In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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IT’S AN EARLY MORNING in October 2009. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s Dodge Dakota pickup, sipping coffee, smoking a cigarette, and slowly waking up. I’ve got my window just barely cracked, so the thin current of air siphons off the smoke — the way my dad taught me. Gabe, my dad’s black Lab, is sprawled out on the worn backseat. The snowcapped mountains in the distance are veiled in a fog that will soon reach us here in the foothills. It’s cold outside, but the heat in the cab is going strong — for now. The heater has been malfunctioning. The Dodge also has a bad axle and a busted left headlamp, which my dad has jury-rigged with plexiglass and duct tape. His first rule is: Make do with what you’ve got. When the Dodge acts up or he’s forgotten a tool, he says, “I’ll figure it out,” and I’ve yet to see him fail. My dad’s other rule is: Be prepared. Though the Dodge might be a clunker, it is fully equipped with a radar detector, a GPS, and other gadgets whose cords snake from the lighter’s socket. Under the canopy in back are a generator, air compressor, vacuum, contractor-grade trash bags, bins full of cleaning supplies, rakes, leaf blower, lawn mower, weed whacker, and so on.
We’re on our way to an REO — a “real-estate-owned” property, or foreclosed home — in Dryden, Washington, about an hour’s drive from Ellensburg, where we both live. My dad does maintenance on bank-owned houses. I finished graduate school this past June, and I’ve been his sidekick ever since. We’ve traveled more than ten thousand miles together across the real-estate wastelands of the Northwest. The subprime-mortgage crisis has left growing numbers of homeowners with mortgages they can’t afford to pay, and many owe more to the bank than their home is worth. Foreclosures have hit record levels.
My dad hasn’t always done this for a living. When I was a young girl, he was superintendent of the Ellensburg Water Company. Every workday he drove a twenty-mile loop along the company’s canal, gauging flow, measuring depths, and opening and closing head gates to irrigate fields. He gave testimony before Congress about water-rights disputes. He was, in my eyes, a god of earth and water.
On nights and weekends he remodeled our two-story home, whose backyard bordered the foothills we’re driving through now. The home had been in his family since the 1920s and was in disrepair when he and my mom got it from his parents around 1980. The floors were sloped, the ceilings bowed. The foundation was subpar, the wiring not up to code, and the plumbing outdated. My parents planned to tear it down and build their dream home in its place. My dad has told me they wanted a sunken living room and an island kitchen. “Everything my children need,” my mom wrote in a letter to him a month before I was born. They even had blueprints drawn up. I once asked to see them, and my dad said he would look for them. Every time I ask, he is still looking.
When the bank denied them a loan to build a new home on the property, my parents decided to remodel instead. The house was lifted on hydraulic jacks so that a proper foundation could be poured, and, while it was up off the ground with my mother and my sister and me in it, my dad labored underneath, replacing old galvanized pipes with PVC, halogen bulbs strung like Christmas lights so he could see. After the home was set back down, they filled its walls with insulation and added new windows, new carpet, and new doors. It was still a work-in-progress in 1988 when, just two weeks after I’d blown out the candles on my sixth-birthday cake, my mom filed for divorce.
For most of that winter my dad lived at his family’s cabin in the nearby hills, where he and my mom had spent part of their honeymoon a decade earlier. “I wanted to be as close to you as I could,” he has told me. Each morning he drove snowy roads to pick up my sister and me and take us to the school-bus stop, and each night after work he returned to tuck us into bed before driving back to the cabin in the dark. My dad stayed at the cabin until the snow was so high he couldn’t make the drive and had no choice but to move in with his parents.
My mom asked for the house in the divorce but ultimately settled for a down payment on a small home in town. We would become “city mice,” she told me, referencing my favorite of Aesop’s Fables. My dad moved back into my childhood home, and not long after that, he quit his job with the water company; he’d been asked to work on a new irrigation project in Brazil. I remember being upset that I wouldn’t get to see him very often. When the World Bank pulled funding for the project, he took a temporary position dredging sewage lagoons in Arizona instead, then returned to Ellensburg and worked odd jobs. With the child support he now owed, he wasn’t able to keep my childhood home, and he signed the deed back over to his parents. If I asked him about that decision now, I know what he would say: that he didn’t feel at home there anyway — not without his family.
He’s held many jobs since then, doing construction, rehabbing homes, working at a water-treatment facility, and a brief stint selling real estate. He’s also had many addresses over the last two decades. These days he lives mostly out of an Army duffel bag, eating deli rotisserie chickens with plastic forks and sipping old-vine zinfandel from Styrofoam cups at the Motel 6s where he stays between foreclosures. Sometimes he’ll take me out to eat at a Mexican restaurant. When not on the road, he and Gabe stay with my grandparents, just a little ways from my childhood home. He isn’t ashamed to be sleeping on a twin bed in his old bedroom as he nears sixty — or so he says. He’s able to save money, and his parents appreciate the chores he does for them: mowing the lawn, mending fences.
