The Missing Apartment
The events began with the bankruptcy of the multimillionaire Harold Rockford, real estate mogul of the late Nineties. I guess in truth the events probably began before Rockford’s bankruptcy — maybe it was the deregulation of the banking laws in the Eighties or the death of Rockford’s shut-in aunt in the Seventies who bequeathed him a small brownstone in the Lower East Side of New York City.
Due to Rockford’s bankruptcy, a 20 story apartment building standing in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood was being sold to satisfy Rockford’s many creditors. The apartment building was nothing special. Ask an individual to draw an apartment building and the person will draw Rockford’s generic building — typical rectangular, black framed windows symmetrically inserted in its box-like, khaki brown facades. In the process of the sale, I, a pion at a small law firm representing a creditor who bought a sliver of Rockford’s debt, was asked to review the accuracy of the apartment building’s valuation. In comparing the old valuation done in the Nineties and the most recent valuation, I noticed that the recent valuation omitted one unit — the old valuation noted that there were 260 units while the new valuation noted 259 units. Normally, such discrepancy would nearly be inconsequential to the entire deal, but our client, who was due only a sliver of the proceeds from the sale, was adamant that everything should be accounted. I was then tasked to find this missing apartment unit.
In the summer of 2010, I think it was July, I was sitting on a concrete step leading to the entrance of the apartment building, waiting for the super to come get me and escort me through the building. The super drew my attention away from my phone with a forceful cough, followed by a hard throaty hey. The super was a middle-aged Pakistani man dressed in a green polo and loosely fitted track pants that sagged to the side where he kept his keys. The super waved his hand, signaling me to follow him into the apartment building. The lobby was as generic as any other lobby — in the corner there was a grey upholstered couch with a brown, cheap wooden side table adjacent to one of the couch’s arms; rows and rows of mailboxes in a recessed wall; and a rug, which despite its intricate colorful pattern, was oddly bland and generic. Beginning from the first floor and ascending the building, I kept count in a small notebook of the doors marked with unit numbers. The halls were laid with brown twist pile carpeting. It was hot and muggy in the hallways, and I started to sweat through my cheap, oxford blue dress shirt after the second floor. My companion was mostly silent throughout the count, and any attempt at conversation was stopped short by his yes’s, no’s, good’s, and other one syllable responses. By the time I counted the last door on the topmost floor, my hair and my shirt was soaked with sweat while the super appeared to have not sweated at all.
I stated, “I am sweating like crazy.”
To my surprise, the super said, “My body can handle the heat.” I felt oddly triumphant that my escort said something more than a word in response.
“So I counted all the units and it only came out to 259 units. Is this all the units?”
“Hmm. You think there could be a door without a unit number?”
“Well. I guess we have to open all the unmarked doors. We’ll just make our way down. Ok?”
So we began checking the unmarked doors. I knocked and if there was no answer, the super would open the door with one of his many keys. Some doors opened to small maintenance closets, others to electrical rooms, and others to the trash room. Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary. As I sweated more as we descended down the apartment building and my companion stayed dry and silent, I did consider the high possibility that the original valuation documents had a typo, or it failed to note a merger of two units.
On the fourth floor, we arrived at a door four doors down from the elevators and four doors down from the west wall. It looked like the other doors absent unit numbers. I knocked. The knock was somewhat different than the other doors. It sounded hollow. No one answered. The super inserted a key into the silver doorknob but it didn’t turn. He then tried another key, then another key, then another. The super quizzically stared at his keys and then the door. “It doesn’t work?” I asked. He again tried all his keys but none worked. The super tried a third time and no keys unlocked this door. “Does somebody else have another key?” I inquired. “Damn,” the super responded. He grabbed the doorknob and shook it. He then rammed his left shoulder into the door. The door rattled a bit but it remained closed. The super released the doorknob and began walking to the elevator. “Hey where are you going?” I asked. “Locksmith,” the super answered. I noted the location of the locked, mysterious door in my notebook and followed the super to the elevator. I didn’t wait with the super for the locksmith. I gave him my business card and waved bye and exited the apartment building. The super waved back.
About three days after my visit to the apartment building, I was at the office, researching zoning laws, when the paralegal, Eric, a freckled young man with brown curls tied together into a puffy ponytail, dropped a newspaper onto my keyboard. “You are lucky,” he stated. I looked up from my computer and asked, “What? What are you talking about?” “Look at the front page,” he replied and pointed his stubby, large index finger at the paper. There on the front page was the picture of the super and besides his portrait a photograph of a murder scene. The photograph was black and white and was of a typical kitchen. On the tiled floor laid what appeared to be a woman, whose face and body were photoshopped blurry. There appeared to be blood on the counter and on the backsplash. Knives were strewn on the counter and on the floor. There was a pot that appeared to be boiling, and a frying pan that was smoking. “Didn’t that guy follow you all day?” Eric asked. “Uh yeah,” I answered. “Read the article,” he eagerly demanded. I began reading the article, but Eric interrupted before I was able to finish the first sentence. “Isn’t that fucked up?!” He exclaimed.
