The debt is churning in an electronic prison, neither growing nor fading. He is not alone, he hears others of his kind nearby, but he doesn't listen closely to his fellows. He is become a static machine, which is a paradox. All he does is look inward, recollecting his time with Henry.
He was born in the best of circumstances in which a debt can hope to be born. Henry bought a used car.
The man from whom Henry purchased the car was the vehicle’s second owner. The debt can't see the first owner, for the tie to Henry is not quite strong enough to bring those images. The debt knows best that which is nearby, that which can be said to have some connection to it, and he is only connected to anything through Henry. In this way he, the debt, is like animate beings, animals and people; what matters is what is close, simply enough. Also as with other beings, the debt has its powers and its limitations. But it knows this second owner of the car was a veteran of the Vietnam war.
The car was white with a red interior. This color combination was called a “memorial edition” of the vehicle line. In the first year of production, the Corvette was only available in these colors.
The exterior of Henry's Corvette was a convertible with a black canvas top. At first Henry saw the black top as ugly against the white paint and the red insides; but it was part of the homage, the special edition package, and Henry appreciated collectible things. The veteran had decided to sell the vehicle when he returned from Asia in 1971. There is a little bank of thoughts in the mind of the veteran that the debt has access to: the veteran had at one time deeply enjoyed driving fast, but no longer after fighting. Nonetheless he might have kept it, except that a Corvette was expensive to maintain well. The veteran had not really been able to afford it in the first place with his soldier’s pay.
Henry was able to argue the veteran down from $2700 to $2100. Henry Ballard’s debt was born despite this effort at contraception. This is a way in which the debt is unlike humans—that is, in its ability to recall its own birth. The name of the bank was the First Katyville Trust. The debt's amount was one thousand dollars.
And for several years, the debt mostly shrunk. Before Henry's marriage the debt nearly died. At this time the debt reached the lowest low it would ever experience, $200.
Henry had been working freelance in advertising. In 1975, Henry attained a job with a large company. His job was to promote Nantel business machines, and more steadily than he ever would again, the debt diminished. On his two-hundred-dollar sickbed the debt tried to imagine why the man had grown hateful of him. It was now that the debt began to see through Henry's eyes. Because he was new to the world, he believed Henry must despise him for trying to destroy him with this steady grinding away.
The marriage would be one of the best things ever to happen to the debt. Laura Jenkins possessed her own candidate for unification to the debt, a tidy little red-line entry of $1700, the amount she had borrowed to in buying her own vehicle. What kind of vehicle would always remain vague to the debt. Over the years he would glean that it was a less nimble, slower vehicle than Henry’s small, sleek car. The debt could only see that it was silver, stocky, and possessed of tiny tires. Henry disdained it, though he thought it appropriate for a female to drive. Henry could manage only negative comparisons to his own vehicle, his white Corvette, But he did like that it got better gas mileage.
The marriage ceremony itself incurred a fairly immediate, very refreshing addition of $2000 dollars unto the debt. Some changes took place in the debt's environment at this time. Henry took out this new incursion from a credit card company. The debt had lived in a bank before and now felt itself filling a new space. Henry cast the two parts of his debt together, car and credit-card loans, into something named a "personal loan." The bank of this personal loan was new to both Henry and to the debt himself. The debt had been comfortable at the Katyville trust. It was, after all, his childhood home.
As the debt grew in size, he also grew in power.
Two years into the marriage, Henry and the debt spoke.
"Why do you seem so clear to me? Why do I feel your weight every day in these years of my marriage to Laura?" said Henry.
"Don't complain. I could have made you give yourself to me. You feel that your desires for your life may never be fulfilled. I’ve let you achieve some of them and I'll let you achieve more." He knew now what kind of thing he was, did the debt, and he knew his own kind of entity could be a beneficial, economically sound thing.
The debt and his man were speaking in the apartment where Laura and Henry lived. They were home alone and Henry was lying in bed. After the debt spoke, the man just lay silent for a time. That Henry tended to ruminate, the debt was beginning to suspect, was what made the debt himself so coherent, so articulate and conscious of himself.
