A Matter For Reflection

A Matter For Reflection

Roger Klaue

The sign said, "Delphi, Books and Curios." Wilbur Grimsley looked about timidly before entering the little shop. He'd walked past it numerous times on the way home from his bus stop over the past twenty years, four thousand four hundred and eighty-three times to be precise. Wilbur had often wondered what mysteries the little shop might contain, but until today he'd never stepped out of a cautiously scripted and proscribed life. Eunice might worry if he were late, he'd told himself, four thousand four hundred and eighty-three times, but today it didn't matter.

Wilbur had just come from the doctor's office. A deliberate creature of habit, Wilbur had taken his annual company physical one week before his birthday ever since joining his C.P.A. firm twenty years ago.

Today was Wilbur's forty-ninth birthday. According to the liver scan, he would not have a fiftieth. Still in a daze, Wilbur browsed among the shelves, his mind meandering back to last week. During the physical, Dr. Palmer noted Wilbur's sallow complexion, ordering the liver scan merely as a precautionary measure, he’d said at the time.

Now, Wilbur felt somehow betrayed. He'd always done the right thing: gone to the right schools, attended the right church, married the right girl, fathered the accepted three children, dressed warmly in winter, done his morning callisthenics, eaten sensibly, brushed and flossed properly, taken his annual physicals on time. And Wilbur had never taken chances or engaged in risky behaviour of any kind. How could this happen to him? Lost in his own despair, Wilbur failed to notice the small, nearly elfin man behind the counter.

"How may I serve you?" the man asked in a soft but resonant voice, giving Wilbur a start.

Wilbur looked into the kindly round face and felt encouraged to pour out his heart: "...and, now I find I'm to die," Wilbur sobbed, concluding his sad tale in a torrent of self-pity.

"Nonsense!" the little man said, shattering Wilbur’s emotional redoubt. "Death is an achievement! The culmination of life. I can assure you that it is quite impossible for a man who has never lived to die."

"But the Doctor, the liver scan--" Wilbur blurted, uncomprehendingly.

"Look at the book," the little round man commanded, extending a leather bound volume wards Wilbur.

Wilbur did as he was told-- when had he not? He stared hard at the dried and peeling cover. "Wilbur Grimsley" it read in badly faded gold leaf lettering. Hands trembling, Wilbur opened the crumbling volume and discovered but a single entry, a date. It, too, was faded, but Wilbur had no difficulty recognizing his own birth date. Chilled to the marrow, he stammered: "Mr. ah, a..."

"You may call me Delphi," the little round man said.

"Delphi, how is it that you know so much about me?" Wilbur gasped in frightened amazement.

"So much you say? My dear fellow there is nothing to know about you. Other than a name and date in a virtually unused and, therefore, rapidly decaying life book, you do not exist-- will not, soon, anyway," Delphi stated quite matter-of-factly.

"That’s not so! I do exist. Why, I have a wife -- and children, too!" Wilbur protested, confounded by the unexpected turn of conversation with the uncanny, little man.

"Ah yes, Eunice, a woman who defines herself entirely in terms of being the wife of a man who has never... that is, who soon will not ever have existed. And, pray tell, what sort of issue could come from such a union?" Delphi sighed, rolling his eyes skyward.

"You mock me," cried Wilbur; tears of anger and frustration streamed from his eyes.

"No, Wilbur. That you've ventured to do nothing with your allotted span mocks you. You've done the 'right thing' -- which is to say, nothing, for so long that your body is dying on you from sheer boredom. Did you know that one of the primary functions of the liver is to filter toxins? Severely injured, attacked by disease, or badly used over time, the liver will indeed fail. 'Protected' from normal toxicity, however, it will atrophy from disuse and fail even sooner. The liver, like the rest of the body, was designed to be used during one lifetime; it was never part of the plan to hold it or any other part of the body in reserve for that 'rainy day' your society expresses such a fondness for-- dreadful proverb, that!

"You, Wilbur, and far too many like you, waste your precious opportunities to evolve, seeking instead to seal yourselves away in sterile utopian environs with elaborate safeguards against physical and emotional risk, which is to say, against life itself. Congratulations, Wilbur! You've done it. But there also is the rub, for how can one appreciate -- what shall we call it? -- the non-accomplishment of an un-lifetime, perhaps?" Delphi suggested, more in pity than contempt.

"You offered to help!" Wilbur sobbed accusingly.

"I have," said Delphi. "I’ve helped you review your 'un-life'; now, I shall help you see your 'un-destiny'. Look here!" he commanded, handing Wilbur an antique silver-framed hand mirror.

