John Updike's 'The Wallet'
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.
Diane had had a lovely patrician face, and when she lifted her chin and thus pulled smooth the loose flesh beneath, it was still handsome, her abundant hair so utterly white as to seem an expensively sought-after effect. “How could it have been?”
“Easy. The house is big enough, anybody could slip in and out in a minute without our knowing. Anyway, it’s not up to me to figure out how to do it, it’s up to them. And they’ve done it. The bastards have done it, and I’m going to have to cancel every goddam credit card.”
She looked at him coolly, giving him her full attention for once, and said, “I’ve never seen you like this.”
“How am I?”
“It was my wallet. Everything is in it. Everything. Without that wallet, I’m nothing.” His tongue had outraced his brain, but once he said it he realized this to be true: without the wallet he was a phantom, living in a house without walls, worse than a caveman open to the wind and saber-toothed tigers. “And I know why they took it,” he went on. “To get the bank card. With that bank card they can now deposit and draw on that check they stole earlier.”
“Deposit it in your own account?”
“And then transfer it to their own, some how. I don’t know, I don’t know how criminals do their work exactly; that’s their job. I do know that with these computers there’s no more common sense in banking — a wino off the street can walk away with ten thousand dollar s if he knows how to satisfy the idiotic machine. People and institutions are being — what’s the phrase these kids have? — ripped off all the time. We ourselves have just been ripped off of — “He named the amount of the lost check from Houston and her blue eyes went round as she began to believe him. “Don’t you see?” Fulham pressed. “The check, and now the wallet — it’s too much of a coincidence.”
“I can’t believe,” Diane said weakly, “it’s as simple as you make it sound, with all these safeguards — our code word, for instance.”
He scoffed: “Hundreds of people know our code word by now — all the employees at the bank and anybody who’s ever stood behind us in line.” It was irrefutably clear to him that forces out there beyond the horizon of towering beech trees and dormered slate roofs were silently, invisibly conspiring to invade him and steal all his treasure. Every door and window, even the little apertures of the mail slot and the telephone, were holes through which his possessions, the accumulations of a lifetime, were being pulled from him. Ruinously the world has cast property into the form of nebulous, mechanized fluidity. The cards in the missing wallet opened into slippery tunnels of credit, veins of his blood. Fulham stood, feeling nauseous. “I’m going to call Houston and stop the check,” he told his wife. “Then the bank and freeze my account.”