Handbag Parade



On Thursday afternoons, Stephanie and Carol visited their friend Gia. They went every Thursday because Gia had ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and though they had nothing to do with it, no one did, they felt guilt by proximity. Gia was their friend and she was dying of a diabolical disease. Gia, Stephanie, and Carol had met in the agency mailroom when they were just out of college and copying scripts on giant machines in the basement. None of them became agents, or mothers, but for twenty years they’d kept in touch. Gia lived in a bungalow in West Hollywood. Thank God, it’s one story, Carol said. Gia used a cane and then a walker and now the home nurse pushed her around in a wheelchair.

And the hallways are wide, Stephanie said.

But the wheelchair never bothered Stephanie. What bothered her: as of last month, Gia lost her voice. Her body had silenced her. She was alive inside a frozen woman doll, like a Stephen King horror story in reverse. Talk about torture. But no one talked about it. There was a sister in San Diego who tended to things. Stephanie might have been the friend who drifted away near the end, or now if this wasn’t the end, but she couldn’t because of Carol. Carol gave her a spine or turned her spineless, she wasn’t sure how to look at it.

Stephanie kissed Carol hello on the sidewalk, and Carol turned her left cheek for a kiss, then her right, and her left again like some European. Carol’s husband Phillip was producing an alien series for Syfy in Croatia. He’d left seven days ago on a ten o’clock flight which Stephanie knew because she’d dropped him at the airport. Carol thought he’d hired a car. Stephanie waited to feel guilty about Phillip, but instead she felt a tinge resentful toward Carol.

Gia’s bungalow was low to the ground and painted a cream color. A patchwork of little pink and white flowers bordered the path through Gia’s front yard where once there had been tufts of wild grasses. Gia’s sister was a legal secretary who liked to garden. Over the past months as Gia declined, she’d recast the modern bungalow with suburban charm.

As they headed up the path, Carol passed Stephanie a bag of take-out like she always did so Stephanie wouldn’t arrive empty-handed. “Genevieve told me the nurse is from the Philippines. We should ask after her family. They had the hurricane.” Genevieve was Gia’s sister.

“The hurricane was in Puerto Rico.”

“Chef Andres is down there feeding starving people rice and beans. I saw a picture in the paper, he wears a fishing vest with thirty pockets to keep organized.”

“In Puerto Rico.”

“Okay, Puerto Rico.”

Lately, Stephanie considered herself for the people and Carol of them.

Carol pushed her black sunglasses higher up her nose. “It’s not my fault I was born in Orange County. I’ll die out and the world can be a better place.”

“You’re like pine beetles eating the forests of America, and you’ll never die out.”

“Maybe that’s true, darling, but let’s stop the death talk.” Carol waived an arm at Gia’s house, a stand in for the dying going on inside.

“You started it.”

But Carol couldn’t bicker anymore because she was smiling at the young woman waiting on the front porch. Gia’s nurse Esme. Esme had light brown skin and dark hair tucked into a bun. She wore a blue cotton nurse smock, pants, and running shoes with hot pink swooshes. A gold cross hung from a thin chain around her neck. She looked fit and capable, like she could take care of paraplegics all week and run a marathon after church on Sunday.

“Hello!” Carol shouted at signs of disease, in this case Esme’s nursing smock.

“You’re here,” Esme said. The jury was out on what Esme thought of Carol and Stephanie, but she and Gia got on. Gia had called her My Angel.

They handed over the bags of take-out and followed her like children to the kitchen. Take-out was Carol’s idea of hospitality. She believed Esme would eat the chicken sandwich and stuff one of the green salads into the blender to puree for Gia. Esme put the kettle on for tea. Months ago their Thursday visits had started under the pretense of afternoon tea. Esme explained Gia couldn’t speak, but she could hear and see them. Two blinks “yes,” one blink “no.” The keyboards and assisted communication devices she’d given up on last week were piled on a side table, waiting for someone to set up again, or throw away.

“I love your accent,” Carol said to Esme. “Your voice reminds me of the ocean.”

“It does,” Esme said. She did not think much of Carol.

“Gia must love listening to you.”

“You ask her and let me know.” Esme could call Carol an asshole like that and her voice sweetened the words.

“We’ll just go back and see her then?” Carol said.

“She’s not going anywhere.”

Carol frowned, but Stephanie assumed in Esme’s line of work you cultivated a sense of humor.

