And the Dead Were Lonely

Kabelo S. Motsoeneng

There were riots outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office at 450 Main Street on the hot summer day Hopewell’s body was found. He lived on the third floor of an apartment building made of bricks the colour of salmon; a three-story building located on a long, quiet street that was only loud at night and on Sunday afternoons. It was a two-bedroom apartment he had shared with his ex-boyfriend, Jeremy. For six years he had lived at 44 Lawrence Street, and for three of those years, he had lived alone since Jeremy left three winters ago.

Hopewell’s neighbours were prickly; they’d often complained about an odour which emanated from Hopewell’s place. When they saw him outside, on days the odour roamed about the building, they would suck their teeth and scrunch their faces, saying: “Man, that damn smell. What is that?” They complained of the waft caused by the tripe Hopewell bought and prepared whenever he missed the warmth of his mother’s kitchen. The neighbours were not bad people; they knew the smell would disappear after a couple of hours. Yet, on the day his body was found, it was not the smell of tripe – rather, a couple of days of rot.

When the odour of his death did get to them, the tenants knocked on Hopewell’s door and there was no response. They only heard the sound of the television in the background. Usually, they complained to Cole, the building superintendent, who was a lazy man with long hair and lived on the first floor; he barely attended to the tenants’ complaints – he’d say: “That’s above my paygrade!” That day, however, Cole took action; he stood with a crowd of his tenants begging Hopewell to open.

“Hope, man. Open the damn door,” he said. “There’s a funny smell coming from your place. We sick of this shit. Hope, man, open the fuck up.”

Soon after, Cole jolted downstairs for the master key. The rest of the tenants huddled around the door, some bruising their knuckles as they knocked. They knew it, even before the door was opened. The lingering smell of life having vacated the body; the smell of heat causing the skin to melt; the smell of muscles, tendons, flesh stewing away from the bones; the smell that alters language, when one no longer is but was. They knocked and knocked. Cole took his time. They wished it weren’t true, what they would see when they would enter. They wished Hopewell mistakenly left a rotting pot of tripe on the stove and went away for a few days; they wished Hopewell had gone somewhere else – that he had flown back to Johannesburg, or he had gone to see Jeremy, or to see college friends in Newport. As they knocked and waited on Cole, they wanted to believe, they needed to believe – there is a person, there is a body, the body has air, the body is a person. Instead, they all looked at Linda, the slim woman with green hair who sometimes shared a joint with Hopewell. They believed she had answers, as though people who were merely acquainted through puffs and small talk about Cole’s incompetence and shitty New England weather were real friends. They asked, “You knew him, right? You think he in there?”

“I don’t know, man,” she said.  “Shit, I hope he is.”

All went quiet when they heard the clicking sound of Cole’s keys and his feet thudding up the stairs. As Cole ascended the stairs, the neighbours made way and hung around the door frame. When Cole opened the door, the odour got stronger. They all covered their noses and mouths with their hands and the collars of their tops, searching for evidence. The stove was still on, two of the front plates burning, and the TV was on, the channel playing ‘The View’.

Hopewell was on the couch, he had swaddled himself in a blue suede blanket, and the fan on his lounge window rolled out cold air. Cole was the first to enter the lounge, and when he saw a small, white worm wiggle on Hopewell’s shoulder, it was clear what had happened.

Hopewell had been dead for four days and no one had come to look for him.

“Hope, man,” Cole said. “This can’t be real.”

“Fuck,” Linda said. “Hope, man. Man, man, man—” she began to cry.

“You know him like that?” one of the tenants asked, who had moved into 44 Lawrence three months prior.

“He was my guy,” Linda said. “Lived in this building six years. Went to Trinity – fucking smart, too. We were chill, ya know. Fuck. Hope’s gone, man. Anyone know who to call?”

They all didn’t know where to start or how to rid the smell. Cole called the police before calling the building owner, Sally, a short Chinese woman who owned a few buildings around the south and east side of Hartford.

It was sunset when the police arrived, all three white men asking questions.

*

His mother vomited when Sally called to tell her that Hopewell had died and that his body was found near decomposition. Sally told the weeping mother that the body was still at the morgue, that she would help send the body back to Johannesburg. Sally relayed how they had to crack through Hopewell’s phone to have her number. The distraught mother vomited again when she asked Sally: “Were you his friend?”

Sally replied, “No, I was his landlord. Hope was a fantastic boy – he paid his rent on time.”

Hopewell’s mother then asked, “Was he alone when he died.”

Sally hesitated.

