Vytatuas Malesh is a recent MFA graduate from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who now lives and works as a textbook editor and game designer in Detroit, Michigan. His short story "Hands" appeared in the November 2009 issue of Danse Macabre literary e-zine. He has won numerous academic awards, but is new to publication. He is currently polishing his first novel, entitled Dancing in the Ashes, while writing and maintaining Sardonic Shock Syndrome, a thrice-weekly blog of cynicism, criticism, humor, and scorn.
The purse still looked pretty good when Wes brought it home: a thin black skid from where it had impacted the ground after being tossed from a moving car, mistakable at a distance for an accent or a pleat, a two-inch split along a side seam, and one strap dangling, broken off from the bag. The fabric was still crisp, still firm, and except for where the seam had split and the black skid stretched, the print was clean and straight. It was a quality item, not the kind of thing one should just throw away when it was a little worn, but someone had, and Wes brought it home for Claire.
Claire's heart sank when she saw the purse and Wes's big, dumb, proud grin. Wes had trash-picked again. He was a dumpster-diver. This bag belonged in a dumpster, or the curbside, because someone had placed it there, had made it trash. When it is here, it is it; when it is there, it is trash. There was no coming back from the trash, but he'd been sweet and earnest and had convinced her.
“There's nothing wrong with it that you couldn't fix,” Wes had said.
“The strap is broken,” Claire said.
“Well I can just crimp that back on with my pliers,” he said, pointing to the gold adornment through which the strap ran, and which was fastened to the bag by four brads, all of which had torn out but left enough fabric intact to give the strap an anchor.
“The side is stained here,” she said, pointing to the black streak along the side of the bag.
“Try a little club soda, and if that doesn't work you can just hold that side closer to you and show the other side,” he said, and he began to pout, and said “I just wanted you to have something nice, because you deserve it.”
“I know,” she said.
“And you've got that one dress, and the shoes, and I knew you'd need a purse—you said you needed a purse,” he said.
“Yes” she said.
“And now I just thought, since I saved a little money, that we could go and have ourselves a night out, and you'd look so pretty in the shoes and the dress and with the fancy bag,” he said.
And she agreed, and she set to work on the bag. He'd been right about the strap because it only took him five minutes to punch the brads back through the fabric and to bend them backwards from the inside so that in this it was truly as good as new, if maybe twenty degrees tilted to the right, but there was no order or formality in the arrangement of the other adornments, so it hardly seemed to matter.
Wes was crudely handy. He couldn't make things, but he could fix them okay. Just okay—never great. He never pretended that things were as good as new, but he'd say “there ya go” or “that'll do ya” and then just overlook the remnant imperfections his patchwork repairs left behind. The porch of their trailer sagged, but held. The muffler on their car was held in place with an old wire hanger. His one good suit had patches on the elbows, his one good tie didn't match it, and his white button-down had a mismatched button, third from the top.
Her dress was red, faded, and developing pills at the small of the back. The shoes he spoke of were black patent-leather one-inch heels with small tassels. The purse was grey and the strap was black, the print was metallic, copper. She buffed the strap with shoe polish until it shone, and all that remained to remind her that the purse had come from the trash was the split seam, the black stain, and the smell. The purse smelled of another woman.
There was something flowery and sweet, a deep baby-powder smell, and also the warm earth-clay smell of rich lipstick. There was a hint of perfume, just the slightest and on one side—a quick dab to the wrist applied daily so that every time the woman had reached into the purse it left a tiny residue behind—every day just a few molecules of accumulation until the scent infused itself into the fabric and the leather and would never leave.
Perhaps that's why it had been thrown away. Perhaps the woman changed perfumes and found that the scent of the bag clashed with her new choice, or maybe that was how the woman knew when to throw a purse away, the scent, because rich people do not tolerate smells. Claire saw this on television—rich women with whitewashed walls and couches with clean cushions sprayed perfumes in the air that were sweet at first but then eliminated odors and killed germs.
Claire could air the purse out—poor woman's air freshener—hanging something outside and open for a day or two. Just outside the door there was a hook, and she could hang the newly repaired strap over the hook, leaving the purse to sprawl itself out lewdly against the wall, spread open and obscene.
But first the stain: she bought a bottle of club soda, and it worked—simple enough. She hadn't believed it would work, but she'd never really been taught how to clean either. Her family just wasn't that way.
The stain was gone, and all that was left of the old woman was the smell and the split seam. The smell would fade when she aired out the purse, but the seam would be harder to fix.
The purse was lined on the inside, and the lining was quilt-stitched and glued to the outside—It would be hard to turn the bag inside-out, and even harder to do it without ripping the seam further. She could glue the seam, but the glue would wear out—she wasn't even sure of what glue to use. Super glue? Wood glue? Rubber cement? She decided to take the chance and sew it up.