I, too, am struggling to get by. My long-term boyfriend, Ryan, and I live in the home my mom bought with the divorce settlement, a 1950s bungalow in a run-down neighborhood. My mom, who recently bought a house with her new husband, charges us less rent than she should, but we can still barely afford it. Our schooling has left us in debt. We take what jobs we can get. Ryan is cashiering at a convenience store while finishing his master’s thesis. I’m helping my father take care of the ever-expanding list of REOs he keeps in the console between our seats. My dad can’t afford to pay me much — I feel bad every time he hands me the crisp bills from the ATM — but he also keeps track of what Ryan and I need at the bungalow, and when he finds something useful left behind in an REO, he offers it to us. For example, I recently told him our mattress is caving in, and he thinks the king-size bed in the home we’re heading to now might be a decent replacement. He is doing what he can to provide for his daughter: a day of work, an occasional meal and margarita, a secondhand bed.
“DESTINATION ON THE left,” the GPS says as we approach the property. Gabe sits up behind us and peers over our shoulders, his tail thumping against the seat.
The blue ranch with a second-story addition stands at the end of a long driveway. In back is an unpainted outbuilding, and beyond that a weed-ridden field stretches toward the mountains. I imagine the field was once a grazing pasture for horses before the home was repossessed. My dad stops at the bottom of the driveway and rolls down his window, letting in the cold. That’s my cue to hand him the camera so he can photograph the address on the mailbox and the realtor’s sign staked beside it — proof for the bank that he has visited the right place. Later we’ll take more photos of the work we’ve done. He puts the camera back in its case and continues down the driveway, parking as close to the door as he can get.
Depending on the work order, we might perform a variety of tasks at an REO. We often remove trash or remaining furniture (called a “trash-out”), after which we clean the interior and repair damages. (Many of the homes have been intentionally burned, flooded, or otherwise vandalized.) Depending on the season, we’ll cut the grass and winterize or de-winterize the home. Today we’re here to do a P & P — preserve and protect — which involves securing the home against squatters or trespassers and changing the locks to bar the former mortgagee from entering without the lender’s consent.
My dad steps from the Dodge. Gabe follows and marks his territory beside a claw-foot-tub-turned-planter.
“Let’s go look at your bed,” my dad says to me.
Everything inside an REO must go. We either donate it to charity, haul it to the dump, or keep it for ourselves. The “treasures” we do find are often buried in heaps of trash — sometimes enough to fill a twenty-six-foot U-Haul. We frequently come across takeout still sitting on tables, as though the diners have been taken up in the Rapture, and we’ve been left behind. Carpeting covered with pet feces is also common. Occasionally our discoveries are more disquieting. In Washougal, Washington, I opened a cooler filled with the makings of a barbecue that never happened. (The stench clung to me.) In Pinedale, Wyoming, at a house with no power, we encountered a deep freezer full of last hunting season’s kills, maggots feasting on the decaying flesh. Another contractor once told us about finding a human corpse: It was summer, and the electricity in the house had been shut off, so it was dark. His camera flash revealed the man’s body decomposing under his bedsheets.
Whoever lived in this REO didn’t leave much of a trace.
“It’s a nice place, really,” my dad says.
He’s right. There’s a granite countertop in the kitchen, a fireplace in the living room, and a spacious upstairs office/bedroom with a balcony and a view of the mountains. Save for a few XXL men’s shirts hanging from wire hangers in the closet and the bed that might become mine, the downstairs master bedroom is empty. If the shirts were my dad’s size, he’d probably take them. He looks at them anyway as I examine the bed, which is stripped of sheets and has a bookshelf headboard.
Relieved the mattress is stain-free, I lie back on it and remind myself that taking the bed isn’t stealing. I wonder why this home’s previous owner left it behind. Did he want to continue sleeping here after he’d removed the rest of his belongings? Did it just not fit in the back of his truck?
My dad’s footfalls echo as he walks across the room. “What do you think?” he asks. He offers to put the bed in his storage unit if I don’t want it right away.
I imagine my books in the headboard. I don’t think Ryan will object. “I’ll take it,” I say.
“OK, then.” He kicks the bottom of my boot. “Those locks aren’t going to change themselves.”
MY DAD HAS OUTFITTED his Dodge with items he’s found at REOs: the canopy covering the truck bed, for example. It’s a bit too short, and the back window is broken, but it keeps our equipment dry. His GPS and radar detector are also foreclosure castoffs, as is the Carhartt jacket he’s wearing, which has another man’s name embroidered on it. I hold the broken canopy window up as he gathers his tools so we can begin the P & P.
