Louella Reads A Phone Bill

by A.C. Cherbonnier
Louella arrived at her family's Patterson Park rowhouse just in time for Sunday dinner. She found her father lounging in his recliner, staring dumbfounded at a phone bill. "What's the matter, Dad?" she asked as she shed her down coat and looked for a place to put it in the small, but very warm, room. She sniffed cooking cabbage wafting from the direction of the kitchen. "You look upset."

"Well, truth to tell, I am upset. I mean, I got a high school education back when it meant something, and I can't make head nor tail outta this thing." He started to crumble it up, but Louella grabbed it. "Here, let me see. Maybe I can figure it out."

I should know better than anybody, she thought grimly. I just spent a couple of hours on the phone trying to figure out my cell phone bill. She smoothed out the pages and put them in order. In all, there were 12 sides to look at. She glimpsed at the total first. "My God, Dad! Two hundred and eleven dollars! And that's not counting a late fee from last month!"

"Humpf!" grumped her father. "I weren't late, neither. I mailed it in time, but like they say, I can't prove nothin'."

"Yeah, well--that's a pretty big late fee. I just paid one for five dollars because they said I was late, and my whole bill that month was less than forty dollars. I mean, that's a big chunk of money for being late. I called them about it--took a half-hour to get a human being."

"Yeah, I'd try to call 'em, too, but after the last few times I just gave up and paid what they wanted."

"Well, turns out they get to charge you a percentage of the bill or five dollars, whichever one is bigger, if you're late."

"Huh! That's robbery!"

"That's what I said, but they said the Maryland legislature passed the law, so it's legal as long as the phone contract mentions it."

"Contract? I ain't seen no contract!"

"Tiny type, Dad. It was there somewhere in something they sent you, you can bet on it."

"But I can't read that small stuff! I mean, who can? And even if I could read it, I wouldn't, ya know that?"

Plus which, you can't read all that well to start with, thought Louella. "Well, you're not alone about that, Dad. Most people don't read the fine print. These companies count on it."

"Yeah, they're always slipping something over on ya, ain't they? Not much use tryin' to fight it."

"Well, you could at least try to keep the phone bill as low as possible," advised Louella, studying the details. "I can't believe you guys talk so much on the phone! And who's doing all these long distance calls? That's what's really jacking up the bill."

"Oh them--they're Candy's calls. She met somebody online, and now they've moved from whatchacall email to phone calls. He lives somewhere out west."

"I see that. Oklahoma! That's a long way away to keep a romance going!"

"Yeah, but it's a lot safer that romancin' in person, ain't it?" he cackled.

Candy came through the dining room doorway, wiping her hands on one of their mother's aprons. "Hey, girl," she said. "You up for some kielbasa?"

"Geez, Candy! You know I don't eat meat!"

"Yeah, yeah! I know. I've got some cabbage and vegetables you can eat, and some pumpernickel bread."

"That'll do. No problem." It's the least you can do, fix me a meal a week, since you mooch off the folks full-time, she thought resentfully. Well, I guess she sort of pays them back by watching out for Mom, she reminded herself. "We're just now looking over the phone bill, and it's pretty high! Any way you can curb those calls to Oklahoma?"

Candy's face got red, and her green eyes flashed poison. "Look, it's not your business, okay? It's between me and the folks."

"Well, they can't very well afford over two hundred a month for the phone!"

"Two hundred? Can't be!" Candy grabbed the papers from Louella and rustled through them. "Ohmigawd! I can't believe it!"

"You need to get a plan," suggested Louella. "Then you wouldn't be paying forty cents a minute."

"Forty cents a minute! That's robbery!" said their father. "How can they get away with that?"

"Simple, Dad. Because they can!"

"Well, how would somebody know about these plans?"

"You've got to read the mail, Dad."

He looked defeated. Then he looked at Candy. "You take care of it, my girl," he glowered. "I don't want to see anything like this ever again. It could give me heart failure."

Candy nodded unhappily. "I just can't believe it."

From the dining room, a frail voice called, "Isn't it about time for dinner?"


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This story was published on February 16, 2006.