He could hardly stand the loneliness. It seemed to come over him like an overwhelming, shadowy hand, death-like in its silence and terrifying in its completeness. His chest would begin to constrict as his heart raced out of control. He would try to breathe, until his attack subsided, and then he would pray for sleep to come quickly. A stiff drink or three helped to answer his prayers.
The morning brought a routine, and a day with enough busyness to keep the loneliness at bay. Each day he sat at his desk, a morning snifter safely in his hardening belly, and each day he would count. There was safety in numbers, but each night it was the same.
A sleep-inducing drunk.
For years now, despair had been forming like a parasite, consuming him from within. Each night, it fed upon him in the moments before sleep came. It brought someone to his mind for him to hate, or to lament, or both. He thought of his father, and wept. He thought of his father, and raged.
His illness began to come upon him in his working hours, and panic would shoot up from the pit of his stomach like a geyser. To quell it required a quick drink, just enough to keep from throwing up, and he could return to his numbers.
Today he sat at his desk, counting his money in a dull buzz. He had counted it twice already, but it was an unusually slow day and he needed to keep his hands moving. He heard the familiar squeak of turning wheels, the bray of an ox, and the shuffle of feet.
He raised his eyes to see a group approaching, mostly on foot. They looked dirty, but who didn’t around here? He counted sixteen, eleven men and five women. Several were laughing together. They looked happy. He hated them.
The man in the lead approached his desk.
“How many are in your group?” Levi asked.
“Sixteen,” Levi corrected, and scribbled down the number.
“Sixteen, then,” the man said.
“How many oxen?”
The man looked back. “Unless you have an extra under your desk, just that one. Right there.”
“How many axles on the cart?”
“This lovely town of yours right here, actually.”
Somewhere, a dog barked.
“Reason for your trip?” Levi asked.
“The Kingdom of God is at hand.”
Levi looked up from his paper. “Excuse me?”
“The Kingdom of God is at hand. Isn’t that great?” he smiled.
Levi paused for a long moment to assess the stranger. He expected to see eyes lit with lunacy, but instead saw something entirely different. These eyes were unnervingly sane. If he had seen such things as compassion or ferocity before, he might have called it one of these. Instead, he had only an unnamed feeling of love and danger. He felt something rising up within him that felt like hope and fear and longing, and repressed a particularly acidic belch.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Jesus, from Nazareth.” the stranger answered.
The geyser in his stomach lurched upward again, but this time he couldn’t keep it down. A golden-brown stream erupted from his mouth and onto his desk, covering the money he had recently counted in an acrid breakfast.
Levi looked up at the stranger, Jesus.
“So you’ve heard of me?” Jesus said.
A strange and unexpected sound came out of Levi’s mouth, something between a whimper, a laugh, and a sob. His vomit ran down his chin and covered his quivering hands. He looked up into the face of this Jesus. He was smiling, though he was taking no delight in Levi’s humiliation. His eyebrows formed little ‘u’s of sincerity. The ‘u’s were too much. He lost all control, or perhaps unexpectedly let go of it. Levi began to weep, and snort, and blubber like a child.
“I’m sick!” said Levi. “I’m... so... sick!!” And he began to wail.
Jesus’s friends stood at a distance, their sixteen faces a row of stunned silence. The ox brayed.
Jesus came around the desk, and sat beside him. He placed one hand upon his shoulder, and the other one into the vomit-covered hand of the weeping toll collector. Levi looked up at his unexpected consoler. This Jesus was still smiling, but there were tears in his eyes, too.
“Follow me,” Jesus said. “I’ll help you get better.”
Levi, shaking, sniffing, dripping, got up, and followed.