I photograph the knob and deadbolt before he removes them. Then I take a photo of the holes where they once were.
My dad fumbles with the new knob that promises “quick, easy installation.”
“Quick, my ass!” he says. “Whoever designed this damn thing ought to try installing one.”
I ask what I can do to help, and he rummages through his pockets for a key to the outbuilding. “See what’s in there,” he says.
I know he just wants to get an idea of the amount of debris we’ll need to haul away when we return to do the trash-out, but I can’t deny I’m hoping to find something valuable, or at least something that will tell me more about whoever lived here. In other homes I’ve found a child’s drawings, the receipts from a Disneyland trip, medical and credit-card bills surpassing sixty thousand dollars, and, crumpled in a wastebasket, a love letter from a young woman to her boyfriend. (“You can’t live with your parents forever.”) In this outbuilding the pickings are slim. A white down comforter spills from a cardboard box beside a pair of men’s running shoes too big for my dad’s feet. Some knickknacks have small stickers with prices penciled on them from a last-ditch yard sale. I inspect a stack of CDs and pull out the only one I recognize, the soundtrack to a movie about Beethoven called Immortal Beloved. I put it in my pocket.
The fog has descended from the mountains, and by the time I exit the outbuilding, it’s so thick I can barely see the mailbox. We’ve already decided the bed won’t fit in the Dodge, but we’ll get it when we come back with a fifteen-foot U-Haul to collect the rest of the debris. Or maybe a seventeen-footer would be best — it’s easy to underestimate the amount of trash. Gabe saunters up to me with a ball in his mouth, and I throw it for him to fetch. I’m just about to tell my dad what I found when I first hear, then see a woman running up the road toward us, her bare feet slapping the asphalt. She’s dressed in pajama pants and an extra-long T-shirt with a jacket over it. Where did she come from? I didn’t hear a car.
“Um, Dad?” I say.
He’s still battling the less-than-cooperative lock. He wipes his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket and looks up.
Our presence at an REO tends to attract nosy neighbors who assume we’re either moving into the home or robbing it. Once we explain that the bank has sent us, they gossip about the home’s past owners and what led to the foreclosure: divorce, booze, gambling. (Hardly anyone mentions the mortgage crisis.) But the urgency with which this woman is running toward us leads me to believe she’s not a neighbor. Maybe she’s the wife or lover of the man whose XXL shirts are still hanging in the closet.
My dad has encountered former residents of foreclosures before. In one instance he and a crew of other men had been assigned to perform an eviction while accompanied by a sheriff’s deputy. The deputy handed the notice to the former homeowner, and my dad and the other men proceeded to remove all her belongings as she watched. Another time he arrived alone at a home to do a P & P and found a single mother still living there. She told him that the notice she’d received from the bank hadn’t said anything about having to vacate — her children were at school, and she had nowhere else to go. My dad had no sheriff’s deputy looking over his shoulder that day. Even though it meant he might not get paid, he left without changing the locks.
Now this woman has emerged from the fog in her pajamas. Her short light-brown hair is tangled, and her nose is red and dripping. Despite her disheveled appearance, she assumes an air of authority.
“This is my home, and my husband’s,” she says. “I need to get my things!”
Before my dad has a chance to respond, she rushes toward the outbuilding, and I follow. Gabe normally barks at strangers, but he’s wagging his tail as if he knows this woman. She slides her feet into the men’s running shoes but doesn’t bother with the laces. Then she grabs the comforter and begins piling some of the knickknacks onto it. I’m relieved she doesn’t reach for the CDs. Technically she is the one who is trespassing, but the longer I watch her, the more I feel as though I’m the one who doesn’t belong.
My dad has suggested to me that a home can be a burden — financially and otherwise. He says the misfortune of losing it might, in some way, be a relief. But it’s one thing to speculate about the previous owners when they aren’t present and something else entirely to watch this woman drag what she can through the gravel, her feet shuffling in shoes that are way too big.
My dad is on the phone with the real-estate broker.
“Sure, I’ll let her know,” he says.
He puts his phone back in his pocket and approaches the woman, who has stopped to catch her breath and adjust her grip on the comforter.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” she says to him. “I’ve never lost a home before.”
He tells her it’s OK. She’s allowed to take what she has, but she isn’t welcome back — that’s what the broker told him. “The home is REO now,” he says, as if those three letters explained everything.
Do I really want the bed from this house? I consider handing the woman the CD in my pocket as an apology. Instead I ask if she needs help, but she doesn’t respond. (Maybe I didn’t speak loudly enough.) She disappears into the fog, and my dad returns to the porch and continues installing the deadbolt. I can tell he wants to avoid talking about what’s just happened. As I latch the outbuilding and put the key in my pocket, I think about the person I’m locking out. I’ve never lost a home before, she said.
