The Census Taker

by Susan Roth

It started with an eddy of autumn leaves, spinning in the road next to the mailbox. Eleanor paused to watch them as she was locking up the car. It had been a long day, and the warmth of the car against her back felt divine. She leaned there, watching the leaves twirl in the late afternoon sunshine, and for a moment felt at peace. How strange a thing, that a gust of wind could be so selective, she thought. To lift a dozen or so brightly colored maple, oak, and sycamore leaves, set them into a mini-tornado, while all around them every other leaf was still. She grew drowsy standing there in the warmth, eyes unfocusing on the swirling leaves, lulled by the soft scratching of dry leaf on tarmac. Her head drooped as the leaves began to settle among the others covering the road. Blinking and smiling at how easily she had gotten lost in this quiet display, she walked slowly to the house. It wasn’t a long walk, only a few yards, but Eleanor did not hurry. Her legs ached from the day, and she saw no need to rush in. It was so pleasant in the sun.

A blue and white flyer was wedged into the curlicues of the storm door. Eleanor sighed.  She would have to deal with them eventually, she supposed. Census takers. They’d been around a few times already, each time a little more insistent. Don’t you have even a few minutes? You know how important it is that everyone is counted? You do know it’s the law, don’t you? Eleanor wanted to fire back at them: no, I don’t have even a few minutes for your nonsense, and since when does anyone bother to count old women, except when there’s a profit to be made or an election to be decided, and I don’t give a rat’s furry ass if it is the law. But she said none of those things. Quiet and unfailingly polite, Eleanor made appointments with each of them, and promptly failed to be available when they arrived. She was polite; she wasn’t a fool.

The wind started to pick up, and more leaves began dervishing around Eleanor’s small front porch. She tugged the flyer out of the door, and had just folded, refolded, and creased the thing so it would take up less room in her trash, when she noticed a man walking down the road. Strange she hadn’t noticed him a few minutes ago. She must have passed him on her way home, but she didn’t remember seeing him. Eleanor waited a beat, to see if he was headed to her house. He was well-dressed, and had a stride that said he knew where he was going. Heaving a sigh, Eleanor breathed, “Yeah, it’s another one” as the man made eye contact and raised a hand. She wasn’t about to unlock her door with a stranger at her back, so she settled into the wicker rocker and waited for him.

He was good-looking, she noticed as he came closer. And she wasn’t wrong about his suit; he’d paid more than a month’s worth of her salary for that one. A little warm to be walking the road in a navy? Charcoal? What color was it he was wearing exactly? suit, with a clean white shirt and tie. Nice to see a man dressed these days. Most of the census-takers Eleanor had met were, well, to describe them as scruffy would be a kindness. The only concession this one had made to the heat of the day was to loosen his tie a bit, a little dust on his shoes, and a slow, deliberate walk. Eleanor found she liked this man, just by the look of him. Not because he was handsome, but because he looked oddly wholesome. 

“Nice day, isn’t it?” the man said, as he came to a halt in Eleanor’s front yard. His voice was a match to the rest of him: clean, warm, no-nonsense. 

Eleanor nodded her assent. For some reason she felt no need to speak to this man, and he was comfortable with her silence.

“You are Ms. Eleanor Lea Lawrence, aren’t you, ma’am?” he asked, as he glanced at a stack of forms he held in his right hand. He smiled up at her. “I’m in the right place?”

Eleanor nodded again. 

“That’s just fine then. May I?” He gestured upward to the chair next to Eleanor’s rocker. It was an old green-painted metal monstrosity that had been her grandmother’s, and her father’s after that. Eleanor loved the old thing, though she rarely used it. The base was rusted and looked as though it might collapse any day. She nodded again, and the man climbed the steps and settled into the old chair. He didn’t appear concerned that it would break under him. He relaxed back into his seat and stretched his legs out before him, ankles crossed. He smiled over at Eleanor, and she felt herself returning it. A warmth that had little to do with the lovely autumn day filled her. It had been too long since anyone had smiled at her, let alone in such an open, friendly way. Ask your questions, she thought. I don’t mind. I’ll sit here as long as you want to stay. 

The man stared out into the dusty road for a few minutes, his heap of papers blowing slowly apart where he had left them beside his chair. He turned to Eleanor, and leaning forward, touched her lightly on the arm: “Eleanor, do you know why I’m here?” 

