Rosen, an elderly former coffee sales representative, lives in a drab and spartan room, into which Davidov, a census-taker, has limped without knocking. Davidov is surprised that the worn, black shade over the single narrow window is closed, but Rosen grumbles that he does not need light. After cryptic—and, for Rosen, uncomfortable—preliminary exchanges, Davidov opens a notebook and prepares to write. Finding his pen empty, the census-taker pulls out a pencil stub and sharpens it with a razor blade, letting the flakes fall to the floor.
Davidov finally prods Rosen into revealing the nature of his acquaintance with Eva Kalish and the charities that Rosen extended to her. Eva, thirty-eight years old and the mother of two young girls, is the recent widow of a nearly bankrupt immigrant Jewish grocer who died at Rosen’s feet. Rosen’s subsequent efforts to aid the new widow clearly play a critical role in the census-taker’s inquiry.
Rosen is made to relate his persistent attempts to help Eva and her children as she struggles, and fails, to keep her dead husband’s business afloat. Drawing on his own experience, he repeats to Eva the advice that he once gave her husband: The store is in a bad neighborhood; it was a mistake to begin with; it will be a grave for him and his family; they should get out. After Mr. Kalish’s capital was exhausted, he had agreed with Rosen, just as he fell dead. Rosen tells the widow to take the insurance money...
(The entire section is 464 words.)