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An excerpt from
Play Money
a short story

by Elizabeth Sims
©Elizabeth Sims 2004

       I couldn't believe they used real money in class. I'd expected to get trained on play money—not the kind for children but adult play money, near-real money with the basic markings that's regulation-size in order to fit into the cash drawers properly. Plastic coins I expected too. Again, near-real, but still fake.
       But there we were, a dozen brand-new teller trainees, up to our elbows in the real thing, 10,000 dollars of it. The trainer, a bored veteran of the Human Resource Development department, had counted it out before our eyes. This was the job for me, finally. I believe that was the bank's first mistake.
       Moreover, though, I thought I'd forgotten how to flirt. Lord, it'd been years, my prime sliding away from me like a wad of bacon grease across a hot skillet. But I hadn't forgotten. No, I sure hadn't.
       I'd been unable to take my eyes off of Giselle Brigsby from the minute she set her sleek little butt down in the chair kitty-corner from mine. Unlike the rest of the class, women who were dressed as if for hooker tryouts, Giselle wore black slacks that just missed the category of "jean styling" (forbidden), a black turtleneck, and this spring-green leather belt that slithered around her hips like a friendly cobra. The shoes? Well-worn Doc Martens, black of course.
       She was a dewy little baby dyke whose attempts at looking and acting tough made my the tips of my toes ache. And on top of it all, her parents had had the miraculous sense to name her Giselle. Alva Johnson, the trainer, butchered it: "Jizzayel? Brigsby?"
       "President," answered Giselle, little smart-mouth.
       At break I staggered to the washroom and sat whispering, "Giselle. Giselle." On leaving, I avoided my eyes in the mirror, my accusing eyes that, had I met them, would have asked, "Who in God's name do you think you are? You've got fifteen years on her at least. Your tits sag and your bangs are crooked."
       Yeah, but I had a new job, one I wasn't going to blow, a job that could lead to something. My self-esteem was at a high level.
       So next break, lunchtime, Giselle happened to be right ahead of me going into the cafeteria, holding the door open, and I happened to place my warm, loving hand over hers for a moment. My lips are full and sensuous, and I sort of swirled a smile right into her startled face as I went by.
       From then on I noticed her noticing me. She brought her tray to my table, where I and three other trainees got to know her a little bit, mostly because I asked her questions about herself. The other trainees would just as soon have discussed their hair and Survivor XIX. Giselle had gone to community college for one and a half semesters, then dropped out. She lived with her mother, who worked as salad lady at Sven's Family Place but was angling for hostess because her hands were starting to react to the lettuce. They rented an apartment in The Pines, a downtrodden place next to the railroad switching yard where the price was right but the incessant ringing of the crossing gates tended to turn brother against brother. Giselle's mom was thinking of going on disability if she didn't score hostess.
       I was dismayed to learn that Giselle hadn't had more advantages in life, but deep down I exulted: the more leverage for me.
       "I would so love to get out of that craphole," Giselle told our table.
       Then she did an astonishing thing. She went over to the vending machine, bought a package of Famous Amoses, opened it, and placed it in the middle of the table for everyone to share. "These basically suck," she said, "but oh well." A generous girl. A girl who wanted to be liked, all the while pretending otherwise.
       I knew what it was to want to be liked while pretending not to. That was pretty much my life. I'd pretended not to want to be liked so expertly for so long that most people took me literally and simply didn't like me.
       They had a whole fake training branch set up in Main Office. It had counters and teller windows and panic buttons and everything, plus a lecture-seating area. In the morning we'd learned to handle cash, to double-count and stack and band. We'd learned to align the presidents' heads with the right-hand edge of the cash slots, and so much more. Riffling through wads of the bank's cash felt luxurious and surreal. All this jack right in your hands: a down payment for a PT Cruiser, a winter in Orlando, a complete Pro Logic Surround Sound system. The means to all of it right in your hands, only it's not yours.
       After lunch we practiced basic transactions like cash deposits and check cashing. Not until tomorrow would we be taught the complexities of third-party checks, inter-account transfers, and utility payments.
