Ray won’t have the radio on in the car when we are working, except for after the 12 o’clock news when the advertisements are done and they play an extended set of songs. “Forty-Five minutes of unstoppable rock” they call it.
“I hate the radio these days” he told me, our first day on the job together. “Nothing but advertisements for auto insurance, credit counseling services, trustees in bankruptcy, and vocational training schools. The four horseman of the econo-pocalypse, fifteen to thirty seconds each, and as much as two minutes combined. No one needs that. And you know why they do it? Why advertisers buy radio time? It’s because people lost their homes and live in their cars. They’re trapped. Me? I just want to hear some music. I want to think about good times.” He laughed when he said it.
There is a lot of truth in what Ray said about radio. Such are the times we live in.
We drive and we talk.
“How’s things with Sheila this fine California day?” he asks me.
“Not all that good.”
“She wants out. Or more accurately: She wants me out.”
“You’re shittin’ me.”
“I wish. I mean, she won’t say ‘It’s over, pack up your shit and get out’, but she says things like ‘Something has to change’ and ‘We can’t live like this for much longer’ and stuff like that. Truthfully: I think she just wants me to pull the trigger.”
“So what are you going to do?’
“I don’t know. I was thinking about it, and I’m going to suggest couples counseling. Maybe her benefits will pay for it. She has good benefits.”
Sheila and I met when I was a title insurance rep. She worked in City Hall, in Records and Permits. I was pulling in seven-thousand per month, standing in line in front of her with all the other reps once or twice a day. I felt good all the time. I wore my embroidered shirts untucked, and my jeans long, the hem down to the heel of my ostrich boots. I’d just throw the jeans out when the hems frayed and get some more. I wore aviator sunglasses inside. I wore them inside bars, inside restaurants, and inside the hallowed halls of the Department of Records and Permits. Never took off the shades. I thought it would be like this forever – I’d fly in a gentle upward trajectory to a permanently sunny apex. People wanted to buy, sellers could be found, and lenders made it rain. It was an auction. I had just bought a $340,000 condominium. Brand-New. No one else had ever lived in it. Half the size of my parents’ house and more than three times what they had paid. This was six months before Lehman Brothers was cremated. Six months after that and the smoke of their burning still hung in the sky over all of us along with that of a whole lot of other financial institutions, and I sold my condo for $175,000 and moved in with Sheila. I am still paying on a condo I no longer own. I am in arrears on that. It has been tough.
“So you’re hanging on for her benefits? While she hates you a little bit more every day?” Ray said.
“Well, no, it’s not like that.”
“Well, asking her to ask her benefits to pay for counseling ain’t exactly the Cowboy Way neither.”
“You know what? Call it what you will Ray, I’m just trying to make things work. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.” When I am around Ray, I start to talk like him; I use his diction, his phrasing.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with that – except that everything is wrong with that.” He said.
“Seriously” he says. “You don’t understand women.”
I shake my head. “And you do?”
“Yes, I do. Here’s the deal. You go to a woman and say you want counseling, you want to make things work, you’re so sorry about this or feel bad about that or you will try and do better – whatever. They think you are weak. They can’t abide weak.”
“How’s trying everything to make a go of it weak? Tell me that, Cowboy.”
“It just is. Look – women. They get their opinions from other women. Imagine a secret boardroom, and there is a tote board. Maybe it’s one of those fancy whiteboards like what we have now, or maybe it’s just a blackboard and chalk like in days gone by. It don’t matter. There is Sheila and all the women she knows. Friends, enemies, in-betweens – her goddamn mother too – all together now. They have a consensus. On that tote board they have two columns: One is ‘Names’ and under it are the names of all of their men, and the other column is called ‘Weakness’. Under ‘Weakness’ and beside each name is a description. ‘He cried’, is one or ‘He begged for forgiveness’ is another, or hey: ‘He said he’d never go to the strip club again.’ All of those things and more. But right there at the top is ‘Counseling’ only they don’t call it ‘Counseling’ they call it ‘He wants me to pay for someone to do his crying, his begging and his apologizing for him.’ They adjust the board each meeting and laugh and laugh – and then they go home and turn the heat up. They want to see if you can finally grow a pair and get the fuck out. See if you can at least manage some pretension of dignity. Internally she’s already trained herself not to miss you anyways. And she ain’t no different than any of the rest of ‘em.”
I roll my eyes. “OK Ray. What’s your suggestion?”
“Break up with her first. Pull the goddamn trigger already. You should have done it six months ago.”
“But I don’t want to.”
Now Ray’s shaking his head at me. “That doesn’t matter. Listen to yourself, man. Listen. You have already told me she’s talking like it’s over. So you gotta be the one to say it. The trick is to do it right, to get off of the top of their board. You gotta do it and let her know that it’s her fault.”
