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John Updike's 'The Wallet'

John Updike’s ‘The Wallet’
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Even as he acted, Fulham knew his enemies, armed with his wallet, were running up giant bills buying cars, clothes, front-seat theatre tickets, mockingly extravagant meals. Yet the girls he talked to that Friday afternoon counseled delay; they all sounded seventeen, with placid, gum-chewing voices. As a group they seemed to have dealt with momentarily disappearing wallets before. Houston did agree to stop payment on the check, but the bank said the computer could not possibly be programmed to stop his account before early next week. The credit card offices all had busy phones and differing policies, and by the time Fulham hung up in exhaustion, his credit lay in a tangle, a hydra with a few of the heads cut off but most still writhing. He went through the whole house again, trying to imagine his self of yesterday in every tidy room, including the small room, once a sewing room, where they watched television. To discourage watching, the Fulhams had furnished it austerely; there was only the bare set, an oval rag rug, and a cushionless Windsor love seat with a plaid blanket neatly folded against one arm. The wallet’s non-existence rang out through the rooms like a pistol shot that leaves deafness in its wake; he stood stunned that an absence could be so decisive. It occurred to Fulham that the house would feel like this the day after he died.

Downstairs, the front door slammed and Diane’s after-golf shoes tapped across the floor. “Got the mail,” she called up. In his distraction he had forgotten to make his usual noon trip to the box at the end of the brick walk. But into his subconscious had filtered, hours ago, Rodolpho’s “Che gelida manina” from La Boheme, whistled off-key. The mail was dumped on the hall table with the petals fallen from the summer’s last roses. A long sand-colored envelope from Houston lay amid the junk and bills. It held the check, dated three weeks ago. No hidden message, no mark of misdirection or extra wear on the envelope betrayed where it had been for so long a time. In this blankness he felt a kind of magnificence, the same kind that declines to answer prayer. He found himself not consoled. Payment on the check had been stopped, it was worthless.

He awoke Saturday morning with a soreness in his stomach, a chafing hairball of vague anxiety that clarified into the conscious thought, I am a man without a wallet. The arrival of the check had lessened his fears of criminal conspiracy but isolated the wallet’s loss upon a higher plane, where it merged with landscapes and faces that had once belonged to his life and would never be seen again, melted into the void like the sad, sticky, oddly plausible stuff of dreams. Shame had replaced rage as his prime sensation; he had no wish to leave the house or go to his makeshift office or face the grandchildren who, downstairs in the hall, were noisily arriving. His daughter’s and his wife’s voices twined in a brief music ended by the slam of the front door and high heels briskly retreating down the walk. The children, an eleven-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl, spent the morning gorging on television, and at lunchtime little Tad handed Fulham his wallet. He said. “Did you want this, Grandpa? It was all folded up in the blanket.”

His fat, worn wallet. His own. “Oh, dear,” Diane said, putting her hand to her cheek in a choreographic gesture that seemed to Fulham to parody dismay. “When Red Shoes ended I tidied up and must have folded your wallet in without realizing it. Remember, we put the blanket over our laps because of the draft?”

That made sense. The nights were getting cooler. Now Fulham recovered a dim memory of being annoyed, on the hard Windsor settee, by the lump in his back pocket. He must have removed it while gazing at Cyd Charisse. As if in another scene from the movie he saw himself, close up, hold the wallet in his hand, where it evaporated like a snowflake.

“Grandpa has lots of wallets,” Ted’s little sister, Dorothea , chimed in. “He doesn’t care.”

“Oh now, that’s not quite true,” Fulham told her, squeezing the beloved bent book of leather between his two palms and feeling very grandpaternal, fragile and wise and ready to die.

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