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Jonathan Ferrini is a published writer who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in Motion Picture and Television production from UCLA.


Trigger Warning

It was a cold and snowy December when I was handed the address of a “crack house” in one of the deserted and boarded up Detroit neighborhoods once inhabited by happy families whose sustenance was provided by good paying manufacturing jobs. The closing of the automobile plants made the neighborhoods ghost towns. A significant percentage of housing parcels in the city are vacant, with abandoned lots making up more than half of total residential lots in large portions of the city.

They call me “Mr. X” around the office because it’s my job to “tag” deserted homes for demolition by spray painting a large red “X” across the front of the homes. It’s my first job since graduating with a degree in drafting. The City of Detroit hired me because I grew up remodeling homes with my father, and I knew building materials. My official title was “Building Safety Inspector,” but my work had nothing to do with building safety. The City was broke and sent me alone, armed only with pepper spray, into the blighted neighborhoods to identify homes with valuable building materials like copper, used brick, marble, or fine woods, the City could sell before bulldozing the home. My work was dangerous because poking around deserted homes; you’d never know what you’d find. I’ve been chased away by crazed drug addicts, packs of wild dogs, or the stench of decaying human corpses who were drug addicts or sadly, the elderly owners of the home who died silently and forgotten.

The address led me to a boarded up Victorian mansion which was the largest home on the block. My instincts told me it would be a treasure trove of valuable building materials which might earn me a raise or promotion. I didn’t realize the old mansion was occupied but decided to assume the role of a homeless man, hoping the occupants would permit me to stay long enough to assess the value of the building materials. Besides, I was single, and alone in Detroit without family to spend Christmas with.

Winters are a blessing and a curse in these blighted neighborhoods. The winter cold brought paying “lodgers” like me in off the streets. Ice is plentiful, permitting the preservation of food and water for drinking and bathing. There are no utilities to the house. The toilets were removed exposing the sewer pipes, permitting direct deposit of feces and urine. Fire for cooking and heat was from wood siding poached from nearby homes. Ride share and taxis won’t come into the neighborhood. The nearest shopping is four, long residential blocks away on 7 Mile, consisting of a discount retail store, independent market, and a few fast food joints. Downtown Detroit is about fifteen miles away.

Nobody asked me any questions other than telling me the rent was $5 per day, which provided a roof over my head, along with a blanket and a place to sleep in the hallway amongst junkies. I did my best to hide my red paint colored index finger. Despite the bleak environment, it would be a Christmas I would never forget.

It costs a heroin addict $150-$200 per day to support a habit like Roxie’s. It was a long night for Roxie when I encountered her returning home from working as a prostitute. I offered her a cigarette and told her I had just “checked in” as a “lodger” which put her at ease. She told me she made her “bank,” and I could tell she was eager for her fix which would anesthetize her throughout the long, dreary, winter day until she would regain consciousness, and prepare for another evening “on the stroll.” Roxie was no older than thirty. She was a beautiful woman born to a Puerto Rican mother who was a prostitute. Her father was a mixed race “John.” Roxie inherited a beautiful exotic face, and an attention-getting curvaceous body, permitting her to earn top dollar from the businessmen traveling through Detroit. She was taken from her mother as a teenager and placed into foster care where she was molested by the husband and thrown out into the streets when the wife found out. She never reunited with her mother. Roxie’s quite the entrepreneur cultivating a loyal network of hotel concierges, bartenders, and limousine drivers who handed out her business card to Johns in return for her gratuities.

We heard a helicopter and Roxie ran to the boarded up window peering through a knot hole to see a fire department helicopter, its spot light trained upon the fully engulfed home down the street. 911 won’t send the fire department, cops, or paramedics into these abandoned neighborhoods because it’s too costly. In the case of fire, it’s less expensive to send the helicopter to assess the need for further action. Most of the time, the helicopter determines the home is vacant and lets it burn to the ground. Even if the fire department wanted to extinguish the fire, the water from the fire hose would freeze up in the winter cold. A man shouted, “get away from that window girl! If that search light catches your cat eyes we’ll be thrown out of here!” Roxie quickly took her beautiful eyes away from the peep hole. Samuel placed his frail arm around her in an attempt to comfort her, whispering, “don’t fear the spotlight, child. It’s a reminder the bright, lonely little star will soon reveal itself, and shine down upon us all.”

