December 24, 2010
"It's coming on Christmas ... they're cutting down trees, putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on..."
The syrupy Sarah McLachlan lyrics that filled the air from the overhead speakers hardly registered with Rachel Adams, except the last refrain. She sincerely wished she had a river to skate away on, to take them away from the hardship that had dogged them over the past year.
"Mommy ... I'm hungry."
That simple statement by six year old Sarah jerked Rachel from her misery and back to the immediacy of her plight – she and her daughter were homeless and hungry.
Mother and daughter stood just outside the doors leading from the underground bus and light rail tunnel into the flagship Nordstrom store at Westlake Center in downtown Seattle.
Just one flight of stairs above, at the street level it was already dark and the temperature had dropped enough that there were snowflakes mixed with the chilling rain. They had no place to go and she was down to her last five dollars. For the first time in her thirty five years Rachel was on the verge of panic.
Her husband Dave had died suddenly. She had found him slumped over his desk in his home office the week after Thanksgiving a year ago. The medical examiner said it was a massive coronary, most likely brought on by stress and sedentary life-style.
When they had married eight years ago Dave had been a programmer and engineer at Microsoft and he had seemed to have a bright future and Rachel had been working for a national communications conglomerate in their marketing department located in Redmond, not far from the Microsoft campus. They met at a Christmas party thrown by acquaintances. Rachel was new in town, having grown up outside Minneapolis, orphaned while in collage due to a hit and run driver. She was truly alone since she had no siblings and her parents had no siblings. After a series of marketing jobs out of college she was finally offered what she considered her dream job and jumped at the chance to leave snowy Minneapolis for the Pacific Northwest.
Dave was a dreamer who had big plans and she fell for his easy get-along attitude and his self deprecating sense of humor. He was a handsome man and was well liked at the company. Everyone said they were a good match. Rachel's intellect was every bit the equal of his, and her model-like figure, Nordic features, amazing violet eyes and luxurious auburn hair made them what seemed a very good match. After a short courtship they were married and settled into a home just east of Redmond. She continued to work and they settled into what passed for an east of Lake Washington social life – meaning not much of one since they counted themselves among the workaholics and computer geeks who populated the area.
That all changed when Rachel became pregnant with Sarah. She worked right up until a week before her due date and then took maternity leave. Unfortunately her maternity leave was constantly interrupted by the demands of her job. To make it worse Dave was less than helpful. He still had a twenty-four seven job so the entire burden of wife, mother and essential employee at her work fell on her. When her maternity leave ended, demands only got greater and finally after the third or fourth time her boss Caroline Jenkins upbraided her in public about unplanned absences because of child care glitches, post natal doctor appointments for Sarah, and childhood illnesses, she quit. Rachel thought she would do some consulting work at home but she discovered that she felt amazingly liberated by staying home with her daughter, and she felt they were strong enough financially that she could take enough time off to see Sarah to the point of pre-school or longer.
Outwardly Dave seemed supportive, but her additional income was missed and the ability to spend without thinking about it was suddenly taken away. About the same time she noticed he was becoming distant and her cautions about runaway spending and their ballooning credit card debt was met with frosty hostility.
"I make the money in this household and I should be able to spend it!"
At that point Dave took over the household finances assuring her "everything was being taken care of". That was a lie.
A few months later Dave came home and announced he had quit his job and had joined some colleagues in starting their own business. Again he assured her that the clients would come flocking and they would never need her salary again.
That seemed to be true for awhile and Dave was home most of the time working out of his office, although he spent most of the time holed up there on the phone or on his computer.
The money situation seemed to get better and Dave surprised her with a new Lexus SUV.
Looking back on those times she realized she was in denial, but she was enjoying the life of a stay at home mom and being able to take Sarah on play dates and spending hours shopping at the upscale mall at Bellevue Square where all the other bored eastside moms seemed to congregate for their "retail therapy". Unfortunately she made few friends.
Very shortly after Dave died it came home to her that he had built a house of cards. The day of the funeral she got home to discover Dave's BMW missing from the driveway in front of the house. She reported it stolen and then to her embarrassment learned a few hours later that it had been repossessed.
And that night in the lonely house she went to Dave's desk and discovered the financial disaster that he had left was actually a tsunami of debt that would in very short order crush her happy life. To her dismay she discovered he had even cashed in his life insurance policy. On top of everything the IRS put a lien on everything else for unpaid taxes.
Rachel stared at the happy people who joined the throngs as they moved in and out of the Nordstrom store. Not long ago she'd been part of that scene, carelessly ringing up purchases with her platinum card. Now she had no credit cards, no car, and as of this morning no place to sleep.
"Mommy, I'm hungry." Sarah said again.
Rachel opened her handbag and saw the remaining Pop-Tart. The purse had been expensive at one time but was now last year's fashion and she had been unable to sell it.
She opened the silver plastic wrapping and handed her daughter half. She was tempted to take a bite. She was hungry too, but that was all the food they had and she knew that even a little bite on her part would mean one less for Sarah. She was also afraid she could not be able to stop with one bite. When had she last eaten? Yesterday? Maybe.
Over the months she had sold everything in the house to keep the utilities going. Of course the mortgage went into default. Kindly, wonderful, Mrs. Grayson, a widow next door watched Sarah after school while Rachel looked for work, but there were no jobs and promising leads seem to dry up as soon as they got a look at her credit report. Oh yes, these days employers had lots of choices and they were very interested in things like debt and credit scores of the candidates.
Rachel finally admitted defeat and applied for food stamps. She was ashamed when she went to the upscale grocery stores in the neighborhood and handed them over. Then two disasters struck; Mrs. Grayson had a stroke which put her in a long-term treatment facility, and Rachel's Lexus was repossessed. It had been a silly mistake on her part. She had played a cat and mouse game with the repo man, usually keeping her SUV in Mrs.
Grayson's garage, but on this day Sarah was sick so Rachel drove to the Walgreens and parked in front and ran in to get some medicine. She must have looked pretty funny as she walked out, keys in hand, to see her car on the back of a flatbed leaving the parking lot.
She walked the two miles home, crying.
By the time the school holidays came Rachel and Sarah spent most of their time at home in their denuded of furniture house reading and playing board games. There was no TV, the cable having been cut off months before, and the big screen high definition television sold for pennies on the dollar. Her iPhone was useless without service and it too went for sale on Craig's List, like most of the things that were saleable, including all the computer equipment. She used the computer at the library and met buyers outside a coffeehouse.
She even tried to sell her engagement ring, figuring a one-carat diamond would bring a good price, only to find out she'd been betrayed by Dave once more. Somehow the beautiful diamond he gave her at their engagement had been replaced by a CZ. The ring was worthless except the gold setting so she sold it and her wedding band and netted some money from the transaction. As her financial problems worsened she cut off contact with many of her acquaintances. She was ashamed and didn't want anyone to know how desperate her situation had become.
When she was finally evicted three days ago she took the little money she had left and her food stamps, packed a roller bag with their remaining essentials, and walked down the street in the rain. Her own clothes consisted of one broomstick skirt and black sleeveless top and her black low-heeled dress boots and the raincoat she had on. Jeans, sweater and Nikes were in the roller bag. Why she had kept this dressier outfit was a mystery but she felt it was one link to the normalcy she once knew. Everything else had been sold including all the wonderful outfits Sarah used to wear.
.... There is more of this story ...