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Mia Saul was late — again. She raced down the stairs of the subway station, an overstuffed canvas bag of produce hauled from the greenmarket thumping uncomfortably against her hip. Just as she reached the platform, which, despite the pleasant coolness of the September day, still held the wretched August heat, not one but two trains — the N express and the R local — pulled out simultaneously. Mia watched the retreating red lights and wanted to cry. This was the third time in a week she would be late picking up her daughter, Eden, from afterschool, the third time she would have to contend with the teacher, who would no doubt charge her the fee no matter how profuse her apology, the third time she would have to face her sullen child, standing outside the double doors of the gym and dragging the toe of her new forty-dollar Converse high-tops across the pavement in furious, stabbing lines.
However, instead of crying, Mia pulled an apple from the bag and, after giving it a surreptitious wipe on the front of her shirt, took a big, noisy bite. A woman standing nearby turned to look, and Mia, embarrassed, stepped away, making sure that her next bite was not so loud. She hadn't eaten lunch, and she was ravenous. She consumed the apple in tiny, fastidious mouthfuls, not only because she wanted to be quiet, but also to make the fruit last. The organic Macouns, the pear cider, the goat cheese, and the tangy cheddar in her bag were really too expensive for her budget these days, but were purchased in the hopes of getting Eden to eat. Eden's eating was just one more thing Mia had to worry about. As of June, Eden had stopped eating meat or poultry of any kind, and just last week she announced that fish was off her list, too. Rather than engage in yet one more battle, Mia had chosen to pursue a tack of enticement and temptation. She figured she had to try — for all she knew, next month Eden would eschew dairy products, too.
Finally, an R train rumbled in and Mia worked her way through the throng so that she was right in front of the double doors when they slid open. Good thing, too — some of the people waiting behind her didn't get to board before the doors closed and the train began its journey to Brooklyn. Twenty-five minutes later, Mia was bounding up the staircase at the Union Street station.
It was ten past six when Mia turned the corner onto First Street. As she anticipated, Eden was waiting outside with a lone teacher who was checking her watch, probably not for the first time, either. But the thing Mia did not, could not, anticipate was the fact that Eden's hair, or rather half of it, had been hacked off, as if by an inept scalper who had suddenly lost his nerve. On the left was the braid that Mia remembered her daughter plaiting this morning; on the right, an angry bristle, scarcely more than an inch long.
"Who did that to you?" Mia burst out. "I'll have them expelled." She put the bag down, panting with an ugly combination of exertion, stress, and shock.
"Eden's teacher tried calling — " began the woman whose name Mia could not recall.
"So why didn't you reach me?" But even as she spat the words, Mia remembered that she had turned off her cell phone during an editorial meeting and neglected to turn it back on later.
"I know they left messages," the woman continued. "At least two." She glanced over to Eden, who had so far not said anything. "Why don't I let Eden tell you what happened." She turned to Eden and waited. Still nothing. "Eden," she began again, in a cloyingly sweet voice. "Eden, we're waiting."
"No one did it to me," said Eden, sounding too jaded for someone who had only recently entered the double digits. "I did it myself."
"You cut half your hair off? Why?" All of Mia's righteous, maternal indignation evaporated in an instant, leaving her drained and reeling.
"It was in art class. We were doing self-portraits, and they were all so boring. I wanted mine to be different. Interesting."
"So you had to cut your hair?"
"Well, you wouldn't let me get a nose ring." She waited a beat and then asked, "Would you?"
The teacher, whose name simply would not coalesce in Mia's mind, cleared her throat discreetly before speaking.
"We thought that it might be a good idea for the two of you to see Ms. Jaglow. You can call tomorrow to make an appointment..."
Ms. Jaglow was the school psychologist. Although it was only the end of September, Mia had already met with Eden's teacher, the principal, and the learning specialist whose job it was to diagnose kids who had what were euphemistically called "special needs." Special, my ass, thought Mia, the first time she had heard the term applied to funny, brilliant, and, she had to admit, increasingly weird Eden. They don't mean special. They mean nuts.
"Yes, of course, I'll call her first thing in the morning," Mia said now, deciding that what she needed to do was get Eden home, away from this woman, to have whatever conversation they were going to have in private.
"Good; I'll tell her she can expect to hear from you," said the teacher, who glanced at her watch a final time. Mia knew that this meant she would be charged the late fee for the day, but she was too upset and too exhausted to plead. She touched Eden on the shoulder; Eden readjusted her backpack slightly and they began the short walk home.
