A Death Over Our Heads

Susan called me at work yesterday afternoon. There was a nervousness to her voice that I picked up immediately and I feared one of our animals had been hurt.

“Joe’s passed away,” she told me. Joe was her tenant, the last of the three renters who occupied the house when she bought it in 1999. He lived upstairs since 1986. She said Joe’s brother was there and there were men in white coats and gloves and by the time I got home at 6 p.m. his body had been removed and all looked like nothing had happened.

I last saw Joe when I came down to the garage to help get the rest of the groceries out of Susan’s car Saturday afternoon. He was on the sidewalk talking with another man I didn’t recognize. I said hi to Joe as I started back up the front steps with the bags and he nodded back at me. Joe was HIV positive and in his 60s and in the last couple years his physical bearing had deteriorated significantly to the point of Susan and I wondering how much longer it would be until he needed hospice care. He moved slower and more stooped whenever I saw him and as of a few weeks ago I noticed a delivery of oxygen tanks standing outside his front door.

Joe’s brother said to Susan that he was told by the attendants that the death looked to be a result of natural causes and that given the condition of the body he may have expired sometime over weekend. Susan said she could smell the decomposition as the whitecoats struggled getting him out of the house. His brother told her he’d opened up the windows and turned on the air conditions to help air the place out. It’s weird to think of Joe’s body right over our heads for two days. Maybe more. And that he might have died while we sat watching television or grilling in the backyard.

Apparently, he was discovered earlier in the day by his weekly housekeeper. Whatever her reaction might have been it was enough to alert our neighbor Ralph across the street who phoned the police and Joe’s brother. The police came, as did the coroner. I’m guessing the whitecoats were mortuary personnel. Ralph told Joe’s brother that when he last talked to Joe he’d mentioned having trouble breathing.

I didn’t know much about Joe in the almost four-years Susan and I have been together here. The extent of our contacts pretty much involved passing each other on the way in or out. Our longest conversations involved him complimenting the Halloween or Christmas decorations or telling me something that wasn’t working properly. I knew he could be a pain in the butt, but he was the type of person that would vent his frustrations in a letter or an email or a voicemail message about Ranger’s barking or a malfunctioning heater other such matters and then follow up with an apology the next day. Most months that he paid his rent, he’d adorn the envelopes with a happy face. He’d worked for the city painting out graffiti. He had a pizza delivered Friday night. He drove an increasingly dinged-up Dodge Neon. He walked with a cane. He like the colors we painted the house last year. On occasions recently he took to listening to the TV with the volume way up. There’s an old Univega bike of his down in the basement.

Joe played a part in Susan and I meeting. He’d taken the picture of her that she’d posted to her match.com profile. It was taken from above, with her looking up into the camera and the light vibrantly illuminating her blond hair. In one of his missives sometime after I moved in during the summer of 2004 expressing his outrage over a rent increase or similar matter he even took a modicum of credit for our relationship because of that snapshot as if it somehow should exempt him from such things. I’m pretty sure he said he was sorry for the outburst shortly thereafter.

Joe’s brother said he hopes to have the place cleared out in a week or so. I can only imagine what a chore that will be packing up and moving 22 years worth of stuff, emotionally as well as physically. And in the meantime, Susan and I are obviously shellshocked not only at the reality check that comes with death, but one that happened so close to home.

Rest in peace, Joe.

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Will Campbell arrived in town via the maternity ward at Good Sam Hospital way back in OneNineSixFour and has never stopped calling Los Angeles home. Presently he lives in Silver Lake with his wife Susan, their cat Rocky, dogs Terra and Hazel, and a red-eared slider turtle named Mater. Blogging since 2001, Will's web endeavors extend back to 1995 with laonstage.com, a comprehensive theater site that was well received but ever-short on capital (or a business model). The pinnacle of his online success (which speaks volumes) arrived in 1997, when much to his surprise, a hobby site he'd built called VisuaL.A. was named "best website" in Los Angeles magazine's annual "Best of L.A." issue. He enjoys experiencing (and writing about) pretty much anything creative, explorational and/or adventurous, loves his ebike, is a better tennis player than he is horr golfer, and a lover of all creatures great and small -- emphasis on "all."