"Suitcase" was published in Event Magazine in the Summer 1999 edition. The three characters are taken from my second novel, Healing the Dead: David, and his father and mother, Harris and Catrina.
Copyright © 1999 D. F. Bailey
As he unpacks his bag, David glances out the bedroom window into the January dusk. From the top of the brick complex every window of the apartment looks onto the cemetery. The building hovers above the headstones, the strip of icy blacktop leading into the acreage, and the bank of hardened slush ploughed next to the sidewalks. In front of the cemetery’s wrought iron gates a dozen islands of packed snow float on top of the frozen lawn. Strange that his parents would settle here, he thinks, opposite the graveyard on the road running up the hill from Hamilton to Ancaster.
A light tap on the door precedes his mother’s voice. “Dinner will be ready in five minutes, David.”
“Okay,” he calls, trying to inject some enthusiasm into his voice. He slips the last of his clothing into the two dresser drawers his mother set aside for him in their second bedroom and squeezes his shoulder bag into the closet. He pauses at the window again and watches a stream of cars flow along the road then he opens the door and joins his parents in the dining room.
“Nice apartment,” he says fingering the wood frame of the upholstered dining room chair. He has not seen his parents in the two years since they moved back to Canada from the States, but this furniture, three or four generations old, reinforces the routines of their past relationship. He waits for his mother to carry the last bowl of vegetables into the room, then pulls her chair two paces back from the table. When she sits, he pushes gently as she lifts her bottom forward and glides into place. It’s a well coordinated procedure, and their perfected timing has not diminished over the years.
“It’s affordable,” Catrina says and she looks along the table to Harris.
“Especially compared to New York.” Harris is already settled in his chair at the head of the table. He tucks a corner of his napkin between two buttons of his sweater and glances at his wife and son with a look that indicates he’s ready to say the grace.
David sits in his chair and the three of them bow their heads.
Harris begins the incantation in a raw voice that catches on every third or fourth word:
“For the food ... we are ab—out to receive,
May the Lord make ... us truly thankful.”
“Amen.” Their attention shifts to the ham, potatoes, gravy, peas, corn and the white wine which David brought along as a gift.
“How are your children are doing?” Harris pauses to cough. When his throat is clear he sprinkles some salt above his potatoes. “We want to hear all — ” he wheezes “ — about them.”
“And Anne, too,” Catrina adds. “She’s still teaching music?”
“Yes.” David looks at his father. His face has blanched from the spasm of coughing. He glances at his mother. Is Dad going to be all right?
“Please. Tell us about the kids,” she says as if he’d spoken the question aloud.
“Of course,” he says and begins a series of tales about their adventures. He realizes that the family stories will help his parents endure the meal. He must entertain them through the courses of ham and potatoes, the wine and dessert and coffee. Every time Harris begins another bout of choking, they are to ignore it and pretend that his illness does not exist. Pretend in fact, that Catrina did not phone David in Vancouver last Friday and implore him to come soon. To come next week.
When they finish their tea, Harris announces that he’s taking a nap and edges along the hallway to his bedroom, his left hand braced against the wall as he plants one foot ahead of the other.
“He never used to take naps after dinner.” David begins to dry the glasses that Catrina stacked in the drain board.
“He has some new habits now,” she says and she pulls her lips tightly over her teeth. “He’s been to the hospital three times in the last month. Last week they took him in an ambulance.” She looks at him with a grimace of defeat. “I couldn’t trust myself to drive properly with all the ice on the street.”
“It’s probably best you didn’t try.” He continues to wipe the dishes with a steady rhythm in order to maintain the routine of their chores. The last thing he wants is his mother to burst into tears. “It wouldn’t have done anyone any good for the two of you to end up in Emergency — on the way to the hospital.” He intends this as a small joke, but she doesn’t crack a smile.
“Emphysema,” she says and pauses to gaze at the grey suds in the sink. “All those years of smoking. I told him so many times. And then the girls started....” She shakes her head as though a plague is striking the members of her family one at a time. “At least you had the good sense to give it up.” This is more question than exposition. She looks into his eyes seeking some kind of confirmation, some promise that he, too, is not fated to death by slow suffocation.
“I did,” he says and loads several glasses into the cupboard. “Haven’t had a smoke in over fifteen years.”
“I wish you would tell Rose and Jayne how you did it.”
