I am having a blast writing these short stories. This one is a bit different. I’d love to give the background for the idea, but it would give away the story’s ending. Needless to say, the moral is that people are not always what they appear to be and their motives for doing things can come from many sources.
I appreciate those of you that read last week’s story. (Especially those that sent edits). I am going to continue to do this as long as I can come up with story ideas.
Please enjoy this latest effort, Channel 19
Ernie Patterson stopped into a Dunkin’ Donuts on Market Street in Philadelphia for his usual, a large regular coffee and a coffee roll. It wasn’t exactly the breakfast of champions, but at 82, he had resigned himself to eating whatever he wanted. Back in 1977, when he had ballooned up to nearly 300 pounds on his six-foot frame, he made a lifestyle change. He didn’t want to check out in his 40s like his mother. At that weight and with his lifestyle at the time, he was well on his way to doing just that.
He had made a drastic change that began with five years in India studying various meditation and yoga methods. This change, plus the lack of fried, unhealthy foods, had returned Ernie to his fighting weight of 180 and, when he returned to the states in the mid-1980s, he was in the best shape of his life.
For the past ten years, though, as he continued to travel the country, he had reverted to his comfort foods. He figured he had earned the privilege.
Ernie had traveled the country for most of his life. For the past 40 years, however, he had freed himself to do it on his own terms traveling from city to city as the wind, and the need, carried him. This week, he was in Philadelphia. It was uncharacteristically hot in this part of the country, but an early August thunderstorm had cooled things off a bit this morning. Ernie was from the south where thunderstorms just made things a bit steamier until the real cool down in the late autumn.
Ernie paged through the contents of a folder as he sat at the small round table sipping his coffee. He perused the details of the latest candidates for his services. They were a couple in their mid-70s. They lived in the Philadelphia suburb of Chesterbrook. The Scotts, Herb and Valerie, had purchased their home back in the 1970s and had it paid off by the early 2000s. Their two children were grown and gone but getting them through college was expensive and the couple had little to live on due to an ill-prepared retirement. The fixed income barely covered food and ever-increasing utilities. After these things were paid for, the constantly rising real estate taxes in the Chesterbrook area had become too much to keep up with. The Scotts were severely behind in tax payments and, despite a second mortgage, they were on the verge of losing the home they had lived in since 1975.
They considered selling, but the tax liens meant that all of the money would go to the bank. They were in final foreclosure and the house was due to go up for auction on September 1st. Their children had given them half-hearted offers to live with them, but Herb and Valerie knew that it wouldn’t work out and they wanted to avoid being a burden in their declining years.
Ernie couldn’t help but notice that many of the ‘clients’ his organization dealt with were in their declining years these days. When they first started their work back in the mid-1980s, it was more about giving people a jump start to realize their potential. Now it seemed to be about helping them survive comfortably in the twilight of their lives. In fact, they were starting to run low on qualified candidates as they began to die out. Ernie guessed that they would have about two or three more years in this business before they completely ran out of candidates.
It was about 8:30 AM and people were starting to file into the restaurant on their way to work. The noise level increased noticeably and Ernie decided he would begin to make his way back to the hotel, pick up the rental car, and take the 40 minute drive northwest to Chesterbrook. Ernie loved his job. It wasn’t really a job, actually. He did it by choice, but every visit to a candidate was as exciting for him as the first. He has a spring in his step as he walked the three blocks to the hotel. He gave the valet his ticket and climbed into the Hyundai Sonata that he had rented. The irony was not lost on him of driving a car made by a Korean company. He was a child during World War II and the Korean War, but now there were so many products in the U.S. from both countries. Times had certainly changed, and so had Ernie.
As Ernie pulled onto the interstate, there was virtually no traffic on his side of the highway. The other side had the last remnants of the morning commute from the suburbs into the city. After he settled in with the flow of traffic he reflected on how much he enjoyed driving. He always had. He had started his working life as a truck driver and after 20+ years in a different career, he went back to driving a truck all around the country. He had bought his own big rig and the cab was decked out to be more of a traveling camper than a truck. He enjoyed the sights and sounds of every state in the U.S. He even rented a rig to drive when he had a client in Hawaii. He had given up the truck five years ago when driving a big rig became too much of a chore for a 77-year-old. He hated to do it, but at least he still got to drive once he flew to a destination. Flying didn’t give him the solitude he wanted, but it was greatly improved when a member of his team presented him with a set of high-end noise cancelling headphones allowing him to tune out the world.
Ernie exited the highway in Chesterbrook and followed the GPS on his phone to the neighborhood where the Scotts lived. GPS was another game changer for him as he used to pull over and go through pages of an atlas to find his way. Now a pleasant, but cold, female voice told him where to go.
