My name is Annie. I live in Evansville, Indiana. It's not a big city, Evansville, but I guess it's not exactly a small town either. This all started a little more than two years ago. My husband Jeff was working on the assembly line at an auto-parts factory. His salary was pretty good, and the company took care of health insurance, dental, and a pension plan. I worked part-time as a cashier down at Marsh's. It didn't pay a lot, but it did help some.
Our son Malcolm was ten then, and Nikki was just five. We rented a small house -nothing fancy, but we had good neighbors and there were places where the kids could play. Sometimes in the summer we'd take Malcolm and Nikki to the amusement park. Sometimes we'd just spend Saturday afternoon at home with a video and popcorn. We'd go out to the movies for a special treat.
We had debts, of course, just like everybody else: a car loan, credit card payments for some furniture, and store credit for a refrigerator we had to buy because the landlord wouldn't replace the old one when it broke. We didn't have any savings. There never seemed to be anything left over. We promised ourselves we'd start a savings account when Jeff got a promotion. Then maybe we could save up for a new car. Or maybe go on vacation - we'd never been able to do that. Or maybe we could get a house of our own one day.
Jeff had been at the factory for about a year when the company closed it down. They called it downsizing. That's just another name for firing people. The company moved everything overseas where it was cheaper. It hit this town real hard. You just never know what's gonna happen, do you?
Jeff went out looking for another job, but nobody was hiring. For a while, he was getting unemployment, but that doesn't last forever. Things got tight at home real quick. Pretty soon we were right on the edge. Jeff picked up day labor whenever he could. He got paid in cash, and we managed to keep up payments on our bills. But we were just paying the minimum - keeping the collectors away from the door, you know? We couldn't afford to pay anything off.
We went on that way for almost a year, living from day to day. Nikki started kindergarten and Malcolm went into junior high. I hated sending them to school in their worn-out clothes. I was worried the other kids would make fun of them. But I just couldn't buy them anything new. I just kept telling them - and myself - that things were gonna get better.
Jeff got more and more frustrated. On days when he didn't get picked for a day-labor job, he'd go looking for full-time work, but it started to get to him - always hearing "no." Always saying "no" to his kids. He'd come home and - I could see it in his eyes - he'd feel like a failure. He started hanging out with some of his old friends from high school, some friends I never wanted to see again. They were no good, and I didn't want him mixed up with them. I told him so - I asked him to stay away from them, but he would just say "They aren't so bad" and "Don't worry, Annie." Then he'd go out again.
So one day, I come home after picking Nikki and Malcolm up from after-school care and I find a note from Jeff on the kitchen table. "Annie," it said, "I'm in some trouble." And I knew what was coming. He said he owed some debts to those people I'd warned him about. I don't know what it was - drugs, gambling - he didn't say. He said, "I think you'll be better off without me."
Well, I cried and cried. But somebody had to make dinner for Nikki and Malcolm. Somebody had to do the dishes. And the laundry. And get the groceries and pay the bills. So I stopped crying. I wiped off my face and I got up and made dinner for Nikki and Malcolm.
That night, after I put the kids to bed, I sat in the kitchen trying to decide what to do next.