"The Wallet" by Sarah Hutchins

Sarah Hutchins

Sarah Hutchins

Sarah Hutchins earned a Masters in Fine Arts from Antioch University. Her pieces have been published by Portland Monthly Magazine, Black Heart Magazine, Haunted Waters Press, Zoetic Press, Blink-Ink, and others. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

The Wallet

While considering how to tell her roommate Tammy about the abysmal job interview and need for another rent extension, Judy notices a brown, rectangular object lying on the bus seat across the aisle. A wallet would be a welcome distraction, but too often she’s mistaken trash—old candy wrappers, wads of chewed gum, used condoms—as valuables because she needs new prescription glasses, which her subsidized healthcare doesn’t consider medically necessary. Poor vision—not inattention to detail—caused her to lose her last assembly job, as she explained to the temp agency’s interviewer, who, instead of valuing her honesty, concluded the conversation with a load of hooey that she doesn’t have the requisite skillset for any available position. Leaving, she passed by a parade of applicants, acne-spotted boys wearing baggy suits and girls teetering on rhinestone-encrusted heels. What were their qualifications?

Judy glances around the bus. Behind the driver, a young mother shakes a rattle and coos at her disinterested baby. The only other occupant, a teenage girl wearing large pink headphones, is slumped in the back row, her head pressed against the fogged window. Judy snatches the object and hides it within her enclosed hands, waiting for someone to protest. Her fingertips trace the delicate veins of leather, and she counts, one Mississippi, two Mississippi—an old habit from when her kids were young. Buildings blur past, spotted by the multicolored tents and blue tarps of the homeless. When she reaches ten Mississippis and no one’s demanded to know what she thinks she’s doing, she slips the wallet into her backpack.

Heart pounding, she congratulates herself on her good deed. Most people would’ve left the wallet on the seat for a dishonest person to steal or hand it to the driver, whose integrity can’t be trusted. In the years she’s ridden the 35, she’s never recovered any of her lost belongings: an umbrella, a lunchbox, a paperback. She’s going to make some stranger’s day and isn’t too proud to accept a reward, like Tammy last Christmas when she returned a shopper’s wallet and received $100 in thanks—proof that good people still exist, despite what the media would have you believe.

For the first time in a long while, Judy feels useful.

* * *

Judy disembarks a few blocks from her apartment. The Pacific Northwest’s renowned grayness surrounds her: the dusky clouds, the asphalt streets, and the ashen apartment buildings like giant tombstones. Her cold joints clamor with every step, but the prospect of the wallet buoys her. She takes it from her backpack and flips it open, revealing a smartphone glowing across three slots stuffed with cards. She hunches over it like that hideous creature Gollum. God, how her son had loved The Lord of the Rings. Now that Jordan has lived in China for several years, she misses the movies’ constant drone.

Inside the apartment, Judy maneuvers through the living room’s claustrophobic pathway between looming stacks of Tammy’s VHS tapes, broken VCRs, dogeared romance novels, and boxed craft supplies. In the kitchen, Judy sets the kettle to boil and then bustles down the hall toward the sound of a muffled infomercial coming from Tammy’s bedroom. Judy knocks and, when Tammy opens her door, floral perfume and body odor waft into the hallway. Tammy blinks at her from behind thick glasses. “What?”

“I got something I want to show you,” says Judy. “Bring your laptop.”

“Give me a minute.”

Tammy shuts the door, and Judy returns to the kitchen and scoops instant coffee into a World’s Greatest Mom mug. When the kettle screeches, she pours in the boiling water and vanilla creamer. The stirring spoon clanks against the porcelain as she carries the steaming beverage to the dining room table where she inspects the wallet. Its leather smells damp and expensive. Inside, the smartphone’s lock screen flashes the gap-toothed grins of two toddlers, a boy and a girl, playing in a cluster of orange tulips. The girl cradles a plush doll while the boy reaches toward the camera with his small, muddy hand. Judy feels an echo from decades past when she struggled to get Jordan and Joselyn to pose at the tulip festival in Woodburn. They were too busy whining about how they wanted to ride in the hot air balloon, even though she’d already said no. The day ended in tears. Joselyn was always a crybaby—Judy thought that the girl would never be able to live on her own, much less a small Peruvian town—and Jordan blubbered about a bee sting. In the end, the film was overexposed and none of the photos turned out.