Samuel was a tall, lanky, balding, black man with a scruffy grey beard who was pushing eighty. He was once a headliner in the best jazz clubs in the States. He became a junky, which ruined his musical career as a tenor saxophonist. Although he kicked the habit decades ago, he’s was an alcoholic, finishing off a fifth of cheap whiskey each day. He sometimes rode the bus into Detroit with Roxie at night where he “busked,” playing on street corners for change. His old tenor sax lost its luster, but like a fine wine aging graciously over time, the music coming out was sweet as ever, despite the arthritic fingers squeezing out the notes.

I slept against the wall in a dark hallway with a few other guys wrapped in blankets. They snored, moaned, and jerked. In a far off corner of the old mansion, a tenor saxophone whaled. The notes invited memories of saying goodbye to somebody you love for the last time. I felt privileged to hear such beauty amongst the desolation. When the tenor sax stopped, I heard the musician, who sounded like Samuel, recite the following, “Come out bright, lonely, little star. Don’t fear the dark clouds, the cold of winter, or the pain below you. Bless us with your divine rays of hope, warm our spirits, and guide us to a peaceful world where every man, woman, child, and animal lives in dignity and happiness. Come out bright, lonely little star. Don’t be shy. We’ll accept you as you are and take you into our hearts.”

I drifted into a deep sleep as if being read a lullaby. I awoke to an obese, seventy something, black woman extending a cup of coffee to me, saying, “hello lodger; I’m Queenie. Follow me down to the kitchen and let’s talk.”

I followed the old woman and noticed she had difficulty walking, given her age and weight. Her feet were swollen, and I suspect she suffered from diabetes. We entered an expansive kitchen found only in mansions staffed with butlers and maids. It was spotless and hadn’t changed since its construction sometime in the early twentieth century. Its walls were lined with sparkling lime green tiles, matching counter tops, butcher block tables, and vintage kitchen appliances with manufacturer’s labels marked, “Dutiful Brand.” There was a breakfast table in the corner of the kitchen where Samuel was sitting, smoking a cigarette, and sipping his coffee. I was invited to sit by Queenie who struggled to sit. Samuel rose like a gentleman and aided her. Queenie reached for my arms and examined each for needle punctures remarking, “you’re not a user are you?” I nodded in agreement saying, “no ma’am. I’m not.” Samuel took a drag of his cigarette, blew the smoke into the air, and agreed, “yeah, his eyes are clear, and he doesn’t have the shakes. He looks clean to me. What’s your game young man?” I nervously replied, “I’m down on my luck and just looking for a roof over my head for Christmas, Sir.” I heard somebody walking swiftly down the hallway and a young man entered the kitchen pulling up a chair. Queenie sternly remarked, “what do you say first thing in the morning, Rascal?” The young man respectfully replied, “good morning.” Queenie smiled like a proud grandmother remarking, “that’s a proper mornin’ greeting. Let me get ya’ all some oatmeal.”

Rascal was a white man in his early twenties, about six feet tall, razor thin, tatted up, pierced, and missing some front teeth. His face was showing the ravages of meth use scars. He was wearing low hanging faded jeans, old sneakers, and a “Red Wings” hockey hoody. Rascal extended his hand to me and we shook. Samuel looked Rascal up and down like a grandfather, scolding him, “pull your britches up boy! Why don’t you clean up and make something of yourself.” Like a doting grandmother, Queenie defended Rascal, “leave him alone, old man! Why don’t you clean up and make something of yourself playing that old sax for big dollars at weddings and Bar Mitzvah’s instead of busking on dirty, cold sidewalks. You still got it, old man. Use it!” Samuel stared at the ceiling, as if looking into the past and angrily replied, “stay out of my business, woman.”

