Every week, a note came in through the slot in the door — that, being the mailbox — from our neighbor, Mr. Zapata. The note was short, and reminded us that we were invited to the man’s house for lunch on Saturday afternoon. We never objected to these invitations, but were confused and partial to the predictability of the crossword, and the cerebral boredom of our children’s weekend phone calls.
We hoped that our weekly lunches would bring us closer together, closer to finding out who he was, and why we mattered to him. But they didn’t.
Mr. Zapata lived alone, in a small dusty house to our right. The house was trailed by a big backyard that was overgrown and mostly dead. Tangled weeds kissed the brick-bottom belly of the old, tired home, and slowly attached themselves to its foundation. The earth made love to this home; the earth tried to save this home. There had once been life in that yard, but it seemed to have fallen away, like many other things in Mr. Zapata’s life. His wife had died several years earlier, and he never remarried. His three children — two girls and one boy — lived in California, and rarely made it back to Chicago, leaving nearly everything they had once known behind to the crumbling currents of the Windy City.
Because he lived alone, Mr. Zapata was a mystery to us, and felt far away. We hoped that our weekly lunches would bring us closer together, closer to finding out who he was, and why we mattered to him. But they didn’t. He never asked about our life or our children (we have three), nor did we bother to ask about his. There was something missing. Something that felt wrong about these unsolicited and empty lunch invitations. We talked about the weather, local politics, the price of milk. Whatever may have challenged us, distanced us, or made us better, was carefully avoided. No effort was made by our host to understand us, nor we him. All the same, we were invited back each week.
We came to the conclusion that kindness was what compelled Mr. Zapata to invite us, perhaps in addition to loneliness. This explanation was uncomplicated and demanded little attention. This was perhaps a naive judgment, however. We knew nothing about this odd old man, but we had convinced ourselves that Mr. Zapata was decent, with simple intentions, and that made our decision to share lunch with him easy.
We sat through lunch, week after week, and expected little. Mr. Zapata was kind, and always served us first before helping himself. Although it was lunchtime, the deep pockets of midday, Mr. Zapata always served dinner — a large roast, roasted root vegetables, several desserts, and scotch. This was strange, but unusually comforting. We ate dinner-lunch on paper plates around his beige formica kitchen counter. It was nice. It was easy.
The table was set with service for twelve. However, it remained just the three of us, and nobody else ever showed up. The conversation was the only thing that was the same.
Last week, however, Mr. Zapata served us lighter fare. Instead of his usual roast, the old man served finger sandwiches and summer salad. Instead of scotch, he poured three large drip-drop glasses of lemonade from an expensive looking crystal pitcher. This time, we ate at a large dining room table, set with what we later decided was Mr. Zapata’s best china. The table was set with service for twelve. However, it remained just the three of us, and nobody else ever showed up. The conversation was the only thing that was the same. Simple, structured, and awkward. We pedaled our way through the unbearable noise of small talk and the tiny clanking sounds of cutlery on porcelain plates. We finally resigned ourselves to the absurdity of it all.
This week, no invitation came through the slot in the door — that, being the mailbox. No request swept the entryway floor, inviting us to join a curious old man for a curious Saturday meal. Instead, we cleaned our home and finished the crossword puzzle. We did what we used to do before we met Mr. Z., before we had the joy of eating his strange lunches. We called our children, walked our dog. Left that space empty.
We received a call the next day from Harold Anders, Mr. Zapata’s lawyer. Before I could ask any questions, I was prompted to come next door. “And bring your husband,” he shouted before hanging up.
We didn’t say anything, just looked at each other, and then at the phone. My husband let us out through the side door — it was faster that way.
I knocked on the big oak door. Mr. Anders, who was irritatingly young, pulled back the door before I could remove my wrinkled, arthritic knuckles from its smooth finish.
We were invited by the young lawyer into a house we had never seen. It wasn’t at all like the house we ate lunch in every Saturday afternoon. With little introduction, the lawyer began a guided tour through the house. “How long have you two know Mr. Zapata?” The lawyer asked.
My husband and I turned to each other quickly, immediately recognizing the complete humor, and sadness of it all.
“Since we moved onto the block,” I said, hoping that would be enough.
“So, fifteen years?” asked Harold Anders.
“Yes,” I said softly, deeply hurt by the sudden realization that in all those years, I had learned nothing about Mr. Z.
“Why are we here?” I asked.
“Mr. Zapata died last night,” said the lawyer quickly, “you were the only people he wanted me to call.”
In this moment, there was nothing I could say, nothing I wanted to say. We didn’t ever really know him, didn’t ever know why we were invited to share a meal with him every week. This is what families were supposed to do, not strangers.
Before, the walls were bare and untouched. Now, these same walls were littered with photos of who we assumed were family and friends.
Harold Anders continued his guided tour of the big, empty house. We discovered this new, open house with the same nerve and curiosity as fresh lovers. Unseen spaces and lumpy piles of old and new possessions begged for our attention. Craving perhaps what Mr. Zapata was never able to provide. We tiptoed through, afraid the sounds of the house would further complicate this unseemly arrangement. We hovered over the steps and up onto the second floor. This is apparently where Mr. Zapata slept, and to us that was sacred space. We were quiet for several minutes.
“Why are we here,” I asked again, “Isn’t there a family member or a friend you can call?”
“There’s nobody. You two are the only ones he indicated for me to call once this happened. Is there a problem?”
Before, the walls were bare and untouched. Now, these same walls were littered with photos of who we assumed were family and friends. We also noticed a couple degrees, framed in smooth wine-colored wood — studies in English literature, mathematics. We sat in the old man’s bedroom and tried to understand him, figure out who he had been without disturbing the now complete and quiet presence of his home. We began to dissect every moment of our weekly dinner-lunches. Tried to assign importance to what may have been irrelevant. Why did he insist we eat in the kitchen, on plastic plates and with plastic cutlery. These are details that maybe don’t matter in death. But it was all we had.
It was a deep loss. One so profound I could not see through it, or make it logical. We don’t ever understand loss, but in those careful moments of sweeping through Mr. Z’s house, I felt I had no right to mourn him. Where were his children, his siblings, if he had any?
The house seemed to hold so much life after Mr. Zapata died. As we finished our round through the home’s enormous spaces, Harold Anders pulled out a piece of paper and read seven easy words: ‘Everything. To my neighbors on the left.’
I can accept that I don’t know or understand everything, but this was exceptionally strange, and unexpectedly tragic.
“I don’t understand,” I said plainly.
“I don’t think there is anything to understand,” said the young lawyer. “Mr. Zapata wanted you two to have everything.”
We tried to understand our part in Mr. Z’s death. Why us? Why were we the only ones he wanted called? What did we ever offer him? Maybe it didn’t matter. I can accept that I don’t know or understand everything, but this was exceptionally strange, and unexpectedly tragic. I wanted to know why I was now made to be a part of Mr. Z’s death, and in some odd, and perverse way, his life. Maybe I didn’t need to know. We come and we go through people’s lives like sand through a sieve — it often does not matter, and we rarely notice. I was a stone on a sand dollar, stuck in the tiny holes of Mr. Z’s sieve. I could not find my way through to the other side.
We never found out why Mr. Zapata invited us over for lunch every Saturday. And we never found out why he served us dinner for lunch. We didn’t know the old man, yet found so much joy in his company, and unbearable emptiness in his loss. Things make sense in life because all the pieces are there, ordered and numbered with spaces to fit. In death, that myth unravels like a shriveled garden hose with nothing to water, and the tiny pieces scatter like ants to their mission hill. We find out nothing ever had a place at all.
Originally published in Lumen Magazine, Fall 2015