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Spring 2013 (April 29, 2013)

Sincerely Yours

By Scott Dominic Carpenter

A short story by Scott Dominic Carpenter

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The letter arrived in a plain brown envelope, my address showing through its plastic window. No return information. The postmark was illegible. Junk, I figured, but just to be sure I grabbed a butter knife off the kitchen table and slit it open. Out slipped a single sheet of paper which, when unfolded, revealed the logo of our gas and electric utility, followed by a few lines of print. To be more precise, it was the logo of the multinational that had recently acquired the holding company that had earlier merged with our gas and electric utility. Frankly, it’s been hard to keep it all straight.

This is what I read:

E***, Inc.
P.O. Box 28271
Bethesda, MO, 42002

Dear Mrs. <Name>,

It has come to our attention that payment for your last billing is overdue. You have a current balance of: -$52.17. We assume the lateness of your payment is oversight, and we request you send a check or credit card information no later than <DATE1>, after which we will need to refer your account to collections.
If you wish to dispute this billing, please respond to the address above, or contact your service agent at the number below.

Yours sincerely,

Natasha Naranski
Customer Service Representative
721-9394

BXP51286.jpgThat was it—it really did show <NAME>, right after they misidentified my gender. Now, I’m not what you would call an alpha male, a top dog, a shining example of the species, but still, that last bit seemed a little uncalled for. And the date truly was shown as <DATE1>. I thought: Really? DATE1 already? Golly but time flies. And Natasha had actually written the words “the lateness of your payment is oversight”—without an “an.” Was it a typo, or had E*** outsourced all its customer service to Kiev, where women named Mika and Natasha and Tatiana assembled English sentences like jigsaw puzzles? Even the return address seemed weird. Bethesda, Missouri? Shows what I know.

But the basic complaint about non-payment did not especially surprise me. This is the kind of stuff that happens every time big companies gobble each other up. You send in a check and it circles the globe two or three times before it lands in an account. You pay so many bills and write so many checks that it’s hard to keep track of them—and to tell the truth, who wants to? In fact, who knows? Maybe I did screw up. The next day I had a chance to look into it, and after going through my check register and making a few calls, I put pen to paper. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like to write out personal notes longhand.

Dear Natasha,

Thank you for your recent message, which I received two days ago. I write you now to let you know that there appears to be an error. I don’t mean to accuse you, of course, or anyone at E***. Far be it from me to throw the first stone. Personally, I goof up all the time. But my bank has informed me that check number 3042, in the amount of $52.17, cleared quite some time ago, which means, I think, that my good name is also in the clear. What a relief for both of us! To assist you in putting the record straight, I have attached a photostatic copy of the check in question.

Actually, I tried to call you up to share this good news, but the number you supplied in your epistle does not appear to be local. Or rather, it is a local number, but locally it belongs to a Mrs. Hazel Whitten, whom I believe to be somewhat elderly. I took the liberty of dropping E***’s name during a pause in her yelling. She became rather exercised when I began to speak about money. Should she happen to call you, I’d appreciate it if you could reassure her of my good intentions.

Anyway, all this to say that I don’t have your area code. (On that same score, I cannot locate Bethesda, Missouri, in my atlas, which, though not a recent printing, seems to include most U.S. cities. I hope this letter reaches you.)

If any further action is required on my part, please let me know.

Oh, and for the record, the last time I checked I was still a Mr., so you might want to update your database.

Yours, etc.

That was that. I pictured myself standing in front of a giant Mission Accomplished banner. I had crushed this one. The evidence was irrefutable. So I resumed my life: going to work, washing my clothes, playing with the cat. It’s a pretty simple existence, really.

Then, about ten days later, it turned complicated again. I came home one evening and pulled out the mail, and what did I find but another one of those coarse, brown envelopes—a clone of the first one: same first-class stamp, same faint postmark, and even the same smudges on the flap. They must print these things by the thousands, and the smudge marks come from the rollers on the machinery. I can’t say I wasn’t curious, so I ripped it open. In my hands was another letter from my friend Natasha:

E***, Ltd.
P.O. Box 28271
Bethesda, MO, 42002
SECOND NOTICE

Dear Mr. <Name>,

In our letter of <DATE1> we brought to your attention an overdue bill in amount of: $52.17. We still await payment on this account, and it is with regret that we must now add interest (21% APR) and a late penalty of $25.00. Please send your payment in the amount of: $78.12 no later than <DATE2>, or we will be forced to refer your account to collections.

If you wish to dispute this billing, please respond to the address above, or contact your service agent at the number below.