Mia sent several covert, searching looks Eden's way, but Eden steadfastly ignored her and kept her eyes straight ahead. Mia felt tears begin a nasty, hot trail down her cheeks, and she turned her face away. She wished she could talk to Lloyd about all this. Lloyd was her best friend/lover/soul mate/husband. And now ex. He was big — six feet four, size fourteen shoes. Big hands, big jaw, big nose arching proudly over a big, handsome face. Oh, and big dick, too, though it mattered way more to him than to her. They had been together since college; Mia thought that they would be together forever. Wrong. The signs had been there for a while; she had just been idiotically slow about reading them.
Lloyd made documentaries about premodern workers in a postmodern world. He followed postmen, hospital orderlies, and grave diggers throughout their days, finding the hidden poetry in the mundane. He made a film about a man who owned a shoe-repair place tucked in an arcade at the Thirty-fourth Street subway station, another about the woman who sold empanadas on a street corner in Spanish Harlem.
His last project had been about the Asian women who worked in the nail salons all over the city. Bits and pieces of their stories came glinting into his conversation: one had come from Vietnam at the age of twelve; another had perfected the painting of minuscule lilies on individual nails. Mia had not been paying attention, or she would have noticed that one name, Suim, kept cropping up. Suim this. Suim that.
Lloyd left her for Suim — blubbering noisily as he said good-bye — maintaining he couldn't help himself, he loved Suim beyond words, beyond measure, and that if he stayed with Mia, he'd be living a lie. Instead, he had chosen to live in Queens with Suim, and he actually thought Mia should be happy for him because he had found this unexpected gift, this enduring, monumental, deathless love, when he was still young enough to appreciate it. That was Lloyd all right, so thoroughly enamored of the worthiness of his own desires. So authentic, so passionate in his own adoring eyes. So goddamn big.
Once a week he came to pick up Eden, and though he could be generous, even lavish with her during these visits, he was spotty about child support, claiming that he didn't have the money, he'd get the money, please, please, please, could she not make everything about the money? Eden returned from these weekends with tales of the fancy restaurant in Manhattan where they had eaten crepes oozing with chocolate and apricot jam, or clasping a bag from Barneys — Barneys! A place Mia wouldn't even walk past, much less actually shop in — filled with fanciful, impractical clothes. Mia felt sick when she thought about the black hand-knit sweater with the marabou collar that Eden adored — and lost the very first time she wore it. Or the long, pleated silk skirt, winking with tiny mirrors, that was useless at school, on the playground, or just about anywhere else that Eden actually went.
"Take her to Target and give me the rest for groceries!" she begged Lloyd when he dropped Eden off, this time with a stuffed toy giraffe that was taller than she was.
"There's no magic at Target, Mia," Lloyd said; his condescension dripped like honey.
"She needs new underwear, not magic," Mia said.
"Were you always so humdrum?" asked Lloyd.
Humdrum pays the bills, she wanted to say. But when they quarreled, Eden would get very quiet and start twisting a piece of her own skin — elbow, cheek, thigh — until it turned pink and eventually blue, so with great effort, Mia controlled herself.
Then quite abruptly, Lloyd decided to pick up and travel with Suim to Asia; he would not say how long he planned to be gone. At first, he was good about staying in touch, showering Eden with postcards, with gifts: a red lacquer box, an expensive-looking doll with a parasol, an enormous fan. But after a couple of months, nothing — not a word, not a forwarding address. Eden was alternately furious and weepy; Mia was sure part of her daughter's behavior was linked to Lloyd's disappearance, and she planned to mention this to the psychologist tomorrow.
Mia rummaged in her bag for her key. Their building was right on Fourth Avenue, a cheerless corridor filled with auto-body shops, car washes, and discount beverage warehouses. Traffic whizzed by all day and night; the multilane thoroughfare was bisected by narrow, weedinfested islands littered with broken glass, flattened beer cans, and used condoms. But Fourth Avenue was changing and the rising hulks of big new buildings — co-ops, condos — were crowding the sidewalks, grabbing at the sky. These behemoths boasted pools and gyms, parking garages and doormen. None of this would help Mia and Eden; in fact, apartment buildings like theirs would soon fall prey to the renovators or the wrecking ball. Then Mia and Eden would be priced out of even this marginal neighborhood.
