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The Tellers

by Stephen Dixon

T wo men come into the bank. One has long hair reaching his shoulders and is carrying a shopping bag. The other has a big beard like a lumberjack and a coat on that practically touches the floor. Both of them I’ve never seen before, and in this town you get to recognize almost everyone after a while. We have no guard. To reduce payroll costs the bank had a television system installed—three cameras with signs all around saying the cameras are linked up to a private protection service, though two are dummies. The dummies focus on the manager’s office and the anteroom and on the steps leading to the downstairs vault and time lock safe. The live camera focuses on the main floor and two teller booths, and I hope the person monitoring the screen now is keeping a close eye on these two men.

I knock on the glass separating the two booths. Jane, the other teller, waves for me to hold it a minute till she finishes counting a stack of fives. The bearded man is writing on one of the bank slips at the customer’s desk. The other man sits on a bench near the door reading a book. I knock on the glass much harder. “What?” Jane says angrily without my hearing her. Because the booths are totally enclosed with bulletproof glass, Jane and I communicate by exaggerating our lips, face and hand movements without making any sounds.

“You recognize those two men?” I say.

“No.”

“Don’t they look suspicious to you?”

“No,” and she wraps a rubber band around the fives and puts the stack in the drawer.

The bearded man is finished writing. The other man turns a page of his book and then flips back to it as if to reread the bottom lines. There are no other customer on the main floor. Past the low gate to my left is the anteroom where Pati and Darlene, our two secretaries, work. Past them is the office of our manager, who’s talking with a woman I’ve only seen in the bank once.

The bearded man is standing before my window. Jane’s busy counting out tens. He points to a withdrawal slip and passbook. The book’s one of ours, so I don’t know what’s been going on in my head about these two men. Maybe I’d recognize him without his beard, or else wasn’t around the time he opened his account. I unhook the disc over the speaker’s hole and say through the screen “May I help you, sir?”

“How much can I withdraw from my savings account?”

“As much as you got in it.”

“Well this is my bankbook and a withdrawal check for ten thousand.”

I switch the revolving tray to his side of the window. “May I see them, please?”

“You’ll see them all right—of course you will. But not yet. But you see my friend reading by the door?”

“You came in with him.”

“That’s right. We’re good friends—very close. But my problem is I haven’t the ten thousand in my savings I made the check out for.”

“Then it’s something you’d want to be talking about with the bank manager, Mr. Bayer.”

“Mr. Bayer. Good idea. But one more thing. I don’t want you to look alarmed. But I have two grenades in my pockets. So I want you to do exactly as I say without showing any emotion, or they go off.”

“I thought so. But don’t worry. I’ll do like you say. But maybe you more than me can get hurt, as this booth’s built to take the concussion of a bomb.”

“Your foot’s not near the alarm, is it?”

“No.”

“Well you’re right—I could get hurt. But those office girls will get hurt much worse than you and me put together if the grenades go, and the manager and lady with him too. You see, I’m willing to take the chance. That’s because I’m involved with this absolutely insane political group that needs money fast to buy arms. I’m telling you all this so you’ll nod and smile back at me. That’s right. No, don’t overdo it. Fine. Now the only way to get arms is by stealing or buying them. And we’ve decided, after weighing the risks of both thefts, that there’s more chance of getting caught and killed in robbing a guarded armory or police station than a small bank patrolled by television sets. So continue to look natural. Step back two steps. And in the order I now give you, tell the girl next door not to look alarmed at what you’re going to tell her, to step back two steps, and that the bearded man here and the long-hair at the door are well-armed and robbing this bank.”

I knock on the glass. Jane, counting twenties, says “What?”

In our silent language I start telling her what the man told me to say.

“Don’t mess about,” he says. The other man stands and stretches. “Speak so I can hear.”

“But she can’t hear me from in there. Even my loud knocks sound like taps to her. For her to hear me her speaker hole would have to be open and I’d have to yell out my lungs through mine.”

Jane knocks on the glass and says “What do you mean don’t get alarmed?”

“Joe,” the bearded man says.

