I’ve always wondered if long fingernails were a prerequisite to work in a bank. Of course when I was younger, there was only one bank, rightly referred to as the “The Bank”. The same bank, presumably, that everyone I knew and didn’t know visited as often as my parents. Maybe not as often as my father, who loved not just the tellers but the very fact that he knew them on a first name basis. He used to ask and field questions concerning house renovations. He used to swap compliments regarding a holiday sweater or a haircut. I remember once he breached the customer-teller code when he asked Diana if she thought mollusks could really be relied on as an aphrodisiac. Noting but not heeding the caution in her eyes, my dad persisted—more out of awkward discomfort than ignorance—by telling of a memorable evening involving a bucket of clams, a view of the San Fernando Valley, and an embarrassing slip of his hand. Both blushed and never mentioned it again.
These women provided fodder for the community’s conversations. Marriages, pregnancies, sick days, promotions, suitors, etc. But no one ever mentioned the endless chaos of keyboard-patter these women generated. Were they asked to continue hitting buttons just to simulate work? Were they forced to? What data could they possibly be recording? It wasn’t until later that I realized this tapping was not frantic at all, but instead, delicate and even hypnotizing. I remember seeing people’s eyes fixated on their displays of dexterity. These women could hold, even spearhead, a fully-fledged conversation while maintaining a Protestant work pace. Amazing. I dreamt of these women walking tightropes while posing for a photo. Or fending off beggars with one hand while feeding them with the other. A Sister Karen Ann unafraid to use force. A circus-sprung Belinda Carlisle.
But this was not a sad and small middle-America town. In fact it wasn’t sad at all. At least not to its residents. Gurnee, Illinois. About an hour north of Chicago, yes, but more importantly, we were within an hour, in some other direction, from Six Flags Great America—allegedly America’s “Original Amusement Park”. We had to cross the state line to get there, but distance, being no rival to our fervor, was forgotten. In such an isolated (or, in some circles, self-sufficient) community, it only requires the nods of a few townsfolk to extend the city’s borders. Great America became ours with ease. The only person who didn’t noticeably share in the enthusiasm was my father. Which was one of his many civic transgressions.
His stories about Genghis Khan’s more-merciless red-haired stepbrother; his claim that Gettysburg was not only a battle of exaggerated importance, but possibly not a battle at all; his diatribes about America’s malignant obsession with jogging: these never fared well with the uncomplicated conduct of the neighborhood. He subscribed to Smithsonian and random conspiracies; naturally, he felt it his duty to inform those around him of these discoveries, regardless of their absurdity, or of others’ religious or political convictions. He never meant to correct, only to alter. But adults don’t generally like to be altered. And despite my mother’s endless efforts to renovate my dad’s social shortcomings, he continued. Not all of his mistakes had serious repercussions or posed any real threat to anybody’s security. Most of it was harmless. Just generally unsettling. Like the time he mentioned the similarities between his and the Pope’s prostate problems over dinner with some neighbors. No response. Everyone just kept on eating their Cordon Bleu.
“America may never have made it to the moon, you know,” he said on another occasion. The usual silence followed. But Ms. Marple, who lived in the yellow house across the cul-de-sac, decided to voice her disagreement. You could tell she was furious, but she handled it like any decent neighbor would. She mentioned some of the astronauts’ names, where she was at the time (watching TV and waiting for news of the landing), and a subtle, almost apolitical reference to the Space Wars with the Russians. Someone snickered the word “Sputnik” at the table and the conversation just sort of dropped off, quietly transitioning into a discussion about the newest anchor on Channel 7.
My mother loved these dinner parties. She reveled in the thought of friends and business-related acquaintances (“anyone you’d invite to your own wedding,” she explained) gathering over a carefully fashioned spread. All she needed was one compliment about the ladle she’d just bought at the antique store for fulfillment. My mother loved to host parties, but what she really wanted was to become a food stylist. She used to practice her dollop techniques with a carton of Cool Whip and a porcelain slice of what appeared to be pumpkin pie.
“No dollop is a bad dollop.” This was, unfortunately, my mother’s mantra. Whenever she let the Cool Whip twirl off the spoon, letting it coil into a “delicate mountain,” she was beside herself with delight. And of course, my father had some things to say about this. It may have been, or at least should have been, insecurity. How could a condiment satisfy my mother more than his endless supply of hodgepodge trivia? To think that he’d invested so much into uncovering the many mysteries surrounding Christopher Marlowe’s love life. To think he’d put so much faith into the suspicion that New Hampshire wasn’t even a state until the Union, having added Hawaii and Alaska in the middle of the century, needed to reach a round number like 50 (“Well, we couldn’t sustain international authority being divided into 49 sections, now could we?”). These valiant efforts weren’t meant to incite a rebellion; they were the best challenges—to his melancholy, to misinformation, to what he saw as the sickness of surrendering—that he’d come up with.
Regardless of how my father’s contributions were received at home, they were always welcomed at the bank. Not that his perennial visits provided him with the assurance he couldn’t find at home—it’s not that kind of story—but it served as a testing ground. And not so strangely, this field, unlike the classroom of 14-year-olds he conducted by day, was powerfully slanted in his favor. I wasn’t really old enough to fully understand my father’s motives, but I don’t think he ever considered himself a customer. We used to “visit” the bank, as if our stop-ins were gestures of kindness and nothing else. The money transactions were just petty ruses, equally arranged by both parties, to provide a few minutes of guiltless banter.
One day my father and I dropped by the bank a few minutes before closing. Much to his delight, the bank was empty of customers, and Brenda, one of his favorites, greeted us immediately with what appeared to be sincerity, “Well, my goodness, is it good to see you two!” Granted we, well my father, brought a bit of life into a workday fraught with procedure and protocol, but it seemed silly to be treated like envoys sent to provide protection for the endangered. And like most children I suppose, I couldn’t even begin to grasp that my father could be more valuable to semi-strangers than to my mother and I. I also couldn’t believe they enjoyed our company more than we theirs.
Brenda started talking about a trip to Orlando her and her new boyfriend were planning on taking around the Fourth of July. She read from the Disneyworld pamphlet she’d received in the mail the night before, “A magical land where fantasy overcomes reality is not where you want to spend one night, but a whole lifetime. Isn’t that wonderful?” My dad looked at the floor, probably thinking of a response. And all the while, Brenda kept working, rearranging items on her desk, punching numbers into a calculator, stamping documents, and straightening her dress. Her excitement for the trip was muffled by, or channeled through, her sense of duty. Not that her commitment was overly heroic or anything; she just made it pleasing to the senses.
As the conversation morphed into an expose of the “state-induced poverty in the Florida’s Panhandle, which is just a short bus ride from Orlando,” Brenda followed attentively, and I followed her. She absorbed everything, asking for clarification and offering insights while directing phone calls to the proper extension. She complimented my father’s brainpower, asking me if I’d gotten some of it. I would have answered, but I was too busy imagining her as a messenger of a world where the same person who paints pictures of Illinois’ landscapes manages checking accounts for a living.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
lives in New York where he works in community development.