I eat dinner with the man across the aisle, though he doesn’t know it. We each take bite after bite, never speaking. I made a mistake with him, years ago. He does not recognize me now, but I recognize him. He needed to make a choice. He refused and now I must clean up his mess. My mess. Tonight, I must fix it and tonight I must provide that choice again to another who will take it.
I chose wrong with the man across the aisle.
It is not my place to make choices. This is something I have had to learn.
It is rare that I witness the birth of any man. Life is not my business. It is not my place. But this man was born like any other.
I remember the woman’s eyes as she pushed, struggled to birth the man across the aisle. Her fourth child. She was ill, sickly all her life. When she’d discovered she was pregnant she had been so proud. By the time I met her, though, she was afraid. Her three children, no fathers, waiting outside the room. A boy of fourteen years, another only ten, and the littlest girl at three. They could hear their mother’s screams and they huddled together when I walked into the room.
“Are you a doctor?” the little girl asked me, with eyes wide. “Are you going to help my mama?”
I stopped, unaware they coul
d see me. This was my first day on the job. This was the first choice I was to provide, to guard.
“Yes,” I had answered, gazing into her tear stained eyes. And I had believed it. But in the birthing room there had been a different plan. She needed to die, the mother of those children. The mother of that little girl. I looked her in the eye as she gave one final push, as the man across the aisle came into this world, screaming and crying. I watched as the light began to fade from his mother’s eyes. I took her hand, but I did not take her. I made her promise to do everything in her power to make sure that her boy became a doctor. And become a doctor he did, but not the doctor he needed to be.
His tailored suit and handmade shoes are out of place here.
Red seats line the chrome bar and the black and white tiles of the floor haven’t changed since the sixties. A waitress appears with the check and I dig in my pockets for my last bills. I have enough for the meal and a dollar tip, crumpled, worn, and covered in dirt.
I get up to leave. They don’t want me here. They don’t know who I am, but they have their suspicions. Everyone always does and everyone is always wrong. No one sees me the same way as another person might. The man across the aisle does not see me at all. This is not as it should have been. He missed his choice. He never stared into the darkness and it never stared back. His mother lived.
I made a choice, and I robbed him of his. I do not get to make choices. I only protect them.
I exit the diner onto the cold city streets, ambling along, biding my time. I have nowhere to go for now. Later I have a job to do, but for now I have time.
I walk with the woman as she finds her way home. This is a new city to her. She doesn’t know that I walk with her, but we are both alone and she looks more than a little lost. I make sure that she reaches her destination. Her shiny black shoes, pristine hair and designer clothes, and fresh manicure undisturbed. She will make a choice soon. I have kept it safe. It is because of me that she chose this city, this place.
She notices me as she walks into her apartment. She stares for a moment. She meets my eyes. Something inside her knows and she looks away as quick as she can. It won’t be long before I meet her again.
I walk down into the subway tunnel. The whistle of the trains and the smell of the sewer do not bother me.
I stop and pat the stray cat huddled in the corner where she has given birth to her first litter not more than an hour ago. She purrs and allows my touch. She knows that I am not for her this night, not for her babies.
I step onto the train and sit with the young boy on his way home from baseball practice. It’s his first time by himself on the subway and he glances at the other passengers . The lights flicker and he sees me sitting across from him. I smile and he looks at his shoes, wringing his hands together. There are holes in their sides, the solid areas coated in dirt and grass stains. He’s had them for a long time and they are small enough to be uncomfortable now. It makes his feet hurt to play in them, but he knows he’s good enough to make it out if he keeps trying. So he continues, and he saves his money until he can get a new pair – one that won’t hurt his feet.
He will grow to be a great man. Because of him no child will ever have to wear a pair of shoes that’s too small for them. Because of him the world will become a better place. Because of this I will not take him today. I am not for him. He has already made his choice. I am not the one to make it for him, no. I am not required for a choice like his, though I had a hand in it. It is because of me that he suffers, but it is because of his suffering that others will thrive.
The old woman at the end of the car watches me with curiosity. She knows. She recognizes me, but she says nothing. She knows that her time will come and she knows that I will not come for her. She will affect little. My job is choices. I am there, always, always there. The important choices, life and death. I can see the tapestry of life. I can see where it is worn and frayed. I can see the threads and I can see where they end and where they begin. The fates may spin and measure, and cut the threads, but I am there to see that they are woven. I am there to see that choices are made and that the weaving is strong. Because of the choice of the man in the diner, the tapestry is weak. The one I am for tonight – he will make it strong again.
The train comes to a halt and I step off. I reach into a pocket and I drop the last coins I have into the open guitar case, the blind man playing for change. His music takes a somber turn as he hears my coins drop into the case. He feels that I am there, standing, listening to him play. He begins to play with a beauty that few are able to master, and people gather, but none stand close to me. They don’t want to be caught in my net, not tonight.
I leave him to his music. He will eat another night and he will live for a while longer.
I walk on, looking up at the sky, waiting for the clouds to release the rain that they have withheld for so long. A few drops fall and land on my upturned face. Water is neither dead nor alive. It is both cooling, soothing, and terrifying to many.
