(Chapter two of the serialization of new book, Softgoods)
Democracy Mews in the early morning was a prettified bedroom community of townhouses filled with young ambitious couples. This was what developers dubbed ‘the starter home’ purchased when the first kid was on the way and traded when the second kid was still a bump. The central street was reached through a gate that required a coded card. The development was postcard perfect. It looked as if the developer had hired a stager. Lampposts, saplings, tubbed begonias made the residents feel a little richer than they were. Although the backyards were contiguous and owners were in plain sight of each other, there was not a lot of socializing. The residents were at a point in life when they had too much responsibility and not enough money. Those with jobs were not sure how long they would keep them. The times were difficult and most families kept to themselves.
At a corner townhouse about a half-mile in and one street north a dinged and dented 2003 Silver Toyota Camry sedan was parked in the short driveway. A child’s rubber ball was on the path to the front door. Inside a telephone was ringing and it sounded shrill because it was early morning. A machine answered. “You’ve reached 753-0247. We can’t come to the phone. Leave your name and number and we’ll return the call.”
A woman’s voice said, “Come on. You’re there. Pick up.” After a short pause, she continued. “You’re using a refrigerator you haven’t paid for. You’re stealing. You’re a thief.”
In the master bedroom of the house, Carol Lasting, attractive, barely thirty, alone in the lush brass bed raised her head and listened to the message as it continued. “...deadbeat, lazy yuppie deadbeat.”
Carol bolted and picked up the bedroom extension. “There are laws against this kind of harassment. I’ve tried to make arrangements with your company.”
“Put John Lasting on the phone,” said the woman on the other end.
“John Lasting is out of town.”
“I don’t think so. You people are all alike. Same snotty tone. Same snotty sense of entitlement. But not for long.”
The phone line went dead but Carol held on to the receiver. Was the woman right? Did she have a sense of entitlement? She heard breathing on the extension.
“Mom? What’s snotty mean?” It was Carol’s five-year old daughter Rebecca.
“It means stuck up.”
“Stuck up where?”
“Becks, you shouldn’t listen in. Get dressed. You’ll miss the school bus.”
* * * * *
Carol in jeans and tee stuffed a white load into the washer. In early February just three short months ago her life had seemed okay. Not happy and carefree okay but something to work on. Every week, her handsome high school sweetheart and husband, John Lasting, wasted some of their money on gambling. She knew it was happening because he often confessed to her late at night and then promised to get it under control. On the plus side, she still loved him, they had a very nice kid and she had started a parenting/self-nurturing blog that she called Me, Only Happier. The blog was becoming popular enough to attract advertisers. She wrote about parenting in a loving but irreverent way. She spoke openly of the dirty little secrets that every mother kept in the darkest part of her brain. The admissions sent waves of relief to her followers. Oh, good, I’m not the only one. I’m not an evil witch. Pretty soon, if her blog hits continued growing, she could expect an income to start trickling in.
All the hope and elation had dimmed when the truth of John’s gambling caused him to be suspended from his job at the law firm. They had begun to receive ugly phone calls. The partners said John had to take an indefinite leave and go to rehab. Rehab was for wayward celebrities hooked on drugs and liquor. That wasn’t John. She didn’t know at the time that gambling can be as deadly as any drug and it had John firmly in its grip. He hadn’t lied to her about the problem but she was floored by the horrendous damage it had caused. The 401K, their savings, their credit cards were all either empty or maxed out. She couldn’t even find the words to express her shock and John had nothing to add. There’s nothing I can say, he told Carol and she was too frightened to challenge him.
In the middle of his treatment, John had called one day at dusk. She was making a meatloaf with a pickle inside to amuse Rebecca. The phone rang and without any preamble John said, “Carol, I’m not coming home when I’m done here. I’m sorry. I can’t come back to the house or to the routine. Everything I knew is a trigger. I can’t. I’ll be in touch later on and when I get some work, I’ll send money for you and Rebecca.”
