THE SQUEEZE

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The wedding ceremony hasn't even begun, and the guests are placing their bets. Few of them give the marriage of Dawn and Jim Owen more than a year.

Even one of Dawn's best friends is putting money against her. She's the one who has strung crepe paper in the living room of her Plainfield ranch house so the couple can exchange vows on this New Year's Eve, 1995. There's no food laid out. Most of the 30 guests are antsy to get on with this. The justice of the peace is more than an hour late, and the wait is interfering with the evening party plans of the guests.

The bride has squeezed into a size 9 off-white dress from Sears even though she gave birth just three months earlier. Her auburn hair wound in a French twist accentuates those dark eyes.

What did she and Jim name their son?

Jacob.

Is that the kid who is bawling over there?

Everyone knows what Jim's grandma said that first day Dawn came to visit. They had been dating five months, and already this 22-year-old daughter of an auto body mechanic was pregnant. "She turns around and says, oh great, another kid in the world who doesn't know his place."

What can Jim say except, "They're hard. They're hard people. They tell you straight up."

Dawn wasn't married when she had her first child, either. She eventually married the father, a friend of Jim's.

Dawn wanted to settle down and be a mother for as long as she could remember, but she had a bad feeling about that first wedding to her sweetheart from Plainfield High School. There she was, decked out in the white wedding dress of her dreams.

"Mom, I can't do this."

That was a fine time to decide, what with 200 guests coming, and all the money her mother shelled out for this day.

"You have to," came Mom's orders.

That guy hit Dawn, told her she was fat, no good, ugly.

She downplays it now. "It wasn't every day."

He pays $65 a week in child support.

Jim is making about $11 an hour "humping furniture" at the Staples warehouse. Some of those desks he loads onto pallets weigh a couple hundred pounds, and the forklift sometimes doesn't do the entire job. He's fit, but that kind of work will make a young man old pretty fast. That's why he doesn't want to be a mason like his grandfather was. He went to technical school for that, but that's backbreaking work, too. He does that on the side. It will come in handy when Dawn's mother offers her that kitchen cabinet for $250 that she's just got to have. Jim can always build his mother-in-law a stone wall as barter, since they are too broke to buy it.

Every time Jim mentions taking the test to become a correction officer like his dad, his father talks him out of it. Jim knows he is right. "I don't have the patience to deal with all that horseshit."

It's the state retirement package that seduces him. Twenty years, and that's it. "I can retire by the time I'm 50. I'm not going to punch a clock after 50."

That's Jim's thing. He doesn't want to be working when he's 70.

Dawn's only job right now is raising those two kids.

She was brought up that the man works.

Also, she is sick.

She proposed to him, if you want to call it that.

They found cervical cancer around the time she gave birth to Jacob, but she was on a state insurance plan that only covered the pregnancy and 60 days after delivery, not cancer surgery.

"We have to get married, I need your insurance."

That's some wedding proposal.

Jim always has a comeback.

"That's OK. I'll use you as a tax deduction."

Jim, he's a spitting image of his dad.

"Me and my dad, there ain't too much that we got going on that doesn't involve the other one," says Jim.

He was just 4 when his dad first propped him atop a milk crate so he could watch the men slaughter hogs. It wasn't a year later that his parents divorced, and his mother took him off the farm. "My mother is very new. You know, she's very modern."

But the farm never left Jim Jr. His dad told him, you've got to help out with the farm work.

There's those guys who come to the farm to help his dad, all macho, thinking that this pig-slaughtering thing will make men out of them. Most of them just get in the way. Like that big, strapping guy who came one day, he got some blood on him and cried like a girl.

Jim's not like that. He knows what he's doing. He's the throater.

Now, that's a bloody job. When that guy "Cloudy" fires his .22 and misses the hog's forehead, and that thing ain't dead, it looks up at Jim.

Jim's unsentimental about these things, he's learned not to get attached - but sometimes in that second it takes to lower the knife to slit the pig's throat, he assigns human thoughts to the creature's vacant stare. What the hell you doing?

