It happened when Richard craned his neck to look at the electric board in front of the bank. He knew it was hot — the sticky patch of sweat on the back of his neck told him that — but he wanted to see how hot it actually was. But before the time could flip to the temperature, he heard a crash and felt a thud. He jerked in his seat — the belt dug into his doughy stomach as the top of his balding head hit the roof. He later realized the airbag hadn’t deployed and wondered what the point was in having a sixty-thousand dollar car.
The car in front of him was not an expensive model. It was a white hatchback — probably Japanese — and looked to be at least a decade old. The driver steered the car to the right and it sagged to the curb. Richard, cursing under his breath, parked behind.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he began before he’d even opened his door. He examined the front-end of the Lexus; not too bad but probably still at least a grand to fix, he thought. “I’m sure insurance will take care of this,” he continued.
The door of the hatchback opened and a woman who to Richard looked to be in her early-thirties — about ten years younger than himself — stepped out. Without acknowledging him, she walked to the back of the car. She sighed when she saw the damage. The hatchback had certainly gotten the worst of the deal: the left brake-light was shattered and the bumper had crumpled up and was now almost completely hiding the license plate.
“I’m sorry,” Richard repeated.
The woman stared up at him. “Yeah, so am I.”
“But like I said, insurance should cover it. Why don’t we just exchange information and I’ll call this in as soon as I-“
The woman burst into tears and covered her face with her hands. Richard froze, unsure of what to do. An old woman pushing a shopping cart on the sidewalk scowled at him and he blushed.
“Um…do you, do you want me…uh, why don’t we get out of the road a little.”
He put his hand gently on her shoulder and tried to guide her to a bus stop bench. She let him and he was grateful for that. She sniffled as she sat down and pulled a tissue from her pocket. Richard sat down next to her.
“I’m sorry,” she said softy and wiped her nose.
“No, I mean, you have nothing to be sorry about. I’m the one who…” He let the sentence dangle, it was obvious what’d he done; plus he thought saying it might make her more upset.
“I’m Richard,” he said after a moment and extended his hand.
“Mandy,” she said and shook it.
After another minute of silence Richard stood. “We should probably just, you know, exchange info and let the insurance companies sort this out.”
He took a step towards the street but Mandy didn’t move. She muttered something he didn’t hear.
“What?” he asked.
“Don’t have insurance,” she said.
Richard peered down at her; she was trembling slightly and it looked like she was going to start crying again. He quickly sat back down.
“Hey, it’s uh…it’s fine. It was totally my fault, my insurance will cover it, you don’t have to worry.”
“It’s not that, it’s just…I’ve had kind of a rough day.”
“And now I’ve gone and made it so much better,” Richard said with a little smile.
Mandy returned the smile and he was startled at the sudden difference in her face. He realized he was way off on his estimate of her age. Even with her red, tired eyes she hardly looked much older than a teenager.
Richard glanced at his watch, it was 4:36. If he didn’t pick up Brian by 5:00 Sheila would probably go crazy; she might even call the lawyer again.
“Do you need to be somewhere?” Mandy asked.
“Um, well…” He watched her lift the tissue to her right eye but not quite fast enough and a tear rolled down her cheek. “No, not really. Why uh, why did you have a rough day? If you don’t mind me asking.”
She sighed and after a long silence said “Do you have kids, Richard?”
“Uh, yes, one. His name’s Brian. He’s seven.”
“How about you? Any children?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t get to see him a whole lot now but he’s a great kid.”
“Why don’t you get to see him?”
“Um, since the divorce, well, we’re still technically just separated, but since then, Sheila — that’s my wife, or ex, or I guess soon-to-be ex — she has him most of the time. I get him every other weekend and some holidays. It’s not the greatest arrangement but at least I get to see him.”
Richard watched a man standing across the street waiting for the light to change practicing his golf swing. He glanced at Mandy; she was also gazing across the street but not at the golfer. She was staring at a mother trying to wrangle three small kids into a minivan.
“Yeah,” Richard said, “kids can be a lot of work.”
“Are they worth it?” she asked, turning to look at him. “I mean, after all the stuff they put you through, are they still worth it?” There was a hint of something in her voice. Desperation wasn’t the right word, Richard thought, but it was close.
“Well, yes, I’d say so,” he said. “Brian’s a great kid.” He realized that was the second time he’d said that. Wasn’t there anything else he could say about his own child besides he’s a great kid?
“Let me ask you something, Richard, and I hope I’m not being too personal.” She was watching the family again. The exasperated mother had gotten two of the kids buckled in but the third was now running in circles around the van. “If you had the choice, would you, I mean, if you could go back and do it again…would you still have your son?”
“Of course,” he blurted out immediately, almost instinctively. Wasn’t that the customary stock answer, the one every parent was supposed to give? But he still meant it, didn’t he?
Richard was suddenly reminded of what Shelia had said to him in their last conversation, their last real discussion before all their interactions were reduced to tight-lipped pleasantries. She had gotten in one final barb just as he was closing the front door behind him, and it still stung.
“Brian’s a great- I love my son. There’s no question I’d do it all over again.”
The mother had finally gotten the third child into the car and was wearily sliding into the driver’s seat.
“Do you want to have children?” he asked. “I mean, one day.”
Mandy’s expression changed and she instantly appeared much older again.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No, it’s fine. Why don’t we just give each other that information now.”
Richard studied her as she sat there, staring straight ahead, nervously playing with her hands. He didn’t want to leave yet. He suddenly had an urge to know more about this woman — her story, her history. There was something behind those dark eyes, something strong yet somehow fragile that mystified him. He had an almost overwhelming need to help her, to protect her, to wrap his arms around her until everything in her life was better.
He slowly lifted his hand but only to reach into his jacket pocket to pull out a business card and fountain pen. He began writing on the back of the card.
“My name and number’s on the front. And here’s my insurance company.” He handed her the card. “I’ll call them as soon as I get home.”
Mandy pulled out a piece of paper from her purse and when she kept rummaging, Richard held out the pen. She smiled and took it and scribbled something down. When she was finished she gave him the paper and pen and quickly stood.
“Thanks,” she said, walking to her car.
“Uh, you’re welcome I guess. Good luck with everything.”
She peered at him for a second, a peculiar expression on her face that Richard at first didn’t understand, and then got in the car and drove away. He stared after her for a couple of blocks and then looked at his watch: 5:13. Sheila will be pissed, he thought, as he headed back to the Lexus. So what? She’s been late plenty of times herself and he’s never made a big deal of it.
Before he opened the car door he glanced down at the piece of paper Mandy had given him. She had written down her name and number on the back of what looked like some kind of pamphlet. Richard flipped it over. It was from a place called Southfield Clinic. Why did that name sound so familiar? He thought for a moment and then it hit him — eight years ago he and Sheila had gone there. She was a month pregnant then and they weren’t sure they were going to…
He gazed down the road again, just in time to see Mandy’s car disappearing over a hill.
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Portland Fiction Project
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