shaded illo
Shaded - Robin Michaelson

The Loan

fiction by Michael Sato


When the phone rang this morning I dreamed of waking to answer it. In this dream, on the other end of the line, was Marie. She was calling from far away, from some other country, someplace warm and full of light. Her voice was full of light, and soft as ice in glass. She was sitting in the sun, she said, and the sky was blue, and there was not a cloud. She told me, laughter jiggling up through her words, how clear it all was—the meaning of it all—and that the past was gone, and that she was going to stay forever. How I wanted to be with her, and I tried in my mind to be with her, and I tried to speak to her. And by nothing by the act of trying I crossed a line, and then, as if from nothing but the darkness, my awareness of the dream as such was born, a tiny, cold glow in the corner of my awareness, pale and spreading. The pale light grew over and covered Marie's nimble chatter, and I let it fade, for, as everyone knows, no matter how it begins, it is when the dream becomes a dream that it begins to end.

And then Sarah, next to me in bed, was nudging my shoulder with the real phone, and not too gently anymore. "Wake up, wake up," she was saying.

"I'm trying," were my first words of the day. The dream was gone but now I was struggling to keep its memory, and I had not yet opened my eyes. "Strange. I dreamed I was awake."

"Do you usually dream that you're sleeping?" Sarah returned. "Take the phone, will you? It's for you."

I was trying hard to hold that dream, but already I was forgetting the sound of Marie's voice. I put words to the sound, to try to describe it, but they only formed a caricature around the echo. It's pointless to try to hold something beautiful still.

"Who is it?" I said.

"It's Marie," Sarah answered.

Now this was a bad start, even for a day set up to be bad. "Marie who?"

"Marie Stalwart. Joe's Marie."

"Tell her I'll call her back, and then hang up."

Sarah pressed the receiver into my palm. "Don't be ridiculous. The day is here."

Powerful words, those. The day is here. So I had to talk to Marie, with Sarah next to me in our holy bed, close so that I could smell the warmth of her breath and feel it on my neck. My heart was beating too fast so I slid away a little, for fear that Sarah might feel the vibration of my pulse.

I put the phone to my ear. Marie, whose sound sense was prone to deteriorate in tight situations, had been recently making some bad mistakes. Calling me at home in the morning was one. Another, that I became aware of yesterday, was her attempt at stealing ninety thousand dollars from my oldest friend, her husband.

"Good morning, Marie," I said.

She was in a panic. "Kristian, I'm sorry, I had to call while Joe's in the shower; I don't have very long. Honestly, I had meant to have explained everything to you, but I was so scared. I've never seen Joe so worked up. How much have you told him?"

"Nothing, yet."

"Oh, thank God. I knew you wouldn't tell him."

"I'm having lunch with him today."

"What are you going to tell him?"

"Marie, why did you send that application to my company?"

"Because I had to know whose side you were on. Joe has lots of friends. You're my only friend. What are you going to tell Joe?"

"Nothing, because you are going to call Sentinel right away and withdraw the application."

"Don't ask me to do that."

"I'm not asking."

"Oh, now Joe's out of the shower." There was some rustling, and the sound of footsteps. Her voice got very low. "Kristian?"

"Yes?"
"My application works, doesn't it?"

And then she hung up.

Had she still been listening, I would have answered that yes, statistically, the application worked. But in the end it is people, not statistics, who do or do not pay the loan back. I have never approved an application before it was clear to me who exactly was going to pay.

In the case of Marie's application, there was nothing that I wanted to do less than to have to make that clarification.

"I hate being hung up on," I said to Sarah as I handed the receiver back to her. And then I turned again to face her, and I took a breath, and I opened my eyes. This is an old habit of mine, and my favorite secret. My very first sight of each and every day for the past seven years has been of Sarah. This is a secret because Sarah doesn't know that I make a point of being sure she is next to me and that I am facing her before opening my eyes. And there again was her face, beautiful in dim light, soft lines across her forehead and falling from the outside corners of her eyes. Maybe there was a new line this morning; I had watched over the years each line fall, one by one, slowly from her eyes, across completely smooth skin. Change within sameness, like the movement of clouds on the sky, or fallen petals on a dish.

