ON A CHILLY day when the kids had to huddle under their blankets to watch TV, Judy Neal carefully copied out her destiny:
Income & Expenses
She wrote the words in a flawless and elaborate cursive, centering them on the page. She thought for a moment and wrote again.
Child Support $300.00 mo.
Electric Co. 690.40 mo.
Govm ’t AFDC Grant 167.00 mo.
SSI Child’s Disability 325.00
It seemed like a whole lot to her when she wrote it down, but then there was never enough money, it seemed like. Down there on the paper it said they were rich as they’d ever been, her and the three kids, but at the end of the month there was more like six or seven hundred and that was it. Maybe someday Freddie would start paying his child support, like the judge told him to, but usually he just sent 30 or 40 dollars. She understood, though, because Freddie was married to an American Indian and he had to sign all his things over to the tribe. It was their cultural laws. She knew that if he ever had it, Freddie would send it in to her. Of the three ex-husbands, Freddie was the best. Larry and his wife had been good to her, too, letting her run car errands over to Athens for their electrical company, but pretty soon she was going to lose that job if the finance company kept calling up the office and asking her where was her house payment. Larry just didn’t like all that calling about personal business, especially the calls that came from Cleveland, Ohio, where people were rude on the phone. But at least the welfare check was steady, and so was the disability money for Freddie Junior. The child was nine years old now but he still couldn’t talk, and Judy still wondered if she got some bad water that time they were living in that oil camp up in Duncan, Oklahoma, and she was pregnant with Freddie Junior and she couldn’t get down to Parkland to get checked out before she found out she was poisoned. She knew something was wrong with Freddie when he wouldn’t sit up like most babies do when they’re six or seven months old. Freddie could say a few words, like “mama” and “go,” but he wasn’t doing too well for nine years old, and sometimes she wondered whether he’d catch up like the doctors promised.
Judy made a new column and centered the words again:
Sun Fin. Corp. $469.34
NEED $5,000.00 for septic tank installation.
A PART OF HER knew already, when she put it on the paper, that sooner or later they would come to take away her house.
How did it happen? Who got her money? It had only been six months before that she had a $30,000 house, free and clear, a cute, tidy little cottage over on the near side of Pleasant Grove. Her mother bought it for her in 1981, bless her heart, said she needed a permanent place now that she evidently wasn’t going to have a husband and so they picked it out together and Mama went down to the bank and drew out the money and paid cash-$22,000-right there on the spot and they moved in. Mama didn’t believe in credit. She and Daddy spent their whole life out in Grand Prairie never using credit, always paying cash, but now Judy was 35 and a modern woman trying to make it with three kids and it just seemed like, even if she didn’t have a husband to do it for her, she had to pay things out or else the kids wouldn’t have anything. Maybe somebody would marry her again and it would be taken care of, but here she was, needing to do something now and-but what happened to her $22,000? She saw her mother give it to the man when they went in the house, and so that must have been what the house was worth, and so where was the money?
It was so pretty in the country, out where the hackberries and the pines were cleared away for the mobile homes around Cedar Creek Lake. Judy Neal felt she belonged there almost from the first time she saw it. “Golden Oaks,” the sign said. It was out where the kids could play safely on the narrow asphalt streets and they could go to church and school in the little town of Mabank and for once she could be away from the crime and the noise of Dallas. That was about the only thing she could do anyway, because she tried five different banks to get a loan to fix up the house, and they all said it was too old and in a bad part of town, and it was out of the question to get a rent house. Whenever that happened, they never could afford the rent.
Judy had a friend who’d moved out to Golden Oaks already, and she knew they loved the place, and everybody told her she could make it cheaper out there, and so she told her mother, in the summer of 1984, that it was time for her to move, too. She was doing it for Freddie Junior, and for Shauna and Wesley, and she would defer to her mother’s wishes, because it was her mother’s money that was in the house, but she did think it was best for them to get out of Dallas. And her mother said she didn’t want her living in any trailer house, it was like throwing money down the drain, and Judy said okay and stopped talking to A-1 and went over to the others like Gemcraft and Fox & Jacobs and finally found what she was looking for when she saw a Magnahome commercial on TV. A Magnahome was trucked around on wheels like a mobile home, but it was permanently welded onto a pier-and-beam, and Mama said that’s what she needed to have, a pier-and-beam, and so Judy took a tour through a Magnahome out at the Mesquite office and it was certainly what she would call modern luxury living. She told the salesman that she already had a contract on her house for $35,000-which is true, she did, that’s what the realtor said-and so he said he’d be glad to put her into a Magnahome inside 30 days and pretty soon she was signing up for one around $28,000, so she could pay cash and then have money left over to pay for her lot down in Golden Oaks.
It seemed like the whole thing was coming together, she and the kids would soon have a new life out in East Texas, and then all of a sudden it seemed like everything was coming apart again. “Let me tell you, Sir,” she would tell people later, “this has been an unfortunate nightmare after that.”
