Discards by Fred Miller

With the stature of a tin soldier granted life, he walked with purpose through the dark, snowy streets, his shoulders in secure command within a snug overcoat. Yet up until a month ago, his days found him hunched under focused light, his eyes keen on the numbers he’d inked into a bound ledger.

He’d been characterized by others around him as a desiccated vulture atop a stool, a permanent fixture in the bookkeeping room of a vast enterprise. A recent incident brought this all to naught. His position was now held by a youthful fellow who twitched and squirmed and surely appeared ill-suited for the job at hand.

No, this job belonged to a steady hand, a patient disposition, and a mind acquainted with the meticulous care of numbers. And Mr. Peeples, the moniker everyone had addressed him with since day one, had assumed that role with flawless aplomb and dignity. That is, until an error had been discovered by the director, a miscalculation, unacceptable for anyone schooled in the orderliness expected of the venerable bookkeeping team.

In vain he’d pled is case: not his style, he cried, not his hand, but the ink had dried and fingers had been pointed. Never mind the resemblance of the new replacement to the director, Mr. Peeples, at this desk, under this light, with this pen, had never left a numerical column without figuring it twice, sometimes thrice, and never had an error occurred under his watchful eye in his thirty-nine years with the firm.

But the past was the past, and with his life reduced to his humble space in a boarding house in the East End, he emerged but once a day to procure the necessities of life. And because of his prudence and thrift, he’d managed to hold on. Yet within his sharp mind he knew this could provide no permanence in these times in this city.

Tonight as with other nights, he’d removed a half dollar from a well-hidden store and placed it in his small coin purse: forty-five cents for the meal at the diner and a nickel for the waiter, the routine fixed and immutable.

Yet tonight he walked with confidence, a world of change unseen in his simple life before today. If anyone who’d known him had seen him tonight, it’s unlikely they’d have recognized the man with a skip in his step.

His thought of the discovery swirled in his head like the blizzard of papers strewn across his small room, moguls of pages smudged with ink, discards all save one now folded with care in his inside coat pocket. It held the answer, the saving grace, the epiphany he’d share with the director as well as the world in the new day tomorrow.

Into the icy street he stepped at a corner near the diner and slipped, his dark overcoat making contact with the hood of a sedan in an uncontrollable skid. All went black before he could react and consider what had happened.

When he awoke, he could see a host of silhouetted heads in a huddle above, some attempting to converse over the din in the street. His head throbbed and his chest ached with every breath he took.

He opened his mouth to advise all that he wished to go home, but his faint whispers went unheard. A dull shrillness cut through the darkness and moments later he was hoisted through flashing light into the back of a waiting conveyance.

A uniformed shadow peered down at him and, in soft tones, offered assurances over bumps and rumbles that shook the vehicle and added to the pain.

“In my pocket,” he tried to say. The paramedic nodded, turned to check the drip, and shoved a thermometer into his mouth.

“Not much longer, sir, almost there, just hold on, you’ll be fine.” But with his thumb on a pulse, he knew better. This ashen face was about to be thrust into another dimension, one that hospital personnel whisper about in the long, empty hours of the night.

Someone from the crowd in the street, a regular at the diner, had recognized and identified him to authorities. And a search of his room revealed little other than a desk, a quill pen by an old inkwell, and mounds of papers on the floor filled with columns of figures. And a sock under a mattress with dimes and nickels that totaled forty cents.

The envelope in his pocket was addressed to the director of the bookkeeping room, a sanctuary that had provided for him through the years. A man in blue handed the missive to the addressee and offered a brief account of the previous night’s events.

Alone, the director peered through his pince-nez at the letter, the explanation clear as to what had happened, and how a page had been altered after the fact, the ink a different hue, the nib broader than that of the meticulous clerk whose world had revolved around numbers.

Eyes around the room returned to tasks at hand as the letter floated in silence into a wire basket of discards below.

# # #

Fred Miller is a California writer. Over thirty of his stories have appeared in various publications around the world. Some of these stories appear in his current blog: https://pookah1943.wordpress.com.

Photo credit: Terri Malone

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