The Purse

Dan Hahn

13 min.

The smell of coffee lingered lightly from lunch as warm afternoon light streamed through the windows onto the linoleum topped table. Lorine sat with her purse open, engaged in the light conversation of old lovers. Yet Stanley hadn’t been in her life long, and certainly wasn’t, couldn’t be her lover.

“Stanly, did you sleep well?” Lorine asked, looking down at her open purse. From inside the thin slit pocket inside the purse, spread wide by his fingers, Stanley’s bright blue eyes stared back at her.

“As good as can be expected, I suppose.” he said, voice muffled slightly by the fabric of the purse.” It was a smooth black leather purse, vaguely square, with slightly rounded edges and a thin brass strip the rimmed the mouth of the purse. Inside, dark blue and white stripes opened into a deep pocket. At the top, was a thin, almost invisible zippered pocket, no wider than than a pair of sunglasses. This pocket was the window by which Stanly viewed Lorine’s life.

Lorine’s papery forehead wrinkled and she pursed her lips in pained sympathy. “Oh, Stanly…

“No. No, I’m fine, really,” he said, spreading the pocket a little wider, which allowed Lorine to see a little more of his nose than usual.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes. I don’t really need to sleep very much. I just don’t get tired like I used to,” Stanley said, as the pocket slipped closed, shutting him momentarily from Lorien’s view before he opened it again.

“Well, if you’re sure, then,” she said. Lorine didn’t want to press the issue, so she changed topics. “I picked you up some Cheese-Whiz and Ritz to try—have you ever had those? Ooh, Ethan used to love ‘em!” she said, looking into his blue eyes, framed by the fabric and zipper of her purse pocket.

His eyes—blue, just like Ethan’s—memories of her late husband flooded her, mingling fondness and loss. There was a hole of Ethan’s absence in her life. Stanly didn’t—couldn’t—fill a hole like that. Lorine tapped her nails on the blue linoleum of the table.

“Let me just fix you up some of those crackers, Ethan.”

“Stanly, Lorine,” His blue eyes bemused.

“Oh heavens! What an addle-brained old fool I am…some times I think I’m loosing my mind, Stanly” Lorine said, flashing him a smile that faded too soon. “I’ll get started on the crackers.”

Leaning on her cane, she stood up and shuffled across the warm oak floor that Ethan had laid when they were newlyweds. Tottering into the kitchen and pulling the crackers out of the cupboard she berated herself. What would Ethan say—his wife, talking to a man who live in her purse? “Crazy as a pile of hangers” thats what he’d say. Stanly wasn’t real—couldn’t be real, and Lorine knew it; but he felt real, and Lorine couldn’t explain that.

Lorine pulled the sleeve of Ritz crackers from the box and held her hand to her chest, breathing deeply. I am an addle-brained old fool, aren’t I? Did it really matter, though? The brown plastic crinkled against her rising and falling chest. At least she wasn’t as lonesome now that Stanly was around—that did matter.

Gripping her cane in one hand, the cracker in the other, and the Cheese-Whiz in the crook of her arm, she shuffled back to Stanly. She set the food down one item at a time then eased into her chair, grabbing both the edge of the table and her cane as she lowered herself.

“Did I ever tell you about Calvin?” Lorine asked, setting the crackers and Cheese-Whiz on the table. She picked up the sleeve of crackers and began working to open them.

“I don’t think so. Why?” He peered up at her from the pocket.

“Oh looking at you, it just reminded me of him. When he was a boy, Calvin used to look through the mail slot on the door. He had blue eyes like his father, Ethan—a little bit like yours.”

Stanly’s eyes smiled, she thought.

“At any rate, I think it was those eyes that got him in trouble.”

“How’s that?” He asked through the fabric.

