My husband pays his bills in person. He drives to the township tax collector’s office. Travels to our accountant across the river in another state. Takes the water bill…where? I don’t even know. I hear him call he’ll be back in a bit. Upstairs at my desk, I seal the envelope holding my check for the dentist, then click through screens to send money flying from my checking account to J. Jill or Chico’s.
Electronic bill paying has been available since the 1990s but only became popular when more households gained access to the internet. Customers could then transfer money from their bank or credit card accounts to a store, public utility or individual to pay an account or bill.
I was watching the end of Grey’s Anatomy when the doorbell rang. Almost 9 p.m. Spikes of alarm attached themselves to my shoulders. From the living room, I heard Steve’s footsteps in the hall. The door opened and a flashlight’s beam lit my peripheral vision. My words jumped from heart to mouth.
“What is it?”
We met at our open front door. My husband Steve. A tall policeman in uniform.
“I have some bad news about your brother.”
Can we ever really know another person? We have only bits and pieces, the parts they show us, willingly or not, by their behavior. By how they treat others. By how others treat them. And how we see them from our own limited vantage point, our eyes already clouded, corrected, magnified or blindered.
Steve’s mouth hung open while I motioned the officer into our house, then our kitchen where he told Steve his brother had passed away.
“What happened? Was it an accident? On the road in his car?”
I shot questions into the air. The cop said was sorry but had no further information. He gave Steve a piece of paper with the number of a police officer in Connecticut, the one who found his brother’s body. We hadn’t seen Mark in eight years.
Paying bills online is cheaper, faster and more convenient than writing checks, mailing them and hoping they get where they’re meant to go on time. Most banks let customers schedule bill payments in advance of their due date, and save the customers’ information for reuse.
We traveled north on the interstate to the town where Steve and Mark were born. Well past its prime as a manufacturing center, storefronts sat vacant on every block, often anchored by Dunkin Donuts. Strip malls, big box chain stores and restaurants lined the highway. Uphill from the old downtown, 1950s Cape Cods and two-family clapboard houses with wide wooden porches stood shoulder to shoulder along a grid of streets.
We arranged for cremation and a funeral. Mark was 67 and had just retired a few months before his fatal heart attack. Outside his little yellow bungalow, frost crusted the grass on the tiny front lawn. In the driveway, his friend recounted for us the morning when he called and called. The phone was never answered. The newspaper in the box was a week old. The final frightening clue: the blue tarp blown off Mark’s 1965 Corvette in the driveway, flapping in the November wind.
“I know Mark,” he said. “Sometimes he wouldn’t answer the phone. But he’d never leave the Corvette like that.”
In a 2003 study reported in the New York Times, online bill payments were shown to increase customer loyalty. Most companies want customers paying online where they can market additional products, answer questions and address problems in less time than is required in person.
Two hours before the Mass, the funeral home filled with tired-looking men in orange work jackets, baseball caps in hand, and middle-aged women in dress slacks, blouses and open winter coats. Mark’s co-workers, friends, and acquaintances, people we had never met. Some knew him because he delivered oil to their homes and some because he accepted their bill payments at the front desk of Crown Oil.
“Mark always had a joke, a smart remark,” said an old man with a reedy voice.
A gray-haired woman nodded, her hand on Steve’s arm. “Oh, he was a character, all right!”
A 2017 study reported in Time magazine that men are more comfortable sharing their emotional problems and health concerns with their male friends than they are with romantic partners.
A slender woman approached the silver urn on a pedestal in front of a framed photograph of Mark. She blessed herself, then turned to us as Steve walked forward. “Mary,” he softly exclaimed. Mark’s long-ago girlfriend. I thanked her for coming.
“I would not think of being anywhere else today,” she said.
We found her later standing in the parking lot before the post-funeral luncheon. It was still November, another Thursday, not cold. She refused to come inside, only wanted to know why Mark was cremated. She’d been hoping to see him one last time. We explained the length of time before his body was found, and that the cemetery had no room beside his parents’ graves. Mark’s ashes would rest atop his mother’s vault.
“I loved your brother very much,” she said.
They’d broken up years ago, and no one in the family knew why. Mark refused to talk about it.
We were a small group for lunch at Nuchy’s Cafe, ten or twelve people in a room reserved for 25. Mark had no spouse, no children, and no other siblings, but his high school friend drove 18 hours from Florida to be there.
“I’m here for all of it,” he said. And then he told us the story Mark gave him about the breakup forty years ago. It happened at the real estate office where he and Mary meet to put a down payment on a house together. It came to light that Mary’s half was borrowed from her brother. “She lied to me,” Mark had said, and ran out of the building into traffic.
James Cordova, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and author of The Marriage Checkup, says “It’s rarely the math that couples are really arguing over. It’s what the money means to us emotionally, and if you don’t address your emotions, it’s like looking for your car keys under the street lamp when you lost them in the bushes.”
Weeks later, we brought a small log decorated with sparkles and silk poinsettias to the cemetery and found another one just like it at the side of the family tombstone nearest Mark’s ashes.
