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The Wallet

by Paul Levinson 3 months ago in Sci Fi · updated 3 months ago
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When Twice Is a Loss

My phone rang. I put it to my ear.

“Professor Klein?”

“Yes?” I had just taken off my coat, put on the water for tea, and the last person I wanted to hear from was Lauren from the office, as much as I generally liked her and her hardworking attitude.

“I thought you’d be relieved to know I have your wallet right here.”

“My wallet?” I hadn’t known that I’d lost it. Good thing I hadn’t given into my impulse to speed on the way home.

“Yep, it’s right here,” she said again. “I found it myself,” she added proudly, “right by the elevator. It has your photo ID, driver’s license, card from your town pool--”

“Ok, thanks a million -- I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” That’s what I got for being too lazy to run down the stairs.

I put my phone back in my pants pocket and grabbed my jacket. I felt a familiar bulge in each pocket of my jacket as I put it on. One was my voluminous set of keys, which always made me feel like a janitor. The other was . . . my wallet.

***

I took it out and looked at it. Yep, it was my wallet.

Now I knew that Lauren wasn’t the kind of person to be playing some practical joke on me. She was thirty-six, mother of two sweet little kids, and had been with the English Department for almost a decade. No point in calling her back and telling her I had my wallet right in my hand. I might as well take the fifteen-minute drive on the parkway and see what was going on.

Maybe the Department was throwing me some kind of surprise party for an award which I hadn’t yet been notified about. I should be so lucky. And, besides, why would Lauren make up a story about my losing my wallet to get me back to the office? Lots of easier ways to do that, like saying a colleague or a student had come by with an urgent need to see me.

It took me twenty-two minutes to get to the school this time, thanks to some new construction on the highway which slowed everything up. I parked the car and walked into Larraby Hall. Henry, the usual security guard, wasn’t there. Someone I had seen a few times, but I didn’t know his name, smiled and waved me through. I walked quickly up the three flights of stairs to my Department’s offices.

“Where’s Lauren?” I asked the student worker -- I think her name was Elizabeth -- who was sitting behind Lauren’s desk.

“Oh, her little boy was rushed to the hospital -- appendicitis, but he’s ok,” Elizabeth assured me.

“Good,” I said. This seemed to be a day for out-of-the-blue bad luck, but at least Lauren’s son was all right. “Did Lauren leave anything for--”

“Yes!” Elizabeth said. “Sorry, I should have told you as soon as you walked in. She said she was going to leave it with Henry, you know, the security guard downstairs?”

***

I thanked Elizabeth and walked slowly back into the hall. This all came down to Lauren. I believed I knew her well enough to know that she wasn’t playing some sort of game with me. What would she have to gain by calling me at home, lying about having my wallet, getting me to come down here, and then playing the additional game of lying to Elizabeth about her boy being sick, and cleverly saying she would leave the wallet with Henry, when she knew he wasn’t there? But if she wasn’t lying for whatever motive, what then?

Was Lauren suffering from some sort of psychotic breakdown, which made her believe that she had my wallet, and her boy was sick, and all of that? That was hard to believe, too. Could it have been someone else’s wallet that she’d found? She’d said it had had my photo ID, which would mean she was flat-out lying or crazy if the wallet had belonged to another professor or some student.

But if she wasn’t lying and hadn’t lost her mind about my losing my wallet, what was going on here? It almost was easier to believe that I had indeed lost my wallet, and Lauren had found it, except when I patted my jacket pocket, my wallet was right there. I took it out and looked at it again.

It looked no different. I examined its contents. I usually had a pretty good idea of how much cash I had. Twenty-four dollars, if memory served. I had started the day with three ten-dollar bills, but had paid five dollars plus tax for a turkey and cheddar sandwich, which left me with two ten-dollar bills and four one-dollar bills, which was exactly what was in my wallet right now, in addition to the change in my pocket. My credit cards, school ID, driver’s license and all of that seemed right where they should be, too.

All right, so that confirmed -- maybe -- that someone hadn’t pickpocketed my real wallet, and left me with this one, and then dropped my real wallet by the elevator after removing the cash and credit cards. Except why on Earth would someone single me out to do that, at a university no less? I hadn’t a clue. A disgruntled student? Nah, I’d given everyone B+s and As last term. Hey, they’d been bright students.