There are no canvas "killing pants" hanging around on his wedding day. Jim is looking real fine, poured into those jeans and a black denim shirt. It's hard to believe that one day he will shave his head of all that hair, tamed today in a tight braid down his back. That goatee is no distraction from his movie-star blue eyes and baby face. Just 22. So young. So young.

How's he ever going to settle down?

This marriage thing is rough; there's no denying it.

They argue all the time.

No one is going to tell him he can't go out with his buddies.

Dawn feels trapped. She's stuck home with two kids.

She has no driver's license because she is scared to death to drive. When Jim gets out of work, the last thing he wants to do is load the wife and kids into that 1985 Omni that he paid 100 bucks for and go grocery shopping.

If the car wires are wet, it doesn't start. One of the doors won't open half the time.

And hunting? Jim told her straight off that he spends four or five weekends a year up in Maine placing bait for bears. The cabin has no running water, but it's gorgeous up there. It's a seven-hour drive from home and then a two-hour canoe paddle from his dad's cabin to the tree stand. He shot his first bear when he was 15, right there in that spot. He's not going to give it up for her, even if he does love her.

He must've driven past her house 10 times before he got up the nerve to stop by that first time. Then, she wasn't even home when he got there.

It was at a party when they finally met up again. They hit it off right away.

This blessed apartment in the Rogers section of Killingly doesn't help.

The neighbors are always talking about getting out. But they have been here at least 10 years longer than Jim and Dawn and they're still here.

It's a mirror Jim and Dawn do not want to look into.

They are determined to be different, but at $11 an hour, there's not much chance of that.

Even those bureaucrats in Hartford are saying that it takes a wage of nearly $18 an hour for a family of four to scrape by in northeast Connecticut these days.

The only treat they can afford for the kids is a Happy Meal now and then. At Christmas, there's $100 to spend on each kid. That's it.

Daddy is never home. And when he is, he can barely keep his eyes open. This grunt work is killing him.

He's working double shifts, sometimes going into the third shift, and still there's no money for them to put a single gift under the tree for each other.

They are trying.

But the first time they tried to buy a house in 1996, that really sucked. That was the whole J. C. Penney thing.

The representative from the Farmers Home Administration kept telling them that everything was fine. They would get the mortgage. They need not worry about the $500 Penney's bill error for a stereo.

"They had us believing, up until the day that we were told we were denied, that we were moving," Dawn says. "Of course that just devastated us. Jim is not a patient person, so to sit down and have to do paperwork that's that thick, he's like, I'm not doing this again."

Jim's voice is hard, tight.

"That was just a whole bunch of crap."

All their friends are in the same predicament. They all get together and throw in 10 bucks for the beer when they want to have a party at Jim and Dawn's apartment.

Who cares if they trash the place. Jim doesn't.

"I didn't care, break whatever you want to break, have a blast."

"When I was doing that shit; that was a big thing for me. I didn't want to be an outcast. Everyone who knows my father and my grandfather knows they are hard-working people and I wasn't. Pretty soon I was thinking about it. So I started working harder. If I ever wanted anything worth anything I'll have to work for it."

Tell that to the loan officer.

Months later, Jim's father tells Jim about a house in Ballouville. That place is poorer than Rogers, the village they are living in now. At least Rogers still has a factory. The section of Killingly used to be named Goodyear when the tire company had a plant there, and now it's named for Rogers Corp. Everyone wants to work there because the pay is good, but it is tough getting in for the same reason.

The mill in Ballouville has been closed for more than a decade. Specialty yarns were the last things they tried to make a go of there, with that whole factory reuse thing.

"When we go there, keep an open mind," Jim remembers his father's advice that day.

No one has a clue where the key is to open the padlock on the front door of the squat duplex that the father and son are driving to. It's been a good six years on the market, and there have been few bites, as they say.