“Will power.” David smiles at this lie. In fact he bought a pound of finely ground Gabriola Gold and every time he craved a cigarette he fired up another joint. He was stoned for six weeks. Then he weaned himself down to two joints a day, then a series of puffs from one joint that he butted and re-lit four or five times. In the end he was completely free of the nicotine addiction, but immersed in a fog of grandiose, mostly paranoid ideas. Fortunately he was attending university at the time. And graduated with distinction.
“It was that easy?”
“No, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” This is not a lie. Even with the marijuana, he had to drag himself away from tobacco and all his friends who smoked it.
“Well. Your father could never do it.” Catrina pulls the stopper from the drain and begins to mop the counter top with her dish cloth.
“So how bad is he?” David stacks the last of the dishes in the cupboard and hangs the three teacups on the cup hooks.
She folds the cloth over the drainer and unties her apron. “He wants to tell you himself,” she says and nods her head to indicate that she would do the same. “Just prepare yourself.”
David looks at her and realizes that the air he detected in her earlier is something more powerful than simple defeat or resignation. It’s a kind of stoicism. The knowledge that the pending struggle will make her stronger. In the past twenty years she’d survived a heart attack, uterine cancer, and hepatitis-B. After each battle the shades of her decades-old depression lifted, one veil at time until she was able to take on the management of their married life — the bills, the shopping, the cooking and cleaning — just as Harris did during her long exile of sorrow. Now she prepares to meet her husband’s demise with a taut expression that embraces will power with ease.
The sound of Harris’ coughing fills the room as he paces back down the hallway to the living room. “You in there?” he calls in a whiskey voice.
“Yes,” Catrina answers and she folds her apron over the oven door handle. “You go in with him now.” She guides her son’s elbow toward the living room. “He wants to talk to you.”
As David settles into the chair opposite his father, Catrina steps down the hallway to the bathroom and closes the door. Seconds later the bathtub begins to fill.
“Have a good nap?”
“Yes and no.” Harris adjusts his back against the sofa pillows and sucks a thin stream of air into his lungs. “I don’t really sleep much. I try to use the time to think.”
David studies the vertical lines etched from Harris’ forehead across his cheeks. He tries to absorb the extent of his father’s physical disintegration over the past two years. A wave of guilt washes through his body. Why did he wait so long for this visit?
“How about fixing us some brandy?” Harris points to the snifters in the china cabinet. He wheezes a little and fights off a bout of coughing.
After David sets the brandy into his father’s hand Harris shuffles his weight on the cushion and David prepares for a formal talk. The pattern is nearly as old as the furniture, as rigid as the rituals of their evening meals. But instead of waiting for his father to begin, David leans forward and speaks.
“I understand you’re not well.”
“I know your mother called and told you that.” He smiles, pleased that the damned truth is well out. “I’m just ... not used to telling anyone these kinds of things.” He pulls his lips together; he has spoken too many words in a single breath. He coughs once and clutches his fist to his mouth.
“Yes, she did.” Better to carry on, David thinks. Ignore the bursts of coughing, the interrupted sentences, and focus on what they have to say. Anything else can only lead to embarrassment.
Harris takes a shot of brandy. David sips a little onto his tongue and eases the fire down his throat. “That’s powerful stuff,” he says.
“It helps.” He takes another gulp.
They sit together in silence for a minute and as the quietude mounts David realizes that his father is building the nerve to speak aloud. “It’s okay just to sit quietly like this,” he says. “I’m pretty comfortable just sitting here. Without saying anything, I mean.”
“So what are you thinking about?” Harris’ voice is infused with the heat of the brandy.
David glances away. Can he honestly state what he’s thinking? Of course not. Instead he reveals a little puzzle that has occupied him over the past few days. “I was thinking about the structure of knowledge.”
Harris shrugs, a gesture to continue.
“That there’s a hierarchy of sorts. Kind of like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” He drinks some brandy and leans forward. “It starts with data, which build various facts, that yield certain types of information, which aggregate in knowledge, and finally yield a kind of wisdom. It’s a pyramid: data, facts, information, knowledge, wisdom.” He smiles but when Harris fails to comment, he frowns and swallows another dose of brandy.