Joe walks behind the main floor camera, pulls a bench under it, stands on the bench and unsticks a strip of masking tape from his jacket lining and sticks it over the lens. He jumps down, locks the front door, lets down the Venetian blinds on the window and door and takes out a grenade and pistol from the shopping bag. Pati and Darlene are still typing. Mr. Bayer reaches over his desk to the woman, who has pushed her chair back and clasped both hands over her mouth. The bearded man tells Jane and I to raise our arms high and Jane to step back two steps. Joe tells Pati and Darlene to can their typing. He opens the office door and orders Mr. Bayer and the woman out and everybody to the middle of the main room.

“Should we get on the floor on our bellies?” Pati says.

“Yes,” Joe says, sliding the bench away. “Everyone on the floor on their bellies.”

They all get on the floor. The woman is crying hysterically, but stops when Joe tells her to shut up. The bearded man climbs over the gate, goes left along the corridor to my door and not finding a knob on it tries pushing it in. I yell to him that I can’t open the door without first getting a tick-back from the manager’s office.

“What?” he says.

“A tick-back, a tick-back.”

Jane is trying to explain to him also. He tries to push in her door.

“Give them everything, Gus and Jane,” Mr. Bayer yells from the floor. “For all our sakes—don’t be reckless.”

I point to the place where in regular doors the knob would be, then to the manager’s office. I curl up my left second finger and press my right second finger into the knuckle as I’m pressing a buzzer.

The bearded man takes a grenade out of his pocket, sticks a second finger through the pin ring and makes jerking movements with his arms to show he’s ready to pull the pin.

“Come around,” I say, waving him to go around to my window so he can hear me. Joe, keeping his gun pointed at the people on the floor, comes up to my window and says “What’s with this stupid tick-back?”

I motion the man at my door to stay there and I’ll tell Joe what’s wrong.

“What we do when we want out is buzz Mr. Bayer’s office,” I tell Joe. “Then he ticks back, which electronically releases the door lock. They’re on the top right of his desk—top one mine and one below that Jane’s.”

Joe waves to his friend that everything’s all right. He tells the people on the floor to stay put or a live grenade will be rolling their way. He runs to the office and ticks back both our booths. The doors open. The bearded man pulls out two folded shopping bags from his coat and empties my till into one of the bags. Jane comes into the booth and drops the twenties she’s been holding into the other bag. He empties both counter drawers of all bills and express checks, tells us to stand in the corridor with our arms raised and goes into Jane’s booth. He empties her till and drawers and comes out and takes my wallet and tells us to go round to the front with him and get on the floor with the others. Jane and I lie on the floor next to one another.

“The phone wire,” Joe says. He hands the bearded man his grenade, pulls a pair of cutters from his back pocket and runs into the anteroom and manager’s office.

The bearded man listens to Mr. Bayer explain why it’s impossible for anyone to open the time-lock safe without blowing it up. Someone knocks on the door. The bearded man looks through a slit in the window blinds and opens the door. Mr. Heim, a grocer, walks in and says to the bearded man, “How come they closed?”

“On the floor on your face with the others,” he says and locks the door. Mr. Heim gets down like the rest of us. Jane says in our silent language “I don’t see how they expect to get away with this. They’re taking too long.”

“Just hope they get caught outside and not in,” I say.

“Remember that book which said if a bank isn’t robbed within two minutes, the robbers mostly get caught before they leave. That figure was more than nine cases in ten.”

“The one with the beard said it’s a political cause they’re doing it for.”

“Political? What’s he ever mean?”

“Now be smart and listen to me, folks,” the bearded man says. “I’ve fixed one of the teller alarms with an explosive. So if the alarm’s set off, the whole bank goes up. We also have a third man who’ll be guarding outside after we’re gone, so nobody gets up, nobody leave. After five minutes he takes off and then you can do what you please.”

They tuck some rags into the tops of the shopping bag and leave the bank and lock the door with Mr. Bayer’s keys.

“What do we do now, Mr. Bayer?” I say.

“Breathe.”

“With a bomb ready to go off in one of the teller booths?” Pati says.

“That was just a con story so we wouldn’t set it off,” I say, “I was watching the bearded guy filling the shopping bags, and he definitely didn’t wire any explosive to the alarms.”

