31: Going For Broke

31: Going For Broke

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Going For Broke

Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.

~Author Unknown

I push again, hard, and the door to the courthouse grunts open. Inside, the security man brusquely asks for ID. He peers at my driver’s license, narrowing his eyes.

Room 173 is just around the corner. A sign outside the door warns, “No waiting in the hall while court is in session.”

I open the door and lights flicker on in the empty room. The only décor is a white sign on the wall with blaring red letters, “The FBI prosecutes bankruptcy crimes.” I lower my head, feeling like a child who has trespassed, and sit in one of the rows of freestanding metal chairs. My breathing is shallow.

The door opens and I look up, hoping to see my attorney, Erlene. It’s a young couple, the man with a round face, close-cropped black hair, and soft frightened eyes and the woman with glossy ash-blond hair, looped into an awkward bun, looking determined and strong. We flash quick smiles, the woman and I, then look away.

I never thought I would be sitting in such a room. I pay my bills on time and rarely spend beyond my means. I do not have credit card debt. Yet this long ago loan from a bad business decision has hovered over the last decade of my life, growing so large that finally bankruptcy became my only sensible option.

The door opens and Erlene enters, smiling and radiating calm. The woman with her has spiky brown hair, sharp features, thick make-up, and the hint of a dimple in her lower cheek. Erlene introduces me to Kathy, her other client today.

The bankruptcy court trustee enters, trailed by his assistant. The trustee is an attorney with an expertise in bankruptcy law. Both settle their laptops and briefcases on the long wooden table at the front of the room.

The trustee summons the couple. I clench my hands, my fingernails digging into my palms.

She was injured in a hit and run accident, she tells the trustee.

“Were you able to get the license plate of the person who hit you?” the trustee asks.

“No sir.” She sits up straighter. “We had medical bills. Then we had a baby and things went downhill from there.” Her voice breaks.

I bite my lip, thinking of this hardworking man and woman, felled by a careless driver and an unfair health care system. More than half of the almost million people who file personal bankruptcy each year have overwhelming medical bills. I think of all the people across the country who are in the same kind of meeting room, going through the same process.

Kathy is next. She gives the trustee the sassy smile of a woman who is used to flirting her way out of situations. Her business partner and lover stole money, her money, from their mutual account, she says.

“Have you tried to find him?”

“Oh yes sir, I have tried,” Kathy says, her voice sharpening.

“He done her wrong,” echoes through my head. My throat tightens. Then it is my turn.

I hand the trustee my ID, swear to tell the truth, and I answer the initial questions.

“So, how did this debt occur?” the trustee asks.

I tell him, briefly, my own “done me wrong” story: an SBA business loan with a partner. When we closed the business, my partner signed a contract promising to pay my part of the loan ($7,500) in exchange for inventory. He never paid and later went bankrupt. The interest and penalties accrued. Years later, I received a letter from the Justice Department. I still remember sitting down, my legs weak, my hands shaking, trying to understand the words—“You owe one hundred thousand dollars. Do not send cash.”

When the trustee is finished questioning me, Erlene, Kathy and I leave the room.

Erlene explains that creditors have sixty days to object to the discharge of my debts. If no objections are filed, the court will issue the official discharge on April 1st, April Fool’s Day.

When I leave the building, an icy wind hits me and I feel the tears rising up. After twelve years of struggling with this debt, getting legal advice, trying to settle, then hoping to wait it out, learning there was no statute of limitations, searching for the right attorney, then planning for bankruptcy, I am almost free of this burden. My knees buckle and I stand still for the moment, letting the wind brace me.

“It’s over,” I whisper and then say it out loud. I feel both heavy and light. My freedom has not yet sunk in.

The young couple walks by, their arms hooked together.

She looks back at me and I see the redness rimming her eyes. Even though our lives are probably quite different, I am reminded of how alike we are, how alike we all are. Sometimes our lives unfold easily and we feel strong and successful. Other times, something or someone crashes into us and knocks us off balance. And then, there’s simply nothing else to do but stand back up, ask for help, and start again.

~Deborah Shouse

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