As I am now rather old, and my health has taken a turn for the worse, this may very well be the last letter I ever write. You might think me silly to waste my little remaining energy on a subject that you'll no doubt consider fantasy, but I must relate this story before I die. Perhaps there is some lesson to be learned from it, but be assured my intent is not to instruct, nor is it to entertain. I simply desire to inform you about the strange life of Emmanuel Johnson, being the name he claimed when I knew him, which is notable only for the fact that there is nothing particularly notable about it other than his peculiar longevity.
Johnson began letting an apartment in the building my family owned when I was a boy of eight or nine. He was a vaguely unattractive man in his mid-thirties with a complexion that I can best describe as Mediterranean. He was not tall, nor was he athletic, and his most remarkable physical attribute was a small pot belly that is common among sedentary men of his age. If not for the scores of crates he slowly moved up the stairs into his small apartment, it is unlikely I'd have noticed him at all.
Being a curious boy, I offered to help him transport his boxes. After lecturing me on the fragility of their contents, he allowed me to carry a few of the smaller ones. When I asked about their nature, he replied only that they contained a "bunch of crap" that he'd collected over the years and didn't want to dispose of because it might be valuable to someone one day.
It was summer. School was out. There were ponds to swim and woods to explore, girls to chase and boys to fight. Indeed, I spent the majority of my time killing squirrels and birds with the air rifle my father had given me for Christmas—much to the dismay of my poor mother. Needless to say, I promptly forgot about Emmanuel Johnson. That is until one evening at dinner my mother brought up the subject of his source of income and seeming lack of occupation.
"He doesn't seem to work, or even leave his apartment except for a couple of times a week, and then it's just to sit on the stoop and watch people passing in the street," my mother said.
"I don't care what he does," said my father, "as long as he pays his rent on time and doesn't destroy the place or make too much noise."
"He's a bit creepy," my mother whispered, looking at me for support.
"What single man of that age isn't?" replied my father.
That conversation seemed to resolve the issue for my parents, but it reignited the flame of my own curiosity, and I determined to discover Mr. Johnson's secret by the end of the summer.
Being endowed with both the confidence and loneliness of an only child I marched right up to his door armed with the formidable weapon that was my mother's homemade lemon pie. I knocked, and heard some shuffling, but Mr. Johnson didn't respond. I waited a moment, then knocked again, this time imitating my father's technique which I had observed when he intended to collect late rent from a tenant. More shuffling, more waiting, and then the door cracked open.
"Whatcha got?" asked Mr. Johnson.
"Alright," and he opened the door as wide as he could before it was blocked by a stack of wooden crates. This was just enough for a man of his size to squeeze through, but for a curious boy, it was an invitation.
I slid through the door before he had a chance to stop me.
His apartment was filled from floor to ceiling with boxes. Some of them constructed from hardwood I hadn't then seen, which I imagine were teak and koa. Some of them were quite old, the boards being milled by hand and fastened with handmade nails. A bare mattress rested in the corner, and an overstuffed chair faced the window which overlooked the woods behind our building.
The single decoration, other than the hideous Victorian floral wallpaper, was a small painting on the mantle. The subject was an attractive, if somewhat plump young woman wearing ringlets in her hair. Her complexion was similar to his own. The medium used was unfamiliar to me at the time, but I noted a that the finish was waxy rather than the shiny varnish that I had seen on the century-old heirloom portraits of my mother's aristocratic ancestors.
"Who's that?" I asked, pointing at the picture.
"Oh, she's just someone I knew a long time ago."
I waited while he finished his pie. He didn't make any effort to converse, and answered my questions in such a way that I felt I knew less about him than previously. For the next several years, other than occasionally running into him on the stairs, Emmanuel Johnson was no more a part of my life than he wanted to be.
When I was twelve, my great uncle died and left a good deal of money to my mother. As the family was already well provided for due to the income from our building and various of my father's business ventures, it was decided that the best investment was in my education. I was sent to Pemberton Preparatory Academy, a reputable boarding school, the next fall, and returned home only for summers and holidays. My family would often spend our summers vacationing in various state parks or in Europe, so sometimes an entire year would pass and I wouldn't visit my family home.
I did well in school, but not exceptionally well, and this was true through college as well. I graduated from Pemberton Preparatory Academy just before I turned 18 and I decided to summer at home with my family before attending Pemberton University as a history major that fall. As the chair of the History department had taken an especial interest in me, and I in her daughter, Magdalena, Pemberton University seemed only a natural choice for my continued education.
