Household Error

Amanda Pauley

Hollins University

The only thing real about the employer verification form from Simon’s café was what looked like a coffee stain. Gordon imagined Ashley Tillman at her kitchen table forging the form and laughing to herself. On the line where the employer was supposed to write the name of the business, Simon’s had an ‘e’ in it that did not belong, making it ‘Simone’s. Gordon laughed at the misspelling. Fortunately, most of his fraudulent clients never made it through high school.

Gordon smiled at the scraggly signature at the bottom. He knew the managers at Simon’s Café. Jeff Sandidge was not one of them. However, he was a real estate broker whose shiny white teeth smiled out of billboards all over town in advertisements that said Come Home with Us at Sandidge Reality. No doubt that was why the name had popped into Ashley’s head and become her manager on paper.

Simon’s Café was on the other side of town and outside of Bradford City limits. Having worked as the Chief Fraud Investigator in the County until he retired and took a lower position with Bradford City Social Services as a frontline fraud investigator, Gordon not only knew the café, he knew not to order scrambled eggs at Simon’s when Rashad, the main breakfast cook, had gotten in bed after four in the morning and was not awake enough to keep them from being overdone.

Aside from this, one of the handwritten pay dates was listed as Friday, 5/24.  May 24th fell on a Tuesday this year.

Gordon looked over the rest of Ashley’s food stamp file. With the current balance of food stamp overpayments in Bradford City at $153,267, he hated to waste time on the trivial amounts.  On the other side of his desk sat six accordion files filled with years of the Atkins’ information, three generations on food stamps, each more manipulative of the system than the last. So far he could only prove forty percent of the case as fraud. The rest remained in the grey area referred to as ‘household error.’

After an initial investigation, Gordon divided the fraud referrals he received into three categories: agency error, which meant the eligibility worker had screwed up; household error, which meant the client had accidentally screwed up; or fraud, in which case the client screwed up on purpose and there was proof of the clients’ intention to misrepresent. The fuzzy line between household error and fraud depended entirely on the client’s intention. Gordon had his own feelings about that dividing line. Agency error he could understand. With employees overworked and stretched thin, mistakes were bound to happen. Intention on the part of the client could be hard to prove, which meant a number of fraud cases ended up in the ‘household error’ category – still recoverable money, but no sanctions or punishment for the client.

Gordon sat at his desk and looked from Ashley’s thin file to the Atkins’ six volumes, then opened his drawer for a pen. Gordon’s office was immaculate and he followed the rules, keeping all sharp objects hidden inside of his desk. Inside the drawer, his wife looked up at him from a photograph that had been taken of them in Cancun, arms around one another, both smiling, and clear blue water in the background. He shut the drawer.

Two months ago he found out she was cheating on him. Three days later, they had split. At fifty-eight, instead of vacations and relaxing evenings in an early retirement, Gordon ended a fifteen year, second marriage and went back to work at Bradford City to keep his mind occupied.  He got a pension from the County and a pay-check from the City. His wife, as they were separated, but not yet divorced, got some of his pension, and a more than a little of his bitterness.

He picked out a pen just as the director came in.

“How’s it going back down in the trenches?”

Gordon smiled. The director had hired him for a reason. Gordon’s record was pristine and he was known for doing his job well. When he left the County, he had one of the highest percentages of recovered funds on the east coast. He knew policy and he had made sure the workers under him did too. He schooled each one in documentation. If a client looked to the left, they wrote it down. If they breathed funny, it was noted. Bradford City Social Services had the highest fraud level in the state and they needed someone like Gordon. When he had contacted the director about wanting to work again, the interview was a formality and the job was his. When the director asked Gordon why he wanted to leave retirement, Gordon did not say that his wife was a soft, red-haired, long-legged, younger than her age, cheating bitch. Instead he said that he loved the work and he missed being on the front line, rather than running the show.

“Doing okay for the first month back at it,” Gordon said.

“You sure you’re okay with bottom line work instead of Chief Paper-Shuffler?”

“Well, there’s a lot of paper here too,” he looked at the Atkins’ files. “Here you get to meet the faces that go with the forms. Just a matter of prioritizing all of the low level cases around the massive ones.”

“Well, we’re glad you’re here. Let me know if there’s anything you need.”

“Thanks, I will.”

The director left and Gordon smirked at the irony. He was needed, not by his wife, but by the director, a man about ten years his junior. Gordon opened the drawer again and looked at the photograph before he picked up the phone.

“Hello, this is Gordon Childs with Social Services. Is this Ashley Tillman?”

“Yes.” Her voice was flat.

“I’d like to talk to you about your food stamp application,” he said.

