This story is by William McCauley and won an honorable mention in our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
William was an English teacher and Gifted/Talented specialist before retiring in 2015. In 2013 he published Guardian Angel, his first middle-grade novel. “Pearl’s Bucks” was inspired by his high-school and college job as a drive-up bank teller. He lives near Baltimore, MD, with his partner and two somewhat crazy dogs.
When Pearl Diamond walked up to the soda fountain at Shelby’s for her Friday afternoon chicken-salad sandwich and iced tea, she stopped dead. The friendly smiles she expected from the citizens of Pleasantburg had gone missing. Instead, eyes turned toward her and quickly looked away, faces reddened, and Pearl faltered as she slid onto her usual stool. She checked her make-up and hair in the mirror.
Finally she spoke. “So who died?”
Silence. The waitress brought her tea.
“Pearl, we’re so sorry,” she said.
Pearl sipped her tea. “For what?”
Steve Jacobs shuffled from one foot to the other. He knew someone who knew someone on the bank’s board of directors, and he turned to Pearl.
“Pearl, the board voted to replace the drive-up teller window with one of them ATM gizmos. We’re like the last bank in the entire country with a drive-up.”
Air whistled out of Pearl like a pricked balloon. Now she understood why the president had asked her to return for the evening shift twenty minutes early for a chat. Chat, hell … more like a hatchet job!
But like the patient coming to after surgery, Pearl shook her head and laughed. Clearly a mistake. Surely a misunderstanding.
“Oh, that’s just a rumor! Probably that new whippersnapper on the board, bringing in his new-fangled notions … they can’t do away with the drive-up …” Her voice trailed off when she saw them all staring at her as though they were about to witness her public execution.
“Pearl, hon, Steve heard that it was Snodgrass himself who fought for it—and what Snodgrass wants, Snodgrass gets.”
Yeah, thought Pearl, like Lola.
After thirty-three years, they would betray her? Her bones ached, and she didn’t always want to make the trek to work, but her customers depended on her to take care of their finances. How could a machine replace her? Who cared that cross-country drivers who strayed from the interstate and landed in the middle of Pleasantburg pointed, laughed, and whipped out their phones to take pictures of the drive-up? That just reflected their own loss of the personal touch, their own acceptance of mechanization. It could not happen in Pleasantburg.
After the death knell had receded, the other patrons turned away to let Pearl munch her chicken-salad in peace. They quietly discussed the impending change, and she caught comments about “24-7 service,” “convenience,” “speed,” “accuracy.” This was too much. Not only had Snodgrass decided to do away with her, but he had also brainwashed the townspeople. Like innocent lambs being led to slaughter, they were not to blame. Snodgrass had transgressed, and she would have to deal very firmly with him.
The people of Pleasantburg had long cultivated a love-hate relationship with Pearl. She was the outsider, from over 50 miles away, and she had invaded their town to marry Jackson Diamond, the town’s favorite son and up-and-coming salesman at the Duennmacher Girdle Company. Jackson pushed for starting a family, but Pearl had just started at the Pleasantburg Bank and wanted to establish her career more solidly first. Twenty-two years into a childless marriage, Jackson and Pearl lived together as strangers, sharing little more than an address. Jackson’s business trips grew longer, and he returned from them ever more refreshed while Pearl struck up a friendship with the mayor. Townspeople stared and whispered, but no one said an untoward word. This was the woman who handled their money and knew their business.
One August, Jackson came home from his third business trip of the month, happier and more regenerated than ever. His smug elation disgusted Pearl, so she scrunched down behind a magazine. While shopping downtown the next week, she ran into Godfrey Simmons, owner of Duenmacher.
“Pearl, my dear, you look lovely! The picture of class!”
Pearl beamed. “Well, Mr. Simmons, I try. But you sure are working my Jackson pretty hard.”
“Best damned salesman in the company! Now he’s had enough deskwork. Hasn’t been on the road for months. We’ll be sending him out again soon. Tell him to gear up!”
“Indeed,” said Pearl, hearing her disembodied voice. “He does his best work on the road.”
The news struck Pearl dumb. The extramarital affairs and trysts she could accept as she had for years. But his sloppiness! This careless man was not a person she could live with.
Jackson Diamond died two weeks later. The coroner demanded an investigation. What healthy fifty-four-year-old man just dies in his sleep? Pearl consulted with the mayor behind closed doors, and the case was closed.
Pearl prided herself on her prowess in closed-door meetings.
Back at the bank, Mr. Baker, president of the Pleasantburg Bank, never quite looked at Pearl. When she explained the importance of the drive-up window, his smile made her feel like he was patting her on the head.
“But Mr. Baker, the drive-up window has been around since the bank was built.” (pat, pat) “It gives the customers a sense of the personal.” (pat) “Keeping the window would show the town that the bank’s management is strong.” (pat, pat, pat!)
But the patting stopped.
“Pearl, Mr. Snodgrass wants an ATM. We can’t fight progress. You know we don’t want to lose you, but we have to keep up. But, hey, we’re getting a new coin-rolling machine. It’s a dilly! You just hold the roller tube under the spout and it fills it with the exact number of coins. You could learn to handle it!”
Pearl stood up. “Thank you, Mr. Baker, but I have no interest in learning how to handle your dilly! Now if you’ll pardon me, I have customers waiting.”
