An elderly woman wants to find out who stole her ten dollars.
"I’m sorry, ma’am. Can you please speak up?”
Ellen sank farther into her couch cushion, her fragile hand of bird bones getting tired. She placed the phone on a coffee table cell stand and took a breath, hoping the bank teller didn’t think she was lying. The old woman might be a lot of things, but a liar wasn’t one of them. Maybe if I could just talk to him face to face, he'd know I’m telling the truth.
“Is this better?”
“Yes.” The young man on the phone screen flittered his fingers over a keyboard Ellen couldn’t see. “I have two pieces of good news for you, Ms. Conners. One, you’re nowhere near being overdrawn and two, it doesn’t look like anyone hacked into your account.”
“I think Kroger is the place that overcharged me.”
“Do you still have your receipt?”
“No, I deleted it. But it’s the same amount as my beef stew beef. They’re ten dollars a pack right now. I make this great stew with beef broth and beef and carrots. The secret is adding brown sugar-”
“The bank’s not able to see receipts. I do see Kroger delivered $73.50 worth of groceries to your house yesterday.”
“Well, there’s the proof. They charged me double or I was hacked. Look, I’m 82-years young and I know when something’s wrong with my bank account.”
“I believe you, ma’am, but I can’t find a reason for the $10 discrepancy. I think you need to call Kroger.”
Despite the small screen, Ellen saw the man’s eyes were both bored and distrustful. He had a lot of calls to take on a Saturday afternoon and for some reason, this bothered Ellen.
“Now you listen here,” she said. “I haven’t felt anything in years. Not pride or pain or nothing at all. But right now, I’m fixing to get angry. I think. No, I know it. You’re about to make me mad.”
“Whoa! Ma’am, please calm down. Did you take your sedative?”
“Of course, I took my sedative. What am I, some sort of heathen?”
“I never said that, ma’am.”
“Look, we’re getting nowhere. Can’t I come into a location and square this away with someone? Explain to them in person?”
“Location? I’m not sure what you mean. Oh. A building? Heh, heh. No, we don’t have bank buildings anymore. I can transfer you to my manager, though. Maybe she can help.”
“I just want to talk to a real person.”
“I am a real person.”
“What? You’re….no, never you mind. I’ll find a way to fix this. Good day to you.”
I feel bad hanging up on him like that, but he was circling. When you get to be my age, people tend to circle you like that, make you confused to where you start to wonder if you’re wrong. I’m not wrong. Someone stole ten bucks from my account.
An excited Ellen walked through the white, two-story cubicle rooms of her house, passing machines in the wall that asked her how she was feeling. Ignoring them, she reached the bedroom and stood in front of her open closet trying to figure out what to wear on her big day out. The weather app said it was going to be a hot one, so the prudent thing to do would be to put on something light and short sleeved. She settled for a khaki skirt that hit her heels and a musty Hawaiian button-down. She stood in front of her bathroom mirror with hands on both hips, chuckling to herself. This was just the sort of zany shirt to wear on an adventure. After a splash of lavender perfume, she was out the door and into a driverless car that was already waiting for her. Ellen’s heart skipped as she watched her pretty pastel neighborhood disappear out the back window.
GPS was set for a bank located two miles away. At least it had been a bank the last time Ellen drove down the street. That was a long time ago and she’d had no reason to leave the house since.
What did I need that last time?
When the vehicle pulled up to the empty lot, she stared in confusion. According to the height of the weeds growing through the cracks, time had claimed the place long ago. I know the gas stations are all gone. That makes sense. But the bank? Why would the bank be gone? Who’s keeping my money? It was a conundrum she’d never had to consider. A seed of panic grew inside her chest. If I can’t touch my money, how do I know they have it? They already lost ten dollars.
She had the car park itself under a nest of trees and closed her eyes, preparing herself for another phone call. Namaste. Peace to all and to all a good night. Keep calm and carry on. As the phone rang, she looked over at the defunct movie theater where old marquee letters above the door that had not fallen, spelled “C NEMA” in rust. The boxy structure painted in 1970s sandy red resembled an old Aztec fortress allowed to grow wild. Birds flew out of a hole in the roof.