Harris gazes into a space about three feet below the ceiling. David watches him, amazed by the depth of his distraction. Although Harris is very bright, no doubt about that, David suspects he knows nothing about developmental psychology, let alone this new pet theory of knowledge which has come to him by intuition. This is the dumb irony, the idiotic flaw: that this theory of sequential knowledge arrived, literally, in a dream. The very origin of the theory dismisses the theory itself; yet —
“Last week in the hospital,” Harris begins speaking in a low, quiet voice, “they found a cancer.” He touches his chest with his left hand and continues, “It’s probably been growing for years,” he whispers and covers his mouth with his fingers.
David’s eyes freeze on his father. Here he sits: this complex, brilliant man, yet a man so shallow in his emotional expression that not once in the past thirty years has he told his son that he loved him, and not once since David was a boy has Harris truly kissed — or even embraced — him in open affection. This man, so smart and so alone, now faces his death and all that David can wonder at is his divided feelings about his father. The times when Harris’ absent-minded neglect twisted the muscles in David’s belly, the times when he wished his father would die — all the episodes rise and fade with the tide of guilt and anger that floods through him because in thirty-nine years Harris has done nothing to breach the emotional dams separating their lives. These are the things David wants to shout at his father. But he cannot. Instead he inflates some cocked notion of developmental knowledge in the air. Damnit, it was his father’s duty to resolve all this pain. Long ago. Decades back. To smash the dams and carry them both to safety from the flood that threatened them now. “I’m sorry,” David says after enough time has passed to make the utterance of even a few words somehow acceptable.
Harris waves a hand and leans forward a little from the pillows. “They’ve given me six weeks,” he says in a low voice. “Maybe twelve.”
David looks at him and narrows his eyes. “Too bad; I’ve got to be home by Monday.” The well of his anger bubbles beneath every word. “We’ve got ‘til tomorrow afternoon together. Until I catch my flight.”
The toilet flushes and Catrina struggles with the bathroom doorknob. After a moment she joins them in the living room, her skin freshly washed, stretched loosely over the bones in her face.
“You’ve told him?” she asks, looking at her son then back to Harris.
He nods and plumps his fist to his mouth to block another cough. When the coughing fails to manifest he sits back in the sofa and nurses his brandy.
She gazes at her husband, her eyes wide and expectant of what lies ahead in the next month. “Good. Then we all know, now. Rose and Jayne both know.”
“They’ve been by to see you?”
“Rose, of course. But we had to tell Jayne on the phone. She can’t get up here for another two weeks.” Catrina sits on the sofa next to Harris and shrugs.
“Because of her work,” Harris says in defense of her absence. “They need her in the hospital.”
“But she’ll be here soon, Dear.” Catrina smiles and lifts his hand into her own.
David observes their light tenderness with a distant affection. He always loved their relationship more than he could possibly love either of them. Their marriage, this third person they’d become, offered more nourishment and warmth than each of them could provide alone. Despite Harris’ past affair and Catrina’s mid-life depression, their marriage somehow bound them together and allowed them to survive his shame and her exhaustion. Now, with his father about to die, David wonders how he’ll deal with Catrina on her own. Maybe Rose and Jayne will know what to do.
“It’s nine o’clock already,” she says and lays his hand on the cushion. “Would you like to watch your show?”
Harris nods and finishes his brandy.
“Good. After that we can go to bed.”
The TV comes alive and the newscasters from 60 Minutes begin the on-going narratives of American corruption. As the stories unfold, Harris turns his attention to the spectre hovering below the ceiling. David watches his father’s eyes, the pupils fully dilated as he peers into the centre of something, a private place — yet somewhere very near, a place where a voice speaks in whispers which only Harris can hear. David supposes that it is a preparation, that there are lessons being offered, instructions about what Harris can expect. What bags to pack. His suitcase for eternity.
In the morning, David pretends to sleep in. He can hear his father leafing through the weekend Globe and Mail, his mother fussing over the breakfast dishes and eventually, her light tapping at his bedroom door. “Breakfast is ready,” she calls. “It’s nine o’clock.”
“All right.” He showers and shaves and attempts to restore himself from the sleepless night. He tried to fill his mind with visions of his wife, his children, the tedium of his job. None of it had the power to pull his consciousness away from the steady, night-long coughing emanating from his parents’ bedroom. He tried to find a rhythm in it, but the patterns, if there were any, eluded him. Finally he rehearsed a speech he would make to his father in the morning. Tell him how he missed him as a child. About the pain of loneliness that lingered still. But now, before he walks out the door, David would like to kiss him and release their mutual pain. Yes, it was their pain, and he is certain that somewhere in his father’s diseased body, Harris, too, suffers the numbing pain of neglect.
