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Published Aug. 5, 2007

That night I turned the corner on my street and saw two ambulances and four cruisers outside my building, their red and blue lights flashing. This was not a good sign. I just had a couple of friends move in with me, and now I wondered if they got into trouble. I went into the elevator, and as I stood there, two officers stepped in, standing on either side of me. On a good day I was nervous when driving and seeing a cruiser in my rearview mirror, and now I was surrounded. "What floor are you guys going to?" I asked.

"The fourth floor," one answered.

My floor. Now my anxiety was off the charts. "What room?"

And he told me. It was the apartment next to mine. I felt a little relief, but I still felt uneasy. "What happened?"

"A man died in that apartment."

Now I felt sick. William, the guy who lived in that apartment, was 75, a good guy. Now he was dead.

The elevator opened and I followed the officers down the hall and around the corner. To my great surprise, I saw William on a bar stool outside of his apartment door, very much alive, smoking and holding an ashtray. Jack, our apartment manager, was standing beside him. Both of them looked pale. "David, you missed all the excitement!" Jack said. "Karl died."

"But Karl lives down the hall," I said. "This is Will's place."

"Karl came over for a beer," Jack said.

"He drank half the can and just keeled over," William said, staring off into space. "He died. He just died. I can't believe it."

Karl was notorious for his drinking. The day before, I had a talk with Karl outside the building. Even at 8 that morning he smelled like a brewery and he was already slurring his words. He was 54, just four years older than me. It turned out that he had been drinking all that day and was out of liquor, so I wasn't sure whether he went to see William for conversation or for a refill, or both. In any case, the police and medics were now in the apartment, and William was left to wait in the hall.

I rushed back to my place and checked in on my friends, Annie and Rachel, who gave me the story of coming in from shopping just as the first ambulance arrived. They were between apartments, and were staying with me a week in downtown St. Petersburg, to get things together while they looked for another place. "You live in one crazy building, Dave," Annie told me. "It's not enough that we hear ambulances in the night. Now they even visit. Do they come here a lot?"

I told her no, that this was a surprise even for me. As I made coffee and Annie and Rachel talked about how quiet it was living in the country, I felt a twinge of relief that the fiasco didn't involve me. Dinner was ready but I couldn't eat. Instead, I got two cups of coffee and went back into the hall.

A good listener

William was still on his stool, with Jack next to him, both of them rattled. The police and ambulance workers kept the door closed, but we could hear the sounds of police radios hissing information. The nearly quiet hallway stank of cigarette smoke, and a haze of it hovered from the ceiling. Jack was normally obsessed about keeping cigarettes out of the hall, but today his rules were suspended for Karl's impromptu wake. At one point the door opened and an officer stepped out and headed to the elevator, businesslike and oblivious to the seriousness of the moment. I had a brief peek into William's apartment, the paramedics kneeling over the body and the other officers nowhere to be seen.

I relieved Jack of his death watch and stood beside William on his bar stool. William didn't normally drink coffee, but tonight he was shaken to the bone and took the cup I offered. As he sipped and smoked, he talked about his work before retirement and places he had traveled, breaking into his narrative to describe again and again the death of Karl.

He had dropped by that night talking and laughing and drunk to the gills (something William was used to) and sat down on the couch. As was his habit, William handed him a beer and sat across from him, talking until Karl keeled over. Always the good host, William, thinking Karl had too much to drink, went to his bedroom to get a blanket and pillow and put the pillow under his head.

It was then he touched Karl's cheek. "I knew right then and there it wasn't just another drunk thing!" He dialed 911, then attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He had never done that before but remembered what he had seen on television. "The ambulance must have been around the corner. They were there in two minutes. I was so glad when they took over." But Karl was beyond help, and everybody knew it even while trying to resuscitate him. I considered his breath, and wondered if I would have had enough compassion in me to attempt the task.

Helping a friend

The door finally opened and the police came out. We moved William's bar stool away as the medics carried Karl's lifeless body, a plastic oxygen mask still on his face, into the hallway by using a bed sheet. They lifted him, strapped him onto a gurney, then raised it and wheeled him to the elevator.

William and I went into his apartment. There was blood on the rug, disposable paper cleanup rags and a plastic saline bag and tube in the corner. I helped William throw away the debris and straighten up the furniture. I didn't ask, but I figured the police had to search the place for anything suspicious because of the death. As William talked on, I was grateful that I hadn't known Karl better, and I regretted that I had spent so little time with William. Perhaps I should have spent more time with them both but, as with many other neighbors, I tried to keep to myself.

I threw out the last of the garbage, then came back and helped William settle down, finding his inhaler for him. Until then, I never knew he was asthmatic. He was finally calming down. "Listen, don't go. I called some friends and they will be here in a little while."

And then he grinned. "How about if I make you a drink. I do a terrific screwdriver."

David Wood is a writer in St. Petersburg.