FICTION

the bottomless purse

JOHN GRAY December 5 1959
FICTION

the bottomless purse

JOHN GRAY December 5 1959

the bottomless purse

FICTION

I can’t use it,” the prime minister said firmly. “It would ruin the country.” So what could Walter Gorn do with his priceless find—

IT WAS A COLD DECEMBER NIGHT and three cross columnists sat in an office writing their columns. The first was reviewing a play he had just seen and was visibly in pain. The second, a humorist, a gentle man and a scholar, was nursing his ulcer past the subject of doorto-door salesmen. The third was Walter Gorn.

“Darling,” Walter began.

“You forgot,” she said. “I forgive you.” Walter smiled as he hung up. Then he remembered he still had a whole column to write, and he began to get back into his scowling mood again, without immediate success.

His mind was on other things. He thought about the slight curve at the end of his wife’s nose, and smiled. He tried to imagine the feel of an eleven-o’clock June sun on his arm. He

Walter Gorn was scowling. “If Punch Imlach doesn’t take ...” he had written when the phone rang. It was his wife, Ethel.

“I hope you didn’t forget to get the pork chops,” his wife Ethel said.

wished he was in Bermuda,

JOHN GRAY

CONTINUED ON PAGE 44

The bottomless purse continued from page 19

“That’s funny,” Walter thought. “I took out the only dollar in the purse; ; now here’s another one”

“If only,” he said, half out loud, “I could just do what I wanted to do.” This particular idea was constantly in his mind, and had been for the last two months. It was put there by a poet. Walter winced a little. Two months previously he had been invited, as part of a slather of Canadian literary men — poets, novelists, playwrights, newspapermen, editors, even critics — to a Writers’ Conference. While Walter preferred to forget this incredible experience, one of the sessions had stuck in his mind.

Originally the Conference had been planned as a Poets’ Conference, but when the Poets found they could get money only by inviting all writers they decided to swallow their pride and go ahead. Their initial reluctance gradually flowered into a kind of reforming zeal, as a matter of fact, so that by the time the Conference opened there was a clutch of poets who hoped to convert some of their unpoetical and even Philistine colleagues to sounder ways of thinking. The Philistines showed little willingness to submit to conversion, however, barricading themselves behind such blunt statements as, “Art must be understood by the man of average instruction.”

THE session tlxit disturbed Walter Gorn had begun auspiciously enough one morning at eleven-thirty when a young man who looked like a lumberjack stood up and proclaimed himself the Spokesman of Canada’s Poets, a statement that was greeted with stony silence. “I feel entitled to this position,” he said, “since my last book sold only a hundred and four copies.” Everyone relaxed as he was rendered ineligible by a fat spinster whose last book had sold a mere eightyone copies, but she was instantly toppled from her pedestal by a bank clerk named George McFergus whose last volume (his first) had a total sale of eighteen copies. By this time the room was in a paroxysm of anticipation. But no one challenged McFergus: the bank clerk stood supreme, a thin smile threading his face, king of the peculiarly eloquent silence that had now gripped the room. Seduced by his unexpected triumph McFergus made a speech (in prose) that became the rallying cry of the Conference.

"Do nothing but what you want to do," McFergus said that morning. “Write not for gain, but pleasure; work not for today but for tomorrow; please yourself and to hell with the others; if the shoe pinches throw it away.” He continued in this vein for some time. They were sober Philistines in that room that day; after all, it wasn't yet noon. To a man they frowned.

Several coughed.

One eventually laughed.

As soon as they decently could they lied to nearby pubs and convenient hotel rooms for something to sustain them and to wash away the awful taste of that session.

Walter Gorn was as vehement as any man in his strictures on the poet-mind, "a vagrant cesspool of indolence and irresponsibility.” as he put it after his third drink. “If people went around just doing what they wanted to do what

would happen to the world?” he said.

There was general agreement that lasted to the end of the liquor.

But as Walter discovered, the question was not so easily dismissed. In the weeks that followed he found himself pondering the episode. In the midst of tapping out a little homily on the Toronto Argonauts he would suddenly stop and think, “What would happen if I did do just what I wanted to do?”

It was as now. “Could I do nothing but what I wanted to do?” He shook his head. “What would I do?”

At that moment Barbara French, who had something cooking on the women’s page every day, passed by. The answer she suggested to his questions so disturbed his thinking that he at once turned back to his typewriter and wrote: “If Punch Imlach doesn’t win the Grey Cup this year he should hang up his bat and open a gravel pit!”

Walter Gorn stopped: he thought of his wife Ethel, and his two children, and his dog, and his mortgage, and the payments on his car; he thought of these simultaneously. Then he thought of Barbara French. Then he sighed.