I sighed, and decided to see if the security guard downstairs knew anything about this, or about Henry, before I headed home.

***

The guard was still amiable, but professed to know nothing about what was going on. “Sure, I know Henry, but I didn’t see him today. Tonight is my shift.”

“Ok, and Lauren -- our department secretary -- didn’t leave a package with you?” I asked.

He shook his head no.

“Ok, thanks,” I said and walked out of the building to the parking lot. I tried to recall if I’d seen Henry, or any security guard, the last time I’d left this building today, right after I’d allegedly dropped my wallet by the elevator upstairs. Maddeningly, I couldn’t recall. I remembered a group of maintenance guys crowded around the security podium -- they often did that, talking about sports, politics, whatever -- but I couldn’t see in my recollection who actually had been standing at the podium.

The ride home took more than thirty minutes. The construction was even worse. “Hey,” my wife said when I opened the door. “Is everything ok? You’re a little later than usual -- I just got home. I was about to call you.”

“Traffic,” I replied, partially truthfully. I’d gotten so caught up in the wallet that I hadn’t called her. And now that this whole thing seemed even more insane, I decided maybe there was no point in telling her what had happened. She was already on my case about being an absent-minded professor, and why upset her about something which I couldn’t explain even to myself, anyway.

I put it mostly out of my mind, and went upstairs to shower and change into something more comfortable. We had an early dinner, watched a little television, and went to bed.

***

I had a class to teach early the next morning. I kissed my wife, made sure I had my wallet, and got into the car. The construction had spread, the drive was even longer, but fortunately I’d left early enough to get to class on time.

I walked to my office after the class -- the office and the class were on opposite sides of the campus, story of my life -- and girded myself for meeting Lauren. I stopped in the cafe on the ground floor and ordered another turkey and cheddar sandwich to eat later, for lunch. I like what I like, and they sometimes ran out of them.

There was yet a third security guard at his post -- still not Henry and not the other guy -- and sitting behind Lauren’s desk upstairs was another student assistant, Tiffany. “Where’s Lauren?” I asked.

“She’s in the hospital with her son,” Tiffany replied. “Appendicitis, he’s ok. I’ll be here for most of the day, and Elizabeth will be in later.”

“Of course,” I said, “thanks.” I went to my office.

I turned on my desktop. I liked looking at my email that way, rather than on the cramped phone. I scanned through my Inbox. There was a message waiting from Lauren. It was date-stamped yesterday -- well before the dozen or so more emails that had arrived since then. Gmail sometimes does that, doesn’t it? Yeah, I’d received messages hours or more after they’d been sent, before. Irritating, but, hey, you get what you pay for with Gmail.

I opened Lauren’s email. It was time stamped about five minutes before she had called me yesterday. It said, “Professor Klein, I found your wallet by the elevator! It has eighteen dollars in cash, and lots of credit cards and IDs. I’m going to call you now and let you know, but I wanted to send you this email, in case I couldn’t get through for some reason.” I pulled out my wallet. My turkey and cheddar sandwich, which was now staring at me from the desk and suddenly didn’t look very appetizing, had cost me the same five dollars and change as it had yesterday. I’d started the day with twenty-four dollars in my wallet -- two ten-dollar bills and four singles. I had paid for my sandwich today with a ten-dollar bill, and had received back four singles and change. That left one ten-dollar bill, and eight singles in my wallet -- or exactly what Lauren had said in her email was in there yesterday, after she had found my wallet by the elevator. How could she have known yesterday what was in my wallet today, when the amount of money I had in my wallet was more yesterday than today, because I had purchased that sandwich today?

I had another class late in the morning, and a bunch of student appointments, but I couldn’t get what was in my wallet out of my mind. At one point, I removed the ten-dollar bill and put it in my desk -- would that change what Lauren had written in her email about what was in my wallet, because now there were in fact only eight single-dollar bills? Was there some sort of quantum mechanical, mystical, or whatever unfathomable connection between what I had in my wallet and what Lauren had seen in my wallet yesterday? I’m no physicist, but I had read somewhere that some theories of quantum mechanics said that what you were thinking could influence the position of particles -- but that influence couldn’t extend to money in wallets across time, could it?

