Fiction by George Wynn
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]Tito sat on the steps of the Boston Public Library looking toward Trinity Church with the reflection of a philosopher and the patience of a man who has all the time in the world. On this nine o’clock morning as he waited for the library to open, he listened to blue-pinstripe, briefcase types offer lame excuses as they ignored a green-fatigued homeless vendor hawking Boston’s street newspaper, Spare Change News.
Tito sat awhile longer, then approached the homeless vendor and quietly purchased a paper.
“Thank goodness, my first sale!” exclaimed the vendor.
“How you getting along?”
“As best I can,” replied the vendor.
Tito nodded, “Me too.”
As Tito studied the want ads of The Boston Globe on the second-floor newspaper area of the library, he suddenly was filled with a disagreeable feeling. “The hell with it,” he said to himself, returning the newspaper back to the rack. I’m a free man, he thought to himself. Well, not quite, he reflected, bowing his head.
He drove a taxi part time but spent just about every other night in a shelter. Some nights he crashed with acquaintances; and, as a last resort, there was always the cover of darkness in the street or park. When things got really bad and he was ready to explode, he’d head out West and work the National Parks for room and board and minimum wage. He was a healthy 38, strong and a good worker, so he rarely had trouble getting hired at the Grand Canyon, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Yosemite or Denali.
But then, he’d always get the urge to come back home to his native Boston. And here, where his Italian father and Dominican mother were dead, he’d always screw up. The nostalgia for his parents drove him to the bottle. He was persona non grata with his two married sisters on the South Shore.
Tito never had many friends. He was always kind of a loner, although he loved books, and the characters and personalities therein became surrogate friends. That’s how he first discovered the West, through John Muir and his explorations in the redwoods. While out West, Tito visited San Francisco and discovered the statues of St. Francis of Assisi by the sculptor Benny Bufano. These angelic, solid-hewn stones spoke to his heart.
Now, as he walked down Dartmouth Street whistling, lugging a tome by Nikos Kazantzakis under his arm, he couldn’t wait to start reading. When Tito read, he experienced an inner calm that eluded him otherwise. Conflict and doubt did not penetrate his psyche in these blissful moments. His mind was connected. He basked in inner harmony.
Past Copley Place, amidst the sounds of subways and Amtrak trains, he slouched down against a building and dug into his novel. So engrossed in his reading was Tito that he was unaware of the couple that had approached him. Suddenly a soft tap on his shoulder stirred him and he looked up into the black eyes of a 60ish Mediterranean-featured woman and a stocky, mustached man with an infectious smile.
The woman extended a styrofoam box to Tito. “For you,” she said firmly with a nod.
“For me?” Tito exclaimed, puzzled.
“Yes,” the woman said. “It was going to be my lunch later, but indigestion,” she grasped her stomach. “You understand.”
Tito nodded. “Why, thank you very much.” Tito popped open the Styrofoam box; yummy sweet-and-sour pork bathed in red sauce and a healthy portion of fried rice and two spring rolls. A meal just the way he liked it. “Why, this meal’s fit for a king,” Tito declared.
“You are a king,” said the mustached man.
“I’m homeless,” snickered Tito, good-naturedly. “As if you didn’t know it.”
The man slapped his hand to the wind as if disregarding Tito’s comment and saying, “No big deal.”
Tapping the cover of Tito’s book, the woman said emphatically, “You read good books.”
“I try to,” said Tito proudly.
“St. Francis is my favorite of the great Nikos Kazantzakis,” said the woman.
“You like him too, huh?” said Tito with big eyes.
“Like?… I adore him,” she answered.
“Listen,” Tito announced enthusiastically, “I never accept a kindness without returning it. Please allow me to buy you both a cup of coffee.”
“Really, it’s not necessary,” said the woman, touching a strand of Tito’s wavy brown hair. “But if it’s what you wish, Nanos and I accept.” She threw her husband a knowing look. “We do accept Nanos, huh?”
“Naturally,” said Nanos, adjusting his gray felt hat. “We need something to wake up on this chilly spring afternoon.”
At the corner of the block, Tito spotted a coffee shop and released the rubber band from a wad of ones he’d pulled out of his pants pocket.
The woman put her hand on Tito’s shoulder. “I have a better idea. You come to our place for coffee. Save your money.”
“It’s okay,” Tito protested, “I can afford it.”
“Ah, already I like him,” said Nanos. “He’s got the pride of the Greeks. Tell me your name, young man.”
“Tito, Melina makes great coffee; you’ll enjoy it. Let’s go,” he said, slapping Tito on the back.
And off they went, down Columbus Avenue past a video store, laundromats, small restaurants and grocery stores, serious black faces, smiling Latinos and Caucasian collegiate types in a hurry.
