The Bill Collector
The Chatahoochee Review - December 01, 1985
The Bill Collector
After a week-long vacation alone at the beach trying to sort things out, Norman Majors came home to his apartment to find these items amid all the junk mail: - A Lillian Vernon catalogue with a dot-matrix label addressed to "Norma Mayors;" - A fiction manuscript returned with a note declaring that the literary magazine named Lifework had expired for lack of support; - Another request for a contribution from his alma mater which had so far omitted him from the list of accomplished graduates in the alumni newsletter; - A publication that included one of his stories which referred to him on the cover as "And Many Others!;" - And a bill from Pacific Natural Gas Company for $54.37. When Norman checked his Record-a-Call, the only message came from a car dealer who had mistaken him for one of his pot-smoking cousins who lived on the other side of town and whom Norman hadn't seen in more than ten years. The rest of the tape was filled with clicks, long spaces of dial tone and a mechanical feminine voice reiterating, "We're sorry. You have waited too long to dial. If you wish to make a call, please obtain your dial tone, then dial your number. Recording 503648640681." Nothing from Lillian. No word from his long-time high school friend Martin Kennewick. And nothing from his friends at the Ashborough Post Office. When Norman went to work the next morning, none of his co-workers 109
mentioned the many postcards he had, like so many bottles cast upon the ocean, mailed off from the beach. He had sent them, hadn't he? Then again he couldn't be sure of anything any more. Maybe he had simply beat the cards home. Despite the ubiquitous jokes even among the clerks, the fully computerized postal service couldn't possibly be that unreliable. The human element - well, that was another matter altogether. The real problem, after all, wasn't that everyone ignored his thoughtfulness. "Were you really gone?" the portly Tim Cotton joked the first day. "I hadn't even noticed!" That remained one of the most unacknowledged fringe benefits of a government-like job: anonymity. Only the Son of Sam had been able to break the mold. That evening when Norman poured himself a generous gin on the rocks, joking to himself after the first drink about his "Ginnie in the BotÂ¬tle," he took another look at the mail still scattered across the dining room table. It wasn't until then he realized the magic that had been there in his own back yard all along. Why hadn't he seen? He wasn;t alone at all! With a sigh and a half-smile, he sat down at his IBM Selectric II and began writing the letters. His first one sent to Pacific Natural Gas ComÂ¬pany began with the same hearty greeting Lillian had used in her love letters ten years ago:
Hi there! Thanks for your computerized bill of $54.37. In times like these, it's good to know who your friends really are. Sometimes a man's best friend is his gas company's computer! But seriously, you should know that in my own way I'll always try to be as faithful - but then I'm only human! Enclosed, of course, is the payment in full as usual. Your friend,
The next week when he still hadn't heard a thing from his wife or even his best friend, he received the phone bill for $12.75. He then typed Western Telephone this letter:
Howdy, People! Although this month I would certainly have preferred payÂ¬ing for a long distance call to Lillian (if I knew where she was), I just wanted to drop you a line with my check to let you know
I appreciate the fact that you, at least, never forget me. If I can't reach out and touch anyone else, at least I know I can always be sure of your dial tone! With deepest friendship, Norman Majors Towards the end of the month, the electric bill arrived with the followÂ¬ ing message printed at the bottom: xx xx xx xx xx WE WANT YOU TO KNOW WE APPRECIATE YOUR EXCELLENT BILL PAYMENT RECORD. IT IS A PLEASURE HAVING YOU AS A CUSTOMER AND WE LOOK FORWARD TO SERVING YOU IN THE YEARS AHEAD. xx xx xx xx xx
The "x's" to either side reminded Norman of the way Lillian had signed her letters to him while he was an undergraduate living more than a hundred miles away from her: Love ya mostest, LillumsXXXXX OOOOO
How long had he lived here faithfully paying his bills? Six years? No, seven. Last month made it seven. Such stability! He smiled to himself and once more sat down at his typewriter and composed the following to Pacific General Electric:
As a postal clerk, I can certainly vouch for the fact that few people go to the bother of writing letters any more Â¬ but then I've never been one to give up so easily on a good thing. Though this is the first time I've taken it upon myself to write you personally, I trust you'll forgive my long silence. I had to let you know how much I appreciated your kind words that accompanied your bill. Although the cliche seems to be true for everyone else around me, "out of sight" doesn't necessarily mean "out of mind" - not, at any rate, in my case. It's always made me happy giving part of myself to others. Deep inside, of course, I've always hoped I would get something back in kind. In you, at least, I haven't been disappointed. Thanks again for your message and for your September bill of $46. 79. I'll look forward to your continued interest in proÂ¬ 111
viding me with enough energy to keep myself well-fed. Lillian always used to quote her mom, saying the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. That's certainly one of the ways. I only wish I didn't have to wait a full month to hear from you agam.
