Years ago they sold them on the street. They stood in the open, calling out from alleyways and sidewalks. Handbag, Chanel, Coach, Vuitton, Cheap. Plastic folding tables cluttered with bags. Thread and cheap metal made manifest, piles made of straps and buckles and zippers like some monstrous miracle of modern science. It was beautiful. There were a few tables on each block, a colorful attendant at each one, the hustle and noise of the bazaar. Money changing hands in a flurry, paper moving quickly from wallet to hand to vendor to wallet. I liked it better when it was out in the open.
Now it’s underground, in back rooms and cramped apartments. Yesterday I walked up four flights of stairs to a one-bedroom looking out over Canal Street. There were bags and belts and wallets everywhere—the floor, the countertop, the stove, the sink. But I only spent $140. Their selection was a bit lacking. Before I could leave they had to check for police on the sidewalk outside. He was a frail, older Asian man with plain clothes and white sneakers. He had one arm up to me, like a traffic cop at a busted stop light. The other hand held a walkie-talkie. His speech was terse, quiet. Impatient. Then his face sagged and he put his smile back on. Thank you for your business. New bags next week. Very cheap. Very nice.
James isn’t all too keen on it. He thinks it’s a waste of money, that the ownership of a certain number of bags renders the rest useless.
“You’ve got dozens already, Marie.” His voice has a certain inflection that makes you feel like a child. “What could you possibly need with more bags?”
And I understand his perspective. He commutes home from downtown every day, passing store after store of quality clothes and watches and whatever else. Nice things. Things he can afford. And here’s his wife, sneaking off to Chinatown at every free moment to spend his money on counterfeit bags probably made by some poor seven-year-old in Bangladesh who works from sunup to sundown for a few cents per hour and splits his fingers open on the sewing machine a few times each day.
But he doesn’t understand my perspective. He’s not wired for it. He’s content with penthouse living, with a half dozen cards with worn-out magnetic strips, with the finest of fine foods prepared by a world-class chef and served on porcelain china from half a world away that was gifted to him by some executive on some business flight that might as well have taken him straight to some sterile conference room on a floor several thousand feet above whatever nameless city he would pretend he’d seen and explored and tasted the cuisine of. He probably hasn’t touched a real dollar bill in years.
He tipped 50% on our first date on a pseudo-dare. We were being cutesy. It’s strange for me to think about before. We talked like different people. I don’t think we were different people but we acted like it. He paid with his card and scribbled with his pen and made sure to show me. We left before the waitress came back to see it. He had money even then. He’s always had money. He was gestated in it. Jobs since he was 12, getting paid under the table at the corner store. And the wages just kept going up.
The courtship was its own vacation. James gave me everything. Watches, necklaces, bags, shoes. Every meal was gourmet; he needed the best restaurants in town, and this I came to understand more fully as time went on. They were wants that manifested themselves as needs. If a steak came undercooked, he threw a fit. I had never stormed out of a restaurant before I met James. His behavior never made me angry or embarrassed or reluctant to marry the man. I was a fool and a wannabe. This was how you acted to get what you wanted, James said. What you needed. His anger became mine and that union drove us. On those terms we were one, and our passion bred from that oneness. I reserved my most expensive earrings for the bedroom, and he his most precious watch. Together we were a product; we were tangible. We sparkled behind glass counters.
I walk out the door and try to shrug off his objections and his tone and his gestures and whatever else and I walk my route down Canal Street and the adjacent blocks and I look for older Asian men with suspicious eyes and shifty posture. Handbag, Chanel, Coach, Vuitton, Cheap. Inside. His head nods behind him to an alleyway with a rusty old door and I follow him inside and down a dusty hallway to another door into the showroom. If you could call it that.
The showroom is like a pharaoh’s tomb. Dim, cluttered, packed with wealth and prestige in material form. The imitation beauties are stacked with little care, not in strict stacks or sorted by brand. I’ve always liked the variety in these operations. Every vendor is different.
I am the only person in the room save the man who brought me. He stands guard at the door, ear to the wall, cell phone clipped to his belt. He keeps looking back at me, then starts talking. A poor salesman, really.
“See bag you like? Take bag you like and pay and go. Take bag you like quick.”
