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Recovering Charles - Chapter 4 Excerpt
It was hard not to think of 9/11.
The coverage, the networks' slick graphics and official storm logos. The death toll.
Maybe I watched so much TV during the days following Katrina because I couldn't turn off my photographer's inner lens. It saw more than the water and filth, it saw the survivors' eyes crying for help. Many cried with their mouths too, cursing at camera crews and pleading for rescue.
Some also cried with cardboard signs:
PAGING BUSH & CHENEY!
LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT
KATRINA KILLED MY BABY
During a commercial I sat back on the futon and relaxed my neck and shoulders. I hadn't noticed how sore they'd become from my leaning forward and craning toward the TV hour after hour. That realization made my eyes hurt. And once again I was drawn back to the memories of September 11th and felt the toll the constant coverage had taken on my mind and soul.
I decided some fresh air and lunch in Little India would serve me well. As was my custom, I carried my camera along. The walk was energizing.
I was sitting in Pio Pio's in Jackson Heights when my cell phone rang and displayed an unfamiliar number from area code 504.
"Hello?" I answered.
The man's low smoker's voice was unfamiliar. "This Luke Millward?"
"Jerome Harris callin' from New Awlins."
I switched my cell phone from one ear to another. "What can I do for you?"
"Your father is Charles?"
"Yes." I wondered if this call might come. I never imagined I'd be sitting in a Peruvian restaurant.
"Have you heard from 'im?"
"Not lately, no."
"How long it been?"
"Two years, maybe more."
Just then I remembered a larger-than-usual package I'd received a couple of months ago from Dad. I hadn't bothered to open it. It was the most recent in a string of packages that arrived every six months or so from some new zip code. They usually contained an odd trinket Dad had bought or occasionally one of his random personal belongings he wanted me to have.
I'd always wondered if sending old car keys or a lucky dice keychain from Vegas was his way of making peace. When I asked, he'd said he just wanted me to have those things in case something ever happened to him.
Like all the others packages, it was stacked in a corner of my apartment building's storage closet.
"What's this about?" I asked the man.
"Your daddy is missin', Luke. Been livin' here in New Awlins for 'bout a year."
Here it comes, I thought, closing my eyes.
"Nobody's seen 'im since a couple Sundays ago. Night before-"
"Tha's right. He's been teachin' and playin' with me and my guys at a place on Chartres Street for on about seven months. Livin' in a place in the five-four."
"Lower Ninth, son."
I imagined his body was one of those rotting in a public restroom or floating facedown and bloated under a bridge somewhere.
So this is what it feels like to be an orphan. "I'm sorry to hear that, sir." The words carried unexpected uneasiness. My father is dead.
"Don't be sorry, Luke. Get on down here and find 'im."
"It's why I'm callin'."
"Won't someone just call me when he's found?"
"You kiddin'? You must not got a TV."
"Even the good-meanin' guys down here don't have the time for much of that." He paused. "Come find your father, Luke Millward. For alls we know he's alive somewhere. Most our cell phones aren't workin'-he could be hurtin' somewhere, or in San Antonio or up north. We're hopin' he is.
We're prayin' it."
"Even if I wanted to, I can't just pause my life and go on a wild-goose chase. I just can't."
"Then do it for his fiancée."
"Come again?" I switched my cell phone back to the other ear. "My father was engaged?"
"To a wonderful one. Gettin' married sometime 'fore Christmas."
Who is she? I thought.
"Luke, she's my kid sister." He let the words have impact. "Her name is Jez."
Jez. I didn't know what shocked my system more: my father's probable death or a woman marrying a practicing alcoholic who had a premonition problem.
"I'll call you back," I said. "This number on my caller ID, it's yours?"
"It's one of the club's cell phones. Call it anytime. But service is hit-and-miss, know that."
"I'll call back."
"Yes, sir. Good-bye. And thanks." I hung up and stepped out of the restaurant and into the noise of the city. I moved through the crowded afternoon streets toward the subway.
I don't remember riding it home.
That night I sat in my apartment with Jordan and listened as she repeated back to me the details of Jerome's call. She seemed to hear things in the story I hadn't said.
"This guy, Jerome, he was your dad's best friend."
"And your dad is getting married to this guy's sister-or was anyway . . ."
She scratched my back. "Sorry."
"I have to wonder, how did he get your number? You should ask him that. What if this is some sort of scam? I see this a lot."
"Jordan, it's not a scam."
"Probably true, but still, how did he find you? You sure he doesn't want money or something? Maybe he thinks you're loaded because you helped your dad when he needed it."
I'd forgotten I'd ever told her that. "I haven't sent Dad money in a long time. Not since last time we spoke."
"Still, Luke, I'd ask. How'd he find you?"
I agreed it was a smart question and promised to pose it when I called Jerome back.
