Gerardo and I pried the door open with a crowbar and found Destino on the floor by the side of his bed over a pillow and a black blanket tangled around his purple, swollen legs. He lived in an efficiency apartment. Abigail, the property manager, summoned us into the office after picking up trash from the apartments’ property that morning. She said that Destino was six days late on his rent. It was unusual. No one had seen him all week.
He borrowed twenty dollars from me once a month when he ran out of money to buy lottery tickets, but he paid me on the first when he received his government check. Some mornings we picked up to ten scratch-off losing tickets that flew off his balcony onto the lawn. He sat on the balcony in the afternoons and when he saw us, he laughed and said that he came close to winning ten thousand dollars. We drank with him after work when we weren’t too tired by the side of the resaca river behind the apartments and we laughed at his beer belly jokes. Nobody had been inside of his apartment. He would not let anyone in, including us. And he was never in a bad mood. Residents often complained because he walked on the property shirtless and his shorts hung low to collect his mail. He was in his late sixties, bald, and ten years a widow.
We took one step in and like an unexpected punch to the gut, the awful stench forced us to take the same step back. The apartment stank of old cigar smoke and shit. We stood by the door for a couple of minutes and then we lifted the neck of our shirts over our noses. We looked like a couple of bandits. We made it to the end of his bed. A bed, a nightstand, and a lamp were all his furniture. Destino’s left arm was under the side of his head. He died in shorts, walking socks, and shirtless. He had rolled to the right and onto the floor, clutching the lamp’s power cord. A streak of dry drool was caked onto his left cheek.
“This will be the first time he won’t pay me back,” I said. “I lent him the twenty dollars two weeks ago. That was my beer money for this week. I was counting on that money. Shit!”
“You think he shit himself?” Gerardo said.
“Smells like it,” I said. “Are you going to check his pulse? Or his shorts?”
From under the bed came a whimper.
“What the hell?” Gerardo said. “It came from under the bed. What if the murderer is under there? You look under it.”
“The bed is like six inches off the floor,” I said. “I doubt a person will fit under there.”
The whimper came again. I knelt and stretched my left arm out under the bed. I felt a small, hairy ball, and then it clawed and bit my forearm. I leaped. “There is a fucking giant rat under there!” I put my arm under my shirt and started hopping. “I’m going to get sick! Look at all the blood! I’m going to die! I’m going to die! Tell my wife I never meant to cheat on her!”
Gerardo lifted the end of the bed with both hands over his head and a brown Chihuahua scurried out and hid underneath Destino’s legs.
“It’s a fucking dog,” Gerardo said, laughing. “You’re not going to get sick unless he has rabies. And who did you cheat on her with?”
“Never mind. I didn’t know he had a fucking dog,” I said, rubbing my wounds and feeling the heat of embarrassment recede from my face.
“Neither did I. I doubt he paid the dog fee. This guy hid that dog all this time and nobody saw it when they fumigated the apartment? This is going to upset the people at the office. There is shit and piss stains all over the carpet.” Gerardo knelt to check Destino’s pulse. “Call an ambulance,” he said. “And tell them to send a hearse, too.”
I dialed 911. They would arrive shortly.
“What’s with all the pizza boxes?” I said.
Ten stacks of twenty empty pizza boxes covered the wall on the other side of his bed. The sheetrock behind the boxes was torn down in random parts as if Destino had punched through them.
“I don’t care about the boxes. What I want to know is why he ruined the wall,” Gerardo said. “This place is a fucking mess. Abigail is going to be pissed. His deposit won’t pay a quarter of this. And look at the carpet! It still feels wet from all that dog piss. He could have at least bought a kitty litter box. This might fall on us because we hung out with him. I hope we don’t get fired. How am I going to pay for the child support? Goddammit. I don’t want to go to jail again.”
“I didn’t know you paid child support,” I said. “No wonder you’re broke half of the time.”
“Shut the hell up, man.”
“Are you going to close his eyes?” I said.
“Close his eyes?”
“They do it in the movies. Out of respect, you know. Plus, he was our friend.”
“This isn’t a movie and fuck him,” Gerardo said. “I’m not touching him again. He wasn’t that close of a friend. Throw a pillow over his face. His open eyes scare me. I feel as if he is listening to what we’re saying and he is getting upset. I sleep alone at night, you know.”
I tossed a pillow and missed. It landed on his stomach. Two paramedics and the apartments’ security guard Lorenzo entered the room.
“Goddam,” said the older bearded paramedic, grimacing. “Which one of you farted?”
“No one farted,” I said. “That is dog shit.”
“Waz su matta?” Lorenzo said.
The young paramedic with a stethoscope around his neck knelt by Destino’s side.
Everyone had the neck of the shirts over their noses.
“Waz su matta?” Lorenzo repeated.
“Can someone please explain to this man waz su matta,” Gerardo said.
