Authors: Stewart O'Nan
He told them about the ice bridge that formed below the American Falls in cold years. They could see it down there on their right. In the old days, workmen from the Grand Hotel shoveled it so visitors could walk across for a close‑up view. There was a restaurant that set up shop on the bridge, it was that solid, till 1912, when a freak thaw washed away a pair of young sweethearts and another fellow, and that was the end of that. Though, sure, if you looked down there right now with a pair of spyglasses, you could bet you’d see footprints.
“That’s wild,” Art said.
“That’s the least of it,” the driver said. “There’s stories to fill a book, if folks have the stomach for ’em.”
This was his shtick, the dark raconteur. For the rest of the ride he entertained them with tales of doomed daredevils and failed rescues and gaslit murders. As one misfortune succeeded another, Art looked to her and shrugged, as if to say he hadn’t meant to encourage him. She had to laugh. Nothing ever turned out the way he wanted. She patted his hand to show it was all right and
pointed at the gulls flying far below in the gorge, tiny white crosses sailing over the swirling rapids. Away from the Falls there was no spray, no crowd. They were traveling at a walking pace, the unhurried clip-clop of hooves and the driver’s rich lilt lulling her. She closed her eyes and felt the sun on her face, sat there basking, leaning against Art, and for the first time since they’d arrived she was glad they came. There was a peace in giving up, if only momentarily, and she was sorry when the ride was over. For their picture, she held her rose straight upright between them, and, like a bride, tipped her chin, closed her eyes and gave him a perfectly innocent kiss.
Odds of a U.S. citizen filing for bankruptcy:
1 in 17
As everywhere else, there was a good-sized line for Journey Behind the Falls. It was past lunchtime, but it made no sense to go back up the hill, so again they waited, milling in an overheated anteroom cordoned with yellow nylon rope and abuzz with a dozen languages. There was no off-season here, the Falls were always on. Art didn’t know why he thought the place would be all theirs, and wanted to apologize. He had the ring in his pocket. Having just missed an opportunity, he was hungry for another.
In so many ways, they were here because of his wishfulness. As a child, even as a teenager, he was a dreamer, insulated from the larger world by school and his parents’ house, the limits of their comfortable suburb. He was a straight‑A student, used to acing tests with minimal effort. It was only in his senior year that he realized life might not be as easy as he’d thought. He was co‑captain of the math team. His fellow co‑captain, Boaz Parmalee, a transfer from Israel who would later help develop the first iteration of Windows, began the season with a perfect tournament, then the next month repeated the feat, landing him on the cover of the school paper. Competing against the best in the county, Art had been content to place in the top ten. Now he crammed for each tournament, staying up late in his gloomy attic
room, running through proofs, overloading his brain. His scores improved, though he still trailed Boaz, yet every time he sat down to face the blank test booklet, he believed this time might be different, and was surprised when the results confirmed that once again he’d lost. The team won the county easily and placed third in states, the school’s best showing ever, but while Art smiled with Boaz as they each held a jug handle of the trophy, he was thinking—and part of him was still convinced—if he’d just studied harder, he could have beaten him.
Now, well into middle age, he’d changed shockingly little. If, as he liked to think, his greatest strength was a patient, indomitable hope, his one great shortcoming was a refusal to accept and therefore have any shot at changing his fate, even when the inevitable was clear to him. He knew the house was out of their range when she first e‑mailed him the listing. He only went along to the showing to make her happy, and then, after seeing the high ceilings and tile fireplaces, she wanted it. It was a bargain, she insisted, drawing his attention to the woodwork and the leaded glass, the actual plaster walls. The strength of her desire surprised him. He wanted to fulfill it, as if, out of gratitude, she might transfer that ardor to him.