“Okay.” Some question came into the tone.

“Your worker had some questions about the information you provided, and it would be helpful if you could come in to clear things up.”

“I got to come back up there? I’m already getting my food stamps.” She coughed a smoker’s cough and soap opera voices came from a television in the background.

“Yes, you’ve been approved for benefits for this month, but this is about next month’s benefits and the employer information. When would it be convenient for you to come in?”

“Well it won’t be convenient, but I guess I could come in there now if I have to,” she said.

“That would be perfect. Just come in to the reception desk and ask for Gordon Childs,” he said.

There was game show applause in the background. She was channel surfing.

“Fine, I’ll be there.”

Gordon looked at the Atkins’ files. He needed something to whet his appetite. Some success to feed off of before tackling three generations of practiced deceit. He stacked those files in a cabinet for later.

Gordon was surprised that the liars did not anger him more. He remembered more than one Christmas that would not have seemed like Christmas at all if it had not been for the gifts from the Social Service Department in his hometown. He still remembered the used bike he got that year. His father had left his mother, himself, and his two sisters on their own. His mother worked factory jobs when her health was good, and got food stamps when it was not. The system could be good, but there was so much misuse, success could be really hard to see.

When the receptionist called, Gordon was ready for Ashley Tillman. He went to the lobby and called her name. Her black hair, tanning-bed skin, and large eyes all clung to beautiful, but only by a thread. Her looks would never make it into her thirties.

She was on her cell phone and held up a finger asking him to wait. Gordon often had his time wasted, but he could always return the favor.

“I’ll call you later,” she finally said.

“Good morning Ms. Tillman.”

She did not respond, but followed him, high heels clicking along.

“Right this way.”  Gordon opened the door for her. “Third door on the left.”

“Thanks for coming in today,” he said when they got to his office.

“You’re a Fraud Investigator?” Her forehead wrinkled, looking at the name plate on his desk. She slumped down in the chair, pissed off.

“Don’t take my title as an accusation. I’m usually just clearing up misunderstandings. A ton of paperwork flows through here, and sometimes it takes an extra pair of eyes to review it all.” Gordon’s speech got shorter each time. Client’s attitudes often walked in before them, read his title and, either did a one-eighty into humble pie, or just got bigger.

“We need to talk about your employer form from Simon’s Café.” Gordon slid it toward her.

Ashley looked at Gordon, and he imagined she would have no trouble swaying a man with those eyes.

“What about it?”

“Counting hourly and tips, I have to admit, the pay seems a little low,” said Gordon.

“Tell them that, would you?”

“So about sixty dollars a week. That comes to two hundred-fifty-eight a month.”

“Yeah, it’s hard to live off of that. I’ve got a kid too.”

Gordon switched directions, his favorite thing to do.

“So when you applied for food stamps, you stated that you were living with your mom.  Is she still giving you the one hundred and fifty dollars a month to help out?”

“No, and I found my own place, so I’ve got rent to pay too. I’ve got to have the food stamps to feed Georgia, my daughter.”

“Did you report your move to your worker?

“No, I was waiting to hear if I would get food stamps for next month.”

“So how much is your rent?” Gordon asked.

“Five hundred and fifty.”

“What are utilities running you?”

“Electricity, maybe seventy-five. Water’s included in rent. Cable, seventy-five, and the phone bill is about fifty. I know. You don’t count the cable expense. My worker told me. I still got to pay it. Georgia’s got to have something to do sometimes.”

Gordon suppressed an eye roll. He was afraid that someday policy would include cable, so many clients talked like it was as vital as air.

“Just to clarify,” Gordon was almost to his point, “you are paying six hundred and seventy-five dollars a month on an income of two hundred and fifty-eight dollars and no child support?”

They looked at one another.  She looked away first and seemed to come up with nothing so Gordon switched directions again.

“On your employer form, it looks like Jeff Sandidge signed this?”

“Yes.”

“Is he new?”

“Yes. Just started. He’s not very good either. Short little man.”

Gordon was perplexed at a client’s need to add details to lies. More often than not, it only gave him more opportunity to disprove things.

“So if I call him, he’ll confirm this?” He saw her body adjustment in the chair, that poker-playing hesitation that came with a bluff.

“Yeah.”

Gordon was impressed. Ms. Tillman was going down with her lie and her ship.

“Okay, I’ll do that in a little while, and that should take care of that.” Gordon saw no spark of relief.

“How are you paying your bills, Ms. Tillman?”

Eligibility workers were instructed in training to ask closed questions, to get a yes or a no.  Sometimes a fraud investigator needed just the opposite, an open question that got the client to talk.

