Silvia Plath once noted, “[n]othing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” If this is the case, I have amassed quite the stinky pile. For a little end-of-summer cleaning, I’m freshening up my closet (aka hard drive), mixing metaphors and posting a few stories I like but for which I have yet to find suitable homes.
She had been down on her luck for so long that she began to appreciate what she did have: a roof over her head for the time being, a family to take her in if that changed, a strong mind and a healthy body. She began to understand what the old women at the rural church she had attended as a child said three times every Sunday, “Count your blessings.” Those women believed that their pious, humble lives of country poverty would be rewarded tenfold by God when they entered the gates of heaven.
Now she was in the city. She waited tables three nights a week, just enough to cover rent. She would also go on a few dates a month for a free night out. It’s not that she was a fan of chivalry or wanted to be dependent on any man, but a night of free food and drinks was available with a little flirting, so why not take advantage? Of course, she was looking for her kicks too. A good lay could be quite the anti-depressant.
Sometimes she longed for her life to be as simple as just making rent, but it wasn’t. She was two deep breaths from going ape-shit on a manager at Bank of America earlier that day. She reminisced the event as she sat in the small backyard of the house she shared with a few other people. She sipped on a bottle of sparkling water. She had joined the belief that bottled water was extravagant, wasteful and a symbol of a decadent and shortsighted society, but the tap didn’t provide bubbles and lime essence.
She had just got paid and had to stretch her 200 bucks as much as she could. Before she went to the bank she checked her account online and she saw she was overdrawn by $100, with $120 in bank fees. Then came the daily feeling of despair, if she had to pay the bank fees she would either have to be late on rent or she would have to leave her phone unpaid for yet another month and would lose service.
Her student loans were in default. There was no way in hell she could afford the thousand bucks they wanted from her each month on the graduated payment schedule, and she had already used up most of her deferment and forbearance in the first few years after college. She had also stopped paying three credit cards, where after five months of nonpayment the total balances rose from 8K to 10K. She no longer had car and health insurance, both of which were illegal to be without in Massachusetts.
When she had steady enough work to service her debt, she had sold much of her possessions of value online for needed cash. Other than a large collection of books, a lap top and a beat-up old car, she didn’t have much to spare. To keep her personal austerity program she had to sell her assets, now that she had hit bump, she felt like Greece.
But for the moment she was comfortable, sipping her sparking water in the first of the summer heat. As a page designer for a newspaper she knew what it was to be underpaid. She was ninety grand in debt for wanting to go to a good school, but couldn’t find a job that paid more than thirty-five. She was laid off from her old job but had trouble collecting unemployment because she had worked weekends as a server for extra money, technically she was still employed.
At first she was overwhelmed by a sense of dread, how could she pay her bills and keep up a decent credit score? After missing a few months of bills she became quite comfortable with it. The world didn’t end, but she starting receiving a dozen phone calls a day from creditors, but she just put the phone on vibrate and ignored them for the most part.
The immediate feeling of despair had gone away. But that morning as she rode her bike to the bank she thought that the $100 was the last straw. She imagined having to move back with her family in rural Tennessee, how she, the source of pride for her family of high school diplomas and GED’s, would now have to rely on them for a roof and food.
She went into the bank to see if she could have the fees waived. The manager told her no, that they had already removed seven fees for her and they couldn’t do it again. A few days before, she reluctantly agreed to pay $30 a month in a hardship program when she mistakenly answered a creditor’s call. She agreed to make a payment with American Express the following day, but she didn’t receive her normal tips that night and didn’t have enough to cover the transaction. American Express tried two more times to get money out on the scheduled day. Three fees of $35 and a strange $15 fee brought her account from $20 to negative $100. Poof, money vanished in to the ether. But it was her punishment. Bank of America’s morality police wouldn’t have reprimanded her had she been responsible.
“I can’t afford these fees! If you take these fees from my deposit then I can’t eat,” she said to the branch manager, with slight exaggeration.
