An Abundance of Towels by Holly Goodman

Editor Matty Byloos, Editor's Choice, May 20th, 2014

...fuck second person. Broke is where you are, not who you are...

holly goodman essay

It’s quiet in the casita. Daisy dog curled up next to me sleeping so soft it’s work to hear the in and out of her breath. No noise from the furnace. No sound from the fridge.

Looks like the best kind of the spring light outside, half the sky dark and the other bright, but I’m just guessing.

My only window doesn’t let enough of the outside in to know for sure. It is half full of house, the green roof and wood-shingled siding next door, and half full of sky, white clouds spreading thin and blue air pushing the last bits of them out of the frame, and if I lean a little to the right and tilt my head back, there’s the crooked top of a hemlock out past the green roof. That’s it. Nothing more. No horizon.

A poverty of view.

I want to look out and see something, anything, to remind me I’m not alone here. The daylight moon. A long stretch of street. A car passing. A neighbor grabbing her mail. Whatever, I’ll take it. It’s too quiet in my room, tucked so far out of the bigger world there’s nothing my dog even bothers barking at.

It makes me fruit loops, this space. Seasonless. My poverty of view.  Makes the mind narrow in on itself, being cut off from the bigger world.

Isolation. The worst kind of poverty.

And I know poor. Ask the tax man about my 2013 income. $12,787. That’s what I come to talk about. Being broke-ass poor. Three humans and a dog the size of a kid, together stretching less than thirteen-grand over 12 months. I don’t want to talk about it, really. But I come to tell you because it’s true and because I lived it.

And also because you should hear.

I can’t think of anything more uncomfortable, anything we like talking about less here in our America, than talking about money. What we call our income, and the way it’s out of bounds to ask someone how much they make. Sex, maybe. Maybe sex and money are equally good for making people squirm. But at least sex is sexy. Money? I guess it can be too, if you have it.

This is not a story about having money.

This is an instruction manual.

This is how you live, three of you and a dog the size of child, on $12,787 a year.


1. You give thanks.

Yeah, it sounds like bullshit. And it feels ridiculous. Half the time you won’t believe yourself, but you will do it anyway when you can, because cataloging the small good things makes the hours manageable. And also because you are a Jew raised on the Yiddish wisdom passed down from generation to generation through your tribe: It could always be worse.

It could always be worse.

So yeah, you give thanks. You are not homeless. Your kids are not malnourished. Their bodies are clean and their bellies are full, their clothes mostly fit, they love to read, and they go to schools you chose.

There is a washer and dryer in your basement. The furnace kicks on 20 minutes before you wake every day. The shower is hot and you have an abundance of towels. When you step out of the water into the steam, and you wrap yourself in three clean towels, one around the waist, one around the chest, one around your hair, you give thanks for the abundance, even if it’s just soft, clean linens.

You wake your kids and most days there is enough food in the fridge and the cupboards to offer choices for breakfast: pancakes or eggs or oatmeal. You cook from scratch. Partly because you believe hot food is better for their minds and souls than cold cereal, and partly because cold cereal – the kind you would get – costs too much.


2. You buy nothing non-essential. Ever. Not a box of cold cereal. Not a cup of coffee. Not a new pair of socks.

You put enough gas in the car week by week to keep it running, and you drive only where you must. You feed the dog rice and beef broth for a few days here and there when the kibble runs out.

You let the government feed your kids. You are grateful for the handout, but after six months when you reapply for food stamps, you swear you will never again step one foot inside a welfare office. You go easy on yourself when you do.

Full disclosure: $12,787 is only your earned income. There’s more. There has to be more. If that was it, not another penny, you could not afford the two-bedroom apartment with the high ceilings and the soft colors and windows that look out at the hedges. You could not buy the gas. You could not keep the dog.

Throw in a $1,700 tax refund from 2012, a couple thousand more in child support begged month by month from your almost-ex, and the $3,000 student loan from last spring when you went to school for the money because you had no work and because even after tuition and books, the remaining balance would almost be enough to cover a couple months of rent while you figured out your shit and while you battled your almost-ex the for child support he had the money to cover but was, in his own words, “not comfortable” paying you.

When you ask him about the second car and the canoe, the new speakers, the digital camera body, the movie screen and the big TV, the concerts and dinners and weekend trips with his girlfriend, and he says, “I’m enjoying myself,” do not reach across the table and stab him in the throat with your fork. You will go to prison. This will not help your children.

Add the tax refund and child support you squeeze from him with the loan and the figure is now just under 20k. Technically you’re still a few grand south of the federal poverty line, but let me tell you, compared to thirteen thousand, $20,000 feels like you are living in the one percent.

So the dog can stay.