They showed only in the morning, those lines; they were easy for her to cover. Only I knew that they were there. Only I saw the way that I had worn on her.

I kissed her matted hair, and her cheek, warm to the touch of my mouth.

"It looks like Joe and she are having problems again," I said to her cheek.

"Worse than ours?"

"Different. Money problems, you could say."

At this Sarah rolled her eyes. Joe's manic obsession with becoming and living completely debt-free was well known in our circle. In his zeal he had a couple of times found himself short of cash in the face of some contingency, and thereby disposed to borrow from friends. Bourgeois asceticism, is what Sarah called it.

"Marie never before had to bother you with money problems at six in the morning," she said.

"She had to call while Joe was in the shower. She's keeping a secret from him."

"Oh. Big?"

"Pretty big."

"Well, I don't know if I could handle one more problem to have to worry about," Sarah said—a semantically awkward conclusion, given its context, and I took her meaning to be that she did not wish to be informed of and thereby involved with some other couple's mess, on top of ours. Such was her right, since the Stalwarts were friends from my side of the relationship. Joe I have known for twenty years, since he kicked my butt on our high school soccer field, and I have been with Sarah for only the last seven of those years.

Now, I think Sarah was also telling me that her suspicion had in fact been aroused. I think that she was trying to warn me.

Friends that care to comment on Sarah's and my relationship—and they all do—often posit that it is too regimented and that Sarah and I are too rigorously egalitarian in our roles. For example, so that the other can catch an extra ten or fifteen minutes of sleep, Sarah and I alternate turns to the right to the first shower. Today was mine to shower first. Included with the right to the shower is the duty to turn on the heat and to go to the kitchen to start the coffee. Included with the duty to start the coffee is the option to finish cleaning any dishes or other mess left from the night before.

Our friends say that we have over-politicized our private lives. In fact, we need the stability of routine more than others. Unlike some other relationships, ours is not anchored to any abstract purpose.

This morning in the kitchen there was quite a mess left from the night before. I winced. We had scattered dinner around room last night instead of eating it. Dishes from its aborted preparation were still in the sink, still dirty, and there was food smeared over the counter and in blotches on the floor. There was, also, a scattering of pink flower petals on the table, the petals as dry as dead skin and pallid in vague morning light coming through the kitchen window. I blamed the flower for last night's fight, which had been much worse than usual, more grave and proceeding farther into the morning. I couldn't tell if, for that, it had been more productive; it's not easy to resolve an argument about time. But after months of fighting virtually the same fight over and over, clearly something more was happening.

When I say "time," I mean the time that confers on us all the differences that we never sought out and never asked for. I mean the time that changes what you thought could not be changed—changes the way that we think, changes the shape of our minds; it seems that the things we want, even the shapes of our memories change. You try to stop it and you try, for safety, to look for some fixed point, something solid, to moor onto. But you find eventually that what you're anchored to is itself nothing more than a mere idea, an empty space, and time has kept moving, and time has not passed you by. I try to explain to Sarah that in a relationship, as in life, the struggle is to accept what time does, to work hard to keep in touch with what is real, to resist the temptation to anchor onto a dream. I think that Sarah has been trying to find a way to escape from change and from the work of change. She has had enough of it, and wants to give up.

"What is giving up?" Sarah said this morning. She was sitting at the table over the newspaper, waiting for breakfast. Since I had the first shower, this was also my day to make breakfast, which was going to be just toast and fried eggs. There has evolved in our argument an awful terseness and efficiency of delivery, Sarah rendering her lines between sips of coffee and mine returning between the cracking of eggs and trips to the refrigerator.

"Giving up," I said, tossing some pieces of bread into the toaster oven, "is taking recourse in one idealization or another."

"But what can one do without idealizations?"

I turned the stove on and put some butter in the pan. "Be vigilant against them."

"But to what end?" Sarah said, stirring sugar into her coffee.

"To the end of staying in touch with the difficult, gray area that is reality, and that is always changing."

