The Tower Journal

Matthew Perini

Lingua Banca

           “Good morning, sir,” my teller says with guarded enthusiasm, as if the whole idea of waiting on me, with my paint-streaked hair and skin-tight, three-quarter-sleeve Blondie shirt is somehow degrading, but also as if she’s embarrassed by the level of servility she’s expected to show now that her job can be done by a computer, as if she’s quietly protesting against her fellow tellers, most of whom have chosen to compensate for their loss of importance by throwing out “Good mornings” and “Right away, sirs” that practically suck face with the customer right there under the even commercial lighting.
“Good morning,” I say winningly. According to the name plaque, her name is Theresa Brownwell, so I add her name with some fake, full-throttle gusto. “Good morning, Theresa Brownwell.” The words sound like the chorus of a showstopping number from an annoyingly cheery Broadway show, and because of their musicality, I am very nearly singing them, at least letting hints of wobbly melody and a touch of vibrato in. Summarily unimpressed, Terry’s eyes find my right arm. As if by the command of some under-the-counter button designed to keep things always businesslike, I place the documents into the scratched metal dish that sits beneath a glass panel that’s a full inch thick.
           Business as usual at a bank. As far as this panel goes, it has been placed strategically to divide us, so that just in case some crass, anti-banking thoughts cross our minds—teller and/or patron—there is no way to act. In keeping with Operation Sterilization, the metal dish sits at the bottom of two angles so that hands cannot touch. Of course, they’d say it’s for safety, in the event I decide to point a Glock at Theresa. But I’m pretty sure as long as she doesn’t try to sell me on some great new checking account “perfect for today’s on-the-go lifestyle,” I won’t resort to anything that drastic. Cheap, easy-target sarcasm, yes, but not firearms.
          This trip has been part of a programmatic morning foisted upon me by my wife. And here’s the program she put together:
1. Get up at 7:30; “On Saturday?” “Yes, we have to paint.” “It can’t wait until 9:30?” “God, are you lazy.”
2. Eat cold cereal for breakfast.
3. Find and get into old clothes (I found Blondie).
4. Put plastic over furniture.
5. Rollers, brushes, trays, wooden mixer, a screwdriver to pry off the top—find those.
6. “You’re not excited?” “I am. I swear I am, even now at the buttcrack of dawn.”
7. Use Ceiling White for the ceiling.
8. Hold a discussion (read: argument) about the meanings of the terms “slathering” (what I do) and “pointillism” (what I call what she does) and relate each other’s inadequacies as painters to a hundred other failings as spouses, as lovers, as just plain people. (“Slathering” links up with a lack of caring, wanting to get everything done quickly, sloppiness stemming from immaturity, while “pointillism” begets obsessive perfectionism, anal-retentiveness, putting things domestic before things that really matter, like lovemaking. “You, Mr. Quickie, are the one who rushes us through sex!”…and it starts all over again.)
9. Use Summer Sandcastle for the walls. (“More vibrant, wouldn’t you say, than that dreadful Seafoam Green?”)
10. Go to the bank; “Go to the bank?”
11. “Yes, it closes at noon on Saturday, and you refuse to replace our ATM card, which I think you lost on purpose.”
12. Go to the bank.
           I go upstairs to get my wallet and keys, which is when I remember that in my underwear drawer, under a nest of mismatched dress socks is a modest stash of money. I grab that too. On my way downstairs, Katherine hands me the requisite slips and checks.
           11:46. I leave Katherine to finish painting the wall behind the couch, which we will move back into place one hour after the wall is finished. The room will be brighter then and will look bigger, I am told. Also, it will be fresher and cleaner-looking and even take on a spiritual quality in certain lighting. All this from paint.
