Small Claims

By Andrew Kaufman

Small Claims
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Shortlisted for the 2018 ReLit Award

In this new novel by ReLit award–winning, Leacock-nominated writer Andrew Kaufman, the narrator eschews the usual avenues of mid-life crisis-sportscars, mistresses-and instead seeks meaning in the least likely of places: small claims court. ... Read more


Overview

Shortlisted for the 2018 ReLit Award

In this new novel by ReLit award–winning, Leacock-nominated writer Andrew Kaufman, the narrator eschews the usual avenues of mid-life crisis-sportscars, mistresses-and instead seeks meaning in the least likely of places: small claims court. There, he struggles to understand what’s gone wrong in his marriage, his career as a writer, and his relationship with his two young children.

With small observations, subtle investigations, and the pursuit of small-scale justice, he attempts to rebuild his faith in humanity through the framework of a court system that won’t let you sue for damages above twenty thousand dollars. Small Claims is a big dose of tenderness for the frailties of the heart.

"[Kaufman's] prose is so refreshingly heartfelt and natural that he makes it easy to believe. ”The Coast

Andrew Kaufman

Andrew Kaufman was born in Wingham, Ontario, making him the second-most-famous Canadian writer to come from Wingham (after Alice Munro, of course). He is the author of international bestseller All My Friends are Superheroes, The Waterproof Bible, ReLit Award-winner The Tiny Wife, and Born Weird, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The Globe and Mail and was shortlisted for the Leacock award for humor. He lives and writes in Toronto.

Excerpt

01. The Bicycle Incident

It is difficult to tell whether this trial has just finished or will soon begin. The defendant, Mac, is a tall man with a barrel chest who leans against a long wooden table on the left, gigantic and alone. To his right, behind an identical wooden table, is the plaintiff, Ted, who wears a bright red golf shirt that seems wholly inappropriate. He sits beside his lawyer, who types on a Blackberry with both of her thumbs. Up on the dais, the justice and the court reporter talk in whispers. The windowless courtroom is overlit by eighteen fluorescent tubes, and there’s a clock mounted high on the east wall. Both the clock and the lights hum.

“Listen, why don’t I just call my lawyer again?” Mac keeps his wall-like mass still as he tentatively lifts his massive hands toward the fluorescent lighting. He seems unfamiliar with embarrassment, unsure what body language will most effectively express it. The light bounces off his head, which is bald except for two tufts of salt-and-pepper hair that stick out at the sides like a bull’s horns.

The court reporter swivels in his chair. He looks up at Justice Olivetti, who nods her head.

“What’s his number?”

“Four one six…” Mac says. There are twelve other people watching this trial, but I’m the only one who’s amazed that Mac can recite his lawyer’s phone number from memory.

I am here in courtroom 313 for two reasons: I got lost on the way to getting my street parking permit renewed, and this morning I found myself running down the middle of Shaw, chasing a bicyclist, wanting to kill him. The moments immediately preceding my chasing of the bicyclist were extremely peaceful. I was walking my kids to school, which is the only significant act in life that I perform with daily repetition. It is the closest thing I have to a ritual. Jack is nine. Jenny is seven. The three of us leave the house together shortly after 8:35. About half a block later Jack takes off, runs as fast as he can, and rounds the corner long before Jenny and I get there. This is how he declares his independence.

The next four or five seconds are the most important in my day. It is during this time that Jenny is most likely to take my hand. She has recently begun expressing her independence as well, and her method of displaying self-sufficiency is refusing to hold her father’s hand. If I try to hold hers, she’ll pull it away. Jenny only takes my hand when she forgets she isn’t doing that anymore, and the most likely time for this to happen is just after Jack has rounded the corner and disappeared from sight.

Jenny didn’t reach for my hand this morning, but I was okay with that. I’m grateful for the mornings she does. I know the number of times she will take my hand is now finite, that at some point in the next handful of years she’ll stop doing it altogether, or at least so infrequently that it will feel surprising when she does. I know that in her late twenties she’ll start holding my hand again, but by then it’ll be different: she’ll be holding my hand to give me support, not to gain it from me.

“I’d like to go swimming,” she told me, her empty hands dangling at the ends of her sleeves.

“Swimming? That could be arranged. Maybe on the weekend. ”

“No, today. Instead of school. Jack wants to, too. We talked about it. ”

“It’s a school day. We have to get to school!”

It is these simple requests that overwhelm me. Why is my response to always say no, to disagree, to shut things down? How badly do I need to feel more powerful than an eight-year-old? Why don’t I just take them swimming? Certainly a day, or even just the morning spent in the pool, would develop their bodies and their minds more effectively than sitting at a desk, paying moderate attention to their teachers. I feel like I would be a much better person if I could become the kind of dad who throws homework on the fire and takes the kids to some fabulous thing instead, to be the kind of dad who teaches them how to get the most out of life. But I never do, and trying to figure out why I don’t was preoccupying me as we rounded the corner at Shaw, the only busy street we have to cross to get to their school. I looked up just in time to see my son step into the road without looking, while a thin, fashionable twentysomething on a vintage bicycle barrelled through the stop sign toward him.

“It’s going straight to voice mail,” the court reporter says.

Mac shrugs his shoulders, which makes the skin at the back of his neck wrinkle into three distinct lines. He looks over his shoulder. He raises his arms and lowers them again. None of this succeeds in producing his attorney. Justice Olivetti exhales. Her breath ripples the bangs of her silver hair. She doesn’t try to hide her frustration. This session is part four of a trial that began in August. Today is Monday, September 10. The conflict in question originated three years ago.

“This is what we’re going to do. ” Justice Olivetti shakes open her glasses and puts them on her nose. “The trial will continue sir, with or without your lawyer. We are going to finish the proceedings today. So, I will ask you—and I will ask you to respect me and this court with a truthful answer—do you have any more testimony?”

Mac pulls in a large breath, filling his lungs in the manner of a swimmer about to attempt a long underwater swim. He’s about to speak when Justice Olivetti gives him a look that is both maternal and hostile.

“Any relevant testimony?”

The clock hums. The plaintiff looks up from his professionally manicured fingernails. His lawyer’s thumbs fall still. Justice Olivetti stares her stony stare, and Mac allows the lungful of air to escape.

“No. I guess not. That’s pretty much all that happened. ”

“You’ll have to take the stand so your cross-examination can begin. ”

Mac nods, takes the stand, and gets sworn in. There is no chair on the stand, so Mac is forced to remain standing. He makes fists of his meaty hands, rests them on top of the witness stand’s railing, and leans forward. Pushing shallow breaths through his nose, Mac tilts back his head until his chin is pointing directly at Ted the plaintiff. He continues staring at Ted with angry eyes, and it becomes easy to imagine a large golden ring through Mac’s nose and cartoon bursts of steam coming out of his nostrils—Mac the Minotaur.

After being sworn in, Mac remains silent, allowing his posture to speak for him. The angle of his shoulders, the slits of his eyes, the tight grip of his fingers around the wooden railing of the witness stand—all these mannerisms work together, expressing with undeniable clarity that Mac thinks this trial is squandering precious moments of his precious life, that simply being here is a slight unto his noble nature. Mac’s arrogance and put-upon impatience reminds me of someone. It takes several moments before I realize that someone is me.

Awards

  • ReLit Award 2018, Short-listed

Reviews

“There are very few Canadian authors, other than Sheila Heti, Yann Martel and occasionally Atwood, willing to submerge that deeply into magic… His prose is so refreshingly heartfelt and natural that he makes it easy to believe. ”The Coast

“Kaufman has crafted a special hellscape of mundane middle-age. ”National Post

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