How to Change Someone's Life, Not Your Own

One day Mr. Vinti offered Gabe a large wooden trunk full of tools. Another day he fixed Gabe's future.

March/April 2008

Reading time min

How to Change Someone's Life, Not Your Own

Illustration by Jody Hewgill

Carlton Vinti lived in New York for most of his life. He joined the Army and fought for America in World War II. He was honorably discharged. At some point in all this living, he realized he was gay and took photographs with friends, all of the male persuasion but one. The single photograph with a girl is on the beach at Coney Island, and she is gazing lovingly at poor, sweet Carl, who might want to want her, but does not want her. She has written her name and motel room number on the back in pencil. Carl is too dapper by half for this girl. He wears knickers and caps and patterned shirts. He is tiny, perhaps 5 foot 3, and often stands next to tall, strapping men. Stands just a little closer than one might think in old photos. Carl looks delighted. He sports a full-bloom smile of youthful desire. Of elation. It is 1951 and Carl is alive in New York City. If you want to hear what happened to Carl in the end, go to the next paragraph. If you want to remember Carl young and happy, reread this paragraph.

It is 2004 and Carl is dead on the couch in his Hollywood apartment. If you have a weak stomach and prefer not to know the details, skip this paragraph. If you want to face your own mortality by imagining someone else's painful, lonely death, read on. Carl has been sitting dead at least three days and is beginning to disintegrate. His cells are no longer rebuilding and he has, according to the coroner, somewhat liquefied where he sits. The couch was not an antique, not passed down from any family, so it is wrapped and disposed of in a large-trash pickup. The people from the coroner's put a toe tag on Carl and zip him into a body bag. They carry him out the door of his studio apartment and bump him along the hall and down a flight of stairs. He's dead, what does he feel? They leave something forgotten on the table: an opened bag of 100 toe tags, some missing, looped onto various toes of the day's work.

Gabe gets the call from the police because Carlton Vinti, deceased, does not have any family and has named Gabriel Stiller his beneficiary. If you want to know now how much Carl was worth, skip to paragraph 13. If you want to know how their friendship developed and why Carl would pick Gabe, out of all the people in the world, read on. Mr. Vinti stopped Gabe in the hall of their apartment building last year and invited him in. Perhaps Carl had seen Gabe in the halls and had meant to ask him in many times. We do not know this—we must guess. Carl has passed away and cannot answer this or any other question, except by default when the question happens to relate to a photograph or a bank statement or a choice of headstone for the funeral. On this day, though, we know that Carl did invite this kid into his Hollywood studio apartment and offered him a large wooden trunk, full of tools and books on how to fix things. The kid resisted at first. He's a good kid and he didn't know this man, having only seen him, frail and as slight as a feather, in the halls or standing on the metal balcony admiring the sunset. But this kid had been kind to another old man in the building, Milt Greenway, before he had a stroke and went into the hospital, so Carl invited him in. Carl did not need the tools anymore, and the kid might use them. The kid will go on living for some time, probably. The kid had smiled at him as he passed him in the hallways.

The kid is indeed a good kid, a sweet-faced boy in his 20s who moved to Los Angeles six years ago and into a rundown apartment for $407 a month. The street corners are crowded with hookers late at night, some women and some merely dressed up as women, but he has not moved because he believes in saving money and he has to repay his student loans and he doesn't have a safety net. His parents can't bail him out if he needs them to. They are sympathetic to their son who is a DJ and hears things in music that they will never hear, and they would have liked to have paid for his school, to have bought him the records he wanted, to help him buy a house. But they can't. They live in a small town in Oregon in a house passed down in the family and they take Grandpa to dialysis three times a week.

Gabe dragged Carl's trunk upstairs to his apartment and pushed it into a free space, in the corner of his kitchen. He couldn't believe his good fortune. He could not buy all these tools—hammer, screwdrivers, ratchets, files, nails, wrenches. Gabe called his girlfriend and told her about Mr. Vinti (he thinks that is the old, frail man's name) and what he had given him. The girlfriend is not really central to this story. Yet. She may be later but she has not proven herself to be crucial so far. If you would like to know a little about her out of curiosity or because she may become pivotal, read the next paragraph; if not, skip ahead one paragraph.

The girlfriend is a singer named Mona Rice. She thought about changing her name to Monique but decided that she is not a Monique; she is not French or sexy in the way the name implies, and besides, her parents named her Mona because they liked it, and that is worth something. That is a gift from them to her for as long as she lives, and she will feel unhappy and wish for another name but she will keep hers. Even if she marries—even if she marries Gabe Stiller—she might keep Rice because it is from her family. Gabe has not asked Mona to marry him. She mentions children from time to time. Marriage is not important to her. She doesn't think it's important to her. But she has begun to check out children on the street. She compares their haircuts, their eye color, their shy smiles or pre-tantrum frowns. And the other day she mentioned that if they have kids, she hopes they have Gabe's straight nose and long legs. Gabe did not officially answer her. He swam from the bait to calmer waters, where he said lazily that he had never been fond of his own legs—they were too long.

The girlfriend, Mona, baked muffins for Mr. (is it?) Vinti, and Gabe stopped by with those and with nuts, dried fruit, grapes. Mr. Vinti (sp?) accepted the gifts but said that he was supposed to be giving things to the kid, not the other way around. The old give to the young. The old are dying and do not need gifts. They need to eat enough to make it one more day and be left alone. There had been others in the building, creaky vehicles who rattled to the grocery store once a week or to the corner bank or post office. But Milt had a stroke and Diane died. Bill died. Harrison died. Their families came to clean out their apartments, and the building manager rented them within a few weeks. He might have waited until the month was up—they had paid through the month (this spoken in low tones by the dwindling survivors)—but he didn't.

