When Jerry Tamburo lost his job at the Forum Employment Agency, he knew how difficult it would be to find another. He was 34 years old with a degree in business from a third tier university and a resume padded with accomplishments achieved in the position he was about to lose.
Jerry's physical appearance was also less than impressive. He was six feet tall with a lazy slouch and thickening middle. His hair was the color of pumpernickel bread making it a shade too dark for his pale, round face -- a face already showing the marshmallow puffiness common to an ageing, single man left to his own adolescent preferences in diet and lifestyle.
When Mr. Fowler, the Human Resources Manager at Forum, called him into his office, Jerry was already making a list of office supplies to gather up and take with him before he walked out the door.
"Sit down, Jerry," Fowler said, stuffing his mouth with a blueberry muffin before turning his full attention to the employee.
"How's the family?"
"I don't have a family, Mr. Fowler. I live by myself."
Fowler's eyes darted to his computer screen and then back to Jerry.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Jerry," he said, patting down the stubborn tufts of hair that straddled the crown of his head. "I must have mixed you up with someone else."
"Probably Thompson," Jerry suggested. "He's next, alphabetically."
Fowler rotated side to side in his black-vinyl executive chair and pushed his glasses back on his nose.
"Yes, well. Regardless, Jerry, I'm afraid ..."
Jerry stopped him. "I'm fired." He added the false note of question to a statement he knew to be true.
"Well, yes Jerry. We find ourselves, like so many other companies today ..."
"Save it for Thompson," Jerry snapped. "How much severance?"
"It's two weeks, Jerry. It's the best we could do."
"Two weeks ..." Jerry repeated to the walls. "Is that what you're giving Thompson? Or does he get more because he's got a fat wife and two sticky kids?"
Fowler stood up quickly, launching blueberry muffin crumbs from his lap. "Jerry, I can't discuss anyone else's situation. But I think you should take the check and go." Jerry snatched it up but left the office at a casual pace, bellowing "Good Byes" to coworkers, to many of whom he'd never spoken a word.
Jerry's belligerence had run out of gas by the time he arrived home. He skipped the mailroom and climbed the stairs with slow, deliberate steps, counting each one to keep his mind off his termination, the reality of which had now begun to take hold. Once inside he polished off the four remaining beers of a six-pack and then flopped backwards on his unmade bed. He was asleep within minutes.
In his five years of employment at Forum, Jerry had taken to heart the wisdom that "Only a fool lives on his salary." Putting this wisdom to the test, Jerry had grown a $1,600 monthly nut. This included the rental of a one-bedroom garden apartment, the $125 monthly lease on his dusky blue Toyota Camry, and the miscellaneous expenses of a single man of undisciplined appetites.
Not accounted for in his monthly expenses were his credit card debts, however. Divided roughly between his Visa, MasterCard and Amex, Jerry's balance was close to $14,000 -- a hungry beast that demanded a monthly minimum of $700 at 16% interest.
Jerry had $3,000 in savings, his severance check, and a weekly amount of $315 in unemployment insurance. He did his own math and came to the inescapable conclusion that he was totally screwed. And if he was totally screwed, then so were his creditors. After all, they were the seductive sirens that had lured him to this rocky isle of debt.
Jerry decided to hunker down and live on his remaining liquidity, paying only the necessities: rent, car, cable, cell phone, food, and his Friday night beer-and-wing bash with his pals at a dive bar named The Dive Bar. Everything else on the list of expenses was de-budgeted.
Three days after their due dates, Jerry received firm but respectful notices from his three creditors reminding him that his bills were now past due. Unexpectedly, there was a bill from the Omni Med Insurance Corporation in the amount of $80.00
The bill was for non-reimbursed medical charges arising from emergency room care he had received the night he sliced his thumb. A sharp knife, a hard baguette, a few too many beers, and there it was: An inch long bead of blood charging out of the deep, straight trench he had sliced across his thumb.
