| non-fiction |
The Keys Are in the Mail: A Foreclosure Story
The Montréal Review, March 2011
"Key Situation" by
Samuel Bak, oil on canvas, 18 x 24"
I am in trouble.
The keys to my house clink against each other like small brass symbols as I remove them from the hook of my antique Kitchen Queen. I fold them into the Hardship Letter addressed to Washington Mutual Loss Mitigation Department, and seal them in a plain white envelope.
How could this happen? I don't have the profile of a reckless or irresponsible individual who is losing her home; I've had a successful psychotherapy practice for fifteen years in the same office, excellent credit, a savings account, and $344,000 in the stock market. I've raised four children to be responsible, contributing adults. I've lived on the same property for twenty-three years.
My home on ten acres of Issaquah Plateau forest land due east of Seattle - which my ex-husband and I built with an original a mortgage debt of $485,000 - has become a financial cannibal. Refinancing once in order to buy out my ex-husband, and a second time to save myself from a failing loan institution, my mortgage debt has now ballooned to an insane $1.45 million, with an even more insane appraisal value of $1.675 million. I've been trying to sell since my divorce in 2005. And now the Seattle area real estate market is in collapse. The spring and summer high selling season is five months away.
I don't have five months.
Kerry Killinger came on board with Washington Mutual in 1982 at the age of 32. By 1988 he was president. Two years later he was CEO.
Peter T. Paul founded Headlands Mortgage Company in northern California in 1986. Within ten years, Headlands was one of the country's top wholesale mortgage companies.
It is the week before Thanksgiving; it gets lonely out here on Black Nugget Road with my daughters grown and Xavier, now my partner in life, off to work. When I met Xavier a year and a half ago, I thought he was a rock star with his short tussled hair, perfectly trimmed goatee, manicured hands, and red star tattooed on his forearm. It's ironic that we should meet and fall in love because Xavier is in the mortgage business. He has been a Loan Originator for thirteen years. Yet he is helpless to save me - he can't even save himself. He has put his own house up for sale and moved in with me. The mortgage industry has become a vortex of daily shifting people, rules, norms. Every loan Xavier now sells falls apart; either the homeowner's loan-to-value number is too low (negative equity), or their debt-to-income ratio is too high, or the loan program vanished, or the loan comparisons are skewed by crashing home values in the neighborhood. It all means no income for Xavier.
Outside, the first wicked storm of winter is howling to a crescendo. Rain pummels the windows, overtakes the clogged roof gutters, and pings against the fireplace flue. Wind whips under the front door. Clouds surge across the sky like Rorschach ink blots, morphing from one sinister shape to another.
I sit at my kitchen desk and pick up the phone.
This time it is not to call the Sears Roebuck repairman, nor the veterinarian, nor the auto shop. It is not to tell my parents about Amy's first wobbly steps in 1988, nor to check on Mom, as I had done daily in the eighteen months following my father's death in 1992, nor to confirm Missy's karate brown belt test with Sensei Randy in 1997, nor to confess maternal sins to my best friend Cathy after smacking Megan in the face in 1999. This time it is not to speak in hushed tones about my husband losing another job.
This time it is not to invite friends and family to Naree's high school graduation, nor to Missy's sixteenth birthday, nor to Megan's first horseback riding competition, nor to Amy's middle school choir solo.
This time it is not to speak gentle lies to my mother-in-law in 2004 about why I am divorcing her son after twenty-seven years of marriage.
This time it is not to brag about Naree's admission to law school, nor about Megan's graduation from University of San Francisco.
This time I pick up the phone to call my accountant, Gary. We review the grim numbers; their jagged edges cut my tongue and leave the taste of iron in my mouth. My hands go clammy. I have already mined every financial option into extinction.
I know what Gary is going to say before he takes the breath to say it.
Rain spews from the roof in a jet blast that cleans a spot on the kitchen deck the size of a turkey roaster. Trees strain against the wind, struggling to keep their footing in the saturated soil. Branches squeak and pop as they bend to the point of breaking.
Kerry Killinger embarked on an aggressive campaign throughout the 1990's to make WaMu the Northwest's dominant financial institution. WaMu broke through Washington State borders into Oregon, Utah, Montana, and California, gobbling up weaker consumer banks, commercial banks, and other financial institutions.