Yours sincerely,

Natasha Naranski
Customer Service Representative
721-9394

Well, at this point Natasha was beginning to rub me the wrong way. It’s like she hadn’t even read my letter. Or had she? After all, somehow my manhood had been restored: I was back to my rightful place as Mister Name. But she made no mention of the copy of the check I had sent. Otherwise it read like the same impersonal gibberish. Natasha was still having trouble with her dates (she needs to get out more, I told myself). And there was that phrase: “overdue bill in amount of.” I mean, whatever happened to the “the”? Why is it that Natasha kept dispensing with articles, those unthanked workhorses of the language? And why did she always have to put a colon before every dollar figure? There was something cold, almost threatening about those two little dots. And another thing: the first letter had come from “E***, Inc.”, while this one showed “E***, Ltd.” It’s like the company was setting up shop in the Virgin Isles or something, the better to launder my infrequent payments. But they still had a mailing address in Bethesda? Missouri?

This one got me kind of fired up, and that very night I sat down at the kitchen table and pulled out my stationery. It had been a while since I’d had any regular correspondence, so I guess I’d been saving up my energy.

Dear Natasha,

How nice to hear from you again. I hope you are well? I am well, too, thank you. It’s a little chilly here, but not too bad. In fact, it’s in weather like this that I say, “Thank God for gas and electric companies!” I really do. You people do important work, I don’t deny it.

That said, I’m afraid there has been some small misunderstanding. You seem to have latched onto that Mr./Mrs. thing in my last letter (thank you so much!), but actually the most important part was the bit about my having already paid my bill. I’m sure you’ll recall the photostatic copy of the check that I sent? It was a pretty good likeness of the real thing.

I’d be ever so grateful if you could clear this up for me. I think “clearing it up” would include removing the late fee and the interest charge as well, since I actually paid on time.

I guess that’s about it. Oh, one last thing: I think you should look at Strunk and White about your use of articles. They’re killers, I know.

Yours, etc.

Out it went with the morning’s mail.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but after that I started looking forward to brown envelopes in the mail. I mean, it’s not like I have no personal life, but I was between girlfriends at the time, and my evenings were not exactly full. At the office I was fine; I could lose myself in paperwork as well as the next guy. But by the end of each afternoon I’d start wondering about the mail. Anticipation would grow as I left the office in the evening, and while I rode home on the bus I’d think, “maybe today?” Silly, really—like a retiree hoping for a sweepstakes, or a writer waiting for a letter of acceptance from a magazine. Ridiculous. But that’s the way it was.

It took a full two weeks for Natasha to write back to me. Perhaps she was distraught by the complexity of my situation. Or maybe she’d had a hard time deciding how to express her thoughts. How many times did she begin to write, only to set down the pen—or mouse, or whatever—bite her lower lip, and reconsider her response?

In the end, though, she found the words. They went something like this:

E***, Ltd.
P.O. Box 28271
Bethesda, MO, 42002
THIRD NOTICE

Dear Mr. <Name>,

Thank you for your recent payment in the amount of: <AMOUNT1> for your overdue billing. However, please note that your late charges and penalty are still outstanding, and we require the full payment of: <AMOUNT2> no later than <DATE1>. Note that we have now written you <NUMBER1> times about this issue, and if it is not resolved quickly, we will be forced to close your account.

We value you as a customer, and we hope

If you wish to dispute this billing, please respond to the address above, or contact your service agent at the number below.

Yours sincerely,

Natasha Naranski
Customer Service Representative
721-9394

KT001809.jpgSo heartening, and yet so maddening! So close and yet so far! She’d unearthed my payment, my blessed Natasha (or had it just entered their system?)—and yet now she insisted on the payment of late charges I had not incurred. With one hand she caressed, while with the other she sank in her nails. It was odi et amo, I hate and I love—that old poetry all over again. And yet, and yet… There was that strangely cantilevered sentence with the fragment and we hope, dangling without any punctuation at all, defying anyone to put a full stop to it. It seemed the very essence of open-ended aspiration and hopefulness. But that not-so-veiled threat! They may have written me NUMBER1 times about this, but it was starting to smell like a NUMBER2 to me.

The whole thing was tantalizing: just when I thought my messages were falling on deaf ears (or landing in some office for lost mail), some small detail would suggest communication had been established. Which was it?

I was restless in bed that night, unable to get the last letter out of my mind. I tossed and turned, turned and tossed. Finally I threw off the covers, plodded into the kitchen, and wrote Natasha in the wee hours while the cat prowled about my feet.