In the bedroom, Gia was propped up in bed with pillows, her mouth slightly ajar. Stephanie couldn’t help feeling it looked unnatural, as if she were playing a dead body in a student film and soon a fly could crawl out across her lips and then lumber out the window. The camera following the fly to the next fated human it encountered. A homeless man packing his grungy blankets and plastic bags into a shopping cart, and from there a mother outside the supermarket wiping melted popsicle from her toddler son’s face. The fly would land on the boy’s cheek until the mother brushed it away.

Gia wore a pink scarf around her neck and blush on her cheeks. She blinked twice at them, her blue eyes wet. Her long, auburn curls were blown out shiny and straight. Gia had worn her hair loose and springy, but at forty-five she’d become a life-sized My Little Pony. She’d told them dressing up gave her and Esme something to do.

Carol leaned over the bed and kissed her cheek. One cheek for Gia, she was merciful on the dying. Gia didn’t move. Stephanie pulled chairs closer to the bed for her and Carol. She took the chair further away and fiddled with the zipper of her hoodie while Carol went on about the gorgeous weather.

At the agency, Gia, Stephanie, and Carol had delivered scripts wherever they needed to go—studios, production offices, movie sets, hotels, houses, and bedrooms. When Stephanie left, she said driving those scripts around town turned her into a script girl. And though she’d aged out of the term, she still had the same job on set, checking the continuity between takes and the written pages for movies and TV shows. She hustled for work with long breaks in between, stretching her money to last until the next production. She’d gone to sleepaway camp as a kid and film sets felt like camp. A make-believe place where new friends seemed like best friends and when (not if) she felt loneliness creep into her, she could binge on donuts from the catering tables. She ranked as the least successful among them. Carol married the balding, kind-hearted Phillip, a horror movie/alien TV show producer. Instead of having kids, she published coffee table books, the latest about place settings: blue and white ceramic bowls for lawn parties, crystal goblets for holiday feasts. But Stephanie had told Phillip that Carol couldn’t make you a grilled cheese sandwich if you gave her two slices of American and a sandwich press. Which was true and tacky of her to say. Gia opened her PR firm. Twenty years later her arms started feeling funny and soon that was that.

One afternoon when Gia could still speak and Carol was off in another part of the house, she and Stephanie talked about the fatal insides of life; how people forget they’re dying 24 hours a day until they can smell death in their own bodies. What a shame that was. Stephanie might have slept with Phillip because Gia was dying or because she wanted to or because she was jealous of Carol. She liked Phillip, the way he considered her face when she talked, she felt like a whole person with him. But she wasn’t the first woman he’d slept with during his marriage, and she couldn’t tell how much she could believe in him.

Gia said if you listen carefully, you can hear death shivering in your veins.

Stephanie had wanted to ask how death tasted, metallic like an iron pill? But Carol came back into the room before she had the chance. They didn’t talk death with Carol. She would call them morbid and ruin it.

Carol held Gia’s hand. The way she examined Gia’s cuticles bothered Stephanie.

“I have good news,” Stephanie said. “Phillip gave me a job on his alien show.”

One blink from Gia. Stephanie wondered if she knew more than she could say.

“How nice of Phillip,” Carol said, and to Gia, “Stephanie’s going to Croatia!” She rummaged in her bag until she pulled out a nail file. “When do you leave?”

“Week after next.”

“What about that script you were writing,” Carol said.

“It’s a good job.”

“Yes, it’s Phillip’s show.”

Two blinks from Gia.

Stephanie saluted Gia as if she’d won the point, though she hadn’t, not at all. When Carol got the better of her, she’d learned to remove herself to Gia’s walk-in closet where clothes hung peacefully and monochromatically, as if color coordination were their purpose. It was only a year ago that Gia still worked with her stylist. At the end of each season, she gave a few pieces to Stephanie, who couldn’t afford seasons. Every week Stephanie wore a sweater or jeans or jacket that had belonged to Gia. But Gia held onto her purses. She had drawers filled with them. Each drawer big enough to fit a child but instead carried Hermes, Prada, Balenciaga, Chanel, Givenchy, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta in soft grey pouches.

Stephanie pulled out a purple alligator Hermes. She slid the leather strap over her shoulder and catwalked into the bedroom.

“Someone gave that to her,” Carol said, and then to Gia, “Who was it?”

