I saw the horror flashing across the faces of the women crowded above me as I slipped down, backwards into the crack between the moving bus and the platform.
Today I cleaned up after a dead man. It was my first body. But working in crummy places -- fleabag motels, skid row housing -- I knew it was only a matter of time until I turned a doorknob and walked in on death.
Perhaps stumbling across a body is one of those quintessential maid-myths. Hotel rooms are at once anonymous and intimate places. Who knows what a maid might find? Empty liquor bottles, heaps of soggy towels, a bare-assed somebody who didn't hear you knock.
I'm a cleaner in a single resident occupancy hotel (SRO). Bradley Arms* isn't a place where tourists come and go. It's more like a boarding house for people pushed to the fringes. We're in the part of the city where people lock their car doors at intersections and don't make eye contact. Some tenants have lived in these cramped rooms for years, their belongings collecting in sedimentary layers. Often Welfare pays rent directly to management, not trusting recipients to manage their housing allowance. In this paradise city with its surging cost of living, crumbling SROs like the Bradley have been identified by City Hall as an alternative to homelessness.
My morning schedule was easy: Bruce, a young man with schizophrenia and a budgie. Nial, whose only offense is the endless amount of sticky beer cans he manages to amass; his room is always thick with drunk fruit flies. Each week I pile his stash into garbage bags so he can tote everything to the Return-It depot, a bulging Hefty bag slung over each shoulder like Santa. And Gregory with his guitar, who often strums away the hours downtown, drinking wine from a travel mug.
My cart was loaded with all the stuff needed to freshen a room. With meager supplies and the building's general decay, it's impossible to ever do a good job. Not that standards are that high. “Keep chaos at bay” is the extent of what I can do.
The dead man was behind the first door of the day.
Room 401: Gregory. No answer to my knock so I entered cautiously, ready to retreat at the first threat of nudity.
Maybe this is hindsight speaking, but the room had the pronounced silence that comes after a tree has fallen. Then an odor hit me, almost visibly, like a dirty curtain. The smell seemed to carry its own heat.
Gregory was in bed, blue and swollen like someone who'd dived deep into cold water. Blankets were piled around him. Were his eyes closed? The blunt reality of his state makes me think they were open: staring in regret at the unseen discoverer.
In a shot I was back in the hallway, slamming the door like something was after me. 401: the brass numbers shone portentously in the dim hallway. The paramedics didn’t even touch him. “He’s dead all right,” one concluded. “A few days, it looks like. The cops will take it from here.”
I was shaken. Dead for days? Yes, the desk clerk's headcount confirmed Gregory hadn't been seen for a while. Someone should have checked on him but nobody did.
I wondered if Gregory had family and if we had any way to reach them.
Meanwhile, I had other rooms to clean.
“Dead,” the police officer confirmed, emerging from Room 401. “Don’t go in there. Don't touch anything. The coroner will take it from here.” Foul play was not suspected but unattended deaths must be investigated. I kept blowing my nose. I couldn't get rid of the smell.
The coroner was pony-tailed and cheerful, like Shelley Duvall in the first half of "The Shining." Her conclusion was vague but assured: “Heart attack? Aneurysm? Something that goes bang. We'll find out soon!”
Finally the paramedics could be mobilized. They flopped Gregory onto a stretcher, zipped a bag around him like a rubber chrysalis, and rolled away.
All this death! I needed a break. My only room left for the day was 401. I figured in a case like this, management would call some professional cleaning service. Biohazard technicians or something, well-paid professionals with knowing eyes and high-tech sanitizing gear. Here, staff had threadbare mops and dollar store bleach. The boss cornered me on my way out the door.
“First off, you can say ‘no,’” she began.
I stopped. “You want me to clean that room.”
“You don’t have to,” she said. “I can do it. I’ve done it before.”
The boss is like 11,000 years old and has arthritis. Plus, I'd rather liked Gregory. He had a courtly manner despite his morning-noon-and-night alcoholism. Since I was the one to find him, I felt rather possessive of the whole situation.
“Naw, I'll do it,” I said. Say whhaaaa? my brain moaned. “But you know, I only saw his face. How...bad is it? Should we call, like, a special disposal crew or something?”