They didn’t like how long I took. I always took my time; why wouldn’t I? Where else was I going to go? What else was I going to do? I liked to feel out the room or the apartment or the basement or wherever. They all had different auras and I wanted to know them all as well as I could. The brutish charm of a dusty hallway compared to the polished look and clean smell of the penthouse. It was no comparison, really. One was a living thing and the other was a plastic box.
I’ve been in the room for maybe five minutes before there’s activity on the man’s cell phone. The person on the other end is angry. There’s a feeling of urgency in the room, a tension that settles in the man’s shoulders.
“You stay here.” The man’s one ear is to the door, the other to his phone. He puts his finger to his lips. “Quiet. Police. Anything you want. Quiet, please.”
Police trouble is something you get used to. Or at least the threat of police trouble. It’s not you they want. I’ve had plenty of scares, none of which have been fruitful. But I’ve never heard of a customer busted. It’s always the place itself. You go to a spot one week and the same man who was always there on Wednesdays and Fridays is gone and there’s an eerie feel to the piece of sidewalk he used to patrol.
He keeps me there for half an hour before his spotters tell him the coast is clear. Even still, we exit through a different door than we entered from. This door leads to more hallways, more empty rooms, more catacombs of the urban sprawl, until we reach daylight. I’m several blocks down from the entrance to the place.
“Come back two hour,” he says from the half-open door. “Any bag, good price. Discount.”
I don’t return. I have most of their inventory already. The next spot is the nicest, if you could call it that. It’s an apartment, but it’s furnished and habitable. There are signs of life: a fruit bowl on the coffee table, dirty dishes, a cat slinking about the couch. This vendor is a woman, young and sturdy and possessed by willpower. She isn’t just an inventory manager like the rest; she’s a salesman. Saleswoman rather. She’s chatting me up in perfect English and powering up her tablet and offering me refreshments.
“And you’ll love these new Chanels we just got in. Top of the line. I could sell them from a Fifth Avenue store window and no one would bat an eye.”
She’s going places. The tablet has images of the inventory at the touch of the screen. There are pages of catalogued bags, their prices in large red font. This is the future of counterfeit bag sales. They went from roadside tables to showrooms to touchscreens and backlights. I choose the bag I want and we drink coffee for ten minutes while we wait for the delivery. Three knocks on the door and the saleswoman is up and thanking the man who brought the box and closing the door and handing it to me.
“Anything for the road? Granola bar? Water?”
I promise her I’ll be back this week and I actually mean it this time. You tell them all you’ll be back; it helps them remember you. It keeps them on their best behavior to be expecting you.
I walk out to dark clouds and light wind. You can smell the rain on its way. But I decide against a cab; I feel like walking. The box is under my arm and the rain starts to come down halfway home but I don’t care. I pass a hundred storefront windows and laugh at what I imagine the prices must be. I laugh at the polished glare of the showroom floors. I laugh at the beaming models plastered across the wall, one white and one black and one brown, real diversity here. I laugh at how every shopper is white.
Then the rain really picks up and the people do too. There’s a sea of umbrellas and they’re all shuffling at an awkward pace; some run into stores and look through the door at all the poor souls condemned from their air-conditioned, fully staffed bunkers. I like watching the rain bounce off store signs and corporate logos. The McDonald’s M is dripping wet. 2 for $5. I’m walking but I’m not conscious of it. I’m in every store, at every register. I feel connected, taken along by the current of capital flowing from wallet to hand to till to hand. I think of all the leaves of all the trees it took to make them, the swollen green mass it would make. I imagine getting swallowed up by it, crushed by the weight of its chlorophyllic shards. I feel magnetic. For just a moment I am a zero or a one, green text against a black background, a dozen tickers wrapping me in prices. Everything is just a share of a share.
And then I’m home. I don’t know how long I’ve been standing at the entrance but the doorman is giving me a funny look. The rain has stopped.
“Mrs. Wainwright.” He puts his hand on my shoulder. “Is everything alright?”
I go through the revolving doors and straight to the stairwell. The elevator is carpeted. There’s an attendant and a bowl of mints and the buttons are lighted and the font of the numbers is curled and obnoxious. There’s a smell of transience, polite mobility. The stairwell is stuffy and more permanent; the air is made up of snippets of air conditioning currents leaked from open doors and the tired breaths of wage laborers.
