Hello, my name is Ted Slobogin. I used to be the landlord of a set of average apartment rooms on the outskirts of New York City. Skyscraper housing comes at relatively cheap rates these days, so I get to meet lots of people—you know, immigrants, young families, elderly individuals. For over 25 years, I got to know just about all of my tenants on the 36th floor. Except for one.
The rooms registry and boarding contract both say that a woman lives in room 3620. I’ve never laid eyes on her in my life. When I took this job, the old man I was replacing was going to retire or something—I never quite understood the reason. But above all he stressed one thing: “Never talk to the woman in 3620.” Further attempts on my part to elicit some explanation were dismissed with silence.
I should also add that most tenants didn’t want to be approached by me anyway. Usually I had to ask for overdue payments or fulfill a maintenance request for some busted water pipes or electrical outages. That is absolutely reasonable; it’s surprising how nobody had condemned the rotten building already. But during my entire time there, I never had any requests from 3620. She must have been one heck of a DIY person, I used to think. And thanks to the old landlord, I had a spare key in order to enter every tenant’s room on the floor—except 3620.
The man who turned the job over to me also gave me peculiar instructions for receiving her payments. On only one day of the year, the lady in 3620 would pay her rent. I don’t charge by the year for anybody else. The previous landlord warned that I could not be awake until the sun rose, on one specific day each year. Walking down the hallway at the end, sure enough I would find a crisp check denoted for one year’s payment in my name. Apparently, the woman’s name was Marge Perri. But I prefer calling her 3620.
It came to pass, as time went by, my curiosity wore into the better of me. I started by dialing the number of the old landlord, hoping that at least somebody would answer and resolve this thing altogether. He didn’t answer, and when I called again later I got a reply from a nursing home receptionist stating that he died years ago. No next of kin, no worldly possessions left behind. Under this context, it certainly sounded strange enough, but things like that happen, I thought. I gave my thanks and hung up.
Against my better judgment, I decided to press onward. Now, looking back in hindsight, I realize what a stupid mistake I made!
I made the investment of installing one video camera to record the hallway where 3620 would enter and exit her room. The heater that runs through this place is composed of a series of air ducts passing over the hallway; I drilled a hole into the duct, coming out near a grate in the wall at the end of the hallway next to room 3620. I placed the camera lens through this hole and fed the cord back up through the duct and into my own room, where I attached it to my computer. If you think this seems a little obsessive, even borderline unethical, how do you think I thought of it all? Have you ever had such an insatiable curiosity that would not abate until you did something to stop it? Before this, I could swear to you my complete honesty and discreetness in others’ affairs. But if you’ve done this job for 25 years like I had, some things become so mysterious that you have no choice but to look into them.
I turned on the camera, planning to stay up all night. Perhaps 3620 was the kind of person who only leaves their room at night? Perhaps she worked the graveyard shift over in Ridgefield? Lots of people have jobs at all times of the night, if you’re lucky enough to get a job. Maybe she was just a recluse who didn’t like people, so she chose a rickety apartment on the 36th floor on the outskirts of the city to try to escape from it all. These were my speculations at the time… if only I had restrained my imagination to this point!
As I watched the tape from my computer in my room, nothing happened throughout the night. No noise, no sound of voices, or television, or the creaking of floorboards. Nothing. So I decided to stay up late the following night, keeping a vigilant eye on any activity. Again, nothing happened. It was only until I had repeated this for eight nights in a row that I truly started to feel spooked. Did this person have food? Water? Maybe she hurt herself, and for over a week has been unable to leave the room or ask for help. It was then that I decided to stop messing around. When she would place her check outside her door, I would not be sleeping in my room and waiting!
It was early morning, the sixth of June, when I turned the camera on. Sitting down at my desk, I watched my computer to see any traces of movement.
Looking at the clock, it was half past five; the sun had not risen yet. My heart pounded in my chest, and my eyes strained to see in the darkness of the hallway through the air grate. Outside, the tiniest streaks of navy blue began to push back the black of night, followed by a lavender tint, and then a lighter shade of blue. Room 3620 remained silent, unmoving. I was about to walk to her room myself and demand the year’s payment, when something extraordinary happened. To this day I cannot find words to explain it.
A shadowy figure seemed to glide down the hallway, more ethereal than humanlike. It levitated across the rooms until it stopped outside of room 3620. If the thing had a face, I’d say that it turned and looked right in the direction of the camera. What happened next I cannot describe. All I know is that a shrill ringing sound came from the camera, and then it too appeared to levitate within the air duct. Then the screen crackled and buzzed—all video and audio from the camera was rendered useless. After the thing evidently destroyed the camera, I felt a great chill run down my neck. Panicking, I leapt out of my chair and bolted to the doorway and burst out of the room and into the hallway. Immediately I felt a blast of cold air sweep over me, and an instant later, it ended. Sprinting down the hallway, I saw room 3620—normal like before—but with a crisp check lying neatly at the foot of the doorway.