The building itself — red brick, lighter brick trim, heavy glass doors enhanced by decorative black iron scrolls — was not without a certain faded elegance. Once inside the lobby, though, the desolation and deterioration were evident: the terrazzo floors were cracked and the Art Deco bas-reliefs on the walls were stained and peeling. One wall was overpowered by peel-and-stick mirrored tiles that were glued, inexplicably, to two-thirds of its surface, and the space was filled with a varying assortment of cast-off furniture that seemed to change monthly: a red velvet sofa spilling its upholstered guts, a scarred coffee table of some obsidian-like substance, a pair of office chairs in cracked turquoise vinyl.
Because the elevator had been broken for weeks, Mia and Eden climbed the stairs to the fourth floor. They passed the apartment of their across-the-hall neighbor, Manny, a tough Hispanic guy of about twenty-five. Mia did not know his last name; on his buzzer were the words Cloud Nine. He had decorated the had-to-cost-a-thousand-dollars steel door he'd installed with puffy, spray-painted clouds in shades of pink, baby blue, and yellow. People showed up at all hours of the night looking for him; Mia knew this because if he did not answer, they rang her bell instead.
"Where is he?" they implored. "I gotta see him now." Mia was sorry for these lost souls, but there was nothing she could do.
Directly next door lived Mr. Ortiz, a widower with a pair of fat, white, soiled-looking Pomeranians. Even Eden, confirmed dog lover that she was, could not abide the obese, wheezing creatures and shrank back whenever she saw them. Mr. Ortiz walked stiffly and with difficulty. Ever since the problem with the elevator began, he had taken to opening his door and letting the dogs do their business in the hallway, much to the annoyance of the other tenants, especially Manny.
"Your dog shits here again and I break his snout," he snarled one day in Mia and Eden's hearing. "You get that, Ortiz?"
"I am so sorry, Señor Manny," said Mr. Ortiz. His gnarled hands were clasped, and his furrowed forehead shone. "My knees — " He gestured in their direction. "Terrible, terrible. I can't make it down the stairs." The dogs, sensing his distress, circled anxiously. "They're all I have."
"Well, pretty soon you're not gonna have them. I'm tired of living with the stench." He stared into the face of one of the dogs, which had come close to where he stood.
"What are you looking at?" he said. In response, the dog uncoiled its long pink tongue to lick his shoe.
"Jesus H. Christ, Ortiz," said Manny. "Keep that mutt away from me." He yanked on the steel door, which emitted a percussive sound as it crashed shut.
Fortunately, Manny, Mr. Ortiz, and the dogs were not in evidence today. Eden dumped her backpack on the floor just inside their apartment door, pried off her sneakers, and headed for the tiny alcove off the kitchen that constituted her bedroom.
"Hey, where do you think you're going?" called Mia to her retreating back.
"Later, Mom," she said in that irritating, condescending tone she had lately begun to adopt.
"Not later. Now." Mia's voice was louder and sharper than she meant. But then, this kid could really take it out of her. Eden stopped, and Mia pressed her advantage. "I want an explanation."
"For what?" Eden turned to face her.
"What do you mean, for what? Your hair, Eden."
"I told you already: I was bored."
"That's not an answer, that's — " Mia began, but then the sound of voices — one angry, the other pleading — in the hallway stopped her midsentence. Even though she knew she shouldn't, she went to the door to listen. Eden was right behind her.
"I thought I told you to keep those goddamn dogs out of the hallway. Enough is enough. I just stepped in it, man. Do you get it? I stepped in your dog's shit!" Manny's voice was loud enough to be heard even without Mia's opening the door.
"Señor Manny, I am so, so sorry," Mr. Ortiz said. "I was just going into the apartment for a paper towel; I was coming right back — "
"I warned you, Ortiz," interrupted Manny. "I warned you more than once. Now the warnings are over, man. Over."
"Señor Manny, no, please, please no!" Mr. Ortiz said. "I'll clean your shoe myself, I promise. Here, just give it to me and I'll be happy to — "
There was a sudden, excruciating yelp and then the sound of the steel door slamming. Mia and Eden looked at each other and then,very cautiously, Mia opened her own door a crack. Mr. Ortiz was bent over the body of one of the dogs; its small, white head bloomed with blood. The other dog whimpered pitifully. Quickly, Mia closed the door.
What to do? Go out and confront Manny? Comfort Mr. Ortiz? Call the ASPCA? Before she could figure out a plan, she looked at Eden, in whose eyes tears were pooled, and everything else stopped for a second.
"Did he kill it?" Eden asked in a small voice.
