Bankruptcy, poor health and life without electricity

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By Meaghan Downs

Let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
They live in Anderson County.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith may be your neighbors.
Mr. Smith will be 65 in August.
Mrs. Smith is 62.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith don’t want to be identified by their real names because of you, their neighbors.
“We don’t want to be looked down on,” Mrs. Smith told me last week.
Don’t want to appear like they’re looking for a free handout, they said.
Money comes in once a month through the Smiths’ Social Security checks and Mrs. Smith’s disability.
They live off about $1,600 a month.
Mrs. Smith swallows 24 pills every day for various illnesses: four pills for her heart, two for her stomach, two muscle relaxers for a potassium deficiency, etc.
She said she takes a handful of them with Irish tea in the morning.
Mr. Smith, on the other hand, doesn’t take anything but aspirin.
A stroke in 2008 weakened his shoulder and led to an early retirement.
Mr. Smith, who spent his youth rebelliously breaking horses, can no longer lift more than 20 pounds.
He’s waiting until his birthday in August, when Medicare kicks in, to see a doctor for the first time in about five years.
You see, the Smiths can’t keep up with the Joneses.   
The Joneses have electricity.
The Smiths do not.  
Their electricity has been shut off since April.
The Smiths owe about $800 in overdue bills plus a reconnection fee and new deposit to the electric company.
They use a neighbor’s fridge and freezer. The family cell phone gets charged using a converter the Smiths connect to Mr. Smith’s pick-up truck.
Their trailer’s unbelievable, astronomical electric bill: about $300-400 a month to run their trailer on a country road in Anderson County. The bill usually hits its high point during the winter months.
“It’s just an old trailer,” Mr. Smith said, blaming the sky-high electric bill on the inefficiency of the trailer home. “Insulation is real bad.”
“We can’t keep paying $450 a month on electric bills,” Mrs. Smith said. “It’s not even keeping it warm, that’s the sad thing.”
Keeping it warm is one thing. Keeping cool is another.
When July temperatures pressed their sweaty, heavy humidity into the 100s, Mrs. Smith said she took cold showers when she felt like she was going to pass out.  
But there’s some question as to why Mr. and Mrs. Smith find themselves in their current predicament.
A quick conversation with a representative from the Smiths’ electric company said the company does provide solutions for customers who will be late with a bill.
If the bill’s due the 8th and the customer won’t have the money until the 15th, arrangements can be made, she said. The company has a pre-pay option as well.
What if a customer is an entire month behind? I asked. Will the company still shut off a customer’s electricity?
The representative said that would depend on the circumstances.
The Smiths tell a different story: that they asked to work off the electric bill debt with a monthly payment plan, and the company did not comply.
To be fair, Mrs. Smith said, she did not completely understand what the company’s pre-pay offer meant.
Regardless of the Smiths vs. the electric company conflict, that doesn’t change the fact that what they pay in winter electric bills is unsustainable.
They’d move and get a new trailer home, they said, but their credit score was shot to hell after the Smiths declared bankruptcy shortly after Mr. Smith retired.
They wished they’d saved more, wished they hadn’t assumed they’d always be in good health.
“What’s people going to do, work all their life until the day they die?” Mr. Smith said. “Life don’t work that way.”
The financial stress has been hard on the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
The only reason why they’re still in Anderson County is because of Mrs. Smith’s son, who is in the middle of a legal matter and has nowhere else to go, according to Mrs. Smith.
“To abandon him now when he needs help, it could be the worse thing I could do,” Mrs. Smith said.
Mr. Smith resents this.
“I have to get up and go away a lot,” Mr. Smith said.
He drives as far as gas will take him or putters around outside. Goes down to a neighbor’s pond to be himself for a while, he said.
Why do you stay then? I asked.
“For her,” Mr. Smith, who’s been married to Mrs. Smith since 1999, said.
Mostly chained to their home — entertainment like going into town, shopping at flea markets, and fishing costs money —  the Smiths find solace elsewhere.
For Mrs. Smith, it’s the five to 10-minute weekly phone calls with her 11-year-old granddaughter. She’s really into makeup, Mrs. Smith tells me.
Otherwise, Mrs. Smith said she sits out on the porch by herself, and thinks about better days.
What were the better days? I asked.
Getting back on a horse the way she used to, Mrs. Smith said.
 For Mr. Smith, it’s the Great Outdoors.
“If you can get up in the morning, you’ve got something,” Mr. Smith said.
Good news I learned Tuesday morning from Mrs. Smith: a local pastor and his congregation chipped in to cover the cost of their outstanding bill plus all the fees to get the electricity back on.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith got their electricity back Saturday.
And what was the first thing the Smiths did with their newfound power?
“The first thing I did was sit in a chair in front of a fan,” Mrs. Smith said, laughing.