A Creatively-Bent Paper Clip

I pulled into the gravel parking lot of my apartment complex. As always, the strange guy who’s perpetually taking apart lawn mowers and mopeds was hard at it. This summer, I have seen him on a daily basis in front of his rented garage, working diligiently, obsessively, perhaps insanely on a lawn mower or a moped or some other unidentified machine. I had never actually exchanged words with the man, and the only encounter I had with him involved him mistakenly saying hi to my wife and asking her how her baby was. We had gotten out of our car and were walking into our building when he had said this. We stopped and looked at him. He came walking towards us and stopped when he realized my wife was not who he thought she was. He held his hand out, open-palmed, and apologized.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought you were Holly. You look like her.”

Sarah laughed uncomfortably and said it was okay. The man walked away and returned to his work in front of his garage.

So as I got out of my car with a paper clip in my pocket, I thought this might be a good opportunity to talk to this man. I slowly walked toward the garage, my feet crunching on the gravel. I could hear his radio blaring. It was a song by Beyonce.

When I reached his little driveway, I saw that he was laying with his back to the pavement. He had an old push-lawn mower propped up and his head was buried underneath it, right below the blades. I could see the side of his face. Droplets of sweat were running down his cheeks. He was squinting harshly, as if he were straining to see something underneath the mower.

He didn’t notice me. I don’t think he could hear me over the radio.¬†Inside his garage, there were three other push mowers. I don’t know if they worked or not. There were two large work benches, completely covered in old tools. There was also a riding lawn mower which I know was operable because I had seen him mowing the apartment lawns with it before. There was also his little moped. The moped had a wire basket attached to the back for transporting cargo. There was an orange flag jutting up from the back. I had seen him riding it before on the street. When riding, he wears a helmet and a bright neon vest. I had always held the opinion that his mental functions were not entirely normal.

I stood for several moments just watching him poke his head around the bottom of the mower. There were some tools lying next to him. He wore khaki shorts, running shoes, and a t-shirt, his usual attire. He was an average sized guy, about 5’9” and probably 170 pounds. He was always clean-shaven and his brown hair was medium length and a little wavy. If you just glanced at him for a second you’d think he’s normal. But if you stared longer than three seconds, he’d do something to indicate his mental state, whether it was by talking to himself, glancing unexpectedly at the sky, or suddenly grimacing, seemingly unprovoked.

Finally, he reached for one of the tools by his side. His hand felt out the pavement, but couldn’t find the particular tool he sought. He pulled his head out from underneath the mower. Then he noticed me, not five feet from him, staring at him.

We looked at each other for a few moments in silence. The sun was on his face, and he squinted.

“Hey,” I said, sounding friendly.

“Hi,” he said.

His voice was flat, perhaps even a bit suspicious.

“Can you help me with something?” I said.

He was still lying on his back. He brought his hand to his forehead, sheilding his eyes from the sun.

“What’s that?” he said. “You need something fixed?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said.

I reached in my pocket and pulled out the paper clip. I pinched it between my fingers and held it up so he could see.

I said, “Could you bend this paper clip in a creative way?”

He stared at the paper clip for a moment. “Huh?” he said.

I said, “I need someone to bend this paper clip in a creative way. A paper clip is a simple machine, and you’re good with machines.”

“Oh,” he said. His face seemed more comfortable after I’d told him he was good with machines.

He scooted out from under the mower and stood up.

“Let’s see it,” he said, holding out his hand.

I placed the paper clip in his hand. He pinched it between his fingers. He held it close to his face.

“Looks like a regular paper clip,” he said.

“It is,” I said. “Right now, it’s bent in the standard way that paper clips are bent. But you can un-bend it and bend it in a different way. That’s what I need someone to do.”

“Okay,” he said.

He pulled the paper clip apart until it was almost straight, save for the few bends and juts that always remain when you try to bend a paper clip straight.

“How should I bend it?” he said.

“However you want,” I said.

He nodded. Now a song by Lady Gaga came on the radio.

He bent the paper clip in two spots towards the opposite ends at ninety-degree angles, so that it looked like half of a square. He looked at it for a moment.

“What is it?” I said.

He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

We looked at the paper clip for a moment. He handed it back to me. I brought it close to my face.

“It looks creative,” I said.

I looked at him and he nodded his head.

“Is that it then?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks a lot for your help.”

“You’re welcome,” he said.

He nodded his head again and got back on the ground. He grabbed a wrench and slid under the mower, returning to his work. I didn’t stay to watch him work. I could do that any day.

One Response to “A Creatively-Bent Paper Clip”

  1. fuglsang says:

    Well done, Ross. While it is more than I expected, and probably more than you would include in a journalistic piece, it is a nicely constructed and reported scene, complete with dialogue. I’m not a fiction writer, but I don’t know that the two are all that different. I have heard a lot of novelists say they use everyday experiences to construct characters and scenes in the books. Who is to say the lawnmower man and this conversation won’t show up in the novel you will some day write?

    By the way: I hope you will continue to comment on your classmates’ work. Remind me to encourage others to do the same.