by Jeff Oaks

Bills: an essay

I love writing checks just as each month is ending. I love the rectilinearity of the “coupons” from the utility companies, the credit card companies, my mortgage. I fill them in with numbers, amounts and accounts. I fill out a mirror image of their desire to be paid with my ability to give. Sometimes I give more than they ask, sometimes less. I like to surprise the machines they’ve been steadily replacing people with. Instead of the $597.41 the mortgage company wants me to pay, I pay $600. Instead of the $235.78 still outstanding for the gas company, I check budget plan and write down $80. If we all did this, I believe, it would be harder for the companies to hire robots and programs, and easier to hire people, who can look after all around and blink, and think about my little overages and underages as signals, a little morse code made of dollars and cents. Who might begin typing me a letter that begins “Dear Mr. Oaks, our records indicate…” and ends with a sentence asking if I’d “please” contact them with questions.

In ten years, I read the other day, everyone will likely be done with writing checks. Everyone’s checking account will be linked directly to the robots at the companies who will provide our electricity, our water, our gas, our best interests. One company, Verizon, last year charged me for a piece of equipment they didn’t tell me they wanted returned after the router they’d given me had broken down and there’d been a real struggle to get a working replacement. Suddenly out of my checking account flew $143.67, without a sound, without a single noise of protest from me at all. It was as if I was guilty of stealing. It took me almost three weeks to notice it, it had been so quiet. When I called up the company to find out what had happened, it turned out to be quite a problem talking to a coherent person, one who could get beyond a script. Finally, I did, explained everything, was asked to send the burned out router back to them, and was promised the $106.97 that was the cost of the router would be returned to my account when they received it. That was three months ago. I had forgotten about it almost altogether except for the little sticky rectangle upon which I wrote: “Don’t forget to call Miss Chapman about the router refund” with all the pertinent details. If I’d been asked to write a check to replace the router they never told me they wanted back but now did, the whole thing could have been solved almost instantly. Instead, tonight, I’ll have to wade again through the ear-breaking music on hold, answer the riddles of the robot woman who demands I make clear choices from unclear categories or else she’ll hang up, explain and explain myself to the first then second then third dazed humans who are growing trapped inside a building anywhere in the world.

Writing checks the last day of each month is a moment I get to be aware of all the companies who keep me alive, happy, warm, entertained, assured. Without checks, without the small act of writing out my gifts to them every month, who would I be? I would be a man who’d have to check his account every day for signs of those companies’ thievery or ineptitude. I’d spent more of my productive days and nights wading though the sphinxes: press 1 if you’d like to drink from Lethe; press 2 if you’d like to cross the Styx; press 3 if you’d like to speak to one of the Dead. I assume when I meet Charon in the future, the two coins of passage will be electronically deducted from my account. What will then hide my eyes at the funeral, what will keep them closed, I wonder?

I resist the ease of the modern here, writing out my bills. I don’t resist it in many places, but I do here, with my little rectangles with my name and address and phone number printed on them for $15 dollars every quarter. I’m not one of those people who must write checks in supermarkets. I too hate them for plugging up the exit sluice with their awkwardness, their apologies. I pay my bills promptly. I like writing out my name in the large, readable cursive that I learned in third grade, writing that I practiced over and over again, staying in the lines, making perfect copies of the beautiful J, the measured e, the hysterically funny brother f’s of my name. I understand that no one teaches that way of being in love with your name anymore, but that doesn’t mean that my particular love should simply disappear into nothing, forever. Here I am at the dining room table. Here is what I’d like to give you. It all might be different if the big companies were in danger of losing money, were going to have to lay off people if I didn’t pay, but they’re not. Not one of them. They’ve simply grown too hungry for money. Like badly raised children, they want everything now and on their own terms. Or else they’ll hold our breath until we pass out. So I make out rectangle after rectangle assuring them I love them, but they can only have this much money tonight. If they use it well, they’ll get more next month.