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Chauncy Street

Many years ago, when I was in my twenties, I worked for a small and obscure newspaper on Chauncy Street in Boston. The newspaper office was also small and obscure, as was Chauncy Street itself, which began forthrightly enough at Summer Street, one block north, but then petered out indeterminably once it crossed Essex Street, one block south, where it either became silent partners with Harrison Avenue or was subsumed by Harrison Avenue; you couldn’t really tell, no matter how many times you walked slowly south looking for the exact spot where Chauncy Street vanished as if it had never been born. It was that kind of street, brief and mysterious, as were its commercial enterprises, few as they were. There was a coffee shop on the corner that seemed to change hands every three months, though it never changed its name or menu or denizens, and there was a large vacant lot toward Summer Street where gulls and crows bred pigeons for market, and there was the newspaper office, where one of my colleagues actually wore a fedora hat with a press pass in his hatband, and another drank copious martinis at lunchtime, and there was a tailor, a man as brief and mysterious as Chauncy Street itself.

His name was Sachiel, he told me, which means the angel of water, and he was all of five feet tall, perhaps, and nearly five feet wide, a square of a man; he essentially filled his tiny storefront, which could not have been more than eight feet wide and eight feet deep, although the ceiling inside was so high you couldn’t see the end of it from the street, which is where all Sachiel’s customers stood, conducting their business on the bottom half of the shop door, which Sachiel used as a worktable. He sat behind it quiet as the Buddha, moving only his hands, although there must have been times when he reached for, or even unimaginably climbed for, some of the incredible welter of buttons, needles, thimbles, bolts of cloth, scissors, tape measures, shears, rolls of thread, and bottles of lotions and integuments that filled every inch of his space and probably dangled from the unfathomable ceiling. I wonder now if he did most of his work at night, when the door was closed, clambering up into the far reaches above, which may for all I know have risen endlessly from his closet of a storefront; but work he did, for whatever day he had promised you your renovated jacket or resurrected shirt, it was ready that day, not only meticulously repaired, but cleaned, pressed, and folded into neat packets made from folded newspapers.

It was one of these newspaper packets that deepened my conversations with him, which had begun on a purely transactional basis. One spring day he returned my only jacket to me, a sad garment the color of sacrificial calves, and the wrapping, I noticed, was the sports page of a newspaper I had never seen, called Ha’aretz. Being a newspaper man, albeit a dewy one, I assumed this was a neighborhood paper, Boston being so rife with tiny papers at the time that even the gulls and crows in the vacant lot toward Summer Street had a small trade paper filled with articles about market fluctuations, and Sachiel, smiling like the Buddha, said indeed it was a neighborhood paper, from his old neighborhood to the east.

Now, even I, young as I was, knew there was no east to speak of from where we stood, the only east any further east of us being the islands of Boston Harbor, where no one lived unless you were fleeing the law or the lawless, and when I pointed this out to Sachiel he smiled and said he meant even further east, in a land where he had once been a boy “headlong as a hawk and twice as hungry,” as he said.

“I was perhaps a third of the man I am now, so to speak,” he continued, his hands showing me the lean, eager boy he had been, “but I was so restless I could never stand still, let alone sit, which is perhaps why now it is the other way round for me, so as to achieve balance. Which also may explain why I am now in a city, because for the first twenty years of my life I lived in a dense forest of cedars, enormous and ancient trees, some of which had seen saints and angels, and were marked as such by those who had eyes to see the signs. There were owls so old in that forest that they remembered the days when lions and ostriches roamed the plains down below us, and it was said that there was a kingfisher so ancient near a spring high in the mountains that he could no longer fly or see the things of this world with his eyes, and was served food and news by troops of thrushes and woodchats, and protected by a praetorian guard of masked shrikes. This was how my childhood was, filled with animals and stories of things no one knew but my brothers and me. But then came wars, like immense animals no food could satisfy, and we had to leave our forest, and were flung upon the wide world like tiny birds caught in a tempest. Each brother went to a different country, where he found the work he was marked to do. It took me many years before I discovered my work, but now that I know what I am to do, I do it with joy, even though I have grown very old and very fat, and soon I will be gone also, and my shop unmarked and unremembered. I tell you now that someday you will walk this street and look for this shop, and there will be nothing here at all, no door and no memory of a door, and no mark or sign of a man whose work was to stitch the world back together after it was shattered into uncountable pieces. It took me many years before we discovered our work, but my brothers and I did find what it was we were to do, and each of us stitches as much and fast as we can before we are taken by the angel, but we are told by our youngest brother, who was chosen as a messenger among the worlds, that we are very close to finishing our work, and we will be returned to our blessed forest, in some way or fashion we do not know. To me this is joyous news, and this is why, my young friend, you see me smiling, even though I am very old and very fat, and seated in a dark cave in a dark street in the city. Here is your jacket, which I must say is also very old and will not last much longer, even though I have done what I could do for it. Now I must get back to work. I hope that you find your work and do it well, before you are taken. Sometime before winter you should stop in here again and let me repair your pants. Do you have a second pair of pants? You work for a newspaper, do you not? So you do not have another pair of pants. I have several pairs of pants here that have been abandoned to me by their previous occupants. Choose among them as you like and come back here before winter. Perhaps there will come a day when you have done your work well enough to own a second pair of pants. I hope that day will come. Do not be greedy and ask for more than two pair of pants. A man needs only two of everything. More than that is unnecessary. Remember to come back before the winter.”

But when I came back that autumn, after the first scatter of snow reminded me of winter and his instructions, indeed his shop was utterly gone, the gleaming wall of a new hotel having taken its place, and there was no mark or memory of the two halves of his door, one which swung open and the other which served as his work-table; but he has not gone unremembered, as you see, for I wrote this story, and you read it, and perhaps somehow he felt what we have done together, which is another way to stitch together what was unraveled.

Brian Doyle is the muddled maundering mumbling muttering shuffling shambling humming editor of Portland Magazine, in Oregon. He is the author of many books of essays and fiction, among them the sprawling Oegon novel Mink River. His new "whopping sea novel" The Plover will be published in April 2014 by St Martin's Press.