S H O R T S T O R Y
THE LUCITE HANDBAG
b y j . r o b e r t l e n n o n ~ i t h a c a , n e w y o r k
IT'S EVENING, and I sit at my desk, the window open before me, watching Mrs. Veerenboher shuffle around in her kitchen. She gets up at eight every morning, dresses like she's getting ready for the cotillion, then makes her long loop around town: onto the bus, all the way up Weir and over the bridge, then onto the sidewalk to wander around in her grim way for three hours, stopping in front of each shop and café and taking a contemplative stroll along the tracks. After that she comes home and makes her tea. I know all this because I follow her sometimes. She does the same thing every day.
But tonight things are weird. Mrs. Veerenboher brews the tea and drinks it at the table as usual, but this time she has some trouble. She seems to be walking with a limp. When she sets her teacup down on the table, the tea's got an odd slant to it, and it occurs to me that her window is no longer aligned with mine. This alarms me. I stand up so that I can see the place where the house meets the ground. One basement window near the front, long boarded up, is half-buried in sod.
I go outside and take a quick walk around the property. From the back, everything looks fine. She's got a clothesline out there that sags like the strings of a broken guitar, and a half-assed flower garden, where the indian paintbrush and lupines have more or less evicted her perennials. The birdbath is cracked almost in half and it holds no water.
From the side, however, the lean is obvious. The aluminum siding, which is usually parallel to the ground, now veers sharply towards it and almost touches it at the front corner. And in the front, the porch boards have begun to curl and buckle. I take a gentle step onto the porch. Above me, the porch roof has nearly pulled free of the house itself, and is barely connected by the long shafts of nails.
I ring the bell. It's a summer evening, very dry, and though it's after nine the sun hasn't yet gone down. I watch it fall while I wait for Mrs. Veerenboher to answer.
"Hello?" she asks when she opens the door. She doesn't appear to recognize me.
"Mrs. Veerenboher," I tell her loudly, "it's me, Greta, the landlord."
"Well aren't you a sweet girl to come by," she says flatly, though I am thirty-six and look at least that. Her voice is brittle and salty as a pretzel, and her glasses magnify her eyes so that they look vaguely alien. Tonight she's wearing an understated black cotton evening gown textured with tiny stitched knobs. She also wears black gloves lined at the wrist with white lace.
"Mrs. Veerenboher, would you come outside for a moment?" I ask her, and a mask of suspicion falls across her face. I try to smile in a benevolent way. "I'm afraid there might be something wrong with your house, and I'd like to show it to you."
She shakes her head. "I'm drinking tea right now," she says, and slams the door shut. I hear a rattle as she fastens the latch.
So l wait. For a little while I sit on the porch steps, but it makes me nervous, being there in the lee of the house. I move out into the yard, and watch cars pass. It's Friday night, and the cabs of pickup trucks are stuffed with teenagers smoking cigarettes. They're doing that now, smoking cigarettes. It's cool again. Sometimes they honk at each other as they pass, then execute precarious U-turns in the street, and the girls scream.
I'm beginning to think she's forgotten me when I hear the screen door bang open against the siding. "Well!" she says. She stands on the porch and taps her foot on the boards. "Where did you go, then?"
"I'm here," I tell her, and go to the porch. I take her arm. Her muscles are stringy and taut under her dress.
I lead her out into the yard and point to the sloping siding. I point back at the porch, where the nails have been exposed. "You see?" I ask her. "Don't things feel a little off in there?"
She squints at the house, and since it's nearly dark now I suspect she can't see anything at all. But she nods, scowling. "God damn!" she says.
"I'm afraid it might be dangerous. I'd like it if you came and stayed at my house tonight."
But she won't come. She shakes off my hand and climbs the steps. "It's going to do that one of these days," she says bitterly. "You can't expect it isn't going to do that to you."
Back at my place I sit in the tub and look at the newspaper clipping I've got hanging, framed, on the wall. I got it out of a small-town newspaper seven years ago. The small town is Dixmoor, Illinois. I lived there. The clipping is a grainy photograph of a woman standing on the high crossbeam of an electrical tower. Power lines are laced above her in a thick web. The caption reads: Threatening to jump: a woman stands atop an electrical tower, contemplating suicide in Dixmoor Friday. The woman was rescued by police and fire authorities minutes after this photo was taken.
