how to relate to the staff like the old tenants could. The place was getting more and more white, even Isaac had noticed that. He’d probably been hired specifically because he was soft-spoken and sat up stiffly whenever he was nervous, which was basically always.
“Which was it this time?” Isaac asked. “An old tenant or a new one?”
Oscar blew a bubble. “Old lady, Russian I think. Lived here a long time.”
Isaac sat still, rubbing the underside of the desk. Oscar was a little too loud, and he swore too much for Isaac’s taste, but he was interesting, and kind. Still, the prolonged proximity made him nervous. Oscar’s lack of respect for the dead also made him nervous.
“Well, I better get moving,” Oscar said with a sigh. “I have a kitchen sink to snake. Family in 404. I swear they’re fermenting cabbage up there.”
Isaac smiled weakly. As his friend walked off, he asked, “Is she still up there?” but Oscar must have been too far away to hear him, because no answer came.
Outside, Isaac could see cabs and a bright green Peapod truck chugging along, and the occasional pedestrian darting into the street. A jogger paused before the door and felt their pulse. An old, square-shaped Chihuahua trailed behind a man in a track suit.
It was so strange, how somebody died and life went on bustling around them. It made Isaac kind of angry. He didn’t like being angry. Feeling like that scared him.
— — –
SUV Driver’s name was Jennifer, and she lived in room 703. Isaac looked it up. It was easy enough to figure out. She was a new-ish tenant, and her unit was one of the only inhabited units with a record of recent work. New tile, new pipes, new fixtures, new caulk. A bonus broken window.
But somebody had died in room 737. It seemed like a message meant only for Isaac.
When Benita came by to relieve him for his half hour break, Isaac dipped into the main office and went rifling through the keys. A few people came by to drop off rent checks or passive aggressive letters filled with complaints, but didn’t seem to find anything suspicious about Isaac. Nobody ever noticed or thought anything about him at all. That didn’t matter though. His heart was still pounding.
He found the Floor 7 master key off to the side, next to a lock pick and a package of Hall’s. It was small and brass colored, with a white tag hanging off it. Isaac glanced at the clock. He had twenty six minutes.
— — –
The first thing he did was visit Jennifer’s room. He didn’t want to disappoint her for anything. The door popped open without a complaint. He could see the busted bathroom window staring at him from down the hall.
His heart thudded and his eyes darted around. The unit was tidy and silent, except for a slight burbling sound that Isaac soon realized was the filter of Jennifer’s aquarium. She kept fish, ugly fish, and hermit crabs in drab shells. He would have never guessed that.
In the bathroom, Isaac could smell air freshener and hair spray. He took his shoes off, threw back the curtain, and stepped into the tub. The window was cracked slightly open, but unevenly, with the right side an inch or two lower than the left. Isaac fussed with the latch and pulled on the handle but it wouldn’t budge. The new tilework had jammed it into the old frame, somehow, and stuck it in place.
Isaac pulled for a while and tried cleaning the track. It was fruitless. She needed a strong man, she said. Isaac wasn’t that. He hadn’t been strong, not once in his whole life. He was discouraged by every detail, waylaid by every disappointment. His first D was enough to make him drop out of school. His first fight left him out on the street.
At least he had a job now, and a room to live in. But he felt like he was about to screw it up somehow. As he pulled and struggled, Isaac started to cry. He didn’t want to disappoint Jennifer.
After a few more minutes of this, Isaac checked his phone. He had fourteen minutes left.
— — –
He knew the apartment had a bright orange Do Not Enter sign taped to it. Benita had run up the stairs with it at the beginning of Isaac’s shift that morning, when the body was newly discovered.
That was the procedure, he guessed. Keep people out. Mark the space and keep the living at bay. That made the room kind of sacred, somehow.
He plodded down the hall. Room 737 was around the corner, near a window looking down on the street. A few potted plants were sitting on the carpet. Some were stout, with lush, yellow leaves, and others were spiky and round. The one that really caught his eye, though, had long fronds reaching skyward from tall, narrow stems. All the plants drank in the sun. Isaac wondered if they belonged to the dead woman. He would be the one to water them, now.
Isaac braced himself before the door. The key slid in with no problem. The knob was tarnished, old, but gave under only a modicum of pressure.
