People often ask me if I knew Theodore Plants, and I tell them I didn’t know him, but I did live with him. It wasn’t a long cohabitation, three days in all. Theodore was a replacement roommate found on the internet, his predecessor a poet who decided her chapbooks would be better received in uncaring New York than inattentive Chicago.
Theodore arrived to our first meeting late and out of breath, having biked from Pilsen to Logan Square. He offered me a gloved hand as he used the other to flatten his hair, then made a cursory tour of the apartment. He seemed put off by the streaks of mildew on the shower curtain and the lumpiness of the bed the previous roommate had left, but he said he’d take the room. Theodore didn’t bring much when he moved in the following day, just a backpack, a laundry bag, and a new shower curtain.
This was the spring when holes were opening up all over Chicago. A cycle of heavy rain and freezing cold the previous winter had pried the concrete away from the edges of the city’s storm drains, and in the April thaw the drains collapsed in on themselves. Some of the holes could be as deep as six or seven feet, irregular caverns with rivers of gutter runoff and stalactites of spiraling rebar. Road crews marked the holes with warning signs, but these inevitably fell in, leaving the holes invisible from a distance.
One of these holes resided on the street in front of my building. Its opening had taken on the form of a heart. Often, as I stepped onto the stoop for a cigarette, I found people taking pictures of the hole, crouching at its edge and making heart-shapes with their hands, creating records for future publication to their FriendO accounts.
On the second day we lived together, Theodore knocked at my bedroom door and asked to be let in.
“I’ve got a riddle to tell you,” he said.
I opened the door. Theodore positioned himself at the foot of my bed, and I sat down in my computer chair. He started in.
“Okay, so get this,” he said. “A plane leaves from New York, headed to Canada. Halfway there, terrorists hijack the plane, demanding that the pilots set a course for Afghanistan. The passengers fight back, but in the ensuing chaos the plane goes down, crashing just before the American-Canadian border, scattering wreckage into both countries. So: where do they bury the survivors?”
I didn’t know what to say. Of course, I’d heard this setup before. It was less a riddle and more a verbal prank, designed to catch inattentive listeners and make them feel stupid. Perhaps someone had just pulled the trick on him for the first time. I considered playing the fool and letting Theodore have his laugh, but I decided I’d rather look smart, punish his lateness to the game.
“They wouldn’t. You don’t bury survivors,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “You got it.”
The next day, Theodore was gone before I woke. I never saw him again.
It was three days before I began to wonder where Theodore had gone. One night’s absence could be readily explained by a visit to a girlfriend, two by an impromptu stay at a friend’s house for the weekend, perhaps in Milwaukee or St. Louis. But, when I returned from work on the third evening, a Monday, he still wasn’t home. I thought that Theodore might have snuck in during the day, traded out his clothes for a clean supply, and departed once more. But, his bedroom door was open, the room’s contents undisturbed. His copy of The Fortress of Solitude still lay facedown on the coffee table, cracked at the liner notes. The only thing missing was his bike.
Theodore’s phone number was my only means of reaching him. The email addresses we’d used to set up the original meeting had been mutually censored, and he’d never offered me a replacement. I sent him a text message asking about his half of the rent, affecting a casual tone that I hoped didn’t suggest an emerging codependency. I went about my business, made dinner, watched a movie. He never replied.
Over the following days, my unease developed into paranoia. I wasn’t used to having the apartment to myself, and though I could have wandered the kitchen and living room freely, lounged naked on the couch, I kept to my room. As I lay in bed, I started at every knock of a heating pipe or shift of a floorboard, convinced that Theodore had returned in the night for some terrible purpose. The sleep I did get was fitful and shallow. My cubicle-mate, Will, jokingly noted my collapsing eye circles, my bombed-out stare. He asked whether I’d seen a ghost, and I wondered if I had.
With the paranoia came desperation. I made repeated texts to Theodore’s phone. When those went unread, I graduated to actual calls, which were diverted directly to voicemail before a single ring. I left messages, first about the rent, then about the security deposit, before finally just asking where he was. It was only after I noticed the phone charger coiled under his bedside table that I gave up on this tactic. I then tried to find him on FriendO, but his name and all variations on it — Ted, Teddy, Theo — only returned results from the American Northwest.
My original excursion into Theodore’s room was short and furtive — if anything was likely to summon him, it would’ve been my snooping. He’d left the door open, so I stood in the hallway and craned my head into the room, still plausibly outside should he burst through the front door or transpirate through a heating vent.
The findings confused me. Not only was his laundry bag there, still stuffed to its cinched brim, but so was his backpack. If he’d fled he would’ve taken these things, but the room instead showed an intent to return; bed made, de-ringed keys and crumpled papers scattered on the nightstand, a transit pass still in its cellophane wrapper. What was keeping him, and where was he being kept?
