The shop door was locked. He rang the bell once more and waited. No one came. Despite the reflections of the street in the window, he could see, beyond the scrambling pedestrians late for work and the ramshackle townhouses on the opposite side of the street where he lived, the dusky interior. He couldn’t see it and he alone was to blame. The man probably sold it. Vellum had quibbled over details, had vacillated over the cost. Still, there was a possibility the man had only moved it to another corner of the shop. He followed the advancing light, became fascinated with its progress through the interior of the shop. A glimmer of hope charged his despair. He watched the light probing the interstices between the large pieces of dark wood furniture. Glass glittered in the passing light. In chiffoniers and commodes the light revealed small enameled pillboxes. Shelves appeared lined with odd sorts of bric-a-brac. Beneath the shining intruder, etageres and cabinets were forced to display their holdings. Vials, flasks and flagons, decanters and demijohns, capsules and canisters, all seemed uplifted and overturned. Then, near a point where the light dissolved in the reflections in a mirror, he distinguished the veiled crags, pinnacles, the entire landscape in the print he wanted.
He turned away, swept up by the radiance of the morning sun. On the branch of a tree growing in front of the store, a bird alighted. Heaven descended in the guise of a melody, a full throated warble. The breeze blew, the branch wavered and the bird left its perch and disappeared high above his head. Quickly, he returned to the window for reassurance. Yes, it was still there, and his heart, now beating steadily, flew up as well, to the far off peaks, all swept with mist and covered entirely with snow. With the spirit aloft, he imagined the print as it would look on his wall, the vast plains of green grass, the unlimited heavens, the small frontier village on the edges of civilization, and of course, the mountains in the distance where his heart already resided.
On a nearby step, he sat down to await the man’s arrival. But the activity on the street disturbed him; the old questions revived. In the silent regions where just moments before vivid images had been the only indications of his active mind, arrogant words arose, discord and clamor, forming syllables of insult and disdain. He looked away, watched the light brightening the dull brownstones across the way. But there was no escape. The wind ruffled his hair, his shirt was dirty and the sticky perspiration lining his brow began running with new moisture. He saw in an old man sleeping in the doorway of an abandoned building, his own reflection, without roots, shiftless and idle. In this pitiful state, how could he afford such a useless and frivolous object? Did he have the right to occupy his time in leisurely pursuits, when he could barely assure his daily needs? What of his laundry, the food, the rent? Did he expect someone to support him. And his future, had he forgotten that?
He was about to leave and resume the search for work but his heart refused to follow and stood defiant in the lofty silence above. Although his resolution was in a shambles, he remained seated. This morning he had left his room with a mountain of logic to support his passion. Descending the front steps, he had met with confirmation in the light. Now the very arguments he had forced into submission slid out from beneath him, he was falling. Like a blade of cold steel they severed him in two. The facts and figures were resurrected. Running through the countless columns, he reviewed his assets and his debits, his earnings in interest and his expenditures and found the losses far exceeding the gain. Yes, his savings were rapidly dwindling.
And yet these proportions and percentages, despite their seeming concreteness, rang hollow, dissolved in feelings until now subjugated to the empirical reality he had based his life upon. Were there not other grounds just as real as these day by day computations? Had he not perhaps lost sight of his goals in the immediacy of the passing moment, seeing in the trivial another step to the momentous? Was it not possible to see here what he had simply and without questioning assumed to be out there? After all, what did the heart care of his savings, this daily squandering and squabbling over pennies? In his concern he had become an old woman. His heart was demanding satisfaction, was tired of the endless stream of syllables promising this but failing to express its true feelings, talking vaguely about the future but leaving the present so dismally unrewarding. What it was offering was right here, a bit of sunshine to be possessed immediately, not if and when, out there, wherever that was. Besides, it wasn’t as if he were about to cast off from the shore he had walked upon all his life. He wasn’t to sail an uncharted course. All his heart asked for was compensation for its patience, just a peek at what was to come, nothing more, just a moment to enjoy and satisfy its desire, to bask in the sunshine, before jumping back on the wagon. After all, the worst was over. He was told by the secretary in the personnel office, that they would be accepting applications in a short time. If he returned then, and his qualifications met the requirements, he would have a good chance of getting his foot in the door. Although she said nothing positive, she had hinted of the kind of positions available and though they were probably of a low paying nature, with things the way they were, it wouldn’t be long before he had made his way back up the scale.
