A woman living alone in New York City’s bohemian area during the late 1920’s discovers that her treasured gold cloth purse is missing. Aware that she had the purse in her hand when she came in the night before and dried it with her handkerchief, the woman recollects the events leading up to its loss.
The previous evening, the woman attended a cocktail party. When she left, she had the purse, and it contained forty cents in a coin envelope. It was raining and she was accompanied by Camilo, who was escorting her to the train. Observing that Camilo’s new hat was being destroyed by the downpour, she compared him with her sweetheart, Eddie, whose hat never looked out of place, no matter the weather or the hat’s general shabbiness.
At the stairwell to the train, Camilo left, to her relief. She immediately met up with Roger, a longtime friend, who suggested a taxi for the trip home. Soon they were in a cab making small talk. Roger casually mentioned that his wife, Stella, had written and would be coming back to him. The woman told him about a letter she had received. He asked her for ten cents to pay for the cab and commented on her purse’s beautiful appearance. She gave him the dime and remarked that her purse was a birthday present. Their last comments were on Roger’s new play and his determination not to compromise his integrity.
On entering her apartment building, the woman was met by Bill, a struggling playwright, who offered her a drink while he unloaded his personal problems. He told her that his latest work was in trouble. The play’s director had rejected the script after casting and rehearsing it for three days. Bill then began to criticize his estranged wife because she demanded ten dollars a week for their baby.
The woman attempted to change the subject by commenting on Bill’s pretty rug. Bill told her it cost fifteen hundred dollars when it belonged to a celebrated actress, but he had paid only ninety-five dollars. She then asked him about the fifty dollars he had promised her for revising part of his third act. Angered, Bill chastised her. She reminded him that he was paid seven hundred dollars, but he did not relent. Despite herself, she told him to forget the money, had another drink, and left for her upstairs apartment.
The woman remembered taking the letter out of the purse before drying it. She again read the letter, which was from a lover (possibly Eddie). The letter writer blamed her for the collapse of the relationship. She tore the letter into narrow strips and burned them in the coal grate. The following morning, while she was in the bathroom, the female janitor came into her unlocked apartment, called out that she was examining the radiators, and left abruptly, closing the door sharply.
The woman remembers all these events while she dresses, smokes a cigarette, and drinks her coffee. She determines it was the janitor who stole the purse. Angry, she goes down to the basement, confronts the culprit, and demands the purse’s return, stating that it was a present she did not want to lose. The janitor swears that she did not take the purse, so the disbelieving woman tells her to keep it. Climbing the stairs, the woman reflects on rejection, the ownership of possessions, and the loss of love.
The janitor follows her upstairs and hands her purse back to her. She claims that she took it for her teenage niece and thought it would not be missed....
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The owner retorts it was missed because it was a present from someone. The thief replies that the owner could easily get another one, but the niece might not; besides, the older woman has had her chance at love. The owner holds out the purse and tells the thief to take it. The janitor now refuses, saying her niece is pretty and young, but the woman needs it more. After another exchange of recriminations, the janitor leaves and the woman puts the purse down and reflects that it is she who will end up with nothing.