The Bureau of Unclaimed Funds
Stacey works at the Bureau of Unclaimed Funds, where she processes claims for the State Comptroller from a windowless array of cubicles. She has finished entering the details of a case into the Bureau’s database when she feels the shadow of her supervisor, Mr. Johnson.
“Miss Chen, come with me please. Mr. Vernon wants to see you.” Mr. Johnson doesn’t look to see if she is following as he heads down the fluorescent lit aisles formed by gray backed panels.
“Is everything okay, Mr. Johnson?” she asks her supervisor, hurrying behind him as he strides down the hallway.
“Nothing to worry about Miss Chen,” he replies. “Mr. Vernon wants to have a couple words with you, that’s all.”
Even knowing that, she enters the office cautiously. Mr. Johnson follows her in and gently closes the door. Mr. Vernon heads her branch of the Bureau and until now she has never talked to him. If she sees Mr. Vernon passing by, she nods quickly in his direction and rushes past.
“Miss Chen,” says Mr. Vernon, taking his eyes away from the screen on his desk to focus on her instead. Perching his glasses on his forehead, he leans back in his chair. A crumpled suit jacket lies carelessly on the window sill behind him. Mr. Vernon has been working for the Bureau since he was a younger, less tired, man when the current governor moved him from a cozy post upstate to the overburdened city offices. After that it was a matter of numbers. More people in the city, more claims to track, more refunds to issue and never enough staff to handle it all.
“You’ve been with us since you finished school. Mr. Johnson speaks highly of you.”
“Yes sir,” she replies, even though it wasn’t a question.
“You might have heard rumors that upstairs is putting pressure on us to close the paper cases. The online system works great for new claims, but we can’t leave the open ones dangling. Looks bad for the Bureau. I’d like to move you to Investigations to help out. You’re young, but Mr. Johnson seems to think that you can handle it. Your work with the data has been exemplary. You can start next week.”
“Me sir?” Her voice comes out higher than she intends it to. She clears her throat and tries again, “Sir. I don’t know anything about Investigating. Will I have to go out in the field?”
“Of course you will, but don’t worry – the Bureau will pay for your travel expenses. Mr. Johnson can sign you up for the training course. All right then Miss Chen. Thanks for coming by. Congratulations on your new position.” He pulls his glasses down to the tip of his nose, turns to the screen and does not notice that Stacey’s feet have frozen to the carpet.
Mr. Johnson gently taps her on the shoulder, beckoning her to leave. She startles and unsticks her feet to follow her supervisor back down the aisles of the main room, concentrating on using Mr. Johnson’s steady stride to pace herself.
When they arrive at her cubicle, he spares her a brief glance. “You’re going to be fine. I’ll get you signed up for that training class and we’ll take it from there. Congratulations.”
Tucking her hands into her sides, she heads to the break room where she hopes no one is lingering mid-afternoon. A container of her mom’s fried rice is tucked in the back of the freezer. Her breathing only slows when the microwave beeps and the scent of soy sauce permeates the room. She huddles in a chair and lets the steam of the hot rice fill her lungs.
Once, in college, she signed up for a ramen tour of the East Village. They had to meet at the Astor Place stop. She found the right exit from the subway platform, but out on the sidewalk, the rush of people on their way to work flooded her vision. She blinked rapidly, trying to calm her breathing. Though she knew she had to cross the street, her foot would not take that first step off the curb. Instead she turned around and headed home. When her brother Danny asked how it went, she lied and said fine.
“Danny!” she now yells from the bedroom they share. “I told you to keep out of my drawers!”
Her two dresser drawers are as methodically organized as her cubicle desk with the stapler two inches to the right of the keyboard. She flattens socks in pairs and rolls them in tight, neat bundles, arranged by color. She folds her underwear, one against the other, pattern side up. Stacey regularly empties the apartment of broken plastic spoons and rubber bands cracked from disuse, but it only takes her mom a week to fill the surfaces with new broken plastic spoons.
“I couldn’t find a clean shirt,” he yells from the living room.
“Well they wouldn’t be in my drawers. I told you to stay out,” she yells back.
She doesn’t mind their sharing a room except when he goes into her drawers looking for his things so clearly strewn across the floor. Though, as her mom often reminds her, she has a real bed to sleep in and her brother’s bed is the couch in the living room.
“Stacey!” calls Danny from the kitchen. “Mom says it’s time for dinner, your turn to set the table.”