— — –
She was shivering and purple circles hung beneath her eyes. Isaac couldn’t see her body. It was covered by the cow print blanket. It looked more like giraffe print, now.
“Honey,” she croaked, and he stepped slowly towards her. There was an awful, fruity stench, sickly sweet but acidic. “Honey, come here.”
He held a Britta pitcher of water and a plastic Power Rangers cup. The filter had expired a long time ago, and degraded, so the liquid was swirling with furry black specks. She blinked through pink, goobery eyes and held a trembling hand out. He poured the water and gave the cup to her, helping to hold it in place in her hand.
Together they brought the cup to her face and she drank feebly. Then her hand found its way around the back of his neck. Her breathing was snotty and labored. Isaac wanted to turn away, but he also felt stony, unable to move.
Speaking was a struggle for her. “Did we get any calls?”
Isaac looked at the floor. “The hospital.”
She tried to sit up. “Well? What did they say?”
Little Isaac swallowed. He didn’t know what to say. There had been a patter of confusing words, and the voice didn’t seem to understand he was a child. Something about fluids, something about insurance. A few days. Something about a few days.
Isaac’s father had been in the hospital for the better part of a week, and his mother hadn’t gotten out of bed since he’d been carted away. Isaac was hungry and cold but he liked the peace. He hoped it would last.
But his mother stared at him, and demanded details.
“A few days,” he muttered.
A few days what? A few days and then he would die, or a few days then he’d be released? His mother grabbed at him, demanding answers, demanding more water, demanding he scour for more painkillers under the couch, always was demanding, always needed him, but Isaac had nothing left. He started to sob.
As each sob wracked his body, Isaac filled with even more shame. Crying was not permitted when his father was around. But this time his mother reached out and pulled at him, encouraged him into the bed. He cried and she ran her hand up and down his back. He laid against her and shut the whole rest of the world out.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she said.
Her legs and feet were so cold. Her skin was so lose it seemed liable to fall off her body. Isaac clutched to her and cried until his head hurt. He tried to shut it all out. When he woke he had no idea how long it had been, days maybe, and his mother had nothing to say.
— — –
The body was gone. Of course it was. Benita must have called an ambulance or a morgue first thing. She was quiet and shrewd in a way that mystified Isaac. Probably she’d snuck a gurney and two grown men up the back steps, had them cover the body quickly, cart it away.
The room was filled with leafy green plants. Bookcases and tables were covered in glass figurines and doilies. The air was musty. Fruity. Sickly sweet, but also perfumed.
Isaac tread carefully. There was a purse, on its side, lipstick and change having spilled from it onto the floor. There was a stack of junk mail beside a crystal ash tray (empty save for dust). There was a plate covered in cat food and a bit of hair.
Isaac’s stomach cramped, and suddenly he needed to use the bathroom. He hoped the dead woman hadn’t been there long enough for the cat to eat her face.
The apartment had been slowly yet unrelentingly populated with decades of clutter, that much was clear. It was faintly geologic, how newer things sat atop or buffeted old things, which contained still older things, with ancient relics folded or tucked behind those. A pair of frayed slippers sat beneath a teetering coat rack. On the coat rack there was a trench with a yellowed book peeking out its pocket. The coat rack blocked a closet, which was cracked open just enough for Isaac to spy a ceramic cookie jar in the shape of Garfield.
He stepped around a towering pile of magazines and saw a recliner upholstered in scratchy-looking fabric. It was not in an upright, standing position, at on the table beside it there was a glass of milk and an opened book. Somehow that was all Isaac needed to know. The woman had died there. That was the spot.
He hung over the chair for a moment, tracing the rough fabric from the head to the footrest. There were spots where the robin’s egg blue of the chair had faded, and a smear of something on the left armrest, but no signs that a body had been there, moldering away. He crouched a little and retrieved from the head rest a single, long, corn silk colored hair. It was white at the root.
Isaac walked around the corner and put the hair in the garbage. He did not feel queasy at all. He’d been around bodies, he knew there was nothing about them to fear. Only sorrow and sacred respect. He would have tended to and washed the woman; put on her best necklace, brushed her hair. These were the things people did in times gone by, when somebody died and time was still trickling along. You found a way to pause the marching of eternity and reflect upon the pale, diminished form, so utterly still. The stillness of a corpse was supposed to give you pause. Make you so slow and calm that you would suspect perhaps you were dead, too, and that this was okay. That it would all be, somehow, okay. Not lively or interesting, just cold and sweet and eternal.
