“The papers are old, the topic tedious. The topic is outdated. But you seem like a nice man. You have lived a long time, seen much. Is it not so?”

Satish Kapoor was silent. But the other was not stupid. He understood.

“Two dollars, I will keep the documents. I will put them on the shelf. Every eight months — perhaps nine — I may open them, take a peek.”

A peek: what an interesting phrase he used. Two dollars was hardly a big sum. Was it an insult? But the world is a hard place. Beggars cannot be choosers. The other was accepting the documents — was that not something? He would perhaps take them out, peek at them. Was that not something?

Satish Kapoor was bold, he addressed the man directly.

“Are you insulting me?” he said.

“What is this?”

“Are you insulting me?”

The other smiled — allowed himself a smile. It was a small smile at the corner of his lips. He had lived a long time, he had seen much — perhaps too much. He held one of the documents — held it again a foot before his face. He read. He read for a minute, perhaps for two minutes. At last he lifted his head. Did he look tired, bored? Did he look impressed?

“I have seen many papers,” he said.

“Yes.”

“I have seen papers and papers.”

“Yes.”

He gestured widely with his arms, motioning to the papers — or was it the world? — all around him. But perhaps the gesture was unnecessary. The visitor had seen for himself. This was not an ordinary place. There were papers and papers, papers all around.

The old man sighed. He sighed again.

“Come and see me tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow.”

And that was it. The old man rose, he walked out of the room. Slowly, slowly — the rubber slippers flip–flopping below him — he walked out of the room.

Satish Kapoor was left staring at his host. The host was gone, he was left to himself.

Two dollars. Was it an insult? Was there meaning to the offer? Was it a symbol of some kind?

Satish Kapoor had traveled, he had traveled. And now? He had searched, he had searched. And now? Something had happened. But what? Was it good, bad? Who could say — who could really say?

* * *

Satish Kapoor rose — at last he rose. He walked slowly to the door and then down the steps. The old man wanted to see him tomorrow — what did he want to see him about? He had something to tell him. What was it? Why did he not tell him now?

But no, no, he should be patient. Tomorrow would come — one day away, just one. And then all would be explained. All would be made clear.

All night Satish Kapoor tossed and turned. And was it so easy? He had dreams — bad dreams. And was it so easy? The old man would tell him something. What?

Unable to calm himself, Satish Kapoor picked up some papers, he read. Again he read:

“Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE) has an oxygen content of 18.2, slightly more than half of the oxygen content of ethanol. MTBE is, however, the best source of oxygen of the fuel ethers.”

“The blend Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) of MTBE ranges from 8 psi to 10 psi and produces a slight rise in gasoline RVP. Gasoline/MTBE blends that come in contact with conventional gasoline in the distribution system do not produce a rise in the RVP of the commingled product.”

“Ethyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (ETBE) has, at 10, a slightly higher blend octane value than MTBE. This is, however, three octane numbers below that of ethanol.”

“Like isopropanol (IPA), Tertiary Butyl Alcohol (TBA) can be produced by indirect hydrolysis, and the process is similar to that for producing IPA. Isobutylene, concentrated sulfuric acid, and water provide the primary feedstocks. Isobutylene is absorbed by sulfuric acid to produce an intermediate product that is hydrolyzed in a subsequent step. In the Far East, TBA is produced by direct hydrolysis of isobutylene.”

He read, he read. And was he now calmed? He read, he read. And was he now at peace?

* * *

Tomorrow morning came. At a few minutes after ten, Satish Kapoor got in his carriage. He went again to see the old man. It was a long ride, almost forty miles. He arrived there at last.

He climbed the steps, he came to a landing. Ten more steps — another landing. The broken window was there, the green door on the other side. He knocked.

The door opened.

They sat there — the visitor on the sofa with the bad springs, the old man on the black cane chair. They sat, they spoke for some time. They spoke about the weather, they spoke about the traffic. They spoke for some time.

At last the old man rose. “Follow me,” he said.

“Follow?”

The host led, Satish Kapoor followed. They were going somewhere. Where were they going? They went down the short hall, they came to a door. They opened the door, they walked to the right. There was a gray door there. The door sagged, there was a fairly big gap between the bottom of the door and the floor.

The host opened the door. It was dark and the motes of dust flew in the air. There was a thin white string suspended from the ceiling. The host pulled on the string — the naked bulb came on.

There were tin trunks there — trunks piled on top of each other. The host lifted the top trunk, laid it on the floor to the right. He lifted a second trunk, did the same. More dust flew around. The host squatted on the floor and then sat all the way down on his knees. There was a third trunk, he opened that. More dust.

The host pulled on the rusty hasp, lifting the lid of the trunk. (More dust flew in the air.) He reached in and felt around with his hands. Finally he seemed to find what he was looking for. It was a leaflet — a small leaflet of some kind. “Copy book,” he said. He took out another leaflet. “Copy book,” he said.

There were indeed several copy books. They seemed to be from the host’s past. Was it a distant past? “This is from my matriculation days.” It was an essay of some kind. The importance of coffee in Brazil’s culture — or something like that. “This is from my intermediate days.” It was an exam paper of some kind. The host had received a good mark — 91. “These are from my college days.” He took out three copy books nicely covered in protective brown paper. There was an essay on statistics — the limitations of the chi–square distribution; an essay on the independence leader Samuel Adams; an essay on the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Satish Kapoor looked at the copy books. He was at a loss.

“The past,” said the host.

“The past?”

“My past. We all have a past, sir. We keep it in a horse carriage, we keep it in a tin trunk. Is it not so?”

Satish Kapoor was silent.

“Special, not special, who can say? Most people do not care. We wander, we wander, one day we come to a building — or a dark room — someone listens, or we think he does. ‘A soul–mate,’ we say. But is it really so?”

Still Satish Kapoor was silent.

“We wander, we wander. Perhaps we find a soul–mate, perhaps we do not. To us it is something. But to the world?”

“The world?”

“To us it is something — perhaps it is everything. It is all we have. But to the world …”

The old man stopped. Perhaps he had grown tired. Perhaps he had run out of breath. Perhaps he had said everything that was important. There was no more to say.

Satish Kapoor listened, he listened with care. And did he understand?

“I am an old man, sir.” Thus he spoke at last.

“What is this?”

“I am almost sixty years old.”

“What is this?”

“I have worked, I have worked.”

The old man was silent. He played with his mouth. He took his right hand and rubbed the thumb and index finger just above the lips. He did it slowly.

“I am tired, sir, so tired.” And Satish Kapoor fell silent.

The old man looked at Satish Kapoor—perhaps he understood him. He looked at Satish Kapoor—perhaps he felt sorry for him. The old man removed his fingers from above his lips. He took his hand—the whole right hand now— he rubbed it gently across the other’s back. Gently, kindly. He stroked the other’s back.

* * *

Satish Kapoor was an old man. Were there others like him? He was a tired man. Were there others like him?

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