You do this work long enough, you find one. Lupe opened the door on a couple who had OD’d in their underwear, a needle hanging from the woman’s arm. Marcia found a rich man sprawled on his back beside a bottle of Cialis, his dick still hard when the EMTs rushed in. Most of them aren’t so shocking. Most of them, Evelyn’s co-workers say, are just boring endings to sad stories. Gone like a shrug.
Evelyn found hers in her third month cleaning rooms at the Comfort Inn. She entered when no one answered her knock and found an arm flopped on the floor like a fish. Its overweight owner was facedown between two double beds, dressed in boxers and a white T-shirt. The bedside lamp gave a candle’s worth of yellow light. Evelyn stood frozen in the doorway. It wasn’t her mess to fix: Management would call the right people to tag and bag and take photos and ask questions, and after the body was gone they’d send a housekeeper back in to tidy up. If there wasn’t a crime scene to preserve, they might even rent out the room that night. It seemed so fast, so callous. Instead of finding her boss, she let the door fall shut.
The man had kept a clean room: No drugs or pills or blood anywhere, no sign of struggle. His death had been an inside job, probably his heart. His zippered garment bag and glossy black shoes told Evelyn he’d been traveling for work. Those types rarely take care of themselves. Eating out every night, maybe drinking more and smoking more than they would back home with their wives and kids. Harmless fun, until. This man’s large frame corroborated her theory. A bag of Cheetos sat on the dresser. Yesterday’s news lay folded on the table. The air conditioner was blasting cold.
You can feel a person’s soul in their skin. That’s what Evelyn’s mother said about her father when they reached the hospital too late. Heart attack while gardening; the neighbor found him facedown in his radish patch. They had kept him alive as long as they could. Before Evelyn hugged her daddy goodbye, her mother took her hand and rubbed her tiny knuckles with her thumb. When a person dies, the soul departs, and the body turns inhuman, she said. Muscles tighten, flesh grows cold. The skin becomes a bag full of once-important things; Daddy’s body was unclaimed luggage, not needed where he was going. Evelyn decided not to touch her father. She wanted to remember his warm, stretchy skin that felt dusted in talcum powder. Fourteen years later, she still could. Now she stepped forward and sat on a corner of a bed, leaning over the deceased. She bent down and felt the inside of his arm, which was smooth and firm like an eggplant. Nothing like a person. She straightened up and rubbed her fingers together, grinding up the dead on them. She was glad she hadn’t done the same to her father.
She had to hurry. The housekeeping staff wasn’t supposed to be in rooms with the door closed. Her cart was parked outside, marking where she’d disappeared. If they caught her, they’d assume she was stealing, or worse. A dead body wouldn’t make her look less guilty. She stepped around the man to reach the bedside table where his phone was plugged in, fully charged. The lock screen showed a list of notifications: Missed alarms, work email, Facebook likes, texts from Maggie:
6:47 Good morning! How’s Omaha? Who are you meeting with today?
7:51 Dropping off the kids and then off to work. Love you
9:03 Everything okay? Did you sleep through your alarm again?
9:52 Please write back and let me know you’re alive.
Poor Maggie. Evelyn wished she could respond: Something’s wrong, call 911. How scary a message that would be, how haunting it would become, when the medical examiner told her the text was sent hours after her husband had passed. There was nothing Evelyn could do for Maggie, whose worries had merit, and who was going to have a terrible day, week, month, year. The bad would begin as soon as Evelyn left this room.
No time. No time. She stood up and stepped around the body to the table by the window where his pants were folded over the arm of a chair. His wallet was in the back pocket: It was leather, fat, loaded with cash and credit cards, memberships to PetCo and the Sioux Falls Public Library. The pet in her mind was a golden retriever who loved to chase down tennis balls. The library books were written by Tom Clancy. A picture of his family, taken when he was thinner and had more hair, showed him standing proudly over a smiling wife and twin boys dressed in matching Vikings sweatshirts. More disappointment as she counted the bills: one-hundred twenty-five dollars, not enough to suggest a dark, illicit backstory. She ignored his driver’s license, not wanting to know his name. As she paged through a stack of customer punch cards, she realized she was trying to decide whether this death was deserved or tragic. She wanted to know how she should feel — she wanted a reason to not feel sad, to separate the loss of this man from the loss of her father and the pain she hadn’t beaten back. Not yet, probably not ever. Give her a reason to say ‘good riddance.’ There was nothing. No signs of cheating, no texts from anyone but his worried wife and his grammarless kids and a respectful boss who just last week promised an end-of-year bonus for all of his hard work. Orange grease on the TV remote and streaking his pillow: His greatest sin was eating in bed while watching late-night TV.
