FEATURE

Debt

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

by Victor LaValle Published Winter 2009-10
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At the hospital, Samantha stuck with her story about hurting herself while cooking dinner. This, despite the nurses and the doctor all commenting on how perfectly clean the wound appeared to be. It was bad enough that the doctor actually called the police. She said she had to because she suspected Samantha might have been a victim of domestic abuse. But Samantha told the cops no more than she’d told the hospital staff. Her wound was dressed, she was given a prescription for pain medication, and then the cops drove her back to her apartment. They walked her inside and checked every room, but Horvath was long gone.

The cops noticed the blood streaked across her kitchen counter, and the meat cleaver in the sink. The cops, two good guys, then spent about 15 minutes trying to help her find the top half of her right pinky. She played along with it. When they discovered nothing, she tried to act surprised. But of course she wasn’t. She’d watched Horvath wrap the top half of her finger in some paper towels, which he folded neatly and deposited into the right front pocket of his pants. Samantha walked the police to the door and wished them a good night.

Their debt wasn’t completely settled, Horvath had explained. He couldn’t just erase $69,086.37 with a cut. Not just one. But this could count as a kind of payment. Before he raised the cleaver he’d given her a choice: the finger or a $10,000 payment — he’d give her until the end of the month. He’d waited for her to decide, but of course there was no real decision to be made.

Samantha couldn’t imagine going through with it, but already she felt the shock and pain drifting into memory. She even felt a little proud of herself. Horvath was the one who looked squeamish afterward. And when he left she only owed him $59,086.37.

Now, as she got into bed, she held up the wounded hand. The physical pain was bad, but sometimes debt felt even worse. Samantha lifted the other hand. She wiggled all nine and a half fingers: $10,000 for half a pinky. How much could she afford to pay down using this new accounting?

She closed her eyes. Her phone was silent. Soon she fell asleep.

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