author bio

Jean Thompson

Liberty Taximage


We were broke, Bobby and me.   Both separately and together,  as a marital unit.  It had happened without warning and without our consent.  It had all taken place at a distance, in offices and institutions far from us.  We had been notified by mail.  We still had the house and the cars.  We didn’t seriously believe we’d lose the house and the cars, but what if belief was just one more thing that would fail us?  Along with equities, interest rates, collateralized debt obligations, auction rate securities, bundled loans, and all the rest of the financial gimcrackery that had laid us, and so many others, low.
      Bobby said, “We’re upside down in the house.”
      “What?  What are you talking about?”
      Bobby took a hard swallow from his wine glass.  We were still buying wine, although not of the same quality as before.  “It means we owe more on the house than it’s worth.”
      “I don’t understand how that can be.  The house is practically brand new.”
      “Every house in the neighborhood is worth less than it used to be.  We bought at the top of the market and now the market’s in the crapper.”  Bobby got up and fetched the wine bottle from the kitchen, set it down in the middle of the dining room table.  I worried that  the bottle might mar the wood finish, but maybe the table wasn’t worth what it used to be either, and what would it matter.   I was still confused about how something as big and solid as a house, a really nice, desirable house like ours, could spring a leak and start dribbling money.
      “I love you, honey,” I said to Bobby, and he said, “I love you too,” and we kept saying it, often and at different times as we came to terms with our bewildering new condition.  For love was meant to be both our anchor and our buoy in times of trouble.
      There was still reason to be hopeful.  We had each other, for whatever economic good that would do us.  We were still young, although not quite as young as we had been.  We were both employed, although our jobs too had been nibbled down at the edges, and were not the jobs they used to be.  We had been married four years and five months, and up until now, our life together had unrolled as smoothly as a bolt of cloth.  Bobby was so handsome.  Every once in a while I’d catch women looking at him with this lost expression, just poleaxed by the sight of him.  And me, I kept myself up.  I had a nice figure, everyone said so.  I smiled a lot.  At store clerks, strangers on the street, small children of the appealing sort.  It knocked them for a loop.  We made a sharp couple, a good-looking young couple with the world at our feet, and if that sounds prideful, just stick around.  The world was setting us up for a fall.
      We’d borrowed against the future because we thought we had one, and because the future was always supposed to be better.  More brightly colored, new and improved.  We felt entitled to it, although we could not have explained why.  It was one more assumption that might not bear weight when tested.  Maybe we were none of the things we thought we were:  well-intentioned, generous, enterprising, fun.  Maybe we were stupid.
      It wasn’t as if either of us had grown up with money, far from it.  My dad was a union pipe fitter and he earned a good enough living when times were good, and a lesser one when times were not.  We didn’t want, but there weren’t any extras.  My mom served up Tuna Surprise often enough that it was no surprise, and if you didn’t like what was on your plate, you were told fine, more for the rest of us.  Bobby and I got married in the Laborer’s Hall and our reception was a pot luck.
      Bobby had it a lot tougher because his father was a famous deadbeat and ne’er do well, a Big Idea man whose ideas were all about how to get money without working.  There was a scheme for marking up imported shrimp and selling them to restaurants, there was another for hawking overpriced and soon-to-be-defunct vacation packages, and other semi-legal or outright criminal manipulations of wagers, loans, and skims.  If I hadn’t known the old man was dead, I’d suspect him of being a Wall Street genius these days.  Anyway, Bobby grew up in the shadow of all this, the boom and the bust, the father’s lurking,  creep-show associates,  the phone ringing in the middle of the night, the patched-together family life of a hustler.
     So we were self-made, me and Bobby, because that was part of the future’s promise, that you could make yourself up, or over.  We’d worked hard, we’d latched on to jobs that we rode like a fast wave, up to a pretty decent living and then some.  Of course our mistake was in not seeing it as a wave, with a break point coming after the swell.   We thought it was just life, the way life was once you finally climbed up high enough to have a good view of it.  Can you blame us for going a little giddy, well, yes of course you can, but could you understand it?    
      The things we had spent money on!  Furniture!  Manicures!  Orchids!  An entire room  full of video entertainments!  Every service, commodity, and luxury had been available to us, the resources of the planet spread out for us to browse.   Now, of course, we cut way back.  No more shopping-for-fun.  We got rid of the cleaning service, we stopped looking at brochures for time shares.   We packed our lunches, we ate dinner at home.  We were stern with ourselves, and we took some actual pleasure in the process, like going on a rigorous diet.  “At least I’m not a crook like my old man,” Bobby said.  “We’ll get out of this pickle fair and square.”  I said of course we would.  But it was hard not to think of the crooks and semi-crooks who were making out so well these days, cashing in on the rest of  us.
