The vacancy rate: .05. It explained my position. I wasn’t good with numbers, but that one was small on any scale. An untimely break-up sent me staggering into the core for a new home. After viewing and considering a tar-papered eight-foot by eight-foot room with no windows, an unfinished cinder-block basement complete with sump pump and an actual garage still smacking of gasoline and exhaust, a colleague told me his father needed a roommate. The father lived in a small two-bedroom flat near Little Italy. The rent was agreeable, and Little Italy was my favourite neighbourhood. Just a warning, my colleague said, “Dad is a bit eccentric.”
A meeting followed with my colleague’s father, a jovial, white-haired former minister. “My son tells me you’re good people,” he said. “I suppose,” I replied, though his son and I didn't know each other well. He led me into the apartment, located above a family-run grocery store. The air in the dark hall was thick with pine and cooking smells. I could hear the vague strains of “Noël” coming from inside. “Place needs a light bulb or two,” he said. We walked down the hall to a room with a massive green velour chesterfield. In the corner stood a glittering Christmas tree bedecked with gold and silver bulbs and tinsel tresses. Beneath were heaped boxes wrapped in blue and red foil. Other than the tree, a television that was flickering against the wall provided the only light in the room. A black leatherette recliner, a wooden rocking chair with gingham padding and a seaman’s chest coffee table decorated with candy canes completed the room’s decor. I could still hear “Noël” in the background. “You're welcome in here any time,” he said. “I watch television a lot, but I'm not too picky about what I watch. Do you like sports?” I told him I did, and he said that he was up for watching any sport, any time. “Hell, I've even watched Australian football on occasion,” he chuckled. “But it’s better in company, sports. Don’t you agree?” he asked. I did.
He brought me to the large kitchen—complete with a wooden island—and said he liked to cook at least one meal a day. I was welcome to join him any time. “Just pitch in for groceries and we’re good,” he said. The music had stopped, and I wondered where it had come from. A string of small, white light bulbs fringed the kitchen window, illuminating the little snowmen, angels and stars that had been sprayed onto the glass with an aerosol can of fake snow. A piece of foolscap crayoned in a childish hand drew my eye. Taped to the refrigerator, it was a portrait of Santa Claus in a smudged red uniform. “My grandson Bernard,” said the man, missing nothing. “A real artist, don’t you think?” I nodded diplomatically. One must be careful when discussing the merits of grandchildren with their grandparents.
He showed me the small but clean bathroom. “I’m a big fella,” he said. “And I manage in the shower just fine. I think you’ll be okay; you’re not as big in the belly as I am. I’d just stay clear of it in the morning when I do my best praying so to speak.” He chuckled and clapped me lightly on the back. “Come,” he said, “let me show you the rest of the place.”
His bedroom was not quite what I had expected—and frankly I don’t know why he brought me in there at all. Dozens of candles lit the room, and it trembled as we stepped in. I caught my reflection in the antique wooden armoire by the door and for some reason I was smiling. The ornately detailed mahogany bed, covered with a crimson silk duvet and green and gold silk pillows, looked like something fit for a pope. Over the head of the bed jutted an impressive pair of antlers mounted on a wooden plate. A small, old-fashioned record player sat open on a night chest. I hadn’t seen one like it since I was a kid. “Let me fire it up again,” said my host, his cheeks and ears reddening. He moved to the record player, hunched over it and lowered the needle. “Noël” re-started.
“You probably want to see your room,” he said with a big smile and he led me down the hall. Although this bedroom was smaller than his and faced the busy street, the polished wooden floors and the angled ceiling appealed to me. I recognized that there would be barriers to overcome. After all, it was June, the vacancy rate was .05 and I had nowhere else to turn.