       I saw it; I saw her do it.
       It was the end of the day, and Giselle and I were working at windows side by side, and Alva Johnson had just told us to turn in our drawers when I saw Giselle's hand slipping from her drawer to her front pocket, and in it was a bill. She licked her lips. Just as she glanced toward me I looked away. A thrill ran through me. This kid's got guts.
       Who knew that the day's routine would end with Alva Johnson consolidating all our cash drawers and counting the money again while we watched? She counted it once, looked up, pressed her mouth tight, then counted it again.
       She sighed heavily and said, "A twenty-dollar bill is missin'."
       No one spoke.
       "Everyone remain seated." She pulled her chair from behind her table to sit facing us squarely. "Whoever has the twenty, bring it to me."
       Silence. From my side-view seat I watched Giselle run her tongue over her teeth. I could see her trying to decide whether to be amused or scared.
       "Class, this is disappointin'," said Alva. "We all have to wait here until whoever has the twenty comes forward."
       My classmates, except Giselle, shifted and groaned. We sat in silence for about six years, then I had a sudden thought. My wallet was in my coat pocket, which was hanging on the back of my chair. I made a loud, real-sounding sneeze, then fumbled in my coat pocket as if for a Kleenex. A minute later I bent down to look under my chair. "Oh, what's this!" I cried, holding up a twenty. "What the heck!"
       Giselle's head snapped around, and she gazed at me in complete awe.
       Alva, narrow-eyed, took the twenty. "Everybody waits until I check the serial number."
       We went back to sitting. Eventually the people spoke out.
       "I have now missed three buses."
       "My baby-sitter leaves at 5:30, and I mean 5:30."
       "Come on! Which idiot took the money!"
       Alva shouted, "Don't shout!"
       "You don't have the right to keep us here!"
       "I most certainly do."
       After ten more years of silence, Giselle rose and casually walked over to Alva. All eyes followed.
       She plucked the bill from her pocket and held it up for all to see. The class as one heaved a sigh. Alva said, "Put it on the table."
       "I won't do it again," said Giselle.
       "You're damn right you won't," said Alva. "We'll do your termination paperwork now. Everybody else, you can go."
       I couldn't believe they fired her. What if she'd had a good reason? Alva didn't even ask.
       I passed the training and went to work in branch oh-five, at Connelly Avenue and Third. It was an old branch, designed in pre-computer days, with cramped teller stations and a massive vault straight out of Marvel Comics. Also an endless wall of safe-deposit boxes. Banks are getting out of the safe-deposit business, I was told by the branch manager, Joe Cool Boss. His name was Joseph Kulbosi, but he tried to get his subordinates to call him Joe Cool Boss. I couldn't do it, and started using "Mr. K," which he decided was all right.
       "Safe-deposit is labor-intensive," he said. I understood: I'd been trained to escort a customer to the boxes, do the horseshit with my key and the customer's key, then escort the customer and their box into the privacy cubicle. If I were a customer, I wouldn't be happy with the privacy cubicle; the walls were barely chest-high. If you wanted real privacy, you'd have to pitch a tent inside it.
       I got to know the other tellers, a sensible bunch of women plus one guy, who hosted a monthly potluck at his apartment. His name was Clarence, and by night he was a drag queen, a pretty good one, I guess. He and the head teller, Penny, were best friends, swapping makeup secrets and low-fat recipes on breaks.
       I quickly got to know and despise the regular customers. The women who would come in to make cash deposits, drawing crumpled bills from their cleavages, the money damp and hot. The crabby old-timers who distrusted ATMs or who just liked to check in on their money every week.
       The most morbidly fascinating of them was Nasty Patsy, a stooped witch with BO who would slap down an endorsed check with two hands and say, looking down her nose, "You owe me. You owe me 173 dollars." As if we'd been withholding money that was rightfully hers and only now had she deigned to jump through the hoop we had so hatefully imposed on her. She'd stand there with her arms folded, stern and angry, until you finished counting the money out. If you went too fast, she'd yelp, "I can't follow you! Start over slow this time."