     We cancelled the health club membership and instead took long walks in the evening through our pretty, devalued neighborhood.    We learned to read the signs of others’ similar distress.  Sometimes they were literal signs:  For Sale.  Price Reduced.  Motivated Seller.  Sometimes it was more subtle.  A lawn grown ragged, a basketball hoop knocked askew and left to rust, or a long-empty bird feeder with an optimistic squirrel  still grubbing around beneath  it.  Other people were in trouble too, we knew this from the television news, though it was not a topic for polite conversation.  We were  all diminished in our own eyes.  We hoped to keep up what was left of appearances. 
      In November I came home from work to find Bobby in the breakfast nook, eating a bowl of cereal.  “Hi there, how was your day?”  I said, all cheery and casual, but it was as if I already knew.    He never got home before I did.
      Bobby didn’t answer right away, just kept eating.  The milk and the Sugar Frosted Flakes box were still on the table, and he was downright gobbling, working that spoon for all it was worth.  He gave me the strangest look, like you’d get from a dog guarding its food, like I was going to grab the cereal bowl away from him, like he was ashamed of his own hunger.
      “Babe,” I said, “What is it, what’s wrong?  Will you stop eating for a minute?”
      Finally he left off the spooning and the gobbling and wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand.  “What do you think’s wrong?”
     “Oh.”  That was all I said.
      “Four months severance, outplacement service, and I can buy into health insurance for the next year.  And it’s nothing personal.”
     “Four months is pretty good,” I said, already shifting gears, adjusting everything downward.  “That’s a reasonable arrangement.”
      Bobby still had that hungry dog look in his eye.  He said, “Let’s not try to be big about this just yet, huh?  Let’s just wallow.”
      “Sure, wallow away.”  I figured Bobby was entitled, that this was one of the unwritten rules of being fired, you got to behave as unreasonably and childishly as you wished, at least for a little while.  But I would have appreciated it if he’d made some sort of an effort at being a grown-up.  My job was now the only slender lifeline we had.  And since it was a girl job, of course it paid less than his.  We were going to be back to the land of Tuna Surprise if something didn’t break our way.  I knew it was the wrong time to bring up baby year.
      We’d always said that once we’d been married five years, we’d have a baby.  Five years was supposed to be enough time to lay down a good financial foundation, also to get all the self-indulgence out of our systems, take the  kind of exotic vacations that only childless people could.  Belize!  Fiji!
      How firm a foundation?  How many vacations were enough?  Those had been important questions, but now we would have different questions, further calculations.  And yet I was determined that a baby be something other than a budgeted purchase.  You were supposed to want a baby in a different way than you wanted a Jacuzzi.  Maybe we should just go for it, a reckless leap of faith.  A throw of the cosmic dice. I didn’t discuss any of this with Bobby.  Like Mary in the Bible, I  kept these things and pondered them in my heart.
      We began noticing an increase in the kinds of ads and solicitations designed to separate us from our money in imaginative ways.  This was a great time to invest in film production, or purchase franchises in tortilla restaurants or mattress stores.  Our vehicles were in need of extended warranties, we qualified for loans with special rates, we were invited to explore the untapped potential of overseas currency markets.  We heard radio promotions telling us there were terrific opportunities to purchase foreclosed properties, a real buyers market.  And maybe it was, but as our loan payments continued their climb, as Bobby’s resume continued to languish unread at places that should have fought to hire him, we were less and less charmed by the notion that there were always ways to make even a bad business climate work for you.
      We got through our downsized Christmas well enough.  We couldn’t help noticing that there were fewer and fewer of those big gaudy energy-slurping light displays in the neighborhood.
      “A little less holiday overkill isn’t such a bad thing,” I said.  I was wrapping (sensible, thrifty) gifts for our families in off-brand paper.  “There’s so much excess and pressure and ostentation.”
      “Yeah.  We could do like, Christmas on Walton’s Mountain.  Whittle presents for each other.”
      I gave him a quick glance, but he wasn’t being snotty, just making a joke.  He said, “You know, we didn’t exactly have the big happy holidays when I was a kid.  Some years we just skipped Christmas.”
      “Oh honey.  That’s so sad.”
      Bobby shrugged and picked up his Santa mug.  We were using them for our coffee, in an effort to feel more festive.  His wallowing phase was over and he was just low-grade depressed these days.  I felt so bad for him, my handsome husband, the way you might feel bad for a beautiful golden retriever with a hurt paw.  It was painful to see him make the circuit of the mailbox, the answering machine, the e-mail account, with less and less expectation of any good news.  It wasn’t doing anything for our sex life either, I can tell you.