Under Peter T. Paul's direction, Headlands Mortgage capitalized on Alternative-A loans, in which the lender's criteria were diluted for borrowers with good credit who could not document income in the traditional way. In 1996, Paul worked closely with Wall Street firm Bear Stearns to bundle some of the first Alt-A loans into securities so they could be sold to investors in bulk. This partnership with Wall Street was the propellant behind a market that built itself into a $722 billion house of cards.
Gary says, "You can't make any more mortgage payments. WaMu/Chase may let you short-sale your house and take a Deed in Lieu of Foreclosure. But with these numbers and with the market collapsing fast, foreclosure is the likeliest outcome."
It is the unthinkable thought. The criminal thought. The thought that chokes me to the point I can barely go to work in the morning. In fact, some days I don't go to work.
"We hope to do to this industry what Wal-Mart did to theirs, Starbucks did to theirs, Costco did to theirs and Lowe's-Home Depot did to their industry. And I think if we've done our job, five years from now you're not going to call us a bank." - Kerry Killinger, Chairman and CEO, Washington Mutual, 2003
Gary says, "Breathe, Janeen. You have to remember that the sooner you fall, the sooner you can get back up."
He dictates a to-do list:
Find out if WaMu/Chase will accept a short-sale.
List the house again.
Find a small place to rent. Is he saying I have to move out?
Sell off what you can.
Buy a new car. "Your car has 80,000 miles on it, buy a new one before your credit score fails. And having a car payment will help you re-establish credit."
Liquidate all your investment accounts (well, that's easy, there is only $1500 left).
I have to move out?
"The key is to move quickly; you'll only have thirty days before delinquencies show up on your credit report."
Deep in the forest a Bigleaf Maple loses its battle with the storm; it shatters into ten thousand giant shards. The earth shudders.
As part of its business strategy to become the Wal-Mart of banking, Washington Mutual devised complex mortgages that made it easy for the least creditworthy borrowers to get financing by de-emphasizing income and assets. Sales agents were pressured to find these borrowers. Borrowers were manipulated into falsifying their income on loan applications. Underwriters were pressured to approve these loans. Many borrowers were also sold a second loan to service the first: the Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC). Variable-rate loans allowed WaMu to book profits on deferred interest payments, bundling the loans into securities further disguised their high-risk nature, and made WaMu appear more lucrative to investors.
In a last-ditch effort on my behalf, Xavier phones the highest ranking WaMu executive he knows; the Pacific Northwest Regional Manager. He tells Xavier that he himself is days away from losing his job. His advice for me? "X, tell her to walk away from her loan. And tell her to hurry."
December 27, 2008.
Three hours of house-hunting.
December 30, 2008.
Five hours of house-hunting.
January 5, 2009.
Four and a half hours of house-hunting.
January 12, 2009.
Seven hours of house-hunting.
January 20, 2009.
I stay up all night to watch the historic inauguration of Barack Obama. I feel a hope I know is false because any program our new president can institute for desperate homeowners will be too late for me.
Peter T. Paul merged Headlands Mortgage with GreenPoint Mortgage for $475 million in 1999. Four years later he founded Paul Financial, L.L.C., capitalizing again on Alt-A, adjustable-rate loans. Borrowers were lured into overextending themselves by initial monthly payments that were often lower than a car payment. But when the rates adjusted, the payments suddenly became unmanageable. It was like buying a steerage ticket on the Titanic. By 2005, Paul Financial's loan volume had grown to $2.5 billion.
January 23, 2009.
Liars. Charlatans. Profiteers.
I meet with Kimberly, my fifth realtor in four years. "I don't expect you to be able to sell my house, I just have to satisfy the bank." I say.
"But this is a fantastic family home."I've heard this all before. "I'm sure we can find a buyer." Kimberly says, "Especially if it's priced right as a short-sale."
"What price would that be?" I ask.
"$1 million." She says.
I do the math, a loss of $450,000, plus Kimberly's commission.
Kimberly wraps her skeletal fingers around my front door key and entombs it in the lockbox.
January 24, 2009.
