This wasn't going to be a book, just a story I'm jotting down as the mood strikes...but it's starting to grow on me.
Susan juggled grocery bags and purse while unlocking her apartment door. As she kicked it shut the thumping vibration from her son's room clued her in on his location. "What is it with boys and bass?" she muttered while setting down the bags. A quick knock on his door and the noise level lowered, "Danny, can you bring up the rest of the food from the car?"
At sixteen, her son was a volume eater and she had no choice but to shop the sales. She kept to a tight budget and between her full-time job as a receptionist and selling plasma every weekend she was even managing to save a little for emergencies. Danny had tried an after-school job but his homework suffered and Susan put her foot down; he could work during the summer months but school came first.
The bread machine on the counter began beeping just as her phone trilled in her purse. "Everything at once...hello, Mom. No, I haven't seen the news; I just got home. Uh huh, that's bad. Are you and Dad okay? Good, good. Of course, we would love to come visit you in Arizona, but you know Danny has school. We love you, too. Bye."
"What did Grandma say?" Danny set down the twenty pound bags of potatoes, just missing the carton of eggs she snatched away.
"Something about the stock market taking a nosedive. Could you turn on the news while I finish in here?"
A few minutes later Danny called from the living room, "Mom! Come look at this. I don't understand."
Susan came and sat with him while on the tv a news anchor spoke in a low, dramatic voice, "...record drops in the DOW. Now we have expert economist, Edwin Fitzgerald, to explain how this happened."
The camera switched to another man who began speaking in a nasal monotone. After about five minutes the anchor interrupted to announce that it had been confirmed that the stock market would not be opening for trade the next day.
"What does it mean, Mom? Does it affect us?"
"I'm not sure; I never could really figure out stocks. Anyway, there's so little in my retirement plan, it won't bother us directly. Indirectly, I'm afraid it could. Last time there was a depression my company used it as an excuse to cut benefits and layoff people. Of course, even when the economy recovered, the benefits didn't come back."
"But you don't even make that much. Why would they bother taking your job away?"
"Oh, honey, it doesn't have to make sense. Last time they laid off the poor guy who made minimum wage for emptying the trash cans. Sometimes it's all about making a show of 'economizing'. If I have to, I look for another job and we try to live as cheaply as possible. This will probably blow over in a few days and I'm worrying for no reason."
Every day that week the news seemed to get worse. Scandals emerged as politicians and financiers attempted to deflect the blame or took the opportunity to point fingers at enemies. The global markets reacted to the trouble and shook. Any measure taken to calm the situation had the opposite effect and panic began to spread.
Susan had suspected Friday would be bad; the company was notorious for layoffs happening at the end of the work week. By early afternoon the unfortunate employees were being escorted out with their boxes of personal effects. The reactions ran the gamut from weeping to angry cursing and by the end of the day Susan was exhausted. Which left her completely unprepared for the ambush by her supervisor. Afterwards, she sat in her car, rubbed away the tears and tried to think sensibly. Digging an envelope out of her purse, she began making a list: apply for unemployment, cancel the cable, switch the car insurance to liability. First, she decided, was returning to the discount store that she avoided because of the rudeness encountered there. "No room for pride in this budget." She snorted with dark humor, "And now I'm talking to myself."
That evening Danny staggered into the apartment with another load of canned food. "Mom, you don't even like canned vegetables, why did you buy so much?"
"There isn't room in the freezer for more frozen and I'm afraid if the economy keeps going down all the cheap stuff will be sold out fast. I won't be able to afford the brand-name foods now."
"You didn't get any snacks or pop." There was a hint of reproach in his voice.
"Sorry, no. I can still do some baking though."
"My friends are going to notice when I stop buying from the vending machines. Do I have to tell them we're broke?"
Susan felt a wave of relief that he was cooperating, even volunteering not to buy snacks when away from home. A teenager could have made the entire situation pure hell. "Why not tell them you're trying out a new healthy eating plan to make your weight lifting more effective?"
"Yeah, that will work. If they bug me for details I can say I'm still figuring it out so I won't get tied down."
On Saturday morning Susan sat down with stacks of receipts, paid bills, her checkbook and a blank notepad. Painstakingly, she tracked down most of her expenses for the last three months. Then, with lips pressed thinly, she started a new page with items that were set amounts. Rent went to the top of the list; they could find something cheaper in a rougher neighborhood, but they were only two months into the annual lease and it would cost more to break it. On the other hand, the only utility not included with the rent was electricity and that was something they could cut back on.
Car insurance was a big one; while she was still pondering that Danny came out of his room, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. "Hey, Mom. What's all this?"
"I'm trying to figure out a bare-bones budget and what can be cut out. I'll call the insurance agent on Monday and get the car switched to liability only, but Danny..." she trailed off unhappily.
"You need to take me off it, don't you? Damn it, it's not fair! I studied really hard to get my license."
I know and I'm sorry. If I was sure I could find another job right away it would be different."
"This sucks." He slouched down in his chair and chewed on his lip for a few minutes, then something shifted in his expression and he exhaled loudly, "Of course, it would be worse if I already had my own car. Or a girlfriend."
Susan's mouth twisted in a lopsided smile at his gallows humor. "Thank you."
Pushing his hair out of his eyes, he leaned forward, "What else do you have there?"
