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T he city braved Election day with umbrellas and rain coats, tracking mud into the residences of grim-faced citizens who now had second thoughts about allowing their homes to be used as official polling places. As drivers skidded and swerved on that rainy Tuesday, talk show hosts bantered with callers whoinsisted that the downfall of America was imminentif their candidate lost.

After Esther finished voting that morning, she switched on her car radio as she headed toward work. The voice of King Clever blared inside her car. "Amerifriends, we are losing ground. Our rights are being eroded as we speak. Affirmative action activists, welfare rights advocates, feminists, AIDS activists, they are all encroaching on our rights as red-blooded Americans. And I tell you, we need to do something before it's too late. By God, I hope today isn't the beginning of too late." On that ominous note, Esther switched the station. King Clever wasn't talking to her.

The rain was coming down in soft, feathery wisps as Esther turned onto Cranston. The wet weather had slowed the progress of the clean-up efforts on the block, and as she sped along the boulevard, Esther was dismayed once again at the many burned-out hulls and damaged stores that remained from the time of civil unrest. She couldn't help but think about all the pristine West Side and Valley neighborhoods where April 29 had left no mark. Not two feet away, a crowd of young black teenagers was standing quietly at the bus stop. Their arms were weighted down with books. For some reason she couldn't explain, the sight of them warmed her and made her feel hopeful. Esther let out a small sigh. As her silver BMW zoomed onto the freeway, she felt drained, even as she was on her way to begin her day.

Esther stayed in her office the entire morning, working on a personnel report. She enjoyed evaluating her employees, appraising them in a systematic way. From time to time, she glanced through the glass partition or opened the door and stood just outside, listening and watching to make sure things in operations were running smoothly, that everything was functioning in an orderly manner. Each time she checked, she saw that Hector and the three other tellers were working steadily, with pleasant smiles on their faces. Toward lunchtime, when Esther glanced over at the cage, the lines were beginning to get longer. She was about to tell the assistant operations manager to help out until the lines got shorter, when she heard a piercing scream, followed by frightened shrieks. Looking through the partition, she saw a black boy, not more than sixteen, running wildly toward the entrance, his footsteps rapid and frantic. One of the heavy glass doors flew open, and the youth, skinny and fast, raced through. As he was running out, the Western Express deliveryman, his arms full of mail, was coming in. "Hey...," he said as the youthcollided with him, sending letters flying all over the courtyard. In seconds, the boy was gone.

A middle-aged black woman standing in one of the tellers' lines was screaming. "My money, he took all my money." As Esther rushed to ward her, she could barely hear herself think.

"What happened?" she asked Hector, who seemed to have leaped over the tellers' gage

"The woman was holding some money in her hand. And a boy, he grabbed the money and ran," Hector said.

"Call the police," Esther commanded.

The woman was still shrieking, ignoring the people around her, who tried to quiet her. "One thousand dollars," she cried. "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!"

Esther heard a woman behind her say, "Where the security guard? He supposed to be protecting people. The bank should pay you!"

Oh, Lord, Esther thought. She walked up to the woman and put her hand firmly on her arm. "Excuse me, ma'am. I'm Esther Jackson, the regional operations manager. I know you're quite upset, and I wonder if you would mind stepping into my office. Right this way."

The crying woman whirled around to face Esther, who was still gripping her elbow. She was a small, buxom, pecan-colored woman; her dark eyes were red from crying. "I think the bank should be liable. I was standing right here in line, about to make a deposit, and a thief comes and snatches the money right out of my hands. What kind of security do you people have?" The woman was sniffling and coughing as she spoke.

"If you wouldn't mind stepping into my office," Esther said quietly, squeezing just slightly on the woman's elbow. The woman snatched her arm away. "I demand to see the manager," she said loudly.

Esther said quietly, "I am the manager."

"The real manager."

Esther swallowed. "I am the real manager."

"Humph! " The woman eyed her suspiciously. "Well, that man just stole a thousand dollars from me, and I want this bank to replace my money."

Realizing that the woman was enjoying the audience she'd attracted and wasn't about to take the discussion into a private office, Esther tried to get her to lower her voice by whispering, hoping that she would get the message. "Miss, I'm quite sorry about your loss. I can understand how upset you are, but the policy of Angel City is that it isn't liable for the theft of any money not deposited in an authorized account."

The woman raised her voice several decibels. "Whatchu mean, authorized account? I was in the damn bank. Where the hell was the security?"

Esther held her breath. Hector was quickly and efficiently getting the lines back in order. The people were openly gawking. "Security guards aren't required to intercept robberies," Esther said with a great deal more calmness than she felt.

"Well, what the hell do you have security guards for if they're not supposed to stop robberies?" The woman placed her two plump hands on her hips; her neck started swerving back and her bottom lip protruded. Esther read the signs and knew that an explosion was imminent. She stepped backward just as the woman opened her mouth and bellowed: "I want my damn money!"


"You ain't no manager," the woman said suddenly and venomously.

"I beg your pardon."

"You heard me. I told you I want to see the real manager."

Lord, Esther prayed, please don't let me go off on this woman. Please help me not to get ignorant and act a fool in front of my employees. She lowered her voice to a whisper that only the woman in front of her could possibly hear, and then, without changing her expression, which was one of professional concern, she could feel herself crossing over an emotional line, pressing a mental button. Without anything discernible taking place, the South Side of her personality blew through her like a harsh, grit-filled wind. Her neck automatically started bobbing, and when she looked down, her two hands were placed firmly on her hips. "Let me tell you something, sister," she hissed through teeth clamped together so tight there wasn't space for air. "I don't know what you mean by a real manager. If you're looking for a white man to solve your problems, I'm sorry to disappoint you. Now, I am the regional operations manager, not only for this bank but for four other downtown branches. If you can't handle someone who looks like you being in charge, then I'll be happy to refer you to another bank." The two women stared at each other, their eyes as hard as two pairs of dice.

Please, Lord.

Esther heard a slight noise. She looked to her side, and the Western Express man was standing next to her.

"May I say something?" he asked the woman. His voice was straight from a Barry White album, basso profundo, the kind of low, gravelly tone that was created for phrases like "Right on, right on." The woman closed her mouth. He had everyone's attention. "Now, I know you upset, but look at this logically. If you was waving a fistful of money in 7-Eleven and the same thing happened, would you expect the store to pay you back? Of course not. And they have security guards there too. But I been ripped off before, and I know how that feels. Here. I hope this will help a little." He handed her a twenty-dollar bill. Then he turned to the rest of the people in the two tellers' lines and said, "If anyone is interested in helping this lady out, she sure would appreciate it."

Several people came over and handed the woman money--some ones, a few fives, and even a couple of tens and twenties--which she immediately put inside her purse. "Thank you for at least trying to help me, which is more than the manager did. " She gave Esther a long, mean stare. "You didn't have to get nasty. Think you so important," she said, her tone surly. "If y'all can't protect my money, I ain't coming back here no more," she said.

"If you would like to close your account at this time, I'd be happy to help you with that," Esther said. The

woman glared at her, then turned away abruptly as two policemen approached them.

Thank you, Lord, Esther said to herself. She answered the officers' perfunctory questions and listened as the woman described her assailant. In less than five minutes, the '~ woman and the police were gone. After they left, she surveyed the area quickly to make sure that the two lines were moving, and then

she walked back to her office.

Reprinted by arrangement with G. P. Putnam's Sons, a division of the Putnam Berkley Group, from Brothers and Sisters by Bebe Moore Campbell.
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