by: Wes Ishmael

Aunt Pinky's Irish disposition was easily ruffled, but she was harder to scare than a slab of granite. That's why Hooter was extra shaken when his aunt grabbed his arm with one hand, scratched for the door handle with the other, and commanded him to stop, all at the same time.

He did, of course.

She scrambled from the pickup before Hooter could ask why, heading for the front doors of the nearest Walmart to Apache Flats—as fast as her squat legs could carry her, shoulders square, eyes fixed and blazing, ignoring the squealing brakes and honking horns left in her wake.

It was easy to find her, once Hooter parked and got inside. A crowd was gathering around the checkout lane that Hooter and his aunt recently exited.

“What do you mean, it's not here, we just left,” Aunt Pinky demanded. She was clenching the cashier's shirt collar.

“You tell him sister,” shouted an aging flower child, astride one of the store's courtesy scooters. A faded Mighty Mouse tattoo danced on her sagging bicep, while an unlit cigarette dangling between her lips twitched in time to her words. There was a 12-pack of High Life in her basket. “I don't trust anybody younger than 40.”

The cashier—a youngish man with earrings and a ponytail—was paler than faded chalk, eyes wide, too scared to speak.

Hooter was trying to get to his aunt.

“Speak, boy!” shouted the flower child. “Hold on, I got me some of that pepper spray here somewhere.” Her eyes narrowed. “Not just pepper spray, it's ghost pepper.”

“I don't believe that will be necessary,” came a kindly voice that belonged to a security man who had appeared out of the proverbial ether.

“You must be part Injun, the way you snuck up,” said the flowerchild. “I like that.”

The security man placed a giant and gentle hand on Aunt Pinky's shoulder. “Ma'am, my name is Eugene Pickett. If you'll kindly let go of young Alvin here, I'm sure we can sort out whatever's happened.”

Aunt Pinky loosened her grip. She looked at Eugene. “Purse. My purse. It's gone.”

The baggage of progress

Hooter was unsure of the females in his own generation and less certain of the ones that came next, but he understood that Aunt Pinky and her peers had anything that anyone could ever need in their purses: bandages and scarves, lipstick and horse liniment, pencils and coins, postage stamps and crackers, checkbook and gum, tape measure and sugar packets, nail file and aspirin, and of course, Kleenex© and a reflecting glass—plus everything in between.

Even Nelda Isselfrick—who Aunt Pinky would never count on for anything—had been known to produce a pair of pliers and a derringer pistol from the depths of her saddlebag when the occasion required.

So, Hooter understood why his aunt was so upset to discover that her purse was missing.

Eugene led Hooter and his aunt to a small cubicle.

“I'm so sorry you're having to go through this,” Eugene said. “Can you tell me what your purse looks like and where exactly you remember seeing it last?”

“It's a leather purse—good leather—about yay big,” said Aunt Pinky, indicating with her hands the rough dimensions. “Hooter here made it for me. Some of the lacing was getting frayed in the lower corner.”

She cast an accusing eye at her nephew. “You told me you were going to fix it.”

“And, what color was it?”

It was Eugene's turn to get the cross look. “What do you mean what color? It's leather. You do know what leather looks like don't you?”

“Yes, but I was wondering…”

“She just means it's natural leather without any added color,” Hooter tried.

“Ruins it,” Pinky snapped. “Why anyone would take leather and color it up like a circus is beyond me.”

Eugene gave a nod of appreciation to Hooter's help. “And when exactly did you last see this leather purse.”

Aunt Pinky looked like she might cry. “I don't ever remember not seeing it. I always have it with me.”

“I see.” Eugene looked at Hooter.

Hooter shrugged. He couldn't remember ever seeing his aunt with or without her purse. It was like asking the last time you saw your toes.

“But you had it with you to pay at checkout?” Eugene asked.

“I always do.”

Hooter hated to, but knew he had to. “Actually, I paid for the garden hose, remember?”

Aunt Pinky thought and then said. “Of course you did, and should have.”

She looked at Eugene. “He fairly well shredded the old one. You wouldn't think it was asking the world for someone to change a coupling.”

“So, you can't say for sure that you had your purse with you?” Eugene asked that softly and without any hint of accusation.

“Well, like I said…of course I would have…” Tears were beginning to well up in her eyes.

“Did you have your cell phone in your purse?” Eugene tried hopefully. “Perhaps we could dial the number and listen for it as we walk through the store.”

“The battery went dead last week. I should have known, I bought his old phone off of him.” She stared at Hooter.

“It worked fine until you dropped it in the water trough.”

“Some technology…”

Eugene interjected: “What about the contents? How many credit cards or debit cards?”

“None. I don't believe in using them. Speaking of which, you people are making it harder to use checks here.”

“Drivers license?”

“I reckon so, but I don't know about the expiration date. A person doesn't forget how to drive, for Heaven's sake.”

Eugene tapped his fingers on his clipboard. “I tell you what, I'm going to make another quick run over to lost and found, just to be sure. And Hooter, perhaps you could try to retrace where you and your aunt were as you shopped.”

Hooter nodded.

“And the trash cans,” Aunt Pinky shouted after him. “Be sure to check the trash cans in the parking lot. They might have tried to get rid of the evidence.”

Digging Up Bones

Retracing steps in the store was easy enough. Hooter and his aunt only went as far as the garden center and the sale section. The parking lot, though. You never consider the vastness until you contemplate the number of trashcans.

Hooter grabbed a sorting stick from his pickup. Logic said to try the cans nearest the front doors that were closest to where he and Aunt Pinky exited. He'd fan out from there. If the can were more than empty, he figured he could use the sorting stick as a probe. He was at the fourth can when the flower child idled by on the store scooter.

“Rock on brother,” she shouted between puffs on her cigarette. She gave no indication that she'd seen Hooter at the checkout melee. “I once found a perfectly good hamster cage in one of those.”

It was a good 90 minutes and too many questions later than Hooter satisfied himself that his aunt's purse was not in a parking lot trashcan.

Aunt Pinky's brief look of hope disappeared when she saw the look of disgust on Hooter's face.

Finally, Hooter got Aunt Pinky to leave, after thanking Eugene for his hospitality, after getting his assurance that he wouldn't stop prowling until the purse was found.

The trip back to Apache Flats was silent, except for the Willie Nelson music that Aunt Pinky favored when she was blue.

Hooter went to unlock the front door for his aunt.

There it was, glowing like a beacon, the gnarled, hand-tooled purse, sitting there, right where she'd obviously set it to lock the door as she left.

Hooter wanted to scream.

“Thank goodness,” Aunt Pinky said. She opened the purse for a quick inspection and then turned to Hooter and glared. “It's a good thing for you this turned up.”


“Good old Eugene,” Aunt Pinky said. “I knew I could count on him.”

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