When the doorbell rang shortly past lunchtime, Walden Sommers should have known it wasn't the mailman. The neighborhood letter carrier was at a nearby bar enjoying his usual mid-afternoon pick-me-up and wouldn't be back on the street for at least another hour. Walden even knew his mail never came before four from countless days spent sitting at the front of his house waiting for it. But he was expecting a delivery today and his hopes stirred as he disembarked from his ochre armchair on three legs to see who was at the door.
On the doorstep stood a boy of twelve or thirteen in shorts and a baseball cap. Sweat was soaking through his faded brown shirt, and as Walden opened the door the boy was looking back at some peers mingling across the street. Walden seemed unaffected by the absence of the mailman, as though he had expected exactly what he found. He observed the weather. It was cloudless and silent: an empty day, except for the sun beating down on everything, but too early in the year for the heat to be bothersome. There was no mailman in sight. He cleared his throat. "Who are you? What do you want?" — a moment's thought — "Shouldn't you be in school?"
Faced with a man easily six times his age, the gravity of the situation sunk into the boy and his face lost some of its excitement.
"No, sir. It's summer break. School got out three weeks ago." He paused, searching for the beginning of a speech he had apparently already given several times. "You see, sir, my friends and I are on a summer service trip with our youth group, and we're trying to raise money for people to rebuild their homes in Louisiana, but we want to give you something back for your money, so if you'd help us out we'd be glad to paint your house number on your driveway. That way when deliveries come they'll know which house is yours."
The boy emerged from his memory and looked up into Walden's face, trying to anticipate a response. A few seconds passed.
"Youth group? What sort of youth group?"
"It's our church's youth group. We're from the First Evangelical Free Church in Rockford, Illinois."
Several bursts of air broke from the old man's throat in a quick staccato. His cheeks and eyebrows rose somewhat. "That's quite a name. Now why would a bunch of kids from Illinois come all the way to Ohio to do this? Don't people have driveways where you come from?"
The boy's head sank, and with it his tone of voice. "We do, sir. But would you like to donate?"
Walden's cheeks rose further, exposing the tips of several teeth the color of milky tea. "Ah, well then. You said the money goes to rebuild...?"
"New Orleans, sir. To help people whose houses were ruined in the hurricane." The boy was encouraged by the smile and returned it. Walden felt some phlegm in his throat and cleared it again.
"New Orleans. Why do people want to rebuild New Orleans? Isn't it below sea-level?"
"Yessir, but I bet if someone flooded your house you'd want it rebuilt, wouldn't you?"
"Suppose I would. But I wouldn't want my house built on top of an underwater swamp, would you? What do you kids believe, anyway, at this free church? Tell me."
Walden's teeth vanished again and his eyes took on a resigned, droopy look, but the boy moved automatically into a prepared dialogue on the matter. "We're Christians, sir. Are you saved?"
"Saved? Not sure what you mean." The teeth reappeared, though the eyes were still droopy. The boy dug in his pockets and pulled out a small tract. He began to read, with practiced enthusiasm: "Romans ten verse nine says..."
"Hold on now." A soft pink tongue slipped over the shriveled lips. "I'm an old man with who knows how much time left. If you want to save me from something, you'd better skip the lecture and get to it."
Derailed again from his prepared material, an impatient middle-schooler started breaking through the boy's reverential shell. "Well, sir, since you're almost dead, where do you think you'll end up after it's over?"
The old man laughed. He had been waiting for a package and had expected nothing better. Instead he was being interrogated about death by a twelve year old on an absurd mission to paint driveways. He pieced together an answer. "I think I'd rather be buried than cremated. Don't much like the idea of getting burned. So I suppose I'll go to a cemetery."
"But what about you? Where will your soul go?"
"What's the soul, my boy, but the thing that gives my body life? If I'm dead, my soul must be dead too."
"That's silly. Anyway, if you think that then you must be pretty unhappy. Your time's almost up and then there'll be no you anymore."
Walden's wrinkly eyelids rose and vanished beneath his brows. His upper lip exposed a line of purple gums, and a few more stabs of amusement cracked from his throat. "Oh, but I've always been glad to think that sooner or later I'd get out of it all." Weighing the drama of the moment, Walden decided this would make a good ending for the scene, and shut his door on the young evangelist.
He hadn't clearly seen the boy's expression at the end, but Walden enjoyed the idea of a naive face shocked with a cold splash of uncertainty. He drifted back toward his chair, but decided to clean up his lunch things. An empty sandwich plate lay on the coffee table next to a heavy book with a German title. He took the plate back to the kitchen, imagining the life hiding behind the child he'd just encountered.
He supposed the boy was from a middle class community, guessed that he had been fed a load of emotional rhetoric about sin and faith and Jesus by some man in his mid-forties trying too hard to be fresh and relatable. Raised by habitual churchgoers, some emotional moment had led him to 'accept Jesus', probably around age eight. It may even have happened recently. He was on this trip because all his friends were, and despite the hyper-spiritualized language that surrounded his life, he had basically the same interests as most boys his age. It was nonetheless certain, Walden thought, that the particular variety of "faith" the boy subscribed to involved little more than bringing a bible to church on Sunday and having a few verses memorized. As further details fell into place, Walden washed the last traces of mustard from his plate and returned it to the cubbard. By the time he had picked up his book again the biography was complete, every fact of the young life sketched out to his satisfaction. He frowned, opened his book, and heard the doorbell chime a second time.
