Getting By

Dan Coxon


            For the first week the wallet sat next to the phone. David would eye it cautiously as he left for work each morning, as if he expected it to burst into flames, or come to life and flap clumsily across the room. All it did was slowly gather a thin film of dust.
            When he’d seen it lying half-hidden beneath the grocery store’s magazine stand his first reaction had been to find someone to pass it to, a simple transfer of responsibility. As he’d stared vacantly at the bulging square of leather, though, he’d caught a glimpse of his reflection in the plastic sheen of the counter, and he’d balked. The last two years had been unkind to his waistline and his hairline alike. The checkout girl had turned her eyes away from him, her expression returning to a bored, blank slate, and he had little doubt that its contents would end up divided among her friends in a strip-lit back room.
            It was only as he bent stiffly to pick it up, his back straining to complete this simple maneuver, that the realization hit him. He had seen this particular wallet before. It took him a few seconds to place the memory, but when his fingers touched the metal clasp the recollection shot through him, a static charge that almost caused him to drop it again. It was Wendy’s. He had seen her a few minutes earlier, loading her cart with boxes from the Frozen Fish aisle; he’d made a point of avoiding her, retracing his steps to the front of the store so there was no chance of a well-meaning ambush. His fingers had casually covered up the packet of Twinkies in his basket, though, just in case.
            He’d heard through the grapevine that she had a new man now, Jimmy something. It made sense that they should live near here, this was the neighborhood where she’d grown up. He felt queasy at the thought of her seeing him like this, his life unraveling into unremarkable bachelordom; she had looked as perfect as ever, and he knew the intervening years would have been kinder to her than they had been to him. Her slender hips still swayed as she walked, as if she were dancing with her cart. Her blond hair still glowed in the sterile light.
            Before sliding her wallet into his pocket he’d held it to his face, breathing in the scent of her perfume and the dry, animal smell of the leather. He’d liked to play the man in those days, to make a show of paying for everything. The smell of her perfume was almost too much to bear.
            As he passed through the automatic doors the crispness of the air and the soft glow of natural daylight summoned an unwelcome return to reality. His hand drifted into his jacket pocket, his fingers brushing against the cracked leather, the smooth solidity of the clasp. If anyone stopped him now things would look bad, but his intentions were anything but selfish. He would call her, she could collect it. It would be safer with him than with some stranger at the store.
            For seven days the wallet sat on the bamboo stand in the hall.
            David attempted to expel it from his mind, as if acknowledging its existence might send him down a path that he didn’t want to travel. In spite of his best efforts, his eyes always seemed to be drawn to it as he walked from room to room. His hand trembled over it a few times, finally jerking away as if it had snapped at his fingers. His thoughts returned to it unbidden in the waking light.
            One morning as he passed through the hallway he picked it up off the bamboo stand and slid it into his jacket pocket. When he came across it again during his lunch break he couldn’t remember why he’d done that. For the rest of the day he could sense it weighing down one side of his jacket, but with no idea of what to do with it he tried to push it from his thoughts. It troubled him, knowing that something of hers was so close to him at all times, and he vowed to deal with it when he returned home.
            That night he sat holding the wallet at the kitchen table, his thumb brushing back and forth over the cracked leather. He could see it bulging slightly, the seams straining. As if something in there’s trying to get out, he thought. There would be things in there that she needed: credit cards, money. He knew he couldn’t hang onto it forever.
            Leaving the wallet on the table he stood and poured a generous glass of Wild Turkey, keeping the bottle next to the sink in case he needed more. He considered digging around in the freezer for some ice, but then he upended the glass and drained it in one gulp. His desire surprised him, almost as much as the warmth that spread through his throat and the lining of his mouth. He poured himself another before sitting down.
            The clasp was old and bent out of alignment, and it took several fumbles to click it open. There were credit cards of course, although they hardly looked used. Store cards too. They all had her name embossed on them, which was something. At least he was certain now that it was hers. There was a little over forty dollars in cash, mostly notes, but with a handful of small change jammed into a tiny zip-up compartment. A photo of a man smiling, a few stray ginger hairs on the top of his head being brushed sideways by the wind. Jimmy, he guessed. He tried to summon up some hatred for his replacement, but found himself feeling surprisingly hollow. He looked too ordinary to be a villain. In the end he slipped the photo back into one of the pockets, next to her credit cards.