“There you are.” His mother sets a plate of toast before him and an egg cup topped by a soft-boiled egg. His father shuffles the newspapers across the far end of the dining room table.
“Sleep well?” he asks.
David shrugs and gnaws at a crust of toast. “How ’bout you?
“Nights are the worst,” he says. “But so far the mornings are okay.” He purses his lips. “The coughing doesn’t get too bad until afternoon for some reason.”
“I’m glad to hear you get a break from it.” David cracks the egg shell and dips his spoon into the yoke. “Still, your voice sounds pretty raw.”
“That’s from the intibation tube,” Catrina calls from the kitchen. “When the ambulance came they were in such a hurry to get him breathing again that they scratched his voice box with the tube.” Her head appears around the corner of the door and she nods, as if to affirm the truth of what she’d just said.
“It didn’t hurt.” Harris waves a hand dismissively. “But I know I sound like old Satchmo.” He laughs lightly and David smiles. It’s the first light-hearted break in two days.
Catrina enters the room drying her fingers on her apron. “Now we want you to take some family things when you go.”
David holds up his hands in defense. “I only brought one bag.”
“You can take my old suitcase.” Harris folds the newspapers together and pushes them aside. “They’ll let you take two on the plane.”
“Yes, they do; I checked.” Catrina over-rules David’s unspoken protest and walks to their bedroom and returns with Harris’ blue suitcase. She rolls the four, single-digit tumbler locks to 1916, Harris’ birth year, and the tab snaps open. The suitcase is loaded with books, clothing, bound papers, certificates, medals, the pistol from the Revolutionary War. “Let’s put this on the living room table so you know what to give to everyone. Of course, most of it’s for you.”
“You sure you want to do this now?”
“Absolutely.” Harris smiles, then wheezes a little, the first sign that his morning respite may be fading.
David finishes his egg and follows his parents to the living room, dreading this, the transfer of family memorabilia. It would be better if they didn’t seem so gleeful about handing everything down to him.
The next few hours are spent reminiscing about the artifacts that have been carefully packed into the suitcase. Some of it is critical: copies of Harris’ will and bank statements that everyone pores over to ensure David has a clear understanding of how to settle the estate. Other elements are more frivolous: squares of yellowing hand-sewn lace reportedly made by a forgotten relative which David’s wife (and years hence, his daughter) will acquire. There is the family book, written by Reverend Sykes, chronicling his trials and tribulations as he led a band of United Empire Loyalists from the rebel colonies in 1777 and settled in the Annapolis Valley.
As the stories attached to each item are re-told, an air of pleasure fills the room. The festive mood (similar to the excesses of Christmas morning when all the gifts have been opened and everyone surveys the wealth surrounding them) elevates their sense of mutual affection and David dismisses the speech he prepared in the night, realizes that the past is a ghost, one he must let fly. So much better to settle for this quiet time now with his parents, both so very old, and their familiar talk and mannerisms that make him feel so very young again.
“Thank you,” he says shutting the locks on the suitcase. “It really is nice to have these things.”
“No thanks needed.” Harris waves his hand once more.
The dismissive hand-waving is a bit of a tic, David thinks, surprised to detect new habits forming this late in the game.
“I’ll make some lunch before you go.” Catrina walks into the kitchen. “I know you don’t want to miss your plane.”
David follows her with his eyes and when he turns his attention to his father, he observes him focusing on the shadow below the ceiling again. Harris’ gaze is deep, intent and utterly solitary. David carefully adjusts his legs on the chair, worried that any motion will distract his father’s private communion. He glances away and when he turns his head again, his father is staring at him.
“I thought about your knowledge pyramid,” he says. “It’s a good puzzle. How anyone can get to be wise,” he adds, as though this is the essential trick to it all.
“What did you think?”
“You’re missing something.”
“Oh?” David’s chest feels heavy and he sighs. It’s just a dream, damnit, not a PhD thesis. “So what’s missing?”
“You can’t just jump from information to knowledge,” he pauses, “to wisdom. There has to be human consciousness.”
