Two years ago my wife and I bought a house. The closing was a nightmare: last-minute changes to the interest rate; sudden additional charges; early-payment terms that didn’t match our initial agreement; etc., etc. We walked out of that closing with a painfully ambivalent mixture of exhilaration, regret, joy, and smoldering anger.
If you’ve ever closed on a house, you’ll know that at the end, the five or six parties present do a sort of accounting. Checks are passed around, numbers added up, comparisons made to expected totals. It’s kind of like having lunch with a bunch of friends who, after the meal, all huddle over the bill, disputing who had the small onion rings and who the large; except that the “friends” are bankers, lawyers and real estate salesmen and the onion rings are your financial well-being.
Anyway, during that little accounting, it was discovered that the numbers just barely didn’t add up. After some discussion, it was decided that the law firm would cut us a check for the difference. It was a comically small amount – less than the price of the aforementioned onion rings – and my wife and I clung to the humor and absurdity of it as a symbol of the ordeal. “Thank you for submitting to financial disembowelment”, the check said to us. “Here’s two dollars and seventy cents”.
We decided not to cash the check, with the petty and vindictive thought that not cashing it might cause them some miniscule amount of pain in the form of an end-of-year accounting mismatch.
As you have never personally experienced the full effect of this particular law firm’s incompetent and uncaring representation, I ask that you not judge me.
We stuck the check in some bulging folder, a sliver of the tortuous verbosity that is the bedrock of humankind’s success and skankiness, and forgot about it.
So today – this is two years later, now – I get a call from the very lawyer who was present at the closing. She tells me that she has a minor but strange matter to discuss with me. There’s a check for two dollars and seventy cents, she says, that we received at the closing but never cashed. Our conversation goes something like this:
LAWYER: I don’t suppose you remember receiving the check?
ME: I can imagine losing track of it in the whirl of chaos.
LAWYER: That’s understandable. What’s going to happen is, we’re going to need to cut you a new check.
ME: Couldn’t you just keep it as a sort of “tip”?
LAWYER: [lengthy silence] Well… It’s possible that we could keep it as a disbursement…
ME: “Disbursement”… That sort of ruins the whole spirit of gratitude that you get with “tip”, don’t you think?
LAWYER: [another long silence] I agree that the whole thing is a little silly, but our ethics requirements —
ME: Your CPA…
LAWYER: — our ethics requirements state that we must cut another check and send you some paperwork to sign.
ME: Hey, I’m all for ethics.
LAWYER: So… we will be sending you a check and some paperwork. Could you please cash the check right away and return the paperwork?
ME: It will be my pleasure. And you know what? I think I’m going to buy me a large onion rings.
LAWYER: [long silence] Thank you, Mr. Kay.
So I guess the question is… should I cash it?