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Texas USA

Dead Certain

Evading a loan shark doesn’t necessarily land the author in a better place

Illustration by Dana Smith

One day in the summer of 1981, as I drove my taxi west on Oltorf Street toward Lamar Boulevard in Austin, I spied an old friend from high school heading east. I stuck my head out the window to catch his attention and waved. The way he looked at me you would have thought I was waving a gun. “What the heck’s eating him?” I wondered. He looked like he’d seen a ghost.

A few days later I stopped by to visit another high school friend, who seemed more annoyed than usual to see me. He had a request. “Would you do all of us a favor and let the people back in Lubbock know you’re not dead?”

He told me that at our class’s recent 10-year reunion, which I knew nothing about, my name came up when the Lubbock Monterey High School Class of 1971 took a moment to remember classmates who had passed on. I never went to much trouble to clear up the matter. Most of my friends from high school were a year younger than I, and we stayed in contact. Besides, I incorrectly assumed I would soon be famous and the matter would resolve itself.

Years later, after another report of my death at another reunion, another friend asked, “Have you ever told anybody you were dead?”

“No, of course not. Why would I do that? Oh, wait. Yes, there was that one time. …”

It happened in 1980, not long after I started driving a cab. I got paid every day, and life was good until I missed a week of work because of illness and went on the disabled list again a week later after a wreck laid me up. It set me back. I got behind on my bills and only the benevolence of a sympathetic landlord kept me from the indignity of the couch circuit.

I found a loan company unwitting enough to loan me $300, most of which I gave to my sainted landlord and the city of Austin as I continued along the comeback trail.

Lost along the trail was the loan company. The loan officer—shark, actually—took to calling me every morning about the time I drifted off to sleep after another 12-hour night shift in the cab. “Hello, deadbeat” became his standard greeting. He had little interest in my sad stories and expressed no remorse over interrupting my sleep. To my expanding list of woes, I now added sleep deprivation. The loan shark promised to turn my account over to a collection agency.

“They won’t be as nice about it as I am,” he said without even a trace of irony.

And then one day, like the Grinch, I had a wonderful awful idea. I’d tell the loan company I was dead, and they would go away. Brilliant! The next time the phone rang at the usual time, a pleasant woman’s voice asked for me by my full name. A dead giveaway, I thought. Collection agencies and bill collectors are the only ones who do that. She wasn’t fooling me.

“I’m sorry,” I told the woman with the soft and soothing voice. “Clay is no longer with us. He’s gone to that great cab stand in the sky, I’m afraid. I’m here with his family, going through what he left behind. God knows it wasn’t much.”

The voice on the other end actually broke a little as she offered condolences. “I’m so sorry to hear that.” Sure she was. No commission. I managed a fake sob, hung up and went back to sleep. I don’t know if the loan company ever called again or not because the phone company came and took away my phone the very next day.

After I explained all this to my friend, he suggested that maybe the woman who called me that day wasn’t from a collection agency. Maybe she was from the Monterey reunion committee. Hmm. She did seem genuinely affected by my sorry piece of fake news. But life went on, and I didn’t give the matter much thought until August 2021, as our class’s 50-year reunion approached.

I received emails from classmates who had seen stories and books with my name attached and wondered, I suppose, if all my publications were of the posthumous sort. I wrote back, slightly misquoting Mark Twain to the effect that “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” I didn’t mention that I was the one who had done the exaggerating.

A week later I received an email informing me that my name, after 40 years, had been removed from the class of 1971 memorial list.

Beware, former classmates. I am at large.