When I was a kid, my widowed mother rented out two upstairs rooms in our house to help make ends meet. One of the rooms was occupied by Homer, a short-order cook in a small café a few blocks from our house. Homer was a very slight man with a glass eye that looked very dead. He chained smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes. Every night Homer made his way upstairs to his room, hacking and coughing and carrying a box of fried chicken for his dinner. He never seemed to eat anything else. Homer regularly wet the bed, and Mom washed his sheets once a week.
One of my Saturday household chores was to go into Homer’s room and empty the ashtrays, collect the boxes of chicken bones, and get the sheets off his bed. The stench in the room was overpowering. I had heard from one of my sisters that Homer kept a spare glass eye on his dresser, and I often looked for it but could never hold my breath long enough to make a really thorough search.
The other renter, Rudy, was heavy drinker who worked for the gas company. He was often drunk at night, but he never missed a day of work. Once every six months or so, Rudy would go on the wagon for a few weeks. During these periods of sobriety, he consumed a large quantity of chocolate candy, and I always stole some when I was in his room. When Rudy fell off the wagon, he would give the candy to our dog Lolly. If Lolly was throwing up, it was a sure sign that Rudy had fallen off the wagon.
One Sunday morning Mom was enjoying a cup of coffee with a neighbor woman on our front porch. Rudy was blind drunk and urinated out his bedroom window, which was right above the porch. The urine hit the neighbor woman’s head and went into their coffee. They couldn’t figure out what was going on until Mom stepped back and saw Rudy still at the window. She was furious. I assumed Rudy would soon be packing his bags. But no, Mom told him off and put a large coffee can in his room. She told him that if ever again he couldn’t make it to the bathroom, he was to relieve himself in the can. I feared that emptying that coffee can would become one of my chores. But it never happened. I think Rudy probably emptied it himself.
One day, Rudy’s son showed up. It was a big surprise because we didn’t even know that Rudy had ever been married. His son had just been released from prison. I have no idea what he had been in prison for, although I assume Mom did. I remember her saying that he had paid his debt to society. It was probably the first time I ever heard that expression. The son stayed for a while and must have slept on the floor in Rudy’s room. I was on summer vacation, and Mom worked, so I and my sister were entirely on our own all day. Mom happily left us in the care of Rudy’s son while he was around. I don’t remember how long that was, but I remember him taking me for ice cream and otherwise entertaining me. Recalling him and his child care duties always makes me think of how radically the world has changed.