Queenie gave each of us a piping hot bowl of oatmeal she prepared atop a butane fueled hotplate. Rascal immediately rose to help her sit. Rascal sat, devouring his oatmeal, washing each mouthful down with a glass of milk. Queenie finished a silent prayer and began to eat her oatmeal with etiquette seeming out of place, given her station in life which made me curious about her background. Queenie spoke with reverence about Samuel, “back in the day, Samuel was kickin’ it with the likes of Duke, Ella, Basie, Miles, and workin’ the best clubs in the Country. Show ‘em that Downbeat Magazine cover with you on it, Samuel!” Samuel shook his head as he slowly ate his oatmeal, his hands trembling from the effects of alcoholism, and old age. Rascal finished his oatmeal, wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve out of sight of Queenie, rose from the table, and placed his arms around Samuel boasting, “it’s true, man. I saw the magazine cover. Samuel was a cool young dude on the cover of a sixties Downbeat Magazine. In big letters above his photo, it say’s, New Tenor Sax Virtuoso Makes the Scene. All right folks, got to start my day dumpster divin’. Nice to meet you, Sir.” I was impressed with Rascal’s manners and replied, “My pleasure to meet you Rascal. Good luck out there!” Rascal kissed Queenie on the cheek before exiting the kitchen from the boarded up service entrance. I caught a glimpse of him retrieve a shopping cart hidden within some bushes. In a hushed voice, Queenie remarked, “Rascal was thrown out on the streets by his folks. He came from a good family with parental expectations he couldn’t live up to, but he seldom mentions his family. I treat him like my own grandson. He has a sweet temperament but slips into a dark hole of depression, so he self medicates by shooting up. If only he could kick the junk; he still has time to make somethin’ of himself.”

Queenie slowly rose from her chair, gathered the bowls and cups, and rinsed them in a bucket. She placed them in a dish rack to dry, took a deep sigh, and said, “well, it’s time to start my day. I got to hit the food pantries first thing this mornin’. Between Rascal and me, we’ll gather all the fixins for a proper Christmas Dinner. Pay $5 dollars a day room and board, lodger. Leave the money with Samuel. Anything you need to know, just ask him.” Queenie reached for her winter coat hanging on a hook, draped it on, grabbed her hand bag, and headed for the door. Queenie dressed nicely for a homeless woman. My heart was heavy as I watched her slowly walk up the sidewalk, her feet swollen, and her joints aching.

I reached into my pocket, pulled out a twenty dollar bill, handed it to Samuel, and said, “it’s the 24th today. I’ll be out on the 26th. Keep the ten dollars change. I’m certain the house can use it.” Samuel rose from his seat and placed the twenty dollar bill into a drawer saying, “thank you, young lodger. This ‘ol man got to get to sleep before headin’ out tonight, but maybe you can help me with a chore, first?”

Samuel reached for his tattered pea coat and struggled to get into it. I helped him get into the coat saying, “I’ll be glad to help you with the chore.” We exited the kitchen through the boarded up service entrance out into the cold, sunny day. I followed Samuel into the expansive former back yard of the mansion, now overgrown with weeds, shrubbery, and tree branches. He led me to a baby Christmas tree about three feet tall, alone, in the corner of the backyard. He kneeled next to it as if it were a child saying, “this little tree sprung up out of the ground last spring. I saw it grow inch by inch throughout the springtime. It wanted to survive even amongst all this squalor, so I started to water it, and it grew faster. It withstood the scorching heat and humidity of summer, the chill of autumn, and here it is in the dead of an icy winter, still alive. It ain’t a big tree, but it will make a fine Christmas tree. I’d like you to help me dig it up, pot it, take it inside, and we’ll give it a home for Christmas. It won’t end up on the trash heap like the others. No, Sir! After Christmas, I’ll plant it a couple of blocks away in the City Park so if this old house gets bulldozed, this tree will survive. Will you help me?” “Of course I will, Samuel,” I answered. Samuel retrieved an old spade, pick axe, and a pot filled with fresh potting soil. We carefully dug around the roots of the tree beneath the stare of the boarded up mansion. I asked, “what’s Queenie’s story?”