He sticks his head into the bedroom. “Wanna come out with me and the guys after dinner? We’re going to the movies.”
“Thanks, I’m okay,” she replies. She can hear him shaking his head as he walks away. Danny never worries about what he will find at the top of the subway stairs.
“What’s for dinner Ma?” she asks as she takes down four rice bowls and combs through the drawer for pairs of matching chopsticks.
“Ma, tell Stacey she should come out with us tonight. She never leaves the house,” says Danny, pulling out a chair.
“Leave sister alone,” Ma replies. She doesn’t turn around but continues sautéing a batch of mustard greens for dinner. She adds the dried shrimp and the pungent scent floods the kitchen and living room.
“All I’m saying is she should get out sometimes,” Danny says. He hands Stacey four mugs. She obediently fills them with water from the sink and places them on the table while her mom continues sautéing.
“I don’t need to get out. I’m fine staying at home,” Stacey answers, a little crossly.
“Go tell Ba dinner’s ready,” her mom says. She hands Danny a plate of glazed pork chops topped with slivers of scallions for the table.
They wait for her dad to start.
“How’s work?” Her dad asks as he picks up the top pork chop.
“It’s fine,” she replies. She doesn’t tell them about the promotion because she doesn’t want to tell them that she doesn’t want it, even though Ba would understand. He hasn’t left the sorting room of the post office for thirty years.
After dinner Danny cajoles Stacey into cleaning up for him and leaves for the movies. Her mom sits at the kitchen table, pulling off the last bits of meat left on the bones and puts them in a container with rice for Stacey to take to the office for lunch.
At work, the first day of her promotion, Mr. Johnson comes by with a stack of cases. Stacey picks up a thin folder with a handful of yellowed papers. Notes in various handwritings with dates going back ten years fill the inside cover. Stacey starts with the bottom one, a gas bill addressed to Tran Thi Trinh living in Sunset Park. She makes a note to check the database for a Trinh Thi Tran and puts the folder aside. She solves two more cases her first week without leaving her desk.
She finds she has a knack for spotting inconsistencies in the files and solves a dozen more cases cocooned in the soft gray walls of her cubicle. She is examining the case of a divorced woman, whose accounts had been tied to her husband’s, pouring through online records before she realizes she will have to go out to the Rockaways. Still she waits another month, closing seven more cases from the comfort of her desk, before looking up the last known address in the divorced woman’s file. She zooms into the location on her computer and changes the angle to street view. A pale green house is surrounded by small patches of a yard. In the driveway sits an old two-door hatchback.
She checks and rechecks the address, zooming in and out of the street view and cross checking the subway map. On a post it note she writes down the address, the subway line, direction of the train and the name of the station. She climbs the station stairs, twisting the straps of her bag, and stares across to her usual spot on the uptown side.
It takes almost an hour. At each station past Bushwick she looks around apprehensively, afraid she will miss her stop. She repeats the directions over and over in her mind, the post-it note fraying beneath her jittery fingers.
When she finally emerges from the A train, she stands frozen at the top of the subway stairs. Someone bumps into her from behind and she stumbles out onto the sidewalk. She did not expect the sea air to tickle her nose with the city sitting in miniature on the horizon. Impatient commuters brush past her, jostling her to the left, then back the other way. Her throat constricts. The air in her lungs refuses to expel and she remains where she stopped, forcing people to move around her. A minute passes, or it could have been an hour, by the time she turns around and heads back down into the station, the sound of her heart pounding in her ears. She spends the rest of the week in the shelter of her desk, combing through the file, word by word, until she finds a transcription error that saves her from having to go back and try again.
More time passes from the safety of her cubicle. She reads over each case from the predictable confines of her desk until it yields a detail someone less nervous might have missed. She manages to keep up with the quotas management has set, hiding the fact that, except for the abortive Rockaways trip, she never leaves the office to do so.
“Danny!” she yells from the couch. “It’s your turn to set the table tonight.”
“What are we having?” he calls back from the bedroom.
“Roast chicken,” she answers, though he can smell as well as she can from the bedroom. The splatter of lemongrass hits the hot oil as the apartment instantly swells with the sounds of her mom cooking dinner. Danny unplugs the rice cooker and brings it over to the table. From a stack of crumpled napkins collected from rest stops and restaurants, Danny counts out four and sets them on the table.
“Ba! Dinner’s ready!” Stacey calls out. Her dad emerges from the bedroom, his shirt wrinkled from his afternoon nap. He pads into the kitchen in his slippers and sits down as her mom places rough cut pieces of chicken onto the waiting platter in front of him. Stacey serves the rice, giving her dad the first bowl.
