Thursday, February 28, 2008


[Here's a story I wrote a while back (before 1999 at least). I've got a few of these short shorts lying around, back from when I still occasionally put stories in prose.]


She walked slowly across the parking lot, feeling the heat from the asphalt through her thin sandals and on her bare legs, precariously balancing her donut on the hot Styrofoam cup of coffee while fumbling with her keys. As she was putting the coffee onto the roof of the car, a young man trying to steer his bicycle while carrying a large bag of groceries lost control and fell over onto the hood of the car.

They looked at each other.

She saw a young man with long hair, a scraggly beard, an outrageously bright tie-dye T-shirt, and cut-off jeans with holes around the pockets. He put the bag carefully down and untangled himself from his bike.

"I hope you haven't made a dent," she said as he picked up the stray groceries and put them back into the bag.

"I don't think so," he said, glancing at the hood for a moment. "Looks all right to me." He picked up his bag and reached down carefully to pick up his bike.

"I don't know," she said, leaning down for a closer look. "Isn't this where you fell?" she asked, pointing.

He followed her finger. "Yeah, I guess it is," he said with a sigh. Reaching his leg cautiously over his bike, he added, "It's not such a big deal, is it? I don't know much about cars, but it looks pretty easy to fix." He set his foot on the pedal.

"This is a brand-new car. I just bought it last week."

He looked at her. "So?"

"When they hammer out the dent, they'll have to repaint the hood," she added.

"But if it's new, it's covered by a guarantee, isn't it?"

"Accidents aren't covered by guarantees. Don't you have a car?"

"If I had a car, I wouldn't be carrying groceries on my bicycle." He laughed. "In fact, I've never owned a car."

"Oh." She paused. "Look, I'm in a hurry right now. Give me your name and I'll call you when I've gotten an estimate."

"An estimate?"

"An estimate of how much it will cost to repair this."

"You want me to pay for it? Doesn't insurance cover stuff like this? It's just a tiny dent."

"Your insurance would cover it, if you had any. My insurance rates would go up if I asked them to pay for it. Is that fair?"

"No, I guess not. Look, I'll give you my name if you give me yours."

"Okay," she said, pulling two of her cards out of her wallet. She gave him one and wrote his name and telephone number on the other.

"Oh, you're at the university," he said. "Assistant Professor of Ethics. I just graduated last year."

"I just started this year," she said, climbing into her car. "Look, I'll call you as soon as I have the estimate."

"Okay. Bye."


As she waited to turn into the street, she saw him riding off. Once he got some momentum, he seemed to be in complete control of his bike.

At first, she thought she had lost his number. A friend had told her she was stupid anyway: "He's almost sure to have lied to you. Would you have given your real name and phone number to someone in such a situation? You should have asked to look at his license or something."

"Well, I didn't think of it. The whole thing took me by surprise."

"Your insurance would probably cover it without raising your rates. Why not try them?"

"Are you kidding? With my last car my rates kept going up every time I reported anything. It got so it seemed like they'd raise my rates every time I ran low on gas."

So when she finally found the card again and dialed the number, she didn't expect anything more than those three shrill tones and the announcement that the number was "not in service at this time."

Instead, a woman answered, somewhat older from her voice, but probably not old enough to be the young man's mother. She asked for him.

"Sure, just a second." She heard a loud voice calling the young man's name, and a "coming" echoing back.

Another extension. "Hello?" It was the same young man.

"Well, I'm happy to hear your voice."

"Oh, hi. Did you get an estimate?"

"Yes. Was that your mother?"

"No, my Mom lives back East. That was my landlady. I work as an au pair for her family. She has a four-year-old son."

This was a bit surprising, so she didn't say anything for a moment.

"So what's the damage?" he asked.

"Around three-hundred-fifty dollars."


"You don't have it, do you?"

"Well, no."

"Don't you get any money for your work?"

"Well, I was working part-time and doing the au pairing, but I just quit my job, and my cash flow is almost nonexistent."

"Well, where does that leave me?"

"Look, I have a friend who owns a garage. He said he could give me a good deal on it. Could we get a second estimate?"

She was surprised again. "I don't know. I don't know this friend of yours, after all."