I actually look at him. I run a yellow light that turns red halfway through. I hope they don’t have a camera on this one. I can’t fucking afford that. In that split-second, in that intersection under a red light, I realize why Sheila is tired of me. Because I cannot risk running a red.
“Tell her you are breaking up with her because she has gained weight. She’s letting herself go.”
I stop at the next red and look at him. Ray won’t look at me. I look at him until the car behind honks and I look up to a green light and start moving again.
“Yes” Ray says. “Weight. Hit her right where she lives. Women worry about that shit. She might roll her eyes, talk all sorts of crap but if you tell her she’s letting herself go, looking a little dowdy – like someone’s babushka-wearing grandma – and you can’t be with her anymore – she’ll be in the bathroom and on the scale the moment you are gone. She’ll be crying in the mirror. You’ll be off the board. ‘Dumped me because I got fat’ is the very last position on the board. Rock bottom. Makes her look bad, not you. Some of her friends will sympathize, some will gloat – her goddamn mother will say something unhelpful – but the point is this: You walk away with some pride.”
“Weight.” I say.
“Yep. Weight. Besides, it’s probably true. We all gain weight as we age. How long have you known her? If she isn’t up ten or fifteen from when you met, I’ll pay your red-light ticket.”
It’s quiet now. No radio. I have a lot to think about.
“Hey!” Ray says. “Ranchero Drive. Turn here and let’s go take Mr. Echeverria’s house from him. After all, that’s why they pay us.”
We are in the ‘bad news’ business, or, more correctly, the ‘more bad news’ business. We are the black heart of the dark cloud. We are the worst day a person has after they think they have already had their worst day. In the State of California the last stage of the foreclosure process is the “Notice to Leave After the House is Sold.” You miss a mortgage payment, then another and then it’s three mortgage payments and you give up, quit, and the lender starts the process. The house is either sold and the new owners want in, or the bank is stuck with it – which is the last thing they want – and they have to get you out. Anyways, what happens is that the new owner must give the former homeowner something called a “Three-Day Notice to Quit (Leave)” and file an “Unlawful Detainer” lawsuit to evict.
That’s when Ray and I come.
We come in a rental car, white or black or silver, and we bring with us the “Notice to Quit” and the lawsuit. Sometimes the houses are empty, the owner gone with the foreclosure notice. They slink away to another place to forget this place and these times, which is what I would do, but sometimes they are still there. Squatting I guess, because it must still feel like home. Mostly they just don’t know where they are going to go. We deliver the bad news and we hope they take it well. We work in a pair because another guy at another firm – he got shot. Right on the doorstep. It made the news. One man was led away in handcuffs; another covered in a sheet and wheeled away on a gurney. No one wants to be the guy on the gurney. You can talk shit about “Foreclosure Mills” all you want but someone has to do it and the one I work for is not as bad as some others. They pay two of us, most places just send one. One person, in his or her own car, is pretty easy to fuck with. We are two of us, have a rental and haven’t been shot yet. If life isn’t good, it’s less bad than it could be.
Hector Echeverria’s house on Ranchero may or may not have Hector Echeverria, but he was getting his three days. We park across the street and look around. There aren’t many people out. Some of the other houses on the street have the windows boarded over. They were the Echeverrias before our Echeverria. Always Ray knocks on the door and I hand over the documents. I keep the Affidavit of Service in the car. We’ll fill that out once we are back in the car. No one answers the knock. I put the papers in an envelope and stuff them in between the door and the doorframe. I’ve gotten good at it. We’re walking back to the car when the garage door opens and there, behind us, with two suitcases and a lamp of the Virgin Mary holding an empty picture frame, is Mr. Echeverria.
“Can I help you” he says.
Ray answered, “Well, yes. Are you Hector Echeverria?”
“Yes” he says.
”Allow me to introduce myself. I am Ray Bevans and this is my associate …”
Echeverria waved him off.
“I know who you are. You are here for the house. It’s ok. It’s yours. I’m leaving now. I don’t want any trouble.”
“Well, we need to give you the documents. Can we at least do that?
Echeverria shrugged. “I guess so. It makes no difference.”
“Thank you sir” Ray said. “You are right, it doesn’t make much difference, but it’s always best to do things by the book as much as possible.”
Echeverria set the lamp down and I handed him the “Notice to Quit” and the eviction suit. He tucked it under one arm and picked up the lamp and tucked it under the other then picked up his two suitcases and walked it out to the curb. He stopped then and turned around and took out the garage remote and closed the garage door.
“Here” he said to Ray ‘”Take the opener. The new owners will need it. I was going to leave it in the mailbox,”
“Thank you, sir” Ray said. He took the opener.
