I walk down the street and see you looming over the row of meters. You are checking for times remaining for these rented spaces. I take your smile as an invitation to interrupt your work.
“How’s it going today?” I say.
“Not bad,” you say, “I have one about to expire here.”
I stand close enough to see the meter you are scrutinizing.
3 minutes, 24 seconds.
I look around at people scattering about their business. No one’s hand waves to say, “That’s my meter! Wait – I’m coming!”
You tell me about the last minute pleading for amnesty. Then you’d decide whether to let the person feed the expired meter. Unless you’ve already marked a meter for the maximum time allowed at this location.
“Then it doesn’t matter if they keep feeding the meter,” you say. “They still have to leave. Make room for other people.”
2 minutes 51 seconds.
“It’s not that I don’t want to help them out, especially some of them,” you say, “I get to know them. When you’ve worked here as long as I have, you pay attention to the regulars.”
I sweep my eyes once more, hoping to find the renter of this expiring meter, and I reach into my pocket.
“You are not doing that,” You say, even though you know that I am, indeed, doing it. You’ve caught me once feeding an expiring meter. I’d just arrived to the neighborhood and you excused me with a stern warning: “You do your job, I’ll do mine.”
“Why not? Random act of kindness,” I say, “Maybe this one’s lost track of time for a good reason.”
1 minute 15 seconds.
“They all have a good reason,” you say. “Some of them are betting on me coming late or forgetting. I’m never late. I don’t forget.”
You have marked this meter already and I take my hand – empty – out of my pocket. No act of kindness today.
Where is he? Doesn’t he know that his meter is running out of time?
Now we stop looking for the claimant to the meter. We watch time run out by seconds.
When you start watching time, time seems to slow down a little but when you lose track of time, it runs out before surprise catches you.
31 seconds… 28 … 23…
You take out your pen and write on a thick slip of paper: you will give one copy for the Boss, the One who accounts for all these spaces, Who sets the time limit for meters. The other copy is for the renter powerless against His claim.
I nod and leave. I have my job to do: the Boss assigns me to watch over the loved ones left behind from His claim. I will hear the loved ones ask “why”; some of them wail the question, others scream silently. Some of them can sense I am near, others too blinded by grief to notice.
4 seconds… 3… 2… 1.
Originally Written September 2011
ABOUT THIS PIECE
In September 2009, I was in the park with my child and I found a small picture of a man on the ground in the park premises. The picture had the inscription, “When I was young I wanted to be a train conductor, but I settled for quantum physics instead…”
It turned out that this was a man who had passed away earlier that year, in March.
Maybe it was because this man lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, and I had lived there for 5 years when I was a little girl (and learned Queen’s English, which was my original “English” tongue when I attended the British international school in Riyadh.)
Maybe it was because this man was a good father loved by his daughters, and I was now a mother of a little boy and I began to understand the poignancy of parent-child relationships.
Maybe it was because of the purity of a childhood dream — to become a train conductor — and in aspiring to that dream even if unfulfilled, this man accomplished good things, most of all in his role as a dad.
Whatever the reason, I felt a connection with this person.
Then I thought about how our lives seem to be on borrowed time, where our meter eventually run out and some of us may not have a lot of “advance notice” and how our kin suffer greatly when our meter abruptly expires.
I wondered about the possibility of an angel of death being dispatched to check on the meters of our lives.
And I wondered about the possibility of an angel of compassion being dispatched to watch over those left behind.
Then I wrote this piece.