The salesman at Bellevue Nissan feigns ambivalence by jingling the keychain in his metrosexual hand before giving it to me for a test drive. The key's bow is black plastic with the Nissan logo embedded in silver. The shaft has teeth cut on both sides and two channels running its length; it looks extra long, as if giving me time to pause before cranking the ignition on the charcoal 350Z. I buy it.
At least I won't look homeless.
January 25, 2009.
My daughters (except for Naree, who lives in Washington , D.C. ) come home for a house-goodbye ceremony. We cozy up in the family room; I light a twelve inch purple pillar candle and set it on a plate in the middle of the coffee table.
"See, I told you guys," Megan says to her sisters. "She's holding a séance."
"No, no girls, I just want us to share some favorite memories of living in our house." I say.
They re-tell stories they remember better than the actual events: making chocolate covered pretzels at midnight that set off the smoke alarm; watching horror movies all night on Halloween weekends (remember when Mom scared Emily Tuttle to a near-asthma attack?); our Samoyed ripping open a high school biology dissection kit mistakenly delivered to our door (we chased Misha for twenty minutes before he gave up the shrink-wrapped frog); playing hide-and-seek in the house when it was just a skeleton of 2X4's; burying a time capsule in the snow fort intending to leave it there for a year, but digging it up the next day.
I pass out strips of paper and ask my daughters to write down the memories they don't want to keep. "Mom, are you gonna make us share these?" Megan asks.
"No, that's just bad juju. We're going to burn them," I say.
"Séance." She says under her breath.
We scrawl out our secrets. Pencil leads clucking, tongues curling, jaws flexing, teeth clicking, breath sighing. I set fire to my ex-husband's lie about corporate re-structuring when in truth he was fired for negligence and drop it on the plate where it twists into a fragile ribbon of ash. Amy burns a bad memory, then Megan, then Missy. We cremate our plagues until the plate contains a writhing black mass that licks away the candle's purple skin and spits scrolls of soot toward the ceiling. The candle doubles over. Impearled wax. Scarred white. Melted to the wick on one side. We all stare at its corpse, speechless.
Two Bear Stearns mortgage-backed hedge funds collapsed in June 2007; it was the precipitating event of the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
Paul Financial, L.L.C. sent out notification to borrowers (including me) in August 2007 suspending access to all HELOC funds. Borrowers like me who were dependent on HELOC funds to meet their mortgage payments now faced delinquency. Paul Financial laid off half of its employees.
Washington Mutual Bank reorganized its home-loan division by December 2007 and eliminated twenty-two percent of its staff.
January 31, 2009.
It is the night before moving day and Susan, my dear friend since our children napped on the preschool rug together, has been helping Xavier and me pack and purge my house for two days. At eight o'clock she returns with another load of cardboard boxes from the liquor store, and a bottle of Pinot Evil. Susan overfills our glasses and gives the last toast I will hear in my kitchen; "Janeen, look at what you did. You built a great home for your children - what an impressive accomplishment! Now it's time to move on and let another family experience this home - and the drudgery of taking care of it." She holds a coffee cup with a broken handle above her head and drops it in the trash; it breaks in half.
Xavier stops whirling around the house long enough to kiss the sorrow from my face. He turns the radio to 92.5. He sings and dances and makes me laugh.
Susan and Xavier conspire to dispossess me of a twenty-year-old jar of dried bean soup mix with Missy's toddler handprint on an attached card. Susan grabs a crepe pan used only once and tosses it into the give-away box without waiting for my ruling. A collection of tourist shot glasses flies across the room just out of my reach, followed by thirteen half-burned candles, a Tupperware full of long-stale tea bags, two spiral notebooks of recipes from Amy's kindergarten class, a stack of pamphlets to appliances I don't even remember owning, and seven ugly flower vases.
On the last shelf in the pantry we discover a can of pears, swollen and black at the bottom. Stuck to the shelf. I remove the shelf and hold it while Susan pulls on the can. Still stuck. Susan puts the end of the shelf against the floor for leverage and kicks the can with her foot. Still stuck. Xavier whacks at it with an old cast iron frying pan. Still stuck. "I know how to fix it." Xavier says. He picks up the shelf. He flips it over. He rams it back into its slot in the pantry. The can of pears hangs upside-down. "There."