Nanos and Melina lived in a second-floor, two-bedroom apartment on Columbus Avenue. While Tito sat on an orange couch devouring his box lunch, he took in the birdcage replete with many canaries, and the goldfish bowl. But what struck him most were the many photos elaborately framed of a lanky fellow with a close physical resemblance to himself. So as Melina prepared coffee, he asked Nanos, who sat across from him on a rattan chair, who the young man in the photo was.
“Our son,” said Nanos.
“Our dead son,” chipped in Melina, who had overheard the question from the kitchen, which faced the living room.
“I’m sorry,” said Tito.
“You look so much like him,” said Melina, setting down saucers and plates for Nanos, Tito and herself. As she poured coffee her eyes swelled up. “The blasphemous needle,” she cried out, and sat down in a rocker beside her husband.
“You don’t inject, do you, Tito?” asked Nanos.
“Only ideas,” answered Tito.
“Ah, you’re smart, Tito. My son, Stamos, was a fool.”
“The streets were his assassins,” said Melina.
“Ah Melina, enough. We have a guest.” The conversation turned to literature and they spoke of Nikos Kazantzakis as if he’d been a dear and intimate friend of all three of them. They talked long into the night while munching on Baklava.
When Tito got up to leave, Nanos declared, “Where are you going?”
“I’ll be all right,” Tito said. “I’m used to the streets. I can sleep anywhere.”
“Tonight you’re our guest and we have an extra bedroom.” Melina, carrying sheets crisp as the Boston air, gestured with her finger to follow her.
“Thank you,” said Tito. “Thank you very much.”
In the bedroom, photos and scrapbooks of Stamos abounded and for a moment Tito felt awkward, but the weird feeling passed and he slept better than he had in a long time. Tito woke up refreshed, feeling like a new man with a new beginning and a new family.
On Sundays, Melina and Nanos would invite Tito to the Graystone Greek Orthodox Church in Central Square in Cambridge and Tito basked in the rituals and animated churchgoers. But when a middle-aged churchgoer commented, “Tito looks so much like Stamos,” Nanos, as if comprehending Tito’s unease, lashed out, “Stamos was Stamos and Tito is Tito,” to the churchgoer’s astonishment.
“Thanks,” said Tito to Nanos.
Nanos nodded, “A man must be himself and only himself.”
Frequently now, Tito would spend weekends overnight with the Greek couple. When Tito was in his element — comfortable with his surroundings — he knew how to live for each moment and what it offered. For a man of the streets like Tito, it seemed heaven on earth to stretch out in a nice hot bath.
Evenings, the three would sip espresso coffee and tell tall tales, which led to Nanos and Melina arguing often. Tito would interrupt their arguments with a question like, “Is Melina named after Melina Mercouri?”
“No, no,” declared Nanos. “Melina Mercouri was an actress… my Melina is a goddess.”
“Oh, Tito, see how the old goat exaggerates — but I like it.”
Then the stereo began to resound with Greek folk music steeped with a subtle sensuality that beckoned Tito to his feet; and he slowly learned the intricate dance steps holding hands with Nanos and Melina. He was happier than he had been in a long, long time in his native Boston.
When summer came and the wanderlust spread beneath his feet, Tito announced he’d been accepted to work in Denali National Park in Alaska. “I don’t stay anywhere long,” he told the Greek couple.
“We understand,” said Nanos.
“You’re welcome anytime,” said Melina, a tear welling up in her eye as she glanced at a photo of Stamos by a nearby lamp stand.
“I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning,” said Tito. “I’m hitching via the Trans-Canadian Highway.”
In the morning, Tito dropped by for a final embrace and farewell, and was pleasantly surprised by the large blue backpack Melina had bought him, packed full of sandwiches. He threw away his old bag that had long since seen its best days.
“I’ll never forget you,” said Tito. “You’ll always be in my thoughts.”
“And you in ours,” said Nanos.
Several days later, in the dusty, frontier downtown of Moose, Tito saw Saskatchewan over ham and eggs. He thought to himself that the adage, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” was certainly outdated. But Tito also realized that he would never return to Boston and that all his trips back to his hometown were a search for closure. Now, finally, he had a lasting happy memory of Beantown, thanks to the Greek couple.
Turn and Burn
Fiction by Joan Clair
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]never planned or wanted to be a landlord, but when I inherited a property as the favorite grandchild of a deceased relative, I became one. The property, a triplex, had a renter in each unit. They didn’t want to move, and neither did I. The property was in Akron, Ohio; and I preferred living near the coast in California.
All went well until the renter in the middle unit decided to leave. I had to find a new renter and put an ad for one in a local newspaper. Over 100 people called me, but one voice stood out from the others. It was a soft, masculine voice; and I could hear the uncertainty and insecurity rising up from a discouraging depth.
I listened to his story — a bad landlord, frequent rent increases, drug dealing in the building, no place for children (he said he had two) to play. I wanted to get him and his children out of there and offered him the unit
Did I do a credit check? No. A rental history, contacting former landlords and property managers? No. Verification of income? No. I usually trusted my instincts, and the voice reached me.
Without paying the rent up front, he and his two children moved in. He said it would be a week before he could pay the rent; and, yes, I was the “prince of naive.” Within a couple of days, things began to fall apart. The “children” turned out to be two dogs, two dachshunds who were constant barkers. (There was a provision in the lease that did not permit dogs without the landlord’s permission.)
These dogs did not appreciate the cats belonging to the neighbors on either side of the unit. The tensions between the pet owners escalated; and Michael, my new renter, began to poop his dogs perilously close to his neighbors’ units.
I got a call from a former property manager who knew my grandmother and who had wanted to warn me about Michael and found out it was too late.
“I tried to reach you, John, but had a hard time finding your address. Michael never paid the rent on time or at all, and we finally had to give him an eviction notice. Don’t worry. No matter what he does, he’s not going to be able to pay the rent. Don’t accept part of it. Get him out on nonpayment of rent like we did.
“He’s a bad person. Many people live his lifestyle. They ‘turn and burn.’ They’ll pay all or part of the rent for a month or so, then stop paying altogether, stay as long as they can and then get another place. Don’t believe any of his stories. They’re all lies.”
Michael told me he was a survivor. He’d been kicked out of his home when he was 11 years old and had been abused in one foster home after another, until he ran away. Now in his 20s, he also had a police record for shooting a rifle out a window when he was in his late teens. (“I didn’t want to hurt anyone” — which he hadn’t. “I just wanted some attention” — which he got.)
“He’s bad news,” another property manager, who was put in touch with me by the first property manager, told me. “He burned us for a few thousand in property damage and unpaid rent. He’s a liar and has no character.”
I couldn’t find one person who had anything good to say about Michael, from former property managers, neighbors, or even some of my friends. I know they were trying to help me, and no doubt I needed help, having never been faced with this kind of a situation and being a “paragon of naive.”
“Of course, I don’t like to put anyone out on the street,” a former property manager said. “Of course, we wouldn’t want to make anyone homeless,” said a neighbor. Of course, I’d be the one who would have to do that.
“He won’t come up with the entire first month’s rent, and we waived the security deposit like you did,” the property manager who was my grandmother’s friend told me. “You can’t let him destroy the peace of his neighbors with his dogs and his bad attitude. You have to think of them too.” Good point. “Don’t worry about him. He’ll find another place. He’ll ‘turn and burn’ someone else.” Good news!?
But I did worry about him and his two dogs. I recalled my soul was just as troubled and no doubt troublesome to others in earlier stages of my existence. Even now, I had to work hard to keep my soul even a bit free from the toxicity that comes from within and without.
In fact, being very old-fashioned — which is why my grandmother liked me; I learned this from her — I believed that it was only through God’s grace that I had any hope of being liberated from toxicity at all: the old fashioned idea that we are all sinners. And it surprised me in my own little world of neighbors, friends and professionals in rental matters that there should be only two sinners. Michael and me. What happened to all the others?
“You need to think of it as a business,” one of the property managers said. “It’s not about his humanity or yours, even though, of course, none of us likes to put anyone out on the street.”
“Looks like he has a lot of very heavy karma,” someone said. Some thought Michael was “bad” and I was “good,” but I knew better.
Every day I tried to remain as “free from bad” as I could, through God’s grace, because after a lifetime of trials that seemed like one of the few goals worth having. In Hinduism it’s called ahimsa, living as nonviolent a life as possible towards every other being.
So where did that leave me with Michael, whose dogs kept barking and who allowed his dogs to poop on or near his neighbors’ doorsteps? Well. there were a whole swarm of people ready to help me: attorneys at $200.00 an hour, official property managers who said they would be glad to take over at $50.00 an hour with no cap on the number of hours once a contract was signed.
So I went the old-fashioned route and asked a few of my monk and monk-like friends to pray with me. Prayer to the One Who Listens! Within a week, Michael called me and said he was leaving and had found another place. He never paid me the rent for the weeks he lived in the unit.
I gave him a couple hundred dollars against the rent he said he had mailed to me so he could make the rent in his new place on time. The promised rent never arrived. Those who didn’t label me an “enabler” said it was a small price to pay to get rid of him.
Theoretically, Michael “turned and burned” me as he had others, even though he thanked me before he left. He left me with a lot of afterthoughts about living in a world in which only a few of us are sinners and all the rest of us are holy and pure.
This is a work of fiction. None of these characters have any relation to actual people.