In The Year of the Panda
Excerpt translated by Geoff Howes
Every time Pia took the old bills out of the machine and replaced them with new ones she was overcome with a feeling she preferred to keep to herself. It’s a job like any other job, she’d say, if somebody wanted to know more. Except that gravediggers and hangmen probably made the same claim, and she wouldn’t have believed them any more than she believed herself. —
You had to have faith.
That was main thing.
You had to have faith that the banknotes that she and Julian took custody of in the National Bank guaranteed the circulation that reassured people they could make a withdrawal at any time — if there was anything to withdraw. You had to believe those bundles were worth something, that you could buy so and so much with them. You had to believe that pieces of paper, themselves not especially valuable, could still actually be exchanged for food, clothing, travel, emotions, and the Devil knows for what else.
The Devil knew: for anything at all; especially for (or against) human beings.
You had to believe that those bills were understood everywhere, that you could translate them in other places into other bills, so that elsewhere you could get more or less or approximately just as much for them. You had to believe that with lots of big denominations you could make things happen, that you could lead a carefree life. You had to give currency to currency, you had to value the value that was printed on it and held significance in the world. You had to believe that you believed in it.
It was nighttime when Pia got out of the truck in her blue-gray uniform, took a quick look around, and entered the foyer of a bank. Julian was behind the wheel, looking in turns at the rearview and sideview mirrors. For a month and a half now he’d been carrying a gun, which he’d had to purchase himself. It was nice when no one was around, and it wasn’t nice when they had to ask people to wait outside for a few minutes, especially on weekends, when some of them were horribly drunk and thought she was being the worst killjoy ever. She locked the foyer, opened one machine after the other, took down the counter reading, removed the old bills from the receptacles, and fed them with new ones that were just as fresh and smooth as the old ones.
The chills, the shivering, the tightness in her chest when she was handling the bundled bills, and at the same time the searing heat in her head, the pounding at her temples, her cool blood, the irresistible tingling. That was how her body reacted to all those banknotes and all the possibilities bound up with them. Something deep within her reacted differently.
Hopefully, in fact.
Pia felt ashamed when she gave Julian a sign, because at the same moment she realized how harmless the man was. He was lying on the floor in a corner, wrapped in a long black felt coat, with one bulging plastic tote bag under his head and another leaning against the wall. Slowly he lifted his head and looked at her with an open mouth and dead eyes. The man was unshaven, his scraggly beard was gray, and what she noticed first of all was his long nails and the scabs on his face. She wouldn’t have been able to say how old he was. He might have been seventy, but he could also have been fifty. He had propped himself halfway up and was looking at her in fear.
“Just keep laying there. But turn and look the other way.”
Pia knew that this was wrong. She knew she was breaking the rules. She had never done anything like this before. There was probably a regulation or a law that said you couldn’t sleep in bank foyers. She looked at the cameras like she wanted to apologize. But for what? She turned back again toward the machines. The man, who had obediently turned toward the wall, did not present any threat. But if anyone was watching her and noticed that she wasn’t making him get out of the foyer, she’d be in trouble, harmless or not. She didn’t need any trouble, her life was troublesome enough. Sometimes she felt like she was going to burst any minute. Four machines needed fresh banknotes. Pia had no time to dawdle. Her schedule was tight and it was being monitored in real time. What was that anyway, “real time”? As if there were any other kind.
It was a violation, and it was that word “violation” that was turning over and over in her head while she emptied and refilled the machines and prepared them to dispense the money. If he made trouble, she could remove him or have him removed. It was in her hands. He was in her hands. She was required to remove him or have him removed. Instead she had locked herself in with him in the foyer. He was breathing deeply. She sensed him at her back, and an unpleasant odor was emanating from the corner.
And there, in her hands, was all that money. Which really didn’t belong to anybody.
“Of course it belongs to somebody.”
“Like maybe the bank?”
“Fuck the bank! Where did they get the money from?”
“From the people who entrust them with it?”
“From themselves! From the printing press!”
Bravo, Julian, bravo, bravo, bravo! Pia clapped her hands three times, and Julian turned up the music. Just keep nice and cool, unemotional, unmoved. Always view things as if there were nothing you could do, as if the world was the way it was, Roger and over and out. Don’t show any excitement, don’t grind your teeth, don’t roll your eyes, don’t puff up your cheeks, take a deep breath and exhale it all. It’s fantastic, really. “Take it easy,” he said then, “easy, baby,” stretching out the “easy,” eeeeezzzzeeee, deep, calming, as if that would calm her down. On the contrary, it just got her even more worked up, and that’s exactly why Pia held back what she was going to say.
Contrary to his habit, Julian had both hands on the wheel. He was looking straight ahead. All of a sudden he was acting like he was concentrating hard and trying to overcome his fatigue. Normally he had his right hand on her thigh, sometimes even someplace else — that’s how it all started, from one night until the next morning, when at every red light they eagerly made out and ran their hands over each other. How else could it have turned out, Julian had recently said, which she still resented him for, even though he said he’d just said it without thinking — night, money, danger, a young man, a young woman, spending hour after hour together in an armored car.
That had been in the fall. The leaves were radiantly yellow and red, the sun was high in the sky and getting fainter by the day. Julian took Pia’s hand, and they wandered through the city, strolling past vineyards, and driving along the scenic road over the hills of the Vienna Woods. They invented stories that put them into those houses and gardens and into new lives. They sat down at tables in dimly lit dives on the outskirts of the city with the same excitement they felt at an expensive restaurant. They felt like adventurers, constantly making new discoveries. They laughed a lot and in Pia’s memory they were sleeping with each other nonstop, spending half the day in bed, heading out onto the street to rustle up some food and wine, only to land back in bed a few hours later. They had so much to tell each other and so much to keep quiet about.
But now it was May.
And everything could have been different. As far as Pia was concerned, everything could always be different. Should always be different. Sometimes she thought, only to immediately shoo away the thought again, that Julian lacked imagination.
Facades passed by, rows of houses in the dark with only a few illuminated windows. Young dark men pulled small carts behind them and unlocked front doors to place daily newspapers on the doormats of apartments. Signs and billboards were shining, their large letters hawking or claiming something. Taxis with yellow lights glided past, and now and again someone staggered toward home or toward wherever. Routine or no routine, a job like or not like any other job — they still pictured how it would be if they got held up, how they would react. Of course they had practiced for it, but the reality was always different.
In the bakeries the first lights turned on, and Pia had the smell in her nose from the days when she’d walked home after a long night behind the bar. A few people trotted off for the early shift, and the day was beginning. Their rounds were almost done when she felt Julian’s hand on her thigh.
“Should I take it easy, baby?”
“No offense. But it’s not your fault. Or mine either, for that matter.”
“Just shut up.”
She settled her chin between her hands, pressed her cheeks with her fingers, and puckered up her lips. Julian turned toward Pia, held the back of her head, and kissed her. They were at a red light.