Brian Conn

I first became a banker as an alternative to suicide. Sometimes in life it is best to consider an alternative. It’s OK if you hate bankers, I hate them too, but there are misconceptions, many misconceptions. I recently saw a play about bankers entitled Contract: Some Comfort When They Made My Pain Intolerable. This title reflects an especially popular misconception, that the lives of bankers are governed by contracts and by pain. In fact although I do sign contracts from time to time there is no particular pain. The playwright like so many others was misinformed about this aspect of the profession.

What I think of when I go in to work is a performance art piece I saw long ago. In this performance the artist stood all day in the middle of an empty gallery asking for spare change. She was a clean young woman in a clean white gallery in front of a crisp cardboard box with Spare Change written on it in new sharpie, it was nothing like spare changing on the street and I suppose that was the point. But she was keeping the money. Patrons were invited to participate in the performance by dropping money into the box and many were doing so, and at the end of the day she was keeping the money. Thus although she was not spare changing on the street I suppose she had invented a way of spare changing in an art gallery. Of course she was scared.

I think about her because I also, you know, I keep the money. I go into the bank and the bank pays me and I keep the money. It’s not fake money or anything. It’s not a fake bank. It’s real. It’s been nine years. I am a very senior person at the bank. In the afternoon I imagine that everybody else has a tail. I imagine that everybody in the bank except me has a long tail that they keep wrapped around their leg under their clothing. When I see people near each other I understand that they are touching tails below my line of sight. They move behind their desks and I hear their tails shushing against the carpet. As for me I am considered maimed because I do not have a tail. Everybody knows about me and they keep their tails carefully hidden in my presence as an act of kindness. Sometimes I weep in the afternoon, from thinking this.

Another misconception about bankers is that our work is routine and well understood. But consider this: a man comes into the bank. He is perfectly sexless and he smells like he just came out of a glacier. I know he is a man because he has the voice of a man. He has the voice of Tom Waits. He starts talking to me before I can start talking to him. He says, “I am here to help,” which is the very thing I say to a customer who is not keeping up with their loan payments. And in fact as this man goes on, lowering his voice so I have to lean forward to hear him, I realize he is reciting everything I say to customers, from beginning to end, all the scripts I once recited clumsily out of the manual and now after nine years at the bank have memorized, the complete lexicon of my role as a banker. When he slips a hand into his pocket I assume he is going to shoot me. Instead he takes out a business card. “Consulate of the Unseen,” it says, over a phone number. I look up. In the time it has taken me to read his card the man has made himself unseen: my office is empty. So you see it is no use trying to understand the things that happen in banks.

A further common misconception is that bankers are incapable of experiencing hope. But as I sat at my desk that morning, clicking the mouse and contemplating the unseen, I remembered that I have many sources of hope and even creative expression. For example I am a glass artist. I used to show my work at a gallery in Pasadena. One time the gallery received a letter from a woman whose son had been shot to death and now she kept his bedroom completely empty except for one of my pieces in the south window. I did not remember the piece she referred to. She also sent a photograph of the son. This was shortly before I became a banker. Anymore I only make very small pieces, tiger sharks, occasionally a basking shark. But you see I am not hopeless. I have only become structural, like a structural member of a building. For the first part of my life I was ornamental and then afterward I became structural.

It is true that I am not a husband or a father. I am too old to date now, or even to know anybody. Even the neighborhood where I grew up is only for rich people. Richer than me. If you become a banker you might think at least you would be rich but as it turns out there are always people who are richer.

The last woman I dated had two paintings by goats. By goats. I understand having one painting by a goat, as a conversation starter, but the second painting I did not understand. It seems to me that one painting by a goat is sufficient to start any conversation that is likely to be started by goat art. No, I did not understand the second painting. One time I asked this woman if her paintings were by the same goat or by two different goats and she did not even know.

The second-to-last woman I dated could not have an orgasm. Finally she said perhaps she could have an orgasm if she were to record herself being penetrated sexually and then masturbate while she watched the recording. I encouraged her in this interest and even purchased a tripod. But I see now that what she actually wanted was not to record herself but rather to talk about recording herself. Some people get off on fantasy and some people get off on self-voyeurism, but this woman got off on a fantasy of self-voyeurism. I should have realized that sooner. I should have told her I was recording our sexual encounters in order to train an AI to generate fictitious footage of her being penetrated sexually in any position by any person living or dead. If I had told her that then she would have orgasmed immediately.

The relationship was not wasted, however, because this woman taught me a great deal about shamanism. She had read everything there was on the topic. There are many misconceptions about shamans, many misconceptions. Lightning does not shoot from their eyes, nor do they command the winds. But sometimes, I learned, sometimes there is a person in town who says something that you cannot get out of your mind. It turns you over and over in your bed and you have no rest because of the thing that was said to you. And the only one who can set you free is the same person, by saying something different. And that person is the shaman.

This is how I knew that the man who gave me the business card was a shaman: I could not get him out of my mind. I do not mean to say I was confused, not at all. I knew instinctively the quality of the unseen that might require representation by a consulate. I knew, for example, the graffiti of a giant rabbit on the brick of the bank’s exterior wall, the back wall facing the alley. This was a very elegant modern graffiti, the size of a small sedan yet hidden behind the sheets of ivy which draped over it like jungle vines, and thus unseen, or largely unseen, although I had seen it, or parts of it; but it must have been some time since anybody had seen it fully. It was perhaps for the sake of this graffiti, I thought, that the shaman, in his role as representative of the unseen, had approached me, in my role as representative of the bank.

