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     He was an old man now, an old old man, and the dust of the years behind him was stacked up around him in clipping and jottings and notebooks full of titles and impressions and thoughts. He had built the walls of his room from the husks of his thought-filled days, and these thoughts of his life weighed heavily on the shelves on these walls. He had only to pull a notebook from the shelf and his past life came before him. Now that his knuckles were large from the calluses of age and decay, he could read back on the sun-filled days when he had held his hands up to the sun to see sun-sheen on blond hairs. He had clenched his fist and watched delicately blue veins glide over lengths of bone encased in supple-smooth skin and he had read the palm of the contents of the fine lines. Now the hand was cracked with lines which were not pretty to look at. They marred the surface of the hardened skin like premature cracks in ages-old winter glacier ice. Brown blotches moled his skin, scars and scabs from his aged clumsiness festooned the webs between his fingers. He couldn't quite make a closed fist, he couldn't quite open his fingers wide. Such were the circumscriptions that age wreathed about him, wreathed about him ever more tightly as the years passed on and on. Until the final loop of the wreath would tighten around his soul, and, strangling, the soul would leave the body, one last dry husk, lying on the floor among the scattered leaves of his tree of life. His eyes hurt as he read, and his glasses, ill-fitting on the bony prominence of his nose, slipped so the astigmatic axis twisted the world into a gargoyle-grimace. No longer could he play a piano, no longer read a book without headaches, no longer walk through the open air as he had so loved to do before.
     Now all his present was his past, thumbing through yellow pages of his greener days. There a book containing the titles and authors of the books he had read, each with a neatly typed paragraph of his general impressions, then lists of pages on which the major ideas in the book could be found, with stars for page numbers that offered a particularly fine bit of writing. Over the course of years he had read many books, and the past few years of his life, when he wasn't able to read because of the pain in his eyes, he extracted the juice from the ones he'd read before, until they were all neatly catalogued in one book, which he could hold in his crabbed hand and say, with pride, to himself, "This contains the essence of all the books I've read in my life. What an accomplishment this is."
     The next book contained the titles and the stars of the movies he'd seen, with enlargements of some of the prints he had been able to obtain from photo libraries: some had been sent by the film companies, for he had been very close to the films for most of his life. Neatly numbered with the dates on which he had seen them, compactly rated and scaled as to the best or worst, listing the directors and set designers and years they were made, how much money each had cost and how much money each had made. It took him time to keep up with the current releases, but he had at one point brought it up to completion, and once completed, it then naturally had to be kept up to date. Keeping all these lists up to date had taken more and more time in recent years, until finally there was only enough time to add to his lists, and not do anything other than that, so that as the years went on the years got progressively more incestuous, so that records were necessary to tell him how much time he spent with each catalogue of his former activity. He had a small, inexpensive (no need to go overboard on such a simple thing) time-clock in his room, and aside for a couple of scratched-off dates when he had forgotten to adjust to the first of the next month when the previous month had had only 30 days, the cards in the front of each book neatly kept track of how much time he would spend with each. Like a single window cleaner entrusted with the care and cleanliness of a building of windows, he had no sooner managed to get one set of books up to date than he had to attend to another, and this continual round of exercises exhausted his strength each day.
     He had looked forward to his retirement with some dread: he had always said that work was useful, because it gave a framework of spent time when he could do things in a routine fashion during the day, and thus leave the evenings and weekends free for more productive things, like keeping his notebooks in order. Over the years, his acquaintance with organizational techniques had gently urged him to lesser and lesser jobs, until at the end of his career he was responsible for keeping track of the sweepings from the factory. He had to study the workmen's sweepings each night to find the largest piece of scrap which was being thrown away, how large were the next larger pieces, map them against a chart of the factory, check which papers contained what information and allocate them, if possible, to specific offices, and in this way the efficiency expert could learn from his reports of the waste going on in the complex of the office and factory. It gave him a wonderful chance to meet everyone in the office and get used to their routine. He could stop by and chat with them and say such valuable things as: "Mr. Smatthers, you've never yet surpassed your record of the week of April 15, 1964, when for the entire week, you threw away an average of 16 pieces of yellow tablet paper which were an average of 65% filled. That must have been a very busy time, and I'm almost glad you've never been so busy, because that week I had to work a few minutes overtime to record your larger than usual totals."