Emmanuel Johnson was sitting on the stoop as the taxi pulled in front of our building. He was exactly as I remembered him from my childhood, which at first made no impression on me, but soon bothered me exceedingly. It was as if a decade had made no dent in him whatsoever. A man with a total absence of lifestyle, as such Mr. Johnson possessed, should have quite a lot of weight, some gray hairs at the very least. When I mentioned this curiosity to my father, he remarked that one doesn't notice such things when he sees a man on a regular basis.
One afternoon, I answered the doorbell to find a delivery man with a package for Mr. Johnson. He apologized for the state of the package, as the wrapping was ripped and the contents were partially exposed. I signed for the package and let him know that Mr. Johnson was a very laid-back sort of fellow and to think nothing of it.
After the man left, I'm ashamed to say that my curiosity got the best of me. I was bewildered by the address on the package, as it was that of a bookstore located near Pemberton that sold rare and valuable books. I ripped the package just a bit further to read the title of one of the books: "Erotic Art in Pompeii and Herculaneum."
There is nothing odd about a man such as Emmanuel Johnson subscribing to a gentleman's magazine, or even purchasing pornography. Indeed, it's to be expected. I believe you'll recall my collection of erotic postcards from the Victorian era that I showed you the last time you visited me at my apartment in Pemberton? I'll admit they're pretty tame by modern standards, but for a man of my age they're racy enough!
What I found strange is that a man Mr. Johnson had such obscure and esoteric tastes.
With my heart pounding, I mounted the stairs and ran to Emmanuel Johnson's door and knocked vigorously. Mr. Johnson opened the door with a quizzical expression and I explained how his package had been slightly damaged in shipping. I told him that I although I didn't intend to invade his privacy, I noticed the title of his book. As a history major, I was very interested and could I come in for a bit and have a browse through.
Mr. Johnson hesitated for the first time since I'd known him. I could tell from his apprehensive expression that he desired more than anything to send me on my way. But such an action was far from his nature, so he simply opened the door (as far as it would open) and stepped aside.
The only change I noticed in his apartment was that the quantity of boxes had diminished, and there was a small bookcase in the corner that was filled with a number of volumes of classical literature (in the original) and collections of photographs from archeological sites.
The portrait of the woman was still on the mantel. It also had not changed, but I had. Rather than a naive nine-year old boy, I was now a young man who had been educated at one of the finest college preparatory schools on the East coast. I recognized the portrait as being in the manner and medium of Coptic funerary encaustics from the first century, such as those I'd seen both in my history texts and in the collection of the Pemberton Museum of Ancient History.
"Is this real, Mr. Johnson?"
He looked at me and nodded an affirmation.
"How did you get this? Do you have any idea how much this must be worth?"
Emmanuel Johnson looked at me with a grave expression that was so out of character that I was taken aback. "I think you should leave," he said. "I'm not feeling very well this afternoon."
The next morning I awoke to the din of men moving Mr. Johnson's boxes out to a truck parked in front of our building. I looked out my window, and saw him hand my father an envelope and shake his hand. Mr. Johnson stepped into the truck and it drove away. My father stood on the sidewalk with his hands on his hips and stared in the direction of the truck for a long time.
After dinner, I went up to Emmanuel Johnson's room. It was empty except for two objects. In the center of the room was a small crate crowned with a piece of paper bearing my name. On the mantle was the encaustic portrait of the woman.
You've probably guessed the contents of the crate by now. They're displayed at the Pemberton Museum of Ancient History in the collection bearing my name. I suppose you'll think I'm a fraud, not that it really matters, but you should know that because of those items which I was supposed to have discovered over the years I was able to make some very real, very important, archeological discoveries of my own.
About a decade ago, fifty years after I watched Emmanuel Johnson drive away from my family's building, I received a letter. It was very brief, and written in cuneiform—albeit with a ballpoint pen. It informed me that there was a hotel being built in the city of M___ and that if I were present in the city while the crew was digging the foundation, I might find my fame and fortune secured, which as you know, is exactly what happened when I was near the site when they unearthed the entrance to that now famous tomb.
While I was there, observing the workmen, a horrible accident occurred. A crane dropped a bundle of steel beams onto one of the construction workers, and he was crushed to death immediately. In the panic, I rushed to the man to see if there were anything at all to do for him. It took me some time to make my way through the crowd, but when I did I regretted my action.
Upon seeing the man's bloody face, I nearly fainted. It was Emmanuel Johnson, aged not a day in sixty years.