“No one,” he sighed, beginning to X out Punch Imlach’s name on the sheet of paper in his typewriter, “no one could ever do exactly what he wanted to do. I don’t think.”

He finished his column and left the building. There was a light snow falling, enough to mute the sounds of the traffic but not enough to upset the streetcleaning commissioner. It was cold, but not cold enough to gladden the hearts of oil and coal supply men. Walter was walking up York Street and it was just in front of the service entrance to the Lord Simcoe Hotel that he found the purse, lying partly covered in the lightly falling snow, tattered, hardly worth a second glance. His impulse was to kick it into the gutter but instead he stooped down and picked it up.

“Might be some money in it,” he said to himself in the mood of a man who lives uneasily with his overdraft.

It was a small black leather purse with a snap fastener. The leather was scuffed from heavy use and very soft. The purse felt empty. Walter opened it. “Just my luck,” he said, taking out the single dollar bill it contained.

He looked to see if there was any identification but the purse was bare. Walter was getting cold so he snapped it shut, put the dollar in his pocket and started on. As he walked along York Street, however, he began to worry. “It might belong to some old lady,” he thought, “and she needs that dollar. I don’t need that dollar. Or maybe it was a boy sent out to get a loaf of bread.” This seemed unlikely in the vicinity of the Lord Simcoe but Walter was never strong on logic. “What I should do,” he said out loud, “is give it to a policeman just in case ...”

He stopped, took the dollar bill from his pocket, and started to put it back in the purse.

"That’s funny,” he thought, as he opened it up. There was another dollar bill inside. “I could have sworn it was

empty.” He laughed among the snowflakes. "It's a magic purse.” he said to himself rather self - consciously, feeling nevertheless as he felt when he was seven, floating leaf boats down a willowhung creek in Agincourt. He laughed again, took the second dollar from the purse, snapped it shut, and then opened it again. A third dollar bill was inside.

Walter Gorn stopped laughing. His hand trembled a little. He tried it again. Four dollars. And again. Five. He looked up and down the street. It was early in the morning and no one was around. He put the dollar bills in one pocket, the purse in the other, and began to walk. At the next intersection he tried it again. Six, seven, eight dollars.

"When I wake up this time I'm going to be very sad," Walter Gorn said out loud. He picked up some snow from a car fender and rubbed it on his forehead. The coolth was refreshing. There's no such word he told himself. He bit his finger and it hurt. Sometimes, the reality of his dreaming was so intense that when he woke up he felt he was going from life to dream rather than the other way around. It was like the Chinese philosopher who dreamt he was a butterfly and then when he woke up was never quite sure whether he was a man who dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who dreamt he was a man.

“Cut it out,” Walter said to himself, and tried the purse again. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve.

His hand no longer trembled. The initial fever was passing. His step felt lighter. He turned along Queen Street, stopped opposite the muddy yawn of the proposed civic square, and with movements deliberate to the point of impudence lit one of the dollar bills with his lighter, and then lit his cigarette from the dollar. He watched the last of it burn right down to his fingers. He immediately tried the purse again. It worked fine.

At Queen and Bay he bought a paper, giving the man one of the dollar bills.

"That's all right," he said grandly as the man reached for change. "Merry Christmas."

"Christmas is three weeks away," the man said flatly.

"So."

"I don't take no money from no drunks," the man said, stuffing the change in Walter's hand.

Walter went home, his ardor somewhat dampened.

When his first excitement passed and he was able to assess the situation Walter saw several dangers. Foremost among them was his wife who wouldn't believe in the purse even if she saw it working. Walter resolved to tell her nothing. On the other hand, he had no intention of going on working. So he decided to go into business. "Money business." he chuckled.

"I'm going to make us a little money," he said to Ethel when he told her of his decision.

it's about time,” she said.

As a front he told everyone he was going to write as a freelance. He set up an office complete with Barbara French as secretary and. to keep his hand in, actually went on doing a limited amount of work, including a column for a brewery. But most of his time was spent closeted in his private office, opening and closing the purse, amassing piles of one-dollar bills, figuring ways to convert this mountain of paper into other forms of wealth — into buildings, into stocks, into wild gambles like an oil well just nortl of Kingston that turned out to be one OÍ the country's richest uranium mines, into harmless frivolities like

backing (anonymously) a new play on Broadway that immediately threatened to run for years.

One day about two months after he opened his "office" he w'as horrified by the thought that the dollar bills might be counterfeit. It was the fifteenth of March, to be precise, and he shuddered at the consequences. But the RCMP. to whom he appealed for guidance, assured him that no one had passed him bad money.