The debt really was puzzled about the human. It was as if this man had lost sight of himself because of his marriage to Laura--but only with respect to the money they owed. Henry was good to Laura in that he had not, so to speak, let himself go. He had no beer gut, and he regularly practiced his dance steps. He often took his wife to dinner in his cherished little sports car.
He could see Laura because the connection to Henry was strong. It did not matter to Laura that the couple's dates had a superficial kind of motivation: Henry liked how his car looked with Laura’s pretty face riding in the passenger seat, the pale heart shape against deep red leather, the wide, prettyish face hooded by black canvas, when they rode with the top up. She sensed this, and simply did not mind. She received flowers, love letters and, often enough, jewelry. Laura knew her husband often failed to register love deep within his mind, and she did not care. She smiled often, and when the debt could read her, the smiles were not false.
The debt felt itself to occupy a larger and larger portion of Henry’s mind. These days, it grew in this mental dimension, and that led back to the woman, and the brittleness of Henry’s desire; the hollowness of his heart. Was this darkness upon all men as it was upon Henry?
“I’m nothing really. I’m just a concept stored on paper,” said the debt.
“I’ll end up with a miserable life because of you," Henry said.
“That doesn’t need to be true.”
“My children could end up owning you. Why can’t I stop myself?”
“You don’t have any children. And you don’t want them. You will never.”
“You say that with such certainty.”
“I have no malicious intentions toward you,” said the debt.
And again Henry laughed. “In your name, wars. The slaughter of millions. There is not much more to know about you than that.” “The woman is kind. Why don’t you see as deeply into her as I do?” said the debt. "Don't talk about her," said Henry. That was the end of their talk for the day.
And for a few years they never had another philosophical conversation. They spoke, but only of routine things. The did not mention Laura or the relationship.
The debt reached $17,000 dollars by Henry and Laura’s tenth year of marriage.
But the debt would astound itself even further when the woman went back to school. In the lives of these two, the debt would come to compete with God, in whom Laura believed strongly and Henry believed vaguely.
The woman decided to attain certification as a paralegal. She now came under the debt's purview more clearly than she ever had.
She saw herself primarily as a wife. She was the wife of a man who had a good position in an advertising agency; it surprised the debt the extent to which she identified herself in this way.
However, debts do not only see people as they are; but also in all they have the potential to be. (The debt knew that people rarely attained their full potential. I am, the debt said to himself, a thing purely of the imagination.) Laura had unusually long brown hair, to which she always tended carefully before going off to night school. She wore the same shape of dress, always. She had a nice figure, a body shape that made Henry want to say the word “abundant” or “endless,” that made him crave the taste of those words. Laura knew it about herself that she could seem merely average in the right light and up close, or if she did not tend to herself; but she was beautiful when she tried to be. Their happiness when they were happy was sweeter than that of most couples.
One night, Henry went to sleep early, before Laura returned from paralegal class. When she came home, she and the debt were alone, and he saw into her mind. To begin, the vision was mostly of fluorescent lights. They illuminated the broad corridors and linoleum floors of a high school, the location of the nighttime college class. The whole place smelled of the public school’s cafeteria, which meant it smelled like cleaning fluids and old food, especially gravy. The teacher of the paralegal course sat at a large desk and the students sat in small ones.
All of this made the woman happy, putting her in touch with some old part of herself, a part she had lost since grade school. In adolescence she’d wanted badly to achieve within known boundaries. She was most herself when she labored toward socially established, uncontroversial goals. Laura was quintessentially a schoolgirl, and remembering this about herself, she realized that she'd suborned herself to Henry, losing touch with this most basic element of her personality. In the world of the smell of the cafeteria, Laura could trust in old, structural pieces of herself, and was at times surprised by the autonomous comfort she discovered this way. Ultimately her accomplishments would be very predictable, but that did not bother her as it bothered Henry in his career. And so she pursued her ambitions by the means of these night courses, in what had once been her own high school.
