Yesterday, I received a form letter from the bank. Among paragraphs of optimistic legalese about HAMP, the Home Affordable Modification Program, I read the verdict given to me yesterday on the phone:
In reveiwing your loan for a possible modificaiton, we have determined that we are not able to fulfill your request for a modification due to an imminent foreclosure sale of the property.
They don’t mention the fact that I had my paperwork into them in February, and that I resubmitted everything again, and that I wrote a letter explaining all of the missing information that was unable to be obtained, that they forgot it everytime I called, or that the special team assigned to our case had no better memory than the not-so-special team.
I faintly remember receiving a letter from a “trustee” and went back through piles of paperwork to discover a Trustee’s Notice from a place in Seattle. On the back of this letter in captital letters, it read:
WHEREFORE, notice hereby is given that the undersigned trustee, will on June 13, 2011, at the hour of 11:00 AM, in accord with the standard of time established by ORS 187.110, AT THE FRONT ENTRANCE OF THE CROOK COUNTY COURTHOUSE, 300 E. 3RD STREET, PRINEVILLE, County of CROOK, State of OREGON, sell at public auction to the highest bidder for cash,
… blah, blah, blah.
At first, I planned to wake the girls early, to instruct them to dress simply and beautifully, and we would all solemnly watch our house be sold. I imagined us symbolizing the disappearing middle class, the teeming masses of poor, out-of-work families, the thousands of foreclosures, the single mothers with children, the out-of-work men, lost and wandering … I planned to stand in the gap, proud and tall, and remember what America used to be when we built instead of bought … I felt that watching my house sell would represent the death of the American dream.
Then I thought better of it and realized I was being melodramatic.
Plus, I didn’t want to get up that early.
I decide to let today be just another day. The sale of my house does not really touch me or my family or who we are. We are still us. So, I put on my workout sweats, tank top, tennis shoes and I borrow Greta’s white, plastic movie-star sunglasses with fake sequins on them and I take all the girls to tennis instead. When Dagne finishes, I pick her up, leaving the others to continue playing until noon. I take Dagne to storytime at the library and send a letter off to Paul.
After, Dagne and I show up at the court house at a quarter to eleven. We walk into the courthouse and a lady who was crossing the hall asks us if she can help us with anything.
“We’re here for the auction of the house scheduled for today. Where does that take place?” I ask.
With a flick of her hand to indicate the fountain in front, she says, “They usually gather out there.”
I nod and escort Dagne toward the bathroom. The lady follows us inside. When she comes out of the stall and we’re standing by each other at the dual sinks, washing our hands, she asks, “How does the auction work? Do you just show up with cash and bid on it?” She must think I’m a buyer and I’m proud that I don’t look the downtrodden part with an eviction notice pasted across my forehead.
I shrug my shoulders, shake my head, smile, and say, “I don’t know. This is my first one.”
The Crook County Courthouse is an imposing, stone building erected in the center of town. Covered in ivy, the classical building is supported by splayed columns with Ionic capitals. A cascade of wide stone steps is bordered by stone half-walls that also step-down at much less regular intervals, three-feet wide and deep, with cement pots, chipped and worn, mortared to each level. Nothing is planted in these pots. The only greenery peeking from one of the pots is a piece of a tinsel Christmas bough. Trees that remind me of cypruses grow tall and skinny directly in front of the buildings. Larger, sprawling deciduous trees are planted in the front gardens. A low bush still has Christmas lights wound about it. Adjacent to the main pathway leading to the steps is a memorial with an eternal flame burning in memory of all the veterans from Crook County that served in the armed forces. There is a large, round fountain in the center of this wide pathway with a low wall built around it of the same stones on the Courthouse.
Prineville is the oldest town in Central Oregon with old streets built wide enough for buggies to turn around in. It is a cow town, a ranchers town, a place where even the gas prices can’t keep its people from driving large, gas-guzzling trucks. Two out three vehicles are trucks, roaring up and down the main drag through town.
Across from the courthouse is a new plaza with a new City Hall built at the height of the real estate boom when Prineville was an upcoming town achieving bedroom status for people who couldn’t afford to live in Bend. Those people have long since lost and left and Prineville sank into its old insignificance. A bronze sculpture of a cowboy on a galloping horse chasing a wild horse is the plaza’s centerpiece. The cowboy leans over, rope at the ready, forever focused on capturing the mustang.
It is approaching 11 o’clock and nothing seems to be happening. Dagne starts to play on the steps. A policeman comes out and I think, This must be it. But he just cautions Dagne to be careful on the steps and comments on the beautiful day before sauntering over to the police station next door.
The house sparrows and finches are busy building in the eaves of the courthouse and are arguing and shouting at each other as they fight for space and food.
