Carrying Capacity

Three Yellow and Red Tower Cranes Under Clear Blue Sky

The black sedan stops outside the gate of a large pastel- colored high rise, and Henry Carson’s phone buzzes in sync with a chiming sound from the front seat. Henry presses his right thumb to his phone and hears a receipt printing from a small electronic device mounted on the dashboard next to the driver. He then exits the car from its rear curbside door and fishes a small plastic fob from his front pocket, which he waves before an electronic sensor to buzz himself into the complex. He walks through a verdant central courtyard where flat monitors sprout up among the foliage advertising healthcare and investment solutions. A cybernetic ecology. When he reaches his building, he waves the fob again to enter the lobby and then once more in the elevator to access floor 17. Outside his apartment, he again applies his thumb to his phone, which transmits the appropriate passkey to his front door and unlocks it.

Henry utters one of the few words he actually knows in the local language, and his automated home management system switches on his apartment’s overhead lights, air purifier and climate controls. With another word, this one a little more demanding in tonal precision, he activates the entertainment system, and the unit fills with the dulcet sounds of early 00s chamber pop as he takes off his shoes and hangs up his jacket.

In the kitchen, Henry notices a blinking alert on the digital refrigerator display that milk, eggs, cheese and soda water have been reordered automatically from the local market. On the counter, he finds a handwritten note from his housekeeper verifying the delivery of these items and listing the assorted household cleaning supplies she went to the store and bought that day. Henry feels a mild annoyance that this woman persists in communicating through such an archaic medium, but he reminds himself that she is from the country’s lower class and shouldn’t be expected to stay abreast of current messaging platforms. He wishes there was some smart device or artificial intelligence in the apartment that could perform the housekeeper’s duties, rendering her obsolete. The sink or maybe the washing machine. He imagines a time in the future more technologically advanced than this and feels a longing to live there.

After dining alone that evening, Henry bags up the garbage to take to a room at the end of the hallway where the building’s cleaning staff will pick it up in the morning. Although vaguely concerned that the outside air quality will compromise his apartment’s always-single-digit AQI reading, he nevertheless leaves the door ajar as he steps out holding a bag that’s threatened to drip greasy food waste onto his heated, faux-marble porcelain tile. The hallway is always dark when not in use, but even a light clearing of one’s throat is generally sufficient to trigger the sound activated lights and bathe the hallway in soft LED simulated daylight.

That’s not what happens this time. Henry clears his throat, then whistles, claps and stomps his foot, but the hallway remains in darkness. Annoyed, he curses under his breath, lamenting yet another instance where progress has yet to attenuate life’s myriad indignities. When he moved to this city so far from his rural Midwestern upbringing, it was the place’s hyper-modernism that drew him, its persistent hubris in conquering nature through cutting-edge digital innovation.

At the end of the blackened hallway, a single incandescent light bulb flickers just outside the trash disposal room. He ponders that bulb for a few seconds, trying to remember the last time he’s beheld this primitive technology. The room is only about 100 feet ahead and a straight shot from where he’s standing, so he steps blindly forward clutching the white plastic bag. Henry can’t explain why, but he suddenly has the sensation of not being alone in that hallway. He doesn’t see anyone moving in the dark ahead of him and hasn’t heard any rustling or footsteps, but he finds a sense of uneasiness growing within him. He stops moving for a moment and listens. Then, he laughs, reminding himself that he’s no longer that nyctophobic eight-year-old cowering beneath blankets in a rickety Ohio farmhouse, and begins walking again.

Twenty feet from the room’s open door, he catches sight of her and stops in his tracks. At first, he assumes she’s a member of the building’s staff collecting the garbage, but then the light flickers on again and he sees that she’s standing perfectly still in the doorway and facing him. She has long dark hair flowing down over her shoulders from a symmetrical center part and is dressed in the traditional garb of one of the city’s ethnic minority groups, a long floral dress of silk Henry has only seen before at holiday ceremonies and theater performances. Her skin is pale white, and her eyes are dark and unreadable. Henry stares at her dumbfounded for maybe ten seconds, maybe longer, and then drops the garbage bag right there and retreats to his apartment where he shuts and deadbolts the door.

Safely inside the apartment, he stands doubled over with his palms flat on his thighs gasping. He pictures the woman’s face again, its expression revealing nothing. It’s a face he finds unnerving yet at the same time alluring. He tries to imagine who she might have been. The other people on his floor are foreigners like him: diplomats and NGO managers and international school teachers. He thinks the woman might have been one of their housekeepers or nannies, but he can’t imagine what was she doing just standing there motionless and staring.

“Jesus,” he says to himself. “Jesus Christ.”

Henry goes into his kitchen, pulls a bottle of Viognier from the climate-controlled wine compartment of his refrigerator and pours himself a glass. He drinks it a little too fast standing over the kitchen sink, rinses the stemmed glass, walks to his front door again, and opens it to find the hallway lights now turned on. Near the end of the hallway, he sees his garbage bag lying split open and leaking its contents all over the floor. There is no sign of the woman or any other activity. He sighs and then grabs his broom, dustpan and mop to go out and clean up the mess, his door once again ajar.