There are 67 floors before the penthouse. I stop every 20 to catch my breath. The stairwell is dirtier than I expected. The grime sits in a different pattern on each step, and some of the walls have chipped paint. The only people I pass are maids, building workers. They are busy and their faces sag and there’s tension in their hands. I give them all a hello and a smile. Most don’t respond.
When I reach the penthouse I’m sweating. I’m still wet from the rain and I’m panting and the penthouse is freezing cold. I open the box and examine my new purchase on the marble countertop like a foreign lab specimen and then take it to the master bedroom. The room is not the same as I’d left it; the bed is made, the dressers are dusted, and my jewelry is arranged and organized. Signs of a housekeeper. There are two separate closets in the master bedroom: one for me and one for James. That’s how it’s supposed to be at least. But the bags take up half of my closet and I’ve twice as many articles of clothing as James and so my collection spills out into his. He’s annoyed with it but he doesn’t say anything. You can see it in his face every morning when he emerges with his hands to his neck, tightening his tie.
The bags are in the back half of the closet, a room of its own, narrow and long like a hallway with shelves and racks. There are thousands of dollars sitting in this closet. It could be its own showroom; I could bring tourists and bargain hunters up 67 flights and have them peruse, pick out what they want with no rush, no threat of police action. Quality bags for cheap. It’s organized. Each brand grouped together on the shelves, each bag facing the same direction, each bag unzipped with the strap placed in just the right way so that you can see it but it doesn’t distract from the body. I place the bag in its proper section before walking out of the closet and shutting the door.
I’m in the kitchen when the door opens and James walks in. He’s dry, fresh out of a taxi no doubt, his briefcase in his hand and his hair in perfect harmony with his outfit. Neat and clean.
“What’s the matter with you?” He puts his briefcase on the kitchen counter and walks over to me. “You couldn’t have got a cab?”
“I decided to walk. I liked how the rain felt.”
He rolls his eyes and scoffs. “Walked home? From Canal I’m guessing?” His steps to the master bedroom are powerful. He changes into more casual clothing, a button-down and slacks, before coming back to the kitchen. I have the water boiling for soup.
“And did the front desk see you like this? The neighbors? Anyone we know? Christ, Marie. Do you want us to look like fools?”
I try to tune him out. The bubbles multiply in a few minutes, each one rising to the top at a different speed. The stove hums.
“I don’t know why I even bother. You know soon enough there won’t be any more room for bags in that closet and then what? You gonna start hanging them on the walls? Call it modern art?”
It strikes me in this moment that I don’t even know what James does at his job. I know he’s an executive on Wall Street. I know he sits on the board. I know he’s powerful, that he’s a moneychanger, a manipulator of markets. I don’t know his salary. I know it’s massive.
“We’re having dinner at George’s place. I think it’s lobster this time.”
I pour the packet of soup in the water and turn the heat down.
“Did you hear me? I said you have to get dressed soon.”
I stir the soup with my ladle. James sighs and marches to the couch, flipping on the television to some finance channel. I’m not hungry but I sip my soup at the table and look out the window at the city. The storm clouds are far away now, still ominous, still looking as if they could change course in an instant. The television shouts share prices across the room and it echoes up into the ceiling.
We take a taxi and show up 15 minutes late, per George’s instructions. James is wearing a dark business suit with matching vest and tie and I’m squeezed into a cocktail dress picked at random from the closet. James rejected my initial choice. You wore that last time, he spat. At this point every occasion is blended together in a single haze of small talk and silent judgment. The place is a penthouse suite, similar to ours, though this one has a more spectacular view, overlooking Central Park, cleaned to a blinding shine and smelling of lavender and another unidentifiable spring favorite. Men in white dress shirts and bow ties carry plates of hors d’oeuvres and display smiles made of steel.
James keeps sucking me into conversation with big wigs. There is a strict procedure to it. It’s mechanical and awkward, but you’re expected to be graceful. Marie, you know Benjamin from the board. Why of course, good to see you again. And you remember my wife of course I do how are you tell me about the kids these appetizers are fantastic wasn’t the weather something. The other wives are better at this than me. They seem genuine. The room is white noise. Voices merging together into a mass of vibrations and cadences. It’s meditative at times. James giving me sharp glances, pinpricks with the eyes telling me to lighten up, hide the exhaustion in your eyes, smile a bit wider, show them the teeth I had whitened for however many thousands of dollars. I have to escape with bathroom trips. Hiding in the stall for a few minutes, but not too long. You couldn’t be missing for too long. That would attract attention, James said. The wrong kind of attention. I can’t imagine what would constitute the right kind of attention.
