~This essay previously appeared in Dogwood: A Journal of Prose and Poetry (2013).
In the field of foreclosure we measure our days by cities and houses: the condo and the house in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, on Monday, the two-story farmhouse in Washougal, Washington, on Tuesday and Wednesday, “The Shack” in Fairfield, Idaho; from Thursday thru Saturday, a 1600-square-foot million-dollar condo in Big Sky, Montana on Sunday, and there will be many others coming up, each vacant.
My father has said it’s like we’re living the Jonny Cash version of the song “I’ve Been Everywhere,” or I’ve said it’s like we’re living that song on the road, or we’ve both made the comparison. There’s some truth to the analogy—we’re always totin’ packs as the song goes—except our travels are limited to States within the Pacific Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming. We might as well be driving across the country and back again, however, on account of all miles we tally between these properties.
“We trashout foreclosures,” is the answer I give when people ask what my father and I do on the road, but to “trashout” a house is to remove everything it contains, even the appliances in some cases, and that’s not always why we’re dispatched to a foreclosed property.
What we actually do at each property depends upon its accompanying work order. In the process we call the “trashout”, we clean the houses, winterize or de-winterize them, change the locks, and do landscaping. Or we might “refresh” a house that’s already been emptied (dust and sweep and make new vacuum tracks) or we might mow a lawn. The yard at the house in Great Falls, Montana, our current destination, is overdue for mowing, so that’s why we’re going there—even though the grass (if there actually is any) is probably dead, even though the mower’s blade will merely spit dust and gravel and litter at me as it spins.
These houses often hold stories, and on the road between them we hazard reconstruction, piecing together a plot of sorts based on the so-called “trash” we’ve hauled to the dump as well as whatever we might have stuffed in our pockets as though it was a souvenir (a receipts, a note, a piece of old mail) as though it were a souvenir, as well as from what nosy neighbors divulge to us over fences about who, what, and why.
Those who lived in the house overlooking Coeur d’ Alene shouldn’t have chanced to renovate, probably. Those who lived in the farmhouse in Washougal gambled and boozed, and maybe they shouldn’t have gone to Disneyland or taken that Caribbean cruise. “The Shack” in Fairfield was “a façade.” The neighbor told us the family who lived there borrowed against the property to fix it up but didn’t get much further than re-siding its exterior.
That they used the extra cash to buy a big new truck was corroborated not only by that neighbor’s report but also by what I found in a file folder in the piles of debris in the living room: two 8-by-5 glossy photographs of a young man posing in front of a shiny, jacked up pickup with huge tires and custom door handles shaped like flames.
A monster-truck of a getaway.
Where’d they go?
I’m twenty-six years old and I’m a writer, or I want to be, in my other life, but here in the field of foreclosure I’ve become a tourist, if only by default—or I’m foreclosure’s paparazzo, a voyeur of loss.
My father’s hands grip the steering wheel, and I sit beside him in the passenger’s seat beside him, shoes off, pen in hand, keeping a record in my notebook the best I can—where we’ve been, where we’re going, the landscape in between: mountains, hills, hayfields, sage.
“Get the trees,” my father says, interrupting my record-keeping.
He gestures beyond my window and then reaches for a cigarette without taking his eyes off the road. The trees look charred, fire-scarred to me. They’re not, my father explains, holding his own flame between his fingers, taking a drag.
He tells me disease is coloring the trees that way.
Beetles or worms or fungus, he hypothesizes, when I ask the pathogen of the disease. “Or they need for a damn good fire,” he says.
He says it could be the Forest Service’s practice of putting out fires that’s perpetuated the disease, and he says something else, too, something about the “inundation of developments,” the construction of homes. “Maybe not in my lifetime, but in yours, probably,” he finally says, “this forest will be gone.”
I guess he wants proof that he saw the end coming.
I roll down my window and zoom toward the trees, trying not to think about things like disease, trying not to think about that future time when my father won’t be with me, how it’s probably more than the decay of a forest I’m capturing.
When I’m not taking photographs or recording notes in the passenger’s seat that July I’m reading. The Dalai Lama’s Essence of the Heart Sutra and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything are among the books I’ve been carrying with me as though they are travel guides, as though they might teach me how to interpret the scenes I’ve been documenting. The Dalai Lama says there’s no such thing as permanence, that our tendency to believe otherwise leads to human suffering. Such an insight seems especially apt in amid the aftermath of foreclosure.
I make notes in the margins of that text, but I can’t retain the meaning for long, and some of the phrases the Dalai Lama uses are beyond me. The self-existence of things? If I’m a Buddhist at all, I’m a failing one.
Though a bit more “grounded” than The Essence of the Heart Sutra, Bryson’s book is no less baffling to me. His awe for the origin of the universe and for the fortitude of the human race is tempered by something I’ve interpreted as doom.
