Alabama at the Bank by Richard Hackler
What follows is the second installment of Richard Hackler's "Nation, Turn Your Lonely Eyes to Me" project. Read part one, Overture, here.
Alabama, we’ll say, was a teller at a bank. In a strip mall off the highway, next to a dry cleaner’s and a cell-phone accessories store. It wasn’t a bad job. When his sister or friends would ask him about it, he would shrug and say, “It’s not a bad job.” Maybe you’ve had jobs like this, too. There are worse things.
One morning before the bank opened, he was setting up his booth—turning on his computer, sorting and stacking bills, refilling the candy bowl for customers who came in with their daughters or nephews or whatever—when his manager, Bob, clopped over to his booth and coughed once into his fist.
“Al,” he said. “I’d like to introduce you to someone.” Bob had the plush voice of an AM radio overnight host, and his words sailed through the air like cottonwood seeds. Alabama lifted his head to squint at Bob, but his hands kept working beneath the counter, stacking bills into the till. He’d been working here for five years. He did not need to watch them.
Bob was a novelty sweater enthusiast. Today, his sweater was aeronautically themed, peppered with airplanes trailing dashes indicating their swooping, irregular paths across his chest and gut. Alabama noted this. Yesterday, his sweater was patterned with sailboats and anchors. The day before, his sweater had printed on it different sorts of balls: basketballs and baseballs. Footballs. Golf balls. Anyway. Alabama met Bob’s eyes, little buttons sewn into the soggy pillow of his face, and then thought, again (and these are things that I have thought, and maybe you have thought, too, while looking into the watery eyes of bosses at jobs that have not suited you): Please don’t let me become this person, Bob. Please don’t let me acquire a closet full of sweaters that no longer fit. Please don’t let me grow soft and drowsy and slow working at this stripmall bank. Please.
“This is Lena,” said Bob, and Alabama looked to Bob’s left, where a young woman stood with her hands clasped behind her back. She was squinting up at the ceiling, at the speakers misting soft-jazz onto the bank below. “She’s one of our new tellers,” said Bob. “I’ll need you to train her in.” Lena’s face was small and angular; her chin, pointed towards Alabama like a threat, looked filed to a point. Alabama imagined it puncturing balloons, basketballs, the hulls of sailboats.
“Okay!” said Alabama in the voice he used around Bob. This was his bank voice: brisk and cheery, a voice of savings accounts, of hassle-free checking, of interest rates both variable and fixed. He looked down to check on his hands, set the last twenty in its slot, slammed shut his till. When he looked up again, this woman, this new person, Lena, was looking at him sideways and smiling in a way that showed she did not want to smile. Then she stepped forward, extended her hand across the counter, and held it there. He collected her fingers like a pile of Popsicle sticks and moved them up and down. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said, and then let go. He tried to meet her eyes, but she shifted her gaze behind him, out the drive-through window, to the floodlit parking lot and the black blankness of an early January morning in Duluth, Minnesota, where I once lived and where this story is set. She began chewing intently on the cuticle of her left index finger, and Alabama looked at her face and thought: She has a nice face. Because she did. She had a nice face.
Lena removed her finger from her mouth, looked back at him, and said, “It’s nice to meet you, too.” Her eyes were the rich glassy green of Heineken bottles, and he tried to see in them some buried spark, some hint that she was in on the joke of their surroundings. Because Alabama wanted someone with whom to laugh at the world’s great bad forces, to see in the circumstances of their everyday lives some inherent silliness—working at a bank? What were they doing working at a bank?—and in that way to make their lives less dreary. He wanted this so badly. But maybe Lena didn’t see it that way. Who could know? Maybe she arrived here deliberately. Maybe she wanted to work at a bank. Some people, probably, want to work at banks, and have reached their present stations in life via a series of conscious decisions. Alabama arrived where he was via something that felt like sleepwalking, and his professional life to this point had passed something like a field trip: this is what it would be like if I were a teller at a bank! And if it were going to continue like this—and he had been here for five years, it was probably going to continue like this—he wanted, at least, someone with whom he could sigh and roll his eyes and make jokes. This is all that he wanted! Because most unpleasantness becomes tolerable when you have someone with whom to roll your eyes. Maybe this could be Lena. You never know.