No, I closed the drawer with the ten-dollar bill, and Lauren’s email on my screen was still the same, telling me she’d seen eighteen dollars in my wallet, not eight. I took the ten-dollar bill out of the desk and put it back in my wallet -- I had already proven something, that my actions now had no influence on what Lauren had emailed to me, so no point in divesting myself of the ten dollars--

Wait. If I put the ten-dollar bill back in my wallet, that would remove the “proof” that my actions here had no influence on what Lauren had told me, because I would still have the eighteen dollars in my wallet. But--

I went through this several times, shuttling the ten-dollar bill between my wallet and desk drawer, and finally decided to leave the damn ten dollars in my desk. That seemed a better way to demonstrate whatever the hell I was trying to demonstrate. One thing I was sure of: her email on my screen from yesterday was exactly the same. It still said that she had seen eighteen dollars in my wallet yesterday, even though I didn’t have that amount until today, and even when I had just repeatedly taken ten dollars out of the eighteen dollars my wallet and put that ten-dollar bill into my desk drawer.

Thinking more about her email, I suppose it was possible that she was a master hacker, or a master hacker had gotten into her account, and had sent the email mentioning the eighteen dollars to me today -- after I had purchased my sandwich with the result that I had just eighteen dollars in my wallet -- but had date-stamped the email last night. But in addition to the fact that I highly doubted she was a hacker at all, how could she have known this morning that I had even purchased the sandwich? I hadn’t seen her in the cafe. Was someone else in the cafe spying on me for some reason, had seen me purchase the sandwich, and was also a genius hacker or in touch with one? Even if that were the case, there was no way that person would know how much money I had left in my wallet -- even the cashier, a woman in her twenties, couldn’t have known that.

At some point in the afternoon I looked again at my turkey and cheddar sandwich. I was hungry. I picked it up and took a bite. I felt like I was eating some kind of cosmically significant evidence, but I consumed it all. After I finished the sandwich, I realized what it apparently was evidence of: leaving my money in the desk had no effect on what Lauren had seen in my wallet the day before, but spending my money on the sandwich did. But what did that mean? Some kind of quantum mechanics at work in a sandwich?

It was getting time for me to go home. I felt my wallet in my pocket. I was going to hold on to it for dear life.

I walked by the secretary’s office and stuck my head in.

“Professor Klein!” a cheery voice said. It was Lauren’s, she was behind her desk now.

***

I didn’t know what to say, where to begin. “Hey--” I began

Lauren’s phone rang. She put it to her ear, nodded slowly, and looked a little upset. “Hi honey, you have an upset tummy?”

‘It’s my little boy, Kenny,’ she mouthed to me. ‘Babysitter called and said he has an upset stomach.’

“Ok, sweetie,” she said back to the phone, “here’s a little kiss from Mommy over the phone.” She made a big noisy kiss. “I’ll be home soon. Let me speak to Janny, ok? Mommy loves you.”

Janny was presumably the baby-sitter. “Ok,” Lauren said to her. “Is Tom all right? Good! Ok, I’ll be home soon.”
 Tom was two years older than Kenny, if memory served.

Lauren put down the phone, and looked at me. “I’m sorry--” she said

“No, no,” I assured her. “Family comes first. You should go home now.” But should I tell her that Kenny had an appendix that would need attention in the hospital? Could I even be sure that that’s what was happening? Elizabeth had said that Lauren had left the office yesterday -- Elizabeth had told me that yesterday, not today -- and I guess the implication was Lauren had received that call here, in the office.

“I will,” Lauren was saying, “I just need to get these resumes uploaded to Folio for the departmental search.”

I considered what to say next -- should I tell her about her call to me yesterday? -- when Owens, the Chair of the Department, strode into the office with a stack of paperwork and laborious instructions for Lauren. I waited quietly on the side until he finished, but he was aware of my presence and apparently wasn’t thrilled about it.

“Can I help you with anything?” he asked.

“Ah, no, that’s ok,” I said and left. I never liked the guy.

