СодержаниеThe Old Man → Часть 1

The oversized knob offered no resistance as it turned on its oiled core. I was no longer surprised to find unlocked doors in the city. Maybe at some subconscious level we don’t believe we need protection from our own species.

I figured I would leave the package inside the door and sign the customer’s name. I had signed for customers before; no one had complained yet. It was a firing offense, but that only happened if you got caught.

Inside I could see a long, dark hallway with red faux– textured walls lined with large, illuminated paintings. At the end was a half-opened door to a room that hosted a flickering light. Someone was home and should have heard the doorbell. I didn’t like the look of it. Occasionally you read about an elderly person who dies alone and no one knows about it for weeks. My mind went there. I stepped inside and closed the door, enjoying the warmth, deciding what to do next.

“Hello! ” I said in my professional voice, hoping it sounded nonthreatening. I shuffled my way down the hall, noticing that the art looked original. Someone had money. Lots.

The source of the uneven light was a huge stone fireplace. I entered the room, not sure why I was being quiet. Somehow the room was both simple and overwhelming. It was half fire– washed color, half black, brilliantly appointed with antique wooden furniture, elaborate patterned walls, and wood floors. My pupils enlarged to tease out the shadows.

An old man’s voice rose from the texture. “I’ve been expecting you. ”

I was startled and feeling a bit guilty about letting myself in. It took me a minute to locate the source of the voice. It was as if it came from the room itself. Something moved and I noticed, on the far side of the fireplace, in a wooden rocker, a smallish form in a red plaid blanket, looking like a hastily rolled cigar. His tiny wrinkled hands held the blanket like button clasps. Two undersized feet in cloth slippers dangled from the wrap.

“Your door was unlocked, ” I said, as if that were reason enough to let myself in. “I have a package. ”

All I heard was the fire. I expected an answer. That’s how it’s supposed to work. When one person says something, the other is supposed to say something back. The old man wasn’t subscribing.

He stared at me and rocked, sizing me up, perhaps, or maybe he was lost in a replay. I had already said what I needed to say, so I stood silently for what seemed too long. I thought I saw the wake of a smile, or maybe it was a muscle tremor. He spoke in the deliberate manner of a man who had not used his voice in days and asked a strange question.

“If you toss a coin a thousand times, how often will it come up heads? ”

The elderly are spooky when they degenerate into reflections of their younger selves. They say things that make sense on some grammatical level, but it’s not always connected to reality. I remembered my grandfather in his declining years, how he spoke in nonsequiturs. It was best to play along.

“About fifty percent of the time, ” I answered before changing the subject. “I need a signature businessfavorite.ru for this package. ”

“Why? ”

“Well, ” I said, measuring how much information to include in my response, “the person who sent the package wants a signature. He needs confirmation that it got delivered. ”

“I meant why does the coin come up heads fifty percent of the time? ”

“I guess that’s because the coin weighs about the same on both sides, so there’s a fifty-fifty chance it will land on one side versus the other. ” I tried to avoid sounding condescending. I wasn’t sure I succeeded.

“You haven’t answered why. You simply listed some facts. ”

I saw what was going on. The old man pulls this trick question on anyone who comes within range. There had to be a punch line or clever answer, so I played along.

“What’s the answer? ” I asked with all the artificial interest I could muster.

“The answer, ” he said, “is that the question has no why. ”

“You could say that about anything. ”

“No, ” he replied, in a manner that seemed suddenly coherent. “Every other question has an answer to why. Only probability is inexplicable. ”

I waited a moment for the punch line, but it didn’t come. “That’s it? ” I asked.

“It’s more than it seems. ”

“I still need a signature. ” I approached the old man and held out the clipboard, but he made no motion to take it. I could see him better now. His skin was stained and wrinkled but his eyes were strikingly clear. Some gray hair gathered above each ear and his posture was an ongoing conversation with gravity. He wasn’t old. He was ancient.

He gestured to the clipboard with his head. “You can sign it. ”

In the delivery business we make lots of exceptions for the elderly, so I didn’t mind signing for him. I figured his hands or eyes weren’t working as well as he liked and I could save him the frustration of working the pen.

I read the name before forging.

Avatar. A–v–a–t–a–r.

“It’s for you, ” he said.

“What’s for me? ”

“The package. ”

“I just deliver the packages, ” I said. “My job is to bring them to you. It’s your package. ”

“No, it’s yours. ”

“Um, okay, ” I said, planning my exit strategy. I figured I could leave the package in the hallway on the way out. The old man’s caretaker would find it.

“What’s in the package? ” I asked. I hoped to get past an awkward moment.

“It’s the answer to your question. ”

“I wasn’t expecting any answers. ”

“I understand, ” said the old man.

I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I didn’t.

He continued, “Let me ask you a simple question: Did you deliver the package or did the package deliver you? ”

By then I was a little annoyed with his cleverness, but admittedly engaged. I didn’t know the old man’s situation, but he wasn’t as feeble-minded as I’d first thought. I glanced at my watch. Almost lunchtime. I decided to see where this was heading.

“I delivered the package, ” I answered. That seemed obvious enough.

“If the package had no address, would you have delivered it here? ”

I said no.

“Then you would agree that delivering the package required the participation of the package. The package told you where to go. ”

“I suppose that’s true, in a way. But it’s the least important part of the delivery. I did the driving and lifting and moving. That’s the important part. ”

“How can one part be more important if each part is completely necessary? ” he asked.

“Look, ” I said, “I’m holding the package and I’m walking with it. That’s delivering. I’m delivering the package. That’s what I do. I’m a package-delivery guy. ”

“That’s one way to look at it. Another way is that both you and the package got here at the same time. And that both of you were necessary. I say the package delivered you. ”

There was a twisted logic to that interpretation, but I wasn’t willing to give in. “The difference is intention. If I leave this package here and go on my way, I think that settles the question of who delivered who. ”

“Perhaps it would, ” he said as he turned toward the warmth. “Would you mind throwing another log on the fire? ”

I picked out a big one. The retiring embers celebrated its arrival. I had the brief impression that the log was glad to help, to do its part keeping the old man warm. It was a silly thought. I brushed off my hands and turned to leave.

“That chair is yours, ” he said, gesturing to a wooden rocker next to his. I hadn’t noticed the second chair.

The old man’s face revealed a life of useful endeavor. I had a sense that he deserved companionship and I was happy to give some. My other choice involved a bag lunch and the back of my truck. Maybe there wasn’t any choice at all.

I settled into the rocking chair, letting its rhythm unwind me. It was profoundly relaxing. The room seemed more vivid now and vibrated with the personality of its master. The furniture was obviously designed for comfort. Everything in the room was made of stone or wood or plant, mostly autumn colors. It was as if the room had sprung directly from the earth into the middle of San Francisco.

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