Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Our Empty Streets (pt. 4)

No, I don't know how long this is going to be. Part 3 is here.


            The next day, Marilyn and Erin showed up in Marilyn’s SUV, with bags galore in the trunk. I, freshly shaven and showered, felt I should play the host, and had been sitting in my building’s lobby for fifteen minutes, impatiently tapping my foot. Now at the sight of all of the luggage the girls had brought, I raised an eyebrow.
            “Well don’t just look at us like we’re crazy, help some ladies out!” Marilyn said, a large duffel bag around her shoulder. I hopped to, always the chivalrous gentleman, and took Erin’s heaviest-looking bag out of her grasp. I was too old for a part-time job, but in this moment I felt like a bell-hop.

            I kept my clothes in a single dresser and closet upstairs in the penthouse. I hadn’t bothered to move out my entire wardrobe when I moved from my old apartment, because I felt that it was a perfect opportunity for some change. Going back just to get my favorite old hoodie when there was an unending supply in the apartments below just seemed difficult. Plus, I’d have to clear out all the whiskey bottles that littered the floor back home.
            I shrugged the bag onto the marble floor and pushed the elevator call button. Looking back, Erin and Marilyn were gazing around at the lavish surroundings. Marble floors were just the beginning: there were large stone columns, pools of water (although those had begun to get a little mucky without a man devoted to filtering them), and even gold overlays on desks and walls. I had forgotten the beauty of the lobby by the fourth day of living here: it became just another ground floor to me.
            Marilyn audibly clicked her tongue, strutting around the lobby, while Erin stayed in one place and spun about, a hand on her opposite elbow. The elevator doors opened, since they had not left the floor for anyone since I had come down to the lobby. The soft ding sound broke the two women’s reverence for the lavish decoration, and they walked towards the elevator cab.
            “Some nice digs you’ve got here,” Marilyn said, still casting looks about.
            “We’ve got here, you mean. Welcome home,” I said, with a large politician’s smile.
            The elevator doors slid shut and we made our way up to the penultimate floor. After I moved to the tower a week after the world ended, I cleaned out the top three floors of apartments. It took me two disgusting weeks to do it. My first day in the tower was spent randomly kicking in doors, just because I could and nobody would yell at me. It was like a little game: either corpses in a bloody chaos, or an empty, unlocked apartment from when an infected person ran out and didn’t think to bring his keys to the murderfest.
            The next day, I realized I didn’t want all the doors in the tower hanging off of hinges, swinging in any and all air drafts. I broke into the tower’s offices and stole a ring of keys off of a blood-soaked dead man that had his throat bitten out. From then on, I went around much more strategically, unlocking apartments, and leaving them open if there was work to do. I found large rolling laundry baskets, and the freight elevator. With my iPod plugged into my ears, I spent three days going from room to room, picking up the dead, plopping them unceremoniously in the laundry basket, and when that was full, taking the freight elevator to street level to wheel them into the nearest alleyway. Don’t worry, I also made sure to find some disposable jumpsuits and facemasks in the janitorial closets. I wasn’t afraid to catch whatever these people had or anything, I just didn’t want their weeks-old blood over my clothes and face.
            Almost every room had fruit that was quickly going bad on the counter, but I solved that by packing them into a case, taking them to the top balcony, and watching them fall. It’s amazing how many times you can watch a rotten orange splattering on the sidewalk 24 floors below, or how large a stain it leaves on the building across the street.
            After all the bodies of the top three floors were piled in the alleyways around my tower, I grabbed the giant cart of cleaning supplies and went to work scrubbing, brushing, deodorizing, anything to make these rooms cleaner than I found them. Shag carpets made the work difficult, and I cursed the design blogs that plagued midtown renters, telling them to get the plushest, whitest, most absorbent carpets that showed blood stains as clear as day.
            It wasn’t the most glamorous work, sweating on my hands on knees, but it was a major relief to have a goal after the end of the world. In the week immediately after the end of the world, while everyone still alive was waiting for those on the streets to die off, I didn’t know what to do. I drank a lot, tried not to look out the windows or at my picture frames, and slept with the doors firmly locked.
            But eventually the floors were cleaned out. I don’t know why I had gone through all the trouble, but now with Marilyn and Erin in the elevator with me, it seemed prescient. We reached our destination with another ding. I walked a couple feet out of the elevator, put down Erin’s bag, and produced the skeleton key for the tower.
            “I’m not going to assign you a room, now. So here. You two go on and pick your own digs,” I said, offering the key to Marilyn. She smiled.
            “Remember when you would go on vacation with your family, and stay at a hotel? The first thing me and my sister would do was pick which bed was ours. Oh god, did we make a big deal of it. We jumped from one to the other, fluffed the pillows…” Marilyn trailed off. Her eyes began to water and her voice cracked as she began again. “Christ, they were the exact same bed, but we spent ten minutes picking which one would be ours. Every single time.”
            I looked at her, and patiently waited for the moment to pass. Erin seemed like she was about to cry as well.
