The crowd gathered as always. This young man’s voice would draw in a healthy gathering, some more generous than others. I’d always stand back and watch from a safe distance, mesmerized. Of course, I always blamed it on my baby brother. Only his influence would make me give two shits about a homeless man singing and playing a broken violin.
And it wasn’t lost on me that I came to watch him every day I had the afternoon off, because this guy was always at the same street corner at the same time of day. Dressed in the same nasty clothes as the day before, with a busted up bucket sitting a few inches away from his thigh for tips, hoping for enough to buy himself at least one measly meal for the day.
My heart ached every time I stopped by. I never saw his face. This guy never looked at the crowds, almost as if he played for no one other than himself, as if the tip bucket was just a decoration and unimportant. His matted hair covered what little his hat might have exposed. It always amazed me that he could play that broken instrument and sing so clearly through all of that mess.
But it was beautiful.
The heart and soul coming from that downtrodden human on a hot summer day in the middle of the city’s center with crowds pressed in on him from every angle to try and see if proximity makes his angel voice resonate just a little deeper, to see if that violin sounds just a little less beautifully broken was stunning in a way I had never before experienced. It called to me, and I couldn’t say why.
As a the co-owner of the most prestigious armed security company in the country, I had seen thousands of singers, performers. None of them touched me the way this man did. Not a one made the backs of my eyes sting with unshed tears or made the small hairs rise all over my body through every song. Not a one of them made my soul hurt.
I closed my eyes to let his voice and the vibrations of those strings wash over me.
And then they went silent.
The silence echoed for only a few seconds before murmurs and cries started to rise. I pushed through the crowds like a man possessed, shoving bodies out of my way with the efficiency of a trained bodyguard clearing the way for the world’s “elite”.
When I got to him, my blood froze. With the tangles of hair everywhere and the way the man fell, he looked dead. I couldn’t see his chest moving, but I shoved all that hair away and felt around his grimy, chilled neck for a pulse to find it weak and quick. His breath came in short, rapid pants.
I looked around, and didn’t see a drop of water for him in sight and groaned. “Fuck.”
Without thinking, I pulled out my phone. The crowd no longer mattered. With the ringing phone tucked between my ear and shoulder, I gathered up the man’s broken violin and straightened him out as comfortably as possible in the cramped space, screaming at people to back up to let the man breathe.
“Giordano Armed Security Services. This is Giancarlo.”
“Giancarlo, it’s Umberto. I need a car at the corner of Main and Foxhedge. Send an ambulance, too.”
“You alright, bro?”
“I am, but I have a man suffering what I think is heat exhaustion, or at least dehydration. Hurry up.”
I hung up and tucked my phone back into my pants pocket. The car came before the ambulance, which was typical for Winter’s Cross, or any large city, if I were honest with myself. Giancarlo drove the car himself, and four others prowled out of the car to start making a perimeter and a point of entry for the coming ambulance. I could have kissed them all, but only one of them was gay, and I’m not kissing my older brother.
“Pack his stuff into the trunk, Cruz.” Benito Cruz gave me a smart nod and with militaristic efficiency, he got everything packed up and safe moments before the ambulance arrived.
“Bert. Nice to see you again,” Linda Camp muttered as she pulled on her purple nitrile gloves. “If you ‘n your boys aren’t bringing me dead bodies or living ones full of holes, I never hear from you. What’s this? Got a thing for homeless kids, now?”
“Watch your tone, Lin,” I warned. “His bill’s on me.”
“Ah. Right-o. Personal questions stop.”
Then Linda turned all business, and by the time they had a saline bag dripping into the homeless man’s IV and had him packed up on the stretcher and tucked away into the back of the ambulance, I had hugged my brother and told him to ditch the guys and follow us to the emergency room. I really didn’t want an audience. Knew I’d get one anyway, but at least Giancarlo could delay it for a bit.
“You soft on this guy?” Giancarlo asked, though to his credit, it was gentle and teasing instead of accusatory. “Or is this your way into heaven for all the terrible shit you’ve done?”
I chuckled and jerked him down to kiss the crown of his head. “Not sure. When I find out, you’ll be the second to know.”
“I always am.” He shook his head and ran his fingers through his wavy brown hair. “Want me to bring lunch? Hospital food’s still gross.”
I snorted. “Anything is gross compared to Mama’s cooking.” Then I sighed and hopped up into the back of the ambulance and stared down at him. “No. Don’t bring me anything. If he wakes I don’t want to eat in front of him until he’s able to eat with us. His stomach may not be fit for normal food for a bit.”
Linda closed the rear doors to the ambulance and went to the head of the homeless guy’s bed. It irked me that I didn’t know his name. Calling him the “Homeless guy” in my head all the time seemed so dehumanizing that it made me sick. That nausea stayed with me as Linda told the driver to head out and called the hospital on the radio with as much of this guy’s info as we could determine. It got worse when she named him “a John Doe”.