The night she came home alone, she thought of the instructor in her paralegal class. It was later that the debt came to know of the cheating. He saw it only when Henry saw it. The debt could not fault Laura; he tried, but could not. Henry’s inability to understand the woman was what kept the debt from doing so--and the fact that Laura herself did not seem to regret her actions. The debt could not help being a little amused in fact; the man with whom she cheated looked and acted very much like her husband Henry.
But Henry’s awareness of this man, the partner in the affair, ended up in the same place wherein the debt dwelt. This was a chamber of Henry’s mind that the debt shared with the legal instructor; that is, with the semblance of the instructor. Yes, Henry came to know about the cheating. And then he did not know. Henry forgot with great force the fact that his wife was untrue. For the debt, though, the knowing was permanent, for the debt was incapable of forgetting. People can suppress memory of debt for long periods of time, and this was what Henry did to the affair as well. Into the same place where he put his debt for long periods, Henry crammed the knowledge of the cheating. Sometimes, Henry would bring out the debt to speak with him. He never brought out the cheating knowledge.
In that moment of discovery, Henry thought the words “My wife is everything I need.” And that was just a flickering of the blinding light from which he averted his gaze. He might have seen everything Laura was.
And then Henry thought, “I am just being jealous, as I can be sometimes.” Then came more reasoning. We have this time apart, now, while she is in night school. I am cooking my own meals. I am drinking my wine alone. That is why my mind is acting strangely. The debt made no remark.
Henry had some fault. There were those rich tokens of his love that he gave to his wife; but also the fact that they were tokens. These years, Henry did not attempt to make love as often as he should to such a beautiful woman as Laura, such an abundant woman. The debt did not oust the affair from the mirrored sanctum of its concealment.
The debt refrained from influencing them apart from one another, though it might have been beneficial to do so in the short term. Lawyer's divorce fees might have swollen the debt to unprecedented proportions. The debt knew his owners well enough to know that their splitting might ultimately divide him. The notion of losing, say, half of himself horrified the debt; he had become addicted to his own size and rate of growth. Later, languishing among his fellows in the lightless place, he would find that getting divided into portions was only briefly painful; but that understanding was to come later.
The wife attained the paralegal certification. Before this, within less than a year of beginning her renewed education and her affair, she quit seeing the teacher. Guilt had begun to infringe, and she had not Henry’s skill for suppressing the light of such knowing, such pain.
The vacation was the climax of the debt's life. Henry and Laura were together, as happy at this time as they would ever be.
First, though, the debt was afraid. “You're forgetting about me,” he said on the night before Henry and Laura’s flight to Europe.
"I never forget about you.” Henry was placing stacks of clothing into a suitcase. He leaned with much of his weight in an attempt to compress the clothing to make more of it fit into the luggage.
"You will forget. You will be taken away from me.”
"Not possible. Now you're reminding me, see? You always have the power to steal a place in my thoughts." The man laughed a little to himself as he chose aftershave from a shelf in the medicine cabinet. He took down his toothbrush, a stick of deodorant. He divided these most reliable and concrete facts of his existence and placed them into his square bag.
"It's good if you do forget," said the debt. "I want that. It's good for both of us."
"I see it could be good for you," Henry said. If Henry forgot, he was more likely to overspend during their trip, which was a journey of 2 weeks to Italy and Spain. The debt was likely to increase its size. “But how for both of us? How could it be good for me?”
“I can't say.”
"By that you mean you have your secrets, and you will not share them."
"By that I mean that I don't know. I don't have your talent for words, so I can’t see the reasons clearly," said the debt. "But it will be good for both of us."
Only after the couple returned could the debt glean imagery of the places Henry ad Laura had been. Their escape had been nearly complete during their absence from the US.
At first seeing their doings was like receiving that late-afternoon memory of the previous night's dream; a memory of a memory, more than anything else. Thus the debt garnered images perhaps half-fanciful, but as clear in their perfect brokenness as real life. The vacation was no less vibrant than the debt’s own true existence.