Ashley put a stick of gum in her mouth. Gordon was sure she did her own nails and her bracelet was a dulled, metal chain. He recognized the knock-off purse. She crossed her legs and her hourglass shape was enunciated. It reminded him of how, over the years, he had had to watch how he treated good looking women. It was human to want to be nicer to attractiveness, but it was not policy. Kind of like he wanted to forgive his wife every time he looked at her photo, but that wasn’t his policy, so he hadn’t.

“However I can,” she said.

“Ms. Tillman, are you aware that when you apply for benefits, we cannot report how you make a living to authorities. The only thing that could keep you from getting benefits is if you have a Felony Conviction for Possession of Controlled Substances with Intent to Distribute. I can check for that. If you have one, even though you can’t get food stamps,you may be able to get them for your child”. Gordon didn’t believe she was selling drugs, and he already knew she didn’t have a conviction, but he gave her extraneous information just to give her a chance to think.

“You obviously have some other source of income. Whatever it is, I can’t tell anyone. All I need to do is document your true income and there are ways to do that no matter what your profession. However, misrepresenting what you do, that could be a problem.”

“So you’re telling me I could be robbing banks for a living, and you can’t report that?  Do you really expect me to believe that?”

“Ms. Tillman, I can show you this in the policy manual.”

Gordon felt a hunger pain. He’d been skipping breakfast lately. He and his wife used to eat the whole nine yards, bacon, eggs, French toast, everything, before they left for work. He used to make omelets for her. She always said his turned out better than hers.

Ashley still had not replied so Gordon turned it up a notch.

“Jeff Sandidge does not work at Simon’s Café does he?” He paused. This was taking more time than he thought.“Do you want to tell me who filled out this form?”

“No. No, I don’t. I just want to feed my kid.”

“And that’s what I want too, but you’ve got to do it by the book. If you’re working under the table, fine. I need a written statement about the amount you are bringing in so you can be evaluated for benefits.”

“I don’t believe you won’t turn me in. I mean, if I was doing something.”

Gordon got out the policy manual, five inches thick, marked in four places with hot pink sticky notes. He read from the place marked by the second note and then summarized.

“The only time I can report you to another agency is if you have an outstanding warrant and law enforcement is looking for you. Even then, they would have to contact me to make the request, and I could only give them your name, address, and social security number. I could lose my job if I reported your profession or any other information about you to another agency just because I felt like it. Likewise, you could lose the possibility of benefits for a while if you choose to falsify information.”

“So I’m screwed either way?”

“No. I’m saying if you tell the truth, you’ll be under a sanction for twelve months for falsifying, but during that time your child may still qualify for something. After twelve months, we lift your sanction and see if you can get benefits. All you have to do is admit to forging the form, provide a statement about your real income, name your profession and your monthly earnings.”

Gordon was impressed with himself. He had given only one option.

“Even if I sometimes help guys out?” she asked.

There it was. Her version of prostitution, and exactly what Gordon had suspected.

“It doesn’t matter who or what you’re helping out, as long as it is documented.” Gordon imagined his wife helping someone out.

“Okay, I can write something.”

“Have you kept any of record of your earnings?”

“Yeah, sort of.”

Gordon was sure she almost smiled.

“Good.  When you get home, just write down what you do, how often you do it, and how much you made over the last three months.”  He slid a blank sheet of paper across the desk.  “Right now, I need a statement admitting that this employer form is false.  Once you turn in an earnings statement, your eligibility worker can process your case for the next month to see if you’ll be eligible for food stamps for your daughter.  When your sanction is up, we’ll reevaluate to see if you can get benefits then too. Oh, and you will have to pay back part of this month’s benefits since you received them under false pretenses.”

“Now, you didn’t tell me that,” Ashley sighed.

Gordon looked at her. It was like prodding cattle.

“Ms. Tillman, you didn’t get that much and you’ll only have to pay part of it back and you can do it in increments. Then you’ll be on the right track.”

Gordon did not bring up income levels. She could have been bringing in enough in her real profession that she would not qualify. As of yet, everything on her was in exactly the right place and in exceptional proportion. She had gorgeous lips. The only thing Gordon could do was ask her to be honest, and hope that if she were bringing in enough income to be disqualified, then maybe it would strike her as a good time to give up prostitution. Maybe she would come to the conclusion that she would be better off with a lower paying, safer job, and food stamps, especially with a kid in tow. Or she would put two and two together, knowing he could not possibly verify her statement on this type of income and she would come back with a monthly income low enough to keep her in the system. After that lousy attempt at forging the employer form, Gordon doubted she was capable of the latter.

