BIRTH OF A MULE
By the middle of 2006, years of hard work were paying off for me. I’d made the leap from writing for local rags to selling feature articles to the national magazines. I’d landed myself in the pages of Esquire. I’d even been published in the mighty New Yorker. Travel had come to me, attention, publicity, parties, all of it. At thirty, I was suddenly making and spending money in a way I never had. Wild and lusty Austin, my adopted hometown, was the perfect place for the mood I was in; the arrogance of my new success was a giant that followed me through the nightlife everywhere. And why shouldn’t it? I was a normal guy enjoying what I’d earned. When Playboy ran my byline on a story about the backstage scene at City Limits, a Chamber of Commerce rep started giving me VIP passes to all the big events. Soon after, at a private rooftop party at the Belmont on 6th, I found myself at the end of the bar, drunk, well dressed, grinning. It was late October, the weather was mild, the stars were out, and at long last I was somebody. Standing before me was a beautiful girl.
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
“Kate,” she said.
“Here with anybody?”
I snatched her arm, claiming my prize.
First it was sex everywhere, in the dressing rooms at her store, in my truck outside the bars. But by just a few weeks later, it was becoming something else.
“Can I ask you something real, James?” Kate said to me in bed one night. “How many people have you slept with?”
I laughed in the dark. I told her, “Don’t you know you’re the only one?”
She elbowed me in the ribs. She laughed, too, and said, “Don’t lie to me. Nothing will ever matter as long as you don’t lie.”
We lived in that dream, breathing it, eating it. After more than a decade working in department stores, Kate had just been promoted to general manager of the downtown Metropolitan Apparel. She was twenty-seven, pulling in double anything she ever made in retail, feeling as big about things as I was. We were always together in the restaurants and clubs, celebrating our success like an endless coronation. All the loud people around us were doing the same thing.
One night, everyone else in the world asleep, I lit a cigarette beside her on the couch on her porch while she smoked a joint. I said quietly, “Kate? What’s really going on with us?”
She said, “Do you mean, When is this going to end?”
“It’s always ended for me,” I nodded and told her.
She said, “Don’t you know I’m scared, too?”
Should we be cautious? But the future felt enormous, everything possible, and carelessness took control. Shopping at Whole Foods a few days before Christmas, Kate caught a whiff of the salmon in the seafood section, ran outside, and vomited.
We rang in New Year’s 2007 leafing through baby books in Kate’s bed, because I’d given up my apartment to move in with her and we were pregnant. We were nervous, happy, and soon we had the first sonogram pictures taped to the bathroom mirror. In the pictures, the fetus was a tadpole attached to the yolk sac. We nicknamed the baby Peanut.
Six weeks later, we’d lost our jobs, and both of our careers were gone. We never considered not keeping our child.
The end of our life in Austin is the same story almost everyone in the country can tell now. Metropolitan terminated Kate for “inability to manage employees effectively,” right after she told them she was pregnant, even though she’d never been written up for ineffective management, or anything else. She came home in tears. Of course they didn’t want a pregnant girl running their trendy store. Of course they wanted to cut her inflated housing-bubble salary — her sales associates let her know she’d been replaced for less than a third her pay.
We immediately filed a discrimination case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which Metro contested, and then the EEOC informed us that although our case had merit, there weren’t the resources to pursue it. We didn’t have the money to risk taking on the corporation on our own. Kate’s COBRA coverage began a steady destruction of our slim savings. I sold my beloved Ranger for next to nothing on Craigslist to pay for engine repairs on Kate’s twelve-year-old Forester. Kate had been fired; she had to be on the phone day after day with the Texas Workforce Commission, explaining what had actually happened, begging for unemployment benefits. But before we could celebrate the commission’s letter finally granting them to her, every editor I’d ever worked with let me know that not only was there no work for me now, there wouldn’t be anytime soon: subscriptions and ad revenues were way down, and they were having to lay off their in-house people. I’d always loved freelancing for the guts and freedom of it. Now I was paying the dues of that freedom. I didn’t even qualify to apply for unemployment.
I continued pitching story ideas everywhere, but the rejections came in like an endless wave. I sent my résumé to every print outlet I could think of, and didn’t hear back from any of them. Then I tried for anything I thought would offer a livable wage—substitute teaching, marketing, paralegal—and never got called from any of those either. Even the temp agencies said they didn’t have anything right now for someone with my qualifications. I kept asking myself, How could this have happened to me, with the byline I’ve worked so hard to build? Kate and I would rub each other’s shoulders in the night, saying to each other on the verge of panic, “Everything will be fine if we just keep trying.”
We were among the first to get hit by the downturn, didn’t even know there was one yet. We felt alone, ashamed, humiliated. We avoided all our working friends, knew they didn’t want to hear our embarrassing sob story. Once Kate’s $370-per-week unemployment payments started coming in and we saw that we could just scrape by on them if we squeezed out every penny, we breathed a little, tried to make the best of it. We told each other we were lucky that Kate didn’t have to work while she was pregnant, that something in my field would turn up soon. With nothing else to do but pray for a callback, we swam in the pool of our complex in the middle of the day, and in the evenings we drove across town to hang out with Mason.
Kate had met Mason through a girl at Metro when she was new in town and looking for a weed hookup. Mason was a longhaired born-over-here Korean kid with a thick Gulf Coast accent. The only thing really Asian about him was a samurai sword on his wall he’d purchased off TV. He pushed cell phones at Sprint for his day job, sold pot on the side to make ends meet. His wife, Emma, was a waitress at Kerbey Lane, and together they had a two-year-old daughter named Bayleigh.
Mason and Emma were evacuees from Biloxi, had lost their house in Katrina, were still waiting for an insurance settlement eighteen months later. Unlike the people we usually spent time with, Mason and Emma never tried to pretend to be upbeat. They told stories about the hellhole the city had put them in when they’d first been relocated from the FEMA trailers, how the door of that apartment had been kicked in three times while they’d been sleeping, how they’d bought their own television over and over again from the pawnshop every ...