One evening I sat in my study, waist deep in the Heimskringla. My attention was entirely rapt in it. The wind on that autumn night was fierce, and things outside were bumping into each other often enough that I quickly lost the will to break my attention at the abrupt noises they caused. Through this inattention to my surroundings, I suddenly heard an insistent knock on my front door.
It was muffled by my being upstairs in the study, and as I went down the front staircase I wondered why someone would knock instead of use the doorbell. I fully expected it to be someone I knew, for what stranger would be out in this gale?
I opened the door to find perhaps the world’s most nondescript man standing there. He was maybe five-foot-ten, one hundred eighty pounds or so, medium brown hair—untussled by the wind, I noticed in retrospect—wearing a black windbreaker and khaki pants. On any street in broad daylight, not one person in a hundred would give this man a second look. But in the glaring, uneven light of my front porch, in the midst of the very changing of the season, his presence was a profound anachronism.
He smiled amiably and thrust his hand toward me. “Hello, I’m going door to door to offer you and your neighbors a truly unique opportunity. I assume I’m speaking with the man of the house?”
“I am.” After all, I live alone.
“Sir, what if I told you that at this very moment you could know with absolute certainty what precise day will be the worst of your life to come?”
His slick sales pitch was obvious, as though he’d repeated these exact words every day since the dawn of time. I thought about making a snack. I would’ve closed the door in his face right then, but there was something in the way he stood that made me hesitate. Solicitors of his type usually expect to be rudely rejected; you can see it in their stance, like their attention is already on the road to your neighbor’s house.
He simply stood there, honestly awaiting my answer.
“I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?” I replied.
“Good heavens, I apologize. The name’s Wilson. I can see you’re intrigued and let me assure you, this is no trick.” He held up a small black leather bag, the type doctors used to carry on house calls. “I happen to be in possession of a device that will do exactly what I described. You, sir, can know right now what the worst day of the rest of your life will be.”
I have to admit, he had my attention. “How much?” I said flatly.
“For you, sir? Thirty-four twenty-two.”
It was a bit specific for a grift. But if he came all the way out here at this hour, and if he could deliver, then what the heck. Normally this isn’t the type of thing I would go in for, but the atmosphere of the evening seemed to have gotten the better of me.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small roll of bills and a few coins. It happened to total thirty-four dollars and twenty-two cents.