Gordon walked behind Ms. Tillman toward the lobby. Her Goodwill clothes were fit to form. She smelled good too, but when she coughed her smoker’s cough, he felt the physical attraction dissipate.

Gordon went back to his office and shut the door. Sometimes he ate lunch upstairs in the lunch room with the social workers. They were always good for a story or two, some horrific, some hopeful. The social workers saw a side of things he could not from behind the pile of papers and lies on his desk. They saw the foster children find new homes, and the abused find some freedom. Today he was not in the mood for stories. He did not want the company of lively social workers, so he sat at his desk, ate his lunch, and thought about his wife. Half way through his sandwich, he put it down and picked up the phone. Her schedule had always matched his, so she should be at lunch. She worked at the bank, six blocks away. Gordon dialled her personal cell number.

“Hello?”

“Hannah?”

“Gordon?  Are you okay?”

There was noise on her end, glasses clinking, several voices in the background and laughter.

“No.”  He was not sure what else to say.

“What is it, Gordon?”

“I just wanted to talk to you.”

“Gordon, I’m sorry, but I don’t know what else to say. I don’t know how to help you at this point.”

“I just needed to hear your voice.”

“Okay, but are you sure that calling me doesn’t make you feel worse?”

“Are you… where are you?”

“I’m at lunch.”

“I know you’re at lunch.  I mean … where?  Are you with him?”

The background noise grew louder, or maybe he imagined it.

“Gordon. I can’t talk right now. Will you be okay?”

Gordon hung up the phone. He forced down the rest of his sandwich and felt stupid. He looked out the window and thought about how tired he was of feeling this way.

The receptionist called to say that Thomas Kiser was here again, reporting his card stolen for the fourth time. His worker wanted Gordon to speak to him. Gordon was already familiar with the situation and had expected him to show again this month.

“Give me five minutes, I’ll be right up,” he said.

Thomas Kiser. Gordon knew him too well. This would be the fourth time that Kiser had sold his food stamp card, told the buyer his PIN number and given him time to use up the benefits before he came in to report his food stamp card, his whole wallet in fact, stolen. Social Services then had to reissue a card, and Kiser repeated the process after the next month’s benefits were loaded onto the card.

Granted, it was not an enormous crime. Electronic Benefit Transaction cards sold in the Bradford City area for about fifty cents on the dollar. So each month Kiser sold a card with about two hundred and twenty-four dollars to someone else for one hundred and twelve dollars. This also meant Kiser did not need food or he would have used the benefits for himself. It also probably meant he had a habit to feed that was more important than food. The whole process was just another means of income.

Kiser’s eligibility worker had referred the case to Gordon after his third ‘lost’ card in a row. Gordon and Kiser had a meeting after that. Kiser was an old pro, perhaps more so than Gordon. He was not a fourth or fifth generation welfare recipient out of need or habit, but more like a low life commodity trader by choice. The meeting had been a calm one.

“So you lost your card?”

“Yes sir, somebody stole my wallet.”

“Again?”

“Yes sir.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know.”

“When did you first notice it missing?”

“Oh, this morning, I guess.”

“According to our records,” Gordon glanced over at this computer, the benefits were used yesterday, all two-hundred and twenty-four dollars.”

“Yes sir, I was lucky. Used my card up before somebody stole my wallet.”

Gordon knew better, but without proof, he was prohibited from making accusations. He still remembered the cheesy training video that Social Services showed their employees. It showed an eligibility worker calling a client a liar and a thief. Then a polite voice broke in saying that this is what you never, ever do. Gordon doubted the creator of that video had ever actually worked at Social Services a day in their life.

After his last meeting with Kiser, Gordon checked with the supermarket where the buyer had used the card to see if there was a surveillance camera. They did not. He also knew the amount of cooperation he would not get from store clerks with identifying faces of possible criminals.  Instead, Gordon decided on a policy-friendly plan. He could require Kiser to obtain a police report if he ‘lost’ his wallet again. Then he would have to bring the police report over to Social Services to obtain a new card. This would involve the police, which might be some deterrent to Kiser in itself, as well as cause him some extra work, which was what Kiser so desperately wanted to avoid anyway. And if Kiser filed a police report once a month for the same reason, this would raise eyebrows at the police department and become their issue to address.

Gordon went to the lobby to call Kiser back. Kiser had his head up against the bullet-proof glass, asking the receptionist through cutout hole if she was married. She did not answer, so Kiser turned toward the others waiting in the lobby to complain about how long he had been waiting, which was only minutes at this point. Then he leaned back against the window and asked the receptionist what she was doing this weekend. Gordon looked at the receptionist. Her eyes were sunk in and her acne was in full swing.