“I can’t remember,” Stephanie said. She petted the shiny alligator surface. Gia’s eyes were cast down, staring into the ivory duvet.

“Can you adjust the pillows for her?”

Carol leaned over the bed and pushed pillows around until Gia looked straight ahead.

Stephanie catwalked in front of the bed, spun around and then went back the other way. She stuck her knees out and pranced like a model.

Gia blinked twice. Yes.

“Let’s see another one!” Carol said.

Next was a soft suede hobo with fringe. Stephanie swung her hips so the fringe fanned out as she strutted past the bed. She paired a red sequined clutch with red stilettos, a standard Louis Vuitton tote with a straw hat for a weekend getaway. For the Chanel flap bag, she took short steps as if she were Carol in a pencil skirt on her way to the podium to accept the selfless-human award for her work on the board of Planned Parenthood.

Carol had turned her chair so she and Gia sat side by side watching the handbag parade. She clapped for every handbag like it was a fashion show. They’d performed for each other while the copiers churned in the agency basement. Impressions of their bosses, the men upstairs shouting into headsets. Then it was bad dates, dumb actor clients, and this was the end, Stephanie supposed. Beautiful purses.

When Stephanie waved a beaded crystal pocketbook, Carol said to Gia, “Didn’t you wear that to the Oscars with the vintage Dior?”

Two blinks.

“I’m going to find the picture and show you,” Carol said.

Stephanie did not want Gia remembering Dior dresses, Oscars, lunches at Sunset Plaza, or parties at the Chateau Marmont.

“You took the movie director with the webbed hand,” she said.

“The webbed what?!” Carol said.

“The movie director with the fingers stuck together,” Stephanie said. She stretched her hands out and tried to make her pinkies stick to her ring fingers. “Gia called him Walter Webby.”

“That’s terrible,” Carol said. “Was his name Walter?”

“Carol,” Stephanie said. “You’re so literal.” She fiddled with the ankle strap on the glittery sandals she’d put on for the crystal pocketbook. Gia’s Oscar stilettos. They fit her as if they’d come from her own closet.

“I’m trying to remember who it was. What did he direct?”

“I have no idea,” Stephanie said. “Gia knows.”

“Yes,” Carol said. “You know everything about everybody.” She kissed Gia’s cheek. “I’m going to find that photo. I’ll bring it next time.”

Carol slathered hand cream on Gia’s hands and wrists. Stephanie wished Gia would turn to Carol and yell, “Get your hands off me!”

Stephanie stretched her quad muscle. “I know why I didn’t go into this modeling business,” she said. “Too much exercise.”

“We’ve had fun,” Carol said, “haven’t we?”

She rang the Tibetan bell on the nightstand to summon Esme.

Stephanie came out of the closet with a Gucci shoulder bag, an embroidered dragon covering one side. She ran her fingers over the red and yellow stitching, the greens and blues.

“I love this bag,” she said.

Esme appeared in the doorway.

“Tea time!” Carol shouted at her nurse’s smock.

Esme glided into the bedroom on her sneakers and adjusted the pillows behind Gia. She looked into her face. She waited until Gia blinked twice before she left.

Gia gazed at the wall. Blinking tired her out. Stephanie walked to the end of the bed into her line of sight and dangled the Gucci from her arm.

“One of a kind,” she said.


The next Thursday, Carol was in Croatia. Stephanie arrived at Gia’s bungalow with the take-out. Esme took the food and gave her the status report: the same.

“What about her eyesight?” Stephanie said.

“She can see fine,” Esme said.

Stephanie pulled a chair to Gia’s bedside. Gia wore a navy blue zip-up sweatshirt, no rouge, and her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Maybe Esme dressed her up to meet Carol’s expectations and down to meet Stephanie’s. She was a good judge of character.

Gia’s eyes were the same watery blue.

Stephanie was at a loss for conversation without Carol. She worried about Phillip and Carol together in Croatia. She couldn’t talk small. She opened the drawer to the nightstand and found a notepad and pencil and a copy of the Holy Bible. Esme must read the Bible to Gia. In her soothing voice, the Bible would be reassuring or horrible depending on the chapter and verse.

Stephanie wrote on a piece of paper from the notepad, FYI, Gia had a bat mitzvah but she loves bacon. She left the note poking out of the Bible like a bookmark.

