John Updike's 'The Wallet'
NOTE: In memory of Pulitzer-Prize winning author and New Englander John Updike, we share this short story from Yankee Magazine September 1985.
Fulham, with a history of hypertension, had taken early retirement from his brokerage firm and managed his own investments and those of a favored few old clients in an upstairs room of his large white house in Wellesley.
He went to this room, overlooking his side yard’s trimmed shrubs, every morning with his Wall Street Journal and second cup of decaffeinated coffee. He kept up his charts and his correspondence, made his phone calls and a daily visit to the post office; but the illusion of integration with the larger circuits of the world was harder to maintain than when he enjoyed a corner office on the twentieth floor of a Boston skyscraper with swift-moving, enameled secretaries to shield and buttress him and to turn his hesitant murmurs of dictation into official communications on stiff company stationery. His mail, now that the postmen of an increasingly lazy and insolent government were no longer permitted to walk up to a doorway more than a specified distance from the sidewalk, came to him in a tin box down by his white picket fence, and this casual and hazardous housing somehow made additional light of the old pomp of finance.
For some days he had been expecting a large check, which the sender, a Houston oil company, had not chosen to send by registered mail or any of the express services now available. The check, in the low six figures, represented considerable acumen and initial investment on Fulham’s part, and he was anxious to stow it away in one of his bank accounts.
Every noon, after the mailman — a young man who with annoying musicality whistled opera arias as he strolled along — had banged shut the lid of the box, Fulham hurried down the long brick walk to discover, amid the bright sheaves of bills and fourth-class solicitations, whether or not the check had come. It had not, day after day. Standing by the mailbox, he could feel his heart thudding, annoyingly, like one of those large trucks that went by every now and then on their quiet street, shaking the house. A week went by, and then another. Phone calls to Houston produced only a series of drawling assurances that the check had been mailed and had not been cashed, and undoubtedly it would show up. One lady, who from the resonant lilt of her voice seemed to be black and, like the mailman, excessively musical, even explained to him that the company never registered checks on the theory that this called attention to them and in some cases had instigated thievery among the poorer class of postal workers.
The possibility of thievery had not in so many words occurred to Fulham; he had always thought of the postal service as an overarching entity, like the cloud pattern projected nightly on Channel 5, which, however unpredictable, in the last analysis inevitably delivers every bit of vapor and wind entrusted to it. Now the possibility had been raised that the system had holes in it, through one of which had fallen a sum of money that should be his, numbers that should already be punched into his bank’s computer and generating interest for his account. Each day that the check didn’t arrive, he computed, he was losing more money than it cost him and his wife to eat. His calls to Houston rose in pitch of insistence, and his comforters correspondingly rose in the company’s hierarchy, urging him, however, in the end, to wait a few more days before asking them — as was his privilege, of course — to stop the check and issue another.
He slept poorly, agitated by the injustice of it. There was no one to blame and no court in which to place an appeal — just an impenetrable delivery system stretched airily between New England and Texas. Awake at odd hours, he imagined footsteps softly passing on the sidewalk and hands rattling at his mailbox. The box itself, substituted by governmental decree for his infallibly retentive front door letter slot, seemed a perilous extension of himself, an indefensible outpost, subject to graffiti and casual battering. He tried to imagine in detail the processes of the mails — the belts, the sacks, the shufflings, the sorting machines that fling envelopes in all directions. He yearned to seize and shake that vast imagined system, to shake loose that stuck small fortune so blithely confided to a scrap of paper within another folded scrap. The wish to shake shook him; his pulpy, intimidated heart filled his skull, the bed, and the bedroom with its thumping.
His wife, awakened by his furious rotation beneath the covers, couldn’t grasp the problem, the indignity. Each day she was still eating, still tending her garden in the milky morning cool of these late summer days and then going over to the club for lunch and a swim or nine holes with her giggling, brown-legged female foursome. For Diane, perhaps there was no abyss. She had been a schoolteacher forty years ago, inculcating young minds with the lessons of cause and effect and of patience.
“The man said,” she reminded Fulham in the middle of the night, “that if it didn’t show up in a few more days they’d cancel it and mail another.”
“That means waiting more days. I should be getting interest on that amount.”
“But we don’t need the interest.”
“It’s not a question of need, it’s a question of right. We have a right to that money. Furthermore, every day that check is uncashed the company is drawing interest on its balance. Not only are we losing a profit, they’re gaining one, thanks to their own inefficiency.”
“I think you’re making too much of it. There’s no issue involved, it’s just one of those things. It got on the bottom of a mail sack somewhere.”
She thus managed in her soothing effort to stumble on the imagery that infuriated him: the flaw in the mindless system, the letter lost at the bottom of a sack forever. The outrage without a perpetrator, or at least a perpetrator who could be discovered, who would declare himself. A certain horrible smugness within the actual, imperfect and blundering as it was: an unanswerableness.
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