The newspaper reporters were wild with curiosity.
“Oh, come on, sir!” they said to old John. “Who’s behind that curtain? A clergyman? Clergymen on shifts around the clock? The — what do you call this, anyway? — is open twenty-four hours a day, isn’t it? How much did it cost you? Is it true that you put your life’s savings in it? Real Carrara marble, isn’t it? But who’s behind that curtain?”
Old John Godfrey was eighty years old. A mediocre lawyer in a large city rarely made much money, especially if he was honest, and John had been both mediocre and honest. He was a widower. Beyond a few, a very few, devoted old friends, his name had not been known widely. He had never wanted to be a lawyer in the first place, but his mother and father, who had worked so hard to educate him, had chosen that profession for their only child. They were immigrants; they had never learned to read and write. In the old country a man of law had been a man of consequence, even more esteemed than a physician. He had been the man to approach for help in leaving the country and going to America; he wrote out the applications, the forms; he made mysterious journeys to the big town where he no doubt consulted grave authorities and consuls. He had been the man who could approach the clergy easily for baptismal certificates, and the police for a letter stating that the would-be immigrant had no bad record. A friend of the mayor or burgomaster, it was not difficult for him to obtain exit visas or passports. If he frequently took a man’s last cow or pig in payment for his benevolent and necessary services, what did that matter? Men become rich in America, almost overnight.
John, whose surname was not Godfrey but something beyond the tongue of Anglo-Saxons to pronounce, never told anyone that he had always wanted to be a poet. He had been born in this large American city only two months after his parents’ arrival. One of his teachers, a shy young girl, suspected his ambition and his natural endowment, and she had timidly encouraged him. But she had been the only one. His parents would not have understood, and he was their only child and he loved them, and above all things he would never disappoint them. So he became a lawyer, and disliked every minute of it.
He had made an adequate living. Naturally austere, he had not longed for many material pleasures. Books of prose and poetry and history, a small organ, four acres on the edge of town where he built an undistinguished clapboard house, but where he had a magnificent garden, a dog, a cat, two canaries, and a few friends, were more than enough for any man, particularly John Godfrey. He had no taste for the flamboyant part of law and confined himself to a prosy practice which did not occupy his mind but left it free to think and pray and meditate and plan his garden. Freedom, above all things, of soul and mind and body, was the stuff of life to John Godfrey. He early became acquainted with the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, and he had his own Walden Pond on his four acres of land.
When he was thirty he married the daughter of old immigrant friends of his parents, and there were no children. Few ever saw Mrs. Stella Godfrey, who bore a strange resemblance to the shy young teacher who had first known that John was a poet, when he had been only six years old. Stella, though American-born and educated, always retained a strong but soft accent, and she was extremely reserved and gentle and timid. Even John’s few friends had found her colorless. When she died, ten years after the marriage, they hardly missed her. John rarely mentioned her; his friends believed that he did not miss her, either. She lay near his parents in ‘that queer old foreign cemetery’, and if he visited those three graves his friends did not know. He had a quiet serenity of manner, a charming smile, and was not loquacious. He preferred to listen to others. None of these characteristics altered or dimmed after his wife’s death, so it was decided, with relief, that ‘poor Stella’ had left no mark in John’s life.
There was one odd thing about John Godfrey. No one, not even the closest of his friends, Walter Baker, ever called him ‘Jack’. He was always John, dignified yet kind, helpful and thoughtful, never disturbed, rushed, hurried, or harassed.
The city grew up around his four acres of land, but he would not sell them for any price. Apartment houses rose within sight of his living-room windows; a school and its yard lay beyond his walled garden; a busy street hummed not far from his bedroom. But he kept his acres, and he painted his old-fashioned house, mowed his own lawn, and attended his own flowers — even to the day he was eighty years old.
He told no one, not even his best friend, Walter Baker, the city’s leading urologist, of a dream he had held for fifty years. But the day after he was eighty, four architects, with blueprints, called on him and stayed with him for hours. They left, smiling but silent, wonderingly shaking their heads at each other. No one knew anything until John Godfrey moved into a small residential hotel nearby and the old house was demolished. Friends questioned; he only smiled. When the finest of white marble arrived, carefully crated, the newspapers took their first notice. John refused to answer any questions, gently but firmly. The foundation was dug. People came to stare and wonder, and speculate. A private library, museum, music school? No one knew. John, who was retired now, stood and watched, a tall old whitehaired man, his hands under his coattails, his face attentive, a cigar in his mouth. For the first time he seemed mysterious.