We drink more wine. I turn up the music.
At 3:00 a.m. we call it a night. We didn't get past the kitchen.
JPMorgan Chase Chairman, President, and CEO, Jamie Dimon, negotiated the takeover of Bear Stearns in March 2008. That same weekend Dimon tried to cut a deal with Kerry Killinger to take over Washington Mutual as well. Killinger refused.
February 1, 2009.
Outside our new front door I stand on a thick carpet of moss beneath the overhang of a roof covered with even more moss. Traffic races by on the lake road, blowing Seattle 's February gloom up my coat sleeves. I sign the lease before my credit score of 789 plummets to a number I won't want to know, and the landlord (I haven't had a landlord since I was 22 years old) hands me the keys. Nickel coated brass, the bow a simple hexagon with the brand NU-SET stamped on one side. I wiggle the squatty blade into the lock, it squeaks against the cylinder.
Entering our newly rented house on the Bellevue side of Lake Sammamish, I have the lump in my throat that comes with endings and beginnings. Graduations, weddings, births, funerals. This quaint, funky little house that began its life in 1914 as the milk barn for a Lake Sammamish dairy is now the scene of my new life. I have a slight sensation of picking up speed as I pass under the entry arch into the great room. Everything is ivory and white. And crooked. The whole house leans forward like its grown weary of new beginnings and intends to push aside the houses in front of it and dive into the lake.
I set the empty Pinot Evil bottle prominently in the kitchen window. I'm going to write here, I tell myself, as if assigning a mission will disguise my true reason for living here. As if assigning a mission will lessen the loss. As if assigning a mission will make me want to wake up tomorrow morning.
My suffering metastasizes to the bones of my daughters. Megan expresses it in terms of disappointment over the size of the extra bedroom (she doesn't want to move in with Xavier and me after all). Missy tells Xavier that it makes her sad to see our fine things in a place that reminds her of the mobile home we lived in while we built the big house. Amy fills every awkward silence: "I think it's cute, Mom."
On Google, there are 31,900,000 results for "foreclosure."
February 9, 2009.
Megan, Amy, and our friends Anita and Michael trek out to Black Nugget Road with Xavier and me to move what we couldn't finish last weekend. Icy air from the valley below my house slaps pink splotches on our cheeks and threatens snow by dark.
The realtors have staged my home with a crap kitchen table set and a crap rocking chair and a crap sofa table that they probably collected from other foreclosed homes.
While Xavier orchestrates the third and final tie-down of the day, my daughters and I scatter our dogs' ashes under the towering maple at the edge of my property. It's the spot where Elvis and Misha liked to stand vigil over their people. It's the spot where we had the swing set, the vegetable garden, and a "secret" fort. It was our dogs' favorite spot. Megan and Amy huddle together, their hands cupped around the lighter flame to protect it from the bitter wind as I scatter fine fragments of canine bone on the carpet of dry leaves. Tearful and giggly at once, the girls sing a timid funerary song.
Goodbye dear puppies.
The end of the month marks 90 days since I've made a mortgage payment. If a toll free number calls my phone, I don't answer; I sweat. If the phone rings at 7:30 a.m., I don't answer; I sweat. If the phone rings on Sunday evening, I don't answer; I sweat. If a California area code calls, I don't answer; I sweat. If a Florida area code calls, I don't answer; I sweat.
I receive a notice from Bank of America citing "severe delinquencies on your credit report" as the reason behind the reduction in my Alaska Airlines Visa Credit Card limit. They inform me of this only after they have penalized me $39 for exceeding my new credit limit of $500.
Washington Mutual's board of directors responded to pressure from investors in June 2008 and dismissed Kerry Killinger as CEO.
On a cold, sunny day Xavier and I go out to my house on Black Nugget Road , as we continue to do most weekends; to turn down the heat, to turn off the lights, to pilfer the garden. To wander through empty rooms.
WaMu/Chase has affixed default notices to the front door with two-inch wide brilliant blue duct tape visible for a mile, as if they could embarrass me into conjuring up $1.45 million. To further violate me, they have changed the lock on the door to the garage.
