Duffel was first published in Marco Island Writers’ Anthology V. Proceeds are donated to the Early Learning Coalition of SW Florida and Mt. Kisha English School in Magulon Village, India
I am old school, but a reliable shape shifter. Easy going but proud and emotional. Hailing from a long line of top closure bags from Duffel, Belgium with coarse cloth, my kind have served military, travelers, athletes, sailors and schoolkids. My open drawstring top and lack of rigidity allows me to hold all manner of stuff. Yet I am durable. Please don’t call me an old bag. That would be rude, and I’ve had dark lost years – stashed in my owner, Tommy’s bedroom closet in the family home. His folks made it a television and reading room. Sometimes they talked about Tommy’s letters between blaring news, ads, and movies while I craved snippets of his journey and sulked in confinement.
Early in Tommy’s eighth-grade year, I became his constant companion. It was 1963, he was thirteen and wore a crew cut. I was a brand-new American made navy-blue canvas duffel. A thick white drawstring attached to my bum looped through eyelets on my top. Tommy filled me with books, gym stuff, a lunch box, thermos, spiral notebook, and a pencil box. He slung me over his right shoulder. His important things secure inside me.
Dry September leaves stirred that crisp morning, as Tommy walked to the shiny new high school five miles across town. Little did he know how simple life really was then or how challenging, strange or wonderful it could become. Twenty-seven farms spread out from the rural small-town center. His dad built our tiny ranch house on a hilltop neighborhood squeezed between a cornfield-lined country road and a state road with trucks rumbling through day and night. Like the town did not exist.
Tommy and I started out early enough to beat the belching old school bus, always crowded with schoolmates and a few adversaries. Cut from the basketball team in seventh grade, he secretly liked school, but ambivalent about more tryouts. On top of that, his eighth-grade class was merged into the spacious new high school. Out of their league, and largely ignored. Especially for a painfully shy kid with no sisters and two brothers gone off beyond college.
His strides lengthened. He scanned the skyline ridge of trees that surrounded the town and two lakes. He spun a translucent yellow Duncan yo-yo, and stomped downhill humming a Chuck Berry tune.
Toot-toot. A small blue car pulled up with a beautiful brunette in the driver’s side next to him on the country road. She rolled down the window. “Hello, hop in, I’ll give you a lift.” It was the new teacher, Miss Brown.
He had never been alone with a single woman in a foreign car before. Or any other car for that matter. Her wide eyes dazzled over high cheekbones, her puffy white blouse taut to the waist of a herringbone skirt. He loped around the back of the car to the center of the road. I bumped off the car roof as he angled into the bucket seat. Only a stick shift separated us from Miss Brown. I lay on Tommy’s lap. It was odd that the steering wheel was on the front right side. He avoided eye contact with her and stared at the dashboard, speechless.
“It’s an English Ford and I just love it,” she said.
She smelled divine. He nosed in a big breath and cleared his throat, “How…did…you…?”
“Shipped it back after my junior year abroad in London,” she quipped and launched through the gears. “I’m just here for this year and then off for a doctorate at UCLA.”
His worldview swelled in so many ways. Miss Brown was about twenty-three. Her voice was wistful, warm and clear. She was driving now, so he was comfortable to look at her. A long look.
“Tommy, that’s a heavy bag, what are you reading, young man?”
Her devilish smile and movie star lips arrested his attention somewhere between sensations of a boy and a man.
“My textbooks, Gulliver’s Travels, and a Mad Magazine, Miss Brown.”
“Good, we will talk about satire today in class,” she said. “You may have a penchant for it. Literature will make you a happier and better person.”
He pondered that away, quite overtaken by her radiant energy, and his virginal wonder. Miss Brown led three of his English classes so far. The students enjoyed her stories and made learning fun. She exuded confidence and enthusiasm for knowledge. She had travelled to Europe and lived on her own.
Women were a mystery for Tommy, and he was in the high school building with fully blossomed junior and senior girls that ignored the goofy eighth-graders. The women teachers had been in the system forever. Many were heavy-set, bossy and didn’t seem to care much for boys, who all sat in the back anyway. Fortunately, his mom was the best a boy could have — joyful, loving, encouraging, loved to read, and always went to his sports events. But a single young sexy woman like Miss Brown was a giddy thing he knew nothing about. Someday he would get out of that small town, see the world and meet an adventurous Miss Brown of his own.