“Great!” said Bob. “This is great!” and Alabama drained these thoughts from his head like bathwater. Bob began saying more things, and waving his hands around to emphasize certain key points, and Alabama nodded and made affirmative noises and Lena rocked on her feet and kept looking out the window. She was wearing a knee-length purple skirt and a white blouse, with ruffles and lace and pearly buttons the size of silver dollars. The heels of her shoes, if wielded properly, would punch a hole through someone’s forehead. And she was wearing earrings, too! Let’s say she was wearing earrings. Let’s say they were the color of burnished brass, and dangled almost to her shoulders, and caught the bank’s florescent lighting and shimmered like the scales of fish. Imagine these earrings, please, and the rest of Lena’s outfit, which I’m stealing wholesale from a woman I used to love because it is nice, remembering this woman, and her clothes, and the flush I used to feel when I would see her and notice the way her pale, sharp-angled beauty was accented by her fashion-sense, which suggested she had unlimited access to the wardrobes of Charlotte Bronte heroines. And then I would think: I am wearing these pants because they have no noticeable stains, and I am wearing this shirt because it is the first shirt I touched when I reached into my closet. How did she decide what to wear? And I would think about that, Passages North blog reader, and I would think about her brain and how it differed from mine, and I would love her for her brain that differed from mine, and this is what it was for me to be in love with this person. But anyway—imagine Lena standing in the bank, and Alabama standing there, too, and Bob, and Alabama not-listening to Bob because he is looking at Lena and imagining her standing on a rocky beach somewhere, staring at the sea and weeping over some shipwrecked lover. Imagine this. And imagine Alabama thinking that Lena seemed like a glittering error here, in this place of beige and concrete and bad, bad jazz music leaking from overhead speakers.
“Does this sound good?” Bob was saying, and Alabama said back, “This sounds good!” though he had not been listening, and then Bob walked away, to his office, off to do the inscrutable work of people who manage banks. Alabama watched him walk away, thought, Okay, clapped his hands once, and turned to Lena.
“Okay,” said Alabama. He tried to remove some of the bank from his voice, and, for no good reason, clapped his hands again. “Okay.” (And maybe you are thinking, now, with Lena in her bright skirt and Alabama imagining the sort of person she might be: Oh, no. This is going to be one of those stories.) “We should get started,” he said, and offered Lena a half-smile. It was meant as an invitation: let’s see if we are people who like each other, said this smile. I will show you what I know about working at the bank, but let’s talk about other things, too. Let’s tell each other jokes. Let’s ask each other about the music we’ve lately been listening to. Let’s make fun of the customers who are rude to us. Let’s pass the day like this. (Maybe you are thinking: she’s been placed in this bank to rescue Alabama from his sadness; she’s going to break into the blank functional living room of his life and repopulate it with whimsical lamps and progressive furniture. The girlfriend as redecorator/savior!) And Lena read his smile’s subtext, maybe, because she smiled back and said, “Okay!” And, then, in a voice that contained no bank, she said: “I’ve never seen a sweater with airplanes on it. Where do you buy a sweater with airplanes on it?” (You are thinking, maybe, that there will be a scene later in which Lena plays the ukulele in her underwear, or something, and Alabama sits next to her on his bed and sighs heavily and admires her airy unfettered heart.) When she said this Alabama laughed, and began telling her about Bob’s other sweaters—the Scottish terrier one, the different-sorts-of-automobiles one—and as he did, a wave of fatigue landed hard against his chest: because he decided, then, that she was the sort of person he would probably like. And that she would probably like him. You can tell, sometimes. Of course. You look at someone and decide, This is an interesting person, probably, who wears a purple skirt and Victorian blouse on a drab day in January. And when you decide this, and when this person smiles at you in an unguarded way, a door lurches open inside of you and reveals your future with her. All you need to do is walk through the door. Or try to walk through the door. (But I promise you that this isn’t that sort of story. I promise you that these sorts of stories or these sorts of movies leave me feeling very sad and as though I need to take a shower. I promise that I am with you in this. I promise.)
But if you’ve already lost some people it becomes easy to view the process of meeting new people through clinical eyes. And Alabama, by now, had lost some people: there were the women he loved and then stopped loving, or the women he loved who stopped loving him. Most of his friends had moved to different towns to buy houses and give themselves to careers that seemed to suit them. He didn’t often see his sister, Marianne, though they lived less than a mile apart. Both of his parents were dead. And it can begin to seem fruitless after a while, this getting-to-know-people, and, especially, this trying-to-date them: there will be the halting conversations about where one lives and where one is from and what sort of music one favors. Then the going to coffee shops, the evening walks near the lake, the consumption of alcohol and cautious revealing of one’s insecurities and sorrows: this is what I thought I would be doing by now and this is what stopped me. This is why I live in this town and work at a bank against everything inside of me. This is how my parents died, which is the worst: this solemn unveiling of one’s corpses, this flattening of dead family members into key players in one’s sad personal drama: there is sadness in my past, pretty girl, I am a tragic and poetical person, for I have known and loved people who are now dead. This is why you should have sex with me. And then—hooray! This person has sex with you. This person begins leaving bread on top of your fridge and shoes on your bedroom floor, and this goes on until, what? You get tired of her bread on your fridge and her shoes on your floor (though you could remember, if you tried, and you should try, waking up early next to this person, and slowing your thoughts to match the rhythm of her breathing, and squinting through the thin morning light to look at her pile of shoes in front of your closet and saddling them with emotional heft: finally, you would think, I have arrived at a place and time in which someone I love is leaving her shoes on my bedroom floor). Or, maybe, for no reason you can place, one day she puts her shoes in a box and drives away with them. And everything you said to her—every recounted day-at-work, every joke, every muttered affection, every reassurance, everything, stays locked in her skull, taking up space, like old winter jackets cluttering up a closet. It would all be less sad, maybe, if you could get all of that back when a person leaves. If you could remove your stories from her head and keep them for the next person. This telling and rehashing, to new people, over and over again—it dilutes things. Like photocopying a photocopy. The image fades every time.