Echeverria picked up his bags, his lamp and our papers and began to walk down the street.
I was relieved. No fuss, no muss, no gun, no gurney. I like it best when the houses are empty but I’ve had people get pretty heated. I understand but hey – they have to understand too: We either serve ‘em or join ‘em. The line is razor thin.
Echeverria, not moving real fast, got about one house away and Ray called out to him. “Mr. Echeverria. Do you need anything?”
Echeverria stopped for a moment but didn’t turn around. He started moving again, but even slower.
“Mr. Echeverria. Can we give you a ride at least?”
I looked at Ray but he wasn’t looking at me. Jesus, Ray, don’t do this. What for? Echeverria stopped, but did not turn around.
“Mr. Echeverria. We can give you a ride. This other stuff? It’s just our job. If you need a ride you need a ride. Let us give you a ride. Where are you going?”
Echeverria stopped and turned around. He looked long and hard – at Ray – not at me. “The bus station” he said. “Just the bus station. Can you do that?”
“Hell yes” Ray said, “That’s 8 miles away. Hell of a walk. Way too far on a hot day. Let us give you a ride.”
He motioned me to get the car and he went to help Echeverria with his bags. We got in the car, with me driving, Ray riding shotgun, and Echeverria in the back. Ray and Echeverria had put all of Echeverria’s belongings in the back except for the Virgin Mary Lamp. Echeverria carried her with him and held her on his lap, Mary in white and blue, with her sacred heart in red and gold, and her hands framing the empty picture frame.
“Where’s that bus taking you, Buddy?” Ray asked, after we had begun to move.
“Indio” Echeverria said. “Indio. I have a cousin there. He’ll put me up until I can find a way back to Nicaragua.”
“That’s cool. Is that where you are from?”
“You have family?”
“My wife and her mother, her sisters.”
“Well hey, something to look forward to, right?’
Echeverria looked straight ahead the whole time, neither at Ray nor at me. I kept looking back at the lamp using the rear-view mirror. I wonder where he found that. Maybe it came with him from Nicaragua.
“Whose picture was in the lamp?” I asked. “Your wife?”
“No” Echeverria said, “My Son.”
“Is he in Nicaragua with your wife?”
“No, he died.”
Ray and I both said “I’m sorry for your loss,” at the same time.
“Thank you.” Echeverria said.
We got to the bus station and got out. “You need anything else?” Ray asked.
“No thanks. You have done enough. You have been very kind”
“Seriously, you need anything, you just say.”
Echeverria picked up his bags and went into the terminal without looking back.
“What was all that about?” I asked Ray when we got back in the car.
He turned on the radio and pointed at the clock: 12:20 pm.
“Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock. Time to turn up the radio.”
We did two more that afternoon. Fortunately, no one was at either house. I wedged the “Notice to Quit” and the eviction suit in the seams where the doors met the door frames and they held tight. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Some of these places in these cookie-cutter subdivisions were put up fast and cheap and there is often too much space between the door and frame and they will not hold the documents tight, so they fall to the ground and get rained on, or kicked around and messed up. No one likes that. It looks unprofessional. I try to look at the bright side and tell myself that the carpenter who installed/framed the doors is probably in foreclosure himself, or maybe even dead or in jail. Unemployed, at the very least.
It’s the little things.
“Let’s hit the strip club” Ray said to me as we drove back. We were coming into peak commute time and he had turned the radio off a while ago.
“No thanks’ I say.
“C’mon, you need it more than I do and my girlfriend is there. My girlfriend who actually likes me.”
I grimace. “No”.
“It’s your call” he says and laughs.
“So who is your girlfriend now?” I ask. I can’t resist.
“Ramona Raxx. That’s ‘*Raxx*’ with two x-es.”
“What’s her real name?”
“Well, Ramona for sure. She swears it’s Ramona. She’s holding out on her real last name. She told me she wanted Roxx (with two x-es”), but it was taken.”
“Oh it would be. That’s a good one. But tell me this Cowboy: What makes her your girlfriend?”
“She’s sweet on me. I can tell. I know I know. You think I’m bullshitting. But she’s sweet on me and it’s kind of charming.”
I just look at him.
“She showed me her gunshot wound.”
I laugh a bit too long at that. “So that’s what they are calling it now?”
“No, no, no. She has an actual gunshot wound. I know. She showed me.”