By this point, Henry has nearly convinced himself the woman was a hallucination brought on perhaps by too much work-stress and not enough sleep, but as soon as he enters his apartment again and walks to the bathroom to rinse his mop in the shower, he sees a flash of movement near the back bedroom. He can’t be sure, but it’s almost as though he’s caught a glimpse of that floral pattern and that dark hair fluttering just outside the bedroom door. Quickly, he drops the mop directly into the open toilet bowl to soak and, before he can think better of it, begins walking to the bedroom to investigate.

Inside, he finds nothing unusual. His multifunctional adjustable platform bed remains unmade and at a slight incline to prevent snoring. On the nightstand are his tablet computer/e-reader and a multiport charging station for his devices. Familiar framed artwork lines the walls, and his flat screen wall monitor scrolls vacation photos from his trip to Myanmar last year as its wallpaper. Nothing is amiss. The woman is not there.

Eventually, Henry makes it to bed but sleeps fitfully. He awakens a few times and scans the dimly lit room for any sign of an intruder. He dreams about work, about an endless line of frantic people at the embassy passport window all regaling him with their tragic circumstances and need for expedited documentation. He keeps telling them that a new passport takes approximately ten business days, but this only makes them more insistent, more desperate. After this, he sleeps soundly until just after dawn.

She’s there when he finally opens his eyes. She’s standing in the corner of the room just in front of his antique armoire watching him. He bolts up suddenly and pulls the blankets up to his chin. He wants to scream or run or throw something at her, but he just sits there dumbly staring back at her. She makes no move in his direction but just stares. In the natural daylight now illuminating the room, he notices that he can see the lacquered armoire, its hand-painted design and its decorative brass hardware behind the woman. Directly through her. A ghost then, he thinks to himself, a conclusion that provides him little comfort in its absurdity.

He considers calling off work and staying in bed all day, considers that he is probably experiencing a psychotic break and should use his medical appointment phone app to schedule psychological care. In the end, he climbs out of bed and gets ready for work as quickly as he can. He showers and shaves and then irons the shirt and pants he laid out the night before. He foregoes his morning cup of freshly ground single origin organic coffee and his chocolate soy protein shake, and more than anything else he avoids returning to the bedroom. As he rides the elevator down to the lobby, he summons a driver with his phone app and then watches a few advertisements on the elevator’s embedded television monitors.

Work is hectic. The line to the embassy snakes through half a city block as people from all over the country — many of them displaced migrant workers or working-class locals who can no longer maintain a minimal standard of living — long to forge better and more economical lives for themselves. Henry stands behind the passport counter reflexively issuing and collecting forms and trying not to think about what might still be lurking in his apartment, yet when he finally returns home roughly ten hours later, he has nearly forgotten about the morning’s paranormal encounter. Nevertheless, he enters his apartment reluctantly as though mindful of waking a sleeping roommate.

In the kitchen, he finds a note from his housekeeper. She’s just gone shopping the day before, so Henry assumes this will be her asking for yet another pay raise. He’s sympathetic, realizing how overpriced the city has now become for people of her class and ethnic group, and he has, in fact, raised her salary in the recent past: first, when the local government razed the dormitories she and other domestic helpers were living in to make way for new high rise condominiums and then, again, when even the least expensive rents had increased beyond her means. He knows she has lived most of her life in this city but that she’ll soon have no choice but to follow the rest of her caste out of the capital to find more suitable conditions abroad or in the countryside.

When he begins to read, however, he realizes that this is not the subject of the housekeeper’s note. Instead, she is writing to inform him that this will be her final day working for him. She doesn’t give much of an explanation, only something evasive and unclear about family issues, but she does conclude the note with a few sentences scrawled as though in a hurry in her local language. Henry stands staring at the note for a few seconds and then grabs his phone and scans these lines with his universal translation app. When the English translation appears on the device’s screen, the syntax is unclear and some of the specific words have been incorrectly rendered, but the passage does make some reference to “ancestral spirits” and “those who were here before”.

Henry follows his normal routine that night and experiences nothing out of the ordinary. No ghosts or disruptions of any kind. He has a light meal and reads a few chapters of a true crime book on his digital reader. After dinner, he does some stretches and about thirty minutes of yoga in his living room and then moves to the bathroom to take a shower. He stands there inside the large glass stall beneath a metal, disc-shaped shower head meant to simulate brisk tropical rainfall and thinks about what he’ll need to do around the apartment in the next few days before he can find a replacement housekeeper.