3. Get good sleep.

When you cannot sleep the whole night through for days or weeks or months because the 3:00am crazies have tied every fiber of your nervous system into 10 billion tiny knots, and the shampoo and the tooth paste and the laundry detergent are almost gone and you cannot replace them, put your hands flat beneath your back and lay perfectly still on top of them. This simple pressure, the weight of your own self, will soothe you.

Do not review and relieve in excruciating detail every regrettable choice that led you to this sleepless moment. No matter how hard your brain spins, time will not move backwards for you. You cannot undo the past, and here at 3:00am, you cannot fix the present. Freaking out all night about your empty bank account will not add one cent to the balance by morning.

Feel the way your arms begin to numb beneath you. Slow your breath. Make it a game. Stretch each inhale and exhale out so far, it’s almost like not breathing at all. Pay attention to the heaviness of your comforter on top of your body on top of your arms.

Remember rule number one. Give thanks.

Your pillow is soft. Your thousand-dollar rent includes wi-fi, water, electricity, garbage, gas, and cable, which you never had in your adult life, and will probably never have again. Your landlords don’t charge late fees, and you never, ever, have to worry about utility shut-off notices. You are inside. You are warm. Your kids are comfortable. They are safe.  It could be way worse.

Try to get some sleep.


4. When you are down to your last dollar, give it away. Every time.

Do not mistake your generosity for selflessness. Sure, you’re kind. This is true. You want to help the homeless grandma on the off-ramp, but you are also doing this for yourself. Engineering karma. What you give away will come back to you ten-fold from places you cannot anticipate.

Remember this. It will help you live with yourself when a woman you barely know offers you a job you are not remotely qualified to do, and your brother buys you a plane ticket to say goodbye to your dying father, and your best friend gives you a car, then buys you a computer. It will help you when you are invited to stay in places you can no longer afford to be, and when you feel like a worthless, bottom-feeding free-loader piece of crap because you have lost track of all the gifts and gifts and gifts that allow you to keep living this remarkably middle-class looking life.

When you have been given so much it’s hard to reconcile taking anything any more, when you are so sure you do not deserve these continued kindnesses that it’s hard to lift your eyes to say thank you, just do it anyway. Pick up your head. Give thanks for every person who still believes in you long after you stop believing in yourself. Try to see what they see.

Remind yourself that even if you can never repay them, all the goodness they have shown you will come back to them ten-fold from places none of you can anticipate. Believe that this is how it works.


5. Write about poverty in second person instead of first.

Of course you are talking about yourself. Everyone knows you are talking about yourself. Still, the distance that lives in the space between “you” and “I” will create just enough room to let you be real.

Saying “you” instead of “I” will give you a way to admit that you are poor.  That despite the college degree your parents refinanced their house to pay for, you are presently unable to land the kind of job it takes to make the many tens of thousands of dollars you need to make ends meet in this society. You have failed.

Saying “you” instead of “I” will push the failure of your poverty onto some nameless faceless no one.


Push it away.

Run your palm across the long curve of your dog’s back. Hold your kids close. Forget about your poverty of view. All the things you cannot see outside your one obstructed bedroom window? They’re all still out there anyway.

Even with the viewless view, you recognize spring because the sky is blue and it is hailing. You don’t always need to see the horizon. Open the window just a crack, and there are the birds singing. Understand your home as a cocoon, not a prison. It could be so much worse. You can step outside anytime you want.

Take the dog for a walk.

There’s the moon, full-up in the eastern sky.

There are way worse kinds of poor.

Forget about the second rule: buy nothing non-essential ever. When you are exhausted, and it’s dinner time, and your kids are hungry, and you do not have one ounce of energy left for cooking, take the $30 in your wallet meant for buying three days’ of groceries, and go to the Thai place down the street. Treat them to the dinner you’ve said “no” to for months. Do not ruin this meal by second guessing it. Taste the food bite by slower bite, and savor all of it.

Save your change in a jar on the kitchen counter, add pennies and quarters and nickels when you can, and watch the jar fill slowly for 18 months until you have collected almost $100, enough for a day trip to the coast, and dinner on the beach.

This is how you live, three of you and a dog the size of a child, on $12,787 a year.

Eat your fish on the beach and watch the ocean with your kids and forget about the rules. There are no rules.

But give thanks anyway.

And fuck second person. Broke is where you are, not who you are.

When things get better, should that be the way things go in life, you want those things to happen directly to you, not some nameless faceless no one. And the space that lives between the second person “you” and the first person “I” that you are, will be too much space to feel those good things happening, the way you will want to feel them.

Say I.

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To read more of Holly Goodman’s work on NAILED, take a look at her essay “The Pull to Keep Going,” here.

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Holly GoodmanHolly Goodman has had work published in Literary Mama, Your Tango, The Frozen Moment: Contemporary Writers on the Choices That Change Our Lives, and Ohio State’s literary magazine The Journal, where her short piece Fresh Water was named the 2007 Alumni Flash Fiction contest winner. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughters and her dog, Daisy.




Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).