Window shades drawn on a pale room. Mike was on his bed staring at the ceiling. Eyes focused on the plaster seeing fuzzy white nothingness, he listened to himself breathe and thought of how hard it would be to stop. His roommate, Jim, knocked twice then opened the door. He paused in the doorway then tossed a yellow envelope marked PAST DUE onto Mike's chest.
"Another love-letter from VISA, Mikey. And don't forget rent is due tomorrow."
Mike got up, went to his dresser and opened the top drawer. Nestled beneath socks and underwear were three neatly folded one-hundred-dollar bills. Mike took out the money and rubbed it between his fingers.
"Listen Mike, if you can't make your half this month, I'll cover for you."
Mike handed him the money. "No Jim. I owe enough already."
He put on his boots. Jim watched him.
"Are you gonna be okay?"
"Oh, I'll be great. Just great. By the end of the day, I'll owe more. Just wait and see."
Mike put on his coat.
"Where are you headed?" Jim asked.
"I got errands to run."
"Better be careful," Jim said, "There's bad weather coming."
Mike smiled and put on his hat. "Yeah, I heard. Weather channel says cold and snowy."
"Can you believe it? Kids will be trick-or-treating in a blizzard."
Mike walked outside to his car. The sky was a gray mass of clouds and it was cold, too cold, and his breath was stopping dead in the air as he scraped his windows clean. He got inside, cranked the car to life, and waited for the engine's shimmies and rattles to smooth out. The inside of the windshield was a canvas of frosty etchings. He turned on the defroster. Icy dust blew out from the vents. As the air finally warmed enough to clear the frost, Mike had nothing to do but think and drive. And he thought about owing. Jim had collected rent, but hadn't said a thing about the cable or electricity bills. Visa wanted money. His car payment was overdue, and car insurance was only one more late notice from being cancelled. Mike thought it strange, as the cold and frost cleared from his windshield, that he could not see a way out.
Once, the only person he had owed money to was his dad. $300.00 for textbooks. Now, during his third year at Tech, he owed his credit union, he owed Uncle Sam, and he owed the big three, VISA, MasterCard and Discover.
Mike had started out with one card, his VISA, and it had started out small, buying food and clothes, odds and ends. If he needed something, he bought it and vowed to make the minimum monthly payment. He was employed at Mitchum's Sporting Goods making a decent wage supervising the hunting and fishing department, so payments were manageable. But by the time he had bought his car, he was using cash advances from his credit cards to pay monthly bills. The phone bill, cable bill, heating bill, rent. All of it went on his VISA card. As it neared the limit, he applied for a MasterCard. When that reached its peak, he applied for Discover. He was using credit cards to make payments on credit cards. He started working more hours for Mitchum's and his grades fell.
The gray, cloudy sky was getting lower. He couldn't see his breath anymore. Snowflakes started down and as Mike watched them fall, he thought of the day he and his dad had been on their way to the credit union for the Honda loan.
The snow then had been falling at about the rate of an inch an hour. The roads were slick and slushy, and visibility was low. He was feeling uneasy, not only about the credit committee's pending decision of whether or not to give him a loan, but also about how his father was feeling. Mike was certain that the committee would say he was too young and that he needed a cosigner, yet he hadn't bothered his dad with these details. Mike thought and worried. His dad was fixed on the blurry white before them, as they pushed along the road through bumper-high drifts of snow. Mike chewed his bottom lip and wrung his hands. When he could see the credit union's outline through the snow, his dad spoke.
"You know, if they need me to co-sign, I will."
Mike was thrilled, "Really, Dad?"
"Sure, at least with that Honda, you'll have front wheel drive. Tech's quite a ways north and the winters up there are rough."
They pulled into the parking lot. Mike wondered if his dad would have felt the same had he decided on the Camaro.
"I'm happy that you want to do this on your own," his dad said, "but I don't want you working yourself to death trying to make ends meet. If you need any help, let me know. I don't want work getting in the way of grades."
"I'll be all-right, Dad."
"You say that, but I want to make sure you do well and that you don't end up working in a factory all your life."
Mike's dad had worked at the steel mill for twenty years. He hadn't made enough money to pay for his son's college education, but he had provided for him well. Mike wore what the other kids were wearing, and every Friday night when he was getting ready to go on a date, to a football game, or to the movies, he'd find a twenty dollar bill tucked away in his underwear drawer.