If the lexicon of our polemic seems too rhetorical or abstract, that is my fault, for I am, paradoxically, congenitally given to thinking in the general rather than specific, and Sarah is used to indulging me. But our point of contention was specific enough.

After all our arguing, and some honest talking and listening, I still did not understand the reasons this morning as well as I am beginning to now—the reasons, that is, why Sarah had decided that she wanted to get married. Now I had conceded from the beginning that ours is the kind of relationship that usually comes to marriage, and that before the passing of seven years. Also true, however, is that we had both brought with us to our relationship the conviction that we would never be married, either to each other or to anyone else. This I still held, but the years since then had played differently on Sarah.

"But now I want to be with you forever," she would say.

"But forever is an idealization, and marriage is a dream. I don't want to live a dream."

"I want to live that dream."

And there is the crux. What makes it harder is that we have each other's sympathy. How I would love to dream, to lift the veil and kiss her in the church and sleep in the blessing of God. But I can't because I know, I know, that under that blessing, that idea, that solid point, reality goes on; it's all on the books; it's all on credit. Dreams undertaken always end, and then must be paid for.

"In that dream, we stand to lose what is real," I say, and the argument usually ends, without resolution, somewhere around there.

But the momentum from last night was too great; something was happening, and this morning Sarah had again something new to say. She was completely sincere. She said it right from the heart.

"If you don't marry me, Kristian, I think that our relationship will end."

For both of us this was shocking to hear. It took time to hear, a time like the momentary blindness that comes from stepping into new light. And then the light makes things clear—clearer than they were before, and everything looks different, and memories are different. Sarah bowed the way she always bows—slowly at the neck, with her back straight—before beginning to cry. I left our eggs on the stove and, muttering something meant to comfort, laid a hand on the back of her head, stroked the top of her spine. We fear crying; it is a concession that we are far too stubborn to make without shame. Sarah cries almost noiselessly. Her breathing is deeper and wet.

"Sarah," I said.

"I'm not trying to pressure you."

"I know."

"It just now, all of a sudden, became clear to me that that's what will happen. Things are moving that way."

"But honey, that's the future."

"I can tell about the future."

The kitchen was filling with smoke from burning eggs and toast. "Sarah," I said, "there's nothing we can't work through." My voice made a thin sound though—clearly, some things can't be worked through. I wonder what Sarah saw in the future this morning, and if it was that future that made her so sad. I wonder if it's because I am a man that I have never seen the future in that way. Wordlessly, and without looking up, Sarah took my hand and let me lift her to her feet. She put her arms around me. She rested her head against my chest. I must have a hint of a father in my soul. I held her and rocked her slowly from side to side, just as a father comforts a child. And Sarah held me. Is this where dancing comes from—from giving comfort to suffering babies, when nothing else seems to work. Not quite dancing, Sarah and I became each other's babies there, rocking in the haze of burning toast and eggs, the smoke yellow from the morning glow of the kitchen window, alone together in the midst of what she had said, where at least its terrible unhappiness was our unhappiness, not my unhappiness against hers. We both wished it to last, and Sarah pushed her lips to my ear and whispered, let's spend this day together, we need a day together. And when I refused, she said, then only a while longer this morning. But I couldn't. I had to go to work. And so did she. I had to let go of her. I had to get ready for work.

I am a mid-level manager in the underwriting department at Sentinel Banking Corporation, where applications for no-fee home equity loans from all over the country are processed at the rate of two hundred or more in a day. We move fast in my office; nothing gathers dust. For anyone in our department to miss any given day brings considerable inconvenience, and I, supposedly a role model, was already way behind. About thirty per day of those two hundred applications cross my desk, all of them marginal, to be swiftly scrutinized and given judgment, yes or no, survive or perish. There is no one else in the department who can scrutinize as well as I, although there were at least twenty files on my desk that should have been already completed.

The files had gathered on my desk like logs in a jam in a matter of hours yesterday afternoon because I spent the time thinking about Marie's application, and there is no time at Sentinel to think; there is time only to process. My thinking anyway had come to little. There was so little that I could actually do. Since mathematically it was sound, I could not decline the application out of hand. Because Joe might have answered his phone at home, I could not even call Marie. Today everything rested on that Marie withdraw the application herself by noon. Otherwise, I would have to meet Joe with her file still open. If I had to meet Joe with Marie's file still open, I would have to find out whether or not Joe was someone who was going to pay.