He pulled into the driveway of what was probably a beautiful home at one time. He could see the tell-tale signs of neglect. He also noticed the sign in the yard announcing the upcoming auction. His visit to the Scotts had not been announced. Although it was fun to show up unannounced with his proposals, Ernie found people increasingly less trusting in this age of scams and grifters that took advantage of senior citizens. He had to use his considerable charm to convince them he was on the level.
He pushed the button for the doorbell and, in response to the buzz, heard a woman’s voice from inside.
“Herb, see who’s at the door. I’m all the way in the kitchen.”
“Okay. I’ll get it.”
Ernie heard the slow, but deliberate, steps of someone walking across the floor toward the door. He considered himself in pretty good shape for an 82 year old. He was amazed at how many people that were 10-15 years younger than him had ended up in such poor physical shape. Of course, he was on the road to that and much worse in his day.
“Who is it?” a voice, presumable Herb, asked before opening the door.
“My name’s Ernie Patterson. I’m with a foundation that helps people like yourself and I’m here to talk to you and your wife.”
“I don’t know. That sounds kind of suspicious. If you’re here after the house, you’ll have to cart us out of here to get it,” Herb Scott said with some anger.
“Sir. I’m here to help. At least let me come in and talk to you first.”
Herb slowly opened the door, keeping the chain security lock engaged so he could get a look at who was speaking. Luckily, Ernie was blessed with good looks and a full head of thick hair, now gone white, which immediately endeared him to people. Herb disengaged the chain and invited him in.
“Do you have a table the three of us can sit at and talk?” Ernie asked.
“I suppose so. I’m gonna tell you up front, Mister, we don’t have any money to spend and we aren’t selling the house,” Herb warned.
“That’s okay, Mr. Scott. That’s not why I’m here.”
Herb and Ernie sat at the table in the kitchen. Valerie Scott finished drying dishes at the sink and turned and faced them. Although they were in their 70s, Ernie could see that they were a once vibrant young couple that had been through a lot in 50+ years of marriage.
“I didn’t catch your name Mr…” Herb said as his wife sat down.
“It’s Patterson, Ernie Patterson.”
“Well, Mr. Patterson,” Valerie began. “Like Herb told you, we don’t have any money to spend and we aren’t parting with our house.”
“I know that, Mrs. Scott. That’s not why I’m here. I couldn’t help noticing the auction notice out front. You folks seem to be going through a rough patch.”
Herb and Valerie Scott exchanged a look. Any denial or bravado they had left about their situation seemed to have evaporated.
“I don’t see how that’s any of your concern, Mr. Patterson, but, yes, we are going through a pretty rough patch,” Herb said.
“And that’s why I’m here,” Ernie said, feeling the excitement well up inside of him. “And please, call me Ernie.”
“Well, Ernie, if this is some scam to take advantage of us, like a reverse mortgage, or something like that, we’ve heard it all,” Valerie Scott said.
“No. It’s not a scam. I can promise you that,” Ernie said. “Why don’t you let me explain it first and then you can decide for yourselves.”
The Scotts again exchanged a look.
“I suppose there’s no harm in listening,” Herb said.
“Great. Let me start by saying I work for an organization that has set aside a trust. The trust is well-funded and was set up to help a certain group of people when they need it. We go through many cases and we only select a few that meet all of the criteria.”
“And, what criteria is that,” Valerie Scott asked as she rolled her eyes revealing her skepticism.
“I’m afraid I can’t reveal that, but when you hear the terms of what I’m proposing, frankly Ma’am, you might not care.”
“Okay,” Herb said. “Let’s hear it.”
“Well, like I said, our trust is well-funded and we reach out and help those in need. We’re aware that you are in some serious debt.”
Ernie opened the folder he had brought with him.
“You owe about $80 thousand in property taxes and penalties and about $120 thousand on your second mortgage. Also, it looks like there are some things around here that could use some sprucing up. I know you’re on a fixed income and all of these things are difficult to deal with.”
Herb’s chin dipped toward his chest.
“After we put the kids through college and Valerie got sick, we went through everything we had. My pension just isn’t enough.”
Valerie gave her husband a warning look as if he shouldn’t be sharing this with a stranger.
“I’m sorry that you’re in that position, Herb, but that’s why I’m here. How would this help out?”
Ernie slid an unsealed envelope across the table to the couple.
Herb Scott hesitantly picked it up and looked at the contents. He was visibly stunned as was Valerie when she saw what was inside.
“That’s a check for $750 thousand dollars. Is this some kind of joke?” Valerie asked, anger rising in her voice.