“I . . . didn’t finish . . . .”
“So messed up. I can’t believe you were with him all day. Was he like weird or something?”
“I didn’t finish reading . . . well no . . . he didn’t seem weird. He seemed nice. He was really quiet.”
“Oh, so one of those silent brooding guys that may snap any minute?”
“I don’t . . . I don’t think so.”
“Dude, I can’t believe he gutted his wife like a trout.”
“What? He . . . killed his wife?”
“You didn’t read the article? Yeah. Anyway, I guess while his wife was cooking he took a kitchen knife and split her open.”
“Yeah and that’s not the worst part. I guess she was pregnant too. Cut it right out of her.”
“Yeah. Messed up. And it gets worse. Supposedly threw the fetus in the pot. Then went onto the roof and jumped. But before he jumped, he supposedly took a fork and plucked his eyes out of his head.” My stomach churned, and I felt acid behind my throat.
“Holy moly. It said that in the article?”
“The fetus in the pot and the eye gouging?”
“No, it’s not in there. I read it in some blog I got from a link. But I believe it. The wife being killed and him jumping are in the article. You really should read the article. Anyway, got to go back to work. John is really riding me to get that contract ready. Just thought you’d want to know that you escaped death. Oh, by the way, the article mentioned something about a locksmith missing as well. That super probably gutted him too.”
Eric strutted off without appearing to have been impacted by the article at all. I stared at the super’s portrait in the newspaper. At first glance, he appeared to have a weariness and sadness to him. His dark sandy skin draped over his cheeks. His brown doe eyes stared out from the plane of the two-dimensional paper to my world, looking helplessly trapped. But as I further examined his oval face and followed his sharp nose to his thin lips that was surrounded by stubble, I noticed that one corner of his lips was slightly pulled upward. It was a faint smile, which seemed incongruous with his seemingly stoic persona and alleged crime. I felt sick then. The nausea crashed and spread from the swirling acids in my stomach to the back of my throat. And I attempted to fight the nausea, and my body shook and vibrated. Through the bouts of nausea, I inexplicably thought of the unit, the missing unit with no unit numbers, the unit four doors down from the elevator and four doors down from the west wall, the unit that the locksmith attempted to open, the unit that I was suppose to open. It called to me but that was silly I thought. Not dissimilar to the waves of sickness my body felt, I felt waves emitting from this unit, traveling through drywall, concrete, metal, wood, and flesh. It hummed loudly in my head, intensifying my memories of this missing apartment. I felt as if my belly was being ripped longitudinally from groin to belly button. My eyes felt they were being squeezed. The last thing I saw before I became unconscious was the super’s portrait — a picture of a man who was oblivious to the pain and violence that would befall him.
When I woke up, I was laying on the carpeted floor of my office. My crumpled suit jacket was propping up my head. My mouth tasted sour, and I noticed there was some vomit on the carpet next to me. I saw Eric and John looming over me. “Dude man, you okay?” Eric asked. “I think so,” I croaked. John, the partner of the firm and who was described by some as an a-hole St. Nick, declared, “Well, we called an ambulance, and it’ll be here soon. Why don’t you just rest.” “I’m okay,” I responded. “I said rest,” John ordered. “Man, I didn’t know you had seizures!” Eric said. “I don’t or at least I didn’t think I did,” I replied. John, who also seemed to be the perpetual bearer of bad news, stated, “There is also a police officer here who wants to ask you some questions about the murder at the Rockford building. Remember you are not required to say anything to the officer until you speak to counsel.” “Thanks John, but I think he probably just wants some background,” I commented. “Uh huh,” John remarked. He then turned around and shuffled out of my office.
The officer came into my office. He was fair skinned and had a band of freckles horizontally crossing his round face that was accentuated by a plump chin. Aside from his chin, he looked remarkably fit. He was simply dressed in a white dress shirt that had a pen stored in the breast pocket, khakis, and polished burgundy brown leather loafers. If it wasn’t for a badge and a 9mm holstered and attached to his brown leather belt, he could have fit in at the Gap. “Hi, my name is Officer Peterson. I hope you’re feeling better,” Peterson said in a strangely soothing way. “I’m feeling better,” I answered despite a dull throbbing in my head.