In January we were back, emptying closets and dresser drawers filled with clothing. Mark and Steve’s mother had died eight years prior, leaving furniture crammed with Wal-Mart jewelry, price tags still attached, unopened fundraiser envelopes, and decades old Christmas cards. Did Mark miss his mother so much he kept all her things? Did he just hate to throw anything away?
Dust covered everything. One bedroom was so stuffed with junk there was no room to walk – car parts, old paystubs, and muscle car magazines littered the floor, and old coins were stuck to the surface of a table. In the bathroom closet, a dozen deodorants, rolls of toilet paper, unopened packets of sponges, and bottles of contact lens solution. I wanted to throw away everything not usable but among the junk on the floor, Steve found his mother’s tattered purse with two hundred dollars inside. We settled in to examine everything carefully, even the trash.
People hoard because they believe that an item will be useful or valuable in the future, according to the website of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
The more we tossed, the more depressed we became. Three separate carloads went to Savers, the supermarket-sized thrift shop in one of the strip malls. Two truckloads left with the guys from 1-800-Got Junk. By the time I came back from my third trip to the Dollar Store for jumbo trash bags, Steve had found his parents’ wedding picture and his dad’s letters from World War II hidden in a crawl space inside a bag full of old Easter candy.
I never got to know Mark. When we visited him and his mom, he sat in front of the TV, ate dinner with us, then went out in the evening. We had very few conversations, and I gave up easily, letting Steve talk to him about cars, weather, and sports.
That January day, our legs and backs aching, we went to lunch at the bright and busy Kizl’s Family Restaurant, “breakfast all day,” where men in worn jackets and oil-stained hands reminded us of Mark. Over meat loaf and mashed potatoes, we wished he had been happy. We didn’t know if he was. It’s never been Steve’s nature to talk about things like this.
According to Wikipedia, banks and companies prefer online bill paying because it reduces the expense of paper and face-to-face transactions.
The February day we drove back north was biting cold. Steve brought along a briefcase with a stack of his brother’s bills, forwarded to our house in Pennsylvania. I questioned the need to hand deliver checks in the winter rain when it was so easy to pay by mail or even online.
“I just want a paper receipt,” Steve said. No amount of persuasion could budge him from his plan.
Stephen DiMarco, vice president of client services at Compete, Inc., a Boston research firm that analyzes consumer habits, wrote this: “We’re still fundamentally talking about altering consumer behavior. And if there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that consumer behavior is stubborn.”
Back at Kizl’s for another lunch, rain sheeted down the window beside our booth. I planned to go back to the hotel and work on my laptop while Steve paid his brother’s outstanding bills. But hot chicken soup and a tuna melt softened my resolve. Back inside the car, soft jazz on satellite radio turned the space we shared into a cozy cocoon. Rather than ask him to drive miles out of his way, I decided to check email on my phone while Steve delivered the checks.
A 2017 study reported by Inc.com found that 52 percent of Millennials think technology has improved their relationships. The same study found that 57 percent of Boomers say it has “ruined” relationships.
Steve parked along a curb at the bottom of Federal Hill, a small enclave of large 1920s era homes.
“Do you want to get a little exercise?” he asked.
I’d been too long away from the gym and my neighborhood walks at home. It was still raining lightly but my jacket had a hood. Why not? We walked up the hill holding hands.
Inside the funeral home, an older man in a dark suit motioned us into an overheated wood-paneled office where Steve paid the bill and got a handshake with his receipt.
“Enjoy the holidays as best you can,” the funeral director said. We hadn’t spent a holiday with Mark in over a decade. He refused to travel but never said why. The Corvette sank into ruts in his driveway. Sometimes he’d tell us he was spending Thanksgiving with friends, and tell the friends he’d be with us in Pennsylvania. Yet he and Steve could laugh together for an hour on the phone. I knew my husband would miss those calls. He probably did already.
We walked down the hill to the storefront insurance company, where the wide-eyed young woman behind the counter wanted to know what happened.
“Your brother was just here a few weeks ago!”
Two more women came out of a back office to tell us what a nice guy Mark was. Apparently, like his brother, he also paid his bills in person.
At our next stop, the banker was expecting us, having read the obituary in the local paper. She offered coffee in the old-fashioned high-ceilinged lobby before setting up an account for Mark’s estate. Christmas music echoed from somewhere in the building as tellers popped their heads around the doorframe of her office, expressing shock and condolences.
I was just a bystander. These episodes of personal bill paying belonged to Steve, not me. The words of condolence repeated at each stop were by now predictable, and Steve received them like gifts in a ritual far more personal than the funeral Mass.
Our last stop would be the dentist on the other side of town. Tired of getting in and out of the car, I stayed behind and watched my husband step lightly across the parking lot in the rain. Twenty minutes later, he was back, tossing his briefcase into the backseat and leaning in to kiss my cheek.
“All done,” he said. “Let’s go home.”