He greeted me at the door, cell phone to his ear, and motioned me in before walking off to finish his business. I wound my way around boxes that crammed the entry, layers of dust telling me they’d been there for years, untouched.
I squeezed past the kneeler, thinking it awkward there in a room meant for storage. A cloud swirled up from the floor as I slipped through to the dining room, and I wondered if I looked like that Peanuts character.
Clutter, dirt and debris filled every open surface. It was slow growing, this deterioration of a place. Not from a sudden loss, no rush of fire or water, but instead a gradual letting go of order.
The burning started early in my throat, the air in these rooms shared with piles and pets much more pungent than the fresh February thaw outside.
I’d reached for my gloves in my back pocket about the time he finished his phone call. But I left them be, resting my bare hand on the old Hammond organ instead. Its black and white keys were littered with tiny brown fish shapes spilled from the cat dish resting on top.
I’d wondered not long in the door when was the last time another was in this house. That dawning made my steps seem privileged somehow, as though my soles disturbed a sacred dust.
It suddenly became important for me, with the always-clean hands, to touch something.
Some find the beautiful in the ordinary places. They stretch eyes wide and walk through life seeing meaning in the meaningless, the point of the pointless. They fix a microscope on tiny moments and find the richest depths of grace and goodness in the fibers that weave their way through what we do not often notice.
My life calls me to places beneath the ordinary. I tiptoe into rooms where guests are not invited to find the ugly, the dirty, the broken.
I enter into the ashes, the missing, the soggy and the black mold of material life.
“I’m just glad the water didn’t get in here,” he said.
He brushed away cobwebs and opened the cabinet below his television, pulling out a stack of dusty books to reach an old black case. He rubbed his hands over the top, a finger across the latch.
“I have six of these. But this one . . . This one’s 110 years old.”
He opened the case and his rough firefighter hands coaxed the instrument out of its velveteen bed.
“I haven’t played her in ten years.”
He settled into a threadbare recliner and began to play his century-old German concertina. When he leaned back and closed his eyes, swaying in the chair to his own melody, I looked over my shoulder for polka dancers to twirl in from the kitchen.
He began to play the tune to which painted ponies rise and fall in their elegant gallop ’round and ’round the carnival ride.
“I don’t read music, you know,” he said as his fingers two-stepped from one button on the squeeze box to another.
“What, then? You just feel it?”
He closed his eyes again. The instrument wailed with each inhale of the bellows, mourned with every exhale.
“Something like that.”
A tension bubbles up as we live eternally amidst the temporal. We crave the spiritual, but satisfy ourselves with the material. “Just things,” we tap against our ever frustrated heads. “Just things.”
We’re anxious that we don’t find ourselves in the end naked and charred, clothes and hair burned away with the wood, hay and stubble to which we clung so tightly. This is how He warned us, the One who Himself crossed the chasm to touch our mortality.
We sigh at the knowledge that we have far too many already. And we wonder at how these “just things” can contain fragments of our souls. Yet we know they do.
I stood in the stairwell amidst soggy and mildew-covered drywall, wishing he’d reported the mess sooner, before the months had passed. He, unfazed by the muck, spoke of Rebroff.
“Ivan Rebroff. You know him? R-e-b-r-o-f-f. Write it down. You’ll want to look him up later. ”
I looked up the stairs and his eyes danced again, the same as when he’d pushed and pulled the bellows. I couldn’t keep back a smile.
“He sings, I take it?”
“He sings? Oh, he sings. He sings in a five-octave range. If you’re done down there, we’ll go listen.”
I followed him back to the living room. He reached into a stack of 50 or so CDs, pulled out just the one he was looking for, and pushed the disk into his player.
Rebroff’s bass reverberated off the dingy walls while I measured, my host going on about the singer’s history and his plans to remodel the house to accommodate his 5,000-volume library. As the song reached the end, he put a finger to his lips to hush himself mid-sentence and pointed the other hand to the source of Rebroff’s aria. He tipped back his head, stretched out his arms, and directed the final measures.
We say it’s not our treasure, this matter, the stuff of life we can hold in our hands. No, our treasure is something harder to hang on to; our treasure is tied up in the Kingdom, we say.
But this treasure we hold and pretend to let go, doesn’t it hold us too?
Aren’t our lives, the good and bad, stored in these papers, these photos, these objects we touched with our fingers while we held our babies or painted rosy sunsets or plucked out notes on a cheap guitar? We fed our family on that table, made love in that bed, tinkered with the ’63 Chevy in that garage. She wrote letters home at that desk, wept next to that phone after the banker called.
He bought that cap at the state tournament, cut that cord from the net after the region championship. We gave that bear to Grandma and Grandpa with the stick that had the pink “plus” sign. That fuzzy bear that still makes throats catch because the first grandbaby didn’t come home.
And that book there — it’s the one I read while Debbie died.
Books, traces of his massive library, wedged themselves within the piles, poking out from boxes. I couldn’t read titles masked by gray powder.
“I’m reading Summa Theologiæ by Thomas Aquinas. For the sixth time,” he said.
“You read Latin?” I asked.
“Oh, no. I have an English translation. Say, how’s your Hebrew?”
“Well, about as good as my Greek, I suppose,” I said. “I trust Strong’s and a lexicon.”
He disappeared behind a door and came out to thrust a thick brown book into my hands. I started to lift the cover.
“No, no. You’ve got it upside down.” He turned the book so I could see it for what it was: an inter-linear Old Testament.
Hebrew flowed alongside the English.
“I had this book on my Christmas list 25 years ago,” I said. “I didn’t get it.”
Tracing my finger over the lines of Hebrew on a page of Deuteronomy, I complained as though the old man had the power to uproot an entire language.
“Look at these — so much meaning in a single stroke. English can’t do it justice. Her lines are too weak, words not quite precise.”
He reached for the book and said, “You’ll know this then: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד”
I hesitated, lips moving as I replayed the sound in my head. “Shema Yisra’el YHWH Eloheinu YHWH Eḥad.”
He smiled at my recognition and said the words aloud with me.
His eyes twinkled again and he said, “Let me show you one more thing before you go.”
Shuffling back over to the cabinet, he leaned in deep. I worried that he might collapse there behind the chair. Amidst a cloud of dust, he emerged with his prize.
“Ah, yes. Copyright: 1826.”
I gazed on it a good while, the whole eight-inches worth. All those Words, God-breathed and harvested into this elegant gold-edged shock.
Hushed, I asked if he’d allow me to photograph it. Though I’d been clicking the shutter all over his home, this somehow required a certain permission. He spread the pages, allowing me a view of the inside before I had to leave.
My stay long outlasted my work there but I held out this little bit longer.
These things, the ones rust and moth destroy, we long to be free of their hold on us, our hold on them. But when we dig back through ruins to find them, we blow away the silt and see our lives in the dusty reflection.
We find the real treasure not in the gilt edge of the page but in the moment spent reading. The joy is not in the smooth mahogany but the hours we loved at the table. The beauty of an ancient squeeze box was not its age or preservation but the wonder of an old man’s heart singing through it to a stranger.
We’ll no sooner be free of these things than we will our very souls.
He called me at my office a few days later.
“Hey, that old Bible of mine? I know you really liked it.”
“I did. It’s beautiful,” I said.
“Listen. If anything, you know, would happen to me. Well, I’d want you to have it.”
No. No sooner free of these things than our very own souls.
Pondering the nature of my work today, and reposting from the archives.
Photos: Upper and lower, 1826 Bible; center, Hengel concertina, via Flickr