Abel wore nothing to bed. Every night he hung his pants and sweatshirt over the back of an old wooden chair, dropped his shorts, and climbed under soft sheets and goose down. He would then set out to plan the next day, but Abel usually fell asleep within minutes, long before he’d had a chance to come up with anything. Abel always set out to plan things—in business he was known for his abilities to manage trends and foresee difficulties—but the truth is, Abel cherished nothing more in life than sleep. It took him many, many years to realize this.
This realization began with his incremental loss of the ability to concentrate on anything. In the middle of the director’s sentence proclaiming productivity decline, Abel saw red-swathed Scythians breaking down the gates of the city that would some day be known as Kiev. At the company cafeteria, in time for morning coffee, Helen’s description of her cat’s most recent episode of naughty behavior was replaced by a vision of Phoenicians testing their latest vat of wine. At such times Abel’s eyes glazed over, but people attributed that to his gifted, calculating mind at work with its endless array of numbers, doing overtime, as usual.
Before long Abel was leading a dual life: one a life of numbers and calculations, affording the company great success; the other a life of dreams, of people he had never met but there, people of the past and future, who together gave Abel’s life success. And Abel became very good at not letting the two lives mix. He became his own censor, appearing one way and thinking another, saying one thing and letting the words sift through his mind into emptiness as more vivid realizations and images superseded them. And though Abel became quite good at this, it was not always an easy thing to do. The battle raged inside him, and he found refuge from it only in sleep.
Lying naked in bed, Abel was ready to don the clothing of any new character of his dreams. He felt a close kinship with all of them. He felt that he could see with their eyes, that he lived where they lived, thought the way they thought, made decisions according to their moral principles. When he awoke he often saw their faces in the mirror, not his. And it wasn’t until after his shower that the numbers began to resurface in him, and take their place again.
Abel worked for a company that sold clothing: not blue jeans and sweatshirts, but fashionable lines of refined casual wear, the kind of clothes that made conservative people nervous because they often found themselves attracted to them but couldn’t dismiss them for lack of craftsmanship. When Abel saw numbers, he envisioned racks of blazers and tidy stacks of sweaters, rows of silken vests and color-coded hangers bearing even groups of slacks in every size and color. Clothing became nothing but a repetition in Abel’s mind, something to be assessed and counted. He couldn’t imagine it having any other purpose.
Abel was good at making people feel comfortable. He was generous and fair, and no one ever thought twice about inviting him to holiday parties, sports events, or a night at the bar. His glass-like blue-green eyes reflected compassion and intelligence. You could say anything in the world to him and get away with it. Abel didn’t always respond, but when he did the words were carefully thought out; his advice was logical and constructive. Who could not be grateful for that? Within his family he was also respected and respectful: his mother relied on him to buffer any ill feelings she had toward her sisters; his father sought Abel’s advice on stocks and mutual funds; even Abel’s nieces and nephews called him when communication with their own parents broke down.
It was funny, though, that Abel didn’t often entertain in his own home: a second-storey flat in an old residential neighborhood of town. Often friends would drop him off there, and he never invited them in. Even his brother and sister stopped coming, because they always felt unwelcome, as if they were intruding, when there. And yet, they couldn’t explain why. Though they did notice that Abel’s taste in furnishings had gone from Spartan to minimalist. They felt as if he were slowly divorcing himself from this world, even if he let himself become involved in its intricate affairs.
It was more difficult for his coworkers to notice this, and one of them, Merry, found him so empathetic and intriguing that she found occasion to drop by his home one day:
“Hello Abel. I’m really sorry to bother you at home, but I was sure you’d need this—”
She handed him a Palmtop, which she had artfully taken from his desk as he was putting on his coat to leave, all the while engaging him in a conversation about tomorrow’s important client meeting.
“Oh, that’s very nice of you, Merry. Thank you, but I generally don’t work at home.”
Merry’s entire being must have contracted a few centimeters, because Abel noticed the expression draining from her face as her limbs went weak.
“But I thought, I mean I was sure you—you’re always so prepared, I mean, certain of yourself. I, I…”
“Yes?” he prodded.
“Uh, may I come in?”
“Oh! Sure. Sorry. I should have asked you sooner.”