       Nasty Patsy had a checking account, but she only kept the minimum in it so as to have the privilege of renting a safe-deposit box. It was a big one, and according to Penny and Clarence, who had both peeked over the wall of the privacy cubicle while Patsy and her box were occupying it, that was where she kept her bundles of money as well as an eye-boggling stash of jewelry. She came in every Monday morning to visit her money and jewels. Penny and Clarence said that every month or so she changed small bills for a hundred and added that in.
       To help the tellers deal with difficult customers, Penny and Clarence had worked up an official sheet with important information on it. Each piece of information was numbered. When you were dealing with a real asshole, you'd say "Excuse me for just a second" and leave your window. You'd go over to the next window—where the teller was well aware of what you were going through—and ask that teller for, let's say, Form Sixteen. That teller would pull out the information sheet and read number sixteen, which said, "This customer got blown out of Hitler's ass a long time ago."
       That teller would have to keep from laughing and say quietly, "No, I don't have Form Sixteen."
       And there would be this moment of relief and solidarity, and you would gather enough strength to return to your window and finish the transaction.
       Exciting though my new job was, it wasn't enough to make me forget Giselle. There was only one Brigsby in the phone book. Giselle sounded flattered to hear from me. "So you made it through the training," she said. "Amazing."
       I told her about my job at branch oh-five.
       "And just think," she said, "that could be me, working over there at branch oh-five."
       "Well, I just wanted to say, you were screwed."
       I don't know why she laughed just then.
       "Everybody in the whole class thought so," I insisted.
       "Well," Giselle said, "the beat goes on." I could hear her trying to hide her hurt.
       "Well," I said, "what are you doing now?"
       "Watching Lucy on TV Land."
       "Yeah? Well, I thought maybe we could get a cup of coffee or something."
       I picked her up from her and her mother's apartment and took her over to the Clock.
       "Are you hungry?" I asked as we settled into our booth.
       That got a smile. "I'm always hungry." Dear girl.
       Watching her put away a bacon cheeseburger, a whole order of fries, and a Coke, I fell more solidly in love with her than ever. The girl could eat. "Aren't you having anything?" she asked.
       I was too thrilled to eat. "Coffee's fine for me."
       We fell to talking about the main thing we had in common, our day of teller training.
       "So did you plan it from the beginning or what?" I wanted to know.
       Giselle, it turned out, had been thinking all the same things I had about all that money we were handling. "You know," she said, "you're standing there with this tiny pack of twenties and it's a thousand dollars."
       "What would you do with a thousand dollars?"
       "Oh," with a crooked little smile, "I can think of a lot of things."
       We expressed anger at the bank.
       "The sons of bitches," I said, "with all that money. Paying us shit. Firing somebody for a lousy twenty bucks."
       "And I didn't even do it." Giselle wiped up ketchup with a fry.
       "What do you mean?"
       "Well, I mean, I didn't leave the building with it, did I? I never took that money off the premises."
       My God, she was right. "You never even stole that money and yet they fire you. I could just take Alva Johnson by the neck and make her eat dog shit. I'd like to do that, I would."
       Giselle sipped her Coke. She gathered up her hair, a crazy cloud of chestnut tresses, then let it fall. "Well, you know, she's just a puppet."
       "She's as innocent as you and me. What choice does she have if she wants to put shoes on her kids' feet?"
       "You mean—"
       "I mean, there are forces out there that are beyond you and me and fucking Alva Johnson. I mean, we're all a bunch of dupes. All that money in the bank? Where do you think that money goes? To the people who need it? Right. Take a look around you. Take a look at America, Red!"
       My name, since I haven't mentioned it, is Red. My hair on my head is reddish. On my arms it's blond.
       Giselle went on, "How long do you think it's gonna last before it all comes crashing down of its own weight?"
       I'd fallen in love with a prophet.
       I said, "I have some marijuana at my place."
       And that was the beginning.

[End of excerpt. For the rest of the story, get Best Lesbian Love Stories 2004, edited by Angela Brown, published by Alyson Books]

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