by Carrie Etter
By three that Wednesday, coffee could no longer invigorate me. I looked out my window and saw the least scenic area of Santa Monica, a sprawl of office buildings and warehouses next to the 10 freeway.
Intending to go out to the atrium for a cigarette, I had risen from my desk when Heather, our receptionist, looked in. ‘An old guy named Scott,’ she said. ‘Said he wanted to see a woman-agent.’
‘Sure. Show him in,’ I told her.
Scott looked about sixty, thin and tall with the lightly tanned skin that’s almost unavoidable in southern California. He had a handsome, long face that reminded me of one of my father’s friends, and I suppose that’s what made me warm to him right away. I put out my hand. ‘Marcy Belter,’ I said. ‘Nice to meet you.’
He responded with a surprisingly limp handshake. ‘Scott Thomson; that’s without a P.’ I was about to gesture to one of the chairs in front of my desk when I saw he was already easing into one, shifting a few times to find the most comfortable position. ‘Back problems,’ he said.
‘Sorry to hear it.’ I sat down behind my desk. ‘So, what brings you here today?’
‘I need to get my wife’s auto insurance. It’s about to run out, and I, uh, need to change companies.’
‘And you’d like a quote?’
He looked puzzled for a moment, then answered, ‘No, I don’t need a quote, just the insurance.’
I smiled, took out an application, and began asking for details. Scott replied unhurriedly, seeming to relish telling the facts about his Sara even though he didn’t expound on them with anecdotes as many other husbands did. Once we reached the end of the form, I said, ‘We’ll just need her to sign this – I’ll give you a prepaid envelope to send it back to us. Will you be paying by check or card?’
I had been looking in my desk for the envelopes, which Heather had restocked in a different drawer than I usually put them, so it was a moment before I noticed Scott slowly shaking his head. I wondered whether after all this he didn’t have the money. ‘Is there a problem?’ I asked.
He nodded. ‘She can’t sign it.’
‘What do you mean, she can’t sign it?’ I asked hesitantly. I thought of my aunt’s crippling arthritis and tried to think of the best words to use. ‘Is she physically unable to sign it?’ I said at last, wondering, then, how she’d be able to drive.
He gave a low chuckle. ‘You could say that.’ I waited, setting the envelope in front of him and gently closing my desk drawer. He stared straight at me for the first time since he came in. ‘She’s in a coma.’
I stared back. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘In a coma. At Cedars-Sinai.’
I was quiet for a minute, thinking. ‘We,’ I began, then clarified, ‘insurers do not cover people incapable of driving.’
He didn’t respond immediately, then slowly rose and said, ‘Thank you for your time.’
I felt an impulse to put the application and return envelope in his hands, but I didn’t do it. Though he was already in the doorway, I said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t help you.’ He halted, glanced at me over his shoulder, and turned away. In the next moment he was gone.
That was three weeks ago, and every night since I’ve had trouble falling asleep, smarting with the unreasonable desire to have my own future husband, should he find himself in such a situation, make the same attempt and perhaps succeed, forging my name for the sake of keeping me safe when I can no longer be hurt. How can any man intuit or respond instinctively to such a wish? How will I know?
– Carrie Etter’s third collection of poems, Imagined Sons, has recently been published by Seren. Her short stories have appeared in New Welsh Review, Jawbreakers: An Anthology of Flash Fictions, and elsewhere. She is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Bath Spa University, where she has taught since 2004.