Fixed is what he said he did,” Pati says.

“Fixed, wired or anything.”

“Oh you know all about bombs now?” Jane says.

“You saw him. All he did was empty our drawers and tills.”

“You still couldn’t get me to ring it no matter what you say,” Pati say. “And nobody else should either.”

“Absolutely,” Mr. Bayer says.

The woman customer resumes her hysterical crying.

“Will you please stop that, Miss Fields?” Mr. Bayer says.

She begins weeping quietly.

“This ever happen here before?” Darlene says.

“Never,” Mr. Bayer says.

“And what about that great protection service you got rid of the guard for, and their calling the police? Some protection. I bet the one who watches the screen is drunk. Or so dumb he thought we turned the camera off.”

“They know there we can’t turn it off,” Mr. Bayer says.

“Then he thought our electricity went. But something.”

“I think it’d be safe getting up now,” I say. “After all, there really can’t be any third man outside. And if I checked out the alarms and found nothing wrong with them—”

“You stay away from them,” Jane says.

“She’s right, Gus,” Mr. Bayer says. “Let’s play it safe and believe everything those men said.”

“Listen to your boss,” Mr. Heim says.

“But he didn’t have time to fix either alarm. I’m telling you. I was standing next to him or watching him from the hall all the time he was in Jane’s booth, and he never got near enough to reach the buttons or wires. Now you know I wouldn’t be kidding you on that matter.”

“Old Hawkeye Gus,” Pati says. “Never misses a thing. Okay, so you didn’t see him touch it. But I’m still not getting up.”

“The police could probably catch the men if we rang it,” Darlene says.

“Are you crazy?” Pati says.

“Nobody gets up or steps on any alarms,” Mr. Bayer says. “Now that’s an order.”

“Good,” Jane says.

“Does anyone know how many minutes we’ve been lying here?” Mr. Heim says.

“Not five,” Mr. Bayer says.

“What I’d like to know is how many minutes those men were in here,” Jane says.

“Ten I’d say,” Mr. Bayer says.

“More like fifteen,” Pati says. “Where do they get the nerve? Not the nerve like it’s something wrong they did, which goes without saying. But the physical nerve. Fifteen minutes. By all rightful means more than one person should have been wanting to get in the bank in that time.”

“Someone else did knock,” Mr. Bayer says. “A couple of minutes after Mr. Heim.”

“I didn’t hear it,” Pati says.

“I did,” Darlene says.

“I was on my way to make a safe deposit,” Mr. Heim says. “Lucky they didn’t take it off me.”

“They got my wallet,” I say.

“Mine too,” Mr. Bayer says. “And my car and home and bank keys.”

“My wallet was sitting right on the door shelf,” Jane says, “And he didn’t touch it. I have more than fifty dollars in it too. I was going to buy a coat after work.”

“He didn’t get any of Darlene’s or my money either,” Pati says.

“I’m getting awfully tired in this position,” Mr. Heim says.

“Imagine how we feel,” Pati says. “We’ve been lying like this five minutes more than you.”

“But my stomach’s too big to lie on so long. I’m getting up.”

“Please wait the full five minutes,” Mr. Bayer says. “Otherwise you’ll be jeopardizing the lives of us all.”

“I’ll turn over then.” He turns over.

“Why didn’t I think of that?” Pati says. She turns over. So does Darlene, Miss Fields and Jane and I. Mr. Bayer stays on his stomach. The door opens.

“Oh my God,” Darlene says.

“We’ve decided to take a hostage,” the bearded man says. “An idea we suddenly got, just so we can get out of the area if we’re trapped. You,” he says to Mr. Bayer.

“Too much of a squeeze with him,” Joe says. “Take one of the girls.”

“Not the weepy one,” he says. “She’ll drive me crazy with those tears.”

“All women weep. Take the teller. He’s thin enough and he really used his head before.”

“Up you go, teller. Everybody else turn over the way we told you. And no stepping on the alarms or the bank goes. No getting up for another five minutes or our third friend barges in. No even turning over on your backs again. And when the police come, tell them who we got and not to follow us because your teller here—what’s your name?”

