It was my turn to feed the fat stack of yesterday’s checks, one at a time, through the endorsement machine. My arm rubbed against my chest, reminding me of the lump I carried in my right breast. I told myself it was the result of the repetitive motion of feeding thousands of checks into that machine. Even as I formed the thought, I knew it was ridiculous, so I decided to wait for the lump to go away as mysteriously as it had appeared. It did not.
Six of us stood in a row at our teller windows as the glass doors opened at 9:30 a.m. every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Nine a.m. on Saturdays. The bank was closed Wednesdays and Sundays.
We were all women: married, mostly with children, except for me. I was single and nineteen, with no children. Two men supervised us: a perpetually annoyed manager with a stiff gait and an expression to match, and his diffident assistant. They occupied glass-fronted offices that faced the teller line.
It was 1971, and mostly we tellers wore skirts, jumpers or dresses. We were allowed to wear pantsuits, but only if both pieces were of the same fabric and pattern. There were, however no rules for shoes, and I took full advantage of that. More than once, I noticed the manager staring at my brown leather heels laced with thick black ribbons, his jaw repeatedly clenching. I looked like I was going straight to an audition for a Judy Garland tribute after work, but my top and bottom matched, so he couldn’t say anything.
During the thirty minutes before the doors opened each morning, we requested and received from the bookkeeper any necessary cash to open our windows. We faced and placed those bills in our slotted cash drawers, the ones we had to lock each time we stepped away from our windows. We filled the old coin dispensers that made our hands smell like metal, changed our date stamps, and checked the paper in the spools on our adding machines.
If we finished early we spoke softly to each other, keeping an eye out for the manager, who frowned on teller conversations. The only thing he disliked more was a teller reading a book. I kept one in my purse at all times, for my breaks, and in case he went to a meeting at the downtown branch. Usually, I stared out the glass front wall, watching the group of senior citizens who lined up outside, even in the coldest weather. Perhaps they remembered a time when the banks ran out of money, and hoped to avoid that by being early. Saturdays it was a younger crowd, just starting their errands, fresh from coffee and donuts in the mall, their children not yet cranky and howling, as they would be when their sugar rush had passed.
The morning rush was barely over before we began to take our morning breaks: one at a time, ten minutes each; followed by our lunches: one at a time, thirty minutes each; followed by another round of ten minute breaks in the afternoon, except on Saturdays, when we closed early. It wouldn’t do to return late, as that delayed the next person’s leaving, resulting in a domino effect and the understandable wrath of one’s peers. So tellers rarely left the building; we simply trekked up the stairs to the stale-coffee-smelling, windowless break room, where we watched the minutes pass on the large institutional clock that served as the single wall ornament.
I was considered an oddity because I always read books, not magazines, during my breaks. I’d had bad luck with the classics in high school, so I might have chosen Salinger’s short stories, a Victoria Holt mystery, or Rod McKuen’s wildly popular Listen to the Warm. As the teller ahead of me cleaned up her lunch remains and watched me settle in, she shook her head. Her carefully sprayed brown hair, with its single yellow-white streak, did not move. “You’re always readin’ a different book,” she said. “Me, I can barely make it through the Reader’s Digest every month.” I shrugged. I was in awe of her work as head teller. She knew all the customers by name, counted money so fast it made me dizzy, and always, always her window balanced.
“Teller” comes from the French for “tally,” and so we did, at the end of every day. One Friday, my adding machine tape was especially thick by the time we closed at six. When I calculated all the columns on my 11x14 summary sheet, and compared the total to the amount of the cash in my drawer, they didn’t match. I was out of balance. It took more than an hour for the nervous, but patient, teller who sat next to me to read my transactions out loud while I checked them off on my adding machine tape. Meanwhile, the manager went home, the assistant paced in front of the teller line, the bookkeeper shot me dark looks, and the other tellers chatted with each other, and repeatedly asked how I was doing. When we finally found my error, I phoned the customer to whom I’d given less cash than he was due. I apologized profusely, and asked him to come in the next day to pick up the difference. He laughed and said, “That took long enough. I’ve been wondering when you’d call.” I went home exhausted and I dreaded the short, but busy, Saturday that would follow, and all the Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays after that.
One morning I headed for the manager’s office before the bank opened, but after I had set up my window. I clenched my damp fists as I stood in the doorway, and cleared my throat.
Without looking up, he said, “What is it?”
“I have to take some time off. I’m, um, having surgery.” I continued to stand in the doorway, as he had not invited me to sit down.
He frowned at his desk blotter, as though it had done something inappropriate.
“That’s bad timing,” he finally said, still without making eye contact. “Beginning of the quarter. Dividend time.”
He was referring to the fact that four times each year interest was posted automatically, whenever a customer made a transaction. But our big, new, and temperamental computers, which ran off power from the phone lines, often broke down during thunderstorms and at other random times. They were frightening to our older customers, who believed that if they did not come to the bank on the first day of the dividend period, and get their dark blue, faux leather passbooks updated, they would lose their interest. This invariably led to long lines at the teller windows.
“Yes, well, sorry, but I have to do this,” I said. As I returned to my window I said, under my breath, “I’m having a lump removed from my breast and it might be cancer. I’m sorry if the timing is inconvenient for you.”
Why was I working as a bank teller in the first place? How had all my friends ended up in college, and I had not? My grades in high school were all over the place, and none of my teachers ever talked to me about college. Nobody in my family had gone to college. It didn’t seem like something I could do. After a brief and failed attempt at a career in retail, I had begged the father of a high school friend to get me this bank job.
Even before the surgery, I had gotten tired of waiting. Waiting for the doors to open in the morning. Waiting for the lines of customers to form, or dissipate. Waiting for my morning break, my lunch break, my afternoon break. For the doors to close, my window to balance, the other tellers' windows to balance. For Wednesdays, when the bank was closed. For Saturday evenings, when I drank too much 3.2 beer and smoked pot if it was available, knowing I had all day Sunday to recover. I was afraid I’d get used to the waiting, afraid that this glass vault with its tone of edgy resignation would become my life.
Lounging on the eagle-print, slip covered, pullout sofa in our tiny living room, I recovered from surgery. While my parents were at work, I napped, watched Days of Our Lives, and studied the course catalog from Cleveland State University. Despite the wad of gauze and tape and the itchy stitches under my right arm, I felt lighter. I did not have cancer. I did have a plan.
Soon after returning to work, I once again stood in the manager’s doorway. “I’m giving my notice,” I said. “I’m going to college. Full-time.” Again, he didn’t make eye contact, nor did he invite me in. Again, he stared at his desk blotter with contempt.
“Don’t come back here asking for your job back if it doesn’t work out,” he finally said.
What had I expected? Congratulations? Good luck? Questions about my potential major? An offer to sit down and chat about it over coffee?
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It will work out.”
Back at my window, I reached into my purse for the contraband words I always carried. Perching on my tall stool, I disappeared into my book.
About the author:
Melissa Ballard studied fashion merchandising, worked retail, became a public school camp counselor and worked as a bank teller before attending college. She has since worked as a speech-language pathologist and a college instructor. Her personal essays have appeared in Brevity, Inside Higher Ed and other publications.