FIRST THE REALTOR called and said her investor was pulling out. They had signed the papers and everything, for a cash deal, but now he was backing off and there was no $35,000 coming and Judy was panicked. She called over to Magnahome to see what they could do, but they told her, heck, they already put her down for a house and they sure would like to see her installed in Golden Oaks by the start of school. And Judy had to agree with them on that, because she knew somebody down in Mabank that said if your kids didn’t start school on time, then the school board would fine the parents a thousand dollars, and so she was a little scared that she would end up not selling her house in time, and one thing led to another and the realtor started calling up investors to try to sell it fast and after a while she just sold the thing for the best cash deal she could find, which was $15,000. It bothered her mother, that they put $22,000 cash in that house and that’s all they could get for it, but Judy didn’t know what else to do since she already told Magnahome she’d buy their house and she signed the papers and so she owed them something that same month. Magnahome told her not to worry, though, because she could put $14,000 down and still move into her dream home.
She didn’t count on the investor just giving her and the kids one week to move out, though. One day she got the check for $15,000, the next day she delivered $14,000 to the Magnahome salesman and signed some new papers, and the day after that she was giving $220 to Econo Portable Buildings in Seven Points, Texas, to build her a storage shed on her new Golden Oaks lot so she and the kids could move in there until her Magnahome got set up. She figured the kids wouldn’t mind living in a shed a few days, but then when they got down there it was pouring rain and mud everywhere and you should have seen her lot, it looked like you needed a bass boat to get in there. But she knew they needed to be moved in, so the kids could start school-especially Freddie, because the Mabank schools were bringing a special education teacher over from Athens just for him. Freddie didn’t mind living in the shed at all, he would run around cleaning things up for her, Freddie loved to clean things, it made him happy, bless his heart. But one night it got fairly cold out in the shed, and so Judy and the kids thought it would be a good idea to move on into their Magnahome, even though it was still on wheels, sitting on the lot in pieces, wrapped in plastic, waiting for the workmen to come assemble it and fasten it down to the pier-and-beam. Judy ripped off a piece of plastic and climbed up into a section of the house, and it seemed a little warmer in there, and so she and the kids put some blankets down in one of the bedrooms and slept there for a while. Later on Magnahome tried to make some kind of big deal out of that, and the foreman pulled her aside and embarrassed her and said, “Ma’am, we have rules and regulations we have to abide by, and someone has used these toilet facilities and now my workmen won’t go under your house to fix it up.” But that wasn’t her kids that used the toilets, it must have been some neighbor kids, but that didn’t bother her, she just got the kids and they cleaned up the mess under the house so the men would agree to assemble the house and hook it up.
All the neighbors were real nice, they seemed to like Judy and helped her figure out all the things she needed, like a driveway and a septic tank and how to do her utility hookups, and they gave her a list of contractors that would do the work and they told her who was good and who wasn’t, but Judy didn’t expect to find out it would cost $5,000 just for a septic tank. Later on she found out that wasn’t right, it should just cost $1,000, but she had to call up Magnahome and tell them that she needed some help because she was already out of money and she couldn’t even turn the house on for living unless she had some money. They gave her a new salesman, her old salesman moved on to some other trailer-home company, and the new guy was very understanding. He was having trouble figuring out how she got a $17,000 loan based on welfare income, but he agreed to help her make the most of it by reducing the down payment to $11,000 so she would have money for her hookups. But then it turned out that she needed $4,000 to pay for her Golden Oaks lot, which was extremely important now that she needed to sign over a land lien to Magnahome, too. But then Judy figured out that a mistake was made when the Magnahome was welded down, and it looked like as near as she could figure out, it was sticking out so that about 10 feet of the living room was actually located on the vacant lot next to the one she bought, and so she told the owner the situation and he said, well, there was nothing to do about it, and so she agreed to round up another $4,000 and pay him that money for the second lot whenever she could get it. He said she didn’t have to hurry.
Judy figured she would put in some time at Larry’s Discount Electric to raise money for her septic tank and driveway and a culvert tinhorn and the other improvements she needed, but the property owners’ association came by and said, no, she couldn’t wait on the septic tank, that had to go right in because of health regulations. And so Judy had no other choice but to call up Magnahome again and tell them how she was going to need some cash right away or else she would still be illegal, and so the new sales manager who was being so nice to her now listened to the whole story, said he would do whatever he could, and then they tore up the contract for about the third time and he lowered her down payment to $7,000, increased the payout period up to 20 years, and wrote her a check for $3,500. Judy gave all that money to a man who said he’d take care of her improvements for her, and he did a beautiful job on her driveway and helped her get her electrical hookups and plumbing put in, and she used some of the money for some other work on the property, she can’t remember how much it was, and gave some hired hands some money to cut down trees, and then there was a man who came by and said he’d do the tinhorn for $300 but he turned out to be a drunk and he just plumb disappeared. Anyway, all that money was gone pretty soon, and Judy had receipts for everything, she kept real good records, but she still didn’t have a septic tank, and this man from the health department came by and said she was on notice about it. So from then on, twice a week, Judy and the kids would go under the house and unscrew the sewage containers and put a bunch of lime and gravel in there with the human sewage and then they would carry it out back and dig a big hole and put some more lime and gravel in there and cover it up. It was not nice to have to do that all year long, while they were waiting on money to come in, it was like living in the 17th century when they were in a modern home out by the lake.