     There were always some interesting comments which his coworkers would exchange with him, and he would go back to his small office next to the incinerator and survey the day's sweepings. At one time, early in his career, he had been given an opportunity to go into the management of the company, but he had always avoided the responsibilities of a job of that sort, and had politely declined it. As his talents slowed down with increasing age, and since he could no longer follow the normal lines of advancement, he had gradually gotten into the perfect position for him, and for the last five years in the company, had furnished it with a valuable study of its wastes. He himself had typed a report up every night, and since he had never found it in the wastebasket of his supervisor, he could only assume it occupied a position of respect in his supervisor's office. He'd typed the report in duplicate, and he now handled with great care the carbons of his reports, which stood on his shelf next to the quantities of food he had eaten in the past few years. He had always lamented that he had waited so late in life to begin keeping account of what he ate, and how much he spent for it. It served so well to let him know how what he ate this year compared with what he ate last year. He was interested to find that although the quantity of food had gone down, due to slowly rising prices, the price he paid for the food remained remarkably the same.
     He had, of course, his records from his younger life for the more expensive meals---he hadn't been shortsighted enough to ignore THOSE---and by careful recollection he could extrapolate beyond the years for which he had kept records; but these were at best guesses, and hardly rated a position of respect among his other records that were undoubtedly true. The other books, in which he recorded how much he slept at night, when he had his colds and how long they lasted, how much money he would spend for his daily needs, what the temperature and weather were, whatever he would see from his window looking out over the quiet inner court, how many times the phone rang (last week it rang twice!) from various advertising agencies, what letters he got in the mall (since he sent away for any free offer which came to him, his name was on a number of mailing lists), and he was happy when his landlord allowed him to extend his mailbox---the last in the row, since he was in the last apartment on the top floor---into the wall so it could contain all the mail he got.
     On Sunday, to make up for the mail which wouldn't come during that day, he would read The New York Times from cover to cover and neatly clip the articles he wanted to save and file them into the filing cabinets that neatly occupied the length of the wall, opposite to his bed. He sighed as he again realized the weight of activity that hung over his every day of life, and was so relieved to get to bed, so that a long period could pass when he could relax from counting, measuring, cataloguing, listing, enumerating, and tallying. He led such an active life! So there were the notebooks, stretched by the dozens across the horizons of his room, encompassing the horizons of his life. He couldn't know it, but a few years hence his body, reeking slightly of dry-decay, would be found rotting peacefully in his bed. Since there was no next of kin, no will, no one to claim the few possessions in few rooms in the last apartment on the top floor, the state auctioned off his possessions with the possessions of a couple dozens of others like him. The books, in one large odd lot sold to a used-book salesroom which was disappointed to find that the notebooks were merely typed lists of items which they had to go through the trouble to burn before they could use the notebooks for their own purposes. Since most of the paper was so old, they were grateful to find that it burned very easily, leaving a very fine ash. But at this point he couldn't know about that, and he reordered the books on the shelf in his largest idea of rightness.
     All the books on his shelf were filled with his pencilings. With reproductions of paintings that he liked, it was almost impossible to make out any of the finer details because of the obliterating notes, in various colors to specify various aspects of the art, which were scrawled over them. He had of course transcribed these scrawls, referenced by a grid system of two coordinates to identify the section of the page to which the comment referred, into sets of typed notes which also filled many of the notebooks. Sometime soon, he told himself, blowing the dust off the tops of the books, he would get around to the task of unifying what he had found in his years of reading and observing and taking notes, but at the present time he was busy retyping one of the notebooks, which he had been meaning to do for years, and he finally had found time in a crowded week to do it, to relist and index the books he'd read according to the idea of love which they espoused. This gave him the opportunity to reread some of the better pornography scraps which he had collected through the years, and gave the tingling pleasure of getting up a new list of the longest, the oldest, the dirtiest, the sexiest, the best, the worst, the most graphic, etc.