Your faithful friend,
Then when he paid the remainder of his bill to his dentist for extracÂ¬ting the last of his wisdom teeth, Norman enclosed this comment with his check:
How ya be, Dr. Moravi! Although I realize Blue Cross footed most of the bill, I felt obliged to payoff the rest as soon as possible. How else can I repay you for your prompt billing? You must know me after so many years; I always like to reward thoughtfulness with thoughtfulness. Of course there are still some debts I can't payoff as easiÂ¬ly. One happens to be to Lillian for loving me so long. In a way I can't really blame her for giving up on me. We had such hopes after college. The last thing we expected was my two years of unemployment before I finally had to settle for this kind of job. I expected better - not from her, but from myself Love cost us both. In her case, she felt it cost her a more carefree youth. I think that's what she was trying to recap-ture when she had that affair. In my case, I lost everything - except, I mean, friends like you. What more could I ask for now than friends who'll stand by me when I need them most? So I just wanted to assure you how thankful I am for your attention. Ionly hope my prompt payment won't mean an end to our relationship, but I have confidence in you. As long as there's decay, after all, there'll always be you! Keep in touch - preferably without your drill. Affectionately,
Later, with his semi-annual payment to Northwest Life and Casualty for his '77 Caprice, he included this letter: Hail, my true and faithful knights! Thanks for your kind reminder of my auto insurance policy's expiration date. But as you can see from the enclosÂ¬ ed check for $98.25, I've come through for you as usuaL Still, I'm flattered that you care enough to write. If only my old high school friend Martin would show even half that much consideration. The last time we met for lunch just before I went on vacation, he spent the whole time wondering why I was making such afuss over Lillian's leavÂ¬ ing me when there were "so many other fish in the sea. .. A stubborn bachelor to the end, he admits he's never really been in love with a woman - but won't admit that he therefore can't understand anyone else who has. Though I mentioned Lillian had voided our checking account, he kept prattling on about how generous and thoughtful he's been in loaning money to his brother because he makes so much as an engineer - but I ended up picking up the lunch tab! All we have in common now is a distant past. Time - "accidents of fate, .. if you will - provided widely different experiences for both of us; as a result, we've grown apart. I guess I've wanted this friendship to end for some time but never had the courage to let go. I kept thinking, What would I replace him with Â¬ especially when I saw that Lillian meant to go regardless of my pleas? All this makes it doubly nice that your very purpose is to help me out in the event of other kinds of "accidents of fate" - at least those involving my Caprice. If only you c01ild inÂ¬ sure me against all the others! "Accidents, .. I'm afraid, figure just as prominently in professions like writing as they do in friendships. How I wish you could issue a policy against those! Then I might have a chance at finding friends who might recognize my developing skills at the craft. The question would be even then, however, just how long would those friendships last? Still, a few other friends like you in high places would better help me accept the loss of my best "fan, .. Lillian, who, towards the end, found more value in her knitÂ¬ ting than in my. work. At least you can save me from the ravages of lost law suits - if not of lost loves. Friendships have certainly been based
Â¬ - ~ -- -----...-----Â¬
on a lot less than your kind of concern! With lasting love, Norm
Obviously Norman found himself spending far more time writing his creditors than working on his fictional fantasies at home. He was also spending a lot more time thinking about drafts of these letters while sorting other people's mail at the post office. That naturally came to the attention of his boss, Postmaster Dean Witt blatt, a lean, tall, thin-lipped man who seldom smiled. "You'll have to get your head out of the clouds, Majors," Wittblatt scowled, "or you'll be sending letters to Timbuktu! Need I remind you that we, least of all, can't afford to be caught at any failure to comÂ¬ municate? Concentrate on your work, man, or -" A bushy eyebrow squirmed. "Yes, sir!" Norman smiled. He was at that very moment composing in his mind a letter he wanted to send an editor thanking him for the latest form rejection. "Majors?" Witt blatt frowned as he leaned forward Over his desk. "Is everything all right?" "Of course." Then as Norman was about to turn around, he said, "Oh. By the way, thanks." "For what!' "For the reprimand," Norman beamed. "I never thought you cared." And with a click of his heels, Norman returned to the sorter. The truth was this: the longer the letters were getting, the happier he was becoming. As he remarked in a two-page single-spaced letter to the Western State Bank Visa office, "Thanks to you people out there, I've never felt more alive!' What began to suffer was his apartment. Dirty clothes piled up. His refrigerator grew bare. Dinners sometimes consisted of martinis and Tostitos. He even occasionally forgot to shower and shave in the morning. Such happened to be the case when he was called into the Postmaster's office again the week before Christmas. "In order to keep within our budget," Wittblatt harrumphed without looking up from behind his desk, "we've been ordered to cut back mornÂ¬ing pick-ups and drop small-town postal services better incorporated inÂ¬ to neighboring cities. We won't be needing as many people in a town this size, Majors. The best we can hope for is that these lay-offs will be temporary." A smile slowly spread across Norman's grizzled face. "Merry Christmas!" he laughed. Now there would be that much more time for his letterwriting!