WHEN MY DAD AND I climb back into the Dodge, I take the CD from my pocket and set it on the dashboard, but I can’t bring myself to play it. My dad enters the address of the next REO into the GPS. While he’s waiting to merge onto the highway, he tells me what the broker told him on the phone: that the woman had never actually owned the home. The man who had owned it wasn’t even her husband — though she somehow believed he was.
“She’s mentally unstable,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “That’s what the broker said.”
He probably hopes this will ease my conscience about the bed, and I’m grateful to him for that. But I also wonder if he isn’t trying to convince himself that he’s done the right thing. The way his body tensed while he spoke to that woman, the way his jaw clenched, I could tell he wished he hadn’t called the broker at all.
I can’t help but recognize in that woman’s situation something akin to my dad’s story, my story. For two decades my dad has been keeping what he got in the divorce in storage units and in my grandparents’ barn. My home, meanwhile, is filled not only with what I’ve collected from REOs but also with castoffs from my childhood home: the oak coffee table and matching end tables, the couch, my dad’s vinyl records.
And what happened to the rest: to my drawings, to the ornaments that hung from the Christmas trees my dad chopped down, to the blueprints he says he’s still looking for?
“Maybe that’s in the barn,” he’ll say when I ask.
I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my parents to pack up everything and uproot their daughters from the only home they’d ever known — the arguments they must have had about who would get what or about selling my sister’s and my ponies. My dad said he didn’t sell the ponies — they ran away. It’s possible. It’s also possible that neither of my parents could bear to keep most of what they’d owned together, or else simply couldn’t afford to. Maybe my dad is just humoring me when I ask about the whereabouts of something. Maybe the happy childhood home I’m conjuring in memory never existed.
I used to dream of buying a house in the country with an orchard and a view of hills; of living among deer and wild yellow roses. I even wrote this in a letter to Ryan that he’s been carrying in his wallet for so long it’s torn along its folds and you can barely read the writing. Now, with our student-loan debt and meager job prospects, I wonder if it’s even possible to pursue that dream. Anytime I think of owning a home, I think of losing it.
WE VISIT TWO OTHER REOs, and I’m relieved to find both of them empty and unoccupied. I mow each lawn as my dad removes locks and replaces them with new ones. By the time we head back to Ellensburg, the sun has set, and it’s started to rain. We stop at a gas station where I once found seventy bucks on the floor of a porta-potty. I use my “lucky” porta-potty again, but there isn’t any money today. Maybe it’s just as well. After seeing that woman earlier, I’m wondering who lost that seventy bucks and whether that person needed it more than my dad and I did.
My dad emerges from the building eating a hot dog, ketchup dripping onto his chin. Back in the Dodge, he wipes his mouth with a handful of napkins before shifting into gear. The GPS is off as he pulls onto the highway. The Check Engine light is on, but it’s always on: a bad relay, he says.
Not far from us my childhood home still stands on the foundation my parents poured for it. My cousin and his wife live there now. They’re probably eating dinner in the kitchen where we used to eat. Later they’ll tuck their children into bed in the bedrooms that used to belong to my sister and me. The bedroom they share is the same one in which I was conceived. The pump house for the well at that home is where my dad stashed (and later forgot that he’d stashed) an assortment of his belongings after the divorce. I know this because a few years ago I helped clean the building out after a pipe had frozen and burst, ruining almost everything inside. I found a water-damaged copy of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which now rests on a bookshelf at the bungalow. I took the book not because I wanted to read King Lear or Romeo and Juliet but because between the pages of those plays I’d put other items I didn’t want to throw away: a pamphlet from my dad’s Catholic-school graduation, Christmas cards my parents had written to each other using pet names I don’t remember them ever uttering (Mr. Poodle and Meadow Muffin), and a birthday card from me to my dad with a note inside in my small child’s handwriting, “To Daddy. I love you very much. Love, Sonya.”
For his birthday this year, I gave my dad a card from a home we’d trashed-out just that morning. In it, I thanked him for sharing his work with me, for the scenery we’d driven through, for all the chicken enchiladas and margaritas he’d bought me, for every trash-out treasure he’d hauled back to my bungalow. Looking at him now, his gaze unwavering from the road, I realize what I really wanted to write in that card: That he doesn’t disappoint me. That even though none of the jobs he had after the divorce allowed him to keep my childhood home or help pay for my education, I’m glad things worked out as they did, because I get to spend this time with him, riding around in the Dodge, taking care of foreclosures.
My dad turns a corner faster than he should, and I lean over to check his speed.
“I know what I’m doing,” he says, elbowing me. “I’ll get you home in one piece.”
Gabe sighs from the backseat. I cross my feet beneath me and crack my window just barely. My dad takes the final drag of his cigarette, and I hold out an almost-empty coffee cup for him to drop it in. He doesn’t even have to ask.