Xavier knows how to pick a lock, but instead, he kicks it in. The print left on the white door by his muddy boot tread looks like an exclamation point.
I head toward the now-wild patch of mint in my garden.
"Honey, come back here and look at this," Xavier yells, just as I reach for the clump of mint I want.
"What is it?" I ask, not bothering to hide my irritation. (I am never in a good mood when we come to my house.)
Xavier points to the garbage can. Planted on top of the debris of my life are three Planned Parenthood wrappers. And three sticky wads of used condoms.
"Who's been fucking in my house?! in my bedroom?! on my carpet?!"
I picture the smiling realtors on the business cards in my entry. I picture Kimberly's young apprentice, Cory. Or Kimberly herself. No, she's too fucking skinny for fucking.
I hate them all.
The aggressive expansion campaign initiated by Kerry Killinger powered WaMu into being the sixth largest bank in the nation. On September 15, 2008, (the very same day that global financial giant, Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc., applied for the biggest bankruptcy filing in the history of the United States), a ten-day run on Washington Mutual Bank began; in the end, depositors withdrew $16.4 billion from its coffers. By September 25, 2008, the Office of Thrift Supervision had seized Washington Mutual Bank and placed it in receivership. It was the biggest bank failure in the history of the United States.
April 12, 2009.
It is my daughters' first visit to the little lake house and to my new life since moving day. It feels like a house warming, like I might be able to put down my burden for a while and enjoy their presence. Xavier and I have gone maniacal with cleaning, painting, decorating, and gardening because I want my kids to feel at home here. I want them to sit in their same purple and green and yellow and blue chairs at the table. I want them to eat their same favorite food. I want them quote Joey, Phoebe, Ross, Rachel, Monica, and Chandler from their favorite Friends episodes. I want them to play their same favorite games - Mexican Train, Gin Rummy, Balderdash. And I want them to laugh.
Megan smiles at the primrose and butter yellow walls in the guest room and says, "When Naree comes to visit I'll sleep in here with her." Missy reads the words cocina, salón, and estudio in black stenciled letters on the beams in their respective rooms and says, "Mom, I'm so proud of you. I really love what you've done here." Amy sees the gawky accidental bay over the stairwell now transformed into a private reading alcove and says, "I want to live in there, like Harry Potter."
Xavier sells his house to a fellow Loan Originator for exactly what he owes. No profit. No debt.
Under Jamie Dimon's leadership, JPMorgan Chase paid the government $1.9 billion to takeover all Washington Mutual banking operations. The very next day the bank reopened as WaMu/Chase. The deal catapulted JPMorgan Chase to first position in nationwide deposits.
May 11, 2009.
An offer. $750,000. I do the math; a loss of $750,000 plus Kimberly's commission.
Bloodsuckers. Bottom feeders. Woodcocks.
Kimberly and her assistant speak honey words ad nauseum of wanting what is "best for you, Janeen," as if they know me. As if the worst financial thing has not already happened. As if my IQ plummeted with my credit score and I am too stupid to notice their self-interest.
They wave the red word "foreclosure" in the air. They plead with me to consider the buyer's needs. Their two lovely children. Their sweet grandmother. Their golden retriever. They slide the offer in front of me with the signature line highlighted in yellow so that I might easily find it.
I am a stone. I refuse to give in. I refuse to let Kimberly and her apprentice walk away with a $45,000 commission while I get nothing. I refuse to let them profit from my twenty-three years of hard work. I refuse to let some opportunistic buyer steal my home. I refuse their insult.
May 13, 2009.
I call WaMu/Chase to ask if I can get a Deed in Lieu of Foreclosure. Winding through the maze of recorded instructions, I eventually reach a live person at the Loss Mitigation Department. Beverly answers in a southern drawl that just sounds dangerous.
"Ms. Nelson, you are in serious delinquency. Y'all owe in excess of $35,000 to bring your mortgage current. How would y'all like to pay for that today?" She says.
Beverly wants to hear my story.
I explain that my mortgage payments alone are $8,300, which I was never able to meet without the HELOC subsidy.
"Oh, so y'all were tryin' to flip the house?" Beverly accuses.