The grass in front of the house is waist high. The only lawn ornaments are junked refrigerators, stoves and old tires. There's a huge mound of gravel imbedded with sparkling crystals of glass that are the remnants of smashed bottles. Piles of plastic bags filled with garbage line one side of the house, which has become a rodent playground.

Jim and his father kick open the basement door to get inside.

The stench of musty, old air nearly overwhelms them, and they look for a spot free of junk to place their feet.

Neither can believe what he is seeing.

There is barely enough space for the two of them to stand in each room. Each is filled with decades of a man's life. Cardboard boxes of bills from the `40s, tools in the upstairs bedroom, plates in the sink with chunks of now-unrecognizable food. The pants of the deceased owner, complete with belt and his wallet in a pocket, hang in a bedroom. The counters, the washer and dryer, even the windows are hidden from sight because of all the debris. More than 9 tons of it is of Dumpster quality.

The ceiling is cardboard, and tarpaper peaks from underneath the linoleum kitchen floor, which is patched with lids of soup cans that have been nailed to the floor.

Every time Jim opens his mouth in exasperation, his father suggests a solution: We could replace the ceiling, put in a new floor.

Jim does not say no. Maybe this is a house they can afford.

He decides to bring his wife to see it.

Driving past the yardless old mill homes, where indoor furniture sits outside, house siding looks like a patchwork quilt and cars are parked that make their Omni look good, Dawn wonders if her husband is taking her to a slum.

She grew up seeing the quaint photographs of Ballouville, with its dirt lanes, charming general store, and its homey post office. Today only the post office remains.

Inexplicably, Dawn likes the place. The roomy kitchen is the selling point. She is smitten by the crooked lines where the walls meet the ceilings.

But mostly she is taken by the concept of escaping Rogers and the unimaginative apartment complex that has them in a box.

Jim's dad is given the job of negotiating the house deal.

The younger Jim's patience is shot.

For two months, they dicker around with him. The asking price of $60,000 is laughable. Even the 1,000-square-foot "affordable" houses in Ballouville that went for $90,000 10 years ago are assessed at barely more than $60,000 these days.

It's a duplex, but the other side is even worse.

Finally, his dad makes a final offer: $35,000, take it or leave it.

The Realtor takes it.

Even the richest man, it seems, feels like he is putting his balls on the table when a loan officer starts asking questions, seeks copies of pay stubs, and pulls out the credit history printout.

The squeeze is tighter for guys like Jim. He has saved little. He has no chance of getting this house without the help of his father, who is willing to loan him $10,000 to make the house repairs and offers the weight of his co-signature on the loan.

The loan officer at Putnam Savings Bank is encouraging.

This is going to look good.

This is going to fly.

You're all set.

The loan officer offers up rounds of reassurances.

Jim starts bringing home cartons from Staples, and Dawn is filling them up.

One month turns to two, and there is no sign of trouble. They are like kids waiting in line for Disney's Space Mountain ride.

Finally, Jim gets the call.

I need to talk to you about some stuff.

Jim walks into the bank office.

Denied.

That's it.

Denied.

The word hangs in the air.

Denied

Jim is about to explode.

"If I could have reached him, I would have snapped him in half."

Dawn cries and cries. "That sucked. We were just waiting to get the hell out of that place. We would have done anything. We would have sold our asses to get out of there. I mean, that's how bad it was, and every time, you're like, OK, you know they're saying it's good. And boom."

It's desperation time.

Someone had told Jim's father about McCue Mortgage Co.

James Fritz in the New London office knows all about government-assistance loans: low interest, down payment assistance, even help with the closing costs. He covers Windham County, where being down on your luck is a typical story. The hard-to-write loan is his forte. That's 90 percent of what he does. "Most of my people are not sophisticated people; they are hardworking factory people."

Nearly everyone who gets past the paperwork is approved. The odds of keeping a house are tougher. About half of Fritz's clients will default on their mortgages.

Jim makes the call to Fritz.

Give me an hour, I'll call you back.

Fritz calls Jim back. It looks good. I think we can do this.

