Stories Archive

National Story Project
With Paul Auster

by Paul Auster

When A. was a young woman in San Francisco and just starting out in life, she went through a desperate period in which she almost lost her mind. In the space of just a few weeks, she was fired from her job, one of her best friends was murdered when thieves broke into her apartment at night and A.'s beloved cat became seriously ill. I don't know the exact nature of the illness, but it was apparently life threatening, and when A. took the cat to the vet, he told her that the cat would die within a month unless a certain operation was performed. She asked him how much the operation would cost. He toted up the various charges for her and the amount came to $327. A. didn't have that kind of money. Her bank account was down to almost zero, and for the next several days she walked around in a state of extreme distress, alternately thinking about her dead friend and the impossible sum needed to prevent her cat from dying: $327.

One day she was driving through the mission and came to a stop at a red light. Her body was there, but her thoughts were somewhere else, and in the gap between them, in that small space that no one has fully explored but where we all sometimes live, she heard the voice of her murdered friend. "Don't worry," the voice said. "Don't worry. Things will get better soon." The light turned green, but A. was still under the spell of this auditory hallucination, and she did not move. A moment later, a car rammed into her from behind, breaking one of the tail-lights and crumpling the fender. The man who was driving that car shut off his engine, climbed out of the car, and walked over to A.. He apologized for doing such a stupid thing. No, A. said, it was my fault. The light turned green, and I didn't go. But the man insisted that he was the one to blame. When he learned that A. didn't have collision insurance (she was too poor for luxuries like that), he offered to pay for any damages that had been done to her car. "Get an estimate on what it will cost," he said, "and send me the bill. My insurance company will take care of it." A. continued to protest, telling the man that he wasn't responsible for the accident, but he wouldn't take no for an answer, and finally she gave in.

She took the car to a garage and asked the mechanic to assess the costs of repairing the fender and tail-light. When she returned several hours later, he handed her a written estimate. The amount came to exactly $327.

-- Paul Auster

The National Story Project can be heard the first Saturday of every month on Weekend All Things Considered.