I find that caption funny for several reasons: there is the word "atop," so arch and silly, the kind of word you'd find in a sentimental Victorian poem. Also, by the time the photo was taken, the woman was no longer "contemplating suicide," and the police and fire departments, therefore, did not "rescue" her. I know this because the woman is me, and if you look closely at the photo you'll see that I'm hanging on tightly with my fingers, and that my eyes are closed and my face is pointed out and up, not down, as it probably would have been had I wanted to jump.
All the same, I had to leave Dixmoor. I lost my job teaching elementary school, and also my husband. The job was the far greater loss, I'm afraid. I took what I could get and came out here, to Montana. Property was cheap then. I bought and sold. Now I'm in a holding pattern, as they say at the airport. I take long walks and look out the window. I think. When the mailman comes, I don't run to the door, or even look up from my book. It isn't a bad life but there's not much to look forward to except baths and meals, and Mrs. Veerenboher, who doesn't realize she's being watched.
First thing the next morning I get on the phone to the water company, figuring something's collapsed under there. It takes me several transfers, and I have to explain everything half a dozen times, but finally I get to talk to Mr. Edgar Deernose, the guy in charge of one thing or another. I give him the dirt once more.
"That's 918 Weir," I tell him. "I'll be waiting on the porch."
"Okey-dokey," he says. "I'll be there in an hour or so."
I've got some time to explain the visit to Mrs. Veerenboher. I sit at her kitchen table with her and tell her that the man is going to have to come inside and go down to the basement, and that we could go there with him if we liked. "If we must," she says with a sigh.
Edgar Deernose is a very handsome man. His skin is dark and unblemished and he wears his hair in a braid. When he comes in, he tells me, "Looks like it's sinking, all right." I nod and show him the basement door.
Mrs. Veerenboher leans close to me, cups her hand around her mouth, and says, quite loudly, "That man is an Indian!" I look at Mr. Deernose to see if he's offended by this, but if he is he doesn't show it. He unclips a flashlight from his belt, smiles at Mrs. Veerenboher and me, and opens the door.
The basement is a monochromatic jumble of junk. It looks like everything has been here for a hundred years, though I only rented this house to her a few years ago, and it was empty then. There are mountains of cardboard boxes, an entire rack of lingerie looking very grey and unsexy on bent metal hangers, a pile of old tires, several primitive-looking lawnmowers, a bowling bag. Mr. Deernose shines the light over everything. The floor glints and I realize with a start that I'm standing in about half an inch of water.
"What's this!" says Mrs. Veerenboher. The hem of her dress trails in the water.
"Yeah, looks like you've got some seepage here," Mr. Deernose says. He walks to a wall and runs the light along the floor, then does the same to an adjacent wall. Finally he stops, sets the light on a box, and moves several others. Mrs. Veerenboher frowns, suspicious, I imagine, of his motives.
With the boxes moved, it's clear there's a giant crack in the foundation. It runs the length of the wall at chest level, from one corner to the other, and is three or four inches wide. My heart sinks.
"Yep," Mr. Deernose says. "Your foundation's not looking too good here." He shines the light into the crack and everything around us goes dark. Mrs. Veerenboher grabs my arm and I'm shocked at her strength.
"The light's gone," she says.
"It's all right," I tell her.
"C'mere," Mr. Deernose tells us, and shines the flashlight in our direction. Mrs. Veerenboher has not let go. We shuffle together, sack-race-style, to the crack in the wall. When we get there he points the flashlight back into the crack and we bend over to look.
"Good Lord," Mrs. Veerenboher says.
It's a tunnel, dug out of the earth. Its walls are uneven and carved, it seems, out of some pale rock. The tunnel's floor is six or so feet below the crack, and is easily that wide. Just at the edge of the flashlight's beam, the tunnel curves lower and out of sight. There is an earthy, slightly alkaline odor, carried through the crack on a gentle push of cool air.
"See, " Mr. Deernose tells us, "what you have here isn't any kind of water company project, for sure. Might want to call sewer. Can't say it looks like that, either, though."
"So why's the place sinking?" I ask.
He shrugs. "Probably more holes under here. House got built on bad ground."
I look back into the crack. Maybe there was an underground stream here once, eating away at the earth. I wonder if the ground under my house looks like this. It seems likely. "I want to go upstairs now," Mrs. Veerenboher says, her hands tighter around my arm. But I linger until Mr. Deernose pulls the light from the crack.
