Alligator Bag ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Her name was Laverne Mulvaney, but everybody called her Toots. She made her home on the streets and in the alleyways of the city. She was in middle age but looked older. She was an unregenerate alcoholic, dirty and ugly. When people passed her on the street, they turned away in revulsion.
She stole, and after she stole she ran. She outran her pursuers more often than not. She stole a melon from an open-air fruit market, gloves and costume jewelry from a department store, a fifth of whisky from the package store, a loaf of bread from a delicatessen, a can of tuna, a jar of pickles, a quart of milk, a cheap coat from an inattentive diner at a lunch counter, a man’s hat from a barber shop, a sign from a restaurant window that said Open All Night, a fox fur coat from the balcony of a movie theatre, a box of bird seed from the pet store, a pair of shoe laces and several pencils from the blind man on the corner, a bottle of aspirin from the drugstore, a movie magazine, a bottle of perfume, a hot water bottle, a toothbrush, a card of bobby pins, a box of suppositories, a small box of Valentine candy. The list was without end and included anything she might reasonably lay her hands on and carry away. What she couldn’t eat, drink, or use herself, she sold or gave away to friends.
One of her favorite places in the city was the municipal bus station. There were always so many people there that she blended in and nobody noticed her. On a November afternoon her feet were cold so she stopped in to warm them. She used the restroom facilities and afterwards she washed up at the sink: face, neck, arms and hands. If anybody gave her a sour look or a put-upon look because she was using too much soap or taking too much time, she ignored them with the haughtiness of a queen.
She sat down on a bench in the women’s lounge. For the first time all day she felt warm enough and she could feel her toes again. She longed to lay down on the bench and go to sleep, but she knew it was useless. A bus station employee would spot her, call security, and she would be taken to the door and ejected. She couldn’t say she didn’t deserve it.
A tall woman with red hair came into the lounge and right away Toots recognized her as a woman of quality. She wore a fur coat and expensive-looking pumps. She held herself erect; her skirt swayed with every step. She took a comb out of her alligator bag and fussed with her hair in front of the mirror. After she put away the comb she applied lipstick and when she was finished she smiled at her image in the mirror, turning her head this way and that, liking what she saw.
The red-haired woman sat down on the bench and for a moment looked at the floor, at the wall. Then she opened her bag and took out a handkerchief and wiped the corners of her mouth. She stood up, slipped off her coat, placed her bag on the bench and, covering it with her coat, went into a stall and closed the door.
Toots approached the fur coat stealthily. She had always wanted a coat like that, so luxurious and warm. If she only had such a coat, she wouldn’t have to be cold all the time. And wouldn’t she be the envy of all the other bums? She could just see their eyes popping out of their skulls.
She touched the coat, finding it the softest, most luxurious piece of merchandise she had ever felt. She wanted it terribly, but she wasn’t sure if she had the courage. She had to act fast; the red-haired woman would be back any second.
Picking up the coat, she was going to sling it over her shoulders and run for the door, but then she saw the bigger prize underneath the coat: the alligator handbag. If you were lucky enough to find an alligator bag, you were almost certain to find a large amount of cash in it. The coat might be worth a lot, but there’s nothing like cash. Cash, enough of it, would buy as many coats as madame desires.
Breath catching in her throat, she grabbed the alligator bag and slipped it inside her coat, leaving the fur on the bench.
With the bag warm against her heart, she ran blocks away from the bus station and ducked into an alley where she might open it unobserved. At the end of the alley was a private place where no one would see her. She fell to her knees and opened the bag and looked inside.
There was the wallet, the most prized item in the bag. She opened the wallet and looked at the red-haired woman’s driver’s license. Her name was Mrs. Melba LaForce, of 1506 Cordovan Place. She was just around forty years old; five feet, eight inches tall, with red hair.
None of it mattered, though. What mattered was the money: two hundred and seventy-three dollars in twenties, tens, fives, and three singles. Her biggest score in a long history of thievery.
