Leah Browning

The Body in the Bedroom

On our first anniversary, as we were sitting down to dinner, there was a knock at the door. We were working, that summer, as the managers of an apartment complex. My husband was a bit older than I was and used to taking charge. He was the first one to get up from the table.

At the door was a kindly man in his early seventies. Our apartment was small—little more than a living room-slash-eat-in kitchen and the bedroom—and he apologized for interrupting our meal.  

He and his wife had been expecting one of their neighbors for breakfast, but she’d never showed. Tonight, after calling repeatedly, they’d gone over to knock on the door of her apartment. There’d been no answer. 

Their friend’s bedroom was also along the wall of the outer walkway, though, and her blinds were askew. Through the window, this man had seen her lying, unmoving, in bed. Even when he tapped on the window—first quietly, then with more urgency—she didn’t stir. 

We had a master key. I blew out the candles and followed the two men outside and up to the woman’s apartment. As we walked past other apartments, I could smell other dinners cooking. Faintly, briefly, we heard a baby crying before being soothed somehow. 

My husband was the one who knocked on the woman’s front door, then the bedroom door, then went in. He felt unsuccessfully for a pulse. He found a telephone hanging on a wall in the woman’s kitchen and, after calling 911, remembered to call the owner of the apartments. He’s always been the type to keep a cool head.

The man who’d come to find us went home to his wife, who was a few doors down in their apartment, inconsolable. The EMTs came and left. Then, during the long wait for the coroner, my husband left to take care of some detail I can no longer remember. 

This was a long time ago. I was twenty years old, alone in the apartment with the body of a woman I had never met in life. 

It was not the first time I’d seen a dead body—it wasn’t that. It was more about the fact that I didn’t know her. It felt oddly, excessively intimate. 

We were alone in the apartment for a while, just the two of us. The layout was similar to mine, and I stayed in the living room, not sure what to do. There were magazines on her coffee table, but I didn’t pick them up. Even if the person you’re waiting with is a stranger, there’s not much you can do, or feel OK doing, while waiting for a coroner. Nothing feels right. 

Two men arrived with a stretcher. The dead woman was zipped into a thick black body bag and taken away. Later, we found out that she was scheduled to have heart surgery the following week. She was terrified and just wanted to enjoy her last few days before the operation—planning meals with friends, signing up for a painting class. She seemed to have died peacefully in her sleep. 

Later that night, when my husband and I returned to our apartment, we were gentle with each other. As you might imagine, the moment was lost, so we didn’t look for a matchbook and light the candles again. Still, we sat back down in front of the linen tablecloth and flowers and ate the cold food, because no matter what happens, the living tend to go on being hungry. 

Somberly, we undressed and climbed into bed. We were young then, and had no money to speak of. The dinner had been the extent of our plans.

Earlier that day, during office hours, I’d answered the phone at our desk in the lobby. An older woman and her husband had just moved into an apartment on the fourth floor. The previous owner had left behind a pair of twin beds in the single bedroom, and she wanted to know if we could come up and push them together. 

I sent my husband upstairs. He was dutiful man. He pushed the mattresses together so that the elderly wife could lie in bed with her husband. 

That night, we lay close together, without speaking. It was still our anniversary. Everything that had happened felt like an omen. Good or bad, though, I wasn’t sure. What did all of this mean for the future?  

We were just two people, still warm and living, on this earth. 

In the middle of the night, I woke, and I could see his profile, a faint outline in the darkened room. We were in an ocean of silence. Softly, I touched his cheek, and he went on sleeping. 

© Leah Browning

Leah Browning is the author of six chapbooks of poetry and prose and three short nonfiction books. Her fiction and poetry have recently appeared in Funicular MagazineThe Broadkill ReviewWilderness House Literary ReviewRiver and South ReviewBelle Ombre and elsewhere. 

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