“I left Esme a hint,” she said. But there wasn’t enough context between her and Gia for humor. That’s what Carol provided, another body in the room. Everyone shifted in their seats when a monologue came along. But what choice did she have.

“Carol’s visiting Phillip and I’ve been sleeping with Phillip, so I’m feeling odd about things.”

If Gia was listening, she gave no blinks.

“He’s been honorable about it, except the part where he’s cheating on his wife. Honorable to me. Does that cancel out what he’s doing to Carol?”

Gia blinked once.

Stephanie lied and said she had to go to the bathroom. She went to the closet and pulled out the Gucci purse with the embroidered dragon. She traced the dragon scales, the reds, blues, and greens. Then she found the Prada tote and the Balenciaga. She took them into the bathroom where there was a window over the toilet. She stood on the toilet, popped open the screen, and dropped the purses in their soft grey bags into the hedge along the side of the house.

When she returned to the bedroom, Gia’s eyes were closed. Stephanie sat in the chair and watched her friend’s chest rise and fall with breath, and when it felt like she’d waited long enough, she left, collecting the handbags from behind the hedge on her way out.

Stephanie was supposed to be in Croatia the next week, but she arrived at Gia’s bungalow as usual. Carol’s Range Rover, black and shiny like Darth Vader, was parked in front. Phillip had called Stephanie over the weekend to explain he’d been mistaken. He didn’t have a job for her. He apologized and blamed the budget. Stephanie found Carol in the bedroom, filing Gia’s nails as if this were any other Thursday.

Gia wore a purple scarf and rouge. She looked good in the princess colors. Stephanie paused in the doorway as if she were intruding, but Carol waived her closer.

“Close the door,” Carol whispered.

Stephanie closed the door and pulled a chair over to the bed. The three of them huddled together in Gia’s bedroom. Carol was tan from Croatia. She’d let her hair dry naturally and she wore a T-shirt with jeans and sneakers. She was dressed like Stephanie.

“The nurse is stealing,” Carol said. “Three handbags are gone.”

“What?!” Stephanie said. She didn’t have to fake disbelief. It hadn’t occurred to her that anyone would notice.

Carol stroked Gia’s hand.

“Thank God they didn’t take your crystal pocketbook.”

Stephanie sat back in the chair.

“How do you know?”

“Her sister called me,” Carol said.

Detective Genevieve of the pink and white pansies.

“Which nurse?”

Carol pointed the nail file towards the kitchen. “You know who.”

“Esme wouldn’t,” Stephanie said.

“She did,” Carol said. “I never trusted her.”

“You liked her voice.”

“I lied.” Carol eyed Stephanie coolly, then opened the nightstand drawer and pointed at the Bible as if religion were a sign of deviance.

Stephanie’s bookmark was gone or buried deep in the New Testament.

“Did you call the police?” Stephanie said.

“The police!” Carol said, and then to Gia, “Sweetie, we’d never call the police.”

Stephanie closed the nightstand drawer. The Bible made her queasy.

“The last thing she needs,” Carol said, “is an investigation.”

Gia’s mouth slanted open. No blinks. What did she know? Stephanie was a thief.

Carol patted Gia’s hand.

“We should be the ones looking after you,” Carol said to Gia. “If we were nurses, we would, in a heartbeat.”

“I would be a terrible nurse,” Stephanie said.

“Not terrible,” Carol said.

Stephanie walked into the closet and slung the Louis Vuitton weekend tote over her shoulder as what she wanted was to get out of town for a few days.

“Her sister comes tomorrow to fire Esme.”

“Is that okay with Gia?” Stephanie said.

Gia was silent, her blue eyes bright. She could have been thinking about something else entirely. Like when they would leave.

“What else can we do?”

She rang the Tibetan bell. Esme carried in their tea on a tray.

“You can leave it on the table,” Carol said.

Stephanie felt conspicuous holding the Louis Vuitton tote and set it on the floor.

“Thank you for taking care of Gia,” she said.

Esme nodded. “You’re welcome.” She didn’t even glance at Stephanie or the Louis Vuitton. Esme walked over to the bed and looked into Gia’s bland face. Stephanie could swear Gia was trying to smile.


 

K.L. Browne’s fiction has appeared in Santa Monica Review, Pembroke Magazine, Ascent, PANK Magazine, and other publications. She received an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.