"No, Beverly , I was not trying to flip the house. This is my home we are talking about , Beverly , not some speculation deal."
Beverly tries to interrupt again, but I keep talking. "In 2005 my mortgage was $485,000, my monthly payments were $2,250. My husband and I had just divorced and put the house on the market. We dumped thousands of dollars into improvements that our realtor suggested. It didn't sell.
"In 2006 we got a new realtor. When This Particular Realtor realized that my ex-husband was unreliable for support payments, he convinced me to solve the problem by refinancing. "Then you can buy out your ex-husband, sell the house at a handsome profit, and go on your merry way." He'd said (in his British accent, which my daughter later identified as Parseltongue). This Particular Realtor could charm the teeth right out of your jawbone and you wouldn't know it till you tried to chew a bite of sirloin.
"So I refinanced with Paul Financial, L.L.C. - mortgage and HELOC combined: $1 million. I didn't know about predatory lending; I didn't realize that I'd been sold an Alt-A option-arm loan, or that deferred interest was ballooning my principal, or that I'd have to take my house off the market for six months while Paul Financial bundled my loan and tried to sell it, or that This Particular Realtor got an illegal kickback from the mortgage broker, or that the mortgage broker walked away with eight grand.
"Next, This Particular Realtor suggested subdividing my land so I could pay off Paul Financial and keep my house. He committed to help me accomplish the subdivision and sell off my extra acreage. Then he conned me into loaning him $34,000."
Beverly makes a noise I mistake for sympathy.
"Yes, of course I got a notarized promissory note, but that's worthless if the debtor disappears in the middle of the night.
"Meanwhile, I discovered a serious roof leak. I had to tear out walls, studs, carpet. I had to replace a third of the roof. Allstate Homeowner's Insurance denied the claim. I ate through $75,000 of my HELOC and lost the high selling season for the year.
"Seattle home prices dropped 9.8 percent. Paul Financial faltered. I was forced to refinance a second time.
"Add to that the expense of life: furnace repairs, septic repairs, auto repairs, neurology bills and prescriptions for my daughter, dental bills, college tuition, a six percent pay cut from Premera Medical.
"And here I am a year and a half, three more realtors, and four price reductions later with a WaMu mortgage and HELOC totaling $1.45 million. Unable to sell, unable to make the payments.
"I know it all looks like foolishness on my part now, Beverly , but I was the proverbial lamb led to slaughter. I am a responsible member of society; I have a steady income, I take care of my possessions, I pay my bills, I pay my taxes."
"Well, y'all don't pay your mortgage." She says.
Washington State foreclosure filings for 2008; 32,271.
Washington State foreclosure filings for 2009; 35,268.
Beverly 's laugh rattles like cardboard in a dry wind when I tell her about the $750,000 offer my realtor has brought to me. "That is only fifty percent of your loan balance with us, Ms. Nelson." She says, as if I don't know this morbid fact.
She insists I queue up with the multitudes of other criminally luckless, begging, mendicant homeowners and turn in my documents: A Hardship Letter outlining in gruesome detail the road to my insolvency along with supporting evidence for each sanguine particular. Tax returns. Bank statements. Financial statements. Tuition statements. Utilities statements. Credit card statements.
Do you want the results of my last PAP smear, Beverly?
At forty minutes past midnight on Mother's Day weekend, Xavier and I go to my house. Again, the lock on the garage door has been changed.
Again, Xavier kicks it in.
The house is deathly quiet. A large deceased bee lay where it fell from flight - probably having bashed its own head against the French doors looking for a way out. Dead flies dot the glossy white window sills. Daddy Long Legs collect insects in the corners of the living room and leave their tiny carcasses speckled on the carpet. A cluster of empty lady bug shells huddles next to the kitchen heat register.
We have come for light fixtures, closet shelving, the gun metal kitchen cabinet knobs that I bought only a year ago, my cast iron fireplace insert, and the central vacuum cleaner. I may or may not use these things, but at least WaMu's minions won't have them.
Rumors. Speculation. Chaos. Confusion. Misinformation. Conflicting information.