I rapped my knuckles against the door. “Open up!” I yelled, not really caring whether or not the other tenants were still sleeping. “Open up, I said!”
Looking back, I almost expected it too. But the door opened. 3620 opened the door.
The woman of room 3620, Marge Perri by the name on the check, met my glance. Her appearance has become etched into my memory. She was the oldest-looking woman I had ever seen. She couldn’t have stood above five feet tall, her wispy gray hair tied into a bun, hunched over with those emaciated, sunken eyes. Those wrinkled, manic eyes and nearly visible cheek bones. She was wearing a worn, white t-shirt with a gray cardigan, and baggy gray pajama pants. Her nails were chipped. Her room looked to be in no better condition.
She broke the silence. “Would you like to come in?” She turned around, gesturing for me to go inside. I should have turned around and walked away. Turned around and quit my job right then and there. But curiosity is a strange thing sometimes. The more you feed it, the more it wants of you.
“Your video camera might have been damaged.” She sighed, lying down on a tattered and torn couch. “You’ve known about it—“I replied, speechless. The air inside the room smelled like a morgue, like it had been bottled up in there for ages. Her voice cracked: “Yes, I knew. Come, sit down and see what I do for a living.”
She motioned for me to sit down. I decided to stand… it didn’t seem to matter to her anyway. She got up and rummaged through some junk in a pile of the room and pulled out an artist’s easel. Then, she gathered some canvasses and paintings that she had finished and stacked them on the table. Reading the expression on my face, she answered, “Why not? Does it not seem so impossible? Yes, Mr. Slobogin, I am a painter—an artist in fact. Would you like to see my work?” I wanted to see her work, so I cautiously nodded.
She placed the first canvas onto the easel. “Go ahead, guess!” Her voice came out in a dry cackle. From the expertise behind the brushstrokes and oil glazes, the piece could stand its own against a professional’s. It was a picture of two very tall buildings, jutting out among a skyline of other buildings and smaller skyscrapers. It was a picture that she could have painted by just looking out the window… she could tell that I knew what it was.
She replaced that canvas with the next one. This next painting appeared to be the inside of a theater; she had painted the audience in highly formal and dignified clothing. The focal point of the painting was a man with a full beard sitting in a box above the audience, wearing a suit, gloves, and top hat. This was one of her favorite works, she mentioned.
The third painting she showed me was a beautiful rendering of the Empire State Building. Amazed by the clarity of the work, I admitted that I didn’t understand why she was showing me this particular painting. Her answer will remain with me forever: she said, “You will.”
Feeling more than uncomfortable having barged into this strange woman’s room, with so many unanswered questions, I headed for the doorway to leave. I don’t know why, of all questions, this came to mind, but I asked her, “Is your name Marge Perri?” It almost looked like her mouth contorted into a smile. There was a long pause, and then she stated, “No, but I see you’ve met my friend.” I wanted to ask her more, to ask her why she lived alone, secluded for years, or why she never sent maintenance requests or talked to anyone or left room 3620. But she continued, “There are some things in life that are better left unanswered. You should have listened to what the last landlord warned. You will remember this day, but when you have questions, don’t try to find the answers.”
I grabbed the check and left the room as fast as I could. Running down the hallway, I never looked back. But I bet if I did, I might have seen her peering out of the doorway—that damned emaciated, hunched old woman!
When I awoke later that day, there were people banging their fists against my door. Alarmed, I realized that half of the building had been torn away from its base! The skyscraper, dozens of stories tall, had collapsed on one side, where I could literally see the daylight and the sun from beyond the wreckage. How in the world did I sleep through that?
Later, I would learn that one of the building’s primary support beams had given way at the base of the building. Years of wear, along with a lack of safety inspections and renovations, had caused living conditions to become unsafe. Engineers were baffled for months, trying to figure out why only half the skyscraper collapsed, leaving the other half nearly entirely undamaged. But I know the true reason.
While paramedics did the best they could that morning, sifting through the demolished remnants of brick, glass, wood, and debris, they discovered many bodies. You probably saw footage of this tragedy on the news. Anyway, to their surprise they found a stash of old paintings and artwork left almost intact, despite falling dozens of stories as part of the wreckage. I managed to get a glance at one of the paintings, before police and security closed off the area to citizens. The painting was a beautifully crafted piece—of only half of this very building… the half that became demolished!
Weeks afterward, nobody ever found the body of the old woman who created those paintings. In fact, on the registry of tenants in the room, there was no record of anyone ever staying in the room 3620. And when I was allowed to go back up to my apartment room, the check addressed from “Marge Perri” had vanished. No history of a depositor of that name has shown up in any checking account since.
There are some things that just can’t be explained. I’ve learned to appreciate and accept the fact that some things don’t have answers to them. Don’t go looking for them, no matter how strange they may be. That’s my advice to you.