He filled a cup with water from the tap and watered the plants. He took gentle steps around the books and cherry-varnished furniture, making sure not to step on the fluffy pink robe on the floor. He heard the cat moving behind the washing machine. Isaac went flat on his belly, looking through the crack. Its eyes glinted, green and hesitant. Isaac knew the feeling. He left the plate of cat food there, waiting. Then he backed out and shut the door.
— — –
His mother was staring at the ceiling. Staring, staring. Except for when Isaac tried to get up, she wouldn’t move or make a sound. But if he tried to leave she resisted him with all of her being. He’d been brought into the world in that room, a surprise immediately clutched to her breast. It was fair, then, that he retake this position during her final breaths. He had been there, latched onto her, for every moment of her life as a mother.
He wasn’t scared when she was gone. He wasn’t anything, really. Hours passed and the sun receded back from whence it came and Isaac didn’t have a thought. If he could have just stayed there like that, things would have been fine. But at some point his dad’s DT’s stopped, and he was released, and he cracked open the door to the bedroom, letting the whole world back in.
— — –
There were four minutes left.
Jennifer found him as he was bounding around the corner.
“Oh, there you are!” she said. She made an open-palmed come-hither gesture. Shopping bags dangled from the crook of her arm. “Thank you for doing this.”
Isaac froze. “I tried,” he said weakly. “I already tried, it’s stuck-“
Jennifer cocked her head, “So what, you’re coming back to try again?”
He looked down at the master key in his hand. There was no explanation for it. He could feel time going on; his break was close to ending, and if he was late Benita would be mad. She ran a tight ship, and would go looking for him quickly. She’d figure out that he’d taken the keys. Isaac had been fired from many jobs before — for spacing out, or wandering off, or ducking into the breakroom to hide. He couldn’t keep doing that. He had a paycheck and a room. He couldn’t screw it up.
But Jennifer was waiting. She eyed him suspiciously from behind her bug-eye glasses. What else could he be doing up on that floor?
“Y-yes,” he said. “I’m going to try again.”
She opened the door with her own key. Isaac hung back for a moment as she crossed into her apartment. Jennifer threw her bags on the couch and pulled the sunglasses from her face. No longer masked, her eyes were small and muddy colored, with thin eyebrows and spidery wrinkles. He felt her staring at him, waiting for him to get to work, but he didn’t feel afraid.
Isaac replayed the routine from twenty minutes prior, slipping off his shoes, stepping into the shower, and making vain attempts at cracking the window. He pulled and ran his hands along the track, finding no way to break the window lose. She watched him with growing impatience.
“What’s wrong with it?” she asked.
“I don’t know..,”
Isaac looked at her. She wasn’t mad, she just hadn’t heard him. “I don’t know what’s wrong with it.”
“You’re gonna have to do more than that,” she said of his impotent pulling. “It’s stuck in there, you’re gonna have to push it.”
Isaac put a hand on the top of the window and pressed.
“No,” said Jennifer, passing over the tub and joining him, “see here, all this caulk? It’s plastered in or something. You’re gonna have to do harder than that.”
He pressed with both hands. It was no use, he could never do anything-
“Huh uh,” Jennifer said. “There’s no way to fix this without breaking something. Really shove it.”
Jennifer must have been able to tell that Isaac was bubbling over with anxiety by the way that he looked at her, because the next thing she said was, “Really, I give you permission. It’s okay if the tiles fly off, for all I care.”
Isaac lowered his hands, placing them squarely on the window’s frosted glass. He was joined by Jennifer’s long, surprisingly broad hands as she took a spot beside him. Her rings clacked against the surface of the glass. She smelled like some kind of berry-scented soap, overlaid with fresh sweat, a consequence of her being out in the sun. Isaac’s mother used to say that he smelled “like outside”. It wasn’t a dirty or bad smell, it was just how she knew he’d been out in the world while she was drinking in bed.