"I can't nail down the numbers until I hear back from the unemployment people, but it won't be enough to cover everything. I'd like to keep the internet for now, but if it gets too tight we can let it go and use the library. Our cell phones are already pay-as-you-go so that's alright. If you can think of ways to conserve electricity that would help. Probably the big thing right now is health insurance. I won't be able to pay the Cobra rates so after this month we won't have any coverage. We should both get our flu shots."
"Aren't I due to get my eyes checked? Is that covered?"
"Yes, good idea. I'll make an appointment. And no skipping brushing your teeth; the ones you have are all you get for the rest of your life."
"Ha, ha. Do you mind if I go out today? I could take a sandwich or something for lunch, right?"
"Go ahead. I should probably let the family know what's going on." And that was a dismal thought, but Susan was one of those people who would rather get an unpleasant job over with instead of dreading it.
Susan disconnected the call and thumped her head on the table. "Aaargh!" She loved her parents, but that didn't make communication with them easy sometimes. She really could have done without the recap of all her failures or the lecture from her father on being financially independent.
She stared bleakly at the phone and debated putting off the next call; except if she did delay then her mother would do it herself and the results would be worse. "I can do this. I can talk to my perfect big sister without feeling like a disaster. Ha! While I'm at it I can change history so I was the one who never had a pimple or a cavity."
The call went as badly as expected when two people only had a distant childhood in common. Susan made quick work of the next call; it didn't matter what she said because her younger sister was perpetually wrapped up in her own drama. Finally she made the last call to her brother; she had saved him for the comfort and cheer he would give simply by not judging.
The afternoon was spent refreshing her resume and beginning the search for jobs. Unfortunately, receptionists weren't in high demand and she began to wonder what other skills she could honestly list.
It was after 8:00 p.m. before Danny came home. She lifted her eyebrow eloquently at him and waited. "I'm sorry I didn't text, but I wanted to tell you in person." He cleared his throat, "I got a job at the pizza place again. Now, let me explain; I'll only be working the weekends so it won't interfere with school at all. I'm in the back prepping, cooking and cleaning so I won't be dealing with the counter. I know you were worried about robberies before. I also told them I can't drive so they won't ask me to do any deliveries. Are you mad?"
"I wish you had talked it over with me first. There's no reason I can't be doing that kind of job. It shouldn't be your responsibility."
"Actually, there is a reason it has to be me. You know how Dave's dad lost his job a few months ago? Well, he tried taking any job he could but then what he earned came out of his unemployment checks so it didn't help them any."
"Oh, I didn't think of that. How did you get hired back so quickly? I can smell the pizzas."
"Just lucky," Danny said with a tired smile. "Two people didn't show for the afternoon shift and they get really busy. I guess pizza is something people buy no matter what. I'm working from 10:00 to 4:00 tomorrow. Are you going to be okay with this?"
"You know I worry, so how about you try it and see how it goes. And if it's not working out, we try something else."
As the weeks slowly passed, the country seemed to hunker down into a waiting stance, waiting for whatever bad news would come next. Meanwhile, the depressed economy spread its insidious fingers into more companies which cut hours, initiated hiring freezes and laid off more employees. Those employees reacted to the lost disposable income by not shopping which cascaded the problem into the retail sector. College graduates found their job offers being withdrawn and the most basic help wanted ads were flooded with applications.
Susan and Danny settled into their new routine with him busy with school and work and her struggling not to despair as her job search became more frantic. They worked together to cut costs; one of the first discussions on electricity.
"So, this is like brainstorming, right? Just throwing out ideas, even crazy ones?" Danny asked.
"That's right. Anything we can think of is fair game."
"Okay. You take a shower every morning even when you don't have an interview to go to."
"But the water is included in the rent!" Susan protested.
"And then you blow dry your hair."
"Oh. That's right. I do it automatically and never thought of the waste. I can switch to towel-drying. In fact, I don't even need to wash my hair everyday and that would save shampoo." She jotted down some notes before saying, "My turn. I've been reading about vampire electric use. That's machines that are still using power even when turned off, like computers and tvs."
"What? Why would they make stuff do that?" Danny looked dumbfounded.
"It's so things can turn on instantly again. Like a tv has to use some power to know when a remote control is turning it on."
"How do we stop it if powering down doesn't work?"
"Some people plug their electronics into a power strip and turn that off. We can do that with your desktop but I don't want to buy more power strips so the rest will have to be unplugged when we're done with them."
"That's kind of a pain. Is it enough to make it worth the bother?"
"I think we should try. If it doesn't really make a difference on our electric bill we can discuss it again. Anything else?"
"I got an idea from my science class, but we might have to wait until it gets colder outside to try. See, when we cook something and put the leftovers in the fridge it has to work harder to cool them down. So, instead, we put them out on the balcony to cool off first, then move them into the fridge. In fact, when winter is here, we can freeze bottles of water out there and put those in the fridge so it will have to do less to keep at the right temp."
"Wow! I didn't know your science teacher was so practical. That's a great idea."
Danny's expression fell. "We're not the only ones worried about money. Most of the kids in my class have at least one parent out of work."
Susan sighed, "I'm afraid it's not going to get better any time soon. Well, I have a puzzle; how do we hang laundry to dry without any clothesline or racks?"
"Huh. All I can think of is the shower rod and backs of chairs."
"Oh! I know, we can use hangers and put them on the curtain rods."
Danny started laughing, "Can you imagine? I don't think I'll ask any friends over on laundry days."
Susan smiled, relieved that they could end the discussion with mirth.