When I found Iris Perez sitting stiff and upright on the toilet in her tiny apartment’s closet sized bathroom it had to be eighty-nine degrees inside. Her eyes were open—petrified, and had faded from deep, river stone gray to a tarnished stainless steel, and her body seemed to be darkening, as if the color in her iris had leaked out into her bloodstream, pigmenting her withered skin. Her mouth was gaping, like Death had wrenched open her jaw with both hands, and shoved his boney arm down her throat to drag the soul out of her chest, and her face was twisted in such a way that her chin and nose were pointing in contrasting directions, as if the bottom and top halves of her jaw had tried to escape simultaneously, ultimately choosing opposing routes.

 A good three minutes passed before I could pull my eyes away from her face, her expression of unrelenting horror, and I only did so to peer over my shoulder, and ensure Death had not lingered to take another.    

Luzmira, the social worker for our elderly housing building, called to me from the apartment’s entrance, and I realized how long I had lingered in the bathroom’s threshold. I spun around, and approached her slowly, trying to muster up as somber an expression as I could before reentering the living area. I rounded the corner, and saw her standing at the front door, exactly where I’d left her. As our eyes met I clenched my teeth, and shook my head.

“She’s dead,” I told her. The words came out a near whisper; somewhere in my subconscious I didn’t want Iris to hear me, in case she hadn’t realized.

“What?” Luzmira asked, in her thick Peruvian accent. “Are you sure? How do you know?” I had heard these exact questions the month before when I found Carlos Martinez sprawled on his living room floor with his signature red baseball cap pulled just over his eyes, as if he’d been prepared for death. Luzmira had even offered the same level of disbelief when I’d told her about the tenant who’d thrown himself from his eighth floor balcony.

“But… did he die?” she had asked.

“It was the eighth floor,” I had repeated.

So this time I skipped straight to the answer that always satisfied her incredulity.

“Take a look.” I waived a hand inviting her into Iris’s apartment. Luzmira examined the doorway, and shook her head.

“I’ve never seen anything so dead,” I assured her, and headed back inside to turn on the air conditioner. Then, I called 911.

When we’d find our tenants’ corpses, locked up in their apartments, it was always stiflingly humid inside, as if their souls, having escaped through their open mouths, crashed into the dusty popcorn ceiling, like helium balloons, and burst into a billion heat particles, leaving behind a cold, stiff shell, and a sour funk. The smell wasn’t decay; they usually weren't dead that long. That is, the odor wasn’t directly from the decaying of a dead body; more-so the gradual decay of a live one. It was the smell of neglect, and the heat only amplified the stench.
Opening the doors to those apartments was like peeling back the rubber cover off of sealed Tupperware, after you’d forgotten your lunch in the trunk of your car. Sometimes the smell would seep through the space underneath the door, and travel down the narrow hall towards the elevator. Sometimes it would board the elevator, and spread throughout all ten floors of Council Towers’ elderly housing complex. Each time the smell screamed for attention. Most times, it was too late.

I leaned against the kitchenette counter as police officers began entering Iris’s apartment, about twenty minutes after I had made the call. Luzmira had long abandoned the scene when the first, a tall, stocky uniformed officer, entered, talking on his cell phone. Upon recognizing me, he followed my nod down the hall towards the bathroom door.
“Yeah, come on over,” I heard him tell the person on the other end of the line, as he peaked in the bathroom, scrunched up his face for a second, then headed back towards me. “I’ll be here,” he said, smiling. He closed the phone, and reached for his radio, speaking briefly with a dispatcher, before starting in on the usual questions.
“What’s your name again, man?” he asked, pen and pad poised.

We were right in between “I’m just the Admin,” and “because the neighbor smelled something ‘iffy’,” when a busty young female officer in uniform entered, and I suddenly became the third wheel. When a young detective in a white dress-shirt and tie showed up a few minutes later, the couple was already seated on the dining room chairs, deeply engaged in station gossip.

The male officer stood up to join the detective, as he entered, and I could see his pit-stains were now joined by a damp, oval blot on the back of his navy-blue shirt. With four live bodies now sucking up what cool air there was, the officers’ eyes began repeatedly darting towards the thermostat.

“They don’t like the cold,” my property manager used to tell me. “Their blood is thinner…Or maybe it’s their bones. I always forget.” But as I leaned on the counter watching the police mill around Iris’s apartment, a different idea began to swell in my mind.

This has to be the most people this apartment has seen in years.

The two policemen began discussing how long Iris could have been sitting there atop the toilet, as they took turns entering and exiting the tiny space. The policewoman remained seated quietly, elbow on table, palm bent under her chin, uncomfortably awaiting her companion’s return.

“Couldn’t have been more than a few hours,” the patrolman said.

The detective said, “I don’t know, she’s pretty stiff already.”

“The rigor mortis sets in like that, though.” The rebuttal came with an enthusiastic snap.

“Really?” the detective asked.

It’s like they’re discussing car parts, I thought. Or something they saw on Animal Planet. I imagined the officers with beers and cocktail glasses. It’s like a perverse party.

The detective returned from the bathroom and said “Yeah, she’s pretty dead, I think. What do you usually do in this situation?”  His childish look of amusement dissolved as I looked back at him.

“Call you,” I answered.

“Shouldn’t you call her family?”

“That,” I informed him, “would also be your job.”

Her family, I thought, flipping her file back open. Where was her family? Her file contained only a nephew’s phone number with an out of state area code, and a document certifying that she had donated her body to the University of Miami for research.

I observed the detective, who was now crawling on his knees beneath the glass dining table, searching for clues, and again I shook my head. This is her family: a playschool detective, and the couple patrolling for love. And this would be her wake.

I noticed the female officer peering over my shoulder, and it wasn’t until she mouthed the word “pretty” that I realized she wasn’t staring at me. I followed her gaze to a large portrait of an unwrinkled, blonde Iris hanging on the living room wall. Her lips were pink, plump, brimming with vitality. And her eyes weren’t gray, according to the portrait. They were blue.

From all fours, the detective said “I wouldn’t have pegged her for a blonde.”

I thought, maybe Iris would have wanted it this way. She’s finally getting her attention. Maybe she turned off the air so that we could find her quicker. Maybe, this was her last call for company.

Jonathan Phillip Escoffery is the 2009 recipient of Florida International University's first place prize for poetry, as well
as the 2007 recipient of FIU's Honorable Mention for poetry, at the Annual Literary Awards. His writing has appeared
in the Women's Studies Journal, Making Waves, and the Lip Service Stories quarterly series.

Finding Iris is actually based on a real event that occurred while I worked as an administrative assistant at an elderly housing apartment building. At first the story was going to end after the first paragraph at “and ensure Death had not lingered to take another,” which may have passed for a sort of micro-fiction.

I am currently working on a number of short stories based on my experiences working at the elderly housing building where Finding Iris came from.


Copyright 2009