Strangers

Romance / A money wiring location / A highlighter / 984w

As soon as Tim walked in, everything was set in motion. Mohamed, arranging brochures by the front entrance of the West Harlem MoneyWorks, signaled a sleepy Ernie with an outrageously fake cough. Ernie, atop a stool behind the counter, jerked to alertness and smiled broadly at Tim, who was approaching with more than his usual consternation.

“Good afternoon,” Ernie said. “Welcome to MoneyWorks.”

“Yes, I was just here two days ago,” Tim said. On the counter, he set three things that Ernie and Mohamed already knew he would have: a dog-eared copy of the latest The New Yorker, a blue highlighter (with which he annotated the magazine for references to local architecture), and a small leather-bound sketchbook. “You left a message saying there was a problem with my transfer.”

“Alright, sure. Your full name?” They didn’t need his full name (Timothy Vintner) but Ernie tapped it into the computer nonetheless. “Yes, I see. A processing hitch. Seems like one of the digits in the account number you provided may have been incorrect.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” the regular customer replied. “I enter that same number here, every two weeks.”

Ernie and Mohamed knew that, of course. They knew that it went to his ex-wife Emily Johnson and their two daughters in Kansas City. From an overheard phone call, Ernie and Mohamed also knew that Tim’s daughters, Leila and Eva, were twin ten-year-olds who didn’t really remember him and no, Tim didn’t need to send any birthday gifts.

“It’s an easy fix, sir,” Ernie said airily of the nonexistent error. “Let me just get the number again.”

“I’m just concerned about my—the timing, I mean.”

“Of course. We’ll comp you an instant transfer, of course. Make sure you meet any deadlines.”

Meanwhile, by the door, Mohamed was stalling Maya Martinez, who had arrived her usual two days after Tim’s payment date. Maya of the nibbled fingernails, the bag of groceries, and the musk of kiln and clay. Her child support also went to Kansas City, a parallel that had caused Ernie and Mohamed to sit up and pay closer attention several weeks before. Then, with work abysmally slow, they had begun their observation in earnest and were delighted by what they found. Tim and Maya, without knowing it, were competing to read the most books on postmodernism, buy the most bacon-egg-and-cheeses from the nearby deli, and develop the deepest worry line between their brows.

“This is a special offer,” Mohamed said to Maya, who smiled in a distracted way.

“No thanks,” she said, before making her way to the counter.

“It’s just processing now,” Ernie was saying to Tim, according to plan. “I’ll let you know in a minute or two when it goes through.”

After a short glance at Tim, Maya stepped up to the counter. Ernie saw Mohamed give the thumbs-up in the background. Ernie nodded infinitesimally while Maya was pulling her form out of her purse.

“Sir?” Mohamed approached the counter now, so that three of them crowded by the gap in the glass, behind which Ernie stood. “I think you left this here by mistake the last time you were here, actually. It looked too nice to toss.”

He offered Tim the drafting pencil that Ernie had nabbed from Tim’s stack of items that past Friday. It was a recognizable brand in the architecture and planning industry (Mohamed had Googled it) and it did the trick; a flicker of surprise crossed Maya’s face when she saw it.

Tim took the pencil. “Oh. Thanks,” he said, slipping it into his shirt pocket. “I just have to step outside for a quick phone call…”

“Can I borrow your highlighter?” Ernie asked, a little too frantically, seizing the instrument from inside The New Yorker with enough violence to throw its pages open to an article entitled “The Life and Death of the Woolworth Building; a Dirge in Drywall.”

“Uh, sure, no problem,” Tim said, at the same time that Maya said, “Oh, I read that one too.”

Mohamed eased his way back, to give them space.

“Sorry?” Tim said, phone halfway out of his pocket.

“I read that one too,” Maya repeated. “They’re building all those little boxy annexes inside the Woolworth. Such a damn shame.”

Ernie was staring hard at his computer screen, where a check mark indicated that Tim’s second transaction had been processed three minutes before.

“It really is,” Tim said, with a little smile. Little, bit bigger than any smile the employees of the West Harlem MoneyWorks had ever seen. Ernie remembered he was supposed to be using the highlighter. He began running it in random streaks along the nearest document, which was Mohamed’s March Madness bracket sheet (he would catch hell for this later). The bracket’s owner was shamelessly eavesdropping while pretending to inspect a pen chained to the phone booth.

Maya absently handed Ernie her transfer form, which he wired at once to Jared Marcus and their son, Julian. Strangers to him, like Emily and Leila and Eva Johnson. Perhaps now they were practically strangers to the man and the woman who came quietly into the MoneyWorks every two weeks to package up and send a digital form of affection. Neither one of the two had ever shown a hint of acrimony. But even in a weekly bouquet of resignation and anger and resentment, Ernie and Mohamed could sniff out loneliness with ease.

Maya was blushing like a teenager already. Mohamed loudly asked Ernie if the transfers had gone through, and Ernie loudly answered that they had.

“I have a bit of a soft spot for brutalism, actually,” Maya was saying. Tim hesitated and Mohamed and Ernie held their breath, wondering if all was about to be undone by a hideous period in architecture.

“Why don’t we have that argument over a drink?” Tim said, after a moment.

Ernie quickly recommended a bar on the block.

Writer’s Note

Well, the gods of the romance genre must have heard me complain last week and been angered by my rejection of their gift. So they gifted me with another romance. Fortunately, this one was not as difficult, because levity is easier…Although I’m missing a certain richness in detail. For the next one, I think I’ll make it my goal to highlight (ha) imagery.

I totally want this to happen in real life. And I’m developing a massive interest in architecture, particularly New York architecture like the Woolworth Building, so it was fun to bring it into this piece.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Sarah says:

    This one was probably my favorite so far!

    Liked by 1 person

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