Samuel turned towards the mansion pointing with the spade, saying, “Queenie was the maid for the family who owned the mansion. She lost her son in Vietnam and her job when the owners of the house moved away in the seventies. She drowned her pain with alcohol, struggled as a hotel maid, couldn’t keep it together as she got older, and ended up on the streets. Even though she’s a big woman and sick with the diabetes, she has the grit and determination to be the first in line at the food pantries walkin’ on those frozen, swollen feet.”

We managed to carefully remove the small tree from the frozen ground. Samuel placed it in the pot and assured the roots were securely planted. As we walked back towards the mansion with the tree, Samuel continued, “Queenie reveres the old mansion like it’s hers. It was owned by a fine family, manufacturing durable stainless steel kitchen appliances used in the finest homes, restaurants, and hotels. The company was called Dutiful Manufacturing, and their blenders, mixers, and toasters were called Duty Brand with a reputation for reliability and dependability.

Check out the library upstairs and you’ll find a stack of old catalogues showing the history of the brand. Start from the bottom of the stack, and it will read like a history book.”

We entered the kitchen, removed our coats, and Samuel retrieved a spray bottle of water to tenderly irrigate the potted tree. I asked, “what happened to cause the home to fall into disarray?” Samuel continued, “the business was handed down to a no count son who succumbed to thieving Wall Street bankers convincing him he could make more money by manufacturing with less steel and more plastic. The appliances became shoddy and less reliable. Sales plummeted, and the once proud company name became tarnished. The only people who made more money were the Wall Street snakes. When the company went bankrupt, only the brand name had any value, and was sold to a company in China who never used it. The patriarch of the family, and founder of the business, died from a heart attack in the library, pouring over the original blueprints for the “Dutiful Deluxe Blender” when he learned his son bankrupted the company. The family history mirrored the history of Detroit. With each decade, the Dutiful family and Detroit’s manufacturing jobs grew smaller, eventually to the point of extinction. Our little family is like the Dutiful Company and these blighted neighborhoods. We’re threatened with eventual extinction. Those large red X’s spray painted on the houses signify they’re scheduled for demolition. Every day, I see more red in the neighborhood and know it’s a matter of time before we’re extinct!”

I roamed the mansion alone. I found the basement, revealing what appeared to be miles of copper plumbing and copper wire. The library, dining room, and most of the house was paneled with fine woods. Marble was abundant in the bathrooms. I was fascinated with the library which was the repository for the manufacturing catalogues of the business, appliance blueprints, and photographs of the family. Samuel was correct. The catalogues read like a history book about a fine, Detroit manufacturing family of a bygone era.

I joined Samuel for a cup of coffee in the late afternoon before he and Roxie would catch the bus to Detroit expecting downtown Christmas Eve business to be brisk with travelers and last minute shoppers. Queenie arrived home with a cooked, sliced ham. She had bags of potatoes, a pumpkin pie, vegetables, and fruits. We rose from the table to help the tired old woman carry the groceries inside the kitchen. She was breathing heavy, wiped her brow, and said, “whew, what a day, but I sure did score a fine Christmas dinner for tomorrow night!” Queenie began to wobble on her feet as if passing out. I quickly grabbed her and helped her sit. Samuel brought her a glass of water. I heard high heels hurriedly coming down the hall and Roxie entered the kitchen, dressed to kill, and ready to catch the bus to work. Queenie remarked, “girl, you ain’t out hustling yet. You’d better get to the stroll while you can sell that pretty face and hot little body before age and the horse catches up with you.” Roxie looked into the glass pane of the kitchen cabinet, primping herself, answering, “I got to buy my fix, first.”

