I’m at my desk staring at my son’s wallet, a standard black leather model, overstuffed, misshapen and frayed, fringed with strands like a cowboy jacket. I tried to get Zach to upgrade, even had a new one set aside. But he preferred his old one out of habit and an innate frugality that I suspect is one of the legacies I passed to him.
I know what’s inside: three $100 bills and another $140 in twenties and tens. I sometimes got on his case for carrying so much money. He thought my concerns were overblown, even when one of the bar-based poker games he frequented in Madison, Wis., got held up at gunpoint. (He was thankfully not playing that night.)
My wife and I agreed that he had the risk profile of a teenager — that his frontal cortex wiring was only slowing catching up with his 26 years.
Inside with the cash is his first and only credit card, a Visa from our local bank. I have already sent in a request to have it canceled. Underneath the credit card is his insurance card from work, probably still marked with the fingerprints of the emergency room staffer who needed it.
Underneath are four expired insurance cards along with his Delta Dental card. We never did convince him that flossing was a good idea, and our strident advice about being able to keep his teeth into old age now just echoes cruelly.
In the front pocket is a multipass from Geeks Mania Arcade, where the owners recently shifted from plugging quarters to a 24-hour, play-as-much-as-you-want $15 admission. Zach was not a fan. For $15 in quarters he could play his favorite pinball machines for weeks. He was something of a pinball wizard, traveling for tournaments. On family pizza outings he often would leave behind machines racked with free games.
Behind the arcade pass is a free cocktail card from the local bowling alley. He regularly won such prizes at the monthly pinball tournament held there. A nondrinker, he would give them to me to pass along to his old high school tennis coach, who loves to sip cocktails at the bowling alley bar.
As a lifelong tennis player and a former club professional, I thought tennis was one of the gifts I could competently pass to my two boys. Like a lot of younger brothers, Zach would tag along when I tutored his older brother. Eager to prove himself worthy of similar attention, Zach would take a hopper of balls to the next court and patiently drop and hit them over the net, retrieve and repeat, for the entire hour.
When his brother started playing tennis in local tournaments, Zach was all over me for permission to do likewise. He was tiny for his age and deeply unathletic in a traditional sense, outpaced by his peers in soccer and towered over in basketball. When he was 8, I told him he could enter tournaments when he could reliably serve, a task that seemed to ensure at least a two-year deferral.
He dragged a bucket to the local courts and worked endlessly until I had to admit he had met the mark. He played his first 10-and-under tournament an hour south of Madison in Janesville. He didn’t win a game but was ecstatic. There is now a shelf full of tennis trophies in his bedroom, which I guess we’ll leave there. What else would we do with them?
Behind the free cocktail card is a gift card to the local movie theater, given by his mother on his birthday months earlier, which he had yet to exhaust. Like most young men, he preferred action movies to slice-of-life dramas. He liked to quote from movies and expected you to immediately recognize the tag lines.
Then there’s the AAA membership card we had bought for him, never imagining that the only towing his car would undergo was courtesy of the local police department, who impounded it in accord with the procedural requirements of a fatal accident. He looks so young in his Wisconsin license picture, taken in 2010, when he was 19. Blue eyes, blond hair (thanks, Mom) and 5 feet 4 inches tall (sorry, Dad).
The membership was set to expire in December. On my calendar, I still have a reminder to renew. An even younger picture appears on his scratched University of Wisconsin Eau Claire Blugold Visa debit card, which I can’t imagine ever having had a balance since he graduated with an economics degree in 2014.
Next to this is a worn BART transit card from the week he flew to San Francisco to visit his brother. (He missed the stop and ended up in Oakland, but they soon connected and we chalked it up to life experience.)
On the left side of the wallet is a series of reward cards: a Magical Movie Rewards card I imagine to be some sort of frequent user benefit and a Fire Keeper’s Club card from the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee. He would occasionally drive there for a Saturday session or for tournaments; he played enough to get free nights.
After Zach graduated from college, the local, slots-only casino opened an electronic poker room and he became a regular. I dropped in once to see what this was all about, and the poker room manager chatted me up after I introduced myself.
“Oh, Zach is one of the big winners,” he said, punching up his balance. He couldn’t share the data with me but added with a sly smile: “If he needs a new car, he’s good.”
My wife and I were relieved when that poker room shut down and Zach began to apply himself to career planning, passing the first two four-hour actuary tests. The only personal object his work supervisor returned to us after his accident was his study binder for the third actuary test. Perhaps this math reminded him of school, because he went through the screening and became a regular volunteer math tutor at his former high school.
Next in the wallet is a Total Rewards World Series of Poker card from Caesars Palace and a similar one from Boyd and MGM. Last summer he and his brother went to Las Vegas and played one of the side events in the World Series of Poker.
Zach had been an inveterate game player since his endless demands for another round of Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders. At 5 (with the stature of a 3-year-old), he once dazzled a group of adult spectators by zipping through levels of the Oregon Trail at the demo station at our local Best Buy.
It was early in the morning of Sunday, April 22, that my wife and I received Zach’s wallet from the emergency room at University Hospital in a plastic bag along with a pocketful of change and the clicker to his car. We had arranged for him to begin driving my 2009 Mazda after a long battle to persuade him that the 1997 Camry, which had belonged to his grandmother, was no longer safe or reliable.
We were convinced he would be better off with roof airbags and side curtains. He protested, claiming he could drive the old Camry for another 100,000 miles, and he was probably right. We arranged for him to pay me $4,000 for the car, something of a bargain in Blue Book terms.
I didn’t reveal how I had simply sent this money into a Roth I.R.A. in his name, also the destination for the monthly rent he had been paying us since college, when he moved back home to live with us. We wanted him to have a head start on a fruitful retirement.
He had been driving my Mazda for about a month and maybe wasn’t comfortable with it yet. Maybe my obsession with avoiding scratches and door dings had permeated his subconscious. Late on Saturday night, after playing in a poker tournament at one of the local bowling alleys, he had stopped and stepped out of the running car to get directions from a friend to another game.
For some reason — for some stupid, sloppy moment — he left the car in neutral instead of park, and it began to roll down the slope toward the back wall of the bowling alley. With quickness that belied him on the tennis court, he dashed behind the car to try to stop its momentum, to keep my pristine car scratch free.
Instead, the car backed him against the wall and crushed him.
In my occasional thoughts about my own mortality, I have envisioned scenarios of my sons going through my things: tossing my files into the recycling bin, sending my books to a bookseller, laughing at my lifetime habit of stuffing receipts into drawers.