The day I defied my conscience

By: Leon Smith - Contributing columnist

Back in pecan season, I parked my Corolla at a safe distance behind an SUV. When I came out of the barbershop, a family friend stood waiting. If she had not been honest, I would have never noticed that my grill would wiggle, and a couple of new scratches had been added to the front bumper. She said she would get in touch with her insurance company, so a few days later, when the adjuster came, I showed him the damage from this most recent collision, and placed a claim for it.

As I got estimates for that repair, I decided this would be a good time to get them for my other scrapes, mostly on the driver’s side bumper extension — after I drove too close to a high curb at a Burger King drive-thru window and a retaining wall at the gas company. Even though I touched up the damage with good body shop paint, the white pigment could never obscure the scratches.

But the rear bumper had two dozen older ones as well — not from my bad driving, but because the shelf on top of the bumper had suffered the assault of suitcases and grocery bags propped on that unprotected surface. I covered them with touch-up paint, which soon faded from a brilliant white to a dirty gray.

So I got estimates for two repair jobs from each shop. The estimate with a lower cost for my friend’s work was the one I chose, because it just seemed like the right thing to do.

After the repair, my 10-year-old car looked good again, for the first time in five years. The insurance picked up the cost of the $400 repair. I wrote a check for $900 for mine, before the work was completely finished. Because the protective back bumper decal could not be installed over fresh paint, I had to wait a few days before I took the car to the decal shop.

If I was skeptical about using a decal, I didn’t stay that way long. At the shop, I saw six cars in various stages of being decaled, their entire bodies covered with multi-colored pictures and lettering.

“Tougher than paint,” the technician said as he removed the paper backing from my 4 x 38-inch decal, then dampened and squeegeed it onto my bumper. Except for the edges, it was completely invisible over the white paint, and it guaranteed that neither boot heel, grocery bag, banjo case, suitcase, or anything else would damage that paint again.

It felt so good to drive a pristine car through a heather-toned countryside in pecan season. I decided to take a side trip to find some pecans for Patsy to shell. A store nearby always had them about this time of year.

“We haven’t picked up a single pecan from our own orchard,” the salesperson said. “Nobody else has any either.”

I must have looked quizzical.

“It’s because of that dry spell,” she continued, “Back while the nuts were forming. They never dropped…they’re still in the hulls, hanging in the trees.”

I thanked her, then drove to talk to a private grower. In his yard I saw that the trees were full of pecans, but the ground was bare. “Maybe next year,” he said.

On the way home, I remembered another pecan grove. I made a right turn to head toward the village.

When I got to there, I eased over the bump at the entrance to the parking lot, then pulled in near a dumpster. I got out and looked up: no nuts were hanging in these trees. So I walked over to look at the ground. The first, a young tree, had no nuts under it, but its older siblings had simply blanketed the ground with Stuart pecans.

“Now we’re talking,” I said as I walked back to the car for a bag. No luck, so I hurried back and began picking and shoving pecans into the pockets of my jeans. Just then, I found myself looking around to see if anyone was watching.

“I don’t think this is stealing,” I said to myself.

“Then why don’t you want anyone to see you?” my conscience replied.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe my conscience is too strict?”

“It’s not seared,” he replied. “At least not yet.”

“That’s dirty pool,” I said. “I picked up pecans under these very trees for more than 20 years — in broad daylight. And have given bagsfull of them away. And no one has ever said one word to me about it.”

“That was years ago,” my conscience continued.

“Those big zero-turn mowers run right over them.”

“Doesn’t make them yours,” my conscience added. “Why don’t you just walk in that building and make sure it’s OK to pick up pecans out here?”

“I don’t need to ask,” I said. “They don’t care.”

“That’s what C-man said when he cut the timber that time. You remember that?

“Yes,” I said. “He said ‘They won’t care.’”

“Then his own sisters sued him for cutting timber on their land without asking,” my conscience said. “And won.”

At that, I stopped talking, maintaining a continuous crouch as I rushed to fill my pockets with pecans.

Just as soon as my pockets overflowed, I told myself, “I better get to the car now.”

“You’re not getting,” my conscience said. “You’re sneaking.”

“I am not,” I said, “because you can’t sneak in broad daylight.” My words did not reassure me, and had I possessed Rasputin’s gift. I would made myself invisible until I reached the car.

When I got there, I opened the trunk to find an old Food Lion bag, retrieved it, then moved near the dumpster to transfer the pecans. Then I walked back to the car, placed the blue bag on the floorboard, and cranked up. As I drove toward the street, I wished I had asked for permission to pick those pecans. What I had done was worrying me, so it probably was wrong.

“Well, I’m in the car, and it’s too late now,” I sighed, as I stopped at the exit. I looked left and right for traffic and pulled out. Coming in, this bump was forgiving, but going out, not so much.

“Scrunch!” my driver-side bumper extension said as it hit the pavement — then spoke again as the concrete scraped more brand new paint away.

As I realized what I had done, I was almost relieved. “I’m sorry,” I said. I was disappointed and troubled that I had marred my new paint. But the accident convicted me of my wrongdoing, and I was feeling the sad joy that comes from a guilty man getting caught.

As I drove out into the street, an old conversation came to me, after my son got into some minor trouble in school.

“I can’t get away with anything, Dad,” said my 14-year-old.

“Be glad, son,” I said. “I’ve always been that way, too. It keeps us straight.”

So, duly straightened, I decided not to look at the damage until I got home. Now I wonder why I had not left those pecans by the roadside, but I took them home, and gave them to my wife. Then I walked back outside and knelt to find a scrape five inches long, and a half-inch wide, cut all the way through the white paint and deep into the layer of black plastic on the underside of the extension. I found another quarter-inch gash climbing up its front.

Then I counted the full cost of those pecans. Looking at the bill, I figured I would have to pay $225 to get the bumper extension fixed. At $7 a pound, I would have paid $14 for the hundred pecans I got. That’s 14 cents apiece. At zero dollars actually spent, the product cost was nothing, but the transportation costs were huge. My actual cost was 16 times that.

A few weeks later, I brushed NAPA formulated paint onto the gashes. That paint has remained white, so the damage is not so prominent unless you look closely. But the shame and disappointment I continue to feel will not be painted over. That I will keep to remind me of the day I did wrong because I intentionally defied my conscience.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.

Leon Smith

Contributing columnist