At last he had something different to confide to his creditor-friends: he wouldn't be paying his bills quite so quickly - especially since he had charged so much for the Christmas presents he had to buy for his large circle of friends. He ticked off some of them in his own mind: the fruit basket for Pacific Natural Gas; the electronic Hallmark card that played "Call Me Irresponsible" which he sent to Western Telephone; a solar-powered Rube Goldberg device that whirred and spun but otherÂ¬wise performed no useful function for Pacific General Electric; the box of Godiva chocolates for his dentist; the remote-controlled toy wrecker for Northwest Life and Casualty; the credit-card calculator for Western State Bank Visa. . . There were others but he couldn't think of them all at the moment. For all his generosity, especially considering his employment status, Norman was a little hurt that not one of them even wrote him back a "thank you." Had they taken the gifts the wrong way? It wasn't until late February when Ashborough suffered its coldest winter yet, in fact, that he received any kind of letter from the Visa ofÂ¬fice. It was short and to the point:
Dear Mr. Majors: Our records show that you have declined to make even the minimum monthly payments for the past two months. We have therefore turned your debt over to the Brotherhood ColÂ¬lection Agency. Thank you.
Norman wrote back,
To my very bestest friends! It was so nice hearing from you at long last. I would have written sooner myself but I guess in a way I was testing you to see if you'd write me on your own without my chiding you. Like the good friends you've been to me, you passed with flyÂ¬ ing colors. I do have a slight problem now in that my unemployment check only goes so far. I'm sure this temporary setback, however, won't damage our friendship. If you decide to go ahead and call on that collection agency, just remember that any friend of yours is a friend of mine. No matter how bad this winter gets, I'll always set enough aside should you or your friends stop by. Rest assured that I'll have at least a marÂ¬ tini and some Cheetos ready and waiting when you do! Love,
P.S. 1 presume you didn't like my Christmas gift? Well, no matter; 1 charged it on Visa!
In the very next letter from the Visa office, the bank revoked his card. Then in March Northwest Life and Casualty sent him the fol1owing form letter: Dear THIS IS TO ANNOUNCE THAT WE'RE ABOUT TO END A BEAUTIFUL RELATIONSHIP. It has been almost thirty days since your expiration date and we have still not received your next installment. You have been with us a long time and we have valued your patronage. We trust you will continue with us. If you have already sent in the payment, simply ignore this gentle reminder. If you have not and do not intend to do so, then we regret to announce the imminent termination of your policy. Thanks for the memories! Norman merely stared at the new bill. It was 15% higher than the last one - and the company had even forgotten to type in his name! Continuing cold temperatures delayed spring. Norman was faced wth another major decision: he would only be able to pay one of his three new bills. Which of his friends would he have to neglect - Pacific Natural Gas, Pacific General Electric or Western Telephone? Despite the unseasonable weather outside, he didn't have to deliberate long. There was sti11 a chance, he thought, that he might yet receive a call from Li11ian or Martin or one of his past co-workers or even from some editor impressed with a manuscript he mailed off months ago. It was vital to keep the lines of communication open. So Norman sent off two very long, apologetic explanations to the gas and electric companies. As he concluded in the One to the electric comÂ¬ pany, "Even if I don't have the money to pay you right now, that's cerÂ¬ tainly no reason why our friendship should end altogether. If we don't have faith in each other, then what's Our friendship really been worth all this time?" By the middle of the cruelest month, the power companies had cut off all his heat and electricity. For the longest time there was silence. The next letter he sent was hand-written and, surprisingly, a form letter of his own. It reached everyone of his devoted agencies on the same day, a feat that would have astounded even an ex-postal worker like Norman. The copies read as follows:
Hail and Farewell, My Friends! Glad you got me off my duff and made me amount to something after all! Too bad you had to go to such lengths. As I'm sure you already know, one cold night while I huddlÂ¬ed alone in the dark during a particularly violent rainstorm that would have done Dracula proud, I heard a scratching at the front door. Lillian at last! I thought. But when I peered outside, I saw only afigure silhouetted by the streetlight, a very young anorexic girl with long, straight white hair and wearing spiked heels and a black leaher jacket and mini-skirt. I had a feeling she hadn't stopÂ¬ped by just for martinis and Cheetos. But I got to hand it to you guys. At least you have style. Who would have ever thought you'd dispatch a Bill Collector like that? God knows what she would have really collected had I le t her in! But that near-encounter convinced me it was time to stowaway aboard afreighter and head for warmer climes. For one thing, I'd have a better chance to live off the land without being indebted to anybody. Guess I came to realize that the world owes me a thing or two for a change - and it was high time for me to collect on my debts. Couldn't have given so much to myself, though, without such giving friends to prod me on. Thanks for keeping the faith when I needed it most!
Yours truly (mine, too!),
Though it must have seemed part of the continuing prank to the employees who no doubt consigned the letters to the same file where they placed most letters from the public, the envelopes should have raisÂ¬ed an eyebrow or two with their Papeete, Tahiti, postmarks. If anyone had noticed, too, he certainly would have wondered about the return adÂ¬dress: "Somewhere in the Society Islands." None of his many stateside friends heard another word from Norman Majors. He was far too busy collecting on bills sent to the tropical jungle and white beaches of his uninhabited island.