The next day at work, Will came into our cubicle still in his biking wear, his face raw from the slap of the morning’s chill wind. He crumpled into his chair, helmet unbuckled. He propped his legs on an exercise ball under his desk and began massaging his thighs.
“Feels like I biked across Siberia, tigers and all,” Will said.
“I don’t know how you guys do it,” I said.
“Well, my morning commute is nothing,” Will said, digging his thumbs into his right calf. “It was the ride we all did last night that’s got my dogs barking.”
“Memorial thing. Guy wiped out on a pothole last weekend, cracked his head on the sidewalk, went into a coma. He passed away the other night.”
I froze. Will continued.
“Didn’t know the guy myself. Wasn’t really part of the community, never saw him at a ride. Still, we do right when we lose one of our own.”
We were quiet for a moment, save for the scrape of Will’s hands on his elastic pants. Then, I asked, “What was his name?”
“Theodore Plants,” Will said. “Did you know him?”
An internet search bore out Will’s story. Theodore David Plants, age 28, had been killed in a biking accident. He’d succombed on Tuesday night, despite several rounds of surgery to treat his catastrophic head injuries. He never woke from his coma.
The accident happened on California Avenue. The parked cars on the southbound lane had been cleared that morning for street cleaning, and Theodore had been riding close to the curb, staying clear of traffic. It’s likely he didn’t see the hole at all. His front wheel had dropped in, throwing him headfirst onto the pavement, and that was that.
I wondered how I was so late to find out. I only rarely checked the news, and the accidental nature of Theodore’s death had swept the story almost immediately from its pages. No call had been made, no policeman had knocked at my door. Had the belongings on Theodore’s person contained no hint of his recent move, his driver’s license showing an address since departed? Our keys bore no mark of their origin, save for the rubber caps that, by color-code, indicated their use — red for the outer door, green for the inner.
I hesitated at the door. Entering Theodore’s room meant committing myself to the search, and I was unsure that whatever contact I made would be welcome. But, the room needed to be cleared if I was going to find a new roommate and make the rent. I briefly wished that I’d gotten Theodore’s rent check up front and, reeling at my own selfishness, I propelled myself into the room.
The keys on the nightstand were as useless as ours had been, stamped only with the bold-faced threat, DO NOT DUPLICATE. The crumpled papers bore no numbers or addresses, only receipts of sale for the shower curtain and some groceries. Theodore had left his laptop on the bed, but it was passworded, useless. The background was a picture of Theodore hugging a girl, both standing in a plexiglass box at the top of the Willis Tower.
I retrieved the backpack from the side of the bed and unzipped it. Inside, there was a sheaf of photographs, still in their envelope from the printer. The dates in the photos’ corners spanned the past year, their digits jumping between trips to the Golden Gate Bridge and the scaffolding-ensconced Washington Monument. Many included that same girl, until they didn’t. I returned the photos to their envelope and tossed them on the bed.
Beneath the photos was a thin folder, and inside it a job application, half-filled. The block-lettered address was my own, and the contact information directed to Theodore’s dead phone. However, there was something of use; under the emergency contacts, Theodore had simply written “Leonard,” and a phone number.
Leonard rang for my apartment early the next day. He looked like he sounded on the phone, an older man, his dark hair flecked with snowy down. With both hands tucked into his coat, Leonard stepped past me and into the apartment. He surveyed the living room, nodding at the drawn blinds and the book on the coffee table. Then, he turned to me.
“How did you find me?” Leonard said.
“Theodore put you down as his emergency contact,” I said.
Leonard seemed content with that.
“Where’s his room?” he asked.
I led Leonard out of the living room and down the hallway, stopping short of Theodore’s open door. Leonard nodded again, and stepped into the room. He put the keys, transit pass, and receipts into his pocket, then moved toward the bags. I offered to help, but Leonard waved me off.
We returned to the living room. I trailed behind, and as we approached the front door I expected Leonard to continue out, to flee before I could get a bead on him. Instead, he turned to face me.
“I’m sorry Theodore caused you so much trouble,” Leonard said. With his unoccupied arm, he reached into his coat and pulled out a slip of paper. Though it was folded, I could see it was a check.
“Are you his father?” I asked.
“No,” Leonard said.
I took the check.
I followed Leonard out onto the stoop. He continued on, descending the stairs and walking to his car, its hazard lights clicking on and off. He opened the trunk, and dropped the bags into it. I considered calling out to Leonard, to warn him against the hole he’d parked behind. But, the hole was gone. It had been filled and smoothed over the previous night. The patching was seamless. No trace of a heart remained. Is Theodore buried there? I don’t know.
Andrew Hicks is a writer working out of Chicago. His stories have been featured in Existere and the Chicago Reader.