While You Were Away

Stepping off the elevator I notice that the doors to the stairs are open before the smell hits me. Not again I’m thinking, not again. There is something so primeval about the smell of death. It permeates your nostrils and days later and in different locations you’ll swear that you can still smell the stench of decay.

Someone has died. All the telltale signs are in place: the doors to the stairs being left open, a large fan blowing away at the end of the hall, workman wearing surgical masks silently glide by carrying garbage bags full of whatever it is that dead bodies leave when they lay out unattended.

Thankfully this time it’s at the other end of the building, around the corner and out of sight as the hallway turns to the right. Thankfully this time I won’t know who died. I may have known what they looked like having seen them around, but I won’t have known them personally.

Powdered carpet cleaner unevenly dusts the hallway’s wall to wall carpet. For some reason the building’s management thinks that this keeps the smell down. Forever now I associate the repugnant sickly sweet scent of industrial carpet cleaner with death. It might as well be minute skulls and cross bones that make up the powdered granules scattered below my feet.

I’d like to put my suitcase down to look for my key, I’d like to turn around, go back downstairs in the elevator, and try this again. But instead I balance my bag on my knee pressing it against the hallway wall and awkwardly open the door to my apartment.

The stale air hits me almost as hard as the smells in the hallway, so much for not leaving my window open. Last time I was away for a week I left it slightly ajar and it stormed outside blowing the rain into my room, splattering the dust on the sill, twisting the blinds like in a rage.

There’s carpet cleaner mixed with death on the bottoms of my boots. There’s the tomb-like existence of my shuttered room. There’s this unnerving sense that none of my neighbors are alive as for once the building is eerily quiet. A silent eulogy, a mumbled rosary, or more than likely no one cares as life goes on, as if not knowing or caring somehow keeps us all safe from the dying, keeps us safe from another faceless death behind a closed door.

Yet if I really wanted to know it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out which apartment was the one where someone died. All I’d have to do is walk back down the hall, following the footprints in the white powder, past the whirring fan, looking for the right imitation wood grained door. Sometimes the smell gets stronger the closer you are, like when the old guy nextdoor to me died, and sometimes they’ve been dead so long that it sorta gets sucked into the sheetrock walls and the only way that you can tell is by looking for the coroner’s sticker on the door.

Either way, that’s four people who’ve died on this floor in the last year – three of them in a four door radius of my apartment. Maybe now it’s the other end of the hallway’s turn?

Sitting at my desk, my bags abandoned on the bed, I’m slowly taking in the surroundings as if there are maybe some changes that I didn’t know about, like someone had come in while I was away and rearranged the furniture. Or on a realer note wondering if someone finally moved into the old guy that died’s apartment nextdoor? Took the maintenance workers weeks to air it out, finally repainting everything, and then it sat empty for months while the other vacant apartments were occupied, vacated and then rented again – a continual ghostlike dance to urban cohabitation. I hate to think that I missed acclimating whoever it is that moved in to my music at two in the morning. Now there’ll be battles over who’s got the right to the night, that is if they last that long as my neighbor.

Dry tongue, puckery skin: plane rides leave me dehydrated. My apartment’s shelves are bare and I need bottled water. But that means going back out through the mess in the hall, navigating the bright florescent lights and walking over yards and yards of sullied carpet.

With a sigh, standing up, I face the door, can’t just sit here waiting out the smell, almost wishing I was still in my hotel in LA. Slipping quietly into the hallway I see my neighbor’s door swing closed, her footprints like animal paws, a trail from the elevator formed in the white particles that stops just one apartment from mine.

In front of the elevator a workman with two trash bags pushes the already lit call button, instead of waiting I take the stairs two at a time. Somewhere above me a door closes, a woman laughs, my boots hit the metal stairs as I hurry along.

Downstairs in the lobby I nod to the security guard who stares through me as if I was dead. This is nothing new, we do this on the regular. Taking a few seconds to check I notice that my mailbox is full of bills and adverts, half of which I toss into the trash bin, the other half I shove back in for later.

Outside the sun is going down. Inside the lights are on, the dust is settling and I’m walking out the front door of my home.

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