It was the sound that stuck with me.
I was terrified to see Agnieszka’s face. She died in bed, her left leg bent, poking out from underneath the blanket, her little fingers clutching the frayed ends of the fabric. I knew she was dead the second I twisted the knob on her unlocked apartment and walked in alone.
“I ain’t seen Angie in three days,” Oscar said to me, with concern in his voice. “She was finna send me to the store last night, but she didn’t answer when I knocked.” She always answered her door—for him, at least.
I was both Agnieszka and Oscar’s case manager at the low-income housing project, an SRO. By no means was Oscar my favorite resident, but he was the one I identified with most. He wasn’t quite a man; he was more of a loser who happened to have male genitals—a complete doormat, the reason I saw myself in him whenever he dragged his bum leg and dopy smile into my office to talk.
To illustrate his character, one of the bullies in the building pulled down Oscar’s pants, exposing his bare, black butt cheeks for everyone in the TV room to see. Naturally, he was humiliated—I could see his emotions bright as day, when I reviewed the security camera the morning after the incident. Sheepishly Oscar pulled up his drawers and sat down to watch the football game with the rest of the guys, ignoring the gravity of what just happened. The aggressor laughed her ass off, pointing at Oscar; then she threatened to punch him in the nose. Oscar just looked around her, trying to see the score of the game. Nobody stood up for the victim because they were afraid their sweats would be around their ankles next.
“C’mon, Oscar,” I said, after I was done reviewing the cameras. “File a complaint. That was so embarrassing what she did to you. This is one of those times where you just need to grow a pair of balls and do what’s right—fill out the complaint form.”
But he didn’t.
And part of me was glad. Since he wasn’t following our building’s formal grievance policy, there wasn’t much I could do to rectify the situation. Rather than take action, I could sit comfortably in my office and let another bully go by without confrontation.
Oscar seemed to thrive in relationships with skewed power dynamics. Agnieszka, whom Oscar called Angie, had the personality to depants her neighbor in public, then taunt him to his face and threaten to punch his lights out, but she never did because her physical health was so poor. She gave guys like Oscar—especially Oscar—a harsh tongue lashing instead.
Do this! Get that! Come here! Stop slacking, you lazy crack monkey!
And Oscar would take it. He was Agnieszka’s slave, running errands for her nonstop because the Polish woman’s ancient body was broken from excessive exposure to war and alcohol. Feeble, she could barely move from her apartment, let alone maneuver the narrow aisles of a supermarket. That’s why she needed a loser grunt to purchase her groceries and schlep them up to her tiny studio, somebody she could yell at, boss around, and pay with shots of Vodka.
From the outside, it looked like a vicious, one-sided, give-take relationship, but Oscar was the only person Agnieszka trusted to enter her apartment. She didn’t even grant me, her case manager, access to her room, not even for bed-bug inspections or roach exterminations. She’d rather live with pests than deal with a human intruder.
That didn’t stop the old lady from cutting into me with her tongue as often as she could, jabbing me with malicious comments, calling me a pussy for not joining the military, and habitually reminding me that she should be my case manager, not the other way around. Agnieszka intimidated me, and I avoided her. Once she tried to dial a number on the community telephone in my office, but she kept pushing the wrong buttons, and somehow, it was my fault. She lambasted me for it, and I let her get her feelings out of her system without a rebuttal. She bullied me, and that’s why I was happy when I didn’t seen her for three days.
She looked like a witch alive, a ghostly pauper. Emaciated, her limbs draped off her body so frail, fragile, without any muscle, highlighting the skeleton beneath her flimsy, paper-thin skin. Just under her fiery hair was a chubby face, swollen from drinking—her only time-tested friend.
When Oscar told me Agnieszka wouldn’t answer his knocks—his special knocks, which only they knew—he surmised something was wrong. Similarly, I sensed that there was a problem and needed to do what all case managers have to do from time to time: perform a wellness check.
I pounded on Agnieszka’s door, and it rattled as if it were unlocked. It was, so I entered the forbidden space, giving me the creeps. From the doorway I could see the old lady tucked beneath her blanket. She looked dead; it was too eerie for anything but insects to be alive. Still, visions clouded my mind of her sitting up in bed, spraying me with fire from and AK-47 for breaking and entering.
Who invited you in here, you boney bastard!
I knew she was dead—she had to be. Still, I needed to pull back the blanket and see her face and confirm my hunch, but I was terrified, palms sweating. I didn’t want to see her eyes. What if they’re open? Glassy and hollow, she had seen so much: her mother and father murdered at Auschwitz, three tours of duty in Vietnam, as well as divorce and cancer, each twice. If her eyes were open, her life would play through them, I thought, and I would see her corpse every time I blinked or tried to sleep or closed my eyes to masturbate. I’d have to staple my eyelids to my forehead because the dreadfulness of her past would follow me everywhere.
I was scared.
I had to pull back the blanket, even though I saw two or three bedbugs scurry over it. There’s an unwritten rule that states: If you find a covered body, you have to roll the blanket back and visually confirm death. Never mind the blistering silence, the stillness beyond comparison. Those aren’t enough to state with confidence that a person has passed. Sight is king.
I grabbed the blanket, just north of Agnieszka’s own pasty, pale fingers, and I eased the sheet back, so as not to startle the deceased.
My senses heightened. Please don’t be open, please don’t be open, I chanted. I didn’t want to make eye contact with her. And for the life of me, I can’t remember if her eyes were open or closed.
All I remember is the sound.
Agnieszka’s tong was sticking out of her mouth, swollen and white with dried drool and foam. It pierced through her closed, tight lips and crusted to the blanket. When I pulled the cover back, I had to peal the threads of spun cotton off her tongue, creating a ripping sound that was furious—a fitting beginning to the woman’s death.
It sounded like a young maple leaf being torn slowly in half, like a bullet whizzing past Agnieszka’s head in ‘Nam, slamming into her comrade’s nose. He was standing two feet away from her, and she caught blood splatter on her face. She thought in horror, Why not me? Then two seconds later, Agnieszka was hit with shrapnel in her right femur. She cried, Why me? The ripping, tearing, gnashing sound of flesh and bone separating from each other created a wound that would label her as a cripple for the rest of her existence. The smell of napalm mixed with monsoon season had nothing on the microscopic sound of human skin shredding, cell by cell.
Some small threads of blanket were left on her tongue, but the deafening noise it created played in my ear on repeat.
Her tongue was so big. It looked like something that was cut out of a cow and packaged to sell for cheap at a market. One of those bristly, pinkish, whitish chunks of meat that appears soft and tender and gross. So big you can see the coarse hairs and taste buds that line the severed organ. I wanted to poke it through the cellophane wrapper, to play with it between my fingers, rolling it back and forth. Does it feel as spongy as it looks?
She was done bleeding, done hurting, done lambasting Oscar, but there were so many questions that sprang to life when I separated the blanket from her palate. Her life was a secret that surfaced only as a derisive query or bitchy comment—a mystery that was released by a sound that I alone received.
And now whenever I sit in silence or solitude, hers are the questions I ask. It’s her life I ponder, her stories that consume me. They’re all I hear. They nag at me and criticize me and never go away.
Why are you doing this with your life, breaking into old lady’s apartments and disrupting them in bed? Be a man for once and join the Marine Corps like I did. Maybe it’ll put some fuzz on your boyish chest.
And for the life of me, I can’t remember if her eyes were open or closed.