By Michael Gutgsell
I stared at the plastic platters of five-buck sushi, agonizing. My stomach growled as I kicked myself for preemptively eating my lunch. That morning, I hadn’t had time to make breakfast before jumping on the bus to catch the train that would deliver me, an hour later, to the non-profit where I worked. I thought maybe I could make it until my three o’ clock lunch time, but I caved, and ate on the way to work. What I didn’t think of while eating my hastily prepared turkey sandwich was my lean debit card balance. Now I wasn’t sure I could afford lunch.
We’re only given a half hour break, and I had already wasted precious minutes. I picked out a tray and headed to the counter, figuring even if this caused my account to overdraw, I’d be paid tomorrow, so it would probably be okay. The late fees are exorbitant, but maybe the check would go through in time.
The smiling cashier, a woman I recognized from previous visits, ran my card and said: “Have a good day!” I heaved a sigh of relief and reached for my lunch. “By the way, your card was declined,” she said, almost as an afterthought, like she was saying, “Enjoy the nice weather!”
I stopped, the sushi halfway between us on the counter. “Oh dear,” I pretended to look through my wallet, as if there might be a credit card that wasn’t maxed out, or a couple dollars I didn’t need for my commute home. “Well, I guess the sushi and I will have to take a rain check!” I tried not to sound hungry, not like I was on the verge of tears. Even being a little hungry gets me feeling a lot desperate.
“Oh, no,” she said, surprised. “No. You can just get it another day. Take it,” she said for emphasis.
I thanked her, and moved away to let the next person head to the register. I was touched and grateful, as well as humiliated. I ate without tasting, just cramming the refrigerated rolls into my mouth.
I returned to work to get as much of my extra work done before getting back to answering phones and email, having people scream at me or make excuses for why they can’t take care of their responsibilities. One of my extra duties, which I haven’t yet had time to work on, is something that my supervisor says “might” result in a promotion of some kind. Since we are nearly always short-staffed and other departments continue to give us work to do, seeing our jobs as inferior, seeing us as receptionists, this is a task I may never have time to work on. My patience wears down quickly when I’m hungry or preoccupied with how I’m going to pay next month’s rent.
On the long, long ride home to a neighborhood and apartment I don’t like, I wonder how things can ever look different for me. I feel like Shadow in Homeward Bound, looking up from the bottom of a slick ditch, while my friends look down. “Go on,” I say in my old-man voice, “It’s just over that mountain!” But I’m not sure I’ll make it home. I’m not sure I will get out of this ditch. My leg is broken and the walls are too high, too slippery. Every attempt to crawl out just makes me dirtier and weaker.
I like to act and think that I have options. After all, that’s what everyone told us when we were the age where we watched Homeward Bound. Anything is possible! You can be anything you want to be, just put your mind to it. Hard work pays off. Follow your heart, and the money will follow. So I can work full-time for a non-profit, and I can go to Italy, I can move apartments, I can go out to eat. Well, it’s true: I can do those things, but I can’t pay for it.
Back when I watched Shadow, Chance, and Sassy make that arduous journey to their beautiful house and the people they loved, the age twenty-six seemed so impossibly far away. But whenever I could sort of imagine it, it sure didn’t look like this. This choking, suffocating debt. The self-doubt laced with self-hatred: “You wouldn’t be struggling so much if you worked harder, if you weren’t so lazy, if you were smarter.”
But I try to think to myself: I’ll get home, god willing, and I’ll make myself some eggs, if there are any left, or another turkey sandwich. I’ll feel better after I eat. I won’t be richer, but I won’t be desperate. Shadow made it, and he was an old golden retriever. Maybe I can figure my way out of this ditch, too.
Michael Gutgsell is a regular writer for Tumbleweed Diaries. You can read more of him on his weekly blog, Making a Mess of It, or on the blog for Tree House Humane Society, the no-kill stray cat shelter where he works.