When several yards of toilet paper proved incapable of ceasing the bloody advance, Jerry had driven himself to St. Cabrini's emergency room. There, a bored young doctor with a stubbly chin and dirty tennis shoes gave the wound a condescending glance and pronounced it a "French Bread Thumb." Apparently, French Bread Thumb was a common ER injury for Americans, who (unlike the French) have not acquired the ability to cut rock-hard bread with a sharp knife while tipsy.
The ten-minute procedure of cleaning and suturing the cut cost Jerry $400.00. His health insurance picked up 80% of the cost, leaving Jerry with an $80.00 co-pay balance. He tossed the bill into the trashcan and laughed. "What are they going to do, repossess the stitches?" he thought.
By the third month of Jerry's unemployment, he had managed to fill with other pursuits the time he had once spent at work. A ten o'clock wake up was followed by a computer breakfast consisting of corn flakes, the sports news, and porn. The middle day revolved around Law and Order: Criminal Intent reruns and the Military Channel. At three o'clock he cracked open his first beer, and at six he popped a frozen dinner into the microwave.
During the months of his unemployment, Jerry's debtors had grown more strident in their demands that Jerry pay his past due accounts. The phone calls, once made by friendly, fatherly figures, now featured hungry, drooling jackals who called three times a day and began all conversations with a preamble that the call was being recorded for his protection.
The Jackals' threats were variations on the theme of "severe credit damage" and "court actions," all of which were met with Jerry's rote explanation of his "dire financial condition" due to lack of work during these times of "unprecedented financial upheaval." The calls became so commonplace that he no longer put the TV on mute or took his eyes off the screen when he answered the phone.
The caller from Omni Med was the most threatening of the bunch. Their Miss Connelly demanded his $80 balance in collection calls that rang from early morning until dinnertime. "Mr. Tamburo," she would screech, "this $80 balance is now three months overdue. We must have the full amount remitted immediately!"
"Look Miss Connelly," Jerry explained, "I'm not working right now and I have no savings. You're a hospital, and certainly you have compassion for my situation."
Miss Connelly sidestepped his argument as if it were something a dog had left in the street. "Mr. Tamburo," she said in a chilling, suppressed whisper, "if we don't receive your payment by week's end, I'll have no choice but to move your case to our Final Collections Department."
"Miss Connelly," Jerry tried a more sincere tone, "can't you see --"
"Mr. Tamburo!" she interrupted with a bully shout. "You have been warned! If we don't receive a payment by the end of the month your case will go into Final Collections!"
The phone went dead against his ear.
"What the hell!" Jerry thought. "Screw her!"
By the five-month anniversary of his termination, Jerry had stopped paying his cell phone bill, had given up his premium cable, and, with it, his beloved Military Channel. The credit card calls had now become sporadic -- Jerry's financial soul had passed into the purgatory, populated by debtors, known as "write-offs." But the Omni Med Corporation had become even more fiercely aggressive.
True to her word, Miss Connelly had sent his case up to Final Collections, where an agent named Hoffman called Jerry twice a day at random hours and mailed him his statement every day, including Saturdays. These statements were awash with red past-due stamps that all but obliterated the single line entry that read:
"Emergency Room Treatment to clean and suture lacerated thumb. Balance due: $80.00."
Hoffman's tone was that of an undertaker, sans the cheery euphemisms. "Mr. Tamburo," he would say, "we both know this obligation must and will be met."
Jerry's reply was to recite his tale of financial hardship. Hoffman invariably interrupted to remind him: "When your thumb was bleeding, we were there for you. Now the Piper must be paid. Do you understand me, Mr. Tamburo?"
"Mr. Hoffman, all I can say is the truth. I haven't worked for over six months. I lost my car, (this was a lie) and my cell phone and now the utility companies are threatening to cut me off."
Jerry's water and electricity was included in his rent, but he decided that his fib made for a more wretched story.
"Mr. Tamburo, I do understand your situation, but you must understand ours. You have partaken of our services and now you are reneging on your obligation to us." Hoffman took a long pause and asked, "May I call you Jerry?"
