Papanca: A Story of Ten Dollars and Ten Minutes

Flash Fiction Challenge 100 – Day 89

Photo by Tim Gouw on UNSPLASH.

The man squatting at the intersection is wearing a faded Nike t-shirt and holding a cardboard sign that reads “Need Help.”

I’m a pushover for such folks. I think because I recognize how that could easily be me. (I’m currently on track for that to be me!)

I still have some of my tip money from the day before, so I fish two fives out of the stack, which leaves me only a five and a one for my usage today. But it’s a short workday, and I don’t envision needing much cash today.

I gesture with my folded bills to the man. He approaches; I roll down the passenger side window. I hand him the bills while keeping an eye on the light. I’m turning right on Parker, but this is one of the rare Texas intersections which doesn’t allow a right turn on red. I’m hyper-aware that I don’t want to obstruct morning traffic, and I will drive when the turn signal turns green. My head swivels back and forth from the man to the light.

“God bless you,” I say.

I don’t know why, maybe because it’s a nice, ‘safe’ thing to say to a stranger. I stopped believing in a personal god years ago, but I still say this from time to time.

The man, he looks like a ‘Buck’ or a ‘Hank,’ to me, but I don’t ask him his name, gets talkative. This act is a drive-by charity meant to appease my conscience mostly, I guess, but I can’t just drive away.

He tells me he’s waiting at the intersection because a man he’d seen the previous day was supposed to be picking him up for some day job.

I offer some note of congratulations, as I wish I had given him a single five.

But the man is running late, Buck explains to me. Something about an RV he bought yesterday? I keep eyeing the light, willing it to turn green.

“But I got to survive,” Buck says to me.

I agree that this is true.

And it is true – until it isn’t. We are all worm-food ultimately. Still, I’m trying to do a nice thing here. A part of me is considering my act naive, labeling me as gullible.

‘He probably makes more a year than you do,’ some inner cynic says from some conservative corner of my mind.

The light turns green; I wave once at Buck and drive away from him.

‘At least he looks like a man,’ some inner comparing voice says. He looks strong, not fat, nor effeminate. Both qualities I feel I have now.

I’ve always had self-esteem issues surrounding my body. My body is a melted, soft in the middle mixture of gender traits, pale skin, and asymmetries.

Papanca is a Pali word that means ‘conceptual proliferation.’ Runaway or snowball thinking is how I would put it. Not that I’m comparing myself to the awakened one.

Within less than a block away from the intersection, I worry that the man has jotted down my license plate. Maybe he thinks that if I’m a chump willing to give $10 to someone on the street, then maybe I can be coerced (read ‘robbed’) in my apartment parking lot at night.

Maybe he thinks I’m rich. There’s nothing showy about my 2009 Toyota, but I’ve heard rich people openly walk among us. Who’s to say?

‘I should carry a pocket-knife, for protection,’ an inner scaredy-cat suggests.

‘No! A canister of mace might be easier to wield,’ another fearful voice says.

I find myself agreeing with the second frightened feline.

Then I notice my thoughts racing, and that’s when I remember the word ‘Papanca.’

My thoughts aren’t merely racing. They are cascading, multiplying, tumbling end over end through my mind, each giving birth to two to three more child thoughts of fear and paranoia. One spontaneous act of kindness and thirty seconds later, my mind is a tumultuous mess of paranoid thoughts.

I’ve only lived here for two months. Maybe there’s no official linkage between my car’s license plates and my address. I doubt this is true, but it comforts me for at least four seconds.

‘Stop it,’ my higher brain commands with zero effect from the various departments and agencies that comprise my brain in total.

I glide into the left turn lane to get on Central Expressway.

Now I’m singing the word papanca. I already know what I will make of this mess later. I want to remember the word.






I sing horribly to the tune of Le Cucaracha.

I drive by the site where I plan to live next, a mobile home lot filled with RV’s and trailers. I want to own my dwelling, but houses are expensive. I want a starter home. At 59, I doubt I could imagine a sadder or scarier phrase than ‘starter home.’

Of course, reactivity is my biggest creator of suffering.

Then, to distract myself, I’m singing the stupid song again as I merge onto Central.

It’s only a few exits north to where I work, so I generally just put up with how the right-hand lane folks are driving, but today my mind will tolerate no dawdling. So I hit the accelerator and pull into a center lane. I narrowly miss some tie-down that appears to have fallen off a truck.

In my mind, I see my wheel passing unintentionally over the metal hook at the end and having a blowout.

Then I see my car flipping and rolling in mid-air. I mourn my imagined death as I see the exit for McDermott and float back into the exit lane.

A second later, I’m shouting some profanity-laden criticism at the person merging back onto Northbound central – they crossed the white line! (‘Off with their head!’ some voice I don’t have a name for shouts.)

As I pull into a parking space at work, I think, ‘I should write this as a story.’

And so that is what I did. I wrote a story about a ten-dollar handout and ten minutes of my proliferating thoughts.

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