It was soon evident that the building would be square and that it would have only two rooms, a large front entrance and a small rear one. One room would be about eighteen by eighteen feet, the other a little larger. The white marble slabs rose to a flat roof. The gardens expanded, dying trees were replaced with tall young saplings, red gravel paths laid out, flower beds enlarged. “A kind of little church,” said some neighbors disdainfully. “Is he going to preach in there?” But no one knew.
The curious, peering through the doorway — there were no windows at all — saw that the floor of the smaller room was being covered with a deep blue carpet, thick and sort, and filled with comfortable chairs, tables and lamps, all quite expensive. They could not see beyond this room, which had a wide, tall oaken door. The front door, of bronze, imported from the old country, was set in place, and over it, in an arch, was inlaid in gold letters: ‘The Man who Listens’.
And set deeply in the white marble floor was a brass plate: ‘In Memory of Stella Godfrey’.
Now it was complete, and John Godfrey let the press enter, for it was necessary that the public know. The young reporters surged into the pleasant and serene room with its glowing lamps, its glass tables covered with magazines and flowers in pots and vases, its white marble walls on which there were no murals or pictures, its thickly carpeted floor. It was very restful here, and quiet, and waiting. But for whom did it wait?
John, smiling, touched a bell near the oaken door at the end of the room. It chimed gently. He pointed out a slot near the door. “For requests to be heard,” he said. The door automatically opened after ten minutes, while the reporters fumed with eager impatience. Then they entered the room beyond and stared.
There was nothing whatsoever in the room but a tall marble chair covered with blue velvet cushions. The chair faced an arched alcove hidden by thick blue curtains. At the side of the alcove was a brass plate: ‘If you wish to see the man who has listened to you, touch the button above. You will see his face. He will be glad if you thank him, but it is not necessary’.
So the reporters asked, “A clergyman? Shifts around the clock?” They knew that the building would never be closed. John did not answer except with a smile. The newsmen flashed their cameras on him, the sitting room, the empty marble room which was lighted obliquely by a soft and muted light falling from the white ceiling. One reporter, very young and brash, went to the button near the thick blue curtains, but John said with unusual sternness: “No! Not yet, not yet, for you.”
He showed the reporters the box which lay below the slit that opened in the sitting room. “People may deposit their requests here, to be heard. Then, after touching the bell, they must wait ten minutes. Then the door will be opened, for one at a time. He then leaves by the rear entrance.”
“A lawyer, perhaps, or a social worker, or a psychiatrist?” wheedled the young reporter. But John only smiled. “Of course,” said the reporters, “the people who come here will tell us all about it. It won’t be a mystery very long, you know, Mr. Godfrey.” John only smiled.
“What do you expect people to say in here?” asked another reporter, taking another flash of the old man. “They will know before they come,” said John. He paused and said gently, “One of the most terrible aspects of this world today is that nobody listens to anyone else. If you are sick, or even dying, nobody listens. If you are bewildered, or frightened, or lost, or bereaved, or alone, or lonely — nobody really listens. Even the clergy are hurried and harassed; they do their best and work endlessly. But time has taken on a fragmented character; it doesn’t seem to have any substance any longer. Nobody has time to listen to anyone, not even those who love you and would die for you. Your parents, your children, your friends: they have no time. That’s a very terrible thing, isn’t it? Whose fault is it? I don’t know. But there doesn’t seem to be any time.”
“And you think the man — whoever he is — will have time?” asked the impertinent reporter.
John appeared to consider this gravely, his tall old head bent. Then he said, “Oh yes. I think he’ll have time. All the time there is.” He looked at the reporters and repeated: “All the time that’s left.”
They thought him old, prosy, and enigmatic. They were certain that they’d have the whole story very soon from any man or woman who came here to talk, alone in this white marble room with the soft light and the shut curtains. They looked at the bronze box below the slit. It was very uncomplicated. The simple-minded would drop their illiterate little notes in there and a hidden clergyman or social worker or psychiatrist would read the notes, retire behind the curtain, and give ponderous advice. Some of the older reporters said it was very nice, and modern. The man behind the curtain couldn’t even see the speaker, and so it would all be very confidential. Silly old men and women would talk their heads off, in solitude, and go out comforted. For who ever listened to their complaints, anyway? The reporters would soon know, they reassured themselves. A new kind of psychiatric treatment, without charge.