“Gus Millis.”

“Millis gets killed if they force us into a chase.”

“I’ll tell them your words,” Mr. Bayer says.

We left. Joe locks the door. We get in a sports car in front of the bank. Mr. Bayer never would have fit. The bearded man sits behind the wheel, Joe in the other bucket seat. I sit between them, my shoulders and thighs touching theirs and the hand brake between my legs.

“Comfortable?” Joe says to me.

“I’ll manage.”

“Take more of my seat. I still have some room at the door.”

We drive out of town, onto the connecting road that leads to the turnpike. Past the junior and high schools I graduated from, the cemetery my parents are buried in, the beer and burger place I’ve met so many girls at. The bearded man never drives more than five miles over the posted speed limit. A police car is heading towards us in the next lane and Joe tells me “Look natural. Turn your head to me now and when he passes us say ‘How is the weather, Joe?’ ”

I turn to him and say “How is the weather, Joe?” as the police car passes. Through the rearview mirror I see the car continue down the road and out of sight. We get on the turnpike on-ramp going South.

“Where we going?” I say.

“A ways,” Joe says. “Don’t worry.”

“You really going to do something to me if the police give chase?”

“How do we answer that?” Joe says.

“My answer to him is don’t try and find out,” the bearded man says.

“I won’t be any trouble. I’ll in fact do everything you want me to to help you escape. And if it does all go right for you, could you later give my wallet back?”

“You’ll get it,” Joe says. He has a mirror in his lap and is snipping off large chunks of hair with some scissors.

“You don’t want to use the wire cutters?” the bearded man says.

“You use them,” Joe says.

“And Mr. Bayer’s wallet and keys? They’re very important to him and the bank.”

“Look what he’s worried about,” Joe says.

“You don’t remember those days?” the bearded man says. “Yes sir, no sir, always sucking up to the boss. You’re going to go far in the bank business, Gus. Very.”

“I only thought,” I say. “It’s not important.”

“You don’t have to tell us.”

“And that alarm system. You didn’t really fix it with an explosive.”

“Oh yes I did.”

“But you couldn’t have. I told them it wasn’t.”

“Now what the hell you do that for?”

“Because I was watching you in both booths. You never had the time. All you were doing was shoving money in the bags.”

“I bent, dumbo. For what do you think—to tie my shoes? I had a gum hold. A miniature E-Z-4. But why am I talking to you like you know what I’m saying? But in the girl’s booth. Right after I cleaned out her bottom tray. All I had to do was stick it to the wires and the moment the alarm’s touched and vibes start, the bank blows.”

“Paul became an expert in explosives in the service,” Joe says, still cutting his hair.

“That’ll be enough,” Paul says.

“I didn’t say which service. Not even which country.”

“You’ve said more than enough.”

“His name’s not Paul,” Joe says, throwing his hair out the window. “It doesn’t even start with a P.”

“All right, Joe. And you, Gus. Let’s hope they all know you for the big blowhard you are and my warning sunk in.”

“I’m sure they do. I’m sure it did.” I pray it did. And that Mr. Bayer’s inborn cautious nature and last order about nobody touching the alarms had swayed the group. The police would find the explosive and know what to do with it after that.

We leave the turnpike twenty miles after we got on it and park behind a new station wagon on a deserted road. Joe, his hair crewcut short, finishes shaving the back of his neck with a dry safety razor and says to me “How do I look? No really, Gus, how do I?” He gives the razor, scissors and mirror to the man he called Paul. He dumps the shopping bags of money into a valise and sticks the valise into the rear of the wagon where there are boxes of food and beer and ten-gallon cans of gas. We get in the wagon, Joe at the wheel, me in the middle again, and drive north on the turnpike past the same places we passed some minutes ago. Paul begins cutting his hair.

“You think we cleared ten thousand?” Joe asks me.

“More like twelve.”

“Twelve? What about trying for fourteen, twenty-four, even four hundred thou?”

“No, twelve. There were no big withdrawals or deposits today. And Jane and I usually have about six thousand apiece.”