"Huh. Your dad was living in New Orleans." She looked down at her Diet Dr. Pepper. "You've hardly told me a thing about him."
Not much to tell. I haven't talked much about my mother either.
We picked at our sesame chicken and brown rice.
"So you're going," she asked. "Right?"
"I dunno yet."
"You've got to go, Luke. Just to know, for sure, you've got to."
She took both my hands. "I'll go with you."
"You can't leave right now, Jordan. Not at the end of the quarter. You've got closings to push through."
"Yes I do, but I'd go with you if you asked."
We returned to our Chinese food while the Killers' Hot Fuss played on the living room stereo.
An hour later I hugged Jordan good-bye at the elevator in my building and got ready for bed. The bathroom mirror reminded me of the dark circles under my eyes that I'd inherited from my father. When I was particularly tired or stressed I looked like I'd been popped in both eyes. The rest of the time I looked like a raccoon. When I was young, Mom said they were so dark because I was an only child. If they'd had more children the effect would have spread across the other kids.
I cued up a classical playlist on my iPod. Tracks from the Boston Pops, some Mozart, newly added songs from a Jenny Oaks Baker CD that Jordan had given me for my birthday. I killed the lights, put in my headphones, and for a moment Jenny's majestic violin transformed my room into a concert hall, drowning out the steady stream of horns and sirens below.
My mind dropped sheets over the images of Katrina's wrath.
Mom wasn't always unhappy.
Dad wasn't always a drunk.
Just before my sophomore year of high school-the year before Grandma died-the three of us took a road trip to Yankees spring training at Legends Field in Tampa Bay. Mom let me ride up front for most of the trip while she read or slept in the backseat of our white Saab. Dad drove us east through Shreveport, Jackson, Mobile, and across the Florida Panhandle. Each stop brought a little history from Dad's AAA guidebook, a keychain for Mom's collection, and snacks.
I bet Mom ate fifteen pounds of licorice on that trip. It's funny, I used to tease Mom about her addiction to those little bags of Nibs.
Dad's official travel treat was Tab cola and Planters salted peanuts. I remember him dropping a few peanuts at a time to the bottom of every can as Mom playfully teased, "You're gross. Yuck. Who puts peanuts in their soda?" Even Dad couldn't explain the appeal, but I don't recall a single mile of that trip, or any other for that matter, when Dad didn't have a can in his hand or at-the-ready in his cup holder. I always threatened to tell when Mom stole sips as Dad pumped the gas or checked the tires.
But all she had to do was slip me a handful of licorice and I'd pledge to keep her secret for another leg of the trip. I didn't even like licorice.
My staples were Twinkies, Ho-Hos, and Big League Chew, the only bubblegum worthy of a little leaguer. That is, unless you were crazy Mrs. Armstrong's kid. She made a big show one day at practice that Big League Chew was a "gateway candy" to those fake cigarettes, then real cigarettes, then real snuff. So Mrs. Armstrong banned it from the dugout and told her son, Magic Mikey, our only left-handed pitcher, that she'd make him chew a hundred packs at once if she ever again caught him with the stuff. Dad said some things weren't worth fighting over.
Sometimes, when he and the other coach were working with the infielders, I'd take a couple guys behind the dugout and give them a wad of the shredded pink gum from its tinfoil pouch. Few things are more exhilarating for a thirteen-year-old than providing forbidden bubblegum to a teammate. Not long after Mrs. Armstrong's ban took effect, Dad stopped at a Circle K on the way to practice and came out with three packs of Big League Chew. "Just in case." He winked. "You never know when you might run low."
My dad told me that Mrs. Armstrong was a sweet woman who just had a few "issues." I guess he thought I should know what that meant. I didn't. I was only a right fielder.
On that spring training vacation, Mom sat reading in the stands for hours while Dad and I jostled for autographs and fought professional sports memorabilia hounds and little kids alike for signatures and foul balls. She smiled so kindly when I arrived at our spot above the third base line with a ball I'd caught off a rookie's splintered bat. I can't even remember his name anymore.
"That's spectacular!" Mom took the ball from me and pretended to examine it. "I bet this will find a special spot in your room, won't it, dear?"
Dad bought us matching, old-school, cotton Yankee baseball caps. I misplaced mine a couple months later and never found it again.
(Excerpt from Recovering Charles and reprinted with the permission of the author, Jason F. Wright)
(Originally published at GoArticles and reprinted with permission of the author, Jason F. Wright).
About the Author
Jason F. Wright is a regular contributor on Fox News and is founder and managing director of the political destination, PoliticalDerby.com. Jason is the New York Times Bestselling Author of Christmas Jars and The Wednesday Letters. To Learn more about Jason and his most recent novel, Recovering Charles, visit: