The Old Greek
The neighbors huddled together, while watering the lawn or lining the curb with black plastic bags, and wondered if the Old Greek was ever coming back. They all agreed that he was a pain in the ass, and a snoop, but he was their snoop, a fixture, always there.
He was a large man, though beginning to stoop, and his upper frame was now disproportionately narrow compared to the powerful stride of his lower half. Still, he missed nothing. He was protectively determined that things should stay as they were, that nothing out of the ordinary slip by his watchful eye.
Tom Campbell was thirty-six when he rented a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of the Old Greek's house. Both men sized each other up, came to terms on a hand shake and never bothered with a lease. That was nine years ago when the Old Greek was seventy-six, forty years older than Tom, his birthday one day after Tom's in October.
The Old Greek had lived in the same house on a quiet one-way street off Main, a block away from the major intersection, for almost half a century, since first arriving in the United States. The town was mostly Italian then, except for a three or four block stretch where Greeks, like himself, purchased land, built homes and raised families.
A cluster of history surrounded the Old Greek's house, which was the second from the corner of Elm Street, where the elementary school, now overflowing with Japanese children, was located. Since Tom moved in, the husbands on each side of the Old Greek's house had died, as had the Irishman who lived directly across the street, a man whom the Old Greek had competitively compared his life with for the past four decades.
"He's too nosy," the Old Greek used to say about the Irish man.
"It's no good," the Old Greek said. "He should mind his business."
For his part, the Irish man, a short fellow who had developed lung cancer a year after having open heart surgery, would catch Tom on the street, tug on his shirt sleeve and warn him that the Old Greek couldn't be trusted.
"Be careful," the Irish man said.
"Thank you," Tom said.
The Irish man then hobbled up the creaky wooden steps of the porch to his house and collapsed in a flower patterned, upholstered chair.
The Old Greek's name was Milas, but everyone called him Mike. He was a shoemaker who had opened a shop when he first moved to town. Even in this new country, he reasoned, everybody needed shoes. But demand was small, some of the Greeks would buy his shoes, but the booming postwar economy quickly demonstrated that convenience and mass production won out over handcrafted care, so Mike adjusted and began to repairwhat he could no longer make.
His house was his castle, his little duchy, where freedom and opportunity reigned. He never went back to Greece -- never needed to -- he owned his own kingdom above the banks of the Hudson River and Greece was always with him.
Tom didn't know it at the time he moved in but the Old Greek had mistakenly assumed that his son and daughter, once of age and married, would live in the house with him and his wife. With his provincial upbringing, it never occurred to him that his offspring would move out, declaring their independence and forging ahead to build a life of their own.
The Old Greek's son, who was a few years older than Tom, lived in Wyoming, where he made cabinets and restored antique furniture, and the Old Greek's daughter was a gynecologist in San Francisco, with a husband and three kids. The Old Greek never mentioned his children, his focus was on the present and the house.
Tom found out about the Old Greek's children, and his dashed plans, from Jack, who lived in a converted studio on the other side of the first floor of the house. Jack was related to the Old Greek but Tom never truly figured out how. It seemed that Jack was the son of a nephew of a second cousin, or some such connection.
"He's a pain in the ass," Jack said. "But it's convenient for right now. The rent's good and it's not a bad drive to work."
Tom didn't see much of Jack. Jack's staggered hours at work in Queens meant starting in the wee hours of the morning and he was usually asleep by the time Tom came home from his job as a purchaser at an aviation plant rising out of the once barren marshes of the meadowlands. Then, most weekends, Jack was off to Virginia to see his girlfriend, whose existence Tom questioned since it seemed that Jack was in the car on his way there and back for much more time than he could possibly be with the girl. "You need a wife," the Old Greek said to Tom. He was standing on the edge of the driveway clipping the overhanging branches from a tree.
"A man needs a woman." The Old Greek stood, holding the shearers by his side like a favorite weapon.
Tom didn't know what to say. Between his amateur attempt at marriage, which is what he thought of his so-called union with Linda, and the Old Greek's inseparable, irrevocable contract with his wife, Tom wasn't sure a viable compromise existed.