“It’s no joke, Valerie,” Ernie said. “As I said, my foundation finds qualified people in need and bestows funds on them. This check is for you. No strings. The taxes have already been paid. It’s free and clear.”
This was usually the toughest part of the sell. Many people were skeptical of the ‘no strings’ piece of Ernie’s work. Herb was silent, but Ernie could see his hands shaking. The look of doubt and skepticism rose on his wife’s face. She was the first to speak.
“Mr. Patterson, people don’t just go around giving away money like this. We’re not naïve idiots that will just accept that there are no strings attached.”
She paused to catch her breath. Ernie waited for her to continue.
“You expect us to believe that you’re going to wipe away all of our debt, and then some, and there’s no catch? Why would we fall for that?”
Ernie saw his opening.
“Well, there is one thing,” he started.
“Here it comes,” Valerie Scott said with an extra vigorous eye roll.
“It’s a small thing, really,” Ernie continued. “If you accept this check, I’m going to tell you why you were selected by our organization. It’s nothing bad. It’s just a secret we’d like kept.”
“A secret. That sounds shady,” Herb Scott said, finally coming back to life.
“Not really,” Ernie said. “It’s something that allows us to continue our work. I’ll leave you the check and the information. You can decide that it’s a hoax and tear it up. If you, however, decide to deposit it and use the money, you may do so however you choose. Just follow the instructions that I’m going to leave you and it’s yours, no questions asked.”
In all the years he had been doing this, Ernie had had only one person ask him to leave without getting the information and that person had stopped him before he got in his truck to drive off. No one had read the information and torn up the check and no one had ever divulged the information. He hoped the Scotts would continue the streak.
“This is bizarre, Mr. Patterson,” Valerie Scott said. “Can Herb and I have a minute to talk this over?”
“That’s fine. I need to use the rest room, if you don’t mind. An 82 year-old bladder isn’t as good as it used to be after a drive.”
Herb showed Ernie to the guest half bath down the hall. Ernie could hear some of the words as Herb and Valerie Scott discussed their predicament.
“What if it is real?” he heard Herb say as his voice was raised.
He couldn’t make out Valerie’s response.
“Something about him…familiar…I don’t know,” he heard from Herb Scott.
Ernie had heard that revelation before, but no one had questioned his familiarity to his face. He finished using the restroom and glanced in the mirror as he washed his hands. He barely recognized the man in the mirror, but there were some things that didn’t change much with age. The eyes often stayed consistent as one got older. Ernie recognized the same eyes looking back at him. He splashed some water on his face and combed his thick white hair into the style he had worn for years. His hair was trained to lay down that way by now. He returned to see what the Scotts had decided.
“Well, Mr. Patterson,” Valerie Scott began. “We don’t know who you are or why in the world you would do this, but we don’t see any harm in reviewing this mysterious information you mentioned and deciding from there.”
“I was hoping you’d say that. You won’t be sorry, I promise,” Ernie said, quite delighted with himself.
He handed Valerie Scott an 8 ½ by 11 inch envelope that was sealed and addressed to them. The return address simply read “The EAP Foundation”. Valerie Scott started to open it, but Ernie stopped her.
“Wait until I leave your property. I don’t want you reading it while I’m here,” Ernie said with some urgency.
He had forgotten this important stipulation when he handed it over.
A confused Valerie Scott stopped pulling at the flap.
“It was a pleasure to meet you both,” Ernie said as he extended his hand. “I hope this helps you and that you can enjoy the rest of your days in your home if that’s what you choose to do.”
The Scotts were silent, not really knowing what to say to this man that had visited them with this strange mission.
Ernie left and as he drove off in the rental car, the typical smile came to his face and he tuned the XM Radio to channel 19 and sang along.
Valerie Scott opened the envelope and as she and Herb read the enclosed letter, their jaws hung open. It was topped with EAP Foundation Letterhead.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Scott,
You have been chosen for this endowment because, in part, the funds are yours. You and a legion of other devoted individuals made my early life a miracle of joy and riches. Since I dropped out of sight in 1977, I have made it my mission to track down my most devoted fans in need and pay them back for their devotion.
At that time, so many years ago, I needed to change my life and move toward a saner, healthier lifestyle. I didn’t anticipate the love and devotion of those that would live on for many years after my departure. That is why, when I returned, I set up the EAP Foundation as a trust to help those in need that were there for me when I needed them.
I have found this to be rewarding beyond my wildest dreams.
As I mentioned, there is a simple rule attached to your use of these funds:
Don’t tell anyone my identity. If you do, people will think you’re crazy and you will have to forfeit the funds.
Thank you. Thank you very much,
Elvis Aron Presley