Stillborn by humpwhistle
Story of the Month contest entry
The door stood wide open, so the boy knocked on the jamb.
The old man looked up from his papers, pushed his glasses up onto his forehead and squinted. "Yes, well, don't I recognize you, lad? O'Day, is it?"
O'Day swiped off his cap, and dipped his head nervously. "It is, sir, O'Day." He said the name sadly, wistfully, then added, "Or, so it was to be."
The old man seemed a bit puzzled. "Well, come in, come in and take a seat."
O'Day entered the office and put his hand on the chair opposite the desk.
"Not there, if you please," said the old man. "Oh, no, you definitely do not want to be sitting there." He made a dismissive gesture. "If you only knew." He returned his attention to the myriad forms, files and correspondence papering his desk.
O'Day glanced around the cluttered office. Aside from the chair the old man was occupying, and the one he was asked not to use, there were no others. He stood, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, and waited.
The old man rested his glasses back on his nose and riffled through a particular sheaf of documents. "Oh dear," he said to himself, then he looked back to O'Day, "I can't seem to find your records. But perhaps..." his voice drifted off as he fanned through another stack of papers, possibly certificates, affidavits, or some other such.
O'Day spoke up. "There are none, sir. Actually I have no record." He took a half-step forward. "Ah, but I can be explaining that."
The old man put the papers down and looked more closely at O'Day, this time over his specs. "Stillborn, were you?"
"Exactly, sir." O'Day wrung the cloth cap in his hands. "But it wasn't my fault, I swear."
The old man now picked up a pencil and tapped it twice on the desk. "No, no, my boy, of course it wasn't your fault. It couldn't have been." He gave his ear a thoughtful tug, and said quietly, "I wouldn't blame you if you're thinking that we run some slap-dash assembly line here. But truth be told, sometimes things just get a trifle messy. Occasionally a thread will break, a stitch will drop, or something else will just fall through the cracks. Heaven knows we do our best, lad, but sometimes there's just no help for it."
O'Day examined the old man again and recognized that he was many years older than he appeared to be from a distance. Just how old, O'Day lacked the experience to even venture a guess.
"You see O'Day, sometimes a bit of this gets in the way of a bit of that, and, well, we're unable to fulfill all our promises. Do you understand, son?"
"Begging your pardon, but no, sir, I do not understand."
The old man leaned back and ruptured a rueful sigh. "Well, neither do I boyo, and I've been wrestling with this sort of thing since long before you were..." he closed his eyes and pursed his lips, "...for a very good long time."
The old man reached out with his left hand and drummed his fingers on the desk for a bit. "O'Day, my boy, when this thing called life got mumbo-jumbo-ed up out of the ozone, there were no standards, no allowances, no safety nets. No airbags, no escape keys." He shrugged. "And there still aren't, my boy. Mistakes are made. Accidents happen. Life, by definition, is an imperfect process. To make a very long story very short, things can go wrong."
"But I was supposed to..."
The old man gently waved him off. "Do you know what a coin is, boyo?"
"Then you know that it has two sides."
O'Day saw that the old man was now tumbling a coin across the knuckles of his left hand.
"Well then lad, you need to know that the coin that says 'supposed to' on the one side, says 'disappointment' on the other." He held up the coin, then spun it like a top on the surface of the desk.
O'Day stood up as straight as he could. "Aye, so you're trying to tell me that if what's 'supposed to' happen doesn't, all that's left behind is 'disappointment'?
The old man said nothing.
"Well, all due respect, but that's the one area where I have some newly-minted experience of my very own. So frankly, you're preaching to the choir."
The old man smiled and O'Day imagined that that must be what the dawn looked like. "Aye, and very well put, son. But you see, I tossed a bonny ball into the eternal ether and the color...oh, lad, you should have seen it...the color was just exactly the bloom of all things possible." He sighed another sigh, this one perhaps of ancient regret, and gestured toward the papers cluttering his desk. "Ah, but look at me now. All the experience in the world, and I still can't keep the lint out of the belly-button, now can I?"
"Are you saying there's nothing you can do for me?"
"That is the one thing I could never say, lad. But more to the point, boyo, is what is it you would have me do?"
O'Day looked down at his shoes. "I would have you change it for me."
The old man bowed his head. "Lad, would you have me change the sun from yellow to blue? Would you have roosters be laying the eggs now? Shall I be replacing gravity with whipped cream?"
O'Day was about to reply, then changed his mind, rolled his neck and said, "You know what I mean." He said it softly, and there was a tremor in his voice.
"Yes, son, I do know what you mean. A billion-times multiplied I know what you mean." He pushed his chair back, then leaned forward, elbows on knees. "Done is done, boyo. That's a rule which even I most carefully refrain from the breaking. You see, change is not a simple one-time act. Change is more like a river with bends and forks, and even the bold temerity to carve a path away from that which was intended for it. No, boyo," he gazed absently at the empty chair in front of his desk. "Things may change, but I do not change them. That's the way it's always been, and the way it always will be." The old man clamped a hand over the still-spinning coin and brought it to rest without revealing which side had come up on top.
O'Day put his hands in his back pockets. "But they were waiting to love me."
"That they were, boyo, but you'd do well to understand that waiting is the tense in which life is truly written."
"But I don't understand."
"Of course you don't. No more than a guppy understands water. Or the diamonds that pulse the night confer with the sky." He lifted the hand that had been hiding the coin---which was now gone---and waved it in a slow circular motion. "You waited, you are waiting, you will continue to wait." Perhaps he frowned. "Living is one dram experience for every four pints of waiting. You wait to come alive. You wait for something to do. You wait for someone to love. You wait for someone to love you. And, if you're like most, you wait to die."
O'Day was having trouble processing what he'd just heard. He said: "And then what do we wait for?"
"You wait to know what happens next."
Now it was O'Day's turn to shrug and shake his head. "So what am I waiting for now?"
"All there is to wait for lad: Another chance."
O'Day shook out his cap and turned to leave, then looked back. "Sir, if I'm not asking you to divulge too much, just what kind of a chance have I got?"
"Why, the best there is, boyo. The very best there is."
When the boy had left, the old man called out: "Marge."
A slight, harried-looking woman popped her head inside the door and lifted her eyebrows.
"That O'Day boy..."
"Right," she said. "I'll pull some strings."
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