The radio still hasn’t mentioned the robbery. Joe says it’s because the police don’t want to tip us off as to how much they know or don’t know. Paul shaved his face clean and now trims his hair. They both look completely different, maybe ten years younger. They’re also now wearing conservative sports jackets and white shirts and clip-on-ties, though they didn’t change their soiled blue jeans.

I awake during the night. Paul’s at the wheel. The radio’s still on. “There it is,” Joe says, turning the volume up when the newscaster leads off the headlines of his report with the explosion-bank robbery in my town.

“Oh no,” I say.

“Shhh.” We stay silent through a minute of commercials before the newscaster returns with the details. Two people were killed, four hurt, one seriously. That’s all of them. Twelve thousand stolen, a bank hostage taken, the entire first floor of the bank destroyed. The robbers got away in a red sports car hardtop, no license plate reported and were last seen driving south. They carried shopping bags. My name is given. The robbers are described. The long-haired man was referred to as Joe. The bearded man was called Hank and Frank. His name on the withdrawal check and bankbook was a profanity and apparently a fake. A third might be involved. All are considered highly dangerous sand heavily armed. Then another commercial and the next story about the war.

“Twelve thousand,” Paul says, whistling. “You hit it on the nose, Gus.”

I start crying.

“Look, I don’t feel too good about it either. But I warned you about the alarm. You should listen when someone warns you on something like that.”

“Maybe it wasn’t your friends who got hurt,” Joe says. “Maybe it was two police or army men from a defusing squad. It was that complicated a little device.”

“No, it was my friends.”

“There you go again,” Paul says. “Always so sure of yourself. You saw the trouble it got you in before.”

Around midnight we reach a national forest reserve. We keep on its narrow rising road a mile till it ends at a twenty-foot high snowdrift where the plows must have stopped. We park, keep the motor running, have sandwiches and beer. Joe climbs over the seat to get my wallet out of the valise. Paul runs the radio up and down the band till he picks up the one clear station. A news report comes on. The victims were Jane and the woman customer. I’ve known Jane since we were kids. We went to school together, both elementary and high. Her age is given as 22, though she’s three years older than that. The seriously injured person is Darlene. Darlene is a roomer in the same rooming house as mine. We dated regular for a few weeks till a month ago when Mr. Bayer got wind of it through an anonymous letter and told us to stop dating or lose our jobs. He was afraid the bank would lose its contract with the agency that bonded us. The newscaster gives my correct age and says federal and state officers are now convinced an accomplice in another car took part in the theft.

“Which ones were Jane Stight and Anna Fields?” Paul says. I tell him and he says “Pity about the teller girl. She seemed like a nice sweet thing and showed lots of courage. The woman with the tears though I think the world’s better off without.”

“I feel bad about them both,” I say.

“Hear, hear,” Joe says.

“Of course. So do I. That was an insensitive remark I made about Miss Fields.”

“Well, we got to be leaving you,” Joe says, handing me my wallet, a blanket, sandwiches and beer. “There’s a hiker’s lean-to left past that pine tree. Curl up in the corner of it and you’ll survive the night. Then tomorrow early, follow the tracks back to the logging road and go any direction on it and you’ll find civilization by the end of the day. Oh yeah,” and he gives me Mr. Bayer’s wallet and keys.

“Won’t be needing them as I’m not going back. There’s nothing for me there now but a worn-out car, beat-up clothes, and a good chance of a negligence or accessory to murder charge that’ll land me in jail for years. I’m going to change my name, grow a mustache and settle somewhere else. Another kind of job shouldn’t be too hard to come by, so long as the hirer doesn’t know the damage I caused.”

“You’ll feel different about it in the morning,” Joe says, and they drive off.

But my feeling hasn’t changed when I wake up. Back home, if I did get off without being arrested, I’d still always be afraid of running into Jane’s family or that woman’s, if she has one. And most of all, Darlene’s violent, alcoholic folks, if she dies. The people there would never let me forget the part I played in destroying the town’s only bank and ending those lives. I’d never be able to find a job or get back any of the respect or just plain indifference they once showed me. I’d be known as a fool and murderer for the rest of my life.