Time was up, it had to be. Benita was probably pacing the floor. Oscar had probably been sent to find him. Maybe the cleaning people would find something amiss about the dead woman’s room. Isaac didn’t even know her name, or her cat’s name. He hoped someone offered to look after the cat, or that maybe he could-
“Throw your weight into it on three,” Jennifer said. Isaac blinked, then nodded. “One. Two.”
They both leaned back, hands inches from each other on the glass.
Jennifer and Isaac shot forward, though Jennifer’s lunge into the window came with far more intensity. Isaac followed her lead, and tried to match her. The first time, the window barely moved. But then they each backed up and went again. They heard a sharp crack. Jennifer smiled, and pulled Isaac back, a ringed hand on his shoulder.
“One more time,” she told him. And that time, as they threw themselves at the window with all the weight they could muster, Isaac nearly got so excited he screamed.
The window cracked and slid forward an inch, and Jennifer really did scream. Caulk flew off the sill and struck Isaac in the chest before falling into the tub. He manipulated the window slightly, straightening it in its track. Then he stood back. Jennifer pulled the window up and down, up and down, then shut it, smiling approvingly.
“We did it!” she said. “Thank you, Isaac!”
He smiled and went into the hall. For a moment, he wasn’t even concerned about taking a long break. Nothing filled his mind. He just watched Jennifer step out and put her shoes back on from the corner of his eye, and told her in a clear voice that it was no trouble at all.
Then she offered him a beer.
“Oh shoot,” she said immediately, seeing his reaction, “I’m sorry. Are you under age or something?”
Isaac suddenly felt very cold. His face must have gone ashen. “I, no. I don’t, I don’t do that.”
“Oh,” she said, “Hey, I’m sorry.”
She went to hug him, and then stopped. Isaac began to curse himself, certain he had ruined everything, that he’d made himself seem like a creep, like damaged goods, an utter fool — then he saw Jennifer walk over the aquarium and gaze into its depths.
“Do you like my babies?” she said.
She smiled, this time not at Isaac at all, but directly at the glass. “I’m not much of a drinker, either. I keep beer in the house for company, but this is way better. I love to just sit here and watch them wander around.”
He saw there was a chair pointed directly at the aquarium, a few feet away. She must have been telling the truth. She picked up a plastic container and sprinkled in flakes of brown food. When one of the more hideous and lump-riddled fish gobbled up a few, she giggled.
Isaac felt strangely drawn to her. This wasn’t like it had been, the other times before. Any other time he’d been drawn to somebody, it was out of desperation or insistence. When he stood next to her and watched the fish, he felt safe. She even sidestepped a little, to give him more space. And then talked for a little while, Jennifer telling him the names of the fish and explaining where she’d got them and which ex-boyfriends they reminded her of, but she never turned to look Isaac in the face. Never made him feel uncomfortable.
He knew it was getting to be too late. He told her he was going to get in trouble.
“I’ll go with you,” Jennifer said, her gaze still lost in the dark water. “I’ll tell them I made you come up here and help me.”
“Okay,” Isaac said. “Thank you ma’am.”
“Jennifer,” she told him.
“I’m going out of town in a few weeks,” she said, with a minute tilt of her head. “Will you take care of my babies for me? Would you want to?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I think that would be nice.”
As they walked down the hall, a pair of women in khakis and blue polo shirts strode past them. The women carried large white buckets filled with spray bottles, brushes, paper towels, and bags. Behind them, a man pushed a cart overflowing with larger bottles of cleaning supplies, a broom, a mop, and a vacuum cleaner. On the side of the cart, the words At the Scene of the Grime was printed in blocky yellow letters.
Jennifer hung back a moment, looking at the cleaning crew as they disappeared around the corner. “What’s all that about?”
Isaac told her nothing, it was just a routine cleaning after a unit had been vacated, and that the new rental company was committed to doing a thorough and first-class job. She lingered, but seemed convinced by the clarity and confidence in his voice.
A few days later, he brought Jennifer a plant. He said he’d done some research, and that it was a butterfly palm. Someone had moved out and forgotten it in the hall. It would need regular watering and oodles of sunlight. It was slow-growing but could reach impressive heights. He placed it in her room, across from the aquarium, and they both agreed it had a refreshingly bitter smell.
Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.