"I don't know," Mia said, encircling Eden's shoulders with her arm. Close up, Eden's hacked hair looked like feathers. Mia wished she could burrow her face in it, but Eden had recently become skittish about displays of affection, so Mia reluctantly kept her distance. Mia no longer had the interest or energy to discuss Eden's hair. There would be plenty of time for that tomorrow, when she called the teacher and the psychologist.
"I hope not," Eden said. The tears leaked rather than fell, giving her small, intelligent face a glazed and syrupy look. "I mean, I did hate them and all, but..."
"But you didn't want to see one of them hurt."
"Or dead," Eden said in the flat voice that scared Mia more than anything else about her child.
"Or dead," Mia repeated softly. Eden stared at her for a moment and then drifted off in the direction of the television set. Mia watched her departing back, not sure whether to continue the conversation or let it go for now. She was still shaken; maybe calling the ASPCA would be the best idea. But first, shouldn't she go to see Mr. Ortiz? Maybe the dog would be all right if she could help him get it to a vet. Her mind darted back and forth between competing options as she stepped into the kitchen; only then did she realize she had left the canvas bag and all the food it contained on the sidewalk in front of Eden's school.
"Shit!" she said loudly. "Shit, shit, SHIT!"
"I'm listening to all this," called Eden in a singsong voice.
Mia stopped cursing and walked into the other room.
"I left our food outside," she said. "In front of the gym," she added, as if that were somehow important.
"Uh-huh." Eden was rapt in front of the television; despite the fact that she had read Of Mice and Men three times and was now onto The Red Pony, she still could be entranced by the most vapid of cartoons.
"I'm going to go back and see if I can find it."
"Whatever." Mia ran a hand, experimentally, it seemed, over the shorn part of her head.
"I'll be back as soon as I can. You know my cell number, right?"
"Right," said Eden. "Your cell. Sure."
"Love you." Even though she knew Eden wouldn't like it, she swooped down for a quick kiss on the back of her daughter's neck. Eden's fingers rose to the spot and rubbed, as if to erase the imprint of Mia's lips. It hurt, that small unconscious gesture, more than she wanted to acknowledge. But she said nothing, because really, what could she say?
When Mia opened the door, she saw no sign of Mr. Ortiz or either of the dogs, though the offending smear was still there, along with a smaller but more menacing puddle of blood. Drops of blood painted an ominous trail back to the door of Mr. Ortiz's apartment. She went back inside and returned to the hallway with a wad of paper towels and a spray bottle of Fantastic. The larger problem of Mr. Ortiz's dog would have to wait until she got back; right now, she had to see if she could find that damn food that she couldn't afford to buy in the first place and certainly couldn't afford to lose.
She trotted the few blocks to the school. Maybe it would still be there. It was possible; it hadn't been all that long. But when she reached the spot, the only thing on the sidewalk was a Popsicle stick with a sticky orange residue at one end. A shaggy brown dog leaned over for an experimental lick; his owner pulled him away. Mia thought of Mr. Ortiz again, and her heart constricted. She would call the ASPCA as soon as she got home; she would bang on Manny's door and berate him herself; she would — Mia stopped, suddenly depleted. It was all too much — her kid, her ex, her job, her life. There was nothing left over for fighting Mr. Ortiz's battles. It was a shabby, unpleasant truth, but there it was.
She began walking again, and her thoughts turned to the more immediate crisis. The food that she planned to offer to Eden for supper was gone, and in her wallet there was only thirty-six cents. It had been twenty-nine dollars and thirty-six cents this morning, when she left her apartment. The trip to the greenmarket had depleted that by twenty-five.
Then she had seen the guy — pallid, bony face, glasses held together at the bridge of his nose with a bit of masking tape — sitting on the sidewalk, coffee cup nestled between his knees.
"Please help me get something to eat," he said in a monotone. "Please help me get something to eat."
No one stopped to give him anything. No one even looked. One more guy begging on the street elicited no reaction, not a coin, not a word, not a glance. In the past, Mia would have been one of the crowd, just hurrying by in an effort to make it through her own day. But lately, guys like this one had begun to exert an effect on her, a sort of gravitational pull into their own particular orbits. What would it feel like to be sitting on that sidewalk, asking for money, and have no one stop? It would be as if you had been suddenly rendered invisible to everyone else, invisible in plain sight.
