Life and How to Live it
This story actually happened, believe it or not. It happened to me. The details and circumstances and people's names, however, are changed. It doesn't matter.
The name of the main character should be my very own, but let's call him John. He was a middle-aged man, a man full of pain, full of disappointment. No, he had not expected to end up like this. When he was a teenager, he was full of expectations. Unhappy love affairs, diseases, lack of money... all these things were something that could happen only to other people. Not him. No, he was different. He'd held everything firmly in his hands. Now, he was broken, sad and full of bitterness. He had been a fool, he thought. Life was unfair. Life was pointless.
He had always loved books. He could remember the bookshelves in his small apartment filled with number of titles of many kinds. He could remember his second wife going mad about those books. She had often expressed her fear that his passion for books was greater than his love for her. She was right, he sighed. And, also with a sigh, he recalled the night when the apartment with his entire collection of books had gone up in flames. All gone. His love, his wife, his life.
John idled slowly through the cold evening street, occassionally meeting a man or a woman hurrying towards their homes. Now he met a little boy on a bike. How the kid reminded him of his own son. All is gone, he told himself again and walked on. He went on, but wondered what the purpose of it all was. Why? he asked himself. Why? he asked again, but this time the question was addressed to a young woman walking along the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. She glanced shortly in his direction, shrugged, not understanding, and walked on. Why? he asked again, but this time the question was for no one in particular. The street was deserted and an evening rain began to fall down on the town as if the raindrops were a reply to his inquiry.
Where could he go? He had no home. He spent his nights in a deserted building on the border of the town. No heating, no water, no electricity, just a small fire in an old decrepit room. But he was still far from this home. The rain was falling heavily now. He should find a place to hide. He noticed a store window. The books looking back at him from the window looked old and the covers had drab colors. Sometimes the colors were so faded that he could not even read the titles. A sign above the door said 'Used Books' and another sign on the door said 'OPEN'. He entered. He knew how people reacted to his presence, so he tried to avoid contact with anybody. He didn't know what made him enter the store. He was dirty, he had no money. But he did enter.
The interior of the store was dark. There was a musty smell of old books. John could see rows and rows of bookshelves with rows and rows of books. A couple of years ago this would have been a paradise for him. Now, as he listened to heavy raindrops outside, he went along one bookshelf, skimming over the titles of grey books. Some of them had been his favorites. He noticed an old bespectacled man eyeing him from behind a low counter. John didn't pay him any attention and continued in his exploration of the bookshelf.
"Are you looking for anything in particular?" the owner of the store asked. He had moved silently to right behind him. Here it is, John thought. Contact with people. Whatever had made him enter this place?
"No," John answered curtly to the little plump man with large glasses over his eyes. The man said nothing and did not move. He continued peering at him suspiciously. John pretended not to notice him and walked slowly off along the shelf. He stopped, admiring one of the faded volumes, when he heard the man again. The storekeeper's voice sounded from right behind him again.
"Can I help you?" the man asked.
Get out of here, John thought. "No," he answered. "Thank you. I... actually..."
"... have no money?" the little man helped.
"Er, right," John admitted.
"And you'd like a book?" the man answered. Could John feel a mocking tone in the shop owner's voice? Did the man's eyes show the look of amusement? He could not tell. The man did not wait for an answer. "You did not expect to find free books here, did you?"
"Er, no," John managed. He did not know what he had expected when he entered the shop. Maybe he had just been looking for cover from the rain. Maybe he had wanted something more.
"You understand, I can't give books away for free? I have to make a living."
John nodded and started to turn towards the exit.
"But I may make an exception..." the man said hesitantly.
"No, no," John said and hurried out of the shop. It was only outside that he noticed that there was a thick old volume in his hands. How did it get there? His head reeled. Had he stolen it? How did it get into his hands? He was confused.
He glanced towards the shop. The sign in the door said 'Closed'. How could he give it back? Should he leave it by the door? Should he keep it? He felt strange. What had happened to him?
The rain was almost over. He hid the book under his dirty old coat and, finally, started walking towards his home.
The title of the book was "Life and How to Live it". The book appeared to be very old, older than perhaps all the books he had ever possessed. The cover was simple, brown, revealing only the title. No author, nothing else. He opened it. On the first page, there was the title again. Underneath the bold letters, there was a smaller writing also in bold letters: "HUMAN LIFE, user's manual. Read thoroughly before use!"
Was it a joke? As if human life was a TV or an electric drill! No; humans did not come with a manual. He was sure of it. He read on. The second page again warned the reader to read thoroughly. "The manufacturer," it said, "is not responsible for damages or accidents due to an incorrect use, use not in accordance with this instruction manual." The manufacturer? What? he wondered, but he read on. There was something about 'invalidated warranty' and other things he did not understand very well at the moment. The page ended with large writing: "Misuse may result in DEATH!!!"
The book absorbed him. It looked ancient but still it used fairly comprehensible language. He did not sleep. He did not eat. He read on and on, through the night, through the day. It was strange. He felt strange reading the book. It seemed to have power. He could not put it down. He felt as if he had waited all his life just to read this book.
The final part of the book was titled "TROUBLESHOOTING". There was a list of problems and a list of possible causes of these problems. Many of these problems were John's own and, he had to admit, the causes were correct. There was also a list of solutions of the mentioned problems. The solution of each problem, the list said, was the same: "Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer. Contact the manufacturer..."
"How!!!???" John cried out. "How???!!!" he shouted. This must have been a dream. How could he contact the manufacturer? His manufacturer? He started to cry.
He turned to the last page. No, he was surely dreaming. This could not be true. There was a phone number! He must have gone crazy! He tore the last page out of the book and ran out of the dirty house. He ran through the street. It was raining again. He held the piece of paper tight. This could not be true, he thought. He ran on and on. His other hand was clenched in a fist. There was a coin in it.
He stopped on the corner of the street. There was a phone booth there. He stepped hesitantly inside. He picked up the receiver. "Work! Work!" he mumbled under his breath. He listened shortly to the phone's indifferent beep beeeep. He inserted the coin into the coin slot and listened to the sounds of the machine eating his only money. Now! he thought. He dialed the number.
Then, somebody answered the phone. He heard the strangest voice ever.
It did not come from the receiver. It came from all around him. He heard it with his ears but not his ears only. He could hear the voice with his entire being. It penetrated his body, it penetrated his soul.
The voice said, "YES?"
Checked for correct language by John Finn, Maryland, USA.