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Janet Smith sent in her Visa payment early.

Maybe this doesn't mean anything to you. Maybe you always pay your credit card bills early.But I knew what Janet felt like.

It's a fresh start-over feeling. The same one you get when your closets are cleaned, your shoes are shined, and all the buttons are sewn on your clothes.

It doesn't happen often, but when it does, you know you can change your life. Next you'll clean the basement, join an uplifting organization, and make something delicious with all the leftover salad dressings on the refrigerator door.

It never happens, of course. But, for a while, a new life seems possible.

"My Visa bill would have arrived before it was due," she said.

It would have. But it didn't. Here's what Janet said happened:

"About a week after the Visa bill was mailed, I got this phone call. A man said, `My name is Terrall Siddens and I'm from Lewis & Clark Upholstery on Gravois. . . .'

"I said, `I don't need it.'

"He said, `Lady, I've got your Visa bill.'

"He also had my attention. How did he get my Visa bill when it was mailed a week ago?"

Terrall found it inside another, larger unsealed envelope for a business association newsletter. The newsletter was announcing another dull meeting, which Terrall wasn't going to, anyway.

"The newsletter envelope wasn't sealed, and my whole Visa bill was inside it," Janet said.

"Terrall said he would have thrown the whole thing out, if he hadn't seen the word Visa.

"He opened my bill. When he saw my name was Smith, he thought, `Great, how many Smiths are there in the St. Louis phone book?' "

About 4,900.

Terrall the upholsterer was no softie.

"He tracked us down. He said later he realized he could have just dropped my bill in the mail, but by then it was too late. He'd already opened it. Besides, he thought I'd want to know what happened.

"I drove over to his store, picked up my bill and mailed it again. By now, my Visa bill was late, as usual.

"Then I called my local post office to find out how they screwed up," she said.

"They told me the downtown office was responsible. Downtown said the machinery did it. They said the mail is sorted by machine. The business association newsletter was sent in an unsealed envelope. The post office thinks my smaller Visa bill managed to slide into Terrall's bigger business envelope, and the two got mailed together."

In case you're wondering, there's no advantage to mailing things in unsealed envelopes, the post office said. There may be a big disadvantage. Your letter could fall out. Or Janet's letter could fall in.

Mary Washington at the U.S. Postal Service called Janet to apologize, even though it probably was not Mary's fault.

Mary also offered to call Janet's credit card company and explain why her bill was late.

Janet turned Mary down.

"Thanks," she said, sadly. "But I know what this means. I'm not supposed to send in my Visa bill early."