           11:53. Terry the teller is looking things over, checking for signatures, verifying account numbers and whatever else they have left to do for the people like me who avoid using machines whenever possible. I watch her smooth and unblemished fingers tap like little, hairless animals at the oversize keys to her left. Her eyes are on the documents, and it almost seems they are independent of one another, Terry the Teller and her tapping fingers, which sounds like an old sideshow act: Miss Maestro and her acrobat-rodents, Griselda the Great and her obedient serpents, Terry the Teller and her tapping fingers. She stops, checks my documents again. Immediately, I begin to doubt myself. Perhaps I have done my math incorrectly or maybe a check number isn’t quite right or my sloppiness has caused her confusion and she has taken a one for a 7, a 4 for a 9. Whatever it is, I can’t get my body to be loose.
           But Terry’s fingers come back to the keys and when she says, “It’s hot today, isn’t it?” our relationship reverts to the normal bank paradigm: an emotionless, document-based encounter in which each party is entirely unconcerned with whatever the hell the other is doing—a transaction as it is called.
           Terry leaves the window to enter into negotiations with her computer, which will legitimize the transaction in the eyes of other, higher ranking computers. Knowing this will take approximately one minute, I fumble through the lollipops. Finding no lime, and thinking it’s not important enough to ask for one, I begin sucking a bright purple pop.
           11:55. Behind me, more people—mostly older, all deathly afraid of the nearing 12:00 deadline—commit to the squared labyrinth of ropes laid out by administrators so efficient that they can’t bear to see winding lines, demanding instead crisp, determined right angles that will show our demotic throng of bank patrons just how inadequate our naturally occurring arrangements are. Balanced lighting. Gray carpets. Marble-toned Formica. Air Supply without words. Even the smell is dependable, settling. The industrious smooth-hum of a bank, designed to efface the cutthroat piracy of the economics that give it life.
Terry comes back to the counter to give me my receipt, to count my money in front of me by separating each bill, especially the new ones, with exquisite care, and to tell me to have a good day. But she does none of these things. Instead she asks to verify my account number on one document, which I notice she treats badly, pushing it over the counter into the dish with her middle finger rather than gripping it firmly between her thumb and pointer as I had when I handed it over to be transacted upon. I check the numbers, first the 1s, 7s, 4s, and 9s, then all the others until I am certain that what I have written and what the bank has printed are the exact same sequence. This time, when I give it back, I show even more confidence in it by adding my middle finger to my thumb-and-pointer grip and acting with calculated nonchalance that I hope reads, “Here is my slip. Take it as it is, and do what you do with it. Subject it to your banking procedures. What do I have to worry about?”
           Terry runs through her routine again, which I pay attention to this time but still don’t get.
           “Any idea what’s going on?” I say loudly, with the contradictory desire to not be noticed. You see, in a bank in your own town, there may well be someone in the line who knows you and who wants to talk to you about something like step two in the Scott’s Lawn Program, which sadly enough, I’m pretty sure has something to do with the elimination of broadleaf weeds. If none of this explains why I’ve spoken loudly in this situation, it’s mostly because I’ve got no idea how volume might keep me lower profile or why talking’s even necessary in the first place.
           “The one transaction’s fine,” she says. “But this one, the other account isn’t going”—something technological happens, so we stop, together holding our breaths like parents waiting for their potty-training toddler to make that first deposit (hee-hee). But the interruption is nothing of note and Terry finishes her thought with a slack, beaten body—“through.”
           “What’s the problem?” I ask.
           “The problem is there’s no record of this account. When did you open it?”
           “About two months ago,” I say. Defensively, I might add.
           “Oh,” she says. “Oh,” she says again, this time meaning it. Then she rubs her lips, more by moving her head than wagging her finger, I notice.
           “So…it’s…” I start in that open-ended way that expects to be finished by someone else who has more information.
           “Well, maybe it’s not in the system yet.” But she doesn’t sound very confident. “Would you wait here please, sir?”
           And she is gone. To some secret inner sanctum where I have always imagined—rather cartoonishly, but that’s what makes it fun—a cabal of mostly fat, milky-white men with short, Anglo-Saxon names playing five-card poker with all our money.
           Terry peeks her head into my fantasy. “Uh, sir? Mr. Chase?”
