Gus’s home was a light blue Victorian with a welcoming front porch, driveway and garage, and a separate entrance to the upstairs apartment where Gus now lived. When Julia died, he knew he could no longer be in those downstairs rooms or on that porch, and decided to rent it out to go to a nice family at an affordable rate. In the meantime, Celia had been actively looking to get her son out of the Lenox Street projects. She was brought to tears when the chance for a healthier life and a better school for her son came up.
Celia grew up in the Lenox Street apartments, the first affordable Boston housing project blacks could move into with rents set to thirty percent of the family’s income. Lenox Street was also home of one of the oldest and most violent gangs in Boston. They were known as the Lenox Street Cardinals or sometimes the Lenox Street Boys. They terrorized the local shops and were involved mainly in drugs, robbery, and murder. Growing up, Celia was surrounded by street gangs from the South End, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, each protecting their turf. There was a constant intensity in the air with the local racial tensions and gang violence that was Celia’s childhood in the seventies and eighties. Tensions were often highest on hot summer Saturday nights when revenge shootings occurred and neighbors would wake up Sunday mornings to the sight of yellow police crime scene tape.
Comprehensive neighborhood programs such as Operation Ceasefire were put into place after a brutal stabbing during the wake of a gang member at the local Morningstar Church. While gangs and gang violence had actually subsided by the late nineties, as members of these programs moved on, gang members were released from prison, and the next generation moved through the ranks, less organized gangs became more active and the murders and turf battles erupted again. Celia prayed for the opportunity to get her son out of this section of Boston and away from the local gang pressing him to join. The answer to those prayers came out of Gus’s loss and suffering and this fact was not lost on Gus. Celia believed that she was called somehow to help the man who had lost his own son while she was carrying her son, Jamiel, but now she was panicked by Gus’s note.
On Friday, when Gus opened the door to retrieve his morning paper, he also found a white bag with its handles twisted around the outside door knob. He looked at it with caution and then curiosity as he lifted the bag and walked up the back stairs. He laid the paper and the unexpected bag down on the Formica kitchen table and watched it as if it might move on its own while he poured his morning coffee and arranged his toast and eggs onto his plate. If Gus had a dog, he might have asked him, “What do you think could be in the bag, boy?” but he was alone and sat staring at the mystery package as he dipped the corner of his toast into the egg yolk, drank his coffee and peaked at the sports page to see that Bruins won over the Maple Leafs.
He finally tipped the bag and noticed several fresh-baked muffins and a piece of paper folded over. Gus had no idea who could have left the package. He lifted the note out with two fingers, unfolded it and recognized the handwriting from Celia: Mr. Busbi, I hope you like blueberry or apple cinnamon muffins. I was wondering if you might be around to talk about something when I get home from work at 5:30? Leave a note if that doesn’t work, otherwise, I’ll drop by then. Thanks and have a good day. Celia.
Gus knew it had to do with the note he left her. The rent was reasonable and paid up for the next month. He had checked all the plumbing, electrical and appliances himself just a few weeks ago. He was in no mood to hear any complaints or to talk to anyone about anything at the moment. He thought about leaving a note to say that it wasn’t a good time for him, but instead went for his usual walk, picked up a few groceries, and spent most of the day replacing a pressure value on the boiler in his cellar. He was surprised when he climbed the stairs to his apartment to find that it was already 5:30 and see Celia standing outside his door in her gray wool skirt and white blouse from work. “I hope this is a good time for you, Mr. Busbi?”
Gus grunted as he opened the door with his key. “I must’ve lost track of time working on the boiler. It’s supposed to get a little nippy next week.” Celia looked intently at Gus as they walked into the kitchen but he didn’t look up at her as he pulled out the old wooden chair from the table for her to sit. She didn’t move to sit down. “Mr. Busbi, thank you for being willing to talk?”
After three years of avoiding this moment, Gus looked down at Celia’s face. She was quite striking and probably in her mid-thirties if she had become pregnant as a teenager like so many other girls from the projects. One thing he knew, from his distant observations, was that Celia was a hard-worker and a dedicated self-sacrificing single mother to her only son. Gus never saw any men come to the house who could possibly be the father and would sometimes hear Celia reading out loud on the porch to improve her vocabulary and diction. She worked a full-time job at a local company that was a twenty-minute walk from the house and dedicated the rest of her time raising her son, improving herself, and taking pride in how her new home looked inside and out. Gus didn’t often take the time to think about his family renters downstairs, but he had to admit that she impressed the hell out of him.
Celia said, “I came to apologize for my son—well, I want Jamiel to come over to apologize to you and help you with any work you have around the yard as part of that apology.”
Gus sighed. “Just have Jamil stop having those hoodlums over and hanging out on that porch.”
“It’s Jamiel, Mr. Busbi. I’ve told him that already. They shouldn’t have been here, never mind hanging around on your porch and making it look like a—well, I’ve told him to stop hanging with some of those boys and he didn’t do that.”
Gus hesitated, “I’m not sure apologizing to me is going to help him listen to his mother’s rules? Shouldn’t he be in school on a Thursday?”
Tears started to roll from Celia’s dark brown eyes as she wiped them gently with the tips of her fingers. “It was a holy day at the St. Francis School he’s been going to and they had the day off. I think it had something to do with Mary. I’ve just been so afraid of him getting involved with the gangs, drugs, and such. I grew up in those neighborhoods and it would—.” She stopped to let a few short breaths in and out as she ran her hands down the sides of her forehead and cheeks. “It meant so much to be able to move to your home and a new school, but I’m afraid he is being pulled to get involved with a gang that will suck every opportunity he has out of him.”
Gus shook his head. “I can see why you’re worried, but I don’t know what this has to do with me. I don’t know the boy and I don’t think he’s going to listen to some stranger about what friends he should have. Have the priest at the school talk with him.”
Celia now stared down at the wooden kitchen floor and realized this wasn’t going to work. “I thought he owed you more respect than the sight of those boys on the front porch of your home and it just seemed like a chance for a man to teach him some responsibilities and skills. He hasn’t had the father he needed and deserved. That is my—.”
Gus jumped in, “I’m not interested in filling in for his father. That’s not my problem and I don’t think he’s looking for some old guy like me either. I can’t help you, Mrs. Russell.”
“It’s Miss and you can call me Celia. I’m sorry to burden you with this. I really do apologize for what happened and I just think I’ve been more than a little desperate lately. I thought—oh, never mind. Thank you for your time and it won’t happen again. Please have a good night.”
She walked slowly down the dimly lit back stairs as Gus watched her descend from the open door. Each step felt as if she was walking further away from the small hope she had found herself grasping for in Gus. He was working to push the mixed emotions he felt back into a safe place where he could keep his distance. Three years of living in the same house and Gus didn’t know if he could even pick Jamiel out of a line-up of the gang hanging out on his porch the day before. Why would Celia want to solve her problem through him?
Gus went to bed early to put the day behind him, but he couldn’t manage to fall asleep. He had never had a problem sleeping until he lost Danny and then Julia, but this was more of a restless energy keeping him awake as compared to the deep emotional emptiness that he’d been living with these past years. The more he tried to shift his thoughts to other things the less he was able to rest and the rays of morning light made their way across his faces before he could slept a wink.