I was at the Pic-n-Take Grocery when I first saw the shiny black vintage alligator handbag — a real lady’s purse, my mother would have said. I could tell it was expensive, maybe French. No one knows fashion like the French, according to Mother.
She’d been wearing a plush fox fur when she’d said it and a black cocktail dress with pearls the size of gumballs hanging down the front. She had waved around a cigarette in a skinny holder, swaying to Edith Piaf in her dressing room.
She only had six months to live then and was so gaunt I could see her bony shoulder blades peeking out from under the fur like pointed angel wings. When my memories of her started fading, I go in her room, close my eyes and concentrate very hard to get a tiny whiff of stale cigarettes and her favorite perfume, a mix of gardenia and blood orange.
The leathery print of the purse gleamed in the store’s fluorescent lighting and for a split second I could have reached out and snatched it by its plucky upright handle. Then, as its geriatric owner pushed her cart slowly past me, it was just out of my reach in the child’s safety seat of the grocery cart.
How did they get the skin of a reptile so burnished? I imagined a hundred French virgins employed to buff it just to taunt me. I scooted my cart closer and pretended to not be interested, trying to look the part of the benign twenty-something single man while sneaking looks at the purse when she turned away.
She wore a pink crepe wool suit; the kind only ladies of a certain income level wore. The kind my mother had often worn. Teardrop shaped diamond earrings dangled from her lobes. She had on low-heeled black patent leather shoes. Very Audrey Hepburn. Tasteful and elegant, Mother would have approved.
As she reached up to pluck a jar of olives off the top shelf, her right heel slipped out of her shoe. She placed the olives in her cart and pushed past me. A delicate scent tickled my nostrils as she passed. It was unmistakably the same fragrance my mother wore.
I could have resisted if it weren’t for the perfume. I’d gotten away with stealing from busier, more secure places, but I’d never tried somewhere I frequented. I’d have had to knock that old biddy down to get the shoes and I’d have to touch her too intimately to get to the earrings. So, it had to be the purse. Mother would have been pleased by that purse.
I re-directed my cart toward the end of the aisle, and waited to see which direction she turned. She took a left into the cereal aisle. I pushed my cart at a medium speed, putting cans, boxes and bags of food I knew I wouldn’t buy into my cart. I watched her cotton ball white hair bob up and down as she looked at both sides of groceries.
I followed her, holding my breath every few steps. That purse sat, teasing me from her cart, momentarily out of my reach. She turned away from it often, holding her grocery list close to her face. Sometimes her hand drifted down to the cart’s handle, but never to the purse.
My heart sped up, my breathing spiked. I knew if I was to get away with this, I’d have to calm down. I thought about the obese security guard at the front of the store. When I’d entered, he was on his cell phone. I closed my eyes, willing my rational side to take over and talk me out of it.
Instead a vivid image of my mother as her former self formed in my mind, alive and as glamorous as always, swinging around and around in the triple mirrors of her dressing room with the purse on her shoulder. When I opened my eyes, the lady was reaching for a fiber-rich cereal. I pushed toward her quickly, slamming into her cart, causing her to lean forward into the shelves.
“Ooops, sorry, Ma’am,” I said.
“It’s all right, son,” she said, turning to look at me.
I held her gaze long enough to see her softly lined face and kind blue eyes. She smiled and turned back to take down the cereal she wanted. My palms itched to touch the bumpy pattern of the purse as I reached toward it. I threw it hurriedly into my cart, hiding it between my sundries.
I pushed evenly but quickly down the aisle toward the front of the store. The security guard was still on his phone, taking a smoke break outside the automatic doors. I nervously filched the purse from the cart and shoved it under the shamefully cheap hooded sweatshirt I always wore in spite of my colossal trust fund. Then, moving the cart out of my way with my hip, I walked out of the store with as much calm as I could muster.
I reached my car, a homogenous silver hunk of metal parked between two other equally uninteresting hunks of metal, and dumped out the contents onto the asphalt. Sliding into the front and tossing the purse into the back, I glanced into the rear view mirror while starting the ignition.
The alligator purse rested triumphantly on top of a sea of other five-fingered trophies. Unopened boxes of pumps — none were exactly what Mother would have loved, but were easily stolen. A pink satin evening clutch I’d taken from a thrift shop. It would look fantastic with her emerald satin gown. Some gold bangles and a gold dragonfly pin with emeralds for eyes and diamond encrusted wings sat in one of my console cup-holders.
As I drove away, my head was woozy with the reminiscence of gardenia, blood orange and the elation of not getting caught. Soon I could try them all on in Mother’s dressing room and make her proud again.
Whitney B. Setser lives in the Asheville, N.C. area and works full time for a non-profit wilderness education program. She is a December 2012 graduate from the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s MLA program. “The Alligator Purse” is her first published work.