“That’s not our problem, we’ve let you off the hook before and we can’t do that anymore,” the manager responded.
“What the fuck! How can you feed off people with all these fees? The people with the least money are making a lot of people rich!”
The manager didn’t respond. She then looked at the desk and envisioned herself throwing everything on the floor. A Molotov cocktail appeared in her hand and she chucked it across the lobby toward the safe. She sipped her sparkling water sprawled out on the patio chair as she allowed the cathartic fantasy of going ape-shit in a Bank of America.
The Molotov cocktail had crashed against the wall. The curtains which hung over the tall windows went up in flames. The alarm started to ring and the fire sprinklers began to rain water. The few dozen customers, who had looked as though they were waiting in a dentist’s lobby for a root canal before her rampage, were now running for the door in terror.
Wait, she thought, this isn’t right. She went back to the moment right before the Molotov cocktail appeared in her hand.
“Alright, alright, alright! Y’all listen up!” she yelled as she climbed to the top of the freshly cleared desk.
“Get down from there or I’ll have to call the cops!” snapped the manager.
“Shut the fuck up!” She yelled with suck command that the manager couldn’t muster a response. “We are all being exploited by this bank and every other bank. As the major holders of society’s assets they shape our daily lives, our politicians and, unfortunately, our future. Think about it, when you’re struggling to get by they only make matters worse. You bounce a check because you don’t have the money, they manipulated the transactions to increase the fees owed, and before you know it half your rent is gone. Times are tough, I’m still having a hard time getting food stamps and while they easily got billions from the government!”
The guard started to approach her, but another larger man, stepped in front of him and said, “Let her speak her peace.”
“Banks carry the heavy whip of slave master in the debt bondage we are more or less forced into as ‘productive’ members of society.”
The other customers in the bank looked as if they had had an awakening, not for her oratory skills but for her audacity. The customers, consisting of blue collar folks and businesspeople of all colors, young, old, black, white, Latino and Asian, might have expected an outburst like this from someone panhandling in the street, but from a articulate ambiguously white girl with nappy black hair, it was something new and slightly empowering.
“Amen sistah! Tell it!” said an older lady from behind the teller counter. “I’ve been working here for five years, and while I process tens of thousands of dollars every day I work, they still only pay me $14.75 an hour for 23 hours a week with no benefits!”
A few people who were in line to talk about their notices of default looked as thought they had been hit by the holy spirit of a popular uprising. The manager was now hiding under her desk.
She adjusted herself in her chair to catch the last of the setting sun and continued on with her reverie.
“Alright, all of you working can have the rest of the day off. This bank is officially closed! And you,” she looked at the branch manager hiding under the desk. “You better leave now so you don’t get hurt!”
But first she grabbed the manager by the arm and pulled her behind the teller desks and told her to empty all of the drawers and cash in the safe. She then handed the money to the tellers and the customers but kept ten grand for herself. With the bills stuffed into her purse, Molotov cocktails again appeared in her hands. She handed them out to two people. She looked up at the dumbfounded security guard,
“What the hell are you doing? Get out of here,” she yelled, but gave him a few hundred to depart with. She started clearing the desks and throwing deposit slips on the floor to provide more fuel for the fire. Others followed suit.
She then instructed others to be ready for a quick exit. Two more Molotov cocktails appeared in her hands and handed one off, but lit another. She threw it on the manager’s desk and it immediately lit up in flames. The three more cocktails were lit and thrown. The interior of the bank was now a raging inferno.
The crowd of disgruntled Bank of America customers quickly left the building but slowed to a casual walk as there was no police presence and their arrest was not immanent. This after all, was her fantasy. She walked to the nearest T Station with her bike to head back home to Jamaica Plan, appreciating the small degree of justice served.
She remembered the words of her grandmother to her mother in the lean times of her youth. “The good lord will provide you with all that you need, just have to set your needs accordingly.”
