If you were going on a trip, and there was a very good possibility you would never return home again, what would you pack?
3 sharpened pencils
1 Happi-Time Camera
The piece of paper on which I’m listing all the contents of my suitcase seems as important as the physical possessions. It’s a reminder of the things I brought so I don’t spend entire afternoons scouring my new living space frantically searching for the belongings that remained behind.
The suitcase is paltry. It’s my father’s from his stint in the Navy. He uses the beaten chestnut leather case sporadically on short trips to the homes of other fleeties or when crashing with drinking pals after mom’s requests of getting his “drunk and abusive ass out of the house.” It’s the only suitcase in the house suited for a man. My mother’s traveling companion, though much more practical in this case, is much too frilly and smells of English Lavender perfume. Dad’s has the faint aroma of the salt air and Esquire shoe polish.
This is the secondary list. The master list of all of the contents of my room and everything I own in the world is in alphabetical order, updated daily, and pinned to the doorframe and used to chronicle anything that enters or exits the room. It does not get updated if I don’t bring anything new into the room unless something old leaves the room.
20 sheets of blank paper
1 half-empty bottle of talcum powder
1 Ewell Blackwell rookie card
Some items just won’t fit in the suitcase. Other items seem pointless because I’ve got to believe much is provided to all participants. Participants is their word because they feel, according to the pamphlet, the term patient is far too demeaning to the children. Patient is clinical. Patient is for sick people. Patient is a term for those who might not even want to be cured. Those are the only bullet points I can recall at the moment.
I remove a shirt from the pile of clothes going into the case when after realizing it too has a burn, cigarette sized and browned, on the forearm. Leaving it behind would leave me with only four wearable shirts so I place it in a pile I’ve designated as “if there is room.”
“Do you think they’ll have talcum powder?” I ask The Man in the corner after I realize how much room the container demands in the puny trunk. He doesn’t answer. His concentration remains fully on the snowflakes of paint falling to the sooty wooden floor. He rubs his index finger against his thumb to unstick the paint from his nail and continues digging into the woodwork. I can smell the lead based flakes and try to concentrate on the task at home before I get too nauseous. The cigarette burned shirt is back in the pile of clothes to get packed. Rolled sleeves is better than no shirt at all.
A steady steam of sleet falls outside the window. It’s so thin and constant that if I squint it appears as if a screen exists in the slots where there is none. I don’t like the cold. Mississippi smells like nature. The constant pine and pollen scents are amplified by the humidity throughout the year. When winter hits, and the snow hangs on to its coat tails for the ride, the aroma of the earth gets muted.
I’ve never been to Alabama and never thought I’d find the need. Never thought I’d leave this town since few people do. The hour or more, according to the map, seems so far. Much farther than the perspective out my second floor bedroom window, which always felt like a thousand mile view.
Momma always brags about her never leaving this town, this house, in all her years. She was born in this farmhouse, youngest of three, the baby girl to a woman who medically wasn’t supposed to have one child. God forbid she tries her luck a third time. But she did. The first two came one after the next, so easy, but the third took nine complete flips through the calendar. Almost a decade separated momma from Aunt Mud and close to thirteen years the junior to Uncle Farley.
Farley and Mud left, leaving momma alone with her parents, to work the farm and the house and all the things between. She was here when they raised only cotton. She was here when the land pushed up nothing but soybeans. The farm had a crop of any substantial size in years. Ever since, as momma puts it, “poppa arrived and the only thing that gets raised around here is hell.”
“I’m going to assume they’ve got powder. Toothpaste as well. I’m bringing my own toothbrush because I refuse to share a toothbrush with anyone. Anyone.”
I put heavy emphasis on the pronoun at the sentence’s end so it sounds like An knee one. I’ve seen him use my toothbrush though he’s denied it in every instance. Though he’s roughly ten year older than me he still acts like a child. He acts more like a kid than me, who’s an actual kid. I don’t know his exact age, and never really gave it a second thought, until Mr. Monroe visited our house right after Christmas.
He was sent by “the people that just want the best for me” as my mom calls them though I’ve never really met these people so I’m not sure why they are so interested in my life. He left a pamphlet with mom, which she keeps hidden in her bedside table underneath an old copy of LIFE magazine earmarked to a photo of a woman lying on a white floor with the word BEDLAM written in letters bigger than a newspaper headline. I’ve read the pamphlet every day, twice a day, since – once when momma goes down for her afternoon nap and again when she’s occupied getting dinner ready. I read it a third time on those days when she’s agreed to head into town to collect my father from the beer-soaked floor of a bar.
The radio in the kitchen grows louder with Hank singing about Long Gone Lonesome Blues. He always plays Hank as loud as the little Philco can bark. He forgets to turn it down, leaves it high blast, and kills the battery. My father always said he liked Hank the best because he had a way of “talking to him” and I never knew what that meant until songs started talking to me too. Not directly, but they said things. Every song sang a different tune than it’s actual melody.