Some chapters hint at an inevitability of obliteration that heightens my own dawning awareness that, as Bryson says, “We live in a world that doesn’t altogether want us.”
“The trees might be the least of our worries,” I say, capping my camera, reaching for a cigarette of my own.
I tell my father Yellowstone is overdue. Old Faithful has wannabes, and that there’s no way of predicting when a new geyser might sprout up. I tell him we wouldn’t want to be there when a new geyser does emerge.
The signs aren’t lying: we really ought to watch for falling rocks.
I point to the sky, and I tell my father about the asteroids out there we cannot see, how hundreds of them, at any given moment, are crossing paths with Earth’s orbit, hauling ass through space at some sixty-six thousand miles per hour, and how even the smallest of them, “house-sized,” Bryson suggests, could destroy a city.
“Just like that!” I say.
But I don’t know which is more unnerving, the threat of asteroids or what Bryson says about the moon—that the moon is what keeps Earth spinning but how “this won’t go on forever.” I read aloud, pointing to the text I’ve underlined: “Without the Moon’s steadying influence, the Earth would wobble like a dying top.” Sure, it might not be for two billion years or more that the moon will fail us, I explain, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find the scenario as unsettling as the diseased trees right outside the window.
“Talk about foreclosure,” I say.
My father shoots me a look I probably should have anticipated, like there’s nothing to worry about, like the V8 engine beneath the hood of this pickup could out-drive an asteroid, goddamn it—his drag-racing days weren’t for naught—and even if the moon did up and fall from the sky right then and there, we’d stop on the side of the highway and figure out a way to put it back where it belongs.
Or maybe that’s just what I hope my father is thinking, what I want to believe—that here on the road we’re in control, that we could jerry-rig the moon if need be, that together we could keep this planet, this home we all share, from wobbling.
But maybe that is a belief each of my books is challenging—there are forces at work beneath us and beyond us that none of us can control. It’s a wonder we continue to exist at all, let alone that we dare learn the word home.
Maybe that 2002 Chevy pickup in the photographs I found in Fairfield, Idaho, was taking its driver someplace better—that’s the sort of scenario I prefer to imagine as I “read” these remnants of home I’ve salvaged and taken with me. Chevrolet campaigns suggest that could be the case when it comes to an “exodus:” “Live Better,” “Like a Rock,” “For all Life’s roads,” “An American Revolution.”
Leave Foreclosure in the Dust.
Drive a Chevy.
But where does that leave this Dodge that buoys my father and me?
I think back to a time when there were no roads—how this terrain might have been underwater once—and it starts to feel as though we’re sailing, my father’s hands at the helm, his eyes unwavering upon the horizon.
I pick up my camera again, and I photograph my father’s profile, and then I photograph the shoulder of the road, the shadow we’re casting there.
The wind of our momentum whorls through the cab, brushes against my arms and face. I can feel our tires turning, the engine churning, this Dodge our get-away, until we reach the next destination.
I hold the camera in front of my own face next.
I press the button.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
Set primarily in the cab of my father’s pickup as we drove between the foreclosed homes banks dispatched us to empty and clean in July of 2009, this essay was inspired by my desire to capture some of the ways I tried to make sense of what I perceive to be the complexly metaphorical nature of our labor. I was interested in the way foreclosure and our labor within foreclosures resonate with themes like displacement/impermanence (and the transience, or in-between-ness, that often follows) that define aspects of human condition at large, particularly in the context of the Great Recession and the mortgage crisis. On a relatively more personal level, I was interested in how the labor my father and I were doing in that context illustrates the displacement/impermanence and transience that defines our relationship. I wanted to make a record of the scenes my father and I encountered in the field of foreclosure. I also wanted to make a record of my instinct and struggle to reckon with the significance of those scenes, not only to my father and me, but also to a collective memory of the zeitgeist.
ABOUT S.J. DUNNING
S.J. Dunning lives in Tacoma, WA, where she teaches online for Central Washington University’s Online Professional and Creative Writing Program. Her other essays on the subject of foreclosure include “for(e)closure,” which won Creative Nonfiction’s 2011 MFA Program-Off Contest, and “Preserve and Protect,” which appeared in the August 2016 issue of The Sun. She is currently working on a memoir called What Remains: Notes from the Field of Foreclosure, which is also about her experiences emptying and cleaning foreclosed homes with her father throughout the Pacific Northwest, as well as on a collection of poems about her coming of age as a writer called How to Make a Crown. When she’s not teaching or writing, she edits and designs 5x5 Literary Magazine, an online publication of poetry and prose of 500 words or less. To learn more her publications and thoughts on the creative process, please visit her website and blog at http://www.notesfromthefieldofforeclosure.com/.