So at eight-thirty, half an hour late, I pulled a tie over my ears and kissed Sarah goodbye. Sarah is a real estate agent and had appointments scheduled today with three prospective buyers. When I left her she was gathering herself, struggling into her work clothes before the mirror with the averse sluggishness of someone who is very cold. I couldn't think of anything comforting to say to her that wouldn't make things seem better than they really were. So I just kissed her.

"Whose turn is it to call?" she asked me. Sarah and I take turns, on alternate days, calling each other at work. Yesterday was my day to call Sarah, but I had forgotten.

"It's still my turn," I said. "I'll call you this morning."

"When?"

"I'll call you in an hour."

She gave me a hard look. "Okay."

I put my jacket on at the door and braced myself for the cold.

And it was cold, colder than yesterday, the blue sky blemished with an assembly of toddling, pointless clouds, pink-edged in morning light. The dry wind was back; if there had been dew, it had dried. I paused to smell for spring to make just sure that I couldn't, and I couldn't—not a whisper. Spring can be smelt in its essence only on its first day, flat against the backdrop of sterile winter, and that day was yesterday. You can't know it from words, that smell, but when you're there you can feel in your feet the twitch of new life in the dirt, and feel on your skin damp pollen mixed in the breeze flitting through new leaves of branches, pulling on yet bare branches stuffed with buds aching to bleed out pink.

What happened to the smell of spring, the push of it? Memories change, and leave a shell of words. There was dew, yesterday, on the grass. Some purple and pink camellias basking in the sun along the side of my neighbor's home were jeweled with dew, and the way each drop reflected the light made it seem as if the dew on the flower was so many stars against a circle of twilight sky. I longed to show those flowers to Sarah and on that impulse I jogged across my neighbor's lawn and clipped a camellia at its pedicel with my fingernails. Of course, the instant the stem broke in my hand the drops on the petals ceased to glitter, their angle against the sun having been altered. I no longer cared to show the flower to Sarah, so I dropped it in my jacket pocket, and for the time being forgot about it.

This morning I found myself again, already late, jogging across my neighbor's yard to steal another camellia, even then thinking how stupid it is to try to hold something beautiful still—that is, something that had been beautiful. I couldn't stop myself.

Even though it was late there was still traffic on the road. It seems as if every day a few more cars need to find room on our undersized highways. When I finally reached the Sentinel building it was well after nine. As luck would have it, my boss was coming down the hall just as I was sneaking in. The man has a distinctively massive gait—he was a linebacker in college—and even his facial features are still heavy with muscle, intimidating even at a distance. His big lips turned down in a frown when he came close enough to see that I was just arriving. I apologized with a shrug, penance of self-deprecation. He stopped me anyway.

"I was looking for you," he said. "Some people down the line were asking for some files. I found them in your office, unfinished." He put two fingers to his big, morning-smooth chin and gave it a stroke. "It looks a little rough in there, you know. Looks like there's been a snag."

"It won't take long to catch up," I said, lying.

"How about if I get you a temp?"

"No, thanks."

"Everyone else is always begging me for temps."

"I don't like temps. They're too transient. They can't be trusted."

My boss considered this, his eyebrows slowly folding in to a point. "My daughter is doing temp work."

"Well, that's different, of course."

I am prone to gaffs like this, and my boss knows me well enough not to take them too seriously. He was right to be concerned with the state of my office, and has never been shy of reminding me of my shortcomings, and there are a few, as a mid-level manager. My staff of underwriters do not always perform to their potential, and though they respect me professionally, I think they regard me personally as being socially stiff if not misanthropic. In spite of this, I have never been seriously scolded by my boss or any other superior, for there is, as I said, no one at Sentinel who can as reliably as I divine the potential of a marginal application. So marked is my skill that to both my superiors and my team of underwriters I am a kind of spectacle. Only twice in three years have I given my approval to loans that proved bad. In the past people have given up their lunch hours to watch me work, try to figure out my trick. Some think I'm a psychic.