The bag was thickly lined and the fabric was stiff. She couldn't turn it out, but Wes could. His hands were wiry, but strong, and he turned the bag inside-out with just a curl of his knuckles and a strong push from his thumbs. He had thick wrists with small hands and long spindly fingers.
With the bag inside out, it was a guessing game for her. The split didn't continue through to the inside, and with the bag inside-out, the split was hard to see—but hard is not impossible, and she knew the affected corner, so she took a hard carpet needle and some black silk thread and went to work.
She pricked her fingers mercilessly, her hands cramped around the needle, and at length she had to give it up. She was poking blindly at the bag and bloodying her fingers. Wes turned it right-side out so that she could hang the bag up on the hook outside and let the wind clean out the lining.
On Friday she took the bag back inside. The bag smelled like nothing, but the split in the seam remained. She decided to glue it together. She found a tube of super-glue in the hall closet and worked the crusted tip open with the point of a safety pin.
“Here goes nothing,” she said.
She ran a bead of glue along one side of the split, folded it in, and then folded the other in to match. It was a tricky operation. She slipped her index fingers just inside the split to bend the fabric back, then crimped the split shut with her middle fingers and thumbs, pulling her index fingers out at the last second. She held the seam shut for a count of ten and then let go.
She had glued her fingers to the purse. She hadn't even noticed the glue on her finger tips when she pulled them out of the split, but it was there, and now when she pulled her hands back, the purse came with them. She froze. The glue dried and she felt it getting harder and harder on her skin It contracted around her fingers like a boarded hide in a tanner's shop.
She gritted her teeth and braced the purse against the kitchen table with one knee. Then she pulled her left hand free. It stung, but not too terribly, no worse than touching a wet finger to a hot pan. The right hand was worse—part of her cuticle came off when she pulled and she put the finger to her mouth out of instinct. Fumes burned her eyes. The dried glue had a sweet chemical scent and taste, and the little bit of glue that hadn't hardened on her finger stuck to her front tooth. She picked it off with her pinky nail, washed her hands in the kitchen sink, and then went to inspect the purse.
There was a little dried glue on the outside, but the seam looked almost good. The fabric around the seam had been stitched so that the repeating vertical lines of the copper metal print ran perfectly parallel on all sides, but at the seam the symmetry broke and the parallel lines bobbed inward. She was disappointed because she could see it, and she knew that if she could see it, then anyone could see it. She hadn't fixed it, but nor had she really made it any worse.
She would have to hold the purse so that the split side was closer to her body.
Claire made love, they showered, they dressed. She looked at the bag one more time, and used her nail file to scrape away the extra dried glue and tiny bit of skin stuck to the outside. She dressed in her second-hand red dress and black patent-leather heels, and he put on his brown Sunday suit. They had a drink—martinis in stolen coffee cups, very dry, with grocery store gin and bruised olives—then they had another, and they went to dinner.
Neither of them had been to the supper club, but they'd driven by and had heard it was the place to go, and so they went. They parked the car and were seated midway between the piano and the bar. She tucked the purse underneath her chair. It was pleasant and busy inside—the piano player tinkled the keys absently (he would sing soon, but it was time for dinner and so he played dinner music) while the diners ate and laughed and drank.
It was soft and bright inside—the lights were high, but gentle. The walls were cream-white; the brass work of the chairs and the fittings gleamed as did the place settings. The table clothes were rich claret under bold white.
“Let's just eat and go,” Claire said.
“This place—let's just eat and go,” she said again.
“Relax, honey—what are you having?” Wes asked. He stuck out his chin and smiled at her, then at the diners at the next table. He sipped at his water. He chewed the ice cubes and listened to the crescendo squeal they made as he crushed them between his back molars.
She picked up the heavy, tasseled menu board and looked over the offerings. Their waiter came. Wes ordered wine, and the steward came to their table and poured them each a taste. They gulped it down and asked for more. The steward refilled their glasses and left the bottle.
“Chicken, I guess,” Claire said.
“Get what you want, sweetheart,” Wes said.
“Chicken then,” she said.
Wes looked at his own menu until the waiter came, and then ordered the New York Strip.
“It's cheaper, and you get more,” he explained to her.
They had salad and soup. They drank their wine and ordered more.
“I'll just have water,” she said.
“No, baby—this is for us, have more wine,” he insisted, and so she did.
They ate their dinner, they skipped desert and had more to drink. The piano player took up singing and they moved to the bar. They were getting drunk. Their feet never touched the burgundy carpet or the oak parquet, they cheerfully met the smiles of the well-groomed and handsomely dressed, and they found two empty seats near the corner.
The bartender wore a black bow tie and a shirt with no jacket. He served them quickly and called them sir and the lady.
“This is so good—try this, babe, isn't it good?” Claire said of her martini.
“It's good,” Wes agreed.
“I love this place,” she said to no one in particular, and then turned to the woman beside her and asked, “don't you?”
“Don't I?” The woman at the bar asked, and her companion's laughed, and so Claire laughed and Wes laughed, and they all laughed together.
