“It’s over,” explained Vaughn’s boss with averted eyes. He wore a look of surrender on his face. “We didn’t get the federal contract so we’re shutting it down. There’s nothing more we can do.”
Vaughn wasn’t surprised. He had seen the books. Costs for fuel and insurance were soaring and the customer base was dissolving like a sand castle in the tide. And the customers that remained weren’t paying timely, so they might as well have been swept away as well. Without the contract, it didn’t take a CPA to see the inevitable.
“Who got the deal?”
“Reznick’s not minority-owned is it?”
“No, but he’s a big donor. I suppose that’s how it works now. It’s all politics. Here’s your deposit stub. I’m sorry, Vaughn. I appreciate all you’ve done for me these years. I wish I could do more.”
“I understand,” Vaughn replied.
“I hope you can get your money out and buy what you need before the banks close again.”
They shook hands.
Vaughn went to his desk and began packing up his things. A lot of stuff can accumulate in ten years, even in a small space. It took him three trips to get it all out of his cubicle and into his truck.
He stopped to survey the deserted parking lot on his final trip. His firm was one of the last ones hanging on in the office park. A massive “For Sale – Bank Owned” sign decorated the entrance. But despite the building’s inspirational architecture, manicured lawns, and its green construction rating—which meant that its low-flush-volume toilets required three flushes—no prospective renters had called on the property in eight months.
Vaughn sighed, got in his truck and started up the engine, praying he had enough gas to get home. Before putting it in gear, he looked down at the box he had set on the passenger seat. On top of the stash of file folders and fading documents was a photo of his wife and daughter holding a kite string and looking upwards into the sky. Those were such hopeful times.
The family had some savings but not enough to get them through the winter. Vaughn was going to have to find something, and what a horrible time it would be looking for work. The only people who had jobs seemed to be people working for the government. Fat chance getting one of those gigs, he thought. Vaughn called the government workers “tax feeders.” They seemed to be carrying on as if nothing was happening to the economy at all. Vaughn decided that if he saw one of them protesting a government wage freeze or pension reduction, he would run him down right then and there. No, not really, but it felt good to channel his rage. You can’t really blame them, he thought. They just want to take care of their families. They’re no different from me.
Vaughn felt burdened. Will we lose the house? There was a 180-day moratorium on foreclosures enacted by executive order. There seemed to be a new executive order every day. The bankers holding delinquent mortgages were placated by a relaxation in accounting rules and another round of congressionally approved bailouts on the order of another trillion dollars. A trillion here, a trillion there…pretty soon they will be talking about some real money, Vaughn joked to himself. How many trillions was it up to now? Who knows? At least we’ll have a place to stay for a while. That’s a positive.
Vaughn pulled out of the parking space. Am I a failure? he asked himself as he drove out of the empty lot. Define ‘failure,’ he answered himself. Define it in today’s context. I suppose being unable to feed and shelter my family would constitute failure. We’re not there yet. Besides, nobody starves to death in America. If worse came to worst, we could always move in with my mother. Vaughn chuckled at the thought of Jess and his mother living together under one roof. This’ll all blow over. Even if we lose everything, I’ll get it all back once things recover. Believe in yourself, Vaughn Clayton. Don’t worry.
He drove past the “For Sale” sign noticing it had been tagged with an image of a sickle and hammer. The idea that it would be his final time driving out of that lot affected him with a disorienting feeling of loss. The last time he had experienced such a sensation was at high school graduation when the realization that a door was permanently closing on a phase of life. It seemed so significant at that time. Now he felt a mixture of sadness, hopelessness, cynicism, and fear. But he also felt relief and liberation. He didn’t know if he wanted to sob, celebrate, or smash something. He had worked so hard there only for it all to be for naught. You are always taught that if you work hard and persevere you will succeed, Vaughn thought. He wasn’t so sure if that axiom held anymore. Resourcefulness and craftiness probably had more to do with success than hard work these days.
Vaughn passed at least twelve police cruisers on his thirty-mile commute home. He also passed police Humvees and police MRAPS and even a police tank. He didn’t imagine they were catching speeders with these newly commissioned armored vehicles. As he approached the outer beltway, he took special note of the strip malls and office buildings that lined the route he had traversed for years. The architecture of the buildings was familiar, like landforms to a sailor making an inland passage, but he examined the details on this particular drive. He looked into the windows. So many were closed, empty, or boarded up. More than half, he guessed. He looked at their walls, covered in graffiti. He noticed the sickle and hammer, again, and again. “The grocery stores,” he muttered. “Grocery stores never go out of business. Everyone has to eat.” Yet there they were, or at least their abandoned husks. Vaughn counted four empty grocery stores along the way.