She wished she could believe in God and could reach out to him to provide. But on the second thought, if the Judaic-Christian God did exist, she would want to kick him in his fluffy cloud-like nuts.
If God is all-powerful, all-knowing and complete, then why would he have to create humans for his satisfaction? Why would he create a cosmic game where many righteous non-believers would suffer eternal damnation in the pits of hell?
When she would ask her mother and grandmother, as a child, if God created everything then why would he create the devil and allow for so much suffering, they would say humans could never understand God’s plan. She often took it a step further, she remembered as she took the last sip of her plastic bottle of sparkling water mineral water with lime essence, she would state in the form of a question the if God created everything, including evil, then God had to be just a little bit evil. To this her grandmother and mother would shoot her looks of horror.
“Young girls shouldn’t say things like that!” he mother would say.
“Good lord,” her grandmother would say. “The devil is starting to speak through my little girl. You better get your mind out of these worldly books and keep your eyes and heart on the good words of God, before you end up on his wrong side.”
Maybe that was it, all the worldly books she had read since that time had put her on the wrong side of God. It was dusk, a few of her friends called, but she was broke, and was too depressed to loosen up without a few drinks. She made herself eggs, cheese grits and toast. It was comfort food and a source of cheap calories, although the eggs were cage free, the grits were organic and the toast was sprouted whole wheat.
She took a shower and put a movie into her lap top. It was V for Vendetta. She had seen it over a dozen times, but it was one of only five she owned. She put it on because it also helped to prolong the catharsis of her prior reverie. V, the protagonist, single handedly stirs up an uprising to overthrow an oppressive state through a series of violent acts and assassinations. But it turns out his primary motive may not be justice for all who were oppressed, but for his personal vengeance, to seek justice for the imprisonment and torture he suffered decades before.
She thought of her violent fantasy. Did she justify the violence because it was vengeful or because it was liberating? Or could it be both, she asked herself? It was vengeance that that made the thought of violence so satisfying, a carnal pleasure of sorts. A violent act of vengeance is an end in itself, but usually not a just end. A violent act as a means to achieve a just end of liberation, is quite arguably a just act, yet history shows mixed results when using this logic of violence.
Ah yes, the young radicals want to believe there’s a coming insurrection, she thought. But are insurrections like erections in that they’re prone to come too soon, to bust before a shared climax, to leave a feeling of unfulfillment? A justified act of insurrection should be one of a defiant mutual aid, one of mutual creation. Insurrections, like erections, can be used to rape, to violate, to rip and tear tender life-giving flesh. But also like erections, an insurrection can be a tool of love, of passion and a means for positive creation. There must be the fertile ground of loving popular support lubricated by the foreplay of pre-establishing pre-formulating communal bonds and alternative structures for the insurrection to be an act of creation, an act of beauty, she thought as the British House of Parliament was blown up to the tune of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Orchestra on the screen of her laptop.
After the movie she brushed her teeth and combed her hair. As she got into bed after chatting about the meaningless nothings of the day that was closing with one of her housemates, she could not help but dread going back to Tennessee broken and as a failure. Her grandma was no longer around to tell her that the books she read while earning a degree in English and a minor in Philosophy at Boston University had put her on the wrong side of God.
But, no her grandmother wasn’t that cold. She was proud that her grandchild was going to a fancy university in New England. She had died two months into her freshman year, and she wasn’t able to make the funeral. Her grandma probably fainted in heaven when she looked down and saw her grandchild writing a senior thesis on the impact Nietzsche’s ‘Death of God’ had on twentieth century literature. She relished in the total recreation of morals and values in the absence of divine commandments by the great thinker of the century prior. But she also despaired how the same words fit very nicely into the fascist rhetoric of the same era. Laying in bed it didn’t matter much to her if God was dead, alive or a nonexistent human abstraction of the infinite.