His glasses had been folded on the bedside table. So he had died somewhat in a rush: Turning on the light but too panicked to fix his vision, he leapt out of bed only to fall flat, immobilized, death nearly arrived by the time he hit the ground. All of this before six-fifteen, when his alarm would go unanswered.
Evelyn returned to the corner of the bed. Held his wallet in both hands. She cried. She prayed. She remembered the things the grief counselor told her to say years ago: I love you, I’m sorry, I forgive you. She said these things now to the man at her feet.
I love you on behalf of the people who love you. I love you the way I think I would have loved you.
I’m sorry you died this way. I’m sorry your family’s sadness starts with me.
I forgive you. It’s a terrible thing, entering someone’s life just to remind them of everything they’ve lost and are still losing. Sometimes I forget that the losing never ends, it just finds new ways to hurt.
She stood up and breathed in deep: The air was damp and slightly foul, sticking to her skin like the cold sweat she wore as her mother drove them home from the hospital that summer afternoon, the A/C on blast, she sitting curled and freezing in the passenger seat, wetness running down her face and soaking her armpits and the back of her shirt. Her mother let the garden go to weeds that year; the following spring they tore it out and put down sod. Her father had died with soil on his forearms and clothes; their minds couldn’t separate the smell of fresh dirt from the way it had mixed with the hospital’s astringent odor. She felt guilty for letting her mother scrap the garden, and for helping her run a garage sale later that summer, selling off too many of her father’s belongings to offset the costs that come with a provider’s sudden death. She saw her father falling out of the world and made herself the caretaker of his estate. She begged her mother not to toss or sell his collections of baseball caps and die-cast cars. She still intended to complete his unfinished set of national parks pins, filling out his felt-board display with a cross-country road trip she couldn’t afford. She rarely brought these items out to remember him by anymore. Her father’s legacy carried on in boxes piled in the corner of her closet.
As Evelyn turned to leave she took a crumpled paper off the dresser, a wadded receipt discarded from his pocket along with a ball of lint, his car keys, and a wrapped peppermint. She spread it flat between her fingers to read the last transaction of his life. A bag of Cheetos and twenty ounces of Mountain Dew, purchased at nine twenty-one in the evening from the BP on Highway Six. $3.89 for a final meal. The other maids were right: Another sad story, another boring ending.
She stepped to the door and held her breath, listening for footsteps outside. It was quiet; she was safe. Before she turned the handle, she went back to the table and opened his suitcase, a small carry-on. She pressed her face into the neatly folded business clothes, shirts and slacks washed in lavender laundry soap. The scene of home, a wife and kids — the smell of life before and after him. She picked up the wallet again and slipped the family photo from its plastic sleeve, stepping over to prop it up against the bedside lamp. The action was a lie, but the sentiment seemed true. Then she returned to the luggage and pulled out a folded pair of socks. Wool, even though it was summer. She understood: Her feet were always cold, no matter the weather or what she wore.
She would have tucked the pair behind her apron, a small souvenir, had the hotel phone not rang. Time unpaused; adrenaline tensed her neck and shot through her heart. The body lay on the ground like a bomb counting down. She ran to the door and placed her hand on the knob, her ear to the outside. Now there were voices. Men; she didn’t know what was being said. It might have been her boss, the cops, businessmen getting a late start to their day. They were in no rush, they would not leave. One of them laughed. The phone stopped ringing.
She looked back to the body and could only see its arm. It stretched out for help, or it was reaching for her. The floors hummed with the thunder of the world closing in. The air was sour with toxic fumes that forced the oxygen out of the room; her breathing became quick and shallow. As soon as she told her father goodbye, the nurse had told them to leave, go home. What happens next is better not seen.
The voices in the hall had her trapped in the darkness of a shrinking room. She closed her eyes: Her father hated small spaces, too. When she first saw his body in that slim box, she had bawled. It’s too small, she screamed. He won’t be able to breathe. She wondered if they would do the same for this man, his cold feet freezing underground for all the Earth’s winters.
The phone rang again. This time it would never stop. The bad was beginning. She had to get out.