Hopewell’s father had been dead for ten years. He had owned small shares at a mining company which helped the family a great deal when he died. She wanted to come to Hartford alone to find answers? Who killed my son, that’s what she wanted to know. She suspected that loneliness could have killed Hopewell, that he was so alone, that there was not even a single person with him.

Was he loved? Did he ever find love? 

In the flight to New York City, she sat next to an African-American woman who had almond skin and golden locks. She wanted to make conversation, but Hopewell’s mother had little chatter in her. The woman asked, “Is this your first time going to America?”

Hopewell’s mother had flown before; she was an African Studies scholar, with a degree from a university in the Netherlands. Every year she begrudgingly flew around the Western hemisphere to attend African Studies conferences, and she would always exclaim with her other colleagues that it was strange that an African Studies conference was held at yet another Western country. But that evening, flying in the 737 Boeing to JFK, she had no words. “I am going to collect my son’s body,” she said to the woman.

The woman had no words either; she held Hopewell’s mother’s hand as if the slight caress in itself was a way to say sorry. Besides, people never know what to do with other people’s grief. Hopewell’s mother knew her intentions when those words leaped out of her mouth – “I am going to collect my son’s body.” She wanted the woman to experience the same shock she had felt, the same agony she had felt, the same grief she was feeling – to vomit, to spit, to cry, to kick, to scream, to want tears, to desire death, to long to trade places with her son. She had felt all of this when Sally called.

Throughout the flight, there were turbulences and Hopewell’s mother wished the plane would just fall right into the middle of the ocean. Instead, the other woman next to her gripped to Hopewell’s mother’s hand. “Turbulences terrify me,” the woman said.

“You’ll be fine,” Hopewell’s mother said.

They arrived at JFK at seven in the morning. The lines at customs were long. She felt foggy, her head heavy above her shoulders; she also started to feel hot. She was still dressed as though it wasn’t summer in New York, having left winter in Johannesburg.

Her breath was faint when she finally made it to the front of the line. And when the marshal, a brawn white man with a child-like smile and ocean-blue eyes, directed her to his booth, Hopewell’s mother retrieved the folder with her documents. The marshal asked the purpose of her visit and she gave the same response: “I am here to collect my son’s body.”

“Okay, ma’am. Enjoy your travels,” the man said.

She was perturbed.

At the arrival gates, the bright summer light almost blinded her. And when she was outside, waiting for a cab to Penn Station, where she was to take the Amtrak to Hartford, the clouds looked charcoal and the air was hot.

On the train to Hartford, she bought coffee, took out her laptop and wrote to her department that she would be taking two weeks off. There was a family emergency, she said. She needed to piece everything together.

The coffee was bitter and devilishly hot. She started to smile when she recalled the time when Hopewell wrote to her years ago: “Ma, white people here drink too much ice coffee. It seems ridiculous, don’t you think, that ice and coffee could be one beverage?” Hopewell’s mother had warned him that white people are strange, especially white people who think they are better than other white people – those ones were not only strange, but also dangerous. All her politics came from the fact that she was in the Black Consciousness Movement when she was in high school. Hopewell knew who Steve Biko was even when his agemates in fourth grade had no idea of the man.

*

On the night he died, Hopewell had prepared gnocchi, asparagus, and red wine for himself. His mother knew that since he and Jeremy parted, three winters ago, he had been unable to find love. His mother thought about how full of life he was on the phone, saying, “I’ll see you on Christmas, Ma. And I will cook for you.”

And she believed him even when Hopewell had promised for years that he would be home for the Christmas holidays and never did. The other days they had spoken, she could hear how dampened in spirit Hopewell was on the phone. “What’s wrong, my prince?” she had asked.

“It is so lonely here, Ma,” he had said. He had never uttered those words before. I am lonely. This city is lonely. It has been so lonely and empty without Jeremy.

“Why won’t you come home?” she had asked.

“Besides you guys” – his mother, his brother David, his sister Sindi – “what’s there for me? I never made friends; I mean real friends. Some of my friends from high school are dead, and you know I hate suburbia.”

His mother was distraught when she learned she couldn’t take her son’s loneliness away. That his loneliness was so fat in his throat it suffocated him. She knew that Hopewell wanted to be loved –loudly, and not by the people whom he was born through and with.

Hopewell didn’t desire his mother’s love – he was sure of it. Nor that of his siblings. He wanted strangers to love him, to lay claim to him. He needed them to say: “Hopewell, you’re mine.” What a tragedy.