He whizzed past apartments and condominiums advertising free rent for three months. Many were empty, abandoned. Some had their windows and facades blackened by fire and left that way. Where did all the people go? he wondered. He took note of the numbers of abandoned houses with their unkempt yards, broken windows and vacant driveways. So many empty houses. Who is going to buy them all? Why did they build so many in the first place? Who made the loans for their construction? Who funded those mortgages? Where did all the damn money come from? Where did it all go?
His needle was on “E.” The trip home was going to cut it close.
He searched for an open gas station. None were to be found as even the gas stations were dying. Three and fourfold increases in prices couldn’t save them. The convenience stores and the fast food joints—they never closed fast food joints—were disappearing. Golden arch rainbows ended at a big pot of boarded-up emptiness. So many were gone. Some were even bulldozed, leaving nothing but scarred earth, which was overrun by noxious thistle weed. Nothing overran the thistle. Some shops were fortunate enough to be reborn as dog groomers and prepaid cell phone outlets, only to die again. This didn’t happen overnight, he thought. It’s been dying for years.
There was one sector of the economy that was still thriving, though: the banks. The banks and their big, blocky, menacing, obnoxious buildings, were all still brimming with activity. These survivors were not the puny local banks and credit unions, mind you, but the bloated, behemoth national banks. Banks with patriotic, bankerly names like Ameribank, Freedombank, Libertybank, National, U.S., Allied, Republic, and Victory. Their names sounded as if they were devised by Roosevelt’s war propagandists. They all remained intact and gleaming, with their buff-polished granite, their plush lawns neatly groomed, their hedges sculpted into fluffy green balls, and fresh stripes of luminescent gold lining their smooth, black parking lot asphalt. Their lots were full, too, corralling the jalopies of their employee wage-serfs. These hourlies were charged with determining the creditworthiness of human borrowers by a ten-question computer algorithm. No skill at character evaluation was needed. No need for business modeling and what-if analysis. No need to even look them in the eye. Customer relationships? Far too extravagant an expense. A spreadsheet and a regression equation can replace a professional human. Any monkey can press ten buttons. What if the equations are wrong and the loans go bad? Who cares? These banks are too big to fail. Welcome to the MegaBank team. Here, put on this blue polo shirt and nametag and stand over there. Don’t forget to smile.
Everyone was warned by media talking heads time and time again, “If the banks fail, the economy will collapse, and then America will regress into a third-world country like Haiti.” Americans believed it. So the banks were infused with trillions of bailout dollars and their worthless assets were bundled up and delivered unto the banker’s bank, the uber-bank, the mother of all banks, the Federal Reserve. There was no need to worry about taking on risk. The Fed is god! It can print the money necessary to keep all the banks going and going and going. A trillion. Two trillion. Four. Eight. Sixteen trillion. They would double down after each crisis. Anything less than that and the Ponzi scheme would collapse.
And while the Fed presented its teats to its banker cronies, the rest of the economy starved and withered away. The bankers prospered on rackets like Fed-backed investments that would not be allowed to lose money, and the carry-trade which involves printing money, loaning it to the banks at zero percent interest, and then the banks loaning it out to stock brokers at plus-two points. The banks paid multi-billion-dollar bonuses to their Manhattan executives while the auto lots and the grocery stores and the restaurants and the apartment complexes and the carpet cleaning businesses and the construction firms and the manufacturing plants scattered across flyover country withered and died. The Wall Street banksters took it all for themselves. The chumps on Main Street, the ones who were told by big media talking heads that it was still indeed a “free market,” starved to death awaiting a computer algorithm’s approval of their lines of credit.
Yeah, it sure was a good thing that the banks were bailed out. If they weren’t, America would have turned into a third-world country! Vaughn laughed at that irony as he scanned the economic ruin and the broken-down, burning cars and the cops driving around in tanks and the piles of litter and tires and busted furniture and soda bottles filled with urine that collected on the shoulder of the highway.
His needle was now below ‘E.’
Vaughn wondered why he didn’t notice it all before. He supposed he was always dimly aware of it but he never really processed it. “But why? It didn’t happen overnight. I guess it took losing a job to wake up to it. It’s a recession when a neighbor loses his job. It’s a depression when you lose yours,” he mumbled.
The government, on the other hand, was doing its best to redirect the boiling domestic rage. For months, they presented a financial scapegoat through their proxies in the media. “Those evil, sneaky Asians! How dare they dump America’s Treasury debt and crash our dollar! It’s an act of war! We must retaliate! We want tariffs! We need to teach them a lesson!” The media, of course, never used bigoted terms like “evil” and “sneaky” directly. The media were all college-educated, East Coast progressives who would never permit themselves to even be accused of a proletarian gutter trait like racism. But that was exactly what the message was. Every story used code words like “unexpected” (i.e. sneaky) and “destructive intent” (i.e. evil). The language filled the American minds with scary imagery. “Don’t the Japanese know they are killing themselves?” asked the commentators, invoking images of kamikaze pilots crashing into American battleships.