As the screen fades to black, Judy pulls out the cards one-by-one: a debit card, three credit cards, a punch card for a local coffee shop, and a driver’s license for Alexander James Fowler. The creases etched around his eyes and into his cheeks denote the easy smile of the ex-homecoming king, the affable salesman, the good-natured family man—the kind of man Judy wishes Jordan and Joselyn’s father had been.

Judy’s mug is half empty when Tammy enters the dining room with her laptop. “Well, did you get the job?”

“No,” Judy admits and gestures to the items scattered across the table. “But this is a good omen.”

Tammy shuffles through the credit cards. “Diamond, platinum… jackpot, Jude. Well done.”

Judy flushes with pleasure. “Can you find him online?”

Tammy grunts noncommittally as her fingers stumble across the trackpad and keyboard.

Judy wills herself to be patient. Tammy’s always been moody. When they worked together at Nellie’s Maid Service, she never smiled. If it weren’t for their frequent carpools hopping from house to house, they might never have gotten to know one another, first bonding over their clients’ ridiculous opulence and entitlement and then over their own divorces and financial ruin during the 2008 recession. After Nellie fired them both for receiving an online one-star review complaining they’d made her home—a four-story with plush snow-white carpets, alabaster couches, pearly upholstered dining room chairs, and hundreds of glass-encased porcelain figurines—dirtier, Tammy and Judy maintained their habitual weekend get-togethers of jewelry-making and thrifting. Judy marveled at how Tammy’s thick fingers dexterously twisted fine silver wires, beads, and pendants into intricate designs. After Judy’s latest eviction—due to another ten percent rent increase, which she blamed on the influx of Californians—Tammy offered her second bedroom. Judy could avoid the time-intensive apartment search, application fees, deposits, and risk of being denied due to her bankruptcy and past evictions. Plus, they’d both save on rent. Tammy called it a win-win.

Tammy picks up a credit card and asks, “Want anything from Amazon?”

“Wait—what are you doing?”

“What does it look like?”

Judy squints at the screen and shakes her head. “This isn’t right.”

“What else did you have in mind?”

“I thought we’d look up his phone number. Maybe he’ll give us a reward, like the man you helped out.”

Tammy looks annoyed. “What man?”

“That man last Christmas who accidentally left his wallet at Macy’s while you were working there. When you returned it, he gave you a hundred bucks.”

Tammy laughs. “Oh, him.”

“Mr. Fowler might give us an even higher reward on account of the cell phone.”

Tammy doesn’t say anything for a moment, just sips her coffee. “This is our reward.”

“What do you mean?”

When Tammy doesn’t answer, Judy feels foolish. She understands but doesn’t want to. With Jordan and Joselyn flung across the globe, Tammy’s her only real support system. “We still might get something.”

“Or we might get shit,” says Tammy, typing the credit card number into the billing information. “What do you care anyway? You’ve never met him.”

“He has a family to support.”

“So? A lot of men with families are still assholes.”

“Maybe he’s one of the good ones.”

“Maybe he’s a psychopath. Here, I’ll look him up.” Tammy taps his name into the browser and clicks on the first result. “Alexander J. Fowler is the principal product specialist of Globemann, Inc., the world’s leading partnership firm for international and domestic businesses. Since 2012, Mr. Fowler has focused on leveraging our unique network with an emphasis on improving the quality and consistency of service and output for increased client satisfaction—What a bunch of crap. This is corporate-speak for someone who’s an expert in ripping off people like you and me.” Tammy shakes the credit card. “You know what I call this? Karma. Besides, the banks will write off the charges once he calls and says they aren’t his. If anyone owes us, it’s the banks.”

Judy nods, conceding to the truth in Tammy’s statement. The federal government bailed out the banks, which then screwed over average citizens. Since Judy and Tammy foreclosed a decade ago, they watched both their homes’ market values triple on Zillow. Today, their situations could be completely different. But, as Judy used to remind her kids, life isn’t fair.