I start downhill. At the logging road I go in the opposite direction of where my town lies. After a few hours of walking without seeing anyone, I hear a car approaching from behind. I stick out my thumb. It’s a new foreign model, long as a limousine. Inside are Joe and Paul.

“We need your help bad,” Joe says.

“Our political movement turned out to be as corruptible as the government we were supposed to overthrow and replace. They were serious enough about buying and using the arms before we robbed the bank. But once they saw the cash, all they could talk about were the cars and dope they were going to buy, the trips and movies they were going to make. They wanted to split it halvsies with us, but it wasn’t for their pleasures we’d snitched it for. We tried some associate cells in other cities, but it was the same ride three times around. So, no place to go. Stuck with a wad we’ve no use for. We’re now going to try and avoid a stiff prison rap and possible death trap by turning the money and ourselves in, exposing the hypocrisy and whereabouts of the various groups, and making sure the police know there never would have been any explosion or deaths if you hadn’t told your co-workers to ignore our warnings about the alarm. Hop in.”

“I already told you: I can’t go back.”

They chase me down the road, run out and drag me into the car. Except for gas stops, we make it straight through to my town. My legs and arms bound, they carry me up the police stairs and turn the money and car keys and themselves and me in.

That same day, with the information and addresses Joe and Paul give, many of their organization’s headquarters and cells are raided. The Attorney General calls it the most successful roundup of political terrorists in the nation’s history. He says an attempted armed revolution has been averted that could have cost the country hundreds of lives and millions in property damage. The press and government leaders hail Joe and Paul as reformed anarchists. All charges against them are dismissed.

I’m booked on two charges of manslaughter. But federal officials persuade the state to drop its case against me as it doesn’t want to embarrass the country and its new nationally-acclaimed patriots—unpunished kidnappers, who would have to be two of the main witnesses against me.

I’m released and go to my rooming house for the night. A note from my landlady is on my bed. “I expected this’d be the first place you’d come running to, which is why I’m staying the night safe with armed friends. Poor Darlene will live, no thanks to you. Though her doctors told me personally she’ll be pitiably scarred in the face and mind for life. Your past living here has brought this house sufficient disgrace. Please be gone tomorrow no later than the regular check-out hour—11 A. M.”

Next morning I drive through town to the road that leads to the turnpike, the same road I was on with Joe and Paul four days ago. After a mile I get bogged down behind a funeral procession. There are hundreds of cars, all with their lights on it seems and driving very slowly, some with black crepe and cloth tied around their fenders and aerials. Jane, besides being extremely well-liked, once brought fame to our town by winning the state’s beauty contest and almost the country’s—in front of network television cameras she strutted and sang and came in third.

The opposite lane looks clear all the way to the end of the procession. I get into it and drive past the creeping cars and limousines. Just as I pass the flower cars and the hearse, I see a state trooper standing in the middle of the two-lane road signaling me down. I stop. The hearse catches up with my car and makes a left between the trooper and me to enter the cemetery. The flower cars follow and then the lead limousine. Inside are Jane’s parents, worn from weeping and shaking their heads sympathetically at me as their car crosses the road and passes through the cemetery gates. Jane’s brothers are in the next limousine, enraged, all four of them at the windows shaking their fists at me. And then the rest of the limousines and private cars filled with relatives, neighbors, friends, teachers, bank customers, civic and state officials, people who did business with her dad, young men and women we both went to school with, the man she was going to marry next month, Pati, Mr. Bayer, Mr. Heim, my landlady sitting between Darlene’s bawling parents, most either shaking their fists or umbrellas or sticking their fingers up or screaming behind windows or opening the windows and spitting on my car hood or in the direction of my car and yelling obscenities at me and my future children and grandchildren and the memory of my folks who are buried inside. I close my windows and press down all the locks. Finally the last cars pass—people I don’t know and who don’t recognize me. Then the state trooper turns sideways and waves me on.

 

Stephen Dixon has had fiction in Harpers, Atlantic Monthly, The American Review, The Antioch Review and Seneca Review, among others. He is represented in the new Lattitude Press Anthology called Making a Break. The book is available from Serendipity Books (1790 Shattuck, Berkely, Calif. 94709). (Spring 1975)


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