It’s cold out. I’m talking serious, nipples-turning-to-icicles cold. You wouldn’t know it given the otherwise perfect day outside, but frost is forming on the windows and I don’t have the money right now to leave the heater on, or the energy to keep the fire going. It’s hard enough putting food on the table.
Quite the pity party you’re having, Haley.
A jet screams overhead, loud enough for the frost-filled windows to rattle and Andy, my one-year-old, to take offense. He bursts into a hissy fit that would make any A-lister proud, complete with pounding fists and endless tears.
I’m cringing to myself. I know it’s the air show, but that jet was flying way too low. This is Merit, Michigan, population three-hundred-and-four. It’s not Top Gun. I can almost picture the arrogant ass of a pilot up there quietly chuckling to himself how he made us all spill our morning coffee with his giant penis of a plane.
Andy continues to cry, the shrill and penetrating sound only toddlers know how to produce. I can’t believe I’m going to hand him over to the babysitter in this state, but what choice do I have? The house, which looks like it’s been ransacked, is even more embarrassing, not to mention the bare fridge.
I close my eyes, force myself to take a moment. Breathe, I tell myself, but when I try, the anxiety simply wells up even harder.
I open my eyes. And… I’m back.
Merit—a small town with small-minded folk. Those who can, get out. Those who can’t, like myself, simply make do.
I can hear my dad in my head. He’d tell me I’m uneducated, that a high-school diploma means nothing out there in the real world. ‘What have you done?’ he would ask, going on to detail the many useless jobs I’ve worked in around town—a town that has been in decline for years now ever since the mill closed. ‘We gave you our home,’ he’d continue, to which I’d tell him that ‘yes, you did, but it also came with a mortgage that’s already forced me to refinance twice.’
Every time I think about it I want to slap myself in the head. The first time I refinanced was because I couldn’t hold down a regular job, let my stupid boyfriend at the time spend my inheritance. The second was just after Andy was born. I take a step forward and two steps back, constantly climbing a hill that gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger until it blots out the horizon and any kind of hope that lives there.
You done yet?
I’d happily wallow in my misery if I had a second of peace, but Andy’s still banging the table. I can’t be mad at him, not when he’s so perfect—the one good thing in my life.
I grab my things and lift Andy up, which seems to placate him a little. He sticks a pudgy finger into my ear as I check the doors and head out into the cold. I pick up the mail and tuck it into my handbag, stumbling awkwardly down the stairs and making my way to the house next door.
Andy’s babbling—something that sounds very close to ‘I love you.’
It’s funny then that the first thing I feel is relief when I knock on the neighbors’ door.
It pulls open.
“Hi, Miss Walker,” Nancy, my sixteen-year-old babysitter-slash-savior beams. It’s freezing, but she’s still wearing a tank top and shorts all the same.
“Hi, Nancy,” I reply, doing my best to smile.
‘Miss’ Walker—It always makes me sound so old. I’m only six years her senior.
And my, can a lot happen in six years.
I go to hand Andy over, but Nancy seems to step back into the house.
I stop. “Is everything okay?”
She looks behind herself, lowering her voice. She kicks her sneaker on the doormat, unable to make eye contact. “Mom said I had to tell you…”
I’m late as it is. “Tell me…?”
She looks up. “That you need to pay me this time.”
My cheeks start to burn. “Sure,” I nod. “For sure this time. I promise”
Nancy’s smile returns and she reaches out to take Andy. “Come here, beautiful boy. We’re going to have so much fun,” she says, tickling his cheek. “Yes, we are.”
I hate letting Andy go like this, but Nancy’s good with him. As for her mother… Mrs. Ainsworth ain’t exactly my biggest fan, can’t seem to stand the sight of me. How she raised such a decent, wholesome daughter is beyond me.
“Momma!” Andy smiles, safe in Nancy’s arms.
I lean forward to kiss him on the forehead. “Be good for Nancy, little buddy. I’ll see you soon.”
I turn before I start to cry and start down the sidewalk towards town. I pull my coat tight around myself and concentrate on my breathing, the one thing I can control. ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,’ my grandmother used to say.
She neglected to tell me the store was all out of sugar.
I look up and notice the day that was so perfect through the window was a farce. Dark clouds are coming together in the distance, colluding.
Against them a red and white jet soars into the air, spinning and looping over the airfield. Suddenly, it stops, seemingly falling from the sky. I freeze, waiting for it to regain control, but it continues to fall.
My heart starts to beat faster as I watch it drop, and drop.
“Come on,” I say aloud.
It’s too low. It’s never going to be able to pull up.
“Come on!” I shout.
Just when the jet’s about to plunge into the ground, it corrects and breaks out of its fall, shooting back into the sky, the sound following in delay.
I exhale. “You’re playing with fire, my friend,” I announce, shaking my head like the concerned citizen I am.