      Of course I was patient.  Of course I was understanding.  I wasn’t some horrible accusing-type person and I didn’t intend to become one.  I kept taking my birth control pills (no matter how seldom they might be required), because I wasn’t going to trick us into a baby.  Even though a baby would be the next best thing to going back in time, find that little boy Bobby had been and spoil him like crazy, give him all the Christmas presents he’d ever wanted.
      In January I said, “We could go somewhere else.  Sell the house, eat the loss, move on.”
      Bobby propped himself up on one elbow from his spot on the couch.  He was watching a basketball game, which was a normal enough Sunday afternoon thing to do.   I never  nagged him about how he spent his downtime, since I understood this would be demoralizing. The TV was never on when I got home from work, although once, picking up something that had been left on top, I couldn’t help noticing that it was still warm.  Bobby said, “Go where?  And do what, exactly, once we got there?”
      “Oh I don’t know.  Gosh.  Live on the ocean, run fishing boat charters.  Go to Maine and open a bed and breakfast.  Any old thing.”
      “Be our own bosses.  Dance to our own tune.”
      “That’s the idea.  Sure.”
      Bobby raised his chin to look out the den window at the back yard, which at this time of year wasn’t a view to lift up your heart.  Sad sad brown grass, bare and undersized trees that we’d only recently installed.  “Babe, I don’t think the world lets you operate that way any more.  They got all the screws tightened down.  You can’t make a move without somebody lighting on you, crossing you up.  Everything you ever done is in a computer somewhere, ready to be used against you.  All your bad debt and pre-existing conditions and anything you ever signed off on.  We’re like damned cows or pigs, they figure out how much profit per pound they can get out of you.  Pot roast and sausage and boil up the hooves for glue.”
      “That’s putting it a little strongly,” I said, trying to hide my alarm.  “Who’s ‘they’ anyway?”
       But Bobby was through with talking.  He turned off the TV and said he was going out for a while.  I didn’t ask him where.  The truth was, it was a relief not to have him underfoot every minute.
      This was about the time I began to worry about the Liberty Income Tax guys.  I saw them every year, but only now did they strike me as depressing and sinister.  Liberty Tax is one of those franchises, a little shop that sets up in strip malls and does a brisk walk-in business from people too confused to do their own returns.  Their big gimmick  is hiring guys who dress up as the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam to walk back and forth on the sidewalk, waving potential customers inside.  It was sad, I tell you, really corny, plus they were out in all weathers, toting signs and jumping around to keep warm.  The Statue of Liberty was an especially pitiful get-up, a kind of green plastic shower curtain with an inflatable spiked crown that was always in the process of deflating and flopping over.
      They had a shop practically across the street from us, at the entrance to our subdivision, so that I saw them  every time I came or went.  I’d never paid much attention to them, except a brief, occasional opinion that it was a pretty annoying, tacky idea, then to reconsider that it might still be smart advertising for those exact same reasons.  Now I wondered about the Liberty Tax guys, what kind of down and out person you’d have to be to hire on for such a stunt.  Bums, I’d always thought, when I’d thought about them at all, bums who’d look on it as a way to get a day’s drinking money.  They were often pretty rough-looking characters, what you could see of them underneath their costumes.  One of the Statue of Liberty guys in  particular just plodded along scowling, like he dared somebody to mock him, like he’d lived a life that equipped him to make people spit teeth.   But what if they were the normal unemployed and hard-up people like our neighbors who had fallen on hard times?  What if that was me, Miss Liberty, and Bobby, Uncle Sam, all pride gone, whooping it up out there on the sidewalk?
      Of course that was just where worry could bring you to, just such a foolish point.  I don’t want to give the impression that I lost sleep over it or considered it an actual possibility.  More like a symptom of my general dread.  I spent my days at work trying to be the essential, non-fireable employee, then I came home to the limited good cheer that Bobby afforded.  And the bad news of the world went on and on, with one thing or another closing down, broke, or defaulted.  The stock market might go up for a while - we still had some investments - but really, it was like one of those cartoon characters, Wylie Coyote, maybe, climbing a ladder while the Road Runner chopped off the legs.  It was as if the entire country had been turned upside down and shaken.  There was something creepy about Uncle Sam and Miss Liberty prancing around, inviting you to drop what remained of your money.  Come on in!  Line up, sign up, we got one more bad investment for you:  the American way of life!
