The old man stumbled heavily on a cobblestone as he hurried to the
door. A familiar, female face, bobbing slightly in the night breeze,
smiled at him through the glass. "Ah, yes, I thought it might be
you," he said warmly as he opened the door. "It's good
to see a friendly face. Everyone here has been angry since the last
round of layoffs. Come on in."
The visitor sighed as she floated lightly through the doorway. "You can hardly blame them. Jobs are hard to find around here." Brushing a few flakes of snow from her hair, she unwound a long scarf from about her neck and handed it to him.
"True," he admitted as he draped the scarf across one peg of a nearby coat rack, "but demand keeps dropping. I can't go on piling stock in the warehouse forever. It would take me years to unload what I have now, but I keep as many of them working as I can, as many as I need to meet my delivery schedule." Shrugging his shoulders in a gesture of helplessness, the old man turned and walked towards the hearth.
"I understand," she assured him, following him over the floor and sinking into a padded chair near the crackling fire. "Things have changed. Remember the old days, when things were on the rise? We could hardly keep up."
The old man sat down heavily in a second chair and began to stroke his long beard, opening his mind to the warm waves of pleasant memories. "Sometimes I had so much to deliver that it took me several days. Back and forth, back and forth, just to get it all done." He frowned suddenly. "Now the few that still have business with me demand that it all be done quickly. If it's not on time, I lose another customer. Many of them literally bar me from the premises."
"Don't get too full of self-pity," the visitor chided him as she brushed aside a lock of hair, "At least you can eat. With the amount of business I'm doing these days, all I can usually manage is gruel and water."
A brief look of disbelief crossed the old man's face, quickly dissolving into sympathy. "I had no idea," he explained. "I never realized that you really needed them."
"You thought I just kept a big collection?" she asked, her laughter ringing through the chambers of the old house like the echoes of bells from the hills. "Or maybe that I ran a museum?"
"No, no," he mumbled in objection. Her laugh put him at ease despite the obvious magnitude of his faux pas. "I just didn't know what you were doing with them, I suppose."
"Well, I do need them. I use them up fairly quickly, in fact. I always have, which is why I started my business. As you know, I am rich in some ways, and I realized that I could trade one thing for another. I think of it as a service. I get what I want. They get what they want. Everyone is happy."
The old man rose from his seat. "It is an old business," he said flatly, "and I'm sorry to hear that you're having as much trouble as I have been. May I offer you some cocoa?"
She smiled at him from her chair. "That sounds good. Maybe a few marshmallows, too? They dissolve quickly, and I love the flavor." The old man nodded as he disappeared from view. The visitor let her eyes wander over the sparse furnishings: the two padded chairs, the low table between them, and a second table in the far corner of the room. Arrayed over the second table were a number of dolls, ranging from small, knobby, wooden figures to elaborately detailed works of porcelain. Rising from her chair, the visitor drifted slowly to the corner to take a closer look.
As the visitor hovered over the table, the old man returned. In each hand he carried a mug, and from each mug rose a wispy, swirling column of steam. He set the two mugs down on the table between the chairs, then followed his guest to the dolls. "Do you like them?" he asked. "All my own, as you probably knew."
"They're beautiful," she said admiringly. "I particularly like the porcelains. The details are exquisite; better than I've seen for years."
The old man's face broke into a wide smile. "Would you like one? Please, choose one."
"Thank you," the visitor said, returning his smile, "but I can't accept. I like to travel light. I find that the less I carry, the faster I go."
"Of course. I could bring it to you," he offered. "A special delivery, just for you."
"Certainly," she agreed as she lifted one of the smaller dolls to his hand. "And perhaps I could offer you my service as well?"
He chuckled, then replied coyly: "I haven't had anything that you would want for many, many years."
Her face grew more serious. She hesitated, then asked, "How long has it been now?"
Again the old man's face twisted into a frown. "Over ten years. Let's not talk about it."
She nodded silently, and the pair returned to their chairs. Wrapping her small hands around the mug, the visitor focused her attention on the warm cocoa, into which the marshmallows had just finished dissolving.
