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Payoff

Showing you the money

Showing you the money

At home to wait for other business, the email is a surprise. Your check is ready so let us know when you will be by to accept it. The run-on sentence is par once I realize it’s from an escrow company–in my experience, a full-employment act for C- students.

Google marks the email arriving 0 minutes ago, but an immediate call goes to voicemail. I send an email that essentially asks how about now? She answers the email: sure. For the second errand that day I drive across the water to the land of traffic and bejeweled jeans.

Two months ago an email came asking me to verify a payoff amount. I was shocked and terrified, thinking some corporate stranger wanted money from me, but I was saved by following my rule: always wait to respond to email. Inquiries from friends and my real estate agent suggested it was someone asking how much I expect to receive when the townhouse my ex and I had owned together is sold, which is at least calming, then reasonable, then inevitable. I carefully ask the woman for clarification. When she repeats the same confusing information, I volunteer that, if I understand what she’s asking, this is the amount. She confirms it’s correct. She could play the game better.

I’m told I’ll be contacted in a few weeks when the transaction is complete. Then delays, then silence. The abrupt notice that money is waiting for me is a surprise of something promised ultimately fulfilled.

Irony places the escrow office across a courtyard from my last fulltime job’s office tower. The third floor lobby is low-ceiling expansive with ample magazines and leather couches. The blonde woman who comes with papers is exactly the woman I expected for Bellevue, escrow companies, and run-on sentences. I express surprise that I’m here to sign for a check, since they have my account information and can wire it. This was a mistake, causing much brow furrowing. I say checks make me happy and hand her my passport. I sign in two places and she hands over the cashier’s check, crisp as winter sunshine.

Big checks have not been a feature of my life. The first big one was one I wrote myself, for $823 (as I remember), my rushed and shaky handwriting on a check made out to a mail-order computer outfit for my first PC clone, in 1986. I felt every dollar, some old enough to have been money earned picking up beer cans from roadsides in elementary school. I remember meeting Matt at the laundromat where he worked, linty dryer breath wafting over us as we both looked at it, amazed: green safety paper, blue Bic ballpoint ink. Three months later, after some calls to foreign state AG consumer protection offices, the computer showed up.

The only check feeling bigger than that was again mine, by proxy: a cashier’s check for our first house down payment: about fifteen thousand. I thought: this is where the skyscrapers come from. We signed papers for the loan that would cost twice the sale price, if we paid out thirty years. No wonder skyscrapers are so nice.

Amounts get bigger and less innocent. We are all used to trillions of dollars–cost of wars, sizes of debt–but I can remember as a kid TV’s amazement at all the billions being spent. Billions, they said, with a B. Oh, simpler times. Now the financial wizards have created pieces of paper worth more than all the atoms in the universe, and see nothing fallacious about this.

Standing in the corporate courtyard, air is cool and smells urban, like concrete drying. I hold the third big check in my life for an amount significantly larger than the other two and worry about it being seen, about folding it. Worries about theft or loss are less than the worry of being seen as that flailing divorced guy who can’t hold on to a giant check and has to ask for another. I am not sure what I am thinking or feeling, but it is not as big as I expect. Shouldn’t it be larger, more intense? Shouldn’t the valets be coming over to ask what is that?

I make calls, send texts. I got the money for the house. Congratulatory texts trickle back. It occurs to me I have been gauche, advertising a windfall to people with their own problems. I look at the check without seeing it. I go to meet a friend without walking down the street to deposit it. I need to hold on to it for a little while.

That night I place it on the kitchen table and take a picture of it, the angle all keystone. The plain paper becomes monolithic, receding back into shadow. I remember the negotiation for the amount, quick but difficult. She had over another year to pay. That it is here, now, is sudden, even with knowing it was coming. A resolution too fast, too decisive, is hard to understand.

I don’t fondle it or sit with it, staring into the safety threads and trying to read the microprint. I don’t mull over the amount, what it would be converted into 1986 dollars, what that amount landing in my high school lap would have done to my young mind. I find a deposit slip to mate with it, place both in my laptop bag, and go to bed.

Friends dealing with their exes express grief and frustration at the childish antics, the shirking of responsibility, the protracted tit-for-tat straight from the sitcom blender. He said, she said, then he said again. I laugh when it seems appropriate and they laugh too, but I don’t understand. They are caught in the long tail of two wills wanting disparate things, the opposite wanting the opposite to want something else. Neither seems to see it isn’t there, not any more. I don’t have this struggle. The end was instantaneous, more or less. With the check–the highest form of proof our society has–all is done.

In the morning I ride the bus with the check in my bag, not thinking about it until I am at my desk opening my laptop. I placed it between the lid and keyboard so I would not forget, an act of self-knowing, since I have forgotten. The early office is empty, half-lit with minimum lighting, sun through the windows stronger. The short walk to the next building is bright and cool, a little clammy, no one to run into to ask where I’m going, what’s that expression, what’s that in your hand. The cafeteria has an ATM in a corner under the stairs, a big brick of a thing from 1990 with its small screen and flatulent beeps. I put the check in an envelope. The door thunks open like a dropped stone, a printhead braying over it. For once I request a recepit. Bzz-thunk-bzz-thunk, then a spitting sound, and it appears, curled like a ribbon.

That first PC in 1986 I didn’t keep long, I now realize: two years, tops. I still remember the autumn day I took it out of the box, set it up on the desk, double-checked every connection and turned it on. The half-height floppy bzz-thunk-ed a while, a paragraph of copyright notices appearing at the top of the screen, and then a blinking cursor. The disk stopped, its little red light dark, and all was quiet. I cannot describe how I felt other than knowing something big had happened.

On a spring day in 2012 I look at the slip, the giant ATM machine seemingly built to withstand nuclear war, the grimy light under the stairs. I hear steel foodservice clanging from the kitchen, rapid voices speaking anything but English. The machine has exchanged paper for paper. Nothing has really happened, and nothing is all that different just now. But everything is different here.

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