Technically they shouldn’t have qualified for the mortgage, even with both of them working. The down payment mostly came from the money his mother had left him from the sale of the family manse in Shaker Heights, a guilty windfall he thought would help pay for the childrens’ college, not that far off. With the stroke of a pen their nest egg was gone, and they were the owners of a leaky old showplace that still had the original knob-and-tube
wiring from the twenties. The furnace was a massive octopus swaddled in a full-body cast of asbestos, the plumbing an illegal mix of steel, PVC and lead. They couldn’t afford to do everything at once, and believed the realtor’s inspector when he said the roof would last a few more winters. The first major storm, melt from heavy ice dams stained the second-floor ceilings, spreading sepia blooms that grew daily, the steady dripping a torture, until a roofer who advertised emergency repairs could fit them into his schedule. That spring they cashed in a mutual fund to redo the roof, screwing up their taxes. Every year it seemed there was another project, while the principal on their mortgage barely lessened, thanks to the ballooning escrow. They redid the bathrooms, painted the exterior trim a different color, waterproofed the basement. When he was seeing Wendy, they were repointing the chimneys. Whenever he thought they were finished, Marion had another idea. From the beginning she’d wanted to gut the cramped fifties-era kitchen, and when Jeremy graduated from college, relieving them, finally, of the burden of tuition, interest rates were so low that he gave in and they took out a home equity loan that amounted to a second mortgage.
He knew better than to try to live on credit, especially at his age, but money was cheap. The interest rate was nothing compared to the penalty they’d pay for breaking into their IRAs early. The money was there—and more, thanks to his firm’s generous stock option—they just couldn’t touch it. It was a simple liquidity problem that time would naturally fix. Until then, the loan would bridge the gap. This way they’d get to enjoy the kitchen, and what better place to invest than their own home?
The renovation took longer and cost more than they budgeted for, but Marion was happy with her new custom cabinets and six-burner cooktop and double wall ovens, and when they entertained friends, they were sure they’d made the right choice. Then, as part of a supposed restructuring, the nursing home reduced her hours. A few months later the parent company, HealthSouth, closed the facility and cut loose the remaining staff.
The mistake, he thought later, was assuming the world would go along from day to day the way they did. From thirty years in insurance, he knew it was impossible to see the future. You hedged your bets by minimizing risk, denying coverage to anything remotely borderline. In retrospect, the chances places like AIG and Countrywide were taking were insane, though, under normal circumstances, as with their own debts, they would have never been asked to make good on them all at once.
The crash was too fast, or he was too slow. Like his mother, he prided himself on being a buy-and-hold investor, and expected a rebound, if only the vaunted dead-cat bounce. Their portfolio was conservative and diversified, but by the time he made up his mind to pull their money out, the Dow was below 8,000 and everything had slid. Though Ohio Life wasn’t involved in default swaps, it was an equity company, and the common stock that made up the foundation of his retirement was now trading south of a dollar. In the shakeout the firm was easy prey for an Asian investment group, who merged it with Northeast Direct, a former competitor, and changed the name to Heartland Financial. The layoffs started immediately, officially called a reduction in team
size. At orientation the new CFO confirmed there could be more. Employees would also be responsible for their own retirement and health insurance plans. As a corporation and as individuals, they had to be realistic. He didn’t need to remind them, they were dealing with a whole new economy.
He’d been there nearly twenty years, and relied on his seniority to protect him. It seemed to, through the early rounds of cuts. The new head of Human Resources—a hired gun from Chicago—had come for friends on both sides of his office, a brawny security guard trailing behind like a bouncer with a copy-paper box. The drill was simple: hand over your badge and take your personal possessions. No farewell lunch, no sheet cake, no gag gifts. The day was always Friday, as if, over the weekend, they might forget their lost colleagues. The practical result was that the survivors resented and feared management, and now had to do the work of two or three people, meaning they were always playing catch‑up.
He made it to July. Normally he’d have been at Pymatuning, enjoying the cool of the lake. To showcase his industriousness, he’d skipped vacation, a tactic Marion disliked but agreed was probably smart.
