Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
I had left the Colonel and his kitchen behind for good
and was detoxing as a movie theater usher in the last
of my senior year of high school, but fifteen to
twenty hours a week couldn’t hold me for long
when I was used to forty and overtime during the school
year. I don’t know what I would have done if my
father—who had just lost the only job I had ever
known him to have at Camp Aldersgate for reasons
I never understood—wasn’t scouring the job market
himself and knew a Rotary Club friend who was trying
to hook him up with a job at Worthen Bank & Trust
in a security guard position, the only thing a former
camp director and State Social Worker of the Year
seemed qualified for at the moment. But I was different.
A high school whiz kid invited to take the IBM
programmer’s test at eighteen, the friend’s
department at the bank, Data Processing, wanted
to get in early on that so an interview was arranged,
but it was just a formality until I started answering
the drug questions on the test honestly—“Had I used
marijuana?” “Yes.” “Speed?” “Yes.” “Barbituates?”
“Yes.” “Cocaine?” “No.” “Heroin?” “No.”—
he told me he wouldn’t tell my father, that this was
confidential, but he wanted to know if I was using now,
and I could answer, “No,” that I stopped when I quit
working for the Colonel three months before,
and he said we would start over, that I should answer
only what I was doing now, and in the future I should act
as if my past was that of another person, a person
I didn’t know anymore. So I got the job, a salary man
for the first time in my life, pulling down $625 a week,
with benefits, working the 11 to 7 shift five days a week,
two weeks of paid vacation a year, and I liked it well enough,
would leave the bank at 7 a.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays,
grab a sausage biscuit or something else I could eat on my way
to Parkview High School for my Zero Hour class at 7:15
and after my school day ended at 2:30 I would try to sleep
until evening when I’d get up about 9 p.m. and have breakfast,
start all over again turning my days into night or vice versa.
I held onto one shift on the weekends at the movie theater,
just in case, except on end of the months because they said
those could get crazy, and in my first month, January 1981,
I found out when the computers kept overheating and we
worked 32 hours straight—whomever began the closeout
needing to finish it for the integrity of the process.
At least it was a weekend and I didn’t have school
to worry about, though we never talked about what
I’d do on a school day if trouble happened.
The impromptu trashcan full-contact basketball games
outside the elevators were fun, and it was cool to have
our supervisor buy us breakfast, lunch, and dinner,
keeping us in snacks and sodas, though if I hadn’t
been around I think they might have split a six-pack
or two. Still, after that, I knew I hated computers
by the end of it, would never build my life around those
capricious machines, and after being the good employee
for February, I tendered my resignation March 1.
They were a little put out, but had to accept my bullshit about
needing to focus on school, and they asked if I would closeout
the month and train a replacement, and I thought that was fair.
Their choice was Mark, a twenty-five-year-old former
high school whiz kid from Sherwood over in North Little Rock,
who had been with the bank for seven years, a nice enough fellow
who was saving as much as he could to marry his high school
sweetheart, start a family as soon as they could—she was
a good Christian girl saving herself and this promotion would
speed everything up. I had never thought I was making more
than many of the men I worked with, an all-male shop at night
where I heard complaints about car payments and mortgages.
I waited for the moment each weekday morning
when the women arrived in sensible shoes carrying their heels
and wearing perfume that smelled like heaven must smell.
I was responsible for some little banks up in Northwest Arkansas
who bought time on Worthen’s computers to run their day-to-day
business, but my main responsibility was the bank’s own
checking accounts. The man who trained me called it
“decollating” for some reason, and as I collated
the reams of computer printouts each night, I made sure
the numbers from one set matched the other. If they didn’t,
I had to stop everything and make them run the numbers
over and over until everything matched and the bank
could pretend everything was in balance until the next night.
It was likely I had to stop things every third or fourth night,
and the men in the shop hated me, not just because I was a punk
kid making as much or more than most of them, but because
when I did my job it meant they had to stop, sit around, and wait.
Mark was moving over from microfiche, ready to trade
developing fluid for paper cuts. I thought he was learning okay,
so I took the only day of vacation I was due on the last Thursday
I would work and went to see a lecture by Edward Albee
at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. It was amazing.
He talked about art as a condition of life, a person only had to
find the proper medium, and he told a story about being
at the writers’ colony Yaddo as a young man, a frustrated novelist
unable to write anything so he went for a walk and he came upon
the playwright Thornton Wilder skipping stones into a lake
and told him about his problem. Wilder said, “Have you tried
writing plays?” The light came on for him right then.
That Friday night, I showed up to see my father’s friend,
our department head in our supervisor’s office along with two
serious-looking men and Mark. Mark didn’t look good. I was called in,
and before I could sit down, my supervisor said, “Last night you two
lost $38,000,000 dollars!” I wasn’t prepared for that and blurted out,
“I don’t have it.” At least I caught myself before I added,
Do you think I would be here if I did? Still, they weren’t amused.
They explained to me that last night Mark had allowed the computers
to finish their work when one of the printouts read $4.2 million
and the other read $42 million. Unfortunately, the $4.2 million
was the operating balance so the bank had opened that day
with only that amount of available funds. Every check written
and cashed that day once the bank passed the $4.2 million
the computers thought the bank had available bounced,
resulting in around $50,000 in overdraft fees the bank
would have to pay itself. I stayed silent, but I didn’t see
what the real problem was. After a little more haranguing,
they sent us back to work. The end of the month was only
a few days away, and they wouldn’t try to train anyone else
on that short notice. Mark was a wreck all night, took bathroom
breaks more than I’d ever seen, and when our shift ended
he took the elevator down with me and some of the other guys.
Everyone seemed to know about the mistake, ribbed us about
what we were going to do with all that money, and when they cleared out,
Mark asked me f I wanted to hang out, get high to unwind,
and though I had quit smoking a few months before, I couldn’t think then
of a reason to say No. We both needed this. We walked past my Civic
to his muscle car, a black Trans Am like in Smokey and the Bandit.
Mark must have rolled the joint earlier in the bathroom, the reason
for all those breaks, and he pulled out of the underground garage,
handed the joint to me when we got clear of the security cameras.
I lit up, took a long toke, then handed him the joint. The pot
wasn’t much better than ditchweed, but the acrid flavor
tasted right for the occasion. As the smoke and our words
filled the car, Mark told me about the beautiful life
he had planned with a beautiful house in Pleasant Valley,
with his beautiful wife. He showed me a picture and she was.
The music came on AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” and we pulled onto
the Arkansas River Bridge blasting that song, a pink and gray sunrise
still blazing across the sky, for a little while everything adding up.
Copyright 2017 Jon Tribble