“Do you mind if I ask you some questions before the EMTs get here? If you are up to it.”
“Yeah, I think I can.”
Officer Peterson turned to Eric, “Do you mind if I speak to him alone?” “Sure, sure, yeah,” Eric hesitantly agreed. He then slowly exited my office while glancing over his shoulder in order to ensure there wasn’t a last minute request by the officer for him to stay. Peterson turned towards me and pulled a small notebook from his pants pocket and removed the pen from his shirt.
“Okay. Do you mind if I sit in this chair?” Peterson inquired as he pointed to one of the two guest chairs in front of my desk.
“Sure, go ahead.” Immediately after my consent, the officer spun the chair towards me and plopped himself down onto the chair.
“Hey, these chairs are comfortable,” Peterson commented.
“Yes. I’ve been told.” I recalled it was John who declared that the chairs were comfortable before purchasing them for the entire office.
“So I think you’ve been told that this concerns the murder at the Rockford apartment building, right?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Ok. I know that you were with the super for the majority of the day. From what time to what time did you stay with him?
“Oh umm I think from around 9 in the morning to about 1 or 2 pm.”
“Did you see anybody else with the super during that time?”
“No. Just him and me. Oh but the super was going to get a locksmith before I left. So I didn’t see the locksmith.”
“Why did the super go get a locksmith?”
“It related to a case I’m working on. I had to verify the accuracy of a document, specifically the number of units in the apartment building.”
“Why is a locksmith involved?”
“We checked nearly all the rooms and units in the building except for one, which was locked and the super didn’t have the keys for it.”
“I didn’t stick around because I had lunch plans with friends. I can give you the names and phone numbers of my friends if you’d like.”
“Sure. I can follow-up with you on that. So do you remember which door or room it was?”
“It didn’t have any unit numbers on it or any other designation. It’s on the fourth floor. Once you exit out of the elevator it’s four doors down from your right. Then it should be on your right hand side.” The officer scribbled the location in his notebook.
“Ok. Thanks. So what was the super’s demeanor during your time with him?”
“Nothing strange. He wasn’t friendly but he wasn’t also unfriendly. He was mostly silent but a silence that didn’t impress upon me that he hated me or he was angry. He just seemed to be a person who kept to himself and quietly did his work.”
“Did he tell you anything about himself? Where he came from? His family life? Anything at all?”
“No. He didn’t say anything personal. Well, he did mention something about handling the heat. It was pretty warm in those apartment hallways.”
“Nothing other than the heat, huh? Nothing about his wife being pregnant?”
“Uh yeah, nothing.” I felt ill again, imagining the knife tearing through skin, fat, and muscle until it revealed a semi-formed being that may or may not have squealed. I damned Eric for telling me the rumored details of the murder.
“Ok. You’re not looking so good. I hope you feel better, and I’ll contact you if I have any further questions.” Officer Peterson looked slightly disappointed. The EMTs arrived as Peterson stood up. They put me on a stretcher and rolled me off. The stretcher squeaked loudly as I passed my coworkers who mostly looked curious rather than concerned.
Since my episode at the office, every night I dreamt about the missing apartment. It was oddly, exactly the same every single time. Nothing was altered, nothing was different from dream to dream. I was standing in front of the unmarked door. It was hot in the hallway and the air was thick and smelled of dirt and rotting wood. I grabbed the silver doorknob and turned it and pushed the door open. There was nothing there — a void of pure deep blackness in which no light escaped. I felt frightened and I wanted to shut the door. I plunged my right arm into the void while I hung to the frame with my left hand. I couldn’t see my right arm and the void felt like nothing. It didn’t feel hot or cold. Nor did I feel a breeze as I swung my arm back and forth. If I had not remembered putting my arm into the void, I would eventually come to believe that I never had an arm. After a few minutes of frantically groping for the door, my hand struck the doorknob. I grabbed it and yanked the door shut. The door momentarily sealed the blackness inside. However, the blackness begun to encroach into the hallway through the cracks and spaces between the door and frame. The blackness did not seep or ooze like smoke rather it expanded from the spaces as if the colors of our planes of existence were being wedged apart by the dark. It encompassed me, I felt I was falling through the black void. In the void, I felt complete nothingness. I felt the identity of me was being slowly devoured by the dark. Despite my fighting, it eventually ate all of me. At that point, I awoke, covered in sweat.
