16 Tons (Annie-3)

Poverty and a single woman's soul.

Posted Sep 11, 2017

Ryan McGuire/Gratisography
Source: Ryan McGuire/Gratisography

Annie doesn’t have room for love these days, though her need for it is stronger than ever. She is utterly focused on finances right now: her situation is dire. Annie’s never had money. She grew up aware that there wasn’t much, and like most children, adapted to what there was. She didn’t ask to be in the ski club, like some of the girls at school were, because she gathered from conversations on the school bus that skiing was expensive. She didn’t try out for the school plays because she heard you had to go to practice at night, and that would have meant someone would have had to drive her: more gas, and “gas is expensive,” she knew. (Of course, I wonder how much her parents spent on alcohol, but that wasn’t 15-year-old Annie’s question. Like most children, she accepted the way things were.) 

She got loans to go to college, and loans for graduate school. She worked in the college cafeteria her freshman year, and then got a “much better”—because quiet and solitary—job re-shelving books at the college library. She picked up temporary jobs during breaks: the florist before Christmas, selling poinsettias; dog-sitting for a professor over spring break. Every dollar mattered, and she worked hard to be able to buy supplies for her art work and an occasional hamburger out with her boyfriend in college. She remembers feeling glad that he was as skint as she: “There was never any pressure to ‘keep up’ with him. He never had more than I did. I occasionally had enough money to treat him to a movie on campus, which cost $2. They were old movies, classics like The Seventh Samurai and Autumn Sonata. I remember we decided not to go see Fantasia, because we had seen it before, and needed the $4 for other things.” 

Annie always worked, dreadful jobs mostly. “Customer service sucks the life out of me,” she says. “The year I was in Portland and working at a car rental place, I thought I might die, or explode into a million pieces, if I had one more puffed-up man come in and tell me I had to upgrade him to a Cadillac, ‘So I can impress the ladies.’ Wink, wink.” I laugh at her imitation of the middle-aged suburban cheapskate dreaming of being a Lothario. “Customer service taught me to mimic people,” she says matter-of-factly. “Not to their faces. But in between customers, we’d stand around and I’d imitate whoever had been in. I worked on voices, of course, but also on posture and walk. I learned I was good at it, and we’d all have a laugh about the ones who were a real pain.” She smiles at the memory. “It was the only way to keep sane in a crazy time.” 

“Especially when you had a crazy boyfriend at home,” I comment, remembering Nathan moving toward psychosis. “Yeah. Nathan never had any money, and was unwilling to take a skanky job.” I venture a guess: “So you paid the rent?” “Yeah.  Somebody had to. I usually got the groceries too. He’d pay for stuff when he could, when his parents sent him money, or when he had a job, which he did at the start.”  She ducks her head a moment. “That’s one of the things that scared me about him.  I had helped him a lot, and then he tried to kill me.” I nod. “Yes. The changes in someone during a psychotic break are hard to believe when they are actually happening.” “Yeah. Until the person puts his hands around your neck.” She laughs, and shakes the memory off like a dog drying its coat. 

Now, after years of not-quite-making-ends meet, and a period of unemployment, Annie is working two part-time jobs. She has to pay rent, utilities, groceries and gas, a car payment, student loans, and the not-uncommon mountain of credit card debt. She hasn’t bought frivolous things with her credit card. She has needed to use it for normal things: clothes at Goodwill, oil changes and car repairs, a small U-Haul when she moved. But because she has had insufficient money for so long, and because credit card interest is so high, she now isn’t able to make even the minimum payments. And so the interest and penalties multiply and multiply and multiply. She tells me straight: “Even if I had a decent job making decent money, I couldn’t afford to pay my bills because of that credit card.” 

She tells me what she is learning about filing for bankruptcy. It isn’t straightforward.  Plus, the ethics of bankruptcy shames her, and makes her feel ill. A friend recently asked if she were in danger of being homeless. Her smile is shaky as she says to me, “I realized that I am pretty close. I realized from my friend’s reaction to my story that I’m in crisis."

We review the current priorities: the necessity of making her car payment and electric bill. The necessity of having a phone. We discuss negotiating with the landlord to decrease the rent. We talk about consulting someone—whom?—about her financial situation. A debt consolidation service? A bankruptcy lawyer? A free financial advisor at the credit union where she has an account? We discuss adding another part-time job to the income, or looking for a full-time job that pays better. “I need to do that,” she agrees, though she loves her job at the press. “But that’s going to take time, and it’s not going to result in enough money anyway.” 

Annie tells me that as she is trying to figure out what to do about her financial situation, she is becoming exhausted: “I can’t stay awake at work. I can’t get out of bed on the weekend. I can’t focus on anything when I actually have time.” She’s pretty sure it’s depression, and her doctor raised her dose of Prozac, which Annie hopes will help. But we both know the only thing that will really help, long-term, is changing her situation. How? 

“Oh, and just to gild the lily, I feel really terrible every time I get my period. I blow up at people, I have a lot of pain, I cry.” I urge her to make an appointment with a gynecologist. We look at each other. “Hormonal stuff on top of everything else,” I say, commiserating. “Yeah.” I watch her withdraw a bit, and wait for her to say something about Lenny. But she doesn’t. We both know he’s there in her head, but she doesn’t have the energy to talk about the man who might, or might not, be a bright spot in her life. 

She tears up a tiny bit when I say, “I’m so sorry about how things are, Annie. They will get better.” We both know that’s an empty phrase right now, but she is polite and smiles. We make a date to talk early next week, and when we have parted, I sit down and cry. Annie’s smart, she’s resilient; she will do whatever needs to be done. But this time of ignorance, of not being sure what to do next, and feeling inadequate to fix the situation? That’s anxiety in neon lights. 

No wonder the man ahead of her in line at the credit union yesterday got on her nerves. He talked to anyone who would listen about the weather: about hurricanes and earthquakes, fires and floods, the news that surrounds and scares us right now. But his argument about it shook Annie even more than the events themselves: “He said it’s the end of the world.” She looks at me as the words hang between us. I know she believes that climate change, not a vengeful god, is responsible for the wind and rain and fire. But I see in Annie’s eyes the fear of a personal apocalypse: poverty, and insurmountable debt.

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