How I Became a Banker

I made a promise to myself when I was twelve that no matter what, I’d make a shitload of money. I was a third of the age I am now, and my father and I were driving south on the I-90 to Salamanca, New York. A valley near Holiday Valley ski resort, where he’d just bought an old ranch house. The sudden real estate purchase and the overnight invitation were intimidating. We were so often on the verge of losing everything, and he’d spent little time with me or my two younger sisters.

We stopped for gas, and when my father came out from paying, I saw his breath in thin clouds against the collar of his coat. He started pumping and knocked on the back window. “Hon, get me a coffee. Blond and sweet,” he said. It was winter dark out and we were in the United States of America, not the small town on the Canadian side of the border where I grew up.

I looked around and saw a few metal-heads standing by a motorcycle and a harried-looking lady in the passenger seat of a beat-up Chevy. In the GasMart I poured the coffee, wanting to get the milk and sugar just right. He had given me a US twenty-dollar bill during the drive, as something to do, talk about money, and I think he thought it would delight me. I was the “saver” in the family, and Dad joked I’d had a bank account since birth. I eyed a 100 Grand chocolate bar, my favorite only-in-America bar, but I didn’t pick it up. I paid for the coffee and counted out the change.

My father turned the gas cap with one hand, keeping the other warm in his coat pocket. His jeans hung on his chicken legs. My mother often joked that his wallet gave him a lopsided ass. And those shoes of his with the thick soles. As sure as I knew anything in life, I could count on my father’s clogs, the heavy-heeled Dutch kind, and Eddie in the back shop of our family furniture store added two inches of rubber to the bottoms of every pair. A short Italian guy, my father, with a healthy dose of the short-man syndrome.

“Wait till you see this place, Lydia,” he said. “It’s majestic. Isn’t that a lovely word. Majestic. Say it.”

“Majestic,” I said, always doing what I was told. “Majestic.”

“It’s a diamond in the rough. Kind of like me, don’t you think?”

“Absolutely. A diamond in the rough.” Building up his ego was part of my daughterly duties. But he’d always been a shiny diamond to me, the kind of guy they don’t make anymore. Straight from an Elmore Leonard novel, I say to colleagues over lunch on casual Fridays. A gangster look-alike with chutzpah, I tell them.

“Lyd, you’re the one I’ll tell all my secrets to.” I must have been ten when he said it the first time. It was a Sunday, the only day our furniture shop closed, and we were working in his coveted rose garden after church, pulling weeds. I was thrilled he wanted to tell me things. It took years to understand that his confiding in me was more burden than gift.

The breakup with our mother had been awful. Dad got careless with his affairs, and our mother finally kicked him out the last time, when it was a friend of hers, another nurse at the hospital where she worked.

Buying the weekend place, god knows how, made it so my younger sisters and I would see Dad someplace other than the nurse’s tiny duplex. As we went south on that barren highway that night and he drank his blond coffee, I understood it was his attempt to make the separation with our mother easier. But I could see the worry in his face. Business was bad. He laughed about the creditors calling our home phone, all of them fuckin’ idiots, he said, and at the time I believed him. He convinced us that these vendors who sent him to collections had betrayed him somehow, even though he had their furniture and hadn’t paid for it.

“This milky toast guy from the electric company came and took the goddamn heater. Eddie had to hold me back. I would have slit the guy’s throat,” he said as we pulled into the Anchor Bar. “Let’s get a bite.”

“Jesus, Dad,” I said. “You’ll freeze to death.”

He laughed. “I’ve got plenty of layers.”

We ordered beef on wicks and a dozen clams casino, each with hot sauce on the side. I remember that we ate ravenously. My father drank a pitcher of Michelob and teased the thick-lipped waitress. “Keep your eye on her,” he said, pointing at me. “She can toss ’em back.”

“She takes after her daddy,” the waitress said, as if it were gallant for a tween to guzzle. This was his schtick. “What’s your name, hon?” For my entire life, I swear, he’d asked every waitress this question—a game, and he had the controls.

“Tiffany,” she said, “rhymes with epiphany.”

“Wow, that’s a ten-dollar word,” he quipped back.

“A lot more where that came from.” Tiffany smiled, flirting with him right there in front of me. She had curly blond hair, the kind made with fat rollers and never brushed out.

“Can I get a virgin Bloody Mary, please,” I said, finally, to indicate that I’d seen her kind before, many, many times.

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