The thought stung her, causing her to stop and dig around in her bag for her wallet. She quickly checked what was inside. She could get a sandwich. If she skipped buying a drink, four bucks would cover it. That left thirty-six cents, mostly in pennies. Not much, she knew. Still, it was better than nothing. Better than acting as if he weren't even there. She walked over to where he sat, deposited the money in his cup — it was empty — and kept walking. She didn't watch him look in the cup, look at all those pennies and the one lone dime. But she could feel him doing it even without seeing it. The feeling was not good. Then she heard a voice behind her and she paused.
"Oh wow!" said the voice, bristling with sarcasm. "Oh wow, I can buy something really delicious to eat with all that money!"
Mia knew that she shouldn't have been standing there, that she should start moving, now, quickly, to get away. But something kept her rooted to the spot. He was beside her in seconds.
"Thanks for the pennies," he almost shouted. "Thanks a lot." He tossed them into the open lip of her bag. He was a good shot; only one coin landed on the sidewalk. Mia's cheeks felt scorched as she knelt to retrieve it. She didn't look up, but even from her crouched position, she could see him stride back to his spot and resume his vigil with the once-again-empty coffee cup.
Then she stood, and even though she was terrified of what she was about to do next, she knew that she would feel even worse if she did not make the trek back to where he sat. He did not look up, but stared down at the cup.
"I'm sorry," she said. Her face was still hot, and she was shaking a little. "I didn't mean to offend you."
He didn't say anything.
"I know it wasn't very much. But I wanted to give you something. I wanted you to know — " Her voice betrayed her here, breaking a bit as she spoke.
"To know what?" he asked. He still sounded angry, but now the hostility was curbed by something else. Curiosity maybe.
"To know that I saw you. All those people were going by, and no one stopped, no one gave you a thing, no one even noticed you were there. It was like you weren't there. But I saw you. I saw you, and I wanted you to know that I saw you. That's why I had to give you something."
"Pennies," he said quietly. "You gave me pennies." His voice was no longer angry, though; he just sounded worn out and sad.
"I know," she said. "And I'm very sorry." There was a sob gathering in her throat, but she wasn't going to let it out. Instead, she looked down at the four dollar bills — the last four dollar bills from her wallet — that were crunched in her moist palm. "Here," she said, giving him the money. "Take it."
He stared at the bills and then up into her face. "Why are you giving me this?"
"Are you sure?" he said. He sounded suspicious and held the bills by their edges, as if they were not truly his.
"I'm sure. Just get yourself something to eat." The sob had subsided, but the heat in her cheeks was still there, an uncomfortable flush. "Get yourself lunch."
Fingers closed around his prize, he sprang nimbly to his feet. Mia watched him lope off and waved back, weakly at first, and then with gathering energy, when he turned to look back at her.
So now, standing there on the sidewalk contemplating the lost groceries, she was well aware of just how much — or, more aptly, how little — money she had left. She had no credit cards, having some time ago snipped them up and tossed them away; temptation was worse than penury, she had decided.
But she could go to the bank. Yes, that was a good plan; she would run up to the bank on Fifth Avenue, and then stop at the market on the corner of Carroll. True, it was more expensive, but it was getting late and she had to feed Eden. She would buy edamame, strawberries, organic frozen yogurt — all food her daughter was likely to eat. The issue of Eden's eating had come to dominate much of Mia's thinking these days: would she eat, what would she eat, had she eaten enough, how could she tempt her to eat again. It was like having a picky toddler all over again, and it was grinding her down.
The bank, completed only months ago, was all chrome shine and gleam. Mia pushed open the heavy glass doors and headed for the row of cash machines against the wall. She quickly inserted her card and followed the prompts by pushing the necessary buttons. get cash, she commanded the machine. There was a brief dimming of the screen, which Mia thought was strange, but it was followed by the familiar whirring sound, and then the bills were spit from a slot. She took the money without counting it, checking the receipt first to see how dangerously low her balance had dipped.
The constant, grating anxiety about money was new, the result of the divorce and the nearly simultaneous loss of her longtime job as a children's book editor. Now that her unemployment checks had run out, she had been freelancing, temping, and even filling in for her friend Julie as a waitress some nights — doing whatever she had to do to keep herself, and Eden, afloat.
Mia checked the balance again; she had enough to pay the rent, which was due at the week's end, but not much more. Lloyd owed her money, of course, but since he had flown the coop, it was going to be impossible to collect it. Still, she should call her lawyer. Right now, though, she was going to go to the store so she could make a meal for her child.
She stuffed the bills into her wallet. The wad seemed unusually thick, so she began to count. One, two, three, four, five, six — but wait. There were more twenties than there should have been. She had taken out one hundred dollars, so why all the bills? Had the machine spewed out tens instead?