They came for him in the morning, before coffee break. He’d been expecting them but was still panicked, a subtle vertigo taking hold. As he rooted through his desk, salvaging old address books and dried‑up pens and
It’s a Girl!
cigars, his skin flushed. Though the office was over-air-conditioned, his forehead was sweating. He wanted to say he wasn’t ready, except they didn’t care. As a precaution he’d updated his resumé, but, typically,
hadn’t sent it anywhere. He was a hard worker, a self-starter, a team player. In the end he was a victim of his own diligence. His accounts were perfect, all ready for someone else to take over.
In his entire life he’d never been fired. Even as the guard walked him out to the parking lot to make sure he left the campus, Art couldn’t believe it was happening. He set the box with Marion’s and the children’s pictures on the passenger seat, buckled in and pulled out, passing the security shack like he had thousands of times before, only this time he wasn’t coming back.
He wanted to be calm for Marion. As he drove, he ran through what he could say to her, none of it comforting. He was fifty-two, too old to start over. He’d missed break, and stopped for a coffee at his regular Dunkin’ Donuts, doing the drive-thru. As he waited at the window, he watched the staff inside working the counter in their visors and uniforms and thought he was no longer part of that world. He paid, fitted the cup in the cup holder and rejoined traffic. With his windows up and the air-conditioning on, he floated down the commercial strip in motorized silence, separated from the bright, bustling life outside as if it were a film projected all around him, his own personal IMAX experience that would have to end and release him, except it didn’t, it went on and on, street after street, light after light, until he was only a couple blocks from home. He considered stopping at a bar, if he could find one that was open. He could drive down to the lake and walk along the beach, but the idea recalled Wendy and he nipped it. There was really nowhere else to go, just as there was nothing to say besides the flat fact that he’d been fired. And then, when he pulled into their driveway and thumbed
the button, the garage door rolled up to show both bays were empty.
He needn’t have worried. She was understanding, having recently been let go herself. It was harder telling the children, a job he partly ceded to her, accepting their condolences from the kitchen extension. A trickier question was who else they should tell. There was no way of stopping her from sharing the news with Celia, but he didn’t want their friends to know, which she didn’t quite follow, since they were all aware of her situation. In deference to his pride she honored his request, keeping his secret even after Mrs. Khalifa deduced the truth.
It was obvious. He was around the house all week, running errands and working in the yard when he wasn’t online applying for any job within a hundred miles. He was overqualified for most of the positions, or so he told himself when they never got back to him. Mornings he sat at the granite-topped island in the kitchen with his coffee, poring over the sparse want ads in the
. Despite thirty years managing corporate accounts, he wasn’t a CPA. He’d always considered himself capable, but what skills did he really have? He couldn’t weld, he didn’t have his Class B driver’s license. Maintenance people were needed for apartment buildings in the city.
Applicant will be responsible for basic plumbing repairs.
There, he couldn’t even be a janitor.
The hardest part was wondering what he could have done differently. With no recourse and so much time to himself, he mulled over the past like a blown putt, but couldn’t isolate one crucial misstep. It was his whole life, the sum total of his shortcomings, that had brought him here. He could blame the
company and the banks for being greedy and overextending themselves, putting the country at risk and then socking away the TARP money, and in his most constipated inner rages did, but, like his time with Wendy, the scale of his latest failure seemed an indictment of him, the timid underachiever, and he was glad his mother wasn’t alive to see it.
She’d spent the last decade of her life alone, on a fixed income, fretting over every penny, reminding him so often that several times he offered to help, only to discover, as her executor, that between distributions from annuities and dividends she was making twice what he and Marion were taking home. Now, faced with dwindling resources and a constant assault of bills, he resorted to stopgap measures she would have disapproved of, paying bills late, or paying with credit cards, then paying just the minimum on the cards so each month their balance rose. Every day he dreaded the mail. Some bills had to be paid promptly—the mortgages, their health and home and auto insurance. The gas and electric had more slack, the water and sewer, the garbage pick‑up, the bundled cable, internet and phone. Even when they didn’t spend anything, the money was draining away. After a life dedicated to making the numbers come out right, he felt he was betraying himself.