It wasn’t a very long list – just 25 people in all – but it nagged at Buddy in the night and robbed him of his rest. He’d toss and dream unsettling dreams of Mrs. Gibbings, that old crone who had promised to pay him for fixing her toilet, but then hadn’t. “You owe me ninety-seven dollars and fifty cents,” Buddy had said to her. “Sue me,” she had replied.
Buddy didn’t have time for lawyers or small-claims court, so he shook his head in disgust and tried to let it go. But the sour image of Mrs. Gibbings continued to visit him in the night and wake him regularly – all over a lousy $97.50. Buddy’s wife would roll over and ask Buddy what was wrong. “Gibbings,” he would mumble. “She won’t let me sleep.” Buddy’s wife would utter a curse word, low and foul under her breath, and then try to go back to sleep. Buddy could never get back to sleep once the Beaters came to visit him in the night. It was all so unfair.
Mr. Jennings had called Buddy last Christmas and begged him to come over because the heat was off and he had a house filled with relatives. “We have no heat! The thermostat is all the way down to 65 degrees. You gotta get here right now.”
Buddy went because he was that kind of guy. He couldn’t bear to think of a family without heat on Christmas, even though this didn’t seem like much of an emergency. When Buddy got to Mr. Jennings’ house he saw that the problem was the setback thermostat. Mr. Jennings had mixed up the pins. It was on its night cycle. Buddy chuckled and fixed it in just a couple of minutes. Then he explained to Mr. Jennings what the problem had been. Mr. Jennings listened with rapt attention. His relatives gathered around to listen as well. Then they asked Buddy a few dozen questions about problems they were having with their own heating systems. They figured that as long as Buddy was there anyway, they were entitled to free heating consultations.
Buddy answered all their questions patiently and in the spirit of holiday giving. Then he went out to his truck and wrote up a bill for $49.95, which was his charge for a basic service call. He trudged back up the snowy walkway, stomped the snow off his shoes, and knocked on the door. Mr. Jennings answered the door, looking a bit surprised to see Buddy again so soon. “Did you forget something?” he asked.
“No, I just have the bill for you.”
“What bill?” Mr. Jennings asked.
“The bill for the service call,” Buddy explained. “And don’t worry. I didn’t charge you any extra because it’s Christmas. Just think of it as my holiday gift to you and your family. I hope you’ll call on me again someday.”
“But you didn’t fix anything,” Mr. Jennings shot back. “You worked on that thing for, what, two minutes? I should pay you fifty bucks for that? What’s that work out to? Fifteen hundred bucks an hour! No wonder you guys are all so rich! Hey, you know what? I could have fixed that thing myself. You sure didn’t do much.”
“Well, if you could have fixed it yourself,” Buddy said, realizing that Mr. Jennings was a Beater, “why didn’t you?”
“Look, I’m not going to stand out here in the cold and argue with you,” Mr. Jennings said, “especially on Christmas. My family is here, as you can see, and now I’d like to go back to them. I thank you for your assistance, but what you did is certainly not worth what you’re trying to charge me. I’m going to write a letter to Consumer Affairs about this. I think you’re a stinkin’ thief.” And with that, Mr. Jennings stepped back into his house and slammed the front door in Buddy’s face, leaving him alone on the doorstep, like an orphan in an old black-and-white movie.
Buddy rolled around in his twisted sheets and thought about Mr. Jennings. He flipped his pillow to the cool side and tried to sleep, but it was no use. His wife woke again, and again asked what was wrong. “Can’t sleep,” he whispered.
“The Beaters?” she asked softly.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Don’t worry, Buddy. I love you.”
“I love you too,” he muttered, and then waited alone for the dawn.
The next day, he got a call from Lonny who works for the local Penny Saver newspaper. Buddy had been running a quarter-page ad in the Penny Saver for about six months. He thought it was doing him some good, but there was no way to know for sure. Advertising is like that. Buddy had tried coupons a couple of times. They worked, but they also brought him more Beaters. He had no way of telling who they were until it was too late, though. Beaters look just like ordinary people.
He’d considered charging for his services in advance, but that just isn’t the way the plumbing and heating business works. He knew that the plumbing and heating business works the way a diner works. When you go to a diner you order your food and then they cook it and bring it to you. After you’ve eaten the food, they ask you to pay for it. First the food, then the bill – just like the plumbing and heating business.
The opposite of this, of course, is fast food – like Burger King or McDonald’s. There, you order your food, but they make you pay first before you can eat it. There’s less of a chance of getting beaten if you treat your business like fast food, Buddy realized. But the trouble with plumbing and heating is that the customers don’t know what they’re going to order. It’s not like they’re going to say, “Gimme a Big Mac.” They just say, “It’s cold in my house.” Then the professional has to figure out what they need.
No, it’s definitely a diner sort of business, Buddy thought.
These thoughts were blowing through Buddy’s head like a hot wind when he met with Lonny that day. “I wish I could get paid up front,” he said. “Like Burger King.”
“I wouldn’t pay you up front,” Lonny laughed.
“Neither will anyone else,” Buddy admitted.
“Nope, I’m looking for a bargain,” Lonny continued, hardly hearing what Buddy had said. “Gimme a bargain and I’ll buy from you. That’s the way it works. I’m looking for that coupon. Run the coupon, Buddy. Run it every week. That’s what people want – coupons and bargains. You have to adopt the right attitude about advertising, Buddy.”
And it was right then that the idea hit Buddy. It came to him like an angel from heaven and whispered in his ear. “Adopt,” the angel said softly. “Open an adoption agency for the Beaters.”
“Thank you, Lonny,” Buddy mumbled. “You have just given me what I need – a good night’s sleep.”
“What’d I say?” Lonny asked.
“Come and see me again next week,” Buddy answered, getting up and ushering Lonny to the door. “Run the same ad as usual this week, but come and see me again next week. I just might have something brand-new for you.”
"I don’t get it,” Lonny said.
“You will,” Buddy answered with a smile that comes only to those who have been abused, and now see a way to get even. Buddy went home and put together this letter, which he then mailed to his list of 25 Beaters:
Dear Past Due Customer,
I have some very good news for you today. You owe me money, and I have been asking you to pay me for quite some time now, but those days are over. You no longer have to pay your debt because a local sponsor will soon assume your responsibility.
Here’s how it works.
Starting next week, I will be publishing your name and address in the local Penny Saver, along with the amount you owe me, and for how long. It will be under the heading, “Adopt a Beater!”
When a local resident agrees to adopt you by paying your outstanding invoice, we will then give that kind person a coupon good for future services valued at two times the amount you have owed me for so very long. I will then publish the name of the sponsor that adopted you, right next to your name. To make sure that everyone in town knows of your new relationship with your sponsor, I will keep publishing your names on our Adopt a Beater board for one year. You won’t owe us a thing, and you will have made a new friend – your sponsor.
Have a nice day.
Buddy’s Plumbing & Heating
Five days later, Freddy, who has delivered the mail to Buddy’s place of business for as long as anyone can remember, dropped 25 long-past-due checks into Buddy’s mailbox.
And the angels watched over Buddy that night as he slept like a baby.
If you liked this story, then you'll love The Contractor Stories by Dan Holohan.