Chapter 17 - The Letter in the Mail

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Stella’s mail carrier arrived every morning at eleven. It was part of Stella’s daily routine to collect her letters. Stella’s mail followed a monthly pattern. On the first week of each month, she received Reader’s Digest and O, The Oprah Magazine. On the second week, the month’s Social Security check arrived, plus a copy of AARP The Magazine (formerly Modern Maturity). The next week brought the bills for water, electricity, and garbage collection. Then, on the fourth week came her big monthly reward: her pension check from Caruso’s.

The week after her trip to the Great American store, Stella received an unwelcome surprise in her mail. In place of her pension check, she found a thin, light envelope from a company called Golden Sunsets Institutional Operations. Stella sipped her coffee on the porch as she read the letter:

"Mrs. Stella Valentine,

We have conducted a pension fund audit in relation to the recent corporate liquidation of Caruso Supermarkets Incorporated of Santa Ramona, California, and the subsequent transfer of tangible assets to Great American Superstore of Dallas, Texas.

We regret to inform you that our audit indicates that you are no longer eligible to receive retiree payments and private health insurance from the Caruso Supermarkets Pension Fund. Therefore, all benefits affiliated with this pension plan have been discontinued effective immediately.

You are entitled by federal law to appeal this decision and make further inquiry. Please direct any questions to our pension administration representative at our customer service hotline."

Stella lost her grip on the handle of the coffee cup and it fell into a bed of daffodils. There must be some mistake. The pension was paid into for decades. It was promised to her. There was no way anyone could just take it away.

She went inside and thumbed through her dog-eared personal address book, searching for the phone number to Caruso’s corporate office. When she called, she received an answering message: “No one is available to take your call. For inquiries regarding your pension, please contact Golden Sunsets Institutional Operations.”

Stella set down the phone and heard a knocking on her front screen door. Millie was standing on her porch.

“Stella, did you get this letter about our pension?” her friend asked, waving the envelope in her hand.

“Yeah, it’s got to be some mistake. I am going to get to the bottom of this.”

Stella dialed the Golden Sunsets number listed on the letter.

“Please wait for the next available representative,” a mechanical voice said on the other end of the line, and then the hold music began to play.

“I got a bad feeling about this, Stella,” Millie said. “Caruso’s ran out of money. That’s why the stores got sold to new management.”

“The stores are a different thing from the pensions. They were supposed to set that money aside.”

“Maybe they didn’t. Maybe the pension money’s gone, too.”

Finally, the hold music ended and Stella heard the voice of a male customer service representative with a slight foreign accent.

“My name is Stella Valentine and there’s been a terrible mistake,” she told him. “I worked for Caruso’s Supermarket for thirty years, and now they are telling me that my pension is cancelled.”

There was a brief pause, and Stella shifted the phone to her other ear to keep her neck from getting sore.

“Ah, yes, ma’am. I do have your name in the system: Stella Valentine of Mariposa Street in Santa Ramona, California. The note here says that your pension benefits are terminated, effective this month.”

“Yeah, I already know that. But the question is why did they cut my pension? They aren’t allowed to do that. It’s got to be some mistake.”

“I am sorry, ma’am, there’s no explanation provided.”

“This is crazy! Can’t you give me any information? What is this Golden Sunsets outfit, anyway?”

“We handle pension administration for over five hundred companies.”

“Well, who hired you for this job? There must be a company tied to my record, right? Don’t be shy. Give me the name!”

“The parent company for this record is Great American Superstore.”

“Aha! I figured they were behind this.” Stella slammed down the phone. “I am tired of getting the runaround from these call centers. If Great American is behind this racket, then I’m heading down to the store. I’ll meet with Lowry and get this settled face-to-face.”

Stella hurried to her bedroom, and came out with her car keys in hand and the .357 Magnum stuffed in her purse.

“Stella, what on earth are you doing?” Millie asked.

“No one’s snatching my pension away. I need it to help cover my Helixin. I am going to try to reason with this guy Lowry.”

“You don’t need the gun for that.”

“I am not going to use it, Millie. Just a little extra persuasion, if it comes to that. If they think they can break their promise, they got another thing coming.”

Stella put her sunglasses on and walked out the front door to her car in the driveway. Millie came out of the house as well, following a step behind Stella.

“Stella, please don’t do this. You’re too angry. You can’t think straight,” Millie pleaded.

Stella was already in her Oldsmobile, with the engine running.

“Millie, don’t you understand? I can’t let this happen. These people are criminals. They are trying to rob us, just like those punks who came in the store twenty years ago. I am not going to let them get away with it.”

Stella backed out of the driveway, and in a flash the Oldsmobile was zooming down the street.

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