I returned to my office, and decided I’d done enough here for the day. I put on my jacket, clutched my wallet, walked by Lauren’s office, and waved goodbye. Owens was still boring her with a long harangue about something.

I walked past the security guard -- again, not Henry -- out into the street and down the pathway to my car. I felt my wallet again. I definitely had not dropped it by the elevator.

There was even more construction than before on the parkway -- it seemed to be growing each time I drove by -- and there were two cop cars and several police on hand. What was going on here? This seemed to be something more than just construction.

I stopped by one of the police cars, rolled down a window, and pulled out my wallet with my university ID. I’d found over the years that it never hurt to show it to police when you wanted their help. The cop opened the door of his car and eyed my ID. “You need to move on professor. We can’t have people congregating here.”

“Of course,” I said. “But can you just tell me what happened?”

“Someone was behind the wheel, not paying attention. Drove right into the construction.” He pointed to a car, steaming from its open hood.

“And--”

Another officer walked up to the cop in the car I was talking to. He turned to me. “You can’t stay here,” the second cop said.

“Ok,” I said and pulled my car back onto the parkway. I arrived home about ten minutes later. It was pretty much the same time I had arrived home yesterday. I took my jacket off, and put on a pot of water for tea.

My phone rang.

“Professor Klein?”

Damn, it was Lauren. “Yes?”

“I thought you’d be relieved to know I have your wallet right here.”

“I’ll be right down,” I said, very slowly. Then, on impulse, “how’s your boy, Kenny?”

“Oh, he’s no worse, as far as I know,” Lauren replied. “It’s nice of you to ask, Professor. I was just leaving, when I found your wallet -- by the elevator.”

“Thanks so much,” I said. “One quick question -- can you look and tell me how much cash is in the wallet?”

She laughed in an odd way. “You want to make sure no one took any of it? Given what students have to pay for textbooks these days, I don’t blame you.” She laughed, nervously, again.

“No, yes, thanks,” I said, a little incoherently. “And I of course know that you didn’t take any.”

“Eight dollars,” Lauren said. “You have eight dollars in your wallet, all singles.”

“Thanks so much,” I said again. “I’ll be right down.”

***

I put on my jacket and instinctively patted my pocket and removed the wallet which I knew would be there -- the very same wallet, apparently and insanely, that Lauren had just convincingly told me she was holding in her hand, once again. But not the same wallet which Lauren had called and emailed me about yesterday, which had contained eighteen dollars. Today that wallet, impossibly both in my hand and at the same time in Lauren’s hands some fifteen miles down the parkway, contained eight dollars. I looked at the eight dollars in the wallet in my hand and tried to comprehend what I was seeing. Leaving the ten-dollar bill in my desk apparently did influence what Lauren was seeing in her alternate universe or whatever it was, just not immediately. Or maybe leaving the money in my desk had no effect at first because I was still in the room and could easily remove it, which in fact I had done more than once.

I left voicemail for my wife that I would be home late and got in the car. I was feeling like I was in Groundhog Day, that movie in which Bill Murray lived the same day over and over again, except this wasn’t quite like that, either. Each of my days had had a different class schedule, just as they should have in my world, before it became unhinged. And I didn’t recall the same object being in two different places at the same time in that movie, either. And -- more importantly -- this wasn’t a damn movie, it was my life. I took a quick look at the calendar on my phone. It was the 4th of March, which was definitely a day later than yesterday, March 3rd. I was not in a time loop, not a one-day time loop, anyway. Whatever I was in, it was something different.

There were even more cop cars around the construction site this time, but I didn’t stop to ask questions. This worsening situation on the parkway maybe had some significance to what was going on with me and my wallet, I realized, but I couldn’t even begin to figure out what that might be. Wallets, sandwiches, money, parkways, all mixed up in some kind of crazy jumble of reality -- it was too much to grasp, some warped indigestible food for thought.

I parked my car in the school lot and hustled to my building. Yet a fourth guard -- not Henry, not the guy from yesterday, not the guy from earlier today, either -- was at the post. I ran up the three flights of stairs to my department’s offices.