She thought of how she could change her situation. She had been active in protests against the War in Iraq, but it still happened. She organized with community groups against gentrification in Jamaica Plain, against a housing and business development that would uproot hundreds of families. The organizers ended up failing to match to power of well-capitalized developers who legally bought off politicians. The land was cleared, but the project stalled indefinitely due to the Great Recession.
She could vote, participate in the spectacle of inactive action, but politicians only made it to the ballot after being vetted by financial contributions. Even if the president was a half-breed like herself, what could she really hope for, marginally better? Although she did see marginally better as being better nonetheless, she would still only be marginally less exploited, marginally less broke, marginally less underpaid.
Her grandmother was a Republican in the tradition of the good Reverend Doctor. Her mother was a Republican in the sense she didn’t like gays or unborn baby killing. She also made enough to get by without help from the government, but didn’t make enough so that taxes weren’t a burden. But as she snuggled herself into sleep she thought of her mom and grandmother more as religiously inspired than politically inspired.
While they were always talking down on the men of the town for gambling —her father included before a malfunctioning hydraulic lift dropped an ’88 Oldsmobile on his head—they played bingo every Friday night at the Pentecostal church and bought scratch tickets nearly everyday.
In her dreams she had a flashback to the time she was ten. Her father had died the year before and she and her mother were just getting used to life alone. Her mother bought a scratch ticket every day, hoping that God would bestow upon her an inherence greater than an indebted auto shop and 200 acres of federally protected land in the foothills of the Appalachians. The fact her mom owned that land, and was a small business owner who had remarried left her with little financial aid and a lot of student loan debt.
In the dream she sat with her mom in the front seat of the old Ford Tempo her mom had had for years. The dream was familiar, even though the setting was different, instead of the Chuck’s Gas Station where her mom always purchased cigarettes and lotto tickets, they were sitting in the parking lot of a rest stop off the Mass Pike. Tanya Tucker was playing in the tape player as her mother lit a Marlboro. She reached in the coin tray to grab her lucky penny, a penny which hadn’t scratched a winner in some months.
She whispered a short prayer asking for miracles, the same unanswered prayer she prayed everyday before she scrapped the metallic film off the paper. She scratched the first, nothing. She scratched the second, nothing. She took a deep breathe before the third, her mom had always put so much hope into the Tennessee Lottery.
“Oh my God! Thank you Jesus for working miracles when I need it most!” She had just won $2000, enough for two months of mortgage payments. Her mom had opened a salon just before her father passed. Business was slow the first year, so there was a constant fear of losing the home and the business. Her mom wiped her tears and asked if she wanted to go to McDonald’s. McDonald’s was a treat and it was a thirty minute drive out of town. But in that dream, the Mickey D’s happened to be at the rest stop.
She woke up from her dream and looked around her Spartan room. She began to think that it was only a matter of time before she got a few breaks. It was all about the law of probability. The more jobs she applied to without response, the more likely it was she’d get a response with each new job she applied to. She had applied to nearly 100 since she lost her job six months ago. But still, even if she had a job she may not be able to get herself out of the debt trap. As she drifted back to sleep she was overcome with the idea of quick fixes, lucky tickets and numbers.
She woke up early, feeling energized yet apprehensive. She went to the kitchen to make coffee and her housemate was eating breakfast before she headed to work.
“You’re up early,” said her housemate. “I thought you were never up before noon.”
“Yeah I know, but it would be good for me to start getting up earlier.”
“Got any plans today?”
“I think I’m gonna buy a few scratch tickets and a lottery ticket,” she responded to her housemate. “I’m feeling lucky.”
“Oh yeah? That’ll solve your problems,” she said as she shot her a sarcastic look. “Why don’t you just become a stripper? That industry is recession proof.”
“I didn’t go to college to be a stripper.”
“But you didn’t go to college to be unemployed and sleep ‘til noon everyday either,” her housemate said with a sympathetic smile. “I have a few friends making good money stripping a few nights a week. You’re a good looking sophisticated lady with a good dose of country charm. If you’re at the point where you’re praying God will save your ass with a lucky ticket, then making a grand a night for taking your clothes off isn’t a bad option.”
