Chicago Portrait no. 25: The Dead Woman

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Across the hall from us, there was an old woman who slept on a mattress in the living room. Her door was kept open sometimes, propped by a cart or paper bag overflowing with groceries. We saw her in the wide space left open; she had a shock of white hair that stood up at odd angles, and rested delicately in a nightgown atop piles of silky, embroidered pillows.

Everything inside her room was cast in Easter colors: doilies and glass lamps and blankets all in dusty white, pale pink, mint green, and baby blue. The television was always on and noisily blaring. As we passed she would tilt her head and gently look at us. There was never enough time for words or a shift in facial expression. We never afforded her that.

Time passed and the glimpses of her became more intermittent. We didn’t think a thing about it. When I saw people standing before the elevator, and anti-socially deferred to the staircase, I took a different path, one that did not pass her room. Soon months went by without us seeing her. We didn’t notice that we hadn’t.

One day there was a bright, alarming orange tag hanging from her doorknob. DO NOT ENTER, it read in stark black text. CREW INSIDE.

We were both standing in the hall, dressed for a trip to the beach. Nick looked at me. His face was a blank.

“She’s dead,” I told him. “She’s fucking dead!”

As we dropped down the steps and walked out into the heat, I recounted all the reasons it was clear she was dead, fucking dead.

“We haven’t seen her in months, have we?”

“No,” he said. “I haven’t.”

“Me neither. She was old as fuck dude. She had her bed in the living room.” As if that were evidence of some growing, Charlie-Bucket’s-grandparents level of frailty.

We crossed the street and went past the Mariano’s, then skimmed the edge of the fenced-in country club abutting the beach.

“That tag means there’s a cleaning service inside, one of those industrial ones that clean up bodies,” I said. I knew what happens when bodies are found. “Did you see what it said? DO NOT ENTER!”

He laughed a kind of uncomfortable, shivery laugh.

“Somebody found her body in there. And it had been a while.”

He laughed again. He must have known what was playing out in my head, the images, the parallels, and certainly he was uncomfortable but he knew I was right.

“It could still be in there,” I continued, unable to stop myself. “I have a friend who works for a hotel, and they take dead bodies out of rooms late, late at night, so nobody sees. Like 5 am.”

“Even if they find the body at like noon?”

“Yeah dude! They just wait! That’s the fucking policy!” I was swinging my arms around, darkly fascinated, but also excited, like I’d discovered some rare treasure. “They just let it sit there.”

He looked ahead. “How do you think they found her?”

I studied the sky. It was the final day of the Air and Water Show, and planes roared as they cut through the air in the distance.

“Probably she stopped paying the rent,” I ventured. I often find myself explaining things to Nick when really my level of knowledge is pure speculation. He keeps asking me questions as if he trusts me to actually have the answers, so I don’t know how much he can tell I’m making stuff up.

“It probably went on a while before they had grounds to enter the apartment,” I continued. “Maybe people called looking for her. Family got worried. Or somebody filed a Missing Persons report. Or somebody complained about a smell. That happens a lot, when people die alone in their homes.”

He makes a grossed-out sound and I don’t stop because I can’t help myself. I want to fill someone else’s head with these thoughts. I am thinking about a documentary I watched, about how the deaths of the unknown and unconnected are handled. I couldn’t make it through the film. I stopped it ten minutes in, when they were lifting the dead man’s body off the toilet where he died. I didn’t eat meat for a month.

I keep thinking about my dad’s body, reclined in the chair where it was found. I keep thinking about my mom, sister, Nick, me dying, going pale and leaking stomach fluid into the floor until it eats away all the varnish on the wood. Mostly me. And the old woman, too. My feelings are not sad or pitiful, just gruesome, lurid.

Nick is contemplating the evidence in his head. In a high-pitched voice he says, “She’s dead, man.”

“She’s fucking dead as shit!” I proclaim. It’s a fucking fact.

A month later we see a young white couple leaving the old woman’s apartment. They are carrying crumpled moving boxes. They are new. The apartment is theirs now.

“I think that woman really did die,” Nick whispers.

Of course she did. The old woman is dead, she’s fucking dead.

Down the hall a ways, there is a freight elevator that the maintenance man uses to unload the garbage cans into the alley. Across from the freight elevator’s gaping metallic mouth is the door to the apartment of one Trinidad Gonzalez.

Her door is jammed full of papers. Old announcements of inspection, insurance appraisal, billing reminders, declarations of the building’s old ownership. Each time the management releases a new proclamation, the wad of crumpled papers widens in Trinidad’s door. They are shoved in such a way that one could not possible enter or leave the apartment without them falling out. No one has passed that chasm in quite some time.

I do not know Trinidad. We may have passed in the lobby but I have no idea who she is. I only know her name because one day, in a fit of worry, I wrested the clump of papers from the doorjamb, peeled one envelope from the rest, tore it open, and read it. A late payment notice. She’d missed rent. The letter was made out to Trinidad Gonzalez. That is the only reason that I know her name.

I left the rest of the papers on the ground outside Trinidad’s door. A day later, they are back, shoved in the jamb and growing. I press my ear to the door, to see if I could hear decay or smell it. There is a rushing fan noise. Perhaps an air conditioning that has been left on through November.

I run down the hall and tell Nick. There has not been a tell-tale orange tag on the door, not yet. But soon the clump of papers may yet be replaced by one, the sound of the fan replaced with silence. We have spent the months since the old woman’s death wondering how dead apartment dwellers’ bodies are found, and who finds them, and who fixes it. It seems a fitting karmic outcome that the finder of the next one should be lurid, prying me.

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