Mike wheeled into the Wal-Mart parking lot. The defroster was squealing so he shut it off. The windows fogged, and Mike was driving the wrong way up and down the arrowed rows. Eventually, he came to a spot between an old blue pickup and a black Z28 Camaro Coupe. Two blue shopping carts occupied the space, so he nudged them out of the way with his bumper. Mike stared at the sports car next to him.
He remembered driving the Honda home from the AutoPlex. A helpful salesman had explained to him that he wouldn't be receiving the payment book in the mail for about a week. He told Mike not to worry and to enjoy driving his new car. The smiling salesman and mind altering effect of new car scent made the first week of driving the Honda dreamlike. When the payment book arrived, Mike flipped through four years of payments, wondering what he'd done.
Two girls wearing Michigan Tech sweatshirts appeared beside the Camaro. Their blonde pony tails bounced carelessly as they hopped into the car. Mike looked away from them and their Camaro to his Honda. The dusty dashboard hadn't been wiped clean in weeks. McDonald's cheeseburger wrappers and old fries littered the floorboards. The new car scent was gone. He was glad he hadn't needed his dad to cosign.
Mike got out and headed for the store. The wind was biting.
The coed-piloted Camaro backed out of its parking space and rumbled up ahead of Mike. On the back of the car was a custom plate that read "DADSGRL". The car pulled into the fire lane where a pimply-faced stock boy was steadying a handcart loaded up with a new computer, monitor, speakers, and a printer, all the equipment a college student could possibly need. The trunk lid popped up, and the stock boy loaded the computer. His customer-friendly, Wal-Mart-blue vest flapped in the breeze. A credit card receipt was taped to one of the boxes, whip-whapping in the icy wind.
"Nice computer," Mike said.
The stock boy slammed the trunk, brushed by Mike and smiled. "VISA, it's everywhere daddy's little girl wants to be."
Mike walked into the store. He moved past arthritic old ladies and old men stuck in slow motion. He passed by screaming children and frazzled parents. The store was all orange and black. Plastic jack-o'-lanterns and containers of candy corn filled tables and displays. Aisles were topped with cardboard witches and scarecrows. Spiders and ghosts dangled from the ceiling. Mike made his way to the greeting card aisle.
All Halloween cards were marked 30 percent off. Cards with hissing black cats, glossy full moons, and smiling Frankenstein on the covers. A short, heavyset woman was organizing the cards. Her red hair was pulled into a bun. She had one of the glossy full moon cards in her hand and was trying to return it to its slot. Her stubby arm was stretched to its limit and her Wal-Mart-blue vest was bunched up so that Mike could see her chalk white belly hanging over the edge of her black stretch-pants. He took the card from her hand and put it into its slot. She smiled and thanked him. Mike picked out the cards he needed, none of them having to do with Halloween, then headed toward the toys.
The Halloween decorations disappeared as he moved deeper into the store, and Christmas appeared. Fake plastic trees, tinsel, and icicle lights. He wandered past Christmas into an aisle of miscellaneous toys. Pink hula hoops, Slinkys, and Super Balls littered the aisle. An opened box of plastic building blocks was on the floor. Red, white and green blocks spread on the tile. A Special Edition set that could be made into Santa's Workshop. Mike picked up the blocks, put them into the box, and placed them on the shelf. He searched the aisle until he found what he had come for, a toy handgun.
Express Lane #7, ten items or less, had two people in it. Regular Line #8 had three. In the express lane, a tall old man wearing the Groucho Marx combo - glasses, moustache and nose - was ringing up a woman with a baby strapped to her back. Some Luvs diapers, a baby bottle, and a bag of Blow Pops were all the woman had, but the baby was creating a standstill. The old man was smiling and goo-goo talking with the baby. A younger woman, dressed for success in a black business jacket and short skirt, was in line behind the woman and baby. She, too, was getting in on the fun, playing peek-a-boo as the baby gurgled and drooled.
Mike opted for Lane #8. The girl running it, a chubby girl with multiple piercings and long, greasy black hair would be much more efficient. Her unsmiling, pale complexion said it all. Each transaction was mechanical. She asked how the person wanted to pay, scooted the bar coded goods over the scanner, then mumbled the total for the day. Each customer opted for "charge" and handed her a plastic card. She swiped the card through the register, waited for a beep then handed the card back. She bagged, the customer signed. She separated the copies and handed the customers their receipts. Besides the initial greeting of "cash, check or charge", the girl said nothing. It was the Wal-Mart that did all the talking, thanking customers for shopping and wishing them A Good Day.
Mike's turn was up.
"Cash, check, or charge," she asked.
Mike read her nametag. He smiled at her.
"It'll be cash today, Felicity."
"Ten forty-one, please."