Queenie knew the drug dealer would be stopping by shortly to deliver Roxie and Rascal’s heroin. Queenie lamented, “I guess that nasty, no good pusher, Wrangler will be showing his ugly, hillbilly face soon!” We heard Rascal’s old shopping cart with bad wheels approaching the kitchen. Rascal came into the kitchen beaming with pride because he had a great day dumpster diving exclaiming, “check it out, Christmas ornaments!” Rascal found discount store price tags cut into the shape of stars in red, green, gold, and silver inside a dumpster. Despite the words, “Discount Price” printed on each card, they were beautiful. Rascal also scrounged some plastic Christmas bulbs with the name of the discount store printed on them. He dangled one, asking, ”did you dig up the Christmas tree, Samuel?” Samuel replied, “me and the lodger dug it up, and it’s sittin’ in the livin’ room ready for the ornaments.” Rascal made a dash with the ornaments towards the tree but was stopped by Queenie, pronouncing, “not so quick, Rascal. We’re decorating the tree tomorrow night, together, like a family.” She tried to get up but fell backwards, sighing, “I sure did wear myself out today.”

There was a hard knock at the back door and a man with a stern voice, announced, “it’s Wrangler.” Roxie opened the boarded up service door and Wrangler came in. He was a forty something, medium build, Caucasian man with a menacing look, shaved head, diamond ear ring, and handle bar moustache. He wore a leather jacket and jeans. I noticed his shiny cowboy boots were rattlesnake, and his briefcase was genuine alligator. I caught a glimpse of a pistol he had hidden inside his coat. He looked me up and down, and I knew he was suspicious of me when he said, “who’s the other dude?” Queenie was annoyed replying, “he’s our lodger, and you pay him no mind. I don’t want you pushin’ your junk in my kitchen. Go do your business in the library.”

After Roxie, Rascal, and Wrangler left the kitchen to conduct their “business,” I lamented, “I hope I didn’t scare their pusher away.” Queenie answered, “I never liked that ‘ol redneck. We call ‘em Wrangler because he rides the horse which is slang for the product he’s pushin’, heroin! I’ll bet his grand daddy was lynching Black folk down South.” Samuel piped in, “now woman, don’t get carried away. Wrangler moved to Detroit with his parents from the South when his daddy got a job at the auto plant. Don’t blame him for not losin’ his Southern drawl. He’s just tryin’ to survive in Detroit like everybody since the auto plants closed down.”

Wrangler finished his business and entered the kitchen to leave by the service door saying, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” He turned to leave and Queenie shouted, “join us for Christmas Dinner, Wrangler. 6pm sharp.” Wrangler’s business of dealing death was a lonely business, and an invitation to join even a rag tag family for Christmas dinner, was a special invitation. He paused as if thinking about the many Christmas dinners he had missed over the years, and gratefully accepted, “thank you. I’ll be here at 6pm, sharp.” He hurriedly left to deliver more “holiday cheer” to his eager clientele.

I helped Queenie in the kitchen prep the Christmas meal. I peeled potatoes, cut string beans and did whatever was asked of me. Samuel prepared a layer of charcoal atop tin foil in the vintage oven which would warm the ham wrapped in aluminum foil. I spent the remainder of Christmas Eve alone in the library, pouring through product catalogues and imagined the cheerful Christmas holiday’s inside the mansion during the heyday of the family business.

On Christmas day, Queenie had the meal fully prepared and cooking. Roxie prepared the makeshift dining room table with the paper plates, plastic utensils, and paper cups. I produced crystal champagne glasses I found in the basement which would do justice to the champagne Samuel had purchased.

We all retired to the living room to adorn the tree. It was eerily silent as each member hung a star shaped store tag or plastic bulb on the little tree. I suspect each person was remembering happier times with family. Our efforts produced a magnificent Christmas tree. Samuel planned a surprise. He removed the folded up Downbeat Cover from his wallet revealing a handsome young musician, and tacked it above the fireplace. He handed us copies of his poem and asked us to recite it slowly while he played beautiful notes on his tenor sax which he retrieved. Each note conjured up reminiscence of a beautiful lullaby spoken by loving parents to children eagerly waiting for Christmas morning. We held hands and recited,

“Come out bright, lonely little star. Don’t fear the dark clouds, the cold of winter, or the pain below you. Bless us with your divine rays of hope, warm our spirits, and guide us to a peaceful world where every man, woman, child, and animal lives in dignity and happiness. Come out bright, lonely little star. Don’t be shy. We’ll accept you as you are and take you into our hearts. Come out bright lonely star, you won’t be judged nor shunned just loved and adored atop our tree of many beautiful lights, revered and respected for whom you are beautiful and original as you were created to be. You’re a loving reminder that we all have self worth.”