            “Just that stupid, irrational excitement of picking where you’d get to sleep that night, you know? Now we’ve got an entire building to pick from, and they’re actually different this time.” Marilyn sniffed. “The choice matters this time, because they’re actually different.”
            I didn’t quite get what she was talking about, but I nodded somberly. Instead of saying anything, I patted her on the shoulder, and walked back into the elevator, headed back down to greet the rest.
            D.J. was the next to arrive, and he had only a rolling suitcase behind him, obviously a holdover from his professional life. We chatted for a bit about how nice the lobby was, although he felt his architect firm could have done better. Mainly I just wanted to give Erin and Marilyn some time to get settled before I threw D.J. into the mix.
            Eventually, I took him up to the same floor, and let him out without exiting. Marilyn still had the keys, and I didn’t want to risk tapping into another reservoir of tears from the past.
            I emptied mine that first week.
            Han Lo came strolling through the doors without even glancing about at the lobby. Here was a man who obviously traveled often. He had a similar suitcase to D.J., but also carried a duffel bag around his shoulder and a full bagged suit on a hanger on one finger. It seemed odd to me at first, but these were the things he brought on his trip to Chicago. For all intents and purposes, the clothes he had in these bags were all his worldly possessions from before the world ended, why wouldn’t he bring them all from his own hotel?
            I put on my best smile and threw my arms open, like a maître d’. He returned the smile, and followed me to the elevator. At our destination, all of the doors had been opened, spilling natural daylight into the hallway. Apparently, as the girls and D.J. went exploring, they hadn’t bothered to close the doors behind them. It suddenly occurred to me that it made less sense for me to have locked them after I cleaned than it did for them to leave them open. I swept my hand out in front of me, and said, “Go at it!” It was the first words I spoke to him since the pier, but Han Lo seemed to get it.
            The apartments up at this level were first class. Obviously, they were still much smaller than the homes I grew up in down south, but for this part of Chicago, they were giant. They must have cost thousands a month to live in, and the decorations reflected that. In fact, they reflected just about everything, as stainless steel covered all appliances and countertops. Some apartments went for a more rustic look, with exposed brick walls and hardwood or stone floors, but thick carpeting (god that was a bitch to clean) was the norm.
            Erin was sitting in the third apartment to the left, on an overstuffed leather sofa, feet perched up on a coffee table that I couldn’t begin to appraise. Her arms were outstretched on the couch’s back, like a smooth date at the movies. She looked very much like the queen of her castle, and I knew that she already picked her place. Marilyn and D.J. were much more discerning customers, hopping back and forth between rooms, comparing and contrasting, like they were hoping to lowball a real estate agent. Their calls and tsk-tsking echoed out from the open doors into the hallway, where all of their luggage was piled against the wall immediately outside the elevator.
            Han Lo calmly set his belongings down, making sure not to rustle the suit bag too much, and began strolling languidly down the hallway, glancing left and right into apartments. Halfway down, he spotted one that interested him, and stepped inside, out of my sight. I smiled. It was like move in day back in college, except the rooms were much nicer and the lodgings weren’t assigned. Plus, no more loudly partying neighbors, because they were all dead in a street somewhere.
            When I got back down to the lobby, I was beginning to feel dizzy from all the elevator riding I’d been doing in the last twenty minutes. Marcus was just climbing off of a motorcycle outside, a large backpack stuffed to the brim.
            “I didn’t know you rode a bike,” I said to him.
            “I don’t, but now’s the best time to learn, ya know?” he asked, and I laughed. The streets were empty and nobody was going to crash into him, so I guess he was right.
            “So everyone else is already here, but there are plenty of rooms upstairs for you to choose from,” I said, walking once again, towards the elevator.
            “Man, what did I tell you, I don’t do heights,” Marcus said, stopping short of the elevator. I turned to face him. “I wasn’t playin’. I’m not looking down that far onto a city.”
            “Well, I mean, I didn’t clean the other rooms is all. If you want to live on one of the lower floors, alone, that’s fine, I’m not your boss,” I said, tossing up my hands. “I just have to go get the keys, and I’m sure everyone would like to see that you made it.”
            He still looked reluctant, so I continued, “You don’t have to go near any windows. You won’t even know we’re high up!”
            This seemed to convince him, and he resumed walking towards the elevator. I pushed the button, and the doors slid shut with their bing. I was going to go crazy if I heard that sound too much more.
            Up we went, almost a dozen floors when suddenly, all of the lights turned off, and we jolted as the elevator stopped suddenly. Marcus closed his eyes, and put his hand over his face, leaning against the wall. A soft disappointed groan escaped his lips.
            My phone buzzed in my pocket. “Hi,” Marilyn said, with a tinge of worry in her voice. “We’ve lost power up here.”
            “So have we,” I answered, pinching the bridge of my nose. “Except we’re in the elevator.” I hung up the phone quite rudely. Marcus and I connected eyes both glanced at the ceiling tiles.
            “No one is coming to help us, are they?” Marcus said, “No more building maintenance.”
            “Ah Christ.”
            We both glanced at the ceiling tiles again.

            “Ah Christ,” I repeated.

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