The letter caught my eye as I went through the mail. It was addressed to my husband and written in a fine, spidery handwriting, much like an elderly person would write. The return address was Houston, about four hours from us. There was no name on the return address, just a street address.
When he got home and opened it, his forehead crinkled as he read it. Then he laughed. "Some lady in Houston thinks you and I are house painters and we took money from her to paint her house and never did it. She's saying she wants us to do it now or face legal consequences."
I had to chuckle because we don't even paint our own house. My husband is a manager at a large refinery, I am a schoolteacher, and we have never been house painters. As I looked at the letter, I deduced some things about the writer. First, she was most likely elderly, based on the shakiness of her writing. From her diction and semantics, it appeared she may not have had the opportunity for much schooling. I felt sorry for her. She signed it Miss Beulah ______.
"I'll write her a letter back, explaining that she's got the wrong couple. I know she'll appreciate having the information," I told him.
After I wrote it, I patted myself on the back. I felt I was kind to Miss Beulah in the letter, gently pointing out her mistake in sending it to us and even ending with a note that I truly hoped she found the right person and got what she paid for.
The next week, we received another letter from her. She was old she said, but she wasn't a fool. There were too many people who took advantage of the elderly. She had saved several years to get this money to paint her house. We took her $1,000 she said, and she wanted us to get her house painted. Now.
It took me by surprise. My husband reasoned, "Well, I'm going to have to call her and explain things. It's too bad she's spending time on us when the real person has her money and isn't doing anything."
He called the number she supplied in the letter. She answered and when he asked how she got our name and address, she explained she paid a neighbor boy $40 to conduct an internet search on my husband's name (which he shared with the slacker paint contractor) and the first address that came up was ours. She also remembered the wife telling her they lived in our area, so she knew it was us.
He patiently explained to her our facts, where we worked and that we had not ever been paint contractors. My husband is a very kind man and while he was on the phone with her, even did an internet search on his own for this painter. He found the man, his address, and even some clues to his paint contracting business online and gave the information to her. She thanked him and we thought all was well, good deed done.
Several weeks later, a constable pulled up to our house. We've known him for years and his wife worked with me. "You all been scamming old people?" he laughed. "Man, I've known you guys for a long time and didn't think you made your living stealing from the elderly!" he chortled as he handed over a summons. We were to appear in the county courtroom two weeks hence to answer the suit. There was nothing else to do at this point but appear in small claims court.
At school the next day the constable's wife laughed as she asked me in front of others in a faculty meeting about my new plan to steal from the elderly and retire early. I wasn't finding this so funny anymore. In fact, it irritated me more by the minute. "It's going to be alright, " my husband soothed when I told him. "Once we get there they'll see we're the wrong ones and that will be it."
We both had to take a day off of work and saw we would be missing one of Teenaged Daughter's volleyball games, as well.
We drove 25 miles to the courthouse and were shown to a waiting room. As a bailiff gave us information on our roles as defendants in the case, a young engineer from the mentoring group my husband leads at church walked past. The bailiff loudly continued his instructions to us, addressing us as "Defendants". The engineer looked startled even as he waved hello and his eyes widened. He hurried off.
"Great. Now everyone at church is going to think we've done this, too," I complained.
"No, they're not. They know us. Don't let it bother you."
"I've always had such great respect for the elderly, honey, but I really am upset with this lady. She's refused to listen to reason, she's caused us all this trouble, and people are always going to think there's a seed of truth even in the most outlandish of rumors. She's hurting our reputation!"
He put his hand over mine. "The truth is always going to come out. And we need to feel compassion for this lady. She's out a lot of money."
A large, elderly woman wheezed her way into the waiting area. She carried a faded purse and had on a worn sweater. Wisps of white hair peeked out from under a dark brown wig. "We made it. Finally, I'm gonna get some justice, " she nodded to a man who looked to be in his twenties. "I'll pay you the other half of what I owe you for driving me here when we get home." She fingered the clasp on her purse. "Lord, I don't have the money to be doing this, but it's wrong when people take advantage of the elderly."
Her companion nodded disinterestedly. "Yes'm, Miz Beulah."
I poked my husband and raised my eyebrows. He smiled and patted my hand.
Inside the courtroom, I still fumed inside at the disruption Miss Beulah had caused in our lives and at all the tongues that would be wagging about it. I had to pray and ask God for help because I was feeling so frustrated by it all.
She entered after us and settled herself uncomfortably in a too little chair. She wheezed as she worked to get her breath, still clutching her purse to her. She looked at us as the judge called out our names. Her shoulders slumped and her head dropped.
"Oh, Judge, "she said as she lifted her head again. "These are not the right people. I've made a mistake."
She turned to us. "I'm so sorry. Please forgive me." My heart melted and compassion finally flooded through me.
The judge dismissed the case and we met up with Miss Beulah again in the hall. I wanted to move past her as quickly as we could and get on with the day. Her weary eyes looked down as we neared. There was a catch in her voice as she said, "I'm so sorry. I've inconvenienced you folks and I never meant to. I just wanted justice to be done. Now, I've spent all this money to get here and I will have to start all over again."
My husband smiled gently at her as he replied, "Don't worry about that, Miss Beulah. Can we take you and your friend to lunch? Our treat."
She smiled in relief. "And," my husband continued, "I think I can give you all the information again you need to find your painter..." as we walked out of the courtroom.
I just love that man.