Samuel’s beautiful melody triggered memories and painful introspection. It particularly affected Rascal as he appeared to be slipping into his emotional dark space. He rubbed his arms indicating he was in need of a heroin fix. Queenie wiped a tear from her eye but woke us from our dreams of happier times, exclaiming, “my man, Samuel, still has the magic touch. Thank you, ‘ol man. It’s time to eat. Everybody find a seat at the table in the dining room.”

Wrangler showed up on time with a bottle of wine and sat next to me at the makeshift dining table. He put his arm around me pulling me close, and whispered, “I saw the red paint on your index finger in the kitchen. You’re “Mr. X”! Leave this old house be so these people can be left to live the small family life they made for themselves. This neighborhood is known to swallow people alive. Strangers come in and never leave if you know what I mean.” I knew it was a veiled threat but Wrangler didn’t know that during my secret inspection of the house, I was able to determine that it qualified as a “Historical Preservation Home,” and with a simple check of the box on my inspection form; the mansion would be entered into the city database of “Historic Homes” which couldn’t be demolished.

Queenie and Roxie returned from the kitchen with the Christmas dinner, carefully placing the ham, mashed potatoes, vegetables and pies on the table. It was a magnificent feast, and the look on everybody’s face was happy and ravenous. Roxie stood and helped Queenie sit, and took her chair at the table. Queenie pronounced, “everybody take a moment and say a silent prayer of thankfulness.” I looked around the room and everybody, including Wrangler, bowed their head and mumbled a prayer. Queenie was the last to finish her prayer, and gleefully exclaimed, “it’s time to eat, brothers and sisters. Pass the food around family style.” For a moment, I wasn’t aware that we were dining in a boarded up deserted mansion. The food was bountiful, delicious, and the table setting, albeit picnic style, was beautiful.

Roxie sat across from Queenie, next to Rascal, saying, “I met an interesting trick last night. He didn’t want to go to the room but paid me to have dinner with him. He’s a big shot talent agent in Hollywood who scouts rappers and R & B talent.” She pulled out a business card, handing it to Queenie, who handed it to Samuel and said, “go on girl. Keep talkin’. Roxie continued, “I told him about Samuel and the dude lit up saying, Sam is still alive! The man is a living legend. Can I meet him?” Samuel wasn’t flattered saying, “man, I don’t want to waste no time recounting my past with nobody! I’m retired!” Roxie was persistent, “he said he can line you up with steady, studio work!” Rascal was elated, “that’s fantastic, Samuel. You got to meet this dude!” Roxie continued, “that ain’t all. I mentioned you, too, Rascal. He said he can hook you up as a roadie, and, if you want to learn to drive a truck, he’ll get you into the Teamsters Union as a truck driver with full benefits and great union pay!”

Rascal and Samuel were dumbfounded. They had both lived lives of false promises and rejection, but this felt real to them. They needed to ponder the reality that their lives could change if they had the motivation to get sober. Queenie was interested in the trick’s motivation asking, “you think this man is sweet on you, baby girl?” Roxie was embarrassed but replied, “Yeah, we kinda have a thing brewin.” Queenie lit up, “well good for you, girl! You hooked a big fish. Reel him in slow, the traditional, romantic way. Got it, girlfriend?” Roxie had an expression on her face like it was the first time she might be in love answering, “I got it, Ms. Queenie. He wants to have dinner with me, Samuel, and Rascal the day after Christmas.”