My father was a pilot, flew bombers in the Gulf War, but he never had time for showmanship, used to tell me such stunts were the domain of ‘hot shots, hustlers, and good-for-nothing goofballs.’ He was a practical man if nothing else.
I consider the pilot again. How very nice it must be to take a day off and do anything but work. He might be practicing, sure, but he’s still having a ball up there, free as a proverbial bird, burning up tankers of fossil fuel in the process, not a care in the world.
I’m picturing a Tom Cruise type, maybe a bit taller and not stuck in some strange cult. There’s a constant smile on this mystery man’s face, a smug expression that says ‘I own the world.’
The jet disappears from sight, lost in the gathering clouds.
“Yeah, you go,” I tell him. “Some of us have to work.”
I remember the mail, continuing to walk as I pull out the first envelope. I don’t need to open it to know it’s a bill. I tuck it away and select the next.
It’s no better.
My heart clenches when I see it’s from the bank.
I stop walking and hold it in my hands.
If you don’t open it, maybe whatever it says won’t exist?
It’s a foolish thought.
You’re an adult, Haley. Open the stupid letter.
All the heavy breathing in the world isn’t going to change what’s inside. I know that.
I open the letter as quickly as I can, rip it open like I’m pulling off a Band-Aid.
I skim the contents, pausing to read the last sentence twice, three times.
There’s far too much red ink for this to be anything but serious.
It’s a final notice.
Foreclosure will be on the twenty-second, days before Christmas. So much for the season of merriment and joy.
I stare down at the official-looking letter, the giant ‘FINAL NOTICE’ seeming to lift off the paper and grow bigger before me.
I knew this letter was coming, but I didn’t expect it so soon. I’ve been working so, so hard, but it’s never enough. It isn’t enough.
I’m wracked with guilt. I should be providing for my son. He should have a roof over his head. It looks like he’s about to be denied even that simple human right, and why? Because of his silly, stupid mother and her inability to do a single thing right.
I don’t stand there and shout into the heavens. I don’t stomp my feet and curse. I simply put the letter carefully back into the envelope and tuck it back into my bag.
I keep walking.
It’s all I can do.
Barry, the owner of the Merit Motor Inn, is waiting at the front desk, hands spanned out wide on the laminate top. “Thanks for showing up, Haley.”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Greyson. My son…”
He puts his hand up. “Yeah, yeah, I get it, but I don’t want this to become a habit. Got it?”
I nod my head meekly. “Yes, sir.”
He prods a thumb down the hall. “Get to it. These rooms aren’t going to clean themselves.”
“Yes, Mr. Greyson.”
As far as bosses go, I’ve had worse.
There’s a guy in a bathrobe hanging out of one of the rooms as I pass, a bottle of Jack in hand. I can smell him from ten feet away.
His eyes run over my body as I pass, his bathrobe falling open to reveal stained underwear and an obvious, though unremarkable, erection. “Hey, baby,” he says, puckering his lips. “How about a kiss?”
I avoid making eye contact. “No… thank you.”
He leans into the hall to check out my behind. “There’s a fiver in it for you, maybe more if you want to party.”
And the saddest part of it all is that I actually consider it for a split second before shaking it out of my head and doubling my pace.
I come around the corner and grab a cart, rolling it to the first room to be cleaned. Mercifully, this one’s empty, even if the sheets have been strewn across the room, wet toilet paper stuck to the walls of the bathroom.
It’s not so bad. Some of the things I’ve had to clean would make a plumber gag. There’s not enough bleach in the world to do away with those memories.
I clean and think, doing my best to divert my thoughts away from the bank letter burning a hole in my handbag. I think about Andy and how he looked so peaceful lying in his cot last night, his arms above his head like he was in the world’s cutest stick-’em-up. He has his father’s looks.
I pray that’s all.
The scumbag was out of here the second I told him I was pregnant. I should have seen it coming. I should have seen a lot coming.
The sex wasn’t even that great, a complete let-down after all the articles I’d read in my mother’s Cosmopolitan collection. Just my luck to be knocked up the very first time.
But what are you going to do?
The thought is persistent, continuing to tap, tap, tap against my subconscious.
I could take on another job… if I could find one, but I barely function as it is, not to mention the babysitter money that Nancy’s mother is demanding.
I think about the jet instead, about the freedom of it. That guy isn’t thinking about foreclosure notices and how he’s going to stock the fridge. No, he probably lives in a penthouse on the coast, has a fridge full of caviar and fine French wines. He’s probably got some crazy twenty-foot waterbed for the many girls he brings home every night, quietly ushering them out in the morning while he plays Xbox.
I actually smile a little at the character I’ve created, a character who couldn’t possibly be real.
What are you going to do? My head repeats, more forcefully now to get the message through. It’s not my voice, but that of my father, my mother, everyone who has ever asked me that question over and over again—a question I still don’t have an answer for all these years later.
Because I’m Haley—simple, small town Haley.
And that’s all there is to it.