After that he worked twice as hard. His wife Ethel, while proud of his industry (a quality she had missed in the previous fourteen years of their marriage) began to worry about his eighteen-hour days, about the increasingly haggard look on his face, and his steadily diminishing interest in the better things of life he could now afford. He stopped drinking. He gave up his weekend poker. She even suspected that he was no longer flirting with bright young things like Barbara French, and this really worried her.

But Ethel w'as totally unaware of the true cause of Walter’s wealth and weariness. He was now a slave of his purse. He always carried it. When he arrived at his office shortly after six in the morning he went immediately into the private room at the back and began his daily chore, opening and shutting the purse, extracting and piling the bills. He became very proficient at it and was able to get about a bill a second from the thing. After about five months he developed an excruciating cramp in his right hand, but a clever and expensive doctor was able to keep it working well enough that he maintained the one-a-second average. In the first nine months of work the purse yielded about ten million dollars.

That, he soon realized, is a lot of paper.

AS time went on he found he was spending a great many hours just getting rid of one-dollar bills. Some he was able to exchange in banks. He always disposed of fifteen or twenty when he went into a shop to buy cigarettes or gum. He bought everything he could with cash. The stock market proved a wonderful sinkhole for a lot of the money until he began to be lucky. But money that he made in this way proved no problem, for he felt it was legitimate.

He bought a lot of real estate, paying for it whenever he could with the fat wads of fiftyand hundred-dollar bills he had accumulated. The only thing that really worried him was the income-tax department, and for insurance he laid aside several million dollars in thousanddollar bills. These he stashed away in safety deposit boxes against the day he might be required to pay up.

Besides making him rich the purse had another, more subtle effect on Walter Gorn. His manner began to change. At first he thought it was because he hail given up all his former pursuits to "work" harder. That's what Ethel thought. But it went beyond that, as he realized the day he cut her household allowance.

"We're spending too much," he said abruptly as he was getting out of bed one morning, "You'll need to watch it." But later, as he drove through the dawn to work, he wondered why he had said it. It made no sense.

Yet as the piles of dollar bills and stock certificates and real estate grew he became more restless; he snapped more often at his children; his sleep came with greater difficulty: he grew thin. He complained of loss of breath and of a pain in his stomach: the doctors insisted there was nothing organically wrong, but he suffered in spite of the doctors (or. as he maintained, because of them).

And he began to dislike things. Walter

Gorn was never a great lover of humanity and its works. Friends knew him for a cynic, but a gentle cynic, a man of laughter rather than tears.

Now' he began to take pleasure in disliking things. He disliked the design of buildings, the hats he saw on women, the headlines he read in newspapers, the walk of a fly up a wall, the distant untouchable noise of a fire engine in the early hours of the morning, the shape of his fingernails, even casual snatches of conversation he heard on the streets. He seldom smiled and was no longer heard to laugh.

One day when he had worked particularly hard he w»as returning to the office to put in a couple of hours work before going home. He stepped off the corner of Bay and Queen Streets and directly into the path of a car. For some reason he hesitated, or stepped back; the car’s brakes were perfect; or it was a combination. He was not hit. A man who saw it was almost sick to his stomach it was so close. Walter Gorn only dimly realized what had happened. He sat down on the curb, breathing a little heavily.

"You just about got killed, Mac,” a pedestrian said. "You okay?”

“Sure," Walter said.

The driver of the car came back. He was white and shaking. “You all right?” Walter nodded. “You sure you’re all right?”

"It was close,” Walter said. “I’m sorry.” He managed to get to his feet and pushed a way through the small knot of people that had gathered. On his way home he stopped at a florist’s and bought his wife a dozen roses.

"You said you weren't coming home for dinner," she said when he came in the door.

“I came home.” Ethel cried when he handed her the roses. Somehow that upset him even more than the brush with the car.

"I don’t think I’ll go to work tomorrow." he said as she served the hash. “I've been pushing it a little hard. Let’s go on a picnic.”

Ethel was startled. "It's December,” she said. "It's snowing."

"So it is. Let’s go skiing."

The next day they went skiing.

It was while attempting to negotiate a particularly ornery slalom that afternoon that Walter Gorn realized with a pain that he was in a position to do whatever he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

“Good God!” he said, narrowly missing a hawthorn bush and falling down.

"Are you hurt?” Ethel asked when she caught up.

"Not permanently,” Walter replied. "I'm alive.”

The next day he considered the problem carefully and made his decisions. The very first thing to do was to get rid of the purse. He was going to burn it. but then it occurred to him that there were hundreds of agencies who could use it — the United Appeal — they'd love it. Or the CBC: what a way to solve the problems of sponsorship. Or the government. The government?