The lobster is phenomenal. Blood red, crunchy and juicy and served with every kind of dipping sauce you could imagine. I take refuge in my meal. With food in your mouth you’re not expected to speak. But you can’t eat too fast or too much, James said. Too much of an appetite is unattractive. When dessert arrives, few take part. It’s a chocolate cake, simple and elegant, topped with white icing. Everyone takes a piece, but few guests have more than a bite.
The rest of the night drags on and when we leave I’m in a daze. It’s hard to keep my eyes open. In the early days of the marriage it was exciting. Top shelf food, crystal chandeliers, expensive wine. Every person I met felt like a celebrity, someone I wanted to impress. Now they’re faceless, nameless. Silhouettes made of offshore bank accounts and empty words.
I want to go to sleep when we get home but James keeps me up. We fall asleep on opposite sides of the bed and don’t tangle in the night. I wake up first. Usually he gets up first and I moan and fall back asleep while he showers and dresses and then he’s out. Today I’m standing in the kitchen drinking coffee when he gets out of the shower. We make eye contact but neither of us says anything as he takes his coffee in his thermos and walks out. After I finish my coffee I go to the bathroom and I’m crying. I don’t feel anything but I’m crying.
The glass is fogging up with my breath. The bags are underlights, arranged each on their own shelf in the display. People are giving me looks as they walk out of the store but I don’t care. Sometimes I go inside to try them out but the attendants get impatient with me. Then next time they recognize me. They know I won’t buy and they know I just want to be warm and they glare.
Canal Street and it’s snowing. Dusting. You can see it best in the headlights. I knock on the doors I know to knock on. First to my favorite spot. The woman gives me hot tea and I take my time and pick out the cheapest one. I don’t like it much but it’s cheap. Then to another spot, a backroom. I have to hurry here. I leave empty-handed; I tell him I forgot my wallet and that I’ll be back within the hour.
I walk to the apartment. It’s on the third floor and I take the elevator. There’s an older woman riding with me, getting off at the fourth floor. She walks with a cane and her clothes smell old and when she smiles her eyes nearly close. Have a good day.
It’s one bedroom, one bath. My closet can’t hold everything so I keep some of them under the bed. Behind doors. My three least favorite under the sink. This recent purchase will wind up there in a few weeks. I like the way it looks now because it’s new but it will fade faster than the rest.
It was mutual. He gave me enough to find a new place aside from what I got in the settlement. He never looked upset about it.
I’m running out. I’ve settled for just rice and beans for the last few weeks. And coffee. I eat out occasionally. I’m running out and I don’t know what I’ll do after that. Some days I take walks for longer than I should. I like feeling cold. I like feeling my teeth chatter, trembling and rattling and mixing with the air.
I wear the same clothes for a week. The laundromat isn’t far or expensive but I’m cutting back. They don’t smell for a while. I laugh when I think about how it used to be, how the maid would wash them every day. All the water and chemicals and current and the rhythm of it, how if you left something in your pocket you could hear it rattling around for the next hour. It had been years since I’d done my laundry. I’d missed it until I didn’t miss it anymore.
In a week the woman will be gone. Two more spots raided. I’ll imagine her laying low. I’ll imagine a second apartment, bare and cheap, a mattress on the floor. I’ll imagine a storeroom being emptied by men wearing black vests. Men wearing faces taut with stress. I’ll see children in hot, damp rooms stuffed with the din of machines.
The walks are perfectly comfortable if I concentrate. My body will shake in the cold but I don’t feel it. I’m imagining the finest fur. Chinchilla. A few scarves. New boots. It helps to go to Fifth Avenue. It makes them easier to picture, more present. The sharp details under the light and behind the glass. You put your hand to the glass and your thumbprints breathe with the cold. You wipe away the fog every few minutes. You close your eyes and you want.
Nick Shaffer is a 21-year-old Psychology student at James Madison University. Literature is his passion, and his favorite authors are William Faulkner and Don DeLillo. He’s had two of his stories published since starting his fiction writing in 2013, and hopes to add to that list.