The media read their politically-correct scripts while file footage played of Mao and Buddhist monks and Asian men dressed in western suits bowed to each other. The narrative was that China and Japan, two nations that have hated each other for a thousand years, were all of the sudden new best friends conspiring against America. It was all very subtle, designed to allow the media to maintain their aura of self-righteousness while deflecting American rage away from the real culprits.
The jingoist campaign was very effective at stirring up and distracting the American proletariat. The economic war fever spread like a plague delivered by fleas on supersonic flying rats. The Chinese and Japanese, who were merely protecting themselves, as any self-interested, rational people would, were dehumanized by the American press.
Vaughn drove up into the foothills. His morning commute in to work was brightened by sunshine, but the premature drive home was clouding over. There was a hint of snow as specs of white danced over his hood.
The needle went back up to “E” as his truck climbed and his gas tank inclined.
He turned on the radio.
“Unpatriotic short sellers are pushing the equity markets down as—”
He flipped to the next station.
“Reports indicate heavy casualties as the 101st attempts to break out from encirclement. This marks the first time since the Korean War that American forces have been—”
“Greedy speculators drive the price of oil up to a record high for a twenty-second consecutive trading day. The Secretary of State is meeting with OPEC officials to work out the details of—”
“In order to combat the persistent disinformation undermining law enforcement and security efforts, the president is issuing a signing statement to attach provisions to the Cyber Security Act that enables the Department of Homeland Security to block malicious, unpatriotic websites…”
Flashers just ahead. Checkpoint. Checkpoints had become commonplace. Vaughn slowed and stopped. The officer approached. Vaughn rolled down his window.
“Where’re you headed?” the cop asked authoritatively, sunglasses reflecting the sunless gray sky.
“And where’s home?”
Vaughn gave him his address.
“License, please,” the cop asked.
Vaughn handed it over. The cop scanned it into his database, gave it back, and waived Vaughn through.
Vaughn passed the last gas station and turned off the highway onto the winding canyon road leading up to his neighborhood. The silent, ancient ponderosa pine filled the view through the windshield. Nobody was on the road at that time of day. It was a workday, after all, and those that had jobs were at them and those that didn’t were on the internet pretending to look for one. Vaughn turned onto his lane. Dogs came out to bark at him as he passed. Snowflakes danced in the air. He turned the last bend in the road and approached his driveway.
Something wasn’t right. He couldn’t put his finger on it at that instant but something was out of place. An open window. A strange car? No. What then? Then he saw it. It was an unusual tire rut in the muddy shoulder leading to the top of his driveway. He stopped his truck and examined it, trying to comprehend where it might have come from. A delivery truck? He couldn’t think of what Jess would have had delivered.
He pulled into his long driveway and stopped at the front of the house. The front door was wide open. Something was definitely wrong. It was below freezing. The wind was starting to whip the snowflakes around. He parked and jogged up to the door. He could hear his daughter screaming. He entered the house. He gasped. The house was in shambles. The furniture was turned over. The cupboards were thrown open. Piles of smashed dishes and picture glass and lamps and books and papers and overturned potted plants littered the floor.
He rushed into his daughter’s room. Brooke was standing up in her crib with a crimson, contorted, screaming little face. Vaughn shouted for Jessica. There was no answer. He picked up the toddler and darted from room to room. “Jessica!” Still no answer. Brooke’s screams turned to sobs as she plunged two fingers into her mouth. Vaughn found the bedroom ripped apart. The mattress was turned over and cut open There were chunks of foam exploded everywhere. The contents of the closet were strewn across the floor. The carpet in the corners was ripped up, revealing the plywood subfloor. He dialed Jessica on his cell. It rang. He bounced Brooke up and down to calm her sobbing. It rang. Brooke clutched tightly. It went to voicemail.
“Where are you!” he shouted into the phone.
Brooke started screaming again, startled by his tone.
Vaughn sat down with her and calmed her again by holding her head on his shoulder and rocking gently. He looked out the window at the snow that was beginning to accumulate on the pines outside. The magpies were fleeing to their nests.
Both doors into the house were still open and a bitter cold draft blew through the house from one end to the other. Vaughn rocked little Brooke. Brooke’s tiny hands were purple and cold. He carried her to each door, kicked the debris out of the way to clear a path, and closed them.
“What is happening?” he asked.
He sat down again and took a deep breath. His heart was pounding. He had difficulty getting enough air. His mind sifted through all the details trying to cobble them together into something coherent. There was no possible explanation for events other than something horrible.
Pounding, pounding, pounding heartbeats.
“Breathe,” he commanded.