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

by Victor LaValle Published Winter 2009-10
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Samantha felt fear in her toes, running up through her legs. She couldn’t move. The front door wasn’t so far off, but she couldn’t even make herself lower the bag of food.

“You’re not . . . ” she began, but didn’t know how to finish the sentence.

You’re not supposed to be here. You’re not staying. You’re not going to hurt me.

The man stood very tall. He had a long, narrow nose that pointed downward, almost over his lip. He looked like a stork, actually. Samantha tried to memorize his face, but her eyes wouldn’t focus.

“My name is Paul Horvath,” he said. “You didn’t answer any of these.” He kicked at the stack of mail. “But at least I see you got them.”

Samantha stared at the pile. Horvath. Where did she know that name?

“If you’d ever picked up your phone I wouldn’t be here now,” Horvath said. “And my associate wouldn’t have thrown a rock through your parents’ window.”

Now Samantha remembered him.

Hello, Ms. Cooley, my name is Paul Horvath. This concerns an urgent business matter. Would you please return my phone call at . . .

How many times had she heard that voice, that phrase, and just deleted the message? Dozens? Sometimes there were nine or ten in a single day.

Samantha felt her stomach drop, like when she was a kid and her mother had caught her swiping money from her dad’s wallet. Her face was hot. She blinked rapidly. The last thing she wanted to do was cry.

Illustrations by Irena RomanTo compose herself, she went to the cabinet over the stove and took out two plates. She set them out on the counter and took out the Chinese food. Brown rice, steamed vegetables, an order of dumplings.

“At least,” said Horvath, eyeing the spread, “you’re not spending your money on gourmet food.” He looked at her, then quickly shook his head, as if ridding himself of a moment’s sympathy.

Samantha opened the white cartons. She said, “Do you want a fork or can you handle chopsticks?”

Horvath frowned, as if disappointed he hadn’t scared her. “Fork, I guess.”

That helped Samantha relax a little. At one school in Suffolk County, where she’d been a substitute teacher for two months, a 13-year-old boy had pressed a gun to her thigh when she passed his desk. He just wanted to see her cry. And she had cried, but the experience had toughened her. Two college degrees, and that’s the most she’d earned out in the real world — a little bit of backbone.

Samantha opened the drawer for the silverware. The knives shone in the light. She pulled out a fork and slid the drawer shut fast.

Horvath picked up his plate, but just stared down at the white cartons of food.

Samantha served herself. She wanted desperately to run, climb out a window, anything, but instead she took her plate and sat at the breakfast table. Using her chopsticks, she brought a clump of rice to her mouth and chewed slowly.

Horvath finally took a couple of dumplings and sat down across from her.

The DVD player and the iPod and the coffeemaker and the electric toothbrush were in his way.

“What’s that all about?” she said, pointing with her chopsticks.

Horvath’s long nose twitched. “Collateral.”

“The DVD player’s mine,” she said. “But not the rest.”

Horvath looked confused. “You have a roommate?”

“I’m subletting. The place came furnished.”

Horvath deflated in his chair.

“I pretty much live by sublet,” Samantha told him. This was true. She’d moved 11 times in the past 6 years. “I keep a storage locker up on . . . ”

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