The ATM asks whether you would like your money in $10 bills or $50s, but you take a moment to consider whether you should be withdrawing any cash at all. Perhaps this ATM can sense your trepidation. The machine has been friendly so far, vocalizing your transaction in a sort of electronic singsong, part of Citibank’s new Conversation Initiative, but moments earlier, it asked if you were having an agreeable Friday evening, enjoying the early days of the equinox. You replied jokingly that it was too early to tell whether or not the night would be agreeable, but this ATM already seems to know that you are conflicted. The whole ATM Conversation Initiative has managed to reveal your defense mechanisms, you realize.

“$10 bills are better for low-key nights,” the ATM vocalizes to you now. “Coffee shops and boutiques appreciate the smaller tender.” The ATM’s electronic voice is friendly and vaguely feminine. You wonder what sort of conversations this particular ATM has had with other patrons today, and what personal minutiae other people have revealed so trustingly into its receiver speakers.

On the ATM’s screen, an image emerges of a warmly-lit café—Dean & DeLuca—where silver espresso machines rise up behind happy couples chatting at rustic tables. You marvel at the ambiance in the image, an obvious advertising ploy to get you to crave a Dean & DeLuca espresso, and you briefly do consider the unique comforts and romance that a coffee shop like that might offer later tonight.

“Of course, if you have grander ambitions for nightlife—say, tonight’s baseball game or a dance club—then $50 bills would be adequate,” the ATM says, and switches its screen to a stock image of gaudy neon lights surrounding a nondescript DJ in a crowded bar.

“I’m taking my neighbor out tonight,” you reply. “She and I will grab dinner and see a movie.” You have not actually asked out your neighbor yet, but vocalizing it makes the plan feel inevitable, sets the illicit night in motion.

The ATM’s screen goes blank, and in a serious, electronic monotone, the machine asks, “How does your wife feel about all this? You really should consider her feelings.” From the informative source of your joint checking account, this ATM has drawn sweeping conclusions about your marriage to your wife, judged your potential infidelity with your neighbor, and instantly assessed your life choices.

“Well, my wife is out of town,” you reply. On the ATM screen, an older image emerges of you and your wife posing in Yosemite. It was the profile photo that you and your wife gave to the bank when the two of you opened the joint checking account five years ago. You suddenly hate that the bank keeps a photo of you and your wife on file, and you think that this whole ATM Conversation Initiative is nothing but an annoying publicity idea on the part of the financial sector.

“Do you think I’m evil for cheating with my neighbor?” you ask the ATM.

The ATM, returning to its swaying cadence, says, “It’s not really my place to play judge or jury in human social matters, is it?”

You imagine how this evening might unfold, meeting your neighbor, Iris, at her house under a veil of secrecy so other neighbors don’t get nosy or draw assumptions. But this ATM already has drawn assumptions. It knows.

“That’s right—it’s not your place to judge me,” you say. “Just give me the money in $10 bills.”

The ATM clears all images of you and your wife from its screen and swaps in a generic image of a flower garden. It then asks, “Are you OK to accept the $4 service fee?”

You take a moment to consider the expense, and the ATM uses your pause as an invitation to elaborate: “Of course, you can’t put a price on love, whatever that might mean in these pressing times. But $4 is a standard user fee for this banking region of the country.”

“I didn’t say anything about love,” you say. “I said was that I was going to meet up with my neighbor.”

“Right, not your wife,” the ATM jabs.

That same photo of you and your wife at Yosemite returns to the ATM screen, both of you posing on white stone, caught up in the exhilaration of your first hike on Half Dome after getting engaged.

“It’s also not really my place to dissect something as complicated as love,” the ATM adds.

“Why do you care, anyway?” you say. You realize you are raising your voice into the machine’s receiver.

“When did I say that I care?” the ATM asks. “I want happiness for all parties involved. That is why I hand out money.”

Prompted by the vagueness of that word—happiness—you struggle to recall why you are so discontented with your wife and the married life that the two of you have carved out together anyway. You draw only snippets of your wife’s negligible behaviors that annoy you—the accidental belches when she drinks a beer, and the oddly mossy stench of her sweaty feet after she jogs. Surely there must be more significant offenses somewhere in the depths of your marriage, but when you cannot think of anything else, you realize that perhaps you are the offense.