It didn’t let up until we got him to a room. If I’m honest, the interlude in the emergency room curtained off cubicle was a complete blur. I just remembered hearing words like dehydrated, malnourished, heat exhaustion, and a phrase that made my heart clench: probably hasn’t eaten in weeks, if that.
This man probably hasn’t eaten in weeks.
What the fuck?
And there I was, every day that I could make myself available, watching him sing his heart out and play his broken violin for tips. I had tipped him every day before I left. Every single day.
And this man hadn’t eaten in weeks.
That thought broke my entire brain. Why the fuck hadn’t he been using his tips to get himself at least one meal a day?
And why hadn’t I cared enough to check that he was eating? …Well, there’s the bit where I’m not his keeper, and he’s a free man, and is supposed to be able to look after himself. But hearing the man hadn’t eaten in weeks brought out my Italian and Sicilian roots like a bad dye job on a bottle blond. I suddenly wanted to feed the man, and make sure he stayed fed. See, the running joke in my family is that we aren’t stress eaters. We’re stress feeders. You come to any of my family’s houses for any reason, there’s a good chance you won’t leave until you’re thirty pounds heavier from good, home cooked food.
The fact this man hadn’t eaten in three weeks offended every molecule of my being. I was reaching batshit crazy levels of stress by the time Giancarlo made it to the hospital room with our youngest brother, Angelico, in tow. They took one look at me and both grimaced.
“I knew I should have brought food,” Giancarlo muttered.
Angel snorted, but stared hard at me. “I brought some supplies. They’re in the car for when he’s awake and comfortable. Shaving kit, comb and brush, soap, shampoo and conditioner, toothbrush, toothpaste and mouthwash. All new, which is what took us so long. I’ll run and grab him some clothes once I figure out his size.”
Something broke in my spine and I was finally able to relax in the uncomfortable chair by the man’s bed. “Thank you.”
Angelico smiled, something he rarely did. “Anything for my brothers.”
The enigmatic, calculating look in his eyes when he said that made the small hairs along my arms and the back of my neck stand on end. That little bastard had something up his sleeve, and I couldn’t be sure if I was relieved or worried.
A groan from the hospital bed drew my attention away from the devilish smirk on Angel’s face. I’d have to grill him about that later. Though, I already knew it wouldn’t do any good. He was better at keeping secrets than the Illuminati.
The guy’s eyes fluttered as I scooted my chair closer. He smelled horrible, rife with sick sweat and body odor. I didn’t care. Instead, I pushed myself closer and moved his hair out of his eyes so I could see them when they fully opened.
And when they did, I was met with the greenest eyes I had ever seen. They stared up at me, unfocused for a few moments. When they focused, he pushed his head back into the pillow. “Where am I?”
“You’re in Winter’s Cross General Hospital,” I said, keeping my voice soft and even. “Can you tell me your name?”
“J—Jayson Tobin.” He paled and seemed to shrink in on himself. “Am I in trouble?”
My heart shattered, but I shook my head. “No. Not at all. You fainted from heat exhaustion, dehydration, and from not eating in so long.”
His voice lowered into a soft whisper, tears welling in his eyes as he said, “I can’t afford this…”
Intellectually, I knew he would say something similar, but hearing it in such a broken whisper nearly knocked me flat. I couldn’t keep the waver out of my voice when I whispered right back, “You’ve given me weeks of peace with your songs. Will you let me give this to you in return?”
“You watched me,” he said, his voice humbled and awed. “You’re the policeman who always leaned against the lamp post at lunchtime.”
I nodded. “Except I’m not a policeman. I’m a security guard.”
He relaxed in the bed as if just knowing I was a familiar face gave him peace enough to let himself go. I reached over and squeezed his hand, my heart in my throat, and nodded to my family. “These are my brothers, Giancarlo and Angelico. They made sure that all of your belongings were gathered up.”
Jayson stiffened and his eyes went wide. “My—my violin?”
Angelico moved closer and placed his hand on Jayson’s shoulder. “Wrapped up carefully and tucked away safe in our car. The rest of your belongings are safe in our trunk.” He grimaced and sat on the edge of Jayson’s bed. “You seem to have fallen on your violin. There is a newer break in the wood along the neck of the instrument.”
“It was my grandfather’s,” Jayson whimpered. “It’s all I have left of him.”
Now, I have always loved my brothers, but what Angelico said next made me love him so much more. He said, “Then I tell you what: Umberto here will keep you company while I go see if I can find someone qualified to restore it. If I do, you and Umberto can go meet with the restorer when you’re discharged from here to see if you trust them enough to take a look at your instrument to see if it can be fixed.”
