My life is a sham.

      Morton wrote the words on a nearby piece of bank letterhead, leaned back in his chair, and admired the way his script skittered across the stolid, white stationary. He liked the look of his handwriting. It had a certain idiosyncratic character; no two l’s or t’s ever looked the same and the letters grew larger toward the end of each line, as though he were getting more excited as he wrote. It was also sloppy. His handwriting required deciphering, but he deemed that all to the good, for it drew the passive onlooker into the text, forced the reader to think about what he was reading, instead of just gliding along.

      “Hmm, ‘My life is a sham’…that would make a good first line to one of my stories.”

      And he began to think about what sort of story would emerge from such a line, his overly salivated tongue lightly caressing the tip of his pen. He always assumed this position when he thought about his writing, his meaty arms crossed, his eyes gazing far off, and ink steadily staining his mouth. When he did this at work the other tellers would watch him out of the corners of their eyes. He made them uncomfortable when he did this.

      Morton’s writing was very important to him because he was an intelligent, thinking being and it was the right, nay the duty, of intelligent beings to express themselves creatively, and writing was how Morton expressed himself. He had hundreds of stories to tell and they rattled inside of him like stones rattling inside of a goat’s second stomach, waiting for that mystical moment when Morton’s pen left his tongue and went to the paper.

      He was a good writer too and he knew this because when he was in middle school he’d had two short stories published in a short-run publication edited by Mr. Spangler, the 7th grade English teacher. Often Morton vividly remembers his 12-year-old self walking door to door everyday for two weeks selling as many copies of the publication as he could. In the end it had sold 400 copies--in no small part due to Morton's Hurculean efforts--which Mr. Spangler said was its best run in three years. Everyone said they really liked Morton’s stories and his mother said even old Mrs. McKlintock thought his stories were clever and very mature for a 7th grader, which was saying a lot since everyone knew Mrs. McKlintock didn’t like anything.

      But the biggest reason Morton knew he was a good writer was that he didn’t fit in, which, from all his reading, he knew was the chief character trait of all great writers. Like them he didn't fit in because he was an observer—that was what his mom had always said about him— and it always brought him a measure of comfort knowing that even though he had no friends and he sometimes got lonely at the oddest times when he watched movies, at times that had nothing to do with loneliness or friendship but maybe the sun would be too bright in the background or a small, frail leaf would skitter across the pavement like a child’s skeletal hand, and during these times he would get lonely for reasons he didn’t understand, but it always made him feel better to think it was alright because he was an observer and observing was the hallmark of all great writers, and by definition was lonely work. It meant one was always outside looking in. Watching. But it also meant one was great. It meant that Morton was great.

      My life is a sham.

      He wrote the line again because he liked the way it looked on the page. It was good, definitive, a five-word thesis statement from which he could anchor the remainder of the story. It was also good because it followed the one rule of creative writing that Morton was aware of: write what you know. And he knew what it was to live a sham life: every day he came to this bank and pretended to smile at the cranky old ladies who needed assistance opening their safety deposit boxes, or grinned at the dirty unshaven construction workers who always got upset about the $5 check cashing fee for non-customers, but who never wanted to open an account. They just wanted their damn money and they wanted it right now! Highway robbery!

      And Morton smiled all day, and tolerated his sham life because inside of him there were worlds and characters and dreams of getting published again like in middle school but in a real publication, an adult publication like Elle or one of those others which littered his mother’s coffee table. A book deal would follow, and then his stories would be made into movies, and then he would spend his days in a private house off a private driveway that overlooked a forest and gave him inspiration, and he would open fan mail instead of safety deposit boxes. Morton kept grinning through his sham life because deep down he knew he was a great writer, and one day he wouldn’t have to live like this anymore.

      He looked down at the stationery. My life is a sham.

      He could feel a path emerging through the fog of his thoughts, like a loose thread pulling from an old sweater. He tugged and more thread appeared. He reached for more and his pen left the wetness of his tongue and drifted to the page, and he could feel the story rushing in on him, and billowing up out of him but…

      Just then the phone rang and his story disappeared.

      He watched the phone, waiting for one of the other tellers to answer. The phone rang again. He looked irritably around the branch.

      Finally, with a loud, scandalized huff he snatched the receiver off the cradle and read the script hanging over the phone, which after three months he still hadn’t bothered to memorize.

      “It’s a great day at Community Bank & Trust, this is Morton, how may I be of assistance to you?”

      On the other end of the line he heard snuffling breaths, and a phlegmy, asthmatic female voice filled his ear, “Need help with my account.”

      Morton started to sketch in his mind what sort of character would be attached to this voice—a large woman with color-faded hair, her ample buttocks settled deep into several cushions of her couch, her floral print house dress spilling over her bosoms and belly and massive thighs, her ham-sized fist pressed white against the phone.

      “What sort of account do you have, ma’am?” he asked, his mind drifting back, searching for that loose thread, that bread trail back to his story. He gazed at the stationary as if there he would find it.

