Ten Minutes of a Stranger

Her name is Gwen and she is about my size, but with a soft old lady face and white hair. She tells me when she was young her hair was so long that she could sit on a single braid of it, and so heavy that it gave her headaches. If she held it in her hands the headache would go away; she thinks maybe she should have worn it piled on top of her head like her great grandmother did. Now her hair only reaches her shoulders and it looks softly white. She has it pulled back on both sides by large hairclips; somehow, it makes me think of a little girl.

Today is her father’s birthday, she tells me when she goes to write the date on her check. He would be one hundred and two years old if he was still alive. She’s going to call her brother when she goes home. He has her father’s name. They still celebrate her father’s birthday, even if it is after the fact.

She used to work at a bank, a job which seems quietly cool, shiny, and heel-clicking to me. She didn’t like it very much; she says with so many women working together like that, someone was always stirring the pot. The woman in charge was very good at the work, she says, but when it came to people she was nonconfrontational and passive-aggressive. Once her boss called her, wanting to know what was going on, but she didn’t know because the gossip never got passed on to her. She tells me how she never gossiped, never liked gossip, and I wonder why I always vaguely distrust people who proclaim their hatred of gossip. Maybe because it seems much the same as people proclaiming their hatred of drama, and then in my experience they’re often the ones who create it.

She tells me about a man who used to come into the bank, a young black man who had a stuttering problem. She learned that if she pretended to be organizing things on her desk and didn’t look at him, he found it easier to talk to her. He was always very nervous when he came in, she says, and he always forgot to deduct things like checking fees, but she helped him with his banking and he did better when she didn’t make much eye contact with him. He always came to her desk and after she left she often wondered who took care of him when she wasn’t there. She hopes he found someone nice.

There is something sweet and maybe a little lonely about her; she seems reluctant to leave. After she’s gone I’m struck by how little I know about the strangers who walk into this office. Most of them are nearly as friendly as you’d expect Southerners to be, but most of them are also men and I’m still new here. So they give me a slightly confused look before they smile and then, if neither of my bosses are in the office at the moment, they tell me why they are here. These to-the-point exchanges work well for me; people interest me, lots of small talk doesn’t. And most people don’t walk around like Gwen, their stories slipping from their hands. I wish they would.


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