When I found Iris Perez sitting stiff and upright on the toilet in her tiny apartment's closet-sized bathroom it had to be 89 degrees inside. Her eyes were open -- petrified, faded from river-stone-gray to tarnished-stainless-steel, and her body was darkening, as if the color in her iris had leaked into her bloodstream, pigmenting her withered skin. Iris's mouth gaped;
Death seemed to have wrenched open her jaw with both hands, shoving his bony arm down her throat to drag the soul from her chest. The top and bottom halves of her jaw twisted in contrasting directions, like her nose and chin had tried to escape simultaneously, ultimately choosing opposing routes.
A good three minutes passed before I pulled my eyes from her expression of unrelenting horror, and I did so to peer over my shoulder and ensure Death had not lingered to take another.
Luz, the social worker for our elderly housing building, called to me from the apartment's entrance. I headed back down the hall, trying to muster as somber an expression as I could. Luz teetered within the threshold, exactly where I'd left her. Our eyes met; I clenched my teeth and shook my head.
"She's dead," I told her. The words came out a near whisper; somewhere in my subconscious I didn't want Iris to hear me, in case she hadn't realized.
"What? Are you sure?" Luz fell against the doorjamb, then quickly straightened. "How do you know?"
I had heard these questions the month before when I found Carlos Martinez sprawled on his living room floor, his signature red baseball cap pulled just over his eyes, as if he'd been prepared for death. Luz had even offered an equal level of disbelief when I'd told her about the tenant who'd thrown himself from his eighth-floor balcony.
"But ... did he die?" she had asked.
"It was the eighth floor," I had repeated.
This time I skipped straight to the answer that always satisfied her incredulity. "Take a look."
I waived a hand, inviting her into Iris's apartment.
Luz examined the doorway and shook her head.
"I've never seen anything so dead," I assured her. I headed back inside to turn the air conditioner on. Then, I called 911.
When we'd find our tenants' corpses locked up in their apartments, it was always stiflingly humid inside, as if their souls, having escaped through their open mouths, crashed into the popcorn ceiling like helium balloons, and burst into a billion heat particles, leaving behind a cold, stiff shell, and a sour funk. The smell wasn't decay; they usually weren't dead that long. That is, the odor wasn't directly from the decaying of a dead body, more from the gradual decaying of a live one. It was the smell of neglect, and the heat only amplified the stench. Opening the doors to those apartments was like peeling back the rubber cover off sealed Tupperware after you'd forgotten your lunch in the trunk of your car.
Sometimes the smell escaped through the space underneath the door and traveled down
the narrow hall toward the elevator. Sometimes it boarded the elevator and spread throughout all 10 floors of Council Towers elderly housing complex. Each time, the smell beckoned for attention. Most times, it was too late.
Luz had long abandoned the scene when police officers began arriving, about 20 minutes after I made the call. The first, a stocky uniformed patrolman entered, talking on his cell. He followed my nod down the hall towards the bathroom, without pausing his conversation.
"Yeah, come on over," he spoke into the phone's receiver, before peeking in, scrunching his face, then heading back down the hall. "I'll be here." A smile briefly washed the disgust from his lips, then he snapped shut the phone, and began trading a series of numbers with the dispatcher chirping from his radio. When the volley ended, he turned his attention on me.
"What's your name again?" he asked, pen and pad poised. We were somewhere between "I'm just the Admin," and "because the neighbor smelled something 'iffy,'" when a busty patrolwoman walked in, and the policeman lost interest in his questions and my answers. A young detective in a dress shirt and tie showed up a few minutes later. By then, cops one and two were comfortably seated at the dining table, deeply engaged in station gossip.
The patrolman stood to join the detective, and I could see his pit-stains were joined by a damp, oval blot on the back of his navy-blue shirt. I wiped my forehead with my sleeve, and moved to lower the thermostat another several degrees.
"They don't like the cold," my property manager used to tell me. "Their blood is thinner. Or maybe it's their bones. I always forget." One thing was certain: this had to be more warm bodies than Iris's apartment had seen in years, and the A/C unit, perhaps for lack of use, struggled to drop the room temperature.
I leaned against the kitchenette counter, listening as the policemen discussed how long Iris could have been sitting there atop the toilet. They rotated in and out of the tiny space, taking turns examining her. The policewoman remained quietly seated, elbow on table, palm bent under chin.
"Couldn't have been more than a few hours," the patrolman said.
"I don't know. She's pretty stiff already."
"The rigor mortis sets in like that, though." The rebuttal came with an enthusiastic snap.
"Really?" the detective asked.
It's like they're discussing car parts, I thought. Or something they saw on Animal Planet.
I imagined the officers swigging beers between pokes and prods of her flesh. Iris, who silently dragged her flesh through the halls, day after day, solemn and solitary, to the cafeteria and back, reserved even in movement, had become spectacle, had become a lesson.
The detective returned from the bathroom and said, "Yeah, she's pretty dead, I think.
What do you usually do in this situation?"
"Call you," I said.
"Shouldn't you call her family?"
"That," I informed him, "would also be your job."
I flipped open Iris's file. Her Emergency Contact listed a nephew's out-of-state phone number and a document certifying that she had donated her body to the University of Miami's medical school for research.
I shifted my eyes from the file to the detective, who had begun crawling beneath the glass dining table, presumably searching for clues. This is her family, I thought -- the playschool detective and the couple patrolling for love. With her body going to UM, this is her wake.
I noticed the policewoman peering in my direction, and it wasn't until she mouthed the word "pretty" that I realized she wasn't staring at me. I followed her gaze to a large portrait of Iris hanging on the living-room wall. Within the sharp contours of her face her olive skin held no wrinkles, and her pink, plump lips brimmed with vitality.
Her eyes weren't gray, according to the portrait. They were blue.
From all fours, the detective said, "I wouldn't have pegged her for a blonde."
For the briefest moment, we took her in, silent. Maybe this gathering is what Iris would have wanted. She was finally getting her attention. Maybe she turned off the air so that we could find her quicker. Maybe this was her last call for company.
Jonathan Escoffery is an M.F.A. candidate in the creative writing program and an instructor in the Department of English. He is the fiction editor of dislocate magazine, has published his work in Interrobang?!, The Coffin Factory, Radioactive Moat Press, Sliver of Stone Magazine, and elsewhere, and is currently working on a novel. "Finding Iris" was first published in Foundling Review.