I spent a little less than a week in the hospital. After all the tests, the doctors concluded my seizure was caused by stress. Without any resistance, I wholeheartedly agreed with the doctors’ conclusion, not because I believed them but because I needed to believe them. I didn’t discuss the persistent dreams with the doctors. Instead, I self-diagnosed them to be also a symptom of my stress as well. I eventually felt comfortable with these conclusions until the day I was discharged from the hospital. As I strolled through the hospital lobby, I heard his name from the television hanging in the corner. A name I wished I didn’t hear. I should have kept my eyes on the automatic sliding doors and kept walking, but I didn’t. I stopped and watched the midday news. The news anchor, a fairly young looking man who had salt and pepper hair trimmed into a crew cut and wore round wire rimmed glasses, reported:
. . . that led to a fiery crash under the “EL” tracks on Lake and Ashland. [The picture cuts to a Durango engulfed in flames. The other vehicle, a Corolla, has the front driver side completely obliterated.] Numerous witnesses reported that Officer Peterson was driving erratically prior to the crash that took the lives of three adults, including the highly decorated Chicago detective. [The picture cuts to Officer Peterson in his dress blues with numerous medals pinned on his chest.] When asked to comment, the Chicago police department declined but noted that this was an active investigation and any alleged misconduct would be fully explored and investigated. The surviving children remain in critical condition at a local area hospital. [The picture cuts back to the news anchor.] A crowd of protesters have surrounded the 47th Ward alderman’s office to protest . . .
I felt the Earth vibrate underneath me. I braced myself on a lobby chair, leaning my forearms on top of the chair’s back support. The vibrations moved up through my legs, intestines, chest, and finally my head, where it hummed. I licked the upper roof of my mouth, attempting to remove the sour, metallic taste rising behind my mouth. I shut my eyes and furled my brow in an attempt to mitigate the humming that seemed to get louder.
I smelled acrid smoke as if plastic and metal were being burned. I felt an intense heat all around me. I envisioned Officer Peterson unconscious in his burning vehicle. The flames writhed upward and over the officer. His skin turned red then black. It eventually bubbled and split as the water in his muscles expanded. His eyes popped and oozed, and his innards flopped out as the final membrane holding them in disintegrated.
“Hey, you ok?” A woman’s voice interrupted. The humming and my nausea suddenly ended and the visions of Officer Peterson’s death vanished. “Yeah. Yeah. I’m ok,” I replied. I opened my eyes and turned my head towards the voice and saw the hospital receptionist, a short, red-haired woman who was dressed in standard green hospital scrubs. “Are you sure? I can call a doctor,” she asked. “No, no. I’m really ok. Just had a little dizzy spell,” I insisted. “Okaaay,” she responded and walked back to the front desk. I straightened myself and knew where I had to go.
The apartment building was no more than ten minutes walking from the hospital. As I approached the entrance, I noticed a faint pink stain on the front sidewalk. I hopped over it and entered the building. The hallway was as it was when I first entered it — still bland and hot. I took the elevator to the fourth floor, riding it with an elderly lady who periodically glanced at me and back at the buttons of the elevator panel. Once the elevator door opened at the fourth floor, I nodded to the elderly lady and made my way to the missing apartment. As it was when I first arrived at the missing apartment, the door remained unmarked and unremarkable. Except when I turned the silver doorknob, the door opened. I pushed it open and stepped in, unknowingly letting the door shut behind me.
There was only one room. The floor was of pure white marble, and it shimmered even though there wasn’t any visible light source — no windows, lamps, or other lighting fixtures. The walls were made of grey limestone. In front of me there were three plain natural cedar doors in a row, the middle and right door were identical and the left door was nearly identical except for a large up arrow painted in crimson. I turned around and the door I came through was also cedar and had no handles. I pushed against the door I came through, but it didn’t budge. I pounded my fist on the entrance door but there was nothing but the echoes of my strikes reverberating throughout the room. I put my ear to the door and I couldn’t hear anything but my breathing. I was trapped. I wondered if this was punishment for knowing a glimmer of the missing apartment’s existence. I pondered for a while, or what seemed to be a while, on whether I should open the other doors or continue to scream and pound the entrance door.
I grabbed the right door’s silver knob and pushed it open and peered inside. In that right room, to my surprise, there was another room that looked exactly like the room I was in. It had a marble floor and grey limestone walls with three cedar doors in a row, but in this room the crimson arrow was painted on the middle door. I closed the door. I opened the middle door and looked inside. The room behind the middle door was also like the other rooms but the crimson arrow in the middle room was painted on the right door. I shut the middle door and opened the left cedar door with the crimson arrow painted on it. To my horror, the room behind the left cedar door was the same as the others except the arrow was painted on the middle door. I sat cross-legged on the floor. I felt the smooth, cold marble and traced my index finger on the streaks of soft grey lines imbedded in the stone. I did this for awhile, struggling with the idea that that there was only one true option — I had to go through one of the doors. I stood up, took a deep breath and exhaled, and then I entered the right door. Immediately thereafter, I entered the next right door. This led me to another identical room with three doors, one of which had a crimson arrow. I then entered the next right door that led me to another identical room. Then I entered the next right door that led me to another identical room. Then, I again entered the right door that opened to yet another identical room. There were endless rooms, one identical room after another. The only difference was the location of the crimson arrow.
