Jewish World Review June 18, 2012/ 28 Sivan, 5772
By Paul Greenberg
(With apologies to
"What?" The old man exclaimed. He had gone to the hall closet to get something -- a raincoat? His cane? It couldn't have been his scarf or overcoat. Not in this weather. Whatever it was, he forgot it as soon as he opened the door and saw it. A pale figure. Way in back with the old clothes. So hazy it could scarcely be discerned, but there it was.
"Don't be alarmed," the apparition said softly. "I mean you no harm. Indeed, I may do you great good someday. It all depends how you look at it. It makes no difference to me. I only make my rounds as directed."
"What?" asked the old man again, now just curious.
"It's nothing personal, it's not as if I had any choice in the matter," his visitor was saying. "I just do what I'm told. I have my appointed rounds to make. Free will is your department, not mine. I assure you, sir, you have nothing to worry about. Anyway, I'll be gone in a minute. Just stopping in, by your leave. Or without it, for that matter. Call it a familiarization tour. You may see me more frequently in the future. Indeed, I'm sure you will."
The figure had scarcely moved. But the old man was sure it had spoken. He had heard it. He rubbed his eyes. But it was still there when he opened them. Too much dandelion wine last night, he thought. He really ought to lay off the stuff.
He had been imagining things lately. But probably no more than usual. He'd always been a bit of a daydreamer. More than a bit, truth to tell. But the tendency had increased in late years. He found himself withdrawing more and more. As if, like his unexpected visitor, he was only here only to familiarize himself with ... what? He wasn't sure.
He never was much of one to travel, though travel he had. Why? he wondered. Everything he needed and wanted was right here. Home beckoned him more and more. Its attractions grew as numerous as the books on his crowded shelves. Each seemed to whisper, "Read me! Read me!" Especially those he had read before. If a book is worth reading once, surely it is worth reading again, if only to see if it still exerts the same charm. Or maybe says something he'd missed the first time. At least if it's a good book. A good book is inexhaustible. Ordinary books may be all alike; every great book is great in its own way.
"But it's not just the books you're attached to, is it?" said the spectral figure, as if it could read his mind. "The pleasures of home grow not just numerous but numinous with time."
"Yes," he thought. The sweetness of solitude. Just to sit and listen to the night sounds, to the rustle of wind in the trees, to the antiphonal music of the spheres in the night skies. The small, ambient noises. The house settling. And the sound of rain outside. He could listen to it forever. Or old phonograph records, scratches and all. He knew just where each was, would miss them if they were gone, like a missed beat. Contrary to the common misconception, familiarity doesn't breed contempt but affection....
Lost in thought, he had forgotten his unexpected guest. "If you will excuse me," the ever fainter figure was saying, "I really must be going. I hate to startle and run, but I do have my rounds to make. I'm already late for an appointment in Samarra. People are expecting me, whether they realize it or not."
"Just what line are you in, if I may ask?" the old man inquired. "Sales?"
"Not exactly. More like collections."
For just a moment the old man thought he saw the hint of a smile on the stranger's face. "Never missed a soul," the spectral figure said with a touch of pride. "That's one thing about my calling, everyone's equal in my presence. They may ignore me, but I never snub anybody. Very democratic in that way. I come to all. As inevitable as taxes, as they say.
"Oh, I know it's a bit of a shock when I first move in," the visitor added, almost apologetically. "But I don't take up much space, not at first. I'm barely noticeable. You may think it's only your imagination. Or that I'll go away if you just ignore me. But bit by bit, I require more room, till I take up the whole house, then your whole life. But you'll be happy to see me when you need me. Then you'll understand."
"Oh," said the old man. "I see."
"I doubt it," said his visitor. "But you will, you will."
"Goodbye then," said the old man, not displeased to be left alone.
"No," said the now only faint presence, correcting him. "See you later."
Yes, of course, the old man realized. Now he understood. "See you later," he murmured, sure he would.
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