Fiction · 04/25/2012

How Our Family Survived The Financial Crisis

We were all worried when father lost his job. Father put his fist into the living room wall. Mother found the cigarettes she hid away when she was pregnant with me and started smoking again. Bessie cried, but she was two and she always cried. I was afraid, but I knew father would think of something. He had been The Foreman, which is the smartest person on the construction site. What about The Site Manager, I asked? The Site Manager had fired him and hired someone new to save money. Father didn’t say anything. We watched a lot of TV. Mother cleaned the entire house. Father made a list of things the TV said could save money.

1. We Learned to Conserve Electricity. Once we realized that we had the sun for light, for free, we turned off our lights. We followed the sunlight around during the day, like plants. We moved through drifts of shadows. The TV was kept on. Father watched late into the night, scribbling down new ideas in the blue moonlight of the television screen.

2. We Spent Less Money on Food. Restaurants were right out of the question. Organic food isn’t any better than fresh food, Father said. Fresh food isn’t any better than bulk foods. Bulk foods aren’t any better than dried food, like Ramen and rice. Dog food isn’t so bad. It doesn’t matter how it tastes after you’ve eaten it, father told us. Condiments have no nutritional value. Water is the only liquid you need to survive and you can get it for free.

3. We Cut Back on Frivolous Expenses. People survived for millions of years without central heat, indoor plumbing, or running water, and we could, too. We washed our clothes in the stream behind our house. We walked everywhere. Father gave up shaving and stopped giving his hard-earned money to those bastards at Gillette. With his new beard father looked first like a drunk, then like a homeless person, but after a few weeks we all agreed he looked wise even with the missing teeth (toothpaste had been banned from our bathrooms). When we felt sick we knew better than to waste money on expensive medicine.

4. We Found Additional Sources of Income. Mother unwound our clothes and knitted all night, in the dark, selling what she made on the sidewalk in front of our house during the day. I stopped going to school and collected bottles and cans in an abandoned shopping cart. Bessie couldn’t make anything, but she seemed skinnier, taking up less space, and was often too weak to cry, which we all felt was helpful. Father pulled copper from the walls of abandoned buildings and scrap yards. He said he only scavenged from old buildings, but I’d seen him walking slowly past new construction sites looking at the unfinished walls and thinking when I was up after dark scouting for bottles and cans. He started going out later and later at night. In the morning his hands were covered with cuts.

5. We Took Personal Responsibility. Instead of asking, Why is this happening to me? we learned to ask, What can I do? Instead of asking, Why are my teeth falling out easily now? I asked, How can I Take Personal Responsibility to make my teeth stronger? What steps will help me Better Myself and learn the Discipline to withstand the Hunger? How can I Better Myself with regard to standing the sounds of the Crying at night?

6. We Learned to Be Happy With Less. Less money. Less food. Less water. Less warmth. Less energy to complete our new tasks. Less shoes. Less health. Less of ourselves.

7. We Focused on the Positive. Look at what we have, father said: A roof over our heads. Homemade clothes for the winter ahead. Each other. Father said we were all we needed, always had been, and maybe the bright side of it all was to show us this, which we had overlooked before. His hair was falling out, and the cuts on his hands looked infected. When he smiled I could count his teeth. Twenty. Then Fifteen. Twelve. I stopped counting at ten.

8. We Died. Bessie died first. She’d been quiet for days, which we thought was her way of Activating her Personal Responsibility. Instead, she was cold and still when we tried to wake her one morning. Mother followed a week later. After Bessie died, mother spent her time curled up into a ball rocking back and forth, which, although thrifty, did not help with the knitting or sustain her. I died next. I slipped climbing up our darkened stairs after a long night out collecting cans and shattered every bone in my body. I had no fat left to soften the fall, and on the way down each of the twelve stairs hit me like a hammer’s blow.

Father died last. After he buried me in the backyard he sat down in front of the silent television. The house stayed dark; at times father was illuminated briefly by the lights of passing cars. He didn’t move, not even to go to the bathroom. We all watched him: me, sitting beside the chair, leaning into the arm rest; mother, standing behind him, one hand holding Bessie, the other idly passing through father’s hair, his skull, the recliner; Bessie, wrapped in the old blanket that was now whole again. After three days he dropped away with a sigh. When he stood out of his body, turned, and saw all of us standing behind him, father smiled, and despite the beard, the missing teeth, the lost hair, he looked happy. We were a family again. We had survived after all, we had all we needed, we could survive anything. In the next life, we will finally get it right.

+++

Since earning his MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program in 2009, Michael Beeman’s fiction has appeared in The South Carolina Review, The Emprise Review, and The New Plains Review, and is forthcoming in The Sewanee Review next spring. His book reviews appear in ForeWord Reviews, Kirkus Reviews, and online at Chamberfour.com. He is also a prose editor for Big Lucks Magazine. Originally from New Hampshire, he now lives in Washington, DC, where he is a regular tutor at Dave Eggers’ non-profit 826DC.