PINK SLIP by Linda Boroff

__________There are as many roads to poverty as there are paupers to follow them. As a writer, I have always tried to see my own journey as a leisurely, rather loopy jaunt-material for an anecdote to be delivered with a wry chuckle during my acceptance speech someday at a national awards gala.

__________Right now, though, the road ahead is looking rough: I’m on my way to sign over the pink slip on “Moby Dick," my white 2000 Buick Century, as security on a loan to pay the rent, five days late and counting. My destination is a storefront in a bleak San Jose strip mall where, between a liquor mart and a shoe repair shop, a fuchsia neon sign beckons: “Fast Cash! Paycheck Advance! Auto Title Loans! There, my signed pink slip will net me$2000 in cold cash, which I promise to repay over two years at an interest rate of about 98 percent.

__________I back out of my carport, find a jazz station playing pensive, rueful sax, and hit the road. The rain that has threatened all morning now arrives in earnest, the mist on my windshield quickly turning to tears, as if to make up, for the ones I’m holding back. Somehow, my whole life seems like a prologue to this humiliating ordeal. But it could be worse, I console myself, which only reminds me that it may, indeed, get worse and soon. The windshield wipers begin beating time to the bitter scold in my head: why didn’t you, why did you, why didn’t you, why did you?

__________I merge onto Highway 280 south, the road comparatively empty on this Saturday morning. Commuters are home enjoying their well-earned rests and leisurely breakfasts before heading out to spend their spendable incomes. As the miles unreel ahead, I cannot resist thinking back over my own highway of financial choices that have delivered me to this pass. How many wrong turns? How many dead ends, detours, directions unheeded? Or is the problem deeper? Perhaps the map is wrong; the destination does not exist.

__________Or maybe I’m just genetically wired for this destiny. Certainly by age seven, I was already displaying impatience with saving, along with impulsive overgenerosity, dislike for routine, and a general temperamental unmanageability- all traits that have cleft my life like a fault line. Reading Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ants, I quickly identified with my gangly orthopteral soul mate, shivering out in the cold with his inedible fiddle.

__________“It’ll be okay, mom," says my daughter, Nicki, guessing at the reason for my silence. She sits beside me now, as she always has, and in a way nothing has changed, although her once downy head has grown into an avalanche of blonde-streaked waves, and the rattles and sippy cups she once clutched have given way to a plastic box of eye shadow that she dabs on in the passenger mirror.

__________She has just graduated from college and is herself seeking a “real" job. In the interim, she has moved back with me-compounding the financial pressures but giving me a comrade in the trenches. I understand, without taking it too personally, that to not follow in my footsteps is for her almost a career goal in itself. Who can blame her? Financial turmoil has shaped her life since her father left us when she was three years old.

__________South we hurtle from Palo Alto, that wellspring of limitless venture capital, none of which has ever moistened my bank account. I presumed to live in this costly enclave so that Nicki could attend its top-ranked schools. And was that another wrong tum, I wonder, hearing her reel off anecdotes about the snobbery, anorexia, grade grubbing, and soccer field behavior that would shame a velociraptor.

__________After years of battling the gridlocked commute and enduring the petty bullying of middle managers, I quit my marketing communications cubicle in 2000, planning to work freelance and support a modest writing existence. Fiction was calling me: those story ideas scratched on the message pad on my bedstand table or scribbled on the back of parking stubs or the flap of an envelope as I drove. Many had already deteriorated into wads of lint at the bottom of my purse. It was time to start drawing down that cache of inspiration, the only savings account I had.

__________And what made you so special, my roadside Greek chorus now chants, that you had to just walk out on a full-time job? Did you think yours was the only quiet desperation or stifled ambition? While others remained on task, year in year out, dutifully paying their bills and building their 40lks-something you were too artistic to bother with-you were planning your exit, every single day. And when the Millennium came, did that just have to be your new beginning too? Think of your kid now, just starting out. You are a bundle of plastic twine floating on her ocean, lying in wait to wrap itself around her wings with your self-imposed poverty, neediness, and irrational ambition, you.. you... writer!

__________Last week, I dusted off my interview suit and explained to a succession of loan officers at various banks that I was a “freelance technology writer" (though I understand technology about as well as do Stanford’s pampered cattle, gazing down on us from their bucolic hillsides.) All I needed was a little “bridge loan" to get me to the next, lucrative project, I assured them, mere days, away, right on the horizon.