      “Checkin account,” coughed the woman. She was chewing into the phone.

      “What’s your account number?”

      “Well how the hell’m I s’pos’d to know that? Your damn account numbers’re bout 50 numbers long.”

      “They’re only 9 digits, ma’am…”

      “Well can’t you look it up by my somethin’ else?”

      “Yes ma’am, what’s your social security number?”

      “I don’t give that out to nobody…No sir, I don’t want nobody stealing my identity.” Morton found it hard to imagine the sort of person who would want to steal this woman’s identity.

      “Ma’am you realize this is a bank…and that you called us, right?”

      “Don’t get snippy with me, mister. Nothin’ you say’s gonna get me to tell you.”

      “Alright well then what is your name?”

      “Margaret Mitchell.”

      “Margaret Mitchell?”

      “Yes, Margaret Mitchell.”

      “The Margaret Mitchell?” joked Morton, thinking himself awfully clever but the woman didn’t understand.

      “Who else would I be?”

      “I have no idea,” Morton pressed a knuckle into his eye where a migraine was threatening. His nascent story stared up at him, impatiently waiting for him to finish the call. A few keystrokes and he had Ms. Mitchell’s account up on his computer. “Alright, what can I do for you?”

      “It’s the fees!” she bleated. “Why the hell you chargin me all them $35 fees?”

      “Because you over-drafted your account, ma’am. Those are over-draft fees.”

      “I don’t understand,” her voice was like the squeal of a large and stupid animal caught in a snare too complex and intricate to escape from.

      “It’s simple really. You just spent more money than you had and the bank collected a fee for that. $35 per item.”

      “Per item!? PER ITEM!? That’s robbery!"

      Highway robbery!

      “You people took $400 in fees for…for…a coupla trips to McDonalds?”

      “I suppose those were some pretty expensive hamburgers then, ma’am…” he said absently, knuckling his eye and tracing his fingers over his story.

      “YOU CAN’T TALK TO ME LIKE THAT!!! I’ve got rights! I’m a human being and I…I don’t have to take this! What happened to customer service!?” her screaming rose until it was little more than statick-y white noise. “You can’t just take my money then treat me like I’m nobody…”

      “It wasn’t me, ma’am.”

      The woman stopped short: “Huh?”

      “It wasn’t me who charged your account. I just work here. I can’t make any decisions. I don’t have any power.”

      Something suddenly struck him about that last thing he’d said—I don’t have any power—and he couldn’t help wondering for a moment: If not me then who? Well, there was his branch manager and then his regional sales manager above him.

      And then above him was the Vice President of Retail Operations for Atlanta Metro.

      And then above her the President of Retail Ops, and then the VP of Retail Ops for all of CB&T, and then above him was the CEO, who was really beholden to the Board of Directors who, of course, were at the will of the shareholders who were…well…everybody, really. And as he thought about the levels and the levels of levels, at which he was the very bottom, that familiar, lonely nostalgic feeling began to fill the hollows of his ample belly. He grimaced as though he were passing gas and he shook his head against something invisible. He needed to get off this call. It was growing worrisome to him. Making him think things. Worrisome things.

      “I don’t have any power,” he repeated. A revelation.

      There was a pause in the conversation in which even the woman’s snuffling breaths halted, and it occurred to Morton that some monumental shift had taken place. A recalibration of sorts of which he didn’t understand. A snare. Even he had snares? When Ms. Mitchell spoke again her voice had softened to the phlegmy, choked quality it had had at the beginning of the call.

      “Well who does then?” she asked and Morton was sure she wasn’t just talking about fees now. He almost replied, “I don’t know” but caught himself.

      “I’ll let you speak to my manager. Could you hold for a moment?”

      He transferred the call before the woman could respond and looked down at his suddenly shaking hands. Sweat stood out on his forehead, his insides were now filled up with that lonely fog, and somewhere he just knew a skeletal leaf was crawling across a gray patch of sidewalk.

      “What a pestilence,” he mumbled.

      He looked down at the first line of his story: My life is a sham.

      He crumpled the stationery tightly in his hands and, looking around as he did so, threw the wad in the trash noticing only then, for the first time, the disgusted faces of his peers. He leered at them and then plopped back down at his teller window. He pulled another sheet of stationary onto the counter in front of him and before his pen even touched his tongue he was already dreaming about when he would publish his first story and about the deck overlooking his forest, from which he would draw real inspiration.

Tres Crow is a writer. In accordance with such an appellation his writing can be found, or is forthcoming, in Ascent Aspirations, Shine Journal, Full of Crow, Conceit, Bright Light Cafe, as well as the website He can be found online at his blog Dog Eat Crow World (

In every artist who wishes to create something larger than himself, but who is also forced to spend the bulk of their time doing something they don't like, there exists this daily dissonance between that which the artist strives to attain and the actual realities of their life. This story is my attempt to reconcile that dissonance in my own life, while retaining a certain amount of blame for myself. Making something beautiful is hard enough without standing in your own way.



Copyright 2009