Flash Fiction <500 Words By Jane Chin

I walk down the street and see you looming over the row of meters. You are checking for times remaining for these rented spaces. I take your smile as an invitation to interrupt your work.

“How’s it going today?” I say.

“I have one about to expire here,” you say.

I stand close enough to see the meter you are scrutinizing.

3 minutes, 24 seconds.

You tell me about the last minute pleading for amnesty. Then you’d decide whether to let the person feed the expired meter. Unless you’ve already marked a meter for the maximum time allowed at this location.

“Then it doesn’t matter if they keep feeding the meter,” you say. “They still have to leave. Make room for others.”

2 minutes 51 seconds.

“It’s not that I don’t want to help them out, especially some of them,” you say, “I get to know them. When you’ve worked here as long as I have, you pay attention to the regulars.”

I sweep my eyes once more. I don’t know why you talk in generalities. We both know him. I reach into my pocket.

“You are not doing that,” You say. You’ve caught me once feeding an expiring meter. I’d just arrived to the neighborhood and you excused me with a stern warning: “Your job is sacred, so is mine.”

“Why not? Random act of kindness,” I say, “Maybe he’s lost track of time for a good reason.”

1 minute 15 seconds.

“They all have a good reason,” you say. “Some of them get lost in what they’re doing and forget. Some are betting on me coming late. I’m never late.”

You have marked this meter already. I understand now this is how you cope, how you can keep doing your thankless job: by putting “him” with “them”. I take my hand – empty – out of my pocket. No random act of kindness today.

We stop looking for him. We watch time run out by seconds.

35 seconds.

When time is watched, it seems to slow down. When unattended, time runs out faster than surprise can catch its tender.

31 seconds… 28 … 23…

You take out your pen and write on a thick slip of paper: you will give one copy for the Boss. The Boss accounts for all these spaces. The Boss sets the time limit for these meters. You will give him the other copy when it dawns on him what has happened and he comes running to bargain for time that has already gone.

I nod and leave to my job: the Boss assigns me to watch over those left behind. I will hear his loved ones ask “why”; some of them wail the question, others scream silently. Some of them can sense I am near; others are too blinded by grief to notice. I stay for as long as I am needed, sometimes I stay forever.

4 seconds… 3… 2… 1.