“I’m not praying to God!” she snapped, her atheism being offended.
“Well if you’re feeling lucky about the lottery you might as well be. Listen, I’m just throwing this out here as an option. I know you situation sucks right now. Strippers aren’t prostitutes, there’s no dick sucking or heavy petting…that is, unless you don’t want to make even a little more on the side. It’s a class place frequented by rich men. Anyway, here’s my friend’s phone number. Call her to chat if you want. But now I have to go to work.”
She took the piece of paper and stared at it for a moment. She could imagine her grandma staring down at her from heaven. Her grandmother would probably prefer a prudish atheist to a lusty believer taking her clothes off for money. But then again, Mary Magdalene was a lady of the night.
She crumpled the piece of paper and for the first time in years began to pray as tears flowed from her eyes. She didn’t pray to God, she prayed to her grandmother, for her grandmother’s spirit to intervene in her life and make things better. She couldn’t help but to think something big was bound to happen. She walked to the corner store four blocks a way. For the first time she notice the unfulfilled dreams that littered the sidewalk around the corner store—weathered scratch tickets now heavy in the morning dew.
When she walked in there were two people hunched over the counter scratching furiously. She went to the counter confident that luck would be on her side. She asked the clerk for three scratch tickets.
“What kind do you want?” asked the clerk.
“How many kinds of scratch tickets do you have?” The clerk pointed to a dozen rolls of tickets that ranged in price from a dollar to three bucks. “What’s the lucky one?”
“If I knew I wouldn’t be here,” the clerk smugly responded.
“Okay, give me three of the three dollar tickets. It doesn’t matter which kind.” She took the tickets and went over the other end of the counter next to a large black lady. She looked at the tickets and didn’t exactly know how to begin.
“Is this your first time sweetie?” the lady asked as she watched her fumble with a penny.
“Yeah, but today is my lucky day. I can feel it.”
“Don’t get your hopes up, you’ll only be disappointed,” the lady said. She noticed the lady looked strikingly familiar but couldn’t place the familiarity.
“Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You work at the bank don’t you?” She at once realized that this was the lady who had supported her rampage in her Bank of America fantasy.
“Why yes. That’s why I look familiar.” She scratched her first ticket but it was a loser. “You shouldn’t get into these things, they’re bad. You’re better off putting three dollars a day under your mattress.”
“What not at a bank?”
“Lord no! Those dollars would be sucked up with fees. Banks aren’t for broke people.”
She scratched the second ticket, nothing. The self-righteous feeling of indignation kicked in again. She looked over the store that fueled most of poor people’s vices: booze, cigarettes, low quality food and gambling. A Molotov cocktail appeared in her hand. She wanted to wipe it all away.
“Relax sweetie. They don’t sell these tickets for people to make money off of,” the older lady said. She calmed down and looked at the third.
“I know, but I just in a bind right now.”
She looked at the ticket and her eyes began to fill with tears as she finished scratching. She didn’t want to move back to Tennessee as a loser with an expensive education.
“Sweetie, put your trust in God, not in these scratch tickets,” the lady said with a soothing voice. She looked at the lady, half in disbelief, half in anger. Fuck God! She wanted to scream.
“I’m too impatient to wait for my reward in heaven. Materially, life sucks right now, while it’s not the most convincing argument against God, but right now it’s working for me.” She walked out of the store abruptly.
“Bless you child,” the older lady said as she left with a smooth soulful voice that reminded her too much of her grandma.
She walked home and went straight to the bathroom. She took off her shirt and bra. She looked at her perky C-cups in the mirror and began to cry. She shook her voluptuous, yet tight body and did a tearful dance in front of the mirror. She put back on her shirt and went to the trash where she had put the piece of paper with the stripper’s number. She found a crumpled lottery ticket in the trash and on the back were her lucky numbers with a Boston area code.