“No, I am not. You know, Monday I went in there. It’s always slow. I don’t sit up front on pervert row, I like to sit back, have a beverage, and check out the stable. She comes out, pretty little thing, real black hair and real white skin. And freckles. Those freckles are cute. All men like freckles. Don’t say you don’t. Anyways, she’s up grinding it for the lost souls on pervert row and I can see this big gauze bandage above her bikini line and kind of off to one side. I’m intrigued. Admit it – you would be too. So I tell the server to send her over to my booth for a little table dance when she’s done up there on the stage. She comes on over. She grinds. She’s whiter up close, her hair blacker, and in the dead center of that bandage is a little red. ‘Jesus, Honey, you’re bleeding’ I said. ‘A little’, she said. ‘What happened, Baby?’ I asked her. All she would say was that ‘Some shit happened.’ You know how it is. House party. Everybody high. Some guys were arguing and then shit got real, real fast and all of a sudden she was shot. It went through her side, in and out, like a hole-punch on a folded piece of paper. Just the right angle. Someone drove her to a hospital and dropped her off and she went in and told them she had no insurance but would they please help and they did.
I kept her there for two more dances. During the second one, she peeled back the gauze and showed me the stitches. A little clear fluid was leaking out of her. She said it was a combination of plasma and the antibiotic. They had warned her. She was ok. She’s a toughie, let me tell you. After that we just sat and talked. She told me she was planning on leaving the Central Valley and going out to the Bakken.”
“The Bakken?” I asked.
“Yeah. The Bakken Shale Formation. Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming. Goddamn near all of those places and then some. The next oil boom. She told me some other girls were dancing out there and make a grand on a week night and more on the weekends. Some of those oil riggers haven’t seen a woman in three months and they’ll throw a whole paycheck’s worth of cash money up there for just a kind word and the opportunity to stare at some pretty pink areola.”
“It does sound good.” I said.
“You know, after that she thanked me. She told me that she’d been shot on a Thursday and missed the weekend and all the good tips. Coming in Monday – and she had to beg the club to let her dance on Monday – She expected nothing. She told me my money was the difference between her making rent or couch surfing until she could find another situation. Times are tight for everyone. Even strippers. She told me to come on back and see her tonight.”
“You sure she’s not just working you?” I said.
“Nope. I’m not sure. We’ll see if she gives me her real last name. If she does – we’ll know. But I have a good feeling. I’ve always been lucky, in small ways. Just like my daddy.”
“Well, my dad is from South Dakota. Born there and died there. He cowboyed for real. Met my mom at a rodeo in Bakersfield. True story. That’s where I was born. But California – and my momma – wasn’t for him. He moved back out to South Dakota before I could even remember him. He was a cowboy there, a ranch hand. He liked it. Drove an old pick up and fished in his spare time. Catch and release. Never did hunt. ‘Live and let live’, he always told me. He passed on a couple of years ago. Died while fishing. Must have had a heart attack or something. They found him just sitting there by a river. The current had pulled away his line and rod and they never did find it. It was the most expensive thing he owned and the last thing he did was give it to the river. It makes me feel good to think of it. My cousin, Mike, called me to tell me and I went on out to the funeral. I told my mom about it and she shrugged her shoulders and told me that my daddy was the luckiest man she ever knew. He wasn’t rich lucky, or famous lucky, or even good-at-something lucky. He just did what he wanted to do and lived easy. No one ever bothered him, or took that ease from him. That’s lucky.”
“Amen to that,” I say.
“Anyways, at the funeral, Cousin Mike told me he already had a couple of wells on his land and was looking to form an oilfield services company. He did it and now they are booming. I talk to him every so often and he always says, “Come on out, we could use you”. So, tonight, if Ramona gives me her real last name, I’ll tell her about Mike and my Dad, and tell her that I too, am going out to the Bakken. I’m going to shake off the Central Valley like an old memory and let it fade. This is going to be a place I used to be and that’s all. If Ramona is in, she’s in, and that would be great. My mom is in Fresno now, I’ll come back for Christmas and that’s it.
“Sounds like a plan,” I say. “They have any decent radio out there?”
“Oh yeah” he says. “The best. No depressing commercials. Not much in the way of advertising at all. Everyone does the same thing out there. They don’t need to advertise. I noticed that when I was out for my dad’s funeral. Forty-five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock four times per day.
“We should all be so lucky,” I say.
“That’s the Bakken,” he says. “Once I get established, I’m going to call you up. We could use a guy like you. I am sure of it. Just let me get out there and get going. Hell, I’ll even look for Echeverria in Nicaragua. We could use him too. He seemed alright. Not his fault that his kid died and that the market turned. Nothing he could do about it.”
We park the rental on the lot and put the keys in the overnight return. We’ll be back tomorrow. Back out to Stockton. To a house once owned by a man named Diaz. As for tonight I’ll go back and pick up Sheila from work and see what she has to say. I’ll let her talk and if I don’t like it, I’ll just not listen. If she doesn’t want to talk that’s okay too.