“How was work?” asks her dad.
“Work is good. I solved a case today. A guy had a $90 credit owed him from a department store that closed two years ago. He probably forgot about it,” Stacey answers. She doesn’t say it was another case where she avoided leaving the office.
After dinner, she stacks everything in the dishwasher to dry, wipes down the counter and heads to the couch to read. Her mom is cutting coupons next to her, methodically placing each in an accordion envelope she carries with her everywhere.
Sitting back in her office chair, Stacey picks up a file holding faded bills addressed to Amber Jones. Amber Jones is owed a security deposit of $274.81 on a gas utility account opened five years ago. The most current information shows a phone bill for Amber S. Jones, in the Bronx, with a scrawled note from two years ago that says, busy signal.
Over the next several days her eyes grow weary from staring into the computer screen, checking all the databases the Bureau has access to. She looks up Amber Jones in the city clerk’s marriage and divorce records. She conducts a property search. She goes back into the microfiche files to see if Amber Jones has merited a mention in any city paper. Finally, two weeks later, she resigns herself to making a field visit. She closes the folder, taking care not to disturb the order of the papers, and writes down the last known address on a post-it note she sticks to the front.
Stacey gets out at Fordham Road and walks north one block before turning right towards East Kingsbridge. Nothing in the Bronx prevents the streets from being as wide as they like. Two story buildings line the sidewalks, some with billboards larger than their storefronts advertising electronics and shoes. Even in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of the week, people loiter on the sidewalks, watching her as she surreptitiously holds her bag close to her body. Music spills out from the stores and the strong odor of fried food drifts towards her as she passes by a take-out counter. The meat being heaped onto yellow rice reminds her of her mom’s pork chops, and she slows down to let the scent of crisp pork skin into her lungs.
The noise of the main concourse follows her as she turns onto the more residential road. She stands for a moment longer at the crosswalk, watching the clouds move across the expansiveness of sky. She walks up to the address she has been repeating in her mind for the past hour and presses 2A. The main door clicks open as a tiny old man holds it open for her. She passes through a vestibule lined with cracked hexagonal tiles and starts up the fluorescent lit stairwell, trying to remember to breathe with each step.
At 2A, a long time passes before she hears anyone approaching. A young kid, in his teens, opens the door. He looks at her blankly. She waits for him to say something.
When he doesn’t, she says quickly, “I’m looking for an Amber Jones. I work for the Bureau of Unclaimed Funds.” She reaches into her bag for the letter.
“No Amber here,” he replies, closing the door on her.
“Wait!” Stacey puts a hand to stop the door, her heart beating irregularly. “Do you know where I can find her? This is the last address we have for her.”
“No Amber here.” The door shuts in her face.
As she stands there, taking shallow breaths, she stares at the paint caked over the peep-hole, wondering if she should try again. Before she can decide, a door opens on the other side of the corridor, flooding the hallway with the sharpness of cumin. The top third of a brown face framed in curly short hair peeks out, “Who you looking for?”
She pauses in her breathing to take in the curry that floats out into the hallway past the brown face and door to answer, “Amber Jones. Do you know her?”
“She in trouble?” asks the person from behind the door.
“No, she’s not in trouble. I have a refund for her from the Bureau but I need to find her first. Do you know where she could be?” asks Stacey, as mild air currents tinted with coconut milk gently loosen her hands from the bag strap. She can feel blood returning to her knuckles where she had been gripping the strap too tightly.
“Well there’s no Amber living there, hasn’t been for years. Tai lives there with his ma and grandma, but the mom won’t be home until late so you’ll have to come back.”
She starts to ask what time late means, but before she can get much further, the door closes on her. Another door slamming on the floor above her makes her jump and she flees downstairs as casually as she can without flat out running. Her heartbeat doesn’t slow until she passes the Dominican take out counter on the way back to the subway.
Her mom makes grilled prawns and snow pea leaves for dinner that night.
“What’s the special occasion Ma?” she asks, heaping more greens into her bowl.
“Big sale on prawns today. Danny says you got promotion at work. How come you didn’t say anything?” her mom asks.
“It’s not a big deal,” she replies and continues eating, letting Danny fill the table with conversation instead of elaborating. Her mom places the last prawn in her dad’s bowl and they eat until five snow pea leaves stare back at them. Danny and Stacey reach for the last leaf at the same time, but their mom chides them and points her chopsticks at Ba. Danny clears the table and heads out. Stacey stays in the kitchen, watching her mom prepare congee for breakfast in the morning.
