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table of contents — stories


I used to go to this mall out in car country.

There were big-box stores and shiny cars as far as the eye could see, glittering in the already warm early summer sun. That's where I met the old woman. Even though she didn't have a car, she wandered around the parking lot by day; God knows where she spent the night. Doubtless there were hideaways in the vacant land behind the mall, behind the dumpsters and mysteriously abandoned equipment. At that moment I was sitting at an outdoor table at a fast-food restaurant that had been incongruously placed in the parking lot, near the street, I suppose so that its customers could survey modern automotive design while enjoying their fast food.

“I was looking for you,” she said. “You know, I've ordered some big rockets and bombs. I read about them in the paper.” (At that time the latest news was printed on paper, just like advertising for the big box stores is today.) “I'm sure they're going to deliver them, but I don't know when. I might not be home.”

“That might be a good idea,” I ventured. “It might be for the best.”

“So I”m not in a hurry,“ she added.

”No,“ I said, ”there is no need to be in a hurry.“

”Unless you have an appointment,“ she said. ”Do you know what time it is?“

”No,“ I said. ”I don't have a watch.“ It was true. I wore a watch to work because I had appointments, but when the weekend came I left it off and entered the timeless time, which exists everywhere, even out at the mall, if you know where to look for it. In any case, someone would come to get me when it was time to leave the timeless time, so I didn't have to worry about it. Meanwhile I had the old woman to converse with.

But she wandered off; perhaps she had an appointment.

Maybe a week or two later, I was in same place and the old woman appeared again.

”You know,“ she said, ”the animals can see God, and the angels, because they never fell.“

”That seems logical,“ I said.

”You know the story of Balaam's ass.“

”I do,“ I said, ”Balaam was a prophet or witch doctor who was hired to curse somebody. But God liked the somebodies. Apparently unaware of this, Balaam got on his donkey and attempted to ride to the place where he was going to do the cursing. He came to a certain part of the road which the donkey wouldn't pass. So he began to beat the donkey. Eventually the donkey got tired of being beaten, so he spoke to Balaam and said, “Don't you see the Angel of Death ahead of us? If we try to pass he will kill us.” Balaam looked ahead, probably squinting really hard, and it did seem to him that maybe he could see the Angel of Death, so he stopped beating the donkey. He thought about it for awhile. The donkey had a good case, he thought. And then he went off in a different direction and cursed someone else.“

”Exactly,“ said the old woman. ”He was a smart man — smarter than most people. Say, do you mind if I eat this stuff?“ Someone had left the considerable remnants of their large breakfast on the table we were sitting at. ”Be my guest,“ I said, generously; it was someone else's breakfast and it seemed to have been abandoned. She ate the food that was there. Then she said, ”Well, it's been interesting talking to you; you seem to understand some things.“ I said I thought she was being overly optimistic. She shrugged. ”Maybe you do and maybe you don't,“ she said. Then, as before, she wandered off.

It was some time before I saw the woman again, for the patterns of my life had changed somewhat, and I was not often at that particular restaurant. Eventually, though, the changes changed, and I found myself back at the same place — as one so often does.

”Look there,“ she said, pointing to the far end of the parking lot. Athough the cars shimmered in the summer light and heat, there did seem to be a curious blob or shadow at the furthest edge of the lot.

”There does seem to be something way over there, something odd.“ I acknowledged.

”Because as the sun gets brigher, the shadows get deeper,“ the old woman said.

We looked at the blob for awhile. ”That could be the Angel of Death with my rockets,“ the old woman said.

”Maybe we should leave,“ I suggested.

”No need,“ the old woman said. She laughed. ”Didn't you ever hear the story about the man who saw the Angel of Death and ran away? It turned out he had an appointment after all, in just the place he was running to. Anyway, the angel's time is not our time. A second of his time could be a day or a minute or a year of our time, or vice versa. He's always going to be around. He's not in any hurry. Although I do think he's coming this way.“

”I've heard that story,“ I replied. So we sat there and waited.

Above the pavement, above the cars, agove the trees which bordered the lot, above the phone poles and the wires and the plastic bags which clung to them, there was a perfect blue sky. As we watched, a spidery network of contrails gradually extended itself across it, from horizon to horizon, from north to south, from east to west, from the beginning to the end. Something was happening up there.

In spite of the summer heat, I felt a chill.

”Well,“ I said, ”What shall we do?“

The old woman held up a bony finger. ”Ask, and it will be given to you; knock, and it will be opened.“ But it seemed that we would have to wait just a little while longer for that door, upon which we had certainly knocked, to open.