“Joint Account”

A Memoir by Laura Stein

There is a small metal organizer smack in the middle of my late husband’s desk, a slotted divider probably meant for envelopes, notepads, and such. Gene used it for storing the free return-address labels we got from Amnesty International and various other good causes. The kind we rarely needed anymore because we paid our bills online. He also placed a pad of deposit slips in its first compartment, vertically, to have it handy.

Shortly after he died, I couldn’t find the deposit pad. I’d been paying our bills for a while and always returned it immediately. The mystery was finally solved when I discovered it in the correct slot but horizontal, hidden from view. I noticed a Post-it I hadn’t paid attention to before, an oversized yellow one. In the all-cap printing he’d adopted to remedy his increasingly illegible handwriting, it said: Please leave this sticking up so it can be seen and grabbed.

A few days ago, a little over two years after his death, I finally closed the joint checking account that went with those deposit slips. I hadn’t been using it for over a year and assumed only inertia kept it open. Now I’m not so sure. When I had imagined my post-Gene life, I often saw myself coming home to the echo, the emptiness. Indeed, in the weeks and months after he died, each time I came in the front door I’d look up the stairs of my upside-down house and be jolted by not seeing him in his wheelchair at our dining table, reading The New York Times. What never occurred to me was the desolation I’d feel closing a bank account after 26 months on my own. 

But there I sat the other day, hugging the check register to my chest. Gene favored a three-check format, and I turned the long pages slowly, as if mooning over favorite pictures from our wedding or a trip to Paris. So many expenses were no longer a part of my life, the medications, home health aide, assorted gadgets from the Better Living catalog. (If you don’t know that one, you’re lucky.) I kicked myself for not taking pictures of the progressive stages on the long journey we’d weathered together, as if I wouldn’t want to remember it all. 

The early register pages were predominantly in Gene’s writing, upper and lower case, each item checked neatly in red ink and the balance totaled on the right where he’d reconciled the statement. In the middle pages his printing became harder to read, a problem nicely remedied by his switching to all caps. The red checks remained, amazingly consistent in size, but I saw the confirming calculations stopped; he’d decided to trust the bank. Further along, instead of only an occasional entry by me, there were whole chunks of them. 

Those sessions came flooding back, my anxiety and annoyance as Gene attempted to teach me his system. He’d been making more mistakes, and we both knew it was time for me to pitch in — and for him to make me independent, ready for the inevitable. Gene had been a theatrical producer and general manager on and off Broadway. Even as he declined, his natural financial ability trumped what I thought of as my numerical dyslexia. I chafed at what was required, how cumbersome and unnecessarily fussy his method seemed. We had Quicken and each payment was recorded and categorized. We divided our credit card bills every month, the deductible categories tallied and entered. 

I particularly hated the battered accordion paid-bills file that stored them alphabetically, each letter containing multiple years. Periodically, he’d take out a handful from the back of a slot to discard. At least two years’ worth remained, always. When I suggested we look for a sleeker, white version of that file, he said the tan color didn’t matter, this was the biggest one he could find — exactly why it was so ugly — and I’d be glad for it in time. 

In those days, I’d frequently turn down a social invitation saying, “I have to pay bills,” as if it would take up a whole afternoon. For a while it did and then some; in my haste I screwed up.

Then Gene died and nothing made me feel closer to him than sitting at his desk, hearing his voice remind me that real estate tax receipts had their own folder and didn’t go in the accordion file. Suddenly I took pleasure in dividing the Visa bill. Nothing about the process made me impatient. How had I failed to see how lucky I was to be left with such order and clarity? When I wanted to know the price of something, no need to phumpher around Quicken. I’d just flip through paid bills and there it would be, including a two-year trend, at least. 

My numerical dyslexia didn’t disappear, but I had the perfect role model in a husband who’d figured out at each phase of his numerous challenges how to compensate and cope. I double and triple-checked everything. Only occasionally did I transpose numbers or miss a payment. And when I did, it was no big deal because someone along the way always caught it. Gene came to my rescue with the magical words: My husband died. We’d never been late, much less missed; fees got waived, no problem. 

I don’t sit at his desk as often now. His computer died and it made no sense to replace it. I’ve kept his office intact, though, and use his perfectly organized files. Thank heaven he didn’t let me replace that accordion. The folder marked “Bills” for those to be paid is practically translucent, it’s so worn. It will be a sad day when it splits in two.

I debated transferring the yellow Post-it on the old deposit pad to the one for my new solo account stored on its side right next to it. But, why? It does the job just as well sticking up in its old position. That was the pad Gene used, and seeing the edge of yellow Post-it reminds me to leave mine vertical, so it can be seen and grabbed.

Laura Stein lives in Montauk and leads the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop. She is writing a book of linked short stories.