           “Yes, Miss—”
           “Yes, Miss Brownwell?” He makes his voice thunder and reverberate so as to make her tremble visibly. There is no joy in doing this: He simply does it because that’s how I imagine him speaking.
           “Um. I can’t uh, get this one account to, uh…”
           “Miss Brownwell?”
           “Yes? Sir?”
           “Would you please bring me another sack of money? You see, I’m not playing very well, and my pile’s gotten quite low.” Terry sees he is much thinner than the last time she saw him. Rather than the round, baby-smooth visage Terry remembers, Mr. Chase’s face now looks the way I imagine the faces of the aliens will look if they ever come to take me away, like hairless cats with their ears pulled back. Definitely, he’s lost weight. Things must be going badly, Terry deduces, for Mr. Chase to be a thin man.
           “Sure, sir.” With that, she leaves. In a few minutes she can be heard coming down the hall, pulling a sack she shouldn’t be pulling, panting mightily. The men watch her enter the room. She is clearly in need of help, but these are the .01 percenters, and there is no way in hell one of them is going to get up.
“Thank you, Miss Brownwell,” Mr. Chase says when she finally reaches his place at the table.
           “You’re welcome, sir,” she manages between breaths.
           The other men have been waiting for Chase to ante up. The second he does, they are committed to the game with predatory intensity. Miss Brownwell walks out, thinking, “C’mon, Mr. Chase. C’mon. A good hand. A good hand and then a streak.”
When she finally comes back out into the real world, she is catching her breath, fanning her face, struggling to hold her bank-tired body upright.
           She speaks: “Jorge, the manager, is checking the system right now. He said your account should go through in just a minute or two.”
           Jorge? How disastrously image-crushing, even to my childish, obvious, three-steps-below-hackwriting sketch.
           “So it’s just a matter of waiting a few minutes?” I ask.
           The little fantasy being spoiled, I let The White Album side A play in my head, starting at the first verse of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which is where I left it in the car. I look at you all, see the love there that’s sleeping… A good song, maybe the best Harrisong, but I get caught on a line: I don’t know how you were inverted or converted or perverted or diverted—they all seem equally right. And equally wrong. This will put me over the edge if I let it, so I decide to just look around, having all this spare time to do it.
            All things in their proper relations at all times. One of the more comforting notions of Western philosophy, and one that is perfect for banks, who want us all to believe that we bank in the best of all possible banking worlds. God, I wish some crazy-ass, rhetoric-spouting radical with a Glock would bust in here to shake things up, even though I’m violently opposed to violence in that I think gun advocates should be shot (but only in the kneecaps). But I’m stuck on the Glock, I think, because it’s one of the few names I know, rings with a Teutonic-sounding meanness, yet also evokes the cult of cool, in a James Bond, live large, get-the-girls sort of way. Aside from these streamy associations, I don’t know a thing about it. Which brings me back to—
           The dimness of conversation; a vague feeling that it’s time to make words. If only I knew more about guns, perhaps I could stay removed a bit longer. Trivia is trivia, but one benefit of knowing a lot of it that’s often overlooked is that it gives you material to think about so you don’t have to talk to people. Trivia builds associative stamina and allows you to become something like a tantric of inner consciousness. But as my wife could tell you, in fact already has told you, I’m no hold-out artist, in bed or in banks, and I can’t keep it in anymore.
           “So, does this kind of thing happen a lot or—?”
She’s right with me, probably knew in advance. “Oh no, sir. Hardly ever.”
           “So once in a while then?”
           “Not really. I don’t know what it is. I mean, it’s just that one account.”
           “So the big transaction? That’s all fine?”
           “Yes, sir. Straight as an arrow that one went through.”
           “That’s good. If only they both went like that.” Clearly a line for stringing along the conversation.
           And not a very good one, because Terry cuts the string so easily. “If only, sir.”
