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The letter arrived in a thin brown envelope with a plastic window where my address showed. No return information, and the postmark was illegible. Junk, I figured, and I was about to give it the old heave-ho when some little voice spoke in its favor, gave it a second chance. Maybe it was the first class stamp? Or the smudges that hovered like two eyes above the flap, the broad V of which looked like an ear-to-ear grin. Except that there were no ears, of course.What the hell. So I grabbed a butter knife off the kitchen table and slit it open. Out came a single sheet of paper which, when unfolded, revealed the logo of our gas and electric utility and a few lines of print. Or rather, the logo of the multinational that recently acquired the holding company that a while ago merged with our gas and electric utility. Frankly, it’s hard to keep it 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

That was it. True, I have hidden the company’s name (as you might have guessed, it isn’t really called “E***”), since on top of everything else I don’t really need to get sued right now, but the rest of it is untouched, a faithful transcription. I’m not even being coy about my name – 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 given as [DATE1]. (I know, I know; it’s hard to believe – DATE1 already? Golly but time flies.) And Natasha had really written the words “the lateness of your payment is oversight” – without an “an.” Was it a typo, or had E*** outsourced all their 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 complaint itself did not especially surprise me. This is the kind of stuff that happens all the time as the 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. Although, perhaps I’m jumping to conclusions? You pay so many bills and write so many checks that it’s hard to keep track of them, and really, who wants to? Maybe I screwed 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. I mean that literally: call me old-fashioned, but I still like to write out personal notes longhand.

Dear Natasha,

Thank you for your letter of, well, your recent letter. You see, it wasn’t dated. But I received it two days ago. Anyway, I wanted to let you know that there seems to be an error. I don’t mean to accuse you, of course, or really anyone at E***. Far be it for me to throw the first stone. I goof up all the time. But the fact remains that 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 local, but locally it belongs to a Mrs. Hazel Whitten, who I think is quite elderly. I took the liberty of dropping E***’s name during a pause in her yelling, and so should she call you, I would be much obliged if you could reassure her of my good intentions. You see, as soon as I spoke about money, she seemed to think I was trying to bilk her. 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 US 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., and so you might want to update your database.

Yours, etc.

Mission accomplished, or so I thought. I had proof positive; I had cleared my good name. And life moved on: I went to work, washed my clothes, played with the cat. It’s a pretty simple existence, really.

And then about ten days later, it got complicated again. I returned home from my job one evening and pulled out the mail, and what did I find but another one of those coarse, brown envelopes. Spitting image 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, and so I ripped it open. It 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 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”? 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 so 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 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. A little chilled, perhaps, but hanging in there. In fact, it is 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 am 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 that photostatic copy of the check that I sent? It was a pretty good likeness to 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 those articles. They’re killers, I know. (Just trying to help!)

Yours, etc.

So, out it went with the morning’s mail.

I’m kind of 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 kind of between girlfriends at the time, and my evenings were not exactly full. At work I was fine; I could lose myself in paperwork as well as the next guy. But by the end of the afternoon I’d start wondering about the mail. Anticipation would grow as I left the office every afternoon, and while I rode home on the bus I’d be thinking, “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 had had a hard time deciding how to put it down on paper. How many times did she start to write, only to put down her pen – or mouse, or whatever – bite her lower lip, and think again how to begin?

Finally, though, she had 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

So heartening, and yet so maddening! So close and yet so far! She’d unearthed my payment, this blessed Natasha had (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... That strangely cantilevered sentence with the fragment “and we hope” hanging out there without any punctuation at all, defying anyone to put a period to it – it seemed the very manifestation 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 was sure that my own messages were falling on deaf ears (or in some office for lost mail), a little something would pop up to suggest communication had been established.

I was restless in bed that night. I couldn’t get that stupid letter out of my mind, and so I tossed and turned, turned and tossed. Finally I rolled off the mattress, 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 live side by side, but can never see each other because of the wall that separates their gardens. Instead, they send messages through a crack in the wall. It’s not what you’d call perfect communication, but it’s better than nothing, and they usually get the gist of what each other is saying. And even when they are not able to be together, they comfort themselves by looking at the moon and knowing that they both share in this lunar spectacle, each of them unseen by the other.

I hope you will not think me forward to compare our exchanges to those of Pyramus and Thisbe. The 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 you arrived on time, and thus no late charges 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 reminds me a lot of the kinds of 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 his own desires! Or hers.)

Wishing you

Yours, etc.

It was four in the morning by the time I finished, and in spite of 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 get these things just right, 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; it was just my attempt to match the brilliant flourish of Natasha’s “and we hope,” and I left it in even though I felt it didn’t really work. It felt derivative.

Anyway, into the mail it went.

Several days passed. And then a week. And another. We had passed the end of November, 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 said. Or left unsaid. Perhaps Pyramus and Thisbe wasn’t the right story to tell? Maybe she was hanging on the words of 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. I picked through it obsessively anyway, like a drug addict looking for the last hit that he knows damn well is not there – or like that writer who’s waiting to hear from a magazine. I was without hope, and yet unable to stop.

It was the day before Christmas when I received the last one. My fingers trembled as I held the familiar brown envelope. Same plastic window; same little smudges. It was something akin to relief I experienced, and I let the thing sit on the kitchen table unopened while I made a fresh pot of coffee. You’d think I’d rip right into it after waiting for so long. But in fact there was a kind of 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. Finally 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

So, 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 wishes to respond? Or had E*** simply transferred her to a new division? In any case, communications 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 go out. If not today, tomorrow. If not tomorrow, the day after.

About the Author
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Scott teaches literature and creative writing at Carleton College (MN). Winner of a Mark Twain House Royal Nonesuch Prize (2018), he’s the author of Theory of Remainders: A Novel (named to Kirkus Reviews’ “Best Books of 2013”) and of This Jealous Earth: Stories. His shorter work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including South Dakota Review, The Rumpus, Silk Road, Catapult (pending), and various anthologies. His website is sdcarpenter.com