For a week she felt nothing and did nothing. If she just waited perhaps everything would set itself right. After a month of nothing, an overlay of panic had set it. She wasn’t all right. Her thinking was all messed up. Her consciousness was frozen over a situation that she couldn’t control. She was too ashamed to discuss her predicament with anyone close to her. She realized for the first time that she didn’t have many people she could trust with her dark secret. Why did she feel it was her fault? Her life was at a standstill. No one was calling and there were no pertinent e-mails and there was an unhealthy stillness surrounding her. She wasn’t scared all of the time. If you walked into her house, she would have been cheerful but when she was alone, there were moments when she could not contain her panic or what she described as a stoic frozen fear that would creep into her nostrils and her throat and throughout her head. There was no space. She was breathing yet each moment she felt she would not be able to take the next breath. During those long spring days when she sat on her sectional couch for hours, she figured out that human beings are able to move on in a world that is basically flawed by hanging on to anticipation. Anticipation of what is going to happen gives people the railing they need to go down the stairs. But right now, she had nothing to anticipate but the horrid sense of failure. And worse than the failure, she had to remind herself that she had not chosen well. She had not had the clarity to choose a good man.
“You stupid, stupid woman,” she said to her mirror image. You chose your life’s partner without knowing anything about him. If anyone had asked back then: do you and John share the same values, she would have snorted like the streetwise kid she considered herself to be. Values? No, no, no. There were no values about it. He looked great on paper and I was grateful. She had even written about it in her blog. Why am I grateful that somebody married me?
This morning she couldn’t get the voice of the repo woman out of her head. She even had some admiration for the woman. Maybe the woman didn’t like acting tough and waking people with that awful message but she had to feed her family and that was her job. She was a grown up doing her job. It made Carol feel worse. She wanted to give in to the despair she felt but her daughter’s small socks and crazy stripped leggings that she was putting in the washer reminded her to just keep it going. She spotted a single red sock on the floor and rushed to dig out the mate before it bled on the white clothes. She pulled the sock dripping pink water and dropped it into a basket. There was a doll lying on the dryer and impulsively, Carol pulled the chatty string. The doll began to talk. “I’m Assertive Sally. I can change a flat tire.” Carol grunted and threw the doll back on the dryer. “Yeah, but can you find a job?” No, you can’t. There are no jobs. What are we going to do Assertive Sally? Tell me.”
Carol McMillan Lasting, the younger of two sisters born to crazy bossy Margaret was supposed to be the normal nice looking child in a borderline household. In high school, she sat at the second best lunch table and her schoolmates voted her ‘Most Competent.’ She had been surprised with the title because she always felt awkward as if she wasn’t sure of her place in the world. Part of it was the ‘fabulous older sister’ syndrome. Her older sister had scorched the earth of Edgemont High, snagged a modeling contract at seventeen and married a Hollywood lawyer who was considered the 18th most important person in the celebrity world, just under Jerry Bruckheimer and above Michael Jordan.
She suspected Melissa Thomas had made up the dowdy title of ‘Most Competent’ to humiliate her for stealing John Lasting away from her. Carol was as surprised as everyone when she had interested the football star. John Lasting was an unexpected bonus that life had thrown at her. Imagine this handsome athlete begins hanging around you and you look around to see his real girlfriend but it is you.
“This is some aberrant shit,” she would whisper to her girlfriend Olive when they would see John coming down the hall with a big stupid grin on his gorgeous face. Olive always replied, “No offense Carol, but I have to agree.”
“An aberration just to annoy me,” Carol would say just before John reached her side. John’s devotion continued through college and they married just before law school. It was only when her love for him grew and she felt secure that he began to drift away not to another woman but to a fierce gambling fever that ultimately ruined everything. There was a day when winter turned into spring and she realized he had been serious. He wasn’t coming home. What was worse is that she could almost see it from his point of view. He couldn’t come back to the scene of his addiction. Maybe marriage and the life they led had caused his addiction.