“It’s a long story, but he called me up—said he’s getting a divorce,” she half whispered the last word, eyes wide and telling. “Well, he’s been tangled up for a few years now—involved with his secretary, drinking, lost a good paying sales job—the whole bit. He always had a look in his eyes that made you feel like you could trust him, even if he was lying through his teeth. Calvin’s always been as wild as a March hare,” Lorine said, still trying to massage open the brown plastic cracker sleeve. “I haven’t spoken with him in a while, but he sent me one of them ‘text messages’ saying that he’d call sometime today.”

Stanly’s eyes wrinkled in look that Lorine couldn’t quite discern—it was difficult to tell by just the eyes. Stanly paused and inhaled as if to say something, but Lorine didn’t hear it.

“You know, I should have expected it. I’m surprised he hasn’t ended up in a prison cell. Like father like son, or so they say.”

“Was Ethan…”

“When he was younger, yes. But over the years, he changed for the better. I loved him through it all—the good and the bad.”

“You miss him?”

Lorine locked eyes with Stanly for an instant, then looked away, going back to work on the crackers. It was a simple, almost innocent question, but it irritated Lorine and she waited several moments before she spoke, setting down the sleeve of crackers.

“When I was a child a hurricane tore up a seventy-year-old tree by its roots at my aunt’s home. I remember crawling around in the hole. The whole thing—as big as the bed of Daddy’s pick-up truck—all full of red clay, worms, and a tangle of broken roots. It felt raw, you know? Like an open wound. Well, Daddy helped saw it up, but the crater, stayed there as long as a month full of Sundays. Ethan and I were married almost as long, you know. After that much time, it’s hard to see where he started and I stopped. When he died, he left a hole in me, Stanly. Just as deep, just as raw—full of his roots.”

Silence filled the space between them.

“I’m sorry,” he said at last.

She looked at the purse and felt a stab of annoyance, not at him, but at herself. “There I go, prattling on again about nothing…” Talking to no one; she was talking to her purse.

“No,” Stanly piped up “I know what it’s like.”

This surprised her. “Your wife?” She asked, curious.

“Yes, but she’s not dead.”

“Divorce, like Calvin, then?”

“Prison. This—” he said, eyes glanced around the borders of the purse pocket, “ this is my prison.”

Lorine tried to hide her grimace. Ethan had been wild, and Calvin as well, but that didn’t mean she liked the idea of a convict in her purse. She clicked her tongue. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t real anyway.

“…but I know the feeling you just described: the raw hole of uprooted relationships,” he said.

Lorine started. She’d been so lost that she hadn’t realized that he’d been talking. She nodded in agreement then let the silence grow just short of stale before she spoke again.

“Why did they send you to prison, Stanly?”

“My eyes,” he said, failing to keep the bitterness from his muted voice. “Like Calvin, I suppose. My wife and son think I’m dead.”

“I’m sorry, Stanly—you never told me…”

“You know, my wife was always surprised at the things she’d find in her purse, things she’d been missing for months. The funny thing about it was that she had no one to blame but herself. She was always frustrated when she lost something and surprised to find it again,” Stanly said. “I bet you were surprised to find me here.”

Loraine snorted a laugh. “I was surprised. I guess I know how your wife felt. I’m always surprised at what I find and find in my purse.” Find a man, loose my sanity. Maybe that was just the way of it. “At any rate, how’d you end up in my purse, Stanley?”

His blue eyes, framed with striped blue fabric, squinted, glancing up and making contact with hers. “I was trying to visit my wife. But something went wrong, and well…” he said raising his eyebrows in a shrug.

“I bet your wife was sure disappointed.”

“I don’t think so,” he said, speaking in a way that halted the conversation.

“Well, now that your here,” Lorine picked up again, “I don’t know what I’ll do if I ever want to get a new purse. Use it up, wear it out… as the old adage goes.”

“I don’t think it will last much longer. It can’t.”

“Oh?”

But Stanly didn’t respond.

Lorine looked down, confused at his silence and noticed the strained plastic wrapping of the abandoned crackers. “Oh my heavens! Look at me, I forgot all about our little treat,” She chided herself and began working at the plastic with her age-weakened fingers.

