"Bill Collecting"
      by Beverly M. Stout

Blythe stepped off the streetcar, straightened her skirt, and used the handkerchief she'd been holding to blot the sweat beads forming on her forehead; Chicago could be positively dreadful in July. She stood still for a moment to gather her bearings, clicked open her small, black purse and began fishing vigorously for something; after a moment she breathed an audible sigh of relief as she pulled out a very crumpled piece of paper. "1545 32nd street." Yes, this was the right neighborhood, now she just needed to find the right house. Blythe started walking, searching each building intently for the numbers that would match those on her little piece of paper. It was a street she didn't visit often, one filled with rows of dilapidated houses and dirty kids running around, yelling at each other in a language she couldn't understand. Each house she passed seemed worse than the one before, a boarded up window here, a sagging roof on the next, a patch of yard that looked like it hadn't been cut in months at another. With each house she passed, her heart beat a little faster.

"Why couldn't they have just responded to the letter," she breathed. "Maybe I should just go home and send another one." But she knew if she did that, there would be no telling if she would ever see the money that was due her. Things were tight, and she needed every penny to make ends meet. Teaching piano to immigrant children at Hull House wasn't exactly lucrative, but it was a job and the best option she had at the moment. For the most part, she enjoyed it, feeling proud when their chubby little fingers correctly pounded out a Bach minuet. It was just moments like today, when she found herself standing on a less than reputable street preparing herself to be a bill collector, that she questioned her purpose.

Halfway down 32nd street, Blythe finally identified what appeared to be the house she was looking for, and it was as run down as she had expected. It was a small, two-story wooden square house. The roof was missing tiles in various places and sagged over a crumbling front porch. The paint, which must have at one time been a bright, crisp white, was peeling off in many spots, allowing large, gaping sections of weathered, gray wood to peer through.

With her hand on the small, tattered fence, Blythe paused and briefly considered forgetting the whole thing. She took a deep breath. "I don't think I can do this. Lord, help me!" She shot a prayer up to heaven and pushed open the gate. The front porch looked abandoned, unsafe, so Blythe decided to make her way around to the back entrance. Just when her courage was about to fail her again, she was discovered by a group of children hanging around the back porch, one of which was her little student, Della. Any chance of escape disappeared in that moment, for the little girl had given a small shout upon spotting her piano teacher, and had run inside to tell her mother that Mrs. Cramlet was here.

Before she knew what was happening, a very large, jubilant woman, who jabbered excitedly in a mixture of Greek and English, was escorting her into the house. Blythe had had to make house calls once or twice before in order to collect unpaid lesson fees, and usually the mothers and fathers dropped their eyes with shame and embarrassment, muttering apologies when they saw her standing on the porch, but not this time. Within minutes, Blythe had been seated in the living room, a cold soda in one hand and a plate of something she couldn't quite identify sitting on her lap.

"Perhaps they don't realize why I'm here," she reasoned to herself. But when the mother had paused long enough for Blythe to explain her purpose for coming, the woman seemed unconcerned and started rambling on about how honored they were to have little Della's teacher come to visit.

Blythe noted with surprise that the inside of the house was completely different than the outside. The rooms were clean and neat, and well furnished. Their possessions were far from being extravagant, but they were in good condition and appeared to be well taken care of. She found herself becoming a little more at ease.

After Blythe had been fed and settled into a chair, the mother randomly started telling a very dramatic story of an accident that had happened not too far away. She spoke mostly Greek, so Blythe could only make out a few words, but the woman told the story with her whole body and with such emotion, that Blythe was able to get the main gist. Evidently, a neighbor child had gotten hit by a car and was in bad condition, obviously a very tragic event, but the way the woman told the story, even breaking into tears a time or two, seemed so ludicrous that Blythe found it hard to concentrate on the seriousness of the matter. She did manage to give a few sympathetic clucks and 'oh, mys,' however, and the woman seemed pleased by her reactions.

In the midst of the woman's excited storytelling, Blythe managed to take a glance at her watch; it was already 6:30pm, and she had to be at Dr. Hagan's by 7:00pm. For a little extra money, she'd been keeping the books for a local dentist in the evenings. If she didn't leave soon, she'd never make it on time. When it seemed the woman had paused to take a breath, Blythe stood up and did her best to explain that she had to leave. With a grand smile and a tumble of indistinguishable words, the woman finally began searching about the house for what Blythe hoped was her wallet. After a large scuffle and rifling through coat pockets and desk drawers, Della's mother returned to Blythe with a couple of crumpled bills. With a series of thank yous and goodbyes, Blythe was once more escorted out the back door. The large woman, Della, and the gang of scraggly children stood in the doorway, waving as Blythe made her way back onto the street. Once she was out of view, she released a hearty chuckle and headed on her way to catch the 6:40 trolley car to Dr. Hagan's office for an evening of crunching numbers and filling out forms.

"Bill Collecting" was inspired by an incident recorded in a letter written by Blythe Owen to her mother while Owen was living and studying in Chicago in 1928. This letter is part of the Blythe Owen Papers collection held at the Center for Adventist Research in the James White Library at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI. The collection consists of correspondence between Owen and her mother dating from 1919 to 1962, Owen's diaries from 1954-1965, as well as other miscellaneous information concerning Owen's life and career. Currently, an effort is being made to transcribe these documents.