     It delighted him to have to narrow a field of dozens down to a manageable number, such as 16, then half that field to 8, then agonize it and consider the taste of history and his own taste in the past years, and narrow it to 4, then think about it for nights and days together before narrowing it to two and the final one, which he would then triumphantly ascribe to the highest or best or lowest or some other "est" position, and then go on to the next set of decisions. The oft-thought idea of culling from his notebooks a central notebook of the most important sections of all his notebooks again appealed to him, but he really didn't have the time to undergo such a task---he really didn't have the time, even with the extra number of hours added to his day by his retirement. And then in the back of his mind the frightening thought that whatever could be narrowed down to one notebook could be narrowed down to a certain number of pages, and that number of pages could be halved, and that number halved, until finally he would end up with a single sheet of paper which would encompass the core material of all his notebooks. But then, he knew, the temptation to narrow the page down to a single sentence would be too great, and there was something appalling about the thought of summing up his total life in a single sentence; once that sentence had been completed, there would be nothing more for him to do in life: certainly nothing that he could do in a few years remaining for him on earth (he was 85, and firmly expected to live until over 100, but he had to admit that 15 years was not a very considerable percentage of 100) to CHANGE the content of that sentence, so there was hardly any reason to continue reading, eating, sleeping, even, finally, living. So he restrained the impulse to produce a Notebook of Notebooks, almost as he would restrain the impulse to drink a bottle of iodine, or to run a sharp razor horizontally across his throat.
     He felt the same reticence about doing anything so final as a composer would feel about composing a 9th Symphony, since the 9th Symphony proved to be the last of so many composers. He rather feared the idea of concentrating the essence of anything too finely. Only a few years back he had destroyed the bulk of his photographic collection because he had decided that the majority of his time was spent looking at one or two photographs, and that he got the greatest part of his enjoyment from one photograph. In a moment of weakness, he decided to "unify" this area by destroying all his other photographs, and only retain the "unity" of the single one, and then, too late, after a few satisfying days with the singular photo, he came to the rather saddening conclusion that "the best" is enjoyed only insofar as it is "the best" in relation to a large number of others which are worse only in comparison with the best, and that when the worse are destroyed, the best becomes only an example, and the perverse human mind, looking back on what was destroyed, begins to convince the person that possibly this WASN'T the best one. That there were certain details about others that had been destroyed that were to be appreciated even though they were NOT the all-around best.
     It was the same sort of discovery that he had made about music years earlier, but he had neglected to draw the parallel. He had had hours of tape recordings of music: operas, symphonies, masses, oratorios, songs---and in listening to these over the space of years, he had decided that only parts of the tapes were really the most enjoyable. He had condensed Wagner's Ring down to one hour, taking out the relatively boring parts of the Norns and the Rhine Maidens, paring down the repetitions of the plot line, cutting out parts of the boring build-ups to the great arias, and finally ended up with the essence of Wagner's Ring. But in listening to that hour tape, parts of THAT took on greater significance than others, and he found that again he could cut out parts, until he was left with five minutes of a portion of an aria, and at a certain point of repetition this became insipid and he no longer listened to the fragment. He had the vague idea that he wasn't concentrating the essence as much as he was cutting away parts, until finally the central mass died from the attrition of its parts.
     Philosophy, he thankfully thought, was not part of this reduction, and he collected the common aspects of many philosophies, putting all their ideas into common form, and eventually developing a one-sentence philosophy which incorporated every major idea of a large number of major and minor religions. But again, as he had gotten tired of the tirelessly repeated "Om" of the east, he found the sentence lost its charm when removed from the verbiage which had buoyed it up in the sea of his mind. When the words were cut away, the remaining fragment, of its own weight, sank out of sight in the turgid waters of his fact-filled brain.
     His mind was filled not only with facts but with people and incidents connected with people---just as there were notebooks filled with the characterizations of friends he had known through the years. One fact to the good of people, he mused, was that it was impossible to summarize them. One couldn't combine different people into One person, like you could combine many philosophies into one philosophy---you could attempt to look for an individual who had all the traits which you wanted to see in one person, but he had long ago come to the conclusion that people were woefully hard to predict, and just when he thought he had found one to his "specifications" there would be a small difference of opinion, and a segment of the person-iceberg---which he hadn't realized existed beneath the 10% of the surface---would come rearing up out of the depths of the green-cold water to frighten, surprise, and alienate him. When these underskirts of ice were shown, he would find excuses of other acquaintances, or of the press of time, or the exigencies of business, and the telephones would go silent on each side of the personal relation.