      By now we were actively trading down.  I bought groceries at the discount store, shuffling through coupons and loading up on the specials.  I missed my old, ridiculously precious food store, with its fresh gnocchi and caramels with sea salt and stuffed chicken breasts, its uncrowded aisles and cheerful young clerks.  Everybody at the discount grocery seemed blighted somehow.  They had withered arms, or a wall eye, or they overflowed the motorized carts they used to chug around the aisles.  Oh, I know that wasn’t literally true, it was just me being a snob and feeling sorry for myself, and anyway, who was I to hold myself above anyone?  Hadn’t I grown up on peanut butter and saltines and cans of fruit cocktail, the kind with gooseberries and maraschino cherries and those pale, pale, almost unidentifiable bits of pear?
      I didn’t want to believe that who you were was a matter of money, its presence or its lack.  But maybe it was truer than I wanted to admit.  Maybe I was going to look into the mirror one of these fine days and see the girl I’d always been,  just equipped  now with better hair and clothes:  anxious about the world having room for her, not even knowing how much she didn’t know.
      There was something about the discount grocery that turned people chatty, made them initiate long, personal conversations with the checkers.  “This is my third marriage,” the woman in front of me said to the turkey-necked man scanning her purchases.  “Number One don’t count, and the one after that was just a mean son of a bitch.  But this one now is my honey bunny.” 
      Maybe they couldn’t afford counseling.  Maybe it was just the lonely lives most of us
lead these days, or maybe talk radio and daytime TV had done away with any silly notions about private trouble staying private.  For whatever reason,  I heard all about their heart attacks and their parents’ heart attacks, their knee replacements and diabetes, all the complications of their lives.  It wasn’t even eavesdropping, because they weren’t just talking, they were broadcasting.  “My son went into the Army and we got his little girl with us now because her mamma run off to Arizona.”  “Once we get that carburetor fixed we’ll be in business, yeah, Camaros hold their value pretty good.”  “These minute steaks?  You ever try them?  We had some the other night while we was waiting for the vet to call and tell us if the cat died, and he did.”
      The checkers just kept on passing groceries over the scanner, blip blip blip, and putting them in sacks.  Every so often they offered a little non-committal agreement or acknowledgement, but really, they’d heard it all before and they were going to keep hearing it.  Times were tough all over.  One of these days it would probably be my turn, watching the register to see that the frozen potatoes rang up correctly, and confiding my domestic problems.
      We were getting close to the end of Bobby’s severance checks and still nothing had come through for him.  We were going to have to make some kind of move pretty soon, get rid of one of the cars or liquidate the last of our stocks or whatever else we could do to play things out a while longer.  And I didn’t want to be the one to call the question.  I wanted Bobby to make some kind of forceful decision, act the man’s part.  It wasn’t good for either of us to have him so droopy and sad sack.  A man is his job, often enough, and if he loses that it just hollows him out.  Women are the practical ones.  We put our heads down and pull the load any way we can, and too often that load includes a man’s broody feelings.
     Then one night I came home from work and walked in to the smell of cooking, I mean real cooking, aromatic and high style, not burgers or chili or the usual supper Bobby threw together if he was in the mood.  He sat me down at the dining room table and poured me out a glass of the good stuff, the like of which we hadn’t seen for some time.  “What’s the occasion?” I asked.
      “A little money coming in,” he said carelessly.  He darted back into the kitchen to yank a tray of stuffed mushrooms out of the broiler.  “Watch it, these are hot.”
      “What money? Coming in from where?”
       “Pennies from heaven.  He made a show of pretending to burn his fingers.  “Hot, hot, hot.”
      I put my glass back on its coaster.  “Bobby, what’s going on?”
      “A project I’ve been working on is finally coming together.”
       “What kind of project?  Bobby?”
      “Speculative.  Profitable.  Don’t give me that look.  It’s solid.  It’s idiot proof.  It’s going to turn things around for us.”
      “Tell me all about it.”
      “Can’t just yet.”  He mugged at me, giving me a big wink.  “Maybe later.  Tonight let’s just be happy.  Pretend I’m a caveman and I just brought home a dead mastodon. We’ll have meat and hides.  Our cave will be warm, our tribe will prosper.”
      “Oh Bobby.”
      “What?  You think I haven’t thought this through?  I’ve had however many months it’s been.  I’ve studied on it from every angle.  There’s no happy-ever-after option.  I’m doing what I need to do for the both of us.  No, quit asking me.  You don’t need to know any details.  Better you don’t.  Anyway, it’s just a one time thing, not a way of life.”
      I quit asking, and we ate our nice dinner, and that night we made love like one of us was going off to war the next day. You’d think that sex would be one of the last great free pleasures, and technically that’s true.  But often enough, nothing in the bank means there’s nothing in the tank.  One more way that men let things get to them.  I was just glad we had the comfort of each other again, for however long that would last.