No one ever told. Two months after the building was opened to the public John Godfrey died. His wants had been meager; he had left a large fortune, for he had speculated for his dream. His friends laughed affectionately and said, “Who would have thought that old John was in the stock market?” His fortune was given to his building for perpetual care. Cleaners who became curious found that they could not move the blue curtains in the alcove. It was as if the velvet had been woven of steel. It was finally decided by everyone — with some truth — that it was the voices of the desperate which operated some kind of electrical impulse that opened the curtain after they had finished their confidences and had touched the button. But those who came with false confidences, out of curiosity, found that even when they touched the button the curtains did not part. It was discovered, months later, that old John, over long years, had studied electronics. Only the genuine voice of sorrow and grief and loneliness and despair could part the curtains.
The button was only an added impulse.
It was noted that those who slipped through the rear exit had radiant faces, or peaceful ones, or thoughtful. Some were in tears. Some walked resolutely, as if about to take a journey. Some cried aloud, “Oh yes, yes! I’d forgotten!”
The reporters went to the clergy, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish. “What’s all this flim-flam?” they would ask. “Do you approve of it?”
The clergy would answer only with smiles. Some would say they really knew nothing of the man who listened behind the velvet-steel curtains. Some would frown and talk of “superstition in this modern age of the hydrogen bomb and science.” A very modern clergyman said, “I know nothing about it and want to know less. Have you read Professor Blank’s latest book on the nature of the physical universe? Very enlightening. But only for intellectuals, of course. He explodes superstition for all time. Not that I am against religion,” the clergyman added hastily as he lit an excellent Havana, “for, after all, I’m a clergyman, am I not? But Things Advance, and Knowledge Grows.”
A very old minister said briefly, “I myself have talked to the man behind the curtain. He answered me fully. He made it possible for me to continue when I thought it was impossible.”
“What did he say to you?” asked the reporter.
The minister looked at the young man thoughtfully. “Why, he said everything.”
National newspapers sent their reporters to the city in droves. They learned nothing more. The Man in the Street was interviewed and his sage opinions recorded. Sure, the guy behind the curtain was a psychiatrist. The mother of the lady next door had gone to that place, and after she’d told all about her old goat the doctor had given her some good advice. And there was that girl in trouble, two blocks down the street. Social worker had told her what to do and where to go for help. And there was this widow with five kids. One was one of these juvenile delinquents. The social worker had helped her, too. And there was this man who had cancer and was scared to death. The worker had sent him to a hospital, free, and he was cured. Oh, sure, the guy behind the curtain was a priest. He’d told a feller to confess his crime to the police. Say, was old John Godfrey a Catholic? Somebody said he was a Jew, and there was Jewish scrolls behind the curtain. What did the Jews want, anyways? Don’t you believe it! The guy behind the curtain’s a Christian Scientist. Can cure anything with the Bible, see?
Other opinions, equally sage, were advanced. Oh, there was a recording machine behind the curtain. Some Communist or other. Or maybe the guy was a Socialist, or Republican, or Democrat. You kind of have to watch things these days, don’t you? Propaganda everywheres. Say, did you hear about that lady comes out and goes out of her mind? Had to take her to the state hospital. Me? I wouldn’t go there on a bet! Somebody should burn the place down. Know what real estate values are around there? We need a new school — or something.
A priest said to a reporter, “Have you gone there, yourself, in the proper spirit?”
“What is the proper spirit — sir?”
The priest smiled slightly. “I’m sure you’ll find out, yourself, someday.” A rabbi said to a reporter, “I haven’t been there as yet, myself. But some of my people have. No, you can’t ask them. They won’t answer you.”
A psychiatrist said, “I don’t know what is behind that curtain, and one of my most difficult patients went there, and he won’t tell me, either. But one thing I do know: he’s cured now.”
There were attempts to break into the sanctuary, because there were rumors that the people who visited it left money ‘in the box’. But for some reason the doors resisted all kinds of pressure and force. And, of course, there were no windows to break.