Toots held the money in her hand, feeling genuinely happy for the first time in longer than she could remember. If it had been enough to buy a meal or a room for the night or a bottle of wine or whiskey, she would have felt fortunate, but this was beyond her wildest imaginings. Enough to make a real difference in her life. Enough to get herself cleaned up and straightened out. Enough to stop living the degrading life of a degenerate bum. Enough, maybe, to go home and pick up where she left off all those years ago.
Before she left the alley with the alligator bag, she combed her hair with her newly acquired comb and outlined her lips with lipstick. If her face hadn’t been so dirty, she would have slicked it down with face powder. The powder would have to wait; a good face-washing would have to come first.
Carrying the alligator bag over her arm as if it belonged to her and had always belonged to her, she walked to the Bijou Hotel and checked in. The Bijou was far from the finest hotel in the city, but it was a long way from being the worst.
She would have paid for the room in advance, but when she signed the hotel register Mrs. Melba LaForce, the desk clerk handed her the key to her room without even looking at her. She was wearing lipstick, for God’s sake, and her hair was done up. She looked respectable. People couldn’t help but see that.
Her room on the top floor was clean and quiet. The first thing she did, after locking the door, was to dump the contents of the alligator bag out on the bed. Among the practical things that she might use, such as the comb and hairbrush, were credit cards to some of the finest stores in the city. She would buy herself some nice things, a pair of shoes, a coat, some gloves. Stolen credit cards had a fleeting life, though; after they were reported stolen, they were essentially useless and the person trying to use them might be pinched.
Before she went shopping, she wanted to get herself cleaned up. She filled the bathtub with scalding water, washed herself from head to toe with hotel soap, and when she was finished she did it over again.
After she was clean, for the first time in longer than she could remember, she hated putting her dirty old rags back on, but she didn’t have any other choice. It wouldn’t be for long, though. She would go shopping, buy herself some new glad rags, and dump the old stuff in the trash can.
After dressing in her old things, she made her face up in the bathroom mirror. She put the face powder on so thick that she looked like a ghost, but a respectable ghost. She darkened her brows with eyebrow pencil and drew her lips on in a ruby-red bow. Then she fluffed up her clean-for-a-change hair and stepped into her broken-down oxfords and tied them. After giving herself the once-over in the dresser mirror, noting how smart the alligator bag looked hanging from her wrist, she was ready to go.
Going down in the elevator of the Bijou Hotel, she felt her old familiar craving for drink. She would buy herself a bottle after the new clothes, but it would be her tapering-off bottle. She would drink half of it after she got back to the hotel, get a restful night’s sleep, and tomorrow she’d drink the other half and that would be the end of her drinking. Then she was going to have the new life she deserved, a different kind of life.
She smiled at the desk clerk as she handed him the key to her room. She was a paying customer deserving of respect; the key and the room were hers until she no longer wanted them.
Outside the hotel, on the sidewalk, a man and a woman stood as if waiting for someone. The man was a police officer in uniform. The woman had red hair and was wearing a fur coat.
“That’s her!” the red-haired woman screeched. “That’s the bitch that stole my alligator bag!”
Toots turned and started to run, but it was no use. The policeman was young and fleet of foot. He caught up with her, grabbed her by the arm and twisted it behind her back.
“Did you snatch this lady’s pocketbook at the bus station?” he asked.
“Let me go!” Toots yelled. “I’m an American citizen!”
The red-haired woman came up behind the police officer and grabbed Toots by the hair and pulled her backwards off her feet and began pummeling her in the face with her fits.
“How dare you!” she screeched. “You scum! You filth! You should be flushed down the toilet!”
“Some people have it all,” Toots said, and the red-haired woman reared back to hit her again.
“That’s enough of that!” the policeman said.
He clapped the handcuffs on Toots and led her to a police car waiting around the corner of the Bijou Hotel. A small crowd of bums gathered to watch.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp