Selling Insurance

Gary Presley

     
   

         I sold car insurance to a sixteen-year-old kid, a barrel-shaped boy with a Russian surname, an ethnicity uncommon down in the hills where I lived then, down in border country, down in a place where blue and gray, and Jayhawkers and Bald Knobbers left a blood trail, which really doesn’t tell you anything other than I lived in a place outside most people’s experience.

         One night, this boy—no doubt before he'd owned a car, held a license, or been insured long enough to drive a thousand miles—strayed off a straight-as-string highway. His car clipped a metal culvert and tumbled into a peach orchard. The boy died when the car landed on him.

         For years I rode by the spot. Then I moved away from the hill country into the city where roads no longer pass peach orchards but rather merge into interstates. Now, during the rare times I venture down that county highway, I think about the random sequence of choices leading up to the death—the crushed-like-a-bug end of a boy on the frontier of manhood.

         I worked as an insurance agent for more than twenty-five years, and I cannot put names to more than one or two of those dead by car accident. There were ten? Fifteen? I should have counted, written their names down, and perhaps something memorable they said. I would now, if I could. I would have the boy's name, a few words to recognize it by, and even a remembrance of all the other folks lost to stupidity, to carelessness, or to a fool's karma. Better than flowers on a grave, that list of names and impressions, at least for me. But he is remembered. There is a stone in a cemetery somewhere, and the boy's name echoes in the dreams of his family.

         "A single-car accident on Missouri 173 claimed the life of a local teenager last night when his 1961 Ford left the highway and overturned. Missouri Highway Patrol troopers at the scene blame high speed," a voice from the local radio said. I was shaving, and listening to the morning news. After years in the insurance business, even working in an agency with thousands of cars insured, I would snap alert when a name I recognized was said on-air. I learned about the accident before the boy's mother and father came to the office to report it. They arrived about noon that same day. The man I worked for saw them pull up and said, "You deal with this, okay?"

         I held an insurance agent license, but I wasn’t the agent who owned the business, and so I did what I was told. The owner was a nervous, restless sort, fueling his overweight body with a dozen large bottles of Dr. Pepper every day. I don't think he liked people much. He was in the business for money. In this man's agency, I learned to be the buffer between him and some of the more fractious aspects of the business. I didn't mind. There are some things more valuable than being a good salesman, and I wasn’t a good salesman.

         I had been expecting to handle the claim alone, but my boss met the parents at the door, shook the father's hand, murmured something and motioned them toward my desk. That was his nature, except when someone prominent in the community demanded his attention, someone with money or influence. I handled everyone else, especially if the situation might become unpleasant.

         "Here, sit down," he said, pulling out a chair. "Gary will help you. I'll give you some privacy."

         Help. You.

         How foolish, I thought, watching him close the front door behind him. A stupid thing to say. There are times when there's no help to be had. .

         "I'm very sorry about Mark," I said. Mark wasn't his name. It might have been Mike, or Matt. I can't remember it now, even though I believe it began with M. I am sure I knew it then even though I don't know it now.

         The father’s glasses sat midway on his round, mostly bald head. He wore blue jeans and a white t-shirt. He was an older version of his son, albeit distinguished by a gnarled left hand and forearm, two or three fingers on a curved stump, a purplish appendage I thought might be the leavings of a machinery accident. Or it may simply have been a birth defect. I could never tell. To know would have required a question that should not be asked.

         The mother, in a flowered shirtwaist dress, held both hands in her lap, her jaw clamped tight, her eyes locked on the floor. She was maimed too since the night before. But her wound was fresh. The scar would never be visible unless you looked closely at her eyes.

         I felt uncomfortable, an insignificant character in a sad drama in which the man and the woman now played the lead roles. No doubt there had already been calls and visits from neighbors, friends, and co-workers, each one with a probing question, a platitude, or a prayer. Words, intended to comfort, but in reality only a humming background chorus unable to drown out by the roar of the guilty questions the couple would constantly ask themselves that night, today, and countless days afterward.

         Couldn’t we’ve kept him from driving at night? Why did we let him buy a car so soon after his sixteenth birthday? Couldn’t we have borrowed money and helped him buy something more reliable?

But when they sat down in the chairs facing my desk, the boy's father had only one question. "What do we do now?" For that simple question, I had no answer that would offer comfort, deflect their attention, or ease the guilt.

         "I've already begun a report," I replied after a moment. The only way I could be of use to them would be to focus on the practical. "I need a few more details, and then I'll file it, and we'll see what we can do about getting some other paperwork together. If there was damage to the fences or to the trees at Spencer's Orchard, the liability coverage should help there. And the medical payments coverage he carried on the car will pay toward funeral expenses, you know."

         Then I listened. To their regrets. To their worries. To their apprehension over their daughter, their only surviving child, driving down from Kansas City for her brother's funeral.

         Like most policyholders, the dead boy's parents didn't realize part of his coverage would help defray funeral expenses. I would need to remind them again to bring me copies of the bills. But that was paperwork, trivia that would allow some adjuster to write a check, close the file, and move on to another claim.

         I waited, knowing the best way to do my job then was to listen rather than saying anything that would reinforce the idea they would soon stand over their child's grave.

         And I also stayed quiet because I had no answers. And because the only decent thing to do was to murmur "Yes, I understand" or "No, dear God, I can't imagine how you feel" as they tried to spit out all the anxiety, agitation, and anger that had come crashing through their lives, their marriage, their family.

         I listened, descending further inside myself each minute, fearful of life's fragility, searching for some meaning within the process. Granted, I had been no more than a vending machine, one perhaps that reinforced the idea that, yes, he needed insurance even though it would cost him hundreds of dollars a year, and that, yes, the only way he could preserve that rate, exorbitant as it was, would be to avoid an at-fault claim.

         "You set your premium rates with your right foot on the accelerator." That was my standard line to newly-licensed sixteen-year-olds. "Accidents, tickets—they'll send your rates up so high you won't be able to afford to drive."

         And that's the conversation I had with the barrel-shaped boy a week or so before he strayed off the highway and died.

         When his father brought in the bill for the kid's funeral, I handed him a check for two thousand dollars, the maximum amount of the medical payment’s coverage. The bill was twice that much.

         Last summer, I drove by the place where the boy's car rolled over. The little town nearby was growing out to meet that sorrowful ground, with a new development a half mile or so west. The family who owned the orchard apparently had gone on to other things, the acreage now dotted with scattered skeletons of the peach trees.

         But the culvert is still there, with its hard metal lip crushed down, collapsed inward, just as it was in the moments, the days, and the months after the accident, back when I knew the boy's name.

 

     
 
   
     
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Gary Presley's work as appeared in venues as varied at The New York Times to The Ozark Mountaineer. His memoir, Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio, was published by The University of Iowa Press. Links to some of his work can be found at  www.garypresley.com