Bleach and lemon.
As soon as I set foot in the apartment, I realize something's off. It reeks of toxic solvents. Each surface is scrubbed aggressively clean. The tatami floor has been recently changed, too light against the yellowish halo at the edge of the walls. I shake my head and try to ignore the telling signs. It would be the usual studio apartment with attached bathroom.
A lone window. The opposite building's wall, crawling with air conditioners. Far above, the highway soars away like a sky snake.
The real estate agent is a little man with a bald head you could land a helicopter on, his suit is faded and his fingers smoke-yellowed. He's the kind of man who comes home to a family that doesn't love him. A useless father, who prefers colored pachinko slots to his tired wife. The kind who can't speak to his children without grabbing his wallet. He threw himself into work thinking of making a career with commitment. Had his manager asked to cut off his index finger, he would have said, "which hand?".
I don't know this for a fact but it could be true.
I let him talk a little to lull him in a false impression, letting him save face. Sure, this was not a complete waste of time. Appearances are brittle. It must be clear that he won't be renting this apartment any time soon, at least not to me. Without even asking, he nods that he's going to smoke, with permission, you know, thank you, you know.
I stand in the doorway of the empty apartment filling my nostrils with that particular fragrance of best-buy bleach embellished with an overly fake lemon note. I've lost count of the times I've suggested changing detergents. I'm certainly not the only asshole who recognizes this specific smell. If only we could chase away death with elbow grease.
Kodokushi is the solitary death of those who are left alone in their twenty square meters apartment and remain rotting for months before anyone realizes that something is wrong. Stink, stench and unpaid rent. Once I had to deal with the boy myself. The poor fellow had become a brown heap that melted into the canvas of the tatami, a dark patch of rot and maggots open like a wound on the floor, the last trace of what he was, the silent accusation of a forgotten dead.
The agency I work for makes sure that all traces disappear. Ideally the memory of the deceased should also follow suit.
I take a few steps into the apartment. I look for the story behind the halos on the walls, I guess which pieces of furniture have been cleaned and which replaced. I guess where the purification ritual has been held. That pro-forma done to kindly ask the spirit to dissolve without further disturbance. I try to understand if this place has been cleaned by someone from my company or by our competitors. Silly hobbies. I don't take work home with me, and I certainly don't see myself sleeping in the footsteps of anyone who died in here.
The window has an old white lacquered handle that still opens: I open it wide onto the narrow alley and let some air into this lemon sarcophagus. Twenty meters below me there's the asphalt ready to hug a desperate body. It only takes a handful of seconds to take the leap. Better to be left rotting in silence.
But the majority of these lonely dead have a sense of social shame and would never agree to bother, to forcefully remind the world of the end of their existence by littering public soil with human remains.
No – theirs is the way of death at home, slow and dripping, an inconvenience reserved to very specialized workers. People like me, borderline outcasts. We silently clean the piles of newspapers and used diapers, empty bento boxes and sweat-encrusted linen. Sultry days without air conditioning. I close the window.
The real estate agent has finished his cigarette. He's back standing in the doorway with those piggy eyes and knows that I know. For a moment he looks at me and whispers something almost sincere.
"Sometimes you just can't pretend, huh"
I realize too late that we are two links in the same chain that leads the houses of the dead to find new tenants, then more dead. I get a misplaced sense of camaraderie out of it, but it exists for the short span of a breath. We're pieces of a system. We could both end up like this, like the anonymous tenant of apartment 54 in tower three, forgotten and rotten in a room.
The agent would only need a final disagreement with his wife and he would be free. Free to live between work, pachinko and bars until retirement. Until, eventually, any social network dissolves. For me, even less. I'm just one trigger away from cutting that weak link to the outside world. A sudden illness. A psychotic break, maybe.
Like all revelations, this too grows stale in a second. Nothing binds me and this man, neither empathy nor compassion. He lets me into the hallway and closes the door behind him. With little conviction he gives me a business card, in case I want to visit some other place where a body has melted. I'm forced to reply with a card of my own.
Free, I can go back to the street, a ghost in the first crowded train.