“Well?” Tammy asks.

“No, I don’t want anything.”

“Suit yourself,” says Tammy, clicking to submit the order.

The screen flashes an error saying that the payment information’s invalid, and Judy exhales in relief. Tammy tries the second and third cards, all to no avail. Judy’s not proud of her passivity but reassures herself that she knew deep down the cards wouldn’t work. Everything always turns out in the end.

“Don’t forget,” says Tammy. “I need your half of the rent by 8 am. I got errands to run first thing tomorrow.”

Judy opens her mouth to explain that she needs another extension, but a tangible chill has settled between them. Tammy’s admission about last Christmas, how she committed a crime, and was willing to commit another tonight revealed a hideous, grasping part of herself, and Judy’s refusal to forfeit the moral high ground could be viewed as a type of betrayal and reproach. She decides it’s best to wait and start fresh in the morning when they can both pretend to have forgotten.

* * *

Judy’s sleeping pills knock her out so thoroughly that Tammy’s already gone when she wakes the next morning. While she fights grogginess with a cup of coffee, she calls Globemann, Inc. but can’t get past the receptionist, who, in response to Judy’s request for a meeting, chirps, “I’m more than happy to sign for anything that belongs to Mr. Fowler.”

Judy doesn't trust anyone with such an artificially smooth tone, what passes for professional these days, so she says, “Why don’t you just have him call me?”

“Certainly,” agrees the receptionist, who doesn’t bother to read back Judy’s name and number, just thanks her for calling and hangs up.

Judy can’t find an email address, social media account, or any other method of contacting Mr. Fowler, so all she can do is wait. She decides that if he offers her a reward, she’ll refuse cash and ask instead for a job. Surely he’ll be able to pull some strings to hire someone who’s proven herself to be so trustworthy.

She spends the morning submitting job applications and the afternoon interviewing for a cashiering position at the local grocery store, where the hiring manager’s eyes roam disapprovingly over her best outfit, black slacks and floral blouse now a bit too snug and worn. Still, while she’s walking back from the bus stop, a call from an unknown number revives her hope until an automated voice says, “This is an attempt to collect a debt….”

At home, a typed letter waits on the dining room table. “Dear Judy, I regret to inform you that, unless I receive the agreed rent payment in full within 72 hours, I must insist that you remove yourself and your belongings from the premises within that timeframe. Any failure to comply will result in a phone call to the authorities who will forcibly remove you and charge you with trespassing.” Signed by Tammy, a lawyer, and a notary, the document looks official.

Judy’s heart lurches at the unbidden memory of watching the police toss her belongings onto the curb and order her to vacate the property. Humiliation heats her cheeks as she recalls her mattress, naked of its sheets, lumpy and stained orange, exposed right there on the sidewalk for everyone to see. The rest, the scratched furniture, unfinished photo albums, well-used dish-ware, and clothes blowing in the breeze, no longer felt like her belongings but a junk sale’s pathetic cast-offs. At least she’d had enough money to hire some movers. Now, she doesn’t even have that.

Her hand shakes when she knocks on Tammy’s door. When the door opens, the soap opera’s so loud that Judy yells to be heard. “Can I talk to you?”

“I don’t know what to tell you that the letter doesn’t already say.”

“I don’t have the money right now, but I will get it to you as soon as I can.”

Tammy stares impassively, so unlike those early days, before they squabbled over which way the silverware goes into the dishwasher and or how late is appropriate to run the laundry machine, when she drove them to the beach to browse used bookstores, cheaper than those in town, and stop at Spirit Mountain Casino, not to gamble—well, maybe a few slots—but to eat at the buffet and relive their youth with live performances by Chicago, Three Dog Night, and Smokey Robinson.

Judy shakes the letter. “This isn’t necessary. You know me. I’m a hard worker, and I always pay my share. I just need a little more time.”

“Do you think the landlord gives me extra time? No. You knew before you moved in how much was due and when. It’s not really honest you know to constantly assume I’m going to be lenient. It’s really this simple: get the money or get out.”