A Cheshire cat of a man popped into her phone’s screen, greeting Ellen with all the enthusiasm of a used car salesman on cocaine.
“Hello. Hi. I’m Ellen Conners and I need to talk to someone about a problem I’ve been having regarding ten dollars that has been lawlessly taken out of my account. If you could just tell me where you have an office, I’d be happy to go in and straighten this out.”
“Oh, yes. I’m already aware of your situation, Ms. Conners.”
Ellen sputtered, “Already aware? How…where are you?”
“Where I’m at is not important. What’s important is that we’re diligently working on your issue and will contact you when it’s resolved. In the meantime, why don’t you go ahead and call Kroger?”
The teller was too perky to be serious. This is either the kid’s first day on the job or he’s a damn brownnoser. Ellen cringed. She hadn’t cussed or thought about cussing in years.
“Just please give me the address to a bank,” begged Ellen. “Don’t you guys have a base of operations? A mothership?”
“A headquarters, young fellow. Where are your headquarters for Detroit, Michigan?”
“You’re funny, ma’am.”
Ellen hung up without an ounce of regret. Giving the issue some thought, she instructed her car to take her downtown and, on the way, she called the bank three more times and was told the same thing. Despite her argument that Kroger would do nothing without the receipt, they insisted she call the grocery store.
By the time Ellen’s vehicle reached the edge of the anonymous cement city, her veined hands shook so badly she had to hold them between her legs. The symptoms only got worse when she saw that the other bank location, one that had resembled a Pizza Hut, was also gone.
“Where would you like me to go now, Ms. Conners?” asked the car in a monotone voice.
A dizzy Ellen stumbled out of the door and was met with the smell of flowering plants and sewer grates. Long ago, when she had a beautiful Chevy Colorado, Ellen would navigate the heavy downtown traffic to get to her job and she vaguely remembered driving past an impressive building with ten floors of glass. Red, white, and blue lettering…yes. It was my bank’s headquarters, sure as day. It had to be there. Who would raze something that big? The amount of money it would cost to demolish it would be too much of a hassle.
She shuffled down the street and her feet tripped on the sidewalk. None of the few, sleepy-looking people getting fresh air noticed. The city around her was a gutted cemetery where others lived but didn’t show their faces unless they had to. Somewhere in those giant apartments was enough entertainment and colorless joy to sate someone for a lifetime. If she banged on their doors, they would never let her in. Ellen weighed whether setting their homes on fire would get anyone’s attention or not. It wouldn’t work. Each building had a tip top sprinkler system, so any inferno was likely to be put out quickly.
Ellen lost her breath as she rushed through new parks and urban forests until she was confronted by the massive structure, still mirroring the city around it. The wave of relief was like sunlight after winter.
The feeling was short lived. As she approached, she saw that instead of a long area of front doors, there were dozens of Stonehenge rock slabs sticking up under an awning and on the front of them were long customer service screens. Ellen couldn’t find an entrance anywhere. The building was left to be a monument to a way of life, a tombstone for the office worker, the miserable cubicle grunts in suits or heels.
She thought about where she could go for human help. A police vehicle drove by, but there would be no one in it because there weren’t traffic tickets anymore. Grocery stores only delivered. The hospital? Unless there was an emergency, you went inside a machine in your house and were given tests; your blood pressure was taken by a robotic arm, as was your blood. The giant machine also took care of your dental and haircut needs.
Ellen numbly walked to the bank where two men stared at their own video screen monoliths, and she stopped in front of a stone slab feeling angrier than she had been in decades. She glared at the pen on the hook before using it to click the screen. A comely girl wearing a black headset appeared.
“Ms. Conners, I’m Denise. How are you today?”
“I have a problem.”
“I’m well aware of that, ma’am. We’re currently working on the situation.”
