FEATURE

Debt

A college graduate is caught in a cycle of diminishing returns.

by Victor LaValle Published Winter 2009-10
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Illustrations by Irena RomanHer cell phone rang for the tenth time in an hour, and for the tenth time, she let it go to voice mail. When she opened her purse on the sidewalk, it was only to get her keys. She entered the lobby of her building, but before she reached the elevator, the phone rang again. Reception died inside the rising car and she breathed audibly with relief.

The doors opened, and she walked the hallway to her apartment. Twenty feet from her door, the phone buzzed again. She juggled her purse and her dinner and unzipped the purse, ready to throw the phone at the wall. But then she saw the number: a 305 area code. She pressed the button quick.

“Mom? Are you OK?”

“Samantha Cooley, I have been ringing this phone since morning!”It wasn’t her mother. It was a man. Samantha stiffened.

“Samantha?”

It was her father. His calls were as rare as a solar eclipse. She set down her bags, hung her head.

“I’m sorry, Dad. I thought you were someone else.”

Her father cleared his throat twice. A tic that meant trouble.

“Someone came to our window,” he said, quietly. “And smashed it.”

Samantha touched the wall for balance. “What are you talking about?”

Her father raised his voice slightly and enunciated each word. “A man walked into the yard of our home and smashed our kitchen window with a brick.”

“Oh, my God!” Samantha said. “Are you all right? Is Mom?”

“Your mother and I were in the living room. We weren’t hurt.”

Samantha realized where she was now: standing in the hallway of a building she’d been living in for only three months. She felt exposed. She picked up her purse and two plastic bags and walked.

“OK. OK,” she said, reaching her door. “No one’s hurt. That’s good.”

She rifled through her purse for her keys again, tilting her head and raising her right shoulder to keep the phone pressed to her ear.

Her father said, “Before this man ran away he shouted something. I didn’t hear him too well, but your mother did.

”Samantha found the keys, turned the top lock. The click echoed in the long hall.

“He said, ‘Tell your daughter this is about what she owes us!’”

Samantha almost dropped the phone. “Are you serious, Dad? Is this a joke?”

“You think I’d joke about someone attacking your mother and me?”

Samantha stepped inside, dropped her purse, and nearly tripped over it. She stumbled forward in the dark while the door slammed shut behind her.

“Didn’t Mom want to replace the kitchen windows anyway?” she half joked. Her father didn’t laugh.

“Your mother told me not to call you. She didn’t even want to be in the house when I did. You better not be in touch for a while.” He hung up.

Samantha stepped into the kitchen, holding the bags, the phone still squeezed to her ear, even though her father wasn’t there. She flicked the light switch beside the oven.

She could have screamed, but didn’t. There, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, his back against the fridge, was a man she didn’t know.

“You’re back,” he said, almost pleasantly.

Samantha’s reaction surprised even herself. She lifted the plastic bag in her right hand and said, “All I have is Chinese food.”

The man pushed himself up, brushed at the wrinkles of his cheap sport coat. Samantha noticed, on the floor in front of him, a large pile of her old mail. Maybe he’d been looking for uncashed checks. Arranged on the small breakfast table were her DVD player, an iPod, a coffeemaker, and an electric toothbrush.

“I’m going to need more than Chinese food,” said the man.

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