           Dead silence. Reminding me there is no reasonable way to talk to a teller. A kid behind me throws up, and I live vicariously in that moment. I hear the popping sound, the surge and splash of liquid, probably apple juice, which is what kids always seem to throw up even if they haven’t had any. I look back nosily. A young woman leans with agitation over her little girl, using the wrist side of her sleeve to wipe the silent tears from the ruddy, wet face. Another woman moves in to make an unwanted suggestion. The whole thing is exciting, I guess, because the people in line no longer wilt. You can tell who’s got kids by their reactions to the vomit.
           But the diversion doesn’t last very long, and people once again become aware of their smallness by way of their quiet compliance to the maze of unnecessary ropes, their suspension in slow and dreadful time.
           11:58. Absurdly, I have been here only five minutes. The possibility of another five unmans me. And so I’m glad this time to come back to Terry. But I’m sad to report that she’s not doing very well. I know this because she is mumbling something over and over again, something that sounds urgent and slightly hymnal, though no decoding on my part renders any part of it except “lord” meaningful. She realizes I am watching her and stops. I smile but she sees it for what it is.
           Most people expect bank things to just happen. But Terry and I—well, I’m not so sure about Terry anymore—but at least I know better. A development, any development, now would be as precious as pie, as they say.
           “Jorge’s taking care of things,” she says to say something. Her eyes are stern and fixed. They are eyes that wish everything, including the name Jorge, which she pronounces more like Hor-yay, were simpler. We stare. The rules are off now and we go straight to memorizing each other’s faces. Hers has deep lines of worry; long, thick lashes that an older woman probably has to work very hard at keeping; deep swatches of rouge streaked desperately along high, high cheekbones; a small nose with a swollen tip that undermines the highlighted angles of her cheeks; a nearly lipless mouth; starchy black hair as framing. All the features together seem designed to scowl and smile (reservedly, with the residue of the scowl making her mouth too tight for a real smile) and always look devout under a black, broad-brimmed hat angled just so for Sunday morning.
           How long we stared is open to speculation as short periods of time without words tend to be for me. The whole time I was memorizing I was also wondering how she saw me. To me it’s one of the great mysteries of living that you can never really figure out what you look like. I couldn’t describe myself in any evaluative way if Jorge came out here and threatened to put me on the Chase strappado I just know they have somewhere. As I said, in that time of mutual gazing, neither of us spoke, there being as far as I could see, so little need, incentive, or desire to do so. It was in this long moment of silence that I became almost comfortable for the first time. Screwed-up me, it’s the unsettling things like clumsy, strained silence that settle and the settling things like the idea that all things are always properly situated that disturb.
           “I’m sorry things are taking so long,” Terry says.
           “What could be wrong? I mean, this is a bit ridiculous, wouldn’t you say?”
            “I’m sorry, sir, I’m afraid I don’t know.”
            There is nowhere left for this to go. We can only repeat ourselves now. This is prison. This is hell. “This is ridiculous,” I ejaculate in a more profound rejection of tantrics. I’ve told you: I’m not cut out for holding off, back, in, or out.
           “I’m sorry, sir. The one’s OK. It’s just that one.” Terry’s voice goes flat and every movable feature of her face adjusts itself. Whatever this new face is, I can tell it’s closer to the real Theresa Brownwell than the stoic gig she’s been trying to play, albeit with a few breakdowns along the way.
           But closer to what exactly? What the hell is it, Terry? This new face with its lure of, I don’t know, I almost want to say heroic sadness, where did that come from? No, no. Strike that. I’m just woozy from the Muzak. The look in question is merely that of a stern moralist still caught up on issues like appropriate dress in a bank. Big deal, the look of half of Terry’s generation when it sees the likes of people like me.
           But Terry says it again a few seconds later, turning up her eyes. “Just that one, sir. Just the one wouldn’t go through,” forcing me to ask anew: What is she up to? The one… The one… The one… What is it about this one account that’s got her so wound up?