Elizabeth was sitting again at Lauren‘s desk. But she looked more serious than yesterday.

“Is Lauren?--” I began, out of breath.

“Her little boy was rushed to the hospital with appendicitis,” Elizabeth said. “They got him there just in time -- my cousin’s appendix burst before they got him to the hospital a few years ago. He almost died!”

“But Kenny -- Lauren’s little boy -- is ok? They got him to the hospital in time?”

“Yeah,” Elizabeth said. “Oh, I’m sorry -- you came about your wallet, right? Lauren said she’d leave it for you with Henry the security guard downstairs. He didn’t give it to you when you walked in?”

“No,” I said. “That’s ok.” I smiled and reassured her. No point in further distressing her by telling her that Henry hadn’t been at his post for two days, bizarrely linked in some way to my wallet and whatever the hell else was going on here.

I left, dazed, and walked slowly down the stairs. I’d been thinking of going to my office and removing the ten-dollar bill and seeing what eventually happened, but I was too upset to pursue that petty experimentation. Whatever was occurring was now putting people in dire jeopardy, sending Lauren’s boy to the hospital with a ruptured or nearly ruptured appendix.

I did check with the security guard just to make sure nothing had been left for me, and of course he shook his head no.

I got in my car for the drive home. I turned on the radio. John Lennon's "I'm Only Sleeping" was playing, one of my all-time favorite Beatles songs. I was pretty sure, not 100% positive, that I wasn't sleeping and dreaming all of this. I did feel, for some reason, like a git, as Lennon was saying about Sir Walter Raleigh right now.

***

My best honest explanation and maybe biggest fear at this point about what was happening is that I was the one who must have had some kind of psychotic breakdown, not Lauren. I could see a shrink tomorrow, but how would I know if I was really seeing the shrink or if that visit was just another part of my psychotic delusion? Actually, I realized that my being crazy was definitely not my biggest fear -- all of this really happening would be far worse, whatever exactly “really” meant in this case.

I tried to think. How could I get out of this? I seemed to have some power to influence events, but only insofar as the amount of cash in my wallet, and not in a way that made any sense.

I approached the construction site on the parkway. Even more cops. This time I stopped, and encountered a sergeant. I showed her my school ID and asked what was happening.

She looked at me strangely. “I can’t really talk about this, but I’ll tell you that someone from your school -- a security guard -- crashed into this construction. I’m sorry to tell you he lost his life.”

My God! “Was his name Henry?”

The sergeant nodded. “I really can’t say any more. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

I pulled my car back on to the roadway and tried to collect my thoughts. I just knew I was somehow responsible for this -- for Henry’s death, for Lauren’s son being rushed to the hospital. But how? Why?

The only thing that really mattered immediately was what could I do about it. An idea popped into my head. Matter and anti-matter. Didn’t they annihilate everything around them if they came together? I didn’t know for sure. I was no scientist. But I had seen that in a movie somewhere, or a television show, or maybe I’d read it in a story.

The only thing I seemed to have any control over was my wallet, sometimes. I had to go back to that. Maybe this insanity -- including Henry’s death now -- was triggered by my wallet somehow being in two different places at the same time. That wasn’t my fault. But … maybe I could do something about it. The universe had bifurcated for some reason around my wallet. The universe had torn itself in half, and people were suffering. But maybe I could do something to heal it. Maybe that would save Henry.

I got off at the next exit and made my way to the Hudson River. I parked and walked slowly to the dock. I had power over my wallet. Maybe if I was the one to make it disappear, that would burst this bubble from hell. That should certainly have more of an effect than how much money I had in the wallet, and whether I used it to buy a stupid turkey sandwich, right?

This was only a theory, but what would it hurt to try it? The loss of my wallet would be slight compared to the loss of a life.

I could throw my wallet into the river. It would likely never be seen again. And-- no, I could do even better. I could burn my wallet, and throw the ashes out into the river. And that would leave just one of my wallets left in my world -- the one back in my office. That lunatic act might be all that was needed to make the universe whole and sane again.