Mike counted out ten fifty and placed it into her hand. He tried to make eye contact and smiled. Felicity put the money into the register and paused.
"I'm sorry," she said, "Change throws me off guard."
"Take your time," Mike said.
Finally, Felicity's thick fingers slid a nickel and four pennies out of the drawer. She handed Mike the change. He plopped the coins into a Humane Society jar.
"Happy Halloween," he said.
Felicity nearly smiled.
Mike strolled through the herd, and once again was outside. The air was colder. Snow flakes fluttered downward. The people coming in, going out, ready to spend, hardly noticed the snow, that it was October, and winter was well on his way.
He sat in his car as it warmed and tried not to breathe so that the windows wouldn't fog. It was harder than he had imagined.
Flakes landed on the windshield and stuck. Through them he could see a young woman standing three rows down from him, talking to a police officer. She was smiling, touching the officer's arm, flirting up a storm. Mike watched the officer turn to the woman's Jeep Grand Cherokee and work his magic. It took him about a minute to unlock the door. The woman gushed with appreciation as she rummaged through her purse. The officer beamed a wide, toothy grin. Mike turned on the squealing defroster and drove away.
When Mike got home, Jim was getting into his truck to leave. Mike parked the Honda and tried to get to the house before Jim unrolled his window.
"You got some calls while you were out!" Jim yelled.
Mike walked over to him. "Bills?" Mike asked.
"Yep, one lady sounded really pissed. I think she was from MasterCard."
"You could tell she was from MasterCard?"
"They call a lot."
Jim peered down into Mike's bag.
"What did you go to Wal-Mart for?" he asked. "I thought you hated that place."
"Cards for the family."
The wind pushed harder. Snowflakes were bigger. Mike felt cold.
"Is that a gun in there?" Jim asked.
"Yeah, it's a toy for my little brother. His birthday's next week."
"He'll be seven."
"Seven years old, and you're getting him a toy gun?"
"It's never too early."
Jim chuckled as he backed out of the driveway. Mike went inside. The phone was ringing.
"Yes, may I speak with Mike Bellven?"
"Mike's not here."
"Do you know when I could reach him?"
Mike hung up.
He pulled the cards out of the bag. The first one was for his little brother. A Happy Birthday card with balloons and streamers on it. Inside, he wrote "Don't grow up too fast. Know that I'm thinking of you, always." He put ten dollars inside the card then sealed the envelope. The next card was for his parents, a Just Thinking of You card. He wrote that he loved them, told them not to worry, and that he was sorry that he hadn't paid them back sooner. He placed fifty dollars in the card then sealed it in the envelope. The last card was an I'm Sorry card. Inside he wrote, "I didn't mean to drag you into this, but I needed a way out." He sealed it then placed all three cards back into the bag.
The phone rang.
"Is Mike there?"
He recognized the voice. It was Maxine, from Discover Card.
Mike hung up.
He walked to his room and turned on the light. He looked at his bed. The imprint of his head was still on the pillow, and the yellow envelope marked PAST DUE was there too, inside the outline of his body. He wished he could stay there staring at the ceiling, trying not to breathe for the rest of his life, but he knew he could not. He shut off the light and went outside.
There was an inch of snow covering the Honda, but he didn't bother clearing it. He let the wipers do their job while he removed the cards from the bag and placed them on the passenger seat. He took the toy gun from its package and put it between his legs.
Mike drove to the side of town where most of the community retirees lived. He passed Washington, Lincoln, and Jackson Streets. When he turned onto Franklin Street, he drove as fast as he could. The Honda slid and skidded, but like his Dad had said it would, the front-wheel-drive was keeping it on the road.
When he reached the end of the road he turned around, slammed the accelerator to the floor, and raced back. He watched the houses, hoping that the curious or concerned would peek through their curtains and call 911, but it took a dozen trips back and forth before the police cruiser showed.
Mike stopped in the middle of the road. The cruiser neared. A few white faces gazed out from their cozy bought and paid for homes. Mike gazed around the neighborhood. Everything was white with snow, as the cruiser inched closer, red and blue lights flashing like Christmas decorations.
When the cruiser stopped, a petite, female officer got out of the passenger side. A tall, thin man came from the driver's side. Their hands were on their guns. Mike looked at the seat next to him and stared at the cards. He thought that maybe he should've got another one. The defroster squealed. Mike opened the door. He raised the toy gun and aimed. He could not shoot, but ran toward them aiming, as if he had every intention in the world.
Contact K.J. at - email@example.com
and visit his place: www.kjstevens.20m.com