Jerry nodded but said nothing.
"Jerry, this is the last time we will speak. I have nothing personal against you. You seem like a decent person who's hit a bad patch."
Jerry was touched that Hoffman understood.
"But Jerry," Hoffman continued, "you must be made aware that Omni Med has a 'zero tolerance' policy for non-paying patients." Before Hoffman could continue, Jerry jumped in.
"What does that mean? What can you do to me -- cut off my thumb?"
After another deep pause, Hoffman continued. "Jerry, if only it was that easy. All I can say to you is that it's of utmost importance that we receive your balance by close of business on Friday."
"I have a job interview lined up for Friday." Jerry tried a final tack. "And, Mr. Hoffman, if I get this job, I promise you that Omni Med will be the first bill I pay."
There was a silence. Finally, Jerry had to ask -- "Mr. Hoffman, are you still there?"
"Yes I am, Jerry. But I have to say goodbye now. I won't call again. I don't want to send out your Final Notice, but come Friday, I'll have no choice but to send it to you if you haven't complied."
Jerry gave the phone an incredulous look, thinking, "After all this, a Final Notice? That's it?"
"Ok, Mr. Hoffman, I understand. But I gotta go now -- wish me luck on Friday." There was another long silence. "Mr. Hoffman? Are you still there? Mr. Hoffman?"
The line was dead.
The job interview was a gift. An old college pal was looking for an experienced employment recruiter for a start-up agency. On Friday morning, Jerry struggled with his tie in front of his dressing mirror. It took three attempts before he remembered how to do it right. Happy with the results, he gave himself a last look. "Mr. Hoffman," he said to his reflection, "if I get this job, I promise you will be the first one I pay. Wish me luck!"
The interview went well. Jerry had seen both levels of management and concluded that he was the top candidate after a quick glance at the bedraggled-looking bunch in the waiting room. They would offer him the job on Monday -- it was a lock.
A hard rain started on the drive home, so Jerry decided to stop in at The Dive Bar and celebrate his impending good fortune. After four beers and a trifecta of Tequila shots, he flirted with the waitress, gave her a wet kiss and a big tip, and left with a very pleasant buzz.
Arriving home, Jerry overshot his parking spot, punching the back wall of the garage and breaking the surface of the plaster.
"Screw it! I'll deal with it tomorrow," he thought. He took big, clumsy strides across the soggy garden that bordered his apartment. He was anxious to get home to have the premium cable restored in time to catch the six o'clock program on the Military Channel.
Jerry passed up the mailroom at first, but then doubled back and fumbled with the key until he managed to unlock the small aluminum box. He shuffled through the envelopes as he stumbled up the stairs. It consisted of junk mail and, amazingly, two offers for credit cards. He found the envelope from Omni Med. Emblazoned in red across both sides were the words "Final Notice."
"Hoffman," Jerry said with a loud, slurred laugh, "a promise is a promise. You get paid first, you old bastard."
Jerry tore open the envelope and pulled out the statement. He tried to focus on the words as he continued up the stairs, but he was seeing double. He saw two lines of charges on the statement instead of one. He held the statement closer, so that it nearly touched his wet nose. The first line listed the familiar charge for his sliced thumb and the $80.00 balance.
As he squinted through the dark and rain, Jerry saw that there were, in fact, two separate billing charges. The new entry listed a charge of $4,189.00. His eyes swept across the paper to read the explanation. "Cerebral Trauma, DOA Cabrini Hospital Emergency Room." A cold wave plunged down the side of his body; he went dizzy. He felt his shoe slide off the wet edge of the step and he reached for the slick, metal stairway railing but couldn't get hold. He was in a backwards-free fall. As his body passed its center of gravity, he became nothing more than a physics lesson: A skull in motion and a concrete step at rest.
At the moment the equation was proven, Jerry Tamburo's outstanding balance to the Omni Med Corporation was paid in full.