Fiction from Anthony Varallo

A dark space with an ATM machine glowing red

Photo: Krzysztof Hepner

My Money-Making Scheme

I don’t know what to say about how it all started, except to say that one day I was living paycheck to paycheck, counting every dime, and then the next day my wallet was bulged with tens and twenties. That’s the truth. I know I should say I’m sorry, and I guess in certain ways I am, but the thing is, it was just so thrilling to have money in my pocket. For the first time in my life. When you’ve never had anything for so long, and then you have something, it changes you. It just does. It’s like you’ve been living in darkness for as long as you can remember, and then someone hands you this, like, giant flashlight, and says, “Try this.” And that flashlight is like, the biggest, brightest flashlight you’ve ever seen—well, that’s a pretty special feeling.

I remember my first time. I was at the bank, signing my name across the back of another disappointing paycheck, when the teller remarked that I could deposit my check at the automated teller machine outside, which she referred to as an “ATM.” Apparently, the bank had several of these, which anyone could use, any time of day or night. I could feel my heart beating in my ears.

“Thank you,” I said, my tongue thickening with guilt.

Outside, I found the ATM encased in a glass kiosk that swallowed my “debit card” and then returned it to me, the kiosk door clicking open in what seemed a clear invitation to avarice. Inside: a whiff of damp shoes and newly-minted fifties. My hands slickened in anticipation. The machine then asked for my “personal identification number,” which I would soon privately come to think of as my “PIN,” a little secret between the machine and me. I entered the number, whispering each digit aloud—but not too aloud. The machine gave me several options, one of which was, thrillingly, unbelievably, “withdrawal.” I tapped the button and waited nervously. A moment later the machine spat out two twenties and a ten dollar bill, free for the taking. I hurriedly stuffed these into my wallet, where they seemed to fit perfectly, almost like my wallet had been designed for this very purpose. But it wasn’t until I pushed through the kiosk door that I felt the full weight of what I’d just done: I’d entered with nothing in my wallet, and left with fifty dollars cash, U.S. legal tender. Outside, the starry sky seemed to say, “Tell no one about this.”

I didn’t.

But my behavior grew worse. Soon I made any excuse to visit the ATM—the weekend’s arrival, an upcoming birthday, my wallet feeling non-bulgy—and walked away with ever-increasing amounts; one hundred dollars, two hundred dollars, and once, the five hundred dollar maximum. I’d spend my profits at various shops and stores, the store owners eyeing my bills skeptically, then making change. “Here you go,” they’d say, handing me back a ten or twenty, almost like they were waiting for me to confess.

“Thank you,” I’d say, swallowing heavily.

Sometimes I’d visit the ATM in the early morning, sometimes at night. Never in the afternoon. I’d made a little ritual out of it, I guess, where the act of making the withdrawal was even more important than the money I was getting. That’s something that feels important to say: it was always about something more than just the money. But it was also about the money, too.

I don’t know how to get out. It’s like they always say, it’s a cycle that slowly pulls you in, little by little, until you’ve gotten in so deep that you don’t even realize how deep you’ve gotten, the magnetic strip on your debit card wearing away to a frazzle. But here’s the thing: on my last visit to the ATM, the machine refused my card. Spat it out like it was a fresh fifty, which it most definitely wasn’t. “Insufficient funds,” the message on the ATM’s screen read. I peered closer to make sure I’d read correctly. The words glowed with accusation, malice. And maybe you can say I’m being naïve, and maybe you can say I have no idea which way is up, but when I read those words, it wasn’t so much like I felt I’d been caught; it was more like I felt I’d been suddenly set free.

Anthony Varallo is the author of a novel, The Lines (University of Iowa Press), as well as four short story collections. New work is out or forthcoming in One Story, DIAGRAM, New Letters, X-R-A-Y, The Normal School, Pembroke Magazine, and elsewhere.

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