“Well, the whole idea is about the structure of conscious — ” David hears his voice entering a debate and he stops himself.
“A computer can’t jump from information to wisdom.” He manages to get this out in one decisive statement.
“There has to be human understanding.” He lifts his chest and exhales. “There has to be suffering.”
David gives this some thought: data, facts, information, knowledge, suffering, wisdom. The notion was so clean and tidy before. Now the thorns of Christian pain have to be needled into it. “Maybe,” he says after a moment. “Yeah, maybe understanding.”
They both ponder the idea, each looking away from the other. Then Harris leans forward and addresses his son. “Is there anything you’d like to say ... before you go?”
David shrugs. “No.” He hates this self-absorption. “Except, you know, thanks for the suitcase.”
“All right.” He holds his son with his eyes. “I just wanted to make sure.”
David blinks and glances away. “Well ... there is something I would like to say.”
Harris nods to him; go ahead, speak.
“I wish you’d spent more time with me. That we’d both found more time together. When I was a child,” he adds. The words come in a flood and he quickly decides he must retreat. It’s too much. And much too late.
“So do I.”
“I was too busy ... ” Harris wipes an eye with one hand. “ ... always so busy.” Harris tries to fill his lungs with air as though he’s about to elaborate. But his lungs burble and quake and he coughs between his clenched fingers.
Catrina joins them carrying a platter of sandwiches in both hands. “I made these earlier this morning while you were sleeping. You should eat up and then I’ll call for a cab.”
David eyes the sandwich triangles, another memory of Christmas. He begins eating hungrily. The three of them work away at the platter exchanging only a few words about the food, each one conscious that there is now only a half-hour remaining, that soon this last half-hour will trickle away to nothing.
“I better pack,” David announces when the last sandwich is eaten. He slips down the hall to his room as quietly as possible, hoping that his passage will go unnoticed. He packs and re-packs his shoulder bag three, then four times, re-checks his coat for his tickets, forces his mind into the trivia associated with travel: bus schedules, passes, tickets, money. Anything to fill up the remaining minutes so that he can get to the point where he must approach his father, say good-bye and walk through the apartment door without dissolving. When his mother calls “David, you better go,” he opens the door and tugs the bag under his arm.
“Your taxi’s waiting.” Catrina tightens her lips. Her face acquires the same taut expression of easy stoicism she bore last night as she washed the dishes. “Got everything?”
“Uh-huh.” He glances around for unclaimed possessions. Harris is sitting on the sofa, his standard post.
“All right, son,” he says. “Just one last thing.” He pats the cushion beside him, motioning David to sit beside him.
David drops his bag beside the blue suitcase and settles next to his father. There’s something phony about this, the closing scene from a hundred films, but he tries to forget his critical thinking and look simply — clearly — into Harris’ eyes.
“You’ve done pretty well.” Harris’ voice is low but steady. “You and your sisters. You didn’t do what I thought you would. But you did well nonetheless. It just shows you should never give advice, I guess.” He smiles vaguely and continues, “I always thought you could do anything you chose. You still can.” He looks away and waves his hand again, as if this is not what he meant to say at all.
“Thanks,” David says. There is so much more to add but as the time sifts into emptiness, words become useless, or even worse: a mockery. He leans forward, eases his face next to his father’s. His lips brush against Harris’ lips and they kiss, very faintly.
“I love you,” Harris says.
“I love you, too.” David raises his mouth to his father’s forehead and in the centre of all the lines of age, he kisses him again and presses his hand to the back of Harris’ head, so that the kiss is fixed in place and made inescapable.
David lifts his bag and Harris’ blue suitcase and walks toward the front hall. Catrina struggles briefly with the chain lock and opens the door for him. As he passes he kisses her, too. Then he heads along the corridor to the elevators and down to the waiting taxi.
“Goin’ to the airport shuttle?” the driver asks.
“Yes.” He passes his shoulder bag to the driver. “I’ll keep this one with me in the back seat.”
The driver locks the bag in the trunk, slides behind the wheel and starts the meter. As the cab skids away from the curbside snow David leans against the cracked upholstery and tries not to think. The car swerves on a slick of ice and his father’s suitcase bumps into the foot well. With a light tug David pulls the suitcase next to his thigh and braces an arm across the top so that his hand falls over the lock and his fingers curl around the handle.