Short story: An Alphabet Soup for Dad’s health


“No, dad,” said his digital native son, “an ARL is not a URL, which is short for a Uniform Resource Locator.” “A what?,” asked the immigrant. “A web address”. “As opposed to?” “Lemme see [lapping his taptop] . . . a kind of insurance.” “Like the ARP I once had?”

“No,” interjected his wife, “that was for Professional Risks, while this is for Labor ones . . . the Administrator of them.” “So I have to turn myself into a company?” “Not exactly, it’s the policy those companies sell.” “I got it, with an EPS.” “Except it’s not for when you get sick but have an accident”. “But why, since I don’t drive?” “At your workplace”. “As if a freelance translator is going to fall off a ladder and sue the client. Say he does, though, shouldn’t my EPS take care of it? Maybe I should contact one of their phone-in advisors.”

“You’re getting ahead of yourself,” warned his son. “The first step is to affiliate yourself to the ARL.”

“When their office is in Bogotá and we’re quarantined in this village?” “Why are you so antiquated, dad! Nowadays you can do all that online.”

But it took three days without getting through to the EPS before stubborn dad yielded and did.

Though it took him another few hours to wade through the ten-page forms on eight different sites before realizing that they were for companies, and an additional hour on overlapping traffic lights to prove he wasn’t a robot before another for independents accepted his vital statistics, the requisites did not look so bad at first, since he could decipher and already had the C.C. and RUT the APP asked for. Then, he was floored again by a nitpicking NIT, sibilant SGSST, prickly PIN and never-ready PILA.

“Dad, don’t worry so much. You don’t file an income tax return, so you don’t need a NIT, the PILA is only a mechanism for your monthly payment to the EPS which you do with your PIN and the SGSST is simply the social security and labor risks system.”

“But if I’m already paying the PILA and affiliated to the SG, why do I need the SST?”

“It is what it is,” snapped his wife.

“Yeah, I was only obeying the orders of the Führer.”

“Because if the bank won’t pay you, we, your wife and son, will starve!”

“And if the virus gets you and you’re not insured….” added his son.

So She Who Must Be Obeyed was, complaisantly, until he was avenged by his notice of the “pre-occupational medical examination,” which could only be done in Bogotá.

“Take your pick: my quick death by virus in the city or slow death by inanition in the countryside.”

“Trust in the Lord,” she snarled.

“As if I’ll get a viral dispensation from the Pope.”

“Will you guys stop arguing, please! You gotta get professional help, dad.”

When that he did, it looked like her Lord had indeed wrought a miracle, for his accountant told him that the medical examination for the ARP, undertaken years before, would serve for the ARL and protect his health as little as it did then, since, like the Army’s, it consisted of “walk, cough: fine, you’re drafted.” Worse, the good news was quickly followed by a reminder that the Lord, in return, expected him to keep his powder dry, when he smugly informed his wife that, after another fifteen attempts (the delay due to corona anxiety, he supposed) and entirely on his own, he’d got through to and squared the monthly payment with the EPS, only to receive an e-mail from the lady at the bank which was the client to say that the receipt from the EPS he forwarded to her did not include the payment of the ARL.

So, humbled, he went back to the accountant. “The problem, I think,” she said, “is that you pay the ARL through the EPS but not to it. Or maybe it’s the IBC.”

“The whatsit?”

“The income which is the base of the payment to the EPS.”

“I see, the four million pesos from the bank.”

“Not quite, the payment based on that base would be 40% of the four.”

With that, an online percentage calculator and after another two days on the phone, he again spoke to an advisor, and hey presto, the PILA appeared on his computer screen at once but a) with the quarantine, his advanced age forbade him the village; b) his wife’s turn was only in three days; c) the deadline for sending the receipt to the bank was approaching; and d) if unmet, there’d be zero income for the following month. Then, when she finally went to Baloto, the number didn’t appear on their screen.

Back to the accountant, who, after looking at the site, explained that when the payment he was expecting was more than the SMLMV, he had to use the PSE.

“And who is he when he’s at home?”

“The Minimum Monthly Wage Currently in Force.”

“And the other guy?”

“Just a button you push on the screen to pay through your bank.”

But what with another aptly named “gotcha,” failure to put CC in caps and other petty lapses, that took time. Finally, he typed in his bank and the system froze again and if he hadn’t been for his wife, he would never have realized that CITI (where his account was) was no longer CITI but Scotia Colpatria.

For the final, final confirmation he had to type in a code sent to his cellphone, except that he was the only one in Colombia without one: he replaced it with his wife’s but it had to be entered at once and she’d just put on her facemask and gone shopping. With only hours to go before the headline, there was no choice but to risk the $900,000 pesos fine and/or the lethal sneeze of a careless villager. And so it was that dad found himself sitting on a curb in the village, a virtual ghost town — hunched, face hidden by mask and cap, like a vagrant pretending to be a sack of potatoes which nevertheless kept a keen eye out for the law, while she, alongside, dialed the PILA into the EPS and prayed. As another fraught hour passed without any sign of the online receipt, dad began to feel choked, dizzy and flushed, but dared not interrupt her conversation with the Lord until the receipt arrived and was forwarded to the bank, which happened seconds before the deadline.

“See,” she said, “reciting the Rosary works.”

“Maybe, but I feel kind of wonky”

“It’s only stress.”

“Sure, what’s a heart attack when it’s for my health.”


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