Ruth Foxworthy rolled the window of her army green 1977 Toyota F-10 station wagon all the way down in an effort to dispel the noxious fumes which the faulty exhaust had allowed to accumulate within the passenger compartment all around her. The fresher exterior air seemed to fall into the car from the sullen sodden expanse of grey overhead. As the signal changed, she mechanically maneuvered her vehicle to the right side of the avenue, and then turned right into the automatic teller lane of her bank. She had been contemplating the futility of withdrawing one hundred and sixty of the one hundred and sixty two dollars and twenty-three cents remaining in her checking account. The machine dealt only in multiples of twenty, so sparing herself the humiliation of gleaning it all face to face with a teller would cost two dollars and twenty-three cents. In her mind’s eye, she placed the extent of her net worth on the left side of a ledger, and fearfully followed the paper’s grid to the right side, to a column where the grid changed from black to red, upon which was piled an Everest of accounts past due. Craning her neck back, looking up to the very top of the heap, she saw a document with a heading in stark, bold relief, which proclaimed ‘mortgage.’
"Mortgage" she thought ruefully, "they sure got that right. Pay ‘til your dead."
Beneath this was a wad of uncovered medical expenses.
"The bitch of it is, my back is still killing me" she breathed tightly.
Under these was her 1040 U.S. Individual Income Tax Return.
"The bastards are taxing me on alimony I’ve never even seen."
The stack of payables continued down, becoming disordered toward the bottom, more a mass of torn envelopes with registered postmarks, and half-crumpled computer-generated pages which all began, ‘It has come to our attention’, or, more succinctly, ‘final notice’. One had the familiar blue and gold of the Visa logo. One was from Gottchalk’s. One, poking out from the bottom, looking slightly out of place with its early American folk art border motif, was from Days of Wonder Childcare.
"What a bunch of crap" thought Ruth. "They’re actually charging me for the privilege of being with my son." Her thoughts softened slightly as they fell upon the brightest face in the universe. The near-incessant grin of the seven-year-old displaced the mound of debt for a moment, as a wave of warmth radiated from the center of her heart. The dark eyes peered seriously from the handsome little face which had fully embraced the responsibility of becoming head of household and chief protector. Ruth’s inward smile faded as the little boy’s square jaw dissolved into the stainless steel drawer of the A.T.M.
"P.I.N. and Enter" demanded the machine.
Ruth punched the numbers in and sighed.
"Transaction in English or Spanish?"
She absent-mindedly pressed the Spanish button, then canceled the transaction and started over.
"Enter amount of withdrawal in multiples of twenty. One hundred sixty. If this is correct, enter Yes."
Pressing ‘Yes’ Ruth settled back to allow the robot to whir through its gyrations of verification and information processing in response to her request. Glancing across the street she watched a policeman who was balancing a cup of coffee, break into a kind of charge at his patrol car. Following the action, she had to laugh out loud at the moxie of a little street terrier who was marking the rear hubcap into his domain. The dog easily escaped the cop’s advance, and now the cop was brushing coffee off the thighs of his crisp navy slacks.
"Retrieve cash from cash drawer" the machine commanded. Ruth pushed the door open and reached for her last withdrawal. A quizzical expression hovered on her face for an instant as she considered the thickness of the stack of bills in her grip. Rapidly counting out forty twenties, her eyes widened as she totaled eight hundred dollars. Her first thought was that she must have somehow fouled up her checkbook balance again. Then it dawned on her that this transaction just might contain a bank error in her favor. Her perplexity, however, was interrupted by the little robot to her left.
"Would you like a receipt?"
"Shit no!" Ruth gasped, thinking this would conceal the machine’s miscalculations to her account. She pushed ‘no.’
The machine whirred and clicked again, and again displayed the message, ‘Retrieve cash from cash drawer’. She reached out and again pushed the door open, and to her amazement, another stack of bills was waiting inside. Now she was almost positive that the error was not in her accounting.
"Another eight hundred! Wow, this is the mortgage!"
"Would you like a receipt?"
"Retrieve cash from cash drawer."
Ruth had become euphoric. She did not think twice about taking the money. She was, in fact, pleased with herself for having chosen a teller machine with a faulty chip. Her only concern was the cop across the street who had gotten back into his cruiser. Because of his ever present sunglasses, she could not discern whether he was watching her or not. She was even oblivious to the line of cars snaking into the bank’s parking lot from behind her own. But now she noticed the little old man in the thick prescription lenses staring down from her rearview mirror impatiently choking his steering wheel. She returned his glare with such intensity, that he tried to exit the auto line, but instead backed into the car behind his. The pop of a headlight breaking quickly followed by the unmistakable nauseating crunch of quarter panel, was, in turn, followed by hysterical shrieking punctuated with door slamming and guttural Germanic cursing. The cop’s cruiser cut an extremely illegal u-turn across the street and into the bank’s lot.
"Would you like a receipt?" Ruth was on her fourth helping.
Ruth leaped in her seat as the cop pounded on the rear door of her wagon.
"Lady, get this car out of this lane." The little old German was on one side of the cop gesticulating towards Ruth’s car, while on his other side was a narrow woman with bleach-blonde hair who was gesturing towards her own car. Ruth was actually relieved that after the fifth serving of bills the teller machine had started blinking "Sorry, temporarily out of cash." She pulled her car forward out of the bank’s lot re-entering the avenue in the direction of Days of Wonder, to pick up her son, Justin.
Rain was falling steadily on the way home from the childcare. Ruth looked across the seat at her son.
"Did you have fun today, my Justin?"
"Oh yes, mama." Ruth loved the way the boy called her ‘mama’. It was one of her sweetest possessions, and she treasured the innocence in its purest measure.
"Oh mama, we learned about stealing."
The casual statement took her by surprise.
"And what did you learn?" she proceeded uneasily.
"That it’s wrong."