Melina, the Old Greek's wife, didn't come out much any more. Tom could only accept the Old Greek's word that Melina had been a beautiful, wild, innocent girl traipsing through the mountains of their homeland, swinging a basket of fruit and laughing as the wind gushed against her face and through her hair.
The look in the old Greek's eyes was dazed, far away, as he recalled the long ago vision of what was. He sighed, then cleared his throat.
"You like tomatoes?" He didn't wait for an answer. He stooped down in the garden examining the freshly grown plants.
"They are big, good," he said, still bending over.
Tom could see that the Old Greek wanted time to stand still, for everything to remain the way it was. Days may have been better but now was okay. If thing didn't get any worse the Old Greek thought life would be tolerable, which to him was the same as fine.
The Old Greek filled Tom's arms up with giant tomatoes. "Eat healthy, get married," he said. "You need someone to cook. When are you getting married?"
"You'll be the first to know," Tom said, shuffling and balancing the tomatoes up against his chest.
The Old Greek nodded, then returned to his chair in the driveway.
Melina wasn't well. She didn't come out much to begin with, and then not at all. She was a nice, ignorant woman who had never made the transition from her native Greece. Every Christmas, even though it was not her Christmas, she would give Tom a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Melina could barely speak English and it would take a good five minutes before she and Tom were convinced that they had correctly wished each other a happy holiday.
Last Christmas, however, there had been no cookies. Melina could barely walk, managing to hobble with a cane on the few occasions she was out on the street. She was shrunken, frail and wrinkled, stoically enduring a hip replacement and then suffering horribly from shingles. Nothing was ever said. The Old Greek was up at dawn, as usual, ready to patrol the neighborhood, taking breaks to sit vigil in the driveway,while Melina was nowhere to be seen.
Sometimes at night Tom could hear the Old Greek screaming. Tom couldn't understand what the Old Greek was saying but it was obvious that he was berating Melina, and in berating her, Tom concluded, he could only be berating himself.
The next morning it would be as if nothing had happened. Tom never knew what the Old Greek was so angry about, what could possibly provoke such an explosive temper toward Melina, or anyone.
As he walked to his car, which was parked across the street, the day after such outbursts, Tom would see the Old Greek following his regular routine. The Old Greek would stop him and say, "Have a nice day," as he customarily did, and that was it.
The Old Greek was up on what was going on at every store and business on the two commercial sides of the four block square that was his world. The hardware store on the corner at the end of his street was his favorite, the only establishment that he didn't think of as an object. The Old Greek had known the owner of the hardware store, who was the son of the original owner, for over fifty years. The son, whose hair was now white, with matching beard, and was always dressed in blue overalls with red suspenders, was five when the Old Greek first met him.
The hardware store was the central social hub during the winter, especially for the Old Greek and his few remaining neighbors from the old days. Two out of the past three winters had been unusually harsh, with one marked by a record snowfall. The Old Greek was ready, stocking up on equipment for survival; it was his kind of battle, man against the elements.
Whenever the snow started, the Old Greek and the two sturdy peasant women, also in their eighties, were ready. They never let the snow accumulate. They lived for shoveling. Whether it was six inches, thirteen, or that recent nineteen inch snowfall, they were out there, preserving their sidewalks and driveways as the white banks mounted all around.
The two women were astounding in their stamina and determination but they were no match for the Old Greek. He was up and out every two or three hours erasing the snow with his shovel before it had time to settle. At one in the morning Tom would be lying on his couch alongside the window watching television and he would hear the Old Greek. He would hear the scraping of the shovel and the grunting of a man obsessed with his task, as the Old Greek forged a path to the back of the house.
Then, at four in the morning, asleep in his bedroom at the front of the house, Tom would be roused by the familiar sound of the Old Greek outside continuing his war against nature.
One morning, with the snow still coming down, Tom slowly, reluctantly got ready for work.
He wasn't looking forward to the chore of unburying his car. To his surprise, however, it had already been done. The Old Greek, a wool cap covering most of his head,was in the driveway chipping away at the ice and destroying fresh flakes as they fell.
He was enjoying himself, the merriment of the struggle, and of prevailing. He was exuberant, like a little kid beating a playmate in a snowball fight or putting the last touches on the face of a freshly made snowman.