Mia checked again. No, they were all twenties. Only more of them than there should be. She looked again at the receipt. One hundred dollars was deducted from her account. Just to make sure, she stepped back to the cash machine to check her balance.
An odd thing happened when she did — the screen paled, and for a second, it seemed to shimmer. A prelude to the machine shutting down or malfunctioning in some way? But no. She was able to check her balance and saw that the information on the screen matched the information on the printed slip.
Slowly, Mia counted the bills again. Ten twenties, two hundred dollars. A bank error in her favor, sure. Would they catch it tomorrow, next week, or in a month? And if so, was someone going to get in trouble, maybe lose a job? She looked again at the machine, the panel of squarish buttons, the hyper-blue of the screen. If the machine made the mistake, then no one could be blamed. She decided not to debate this with herself any longer. It was just good luck, and she certainly needed some of that. Tucking the bills and the receipt carefully into her wallet, Mia headed back out through the double doors and into the street again. She bought the food she had planned; since Eden was famished by the time Mia returned, she ate everything without comment or complaint.
The next day, Mia didn't have time to think about the extra money. She spent twenty minutes trying to arrange Eden's hacked hair into some semblance of an actual style, but eventually had to give up and admit defeat. This meant that she was late dropping her off to school and late heading into the publishing firm where she was filling in for someone on medical leave. Once she arrived, the day took off, nonstop. There were the calls from both the psychologist — clueless — and the teacher — hostile — to contend with. There was a long drawn-out meeting at which she was expected, God help her, to participate. The company had made a mint on the Mommy Mousie series, books so treacly and asinine that Mia wondered daily if their appeal was not pure camp. Mommy Mousie and Her Six Baby Mousies, a major hit, was followed by Mommy Mousie Minds Her Manners and Mommy Mousie Makes a Milk Shake.
Today they were discussing the next books in the series and whether the alliterative titles ought to continue. One hot young editor wearing rhinestone eyeglasses and a miniskirt over a pair of olive drab leggings was intent on keeping the "melodious M's," whereas one of the older editors, all rumpled shirt and well-worn khakis, was in favor of branching out. To Mia, the discussion was immaterial: the stories were smarmy, the drawings inept and charmless. Her mind wandered; it was a strain to look interested.
Finally, it was five o' clock, and even though many of her coworkers stayed later, Mia gathered her things together and raced out. It was only when she passed the greenmarket that she slowed. Given her little windfall, she decided to replace yesterday's lost groceries. She bought cheese, apples, cider, and, since she was feeling flush, organic cashew butter, pumpkin spread, and some onion rolls that, as it turned out, Eden loved. While they were eating, Mia found herself scrutinizing Eden's hair. Did it look a little better today, or was Mia just getting used to it? Or maybe it was the effect of those extra twenties in her wallet — everything seemed a tad rosier.
The next week Mia received her bank statement in the mail. She tore it open, scanned the page with avid, searching eyes. No indication of the bank's accidental largesse. Mia pored over the statement, looking for clues to what might have happened. There was none. She folded the statement in thirds and tucked it in a drawer.
On Saturday, while Eden was embarked on a marathon playdate — Brooklyn Museum, Rollerblading in Prospect Park, movie at the Pavilion — Mia found herself walking past the bank. She didn't actually need any cash, but she felt herself drawn through the doors anyway. Once inside, facing the row of machines, she stopped. Did anyone else know what had happened last time? And that she was stupidly hoping and wishing that it might happen again? Could there be a look on her face? An odor she emitted? The other patrons of the bank came and went quickly, transacting their business, tucking away their cash, talking on their cell phones, admonishing their children. No one noticed her at all.
Nervously, she approached a machine, the same one she used last time. She inserted the card, punched in the commands to receive one hundred dollars, and waited. There it was again — that paling and darkening of the screen. Then came the humming that preceded the ejection of the money, the printed receipt. She grabbed the receipt first. A debit of one hundred dollars, just like before. She reached for the wad of bills. It felt thick in her hands, and she counted hastily. Ten bills. But they were not twenties, not this time. Instead, she was holding ten one-hundred-dollar bills. Mia closed her eyes, thinking that she was imagining the number, seeing what she wanted to see, not what was in fact there. When she opened them, the one remained fixed in the corner of the bill, solidly buttressed by the twin zeroes. One thousand dollars. She was overcome with a sensation of heat and cold simultaneously: her scalp grew hot and itchy, as if it were shrinking perceptibly, while her armpits were suddenly drenched with sweat. One. Thousand. Dollars. A thousand dollars. A cool grand.