Lorenzo spoke no English. I spoke terrible Spanish and so did Gerardo.
“Waz su matta?” Lorenzo yelled.
“Is this motherfucker high?” Gerardo said. “He keeps repeating the same shit over and over.”
“Just answer his question,” I said. “He smells like weed. Doesn’t he get drug tested every six months like the rest of us?”
“Not when you’re fucking the property manager,” Gerardo said.“
“Are you serious?” I said. “This fat frog-eyed, potato head motherfucker is…”
“You don’t pay attention, do you?” Gerardo interrupted me. “You would have to be blind not to notice, man. Who do you think messes up the bed sheets in the models? Do you think it’s coincidence that they’re seen in the property office on the weekends when they’re off? Wake up.”
“That whore. Just last week in the shop Abigail sucked my….”
“I want to meet Abigail,” the older paramedic said. “She seems like a very nice lady.”
We couldn’t tell if he was serious or smiling because he was covering half of his face like the rest of us.
There were stories about Lorenzo smoking weed in the mornings by the resaca. The Sergeant confirmed the rumor one afternoon as we drank whiskey and beer in his living room. He was a tall, skinny retired old cop who lived alone above Destino and whose first name we never learned. There was a beautiful lion mount on his wall and a buffalo hide rug on the floor. He was often seen standing by his balcony looking out with his binoculars. He said he was a Sergeant for thirty-five years. He showed us a disposable camera photo of Lorenzo, lying on the grass near the water, smoking a joint, and surrounded by five ducks, whom he fed bread crumbs from a plastic bag. Abigail hired him because he was her brother-in-law and he illegally resided in the United States.
“This man has been dead for about three days,” said the young paramedic. “I’m glad he didn’t shit in his shorts. I’d have one of you clean him up. Don’t you check up on your residents? Who’s responsible for this?”
“This is not a nursing home, man,” Gerardo said. “I never got paid a penny from his government check to babysit him, unless he owed me.”
“He owed me twenty dollars,” I said. “Who’s going to pay me? I have no beer money now.”
Gerardo picked up the dog and shoved it into my hands. “Here! Take that as payment. You can sell that dog for fifty bucks, easy.”
“Waz su matta?” Lorenzo said.
“He’s dead!” Gerardo yelled on Lorenzo’s face. “Esta morido! Look! Mira!” He tapped Destino’s arm with the tip of his boot. “Morido! Mira el room! Yo lose mi job! That’s waz su matta!”
Lorenzo crossed himself and kissed the crucifix on his keychain. He started to pray in Spanish. The funeral director and his assistant walked in. We could see the hearse parked backwards through the sliding door glass.
“What a mess,” the funeral director said. He stared and laughed at our covered faces. “Couldn’t anyone open the windows to let the smell out? Is he related to anyone here?” He looked around.
We shook our heads.
“Does anyone know of any relatives that we may call?” the assistant said. “Has anyone looked at his application to see his references? Has anyone made any phone calls other than to us?”
We shook our heads again.
“Then what are you doing here?” the director said. “Were you taking turns in performing CPR on this man with your shirts over your mouths? You can’t stand a little shit smell?”
“You guys need to get out,” the older paramedic said. “We need to put this man away.”
“Waz su matta?” Lorenzo said.
I pushed Lorenzo out and we stood outside by the door. A police patrol car parked in front of us and then two officers walked by us and into the apartment. A few minutes later Destino was pushed out in a shroud on a gurney. The dog started to bark in my arm and tried to squeeze itself out of my grip.
“Oh poor baby,” Destino’s young neighbor cried out. He stood by his opened door. “What are you going to do with that precious?”
“You can have him if you want,” I said. “Destino passed away and I don’t need a dog. I need one favor though. Please make sure you pay the dog fee today.
“I see.” He rushed toward me with his arms out and took the dog. “I need a little dog like I need a big dog.” He and his hidden partner, whom we didn’t know lived there too, took the dog inside.
The hearse, the ambulance, and the patrol car drove away. Many residents glimpsed and judged Destino from behind the crack of their Christmas decorated doors, a religious group from behind their partially opened bibles and on their way to church, and the in-debt educated from behind their expensive knowledge and vehicles. They projected better lives on the world screen by hiding behind their fake truths.
“It was only a matter of time before that man died,” The Sergeant said from above, holding the binoculars over his eyes. “There he goes in the inevitable vehicle of death. Too fat, too lonely, too depressed, too angry, too many dirty secrets. That man did not love himself. But, what man does?”
“We need the trash cans and some bags to clean up the mess,” Gerardo said, ignoring The Sergeant. “Especially the pizza boxes.”
“What about the wall?”
“We can’t do anything about the wall or the carpet,” Gerardo said, discouraged. “Not enough time to cover it all up. Everything eventually comes out to light. Abigail is walking this way.”
Lorenzo kissed his crucifix. And then we spread to our own destiny.