           It dawns on me, then blows in full. She thinks it’s because the account itself is depraved, because it’s my account and only my account and, therefore, a holder of degenerate funds. She thinks that’s why it’s not working. The one that went through, straight as an arrow, that one was mine and my wife’s. But this one, this one is being rejected because only my name appears on it. She believes God has personally audited my finances and found that this account is supporting God knows what—a mistress’s pampered luxury, two good months of smack and whores. My judgment has come in the form of uncooperative technology.
           My normal instinct would be to laugh, to prey on her fears by making her think she is right. But for some reason, I find that what Terry thinks matters to me. A lot. Under Terry’s sad eyes, I am a changed man, sensitive, full of worry about impressions, easily hurt. I don’t deserve such a harsh verdict, and I’ll tell her so. I’ll tell her it’s nothing, just some money I’ve saved, that’s all. I’ll set the record straight. I’ll vindicate myself. The truth will set me free.
           Before I muster a defense, which in my head already sounds weak and not at all liberating (much as the truth, in truth, so often does), Jorge comes out. I assume it’s Jorge. He’s young and probably swaggers a bit more than the situation will allow him to right now.
“It’s the whole system,” he announces. “It’s stuck. Stopped-up, you know, like a—” he stops himself, remembering where he is. It will not be appropriate, not in a bank. So he goes to that dry and empty form of speaking known as lingua banca, though his dialect suggests a recent stint in the airline industry. “I just want to notify you that the cause for the delay we’ve been having is a small problem having to do with our computer system. We’re looking into the problem and expect it to be resolved shortly. Thank you for your patience, and once again, we apologize for the delay.” Then, like all people bringing reassurance, he disappears.
           12:07. My brain is officially dead. Cause: what else? Fourteen minutes in a bank. Godspeed, Jorge. Godspeed.
           A tip on avoiding complete vegetation in situations like these: Go back to the last interesting thing that happened or idea you crossed. This recollection represents, duplicates in fact, the most recent quality engagement of your mind. Use it as a starter. Let it snowball. See where it goes. Let’s see: According to his own unfinished simile, Jorge is back there performing the technological equivalent of a bowel disimpaction. But knowing nothing beyond the rudimentary details about either financial technology networks or corrective proctology, I have no reasonable means of determining how long either procedure takes. Also, my visuals are sketchy, lacking the stereotyped force of Mr. Chase and his WASPy poker game. So I continue to absorb Terry’s judgment, even in the face of Jorge’s announcement, which, when I think about it, should have absolved me.
           But even when ineffectively executed, my trick works, because I find I no longer care if to Terry I’m someone proverbially wretched. My winning smile, the one I brought in with me, lights up my face without my consent. I don’t know howwwwwwwww you were inverted… Yes, it’s inverted.. I’m sure of it now.
           12:09. A miracle comes. Everything’s running. Terry smiles. The air no longer smells of fruity vomit. The tired customers look well again. Jorge swaggers out to gloat. New customers meet their tellers, and 12:09 feels early again, rather than feeling like the whole day has slipped by.
          “Good-bye, sir,” Terry says, finalizing my transaction with a receipt.
          “Please, call me Tom,” I say courteously. Do I really want her calling me Tom? A complex figure, this Theresa Brownwell, has me saying things I don’t mean.
          “I’m sorry, Tom,” she says, and God, didn’t it sound awful?
          “Yes,” I say and walk out in a hurry to get home. But I’m wondering: Did she apologize for calling me sir all along, for the wait, for judging me? Or was her apology more general, not an apology to me, but rather one for me, and for the sad state of affairs in the world I might represent to her, a sick place peopled with Blondie-clad husbands sneaking pelf into illicit accounts behind the tired backs of their virtuous wives who are at home painting, vacuuming, laundering all without suspicion. Just what did she mean by saying she was sorry? A complex, frustrating figure, this Theresa Brownwell, like… Nothing comes to me.