      As for Bobby’s new source of income, I saw no evil and heard no evil.  There’s a sense in which I just gave up and gave in on everything.  Maybe it was  the long burden of worry that had worn me down.  Or maybe I’d never had any real principles to begin with.  Judge not lest ye be judged, is all I’d say in that regard.  Call me when the same thing happens to you and we’ll swap stories.
      Of course there were occasions when, in spite of myself, I tried to fathom what Bobby was up to.  I snooped around on the computer and kept an eye out for mysterious paperwork.  But Bobby might as well have been one of those Godfather guys, and I was the wife who reminded him to bring home the cannoli.  We just didn’t talk about it.   I had my own notions.  Some kind of internet flimflam or hacking job. Bobby was always clever that way, always messing around on the computer and coming up with outlandish stuff.  It really was amazing, the way computers ran everything now, and how much power they might give to the criminally inclined.  Newfangled varieties of plain old-fashioned crookery.  About all that was left of my morals was the hope that he wasn’t ripping off anybody who couldn’t afford it.  I hoped he was targeting some big fat plum of a corporation, which I know is just as illegal but would be less personal.
      Every so often Bobby gave me cash money one or two or five or six hundred dollars, and it was understood that I was to use it for our day-to-day expenses.  Everything off the books.  I assumed he kept his pockets full as well.  In this way we caught up on the mortgage, and even began to make some payments on our heap of debt.  Now whenever I saw the Liberty Tax guys, I felt a new kind of dread.  No doubt our tax returns were going to be fiddled and faddled to the nth degree.
      You can get used to most things, and so there was a space of time when I did just that.  If Bobby was to mention that on such and such a day he wasn’t going to be answering his phone, and therefore not to bother calling, I said all right.  If he gave me money one day and asked for it back the next, I let it go by.  One night, while I was doing the dinner dishes, he leaned up against the refrigerator and said, “I took out an insurance policy today.”
      “What, another one?”  He was still covered under his old work plan; we just paid for it ourselves now.
      “It’s a different kind.  Here.”  He was holding something small, a key.  I dried my hands and took it from him, the question in my eyes.  “Safe deposit box,” he said.  “I wrote down everything you need to know on the wall next to the phone.”
      “I’m not happy about this, Bobby,” I said, meaning, everything.  It was the closest I’d come to making objections.
      “Just a little while longer.”  And that was the closest he came to any sort of explanation.
      When I look back on it, the wonder is that none of it lasted that long.  It didn’t seem that way, since every day brought its full load of worries, and every hour was taken up with sorting through them and deciding which ones you could get away with ignoring.  But in fact Bobby had only been a criminal mastermind for a few weeks when the wheels started coming off.  It was early March, the first soft spot in the weather, with sunshine and birdsong and puddles soaking into the ground, when I walked out to my car after work and found myself the object of official attention.
      He popped up when I was still a few yards away, a puffy-looking young man in a blue sports coat and a tie like a noose.  “Mrs. Crabtree?”
      He was between me and my car.  I stopped right where I was.  “Who wants to know?”
      He flipped open one of those badge things.  “Agent Kyle Roorda, Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
      “Wow.”  My heart was beating up in my throat, but I kept my cool.  “Is there a terrorist alert or something?”
      “No, ma’am, nothing like that.  I wonder if we could have a word with you.”
      Agent Roorda nodded in the direction of a black town car parked across the lot,  The windshield was shiny with sun and I couldn’t see anything, but an arm was visible at rest on the open window.  “Agent Tate.”
      “What about?”  I was going to make him go through his whole script.
      “I was hoping we could go somewhere more private.”  Agent Roorda looked a little self-conscious saying this, like he was asking me for a date.  There was a patch of rash along his jaw from shaving.  His eyes were a light, washed-out blue.  Although he was younger than me, he might have been one of the underbred kids I used to play with growing up, the ones who had pinworms from going barefoot all summer long.
      “Well,” I said, “it would take more than a badge to make me go off somewhere with two strange men.”  But I smiled, because I wanted to keep him off-balance.  He didn’t look like a guy who got many full-bore smiles from pretty women.  “Maybe you should just tell me what I can help you with.”
      Agent Roorda waited until one of my co-workers passed by on the way to her own car, giving me the scrupulous, none-of-my-business averted gaze.   He said, “It concerns your husband.”
      “Bobby?  Is he all right?  Oh my God.”  And of course I really was anxious, but I was also putting on a show of being anxious, as an Innocent Spouse.
      “There’s no emergency.  Sorry to alarm you.  But we’re making inquiries into some possibly fraudulent transactions.”
      “What kind of transactions?” 