It is another common misconception about bankers that we are aided in all our endeavors by the police. But consider this: I have brought my hedge clippers to the bank today, with the intention of trimming away the ivy from the back wall. In the afternoon four policemen burst in and surround my desk, tasers drawn. I put my hands in the air. The largest policeman tells me I have brought a weapon to the bank. His eyes flick to the hedge clippers. 

“Those are hedge clippers,” I say.

“Sir,” he says, “they are blades.”

“It is true that hedge clippers are a kind of blade,” I offer, being very fair.

“I have no choice,” the policeman says, confiscating the hedge clippers while I sit at my desk trying for some reason to look proud. The police drive off, leaving no trace.

It could have been any of my colleagues who called them. My colleagues fear me, for I am the largest and strongest employee of the bank. But that is not my fault. I have always been large and strong. When I was a child the playground monitor would say to me with a stern expression, taking me by the ear, “You may be big on the outside but it is how big you are inside that counts.” Since that time I have always taken it for granted that everybody else is bigger inside than I am, and that if I were bigger on the inside I would understand better what this means. Nevertheless it is I who am biggest on the outside. And I am often asked, illogically I think, how to fight giants. Naturally I have no idea, but I have been asked so often that I have studied the question, and here is what I have learned: if you can hurt yourself before they hurt you, then you win. It puts them off balance. You slash at the giant’s face knowing that he will catch and break your wrist, and that when he breaks your wrist he will think he has the advantage of you, and that meanwhile you will be disemboweling him with the small knife in your other hand, underneath, so that in fact it is you who have the advantage, through the preemptive sacrifice of the mere few small bones of your wrist.

I mention this insight to all who ask me for help. It is a common misconception about bankers that we are unhelpful. Consider this: a woman comes into the bank. Her father has died and she has not kept up the mortgage payments on his home, on which the bank is now obligated to foreclose.

“Nobody knows what this bank even is,” she says.

“I am here to help,” I say.

She gives me a look. She reminds me of the woman who owned the goat paintings, but different, but not very different, different perhaps in the way that two paintings by the same goat are different. “Even you do not know what this bank is,” she says. “Consider this: can you tell me what is drawn on the side of your building? Because there is something drawn on the side of your building, and you do not know what it is.”

But as it happens I do know what is drawn on the side of the building. As I describe the graffiti of a giant rabbit she gives me a very different look.

“And can you tell me,” she whispers, leaning forward, “what is suckling at the rabbit’s breast?”

I hesitate. ”Do rabbits suckle?”

“Of course they suckle,” she says. “They are mammals.”

“I have never seen video of this.”

“Come on,” she says, “help me clear away the ivy. I brought hedge clippers.”

It is one hundred and twelve degrees outside. Clouds of yellow dust swirl up from dry vines, smelling of mold. We hew closely to the rabbit’s edge so that even as it becomes visible it remains snug in a pocket of ivy, like an underground den. And tucked under the belly of the rabbit, as the rabbit is tucked into the den of the ivy, huddles another figure, very small, suckling: a griffin, head of an eagle claws of a lion — very small, very powerful, and very severe.

“See?” she says. “It is real.”

“Nevertheless the bank is obligated to foreclose on your father’s home,” I say. But in the time it has taken me to brush the last clot of soil from the wall, she too has made herself unseen.

In a way this is perfectly appropriate. After all there is nothing more for us to discuss, in the matter of the bank’s foreclosure on her father’s home. And yet I sense that our conversation is not over. I could phone her; the common belief that bankers are compelled at critical moments to place phone calls is entirely accurate. But I sense also that the phone number in the bank’s database is not the phone number at which our conversation can be concluded. In fact, standing in the baking heat of the bank’s parking lot, I sense that no conversation of any real interest can be concluded by phoning any number that can be found in any database. In my pocket I find the shaman’s ice-scented business card, bearing the words “Consulate of the Unseen” over a phone number. Phoning the Consulate of the Unseen, I reason, is as likely to work as any other alternative. I dial.

It rings. I ask myself whether it will be the shaman himself who answers or someone else. Despite everything the woman who could not have an orgasm told me about shamans she did not tell me whether they answer their own phones. It rings again. I begin to panic, realizing that anybody at all may answer. It may indeed be the shaman; or then again it may be the woman on whose father’s house the bank is obligated to foreclose; or then again it may be simply anybody at all. It may be a woman who has not had an orgasm in years, currently rendering the curve of her own jawline in 3D graphics software. It may be a woman who has forgotten how to start a conversation, currently mounting a wall hook in her foyer in order to hang a painting by an alpaca. It may be any one of the nation of the unseen. I stand on the smoking tarmac regretting that no one has told me this very basic fact about shamans, who it is that answers their phones. Moreover no one has told me what to say. It is true that I have in my desk the manual, which details every conversation that is likely to take place within a bank and many other things besides, but as I hear my call connect and the breath of somebody somewhere preparing to speak I know that all the exchanges detailed in the manual are based on the very simplest of misconceptions.

Brian Conn is the author of the novel The Fixed Stars, as well as short fiction in Conjunctions, The Cincinnati Review, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. He serves on the editorial board of independent publisher FC2.