Inadvertently Mocking the Dead

by Claire Zulkey

I think everyone who lives in Chicago has rented the type of apartment my then-boyfriend, now-husband Steve was living in when this happened: an old, dusty brick building with hallways that featured windows that don’t open, worn carpeting, and the smell of shoes. The apartments themselves are usually one- or two-bedrooms, with hardwood floors, dinged-up walls, and bathrooms with tubs that have seen much better days. They’re not modern at all, but they’re roomy enough and they’ll do from the ages of approximately 23 to 29.

Steve lived on the second floor in his building in Lincoln Square. It was an upgrade from the flimsy apartment he rented when he lived in the howling wastelands of Logan Square, but I still didn’t come visit too often, thanks to his cats, to whom I was allergic, but since he kept them out of the bedroom and the place was adjacent to several cute restaurants, I slept over maybe once a week.

Steve didn’t know his neighbors that well, but one week noticed that the door to the apartment below his was slightly ajar for a day or two. Not only was the door open, but it appeared that the tenant was playing music, some trance-type of album, on repeat.

At first, Steve didn’t think too much about it. He had slipped that neighbor a couple of notes under his door before, asking if he could lower his music a bit. The neighbor always replied with an apologetic note back under Steve’s door. So this time, even though the music was going longer than usual, Steve assumed, “He’s just listening to his loud music again.”

But then it went on for several days, nonstop. “Should I call the landlord and ask what’s up?” Steve asked me. “Sure, why not?” I said.

The landlord told Steve that the tenant must have gone out of town but forgotten to close the door, something he had done before, and asked Steve to do it for him. After calling out “Hello?” in the apartment, and hearing nothing aside from the spooky, spacey music, Steve closed the door.

Later that week, we had dinner in the neighborhood and went back to Steve’s apartment to watch the new Hulk movie (I’m still not sure why).

“Is the music in this movie really dark, or is that coming from downstairs?” I asked, feeling some bass vibrations through my feet.

“It’s him, downstairs,” he said. “His music’s been playing all week now.”

“Maybe he’s dead,” I said. “Maybe he killed himself.”

“Maybe,” Steve said.

“I mean seriously. Who would listen to music like that for so long other than someone who had committed suicide?” Steve agreed. We finished the movie and went to bed.

The next night, back at my apartment, I got a call from Steve.

“Can I come over right now?” he asked, sounding shaky.

“Sure, of course. What’s going on?” I asked.

It turned out that, indeed, the guy we had been flippantly making comments about the night before was dead and had been for quite some time. That night, Steve saw the coroner’s van pull up to his building and reported to me a sickeningly sweet smell in the halls of the building when the man’s many-day-old corpse was pulled out.

“I don’t want to be a baby, but I’m a little freaked out,” Steve said.

“This is a perfecty acceptable time to be freaked out,” I said. We did a bit of Googling and figured that the man who died was a teacher at Columbia College, and, if so, had perished from a heart attack, unbeknownst to his friends and family for a while. But for some reason, we still suspected that the man did it to himself. It was that music. For several weeks after, Steve pointed out that the neighbor’s car, an old Mercedes, was still parked on the street.

I could never decide if I should feel bad about saying “Maybe he’s dead,” or not. I had perhaps seen too many movies involving suicide scenes and closed doors and eerie music. Maybe it was just one of those unfortunate times where I said something irreverent and it turned out to be the worst time to do such a thing. Maybe it was nothing. Obviously, had I really thought the guy was dead, I wouldn’t have just sat there like an idiot watching a terrible movie, making fun of him, letting him sit there while his family worried. I wouldn’t have just gone to bed.

Steve and I got married a year or two after that, and moved into a townhouse in Edgewater that we’ve been living in for almost four years now. We have a greyhound that we each walk twice a day. A few weeks ago, Steve got back from his late-night walk.

“Well, twice now since I’ve lived in Chicago I’ve smelled a dead person smell,” he reported.

This time, it wasn’t in our building, but a block away, on a corner we’ve walked around thousands of times since we’ve lived here. Same type of building as before. “The windows were all open and the coroner’s truck was there and it was the same smell, that weirdly sweet smell,” Steve said. Plus, “The clean-up van was there and the two guys were unloading what looked like hazmat suits.” Steve was disturbed to notice that our dog was sniffing around that building more than usual, and made an effort to hustle away as soon a possible.

The next day, while walking the dog, we saw a note on the building’s door, alerting the tenants that the locks were being changed, which made us wonder what had happened: was it just a preventive measure after the coroner had come in, or had something more insidious happened? This time we had no idea.

In a few years, Steve and I are probably going to move once again, this time one city north to Evanston so our dog can have a proper yard and our kids can attend the same schools I went to. But maybe this time, we’ll alert our new neighbors, especially those in vintage apartment buildings, that they might want to ask their friends to check in on them once in awhile.

Claire Zulkey is the author of AN OFF YEAR, and is a television critic and contributor to the Los Angeles Times and AV Club. She lives in Chicago, where she hosts the literary humor reading series Funny Ha-Ha.

Photo by irexon, via Shutterstock