The government!

Walter Gorn eschewed politics. He had never voted, and did not intend to start. He believed politicians to be dishonest. sly, and often sub-human. Nevertheless. he recognized the service they rendered humanity and it seemed to him that by helping solve their most insistent and persistent problem he might render the country a service himself. A dollar at a time wasn't much, to be sure, but it added up. He added it up. They could

get (if they could just maintain the one a-second average, twenty-four hours a day) more than thirty million a year from the purse. Somehow it didn’t seem so much, for a government. He decided to specify that the money be used exclusively for the Canada Council.

The very next day he went to Ottawa, and after only four days of chicanery and wire pulling was able to get an appointment to see the prime minister, who had just returned from an important fishing trip. In fact, Walter had the first appointment of the day.

The prime minister was having a little trouble speaking when Walter was ushered in. having listened to the CBC’s Preview Commentary while driving to the office. But he pulled himself together and managed a smile.

“I used to read your column. Mr. Gorn,” he said. "Shame you gave it up." “I was too busy.” Walter said.

“I thought that was your business," the prime minister said.

“It was."

“Well, what can / do for you?”

WALTER blurted out the whole story and at the end pulled out the purse and handed it over with an uncharacteristically melodramatic gesture.

"It’s for the Canada Council." Walter said, his voice breaking from the emotion and strain.

The prime minister dropped the purse on the desk in front of him and looked at it. He looked at Walter. He looked back at the purse.

He looked uneasy. For once in hi career he really didn't know what to sa> He reached nervously for the intercom but thought better of it. First Preview Commentary and now a lunatic. So many days, these days, began in tragedy.

"Mr. Gorn." the prime minister began. "You don't believe me,” Walter said, sensing his mood. He picked up the purse, opened it. took out the dollar bill, snapped it shut, opened it, took out another dollar bill, elaborately showed the prime minister the empty purse, snapped it shut, opened it again and took out the dollar bill. He shut it again and very carefully laid the purse and the three one-dollar bills on the desk.

"Try it,” Walter said.

The prime minister looked at the purse and shook his jowls once or twice. Then he picked it up, opened it, and took out a bill. He looked at Walter. Walter looked at the bill. The prime minister tried again. The purse was producing thousand-dollar bills. Walter sat down heavily in a chair.

“The damn thing tunes itself to the need.” Walter said to himself. He quickly figured it out in his head. "It’d give you about thirty billion dollars a year. " he said to the prime minister, who went white at the words and poured himself a glass of water. The prime minister tried the purse again and added another thousand-dollar bill to the pile.

“Oh dear,” the prime minister said. "Oh dear!"

Walter was overwhelmed. "Well," he said. "What do you say now? That's some gift I'm making you — eh?"

The prime minister rose from his chair. He picked up the three one-dollar bills, the three thousand-dollar bills and the purse, and handed them firmly back to Walter.

“I can t use it,” he said.

“You can’t what?”

"It s very kind of you to think of me,” the prime minister said, “but I couldn't survive it.”

"Are you refusing ... ?”

“Yes, Mr. Gorn. That purse would

ruin the country. Money would become worthless ...”

"Become!”

"Money would become worthless. Work would be debased. The government would no longer be in control of the destiny of the people, and 1 would no longer be in control of the government, for the very sinews of the nation, pulsing with life, our ability to handle the warp and woof of the financial heart of the country: in short, Mr. Gorn — tight money and taxes are among man's greatest inventions. Destroy that and you destroy the nation — the government — I’d never survive.”

"1 don’t understand,” Walter said. "You’re not meant to understand.” “But think of the schools you could build," Walter said.

“Please,” said the prime minister. "Not so loud. I’ve just got a new secretary from Quebec.”

" Think of the highways you could construct — to Ungava and Frobisher Bay. Think of the culture you could spread around: every hamlet could see Hamlet, every village could hear Verdi ...”

“Mr. Gorn ...”

“You could start a free national health service. You could even afford to send policemen wherever they were needed.” “Mis-ter Gorn!” the prime minister said severely. "That is the way out. Take the purse with you. You may expect a visit from the income-tax department.” ‘T wonder what would happen,” Walter said, getting angry, "if the opposition learned that you had turned down a gift worth — conservatively — thirty billion dollars a year?”

The prime minister considered the question. "You’re threatening me,” he said.

"i it for tat.”

“Perhaps I’ve been hasty,” the prime minister said.

“Perhaps you have.”

"What do you want?”