“Mr. Kiser.” Gordon’s tone was losing its warmth.

Kiser took his head off of the glass, leaving a greasy round spot just above the hole. He looked at Gordon with his eyelids half closed in purposeful disdain. Gordon recognized the effort and waited for him to follow. Six feet, two inches, even with a slouch and an attitude that scuffed its feet in a performance of aggravation, Kiser came behind Gordon and plopped down in the chair in his office.

“That little receptionist ain’t half bad.” Kiser winked at Gordon and made a big deal out of adjusting his pants.

“Mr. Kiser, I hear you lost your card.”

“Yes, sir, somebody stole my wallet.”

“Again?”

“Yes sir.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know.”

“When did you first notice it missing?”

“Oh, this morning, I guess,” Kiser grinned.

Gordon opened his desk drawer for a pen. His wife was smiling up at him from the photograph and in that moment, he realized what people meant when they said they were at the end of their rope.

“Well, now isn’t that incredible,” Gordon said. “That makes the fourth month in a row that you lost your wallet right after using your benefits up. That is just freaking incredible.” He stared across the desk at Kiser. Kiser’s lids were all the way open for business for a change.

Gordon was balding and almost a foot shorter than Kiser. Kiser had thick, unwashed hair and a gold chain around his neck that matched his two gold front teeth. Kiser’s whole body seemed to be trying to pull off the tough look, but he only made it as far as dirty.

“I’ve got a girlfriend these days, sir. Got to feed her too, you know.” Kiser’s annoying smile started to wane.

“Mmmmmm, got to feed your girlfriend, you say?” Gordon had never spoken to Kiser in this tone before. “Got to feed your girlfriend. Well, Mr. Kiser today is not your lucky day.  It is your last day here though.”

“Now, you and I both know that you can’t kick me out of here. I got rights.”

“Kiser, I have your social security number, and I know your fake ones too. I know where you live and where you hang out. I know which babies are yours and which women would like to see the end of you. I know which ones you’re not paying child support to. I know who you sell your card to and how much it would take to buy your buyer away from you, and if I have to, I will beat your price out of my own pocket. You’re done, Kiser. You’re also an idiot. A smart idiot, but an idiot. A rare creature. You know what I have that you don’t? Besides good breath and plenty of deodorant. A good reputation. Everyone thinks I’m by the book. And appearance is everything. And do you know what that means? It means when you walk out of here and try to repeat this conversation, no one will believe you or your nasty hair or your gold fucking teeth.  They’ll believe me. Now, I’m going to put down here in my notes that we have talked about what you need to do in order to get another food stamp card, even though we have not. I will put that you were agreeable to the plan. You don’t need to know what I’m writing down because you are not going to do it and you are not coming back in here to waste my time. Now get the hell out of my office.”

Kiser glared at Gordon, and the electricity that passed between the two sparked and snapped in the room. Gordon never moved, reached for the phone, or even considered using the alarm under his desk. An assault charge against Kiser would be a great addition to Gordon’s case.  Finally, Kiser got up and left the room. Gordon followed him down the hall to make sure he left the building. Then, from an empty conference room he watched Kiser’s dirty head of hair bob down the street until it was out of sight.

Gordon felt a surge of energy and thought about getting down to business on the Atkins’ file. He stopped by his mailbox and there was a single sheet of paper in it.  It was torn from a spiral notebook and the handwriting listed amounts and dates. Ashley Tillman had already been home and back to drop off her statement. Gordon took it to his office and switched his name plates back before he looked it over. Ms. Tillman was either a lousy prostitute, a lazy one, or, she was smart enough to low-ball her income. She would get food stamps for her child next month and if she reported similar numbers in twelve months, she would probably get them back for herself.

Gordon sighed. He had done the best he could with that one. For now, he decided it was okay. He had had one victory for the day, and it was a good one. Telling Kiser to get lost had felt fantastic.  ordon was documenting Kiser’s supposed agreement when the receptionist called.

“Your wife is here,” she said.

“She is?  I mean, okay, I’ll be right up.”

Gordon stood up and sat back down twice. He was not sure what he wanted to say, or what she had to say that was worth stopping by for during work hours. The adrenaline rush from telling Kiser off disappeared as he walked down the hall and he thought about Ashley Tillman’s written statement. She never had used the word sex or prostitution. She had written almost the same thing she had said. I, Ashley Tillman, help guys out for money. It was close enough for documentation purposes, but it still did not sound like an admission. And Gordon still wasn’t sure how he felt about his wife when he opened the door and stepped into the lobby.