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The Things We Found in Your Purse by Cathy Ulrich

Nominated for Best of the Net 2023

  • A book called “Conversational Korean,” pages dog-eared and worn, and we wondered if you would have insisted that your friends call you Unnie, if you loved Taehyung the way we do, if you followed him on Insta, if you saved his photos on your phone, if you felt the same sweet rush in your heart when he smiles.

  • A tube of red lipstick from an American brand, the name on the tube says prosperous red, and we take turns smearing it on our mouths, prosperous, we say, prosperous, prosperous, until it becomes a cotton-candy sound, meaningless and light.

  • A photo of a small girl in a checkered dress, and we wonder if you had a child of your own or a niece, maybe, or it could be a photo of you as a child, something you held onto for all these years. But the careless way it is tucked into your purse makes us think it is a found thing, something you picked up and held onto, the way we picked up and held your purse.

  • A ragged convenience store receipt, and we wonder if the clerk was in a rush when she tore it, we picture her looking like the clerk at our neighborhood convenience store who always smiles and asks after our mothers, we wonder if she knew you, if she said have a good day, said stay safe out there, said nothing at all.

  • A cardboard matchbook with three wobbly matchsticks left, red-headed, sulfurous

  • The stub of a No. 2 pencil

  • A silver coin that doesn’t look like any silver coin we have seen before, that we flip, that we spin, that we pass from hand to hand

  • We want to go back to the photograph. Where did you pick it up from? Who is the little girl? Was she going somewhere nice in her checkered dress? Was she smiling because she was happy or did someone tell her to wait for the flash, to stay still and pretty and small?

  • A ticket stub that could be for anything — the train, a carnival, a movie without a name. We imagine you sitting in a dark movie theater alone. We imagine the seat is covered in that plush red fabric that seems like velvet but isn’t. We think you would have finished your box of candy early on — and we argue about the candy, some think chocolate, some think fruity sour — and held onto it till the movie was done so you could deposit it in a hallway garbage can. We know you would never have thrown your empty candy box on the floor, we know you weren’t that kind of girl.

  • A scrunchy white satin hairband

  • A green paperclip

  • A pebble that looks like any other pebble, that we can’t find anything special about, that we can’t begin to imagine why you kept.

  • Dust, did you know, says the one of us who does, that dust is made up of dead skin cells, dust is what people leave behind?

  • Dust

  • Dust

  • Dust

  • And that photograph again, the only thing in your purse (except the unfamiliar coin that we take turns holding, rubbing our thumb tips over the nubbed edges) with a face. We touch it again and again and again, something about the girl’s smiling mouth that makes everything else we have found in your purse real, so very real.


Cathy Ulrich carries around a conversational Japanese book in her purse. Her work has been published in various journals, including Bureau Dispatch, New Flash Fiction Review and Juked.


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