*

Sally was outside 44 Lawrence Street when Hopewell’s mother arrived. At the front of the building was a beige couch that smelled of bleach and had a large grey stain. When Hopewell’s mother climbed off the car, she vomited some more. It was the thought that her son took his very last breaths here – all alone.

Sally wore blue denim shorts, a white top, and running shoes. She knew it was Hopewell’s mother because she had the eyes of someone whose world had just collapsed. Besides, Sally had promised to wait for her. Not because she cared for Hopewell, not for expatriate comradery. No. Hopewell was a tenant like her other tenants, and his death was a sad occurrence. But people died all the time; people died in the buildings she owned and there would be a new tenant in by next week. Yet, those people had people – Hopewell had nobody.

When Cole came with a towel hanging over his shoulder, a shovel filled with soil to cover the vomit, Hopewell’s mother lifted her head to greet Sally, who helped her with her suitcase and a small bag.

She found the other tenants inside Hopewell’s apartment, and there were casseroles with hot food on the kitchen counter. For whom did all these people cook? The floors were clean, and the kitchen counters were pristine. They were all sad, even if some of them had never greeted Hopewell and Jeremy because they were a gay couple. They certainly never greeted Hopewell because he had a thick African accent, they also complained too much about his “food from Africa” which “stank up the motherfucking building.” They were all there with their I’m-sorry-your-son-died faces which accomplished nothing.

“Who found him?” she asked.

They all pointed at Cole.

“Ma’am?” Cole said.

“Tell me how you found my son.”

“The entire building stank, Ma’am. We thought Hope was good—”

“Hopewell. His name is – was – Hopewell.”

“Sorry, Ma’am. We knocked on the door thinking Hopewell was inside his apartment for all those four days. The TV was on – we all heard it. But the smell just didn’t go away. I got worried, you feel me. Hopewell was one of us. He was my boy. He was too damn quiet, but he was my boy. He bothered nobody.”

“When Hope said nothing…I mean, when Hopewell said nothing, ma’am, Cole then rushed downstairs to get the keys to open,” Linda said.

“Yeah, so I got the keys and the minute I saw som’ like a worm – yeah, think it was a worm. It was small, and I knew, damn I knew that Hope ain’t here no more. He was just sitting watching TV and he never woke.”

“Where was it, the worm – where did you see it?”

“It was on his shoulder, ma’am.”

“Tell me what you did next. What did you say your name was, young man?”

“Cole, ma’am. Name’s Cole McPherson. Building superintendent.” He said that title like it was the best thing he owned, the best thing to come out of his mouth.

“Tell me what you did next.”

“I don’t roll with the police like that, but it was instinct, ma’am. I’on trust them but what was I supposed to do? We called them and they were here. They asked us questions – questions like, did we see anyone leave his apartment? When did we know Hope – Hopewell – was gone? The next thing, the morgue came to collect him. You know he still had that smile he always had on his face, even when he been dead for days?”

“That was it? Who cleaned this house? It smells of bleach. That couch outside, did you find him there?”

“Yes,” they all said in unison.

She went into the bedroom and found that the bed was still made. She looked at his desk, which was at the corner, made of wood of a mahogany hue and found a phone book with his emergency contact details. Jeremy’s number. Jeremy’s mother’s number. Hers. Jeremy’s family house address. She went to the small closet he owned; there were stickers that divided it into two sections. Jeremy’s side was empty and Hopewell’s side had his ironed clothes. She found a picture of Hopewell and Jeremy plastered on the back wall. “He was so happy. My baby was so happy,” she said.

The other tenants remained in the lounge, not knowing what to do.

“My boy, my boy, my baby,” she wept as she held his ties – and sniffed him. The ties smelt of detergent. She left the closet, went back to the bedroom. She laid on the bed, like a starfish swimming in the water. “Baby,” she said. “Baby. Baby. Baby. Are you here?”

The house was quiet except for the fan Hopewell had left on the window that made a noise. She heard the oscillating sound of the fan and thought Hopewell was there with her.

When she awoke from crying, Hopewell’s apartment was empty and quiet. She went to his desk and dialled Jeremy’s number.

“Jeremy,” she said, “it’s Hopewell’s mother.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and told Hopewell’s mother a story

*

Man was always in his books; always reading or talking about reading. We met in the summer before our senior year. He was there because he couldn’t go home – no jobs, or whatever the reason might have been. I was there for summer classes, and we stayed on the same floor that summer. Hope was quiet, real quiet, never bothered nobody. I was in the library when he found me reading some book for my class the next day. “Library hours are closed,” he said, in that voice of his that was always so still it could slice you. “The other side of the library is open.”