Roxie made good money on Christmas Eve and was generous. She gifted a pair of orthopedic shoes for Queenie and a set of cashmere gloves with the finger tips removed permitting Samuel to play the sax more comfortably in the cold weather. She bought Rascal a new hoodie and pair of trendy sneakers.

During Christmas dinner, Rascal descended deeper into a depression, as thoughts of missing his family weighed heavily upon him. I saw a fresh puncture mark on his arm and knew he shot up before dinner. Rascal was struggling to stay awake. Queenie remarked, “if you’re tired baby boy, go take a rest. It’s ok.” Rascal’s eyes rolled back into his head, his mouth began to foam, and his face fell into his plate. Wrangler shouted, “get ‘em off the chair and flat on the floor.” Rascal’s lips were blue and his breathing was barely noticeable. Wrangler went for his briefcase, hurriedly opened it, and its contents looked like a salesman’s sample kit of drugs. Samuel shouted, “shoot ‘em with the Narcan, quick”, Wrangler reached into his briefcase and produced a two pack of “Narcan” nose spray, tearing one dispenser from the package, and pumped the contents into Rascal’s nose. Rascal didn’t respond. Wrangler yelled, “he’s not helping. He doesn’t want to come back. I’ve seen it before. Wake up, Rascal!” Queenie was beside herself with fear but impressed by Wrangler’s fervent efforts to revive Rascal. She placed her arm around Wrangler, whispering, “so, you have a heart after all!” Wrangler replied, “he reminds me of myself when I was young.” Wrangler tilted Rascals head up, placed the second plastic syringe into his nostril and released the spray with a forceful pump. Rascal slowly opened his eyes. Roxie cried tears of joy watching her “brother” of sorts regain consciousness. In all the commotion, nobody had noticed Samuel was slumped against the wall holding his chest and gasping for air. Queenie screamed, “don’t you die old man! I can’t run this household myself. Please, dear God, let him live!”

We huddled around Rascal and Samuel trying to render comfort and aid but there was nothing anybody could do for them in a blighted neighborhood on Christmas, except me. I carried a small flip phone hidden within my jeans. I knew that when I called 911 and identified myself as a City Building Inspector, medical help would arrive swiftly but break up the family, forever, placing each within the penal or the inadequate social services system. The old mansion would be locked up by the cops.

I speculated that if given the choice of dying or permitting Queenie and Roxie to go on living in the old mansion, Samuel and Rascal would have elected death, but not calling for help and letting them die, was a choice I didn’t want to make. Samuel’s beautiful notes resounded through my memory of saying goodbye to somebody you love for the last time, and, Wrangler’s admonition to “leave this old house be” were clairvoyant. It was the City of Detroit which led me to the old mansion, but it was a loving, flawed little family, who extended their hospitality to a stranger, inviting me to share their love and kindness on Christmas. I looked at my paint stained, red index finger, and knew that I couldn’t be responsible for the “extinction” of the family. I was certain my call to 911 would be a final goodbye and never reached for my phone. I prayed for Rascal and Samuel to recover.

It was a sleepless night for everybody, but the following morning, Christmas delivered a gift of life to both Rascal and Samuel who were resting comfortably, lovingly tended to by Queenie, Roxie, and Wrangler. I gathered my possessions and discretely removed the little Christmas tree from the living room. I placed a note alongside the Downbeat cover reading, “Tree at City Park.” I left the mansion without saying goodbye, not wanting to interrupt the family in their time of need. It was my hope Roxie would find true and lasting love with the talent agent who would make good on his promise with jobs for Samuel and Rascal. It would be up to Samuel and Rascal to treasure the gift of life and seize any opportunity extended to them. I knew of one certain outcome. As long as Queenie could draw a breath, I knew her love, strength, and inner beauty would hold the family together.

Although I found the house to be a treasure trove of recyclable building materials, the most valuable contents were the people who created a loving family despite the bleakest of conditions. I would never forget them. I threw my can of red spray paint in the trash. I left the mansion with the potted Christmas tree which I would plant in the City Park as Samuel wanted. The evening sky was turning to daybreak, and I gazed upward finding the lonely little star shining brightly.

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