I’m folding laundry when she knocks on the door. The radio’s playing a Louis Armstrong number, the oven’s already preheating. I’m not expecting anyone; it’s supposed to be a good old-fashioned lonely night, but when there’s a knock on the door it’s hard not to answer it. Leaving a possibility open always gnaws at the back of my consciousness– it’s the same sort of feeling as seeing a perfectly ripe apple hanging on a branch just out of reach.
“I’m so sorry to bother you at this hour,” she says, “but I was wondering if you might consider taking a survey.”
“A survey?” I ask. It seems unlikely at this time of night, but it’s also a little late for a door-to-door salesgirl to come round, and she certainly isn’t carrying anything like a vacuum cleaner.
“A survey,” she nods. “You have been randomly selected out of all the people in this city. It’s quite an honor, I’m sure.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“I won’t be an imposition, I assure you. I just want to ask one simple question. One answer should be enough to get the right picture of you. For our purposes, at least.”
What can you possibly learn about a person through a one-question survey? I mull over the notion. I’m not a guy with a whole lot going for him. I can bake a pie and iron my own shirts. I own a copy of every Patricia Highsmith novel. I can even find Kyrgyzstan on a map without names on it. But that’s about it. My life’s barely unusual enough to be normal.
Just as I’m about to speak, the timer buzzes on the oven. It’s done preheating. She frowns.
“I’m not keeping you from something, am I?”
“I was about to put a pie in the oven,” I glance back over my shoulder. “Apple.”
“Oh dear.” Her brow kneads with worry. “Perhaps we should leave this for another time. I can’t have you thinking about a pie while answering this question. It’s very important, you see, that we receive your full attention.”
“A pie isn’t going to distract me.”
“No, no,” she replies. “I’m just absolutely certain that you’ll end up thinking about your pie while you answer, and that will definitely affect the outcome.”
“I won’t. Really. I promise.”
“No, you definitely will, and then you’ll realize that there was another answer you should have given us. It’ll happen the instant you pull the pie out of your oven. You’ll think to yourself That’s it! That’s the answer I should have given her! But it will already be too late. I’ll have already left, and the regret will ruin the taste of your pie. I’m absolutely sure of it.”
“Would you like to come in and wait until the pie is finished baking, then? It won’t be too long. I can make us some coffee.”
She shakes her head, a little reluctantly, and flashes an alarmingly white smile. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll come back another time, when your head is nice and clear. It really needs to be for this sort of thing.”
“Then, until next time,” I say, but she’s already too far away to respond, ice-pick heels clicking their way down the apartment staircase.
* * *
Every once in a while I wonder what question that girl would have asked, but she never came again, so I guess I’ll never find out. The pie was delicious, though. It smelled so great that I ate the whole thing in one sitting,while it was still hot.
Just gobbled it up.