Jim gathers his breath.

Now, listen buddy. I've heard this before.

I'm going to tell you right now, if this ain't going to work, tell me now because I'm at the end of my ...

Jim's words are precise.

The mortgage comes through, and so does a list of dozens of repairs Dawn and Jim needed to make within 90 days.

That they could handle.

The kitchen smells sweet these days, as the flames of perfumed candles lick the edges of glass votives. Dawn has painted cranberry-red hearts on the cabinet doors. Rag painting has made the kitchen chairs worthy of something a country gift shop would sell.

Painted in white on one chair:

"In A Friend's Home

You Can Always Rest

Your Weary Bones"

Hydrangeas and other dried flowers dangle from the kitchen ceiling.

The living room ceiling is buckling a little, but the beams and boards are reminiscent of a log cabin. The stonework Jim did behind the wood stove is exquisite.

Jim walks in with Jacob, limp over his shoulder, like a potato sack.

"How was your day, Baby?"

"Just wonderful."

That Jim, he's always got a comeback.

The school called; Jacob had a fever so Jim picked him up on his way home from work. He's still at Staples, but now he's a mechanic, and it is more mentally than physically demanding. He's making $18 an hour.

For them, that is Trump-esque.

Their grocery bill is sometimes only $80 a week. Jim is thinking about getting a BJs card, and just going stupid with it, buying in economical bulk. Their meat comes from the pigs and steer that Jim helps his dad butcher. The $400 rent from their tenants next door covers the mortgage. Then, there is $18 a month for the down payment aid they received to buy the house, and other bills. Soon they will no longer have to buy eggs, because chickens in their backyard are just about ready to produce.

Jim figures the chickens also will help his kids have responsibility and give them something to show at agricultural fairs. "If they get wrapped up in that when they get older the other pressures won't be as tough. That's the way I hope it goes. It may not."

The Omni has since blown up, and the couple laughs hard, Jim with a can of Coors Light in his hand, when they talk about giving their final salute to the old car that lasted them four years.

Dawn has her license now. She loves driving. It's taken some of the pressure off Jim.

Bear, their chocolate lab, is a big cuddly baby, and BJ, the old cat, is as standoffish as ever and the hunting beagles are in their shed, raring to go hunting.

Jim has a room for the gun cabinet Dawn bought him last Christmas and the mounted bears, trophies from his hunting expeditions. Dawn shows off her diamond ring he bought her three Christmases ago, their first out of their apartment.

Still, the word "easy" is not spoken often in their home.

Dawn was working part time at Staples, lifting heavy boxes onto a conveyor belt. They worked different shifts to avoid day-care costs. But Dawn has been out of work since she got injured there in December. She may soon need an operation - with a little camera that she can't pronounce - to repair a tear in her left rotator cuff.

They recently tapped their savings to buy a computer for $450 from Jim's cousin, who is in the computer business, and while Jim says it is for the kids' future and keeping track of bills, Dawn adds a wifely tease, "and eBay."

They collect miniature farm tractors and eBay has helped to expand their assortment.

The teasing about eBay turns to tension, however, when boxes of tractors for Jim and Negro memorabilia for Dawn start arriving at the post office. The couple is learning a basic tenet of American consumerism: the more money you have, the more you spend.

Remember James Fritz, the loan officer? He sees 50 percent of his clients go down.

Jacob, 5, now feeling well enough to fiddle with his PlayStation, is smiling from the living room couch, visible from the kitchen. He is singing Dadee. Dadee. Dadee. Devon, 8, has artistic talent like her mother, and she comes up to the table to talk about all the reading she has done during the last two weeks for a school contest.

Jim is still trying to figure out how to get into the state correction department and is hoping he can become a maintenance man at the prison in Brooklyn, instead of a correction officer.

His dream is to open a taxidermy shop when he retires.

As for the bettors who placed wages against the couple, some of them are long since divorced.

"Screw all of you, excuse my language," Dawn says. "We've beaten all the odds. "

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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