“What do 1 want?" Walter Gorn said, genuinely surprised. "1 came to give you ..."

"I know, I know. But what is it you’re really after?”

"You people,” Walter said, his indignation rising again, "you people lose touch ...”

"Just name it, Mr. Gorn. It’s yours — if we can agree on a few things.”

"I want to be Minister of External Affairs," Walter said airily.

"What?”

“Well, I haven’t got any experience, so it’s about the only post I fit into, don't you think?"

The prime minister held his temper with difficulty.

"1 was only kidding,” Walter said. "I'll settle for a senate seat.” he added facetiously.

“Done,” said the prime minister.

“You mean, you're going to make me a senator?”

"You are a senator. Mr. Gorn, as of this moment." The prime minister pushed a button and dictated the appointment of Walter Gorn to the Senate of Canada to the secretary who appeared. "It will be published in the Canada Gazette the day you destroy that purse,” the prime minister said when the secretary had gone.

"But ..." Walter said.

"It’s a little thing the country’s asking of you," the prime minister said.

"Destroy the purse?"

"Destroy it. Dispose of it so that it can never again give away money."

"Are you aware of what you’re saying?" Walter said.

"I did not become prime minister of

Canada for nothing,” the prime minister

“That's true.”

“Then you agree?”

“How could I ever agree to such a thing,” Walter said.

“You must,” the prime minister said. “Suppose I said it’s for Canada?”

“Now look ...” Walter said. “Suppose I said it’s for the Commonwealth?"

"Mr. Prime Minister...”

“Suppose 1 said it’s for the Queen?” “Aw come off it,” Walter said.

“Would you, Mr. Gorn. do it then to satisfy me?”

"I don’t want to do it for anyone,” Walter said. “Fve got this thing and I want to give it away. I want it to do some good.”

"I appreciate that,” the prime minister said. "But you're not really giving us anything. You’ve heard of the printing

"Yes.”

"That’s how we make money, Mr. Gorn. It's faster and safer.” The prime minister was no longer sure what he was talking about, but Walter Gorn seemed impressed. “You do understand,” the prime minister added.

"I think so,” Walter said.

"The greatest service you can render Canada is to take that purse home and get rid of it.”

WALTER finally agreed, and went away, the purse lying heavily in his right-hand pocket. He had never been more miserable in all his life. When he got home he felt a stranger in his own house. Ethel merely tolerated his presence now and her greeting was perfunctory. "It’s my bridge night,” she said as she left after supper. "Don't wait up.”

A little later Walter went down to the cellar and got kindling, cannel coal, and some paper and made a fire in the living-room fireplace. After looking at the flames for a long time he took out the purse and for half an hour or so amused himself by extracting dollar bills and feeding them to the fire. But that stopped being amusing and at last he dropped the purse itself into the fire.

The first thing he noticed was that his clothes seemed to be evaporating. In any case, they disappeared. A few seconds later the fire seemed to flow out of the

fireplace and the house began to burn The firemen seemed unable to control it. “Even the bricks burn,” a discouraged deputy chief remarked. But this was only a prelude.

In the next twenty-four hours Walter Gorn was wiped out. His mines caved in. his oil wells went dry, his real estate burned down or fell down or proved to have been badly surveyed. When, in mood of quiet desperation, he dropped into a bank to collect a little of the cash he had tucked away in the safety deposit boxes he found only a pile of soft fluffy grey ash. Everything the purse had brought him was gone.

"Oh, well.” Walter said philosophically, as he came back from the telegraph office where he had sent the prime minister a wire to say the purse was now no more. "Oh well, at least I still have the senatorship.”

As it turned out, he didn’t. The prime minister tried to explain that he had been a bit hasty, that what he had actually said was . . . but it didn’t matter. "I understand,” Walter wrote. ”1 understand perfectly.”

In the end he went back to the newspaper. They had always considered him a fine sports columnist on the Mail, and told him so. They even gave him his job back. "Do anything you like with it, Walt,” the editor said, “just keep it clean.”

And so, a few days before Christmas Walter Gorn found himself back at his old desk. He wondered what on earth he’d write about.

"I can do anything I want,” Walter said. "I can breathe. I can laugh. I can feel the moonlight on me in the evening.

I can ...”

A trim pair of young legs clicked by.

Walter watched them disappear among the desks. For the first time since the night he had found the purse he felt a sensation in the ends of his fingers.

He picked up the phone and dialed. When his wife answered, Walter Gorn said: "Ethel?”

“Yes.”

"I love you.”

"That's nice, dear. Don’t forget to bring home the pork chops.”

“No.”

He hung up.

Whistling, he turned back to his typewriter.