I am a firm believer that there is a time when anger can be incredibly useful. This is not one of those times.
I was 25 when my grandfather died, which was traumatic both emotionally and financially. It was the deciding factor in my decision to abandon my burgeoning career as a laser tag attendant and step into the high finance world of Call Center Agenting. Though I made more money hourly at the Laser Tag arena, the lack of insurance meant that I needed to limit the number of hours I worked in order to keep that sweet State insurance coming. So, even though talking on the phone for 7 hours a day makes it seem like my body is running a special promotion where every fifth word out of my mouth comes with a free side of mucus, “insurance” is the magic word to get me to do just about anything.
Though working full time more than tripled my annual income to just over $21,000, my grandmother and I still had to downsize to make it work. And because of the financial situation, I didn’t put up much of a fight when my Dad brought up the idea of moving my aunt out of his house and into mine. (I wrote about this situation in the “Subtraction, Guilt and Toilet Ghosts” chapter of Can’t Eat, Can’t Breathe)
Having a third person living in the house was helpful because it meant someone was always with my grandma and it took a little financial weight off of my shoulders. Though my aunt—for the purposes of this exercise, let’s call her Sara—was only getting a small monthly Social Security check, it was enough to contribute $200 towards food/rent/utilities. Every little bit helps.
Given that that both Gram and Sara were collecting Social Security, the third of the month was like Christmas for them. They’d get their checks and buzz around the door of my room, waiting for me to take them to the bank. I was working third shift at the time, so waking /staying up to go to the bank was almost physically painful to me, but I felt guilty if I didn’t do it. What made it rough was that the bank was located inside a Wal-Mart Super Center, turning each journey there into a three hour check cashing, stretch jean and frozen dinner extravaganza.
After a couple months of my grandma blowing her rather significant—way more than I was taking home—monthly check on expanding her growing collection of clothes with tags still on them, I told her she sucked at money and would no longer be in charge of it. We have that kind of relationship.
Though I’ve known Aunt Sara all my life, I didn’t grow up with her, as she lived out of state for most of my childhood. So while we had a decent relationship, it wasn’t the type were I was comfortable telling her she couldn’t be in charge of her own affairs. Plus, she was of a fragile mental state and I didn’t want to do anything to shatter that.
So if she wanted to use her money to purchase a pay-as-you go Blackberry, I wasn’t going to stop her. As long as she paid her share of the rent, that was fine. When she decided to buy herself a cheap Netbook for Christmas, that was fine too.
The trouble did not begin until the rent stopped showing up. I usually collected it in the checkout line on one of the check day journeys, but on this one journey–as the cashier was ringing out the various buckets of Neopolitan Ice Cream that floated down the conveyor belt– my grandmother and Sara were at the end of the line, in a scene I can only liken to two children fighting over who is going to tell Dad they broke a window. When it was eventually decided that my grandmother was the one I’d be least likely to yell at in a public place, she approached me and stumbled out with “Sara’s not going to pay rent this month.”
And so, it began.
Not wanting to hold up the line, I waited until the last bag touched the smooth, cool metal of the noisily-wheeled shopping cart before my investigation launched.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I just don’t feel like it.” Sara said.
This is around the point where I start looking like a total dick, so let me offer a few words in my defense. Both my grandmother and Sara were, as my grandfather put it, “sneaky” around money. To give you a small idea of where he was coming from, one time Sara added a $20 monthly charge for Kazaa—a peer to peer file sharing service that tried to rebrand itself as a legitimate music subscription service–to our phone bill. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal if she told me about it first or if the phone bill were in her name or if—when asked about it—she didn’t pretend it was a complete surprise. And my grandmother is one of the main reasons that you can’t get cash back when you return items you bought on credit.
Had Sara needed the rent money for something important, we could have found a way to make that work. Given past experience, I was sure that wasn’t the case here, so that’s why I get so…um, adamant about it.
“I don’t want to pay rent either, but I don’t have a choice. Why don’t you want to pay rent?” I asked.
“I just…need something for my computer.” Sara said.
“Oh really? What do you need?” I said.
“Nothing, I just need something for my computer.” She said
“Well, what is it? I’ve got tons of equipment around. Maybe I have an extra one.” This was a bluff on my part, but she stumbled for a bit, probably having wished she’d said she had gynecological problems instead of technical problems. I can assure you this conversation would have been over much quicker.
“I need a webcam,” she said.
“Your computer has webcam. Just fucking tell me why you aren’t paying rent.” I said. We were really close to the exit at this point, so I started adjusting my language and volume accordingly.
“I…I need to send it to my boyfriend.” she said.
“Why the hell does your boyfriend need $200?” I said, completely ignoring the fact that this was the first I’d heard of this boyfriend.
Because I don’t want to misrepresent the conversation here, I’ll summarize the result: Sara’s boyfriend, a Major in the US army stationed in Nigeria, needed not just the 200 rent dollars, but $600 in order to buy a bucket of bullets. I’m just going to let that statement stand on its own.
In the car, I alternated between yelling and telling Sara I was no longer going to yell because that would make it too easy for her to build this up as a forbidden love. I did, however, unplug the router when I got home and claim that I had called AT&T and asked them to put our internet service on hold for a month because we wouldn’t be able to afford it. Sara suspected something was up, but had no way to prove it, leaving her no choice but to actually pay her portion of the rent.
When I calmed down, I decided to try to talk to Sara about what was happening. I told her this was a scam and that she shouldn’t be wasting her money on this guy. She pretended to agree with me, but countered with “But I’ve talked to him on the phone!”, which was delivered in the same manner that an attorney calls a surprise witness. She said his name was Donnie Payne, which quickly changed to Donnie Dunn based solely on the look on my face when I said “So he’s Major Payne?” I asked who she was supposed to send her check to and she said it was to go to Major Dunn-Payne’s Commanding Officer, a man whose name was a stunning collection of letters that I struggle to recall now and struggled to pronounce back then. I made the face I make when something sounds ridiculous and left it at that.
When next month’s phone bill came, I found out that a call to Nigeria cost roughly $2 a minute. I was in my room when I discovered the $140 worth of phone calls on the bill, so I almost took the door off the hinges when I busted into the living room screaming about the bill. My rage, however, did not last long, as Sara quickly apologized and gave me the money to pay for the phone calls. To this day, I have no idea where that money came from, but at the time, the feeling of my rage being so quickly subverted left me too exhausted to ask any questions.
“Oh. Alright then. Just don’t do that again.” I said, as I returned to my designated corner.
Throughout the following weeks, I was presented with evidence that there was no way this could be a scam. If it were a scam, how come some guy in Atlanta sent Sara a check for $3000, to be cashed and forwarded to Major Dunn Payne via his CO? As flat out ridiculous as that sounds, Sara presented it with such conviction, such wide eyed belief that a very small part of me started to think that maybe I was wrong about all this. Again, a very, very small part, but when everyone around you is talking about the emperor’s beautiful clothes it’s easy to forget you’re looking at his ballsac.
One morning, home from work but too hungry to sleep, I wandered out of the safety of my blankets to score myself a bowl of Raisin Bran Crunch. As I stood in the kitchen pouring whole milk onto those delicious grains and nut clusters, Sara, who’d been sitting out on the backporch with my grandma, came in to tell me the good news.
“Donnie’s coming here.” she said.
“Oh, okay…wait. Define ‘here.’” I said.
“He’s going to live here. Ma said it was okay. He’s going to pay rent.” Sara said.
And this next bit right here represents the angriest I have ever been.
“WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU ASK HER IF SOME GUY YOU’D NEVER MET COULD LIVE HERE? YOU RUN THAT PAST ME! SHE’S NOT IN CHARGE HERE. IF HE STARTS STEALING SHIT, WHO’S STUFF DO YOU THINK HE’S GOING TO TAKE?” I said. Lest this seem too harsh, imagine it coming from a guy clad in man drawers, gesturing wildly with a full bowl of cereal in his hand (to my credit, I didn’t spill a drop).
“YOU KNOW WHAT? I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHY I’M SO ANGRY. THIS IS NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN. ALL I HAVE TO DO IS WAIT.” I said, apparently angry enough to start thinking out loud. I returned to my room to eat my Raisin Bran Crunch and focus my rage on the assholes on the Price is Right, but even the dumbass who thought the Dustbuster was $89 wasn’t enough to pull my mind away from all of the unanswered questions. So, I came flying out of my room and asked:
“WHEN’S THIS ASSHOLE GOING TO BE HERE?”
I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but sometimes when you start yelling, you keep doing it past the point where it’s needed just because it feels good to keep yelling. Also, a lot of things sound funnier when they are louder. Humor helps.
The asshole was apparently set to arrive in a few days. I did the thing where I go to my room only to come out screaming about three more times, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll summarize the content with the language intact, but the syntax modified: how the fuck he was getting here was by plane, which is why he needed all that goddamn money. And apparently he wasn’t going to land in the fucking backyard, but take a combination of plane, helicopter and taxi to get from Nigeria to our little house in Assfuck, CT.
While this moment represents the angriest I have ever been, it also represents the absolute nadir of my anger’s usefulness and validity. Why was I so angry? There was obviously no way that anyone was going to show up at the house–maybe I was really frustrated that I couldn’t find a way to effectively communicate that idea. Or maybe I figured that even if this guy didn’t move in, admitting that it was a possibility meant that Sara would think it was okay for her friend that looked like the Cryptkeeper-as-a-John-Deere-spokesman to stay the night forever. Maybe I’m just a dick.
I certainly felt like a dick, because even while I was trying to calm myself down, Sara was not gloating. There was no “I told you so.” The fact that I thought all of this was a ridiculous scam didn’t matter to her at all. She was about to be united with her true love and nothing—spatial concerns, how the rest of the house felt about it, the fact that he was not real—was going to stand in her way.
And thus, entirely one of us was surprised when Donnie didn’t show up as scheduled. It was okay though, as “his flight has been delayed, so he’ll be here tomorrow.” This went on for about a week until “Donnie” finally came clean: He was a Nigerian scam artist.
The walls in that house were paper-thin and my room was right next to the living room which is how I came to hear the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. A phone call was made—I don’t know which party initiated it—where “Donnie” definitively confirmed that there was no “Donnie.” I think there may have been an email or instant message where the idea had already been floated, but it did not offer the closure that Sara needed—hence the phone call.
She might have made the call, hoping that “Donnie” was playing a prank and was really waiting on our doorstep or the man who was “Donnie” might have called because he was sick of being hounded by this American woman. In any case, I could only hear one side of the phone conversation, but Sara–having just learned that there was no Major Donnie Dunn Payne–said something that has haunted me ever since:
“So, are you still coming?”
And if I had a heart, it probably would have broken there. As it stands, I did and do feel incredibly bad for finding it so funny. There’s your answer: yes, I’m a dick.
This didn’t happen because of ignorance (though that probably didn’t help). It wasn’t because some stranger on the other side of the world had a silver tongue. It was loneliness. A loneliness so deep that it pushed someone to send their rent money to a man they never met just to believe for a little while that he would come and rescue her from the darkness. And maybe “Donnie”—for as long as he existed– actually did make Sara’s life a little less lonely. Can you really put a price on that?
Yes, you can–it’s $3600. I don’t know where that money came from and I don’t know where it went, but I do know that the bank often called the house looking for it. For Sara’s part, she did try to retrieve the money by filing a report with the Connecticut State Police. Unfortunately, their jurisdiction does not reach into Africa.