The Old Greek, his foot on the head of the shovel, about to drive it down once again, looked up at Tom. "Catastrophe," he laughed in his gruff accent. Then he pushed down with all his might, the shovel coming up with chunks of broken ice, which the Old Greek playfully deposited on the bank by the side of the driveway.
"Catastrophe," he said again, but obviously one in which he did not feel the victim. Then, "Have a nice day," and he was back at work, oblivious once more to the outside world.
During the summer it was a different story. The Old Greek, with noticeable misgivings, surrendered the care of the house to Jack. From the last week in June to the middle of August, the Old Greek and his wife traveled west, first to stay with their daughter, then their son. Jack was responsible for cutting the grass, clipping the hedges, and all household repairs, which were frequent.
"Free at last," Jack said. "I wish the old bastard would stay away longer.
"Here's to none of his snooping." Jack held up a can of Bud in toast.
He gulped half of it down and let out a hearty, satisfied belch.
"You gotta admit he's a God damn snoop," Jack said. "He wants to know everything."
"He usually does," Tom said.
"It doesn't bother you?" Jack finished his beer, crumpling the red and white can in his fist.
"I accept it."
"Why should you?" Jack challenged. "Why should either of us?"
He lit a cigarette. "We pay our rent." Jack exhaled a drag of smoke in a rapid rush. "He has no right to go in our apartments."
"You think he does?"
"I don't have anything to hide," Tom said.
"That's not the point," Jack said in exasperation. "You're hopeless."
Jack smiled, but not a friendly one. "What's it been, you've had three girlfriends since you've lived here?"
"I think I still have one."
"That second lasted some time," Jack said. "What, two, three years?"
"Don't remind me."
"Haven't seen your current girlfriend around in a while."
"She hasn't been staying over."
"What concern is that to you?"
"It doesn't concern me at all," Jack said. "Don't you wonder how I know?"
Jack laughed. "You really don't know, do you? Old Milas tells me everything. Why do you think I never have anyone over?"
Tom resisted the urge to answer the obvious.
"You've been here long enough." Jack slapped Tom good-naturedly on the back. "I just thought you should know."
But Tom did know, especially after what had happened a few Sundays ago. It was mid morning and he had just made love with Betsy. Betsy was sitting on the living room couch, a blanket wrapped around her naked body, as she sipped her coffee from a mug, her grimace indicating that while she had said black was okay, she obviously preferred milk with it.
Tom pulled on a pair of jeans and grabbed his wrinkled shirt off a chair. He said he'd be back in a minute, he was just going up the street to get bagels and milk. He asked Betsy if she wanted the paper and she said thank you, but no, she got more news than she wanted during the week.
How about some coffee from the bagel shop? he asked, trying to make amends for not remembering to get milk the day before. His coffee was okay but the bagel shop coffee, steaming in styrofoam cups, was far superior. She smiled and said that would be nice.
On his way back from the bagel shop Tom was surprised to see the Old Greek rushing toward him. The Old Greek's eyes were filled with panic.
He was hovering over Tom, speaking uncharacteristically fast. The combination of his accent and his stammering, as he groped for what he thought might be the right words, made him sound incoherent.
"I\'b9m sorry, I\'b9m sorry," the Old Greek finally managed to say. "I did not know. The pipes, the pipes, I was only checking the pipes. I thought there was something wrong with the pipes."
The Old Greek continued on for a few more minutes apologizing and talking about the broken pipes, and how the house was such a nuisance to maintain. Then he shook Tom's hand. "You're a good boy," he said. "I would never do anything to hurt you."
Tom was confused until he stepped into the living room and saw Betsy sitting on the couch, only now fully clothed.
"Who was that man?" she demanded.
Tom took the coffee out of the bag.
"That man just walked in here and looked at me."
Tom offered her a choice of sesame or a salt bagel.
"I want to know who that strange man was," Betsy persisted.
"He's my landlord."
Betsy leaned forward. "You know about this?"
"He didn't know you were here," Tom said. "I think you scared him more than he scared you."
Betsy pushed his hand away as he offered her a bagel.
"I feel violated, my privacy has been violated," she said, her eyes fierce with indignation.
"I just talked with him," Tom said. "He's sorry."
