True tales - ‘The Purse’

Leather purse In the early ‘70s I worked as a meter reader for PG&E in San Mateo. I was one of only three women in the department. Once a month I would go to a neighbourhood in Redwood City. The people who lived there were mostly elderly Italian couples, widows and widowers, and when they died their children would fix up the houses and rent them out. You could usually tell by the front yards. The flowers and tomato plants would be replaced by easy to care for lawns.

That was where Joe lived, in a small bungalow on the last block of my route. He had a large front yard and a beautiful well tended garden at the back.

Every month I would read the gas meter in the front and then knock so Joe could let me walk through the house and go to the electric meter out the back. He was a plump little man with once-black hair that was almost all grey now, and smiling dark eyes, and from the beginning he had insisted that I call him Joe. He was probably in his seventies and was always at home and apparently lived by himself. He would open the door and say with an Italian accent “Good morning! Good morning!” no matter what time of day. “Come in! Come in! Come! Come! Come!” Joe would always remain in the house until I had finished reading the meter. Afterwards we would walk through the garden and he would give me fruit or vegetables to take home with me, whatever was in season.

The electric meter was on the house above an old picnic table that had been pushed up against the wall under the shade of a large grapevine. On the table, near the edge, was an old purse. It was the type of purse an old lady would own; it had a hard curved shell covered with dark brown leather that was scuffed and worn. The clasp was the type that pinched shut and was tarnished and discoloured from years of use. At first I wondered where she was… the owner of the purse… was she ill? Or maybe this was to test me, to see if I was honest. Eventually I stopped questioning its presence. I would stand next to the bench in front of the purse and read the meter, but I was always aware of it… solid and unmovable. Once I almost touched it.

One August day about two years after I started coming to his house the weather was unusually warm. By the time I knocked on Joe’s door I was dehydrated and suffering from the heat. We walked through to the patio and he insisted I sat down on the bench by the picnic table. As I sat there looking at the purse I heard him say in a soft trembling voice “We were going shopping… she put the purse down… she needed to sit for a minute… I couldn’t touch it after… I can’t move it.” When I looked up at him he turned away and walked quickly into the house. When he came back outside his eyes were smiling and he proudly handed me a large bag of tomatoes and zucchinis and a Fanta orange soda.

I thought about the purse a lot over the next month and was anxious to see Joe again. When I finally arrived at his house in September I notice immediately that something wasn’t quite right. His garden was yellowed and there were rotting vegetables on the ground. Thinking he might be ill I ran to the door and knocked loudly. A slim man with Joe’s eyes, but they weren’t smiling, opened the door. I said “Where’s Joe!”

He stared speechlessly at the girl with the long blond hair dressed in a man’s uniform. Unsure what to say next I told him I was there to read the meters. He turned to another man and asked him to open the side gate for me, a route I’d never taken before. I walked quickly through the gate to the back of the house and around the giant grapevine up to the picnic table. The man stood near me and waited. I stared at the meter and wrote some number down in my book. When I was finished I walked past the man without saying a word. I left the yard and closed the gate behind me.

The purse was gone.

Barbara Hudin
Bend, Oregan

From 'True Tales of American Life'
Compiled by
Paul Auster

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