Copyright © 2009 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Posted October 5, 2009
Mia Saul lives with her ten-year-old daughter Eden in a fourth floor rental in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It's a neighborhood that they love with Prospect Park, the green market, the public library, playground, stores and eateries. Ever since her ex-husband Lloyd left, things have been difficult and it's all Mia can do to keep her head above water. Her beloved Eden has gone beyond vegetarian: the list of things that she refuses to eat grows larger every day. Plus, Eden has been getting into fights and all sorts of destructive behavior. Between losing her job, looking for contractual publishing gigs, meeting with Eden's teacher, therapist and school principal, Mia doesn't have time to look for love or make any large changes in her life.
After difficult parent-teacher talk, losing the week's groceries, and beating herself up, Mia drops by a nearby ATM machine and where she receives a windfall of cash. Though she worries that there must be some mistake, she keeps some, splurges a little, and gives some away. And Mia starts to believe that her luck is changing.
Breaking The Bank is sure to give magical did-I-just-read-that?! moments. The people and places in Mia Saul's neighborhood easily become real. It's not hard to imagine ten-year-old Eden trying to control the changes in her life with a growing love of Barney's, imaginary vacations, and her growing list of boycotted foods. Or sharing Mia's longing for the camaraderie shared with her brother Stuart before he became the Park Avenue corporate lawyer with the house in Greenwich, a corporate lawyer wife and two sets of blond, long haired twins. Or frustration with ex-husband from Phillips Academy and Princeton who, hit with sudden yellow fever, has money for splurges but irregular child support. Or growing fond of Mia's best friend, Julia, the generous and sage bartender with an extensive shoe collection. It's not just because I live in Brooklyn that the places and people that Yona'd described came alive for me, she paints a New York I would love to imagine living right under my nose. Tough, exciting, full of magic.
Publisher: Downtown Press (September 8, 2009), 368 pages.
Courtesy of the publisher.
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Posted November 22, 2009
Mia Saul is barely keeping her head above water. She lives in New York City with her daughter, Eden, and works a series of temp editorial jobs. Her husband, Lloyd, has walked out after sixteen years of marriage for a young girl he met while filming a documentary on the nail salon industry. He sends child support haphazardly when it suits him, but still considers himself able to interfere in all of Mia's decisions. Mis is constantly worried. Worried about Eden, who is having trouble at school, worried about money, worried about their apartment, just worried.
Then one night it happens. She goes to an ATM to take out one hundred dollars, and the machine gives her two hundred, while putting out a receipt for the hundred she asked for. She assumes the machine just made a mistake and it would reflect on her next statement, but the mistake doesn't show up. The next time it is five hundred, then a thousand, and finally an uncirculated ten-thousand dollar bill. Mis can't believe what is happening, but doesn't tell anyone. She starts to give money to those around her in need, trying to make their lives a little better as the money does hers.
But worse is to happen. She sells the bill to a local dealer, who then gets killed soon after. That brings the police to Mia's door, and she is even arrested and spends a night in jail. This just provides more ammunition to Lloyd, who manages to get Mia's family on his side. They all insist that she is making poor decisions that affect Eden, and Eden goes to live with her grandparents, leaving Mia miserable.
Along with these woes, there are romantic ones. Will Mia get back with Lloyd, who seems to be around more and more? Will she start a new relationship with Fred, the steady laid-back bartender who is definately interested in her? Or will she throw everything away for an exciting mystery man who everyone thinks is totally wrong for her?
Breaking The Bank is a charming book. It is a light romance as well as an interesting take on the everyday life of single moms. The reader finds themselves cheering for Mia to make it. This book is recommended for those looking for a feel-good book, and for lovers of women's literature.
Posted October 11, 2009
I waited anxiously for this book to show up after reading the synopsis. There have been plenty of books that I was jumping at the bit to read and perhaps because I felt such a build up and had such high expectations, the reality of the book fell short. Not so with Breaking the Bank.
