I stood on the deck of the single-wide trailer, watching the repossessors hauling off my car (the one I leased for my now-defunct business) and my three-horse trailer with the full living quarters, self-contained. That one hurt. So many memories of the west desert of Utah, the High Uinta Mountains where I got stalked by a Basque shepherd, almost getting hit by a tornado while camping in a Navaho fairgrounds….it hurt.
My big diesel truck I had sold to my dad the day after I picked up the red letter. I see it as a red letter, no matter what color it really was. It was red to me. Dad almost got in trouble for collusion, but I cooked up a story that Dad’s truck had “tore up,” as they say down here, and he needed a replacement, and I still had the little car at that time. Thankfully nobody got in trouble for that, and the instant the whole mess was over he gave me back the truck. I don’t remember what I drove in the meantime, after they hauled the car away. Doesn’t matter.
The red letter started it all. I got a notice in my mailbox that there was a registered letter at the post office for me. I wasn’t feeling too great, being in the process of shutting down my pediatrics practice and all, so I just tossed it aside and forgot about it.
A few days later, there it was again in my mailbox. Shoot, I thought. Maybe Publisher’s Clearing House has finally caught up with me. I’m a millionaire! Or maybe Old Uncle Mordechai, whom I never met but heard many stories about his eccentricities, has finally come into my life bearing a will that he left as he passed out of his.
So I took the piece of paper and drove the truck, full of dogs, to the post office. I handed the slip to the postmaster and he handed me an envelope that I had to sign for. On the face of the envelope was a red spanch that said: REGISTERED MAIL. My self-control lasted until I got to the car. I tore it open. It contained another envelope. The return address was printed in that self-aggrandizing font that legal firms use. ”Winken, Blinken, Nod, & Assoc., Attorneys At Law.” I tore that one open too.
Inside was a court order saying that I had been accused of stealing just short of $500,000, half a million, from St. Elsewhere’s Hospital in Armpit, Ohio. I had indeed worked in a clinic affiliated with that hospital, but since I had never actually worked there, and certainly had never stolen a red cent from them or anybody else, I was mystified as well as stumped.
I rushed home and picked up the phone and dialed the number for the law firm. Was there some mistake? How could I be implicated in something of which I had no possibility of participating in? They confirmed that yes, the summons was for me, and that I was accused of stealing half a million dollars from that hospital.
I had set foot in that hospital exactly once. The Chief Financial Officer, whom I shall call Chuck, called me up one day at the clinic at which I was an employee. Laura, he said, I need you to come and see me. Now.
It was lunch break, so I was able to run over to the hospital, a block away, to see what Chuck needed to talk to me about so urgently.
When I found his office, he was looking mighty grim. Laura, he says, I want you to look at this stack of papers. It was a tall stack. Laura, says Chuck, these papers are all invoices that came from your office. You may or may not know, and it’s better for you not to know, that this hospital pays for all supplies ordered by your office. This stack of invoices is just from this month, and it’s all billed to your account number. I know, I know. You didn’t know you had an account number. But you do. And billed to your account number are things like copier toner, staples, chart paper, coffee….mostly office supplies that have no connection with your practice, since you are a salaried staff member. All of these invoices should be billed under the practice’s account number, not yours. The total billings from your account number for this year are $97,000 and change.
When I could get my mouth to work again I said, Chuck, what do I do about this? Isn’t this, like, illegal?
Chuck says yeah, it’s illegal as hell. But you know what? Your boss just sold a high-rise building in downtown Bombay, and even if we filed criminal charges against him, this town is so crooked you know what would happen.
Yeah, I knew what would happen. I’d seen it happen before in that town. The county prosecutor’s office was crooked as hell. The right amount of palm-grease would get anybody off of anything.
So what do I do? I ask Chuck.
I’d advise you to turn around, walk out of here, and find yourself another job.
Well, what do I do about the money it appears that I owe?
Don’t worry about that, says Chuck. I’ll take care of that.
I didn’t get it in writing.
After getting the Red Letter, I did a lot of research. It turned out that Dr. Crooked had continued to use my billing number for several years after I left his practice.
A few years after that, the hospital went T.U. (that’s Tits Up, a medical term) and was acquired by a huge “healthcare corporation,” whose team of lawyers set busily to work combing through the accounts looking for irregularities in the accounts receivables. And they found the pile of invoices accredited to me, which by now had mounted to nearly half a million dollars.
Now what I have not told you yet is that at the time I got the Red Letter, I was suffering from a suicidal depression. I had already been hospitalized once, and was barely able to get up out of my recliner to let the dogs out, and again to let them back in. I just kept on losing weight, because I had no appetite and no one to feed me, so I just didn’t eat. The combination of the depression, the malnutrition, and the wrong medication had me paralyzed.
So I had to rally myself around somehow to deal with the Red Letter. I called the American Medical Association’s legal advice department. They were used to advising people about malpractice, but this wasn’t malpractice. They gave me the numbers of three lawyers who dealt with hospital law. I called them all, and read each one the Red Letter. Each one said the same thing: 1) you have no liability whatsoever in this case, i.e., it is bullshit; 2) you will without a doubt be acquitted, and then be able to sue them for falsely accusing you; 3) we require $20,000 as a retainer, plus travel fees, plus hourly fees of $275 per hour.
I was numb. I had cashed out my retirement to build my pediatrics practice, which had been taken from me by Big Medicine and depression. The remainder of my savings had gone to pay for my son’s residential treatment at a therapeutic boarding school. I was living on disability. I had nothing, and I was so depressed my brain could not even gather itself up to rise to the occasion. I put the phone down and dissociated.
Finally it occurred to me that the only way to get out of this bind was to go and see a bankruptcy lawyer. I did, and he said the case against me was dischargeable through bankruptcy. I was too depressed to think of any other solution, so to bankruptcy court I went, and the case was discharged, and I lost everything I had that was not tied down.
After the tow trucks got done hauling off the vehicles, I stood there till it got dark. Then I began to scream. I screamed at God. Why, God? Why did you give me these talents and then take them away from me? Why did you give me this brain and then make it sick? Why, when all of my life I have never stolen as much as a piece of gum, did you make someone accuse me of stealing some huge amount of money, and then take away the few things I had left that I worked so hard to earn? Why, God?