“You know,” says her mom carefully slicing ginger for the stock, “Ba tried for a promotion once. He wanted to work outdoors. He didn’t get it.”
“I thought he liked working in the back room,” says Stacey.
“He does,” her mom says, “but he always says it would be nice to be paid to see more of the world.”
From her bed that night, the occasional car driving over a pothole at the intersection outside her window sounds like a door slamming above her, loud and definitive. Every time she is on the verge of sleep, another car drives by.
She lets three weeks pass before trying again. The same young kid answers the door. This time she is ready with her letter in hand and quickly pushes it in his face before he can close the door on her. He glances at it, turns around and leaves her standing there with the door open. She waits a while longer before slowly stepping inside.
The kid has disappeared, and she finds herself in a darkened living room. Brown, horizontal blinds cover the windows and a sagging couch occupies one wall. She takes a few more steps into the room as an older woman limps towards her from the bedroom.
The woman motions for Stacey to sit as she takes a seat opposite her. Stacey still has the letter clutched in her hand. She reaches out to show it to the woman. The woman looks at it and shouts loudly towards the rear of the apartment in a language Stacy does not recognize.
Minutes later the boy comes into the room, one arm thrust in a jacket, and rushes out the front, slamming the door behind him. Stacy tries again to hand the letter to the woman. “Do you know where I can find Amber Jones? I have a letter for her.”
The woman smiles broadly and shakes her head, not reaching for the letter. Stacey tries again, “I’m looking for Amber Jones. I’m from the Bureau of Unclaimed Funds and I have some money that is owed to her.” The woman continues to smile but does not otherwise react. Stacey points to the name printed at the top, hoping she recognizes it. The woman slowly gets up from the chair, her fluttering hands indicating Stacey should stay put, and heads into the kitchen. The tick of a gas pilot light, the splatter of oil hissing against a pan and minutes later the scent of garlic fills the apartment. Before Stacey can decide what to do, she hears footsteps pounding up the stairs.
The kid comes in, out of breath. He disappears into the back and minutes later she hears the sounds of a slower tread mounting the stairs.
“Tai said you’re looking for someone?” the woman entering the apartment asks Stacey. She sits down heavily, her dark pink hoodie standing out against the faded couch. The bulk of her body absorbs Stacey’s jitteriness. Stacey tries not to appear so nervous, tucking her hands into her lap to silence them.
“Yes, thank you for coming. Do you know where I can find Amber Jones?”
“Amber Jones! She hasn’t lived here in years. She has two little ones. That woman worked herself to the bone to make sure her kids have everything.” She sighs, “Last I heard she went down towards the river, where the big buildings are. The rents here keep going up and she couldn’t afford living on her own anymore. There might be a sister she moved in with.”
“Do you maybe have an address where she lives? I have a letter for her. There’s a place on it where she can write to claim some money that’s owed to her.” Stacey pulls out her notebook and pen, ready to take down the address.
“Well I’m pretty sure she could use the money, but I don’t know which building the sister is in. If you come back next Sunday, there’s a big potluck at the church three blocks over and you can ask Mrs. Dennison. She knows everyone. I’m bringing my stewed okra and Mrs. Nga here is making fried spring rolls. It’s going to be a lot of good eating.”
“Oh, thanks, but I’m not sure I can come,” Stacey replies automatically, starting to tear off a page from her notebook. “Could you pass on a message to her? I’ll leave you the number she can call.”
“I’m no good with paper, you best give that to Mrs. Dennison yourself. I’m telling you, you won’t find better food anywhere else on a Sunday afternoon.” The woman now leans back to take a better look at Stacey. “You’re a tiny thing, you could definitely use some fattening up. I’ll be there all day helping to set up. Ask for Laticia, everyone knows me.”
“Thank you. I really appreciate your help. It’s nice of you to invite me. Thanks again,” Stacey says as she packs her things to go. At the door to the kitchen, she pauses to watch the older woman adding to a pile of cut greens. Heat shimmers off the wok and Stacey can smell garlic on the verge of burning. She nods politely to the older woman’s back and lets herself out of the apartment.
For dinner Stacey’s mom makes a sweet and sour soup flavored with a fish head. Danny is out with friends and without him, the sounds of their chewing and occasional clink of chopsticks against a rice bowl carry them through most of dinner before her dad clears his throat.