“Did you hear that?” I asked momma one day in the kitchen while I did my schoolwork and she scrubbed the far corner of the kitchen floor. She stopped.
“Hear what? The song? That’s Roy Acuff, your grandpop used to..”
“No. No the talking. During the song.”
She turned her head, as if she was listening real hard, but she does stuff like that to make it seem like she’s hearing, seeing or feeling the same as me in that minute.
“Yeah. Yeah I do. “Probably the DJs left the microphone on.”
She returns to her scrubbing. She returns to slightly shrinking place of normal.
Hank reminds me to bring the busted transistor I keep under my bed. In case anyone where I’m going knows how to fix circuits or might be dumb enough to trade for it.
1 transistor radio
3 comic books
2 white handkerchiefs
“The Stuyvesant Home for Children,” I recite to The Man in the corner, word for word as it is in the pamphlet, “was founded in 1889 by Jonathan Stuyvesant as an orphanage and refugee for boys abandoned and forgotten by society. In 1937, the institution began to offer residential treatment and services for children, no matter gender, between the ages of 10 and 17. These children all exhibit a history of emotional and behaviorally delinquency.”
He doesn’t listen but I’m sure he hears every word. He’s brushing paint flakes off his palm into a pile onto the front page of the stack of old newspapers piled to just under the window frame. I started saving newspapers for school, then just for fun, then just because it was habit. Every once in a while, usually when I’m at school, momma will toss a few in the trash thinking I’ll never take notice. As long as the stack stays high enough, I’ll pretend like I don’t know what she’s doing.
Slippers shuffle across rotting wood and hit the broken floorboard just near my closed bedroom door. It lets off a sort of a closemouth moan to warn anyone inside the room to take cover. Slippers mean it is momma. Boots mean it’s my father and I best find a hiding spot. Mother’s head enters the room right after words. She’s giving her usual last instructions for the afternoon, before her nap.
She looks past me, while still talking at me, very much like my father when he’s too liquored to focus his eyes or my teacher after the incident. She’s already taken her 2pm dose. It’s the lower dose, usually the pill cut in half with the front end of a spoon, and her words aren’t trailing off or in the reverse order like when she takes her night dose of one whole pill plus the half from earlier in the day.
“Dad is sleeping one off in the parlor. I’m resting my eyes in the bedroom. Don’t make a fuss. Just a few more days and you’ll be in a better place.”
“Aren’t you going to say anything to him?” I ask, motioning my head towards the man who’s now twisting the newspapers with his wrists into paper print bowties and setting them into a pile.
She pauses for words.
“There is nothing to say,” she mutters as the door closes on the final syllable, cutting it off from the sentence like a helium balloon free from a bundle.
1 record album
1 lucky arcade token
3 packs of peppermint chewing gum
I read the list aloud. Maybe hearing what I’m bringing will spark an idea of an item I’ve forgotten to pack. This isn’t the first time I’ve packed my own suitcase but this is the first time I’m packing for an unfamiliar destination. Packing for camp is easy. I know what I need and I know what would just go to waste by the end of August. “Packing just to leave” as momma calls it depends on where we’re going — There is packing just to leave to send the old man a warning that some day mom and I might never come back, there is packing just for a day or two at Aunt Mud’s place because dad has to dry out and “isn’t pleasant to be around” as Aunt Mud says it.
There is packing that’s just grabbing things because dad is on a warpath and there is no time to make a list. I’m instructed to grab my most vital belongings and leave the house through the back and wait in the backseat of the car with the engine running. The keys are hidden beneath the sun visor on the passenger side and if she’s not out of the house and in the car in five minutes under no circumstances do I go back in the house. I leave the car running and honk. Lean on the horn again and again until the neighbors come asking what all the noise is about or someone just up and calls the sheriff.
I hope it never comes down to me blowing the horn, or the sheriff poking around, because the sheriff hates me just as much as I him, and the last time I saw him I swore it would be the last time I saw him. It was the day of the incident, in the principal’s office, after the principal explained what had happened and he’d filled out a police report.
The sheriff hunkered down into the principal’s small desk chair and touched everything on the desk while he asked me questions that he didn’t care the answer to like “you ok?” or “ya need anything?” or “if I’d understood what I’d done.”
I was ready to stop talking about what I’d done because it would be the third time in one afternoon I’d have to tell the story. He asked again. I just talked because I didn’t want to have to hear the question a third time or have to even hear him speak another word. It went like this…
“Sally was teasing me during math. The way she did. The way she always did, every day. The way she’d call me dumb or reach across and scribble the word STUPID on my papers. I’d gotten used to it after months of school and found it easier each day to ignore her. This just got her more fired up. The more I’d ignore her the more she’d pour it on. Today, during calculations, Sally started on scribbling nonsense on my notes and she wrote RETARD and I started on erasing the R and she punched my arm. My arm was bruised and sore and ached for other reasons and I just got so angry all I could see was black. I don’t remember anything. Just black. Like my eyes were shut but they were really wide open. Then he did it. He swung his, that man, he swung his hand with my pencil in it and it just kinda happened.”