“My bad,” I said.

I started to pack my shit, but then he turned to me and said, “My name is Hopewell.”

Man, he had the softest eyes, so sure of themself. He was the only boy who’d ever made me question myself. Man was so damn pretty. “Mine’s Jeremy,” I said. I stuttered when he shook my hand, his was so cold, even though we were in the heat of summer. I remember we watched TV on his computer that night. He liked medical and true crime shows; that’s what we would watch on the days when he was sad. I didn’t know what to do with his sadness. We ate ramen together and drank cheap wine from red solo cups. Hopewell read poems to me when we woke in the morning. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was his favourite poet. He said he read women because women knew the heart better, made him feel, and men wrote for other boring, bleak men.

When he confessed his love for me, it was the beginning of fall, weeks away from Halloween. I remember I didn’t talk to him for some days. It was scary, ya know, to be told by another man that he loves you. Sure, my Daddy told me that he loved me. Sure, he did love me, and I loved him. That you can say to your daddy. Here was this beautiful and smart man, who held me in ways I had never been held, who kissed my forehead and I would melt like butter on a hot day, who made me feel smart even when I said the dumbest shit, who would forgive me even when I’d hurt him the most. And by God I loved him – oh, I loved him. I love Hopewell.

The day I said I loved him it’d started to snow; we were on the third floor of the library watching the campus quad flood with white snowflakes. The statue of the bishop started to submerge into whiteness. He had thick winter boots and a heavy coat on him. I was dressed the same. It was noon and the sky was pale. I whispered to him, “How do I love thee, let me count the ways—” I recited the poem until we both started to cry. We said the last line together: “I shall but love thee better after death” and we kissed in full view of a snowfall. Sure, he told you this. We moved into the apartment on 44 Lawrence the summer after we graduated. He was so damn sad you couldn’t make it. But the card you wrote for him and the cake you sent for his graduation, he cherished it. The college had hired him to work in a special collections library; he loved that, prodding through texts. He loved reading about the history of New England. That winter, after we’d graduated, he curated ‘New England then and now’ showing images of colonial New England versus the current moment. He told me that day: “This shit makes me feel alive.”

 It was the happiest I had seen him, when he felt like he did something. We were happy, real happy. Our world was just the two of us. We did groceries together, went to the barber together, and I taught him how to drive. He was a hippie, I would tell him. He hated driving; he thought private vehicles contaminated the earth. He was always at protests – sometimes I would tell him it’s dangerous to be seen in such places so much, but he said his Ma would be proud. I don’t know how we parted – all I know is that I left him. It was time to go. We’d never been with other people; we tried over and over again but it never worked.

I had promised to come over for dinner on Friday, the day before they found him. I wanted to see him. He said he’d been down and needed a friend. My Ma knows that I would kill for Hope, would drop everything for him. Now he’s gone. My Hopewell. When they said they saw a worm snake on his shoulder, that he had been dead for many days and that it was a foul smell that indicated something was wrong. Nobody called. I didn’t call. I was waiting for Friday. When I got there on Friday, when he hadn’t responded to my texts and emails. I had brought him flowers. He loved fresh tulips and chocolates. He was difficult to please, but he loved these two things so much. I found the other tenants cleaning, scrubbing the house. We lifted the beige couch from the lounge area and dropped it by the door. I could smell him, could smell his dead body. I took bleach and scrub to clean it, to rid it of that smell. He got rid of the couch we bought together when we moved in. He’d called me to help him move this one in one winter after we went apart. He would open the couch and stretch his legs on it and read. It could be a sleeper – it could be anything. Ma, I loved your son. 

*

She found comfort, hearing those words: “Ma, I loved your son.” She listened to Jeremy cry, feeling as though she were listening to Hopewell cry. But it was not Hopewell; she would never hear her son’s voice ever again. My beautiful Hopewell, she thought, as she watched the starry night through her son’s window, he was loved, he loved, and yet, he died lonely.

And so, in that calm starry night, the dead were lonely.

Kabelo S. Motsoeneng is a writer from Johannesburg, South Africa. Motsoeneng is currently based in Hartford, Connecticut where he is working toward his graduate degree in English Literature. He obtained a B.A. in English and Human Rights Studies from Trinity College, where he was a President’s Fellow. Motsoeneng has been awarded several prizes and fellowships for his fiction, with stories forthcoming/published in Prairie Schooner and others. He’s working on a novel.  

 

*Image by Mòje Ikpeme