He offered Jayson a genuine smile, one that even his family rarely ever saw, and stood, adjusting his suit jacket. “If it can’t be salvaged enough to be played, we’ll see about restoring it enough that it won’t become more damaged and, if you want, you can choose a replacement instrument.”
The tears in Jayson’s eyes fell and he looked down at his hands. “Why would you do that for me?”
The three of us brothers answered in unison as if by rote, “Why wouldn’t we?”
The man’s eyes widened and darted from one brother to the next. “But—”
I chuckled. I couldn’t help myself. Squeezing his hand, I leaned forward in my chair and said, “It’s useless to argue with Sicilians, or Italians for that matter, Jayson. And we’re, all three, both.”
Hearing Jayson snort and choke on a laugh did something to my insides that I wasn’t expecting. Butterflies and hummingbirds, or that’s what it felt like. The man’s voice was like an angel’s, and to hear it sound happy made something in me sing. I covered my intense reaction to him by holding up a glass of ice chips and melt for him to sip and gnaw on.
“Are you hungry?”
“That’s my boy!” Giancarlo cheered. “I’ll call Mama and have her make us something light for your belly. Any requests?”
Did I mention my family are serial feeders? Yeah. But in this case, I appreciated Giancarlo’s gesture. Jayson seemed ill at ease, but he played along. “I used to love veal parmesan.”
I gave his hand a gentle squeeze. “Why don’t we save that for when you can have an official dinner, hm? Let’s start out with something light. How about a nice chicken noodle soup? Or maybe beef noodle?”
“Beef,” he replied. “Thank you.”
“I’ll go put in the order.” Giancarlo turned and headed for the door. “You need anything from home, Umberto?”
“Nope. But can you bring up the supplies you bought before you two leave?”
When they left, Jayson frowned. “Supplies?”
I sat back in my chair and sighed. “They bought you bathing and shaving supplies in case you wanted a shower.”
He grimaced and looked down at himself. “I’d like that.”
“And your hair? Do you want help detangling it or do you want to have it cut?”
Jayson made another face and let out a long breath. “Why are you being so nice?” He fidgeted with his blanket and lowered his head more until I couldn’t see his face through the strings of matted hair. “I’m nothing to you. Why are you doing this?”
I knew I had to tread carefully. If I said the wrong thing, this man could bolt, and I wouldn’t have any authority to stop him. In the end, I just shrugged. “I care. My brothers care.”
When Jayson only hunched further down on himself, I sighed and patted his leg. “Let me tell you a story.”
That got his attention. Jayson’s head picked up just enough that I saw a stunning green eye peeking out between strands of nasty hair. Rather than waiting for him to answer, I started in on the story.
“Back in Italy, there was a man. His wife and children died in an accident, and he had nothing left after paying for their burials. That same accident left this man unable to work. His legs would barely support him due to a back injury, and his hands were gnarled from nerve damage.
“This man spent sixteen years on the streets, begging for scraps, and doing his best just to make it through the next day. He sang for tips because the only things not broken about him were his mind and his voice. And when his voice was raw from singing, he would tell stories.”
I paused to urge Jayson to drink more of the ice melt. When he’d drained what was in the plastic cup, I continued. “One day a woman sat next to him. She wore a fine pink dress, shiny shoes, and had pearls about her neck. She was dressed in her Sunday best, having just come from Church down the road.
“The man had seen her many days, standing on the edge of the sparse crowd to listen to him sing or spin a tale, but she had never approached him. This day, she laid a hand on his back and said, ‘Come home to supper, sir.’ And she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Three weeks later, she convinced him to live with her, which was scandalous at the time. A single woman didn’t allow a man to live with her, but she was undeterred. She claimed God had told her this man was special.
“And three years later, they were married. She had gotten him a job teaching music in the local school, helping him regain his confidence. She got him involved in the Church choir. And in those three years, she showed him that no matter what life did to him or with him, he was worthy of love and respect.”
Jayson toyed with the edge of his blanket and sighed. “Nice story.”
“Thanks. That man was Giuseppe Giordano, my great-great-great-great grandfather. The woman was Sofia Bordonaro, a Sicilian who had moved to Italy to ‘find herself’. Without her, my brothers and I wouldn’t exist.”
“Sounds like a reverse Cinderella story,” Jayson said softly. “It’s romantic.”
I shrugged. “It is. But, romance aside, it has a good moral: No matter what life throws at you, you are worthy of respect and love.” I stared hard at him and smiled. “I am a capable man. The fact that I can, at will, rearrange my schedule to lean against a lamp post almost every day to listen to a homeless man sing and play the violin means I can help that man find a better life. Call it ‘paying it forward’ a few generations late.”