Wallet by Chris J. Bahnsen

close-up shot of worn, leather wallet

The check comes with fresh drinks, and when I reach into my back pocket, it’s empty. So are all my other pockets. I picture my wallet, fat from my just-cashed paycheck, still sitting on the dresser.

Fuck me.

Dinner was lavish. It’s the finest restaurant I know, in a waterfront hotel downtown. I’m wearing a new suit jacket. The Maumee River rambles wide and muscular beyond the glass wall along our corner table.

Lucky my date has gone to the powder room so she doesn’t see my cool fracture into panic. I pat myself down again.

Stop. Chill. Think.

In the ashtray across the silk-covered table I notice her lip prints on an unfinished cigarette. Hers the first lips to set me free. It happened on her living room couch. Right afterword she gargled a swig of beer and when I started pulling my jeans back up, she said, “Let me look at you a little longer.”

Twenty-four to my eighteen.

Not a huge difference, but to me she’s another continent. Already been married, wears this miniature spoon on a silver neck chain.

I met her at a hot new club called The Emergency Room.

This before the Ohio drinking age got pushed to 21.

This just after I’d registered for the draft.

Moments ago my only concern was showing off this goddess in an environment deserving of her backless cocktail dress. Now, there’s real terror that I’ll come off as a man-boy who can’t handle a formal adult date.

No one seems to know, or care. People are conversing, a few couples dancing to the live combo.

Before she comes back I make for the hotel lobby and duck into a payphone cubicle along the wall. Heart a knuckle rapping against my chest bone. I don’t know which is worse, the idea of my nascent girlfriend having to cover the check (if a waitress in a shared apartment is even good for it), or, as Dad’s baritone says “Yello,” having to explain my jam to him.

“Jesus jumped up Katie Christ, boy,” Dad says when I come clean. “You’d forget your own pecker if it wasn’t attached.”

But he agrees to bring the wallet.

There’s nothing left but ice in our glasses. Our waiter comes by again, eyeing the untouched check. Asks if there’ll be anything else. I look across at my date who since the restroom has caught the sniffles. She shakes her lovely head, so I order an Irish coffee with extra whipped cream. The waiter’s silence spills over the table as he takes back the check and withdraws.

Sweat forms under my hairline.

The woman of my dreams BICs a cigarette. Her mouth forms a kissable pout as smoke escapes. There’s something almost patronizing in her emerald gaze, as if she’s allowing an evening like this for my sake, doesn’t need to be impressed. This is confirmed when she says, “I’m getting bored.”

“What?” I startle backwards with a nerdy jerk.

“Not with you, with this place.”

“Oh, yeah . . . there’s usually a better trio.”

Piano stylings waft over us with mocking lethargy.

I’m a royal dumbass.

And then he’s standing over us. Dark rust of hair brushed back in broad sweeps, flared sideburns and thick mustache perfectly trimmed. A London Fog hangs from the mantle of his shoulders—the gap between the notched lapels reveals a dark suit and paisley tie. I had never seen him in such heightened self-possessed form, and certainly didn’t expect this transformation. When I’d left the house he was in his usual evening slump, lounged in his recliner reading a spy novel with the TV on. A stack of Oreos balanced on his belly that peeked out between his ratty tee and the waistband of his sweats.

Now, my father stands glorious.

I act surprised and introduce him.

He unsheathes from his overcoat and sits, making eye contact with our waiter who comes over, suddenly cheerful and supplicating. Dad orders a Maker’s, neat, then tells him to bring us whatever we’re having.

It doesn’t ever come up why he’s here. More apparent is how the energy changes at the table. Dad’s chrome lighter burps flame when my date lips another cigarette. After hers, he lights his own and begins to speak in witticisms and flirtations as one would solo over the piano’s chordal murmurs, and the river through the window at dusk seems to flow with his words, smooth and relaxed as the drummer’s brush on his ride cymbal. A smoke cloud hovers above our heads and, like that trick he does with his throat to chug a whole can of beer, I cannot fathom how he does it, where this part of him was hatched.

For the first time, my father and I share a drink in public, in our best attire, a fine woman between us, and I soak this in, leaning back in my chair with a new buzz on, one of pride, of arrival. Here I am at last on equal ground with him.

Somewhere during the conversation and laughter, I feel my forgotten wallet being placed on my thigh under the table. Heavy as an anvil, it flattens my notions of grandeur.

He doesn’t stay too long. Just long enough for a drink and one dance, easing out my date’s chair the moment she rises, and by the way he lets her walk just ahead of him to the floor, the way his fingertips glance her lower back, how when they join she smiles at him without a hint of reproach, by the way in which my father is a bellows to the ember of night, he expresses what I have yet to become.

Meet the Contributor

Chris BahnsenChris J. Bahnsen is an assistant editor with Narrative magazine. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian’s Air & Space, Hobart, River Teeth, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. In spring of 2021, his short story “Octagon Girl” will appear in Palm Springs Noir, an anthology from Akashic Books.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/mangpages

  1 comment for “Wallet by Chris J. Bahnsen

  1. I love this story, Chris. I teach a creative nonfiction class that requires students to read and share contemporary essays. I hope it means something that several different students have recommended this one.

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