Whenever Mrs. Veerenboher goes out, she carries a strange handbag you can see into. It's made of Lucite. I've never seen anything else like it, and I can't get her to tell me where she got it. It's like a small suitcase, but it tapers toward the top, and its handle is a stiff transparent arc affixed with brass screws. It also has a brass clasp. When Mr. Deernose leaves, she picks it up and puts on a hat. Today her dress is yellow and puffed at the sleeves. She looks like Shirley Jones in Oklahoma, except for the dark water stain along the dress's hem.
"You may stay if you like," she says, "but it's time for me to go out." She clutches the bag with both hands. I can see everything in it. There are a lot of snacks; chocolate bars, mints, Smarties. Many of the Smarties have slipped from their packages, and the bottom of the bag is lined with their dust. There are several tubes of lipstick. One is buried in a corner and has no cap, and a bloody pool of lipstick has crusted around it. There are scarves, matches, cigarettes, though I've never seen her smoke. There are a lot of tiny pieces of paper with things written on them. I can only read one from this angle: Dear Steven, it says, and then nothing afterward. It's in that fastidious, slanting hand that old people write in. Mrs. Veerenboher's face is regally pale and her shoes are white.
"I think I'll just go home," I tell her.
"Very well," she says, and I follow her out the door.
I call everybody, the sewer company, the zoning board, the gas people, the electric people. Nobody knows anything. I don't like to explain things to bureaucrats. In Dixmoor, they asked me, Are you aware that it's illegal to trespass on land owned by a public utility? Of course I did, I told them. How could they have thought that would matter to me?
When I was a kid, my parents took me on a road trip. It wasn't very memorable, a lot of car sickness and argument, but I remember distinctly the Grand Canyon. We pulled off at a scenic overlook, and there, beyond the iron railing, was a deep and meandering stretch of gorge, the Colorado River a mere busted shoelace curled at the bottom. And the railing -- so flimsy, so small, so easily breached. Don't get me wrong, I was not a morbid child, but this thrilled me, the great power the canyon afforded, and what a poor deterrent was the railing. Jumping would be easy, and final, like nothing else I had ever imagined. I was terrified and delighted, though it would be twenty years before I would understand why.
I got married to a man who was willing to put himself into the world's hands. He bought things on credit, borrowed money, paid for the car by the month. For awhile I thought I liked it. Then I started driving myself crazy with household tasks, scrubbing for hours because I knew that things would get clean, cooking things in gigantic quantities and freezing them so I'd know they were there. In school one day I refused to let a third grader go to the lavatory and she peed in her seat. I burst into tears, to the astonishment of my class, and apologized profusely to the girl, humiliating her even further.
The next morning I hopped in the car, drove out to the country, and walked across a field to where the tower stood, surrounded by chain-link fence. I climbed the fence. I shimmied up a steel beam until I got to where the ladder began, then climbed through the cold air to the top.
Did I want to die? I don't think so. I only wanted that life to end, and a new one to take its place. And that's what happened. I decided to jump, and then I stood there. I stood there until I changed my mind.
I take a long nap until the grade school across the street lets out, and the children's voices wake me. I stretch and move to the front window, and watch the buses pull up, and the children hop on. Sometimes I actually miss teaching. It wasn't a job without rewards. Sometimes they got it, they understood, and that was good. Sometimes you could figure them out, if only a little. Even now, though, as I watch these kids climb onto the bus, I worry about them going home, which is where all the real learning takes place. Parents get so bent out of shape about what their kids are taught in school, how the other kids treat them, who touches them. Believe me, that isn't the problem. They're safe at school, safer than they'll ever be.
When they've all gone, I hear a rattling sound outside, as if the wind were blowing cans down the street. But there's no wind. I step onto my porch, and see an amazing sight. Mrs. Veerenboher's house has sunk further, several feet, both the front and back now. The porch has buckled and come apart like a wave-whipped dinghy, and Mrs. Veerenboher, in her yellow dress is perched on a broken board, tearing the screen off her screen door. The door is stuck. It usually opens out, but there's too much wood in the way. She's straining, her legs spread for support, and I hear little grunts escaping her throat.
"Mrs. Veerenboher!" I call out. "Get away from there!"