Dear Natasha,

Do you know the story of Pyramus and Thisbe? It’s an old tale about two lovers who lived side by side but could never see each other because of the wall that separated their gardens. Instead, they sent messages through a crack in the wall. It wasn’t what you’d call perfect communication, but it was better than nothing, and usually they got the gist of what each other was saying. When they were not able to be together, they comforted themselves by looking at the moon from their separate gardens, knowing they both shared that lunar spectacle, each of them unseen by the other.

I hope you will not think me forward if I compare our exchanges to those of Pyramus and Thisbe. My point is really that, even with the best of intentions, Pyramus and Thisbe ended up misunderstanding each other, with rather tragic consequences. (It was all a terrible mix-up, including a lion and a veil. I believe there was a dagger involved, too, but I’ll spare you the details.)

All of this to say that I feel we are quite close to understanding one another on the matter of my payments, and yet so very far away. I am glad that you have recovered my initial payment, but surely this means you know that the check I sent arrived on time, and that no late charges thus apply? Besides, because your letter refers to the amount owed only as a kind of cipher—a mysterious “AMOUNT2”—I would not be able to pay even if I wanted to, which I do not.

I don’t mind pointing out that this situation reminds me a lot of the conversations I used to have with my former girlfriend, which perhaps explains the “former” part. Couldn’t we try a tiny bit harder? I’m confident that with one last push, we can break through the final barriers. We should both be able to get what we want, if only we can express our desires clearly. (If, indeed, one can ever know one’s own desires!)

Wishing you

Yours, etc.

It was four in the morning by the time I finished, and despite my fatigue I thought it was a pretty good letter. Direct and yet friendly. Well, perhaps not friendly. More like compassionate. It’s hard to strike just the right tone, and I suppose all attempts at communication with our fellow human beings are flawed somewhere. Take that open-ended “wishing you” part at the end of my note: it was my attempt to match the brilliant flourish of Natasha’s “and we hope,” and I left it in even though it didn’t really work. It felt derivative.

Anyway, into the mail it went.

Several days passed. And then a week. And another. We left November behind, heading for mid-December, and still no word from Natasha. Had I gone too far? Had I said something I shouldn’t have? I found myself going over the copy of my last letter (yes, I kept copies), tormented by what I’d said. Or left unsaid. Perhaps Pyramus and Thisbe wasn’t the right story to tell? Maybe she was puzzling over that last line, wondering what, exactly, I wished her?

I wished her to write back, that’s what I wished. It was pretty simple.

But more days passed, and after a while I no longer felt any thrill of anticipation as I reached into the box for my mail. Still, I picked through the envelopes and flyers obsessively, like a drug addict looking for a last hit that he knows damn well is not there. I was without hope, and yet unable to stop.

It was the day before Christmas when I received the last one. The familiar brown envelope lay in my trembling fingers. Same plastic window, same little smudges. It was a feeling akin to relief that I experienced, and I let the letter sit unopened on the kitchen table while I made a fresh pot of coffee. There was an effervescent pleasure to delaying the moment—now that I had the letter within reach. All in good time, all in good time, I thought to myself. Eventually I settled into the living room armchair, a cup of coffee at my side, the cat on my lap, and I gently slit the long seam of the envelope:

E***, Ltd.
P.O. Box 28271
Bethesda, MO, 42002
FINAL NOTICE

Dear Mr. <Name>,

We have asked repeatedly (<DATE1>, <DATE2>, <DATE3>) for you to pay your outstanding balance of: <AMOUNT1>. Currently, this balance remains unpaid, and we have no choice but to refer your account to collections.

Moreover, we are now required to close account. Please be aware that your gas and electric service will be cancelled as of <DATE4>.

If you wish to dispute this billing, please respond to the address above, or contact your service agent at the number below.

Yours sincerely,

Irina Golosenko
Customer Service Representative
721-9394

Irina Golosenko? What had become of Natasha? Had she simply passed my file to a friend in the next cubicle? Had forces beyond her control interfered with her wish to respond? Or had E*** simply transferred her to a new division? In any case, communication had ground to a halt, and I confess to feeling somewhat jilted. Pyramus and Thisbe, indeed.

It is now approaching the New Year, and every day when I come home I expect the lights to be out, the heat off. If it doesn’t happen today, it will be tomorrow. If not tomorrow, the day after. 

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Comments

  • July 2 2013 at 8:58 am
    Ellen Palop

    (mother of Kristina Palop '02) Very funny and wonderful story. I look forward to reading more of Professor Carpenter's work. Vive la litterature!

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