“How do you know that? How do I know you have my money? I can’t get it out anywhere. What if it doesn’t exist?”
“Ma’am, there’s no need to take anything out. There’s no such thing as cash anymore.”
“I know that.”
“Ms. Conners, maybe you should go home and take another sedative. I’m thinking a nice nap will make you feel better.”
The condescending words of youth. Denise didn’t care about Ellen’s problem, if that was her real name, anyway. She was at home in a neighborhood with sprinklers and nice lawns and matching green shutters. This woman was probably across the country sitting without pants in her office while a roast cooked in the oven downstairs. Denise fiddled with her earpiece, patiently waiting for her customer to say something.
Ellen tried not to judge the age of the woman in front of her, judge her for not being around when things were different or knowing any better or how to work a damn telephone. It occurred to Ellen then that she could simply slit her own throat with the pen in her hand, slice herself from ear to ear. If she did that, emergency crews would be forced to come help her and while trying to stop the bleeding, they would touch her neck with gloved hands. She would be able to smell their cologne and their breath.
A rubber band in Ellen snapped.
“Young lady,” she said, her voice close to growling. “I get why you don’t understand my dilemma. I get it. To you, I’m from another planet. My daddy taught me how to shake a man’s hand, a real man. Men and women used to be all over the streets or walking at the mall…oh God I remember those malls,” Denise cringed when Ellen used the Lord’s name in vain, “and they smelled like pizza and cinnamon from the food court and everyone would wander with nothing important to do. My friends and I would get kicked out of Spencer’s and then we’d graffiti the bathrooms and run from the mall cops who weren’t even real cops…”
“Graffiti is illegal,” pressed Denise, not understanding. Ellen didn’t hear her.
“…and that’s where clothes use to hang on racks. Thousands of racks of clothes you could look through.” Ellen swooned with the thought. “You’d learn in school, too back then. Teachers were real people. You didn’t have any of this learning from home, everybody in the country watching the same learning videos. And there were restaurants. Oh, God, the restaurants! Tons of them! Not the same five in every town and none of them back then waited to open at six at night. Restaurants were open all day and we even had fast food places where we ate greasy shit, and no one could stop us and we polluted our bodies but damn did that Kentucky Fried Chicken taste better than anything in the world! Especially when you got out of the pool…”
On the screen, Denise called someone for help.
“…and we could see the sun! All the damn time!” Ellen pointed up at the false night above them, tiny dots moving like billions of greasy blackheads over a glass dome. “We could see the sky because there weren’t armies of drones over our heads blocking out the sun while they drop our orders 24 hours a day on our doorstep. I miss getting in a car.” Ellen felt that statement in her bones as she grasped at her heart. “I miss getting in my own car and turning the key and just taking off to wherever I wanted to go, and no one could find me. I even miss getting scared when a policeman, a real policeman, was driving behind me. I miss being scared of the drunk drivers! I miss my kids wanting to leave their houses and visit me! I miss putting on a pantsuit and going to work and hating my job and I fucking want that again! I don’t care if I’m in danger! I want to walk out my door and risk getting shot or dying of clogged arteries just to tell a real person that my fucking bank account is off by ten dollars!”
By now, Ellen eyes—always red due to age and dryness—were watered with rage; her sallow face deadly serious; her chest jerky, an accordion with a cracked bellow. Ellen held the stone tablet with both hands, threatening to enter.
The few groggy people in the vicinity walked around Ellen, giving her a wide berth. As they briskly moved on, they muttered and hid their faces, glancing at her like they were trying to get a quick peek at the sun. Everyone knew not to cause trouble anymore; they knew, or they forgot how. Order was displaced, as if everyone stood on a riverbank throwing pebbles and Ellen had tossed in a five-pound rock.
Denise heard sirens approaching and turned off the screen with a quick, “have a good day, Ms. Conners!”.
When Ellen saw the red police vehicle, a real car with real people inside, she almost fell dead from rapture. The miniature cruiser sped up to the curb, squealing to a halt before two officers exited. Both were anxious at what they would find.