      I was hoping he’d tell me, because of course I really didn’t know.  But Agent Roorda
only blinked, as if the light was too much for his pale eyes.  His jacket was too tight across the back, I could see the seams pulling beneath his arms, and his white shirt was too white and stiff, like he’d just unwrapped it from a shrink-wrapped package of three.  I wondered if he’d been on the job all that long, and why I wasn’t getting a real, grown-up agent to menace me.  My mind was skittering around the way it does when you’re trying not to think about what’s really happening.  He said, “Mrs. Crabtree, you need to be aware that you might be implicated if we determine that your husband has been involved in any criminal activity.”
      “I haven’t done anything.  And if you think Bobby has, he’s the one you should be talking to.  I’m sure he could clear all this up.”
      “Our investigation,” said Agent Roorda, coloring up a little, even as his face remained impassive, “is ongoing.”
      I was figuring some things out.  I said, “If you can prove something, you should go ahead and do it.  But don’t put me in the middle of it.”
      “You are in the middle of it, Mrs. Crabtree, like it or not.”
      “Possibly fraudulent.  That doesn’t sound real convincing.”
      “There’s ways of going right up to the edge of the law, Mrs. Crabtree. There’s people who think they’re so clever, they won’t trip up.  But they always do.”
      “You want me to help you send my husband to jail.”
      “I want you to do the right thing.”
      “Which is what, exactly, in this day and age?  You check the price of gas lately, Agent Roorda?  You want to call your friendly neighborhood mortgage broker, ask them to do the right thing?  Right and wrong, it’s all gone corporate.  Now I have to get home and start dinner.”  I hit the button on my car’s opener and it flashed its lights.  “Excuse me.”
      “I’ll be seeing you around,” said Agent Roorda, once I was settled in the driver’s seat with the engine running.
      “Not if I see you first.”  I pulled out of the parking space smartly, shifted into drive, and accelerated so fast that he had to take a step back.
      Was it a right or a wrong that I didn’t say anything to Bobby?  I chased the ideas round and round through my tired head.  Right to stand by my husband?  Wrong that he was defrauding somebody or other, when so many laws had been arranged to allow for legal fraud?  Right or wrong to want to save myself?  It all collapsed into a big heap of doing nothing.  And of course by then I’d gotten pretty good at ignoring things as a way of life.
      Still, I hoped there was some easy exit we could take.  “Bobby,” I said one night in bed, ”I think we should make a clean start.  Be done with your project - “  That’s what we called it, like something he was putting together for the school science fair .  “And have you get some sort of regular old job.  It doesn’t have to be anything much.  Enough to tide us over until times turn around again.”
      Bobby yawned.  We’d just made love and he was drifting off to sleep, maybe not the ideal time for such a conversation.  But sometimes heavy things roll out of you on their own.  Bobby said, “Only a little while longer.  One or two more golden eggs.”
      “No, Bobby.  Now.”
       “Soon.  Few loose ends to tie up.”
       “Soon soon.  Promise.”
      He had been fondling me, in a drowsy, afterwards way, and now his hand stopped.  “What’s up with you?”
      “It’s too risky.”
      “Babe, there’s risk in everything.  Including the stock market.  OK, bad example.  Hey, we’ll be back to Mr. and Mrs. Clean Upstanding in no time.  You think I want to end up like my old man?”
      I said of course not, and he gave me another friendly groping, and then he was asleep.
       I didn’t see him first.  Agent Roorda.  It was a Saturday and I was at the Sav-A-Lot, checking detergent and Kleenex and whatnot off my list, when he rounded a corner, blocking his cart with mine.  “Oh, hey there, Mrs. Crabtree.  Wait a sec, I’ll back up.”
      He was no doubt the only man in the place wearing a tie, though he’d at least shed his sports coat.  The only item in his cart was a packaged angel food cake.  “Picking up a few things,” he said.  “My mom used to make angel cakes.   I don’t expect this’ll measure up to homemade.”
      “Where’s Agent what’s-his-name?”  We were right in the middle of the store and it was crowded with families and shrieking children.  I couldn’t believe he was here.
      “Tate.  That’s him over in the coffee shop.”  Agent Roorda pointed him out, and I could see right away why Agent Roorda was the one doing the legwork.  Agent Tate looked to be about sixty going on eighty.  He was hunched over a paper coffee cup, and he might as well have had one of those electric signs over his head, running down the months, days, and hours until he reached retirement.  “He’s got some cardiac issues,” said Agent Roorda, as if reading the thoughts on my face.
      “You guys work weekends.  I’m impressed.”
      “Whatever the case requires.  Sure.”
