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What to Do With a Miser in the Neighborhood. We had no Russian counts or magicians, but a miser - him we had

By David Mazel / April 19, 1989



HE was a burly, square-shouldered man with large eyes sunk deep in shadowy hollows, a down-turning, dejected nose, and a long black beard streaked with white, like a sky trying to break the habit of darkness, of gloominess. Heaven help you if you encountered him on the narrow little sidewalk of our block. You had to make room for him; he wouldn't you. He was a miser. He was, even, our miser. Our block, a level row of mostly old houses that looked like one another, the doughty, unified way old faces look like one another, did not boast of anyone illustrious. We did not have an exiled Russian count peering from his attic window with droshky-haunted eyes, his nose tickled by the feather of a snowy memory. We did not have a magician in a sequined cape floating from rooftop to rooftop like a cloud of spangled bubbles, nor a soprano whose voice made even the birds whisper ``Shh!'' to one another and listen. But destitute of these wonders as we were, a miser, yes, him we had. He lifted us a bit above the ordinary, if only in a lamentable way.

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And how did we know that this man, about whom we had such contradictory feelings of abhorrence and thankfulness, was truly a miser? We had only to observe him, not just his stingy behavior on the sidewalk, but other things.

Once, when he was taking a shortcut across a vacant lot, as if he grudged even distance its rightful due, he suddenly stopped and stood staring at something on the ground. His eyes grew larger and keener. Then, glancing about defiantly as if to dare anyone to watch him, he swooped down with one hand and snatched up a wallet, somebody's lost wallet, and put it in his pocket. In that motion was all the skill and sorry conceit of a predatory bird. Then on he walked, without even a backward look. Somewhere perhaps, at that very moment, someone had just touched an empty pocket bereft, and, with a gasp, surmised misfortune.

Misfortune, too, for the wallet. It disappeared into the obscurity of the miser's house like a letter into the dead-letter office. Who knows how he had room even for it in all the clutter. We children on the block would sometimes hide behind his chestnut trees, watching the still, mysterious house, and one time we got up the collective nerve to sneak over and peer in a side window at the front room.

We could make out lots of lamps, none lit, like cut flowers that never bloomed. And clocks of all kinds, mantel and cuckoo and grandfather, and we wondered if they were turned off, too, if the miser had found a way to do without time as well as light. On every wall were several mirrors, whose glass looked black, black as the absence of something, or someone, missed.

In the middle was a density of old tables, desks, chairs, none matching, as if in separateness lay safety from use, from wear and tear, and all covered with a lichen-like dust. It wasn't a place where someone lived. It was a place where someone kept life, and himself, prisoner; a place where a cry had been stifled, a hope snuffed out.

The only time the miser appeared in public at not too fearsome a distance was when he sat out on his front porch. Across the expanse of fallen chestnuts and through the chinks in his trees he could see everyone who went by on the sidewalk, and the look in his eyes seemed to merge with the shadows of the trees and make an inky smear of his mood.

What was he thinking? He owned a junkyard just outside of town, and his own front room was not far removed from a junkyard itself, so perhaps on his porch he did a kind of communing with non-junk, with the softness and freshness of things, like a lonely tyrant at his desk, laying his scratchy pen aside to listen to the rain. He was, after all, a human being; he had more than one need.

Once, it happened that little Miriam Sanders, all of 7, came gingerly stepping down the sidewalk as he watched from his porch. Her mother's shawl hugged her shoulders, and the socks on her thin legs had slipped into a muddle about her ankles. From under the shawl came puffs of something hot that she was shielding against the evening chill. It was one of those rare days when her father, a young merchant, had made enough money to send her to the deli for a treat.

The miser got up and started walking toward the child. Miriam didn't take fright and run, spilling the treat; she didn't even tremble that he would snatch it away. She simply stood her ground, her sidewalk, and looked at him with the kindness of someone who was inexpressibly happy.

When the miser stopped before her, she brought out from under the shawl one of her mother's pots that had been filled with soup and held it up for him to see. ``Our supper!'' she cried, with all her heart. Then, doing a shy bend that was almost a curtsy, she went on her careful way. There gazing after her a long moment stood the miser, the terror of the sidewalk, in his eyes the dismay of a man asking how could it be that he had so much and was so poor, and she had so little and was so rich.

Could a child, unbeknownst to herself, be a redemption to a man? If not a total redemption, then the beginning of one?

A few days later the miser posted a sign in his front yard that said, ``Free chestnuts.'' And when the children crept in from all the corners of the block, scarcely believing their joy, to gather them, there was a face behind the parted curtain of a window, looking.