After a few months of these visits, Carl stopped Gabe in the hall and invited him in. He had seen Milt get sick and be unable to tie up the loose ends of his own affairs. Carl did not want to blow like a feather in the wind. He had no family. His parents were dead and he had never married. He had been an architect in Manhattan before he moved to Los Angeles to retire. He was—well, it didn't matter—would Gabe be his beneficiary? Carl had already put money toward a plot at Green Meadows Cemetery and had made some choices about his funeral. But he couldn't carry it out himself and he wondered if Gabe would consider doing this for him. Would he bury him? He was 84 years old, and Milt had said Gabe was a good kid, kind. And Carl had seen that he was a good kid, grateful and thoughtful and responsible. It would mean a lot to Carl. Plus, Gabe would inherit whatever Carl had.

Gabe tried to find a way out. He asked many times about family, distant relatives, close friends. None. No. Dead. Plus, the old did not need Carl's help and could not help him. He needed Gabe, who was young, who ran up three flights of stairs with a bicycle and took the garbage out in under two minutes. Carl pressed bank statements into Gabe's hands and described the accounts, where they were, and the various investments, including from his military service. Gabe agreed. They sat a while longer, they did not have the promised tea, and Gabe left to go sit in his own apartment and stare at the walls. He almost called his brother. His mother. His dad. He finally called Mona. If you think Gabe should buy a house with Mona and have kids, read on. If you think he should follow his own dreams and wait until he's ready to settle down, too bad, because Mona is typing.

Seven months go by. It was supposed to be longer than seven months. Carl had barely prepared. But he had thrown out some things, given others away, and wrapped the rest in plastic fruit and vegetable bags from the grocery store. He had turned all of his canned goods so the labels faced out. He kept his photographs. At least a handful, approved for sharing. To leave a stranger to root through your things, to sort your life and take the good for himself—that you prepare for, but you don't understand. You think, somehow, you will be in the room watching while he does it; that you can tell him the name of the man in several of the pictures and where he went and how it feels without him.

Carl dies. Carl dies alone in his locked apartment with Gabe's notes stacked on the kitchen table. Gabe pushed notes under the door a few times a week to say hello and did Mr. Vinti need anything?, and now they are neatly stacked on the round white table, which is dusted with a fine layer of Los Angeles. So Carl knew he was dying and wanted to slip away. This kid, this good kid, would notice that Carl didn't open the door or return his calls and he would find him and take care of his body. This kid would have Carl's body carried to Green Meadows and draped in a flag and laid in the ground. The Honor Guard would fold the flag in a neat triangle and give it to the kid to put . . . somewhere. Or perhaps the notes were scattered on the floor and the police picked them up and stacked them on the table. They left the body on the couch for the coroner but put the paper on the table out of the way. Perhaps Carl tried to reach the phone and couldn't, and the notes came after, pushed under the door and across the carpet with a whisper of too late, too late. Carl suffered from a heart condition and, though the doctor tried to set up an appointment to install a pacemaker, Carl put the appointment off until many months away. He was a tired jockey with a broken-down horse, and he didn't much care to force his friend along.

There is a scare with the Public Administrator. The government doesn't like it when people don't have family. It certainly doesn't like it when a person leaves things to a relative stranger. In fact, it threatens to take everything away and leave you where you started, the worse for dreaming. But it will finally, after 40 days and a probate lawyer, listen to the bank and the almighty safety deposit box, where several documents, signed and dated, say, For Gabriel Stiller, my Beneficiary. If you already read how much Carl was worth, skip the next paragraph.

Carl leaves $178,000 to Gabe. Two bank accounts and a few stocks. A table for plants. Old-fashioned binoculars. Architecture books. The photographs go down in the coffin. The clothes, so small and hung together in outfits—blue diamond-patterned shirt, navy pants, suspenders—go to Goodwill. Five people from the building attend the funeral, including the apartment manager, a recovering heroin addict who asked Gabe for and received Carl's Singer sewing machine to give to his girlfriend. Gabe makes a few comments and invites the others to say something, but no one does. Elna and Victor don't speak English. If you skipped Gabe and Carl's developing relationship, return to paragraph 3.

This story is not over, but it has to end here now. Perhaps there will be a turn in the story later; surely there will be a time when Mona goes on anti-depressants and one of them or their parents or their kids is in a car crash. Maybe not a bad one, but a solid fright. Mona talks to Carl often. She thinks of this man in the same apartment for 24 years who changed the course of her life. The wind that changed direction and lifted her dreams. On the nights she lies on her side with Gabe pressed up against her asleep, she wants to wake him up so they can talk to Carl together. She wants to tell Carl everything they've seen and done. The love they've felt. But she is too depressed and hopeful for that. She's sorry he died alone—she wishes she could go back and take care of him. Sometimes Carl tells her that he meant to die alone. Sometimes he is angry with Gabe for deserting him when he needed him most. Sometimes he curses himself for thinking he wanted to be dead. And sometimes he is grateful to be dead; life was a waste of time. Sometimes he does not answer Mona because death is the end of complex chemical reactions that you can't hope to make react ever again. On those nights, Gabe might wake up to her shuddering body, hold her tighter and wish he had married someone less off-balance. He squeezes her thigh, wraps his arm around her breasts, and holds her closer. If you are done with my story, turn the page. If you are done living, turn to death.

LOLLY WARD, '93, MA '94, is an actress and writer in Los Angeles.

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