      It put a chill on my heart, thinking of Bobby as a “case.”  I wondered if our phones were tapped, or if people were going through our garbage, or worse.  I scanned the grocery list in my hand to steady myself, and pushed my cart down the aisle.  Agent Roorda made a U-turn to follow me.  “Mrs. Crabtree, I’m thinking you’re just a victim of circumstances here.  I’m thinking none of this was your idea.  Unfortunately, the law doesn’t see it that way.  If you benefit from the proceeds of illegal activity, then you have a liability.”
      “I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.  Do you see pancake syrup?”
      “We need the hard drive from his computer.”
      “Get a warrant.”
      “Help us so we can help you.  This is a limited time offer.”
      I’d led us to the big wall coolers with the milk and eggs and I stopped, not remembering what I’d come for.  Agent Roorda and I were dimly reflected in the glass surface.  We stared into it as if we were having our picture taken.  I was startled to see how likely a couple we looked.  Same light hair (mine more artful with its streaks and highlights), same pale, stolid faces.  We could have been the couple in American Gothic, dressed up for a day off the farm.
      I turned away from the glass.  “Where did you grow up, Agent Roorda?”
      “Paris, Illinois,” he said, not missing a beat.  “My parents still live there.”
      “No kidding.  I’m from Olney.  We’re practically neighbors.”
      “You could say that.”  He was cautious about where I was taking this.
      “So we’re both a couple of hicks who made it to the big city.  Worked hard.  Bettered ourselves.  A toehold on the American dream.  Why do you think me or anybody else would want to give that up?”
      “Nothing in any American Dream says it’s all right to bend the laws until they break.”
      “I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” I said, and I left him there to contemplate the price of milk, which had gone up twice in the last month.
      At the checkout, the girl asked me how I was today.  “The FBI followed me in here,” I told her, and she asked me if plastic was OK.
      On Wall Street, giant investment banks rocked on their foundations.  Not literally, but something close to it, and when that very week a twenty-two story construction crane came loose from its moorings and pancaked a New York condo building, filling a city block with rubble and the innocent dead, well, it seemed like a sign.  People whose job it was to make pronouncements about the economy argued over the different gradations of Bad.  If we’d been told that a giant asteroid was hurtling our way through black and frozen space, it would have seemed par for the course.
      “Look around and you can always find somebody else worse off,” my dad used to say, whenever we were faced with some reversal or privation.  “Yes, and somebody better off too,” my mother would chime in from her place at the kitchen table, sorting through our bills as if they were a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece.  And I have to say, that was pretty much the way I saw the world, going back and forth between the two views.  There but for the grace of God go I, and Why shouldn’t we have a new SUV?  I’m not claiming it was admirable, just another part of contrary human nature, our better and worse angels.  I think that all those months, I kept trying to hold on to something that wouldn’t change, some bedrock certainty I could count on, be it a job, a future, love, or who I’d chosen to be in life.
      The day after I’d encountered Agent Roorda in the Sav-A-Lot, a Sunday, Bobby and I took one of our walks.  The last cold spell was behind us and the grass had greened up, the trees were budding, and a few damp spring flowers had begun to uncurl, crocus and daffodils and those little blue stars I don’t know the name of but they always break my heart, each one so small and so perfect.  We were surprised to see a realtor’s sign in front of one of the grandest houses in the development, an oversized nouveau-Victorian with turrets and balconies, scrollwork, fanciful windows.  Or maybe we were not surprised, once we thought about it.
      As it happened, the realtor was having an open house, so we went inside.  What a staircase!  Such acreage of shining wood floors, so many luxurious appointments in the kitchen, in the near-decadent master bath!  We gawked and envied, as we were meant to do, but the sadness that was never too far out of reach rose up in me as I considered that people used to live here, no one we knew, but human lives no different from our own, and now all traces of them had been erased.  It was too easy to imagine our house, mine and Bobby’s, emptied out and wiped clean, as if we’d never been, and strangers’ feet echoing on the bare floors.
      When we came outside, a black town car was idling at the curb, and Agent Roorda was extracting a flier from the plastic sleeve attached to the For Sale sign.
      I turned the other way and set off for home.  Bobby hurried to catch up with me.  “What’s the deal, huh?”
      I told him I was catching a chill.
      What to do?  What to leave undone?  I didn’t seem to be able to bring myself to be an FBI rat fink, but I’m not going to throw any flowers at myself.  I just thought that process would be every bit as terrifying as waiting to get busted.    And I was still hoping that  Bobby would pull it off.  Not just because of money, wanting the money.  That had been a deal with the devil, and the devil could have it all back, as far as I was concerned,   But I wanted to believe in Bobby.  I wanted him to triumph, be the hero in the movie that was my life.  You always want a man to come through, live up to all the things you saw in him, back when you were first in love.