I walked back to my car, where I still had a lighter and fluid from a decade ago, when I used to smoke. It was a crazy thing to do, to destroy my wallet like this. I knew that. But I doused the wallet, lit the paper bills and then the edges of the wallet and watched it burn. I picked up the ashes with a piece of cardboard on the ground and threw it all over the railing into the darkly gleaming river below. I consoled myself with the thought that hey, at least I wasn’t throwing myself into that chilly water.

***

I got home, had a quick dinner with my wife, and pled that I was coming down with something. I went upstairs to bed. I thought, maybe I am getting a little crazy but if that’s what it took to stop the craziness that had suddenly jumped up all around me then that would be worth it. And, amazingly, I fell right asleep.

My wife was gone when I awoke the next day -- I had slept like a baby, and really late, into the afternoon. I found a note saying I should take a COVID test and call the doctor if I was feeling any worse, and she loved me. But I was feeling well rested and great. I did feel a little guilty that I hadn’t told her about this, but I was mostly relieved that, if my eradication of my wallet had worked, then she would be beyond any danger of what had happened to poor Henry.

I had no classes, but there was always something to do in my office, and I had to see what was going on there today. I ate a quick breakfast and got in my car.

No construction was on the highway! I interpreted that as a good sign, though I knew full well that Henry could still have been killed, and the police investigation and the construction itself had concluded. I’d know more when I got to school. I turned on the radio. Lennon's "It's Real Life" was playing. That felt like another good sign to me.

There was a group of maintenance workers around the security post but no Henry. “He’s in the john,” one of the workers told me. I didn’t have the heart to ask who “he” was. I just nodded and bounded up the stairs.

Lauren was at her desk, and all smiles! “Professor Klein! I was wondering why you didn’t come in for this.” She handed me a big envelope with my wallet inside.

I took it and put it in my pocket. “Thank you!” I said with a big smile.

I considered going into my office, but I realized that in order to see if I was free of this, I would have to drive home. “Oh -- I just realized I have to take care of something at home -- our gardener’s coming by,” I lied to Lauren. “I’ll see you tomorrow. And thanks again!”

“Sure!”

I started walking out, then turned around. “Your family all doing great?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” Lauren replied. “It’s very nice of you to ask.”

“As my grandmother always told me, if you have your health you have your wealth,” I said with a flourish and left.

I walked down the stairs. Henry was behind the security post!

“Hey!” I said, and gave him a big smile. It was very genuine.

“Having a good day Professor?” he asked.

“The best!” I replied. I stopped in the cafe and bought a turkey cheddar sandwich.

I got in my car. Still no construction on the highway. The ride took fifteen minutes, as it had on the way down.

Damn, this just may have worked! Either my psychotic episode had passed, or I had cut through this sick quantum entanglement or whatever it was by getting rid of my other wallet. I didn’t understand all the warped rules here, all the natural or unnatural laws, by any means, if at all, but maybe I’d gotten enough of it right to change the deadly game. Matter and anti-matter -- I had removed one of those toxic components from this harrowing equation. I’d removed the poison.

I got home, took off my jacket, and turned on the tea kettle.

I realized that I hadn’t checked my wallet to see how much cash it contained--

And the phone rang.

I froze. Was this Lauren?

“Hello?” I asked in a choked voice.

“Sweetheart? Can’t talk, but I just wanted to make sure you were ok.”

It was my wife. “Yes!” I threw her a kiss. “I’m fine! Feeling much better.”

“Great!” she said. “How about I bring home something good to eat for dinner tonight?”

“How about we go out to Taverna?” It was our favorite restaurant. “I have some things I want to tell you about.”

“You’re in a celebratory mood,” she said.

“I am,” I said. “Life is good.”

“Love you,” she said, and we got off the phone.

Life was indeed good, at least now. The tea kettle whistled. The phone rang again.

“Hi honey--” I began.

Uneasy laughter on the phone. “Professor Klein? I thought you’d be relieved to know that I have your wallet here. I found it by the elevator. It has three dollars in it.”

Sci Fi

About the author

Paul Levinson

Paul Levinson's novels include The Silk Code & The Plot To Save Socrates; his LPs Twice Upon A Rhyme & Welcome Up. His nonfiction including Fake News in Real Context, The Soft Edge, & Digital McLuhan have been translated into 15 languages.

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