They ordered a round, and the piano player played and sang, and a few very old couples danced nearby but no one else did.
“Have you been to Claremont's?” The woman at the bar asked.
“No, no I haven't,” Claire said as if she knew.
“Well, you should—Claremont's is much nicer,” the woman at the bar said.
“Did you hear that babe? Claremont's is much nicer,” Claire repeated.
“Claremont's,” he said.
“How is the food?” Claire asked.
“Oh, it's fine—everything is fine at Claremont's,” the woman at the bar said.
“And the wine?”
“Fine, just fine.”
“Where is Claremont's?” Wes asked.
“It's on Lincoln Avenue,” the woman at the bar said.
“You know it's on Lincoln Avenue, dear” Claire said to her husband, and then to the woman at the bar she said “he's just silly sometimes.”
“Aren't they all?” the woman at the bar said.
Claire agreed that they were all silly, all ridiculous, all stupid, even. The woman at the bar wasn't sure if she would go so far as to call them stupid, but Claire said she would, sometimes.
They ordered another round, and Claire talked to the woman at the bar, and the woman at the bar split her time between Claire and her companions.
Wes studied the woman at the bar—probably forty, probably divorced, probably bored. Thin, blonde, tall—beautiful and fading because nothing stayed so fine for so long. She probably wasn't from around here—not from Sturgis, not from Four Pines, not from Centreville, not even Kalamazoo. Battle Creek maybe, or South Bend—not Chicago, not Detroit. She smoked long, toothpick-thin cigarettes and left lipstick prints on her wine glass.
“Do you like to shop?” Claire slurred.
“Well of course I do, honey,” the woman at the bar said.
“We should go shopping,” Claire said.
The woman at the bar laughed, and her companions laughed, and she said “well sure, why not?”
“I need a new purse,” Claire said.
“You can't have too many,” the woman at the bar said.
“I agree—more purses are better.”
“Well, let me get your phone number and I'll call you later this week,” the woman at the bar said.
“I'll write it down,” Claire said, and asked: “where'd my purse go?”
“Well that's funny,” the woman at the bar said.
“Really, it was…babe, have you seen my purse?”
He shook his head, but then the waiter brought the purse and set it down on the bar.
“You left this at your table,” he said.
She went rigid at the sight of it, at the sight of the seam on the corner facing towards the woman at the bar, and she smelled the familiar smell again—it had not aired out at all, but had only been covered up with some other stink. The smell of a rich woman, the smell her musky powder, her lipstick, her sweet perfume, one last flick as her wrist rubbed the bag that flew out of her hand and into a dumpster, into the street, into the gutter, for Wes to find and crow over like a goddamned vulture.
“Is that yours?” the woman at the bar asked.
Claire nodded weakly. Her head spun. Wes had brought this disgusting thing home for her, this disgusting, revolting, stiff-canvas copper-printed gray thing. Her calves cramped and she pushed down on the metal of the bar stool, her feet trying to bend it loose all on their own.
“I love it—I used to have one just like it,” the woman at the bar said.
“Yes,” Claire said, and her stomach spun and weaved.
“Give me your number,” the woman at the bar said.
Claire reached her flaccid and unwilling hands into the purse exactly as if she were going to help breech-birth a calf bare-handed. She pulled out a tiny pad of paper and a ball-point pen with the end chewed up. She felt the hot liquid stares of every person at the bar as they bore down on that purse—she could imagine the leather cracking and crumbling, the cloth smoldering, the glue holding that damnable seam running out like chemical drool.
She wrote her number on one sheet of paper, tore the sheet off, and gave it to the woman at the bar.
“I don't want you to think anything bad about me,” Claire slurred.
“I don't,” the woman at the bar said, and she leaned in close to Claire, and took her hand in her own. The woman's companions turned away and talked among themselves.
“I don't normally drink so much, and I just, I just don't want you to think, you know?”
“I won't think anything bad about you,” the woman at the bar said.
“Promise me,” Claire said.
“I promise,” the woman at the bar said, and she took her hand away.
“I have to go,' Claire said, and she left, and Wes followed.
She thought she heard laughter behind them, knew it was for her. At her. Her face went hot and damp, then ice cold as they walked out the door. She winced, her little face screwed up in pain as she tried to ignore the twisting pinch in the middle of her stomach.
She was sick beside the car, and while they drove the long miles to their home he pulled over twice so she could throw up again, and she rested her head on the dashboard in between rounds and cried “that stupid purse, that stupid goddamn purse.”
When they reached the Four Pines city limits, she made ready to heave again, and she screamed “pull over Wes, pull over!” but he was in the left hand turn lane at Old Farm and Junction, stuck at a red with nowhere to go. Claire clumsily dumped the purse out onto the floorboards lipstick, notepad, pen and all, and threw up into the open and waiting bag in her hands. She coughed and spat. She dabbed at her wet eyes with a finger, and wiped her mouth on her wrist, and then she threw purse out the window.