After living in the same place for a long period, one gets attuned to the rhythms, sounds, and patterns–both small and large–of neighbors, birds, traffic, bugs. At precisely 7am every weekday, the children next door will come out of their apartment and yell back “Bye Mom.” The gardeners will be firing up mowers and blowers every Monday morning. The landlady’s kitchen radio will be playing NPR twenty-four seven, to no particular audience. And she will be humming the same bar of music–over and over again–as she goes about her day and night. I know that she will leave the house many days at dinnertime and return late in the evening for reasons I would learn only after.
I had known her as downstairs neighbor and landlady for the six years I had lived in a grand apartment, identical in layout, above hers. To me, she was the quirky elderly lady. At times sweet, at others, irascible. Occasionally she would regale me with her stories of “old boy’s clubs” and “vengeful agents” out to destroy her reputation, to which I could only listen politely.
At one time in her life, she had been a vibrant and respected psychologist. But like many who skirt the depths of brilliance, there were demons. Her practice was sometimes unorthodox, crossing that perceived line of acceptability, as was evidenced by establishment blow back she incurred. It was one of those events that set her on a long and, eventually, fruitless journey to redeem her name and reputation–down a road of isolation surrounded by an overbearing need to be heard while she simultaneously buried herself in her surroundings.
In six years, I had never entered her apartment. I knew she was a “collector” as there was no window that wasn’t blocked with stacks of books, or stained-glass in frames, or furniture. I knew her garage was filled with boxes of books, plastic tubs of clothing, furniture–to the point that even air seemed crowded out. The back and front yards were overrun with plants, large and small, in pots, on shelves, piled on other plants. The house seemed claustrophobic in their grasp.
It had been three days and the envelope containing my rent check was still tucked in the grate of her screen door. That was a break in the pattern. Her car was still in the driveway. Maybe she’d gone away to a convention. At 81, she was still interested in her practice, despite fighting desperately to regain her license. But it seemed odd she didn’t tell me. Over the last few years, her increasing paranoia led her to always leave a message on my machine when she was leaving for more than a day–asking me to take in her mail and “call the police if anyone is snooping around,” as if the two were equally normal requests. This was a break in the pattern.
We live in a duplex built in the 1930s. It has expansive rooms, long hallways, hardwood floors, and toilets like those at an airport–you hear when they’re flushed anywhere in either apartment. It was a sound I had not heard from downstairs in over a week. This was a break in the pattern.
I called the only friend of hers that I knew. In six years, she had only once entertained a visitor. And they sat outside at a cafe table for the duration of the visit. I told her friend that I thought something was amiss and asked if he’d come by and check it out. Shortly, he arrived and let himself into her apartment with his keys. I could hear him calling her name and identifying himself as he made his way throughout the nine rooms and bathrooms via the narrow paths left between the stacks of boxes, papers, and books. After emerging, he said he could not find her, although her computer was on, her bed made, and there was fresh food in the refrigerator.
Would I call if I heard anything? Yes. I didn’t hear anything. That was a break in the pattern.
I returned from a brief vacation on a red-eye flight. As I walked up the front steps, I knew something was wrong. There was an odor. A sickly sweet yet putrid smell that I could sense even though her windows and doors were shut tight. I called her friend and asked him to come over. It was now over two weeks from his last visit.
We tried to open the back door using the same keys he has used to let himself in on the last visit, but they did not work. We tried them on all the other locks with the same result. Why would keys not work in the same door as they did before? That was a break in the pattern.
I called the police. Because it wasn’t an emergency, I was transferred four times–each time honing the explanation for my call until it was down to a simple sentence. My elderly landlady has been missing for over two weeks and we are beginning to notice a strong odor from her apartment. Please come and look.
These are the kind of things that we see on TV. Cops trying to break into an apartment with only the tools at hand, entering a strange home, flashlights held at shoulder height. Her friend explained they’d have to go in single file. That it might be difficult to see anything. As they opened the door, we got our first nasal assault and a look at an apartment laid out identical to my own, yet unrecognizable for the mass of stuff reaching floor to ceiling.
It was five minutes before two of the three policemen returned to the door, remarking they were not sure they had searched the entire apartment because they could not tell where they were. Just then, a shout from the remaining officer. “Found her.”
It was Sunday morning when the officers arrived. It would be Sunday evening before her remains were carried out in a white bag before being placed on a stretcher and wheeled to a waiting van. She seemed so small and misshapen as they strapped the body down. A life reduced to remains.
It has taken the “cleanup” crew a week to mitigate the “biologicals” in the room where she died. The human body is a toxic dump, neatly contained only while alive. Upon death, it is a leaking, stinking stew that must be handled with rubber gloves, masks, and Tyvek suits. It drains gallons of fluid that seep and wick into everything within contact. It becomes a hazardous waste site.
For one week we have endured the uncertainty of our living situation, an odor so powerful that I smell it even when far from the house anda the thought enters my mind, and a very polite group of masked and suited men tearing apart the spot where she met her end. It took a week because the house is like one of those tile puzzles where there is only one blank space and you have to rearrange everything around that single open space. She passed away, hidden among the tons of items she had collected, unnoticed but not forgotten.