The door begins to close, and Judy presses her hand against the white particle board. “Please, Tammy. As your friend—“

“—a friend is someone who pays her rent on time. If you want help, pawn that phone or ask your kids.”

The door closes before Judy can respond. She knocks again and again until she’s pounding and the TV volume increases. She tries the doorknob, but it’s locked. “Will you please talk to me? You can’t just shut me out.”

But Tammy has shut her out. The door remains closed, an abyss of dirty white paint as the TV drones on and on. An actor says loudly, “Don’t be silly. Of course I’ll love you forever.”

That anything could last forever is the greatest fiction of all.

* * *

Sitting at the dining room table, Judy battles discouragement as she scrolls through Craigslist, Indeed, and Monster. Her last job search took two months and, even if she finds something right away, she won’t receive her first check for at least two weeks. Each application takes about an hour to complete and sometimes longer. The required fields are so damn small they’re hard to see, even with the default settings adjusted for visibility. Before leaving for Peru, Joselyn—so damn smug, as though their mother-daughter roles had reversed—tried to talk her into buying a computer, but Judy, unconvinced that such a large purchase would greatly enhance her life, conceded only to a smartphone.

It’s been a while since Judy last spoke with Joselyn or Jordan. She wonders how they’re doing and what they’d say about the wallet, whether it would even interest them. She messages Jordan, “Thinking of you. Hope all is well. Love, Mom.” After some hesitation, she sends an identical message to Joselyn. When they respond, Judy won’t burden them by asking for money as Tammy suggested. Nor will she lie about her circumstances but reassure them it’s no big deal, nothing she can’t handle on her own. If they offer assistance on their own accord, well, she could take it from there.

Tammy doesn’t emerge from her room all day, not even to use the bathroom. She’s acting like a petulant child. And over what? Some canceled credit cards? Let the goddamn would-be-thief’s bladder burst. She had some nerve suggesting that Judy might stoop to pawning Mr. Fowler’s phone. Speaking of whom, he still hasn’t returned her call. He must be an extremely busy man. He can’t possibly be so rich that it’s worthless to him. Can he? She googles the model and finds it on Apple’s website for $999, a dizzying dollar amount, more than enough to pay her rent, but she can’t allow herself to think such thoughts and searches for a distraction. Not fully conscious of what she’s doing, she calls Jordan. When he answers, she hears the din of an office during the midday rush and remembers that China’s fifteen hours ahead, which means that her Wednesday evening is Jordan’s Thursday afternoon.

He sounds flustered. “Hello? Mom? Everything all right?”

Judy’s unprepared for this question. She prefers beginning with casual conversation, seeing how he’s doing, and then working up to her own situation. In the background, someone says something, and Jordan responds in Chinese. To her, he sounds impeccable. She’s impressed by her son, living in another country and fluent in a second language. It’s understandable that he doesn’t have time for her anymore. He’s dedicated to his own success, as she taught him to be. The last time they spoke, he told her about China’s new silk road, President Xi Jinping’s plan to build new trade routes across the world and dominate the global economy. She’d learned about as much decades prior when the local factory where she sewed t-shirts moved to there, but Jordan wasn’t interested in history, only the future. “Yes, I’m fine sweetheart. I just miss you is all.”

“That’s great, Mom, but this phone call must be costing you a fortune. You need to use Skype like I showed you. Remember?”

Judy doesn’t understand why the smartphone can’t handle this for her. Isn’t it supposed to be smart? Anyway, without a job, she won’t be able to pay her next monthly phone bill whatever the cost. “It doesn’t matter. I just wanted to see how you are.”

“Busy. Very, very busy. I have back-to-back meetings scheduled for the rest of the day and tomorrow. Right now, I really do have to go, but if something’s wrong I could make time tonight or this weekend.”

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” Judy insists automatically. Then she hesitates while Jordan speaks with someone in Chinese again. If he were here, she could ask him to help her move or find a place to stay, but a mother cannot ask her baby for money, not even a small loan she’d pay right back almost immediately and with interest, without forever changing the dynamic of their relationship.

When Jordan returns his attention back to Judy, he says, “Okay, Mom. Good to hear from you. Glad you’re all right. I should have more time soon. Maybe even enough to come home for Christmas this year. Talk to you later.”