I can explain. There is no trick.

First, let me generalize and say that there are basically two kinds of people who find themselves disposed to bring to the altar what is likely to be their largest financial asset and apply for a no-fee home equity loan. First, there are those who are seeking a loan as a means to begin a dream. By the numbers, these people are more likely to qualify. They are younger, have cleaner credit histories, shorter tax forms. They tend to be still in their first marriages, have stable employment, and fewer children. So far, they have lived modestly, and don't need the extra cash to subsidize their quotidian lives. The fact is, they want to leave them altogether. Restive and bored, they long to escape from their prudent, safe, day-to-day grinds, and they believe that they have earned the right, and in a sense they have, to try. They believe that there is a life for them definitively better, some privileged, happier mode of being.

I don't believe that there is such a life, for anyone. But that is not my business. All these people want from us is a boost. I decide whether or not to give it to them.

The second kind of applicant—the kind not asking to begin a dream—is the kind that has woken up from one. Their files are exponentially more complicated and difficult to process. These people are partners in failing corporations or the owners of bankrupt small businesses. Or in the aftermath some indulgence or another that they thought would never end, they find themselves suited with impossible, somehow unforeseen debts. Or they have, after failed marriages, enormous alimony and spousal support obligations. They are as cunning as they are desperate, and the applications they send us are tangled with obscurities. They submit incomplete or fraudulent tax returns, fictionalized profit and loss statements, forged pay-stubs, W-2's, and social security documents. They hide debts, evade credit bureaus. They pose, on the phone, as their own employers for jobs they no longer have. They direct appraisers to houses they don't own.

A good underwriter could spend a week picking through one of these applications without finding every discrepancy and deception. Why then is my judgment so infallible? An application is more than a mass of statistics. An application is a biography, a life, a personality. And in the sum of all the numbers, at the root of all the lies, is a person who either has or has not yet in his or her life come to understand what it means to have to pay—a person whose vision does or does not extend in real terms beyond the fact of getting the money. While dissecting a marginal application—one which mathematically works but is for some reason suspicious—I'm looking for the person who will not feel, when he or she gets the money, that everything is settled, that everything from then on will be all right.

Not everyone knows what it means to have to pay. It is no easy thing to believe that nothing is free.

I took a breath and switched on my office light. Stacks of files were lined along the edges of my desk like bulwarks, unread memos and faxes of varying import stuck between them, a timeline like fossils in layers of earth. Our department is an inexorably efficient mechanism, and does not long abide such a clog. The people in funding were waiting for these files with their fingernails chewed to the nubs.

My voice-mail was full with twenty-three messages. I keyed in my password and began to skip through them—a blather of words from staff, clients, bosses—listening for the sound of Marie's voice. At the same time I reached under my desk to turn on my computer; there was the vaguely grinding whir of its booting up. To make room for my mouse I moved a stack of files to the floor. I began to scroll through the phone logs.

This fact is the centerpiece of our marketing strategy: Sentinel can process your home equity loan, with no cost to you, in ten days. Try to get a library card in ten days. I was doing my part, in fact quite in my stride yesterday afternoon when one of my younger underwriters came to me with an unusual application submitted by a woman who, although married, wished to take a loan on one hundred and seventy thousand dollars of home equity singly, that is, without the formal consent of her husband, with whom the home was owned jointly—an endeavor which is technically legal in this state since only one party of a home owned jointly is required to be present at the signing of the closing documents.

I skimmed very quickly through the file. The problem was as novel as it was obvious. While the purpose of the loan was listed as "debt consolidation," the applicant had, according to her credit report, virtually no debt aside from the fifty thousand still owed on the home.

"Hidden debt?" my underwriter suggested.

"Possibly, but I guess she wants the money for something else." I snapped the file shut and gave it back to her. "You had better give this woman a call, try to get some clarification."

My underwriter nodded. "As long as I have to talk to her, should I also ask her why she's applying singly?"

"No, we're not allowed to ask that."

"Can I talk to her husband?"

"No."

