Searching for Mr. Stavros

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Last summer, my husband and I extracted ourselves from a tiny house in the center of Missoula and moved exactly 4.1 miles east in order to gain 800 square feet of living space, a garage, a yard, a basement, a guest room, and a washer and dryer that we could, if we wanted to, program with our phones. We also gained views of the mountains, great neighbors, and nights that are dark, quiet, and starry.

What we lost in the move existed beyond the four walls of our 650-square-foot house: Bernice’s Bakery, the Orange Street Food Farm, Ear Candy Records, and the Roxy theater, whose marquee we could read from our bedroom window. I lost the luxury of being able to send Chris out on foot for something I needed while cooking dinner, and he would return fifteen minutes later with cilantro, scallions, or a lemon.

We also left behind a front porch tucked in behind two, enormous lilac bushes that formed an arch over the sidewalk. The lilacs created the perfect blind when they leafed out each spring, and a magical, secret garden when in bloom. I could sit at my post, an outdoor office space that consisted of a chair and a wooden lap desk where I could clandestinely watch people pause to delight in the fragrant lilacs, hidden in plain sight.

Though we’d long outgrown the house we left behind, there is a lot to miss about the old neighborhood, including Mr. Stavros.

The first time I met Mr. Stavros, the lilacs were in full bloom, and I nearly knocked him over as I merged onto the sidewalk on my way to get a coffee. I apologized, then introduced myself. I pointed through the lilacs and said, “I live here,” as if to clarify that there was actually a house behind the botanical wall of purple and green.

Mr. Stavros had a huge shock of white hair, and thick eyebrows that spoke for his whole face. “Steve,” he said, extending his hand, then added, “Stavros.” I thought he meant Stavros was his last name, but later found out that Stavros was his given name, and that he just went by Steve here in the U.S. Even so, I still think of him as Mr. Stavros.

“I am Greek, and I am eighty-three years old,” he said, smiling broadly. He stepped to the edge of the sidewalk, making room for me, an unspoken invitation to walk with him. All of this charm after nearly killing him. I could not decline.

I fell into step with him, feeling both awkward and completely natural at once. It took effort to move that slowly, to match the pace of a person walking without a goal or destination, walking simply as a means to move through the day. He pointed out an ant dragging a piece of pretzel across the sidewalk, a raven standing in the sprinklers at the Presbyterian church, then the black-and-white border collie, infamous for its barking, in his yard across the street. The dog had a completely shaved front leg, and a plastic cone around its face. “Surgery,” Mr. Stavros said, shrugging, tipping his head to one side, raising his caterpillar eyebrows. I was smitten.

If I tried to explain the ease of two strangers walking down the sidewalk together, noticing ants, birds, and dogs, it would sound sentimental and exaggerated, so I’ll leave it at that: It’s hard to explain.

I walked next to him until 3rd Street, where I peeled off for Bernice’s and he continued on toward the Higgins Avenue Bridge. When he waved goodbye, he committed his whole arm to the gesture.  Something about the gesture made me feel like I’d known him forever. 

After that, I started seeing Mr. Stavros everywhere. Always on foot, always working his komboloi with fingers and thumb, swinging the tasseled strand of beads in his right hand. His materializations weren’t predictable, though. Sometimes I saw him in the crosswalk on Orange Street, at the stoplight on Brooks, or in the alley between 5th and 6th streets, always at different times of the day. Sometimes he was on the river trail early in the morning, in the produce section of the Food Farm midday, or in the walking lane on the Higgins Avenue Bridge toward evening. We’d wave, chat, and on rare occasions we sat down for a minute together in the park, saying nothing.

The last time I sat with Mr. Stavros was in the spring of 2021, a few months before we moved. I’d been walking Jack in the park and spotted him on a bench in the sun, waving his characteristic, full-armed wave. I remember slipping my shoes off and digging my toes into cold, black dirt beneath sun-warmed grass while Jack writhed on his back, probably rolling in something disgusting.

On the other end of the bench, Mr. Stavros worked his prayer beads and told me about the good sales at the Food Farm, pulling three large cans of soup from a grocery sack at his feet. “Name brand,” he smiled, pointing at the label, Campbell’s Chunky Soup. He told me that crocuses were up on the corner of 2nd and Chestnut; daffodils at the corner of Woodford and Tremont. I told him that I’d seen a deer and twin fawns along the river trail, and then we eased back into companionable silence.

This was the way it went. We never talked about ourselves or our families. We didn’t discuss politics, the state of the world, or what happened in the times in between our meetings. There was never talk about what came before, or what would come after.  It was a rare and wonderful opportunity to not talk, to not explain. 

Which is why for some reason, right or wrong, I never told Mr. Stavros I was moving.

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