Wilbur peered intently into its timeless depths, searching desperately for a reflection, but he found nothing. The truth came crashing through his denials. In attempting to preserve his life, Wilbur had failed to live it. He moaned in recognition, softly at first, but soon the moan became a wail, the ancient primeval wail of the banshee. Previously unused nerves shrieked from the awful pain of introspective discovery. Oh! Wasn't there something, perhaps even just one last thing that Wilbur could still do?

"Well, no, certainly not as Wilbur Grimsley," Delphi said, thoughtfully, "the very pages of that life book were now too decayed to write on. But there was a life that had been abandoned a bit prematurely by an overeager soul, following an accident, and that life has the use of a strong and healthy body for its duration, which is about the same period of time remaining to you."

Unappealing? perhaps, but it was something. Wilbur could still choose to do nothing, of course, merely wait to expire, but, Delphi warned, because of never having lived, Wilbur’s soul would revert to cosmic oblivion of the most literal sense. The only real alternative was for Wilbur to exit now and assume the tag-end remnant of an abandoned life, knowing nothing about the kind of life it was, accepting both personality and body sight unseen.

Delphi led Wilbur to a full length mirror. If Wilbur elected to exercise his option, he would have to step into the mirror. Delphi's grave countenance conveyed the utmost urgency in Wilbur’s deciding the matter quickly. Taking a deep breath, Wilbur closed his eyes and stumbled more than stepped into the mirror, falling... hearing voices.

Sanjay Jefferson jerked bolt upright in bed, awash in his own perspiration. His wife, Stephanie, rolled over: "You have that dream again, honey?" she asked softly. He nodded. Ever since suffering a severe concussion three weeks ago in a freak collision with the canopy after ejecting from his burning FA-18, Lt. Jefferson had suffered the recurring nightmare. It never varied in substance nor weakened in intensity, but, thankfully, it was occurring less frequently. Jefferson rose and went to the bathroom, hoping a shower would help cleanse away his sweaty fear.

Sanjay Jefferson, born and raised in "Bedford Sty," had grabbed ahold of every opportunity life had to offer, eschewing escapes. He'd plunged into the trough with exuberance, participating in athletics and academics with equal enthusiasm. After college he'd joined the Navy, wanting to fly. He'd lusted for it... still did, in fact, despite the nearly fatal accident.

Sanjay towelled himself off and returned to the bedroom. Stephanie had already shed her nightie in anticipation of his increased passion. Ever since leaving the hospital, Sanjay had loved her like there was no tomorrow, and that was especially true after every recurrence of the nightmare.

Both Stephanie and the base psychiatrist were baffled. Neither could offer a guess as to why Sanjay's post-accident trauma had manifested in this particular form, nor, for that matter, could Sanjay say why he dreamed about, let alone seemed to live in terror of becoming a middle-aged Caucasian accountant. Sanjay had shown absolutely no fear of flying, however, and the psychiatrist had written-off the recurring nightmare as "one for the books," but certainly not serious enough to prevent Sanjay from missing his up-coming sea duty.

The other pilots teased Sanjay mercilessly about his nightmare; one of them suggesting, to a hearty chorus of catcalls, that the accident had scared him white. Sanjay groaned loudly, secretly delighted to be the centre of attention. He fully appreciated the kind of bad joke that men who taunt death for a living need to make at such times. Sanjay's overplayed reaction guaranteed the joke would take on a life of its own. Even his commanding officer joined in, giving Sanjay a bottle of ebony shoe polish, recommending tongue-in-cheek that Sanjay consult a mirror frequently and "...use this at the first sign of fading."

Later, when Sanjay discovered the antique silver-framed hand mirror in his flight locker, he’d smiled, thinking it but another chapter in the long-running gag. For the life of him, though, he could make no sense of the inscription on the back: "Delphi, Keeper of Books and Curios."

Sanjay grew fond of the little mirror, using it often. He came to be strangely reassured by the rich, dark image reflected back; it made him feel more substantive, somehow. He would find this to be so for the rest of his life. Feeling reaffirmed, Sanjay smiled, returned the mirror to his bureau, and once again made passionate love to his wife.

Four months later, returning from photo-reconnaissance over Iraq, the tail hook on Sanjay’s FA-18 snagged the arresting cable during what first seemed like a routine carrier landing. Suddenly and inexplicably, the hook snapped, causing the aircraft to twist awkwardly to the right catching the wingtip on the deck. The FA-18 cartwheeled down the flat top wingtip over wingtip exploding in a fireball before going over the side. Lt. Jefferson died instantly.

* * *

Whistling cheerfully, the spritely shopkeeper placed a new edition on display. The second volume of the Jefferson book, though brief, was completely filled with crisp, clear writing done in a bold hand. The "W" was unmistakable. Quite content, the uncanny proprietor shared a conspiratorial wink with his ancient task companion. He waited, slightly bemused that his elfin wink had gone unreflected, then he laughed with delight as it slowly redoubled in the arcane depths of the antique silver-framed looking glass.