Anne and I have just flown in to tell our brother Calvin he can’t live in the old family home anymore. We walk the yard of the house in Orange, California where Calvin has lived alone since Dad died. The once-landscaped yard has decayed into a bushy field, and a broken sprinkler system is encouraging the grass to turn California brown. I look up to see where termites are chewing on the fascia boards. As we enter, the house smells stale, the parquet floor has pieces missing, and nothing has been updated since the 1960s.
The phone rings. “Oh, it’s just the collection agency,” Calvin says. Paper stacks tower over the sink and counters—utility bills, property taxes, credit card bills. Only Calvin’s cable bill is paid up—he doesn’t want to miss “Bonanza” or “I Love Lucy.” It’s not all his fault. When he was eighteen, a life-threatening motorcycle accident left him with a skull fracture and a fogged brain. His right foot is perpetually swollen. He takes diabetes medicine and Dilantin to control epileptic seizures.
Anne (San Francisco) and I (Minneapolis) sweep up the dust in Dad’s old bedroom and throw sleeping bags down on the dirty bedcovers.. The handcrafted grandfather clock in the corner (made by our grandfather) stands mute, with only one hand on the clock face. Bleary sun filters through the dirty window and a foul smell seeps out from the bathroom.
In the morning we breakfast on the eggs, milk, and bacon we had bought, washing the cups and plates before we use them. Only two of the four burners on the gas stove work and we worry about the greasy stovetop catching fire. The oven, dishwasher and garbage disposal haven’t worked in years.
After breakfast and over Calvin’s protests, we get Calvin’s attention when we start packing up the house to take stuff to Goodwill. “Hey! What’re you doing!”
“Calvin, we need to begin moving you out.” He lapses into an angry silence.
Like most days, Anne and I jump in my rental car and drive to the Orange Plaza to drink Starbucks in the huge Wells Fargo Bank lobby with its thirty-foot-high embossed ceilings. I do not see Anne very often. Savoring the taste of our vanilla lattes, we reminisce. Finally, talk turns to Calvin and The Problem. But we can’t devise a plan.
Now five days have passed and we both must fly out today. We tell Calvin he needs to move up north with his niece (she’s offered him her RV) and put the house up for sale because he can no longer take care of it or pay the bills. He refuses.
Will we have to evict him? Anne and I head out for a last breakfast. We raise our voices over the chatter at McDonald’s as we savor our Egg McMuffins. My daughter Jeny calls from up north, urging us to act. My wife calls from Minneapolis, warning me not to come home without doing something. We’re desperate. Anne and I spend an hour talking it over and finally realize that the only remedy is to evict Calvin, find someplace, any place, for him to live, then sell the house.
We’re so focused on The Problem that we haven’t noticed a solitary Mexican guy sitting in the booth across from us. He fingers a crucifix hanging on a silver chain around his neck. His cardboard sign lies on the seat beside him. Black hair falls below his ears and dark eyes watch us as he chews on a caramel roll and drinks coffee. He says, “I don’t think you should kick him out. I’ve been homeless for quite a while and it’s rough out there. He’ll never survive the streets.” For the next forty-five minutes we listen to Mario’s story. He talks of his prayers and his Christian faith. He has something wrong with his leg so he’s not working and has been bouncing around from place to place. Occasionally he sleeps under the Glassell bridge near Hart Park. As he stands to say goodbye, he repeats, “Don’t kick him out,” then he disappears out the door.
Anne looks at me, both of us wondering what has just happened. “He came out of nowhere; then he just disappeared.”
“I don’t know, Anne . . . How can we kick Calvin out? Where would he go? He’s not paying his bills. He’s already said he doesn’t want to move out, doesn’t want to live in Jeny’s RV, doesn’t receive enough Social Security to pay rent elsewhere. I’m already helping him pay property taxes and insurance. You’re sending him food money. I think he’s just playing defense, hoping we won’t do anything.
“I just don’t know. What can we do?” We both turn quiet.
Finally a light goes on in my head: I grab a napkin and start scribbling a proposal. “I don’t know if this’ll work, but what else can we do?”
We drive back to the house, pack up our suitcases and park them near the front door, then turn to Calvin for one last conversation. “Calvin, we’ve got three options for you. You can get evicted, or move up with Jeny, or you need to let me take over all your finances.”
He pauses only a split second. “I’ll take number three!” A shock runs through me. Anne opens her mouth and closes it again.
“OK,” I tell him. “That’s a great choice. I don’t know if I can get all the bills paid, but I’ll do my best.” I sit at the table and quickly scribble an agreement paper, which Anne and I sign. “Calvin, could you sign this informal contract about me taking over?”
“I never sign anything.”
“But Calvin, we’ve gotta have something concrete here before Anne and I leave.”
Anne jumps in. “Calvin, you’ve got to sign this, because we don’t have any other good choices.”
Calvin stands mute for two minutes. Finally he picks up the pen and signs.
Two years pass. I’ve been receiving Calvin’s Social Security check and paying bills. When he mentions a new bill, I always tell him, “Paid.” He marvels that all his bills are paid, and I’ve even been sending him $200 a month.
Two years after Calvin signed that agreement, he died of a diabetic coma. But I am grateful that he enjoyed those months of peace and good relations with the family.
And I cannot explain how our homeless angel showed up at McDonald’s amid our crisis and, in just forty-five minutes convinced us to abandon our eviction plans and offer choices for Calvin. I only say that Mario became our miracle.