            Eventually he uncovered two business cards with her name on them, and two numbers in red ink near the bottom, an office line and a cell phone. He drained the rest of the whiskey from the glass, then he stood. His hands were shaking slightly and he willed them to be still, placing one palm-down on the tabletop. He didn’t think he was drunk yet. Not drunk enough, anyway. He paused by the phone before dialing her number in a flurry, punching the digits firmly with his finger. As it began to ring he had a strong feeling that he might have pressed the wrong numbers, and he hung up. He reached for his glass, realized it was empty, and dialed again.
            She picked up after the fourth ring. The line was surprisingly clear, almost as if she was standing next to him, and the sting of the bourbon caught in his throat. He felt thick and heavy, as if someone had mixed sedatives into his drink.
            “Hello?”
            She sounded distracted, caught in the middle of something. He could hear other noises in the background: a low chattering, the clink of a glass. There was a male voice, a strong Scottish accent that slurred as if barely awake.
            “Darling, who is it?”
            He listened to her asking the same questions over and over again, a tone of worry turning to anger, the Scottish voice telling her to hang up and laughing as if this was all a game. Eventually the line went dead, and he found himself standing alone in the hall. His hand shook slightly as he replaced the phone in its cradle. He called another three times that night, and once again a few nights later. Her anger was quicker to come after the second call, and he remembered hearing her speak like that before. The memories weren’t pleasant, but they were comfortingly familiar. Every time he failed to say a word. She always hung up first.
            After that he tried to find something else to occupy his evenings, something other than drinking at the kitchen table. Sometimes he’d order a takeaway while he watched re-runs of The A-Team on cable, and if there wasn’t enough change to pay for it he’d dip into her wallet, taking no more than he needed to make up the difference and leaving the rest. The first few times he replaced the money the following day. After that it didn’t seem quite so important, somehow.
            It was some weeks later that he found himself smoothing over a patch of wet plaster on the living room wall with her Visa card. He stopped for a moment and stared at the sliver of plastic in his hand, the gray-white streaks of rapidly drying plaster obscuring half her surname and flaking off the ends of his fingers. It was like waking from a dream and finding yourself standing half-naked on the porch. He stared at the card some more, as if willing it to disappear, or morph into something else entirely. The hole had been where a photo frame used to hang, and filling it had been a simple job. He’d searched through the drawers and cupboards for something to finish it with, rejecting the bread knife for being too rigid, a travel brochure for being too flimsy. He didn’t remember opening her wallet, but it appeared that he must have. The evidence for the prosecution was irrefutable.
            With a shrug he finished the job, tossing the used card into the swing-top can in the kitchen when he was done. Later that week he used her debit card to fill the crack between the doorframe and the wall, this time consciously, having found nothing else with the right combination of rigidity and flexibility. The store cards eventually settled the wobbling freezer in the kitchen, three of them wedged into the gap where the damaged corner met the floor.
            When mixing some adhesive a few weeks later he checked her wallet again, and found that it was empty. All that remained was the photo of the man with the ginger hair, the man that he’d decided was Jimmy, the drunken voice on the phone. To his surprise he felt an anger welling within him, an unfocused rage that encompassed Wendy, Jimmy, and everything about their new, perfect life, their cocktail parties and executive perks. It was supposed to be his life, yet somehow it had slipped away from him. He wished for a second that he had a time machine to go back and change it all, before he realized that he wouldn’t even know which moment to return to, which decision to change or door not to open. His life hadn’t disintegrated with a bang, but with a series of small implosions.
            He needed a walk in the fresh air to clear his head. As he slid his feet into his shoes he saw the wallet still sitting on the bamboo stand in the hall, Jimmy’s photo lying on top of it. Next to it sat the adhesive he’d been mixing, the chemical compounds in the two pastes slowly reacting with each other, thickening, hardening. He reached out and smeared the glue across the back of the photo, pushing it against the sole of his shoe while the adhesive did its job, his fingers pressed down on Jimmy’s face as if he meant to smother him.
            When it was finally dry he stood up and stepped outside, the sunlight making his nose wrinkle with a stifled sneeze. It was a clear day and he felt a new spring in his step as he walked into town, his feet scuffing against the concrete of the path, trampling through the litter and accumulated dirt. Slowly wearing Jimmy down until there was nothing left but dust.
            
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Dan Coxon is the author of Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand (a new Zealand travel memoir) and the Wee Book Of Scotland. His fiction has appeared in Third Wednesday, Roadworks, The Third Alternative, and in the anthologies Late-Night River Lights and Ada and More Nano-Fiction. His writing can be found at www.dancoxon.com.