We were sitting in the backyard, Willie, Jon, Mary and I.
And we were pretty happy.
Happy laughing, happy talking, happy drunk. And why not? It was summer, after all, the summer of 2005.
There had been people in the backyard all day, one of those spontaneous, joyous days when coupons are suddenly worth double, the car stops making that annoying “tick-tick-tick” sound, and friends drop by unannounced.
Mary is describing the time that Jon used a front-end loader to ensure that his neighbor had enough snow in his front yard – an escapade that filled said yard to the top of the fence – when a woman opens the gate and walks into the backyard.
“Excuse me? Ma’am?”
I turn to see a small woman rapidly approaching. Perhaps five feet two, her hair has seen too many sloppily applied box dyes, her skin too many days in the sun. The word “wizened” comes to mind.
“Ma’am?” she says. “Are you a Christian woman?”
Mary leans forward, grins at her. “She sure is! Have a seat, why don’t ya!”
If the woman had been wearing a hat, she’d be clutching it now, perhaps in a wringing motion at the chest. “Oh, no, ma’am. I couldn’t intrude.”
The thought that she both could and has intruded enters my brain.
I crack open another beer and we stare at each other. I give in rather quickly. “What is it that you want?”
“Well, you see, ma’am…” and here she pulls an envelope from her back pocket and hands it to me. I pull a letter from the envelope. It has been folded and refolded many times, the creases worn shallow and weak. “To Whom It May Concern”…
I look up. “What is this?” I say.
“Just read it, please, ma’am.”
It is a letter on the letterhead of one of the churches just a block away. It endorses the bearer as having cancer, as requiring medications that neither she nor her seven children can afford. It declares that she is a good citizen of Minneapolis, that she has skills as a tile and bricklayer.
And that she needs $42.45.
“Forty-two forty-five,” I say thoughtfully. “That’s pretty specific.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m not a beggar, ma’am. I’ve worked all my life, and when I’m in good health, I do a really fine job of laying tile. But I’ve got cancer, and I’ve got seven children, and it’s all I can do to keep a roof over our heads let alone afford my medicine. The $42.45 is what I need a week to keep up with my meds. ”
Mary looks at me.
“Without my medication,” the woman goes on, “I’ll die, and who will look after my children?”
I look back at Mary. I jerk my head toward the alley.
“Excuse us for a moment,” I say, and Mary and I take a walk behind the garage.
“What do you think?”
“I think it could be a scam.”
“A pretty specific scam.”
“And she has a letter from the church.”
I look back toward the house. “And she certainly looks sick.”
“So what do you think?”
Mary shrugs. “I think I’m flat-busted and that you’re not and that no one wants to see seven mother-less kids.”
I walk back to the umbrella-ed table, to my friends and my beer and my checkbook. I write a check to “CASH” (“I no longer have a bank account, ma’am”).
“Thank you, ma’am”, she says, walking backwards. “Thank you so much!”
She disappears around the front of the house.
Whereupon we go back to our beers.
And over the course of the next couple weeks, that check begins to weigh on me. I was scammed, wasn’t I? Was I? Did a person really come into my backyard for the purposes of taking my money?
I call the church on the letterhead.
“Oh, no,” says a gentle, slightly amused voice on the other end of the line. “Those in need are always welcome to come to us and we’ll help where we can, but we would never hand someone a letter that was basically a license to beg.”
Think of it as a tax on the drunk and gullible. I have.