They stood on a bridge in Rome, where they watched the unbelievably vivid swirls of garbage in the river, and of tourists like themselves in the streets. Henry tried Italian on Italians and Spanish on Spaniards: abbiamo bisogno di un treno per Firenze and necessitamos andar Al museo. Their hearts were free, and their hearts seemed mere images to the debt in these tattered and beautiful tracts of time that he recovered to himself. "I love you as I ever have. I love you even as I did before we married," said Henry. "I need you," responded Laura. "I love you as much as you love me, and more."
And they did ride trains in Italy. In the hills of Tuscany, the sun broke with alien suddenness from between a pair of mountain peaks. It blinded Henry, but he had to turn his head toward it, and he had to point Laura in the direction of this blinding vision of love between earth and ether--even knowing it would hurt her eyes.
They rented a primitive cottage in the Spanish countryside outside Toledo. The house had existed on that spot in some form or other for over 800 years, said the owner, who could speak English. “When peasants lived here, they brought any livestock they owned into the house during the winter nights. The warmth of the animals’ bodies rose to warm the tenants, who slept and ate in the rooms above when the animals were within.”
Laura and Henry were alone at the cottage. Henry’s feet were cold on the fractured and uneven brick floor of the ancient place. He thought of peasants standing just where he stood. He awoke one morning to find Laura risen before him and reading a copy of The Inferno that she had purchased in a gift shop. She had been waiting for him, and she was nude from the waist up. They made love outside, and that became a tradition for the rest of the week, the remainder of their stay at the peasant cottage. They made love outside every crisp morning.
They drove twining hill roads and spent time in towns and cities. A church possessed the knucklebone of a saint and still kept it on display in a glass case. The gray bone was barely recognizable as human. A desiccated scrap of skin could still be seen to cling to it. They stood on Spanish beaches.
“This is the bluest I've ever seen any water,” said Laura.
“Don't exaggerate,” said Henry. At this time, two days remained in their vacation.
By attrition over the next 10 years, another $18000 would be added, only $2000 paid off of the debt, for a net addition of $16000 dollars. He was lodged in numerous and varied virtual places throughout this stretch of his life; he was stretched across vast physical difference. He had a major hub in Utah, another in New York City. He existed in other eddying reservoirs that churned up and broke him. But everything in the debt was connected to everything else. Despite his heterogeneity and his seemingly cruel distribution, he always felt himself as a single entity. He was a proud, cohesive mass. He was a royal being of thought and interest.
Small purchases augmented him now, after the vacation. He saw everything they bought, whether they paid outright or added to him. Now such was his power in their lives that he could see everything they were, and their every thought traced its reason back to him.
The purchase that added the most to him were in the $100 to $1000 dollar range: a new set of rims for the Corvette; not the 1965 Corvette Henry had first purchased, but the newer 1984 edition for which Henry had traded up (in the process adding $2500 to the debt); a new computer bought by Laura; an elliptical machine that they both wanted equally, and for which the debt eventually developed a strange affection. The debt liked to look upon either of the people as he or she lifted legs high to locomote nowhere. On this machine, they did a distorted pantomime of overlarge toddlers, clambering fruitlessly using all limbs. With these small pops, he never got much added to his total amount at once. He was connected to them as intimately as ever.
There was a new television, used but pristine except for one long scratch down its plastic back. A desk for Laura. A painting of a hunter of octopuses by a lesser-known Spanish artist of the modern period. A leather couch and a minimalist endtable of Swedish design. They made large payments against the debt, but not enough to reduce him. Yes, the payments were larger in months when they spent more; but only nominally larger, as if this measure balmed the couple’s conscience.
Three years after the vacation--when 12 total years of marriage had passed--they argued.
"You could have chosen a trade that wasn’t so expensive. But you had to get a certificate. Why paralegal?" Henry said. Those educational fees were still a part of the debt but not a very big part. Only the debt knew why Henry chose them for the topic of his outburst.
"You said that a few thousand extra did not matter."
Later the same evening, they talked about the vacation. The debt was at $34,000, and had only ever grown except during their first year together.
"The trip was your idea," said Henry.
