“Is she dead?”
I open the front door wider while my fiance peers out.
“I hope not,” J says, frowning. “We have to be at that thing in 20 minutes.”
“Or we can deal with the dead child doormat that has suddenly appeared in our hallway,” I suggest. He sighs and shuts the door; dead or alive, he’s not into kids.
We take turns looking through the peephole. The girl is facedown on the carpet, legs sprawled out, skirt awkwardly situated. I wonder who she belongs to. She can’t be more than four.
“Our hallway is disgusting,” he says, wrinkling his nose. “If she’s not dead now, the carpet will surely kill her.”
“Or the creepy guy downstairs will, or the rabid German Shepherd, or the sketchy Honduran hooker, or maybe one of the drug dealers….” I trail off. “Actually, in this apartment building, it could be anyone but us and the guy next door.”
We live in a dubious building* filled with a great number of things, most of them gross and horrifying. If our building was a man, he would spend most of his time smoking meth and trolling YouTube.
I like to think we’re the anomalies in this beige Seventies wasteland, but sometimes I fear we belong.
“Take the umbrella and poke her on the way out,” J says, putting on his coat. I glare at him.
“First let me grab the Sensitivity Award that was given to you by no one,” I snap.
“Are you sure?” he says, smirking. “It’s pretty heavy — I mean, as fake awards go.”
I open the door and look down; the girl still isn’t moving. Frowning, J nudges her arm gently with his boot.
“Hello?” he says.
The carpet smells of wet dog and old cigarettes. Cheap perfume and overcooked meat hang like dingy clouds in the hallway.
A bright eye appears from beneath a head of curly brown hair. Little legs kick and a giggle comes out.
“Hi!” is the cheerful reply. Another kick, another giggle.
The doormat lives.
“NO. NO SEX IN THE LOBBY.”
“Who are you talking to?” I ask, turning around. We’re the only ones there.
“NO-NO SEX IN THE LOBBY,” J says, raising his voice.
“I’m not entirely sure what “no-no sex” is,” I say, “but it sounds like something I might be too old and uncoordinated for.”
He points to the community bulletin board. Tacked to it is a note scrawled in angry black Sharpie:
“NO SEX IN THE LOBBY!”
Some joker, possibly the offenders in question, had circled the ‘NO’ in red marker and drawn a line through it; the international symbol for no made famous by smoking signs and Ghostbusters.
I take a picture of the sign and wonder who could have sex in a lobby. Especially one the color of a tan M&M.
“The sign has been efficiently negated with one small flourish,” says J, amused.
“So now NO SEX IN THE LOBBY means PLEASE HAVE SEX IN THE LOBBY,” I say.
“I approve this message,” he says.
“Job well done, note vandal,” I nod.
We ignore the condoms in the stairwell.
We notice the smell on the second day, but there’s no evidence until the third.
“There’s something nasty in the stairwell,” warns our neighbor on Day One.
“Fine, we’ll just use the elevator to move our stuff,” I say. “It’s dirty and unsafe, but yay, it’s also really small.”
I am not a fan of the elevator.
On Day Two, a sign on the elevator says Out of Order. J pushes the door to the stairwell open and reels back, knocking into me.
“It smells like a petting zoo meth lab,” I say, covering my face.
“Or goblin sex on a hot day, ” he says, running up the stairs.
“Been to a lot of Middle Earth orgies lately?” I ask.
Laughter floats down the hallway. I turn around to see our friend, H, holding a giant neon bong.
“Totally scored,” he says, grinning. “Free, by the dumpster.”
“So, free and neon and garbage?” I say. “But who would forsake such treasure?”
“It was in a baby stroller,” he says with a shrug.
“Wait, did you just take a garbage bong from a baby?” I ask with some concern.
He stops in his tracks and sniffs the air.
“Someone rallied a dead hooker in here,” he says, making a face. “Then ate some stanky cheese.”
“Goblin sex! Hot day!” J shouts from the second floor.
“PETTING ZOO METH LAB!” I yell back at him.
H points a finger at me and says, “Nailed it.”
Our neighbor doubles over, laughing. “But what is it? Where is it coming from?” she cries.
“I keep looking around for thousand-year-old head cheese, but no dice,” I say. We take the outdoor stairs for the rest of the move.
On Day Three, there’s a pile of pink vomit in the stairwell, underneath the rent check box.
“It looks like melted brain, both in shape and texture,” I say.
“What a thoughtful incentive for paying the rent,” says J.
“Babe, it’s DAY THREE,” I complain. “This does not bode well.”
A week later, our neighbor tells us again to avoid the stairwell. She says there are stains of an unknown nature, so we put on our shoes and go look.
Gone is the liquified pink brain matter, and in its place–
“Is that blood?” I say. “But there’s so much. And it’s so dark.”
The stains make me uneasy.
“Maybe a cat gave birth to a litter of baby…” J trails off and looks around.
“…velociraptors,” he finishes.