I do not enjoy the work I must do, but that is no matter. Someone must do it, and that is me. It has always been me. But tonight – tonight there is something different. Tonight, is important.
The hospital lights do not hurt my eyes as I move inside. The children’s ward. I walk to the foot of a bed, surrounded by a family. “I’m waiting for Uncle Jim,” the child says. “Then everyone will be here.”
Her mother looks to me, hope in her eyes. “Don’t let my daughter die.”
The door to the ward opens and Uncle Jim walks in. He hurries to the child’s bedside, a teddy bear in hand. He smiles at the child, but he sees me and his face falls. He knows me as only one who is about to make a choice can know me.
“I’m not the doctor you’re looking for,” I whisper. I move to the child’s side and take one hand as Uncle Jim takes the other, his eyes leaving mine only to smile at his niece.
“I waited for you, Uncle Jim. I wanted to say good-bye. I love you.”
She takes a few short breaths before the monitor lets out a continuous, droning beep. I close my eyes and turn away, letting her hand fall to the bed. They do not see me anymore. It’s better that way. They call for a doctor. They call for several.
Uncle Jim still sees me. As I leave, he leaves too. He takes me by the shoulder. “It’s my fault. I wasn’t there. I should have been with her.”
I smile at him. I know the choice he will have to make, even if he does not. This death will either change his life or end it. I took the life of this girl so that he could make a choice. “Another day, James. Perhaps tomorrow.”
I leave the hospital, exhausted, and still my work is not finished. So much to do. I continue on, though I can feel the anger that comes with a night like this, it rises in my heart. Someone has to do it, but that does not mean that I enjoy it.
I sit with the homeless man in the park, waiting, biding my time for an hour or so, postponing the inevitable. He does not know that I sit with him. He does not notice me. but I am as homeless as he. I have nowhere to go. Nowhere that I rest my head. I do not rest. I can never rest. This is only a reprieve as I look up at the stars. Now that the rain has stopped, everything smells alive. The crickets sing and the stars are out in force tonight.
They look down at me and at my work. They do not care what I do, they are so far away, so many of them, I took them long ago. Some are still there, but many I have already spoken to. They do not fear me. They know what comes next. They know what happens when they move on. They know that there is a chance, however slight, they will become something more. They understand their potential. Humans are the only ones that fear me. They do not understand, and they fear what they do not understand.
I continue on.
As I walk a young boy stops to stare at me. “Are you a doctor?” He asks as I draw near. I stop a few feet from him. This is the question I have been waiting for.
“I am,” I reply. And it is the truth. This is my purpose tonight.
He looks around. “My Papa, he’s sick. We can’t afford to have a doctor come look at him. We don’t even have a car to take him to the hospital. Besides, last time we tried they said we didn’t have enough money to get him the surgery he needs.”
I watch his eyes as he works up the courage to ask me for what he wants.
“Will you come home with me? Will you look at him?”
I smile a little, trying to give him even the smallest glimmer of hope. And it is a lie.
“We can’t pay you. But he needs a doctor soon.”
I smile again, trying to ignore the knowledge of what I must do. The exhaustion is overwhelming, but I cannot stop now. “Take me to him,” I offer my hand.
The boy takes it. He is only eight years old. His Papa promised to take him to a football game when he turns nine next month. I let him lead me by the hand to his home.
It is small, in need of repair. He leads me inside where his mother sits with a stack of bills at the table. “Where have you been? I told you not to go out after midnight.” She stops. “Who is this?” She sees me holding her son’s hand.
“He’s a doctor, Mama. He said he would help.”
“We can’t pay him,” she chides the boy. “I am sorry sir. He should not have made you come all this way.”
“Where is your husband?”
She frowns but the light of hope sparkles in her eyes. If her husband can only see a doctor. He might live. But this too is a lie. I am meant for him.
I follow her to the room that it appears they all share. Two little girls share a small mattress in one corner while the father lies on a mattress in the other. His breathing is slow, strong for a moment, and then he struggles for another breath. I walk over to him and kneel on the ground. The mother stands in the door, holding her breath. But the boy comes to my side.
“I want to be a doctor too,” he whispers.
I look into his eyes. He will be a great doctor one day. Because of him the world will be a better place. Because of him, no one will die like his father again He has only to make a choice, a choice I must provide. “You will be,” I whisper to him even as I take his father’s hand in mine. I close my eyes as I feel his pulse slow to a stop. “He is not in any pain. Not anymore.”
The mother rushes to her husband’s side. The boy stares at me with sadness on his face. “You didn’t do anything. I thought you were a doctor.”
From behind the boy his father stares at me. He stands tall, stronger than he’s ever been. But the boy cannot see him. “I am a doctor.” The father nods at me. He knows what will happen now. He knows why he had to die. They all do, always. “I am a doctor for the dying.”
“He wasn’t supposed to die,” he whispers.
“Everyone dies.” I look away as the wife begins to cry and cough. I watch blood come out of her mouth. It will not be long before I return here. A choice must occur and it cannot do so without a catalyst.
I am that catalyst.
I continue my journey. It does not end here. It will never end as I step out onto the street with the rising sun. There are more choices for me to protect and provide.