For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Allyson challenged me with "I've got half a mind to destroy the world that destroyed me." and I challenged Tara Roberts with "'There's a phrase in Judaism, 'tikkun olam', which means 'repairing the world.' The concept is that people shouldn't do something simply because the religion requires it but rather because it makes things- something, anything- a little bit better.' -Mike Mayo"
As an adult, I realized my grandfather probably said it to all the grandkids, but as a child, having him swoop me up high in the air, and whisper right into my ear in his smoky voice, "Don't tell your brothers, but you're my favorite!," was an intoxicating thrill. Being the only girl in a passel of brothers, I was special, for sure, but when he said that, I believed it, and I will always think that, in his heart, he meant it. In my case, anyway.
I was sitting with my legs primly crossed, wearing my very best power suit, the one that said I meant business. Black jacket, knee length skirt, ivory blouse, big girl heels, pearls. No nonsense, no fear, no remorse, no regret. I tried not to let my hand tremble as I poured water from the pitcher into a glass. The company lawyers had gone over it and over it with us. "Only answer what they ask," they said, "if you don't know, say you don't know, and most of all, for God's sake, look confident. It's a dog and pony show. They are there to make points and get on the evening news. They can't do anything to you, so just stare back at them blankly."
As I sat stiffly, waiting for the affair to begin, I pointedly did not look at the raft of cameras, flashes going, motors winding, that were taking in the scene. I thought about my grandfather, his rock ribbed honesty, and what he said to me when he caught me in a lie as a 9 year old. Having broken one of his drafting tools, I allowed my younger brother to take the fall, and then tearfully confessed an hour later, unable to live with myself. "Ally," he told me, "I'm disappointed you didn't admit it up front. But I'm proud of you for stepping forward. It's hard to be honest, especially when you've already gotten away with it. You show your true colors by what you do when no one's looking." This was far from no one looking.
Charles, Marion and I, the three people nominally in charge, were sitting in front of a House committee, here to testify about the rise and fall of our company, Intersection Mortgage. I had forgotten exactly what committee it was, but it didn't matter. It was our day to answer for what we had done, inflating our tiny firm beyond all reason until somebody, somewhere, realized that trees don't grow to the sky, and suddenly the party was over and all the money was gone.
"Don't worry," Charles had assured us both the evening before. "It's all grandstanding. As long as nobody admits anything, we get a few days of bad press, and then I'll hire you both as lobbyists at my new firm for double your salary. Just follow my lead," he insisted.
"You mean lie," I said.
Charles, the smooth, tan, thrice married CEO, laughed once, hard. "I'll deny I ever said it," he explained, "but yeah, essentially."
The questioning was coming around to me, and after the first Congressman, a cornpone Southerner with an accent as thick as Robert E. Lee's boot leather, finally finished his peroration, I had forgotten what the question was. I took a sip of water, then cleared my throat in as genteel a manner as I could.
"Could you repeat the question?," I asked.
"In summary, Ms. Haverman, I am asking you whether or not Intersection Mortgage, in your opinion, as a company, cared whether or not the mortgages you wrote ever got paid back?"
Everyone was too clever to ever say it- no policy ever said, "take every mortgage, no matter how crappy, no matter how much lying you have to do." It was a gradual thing, like the ocean attacking a sand castle. First you take a little bit lower credit rating, then you take someone who is retired but somehow making enough to afford BMW sized monthly payments, then you take someone a little more desperate than that. They always couched it in positive language. "Be creative," the memos said, "be flexible, be open to new approaches!" The memos came in, exhorting you to do more, produce more, get more people into more houses, and when your pay went up, and then up again, and then up a little bit more, that made you work harder, too. When you knew, in your soul, what they meant, and never said- just feed the beast, at all costs, and when this thing goes belly up, it will be someone else's problem. And that, in the end, was all that mattered.
I said things that I knew weren't true, I lied and cheated. I kept filling the pipeline with new loans, stuffing them in, as many as I could, watching my bank account swell with every little percentage point chip off the massive block of money. Some part of me knew that each one of these sheets I signed was a person, a soul with hopes and dreams and desires, somebody who wouldn't be able to afford this house in 6 months. Or in 3 months. Or even a month. I told myself I would look for another job, an honest job that wouldn't leave me trembling at the end of the work day, but it was just so easy to put it off for another week, another month, just save up a little bit more. I kept approving them, so many that in the end, I wasn't even looking anymore. Whatever it said, I just stamped it, signed it, and sent it off.
I leaned forward, picturing my grandfather's weathered face before the stomach cancer hollowed him out to a skeleton. "The truth never hurt anyone, in the long run," he used to say.
"In my opinion, Congressman?," I said.
"That's what I said, ma'am. Your opinion."
I knew what they wanted me to say. "Of course Intersection cared," the lawyer suggested last night, knowing this very question was coming. "Intersection's sole mission was to get the right family into the right home with the right mortgage. Then something about the American dream, and homeownership helping society, and motherhood and apple pie. All that crap," he said with a sardonic chuckle. The answer was right on the tip of my tongue.
"No, sir, I do not think so," I said. "I got the very clear impression that Charles could not care less whether or not the loans went bad, as long as they were off of Intersection's books when they did so." My voice sounded smooth and even, much more polished than I felt. My stomach turned, and I could feel the eyes of the other two at the table staring at me.