ALL THIS TIME Judy kept telling her mother everything that was going on, and her mother said it just didn’t make sense. It just plain didn’t make sense, that she started out with $22,000 equity in a house and how could she be broke and no septic tank and no heating or air conditioning and burning fireplace wood off the lot for heat at night. Judy said she was starting to feel like there was something wrong, too, because when she started out she remembered on the TV commercials Magnahome said it was 10 percent and no more than $264 a month, and also they said you’d get $1,000 off your house if you bought it in August, which she did, and she had no idea why they never did come out there and put in her heat pump. At first they said they couldn’t put it in because she had the house built too close to the Econo storage shed and it wouldn’t fit in there, but that didn’t make sense anymore since her car transmission fell out and she had to trade the storage shed to this guy down the street that had a 74 Chevelle. They traded it even up, he needed a shed and she needed a car, and so the shed wasn’t there anymore to get in the way of the heater and air conditioner unit.
Then there was the deal with the finance company, Sun Financial, which started calling up and complaining and bothering her boss at Larry’s Discount Electric and saying she was hiding out from them, even though that wasn’t true at all, she couldn’t afford to have a phone in the house, because the phone company said she had to put down a $500 deposit if she wanted one and how was she going to get that kind of money, and anyway she was making payments when they started calling. They just weren’t putting the payments through right. The first time a payment was due, she sent in all the money, you can ask her ex-husband, because he put it directly in the mail slot at the Mabank post office, marked for Cleveland, Ohio, but they called at work and finally got her when she came in from errands and said, “We do not accept partial payments.” She told them there wasn’t any partial payments, she sent in three money orders, and it came to $469.34 if you added them all together. And they kept saying, “We do not accept partial payments.” And she said there wasn’t any other way to do it, because when you go to 7-Eleven the most they’ll give you on one money order is $200, so the only way you can send it in is in three parts. You buy one money order for $200, and then you get another one for $200, and then you get one for $69.34. You don’t have any choice in the matter. But they say that’s a “partial payment,” and so what are they saying, that you have to go find a 7-Eleven that will put the whole thing on one money order?
One thing that would have helped is ii Judy’s payments had stayed around $300 like they were in the first place, much less $264 like they said on TV, but here she was making $469.34 payments ever since she got the check for $3,500. The amount of the monej didn’t matter to her, it was just that she didn’i have it. She wished she did, but she didn’t. And every month Sun Financial would star calling down at Larry’s Discount Electric to tell them that she was not making her pay ments, and one day Larry got five phone calls from them in one day and he had to tel her, “Judy, I just got a little business here and if this goes on much longer, I’ll have to let you go.” And sure enough it kept on them calling up and telling her she was defaulting and she needed to be making her payments sooner, even though she had the receipts from the post office, she could prove she made the first three payments on time or just two weeks late. And how were they calling her up for money anyway, when she didn’t even have her heating coil yet and so she burned up all the trees on the lot just for heat?
LARRY HAD TO let her go at the electric company, and Judy thought it was the calls from Sun Financial that caused it. She looked around Mabank for some other work, but you just can’t find much in a small town. She might be able to get some envelope work, she thought, maybe help drive some retired people around on their errands, but that was about it. Then the man at the health department came by again and he said that if she didn’t get that septic tank put in he was going to red-tag the house, and if they did that they’d be evicted, and at the same time Sun Financial sent her a letter saying they were about to repossess if she didn’t come up with the two payments she missed since Larry laid her off. How could she, though? If you didn’t count her food stamps, she had monthly income of $477 and her payments were $469, and it didn’t take much to figure out she couldn’t do that for very long. Mama always told her never to buy on credit, because it was like throwing money down the drain, but Judy never could figure out how she could have $15,000 cash and it wasn’t enough to get a home for her kids. After a while the people at Magnahome didn’t want to talk to her anymore. They said, “We’ve talked enough about this.” But Judy thought something can always be worked out. Anybody that had $15,000, there had to be a way to work it out. Then one of the neighbors came over one day and he said, “Judy, we really do like you and we’ve been trying to be patient on this thing, because we know you’re having a hard time of it, but we’ve got to get you a septic tank in here or else we won’t have any choice but to file a lawsuit on you.” And it would be too bad if she lost the house, Judy thought, if Magnahome or Sun Financial or the health department ever came by and told her she had to leave, because they were all very nice people. They had all basically tried to help her. And even though her mother said she ought to sue, something was wrong and they never should have been able to take her money like that, she didn’t want to sue anybody. It was the credit that did it, she knew she shouldn’t buy on credit. Judy never did understand, but one of the Magnahome salesmen, one of the nice men that tried to help her, said it was not credit it was poverty. Poverty, he said, didn’t have anything to do with money at all. It was a state of mind.