"Well, it can't hurt to get an estimate, can it?"

"Look," she said. "It's my car. I want the repairs done by someone I know and trust."

Now he seemed surprised. "But --"

"All I want to know," she interrupted, "is whether you can get the money or not. Otherwise I'll have to go to my insurance company, and they'll come and ask you for the money."


"Yes," she said. "But I don't want to have to do that. You were nice enough to give me your real name, so I'd rather not have to hassle you with the insurance company."

"Did you think I would have lied about my name?"

"I wasn't sure. A friend of mine was sure you would have lied. She said I should have asked you for your license."

"But I said I don't have a car. Would you have lied in my position?"

She didn't answer. She didn't want to answer. "Are you going to be able to get the money?"

"Okay, look. Maybe I can. I have to check with my Mom. I'll call you again tomorrow."

"Make it tomorrow afternoon. I'll be teaching in the morning."

"Okay, I'll call you around two," he said. "Bye."


At 1:30, after eating lunch, she sat down on the deck with her newspaper, which she'd saved that morning just for this purpose. She didn't want to try to do any work before he called; the call would just break her train of thought. So she settled down with the news, which she hadn't been able to follow very closely lately.

She loved to take the time to read the newspaper closely, especially on such a lovely afternoon. The wood on the deck was beginning to get quite hot, but a light breeze was blowing, just enough to keep her from wanting to go inside. She sipped a drink and slowly turned the pages.

After she'd worked her way through two sections of the paper, with a break between to read the comics, she looked at the clock. It was 2:30. Maybe he was turning out to be a flake after all. Her friend had continued to doubt him: "Why didn't you get his address? You should have asked for his mother's address. Some people like that are always asking their parents for money. You're really much too trusting!"

She got up to go call him herself, but then the phone rang just as she was reaching for it.

"Hello?" she said.

"Hi, it's me," he said.

"Good. I was just about to call you."

"You were?"

"Well, it's 2:30. You said two o'clock. I can't wait for your call all afternoon. I've got work to do."

"Sorry. I had to wait until Trevor's Mom came home."


"He's the kid I take care of. Really cool. He sees right through anything people see. It's almost uncanny sometimes."

"Look, did you talk to your mother?"

"Yeah, she's going to send me the money. But things might get a little complicated."


"Well, she's mailing me a check, which will take a couple of days. Then the check has to clear. But by the time it clears, I'll be gone, so I can only mail you a check from my account."

"You want to mail me the check?"

"Yeah, is something wrong with that?"

"Where are you going?"

"See, I'm leaving to go off to grad school next week -- in five days, to be precise. That's why I quit my job. All my stuff is packed up and stored or being shipped -- everything's ready. And somehow I have to get this check to you without having it bounce."

"Okay, look. You can mail it to me -- my address is on the card, right? But you're going to mail it, right? And it's going to be good?"

"Hey, don't worry about it. If I've gone this far, I'm not going to rip you off now. As long as you don't deposit the check too quickly, then everything'll be okay."

"Okay, okay." She paused. "What are you going to study?"

"Philosophy," he said. "Ethics."

When the check arrived, earlier than she'd expected, she put it on her things-to-do pile with several other checks, setting aside the envelope with his note in it. When she went to the bank the next day, she took all the checks with her and deposited them. She was rather annoyed when the check bounced.

"I was very disappointed," she wrote, "that your check wasn't good, after you'd been so trustworthy until now. Please send me another check as soon as possible."

His reply was prompt. The check was enclosed with a brief note complaining that she had deposited the first check too soon, even though he had asked her not to in his letter. "What letter?" she thought, and then she remembered the note that she had only glanced at.

The second check was good.


Anonymous said...

I remember the incident in general,
but not well enough to say just what
you may have "fictionalized" about it --
except of course that the young man
studied something other than philo-
sophy and ethics in grad school.

I think you (or one of your friends
or relatives) should track down
"the ethics professor" and send
her this link. Perhaps she might
finally "get it"!

-- dhsh

(you don't need to post this on MY account, but I'd be glad to hear some more back from you about it :D))

Andrew Shields said...

The self-assigned writing exercise, if you will, was to take a personal experience and write about it from someone else's perspective.