The two sat in silence for a time, sipping occasionally from their mugs while they mused over their separate thoughts. "It's terrible!" the old man began at last, speaking slowly, and in a tone of deep despair. "Half of them don't even know who I am. Another third refuse to deal with me, and that third usually intervenes when any of the rest even try. They steal orders meant for me; sometimes they fill them, but usually only partially, and sometimes they ignore the order entirely and provide something completely different. It's no wonder I'm losing my reputation."
"It's the same with me," the visitor sighed. "I hear about all of my customers, of course, but these miscreants step in and take my payment before I arrive. I can't provide service for nothing, so I pass that one by. Usually the thief also leaves something cheap to make me look bad: a scrap of paper, a few bits of tin. It's no wonder that they have no faith in me later, with only a few bits of rag and metal to show for their troubles. I wish that they would stop interfering."
The old man nodded slowly, sipping at his cocoa. "Have you ever thought of complaining to them? Telling them to mind their own business?"
"Are you kidding?" the visitor barked sharply, her eyes piercing into the old man. "I look different. They can't stand people like me. They open their eyes wide whenever they see me, then shake their heads and turn away. I can't even get an answer to a simple question unless they're stone drunk. Then they like talking to me. They laugh a lot, too. But once they're sober again, they always forget, even if I talk to the same one over and over again. What about you? You could pass for one of them. Why don't you talk to them?"
"Ha! You think I haven't tried? They laughed in my face!" the old man shouted, tears glistening at the edges of his eyes. He paused, then resumed more calmly, "I made a special trip after my last delivery. As always, demand had fallen to another all-time low, but I decided that before I sent more people away, I would try to find out why. I went back a few days later, went down into one of their big cities and into one of the buildings. There were two of them inside, the kind that watch out for the others. Police, I think they call them. They were standing behind a long, grey desk, and smiled at me when I came in. I introduced myself and said that I needed some help, and they asked me if I wasn't a little late. I thought that they understood, that maybe they could help me. And then I recognized one. He had stolen some of my orders the week before and had filled them with shoddy imitations. My poor clients wanted to send me their orders by mail. He had offered to deliver the orders to me, then abused their trust and, after reading over them himself to better damage my image, he simply discarded them. I was horrified. I thought about telling the other one, but they seemed to be friends. They kept laughing and winking at each other."
"Did you try to find someone else? Surely there must be a few honest ones left?" she asked encouragingly.
"I'm not so sure," he said slowly. "It's a vicious cycle. The old ones train the new ones to despise me, and the new ones replace the old ones and train still more. The funny thing is that they also seem to like to impersonate me. They do it mostly to hurt me: the new ones see me and later think that I've done a bad job by them. But they seem to take great joy in it, too. In the act of impersonating me, I mean. They must really hate me."
The visitor smiled at him across the table. "I can't understand it," she said. "You're so kind and generous."
The old man looked thoughtfully into his cocoa, watching the swirling patterns of liquid marshmallow. "Too generous, maybe," he suggested softly. "Maybe they felt that I was interfering, that I was taking away from their relationships, and decided to stop me. I don't know. I think about it a lot, but I can never quite understand what happened, what started the change. They even take my food now, the snacks some clients prepare for me as a token of thanks. They eat it and leave the dirty silverware and dishes for the clients to clean up. I always clean up after myself when a client leaves me something, but most of them see me as a lazy slob, because others find my gifts first."
The visitor nodded sympathetically, then raised her mug and drank the last of her cocoa. "I should be leaving," she explained. "It's a long way back, and the snow keeps me down."
His sour mood dissolving into his usual mirth, the old man looked happily at the visitor, then escorted her towards the door. "Thanks again for dropping by," he told her. "It's always a pleasure to see you."
"And you," she rejoined as he drew her scarf from its place on the coat rack and handed it to her.
Wrapping the scarf closely about her neck, the visitor stepped through the door and into the night. "Take care, Nick!" she called. Then, stretching her wings, she launched herself into the darkness.
"You, too!" he answered. "And good luck with the teeth!"
My older son, Andrew, inspired this story by asking me, after losing a tooth one Sunday (21 April 2002), whether the tooth fairy might not have difficulty removing the tooth from the safety of its plastic bag. I couldn't help thinking that, while Andrew's line of thinking seemed correct, I myself would have much more difficulty finding a small tooth rather than a large bag beneath his pillow.
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