“'Special disposal crew,'” my boss scoffed. “Is this the Ritz? Look, some bodily fluids escaped. As they do. There’s an odor you won’t forget but nothing that can hurt you. The job’s easy when you think about it: absolutely everything gets bagged. Don’t look, just throw it away.”
“Everything?” I asked.
“Yup. No next-of-kin. Plus, that stink's in everything. Just load bags, and I'll Dumpster them.”
“I’ll get on it right after lunch,” I said.
“Don’t eat first,” the boss said. “That’s my advice.”
I was given a disposable suit meant for painting. It was made of paper. Grand. I zipped myself in and cinched the hood tight. I adjusted my goggles and snapped on a flu-season mask, then rubber gloves. I pulled a showercap over each boot. My temperature began to climb and the goggles distorted the world around me. I felt like a deep sea diver slowly disconnecting from the surface world.
I slipped inside Room 401 holding a slippery bouquet of garbage bags.
The room had taken on a more awful atmosphere although the body was gone. Now I viewed it through a morbid filter: This was someone's “last place.” The bed was out of sight, around the corner.
I’d been holding my breath. I took a cautious sip of air. The stench immediately jumped into my nostrils, poured down my throat, and asserted itself behind my eyes. “We'll all be dead someday.” I tried to reassure myself. “This ain't no thing.”
There was a lone splotch of blood on the linoleum.
I stepped over the splotch and looked at the bed and my vision skittered sideways, like a dropped camera. The bed was like a crime scene.
There was a significant volume of fluid on the sheets. The phrase that came to mind was terminal volume. This was not a nosebleed, or any other conventional bleeding one might experience and still go on living. This was mortal. Blood soaked into the sheets like a Clive Barker sunset, a purple puddle graduating outward in shades of red, becoming watery brown.
I forced my eyes away from the bed and measured the rest of the job. In life, Gregory had been very tidy. Clothes hung neatly. Books were stacked on the desk: an atlas, a guide to raising chickens. Empty wine bottles were rinsed and lined up on the floor. I flapped open a Hefty and hurriedly began grabbing-and-bagging, racing against the dizzying odor.
Gregory's lonely departure mirrored several deaths in my own family. My dad and grandpa had both lain undiscovered for days, alone in their respective run-down apartments. Had they been like this? And who'd cleaned up? I loaded bags blindly. Clothes, shaving cream, sheet music, an alarming number of Listerine bottles. Mouthwash -- that alcoholic stand-by when liquor stores are closed. They tumbled into the bag with a hollow bopping sound.
Clumsily but quickly I returned the tiny suite to an impersonal holding tank. Soon a new person would move in. And life would go on.
The gory bed was the elephant in the room. I shouldn't have saved it until last.
After three days, decomposition gases will force liquid from any escape hatch. Fluid and blood had drained from Gregory's mouth and bottom. I tried to feel sympathy, not disgust. Everyone, everywhere, is full of shit and blood. Where is it all supposed to go if functions suddenly cease?
I tugged the bed away from the wall. There was bodily fluid down the plaster, flowing into the zone where your book might drop when you fall asleep reading.
I leaned over the gory puddle and popped the fitted sheet.
“Argggh!” I said as it loosened with a wet, elastic sound. Flies lumbered past my face. I bundled the stained bedding awkwardly, trying to keep at an arm's length. The sheets detached from the sodden mattress reluctantly. More flies. A fresh wave of smell, like smoldering shit.
I was running out of garbage bags. That bloody mattress! It was sticky and unwieldy, covered in a plastic bed bug protector. The boss could figure out what to do with it. Re-use it, probably, after a hose-off and some Lysol.
I sloshed ammonia around like a pyromaniac with a jerrycan. I mopped and wiped.
I was done. The room wasn't quite finished, but I was. I'd taken care of the big stuff, the boss could handle the details. I yanked off my gloves and threw them away.
Down the hall was a shower room. Particles of death clung to me like hungry bugs. I scrubbed with the threadbare facecloths and lardy soap we dole out to tenants.
At the end of my shift, walking out the door felt like an unearned victory -- to be able to feel the sunlight-and-motion of an autumn afternoon, and essentially walk away from death. Morbid me, I wonder if my own legacy could one day be garbage bags of dirty sheets and a handful of overdue library books? Today's necessities, turned out for tomorrow's trash collection? Life is only a sort of reprieve, after all.