Walden suspended all expectation as he approached the door. He reasoned that two unsolicited house calls from people not associated with the postal service would be too much for a single day, but he was ready for anything. Reaching for the doorknob, he smiled as he imagined a large black cat offering him a cigar. But behind the door stood another boy, older this time. This one was tan with some sort of sports jersey and short blond hair. He must have been about eighteen.
"Hello, sir. I'm a friend of Justin's. We don't want to bother you, but I think he was a little unprepared to answer your questions. Maybe I can help clear things up."
By that point the old man was a little disappointed. He wanted the kids to leave him alone or at least offer some hope for an interesting conversation, but now he had another, and this one would probably be less engaging than the last. He sighed.
"If you want to talk, we're going to have to sit down. There are chairs over there," he pointed to the small porch on his right. "Do you have time?"
"As much as you're willing to give me."
"We'll see about that."
Walden looked down the street as he eased himself into the plastic lawn chair. There was no mailman. He scratched his cheek and waited.
"Well, sir. What would you like to know?"
Walden's jowls lengthened. He wanted to know when his package would come and what would be in it. He wanted to know what rhetorical strategy would ideologically crush the young man sitting next to him and why life was such a tedious bother filled with so many wrong people. "What's your name?"
"I'm Simon. You are?"
"I'm Walden." A slight breeze filled the silence.
"Well, it's nice to meet you, Walden. Do you read much?"
"Yes, Simon, I read much."
Walden's teeth reappeared. "Where are we headed with this, Simon? I could croak any second, you know."
Walden saw a glint of amusement in Simon's eyes.
"Oh, it's just another kind of outdoor game."
The oddity of the response roused the old man from his irritable self-pity.
"You want to give me some good news, is that right?"
"Well, not exactly. I bet you already know the news. Let me tell you a story instead. Okay?"
Walden didn't answer. He braced himself for some masked Gospel narrative and rested his chin against his chest. The wind picked up and played with Simon's longish hair, but the old man sat still. Simon leaned forward, forearms on thighs, hands folded. The story began.
"My story is about a little kid named Henry. Henry wasn't very good in school, but he liked talking to people and he had a game he liked to play. The game was like this: whenever someone brought up their views on religion or politics, he would ask them why they believed what they did, and for every answer he got, he would keep asking "Why?" over and over until the person couldn't answer any more or got angry. Then he would laugh and leave them alone. Even though Henry wasn't so bright, he always felt like he understood something that most people were missing, because of his game. And he liked the rush he got from frustrating people.
"Now, Henry got older, left school, got a job and an apartment. By that time he was in his twenties. He still liked playing his old game, but he had learned that people disliked him for it, so he saved it for rare occasions. He had a group of friends at work, but kept to himself when he was at home. Sometimes he had a girlfriend, usually not. When Henry was alone, he liked thinking about what made his friends tick, tried to understand them. He would think through facts about their lives, what they believed, and try and see why they did what they did.
"It happened that the more Henry thought about his friends and understood them, the more annoying he found them. He started getting sarcastic and people began to avoid him. He noticed this, but didn't care much because they were annoying anyway. So Henry was alone for a while. He was laid off at some point, went back to school, and decided to become a teacher. He ended up teaching History.
"Teaching appealed to Henry because he felt like he understood a lot about life. He thought he could share his wisdom with kids and keep them from becoming like the people he knew. He didn't care that much about history, but he thought it would be fun. Once he started teaching, though, he found that kids weren't as impressionable as he expected. In fact, they were rude and obnoxious and didn't care about school at all. Over time, Henry stopped teaching his students and showed old documentary films instead. Now and then he would pick out a kid from one of his classes and play his old game. It pleased him to watch the kids squirm with uncertainty as he rained down questions they had never thought of before. Naturally he won every time. Other than these encounters the job was boring and worthless, but he was pretty much stuck in it, so he taught history for a couple of decades and then retired. He had never gotten married.
"Living alone with no friends, old Henry spent the days reading. Philosophy appealed to him, since it gave him that old feeling that he understood something other people were missing out on. What exactly he understood was never clear to anyone, but he scoffed at the unenlightened world became more and more reclusive. His whole life had been a demonstration of a few clear points. First, there was no reason to believe anything. Second, everyone was either stupid or annoying. Third, life just was a bunch of absurdities that culminated in death.
"One day a kid came to Henry's door, trying to get him to donate money to some charity. Henry was cold and sarcastic and told the kid that life was absurd and meaningless and then you died. The boy smiled at Henry and asked him 'Why are you sticking around if the world is so meaningless? And if life is absurd why do you live so regularly? But what's more absurd than a whole life that just stops without any resolution?'
"And how do you think Henry replied? Tell me, Walden."
Old Walden Sommers continued staring at the floor. He hadn't been listening for a while, and had no answer to this final question. His heart had stopped.
"Walden Sommers?" a man in brown called from the end of the porch. He was holding a large cardboard box.