The bankruptcy lawyer I hired to help cushion the hard and sudden fall of my rare-book and restoration business had, during our first meeting, charged me with many tasks, the most demanding and subjective of which was evaluating my assets. And of all my chattels and personal objects, the one on whose value Mr. H (the lawyer; here anonymized, because you never know with those guys) and I most disagreed was that of Vinnie, my girlfriend Annie’s and my cat.
Before filing for bankruptcy, especially in small-fry cases of one-person, handicraft-based, sole-proprietorships financed on sixteen different credit cards, such as my enterprise, every asset − both real and intangible, as well as business and personal − must be denominated for use as currency in the let’s-make-a-deal atmosphere of a bankruptcy proceeding. Old skillets, bookbinding glues, underpants, scraps of leather and paper, the bar of vegan chocolate stuck to the cabinet shelf, unpaid invoices. Rabbet planes, poker chips, cash (face value), Deery-Lou treen. Rare books, non-rare books. Furniture. Bikes. Arms.
For most things, there are guidelines: purchase price less depreciation; average eBay hammer; best guess. For a few things there are formulae or manuals. Clothes: 10% of retail. Cars: NADA, Blue Book. But occasionally an object occurs whose worth is verily subjective, and may diverge by thousands of dollars. Indeed, the same object that a court-appointed trustee may regard as a transferable bearer instrument, as tender, may be fully indicted by its owner as a hopeless liability.
Vinnie was acquired in the fall of ‘04. In all respects he has underperformed as a pet. He won’t pounce or chase a laser dot. There are big fluorescent orange stickers on every page of his vet file that say “WILL BITE.” We’ve not yet caught him in a good mood. His color, texture, and occasionally (depending on temp/humidity/mmHg), his odor, are closely related to that of fried chicken. He is simple, exfoliates great clouds of nettly fur if touched or otherwise witnessed, and has been diagnosed, through exclusion of other possibilities, as incurably allergic to the space-time continuum.
So, under “Animals” on page fourteen of the bankruptcy questionnaire, I generously valuate him at 50¢.
“What’s a ‘Vinnie?’” asks Mr. H, glaring jurisprudentially at my questionnaire.
“A cat,” I say.
“A pet cat?”
No, stuffed! Jeez!
Mr. H Wite-Outs my figure and enters his own.
This is frustrating, because the job of the bankruptcy attorney is to assign as small a value as possible to each of my objects, since only so much is exempt from seizure by the courts and subsequent redistribution among my scores of creditors. They can’t take your car (as long as it’s paid for), or up to $30,000 in other property − including tools of the trade and business inventory. And you get to keep two guns. (This is Texas, mind. Perhaps in Massachusetts one may keep a couple of solar generators, or an acre of soy compost, but here, there are traditions to honor. I’ve never even fired a gun, let alone owned any − instead I keep a runneled broadsword by the nightstand. I’m a fount of shame to my home state.)
So, given Mr. H’s prime directive, I’m incredulous that he thinks Vinnie could be worth ten bucks. This is a being that can transform something as signally repellant as canned cat food into something even worse, and, in times of exceptionally vindictive spleen, deposit the above-mentioned even-worse substance outside its litter box, so that the even-worse substance grows even worse; so bad that its lethal character can be detected for hundreds of radial miles. Yet Vinnie is still considered, in the eyes of the law, a desirable object, worth as much as a good hammer.
“How about three dollars?” I suggest.
“Huff. Why don’t you just give the beast away then? Just drop it off behind a chicken restaurant.”
If you can’t bare a shaming truth to your attorney, then who?
“Well, I like him.”
“$10, then. Next item. Wait. Please, Lord, tell me it is not true that you don’t own a firearm.”
And thus was established the tone of our relationship. Within a few weeks, when my next appointment with Mr. H was nigh, I had experienced all of a virgin bankrupt’s full octave of emotions: discord, prostrate bootsole-licking-crow-eating humility, guilt, vindictive rage, Tabula rasa ideation, relief, wasting melancholia, and a lusty urge to change my name and quit Texas for the Falklands.