“I’m glad you’re all here!” she hustled toward the men who stared at her wide-eyed. One put a hand on his taser. “Ten dollars is missing from my bank account and those people,” She jabbed her finger at the monoliths, “won’t tell me where it went or who stole it! I want you to investigate. Get to the bottom of it.”
“Ma’am, hold still.” The tall, youngest officer waved a scanner over Ellen’s face. Her entire life history came up in the tablet in his hand. “Clean,” he said to his partner. “Female subject has no priors. No mental health issues.”
“Of course, I don’t!”
The men were flummoxed by her raised voice. The round officer floundered, clouded under the spell of his medication. Before asking Ellen to turn around, he radioed the station and shook his finger at her like she was a child.
“You’re a first for me, lady. You have the right to remain silent…”
As angry as Ellen was, she became swept away by the feel of the officer’s fingers on her wrists. They were buttery, as welcoming and cool as iced tea in the heat. Her eyes closed, savoring the seconds.
On the way to the station, Ellen sulked in the back of the cruiser. A few turns and they reached their destination. The concrete station was void of any personal touches. It looked like a salt lick, a square made of chalk. In the doorway were three waiting officers, stymied by the situation. Ellen was sure they were expecting Frankenstein to emerge from the vehicle.
“Officer Mendleson!” cried a policewoman as Ellen was escorted into the station. “Aren’t you ever the decent patriot?”
The man in question good-naturedly bowed as he led his prisoner to the nearest desk, the only one that sat manned. Along the hall were others covered in cloth, artifacts from a dead age. A robot half the size of an adult rolled quickly toward the group. The screen on its head gave the woman checking in Ellen all her information. Everyone was drugged and overly polite and equally shocked when the prisoner kept going on about the bank. They laughed at her when she said she’d been robbed.
“Woo, boy. I haven’t laughed in years,” the portly Officer Mendleson said, wiping tears. “I forgot how good it felt.”
A woman officer nodded sympathetically at Ellen. “You probably forgot where you spent your money. Sometimes my mom gets confused, too. It happens.”
Ellen’s face became glass; her mouth moved, but nothing came out.
After the formal write-up, she was marched down a quiet hall to her holding cell. Officer Mendleson led her past empty cage after empty cage. He seemed baffled that his day had taken him here. As they walked, he told Ellen that he had never arrested anyone before.
The officer was kind enough to add a fluffy blanket on the cot in her private cell. As he was leaving, he explained, “You remind me of my grandmother. Of course, I don’t remember what it was like to love anything, but…I think I loved her once.”
His footsteps went down the hall and stopped to sit or wait.
Cold, Ellen took a look around. Each wall in her holding cell was painted so long ago the nail heads were starting to show through the thin white. This told Ellen that no one ever stepped foot in there. Nobody needs to be here, do they? The sink dripped, the toilet cleared its throat every few minutes. Everything had to be decades old. Her suspicions were confirmed when she placed her bottom on the cot—nothing but metal and a mouse-eaten cushion.
With time to think, she puzzled over what would happen to her. She’d heard whispers of dissidents or rabble-rousers being put to death. One quick injection and they were gone. Would that really be so bad? There was a moment where Ellen thought of screaming to scare the pants off the officer at the end of the corridor, but she decided against it, only because her body was shot. After a half-life without anger or emotion, she was exhausted by all the spectrums; her mind felt as if it were flooded with information, like a computer deluged with files.
She lay on her side and closed her eyes, turning off every ugly worry.
Ellen dreamed about one of the last times she saw her grandmother. Unlike most dreams or memories, this one was vivid, leaving no stone unturned. Ellen was probably five and she had been visiting Granny or was she taking care of me? The day was dying. It was the same week Granny taught her how to load a gun.
“Can I sit with you?” asked Little Ellen through a door screen.
“I called ya. Didn’t I?”
Older Ellen lay on the prison cot, twitching like a sleeping dog who dreamed too much.