Banks rob people too, you know. It’s not always the other way around. Every single day, normal people walk into banks with things that are taken away from them. A flighty ambition, an idea for a story, melody, sexual stirrings that might be the key to reviving a marriage, a vivid memory, a sunny disposition—all of these things can be stolen by the deadness of banking. Just now, for instance, the bank’s robbed me, taken away the similes and metaphors I might otherwise be using to come at the problem of Theresa Brownwell.
           She’s well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand like a lizard on a window pane, sings Lennon Lennonishly, and for now that will have to be Theresa to my brain-dead brain. I won’t even try to go into it, because it could mean nothing or there could be a thousand threads of meaning all knotted up in there, like…forget it.
           12:14. Nearly home and with me in the car is that disoriented droop that can only be dispelled with a nap. It never ceases to amaze me just how much energy a trip to the bank, even a quick and routine one, withdraws from me. And after today’s trip? God, yes, a nap. That sounds like the single best idea I’ve ever come up with. Why not a nap? I’m certain Katherine’s finished the last wall, making there nothing to do around the house but watch paint dry (no metaphorical value because it’s literally true—in case you’re keeping track). A nap. I’m giddy with the thought of it. It’s been way too long since we napped, and you know what else, Kathy? This conclusion is not another attempt to justify that chronic streak of laziness you mentioned this morning when we were not ourselves—when we were all epithets and housework-inspired bitterness. In fact, the research backs me on this one. Naps are good. Naps are healthy. Naps are scientifically sound practice, like eating insoluble fiber, but also desirable, like eating chocolate-covered cherries. (Two OK food similes. I must be getting back to normal.) Plus, sleeping in the afternoon pisses off the right people. How many things are there in the world that do all that? And are you ready for the kicker? Ronald Reagan. The Gipper. Mr. Modern Conservatism himself was a well-known napper.
          Unfortunately, I don’t sleep as well as I persuade. Time passes and Katherine begins snoring a light feminine snore without my throatier accompaniment. I’m not sleeping because I’m asking myself, why have I held that account back from Katherine? I try some answers, but they have all the depth of a high-school kid slobbering on about Ayn Rand. Stupid little variations on the idea of holding on to my individuality. That’s it. That’s all. That’s what the whole damn thing of it comes to, a clinging to self, a sense of separateness.
But surely there must be something more. When I know for sure Katherine is sleeping, I start to tell her about Theresa and Jorge and the nauseous kid who so succinctly threw up for me. I am sitting up, attempting to make it all work by laying out the pieces on the editing board in my brain and trying to articulate them into place. But the details are streaked with light before I even get to the technological miscue. The rest just floats willy-nilly into that tiny frame of glistening, druggy awareness that comes in the moments before sleep. Everything’s there—the eyes, the guilt, the slowed-down time, the spoken hymn, the possible judgment—but it feels itself giving way to the marvelous inefficiency of dreams. Perhaps nothing, not one single affair works out in the way that bank lobbies or moralists or the hubris of sarcasm would have us believe.
          “You know you’re a very lazy man,” Katherine teases from a rupture in her sleep, catching the last seconds of my attention before drifting back into our stolen afternoon nap.
          I’m coming, Katherine; it’s all around me now, spreading arcs of light, swirling shadows like…trembling water…like…angels…soft sinking smell of fabric softener coming clean.

Copyright © 2014 Matthew Perini
Matthew PeriniMatthew Perini is the Director of Publishing for Silver Strong & Associates/Thoughtful Education Press. His nonfiction work has been published in numerous books, including The Core Six and Tools for Thoughtful Assessment, the latter winning a 2012 IPPY Award. His fiction and poetry have been published in the journals Logos and The Minetta Review.

A few years back, Matthew gave up writing fiction for all the wrong reasons: too busy, noticeably better cable-television programming, the aching self-doubt. He turned forty last year and decided to take another stab at short stories, including this one. He is thrilled to have Lingua Banca published by The Tower.

Matthew lives in New Jersey with his wife, Kristen, and his daughters Ella and Alison.
The Tower Journal
Spring/Summer 2014