Pearl cursed as she maneuvered down the creaking spiral staircase into the privacy of her drive-up teller booth. A dinosaur, slated for extinction, she surveyed her domain of thirty-three years—a square cubicle. A square hole in a round world. She looked at the tortuous stairs connecting her realm to the main building through an enclosed bridge. She fingered the flaking chrome buttons that gave her total control—microphone, drawer movement, alarm system. Pearl’s customers had christened her little domain “Pearl’s Bucks.” Pearl had obliviously laughed along with the customers until the high-school English teacher asked if she liked The Good Earth.
Idiotic question, Pearl thought. “Well, Sylvia, you know that I do my best every year to tend my little garden plot. Tomatoes, sunflowers …”
Sylvia cackled. “Pearl, honey, The Good Earth is one of Pearl S. Buck’s novels.”
Pearl had stammered and switched off the microphone, wildly gesticulating that the system had failed. That evening she purchased two copies of the novel, one for her coffee table and one for prominent display in her teller window. The spines of both books remained unbroken.
Pearl snapped up the shade to invite the world in. She watched the wind swirl leaves and debris across the parking lot, and her lips curled into a grin.
Long-time customers commented on the impending change. “It’s a goddam shame, Pearl, to replace you with a goddam machine. So, when are they installing it?” Pearl smiled to show that she harbored no ill will against the steady march of progress.
But harbor she did. If they put her out to pasture, she would not go gently. Her cubicle was a world that she alone knew. The pane of glass that separated her from her customers looked harmless, but she now suspected that all of the good will that passed through that barrier went in one direction. The bank was not only taking away her purpose, but it was also depriving her customers, her subjects, of her kindness, her wit, her sage advice. The bank owed her more. Snodgrass, who had spearheaded the destruction of her world, owed her plenty more. But she knew what customers visited every Friday evening, and she was prepared.
Customers came, customers went. Pearl served them well, all the time waiting. Her hands flew, operating the old-fashioned adding machine and counting through bills with bombastic speed. But today it was all mechanical—her mind was elsewhere. She leaned forward alertly when she detected the front end of a battleship of a car coming through.
Mr. Snodgrass glowered at her and reached his scrawny arm out of the battleship to toss his weekend check into the drawer. “Cash,” he growled.
“And how are we today, Mr. Snodgrass?”
Mr. Snodgrass glared.
“Five hundred dollars, Mr. Snodgrass? How would you like that?”
“Yes, sir.” Pearl noted that no one was behind Snodgrass, and her eye again caught leaves buffeted by a strong wind. She quickly counted out $500.00 in fifties and hundreds, slid them into an envelope, and deftly placed an empty envelope near the outside edge of the drawer. “There you go, Mr. Snodgrass. Have a pleasant weekend.”
She then pressed the button to extend the drawer halfway out.
Mr. Snodgrass snapped, “Push it all the way out! I can’t reach it.!”
“Oh dear, Mr. Snodgrass, it seems to be jammed. Perhaps if you could stretch a little more.”
“Jeezoflips!” intoned Mr. Snodgrass as he stretched his bony arm to the breaking point.
“Perhaps if you opened your car door …”
Mr. Snodgrass shoved the door open with muted curses. No go.
“Perhaps if you unfastened your seat belt …”
Mr. Snodgrass snapped the belt off and gave a mighty heave of a reach. Just before his fingers made contact with the envelope, Pearl deftly pressed the button to retract the drawer. With a shriek, Mr. Snodgrass tumbled out of the car and crashed to the pavement.
“Holy shit!” he squeaked from the ground, out of Pearl’s sight.
“Oh dear, Mr. Snodgrass, are you hurt? Do you still have your envelope?”
“Bitch! Of course I don’t have the goddam envelope. The wind took it!”
Pearl smiled. “Really, Mr. Snodgrass. Remain civil. Maybe it’s under the car. Push your car door closed so you can see better.”
The car door clanged shut amid muttered oaths and veiled threats.
“What’s that, Mr. Snodgrass? I can’t hear you. Do stand up.”
“Cripes!” shouted Mr. Snodgrass. He started to rise, and Pearl’s practiced finger sent the drawer out with precision timing. Mr. Snodgrass’s bald pate collided with the bottom of the metal drawer with a tremendous crash and he crumpled to the ground in a silent heap of bones.
“Damn!” Pearl muttered as she inspected a chipped nail.
“Mr. Snodgrass?” she called delicately. “Oh, Mr. Snodgrass?”
Then she picked up the phone and dialed bank security, being careful not to chip another nail. “Smitty, ‘zat you? Pearl here. Oh, Smitty, come quick, something terrible’s happened. A customer fell out of his car and crashed against the metal frame of the window. Oh, it’s an awful thing! Blood, Smitty! Blood! I can’t see him, but he doesn’t answer! Call 9-1-1!”
By the time Smitty arrived and an ambulance had been summoned, Pearl was studiously dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “Lordy, lordy, how could such a thing happen? And all his money gone with the wind!”
“Yeah?” Smitty said, glancing over toward the bushes and fence surrounding the bank.
“Gone, Smitty,” she snapped. “I watched the bills sail clear out of sight.”
Bank officials tried to comfort her as Mr. Snodgrass was loaded into the ambulance. His arm drooped down from under the sheet, and Pearl stared at the bloody stain near his head. She quickly clapped her hand over her mouth to hide her emotion. The ambulance rushed off, and it was back to business. An hour later bank officials solemnly informed Pearl that Mr. Snodgrass had departed this life without regaining consciousness.
Pearl had earned her little bonus for the day. She removed the bills from the envelope and stuffed them into her cleavage. Lovingly she fondled the buttons and knobs, the sources of her power. Then she heard a car engine approach, and she adjusted her hair, reapplied a smile to her face, settled back in her throne, and prepared to entertain her next subject in this, her dying domain.