After seven failed attempts to reach Beverly at the Florida Loss Mitigation Department, I settle for Oliver in California. At first he plays militant collector and informs me that the auction sale date on my house is set for September eighteenth. But when I outline my saga for Oliver, he becomes my conspirator instead of my executioner; "I'm not supposed to say this Ms. Nelson, but I used to be in the mortgage department and I know how it works. Most people think their credit is ruined for a decade with foreclosure, but in reality it's only three years. To you there is effectively no difference between a Deed in Lieu of Foreclosure and a Foreclosure."
This is the same thing Xavier has been telling me for months. I just didn't want it to be true. I wanted some modicum of redemption to be possible by giving my house to WaMu in a negotiated Deed in Lieu, instead of just having them take it.
I hear "what do I have to do?" come out of my mouth.
"Send in your keys."
Nationwide foreclosure filings reported by RealtyTrac for 2008: 2,824,674. It is a record.
Nationwide foreclosure filings reported by RealtyTrac for 2009: 3,957,643.
I let the real estate listing expire. I issue my demands to the realtor:
- Remove the lockbox
- Return my front door key
- Get your staging crap out of my house
I delete "Washington Mutual Loan Modification Steps to Take" website from my favorites list.
Compelled to visit to my home one last time, I drive down pretty little Black Nugget Road. I am alone. Just me, my house, and the forest. I approach the front door on tip-toe and check over my shoulder as if bankers lurk in the trees that insulate my house from civilization for miles. More notices are taped to the glass, but the bank has not bothered to change this lock. I insert the key into the channel and torque the bow until the driver pins click into alignment with the shear line, freeing the cylinder. I push the door open as if I am the thief.
Every drawer and cabinet door stands open. Kitchen, bathrooms, closets. The contents of the last remaining box of things I intended to give away are scattered on the study floor - an old plaid skirt, a pair of boots, a Perlina bag, two books, and a stack of linens.
For the third time, the garage doorknob has been changed; the previous one lay broken and dented on the concrete floor where the poacher's crowbar catapulted it. The dump pile has been rifled through. The trash cans, empty file cabinet, car battery charger, and broken lawn mower have all been stolen.
Out in back, paper cups from McDonalds, a Kit Kat wrapper, and cigarette butts from strangers sit atop the ashes in my fire pit. Blackberry vines snake their way across the patio while thistles flourish in between the stone pavers, wild grasses and dandelions invade the lawn, dry leaves and maple seed pods clog the deck drains, neon green moss creeps along the north side of the shingles, alder sprouts pepper my garden, deer have stripped the dogwood shrubs of their leaves and the laurel of its bark, mud wasps nest in the nooks and crannies of the eaves.
A mound of bear shit punctuates the driveway.
September 12, 2009.
Holding the white envelope upside down so no one can see the address, I pause in front of the mail slot at the Issaquah Post Office. I have an irrational fear that when I drop my keys in the mail it will be as if they never opened the door to my home of 23 years, as if they never let four little girls upstairs to play, as if we never had a Christmas dinner in our home, or a birthday party, or barking puppies, or scrambling kittens; as if there was never a six-day freeze, a ten-day power outage, or fifteen inches of snow; as if there were never deer, bear, a run-away horse, or a bobcat in the yard; as if there were never tearful goodbyes to college-bound daughters, joyful reunions, or a surprise Mother's Day visit, as if no one ever danced in the kitchen or made love in the bedroom. I fear it will be as if I never owned a home, good credit, a savings account. As if I never had character, fortitude, integrity.
It will complete the process of locking away my former life and forcing me into a new one I neither wanted nor asked for, but must embrace as if I did.
I push the envelope into the slot. My keys jingle down the chute.
Illustration: Samuel Bak.
Samuel Bak was born in 1933 in Vilna, Poland, and was recognized from an early age as possessing extraordinary artistic talent. As Vilna came under German occupation in 1940, Bak and his family moved into the Vilna ghetto, and later to a labor camp, from which he was smuggled and given refuge in a monastery. At the end of the war, his mother and he were the only members of his extensive family still alive.
Bak, now 76, has spent his life dealing with the artistic expression of the destruction and dehumanization which make up his childhood memories. He speaks about what are deemed to be the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust. He has created a visual language to remind the world of its most desperate moments.