I lost my American Express card at 10:30PM on the first night of our holiday travels. It happened at Torch 85, a colorfully titled truck stop/restaurant just outside the Tuskegee National Forest in Alabama, but I did not realize I had lost it until I drove for another hour and stiffly emerged from the car in front of the Hampton Inn in LaGrange, Georgia. I touched the front pocket where I had last put the card and experienced that awful, familiar chill– it wasn’t there.
I spent a minute patting my pockets front and back in the manner of a man who has misplaced something, a kind of self-frottage. Do women do this, too? Surely they do. But I feel it is mostly a male gesture, this feeling up of oneself, perhaps because men often have more pockets in which to hope to find things. Women are more bag rummagers.
Even before I had finished checking all pockets three or four times my wife was registering her extreme displeasure. It was late. My little boy was asleep. My daughter was excited to be at the hotel.
I went inside and told the woman at the counter we had arrived. I asked if I needed the actual card to pay for the room. We had booked it over the phone with the American Express card. We did this after I had lost it, but before we knew it was lost, because my wife knows the number by heart.
“You just need the last four digits,” said the lady behind the counter. I guessed at them and was wrong.
It was a small lobby. I went back to the car, got the numbers, and receited them quickly across the counter. The lady’s eyelids lowered a bit as she consulted her computer screen. They stayed lowered when she looked back at me and said, “That’s not it. You have the first three. Not the last one.”
I went back to the car one more time. The rain mat outside the door jammed in the door. I struggled with it. At last I succeeded in opening the front door of the hotel by peeling the rain mat all the way back.
My thespian heroes are Peter Sellers, Groucho Marx, and Charlie Chaplin, and had any of them had to perform these duties in a movie it would have been funny. But this was not a movie.
I sent the wife and kids upstairs to our room, parked the car, and spent a few minutes frantically searching for the card under the seats, unable to bear the thought I had lost another thing.
I had been losing things. You lose one thing and it is no big deal, but two things, and there is the feeling of slippage. Lose three things and everything feels like it is falling apart. These periods of disorientation come in clusters. A confusion sets in. One parries the feeling that you are simply undergoing a bit of bad luck that could happen to anyone with another feeling, always present in varying degrees: Your bad luck is of your own making. Everything that happens to you is all your own fault.
For example on the first cold night of fall, a week earlier, the heater in our house blew out. Not my fault. Yet a night later I was pulled over by a police man about one block from my house as we set off for the school’s parent’s night, on the grounds that I had abruptly pulled out into traffic. My explanation that the sight lines at night are very bad on our corner and require this kind of abrupt maneuver would have been more convincing had I remembered to take my wallet.
It’s worse than that–I had remembered to take my wallet, and had looked for it for a frantic minute before deciding to hell with it. And after I got the ticket I turned around and went home, where I looked for my wallet again, not wanting to take any chances, and found it in the bag I had looked in just before I left. In this way does one compound one’s problems.
This was the context of the lost credit card.
I like to travel and think of myself as some kind of ace traveler, but paradoxically I know I am a terrible traveler who is easily disoriented and constantly misplacing or losing things and feeling stranded and bereft. In fact, the predicament of feeling stranded and bereft is often at the heart of my fondest memories of traveling and part of why I think I am a great traveler–I can resourcefully improvise in the face of the adversity I seem to create for myself.
The look on my wife’s face was severe when I got upstairs and I knew it was because she felt that this period of charming ineptness should now be decisively over. I was a man with a wife and little children, and should not be putting myself in precarious situations by doing stupid things like losing our credit card.
I wanted to tell her why I had lost the credit card. But I could not tell her. So I write it down and share it with whomever as a way to vindicate myself. When one feels backed up against one’s own incompetence you need to explain and have your version of reality ratified by the attempt at explanation. Here is what happened:
After getting the gas in the car I went into the store to buy some snacks. There were five-pound bags of cracked pecans for sale; I saw the bags before I saw the sign explaining what they were. And there were many, many varieties of fried Pork Rinds. I remember thinking that it was nice to be in a place that was an actual place–Torch 85 was the name of both truck stop and restaurant, which was next door and apparently open 24 hours a day. There was an old man up front talking the old lady behind the register, who didn’t have all her teeth. As I paid they kept up the conversation. She was telling him about a mutual friend who was not well. Apparently he had internal bleeding. He had gone to the hospital and he was losing all this blood. It was a stomach problem of some kind.
It was an old-fashioned credit card machine and it seemed to take a while to spit out a receipt, which I then had to sign. It couldn’t happen fast enough because their amiable conversation about their ill friend got more and more graphic. As I scribbled my name the old lady said, “so then they had to take out all of his intestines and sort of set them aside, in order to find out where he was bleeding.”
Perhaps it was the cracked pecans in their big plastic bags or the smorgasbord of fried pork rinds, but against my will I pictured what this taking out and setting aside might look like. Then I fled out the door.
I shoved the credit card into the pocket of my swimsuit. It was red with white flowers. Why I was wearing a swimsuit while driving on a cold night is a story I will not get into, except as I said once in the grip of a bad streak one things leads to another.
Inside the hotel room, I called Torch 85 and was told that yes, someone had found my credit card on the ground. “You got lucky, you got an honest person,” said the lady. “You wanna come back or should I cut it up?”
“Cut it up,” I said. “Thank you. And please thank whomever found the card and brought it in.” Then I added, in a spirit whose ratio of charitableness to vindictiveness is still unclear to me, “I hope your friend gets better.”
She said thank you, vaguely, a bit surprised by the remark, or not, I couldn’t tell.
The reason I was wearing a swimsuit in November is that my underwear had been vanishing.
“No one is hiding your underwear,” my wife had said when I complained of this strange fact. “You are just losing them.”
“You can not lose underwear,” I said. “They are somehow vanishing.” I looked at my children suspiciously for a few days, but they provided no leads. Finally, my supply dwindling, I was left with no other option but to wear a bathing suit. At some point on the drive I rationalized there was no reason to wear pants over a bathing suit, and so I took off my pants. So I had marched into Torch 85 in a red bathing suit with white flowers and unreliable pockets out of which a credit card could fall.
The new credit card has arrived at my in law’s house and sits in an express mail envelope on their dining room table. I am reluctant to open it. I feel as long as it is in a condition of arrival it cannot begin its process of departure.