“How’s work?” her dad asks. He looks at her expectantly.
“It’s fine,” Stacey says, wishing Danny were there. She wants to tell him about the trips to the Bronx but then he’ll ask her about closing the case and she doesn’t want to say she’s afraid of a church potluck.
Stacey helps her mom clean up afterward, wiping down the table and leaving her mom to prepare a meat stuffing for the bao she’ll steam for breakfast.
She can’t sleep that night either. The pothole keeps jarring her awake until finally she gets up for a glass of water. She tiptoes past Danny sleeping on the couch in the living room, his mouth open in a silent snore. The undercounter light in the kitchen is on.
“Ma, what are you still doing awake?
“I forgot to write down the four oranges I picked up on my way home from the store. Better do it now when I remember,” her mom responds.
“You still keep a notebook where you write down all our expenses?” Stacey asks.
Her mom says, “Of course, I do. Just because you have big promotion at work doesn’t mean I stop worrying about money.”
“But Ma, you don’t have to worry about money anymore,” Stacey says.
“I always worry about money,” her mom replies.
After her mom goes to bed, Stacey stays up in her room, leafing through the small spiral bound notebooks with her mother’s neat handwriting in vertical columns filling up page after page of the lined paper. When they were kids and their dad worked extra night shifts to pay for their summer camps and after school programs, a pack of six chicken thighs could feed the whole family for almost a week. The first night her mom would cut up half into small pieces and sauté them with a broccoli. The second night she would chop them into even smaller pieces for fried rice. The bones she would save for a watery chicken broth on the third night and finally, stripping the cooked chicken down to the bone, she would toss the little bits with onions and soy sauce that they ate over rice. A family could survive for a long time on $274.81 worth of chicken. Amber Jones could probably do a lot with $274.81.
The next Sunday morning Stacey finds herself putting on a skirt and blouse in case the church potluck is anything like her church’s potlucks where the moms complain loudly about their children but are really bragging about how accomplished the kids have turned out.
This time she remembers to switch to the local train at the last express stop. When she comes out of the subway, she heads north to the address Laticia in the pink hoodie had given her. The gravel parking lot next door to the church is already filled with tables laden with foil-covered dishes. She stands motionless on the the sidewalk, looking for Laticia behind the musicians setting up folding chairs. Before she can decide what to do, the young kid from the apartment, pushes past her.
As he reaches the center of the street, he notices her still standing on the curb. She doesn’t move, her feet stuck to the pavement.
“Come on!” he says, waving a hand for her to follow him.
Her eyes on his waving hand, she starts to cross the street, her feet sticking slightly with each step. She follows the path the kid has charted out for her, until she arrives at the curb on the other side. He has disappeared, leaving her there on the edge of the potluck. The thumping of her heart in her ears drowns out the musicians until all she can hear is her own frenetic pulse. A slight breeze brings the taste of fritters across her face. She blinks. The old woman from the apartment waves to her from behind a stack of fried shrimp rolls. She gestures to Stacey, beckoning her over. She hands Stacey a plate stacked with church food. Stacey starts eating. She doesn’t know how long she stands before she notices Leticia making her way towards her.
“Stacey girl, you came! Come on now, there’s more to eat and Mrs. Dennison made it after all. Says she’s seeing Amber Jones later this week, so she’d be happy to pass on any messages. Come on I’ll take you to her.”
Her mom makes a whole fish steamed in soy sauce and garlic for dinner that night. It’s Stacey’s turn to set the table. She returns the mismatched chopsticks to the drawer as her mom reminds her to take out the leftover broccoli from last night. She sets the fish platter in the center of the table and fills the rice bowls before calling out to her dad.
Danny recounts his night out as they make their way through half the fish. Her mom teases out the fish cheek and places it in her dad’s bowl. She is gently lifting out the bones so they can start on the other side when her dad asks her how work is going.
“It’s great Ba,” Stacey says. She can sense Danny about to launch into a new conversation and hurriedly adds, “yesterday I went to a potluck in the Bronx. I took the D train to Kingsbridge. The streets are much wider than here, but the buildings are shorter. I talked to this woman, Mrs. Denison, who told me how to find Amber Jones. Today at work I requested a refund check for her for $274.81, which means I can close the case.”
Ba nods. Danny reaches for the last bits of fish cheek, and her dad taps his chopsticks lightly, pointing to Stacey’s bowl.
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