She's got the screen off now and is working the inside doorknob with one of her thin hands. With the other she holds the Lucite handbag, and it jiggles in the air. The door opens for her. She crouches, her dress tenting between her knees, and duck-walks through the screen door frame, the handbag clunking along behind her. The screen catches on her dress and her hat falls off. She struggles for a moment with the dress, then frees it, but she forgets the hat. The door shuts behind her.
I run in and call the police. "There's an old woman in danger," I tell them. "She's in a collapsing building." I give them the address, then run outside and crawl in the door. I bring her hat with me.
She's already got the water on for tea, but she has to keep her hand on the handle of the kettle to keep it from sliding. I'm finding it hard to balance.
"Oh", she says. She points, squinting, to her hat, which is in my hand. "Where did you get that?"
"Mrs. Veerenboher," I tell her. "We've got to leave now. The house is sinking. We'll be trapped."
"Time for tea," she says, and turns back to the stove.
"We can have tea at my house. Just come out with me. Let's not get stuck in here."
"Better stuck in than out," she says. "You can leave the hat on the table."
Just then the house dips, a foot maybe, and I fall over and bang my knee. I cry out. There's a sound of boards snapping somewhere, and glass breaking, and a very loud rumble from below. Mrs. Veerenboher is still standing, though, her hand on the kettle. Beneath it the electric coil glows like magma. She doesn't look scared, only surprised. After a moment, she reaches up with her free hand and opens a cupboard. A shower of cups and glasses tumbles out, shattering on the counter and stove and floor. She yelps. Then she picks a mug, still intact, from the mess and pours water into it.
"Dammit," she says. "Where's that bag?" She pokes through the debris and pulls out a teabag. Then she dunks it into the water.
"Mrs. Veerenboher," I plead. I'm near tears now. "Come with me." I look out the window and see my own house sliding slowly up, out of sight. There are sirens. "We can make it out a window." I get up and scramble for her, thinking I'll pick her up and shove her out, but she rears back with the teacup. I stop. I don't know how hot the water is. Then the ground comes into view in the window, and the electric lights go out.
I hear a scraping sound behind me and turn. It's the handbag, creeping across the table. It falls with a clatter and its contents fan out onto the floor. Mrs. Veerenboher flinches, startled, but then seems to decide something. She nods gently, once. All around us, things grind and creak, and I think I hear voices outside.
"I'd like to stay here," Mrs. Veerenboher tells me. The light grows dimmer. "Now if you please." Her face is beautiful and calm, and it takes me a moment before I see that her glasses are gone. The windows are nearly covered now. We face each other, silent, the darkness filling the room.
I turn around and grab a packet of matches from the floor near the handbag. "May I have these?" I ask her.
She leans toward me a little, as if just now noticing I am there. "Well, all right," she says quietly, though certainly she can't see what I've got. She lets go of the kettle and it falls to the floor with a clang. For a second, she looks lost there, bent over. Then she straightens, a faintly luminous object in her frilly dress. "Careful," she says now, and her voice is strong.
"Thank you," I tell her. I still don't move.
"I think I'll just stand and wait now," she says.
"Well, then," she says. I can see only outlines, and I know there's not much hope of getting myself or Mrs. Veerenboher out through a window now. The only way to go is down. She stands there, defiantly sipping from the teacup, and panic begins to sing in my feet and ankles.
"Goodbye," I tell her.
I feel for the basement door and pull it open, then start down. When I hit bottom I light a match. Things look different from before. Boxes are overturned, their contents spilled out. The concrete floor is cracked, and chunks of it jut up at oblique angles. Through the cracks is darkness. My fingers burn and I drop the match. I light another. Ahead, the broken wall is nearly gone, a giant hole in its place. Beyond it the tunnel is wide and open. The floor joists are bowed above like the hull of a wooden ship. I hurry to the hole. The earth moves around me.
The match goes out when I step through, but I keep going, faster now, my hands out, feeling. I fumble and drop the matches, then recover them in the dark. They're wet, but perhaps not all of them. Far behind me, the house goes down shuddering and screaming, and I'm wondering where I am -- under the street? the school? It smells good and strong here, and there's air coming from somewhere, and I'm reminded of standing on that tower, looking out over everything, the giant flat expanse of earth, and the cornfields upon cornfields and the thin lines of trees that separated them, the town and its streets and the cars and people moving below. And it was all working. It was like a smooth stone whose perfection masked the muddle of atoms inside; the chaos was invisible, clouds moved slow across the sky, and I decided I could live with it.
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