You say to the ATM: “I want happiness too, and I guess my wife is too familiar. Familiarity doesn’t always equal happiness, you know? But let me guess—now you’re going to tell me that it’s not really your place to talk about happiness either?”

“No,” the ATM says, pausing, “But a word of advice: if you frequently take such a harsh tone, I find it hard to believe that any woman would be happy with you.”

The ATM’s screen changes to a stock image, dozens of people walking across the Brooklyn Bridge on a clear-skied day. You imagine all of the people in the picture as cheaters too, nervously going about their secret, adulterous romances just like you.

As a last resort, you try to level with the ATM. “If you were me—I mean, if you were human—would you ever cheat on your wife?”

“I’m just an ATM—the only choices I’m knowledgeable about involve denominations and service fees. Which reminds me, did you decide to waive tonight’s whole financial transaction and mull things over before you make such a big decision?”

“Just answer the question,” you demand. “Would you cheat?”

“To be honest,” the ATM says, “it’s futile to converse about cheating at all because it means different things to different people. That’s why handing out money is easy—money is money, no matter the time or circumstance.”

You slap a hand against the top panel of the ATM. You expect the machine to feel solid, immovable, but are surprised by its percussive hollowness. Other people have arrived at the bank’s vestibule; they’re waiting for their turn to withdraw cash and converse with an ATM too.

The ATM says, “If you’re so hung up on my decisions about your own situation, perhaps it’s best to opt for a low-key night. Coffee shops and boutiques are good places. You can browse and enjoy some downtime there. You offered no verbal objections to the service fee, so I’ll give you the money in $10 bills, as requested.”

“Finally,” you say.

The ATM’s metal paneling is cold. The air in the vestibule is cold. Everything is cold—it’s the equinox, you remember. You feel the internal gears of the machine revolving, counting your bills. You hold a hand out in anticipation of the money that will be dispensed shortly. As you wait, dragging slowly through the present moment, you recall another annoyance of your wife. She caught you spying on Iris one time, ogling from the vantage point of the hydrangeas, and instead of scolding you or growing enraged, your wife just laughed. A snorty, discounting laugh. It was as if she was amused by your masculinity and humored by your attraction to a large-breasted, unknowable neighbor. In that snort—in that laugh—your wife revealed her blind trust that you’d never act on such attraction, never betray her for the newly-single, perky neighbor across the street. And perhaps your wife had been right at that time, in that moment of happiness and familiarity. But perhaps being right had just added to all the other objections, yet another unmistakable offense.

The ATM machine suddenly begins to click. Its internal gears audibly roll over each other, but no money is dispensed.

“Hey, what the hell?” you say into its receiver, but that friendly, feminine voice does not respond.

The machine’s internal gears click again—still no money emerges. Finally, a message blinks on the ATM’s screen: THIS MACHINE OUT OF BILLS.

You hit the machine harder this time and give it a shove. It doesn’t budge. You demand your money. You feel cheated—so much information divulged, yet nothing gained. And you wait for the machine to vocalize something to you. An assurance? An apology? The voice doesn’t return though, and a new message on the screen notes that your entire transaction has been voided. Then it blinks: GOODBYE.

You hear other people conversing with other ATMs as you leave the vestibule. They are discussing the day, disclosing revelations, and thanking their respective talking machines. There is so much chatter in the confined space. You picture the other people’s fingers anxiously grabbing at the dispensed bills and wonder what their own Friday nights might hold and what deceptions might emerge.

Sliding your empty hands deep into your pockets, you probe for some warmth. Even when you get outside the vestibule, you can still hear all the chatter through the glass doors—more of a steady hum than distinct voices. You begin walking home to your wife because you are sick of the crowd and sick of all the conversation, but you hope the hum will stay with you for a while, follow you as you walk, just a steady reassurance that there will always be room for secrets.

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John Burgman

About John Burgman

John Burgman is the author of a book, Why We Climb. His writing has appeared online or in print at Esquire, Portland Review, The Rumpus, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @John_Burgman