This book works on all levels but the strongest parts of it are author Yona Zeldis McDonough's crisp, honest and witty writing and the character of Mia. Despite the unlikelihood and "magic" of an ATM giving out free money to one particular person, the balance of the stories in Breaking the Bank are brutally honest and steeped in realism. Our heroine, Mia Saul, lives in an old aparment building whose elevator has been broken for ages and who has a drug dealer, an elderly man who only seems to communicate with his dogs, and a family with both parents working at McDonald's as neighbors. Mia is a flawed character - - her husband left her for another woman and she is still alternately bitter and pained about it; she is in denial about her daughter Eden's difficulties at school and acting out over her father's leaving; she feels inadequate as both a parent and a wife; she has issues with her mother and her brother's family; and last but not least, she doesn't necessarily run back to the bank with the free money. But it's precisely these authentic flaws that make Mia such an easily relatable character, if not downright likeable. Without giving away a major plot point, Mia acts in a fashion that may not be exactly amiable but I still liked her throughout the book.
I found Breaking the Bank to be a light and yet astonishingly meaty read. I was quickly invested in Mia and her story and not only wanted to find out how the situation with the ATM resolved itself but I also wanted to know what happened with Mia herself.
I would recommend this book without reservation and without hesitation to anyone who enjoys a story with compelling characters, a difficult conflict to overcome and with a bit of magic.
Posted September 27, 2009
the book is definately not what i expected. the reviews were pretty good which is why i was expecting it to be alot better than what it was. yeah its everyones ideal situation but the book just went on and on. with really no point besides the fact that she was getting free money. book in a quick review mia gets divorced and is having trouble paying the bills. she gets free money from a bank and decides to share it with everyone she comes into contact with. she meets a nice guy but then later messes it up by sleeping with some bum, yes a bum, she meets in jail. in the end shes pretty well off. IT WAS NOT A GOOD BOOK. DONT WASTE YOUR MONEY.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 18, 2009
Yona Zeldis McDonough's compelling new novel is the sort of book that is nearly impossible to put down. Mia Saul, the protagonist, a beleaguered single mother, instantly earns the reader's sympathy, and I found myself rooting for her every step of the way. From the very first page, I knew I was in the hands of an expert storyteller, a writer who instinctively understands how to keep the reader guessing from one page to the next. I'm going to recommend "Breaking the Bank" to all my friends who are members of book clubs!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 15, 2009
The goose that laid the golden eggs and the New York Lottery proved that "It Could Happen to You!" But what would you do if an ATM machine began spewing out hundreds of dollars without reducing your account balance? McDonough weaves a charming tale about a woman who is finally free to live her life as she chooses after the stress of paying bills and the costs of raising a child are under control. BREAKING THE BANK is full of warm humor and honest emotion while asking tough questions about human nature at a time when investment bankers are once again being paid staggering bonuses as supermarket prices rise, parents fret about tuition, and many people can't find work. The author skillfully interweaves the complexities of financial survival and the challenges of relationships in a novel filled with wonderful imagery, dialogue and characterizations.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 5, 2009
Mia Saul lost her job at the same her husband Lloyd kicks her to the curb. Accompanied by her ten year old daughter Eden, she moves into a crummy Brooklyn apartment, where their neighbors include a tough young drug dealer and a widower whose dogs use the hallways as toilets. Mia obtains temporary work while her spouse argues over child support and Eden struggles to adjust to the changes in her life.
Mia goes to an ATM to withdraw money, but the machine hands her thousands which she did not ask for without reducing her account into negative numbers; the machine advises her to use the loot smartly. She leaves with plenty of money and dreams of opportunities. The police wonder if she is doing something illegal and her family friends fear for her sanity so they decide on an intervention while Lloyd demands Eden stay with his parents in North Carolina. When she meets her neighbor Patrick, Mia finds a breath of fresh air in her still troubled existence.
Although the plot is thin and filled with improbability (not counting the ATM machine who is more human than most of the cast), readers will enjoy this allegorical look at modern life in which the manta is to get something for nothing is highly acceptable. The whimsical story line is fast-paced as everyone inside of Mia's circle wonders if she selling drugs or her body. Fans who enjoy something different but magical will want to read Mia's BREAKING THE BANK as the "fortune cookie" ATM wisely advises the heroine on spending her unearned loot.
Posted August 1, 2009
Who among us doesn't fantasize about what they'd do with large sums of found money? McDonough interjects the materialization of this fantasy into a realistic framework. The fantasy is clearly fantasy, but the consequences of it are all too real and human. To stretch a Delmore Schwartz line, in the fulfillment of fantasies begin responsibilities. Mia may not seriously question the logic behind her great luck, but she does question its implications for her life. Her regular, unexplained windfalls give her opportunities far beyond the material. She begins to see who she is in potentia, and we get to think about who we would be if the world's most common fantasy came true for us.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 15, 2009
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Posted November 30, 2009
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