Neighbors — A Tale of Life and Loss in the Big City
I like to think the old man did it for a reason, a good reason. That he moved on from that place of his own free will, leaving behind no regrets and no explanations. Owing nothing to nobody. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all say that when it’s our time to go?
The setting was a pair of ground floor apartments in a converted duplex on the north side of Chicago. As a grad student new to the city, finding a decent room for rent quickly became a top priority. With only a few days until the beginning of the fall semester, I found the ad for a furnished two-room apartment in the local paper, and as far as I was concerned it couldn’t have been a better stroke of luck. Centrally located in the city, close to an El station for easy transportation downtown to school, the place was simple and affordable — two of the finest words a student can hear. And when I first met the landlord he told me I had a quiet neighbor, an older gentleman who had lived there a long time and always kept to himself.
Good enough for me.
The first thing I noticed was the name on the man’s mailbox, directly below mine at the front of the building. ‘P. Stavrakis.’ So right away I knew his name. And doubtless, more than I needed to know about the man.
We had tenant parking, but every time he left the building I never heard an engine starting up. So I could assume he didn’t drive a car. Never once did I hear a guest’s voice or a phone ring in that apartment across the hall. The only sounds I ever heard were the occasional muffled sounds of a television game show or the sizzling of meat on the stove.
To be fair, in those first days and weeks in the city I pretty much kept to myself, too. I didn’t know anyone and I tried my best to concentrate on school, allowing myself as few distractions as possible. It just so happened that one of those distractions came to be that strange old man next door.
I caught my first glimpse of him late one morning through my window. He was coming down the alley carrying a bag of groceries. I stepped closer to the glass and peaked around the ugly blue curtains. With his stooped shoulders, traces of white hair and soft, careful gait, he gave all the appearance of a man who didn’t want to be noticed.
I say traces of white hair because he always wore a brown baseball cap low across his forehead, resting atop thick black-framed glasses that further hid his features.
Seconds later I heard the creaking of floorboards coming down the hall, followed by the jingling of keys, the gentle opening and closing of the door, and then finally the sliding of the lock. That was P. Stavrakis.
The next clue came a few nights later when I first heard the music. It was late on a Saturday night. I was lying on my couch reading when the faint streams of a melody slipped out from behind his door. It was a wistful, melancholy mix of strings and mandolins scratching out from what must have been an old phonograph player. Strange music. Music from the old country. No lyrics. Just the melody.
An image came to mind: the man sitting there in a straight-backed chair, in his pants and white undershirt, maybe a drink in his hand, listening and remembering happier times, times long gone. And the only reason I could think of that a man would play music like that — a woman. So who was she, and what happened to her? To know her story would be to know a big part of his.
I tried to keep reading, but after a few minutes it was hopeless. I put my book down, grabbed a beer from the refrigerator, and turned out the light. There in the soft glow of a streetlamp coming through the window I leaned back and together we listened to the music.
A few days later I was coming home from class; it was raining lightly so I was walking a little quicker between the El station and my apartment. I slowed down long enough to grab my mail and bring it inside, throwing down what there was of it without looking at it right away. When I did get around to going through it I noticed a cream-colored letter addressed in a woman’s fine hand to Mr. Pietr Stavrakis.
The letter was postmarked five days earlier. From Albania, of all places, with some funky-looking stamps commemorating that country and the sovereign reign of King Konstantin. No return name or address given. Seeing the obvious mistake, my first thought was to go back and put the letter in his mailbox. What the hell business was it of mine?
But holding that parchment-like envelope in my hand got my imagination going. What if it was a love letter? Long ago lost but recently found? Maybe it was from the woman behind that sad music? Or maybe from a relative with impending bad news from a son or daughter. Whoever it was from, it had to be something important, coming all the way from Albania.
I could put it back in his mailbox, or I could go out into the hall and slip it under his door. He might appreciate that. A neighborly gesture. Then again, he might wonder who was handling his personal mail. Either way, I had to do something. It was late afternoon and he might be coming home any minute. I decided to slip it under the door.
I swear, the floorboards creaked louder than ever when I stepped into the hallway. What if he was home? What if he heard me and suddenly opened his door? What would I say? Damn, should I knock or just leave the letter on the floor? I leaned my ear up to the door. Not a sound, though I could definitely smell something, a sour cabbage-like smell that seemed to saturate the wood. Last night’s dinner? More like every dinner from every night of the last how many years.
I left it there under his door and scurried back to my room.
It wasn’t until later that night that I heard him coming down the hall, followed by the jingling of his keys and the opening and closing of his door. After waiting a few seconds I peeked out and saw that he had picked up the letter.
All was quiet over there for a minute or two until I heard glass shattering on the floor. It was enough to make me jump. My first thought was to run over and see if he was all right. But something held me back. It wasn’t long before he started playing the music again. It sounded even sadder than before. And he kept playing it all night long.
The next morning, a Friday as I recall, was bright, cool and clear — a first taste of autumn in the air. I was on my way to catch the El when I looked up and saw coming toward me on the sidewalk none other than Pietr Stavrakis. He was wearing the baseball cap again and his hands were buried in the pockets of his well-worn overcoat. Did he recognize me? Should I say something? Did he even know I was his neighbor?
Right as we passed one another our eyes briefly met. Neither of us said a word. As I reached the end of the street, about to turn the corner, I stole a quick glance back at him but he was already gone.
A few weeks later I went home to Wisconsin for the weekend, and when I returned to my apartment Monday morning I grabbed my mail, looking it over carefully this time to see that it was indeed my mail. I was coming down the hall when I saw my neighbor’s door wide open. That was strange.
I slowed down, a little afraid of what I might see. Inside was nothing but bare cupboards and blank walls. A curtain fluttered at the open window. I cautiously stepped over the linoleum threshold to get a closer look. The old appliances and furniture were still in place, but it felt as cold and empty as a midnight bus stop.
Despite the open window and the fresh scent of air freshener, I could still catch that peculiar smell — probably the only thing he did leave behind.
The landlord startled me when he came up behind me carrying a mop and pail. Stepping out of his way I asked what had happened. The landlord shrugged, saying matter-of-factly that the old man left him a note last week saying he was leaving. Along with the note was enough cash to cover the last two weeks of the month.
Apparently, Mr. Stavrakis never had a lease and always paid cash for his room and board. And now just like that, he was gone. I asked the landlord if anything bad had happened. Did he know why the old man left? He shook his head, stepped into the empty apartment and closed the door behind him. End of discussion.
For days afterward, I wanted to sneak in and scour the place for any clue Pietr Stavrakis might have left behind — anything that would tell me something about who this man was. But like I said, he didn’t owe anyone any explanations, least of all me.
Years later it’s one of those memories I can’t let go of. The memory of an old man who by happenstance once lived under the same roof as me; a man who stayed a while and then slipped out quietly with no one giving it a second thought.
Well, almost no one.