by Brian Riggins
Starting didn’t accomplish much. I took everything out of the first box and inspected the contents piece-by-piece, resisting the urge to reminisce or get distracted. Everything looked fine. Everything smelled fine. It was just a box of the kind of junk stuff a person accumulates throughout their teens and 20s, and now it was spread out on the floor of my otherwise-empty guest room. “Nothing to put away here, I guess,” I mumbled. I packed everything neatly back into the cardboard box and pushed it up against the wall. “One box down,” I said, walking back into the living room. There were at least thirty boxes waiting for me. We had hardly unpacked. Shortly after we moved in two months ago, and Lucy decreed that we weren’t going to unpack, because we wouldn’t be here long enough for it to matter. The lease we signed was for 18 months. Now, here I was, unpacking in the middle of the night while she slept. The few pieces of furniture we did have looked lonely. The apartment was silent, which was nice, because that meant at least most of the flies were dead.
The first bunch of flies showed up before the smell. There were three or four of them, clustered around the window in the middle room. They seemed bizarre and alien, buzzing and butting against the glass. Within a couple of days, there were dozens of them in every room and a smell so awful and pervasive that Lucy spent her days barricaded in our bedroom with a dirty t-shirt tied around her mouth and nose doing crossword puzzles.
“I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable, but you know that one of the signs of an evil spirit is unexplained awful smells, right? Maybe what you need is an exorcist.” While he was speaking, my buddy Andrew’s face shifted from earnest concern to a shit-eating grin.
“That’s not helpful.”
“I’m just putting it out there. You’re sitting here smelling all of your worldly possessions, right? And so far, all of them are fine. All I’m saying is, you can’t rule it out—this could be something spiritual.”
“Okay, that’s fine, but it’s a miracle Lucy hasn’t already tried to bring a priest in here to fix this, and…listen, I just don’t need that.” Both of us knew that I was right.
The apartment building had two property managers. Both of them were named Tony. One of them looked like a kindly grandfather, and the other one looked like a guy who spitefully kept every ball that ever went over his fence. Without ever discussing it, we fell into calling them Good Tony and Bad Tony. In 18 months, I never saw them together a single time, and I started to pretend they were two facets of one forgotten god living out eternity managing a building in Chicago the way they used to manage whatever they were a god of. When the smell got bad enough to waft out of the front door, Good Tony called and asked if everything was okay. I told him we were fine, and we had no idea what was causing the smell. The next morning, I caught Bad Tony cupping his hands over his eyes to look into our kitchen window before dawn. When I asked him what he was doing he launched into a tirade about how if we couldn’t keep the apartment clean, we couldn’t live there. He said that if we didn’t get rid of the smell by the following Sunday, he was going to hire very expensive cleaners and stick us with the bill, then he was going to hire a lawyer and start the process of evicting us.
I told Tony that I was convinced that there was a dead animal trapped in the walls, but how could I be sure? When he was peering into the apartment, Tony had seen the dozens of sealed cardboard boxes and assumed that something was dead or rotten in one of them. I couldn’t blame him for suspecting the boxes, because I would have, too. Except, the smell had started on the opposite side of the apartment, by the easternmost wall near the kitchen. When I smelled it, I had bleached the daylights out of everything in the vicinity and left the back door open for a day and a half to air the place out. As the afternoon wore on, the smell of chlorine subsided and the rotten smell washed back over the room like a wave of nausea. It was stronger now.
I called Andrew and made a plan. One final intense inspection of everything in the house, and if that didn’t work, I’d give up and face the The Tonys. We had tickets to a White Sox game that night at the Cell, and Lucy begged us to go with her to maintain a feeling of normalcy in her life. Chicago lost, but there were fireworks. When we got home, Lucy went to bed and Andrew and I started in on the apartment. Some boxes, we unpacked. Other boxes got sniff tested and stacked in the second bedroom, which we had closed off and aired out earlier in the day. Andrew also tried to find proof of something dead in the walls, sniffing at the baseboards and unscrewing electrical socket covers to no avail.
We were already tired when we started, and by 2:30 or so, we were exhausted. We had mostly acclimated to the smell at that point, which made it hard to perform an adequate sniff test. We decided to walk to McDonalds and get some fresh air. When we got outside, the air wasn’t just fresh; it was almost sweet in our lungs. As we walked down the street, I wondered out loud if we had turned off the lights. Andrew stopped and said, “Okay, don’t move, and don’t look back at the apartment.”
I froze. Ice flooded my veins. “Why?”
“I just turned around to see if the lights were on, there’s a tall thin guy with dead eyes in a suit standing in the middle of the apartment.”
“Oh my god, Andrew, I’m really not in the mood.”
He kept going, completely serious. “He was just standing there with a dead expression on his face, staring out the window, and then he made direct eye contact with me and dissolved into a fucking cloud of fat, black flies.” At the end of his sentence he broke into moronic laughter.
“Dude, fuck you.” I said, “I’m going to get evicted.”
“You’re not going to get evicted, you’re just going to have to put like a thousand dollars’ worth of apartment cleaning on your credit card, and eventually you’ll actually drown in and it’ll be fine, just like the rest of us! We all float down here.” We walked in silence while I tried to stay angry for a few more seconds. “Come on, though, what if Fly Man was real? That’d explain EVERYTHING. The smell, your inability to find a decent job when you moved here, everything that’s wrong with Lu….” That last bit hung in the air, but I didn’t take the bait. We walked into the McDonalds. When we got back, it was 3:30 in the morning. The smell was still there, and as far as we could tell the flies hadn’t coalesced into human form while we were gone. We decided to sweep the apartment one last time with our fresh noses, pushing all the furniture into the center of each room. Then, we’d clean as furiously as we were able to and go to sleep.
I was moving the furniture when I found it. Without drawing Andrew’s attention, I tucked it into an oversized plastic shopping bag, tied the top, and walked it out to the dumpster. Then, I came back in and continued cleaning. When Tony came in the morning, we wanted to convince him that hiring a cleaning service would be pointless. Inside, I hoped that we had enough time for the smell to dissipate. Even if it didn’t, even if the apartment smelled like the pits of hell, it would smell like the pits of hell plus lemons, and chlorine.
When we were done, the whole apartment was as clean as it had ever been. We collapsed on the couch in the living room, which was pushed unevenly away from the walls. Andrew wiped the sweat from his forehead on the front of his shirt. “I can’t believe we didn’t find anything. At this point, a poltergeist or Fly Man would be a relief.”
“Listen.” I hesitated, but just for a second. “I don’t want to talk about it, okay? But…like forty minutes ago, I found it.”
It didn’t sink in right away. When it did he was confused. “Wait, what? What did you find? The source of the smell?”
“Yeah. I’m pretty sure.”
“Was it’ Lu’s fault?”
I didn’t know what to say. “More or less, yeah.”
“You’re really not going to tell me?”
“Maybe someday. For now, I just want to go to bed.” So, he went home and I crawled into bed next to Lucy, too tired to shower.
When Tony showed up the next morning, his face was cold and unmoving. He admonished us for waiting so long to unpack, and I lied to him and told him the smell had just gone away as mysteriously as it started. I offered some half-hearted theories as to what had happened, but the way he looked at me, I could tell he knew he wasn’t getting the whole truth. When I moved into another one of his buildings seven years later, he didn’t remember me at all, and the fact that I had lived in that apartment had fallen off of my renter’s history. I suppose it’s possible he did remember me, though. Maybe he gave me a second chance? I still haven’t seen Good Tony anywhere.