The signs of growth and expansion were evident everywhere. Government statistics proved it. Shopkeepers were smiling, business people happy. The economy had recovered. Wise spending and large savings had succeeded in holding down the lid of inflation. Washington promised a drop in prices by the end of the year. According to the experts, the cost of living would soon be leveling off at the reasonable figures we had all once known in the earlier years. And in the east the wars were coming to an end. The diplomats were promising a new era as soon as a few insignificant details were straightened out. Everywhere people were applauding the government’s success. The press, in their praises, talked of a dawning age. In fact Vellum had already noticed a drop of several cents in the price of poultry and bakery goods and though there were those who scoffed at pennies, Vellum firmly believed that a penny saved was a penny earned. The prices were still far from what they had been this time last year and although he didn’t drive, he had noticed the cars lined up at the gas station on 96th Street, but as the experts said, economic stability takes time to achieve. One couldn’t expect miracles overnight. And of course, he had been working then and that makes all the difference in the world. No matter what the price, a weekly check is insurance against difficult times, no matter how difficult they become. And if all went well, he would be working again soon.
Looking up, he saw the small bird swaying once more on the limb of the tree. He heard the melodious rhythm of its song, which seemed to him like the beating heart of nature which all over was bursting out with new life. Yes, yes the worst was over. Leaves were unfolding, flowers were appearing. The dark months were over; winter had relinquished its hold. With such a propitious mood disturbing the very air he breathed, filling not only himself but everything around him with excitement of boon times ahead, at last ahead, was it wrong to relax for this one day, to enjoy the tremulous excitement bestirring inside of him and throughout nature? The terrible loneliness was becoming a part of the past, done with and forgotten. Today, he demanded something of the future. The print of course was not the future; but to Vellum, it seemed to bring him a step or two closer to the promised land. In it the future seemed evident.
He was preparing for the worst. Should the owner refuse his offer, his day would not be spoiled. The disappointment would be forgotten in the actual possession of the print. Should he agree, then he’d celebrate with the money he had saved. Perhaps he would buy himself a drink or his first pack of cigarettes in a long time. Or perhaps it would be best if he simply put the money in the bank. But at this he only laughed. What were a few dollars anyway!
He felt the hand of good fortune on his shoulder. He felt wealthy, and this made him laugh all the more. Months ago he would have looked aghast at the amount of money he was planning to spend and in those days he had been a lot better off than he was today. The unemployment checks had been coming in; his savings remained untouched. Now that he was financially impoverished, he was spending money left and right and was overwhelmed by his sense of wealth. Truly, this could only be attributed to the system. Only here could a man feel richer on the very day that he was actually poorer than the day before. Wealth was a relative word these days, a state of mind. The value of the dollar had little to do with it. Here one bought on credit and experienced the comforts one couldn’t have normally appreciated had cash been the sole basis of acquisition. Beginning at the headwaters of humanity, Vellum envisioned callused hands exchanging goods. Though the process appeared simple, he found that a simple standard of gold ended the arguments as to how many of these were worth so many of those. Paper money did away with gold coins since everyone couldn’t possess enough gold to get by on, but this too proved a nuisance because the value of paper money seemed to decrease when possessed by too many hands. Printing more only aggravated the problem. So arriving at last in the blossoming age of credit, Vellum felt great confidence in the sagacity of today’s economists who were responsible for this land of plenty.
Just then the proprietor arrived, the door was unlatched and Vellum entered the still light. He forestalled the moment of acquisition, allowed the excitement to increase to an uncomfortable pitch. He wandered down the narrow aisles, peered into cupboards, looked beneath tables and from time to time cast a quick glance in the direction of the print. He saw yet new vistas opening up beyond the gilded mirrors lining the walls. He touched nothing, afraid his hand might shatter the prevailing stillness, might, in defiling these sacred things, disrupt the miracle now unfolding before his eyes. When he looked at a chair, he imagined it filled with the living presence of its original owner. He sank into reverie, forgot where he was. When he looked up, he saw the proprietor standing over him.
A good deal was made, both men pleased, and the old man began telling his customer about the social significance as well as the historical value of Currier and Ives prints. In those days, the printing stone was to people in the 19th century what the photographic plate is to us in modern times and although Vellum was really fascinated with the entire subject and would have been glad to sit awhile and discuss these matters, his excitement prevented his close attention. He gleaned a few words here and there and excused himself, promising and readily wanting to return soon, when he had more time. As he was leaving he marveled at his sudden full schedule, even regretted not having stayed. But the opportunity would arise again and by this time he was already on the street, in the direct sunlight, anxious for home.