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Who was he, the strange old man with the foreign accent who strolled through the neighborhood every afternoon dressed in a tweed sport coat and khaki pants? And what was he doing here? In the city, he would not have been noticed. But in a quiet bedroom community of young married couples, two-car garages, and empty sidewalks – where the style of dress, for men, women, and children, ran to t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops, and people jogged or power-walked or walked their dogs but never just strolled – the old man stood out. Then there was his behavior. He would greet complete strangers as if they were good friends. He loved young children, which, of course, was especially unsettling. One Sunday afternoon, he wandered into an outdoor barbeque party and mingled with such ease and familiarity that the host thought he had come with one of the guests, while the guests assumed he was a friend of the host.
After he became a topic of concern on the neighborhood app Nextdoor, his daughter Lydia joined the online conversation. Constantine is my father, she told the group. His memory is not so good anymore, but he means no harm. He hasn’t lived in America long, and he doesn’t always understand how things are done here. He loves people, especially young people – he was a teacher back home. If he bothers you, just tell him nicely that you’re busy and he’ll go away.
It was a pleasant suburban community of ranch and split-level houses, with streets named after the maple, oak, and sycamore trees that had been cut down to build the subdivision. People waved as they passed one another in their cars. But for the most part neighbors did not know each other well. In recent years, homeowners had begun adding front porches – a feature that had fallen out of style when the subdivision was built – but the social impulse that prompted the building of porches tended to fade over time, and most went unused. When Constantine asked his daughter why people didn’t use their porches, she said she didn’t really know. Maybe it was the noise from the cars, especially on summer nights when teenagers raced up and down the empty streets, ignoring the “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here” signs (which on one street had been painted over to read “Drive Like Your Kids”).
Or maybe, she added, people were simply too busy. With both parents working and every free moment taken up with chores and activities – with lawns to be mowed and cars to be washed and groceries to be bought and children to be taken to football games and swim meets and ballet lessons and day camps and college admission essay classes – who had time to just sit and do nothing?
Eventually, Constantine’s neighbors got used to him and were no longer bothered by his behavior. People working in their front yards would wave to him as he passed by on his daily walks; sometimes they would stop mowing their lawns or washing their cars to chat with him for a moment. Young children were especially drawn to the old man. Perhaps it was because they saw their own grandparents only once or twice a year. Or perhaps it was the novelty. There was only one other old person in the neighborhood, and she rarely ventured outside her house. Every now and then, she could be seen slowly making her way up and down the block in front of her house, bent over, eyes fixed on the sidewalk with a vaguely guilty look on her face, as if she, the last of the neighborhood’s original homeowners, had done something wrong.
Whatever the reason, young children loved spending time with the old man, and sometimes on Saturday mornings, after watching cartoons, they would go to his house and ask Lydia if Constantine could come out. He would sit on the front porch, the children gathered at his feet, and tell stories of his travels. Before becoming a teacher, he’d been a sailor on a ship called The Odd Sea, and he told tales of one-eyed giants, six-headed sea serpents, and birdlike women who lured sailors to their deaths with their beautiful voices. He was a master storyteller who could mimic anyone and anything – cranky old men and shy young women, laughing children and bawling babies, hooting owls and growling lions, creaking wooden ships and raging thunderstorms. He had learned his storytelling skills from his grandfather, who had narrated silent films in his mountain village, switching nimbly from voice to voice and making things up if the story bored him. So believable were his performances that one night the village shoemaker, who was unstable because of the glue he breathed, charged the white sheet used as an outdoor screen, enraged by the film’s villain.
Early one Friday evening, Constantine was on one of his walks, when a neighbor invited him onto his porch for a glass of wine. Another neighbor invited him the following week, and it wasn’t long before Friday evening get-togethers became a regular event that neighbors took turns hosting. On warm summer nights, grown-ups sat on the porch, drinking wine and beer and sampling Constantine’s homemade ouzo and mezedes, while children drank lemonade and ate pizza and cookies and rode their scooters and skateboards up and down the cordoned-off street.
One evening, Constantine, at Lydia’s urging, told the story of his grandfather and the shoemaker who had attacked the movie screen, and when he stumbled on details – there’d been a slow but continued decline in his memory – his daughter gently filled in.
“Hey, I just had an idea,” someone said after the laughter had died down. “Why don’t we show movies?”
It was, everyone agreed, an excellent idea.
The next morning, as Lydia and Constantine were drinking coffee on the front porch, she asked her father if he missed his village.
“I think I would if I could remember it,” he said and laughed.
I am lucky, she thought. His sense of humor will be the last thing to go.
Later that summer, he took to singing as he walked. He sang in his language, in a pleasant, conversational voice. When Lydia asked him what he was singing – after forty years in America, she had lost most of the language – he simply smiled and said “My song.”
“Your song?” When he was a young man, he had written songs. A few had been recorded and while they had won him a small but devoted following, they never achieved popularity: They went on and on and didn’t rhyme. “You wrote it?”
“I lived it.”
Sometimes he would get lost on his walks. People could tell because he would stop and look up and down the street, with an expression of mild confusion. Then, children who were playing hopscotch or riding their skateboards and scooters would stop what they were doing and gently lead the singing old man home.
Donald A. Ranard's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, New World Writing Quarterly, The Best Travel Writing, and many other publications. His play, ELBOW. APPLE. CARPET. SADDLE. BUBBLE., was named one of three finalists in Veteran Repertory's 2021 playwriting contest. Based in Arlington, VA, he has lived in 10 countries in Asia, Europe, and Latin America.