As he’s lathering lavender fortifying shampoo into his scalp, he notices something beginning to emerge right there in the shower through the steam and falling water. It’s her. She is clothed in the same traditional outfit and looking directly at him. The water flows directly through her with no effect on her hair or clothing. Henry takes two steps backwards and stands with his back pressed to the glass wall careful not to slip and fall. She steps towards him, and, because he has nowhere to go there in the stall, he has no choice but to really see her. In her face, he sees no malice or fear but only placidity. Maybe curiosity. Henry is aware of his own nakedness, which only compounds his anxiety, but the woman’s gaze never lingers over any specific part of his exposed body. Instead, she just seems to be taking the entirety of him all at once.

Henry rinses his hair and finishes the rest of his shower routine a little cautiously as the woman watches from a few steps away. Nothing in her demeanor suggests she wishes him harm, so he just keeps doing what he would otherwise do if he were alone. He turns off the water and steps out of the stall, wrapping himself in a towel and moving to the sink to brush his teeth. The woman watches from inside the shower stall. Seeing her staring out through the steamed-over glass gives Henry cold chills, but still he manages to brush, rinse, floss and gargle.

He exits the bathroom and walks to the bedroom where he gets under the covers. There is no sign of the woman yet in the room. In bed, he picks up his phone and opens the group chat his building’s denizens use to buy and sell used items or complain about their neighbor’s loud music and parties. He begins composing a message to the group, but he’s unsure exactly what to write. He knows that directly telling his neighbors that his apartment is haunted by the ghost of a young woman dressed in traditional clothing would invite mockery. Of course, it would. He could be vague and just ask if anyone has experienced anything out of the ordinary, but he imagines the results might be the same. Instead, he decides to ignore the supernatural angle altogether and describes having seen an unknown woman in the hallway, asking if anyone else has noticed her around the complex. No one responds. Other conversations continue in the group. Someone is moving back to Europe and selling a few antiques. Another person is advertising personal training sessions at a new gym that’s opened in the neighborhood. No one acknowledges Henry’s question in any way.

Twenty minutes later, there’s a knock on his door. Henry jumps out of bed, pulls on a flannel bathrobe and hurries to the door. When he opens it, and a small, thin woman walks past him and into the living room. She has dry, frizzy blonde hair and wears a black parka-length jacket over a short black dress. He can smell her perfume and cigarette smoke. The woman begins walking around the apartment and checking rooms. Henry stands by the door struck dumb and failing to intercept the woman or ask what exactly she’s doing. Finally, the woman emerges from the back bedroom and approaches Henry, looking him in the eyes.

“Has this woman been inside your apartment?” she asks in a heavy French accent.

“Uh…yes. Yes, she has. Uh…yesterday and again today,” Henry says.

“I see,” the woman says. “I do not see her now, but I think she will return.”

“Oh,” Henry says. “Who is she? Do you know her? How did you know who I…?”

“I do not know her name, of course,” the woman says blithely. “But there are many of these people here. We have all seen them around the halls and sometimes even in our flats, but it’s something we have all agreed not to discuss. It is impolite, I think.”

“Wait, what?” Henry asks, “What? Why are they here? What do they want? Are they ghosts?”

The woman nods and looks at him sympathetically, perhaps remembering her own fearful first encounter. “Do not worry. They are spirits of a kind, yes, but they will not hurt you. They do want anything. This is where they are. They do not leave because where else would they go.”

In exasperation, Henry asks, “Well, what should I do? Do I do just live with a ghost now? Can’t I burn some incense or something? Put out an offering? Hire a spiritualist to get rid of her?”

“You can leave if you want,” the woman says. “This is what I planned to do, but I like it here so I stay. I think everywhere there are spirits, especially in places where so much has been…erased. So, I do not mind them anymore. I would even say I find it comfortable having them around. But maybe you will not feel this way, and you will leave. That is good too. Au revoir.” With that, the woman exits the front door and walks to the elevator.

Henry closes the door and stands there for a minute bemused. When he turns from the door, the ghost is standing at the far end Henry’s living room facing him. Provisionally, Henry decides to accept her presence and raises his hand towards her to wave hello. She doesn’t react, continuing to stand and stare at him, but, after a minute or so, she turns her back to him and begins looking out the living room’s bay window into the courtyard below. Henry then shuffles quietly to the bedroom and gets back in bed.

And this is how Henry lives for the remainder of his time in this city. On some days, the woman is there in his apartment. He sees her in the living room or bedroom but never again in the shower, thankfully. She no longer stares at him. In fact, she rarely acknowledges him at all. Most of the time, she just gazes out the apartment windows at the courtyard or the cityscape. On other days, he doesn’t see the woman at all. He never discusses her presence with friends or colleagues or with any of the building’s other residents. On one particular day, he walks into his kitchen to make breakfast and sees not the woman but an old man dressed in one of the grey jackets worn by the city’s motorcycle taxi drivers. He wonders whether he will now have two ghosts, but he never sees the man again while the woman still appears at irregular intervals, standing there at his living room window and staring out the flashing lights, the advertising billboards, and the hulking skyscrapers and struggling, Henry imagines, to make sense of any of it.

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