     So gradually over the space of years old friends had died, and fewer and fewer new ones came to replace them, and he had no one left. This was for the best, he said, because GETTING to know the people was in one way the most interesting, and in another way the most boring. It was the most interesting because you learned the most about people in the first meeting. You got a good overall look at the person, what he liked, what he didn't like, what he stood for, how he compared with you, all in the first few hours' talk. It was quick stimulating conversation for the first four of five hours as you brushed over the contents of his notebooks: operas, ballet, movies, concerts, books, plays, people, foods, sex, fiction, history, philosophy, religion, painting, sculpture, friends, photographs, music, politics, travel, new items, science, sports, "the best, the worst, the most fantastic, the funniest, the oddest, the farthest, the richest, the greatest" ---the conversation tended to turn into isolated anecdotal jokes or lists of individual statistics. After playing this investigatory game many dozens of times, he had found that the things HE said about himself were more and more the same, until he had found himself spinning off the same stories to different audiences with no differences of inflection at all. He scarcely listened to the comparable stories of the others, and so all others tended to be the same, all rather boring. Then later on in the relationship the law of diminishing returns of learning set in, and the longer he knew someone, the less in addition he learned about someone, and they either turned out to be exactly what he expected (odd how "he" is "encompassed" by "they"), and so they presented no challenge and he could drop them because they became boring, or else they were NOT what he expected, and so they DID present a challenge, and he became disenchanted with them (or possibly became boring in THEIR eyes because he was, after all, always what HE expected), and thus dropped them. Thus the road had two forks, both of which led to alienation. Since a relationship couldn't remain stationary, it had to move along, had to come to the fork, had to proceed out of his life.
     Religion he had ceased to think about. As a child he had masturbated, and God had become the great watcher, but finally his conscience had been so deadened that he only thought of God occasionally on the philosophical plane. He could read book about God, but he really couldn't THINK about God. Then he had decided that all books about God were rather silly, since no one really KNEW Him, so he had stopped reading books about Him. He had thought about HIM more and more rarely, until, like sex, it merely had gone away, leaving such a decreasingly small void that it was difficult to tell in which year he had had his last concrete thought about either of them.
     His routine kept him away from the ordinary failings of age: he still bathed every day, so he didn't accumulate the layer of odorous crust that the aged in homes accumulate to the horror of the nurses, who quickly learn to avoid them. He shaved every other day, combed his hair regularly. He had no trouble with his stomach or his bowels, so only infrequently would the air be filled with bubbly gurgles, or with fetid septic odors. Since he seldom left the apartment, his major article of clothing was a bathrobe which he had gotten into the habit of cleaning once a month. He always had two, because the constant wearing seemed to corrode the material so that he needed a new one every year. He couldn't remember an equal corrosion in his youth, but then he remembered that he'd once worn shoes for months at a time, and they wore out much more quickly than when he had had three or four pair which he alternated day by day.
     The only things that annoyed him were his toenails. Sometimes, after a month of not clipping them, he would roll over in bed and gash the calf of one leg with the nail of the opposite foot. Then he would have to get out the razor blade and hack away at the horny growths at the end of each toe. Since he wasn't seeing anyone, he ceased to clip the hair in his ears and nose, so there were soft pads of cotton-fluff in his ears which felt slightly tickly when he lay down to sleep. His teeth were long gone, but his gums had hardened to the point where even salted pretzels caused no difficulty. His face had so altered from the round pink blob of youth that the shallowness of his jawline didn't bother him at all: he had never been particularly handsome, so he wasn't deteriorating much. His ears, which had once been laughably small, were now normally sized for the first time. It seemed that only now were certain things coming into their proper proportions. There was a rattle in his throat of unclearable phlegm, which he had begun by trying to cough up, but it was as if there were a coating on his lungs which it pained him to get rid of, so he accustomed himself to the rattle, and figured he sounded somewhat like a contented old cat curled before his fire.
     He WAS annoyed to the point of seeing his doctor about a hum in his ears, a hum which never left him, never left him. It was the sound of the sunset and the sound of snow falling, and underlay the sound of soft rain. It was the sound remaining when he had finished listening to the radio, and when he switched off his razor or his typewriter. It was the omnipresent hum of the universe, he told himself, the hum of the energies of his body, and as long as he heard the hum, he had nothing to fear about running down. In this way he hoped to talk himself into liking the hum, but he never quite succeeded in doing it. It was there, and it hadn't been there before, and it served to demarcate his youth from his old age. He, as most, seemed to have missed middle age completely. He was once young, and he was then old.