Surveying the room, I was struck by how different these trainees appeared from the ones in my last session. It was my first stint as a trainer in a conservative, not-so-prosperous county—about three hours from the city by car. I knew bank mergers could cause disruption in such communities.
A beloved local institution, trusted for generations, had been gobbled up by a big bank that was based, along with its impersonal corporate bosses, in a distant metropolis. It was bound to create resentment, I thought. But those middle-aged rural trainees had been friendly, respectful—and the coaching I did on the new system had gone smoothly. Perhaps because they were relieved to retain their jobs as tellers, and even get a small bump in pay at the new bank, they’d been eager learners. Small-town values played a role as well, I suppose, and they graciously gave me a thank-you gift card on the last day.
The current group—urbanites of various ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds—was more typical for me. Although not unfriendly, they were more casual, less chatty, and a few looked bored. While the native-born attendees were at ease, a couple of immigrants appeared diffident, as if they were still trying to find their way in a bewildering city. Usually, one or two trainees in my class needed extra help, especially if their English was weak.
“Excuse me,” a young man said after we were done with our introductions. He was half-sprawled in the chair, his feet reaching up to the woman in front of him.
“Can I open the window? There’s an odor.”
Tittering. And then there was silence as everybody seemed to be looking at me. “Sure, if everybody is fine with it,” I said. “But I don’t smell anything.”
“You will if you come here.” Rising, he went to open the window.
There was more snickering when he mumbled, but it was scattered. A tingling sensation on my face felt like the onset of an ugly rash. Maybe he had a legitimate concern, but his attitude was disconcerting. I was a trainer, not a teacher—and I wasn’t interested in policing anybody.
“Let’s take a short break,” I said, relieved to hear the throbbing sound of a food truck as it pulled into our building’s parking lot.
Everybody left the room quickly. Walking up to the young man’s seat, I got a whiff. Spices? It was hard to tell, and now that the window was open, I wondered if the odor would return when they returned. Looking out, I could see the trainees standing in little clusters around the food truck as they talked, ate, laughed, drank, and smoked. Then my heart gave a lurch when I saw one person standing away from the others, silently scrolling through her cellphone.
Noor—that was her name. Traditionally dressed, with her dark hair tied in a bun, and looking older than the others, she’d been sitting quietly in front of the young man.
The phone in the adjacent office rang, pulling me away. I shut the door.
“How’s it going?” my boss said, sounding uncharacteristically subdued.
“Going well. We just started, of course.”
“Good to know. I called because we got a couple of complaints about . . . about an odor.”
“What kind of odor?” My stomach felt like the small ball I was squeezing in my hand.
“Well . . . curry, I think.” I sensed her discomfort. “It’s probably nothing. But let me know if you have any issues.”
“Thanks, but things are fine,” I said stiffly. A little guiltily, I sniffed the sleeve of my shirt—which I’d washed and ironed for the session—before heading back to the training room.
They were all in now, silently waiting for me, and I noticed that the young man and another trainee had moved to other seats. For the remaining day, I talked about our accounts and services, fees and penalties, rules and regulations, customer interactions, and safety guidelines, besides showing them a short video. The remaining days, I told them with a smile, would be devoted to computer training and the practice of transactions.
The next morning I was in the computer room, drinking my second cup of coffee before the trainees arrived, when the boss called.
“Just an update before I head out,” she boomed in her raspy voice. “Noor dropped out. Did she say anything yesterday?”
“No,” I said, sitting down. Feeling nauseous, I stopped drinking my coffee. Why had I been so cowardly? I should have spoken to Noor, instead of pretending everything was fine. Obviously, although she didn’t say anything, she’d felt uncomfortable.
“I’m glad she wasn’t upset,” my boss said.
I remained silent.
She mentioned that Noor cooked for her home-based catering business. The previous morning, in fact, she’d taken care of an order before coming to my class. Because her business, which relied on word-of-mouth and had no website, wasn’t steady, a friend had told her to apply for a bank teller position to supplement her income. However, after getting a taste of the bank job on the first day of training, she realized it wasn’t for her. Cooking was her strength.
Hanging up the phone, I poured out the rest of my coffee and popped an antacid to calm my stomach. The second day of training was about to begin.
One Year Later
After my walk one evening, I see an email from my former boss:
I’m sure you remember Noor. She opened a small restaurant not far from where I live. Haven’t checked it out, but I heard good things.
Looking up the restaurant’s address on my cellphone, I jump into my car. Noor’s Kitchen is wedged between a dry-cleaning joint and an ethnic grocery store. Good location, I think, opening the door. Inside, a pungent aroma greets me—and a smiling Noor walks towards me with a menu. She hasn’t recognized me yet.
by Murali Kamma
Murali Kamma is the author of Not Native: Short Stories of Immigrant Life in an In-Between World (Wising Up Press), which won an Independent Publisher Book Award. His fiction has appeared in Havik, Evening Street Review, Rosebud, Maryland Literary Review, BigCityLit, Indicia Lit, The Apple Valley Review, and other journals. One of his stories won second place in the Strands Flash Fiction Competition. He's the managing editor of Atlanta-based Khabar magazine, and an occasional contributor to New York Journal of Books. His stories have also appeared in The Best Asian Short Stories 2020 and Wising Up Press anthologies.