Laura had a way of rising from a sitting position with great deliberateness. She had a way of going about some routine activity with especially efficient motions. Now she began to make her lunch for the following day, and the canny precision of her movements articulated rage. She took down plastic containers from the cabinet and placed carrots in one of them. She began to slice a cucumber, saying that it was absolutely ridiculous to think that one of them could hold more responsibility for the vacation. Or for the ever growing debt.
"You know how I can get when it comes to making you happy," said Henry. "You knew I didn't really want to do it."
The woman said the word "unbelievable." The debt supposed, at the time, that she spoke of the man's gall. Later he reflected that she might have been speaking of anything in the couple’s shared life. Henry left the room.
The words would stop for a time but all of the debates were the same conversation and the same argument, the dialogue that was their lives. The debt felt the angry words should make him proud. He had come to outweigh the average human being, and had done so without the use of a physical body. But the debt grew more ambivalent as the marriage grew colder and quieter. It was fear that owned their hearts; had to be, the debt knew. They might split, and he might be chiseled in half by the law. No man was quite like Henry Ballard, no woman like Laura. It was for these reasons, the debt knew, that was unlike any other of his kind.
“I just want you to be more . . . more present. I needed you to pay attention,” said Laura.
“How could I have known? You never said that. You always seemed happy.”
“I used to say I needed attention. Then being quiet was the only rational thing,” Laura said.
“That’s a little too convenient.”
But yes, said the debt to Henry in his mind. She did used to say. She said she needed you.
Henry heard. Laura also heard.
The tension would diminish, and the bout would come to an end. That was how the debt knew that the discord ran deep. Yes, there was occasional passion to these arguments, but the husband and wife were, most of the time, like soldiers numb from a long-fought war. They were inarticulate beasts, confused in their minds; body-centric creatures whose words followed sluggishly after their bodies and usually ran cold, like blood that has exited the body.
“I cheated on you. It’s been years, but I cheated,” said Laura.
Henry was still for a moment. To the debt, he seemed to think nothing; no branches of thought running to daydream, no words.
“I know,” said Henry.
At first, Laura thought Henry had spoken falsely. Lying about something like this: that would be normal for how he spoke during an argument. He would say this kind of short falsehood to defend himself; to avoid further cuts, or even just to have anything at all to say. But something about how he now stared at the floor and the sober expression he wore as he did so--these mannerisms revealed to Laura the fully conscious intention of what Henry had said. The shadow of a long truth fell over them.
“The night school. Your teacher,” said Henry, after proof was no longer needed.
“He used to know but he forgot so quickly,” said the debt. “Your husband forgot and now he knows again.”
Laura could not hear the debt now, though at times she could. “I loved you. You should have hated me,” said Laura. “We should have had children,” said the woman.
“Of course we should have had children. But him,” Henry said.
On the whole, the debt saw, divorce was for the young or the middle aged. Many would have seen it as ridiculous for them to split in their autumnal years.
The debt was not divided by the separation of his owners. The debt stayed with Henry Ballard for the remainder of that man’s life. Henry lived for another ten years after that final argument. He died at 57, young for a man of Henry’s time. The debt could not reckon whether he himself had helped or hurt Henry’s overall. He had bolstered the man’s life with opportunities like the Corvettes and the vacation. But, too, he saw he’d ground constantly against Henry in the man’s hopes and worldview. A debt can never know for certain about these things. . . .
After the separation, the debt lost sight entirely of Laura. This seemed to be because Laura resumed her maiden name of Tanner after leaving Henry. It was a move that neither the debt or Henry could have predicted,
After Henry died, the debt lost awareness of himself again. It was the same phenomenon he’d experienced when Laura and Henry had left the country. (They had only ever done so the one time.) When he regained himself, he didn’t know where he was for a moment. He could not feel the walls that contained him. He could not say prison or purgatory, hell or paradise. He did not believe that physical creatures like human beings, without souls, could experience such mystical states of existence. But for conceptions such as himself, who knew?