About ten minutes later a call came through to my desk. It was Joe.

"Some woman from your office just called here asking to speak with Marie," he said. "She wouldn't tell me what she wanted."

It was a moment before I could answer. "That's strange," I said.

"Why would anyone from Sentinel Banking be calling Marie?"

"I don't know."

"Well do you think that you could find out what's going on for me?"

Not so much because he is a calm person as that he is so solidly repressed, Joe almost never expresses surprise or anger overtly. Typically, even when there is a serious problem, Joe has a convincing, almost religious way of carrying himself as if he were above it. But I could not think of a time since, in high school, when he kicked my butt on the soccer field, that Joe had been this abrupt with me.

"I can check the phone logs," I said.

"So you'll look into it, then."
"I'll check the logs."

"I just want to make sure our names aren't floating around where they shouldn't be. You know how important that is to us."

"I'll check around," I said. By then I was waving my young underwriter back to me, motioning with my hands for her to bring the file, so that by the time I hung up with Joe I had already laid eyes on what is normally overlooked as the only truly superfluous piece of information in any given file: the applicant's name.

"I tried calling, but she was out," my underwriter said.

"Don't bother calling again," I returned. "This applicant has no hidden debt."

My young underwriter raised her eyebrows at my confidence.

"I'm a psychic," I said.

"So I've heard," my young underwriter replied, and she went back to her desk.

It was about five years ago that Joe, for reasons more philosophical, if not paranoid, than practical, endeavored to make his household, once and for all, wholly free of debt. He liquefied inherited assets to pay for their cars and to settle Marie's lingering student loan, and paid off and closed each of their dozen or so credit card accounts. Their only remaining obligation in fact was their mortgage, which to end Joe and Marie had for five years been making all kinds of sacrifices—of their lifestyles, their IRA's, vacations. Joe is not a typical miser. He holds that with debtlessness comes a higher order of freedom. Higher in the transcendent sense.

I disagree with Joe about almost everything. He is a Democrat and I, a Republican. He likes Bach. I prefer Mozart. I had for years believed that Joe and I were still friends primarily because our friendship was never formally dissolved. I think we believed, when it began, that our friendship was the friendship to end all friendships. Perhaps it was; I can't say that I've been as tight with another man as I once was with Joe. Maybe it's because of that that I could not bring myself to believe it when, in college, I started to feel the heart of Joe's and my alliance fade. And since I myself could not accept that change, of course I could hardly rouse the courage to confess it to Joe. How does one say such a thing? How does a man tell another man that he no longer cares so much for his happiness?

I never learned how, and neither did Joe, and for that reason my friendship to Joe hardened, over time, into one which was both ostensibly central to my life and yet made mostly of gestures. For example, I served, when he married Marie, as Joe's best man. There was no one in that church who knew Joe better. But there was also no one who was less like him.

Marie mostly kept to herself how unhappy she was in her and Joe's marriage; I think she confided only in me. She didn't mind so much the imposed frugality, but, as she put it, Joe's and her souls were distant. He didn't know her. She was lonely. I pondered Marie's file looking for some other explanation, though knowing I wouldn't find it. It would take time to believe that Marie was, in effect, stealing from her husband their one meaningful asset.

It was a few minutes before five, when my underwriters were cleaning off their desks and getting ready to leave, when I realized with a moan that I had forgotten to call Sarah. Embarrassingly, I moaned out loud. Some people standing outside my door turned to look. I made, ridiculously, like I had coughed, and put a Kleenex to my mouth.

"Are you okay?" someone said.

"I'm late for something," I answered, to make my hurrying out, and the mess I was leaving behind, seem a little less precipitate.

Before yesterday I had never failed to call Sarah when it was my turn, and she likewise had never forgotten to call me. I was frozen with fear, and all the way home I endeavored to think of some meaningful way to apologize, futilely, since I have no skill at preparing words in advance for any given situation. I made a mental list of strategies to avoid: don't say that you were too busy to call, I told myself. Don't try to downplay the error. Never try to change the subject.

Have confidence, I said to myself. In the face of the moment, the right words will come.

Read the rest of "The Loan"


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