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The Bank Teller’s Game

Called by Library Journal “one of the most important writers working today,” Michael Brodsky is very much a writer for an idealized tomorrow. He was born in the Bronx in 1951, and lives in the seclusion nearest to Manhattan, namely … Read More

By / April 1, 2008

Called by Library Journal “one of the most important writers working today,” Michael Brodsky is very much a writer for an idealized tomorrow.

He was born in the Bronx in 1951, and lives in the seclusion nearest to Manhattan, namely Roosevelt Island. Brodsky once attended medical school, which might explain his clinical syntax, and dropped out, which does explain the parody — the schadenfreude, and possible self-reference, of this story’s “symptom m.” He’s also shadowed his share of detectives, following pulp fiction down alleys and through library stacks. The cartoon writer Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), an unlikely fanboy, has piled on the adjectives, calling Brodsky: “sensitive, original, and insightful.”

Brodsky’s books include: We Can Report Them, Southernmost and Other Stories, Three Goat Songs, Dyad, X in Paris, XMAN, Circuits, Project, Wedding Feast and Two Novellas, and Detour. He is also the translator of Samuel Beckett’s play Eleutheria.

The last line of Three Goat Songs can be applied to its author: “At last somebody was scratching the surface of the unchanging underlying, the underlying unchanging, that eventless substratum of substrata immune to a telling.”

“The Bank Teller’s Game” is from a newly published collection of stories, Limit Point (Six Gallery Press, 2007).

—Joshua Cohen, Fiction Editor

Bank tellers are notoriously susceptible to bad press. And yet my intermittent experience with at least one member of the species tells a completely different story. Or does it?

It was one of those drizzly New York days when even the pigeons feel entitled to play at perversity — shuffling interminably in place before they deign to step aside for the dank and discouraged passerby. But once the sky had managed to fight its way out of the wind tunnel of cloud epicentered slightly to the left of the Chrysler Building, every sunpatch — along the asphalt, up and down beech boles, on tenement walls — was immediately in its assigned place and neat as a pin.

I had to make a deposit to cover the cost of some books sorely needed to get me through another month or two of paid, and non-paid, drudgery: out-of-print thrillers of the one-poor-slob-against-the-whole-goddamned-world variety by the likes of Fredric Brown, David Goodis and Margaret Millar, and ordered for the very first time with the help of the Internet.

Back at her “window” after a long absence, my teller immediately revealed that she suffered from systemic lupus erythematosus (“I’m so sorry to hear that.” “Thanks.”) and had been under observation in a decidedly unfancy clinic not far from her home out on the south fork of Long Island. Though I was trying to give her troubles my full attention, it got diverted — by the untidy prospect of a sequence of such encounters stretching beyond the crack of doom, with each encounter’s expression of concern (since I had this dangerous tendency of always wishing to outdo myself) striving oppressively to be vastly more impassioned than the one that came before. So if I set a precedent right off the bat… Still, for all my misgivings, I didn’t give the slightest sign that I had my eye on the fire exit.

Then, with a virtuoso but-enough-about-me shift in inflection she asked if I’d had a good weekend. Deadpan but genial, I said, Tolerable: I’m not big on weekends, to which she deadpanned back, Okay, only she managed to draw out the syllables like taffy in order to demonstrate, or so it suddenly seemed, just how much exquisite forbearance she was capable of mustering even at a moment’s notice in the face of an outrageous come-on although, as far as I knew, there hadn’t been one. But she, in order to make her retreat eminently plausible, evidently needed to believe that there had. So she’d treated my last non-move as a bona fide gambit in the game of seduction even if there was no such game going on for miles around. But maybe the despair I peddled was its own kind of come-on and she was right to have nipped it in the bud. Or maybe she was one of those “gals” I was always reading about (though never in Brown et al.) who had absolutely no desire to understand by plunging into their own and everybody else’s depths but in fact wanted nothing more than to straightforwardly qualify as plausible players in the game not merely of seduction but of life itself which meant, first of all, drastically restricting their range of action and response for only the tiniest number of moves could be bona fide moves in that game — the player must prove deaf to all but the tiniest number of tones producible on selfhood’s keyboard, and those necessarily of the blandest, inasmuch as what they lost in plangency they undoubtedly gained in… but only a player like her (if in fact she was a player) could tell me what it was exactly that they did gain. In any event, it was suddenly clear all that business about weekends’ not being my cup of tea had to have sounded pretty game-dystonic to my little teller, whatever she might turn out to be.

Though why her lupus lamentations should constitute permissible moves in the game but not my squeaks over the weekend’s mortal tedium was, and would probably always be, beyond me. Outraged, I wanted to walk right out and find myself another teller, another bank. But, game or no game, something dragged me back (I hadn’t budged an inch) once she started talking about the disease in greater — in much greater — detail. What stood out was one particularly painful incident involving her healer, as she called him. What did I do, she’d cried out in his beachfront office, to deserve such a fate with all its horrible side effects? A rhetorical question, granted, if ever there was one, but all he could find it in his heart to answer was: You certainly didn’t do anything to deserve symptom m.

She waited to see if I’d gotten it. Did I get it? — the fact that from a vast panoply the sonofabitch had elected to single out only one symptom as being definitely undeserved, thereby permitting all the others to go on simmering in the juice of her mysterious and ineradicable culpability, and that, reading between the lines, said symptom’s — m’s — being undeserved might be due far more to its triviality than to its virulence. In any event, as far as he was concerned the symptoms, trivial or virulent, existed merely to help finetune the doubletalk that was the core of his stance as accredited healer. By plying him with so daunting a question and letting him prove he could parry it, she’d enabled him to take yet another giant step forward, professionally speaking. The lupus reduced to a mere artifact of his advancement: it was as simple and as tragic as that.

Her blubbery tears were the signal to flee — my wont all down the dark and dirty years that had elapsed solely to issue in this ugly moment — for I was afraid of becoming blubberily indistinguishable from the teller in the eyes of obtuse and unfeeling gawkers (coworkers, customers, middle-managers, company spies). Envious of my expertise in simulating compassion for the plight of somebody I barely knew, they must be panting to make me a laughingstock first chance they got. But, oddly enough, faster than I could flee something drew me toward that looming indistinguishability for it promised an enrichment far greater than any accruing shame. The very urge to pull away signaled the imminence of unpleasant self-discovery which must be flushed at all cost from its lair. I held my breath. I shared completely her take on healers — more than shared it: I extended it to include all of humanity — but hated her for reminding me of the exile it terrifyingly entailed. There. I’d extracted my jackpot from our encounter, and a whopping good jackpot it was, too.

Yet I couldn’t help detecting the reproach in her gaze for what must be my unsightly flush of bank-breaking triumph. Doubtless it made her realize she was no different from all the other tellers who had, with similar selflessness, midwived me into a millisecond’s worth of blinding insight.

I was about to annihilate the reproach, the gaze, the ill-used gazer, but stopped myself and instead I paid heed. For the gaze was saying:

To play the game or rescue her from its poverty, I had to overcome here and now what I knew to be my most virulent symptom and the one, doubtless, that most incapacitated me for participation of any kind — namely, this need to hoot all things off the stage of life before they were even on it and thereby annex their corpses as jackpots, as phantom limbs. (Needless to say, I ranked first among hooteds since from the day I was born I’d been trying without success to get the dirty business of being myself over and done with in order to move on to bigger and better.)

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