“I love you,” Judy says, but he’s already gone.

* * *

So this is how her decades of labor will reward her, Judy thinks as she spends the next morning calling local organizations for assistance. Receptionists inform her that housing could take years before any become available. For the meantime, they recommend temporary shelters, so she busses to the three closest to apply and interview for their programs, which provide restrooms, showers, laundry, haircuts, secondhand clothing, lockers, mailboxes, and a computer lab. The staff smiles warmly, but there’s something detached in their eyes, as though resigned that they cannot help everyone. They tell her that almost half of the 4,000 adults homeless in Multnomah County are unsheltered, which makes her feel less alone. Her situation is less a personal failing than a larger socio-economic paradigm. This is not how she planned her life to go, but she would see this crisis through just like all the others she’s experienced. Hope does not spring eternal but must be nurtured to prevent bitterness from taking its place. By the time she returns home, her body aches from the day’s excursions and the full weight of the future that awaits. She’s lying in bed when her phone rings.

“Hi, Mom!” Joselyn’s enthusiasm is tinged with fatigue. “How are you?”

There’s that question again. “Oh, you know, still alive.”

“That’s fantastic, Mom.”

“How are things with you, honey?”

“Oh, Mom, where do I even start? Things have been so crazy here.” Joselyn launches into a story about a wealthy philanthropist who promised to donate twenty surfboards, the non-profit’s largest donation yet, but on the condition that only boys under fourteen could use them, arguing that post-pubescents lost the neural pathways necessary to be proficient and that girls weren’t biologically equipped to handle the unpredictable force of the ocean. She’s torn. Accepting the offer would triple their resources but at the cost of condoning the very sexism she aims to eradicate. “I keep asking myself whether I’m doing any good here.”

“I’m sure you’re doing your best, honey. Maybe you’ll eventually talk him into letting the girls use them, too.”

Joseyln makes a contemptuous pfffft sound. “You don’t understand. This is their heritage, their birthright. Their ancestors were the best surfers in the world. If they go pro, their success could drive the tourism necessary to make this entire town thrive. Hundreds of people are counting on me.”

Judy wants to prove that she does understand, but she doesn’t know what Joselyn needs to hear. It’s always been like that with Joselyn. In-person, Judy’s always distracted her with some task—baking brownies, for example—to get her out of a panic state. If things really aren’t going so well at work, maybe Jocelyn will move back to Portland. Then they could help one another out, maybe even find a place together.

“Anyway, Mom, it’s been great to talk to you, but I should really get back—“

“—Do you remember the Woodburn tulip festival? The one where you and Jordan begged me to ride in a hot air balloon?”

“Why?” The word snaps accusatorially.

“No reason, honey,” says Judy. She doesn’t know why she brought up the festival, only that she felt Joselyn slipping away and it was the first thing that sprang to mind. “I was just thinking about it the other day, and I wanted to let you know that I would’ve let you two go except, even if I had the money, it wasn’t safe.”

“Oh, Mom,” sighs Joselyn. “That was so long ago. I’ve moved on, and so should you.”

The words sting, spreading their venom, and Judy says nothing.

“Anyway,” Joselyn says wearily, “I really ought to go. I’m glad that you’re doing well. Love you, Mom. Bye. Talk to you later.”

Joselyn ends the call, and the silence resounds in Judy’s ear.

* * *

The morning of her eviction, Judy tries Tammy’s door one last time and isn’t surprised when there’s no response. Somehow, Mr. Fowler’s wallet weighs more now. When she flips it open, lamplight gleams off the cards. The phone’s screen remains blank and blind. Judy lays out clothes, medications, toiletries, pillows, blankets, and her World’s Greatest Mom coffee mug. Not everything fits inside her backpack and, even then, it’s too heavy. Hours pass as she winnows her possessions down to the essentials and tells herself that, once she has a new residence, she’ll return for the rest.

She closes the apartment door behind her and steps down the street. While she’s waiting for the bus, her phone vibrates. She cradles it in her palm. She expects nothing but hopes for anyone.