"He's sorry?" Betsy was standing now.
"Something should be done," she said. "You should report him."
"He's the landlord, it's his house."
"It may be his house but it's your apartment."
"I'm sorry he startled you," Tom said. "It's just his way, he's the Old Greek."
"His way is unacceptable," Betsy said. "I think you better take me home."
The next time Tom saw the Old Greek look scared was the following spring. The Old Greek looked shaken, bewildered over the winter. There was a light snowfall that year but even so, the Old Greek could not muster up the stamina to shovel as he had in the past. Like everyone else, he waited until morning to clear the sidewalk of fallen snow.
In early June the Old Greek was waiting one morning when Tom came out. Standing before him, up close, Tom was struck by how much weight the Old Greek had lost.
There were tears in the Old Greek's eyes. His once powerful hand was shaking as he placed it on Tom's shoulder.
"I have to go away, to California," he said. He paused, as if not saying it would make it not true. "For an operation."
"My colon is no good," the Old Greek said. "They say cancer. They say an operation will make me better."
"They can cure many things today," Tom said.
"I'm eighty-five," the Old Greek said. "Eighty-five, what does that mean? I have never been sick. I'm eighty-five and I cannot picture myself dead."
He stood, shaking his head. "You are in charge while I am gone," he said. "Have a nice day."
The next day the Old Greek and his wife flew off to California to stay with their daughter while he had the operation and recuperated. There was no word. A month later Tom ran into the elderly woman who lived next door on the corner. The Old Greek had made it through the operation, he was okay. He had called her the other night, she said.
"He's not coming back," Jack said. "They got him out there and they're not going to let him come back."
"We don't know that," Tom said.
"Wise up," Jack laughed. "His son will want to sell the house."
"Do you know the son?"
"I met him once."
"What'd you think?"
"I think he'll sell the house."
It was something Tom had never thought about. The Old Greek had only raised his rent twice in the time he'd lived there, once by twenty-five dollars, and three years later by thirty-five. And both times the Old Greek had been almost apologetic, telling Tom that he had no choice, that the cost of fuel was going up. It was never a matter of pay this or else.
A week after the Old Greek had called his neighbor, Tom came home from work and there was a yellow notice in his mailbox informing him that there was a certified letter for him at the post office. He knew what it was but he didn't want to believe it. He tried to think of other possibilities. He couldn't. The next morning he went down to the post office for the letter and it was just what he had expected.
The letter was from the Old Greek's son. It was short, to the point. They were putting the house up for sale. Tom would have ninety days to move once it was sold.
Have a nice day, he thought, after reading the letter, but he knew the Old Greek would never say that in this situation; he knew the Old Greek, if he could help it, would never sell the house.
"You get the letter?" Jack said with disgust.
"This morning," Tom answered.
"Well, I'm screwed." Jack lit a cigarette. "You may be okay, but I'm screwed. My apartment's illegal."
"What do you mean?"
"This place is zoned as a two-family house," Jack said. "I have the third apartment, the illegal one."
"The house might not sell for a while," Tom said.
"It'll sell." Jack took two quick angry drags on his cigarette. "Maybe not right away, and maybe not for what they want, but it'll sell."
"What are you going to do?" Tom asked.
"I\'b9m not waiting around, that's for sure. I've lived here for twelve years. I'm related to the old bastard and they tell me by certified mail. Can you believe it?
"The old man will be dead in a year," Jack predicted. "You take the old man away from this house and he won't last."
Tom thought for once Jack might be right.
"Guess I'm moving." Jack shook hands with Tom. "The new owners might let you stay, you never know."
A week later Jack was gone. He moved into a garden apartment in another part of town. Tom was impressed with how quickly Jack had followed through on his word.
The day after Jack moved Tom received a phone call from George, the Old Greek's son. "I know you have been a good friend to my father over th years," George said. "And we'd like to thank you for all you've done."
"I think very highly of your father."
"How's the weather out there?" George asked, obviously uncomfortable. He didn't wait for an answer but continued on about the snowfall in Wyoming. He then spoke about his lifestyle, how early he got up, how fresh the air was, how he and his wife lived twenty miles from a nice little town where there was a fairly new senior housing facility.
"It's another stage of life for all of us," he said. "I'm sure it will take a while for my parents to adjust, but in time my parents will learn to love the senior facility out here."
How do you uproot an Old Greek and stick him in a nursing home in Wyoming? Tom wondered.
"What are your plans?" George asked.
"No immediate plans. I thought I'd wait it out."
"Good, excellent." George said. "I know Dad will feel better with you in the house."
George then told Tom that he should make his rent check out to the real estate agency around the corner. He gave Tom the name of the woman who was handling the sale and said Tom should contact her if there were any problems with the house.
"I look forward to meeting you," George said. "Dad and I will be coming out there at the end of the month to clean out the house."
Tom was startled, but he knew he shouldn't be, when he came home from work the following evening and a large "For Sale" sign in bold red lettering was planted on the front lawn. He tried to ignore it but it was simply further confirmation of what he didn't want to accept.
As he walked about the neighborhood, going to the deli, the drugstore, or the dry cleaners, Tom felt like a marked man. He was self-conscious, all the old timers were aware that his days were numbered. The sign made him feel as if the house had been singled out, as if it designated that there was scarlet fever or typhus inside.
Longtime neighbors now stopped him on the street to chat, whereas in the past they would simply wave. All pretense about the Old Greek coming back to live was gone. They asked how he was doing, of course, but then Tom was hit with a barrage of questions about the sale of the house, none of which he knew the answer to, including the asking price. More often than not, an old neighbor would ruefully shake his or her head and say, "I hope they don't sell to Orientals."
Who cares whether Orientals buy it? Tom thought. What about the Old Greek? But he could see, in the eyes of the neighbors, the Old Greek was already dead.
It was a Saturday when Tom saw the Old Greek again. The old man rushed up and grabbed Tom's hand with both his arms.
"How are you?" Tom asked, seeing the confused, frightened look in the Old Greek's eyes.
"I feel good." The Old Greek smiled, a childlike smile.
"The doctor says I'm fine," the Old Greek said. "He says I'm a healthy man."
George, who unlike his father was wiry and agile, with a bushy beard that looked out of place on his slender face, came over and introduced himself. Then George placed his arm around his father and the two of them walked around to the front of the house and up inside.
The Old Greek's neighbors were happy to see him, and they stopped and talked and laughed with him, recalling the way things used to be, the memories and the good times. But you could see that even though the Old Greek was still one of them, the other old timers viewed him as an apparition, fading, if not yet already gone.
Tom was walking back from the stationery store on the street where the elementary school was located when he saw the Old Greek approaching. The old man almost bumped into Tom, coming to an abrupt stop at the last second.
He placed his arm on Tom's shoulder. "I am going to give you a gun," he said.
Tom wouldn't know what to do with a gun, he didn't want one. He had never even held a gun, much less fired one.
"Tomorrow we will buy bullets," the Old Greek said, "and then you can shoot me."
It was the first time Tom had seen tears in the Old Greek's eyes. One simple tear slipped down his rough, weathered cheek.
The Old Greek sighed, almost a wail, and that's when Tom realized that the Old Greek didn't have a gun.
Three days later he was gone. Tom was standing out by the curb with the Old Greek and George as they waited for a cab to drive them to the airport. George was talking about what an ordeal it had been clearing out the house but neither Tom nor the Old Greek were listening.
The cab arrived and George placed the suitcase in the trunk. "It's time to go, Dad," he said.
The Old Greek gazed one last time at the house. Then he shook hands with Tom. "I love you," he said. And with that, he quickly turned and lowered himself into the back seat of the cab.
It took over a year to sell the house. Tom never spoke with the Old Greek again. George would call from time to time but Tom could tell that George didn't really want to talk with him. Tom asked about the Old Greek and George said his father was doing fine. He admitted that the Old Greek was having a bit of trouble socializing but he glossed over that, instead glowingly describing how wonderful the facilities were where his parents now lived.
That first October Tom bought a birthday card for the Old Greek. He had George's address in Wyoming. He didn't write much on the card, just that he was thinking of the Old Greek and wished him well.
Tom mailed the card from work. When he came home that night there was a square blue envelope in the mailbox with his name scrawled across it in pencil. It was a birthday card. It was simply signed Milas.