Little Ellen walked through that ancient screen door into sunlight and onto the poky porch where Granny sat barefoot in her rocker; an empty pipe in her mouth and a rifle in her hand for no reason but to show the world that this old lady wasn’t weak or helpless. Little Ellen didn’t understand this back then.
She sat at Granny’s feet as the woman thought, and boy was she a thinker.
“Whatchu thinkin’, Granny?”
“Ain’t polite to ask someone why they thinkin’ of something.”
“Don’t be sorry. Just don’t do it no more.”
Granny chewed on her pipe thoughtfully. Little Ellen knew even then that Granny had to share her views with someone and that someone was usually her, so she waited.
“There ain’t no such thing as a calendar,” the old woman finally said. “Calendars only exist to humans. Dinosaurs didn’t use no calendars.”
Little Ellen thought of a T-Rex checking off his appointments and this made her giggle. Granny didn’t notice.
“And before dinosaurs came around, the stars didn’t need no calendars, either. They just were. Everyday just was.” Granny rocked harder. “We make up our structure. Put ourselves in our own prisons. I’m here trying to figure out why.”
The two of them sat as Little Ellen played with the rough edges of her gingham dress and waited for Granny to guess the meaning of life. The girl also thought about the ice-cream truck in the distance, past the edge of their large, wooded property; after Grandpa died in a tractor accident, Granny had gotten soft and would give Little Ellen a dollar if she asked for it.
“Look up,” Granny told her granddaughter who did what she was told. “I want you to see that beautiful blue sky for all she’s worth.”
“Why, Granny?” Little Ellen didn’t think the clouds looked any different. The sunset was getting to be the color of a skinned knee.
“Today our dear old government greenlit airspace for drone deliveries. This is the last time you’ll see the sunset this way.”
“That’s silly. The sky will always be here.”
“Oh, to be young and stupid. I wouldn’t mind being dumb for a day if anything just so I didn’t know how bad things gonna be. I’m glad I won’t live much longer. Most people’d say I’m crazy for that. I say there’s no point in livin’ if people so damned fixed on destroying themselves ‘cause they so damn lazy. Or bored. You, though. I feel sorry for you, girl. You’ll be livin’ with all these mistakes. Not all mistakes are created equal.”
“What’ll happen to me?”
When Granny shrugged, her two shoulders poked out of her dress like bones from the mud of a graveyard.
“You’ll get old and die. Jus’ like me.” Granny settled back in her chair, almost as if she were comforted by the idea. “Everyone takes a turn being old and ornery. Everyone gets a turn to find out what it’s like to disappear and still be alive. Everyone but the people unlucky enough to die too young. But when you’re old, Ellen, you’ll have good reason to be angry. I’m sorry I couldn’t do nothin’ about what’s gonna happen.”
Little Ellen was alarmed by how ominous Granny sounded. Not that the woman was upbeat under normal circumstances. That night, though, there was a chill coming from Granny’s voice. The goose bumps on Little Ellen’s arms were not caused by the owl who announced his presence in the eaves, but from her grandmother expressing an emotion she had never let on before: pity.
Upset by this talk, Little Ellen ran off the porch and through the tall grasses, finally finding a spot where she lay all night staring at the stainless starry sky, and Granny let her.
“Ms. Conners?” barked a heavy voice, followed by steel on steel. “Hello? Ms. Ellen Conners?”
Pulled into a strong current by her thoughts, Ellen surfaced for a breath and focused her glazed eyes on the officer at the barred open door. The walls were still a cage; her body was still on the hard cot. She sat up, holding her throbbing head.
“What time is it?” she mumbled.
“Not even dinner time. Your attorney’s on the phone for you. Good news is you’re probably getting out of here.”
A small room with a chair and TV wall awaited Ellen. She sat down, watching the officer park outside the closed door. She wondered if he thought she was worth the effort.
“Ms. Conners,” said the mustached man on the wall. “I’m Eli Worth and I’m representing you-”
“Go on now,” she snapped, “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“On the contrary, Ms. Conners, you’re on video running through streets…jaywalking…”
“My stars. I might as well have killed someone.”