* * * * *
She shook her long loose hair and ran her hands through it to settle the mishaps of sleep and went to the kitchen to pack a Smurf decorated lunch box. The routine was reassuring and moved her along through all the early morning tasks. Maybe if she just kept doing what she had always done, life would be all right again.
The school bus stop in Democracy Mews was momentarily reassuring, too. Something would come up. After all, she had a college degree and she could type 65 words a minute. It was all about good timing and keeping a positive attitude
Rebecca, almost six was thin with curly unruly hair and huge brown eyes. Carol was glad Rebecca had the thick curls, a replica of her father’s hair.
“You have power hair,” she always told her daughter. “Your good mind is going to take you places but that hair is going to make it easier.” As they waited, another little girl arrived wearing new sneakers and a fancy backpack with a day glow strip across the back. Rebecca stared and Carol could tell she would love a new backpack just like it. She wanted to fit in for her daughter’s sake, but she didn’t and even in this silly situation, she couldn’t help but feel that a big L for loser was tattooed on her forehead. Children leach all of the rebellion out of you. You want to be freaking Betty Crocker: a good-looking soccer mom with plenty of money so the kids can fit in.
“You forgot to give me lunch money,” said the girl to her mother who pulled two dollar bills out of her wallet and stuffed them in one of the pockets of the backpack.
“Can I buy lunch today?” Rebecca asked.
“ I made your lunch. It’s in your book bag.”
“Please. They have pizza on Thursday.”
“Beck, I said no.”
Before Rebecca could plead some more, the bus came.
“I’ll pick up the girls later. Rebecca can come over if it’s okay with you,” said the other mother.
“She’d like that. Thanks.”
As Carol retraced her steps to the house she noticed a white Volvo station wagon inching alongside. The woman behind the wheel gave a short beep meant to get Carol’s attention.
“Hey, wait up,” said the driver and Carol stopped. She recognized the woman as a neighbor.
“A collection agency called me about you,” said the woman as she pulled up. “They wanted to know if I’d seen your husband. If he went to work regularly. If you had a job. If you had visible assets. If you prayed to God or Allah.” The woman’s sarcastic tone let Carol know that at least for now, she was on her side.
“Oh, god. They probably canvassed half the neighborhood.”
“What do you care? I told them I was blind and diabetic and had to give myself insulin shots in Braille.” She pointed to a house up ahead. “They’re big on surprise attacks. The repo guys are after George Chan’s Passat. They hide at the turn on Democracy waiting for George to leave the car on the street. The minute he does . . whoosh!”
Carol shook her head. “Yeah, I guess things are dicey all around.”
“If money’s tight, I could use someone to help me,” said the woman.
“You’re offering me a job?”
“Uh huh. Selling clothes.”
“In a store? A saleswoman?”
“Not in a store. On our own.”
Carol hesitated, about to turn it down. She knew nothing about selling clothes. She had never even been particularly interested in clothes. The offer sounded too casual to be real. And suppose she had to work on commission and she didn’t sell anything? “When do you have to know?”
“Whenever. Tomorrow. Come by. I’m the house with the red door on BlueJay, the block behind this one. By the way, I’m Sheila and you’re Carol, right? I got it from the repos.”
On the way home, Carol felt lighter than when she had left. The job offer wasn’t much. It wasn’t anything she could use from the sound of it but it lightened her spirits and she felt it in her chest. Someone had reached out to her. She had a connection and she was surprised that it meant so much.
For the first time in two weeks, she posted on her blog. Without thinking much about it, she described the process of having her life dismantled by dark forces. She described the panic, the inability to have faith that she could take the next breath and the frozen state of her thinking. Today, she commented at the end, a woman approached me in the street and offered me a job. When I think back, I wouldn’t have predicted that would happen. It’s not much of a job but at least someone wants to hire me. It’s a freaking start.
The tags she put on the post were: panic, despair, joblessness, debt, hope. She received sixty seven comments. Sadly, there were a lot of people who related.