Merry was equally surprised at what she didn’t see: there were no bookshelves, no piles of papers on tables, no ledger pads, not even a computer.
“Abel, you live so simply!”
Abel smiled. It wasn’t that guests annoyed him; he just found no good reason to invite them.
“Would you like to have a seat?” he asked.
There were two choices: a butterfly chair and a butterfly chair, both tan-colored, placed before a long window so that their outlines appeared dramatic.
Merry was beside herself. She had been expecting an accountant’s lair, a nest of note pads and calculators, books touting the latest developments in the art, a man obsessed by his work and unable to pull himself away from it. Maybe she should have a seat. She walked forward and stopped before the two chairs. Which one should she take? It was a decision that suddenly grew out of proportion, until she noticed that the options had been narrowed: on one of the chairs lay an odd piece of clothing, something between a jock strap and a brassiere, made of leather.
“What’s that?” she absent-mindedly said, while taking the other seat.
“Oh.” Abel reached down to pick it up and take it away to his bedroom. When he returned he lightly said:
“It was just something I forgot to put away. Was it tea you wanted?”
Merry shook her head. From the corner of her eye she saw something else that seemed out of place: a hat, black and wide-rimmed, with a red sash girding it and an ostrich plume apuff perpendicular to it. It hung on a closet door inside Abel’s bed room. The sun went out in the next moment, canceling the bright wooden floor with evening’s first shadow. Merry had lost her enthusiasm for this visit; she rose to excuse herself from the intrusion. Abel, in his kind way, showed her to the door without showing the slightest disappointment or annoyance.
During the drive home Merry sat at a green light for several seconds until the driver behind her took to his horn. She had come to the realization that the article of clothing she had seen on mild-mannered Abel's chair was a codpiece. She was sure of it; it was just like those she had seen in paintings of fifteenth-century Frenchmen, with their proud smirks and matador poses. The thought of Abel wearing such a thing made her blush, but also gave her a quiet thrill.
In the following weeks Abel could be seen in grocery stores wearing medieval Mongolian tunics and sand slippers, or twenty-fourth century diving sheaths, while picking out cabbages and tomatoes. Oblivious to the baffled eyes of other shoppers, he assumed whatever demeanor was appropriate for these individual characters, often drawing a sword on the unsuspecting cashier, or staring back at strangers long enough to assess their intelemotional capacity. It did no good to challenge his veracity, for the light in his eyes was never dim, and the challenger soon lost account of what time and place he or she dwelled in.
At work, however, Abel remained ever on the straight and narrow of fashion, wearing only dull, brooding colors and crew-neck shirts, untucked. But Merry could not help thinking about her discovery every time she saw him; she blushed and turned away smiling, or changed her course on the way to the rest room. There was nothing she could do about it, since she wasn’t a good actress and was well-known for her inability to hide anything. Still, Merry was brave, and decided she would confront Abel about it, or at least mention it in passing, for her attraction to him would not wane.
On the day of reckoning Merry found herself coming early to the office. She called up her weekly report and put the finishing touches on it. She wrote seven e-mails and called three area representatives to leave messages. She brushed her hair, straightened the collar on her blouse, and opened her compact to reapply blush. And there in its mirror was Abel, who was standing behind her. All at once Merry lost her concentration; the day’s purpose fled, and she was left speechless.
“You’re here early,” he said.
“Oh, right. I am. Yeah, well, I have a lot to do, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. Strange how we seem to be more and more absorbed in ourselves and our work, isn’t it? Did you ever wonder if that were as true in the past?”
“No. Have you?”
He lifted a foot to rest it on a computer box next to her. Merry took in a quick breath, as if sucking air through a straw. She had noticed the odd shoe he was wearing: a soft-leather boot with coarse, buttoned cloth going up its side.
“That’s an interesting boot,” she said.
“Have you seen one like this before?” he answered, turning down his gaze to look deeply into her. His eyes seemed to darken, and his face took on a more earthy tint. Merry felt that indeed she had seen such boots before, but she couldn’t recall where or when. And as Abel remained suspended above her she felt that she had known someone incredibly like him too. She couldn’t locate that memory either, though she wanted to badly.
“What is your ancestry?”
“My—excuse me?” she said.
His eyebrows were raised.
“It’s, oh, something like Scottish and French, I think.”
He nodded slowly, and left.