      A few days?  A week, two?  I was eating bad and sleeping worse by then, and time had a bleary, jerky quality.  Easter was in there somewhere, with its chocolate rabbits and potted lilies.  But it was still tax season, I know that,  because one morning on my way to work, I was waiting at the traffic light and watching Miss Liberty and Uncle Sam doing their thing on the sidewalk in front of the tax shop, and the hair on the back of my neck rose.  The light changed and I pulled into the strip mall’s parking lot and got out of the car.
      “Uncle Sam wants you!” Agent Roorda greeted me, strolling across the lot.
      “I don’t believe this.”
      “It’s only for a day or two.”  Agent Roorda removed his starred and striped hat, which made him freakishly tall.  He patted at his forehead with a handkerchief.  The day was already warm.  “It’s actually kind of nice, getting out in the fresh air.  Usually on a stakeout we’re cooped up in cars or some kind of trailer.”
      I pointed to Agent Tate, who made the world’s saddest Miss Liberty.  He’d stalled out and was sitting on a bench as if waiting for a bus.  The green plastic sheeting sagged between his knees.  “How did you get him to do it?”
      “There was some comp time he’d been negotiating.  Now he’s going to get paid for it.”
       I guess I said something like that working out well for him.  I was still in a state of stupid disbelief, as if I’d gotten up that morning and found the world turned into some scary cartoon.  Then I said, “A day or two.”
      Agent Roorda gave a perfunctory wave at the passing traffic.  He was too big for the costume and his ankles protruded from the striped pants.  He wore what I guessed were regulation FBI black socks and shiny black wingtips.  “I shouldn’t have said that,  Mrs. Crabtree.  But make no mistake, major bad-type things are in the pipeline.  I’ve tried to tell you that all along.”
      “I have to get to work.”  But I didn’t move.  I said, “It must be nice to have a job that’s all about truth and justice.  No, I mean it.  Good guys, bad guys.  You always know where you stand.”
      “I don’t decide those things, Mrs. Crabtree.  I follow orders just like anybody else.  But I serve my country, and I’m proud of that.”
      “Well, it used to be a lot better country.”
      He was distracted by Agent Tate, who had fished a pair of binoculars out from under the green plastic and was training them in the direction of our driveway.  “That’s not for me to say.”
      “Good-bye, Agent Roorda.  Keep in touch.”
      “Count on it,” he said, turning back to the busy traffic.  But in fact I never saw him again.
      That night in our bed I put my mouth up to Bobby’s ear and whispered.  I felt his body next to mine shiver and then grow rigid.  That was almost the hardest part, right then and there, feeling all the sick-making fear pass through his skin, both of us knowing how sundered we were now from the life we’d led.  A few days later, the FBI raided the house.  It was another first for the neighborhood.  Agent Roorda wasn’t with them.   I like to think that he had some choice in the matter and decided not to join in out of his personal feeling for me.  It would have been  too embarrassing for us both, having him poke around through our dresser drawers and the refrigerator’s freezer compartment.  They really do look through the freezer.  I guess people stash drugs or money there more often than you’d imagine.
      Bobby was long gone, of course.  There was some more unpleasantness to get through but by then I had a good criminal lawyer, the kind who slices and dices the law so that you’re left with some odd-shaped piece of it.  There were ways in which I was innocent and ways in which I was guilty, so I guess staying out of jail was enough of a good deal.
      The bank foreclosed on the house and I moved to another city.  They still keep tabs on me, waiting for me to show up with some of Bobby’s ill-gotten loot,  but we’ve been clever about that in ways I won’t go into.  Uncle Sam still wants me.  Bobby too, though I expect he can keep one step ahead of them for quite some time.  I’d like to think I’ll see him again some day, now that I know for sure I’m pregnant.  My last dishonesty was not telling Bobby I’d gone off my pills, but I can’t say I’m sorry.
      Meanwhile, times in general have improved, a modest up cycle after all the down.  But it’s as if the whole world’s slipped  a notch.  No more happy dollars filling the air like flocks of birds.  We’re all sadder but wiser, as my mother used to say darkly, when one or another bad thing had come to pass, just as she’d predicted.  But I’d rather hold to my dad’s favorite saying, which was about never missing the water until the well runs dry.

Author Bio

Jean ThompsonJean Thompson is the author of  three acclaimed collections:  Throw Like a Girl, a New York Times Notable Book; Who Do You Love, a 1999 National Book Award finalist for fiction; and the recently released Do Not Deny Me from which “Liberty Tax” is taken. Her novels include City Boy and Wide Blue Yonder, a New York Times Notable Book and Chicago Tribune Best Fiction selection for 2002. Her short fiction has been published in many magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize.  She lives in Urbana, Illinois.

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photo:  Marion Ettlinger