Stanly peered over the lip of the fabric, watching. Despite all of Lorine’s effort, her arthritic fingers couldn’t tear the plastic.

“You know, Ethan used to open these up, right along the seam, just like the zipper. But I just. Can’t. Manage,” She said, punctuating each word as pulled. “Stanly, can you open this? My fingers are so weak—I just can’t manage it” She said, but the ridiculousness of the request hit her as soon as she’d spoken.

“Sure, I’d be glad…

“Never mind that. Just you never mind, Stanly,” she cut him off and flushed slightly. She knew that he was a phantasm of her aging mind, despite that something in her clung to the impossibility that he was somehow real.

“No, really, Lorine, it’s nothing.”

“Oh hush now, Stanly,” she said as if to scold him, but her eyes twinkled with a smile. “Just like an old lady: burdening you with a hundred little things… I’ll manage by myself, Ethan. Let me just go grab a pair of snippers.” She set down the crackers by the purse and slowly lifted herself with cracking joints.

She shuffled out of the room to Ethan’s office and began to dig through a drawer filled with loose paper clips, dull pencils that were missing erasers, mostly used stacks of Post-its, and a thousand other things—hopefully scissors among them—that failed to find a permanent spot in Lorine’s home.

As she dug through the drawer, the cacophonous digital ringtone of Ethan’s old cell phone erupted from her bedroom. She stopped rummaging for the snippers.

“Just a minute, Stanly, I think that’s Calvin on the line, I’ll be right back,” she yelled across the home. She stood and shuffled out of the room leaving the junk drawer open and Stanly waiting in the dining room, but by the time her conversation with Calvin ended, it was time for the re-runs of Perry Mason.

Lorine sat down in the chair in her bedroom, and clicked on the telly. Ten minuets into the program, Lorine’s head was on her chest, snoring loudly as the TV blared.

It was just after six o’clock in the morning when Lorine woke up, her neck and knees stiff from sleeping in the chair. Using her cane and the table edges, she hoisted herself out of the deep arm chair that had belonged to Ethan.

Lorine walked slowly down the hall and past Ethan’s desk—junk drawer still open. What had she been looking for in there? Closing the drawer with her cane, she moved to the kitchen where she put on coffee and toast.

Lorine eased herself into a dining room chair and scanned over yesterday’s paper when she noticed her purse.

“Stanly, did you sleep well?” she asked, skimming through an article about a local tax increase.

There was no answer. He was likely sleeping. Her toast popped up, and she slowly rose, retrieved the toast and her coffee, then sat back down and began buttering.

“Stanly?”

Still no reply.

Curious, Lorine pulled her purse over and opened it wide, then parted the margins of the hidden pocket to look in at him. The sight of the tan cloth innards of her purse made her stomach open up painfully like a gaping hole.

Lorine’s eyes widened in alarm, “No, no, no,” she zipped and unzipped the pocket once, hoping he’d return. He didn’t.

Trying again, she zipped the pocket furiously open and closed, there was nothing. He was gone. She felt that gnawing, raw pain—the hollow, consuming loneliness start to return. No more blue eyes, like Ethan’s. No more conversation.

Tears welled in her eyes as she futilely zipped at her purse. He was gone. In his absence, the emptiness began to crowd in around her, pressed against cold walls of isolation. She knew that he was something she’d made up in her mind. That had disturbed her, but now that he was gone… She’d rather face her senility—that way she wouldn’t be alone again.

She sat back, putting her hand to her head. The coffee steamed on the table and the toast was growing cold. She pushed the plate with toast away from her and it clinked into the can of Cheese Whiz.

“He never…” she trailed off. It wasn’t real, he couldn’t have eaten them anyway, so it didn’t matter. Yet, despite the illogic, it did matter to Lorine. Pushing aside her purse, looking for the crackers, Lorine froze when she saw them.

The cracker sleeve, brown plastic stressed white on one end from her efforts to open it, while the other end was perfectly unzipped down the seam.

“Ethan?” She found herself whispering.

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