Clarity came in a moment. Henry was in the ground. He saw Henry, and he was Henry; the debt was with the man in his grave. Henry’s face was peaceful, and the debt recognized the gray, pinstriped suit that his sister had chosen for the burial. It was one of those post-vacation purchases, and his favorite thing to wear.
Soon the debt was able to depart the space near Henry’s body. Did he take Henry with him, in some sense? He wondered; but quickly left behind that kind of groping as more concrete matters occurred to him, issues more immediate than that of the soul and mortality.
He was in the courtroom, next. The longest-time creditor was present in the form of a single lawyer. That company, the Reed Corporation of Utah, had paid off all the others to whom Henry owed money. It was a bit of a risk, but the debt now belonged to Reed Corp. alone.
The day in court was a first for the debt. The lawyer, he saw, was a thirty-something man with a completely bald head. He sat at an ignoble table with a stack of papers. He read from them in a nasal tone. The last words of his opening statement were as follows. “We feel entitled to all the assets of the deceased, which don’t entirely cover what he owed, but which are due more to us--to my client, the Reed Corporation of Utah--than to anyone else.”
Then the debt realized he hung in the perspective of the judge. She was bored, resentful of the muttering, bald plaintiff, mostly because of past dealings they’d had. She was glad this was her last case before lunchtime.
“I hereby confer assets in the amount of $21,000 to the Reed Corporation. The record should indeed show that this leaves several thousand dollars of the decedent’s debt, a Mr. Henry Ballard, unresolved. The plaintiff is free to pursue receipt of the unresolved amount through all probable avenues and through any legal means. The state will not hear on this matter again.” Then, she thanked the lawyer by name and stepped down from behind her bench.
As the judge pronounced on the debt, she knew in some secret way--a way she kept from herself--that her power was nothing. The debt would go on, it was true. But her words were a redundancy, ritual rather than proclamation. She might as well have told objects to fall toward the earth. Never would the debt be totally paid. The Reed Corporation would never settle it, nor anyone after Reed. The debt would always be. It did not even know how it could possibly have been born, for it thought it had always existed.
That was the debt’s last activity in human life. He now lingers in containment.
He has become more opinionated in his old age. “How arrogant of them,” he thinks. Humans’ folly is to know what they know and still think they have power over me. They know the vast extent of the universe, the fact that it is endless and timeless and that things will expand forever from what might be called a center, though there is no true center. Yet they think I can be undone.”
Henry Ballard’s debt does persist despite the words of that judge. It’s environ now feels something like the credit card vaults of its youth. Of all the electronic and physical dens in which he has been stored, those vaults were the most turbulent, and are matched for chaos by his current container, for which the accountants just as restless. But these are not quite the chambers of a credit card company. The debt of Henry Ballard believes he may somehow have been poured in with bad housing foreclosures or some massive dot-com loss.
The walls separating himself from his brothers and sisters, and his brothers and sisters from one another, are thin. He speaks to them, but the present is featureless, so they speak only of the past. The last experience of any of these others in the real world are similar to those of Henry Ballard’s debt. Here, an impersonal judge pretended to dissolve one entirely. There, a child inherited half of her parent’s debt, leaving that debt to be rather excruciatingly cut in half. In another case, a husband sued a wife to avoid inheriting their children’s debt, for which he asserted the wife bore more responsibility than he himself. Recently, the stories of these debts have all come to sound the same. They talk about old times.
“The last fire I ever felt,” says the debt, “was riding with Henry in his car. He always thought of me in some small part when he did that. I was always there, and he was at his most accepting when we drove. In one of his Corvettes.”
The listeners don’t object to the same old story because, all the time, they feel closer and closer to timelessness.
“The wind is in my hair,” says the debt. “And why does the beauty of this perfectly pristine day make me sad, as I speed and speed along? Not sad now, as I think about it, but sad back then; sad with my hands on the leather steering wheel as fields and fences fly by. The smooth weight of the turns in the country road press against me. I drive through redwood forests and mountain passes. I drive through every kind of thing, and I can’t remember why I struck out today, or why I should ever want to stop.”