“…taking our Lord’s name in vain, you raised your voice, you threatened a customer service agent. You cussed five times. In general, disturbing the peace.” Mr. Worth went over a laptop in front of him as if he were learning on the fly. “Turns out, your age is beneficial to our case. I mean,” he chuckled, “how much more trouble can you really get into? They’re willing to let you off on probation if you take an extra sedative at night. Yep. One in the morning, one at night.”
“I’ll take your pill when they make everybody take an extra one.”
Mr. Worth rubbed his sleepy face. “Ma’am, please don’t make this political. If you do, this’ll all blow up into a big thing when all you have to do is plead no contest. I’m almost begging you. Sign the tablet in front of you and we can get on our way. As your attorney, I promise this is the best deal you’re going to get.”
“I want you to look into my bank before I sign this thing. They won’t let me speak to a real person about my money!”
“Yes,” Mr. Worth sighed, his tone suddenly paternal. “I heard about that. Ms. Conners, I can’t help you take on the bank. I’m only a public defender. When you get home, I suppose you could hire an attorney that’ll look into your money problems.”
The world appeared to want nothing to do with Ellen Conners of Geesey Lane. No one wanted to hear what she had to say because they chalked up her thoughts, ideas, and feelings to a person whose brain had to be fading to dust, like paper falling apart in a basement. Nothing would convince them otherwise. No one wanted to be near her because her curved spine reminded them that one day, they too would have curved spines. They hid their eyes because one day they would also have chiffon transparent skin that exposed the purple wires that kept the body running.
Everyone gets a turn to find out what it’s like to disappear and still be alive.
The station called a car for her. Ellen had barely walked away from the slab of concrete when she saw it idling on the city curb, thankfully empty of anyone else. Once inside, a small red laser scanned her worn, defeated face.
“Would you like to listen to music, Ms. Conners?” asked the interior of the car after it had automatically set the temperature to her ideal seventy-five degrees. “I can play your favorite artist, Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”
“No, thank you. Take me home, please.”
Ellen rode slumped in her seat, watching other vehicles all politely going sixty-five miles an hour on the highway, past green spaces growing where factories once stood. Out of her window, she saw shadows of people in cars and wondered what they were talking about or where they were heading off to. Her car whizzed past rows of empty buildings and she recognized one as the bookstore she used to frequent when she was a child. A storytime lady named Miss Jenny used to have crafts at 11am every Saturday.
Later that evening, Ellen sat on her couch with the TV off and noticed that all the wondrous things around her weren’t so wondrous anymore. She wasn’t sure what had changed in the last few hours. Over the past decades, she hadn’t so much as put up a fuss.
Suddenly, her phone dinged in her hand, causing her to suck in a breath. She squinted at the screen.
<<Hello, customer! We see in our records that a Steven Conners cashed a check for $10 this morning from a phone located in Oakland, California. These monies were taken out of your bank account ending in 668559. We apologize for the inconvenience. Did we help solve your problem? Select “Yes”. Select “No”. Select “Speak to a Teller”>>
The miscommunication had been the cause of Stevie, her own grandson. It didn’t take Ellen long to recall the $10 birthday checks she used to mail up until the kid’s 12th birthday. That only meant little Stevie—now big Stevie—had found an old one and figured Grandma wouldn’t notice if he cashed it. She hesitated before pushing the button for “yes”. The screen eventually blacked out and the whole bad business of the day was over and resolved.
Ellen gently laid the phone on the coffee table in front of her and then folded her hands over her face and began to cry.
You can listen to "The Potter's Field" on QCODE's Hidden Signal podcast, below.
© 2018 Nicolina Torres
NO AI TRAINING: Without in any way limiting the author’s [and publisher’s] exclusive rights under copyright, any use of this publication to “train” generative artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to generate text is expressly prohibited. The author reserves all rights to license uses of this work for generative AI training and development of machine learning language models.