The Debt Men

The closeness between designer jeans and hypodermic needles


Think about all the things you’re borrowing right now: a friend’s sweater, that DVD of your co-worker’s. We borrow, one cup of sugar at a time, knowing that one day we’ll eventually give something in return. But what have you borrowed with no intention of repaying? The barbaric cycle of impulsive give-and-take is explored here. And though the characters in Shann Ray’s story are gruesome in the things they take, they do make you wonder: What debts do you owe that you can never possibly pay back? (Leah Sottile)

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness ...

— Charles Dickens

I have borrowed money. I have borrowed faith.

— Jorie Graham

THE DEBT MEN owned all, they owned nothing. Everything borrowed, nothing gained. Everything risked, nothing attained. But in the end, who can say we don’t owe even the very breath we take?

Zacharias Harrelson. Phil Silven.
Born into this world on separate sides of town.
They were hungry. They were glutted.
Full of life. Half-dead.

ZACH HARRELSON, angry, borrowed his friend’s car until he was arrested on the edge of the Safeway parking lot in north Spokane. He borrowed passed-out Lenny’s crystal meth, the keys to the rusted-out Honda along with five dollars, and walked out the door crazed, alive. Five blocks later five policemen put their fists to his face and struck him down like a rabid animal, then beat him on the paved sidewalk at the edge of the parking lot where the people gathered, gawking. The officers rose and holstered their batons, put him in the squad car and drove off, adrenaline like black sand slowing in their pink, translucent veins.

PHIL SILVEN borrowed Italian leather gloves and a white silk scarf from his wife’s lingerie drawer.

ZACH Harrelson in dirty T-shirt and jeans without knees, hollow look and hooded eyes. Took a tiny loan on a single-wide trailer.

PHIL Silven in Versace suit and Gucci watch secured a jumbo loan on a big house on the South Hill ridge so the lights of the city graced the home at night like a sky not above but below and filled with a glassy multitude of stars.

EVERYONE borrowed, everyone was in debt.
Men not only borrowed for a house, a home. They borrowed for the cathedral of the human heart, the love, the hate, the burden, the fire.

PHIL Silven, determined to remove his wife’s germs, borrowed a new pair of his mother’s rubber gloves to wear while disinfecting the toilet seat.

ZACH Harrelson borrowed five bucks from the pants pocket of his unconscious friend Len before he borrowed the car. He wanted a box of Hostess raspberry-filled powder donuts from Safeway.

He didn’t want to walk five blocks, what could be wrong with that? Ten days earlier, his wife had knifed him in the stomach while he slept. He woke to what he recognized as her ugly fat head, skin folds and sweat lines on her neck while the blood pooled on the flat below the arched bones of his ribcage. She stood over him and said calmly, Take that. He pushed the heel of his hand into the wound and called 911. She took the car and kids and went to Oregon to her mother’s house. That was then. Now he wanted donuts. He was lying on the couch with his shirt off, itching the wine-colored threads on the gash above his enflamed bellybutton, the birth knot blue-black and hard as a marble. He still loved her.

PHIL Silven’s father, an office manager, fled town with another woman when Phil was 12, leaving the family bankrupt and publicly disgraced (he took $10,000 from the County Parks and Rec fund). Privately, he had been penetrating Phil for three years, telling the boy he’d kill him if he told. Before he left, Phil took his father’s prized stiletto, a possession his father kept in Phil’s mother’s lingerie drawer — a blade given by Phil’s father’s father, the Polish-Italian long-haul truck driver 10 years dead who had bragged about beating up women. Back then Phil had worn two pairs of tube socks, and folded them down to form a thick band over his ankle. He’d slide the black handle of the blade into the slot between his ankle and his achilles where it stayed firm and hidden and he could feel its rigid line and think of grabbing it if he needed to. He’d wore the socks when he slept too, the knife where he liked it. He’d almost felt safe. The weekend his father left, his mother bought him a pair of designer jeans by Armani, Adolfo, and despite his pure hatred for his father, Phil borrowed his father’s bravado.

WHEN he was home Zach Harrelson’s father slept with a shotgun in his bed. When he wasn’t home he slept with the next-door neighbor and lied about it and everyone agreed to let him lie even though the neighbor was Helen, Zach’s mother’s best friend. The night before Zach was knifed in the stomach he brought home three roses from 7-11 for his wife. Zach was hoping to make up for when she caught him high on speed and sexually abusing their six-year-old daughter Jayla. She found him standing over the girl while she slept, his pants down. When his wife walked into the room she slapped him in the back of the head so hard he hit the floor and Jayla woke up crying. Get out, his wife said. No, he said, and rose up and punched her in the chest, then watched as she clutched at her neck like she couldn’t breathe.

Roses calm a woman, he thought, help her think straight.

The flowers stooped in a drinking glass on the kitchen counter.

Tired of everything, Zach’s wife drank a beer and picked out a straight-edged steak knife from the drawer next to the fridge. She heard her husband’s breathing, heavy down the hall. It was late afternoon, he was nude, sleeping on top of the bed. She set the beer down on the kitchen table, walked the necessary distance, raised the blade high in her right hand and drove it into the center of his stomach. She took Jayla and left, telling herself she’d never be back. As it went, Zach went to the emergency room, then returned to sit in his house. A couple of days passed before he took the bandage off so he could itch the gash more directly. He felt sane when he took his friend’s stash, the five bucks, the car. Then he got himself beaten to submission on the edge of the Safeway parking lot. Sitting in County in bright orange coveralls he thought of killing himself.

