The knock came again. Stronger this time, a pounding fist shuddering the door in its frame.
Liz stretched toward the small round table nestled between the two overstuffed chairs, scooping a small black oblong box from its worn and surface. She thrust the box out in front of her, the motion sending a cascade of crumbs, Cheetos, Doritos and Ruffles, rolling down the ski slope expanse of dirty gray t-shirt that covered her pendulous and otherwise unfettered breasts, to fall, ticklingly itchy, around and between her naked thighs. She thumbed the box forcefully again and again, putting her whole wrist into it, the drooping, loose skin of her upper arm rippling with the effort like a rope of jello, the sweltering heat in the tiny apartment beading perspiration among the hairs along her upper lip at this semblance of exercise.
The television, already thunderous, grew still louder, the two men on the screen discussing the Orioles’ season with hurricane force, drowning out the incessant pounding.
“Some people are so inconsiderate,” she said to Herb. Herb merely stared at the screen before him. He’d been hard of hearing when she met him and the years hadn’t made it any better. The television was normally loud when he watched; now, with the added volume and pounding from the door there was no way he would ever hear her. He simply watched as the two men on the screen turned toward the display behind them to point out the player’s batting averages displayed there. The top of the screen said “SportsCenter”, and they discussed the Orioles’ playoff chances this year at the maximum volume the television would allow.
“You gonna eat these?”
She waved a nearly empty bag of Doritos in Herb’s direction, unsurprised by his lack of reaction: Always a focused SportsCenter viewer, as his vision and hearing deteriorated he’d become almost trance-like when watching TV, a form of tunnel vision blanking out all distraction. She shrugged, a second avalanche of crumbs tickling her gray, sagging legs, and shoved a Dorito into her mouth, angling her jaw to make what use she could of her five remaining teeth, slowly masticating the salty mass of fried corn.
“I think they could go all the way this year,” she shouted from the side of her mouth, trying not to spit moist Dorito into her lap as she strained to be heard over the nearly tangible sound already present in the hot, dim room.
Herb just watched SportsCenter.
A sudden crash from the hallway, a blast of sound loud enough to startle Liz. The chip currently on deck fell from her twitching fingertips to fall down into the depths of her chair cushions, but she never saw it go. Her attention was focused on the small crowd of blue-uniformed men that surged into the room, the first of whom had a chunk of what was recognizably her front door sticking to his uniform shoulder.
“Wha …what? What’s going—” was as far as she got before that first man reeled back, a hand over his mouth and nose.
“Oh my God!”
They fell back in a wave, each police officer staggering back, crying out and pawing at their faces like dogs. She heard the first of them to leave retching and gasping in the cramped little hallway, a couple of them emitting a terrible gargling noise followed by a splash. The man who’d started the rout didn’t make it to the hall, a knot of bodies blocking the door as they struggled to get out to the relatively fresh air; he leaned a hand against the wall next to the jammed portal, his palm pressing against the peeling wallpaper as, doubled over as if in terrible pain, he vomited copiously onto his own shoes.
Liz never moved from her chair as they came back into the room, most of them wearing some sort of filter masks over their lower faces. She might have gotten up, might have worried that there were men in the room now and she wore nothing but a t-shirt and her panties in the heat, but she did not. She was sixty years old and just too damn hot to care. She was more angry than anything else — SportsCenter was still on, for Christ’s sake! She demanded to know what was going on, but they ignored her questions. Two of them came to her chair, checking her pulse with latex-gloved fingers, slipping a blood-pressure cuff on her arm as she thrashed in her chair, trying to slap each of them away in turn.
The rest of them gathered about Herb’s chair.
“Oh my God,” said one voice.
“It’s the heat,” said another. “He’s started to mummify.”
“But it looks like he’s growing right into the chair! What the hell is that?”
“You leave him alone,”Liz cried, shoving away yet another curious hand. “Herb!”
“He was starting to liquefy in the heat, before the mummification set in. That’s what dried out the rest of the remains so fast— all the fluids just sort of… fell out the bottom.”
Liz went berserk, finally trying to rise from the chair, screaming for them to leave Herb alone, but the curious hands became restraining hands, and though she strained and heaved she was leaned forward, arms pulled back. Cuffs were applied. Suddenly there was a face shoved into her own, the filter pulled down to hang about the officer’s neck as he got right up close and barked his question.
“Ma’am! Your husband’s been dead for at least three months! Why didn’t you tell anyone? Was it the checks? The Social Security checks?”
Shocked, Liz drew in a mighty breath, her bellowed answer flinging spittle on the young man’s face as tears finally rolled down her own.
“He was the only one who ever watched SportsCenter with me! The only one! I just didn’t want to be alone!”
The officers stared as she wept.