Deep from human vanity,
And the pride from life that planned her.
–– Thomas Hardy
While Coach, Gucci, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton had captured most of the high-end women’s handbag market, in Florence Earl’s estimation nothing equaled the style, beauty, and cache of the Escalier Sac a Main by Brul Conte. She had dreamed of owning the fabled handbag and had recently arrived at the conclusion that price be-damned. It was worth every last penny of its $5,800 price tag from her perspective . . . if not her friends’.
“It’s discounted by 40 percent right now. Usually almost $10,000.”
“Still, you can get a Chanel Jersey Flap Bag for $2,500, Flo,” advised her longtime friend Estelle.
“Nice, but common, my dear,” replied Florence, with a dismissive wave.
“Yeah, right. I should be so lucky to have such a common bag.”
“The Escalier is made of Balenciaga leather, and Brul Conte line their bags with the finest Chinese silk available. No other manufacturer does that. It takes softness to a whole new and exquisite level.”
“You’ve done your homework, girlfriend. But you could put the money down on a car. Your Corolla is older than the hills and keeps needing repairs. Just yesterday you were saying the car was driving you crazy.”
“So I’ll take the bus when it dies. Lately, I usually do anyway. At least I’ll look great with the Escalier on my arm.”
“You take that on the bus, and somebody will cut off your arm to get it.”
“Oh, c’mon, I want it and have been saving forever to buy it. You’re the one who’s always saying you shouldn’t deny yourself happiness.”
“I put a limit on that. Five grand for a purse is way beyond it. But, hey, it’s your hard-earned money . . .
“True, and I’m worth it. So I’ll see you tomorrow at work, and if you’re less critical, I’ll let you touch the most magnificent handbag in the world.”
“You’re nothing if not generous, sweetie. See you then.”
* * *
As soon as Estelle left Starbucks, Florence headed to Nordstrom to make her once-in-a-lifetime purchase. On her way, she thought about putting the handbag on her charge card, but then reminded herself that her goal was to buy the Escalier using the money she had saved for that express purpose. Don’t go adding to your card. It’s already too high. Besides, it’s close to its ceiling anyway. Cash it is.
Her heart skipped a beat when she reached the store’s department that sold handbags. I’m going to do it. I’m going to own an Escalier.
“May I help you, Ma’am?” inquired a young woman in an expensive suit.
Florence wondered how store clerks could afford costly apparel on their low salaries, and then she wondered if Nordstrom provided their sales staff with clothing during their shifts. Wow, I bet she has Prada on.
“Yes, I’d like to see the Escalier Sac a Main.”
“Of course,” said the young woman, reaching under the display counter. “We only have the one style, but I assume it’s what you want.”
“Indeed, it’s exactly what I want,” replied Florence, attempting to quell an urge to squeal with utter delight.
“It’s the last one we have, and it’s on sale.”
"Yes, I know. It’s marked down 40 percent.”
“I’ve never seen such a reduction on an Escalier. It is magnificent,” said the sales clerk, handing it to her customer.
For a moment, Florence thought she might actually faint. Her head swirled with excitement. Oh, my God. I’m going to buy it . . . really buy it.
“I’ll take it!” blurted Florence, to the surprise of the sales person.
“Really? I mean, of course. Will it be cash or credit card?”
“Cash . . . ah, check.”
“I’ll wrap it for you, ma’am.”
“No . . . no, that won’t be necessary. I’m going to wear it. I’ll transfer my stuff from this little purse, and you can throw it away. It’s old. I only brought it because I knew I’d be getting the Escalier and wearing it immediately.”
“I can do that, ma’am.”
Within minutes, Florence was outside and walking down the street with her new purchase on her arm. I feel like a queen. I just can’t believe it. I think people are staring. It’s so classy . . . I’m so classy.
* * *
“Hot damn, you actually did it! You bought it!” blurted Estelle, when Florence arrived at work the next day.
Florence swung around as if on a fashion show runway.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?” she cooed, though rather loudly.
“Shh . . . you’ll wake the dead. The boss is in,” warned Estelle, pointing toward his office.
Florence cupped her mouth and giggled. “I can’t help it. I’ve been so giddy since I got it. I feel like Princess Kate. She has one, you know.”
“Yeah, and she can afford it.”
“You should see the looks I get.”
“People always look at crazies.”
“C’mon. You’re just jealous.”
“Well, maybe a little. Let me hold it.”
“Are your hands clean?”
"No, I’ve been dipping them in grease. Gimme!”
Estelle held the Escalier gingerly and looked through its interior.
“Well,” inquired Florence, grinning smugly.
“Yeah, okay, it’s beautiful, but I’d still spend the money on something else.”
“To each her own. Okay, time’s up. Hand it back.”
“Hey, my high school reunion is coming up next month. Can I borrow it for that?”
“Not a loaner, sorry.”
“Oh, come on,” pleaded Estelle.
“I’ll think about it, but don’t get your hopes up.”
* * *
Florence took the afternoon off to go to the dentist and get her hair done. At every stop she made it a point to direct attention to her handbag. The response to it was more than gratifying and affirmed the wisdom of her purchase. Every woman she met practically drooled over the Escalier and looked at her with envy.
“Oh my God, it’s lovely. I’ve never seen one of these up close,” gushed the receptionist at the dentist’s office. “They’re so expensive. At least $2,000, right?”
Florence gave a little chuckle before enlightening the woman. “Five times that when they’re not on sale, and they hardly ever are.”
At the hair salon, the reaction to the handbag was equally passionate. Women gawked at the pocketbook with awe and curiosity, adding to Florence’s enormous pleasure. Buying the Escalier was the best thing I’ve ever done. I wish I could afford another. I’ll start saving again. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have two?
When her appointments were met, Florence decided to forego the bus and walk the ten blocks to her apartment. She had never derived the level of satisfaction as she had showing off her stunning accessory. And stares she got, including those of a scruffy-looking man, who began following her as she neared her address. As soon as she opened the door to her building, moreover, the stranger pushed her inside the entrance.
“Gimme your money, lady, and don’t make any noise about it,” he ordered.
Florence clutched at her precious handbag and whimpered.
“What you got in there? Empty it out . . . now!”
“You can have my money but not . . .”
“But not what? You got something valuable in there? Here give the purse to me.”
Florence groaned as the thief dug through her prized possession.
“Thirty-seven bucks. That all you got? What’s so valuable?”
In shock and unable to think clearly, Florence literally let the cat out of the bag, “I spent everything I had on it. Please don’t take my Escalier.”
“My handbag. It’s . . .”
“This cheap looking thing? Why would I want this crap,” said the man, returning it to Florence. “You get this at Wal-Mart?”
Florence’s anxiety suddenly turned to indignation. “Cheap? Are you a total idiot? This is one of the most expensive . . .”
“Hey, I know cheap when I see it, and that bag ain’t worth nothing. You can keep it, lady. I’d take it for my girlfriend, but she wouldn’t want to be seen with it. Got better taste.”
“It usually costs $10,000, though I got it for half that at Nordstrom yesterday. If you don’t believe me, the receipt is in there.”
“You shitting me, lady?” said the man taking renewed interest in the handbag.
“No I’m not shitting you,” replied Florence, haughtily.
"Well, in that case, gimme it back,” ordered the robber, who then ran off clutching the handbag.
“Damn right!” said Florence, shouting after him triumphantly. “It’s an Escalier Sac a Main. The most beautiful handbag ever . . . ”
Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes fiction. www.michaelckeith.com