Her breath hitched as she started to speak. “Census-taker, I assume,” she said, looking away. 

He glanced at her face, then down to the floorboards at her feet. “Census taker? Mmm. I suppose you could call me that. I am here to account for you, so you might say that’s my job, yes.”

Odd turn of phrase, but who knew where they got these people, or their level of education. Still, she was comfortable with him. 

“Go ahead, then. Ask your questions.” Eleanor pulled her arms over her belly, and crossed her ankles under her chair.The man brightened, and turned more fully to face her. “How long have you lived in this house, Eleanor?” 

How long? When had it been? She was in Junior High when her parents had bought this little saltbox. They’d moved some when she was growing up: a nice house when things were good and there was work for the both of them, and then things would get hard and they would move to another place. Some of the houses were small, some old, some scary. She’d thought more than one of them was haunted, but that could have been no more than the pervasive fear of being forced to move yet again. 

And then there had been the in-between time. A brief time in Eleanor’s life when she had not lived in her parents’ home but had rented her own place, a blessed taste of freedom and solitude. It hadn’t lasted long, only a few years, but most of the living Eleanor did she did in that span of openness. How long? Her entire life.

“My parents left it to me when they passed. I’ve been here 15 years,” she told him.

 “Are you alone, Eleanor?” he asked gently. She thought again, what an odd choice of words.

Bordering on presumptuous, almost impertinent, most definitely inappropriate, and yet he seemed to mean no harm by it. Oh, my yes, she was alone. But was she lonely? Was that what he was asking? Why would he want to know such a thing? Why did it appear he cared about the answer? 

“No one lives here but me.” Her tone implied this was a choice she had made long ago.

“Did you ever want to marry, Eleanor?” he asked, and she realized he had turned his chair to face her. He leaned forward on his elbows, resting his chin on his hands, and stared into her eyes. He hadn’t asked if she were married, or divorced, or widowed. 

There were so few she had wanted in that way. She could have counted the faces of those she had loved on a single hand. Did that mean she had not loved them, had not wanted them deeply, had not suffered terrible, rending pain when she had lost them? No. She kept the memory of each sealed away in an iron box, stored in a dark, safe quiet place deep inside her mind. She didn’t take those memories out if she could avoid it. 

They were ravenous for her. Each beloved face now came before her eyes, every detail exquisite, raw, beautiful. The pain was excruciating, even after all these years. There was the poet. So gentle, such beautiful words. Oh, how she had loved his words! And the sailor. He was a wild one, and for the briefest time she thought he loved her as she was. And then there were the women. The fragile, broken girl, who needed—everything– so desperately, and the strong, brilliant artist, whose disdain for convention of every stripe made her so very alluring. Yes, she had loved them all. But the bell of her soul had no voice to them, and she made no music that others could hear. Silence was Eleanor’s music. It stifled those she loved until they fled from her.

Eleanor cleared her throat, feeling as though she was trying to speak through something broken. 

“No.” The man’s face swam and wobbled in her vision. His hands were warm as they wrapped around hers. “There was—someone—but then…” 

They sat that way for a long moment, the stranger holding her hands, Eleanor trying to stop the flood of images that filled her with such anguish. How had she lived with this loss? Why did she not grieve? And then, he let her go. The images faded from her vision, and the pain of her caged memories grew less cruel. She could breathe, but it hurt.

The man stood, facing the road, and stretched his back. Eleanor stared up at him, torn between wonder at what he had shown her, and sorrow for what it meant. 

“I believe we’re done here, Eleanor,” he said. His pile of forms lay untouched and disregarded where he had put them when he first arrived. He climbed down the stairs, turned and extended his hand. Eleanor looked around. Her house. Her yard. The dusty roadway. She creaked up out of her chair and took his hand. He helped her down the stairs but did not release her. Instead, he tucked her arm through his, in a very old-fashioned, elder-gentleman manner that was completely at odds with his age and looks, and yet fitted to his otherwise courtly behavior. 

Eleanor noticed a leg and shoe sticking out beneath the driver’s side of her car as they crossed the yard to meet the road. “Do you think anyone will miss me?” she asked the man. 

“No, Eleanor, no one will miss you,” he said, not unkindly. “But then again, neither will you.”

About Susan Roth: “I am a dog-lover, a librarian, and an insatiable gourmand of the written word.”

“The Census Taker” won first place in the prose category of The Vandalia’s 2021 Art & Literature Contest.