It’s like momma says “mistakes kinda happen.” Bad luck kinda happens. A pencil stabbed into a girl’s eye kinda happens.
“I just remember the blood” I say to The Man, who’s ass is sticking out of the closet as he digs up the floorboard under my shoes, the one where I hide all the stuff I’m not supposed to have. “There was this sound and then the blood was everywhere.”
We are both quiet.
“Maybe this place has talcum but I’ve got to share it with other people. I don’t like sharing with anyone. Anyone.”
On certain days, mom will nap on the bed in hiding room. She calls it the guest bedroom but we haven’t had a guest over since grandmom passed four summers ago. I tiptoe down the hall and find the guest bed still made. Mom’s in her bedroom. I’d hope to get one last read of the pamphlet and one more look at the magazine or the pamphlet or the hand-written notes mom brought home from her library research about schizophrenia. No luck, so I’m just going to have to recall the words and pack accordingly.
The ringing phone startles me. I jump inside the hiding room out of habit, same as I do when I come out of my room at night and the old man is stumbling up the steps or passed out in the hallway. Momma comes out of her room to answer the hall phone. Her loud hello is followed by whispers to the person on the other. She says he’ll be ready when the car arrives tomorrow and asks again if this is really the only way to handle all this ugliness. She listens to the response, which feels like it takes days, with silent nods and says she “understands” and thanks Doctor Fine before quietly tucking the phone back into its crib.
Doctor Fine is a funny name. I’ve always thought that, especially after meeting him and feeling he was anything but fine. He was jumpy, had a slight stammer and talked to me as if nothing ever would be fine again – in his life or mine. Before every visit, he checked me out just like any regular doctor but his questions were much more detailed. He’d avoid asking about my burns, my bruises and the hip-to-hip scar on the small of my back just above my waist just like every other doctor.
He asked me about the incident and since it had been only a few days since it happened I was a little shakier on the exact details. I told him everything I could remember, from the beginning to the part where it all goes dark, and I tell him he could ask the man in the corner because he saw the whole thing. He asked me more about my imaginary friend and I told him I didn’t really consider the man an imaginary friend. He was just there. He just showed up one night. I’d had imaginary friends before, when I was very young, and imaginary friends went away when you wanted them to and sometimes for good. The man is here. He’s always here. Though I never really asked him to leave I’m not sure he would even if I bribed him.
The doctor took extensive notes — sometimes for close to ten minutes — usually at the end of each session right before he asked one final question. It was the same question every time.
“Do you feel sorry about what you did?”
I said what he wanted me to say. I said what everyone probably wanted me to say.
It was a lie. A big, fat lie bigger than any fib I’d told before or since. I felt sorry about her eye and the fact that I was allowed back in school but for her safety she was asked to transfer to a school in the next town. I didn’t feel sorry for what I did because I didn’t do anything. Pitch black. The sound. The blood. I didn’t do anything alone.
The Man is hard at work when I return to my room. Each drawer of the wooden dresser is opened just enough for the twisted newspapers to hang half inside and half out. The paint shavings again dust the ground like an early morning flurry. My attention turns again to my list only I’m unable to think of anything else to bring.
The Happi-Time Camera, the only gift on my last birthday has only two pictures left. I use the first to photograph the suitcase after it’s completely packed. In case I lose the list, or my mind, I’ve got proof of what I brought and what belongs to me. The last photograph is my room. Just as I left it. In case I never come back.
My backside hangs off the edge of my bed. The sun is setting outside both my bedroom windows. Some days, if I look at the right time, it appears as if one window is already night, the sun casting shadow on the world and in the other window it’s still the middle of the day. The window of shadows always seemed more comfortable – a place to hide while the rest of the world carried on as planned.
The list in my hand is now slightly rubbing up against his belt buckle. I look up. He looks down. We stare. He grabs my wrist and slowly pulls me off the bed. I’m unable to break free; his grip is so strong, though I’m not really positive if I’m even trying to get away. He leads me over to the dresser. At our feet, the empty box of Muriel cigars that holds for all of the things I’m not supposed to have in my possession.
The red font of Vic’s Luncheonette against the stark white matchbook cover is mesmerizing. I run my fingers over the raised V while the flames grow bigger and stronger out of each dresser drawer. They jump out like the creek frogs I tried to keep as pets who’d go AWOL every time I opened a drawer for clothes. The flames follow the same escape paths as those four-legged wart hoppers – first the drapes, then the wall and some brave enough to leap straight down to the floor.
The bed is already warm but I’m not sure it has anything to do with the current situation. The matchbook is raised in front of my face to block the heat. The letters harder to read as smoke devours the room faster than the flames. I can barely make out the letters in Luncheonette though the word is inches from my face.
I close my eyes and wonder if I’ll be back home in time for the start of summer camp at the end of June.
Originally printed in online literary magazine Wild River Review.