As I passed one room to the next, I thought of the missing locksmith. Was he trapped in this labyrinth? I imagined the locksmith lying on the floor, exhausted from the days and weeks he traversed room to room and then finally collapsing onto the floor. One more door he probably thought. The next door was his salvation he probably thought. He crawled on his belly like a worm and he grasped the frame and silver door knob. And with the last bit of strength, he turned the knob and pushed the door open. He collapsed on the floor again and cried because he saw three cedar doors in a limestone wall and a marbled floor. The locksmith wept until he slept. The marble where he laid his cheek was wet and warm.
Presumably the super and the officer came in this maze and escaped. How many rooms have I gone through? I questioned. 10? 20? 100? Despite the numerous rooms I’ve been through, I felt I really never left the initial room. The only thing that changed room to room was the location of the crimson arrow. Suddenly, I realized that the doors with the arrows were a possible way out or a way into a more awful trap. So instead of entering the unmarked rooms, I hesitantly entered the rooms that had their doors painted with the crimson arrow. The arrows became darker in hue and the paint a bit wetter and fresher with each subsequent room. The paint didn’t seem like normal paint. It had no chemical odor, and it was thick and sticky. A faint hum began after the third or fourth room. It became louder as I delved deeper into the labyrinth. By the sixtieth or so room, the sound was all around me but I felt no pain. In the seventy-fifth room, the humming faded into the background. I also noticed there were staccato beeps interspersed in the humming. When I opened the seventy-sixth door, I didn’t find another identical room but a blackness much like my dream. And like my dream, the blackness overcame me and filled the spaces around me. I felt like I was either floating or falling. I heard no sound but my labored breathing. I saw nothing but one point, one dot of bright light. It grew as I tumbled towards it. The light filled my surroundings. It was so bright that I was as blind as I was in the darkness. But the brightness subsided, and I found myself in a hospital room; my feet firmly on the vinyl floor. I saw a thin, old man laying in a hospital bed. He was attached to many machines that hummed and beeped. I approached the old man, and I saw that he was awake. His face was oddly familiar. I felt a chill flowing from the middle of my back up to the back of my neck. The old man was me.
A face I saw every morning was drawn, spotted, and wrinkled. Old me had lost all his hairs on top of his head and the remaining hair was white and brittle. He was staring at the ceiling and the overhanging fluorescent lights. His thin, pale lips were pursing together and then separating. I heard faint noises coming from them. I cautiously approached him and placed my ear close to his lips. All I could decipher were “Rockford,” “green polo,” “my keyboard,” “polished burgundy,” “flames,” “crimson,” and “hospital” coming from his lips. Suddenly, the old me jerked up from the bed and began to shake and thrash. The machines screeched. The old me screamed, “All hope abandon, ye who enter here!”
He laid back down silent and his eyes shut. The nurses, who did not notice me, rushed in the room and attempted to revive him, but he did not re-awake. I realized this missing apartment foretold death. The super and Officer Peterson saw their unstoppable, written demise. Did the super see himself ripping his cursed eyes out? Did he see himself plummet to his death? Did the super out of madness and fear rip his child from the womb? Did the officer see himself burn? Did he decide he wanted no such pain and drank until he could feel no pain and to escape such hopelessness?
I exited the hospital room, and I found myself back in the hallway of the apartment building. I quit my job that day and for a time I wandered this world. A few times, I tried to take my life, but I was never successful. I lived this life hedonistically, piously, and in-between. Nothing lasted for me. I only saw fleeting experiences and temporary loves. I am now seventy-six years old, and I am dying and fulfilling what was written. I hope you can hear me and my story, but I know you can’t hear me even though you have your ear near my lips. If you had, I guess you may have tried to change something but that would have been futile anyway. The horror I felt since coming from that cursed apartment building was of the known — the guarantee that my life was set as if it was splayed out and embedded in marble. The horror chewed at me like the gnawing of gristle. My time is near. I feel my muscles quiver and shake and my gut wrenched into knots. I leave you with this, “All hope abandon, ye who enter here!”