The Dangerous Kind & Other Stories (2nd Edition) is free for the last time for just a bit longer.
Here’s an excerpt I’m sure many writers can relate to.
This is not the future I did not plan. The future I did not plan, but thought somehow would take care of itself, is not taking care of itself. Squeegee kids aren’t broke like me. They aren’t still paying for a vacuüm they bought on credit last Christmas. Credit card debt is kicking my ass, or was, until my dad intervened and I discovered there are prices to be paid which are much higher than the interest on VISA.
I have no excuses and, like the rest of my generation, no clue. My wife, Cecelia, has a nursing job at an old folk’s home and I take little freelance editing jobs here and there. My main occupation is to watch our two boys and rub Cecilia’s feet when she gets home after a long shift. We have her tiny retirement investment plan. The statements go unread because neither of us read Bewilder, an alphanumeric language only understood by people in the financial services industry. We hope it works out.
My father learned his financial skills from his parents during the Depression. Grandpa was an Episcopalian preacher in Poeticule Bay before the roads were paved, when everything arrived by boat. The congregation often fed the minister’s family with cod and lobsters rather than feed the collection plate a few coins. Dad scraped up a little money here and there and somehow became what it seems no one can be anymore: The mythic Self-made Man.
Dad would lie in bed and plot his escape from poverty while his brother counted pennies into a mason jar each night. Childhood was so short then, it was almost imperceptible. They did escape. My father’s generation had smaller dreams and the discipline and savvy to make those lies true. They made something of themselves and I have no idea what that might feel like. Instead of selling things, my wife and I had kids and bought stuff off the TV because that was our little slice of the American dream. We trusted the Future, but the banks killed it and the government never arrested anyone for Future’s murder.
My uncle is still alive, too. He gambles his ample retirement fund with various Vegas casinos and heart by-pass specialists. Dad and Mum were snowbirds. After she died, he gave up on Poeticule Bay, Maine permanently and moved to Boca. He watches the sunrise and the sunset, takes pictures of pelicans wheeling over the water like pterodactyls and ponders his only son’s squandered potential.
“We never needed much, certainly not near as much as kids today think they need. I still don’t need much,” Dad says. “If it comes down to it, I could live off a greased rag for a month.”
Dad’s speaking to me over the phone, but he sounds like he could be talking to himself. I guess that’s true since, while he talks, I’m thinking of my boys and how all their friends have iPods now. The technological future is finally here and the party rages on without my kids.
Dad graduated from pennies to folding money, mason jars to stock portfolios. When I was a kid asking for a few dollars to buy something, his answer was always the same. “Why do you think you need that, boy?”
I was not deprived exactly. Dad provided clothes, food and shelter. But my wants? My wants eclipsed the sun. I wanted to fill my room with books and toys and music because that is how you buy happiness. Less is not more. Less is less.
My father wanted my childhood to be as short as his was and my room to be as bare as a monk’s meditation chamber. I denied him that satisfaction so long, I still don’t feel like a man. And yes, he still calls me “Boy.”
Dad owned Poeticule Bay’s only hardware store. Early each morning he went off to work freshly shaved and optimistic. Each night he shambled home to supper, miserable. By the last spoonful of dessert he resolved that tomorrow would be better. What I did not understand then was that the tomorrow he was thinking about was the far-off tomorrow, the arthritic future wandering Floridian beaches alone collecting shells.
Retirement is not in my future. I have fitful dreams of being a writer. That is the same retreating mirage I saw on the distant horizon when I was eight. There are haphazard moments of clarity when I compose eagerly. Then I turn on the TV and fall asleep. Words with promise have died. Clever lines form skeins of sentences. I reach in spasms. I worry I’m already too late. The bills mark time.
Awake and rubbing my eyes, I am smack in middle age on the brink of last chances. I am halfway between those early promises and the sum of me. That distant horizon still recedes. I am not a bestselling author whose book is soon to be a major motion picture. I’m not even a grown-up.
In this frame of mind, I made excuses to Dad why I could not load the whole family in a jet and wing off south for a visit. I let slip that I could not come because my wife and I had to pay off credit cards. I said too damn much.
Dad called back at seven the next morning. My debt had been gnawing at him through the night. The kids were still in bed so I was, too. “Time you got up, boy! I suppose Cecilia was at work an hour ago!”
He’s not big on preambles. Why don’t I have call display on the phone by the bed?
I didn’t tell him I was up till three last night writing. That would just be another mistake to hold on to and bring up at Christmas. “Is the book done yet? When do we see it in stores and how much will you be paid? How much, boy? That doesn’t sound like much.”
I thought about telling him the kids were painting each other with glue again and that I had to hang up. I didn’t, though. I listened because he was talking about giving me money. His was a generous offer of an interest-free loan to kill the credit cards and raise the possibility of a future without debt.
I’ll owe him.
I said I’d think about it, like I still had a choice and pride.
Later, when I looked upon my innocent boys’ debt-free faces, I had to remember how to build a smile. Each grim facial reconstruction soon fell from my lips and I had to rearrange my face again. When they want the latest robot dinosaur, will my card be maxed out again? Will their memory of me be The Failure Who Always Said No? How different is that from the Self-made Man who says, “Why do you think you need that, boy?”
What will happen when they grow up? When they go to college and fall into the same — or a deeper — debt trap, I will pull them out of that hole if I have a rope. No money? No rope. No hope. There lies the soul of shame’s pain.
Each New Year’s Eve, Cecilia and I say this will be the year we “get some breathing room.” We’ll save money…somehow. We’ll win the lottery or I’ll sell my novel or…something. What’s likely to change since we aren’t doing anything different? We never speak of this secret aloud for fear that, like some magic curse, the danger will only be made real in the speaking.
I’m worried about the slow, spreading stain in the bedroom ceiling. Will roofers even accept a credit card? How much will new eaves troughs cost? Will the furnace die this winter?
“How much?” Dad asked.
“Ten thousand,” I said. I braced myself but he did not say anything. The weight of the silence on the phone line stretched out. His disappointment was that heavy. My scalp burned and my body felt skinned by rusty carrot scrapers. “Five hundred a month okay?” I ventured.
“Yeah,” he said. “Promise you’ll cut up your credit cards?”
The next pause was mine, the startled kind.
“Yes,” I lied. What if I have to rent a car or get a hotel room for some ugly, unforeseen reason? I think about the roof, the furnace, the eaves troughs, the latest dinosaur robot and the look on my boys’ faces when a classmate gets a new computer. My father will not understand why I will never cut up my credit cards.
I must have that safety net for emergencies, even if it could hang me. I could try to explain my situation, what my real life is like. That’s definitely what I should do.
Go ahead, I say to myself, sweating and now out of my body. Tell him! Tell him that the best things in life aren’t free! Tell him iPods buy love and happiness. Explain how you’re asking for $10,000 because that’s all your stupid pride can bear to ask but you could ask for twice as much and still not cover your debt! Tell him there’s little hope but you wish he shared your dreams for success, anyway. Give him another reason to call you “Boy.”
“Yeah?” he says.
All he’s got waiting for you is the sucker punch of a loan, judgement and condemnation.
I hang up the phone, my head hot and pounding. The kids are watching a SpongeBob rerun. My wife won’t be back from work for another hour. I could steal a nap.
Instead, I sit down. I dream big.