__________What should I have said? That I’m a perennially aspiring novelist whose self-indulgent, autobiographical short stories are probably read solely by other writers and by the editorial staffs of second-tier literary journals? That I have spent the last eight years trying to shoehorn myself into Hollywood’s clenched consideration, resulting in one low-budget feature film and five options simmering gently in a perpetual broth of revision? That all of this frenetic activity has yielded so far one bankruptcy, a credit score too low to register on the loan calculators, and tax arrearages accruing interest briskly? As a borrower, I am about as appealing as a glass of silicon wastewater.

__________I took the rejections well, I told myself, shaking hands as I rose, walking out with my head high, smiling like a fool. I made it to the parking lot before the tears came and stood there feeling sorry for myself. And then suddenly, I looked at my Buick as if seeing it for the first time.
It’s been through a lot, the Buick, and today’s barter is only the latest insult. In 2005, for example, it was repossessed one morning at 3 a.m. by a couple of husky young men. They had it up on the towtruck by the time I awakened and emerged in a ratty bathrobe, holding my Lhasa Apso. “Put some shoes on," one of them said. The Buick looked forlorn and reproachful and a little silly, its capacious rump elevated by a chain, its grille tipped into a puddle. When a copywriting windfall enabled me to redeem it a few days later from where it huddled in a dusty south San Jose repo-yard, a girlfriend said admiringly, “You always land on your feet." But I had not landed yet. Today looks and feels more like a landing, and not on my feet.

__________We enter San Jose at last, the manufacturing hub whose arcane etching rituals and caustic baths gave silicon the wherewithal to transform mind into matter into money. The profits, however, always seem to migrate north, towards Palo Alto and Menlo Park, with their venture capitalists and entrepreneurs and marketing whizzes, while many of the neighborhoods here in San Jose remain chronically indigent and crime-riddled.

__________It takes two or three passes around the block in what is now a freezing deluge to find the auto loan storefront. We park the Buick, which now feels like a cozy sanctuary. Nicki, impatient with my umbrella, leaps out and makes a dash for the door, getting herself thoroughly soaked. I come up behind her, and she grins sheepishly, the rain bedewing her face and lashes, the damp tendrils of hair pasted to her fresh, unconquered skin. I am suddenly dazzled: “Young Girl Caught a Downpour," I mentally title the artwork. We wrestle the door open, and a line of people turns at the cold, wet draft, one or two actually smiling in commiseration at the sight of us. They are mostly poor: Mexican and Filipino immigrants, African-Americans and Pacific Islanders; many elderly and several young mothers with children hanging from every limb. There are two women in wheelchairs and several Vietnam veterans wearing bill hats with numbers and letters on the front.

__________The young woman at the window is smiling too, though the line is long, the paperwork complex, and her computer temperamental. She hands us a battered camera and tells us to photograph the Buick’s VIN number and its odometer. My daughter waves me to a chair and ducks outside-again without the umbrella-though the rain is now coming down in sheets from a truly biblical sky occasionally riven by trees of lightning so close you can almost grab their molten trunks. Seconds later, massive thunderclaps trigger little screams from the women. Several of the veterans flinch and look straight ahead, jaw muscles working.

__________When Nicki re-enters, she is drenched, and I thank her with faux exasperation, pulling off her outer sweater as though she is a kindergartner to give her my own. She offers only a token protest before putting on the dry sweater. “Thanks, Mom." The people in line titter. I catch the eye of an elderly Mexican lady, and she beams at me, a universal smile of motherhood, and all at once, everything is all right-it’s more than all right. Why, the Buick is merely fulfilling another of the roles it was intended for, I realize. Like reindeer to the Inuit, my car is both transportation and sustenance. And this place is not a hard landing, but a port in a storm.

__________Nicki and I watch the rain through the window till it finally subsides and a cold blue sky peeps out from the turbulent clouds, and a fresh wind begins to whip the treetops. The line slowly shortens and, when it is my tum, I am presented with a small bale of papers on which I provide my signature in about forty places. The clerk time-stamps a document and then counts out two thousand dollars in small, used bills. Feeling far from dissatisfied and more than a little rich, we leave and get back into the Buick.

- 2008 - Boroff

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