His high school years were innocent enough. Tommy lugged me all over the state on a team that made it to the state basketball finals. In senior year, an embroidered championship patch was sewn on my side. His mom told him he would be on his own and responsible for his finances. He came home occasionally for a meal and chat with the folks. After college, he filled me with his trophies, diplomas and mementos. Even his Boy Scout sash with round merit badges. I was stuffed back in the closet again. At least I held his memories.
I understand he married young and had a baby with his first real girlfriend. Much like his dad and older brothers did. Becoming a good man was most important then. That meant raising a family and being a good provider. His uncles had come back from WW II. They were respected. Men weren’t supposed to complain, they solved problems. They didn’t ask for help.
He was in the workforce for several years. Everyone called him Thomas and he was an executive that loved to work, flying all over and somehow managed to keep himself in shape. He came home for a visit – a depressed but determined single dad at 30. His plan was to focus on co-parenting, stay single, work harder and drink less. His definition of being a man had not changed but diluting his relationship with his son by starting another family was out.
He admitted to his parents that he had financial problems after the divorce but could deal with it.
“I wake up in the morning and feel I have an eight-hundred-pound gorilla standing on my chest,” he said.
His mom said, “I have fought depression most of my life, Tom. You just have to fight it.” This was a shock to him. She was always so positive and cheery.
He asked his father, “How do you know when you’ve lost your way?”
“When the pain gets too much, Son.”
They both gave him a hug and he cried, shaking all over. He wasn’t a guy who did that sort of thing.
He took a deep breath and asked his father another question. “How do I get myself together?”
“Life is like a highway, just stay away from the guard rails.” His dad had always preached moderation, but now it made sense.
Tommy somehow felt better from that conversation. Before he left, he came into the closet, retrieved me by my strap and emptied his trophies and mementos into the trash bin outside. He shook me out gently, put his diplomas back in, folded me flat and tucked me back in the closet shelf of his old bedroom.
They said their good-byes. Another dark season ensued for me, but I believed my Tommy would sort himself out and be back for me and his diplomas.
Thomas remarried about thirty years ago to Julie, a smart, independent, creative woman that was a friend and professional co-worker before they dated. They were pals, started businesses, travelled, and met many challenges together. His son accepted and respected her. They helped each other care for their aging parents. Julie had gathered Tommy’s personal stuff from his family home when he grieved for his folks. Thanks to Julie, I survived household moves, but now confined to a hall closet where I rarely hear a thing but dream for months at a time. I knew she was special from the way she treated me.
I am startled one morning when Julie gathers me from the closet and trots to a kitchen where silver haired Tommy eats breakfast. My goodness, his warm eyes hadn’t changed. “Happy birthday you buzzard”, Julie said. “Here is your trusty ‘ole duffle’.
Tommy smiled and hugged us both. He held me open and peered my depths. I was exuberant till he glanced over to his fancy ripstop nylon gym bag, sporting two loop handles and zipper along the top, ready to go. It even had a padded shoulder strap. Those improvements were impossible to compete with. I gasped.
Tommy returned his attention to me, removed the diplomas and tossed them away. Said he didn’t need those anymore. What would he want with me? But he chuckled and said, “Well, old friend, nice to have you back in my life. I’m taking you to the health club.”
He emptied his gym bag and filled me up. Gave Julie a kiss for her thoughtfulness. They had downsized to the speed of life on the Gulf Coast of sunny Florida. So here I am again, slung over Tommy’s shoulder, heading out for the day. The license plate on his Jeep read “The Endless Summer”. That was the name of our favorite movie from 1966, the year he graduated from high school and my last favorite summer with Tommy before he went to college. Now, we’re joined in school daze memories on a lovely mid-winter Florida morning with a balmy breeze.
As he gets into the driver’s seat, I bump the roof of his Jeep. The lost, ancient memory of Miss Brown and the blue English Ford looms fresh from that day in eighth grade. One of the great riddles of his life became clear. Unconscious transference from Miss Brown to Julie grew into a beautiful relationship. Now he understood why he could have remarried without hesitation. The bond with Julie was immediate but remained a workplace friendship that grew for a couple years. Then a first date, became lovers. He had met and embraced the ultimate version of Miss Brown when he was ready for her. And he never let her down.
Life is strange and wonderful. I am more than a bag. I was loved, lost, found and made a difference. A vessel on a journey. I envelop memories and dreams. Surely you humans can identify with that.