The Gentleman's Coin | Short Story

I met Death once.

He was an older gentleman, seated at a park bench near me and talking with a young woman. His hair was long and grey, slicked back beneath a velvety black hat. Round-framed glasses pinched his prominent nose, and his mustache was full and quite well-groomed. The gentleman’s posture was casual, yet I knew who he was the moment I saw him. My suspicions were confirmed once I overheard his conversation.

“I can tell you the time and place. You can choose the way, if you’d like.” His voice was deep, and he spoke softly.

The young woman’s back was turned to me so I couldn’t hear her words, but I knew them from her body language.

I… I don’t know. Can I think about it for a while?

The gentleman shook his head, his expression apologetic.

I see… She sighed and looked out over the park in a daze, eyes staring through the distant trees and people. A lock of hair fell over her face, but she didn’t seem to notice. The gentleman fiddled with an object in his palm. For nearly two minutes she was motionless, but I saw her eyes working through the question. Then she sat upright suddenly, leaned towards the gentleman, and whispered.

“March 14th, twenty one years from now,” he replied. “ It will be at a café near Sixth and Main, but it hasn’t been built yet.” He spoke carefully and calmly, making eye contact only at the end. It was personal, but not emotional. She nodded and stood up. He tipped his hat. Then she walked across the park in a light stride, something between numbness and floating. It occurred to me then that the woman could be no more than thirty. Already she was more than halfway through her life.

The gentleman stayed at the bench for a while, watching the children and dogs, still fumbling with the object in his hand. Curiosity got the best of me, so I went and sat next to him.

“You want to know who I am, don’t you?” he said without averting his gaze.

“Of course,” I replied, though not as confidently as I’d have liked.

“But you already know.” He turned towards me, pulling his focus from the merriment of youth. “I’m Death. Well, the current incarnation, at least.” He looked at me with warm, but weary eyes.

The look on my face asked the next question for me.

“I wasn’t always Death.” He held out his palm, upon which was a bronze coin. It looked ancient, the faces polished smooth by centuries, maybe even millennia. His eyes darted across the mirrored surface, catching reflections from a past life. “I found this one day,” he started, entranced by the object. “Just laying there on the sidewalk. I knew what it was, just as you knew who I was, but I still picked it up.” He hefted it lightly, weighing the choice he’d made. “Back then I was like you. Like all of these people. I had a life, I had love, and ambitions. I didn’t realize it had changed me until... well, there’s no turning back after that.”

For a long moment we both stared at that little piece of metal.

“You want to know why I told the woman when she would die, don’t you?”

“Well… yes. I always thought death was a mystery.”

“Perhaps. But you see…” With a flick of his thumb he tossed the coin high into the air and caught it in his fist. When he opened his hand the coin bore the face of a middle-aged man, wreathed in intricate filigree. There was a pattern hidden in the designs, and I could feel my mind straining to decipher it.

“This is a person who will die by me.” His voice was heavy. “You can’t read it, but these patterns reveal the time and place of his death. Most of the time it’s too soon to do anything about it.” He glanced at his watch and shifted uneasily on the bench. “But sometimes it’s far enough away that I can give them a choice.”

“I go to them, ask if they want to know the time and place, and let them decide how they want to go. Most don’t want to know. It’s their choice, so I just let them be. But then… then, there are the ones like her,” his eyes locked to the young woman, now just a speck among the hundred figures wandering through the park. “I can tell who they are before I even ask. Something in the eyes. They’ll ponder it for a while, then whisper how they want to die. Always a whisper. I tell them their time, we part ways, and they go about their life.”

“You still haven’t explained why. Just giving them that option, it… it feels wrong!” I had trouble keeping the frustration from my voice.

“Because it changes them.” the gentleman replied. “Takes the pressure off, gives them something solid in life. I don’t know for sure.” His eyes dropped to the coin. “And I guess it changes me too. They get to live as fully as they want with the time they have. With purpose. And when I see them again, they’re happier for it. Something I never…” His voiced faded as his fingers turned the coin over and over, each flip revealing a new face. He smiled, though I could tell he was on the verge of tears.

I looked out at the young woman one more time, wondering what her world must be like now, imagining the pressure of living each day to it’s fullest while knowing how few were left. Then another thought lodged in my mind: what had she chosen as her way to die?

The gentleman snorted, glanced at his watch one more time, stood up, and straightened his coat. He started to walk away, then stopped and turned to me.

“Since you were kind enough to chat, I’ll give you the choice. Would you like to know your time?” He held out his hand, the coin resting in his palm. On it was a face, embossed in bronze, adorned with delicate patterns. My face.

My eyes locked to the horizon. Unfocused, wandering the myriad possibilities. I don’t know how long I sat like that, but he stood by patiently until I’d made up my mind.

A minute later I watched as he strolled purposefully across the park, no doubt heading to his next appointment. I pondered our parting words and by the time I realized my thoughts had wandered, he was gone.

I smiled, gathered my things, and went about my life.