A mother with a stroller and two small children clinging to her hands, clothes, and stroller slowly pass by on the sidewalk that runs perpendicular to the main pathway in front of the courthouse. An old man with a long, full, white beard gingerly makes his way toward us. I wonder if he is coming to the auction.
I am sitting on the steps, sunning myself. He stops to ask me, “Are you keeping the stairway from flying away?”
I nod and smile at him, relieved that I don’t have to hate him for wanting to buy my house. He grasps the handrail and steps up until he reaches Dagne who is playing on the rail.
“And what are you doing, young lady?” he asks her in a grand, chivalrous manner that always pleases kids.
She smiles her toothless smile as she jumps onto the step and answers, “Just playing.”
“Gee,” he says with mock seriousness, “that’s too bad,” He smiles a toothless smile back at her and continues up the stairway, leaning heavily on the rail. It’s 11:06.
Dagne rides the railing down the stairs and rushes back up the steps for another ride.
A bailiff comes out to caution Dagne to be careful on the railing. He smiles and waves at me. I watch Dagne climb the railing again and decide I need to intervene.
“Dagne, you can’t ride the railing face-first. You at least need to turn around and go down backward.”
The old man appears at my elbow on the bottom step. He must have gone down the stairs and come out of the door and into the alcove underneath the stairs.
“You again!” I say, thinking he’s here for the auction after all.
He stops for a rest and says, “You know, you can’t really get lost in this building but you can’t really find where you want to go.” He laughs and makes his way back up the stairs again.
The birds keep chirping, more insistently now, as if to show their annoyance at humans hanging around instead of passing through. The trucks keep roaring past. Dagne moves to the trees near the sidewalk and ascends a low branch and jumps off again. Then, she hops onto the wall of the fountain and walks around its circumference, bobbling over the water. It’s 11:15.
Dagne moves to the steps and challenges herself on the walls bordering the steps. Watching her peer down over the two-story drop gives me the shakes.
“Get away from there, Dagne,” I command. “I don’t want you to fall.”
The old man appears again at the top of the landing and, leaning on the rail, carefully makes his way down the stairs.
He stops and turns to face me, a polite gesture from goneby days. People talk as they go now, not bothering to look you in the face.
“It would help if they put a sign on the door of what they do inside them,” he said, smiling. “I’m old enough to know that would help.”
Dagne slid down the railing again. It is 11:20.
“Mom, can we go over and see the horses now?” she asks. She’s talking about the bronze sculptures which are larger than life.
“Not yet,” I answer, absentmindedly. I feel my right arm starting to burn in the direct sun. Dagne flops beside me and sings a Song of Herself: a song that is sung just for the joy of it and includes whatever she sees, humming nonsense, reading street signs with a random, operatic tune. I try to kiss her and she resists until I tickle her into submission. She sprawls into my lap. She’s getting too big for such things but she is the baby and she doesn’t seem to show any eagerness for moving on before she’s ready.
11:25. Dagne comes running around the corner, shivering with pretend fright.
“Mom! Come around here with me. It’s haunted!” She runs around to the alcove under the stairway and assumes a sneaking, theiving position. She peeks around the corner with her hands formed into a gun and then presses against the wall, her little mischievous brown eyes moving side to side. With a gallant sweep of her hand, she indicates the alcove, damp and cool, with its stone walls shading the space.
“This is called …” she looks for inspiration and sees the newspaper holder for deliveries, “the Bulletin.”
She straightens up quickly and does a little bob, announcing, “Mom, I’ve gotta go to the bathroom.”
The inside of the courthouse looks like a movie set for a western. Thick trim of deep, red mohagany outline the windows and doors. The windows are deep-set. The mohagany doors have frosted glass with black lettering. On one door it says, “Men.” On the other, it says, “Ladies.” Other doors say “Circuit Court” and “County Clerk.” All are written in a font reminiscent of yellowed newspapers once waved at prospective customers by street boys in striped caps, shouting the headlines on the street corners, hoping to get a few cents.
After Dagne is finished, I go through the door that says “County Clerk.”
“Is there a docket or something that would indicate whether an auction is going to take place here?” I ask.
The clerk answers, “No. We have nothing to do with anything like that. They just use our front steps. Sometimes, however, I know that they cancel, even on the way over.”
I thank her and walk out. A lawyer, dressed in a wool suit-jacket with a button-down shirt, a bolo tie, jeans, and cowboy boots is explaining to one of his clients what went on upstairs. He has an effeminate voice with a lisp. I look at the time. 11:45.
I walk past them, holding onto Dagne’s warm, trusting little hand. We walk down the steps together, taking the steps in sync, cross the lawn, and get in the car. We stare at the stone steps for a moment.
“Buckle up,” I command Dagne.
I put the car into reverse and back into the street. Then, I drive away without looking back.