John Updike's 'The Wallet'
“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.
The perpetrator struck again, inside the home. Waking on Friday morning, Fulham discovered that his wallet was not on the top of his bureau, where he almost invariably put it upon retiring. He looked in the hip pocket of the pants he had worn the day before, and then, with increasing desperation, on the closet floor, under the bed, in the bedside table, on the bathroom sink, into the pockets of all his pants hanging in the closets, and, insanely, all the pockets of all his coats, even those which had been hanging in dry-cleaning bags since June.
For the years and decades of his urban employment, Fulham had carried a breast wallet, a small leather shield above his heart, gradually thickening with the years. In his retirement he wore coats only to go out at night, and so, in a minor rite of passage, a slight change of armor, he bought a hip wallet to go with his new working uniform of slacks and sports shirt. Strange and forgettable at first, and a little unbalancing, the wallet soon came to feel like a friendly adjunct to his person, a reminder, in its delicate pressure upon his left buttock, of his new, freer stage of life. It was, the wallet, almost too plump to sit upon, containing plastic charge cards for BayBanks, NYNE, Brooks Brothers, Hertz, Visa, Amoco, American Express, MasterCharge, The Harvard Coop, Filene’s, the Newton-Wellesley Hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital, plus his plasticized driver’s license and paper cards signifying his membership in the Museum of Fine Arts, the Athenaeum, the Wellesley Country Club, the Tavern Club, the Harvard Club, Blue Cross-Blue Shield, and Social Security. Fulham was a sentimental and retentive man; the wallet also held, in its insert of transparent leaves, photos of his wife, daughter, and two grandchildren, and in its various leather pockets, a card showing his last draft classification (5-A), his insurance agent’s business card, six business cards of his own, a yellowed newspaper clipping recording his victory years ago in an intercollegiate tennis championship, and a little brown photograph, taken in a booth at the Topsfield Fair, of a seventeen-year-old girl with bangs whom he had once loved. There were also a number of obsolete receipts (for film left at the drugstore dry cleaning, a lawnmower to be sharpened) and perhaps sixty dollars in cash.
The cash was the least of it; it was the other things — the irreplaceable mementos, the credit cards that were infinitely tedious to replace — whose disappearance he could not endure, could not encompass. He methodically, yet with that frantic undercurrent which defeats method searched the large house, checking the bathroom floors, the creases behind sofa cushions, the drawers of his desk, the spaces above the books in the library. Fulham knew that on rare occasions, semi-consciously, he would find the wallet’s bulk bothersome and take it from his pocket to set it on a convenient surface. He went over the quiet events of the evening before as best he could fish them from his memory’s gray depths: dinner, a walk out into the garden to admire the asters and the first turning leaves, a little time spent in the library leafing through the latest issue of Barron’s, a half hour watching with Diane a rerun of an old movie, itself a remake, Red Shoes, with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.The production numbers lacked grandeur on the little screen and the plot spun painfully between them. He had forgotten how high Astaire’s voice was, how slight. And Charisse, whom he had also once loved, looked stiff and uneasy under the burden of her fake Russian accent. Fulham had gone to bed ahead of his wife, undressing, as best he could remember, in his usual pattern, and reading himself into nodding with an Agatha Christie he may have read decades before; faint sensations deja vu teased the edges of his dissolving consciousness as Poirot paced off precise distances in the murder-stricken drawing room.
In the morning he recalled that there had been, between the times in the library and the television room, a call from his daughter, saying they were bringing the children over early in the morning so she and Rob could drive to New Haven for a football game and an overnight at another couple’s. Fulham went to the spot where he had answered the call, a nook of many small shelves just off the kitchen. Suddenly inspired, he deduced that here, amid the leaning cookbooks and rarely used hors d’oeuvre plates was where his wallet had to be; he saw it — fat, brown, with corners rubbed pale and the shape of a credit card denting the leather as sometimes a woman’s underpants show in shallow relief through a very tight dress — and emitted a small crow of triumph before realizing that what he took for the wallet was an old out-of-date address book that Diane had not bothered to throwaway. His hallucination rattled him and doubled the fury with which he searched the house room by room, corner by corner. The wallet had ceased to exist.
“It’s been stolen,” he told his wife at lunch.