MEN borrowed desperation, self-degradation.
They borrowed gratitude. They borrowed grace.

WHAT men borrowed varied. For one, it was money, another drugs. For one clothes, another swagger. But all, when they were enraged, borrowed the landslide in their father’s eyes, and violence entered the blood like a new deficit, ugly, impenetrable, monstrous, increasing.

When Phil Silven returned home at 3 am on a hot night in July, his wife sat up in bed. Her name was Mary Irene, a weird name for any era, thought Phil. She was full-blooded Hungarian, Irene her great grandmother’s name. They had been married five years and had a 6-month-old daughter, Brianna. Mary Irene watched Phil remove the gloves near the armoire, fold them, kiss them, and place them neatly in his own underwear drawer. She watched him do the same with the white neck scarf. Physically, he was a small man, she a bigger woman; those items were hers once. In a quiet voice she said aloud what she’d been thinking for more than a year. You’re gay. She didn’t have time for this. Her boss made her work 60 hours a week. She needed sleep. He turned, walked to the bed and slapped her face so hard he left the imprint of his hand like a birthmark on her jaw.

At the arraignment Zach Harrelson was led into the courtroom and seated in the aisle directly right of where he entered, manacled at the wrists, chained at the ankles. He was the last of 14 criminals that day. His wife was there, seated in the first row behind the defendants’ table, not looking at Zach. Her brother was with her, a fledgling body builder in a tank top and slicked hair, barbed wire tattooed on a black line around both biceps. Zach saw her lips, pursed like wrinkled metal, her eyes like plugs in the flesh of her face. He wanted to abuse her. He sat for two hours. He stood when he was told. A guard walked him to the table and when he passed in front of his wife she rose, spit on the back of his head and said, Ass Bag. Her brother pulled her back. The judge told her to sit down.

THE DEBT men borrowed whatever they could, and in the end they borrowed the will to oblivion and rode their debt down until everything collapsed beneath them.

Phil Silven, after slapping his wife, borrowed a bed to sleep on at his friend Paulo’s house.

The next weekend Phil Silven undid the knot and took the white silk scarf delicately from around his own neck, handed it to a man with a perfect chest, watched the man shove the scarf quickly, two-handedly into Phil’s open mouth and proceeded to be swept into the man’s embrace. Fear in Phil’s eyes, his heart felt immortal. Hours later at home again he lied straight-faced to his wife. There was no need to borrow anything anymore. It was Saturday night. He had never liked her sex. No, he remembered distinctly, he had liked it a great deal for the first year or two, even loved it. Tonight she demanded it. No, he decided, he had never liked her sex. She approached and tried to unbutton his jeans. No, he said, but she kept on. He wasn’t going to slap her anymore. He put his hands on her and pushed her away. She didn’t cry.

“It’s someone else,” she said.

“Whatever,” Phil said.

In the morning over breakfast she berated him. She’d gotten her boss to agree to a two-month extension on her maternity leave but it had ended a month ago and now she was more tired than ever. Their daughter Brianna sat in the high chair. At the end of the argument Mary Irene said, “Admit it, Phil.” Then she lifted the plastic tabletop from Brianna’s high chair and threw it at Phil in a swift two-handed motion, bouncing it off the side of his head, making his hair look silly. He watched her pull Brianna from the chair and clutch her to her chest. His wife’s face was blotchy. He rose and approached and tore the child from her arms. He left the house and took Brianna to Mass at Our Lady Fatima. When he returned home his wife was seated with her hands face down on the kitchen table. I want a divorce, she said. Fine, he said. She got the child. He got the house.

MEN grew progressively more ugly.
But on the other side some emerged, broken, and better.
Days bled into night and night became day and all became one, and all men did not stagnate. Some remained the same.
Some became more vital.

ZACH served his debt to society and when he walked from the cement and metal structure in the middle of town his wife got out of her car and greeted him sheepishly and took him into her arms saying, My baby, Baby, good baby. It’s okay now, Baby. Good baby boy. He held her face in his hands and kissed her long and hard and with his tongue.

TWENTY years on, Phil Silven, twenty years divorced from Irene, sat with her at a table in the back of a room in a hall lit by chandeliers. On the dance floor, their daughter danced with her partner Lee Anne, Army pilot who flew Blackhawks. The wedding was exquisite.

Mary Irene held Phil’s hand. “I was too hard on you,” she said.

He looked at her. “And I you,” he said.

“You’re happy with Paulo. I can see that.”

“Thank you.”

“Our daughter,” she said, looking out.

“Yes,” he said. “Our daughter.”

“Thank you,” she said.

He leaned in, took Mary Irene’s face in his hands and kissed her forehead gently and with the love we knew when we all started, alone and alive in this world.

About Shann Ray

Shann Ray is the author of the story collection American Masculine, and the creative nonfiction work Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity. His poetry and prose have appeared in some of the nation’s leading literary venues such as McSweeney’s, Poetry International,, and Narrative magazine. He teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University and plans to celebrate Christmas with his wife and three daughters by having a full-blown family dance night to the Mariah Carey Christmas album. Visit

About the Contest

The 56 entries we received this year represent a record for our fiction contest. Either the theme — debt — weighed heavily on people’s minds or the unemployment rate just left a lot of aspiring writers with nothing to do but write. Either way, the submissions this year were strong, in addition to being numerous. These stories — about the things that break people, the things that heal them, and some very obedient fleas, among other things — are our favorites.

— Luke Baumgarten, Section Editor

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