“More like an exploding cat filled with flaming cat-bombs mega-detonated in here,” I say.
“Same thing,” he says.
We avoid the stairs for a month.
Over the next year, random items appear like a nightmarish, neverending Hanukkah: dog poop, compost, chemical spills, urine, car oil, nail polish, rotten milkshakes, diapers, passed-out hookers, meat on a stick, and rancid clam chowder.
We eventually name it The Stairway to Hell.
“I set fire to the rain thirty-three times today,” I say when my fiance gets home.
“Impossible,” he says.
“THIRTY-THREE TIMES,” I say.
“Is rain made of gasoline now?” J says. “Are we the proud owners of a blow torch?”
“It’s not me, it’s her,” I say, pointing downstairs. “The asshole moves out and Adele moves in.” He laughs.
The couple in the apartment below us had broken up three weeks before. Ever since, it’s been afternoon sobbing and Adele’s ‘Set Fire To The Rain’ in surround sound. Sometimes the girl sings along, off-key, which just enrages me more.
“I don’t get it: The guy was a dick and his dog was, too. Bullet dodged, congratulations!” I say. “He’s not worth all the fuss.”
“Well, we certainly don’t deserve it,” says J. “And neither does Adele.”
“I know, she’s ruining Adele,” I complain. Once I’d heard the song a hundred times in less than three days, I couldn’t listen to her music anymore.
“One might argue that Adele’s music is created because of and specifically for this type of situation,” J says.
“Though this particular song seems to be about perverting the laws of nature,” he says, gesturing outside. “Rain and fire: not friends.”
“I guess I always hoped Adele learned about setting fire to rain at Hogwarts,” I say.
“I guess I always thought you knew that Hogwarts isn’t real,” he says. I throw my sandal at him.
“Shut your filthy goddamn mouth, ” I say. I’m a big believer in schools of magic existing in parallel realms. He shrugs.
“It’s not my fault, blame J.K. Rowling,” he says. “She created your precious Hogwarts and killed that useless Harry Potter–”
“HARRY POTTER ISN’T DEAD,” I shout, throwing my other sandal. He catches it and laughs.
“But you agree that he was useless?” J says, raising both eyebrows. “That a hot pink baby T-Rex would’ve been more useful to The Gryffindor Gang?”
“You’re not entirely wrong,” I say, “but I can’t take someone who uses the phrase ‘hot pink baby T-Rex’ in an argument seriously.”
“An argument that began with singer-songwriter, Adele, attending a fictional school for wizards,” he says. “I just wanted to make sure that was said out loud.”
From beneath our feet come the familiar sounds of a lonely girl setting fire to more rain. I point at him.
“Has she been eaten yet?” I whisper, listening at the door.
Every night we hear the sounds of an old woman being mauled by a foul German Shepherd named Taco.
“Soon,” J says. “And then we run.”
He’s used to this by now, but it still makes me queasy.
“Taco always wins,” I say, shuddering. Taco is an unwashed beast of burden sent from a land beyond Hell to the apartment right next door.
In addition to the dog’s overpowering smell, the old woman – nicknamed Taco’s Mom – is a fidgety, rambling oddball who attaches herself to people like a parasite. They are both to be avoided at all cost.
We hear the elevator doors open and the sound of a struggle. Like every night, she’s losing the battle before it even begins.
“TACO. TA-CO. TACO! TACOOOOOO! NOOOO, TACO, NOOOO,” she cries.
I flinch, watching her wrestle the 170-pound dog out of the elevator. He growls and barks like Cerberus, which echoes down the empty hallway.
“I wish she’d get him a proper leash,” J says with disapproval.
Taco’s neck has been the unlucky host to some of the world’s worst leashes: 30-foot sailor rope, rotary telephone coil, a dingy bandana chain, bungie cords strung together like the a sad barrel of monkeys.
“Yesterday she had him on a leash made from internet cable,” he says.
“She’s like 4,000 years old,” I say. “Where did she get an internet cable?”
“Today she was wearing it like a necklace,” he says, shrugging.
We listen for angry barking and the slamming of her door. The window in which we can leave lies between their nightly brawl and the time it takes for Taco to claim the place as his own, driving her back into the hallway.
“She can’t weigh more than a bag of soggy leaves,” I say. “He’ll lay waste to her like a Viking and then eat through the walls and go crazy on our asses.”
“We’ll be Taco hostages!” says J. Angry corn tacos holding us at gunpoint immediately come to mind.
“We are Taco hostages,” I say. “What do you think this is?”
I gesture to the sound of Taco’s Mom on the other side of our door, struggling to love a four-legged son that may eventually kill her.
“If we ever get out of here, let’s get Mexican food,” J says.
“Said like a true hostage,” I laugh.
Taco’s barking goes out of control as the old woman pushes him into their apartment.
The door slams, and we run.
*We currently still live in this colorful West Seattle building… and cannot wait to move.