But what you can do about this? This is an old question, but a real question, and I would like you to consider it: what do you do? Alabama did not want to become cynical. I do not want to become cynical. When someone leaves with my coats, I want only to make more coats and not worry about the old ones. But it happens so often. People leave so often. Or they die. And when they do, they disappear with the best selves of those who loved them. (My older sister, say, who died almost five years ago, and with whom, when I was home visiting from college in Duluth, I would drive around in my shitty car while listening to The Kinks or Aerosmith or whatever was playing on the classic rock station she liked, and who would ask me questions about college, and what it was to be an English major—she hated, hated writing essays—and Girls, which I would try to evade, because I have never learned to talk about Girls, as we pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store or bank or whatever errand I was joining her for—this conception of me died when she did. I was the too-fast driver to grocery stores. The stutterer about girls. The brother whom, when he was growing up, you would take fishing to the river near your house because it’s nice, in the summer, to have someone to go fishing with. The brother you would pay to cut your lawn, and who, every time, would run over your strawberry plants, every goddamn time, even though they were set back from the lawn, even though they were very clearly strawberry plants—didn’t you see the flowers? Or the strawberries?—because he was preternaturally stupid with a lawnmower, but whom you would be kind to, anyway, because that’s what it means to be in a family with someone. You are kind to them when they run over your strawberry plants, again and again and again. This version of me died. And a version of my parents died, too, and my brother, and of course my nieces, and on and on. This is how it is). And, if you were one of those people, you’ll need to do it all again, to give yourself fully to another person who will probably, sooner or later, disappear. It’s difficult for me to write about these things without sounding as though my prose should be read in a very breathy voice, but I hope you know what I mean.
And what do you do about that? When I think about the bad things that have happened to me and those I’ve loved, I arrive at the conclusion that life is really very ugly, and the only proper response is to treat each situation like a vicious, unfolding joke. But my bad things aren’t unique. You have by now, probably, seen someone you love suffer and die. This is what it is to be alive. Or you’ve grown tired of someone’s shoes on your floor and treated her cruelly until she’s left. Or you’ve been the one forced to collect your shoes from someone’s floor. And your life after this person is gone has seemed emptier for the space you carved out to accommodate him or her. Which leaves you with this space, this fucking space, to fill up, somehow. This is how it is. And what do you do about that?
I don’t know. And Alabama at the bank didn’t know, and he was thinking about these sorts of things as he looked at Lena. Here was an open door, and on the other side, maybe, was someone he might like, and someone who might like him, and when this happens you either walk through the door or you decide that you are finished altogether with this business of doors. These are your options.
“We should get started,” Alabama said, after they had finished laughing about sweaters, and they got started: he showed Lena how to operate the register, and how to balance the till at the end of the day, and how to operate the pneumatic drive through tube, and how to print deposit slips, and whatever else might be in the skill set of a bank teller. I don’t know. I’ve been a cashier, and a cook, and a janitor, but I’ve never worked at a bank. He made jokes. He told her not to worry when she jammed up the deposit slip printer. He asked her questions about her past and listened to her replies—she moved here from Chicago, she arrived without a job, she didn’t know anyone in town when she moved here, she picked Duluth because she fetishized the idea of a life somewhere cold and remote—and at the end of her shift he asked her if she’d like to accompany him to a punk rock show later, downtown, at a bar called The Red Lion, and Lena, it turned out, was the sort of young woman who liked to attend punk rock shows. So she said, Yes, of course. That sounds great.
And here was something for Alabama to be excited about. So he let himself be excited, and decided not to think about tonight in terms of doors, or coats, or the shoes that might accumulate on his floor. And that’s the best answer he could come up with to all of this. And that’s the best I can do, too, at least right now. There are more reasons to be cynical than not, but let’s decide, anyway, to not be cynical. Okay? Let’s not be cynical.
Richard Hackler is the nonfiction editor for Sundog Lit. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.