By Brandon McNulty
The best thing about being the first guy off the plane is that you get first crack at the luggage. And since I only brought a backpack, I’ll look completely inconspicuous when I roll off with someone’s suitcase. To be honest, I don’t even care what’s inside. Hotel towels, men’s toiletries, women’s shoes, damp bathing suits, bargain souvenirs—it doesn’t matter. As long as I leave with someone else’s goods, I’m good.
I flash my passport as I move through customs. Being a grad student who studies overseas, I’m used to this process. The immigration official welcomes me back to the States, and I shake his hand with a vigorous pump. Done. As I leave, the other passengers fumble through their bags for passports. They’re no threat to catch up, but I hurry along anyway, blitzing past duty-free shops and fast food restaurants.
My feet stay quick until I reach baggage claim. Then I realize I’m in trouble—no suitcases yet. Just empty metal conveyors dragging air. I check the shoot that’s supposed to cough up the luggage. Not an ounce of personal belongings on the way. What the hell’s taking so long?
I gaze around the room and see nothing but airport workers and empty chairs. I’m about to head toward the exits when I hear a dull thud. And another. And more. Suitcases fall like manna and load up the conveyor belt.
The first bags to fall are the standard, wheeled suitcases with plastic exterior. They’re nothing of interest—I like to grab something unusual—so I let them run laps for now. A few more fall, and we’ve got some contenders on our hands: mesh cases stamped with tourist locations, briefcases with eight-digit locks, and a duffle bag with a shredded strap. The duffle bag is getting on my nerves when a gray plastic case enters the contest. There’s nothing wild about the case itself, but Christ, someone tied a white ribbon around the handle. The owner must be some knob who figures he’ll save himself time by marking his bag.
I stop in my tracks on the way to the ribbon case—a couple of the other passengers have caught up. How they got through customs so smoothly is beyond me. One of them is the chick who sat next to me on the flight. She’s cute in a regrettable way—the kind of girl I could spend a night with, then wake up the next morning having panic attacks about diseases, children, or a fusion of the two.
The trampy chick approaches the conveyor belt and smiles at me. Her lips bend almost as sharply as her low cut neckline. I grin back, forcing eye contact.
“Hello again, Burt,” she says to me with a light British accent.
“Hey Lauren,” I say. “Enjoy the rest of the flight?” I ask this because we hadn’t shared a word since discussing our airline meal—microwaved chicken, pasty lettuce salad, and a bread roll the size of my ankle.
“I tried to get some rest,” she says, “but I just can’t fall asleep mid-flight.”
“Could’ve fooled me. I swear, you were snoring.”
The ribbon case turns the corner. Part of me wants to nab it, the rest of me wants to simply remove the ribbon and leave with the frayed duffle bag. It’s a toss-up at this point. While I’m deciding, a few more suitcases slide down the gutter. I hear more footsteps behind me. Time’s fading fast.
I rip the ribbon case off the belt and set it on its wheels.
“Hey!” Lauren yelps.
I turn to stone.
“That’s a great idea,” she says.
“W-what?” I ask.
“The ribbon on the handle. That probably spares you from checking all the other suitcases.”
“Oh,” I say. “Actually, it’s not the best idea. If a strand gets caught in the conveyor belt, you have a problem.”
“Sorry Lauren, have to hurry,” I say, wheeling toward the exit. “Nice meeting you.”
“Same to you. And give your family my condolences. Sorry about your grandfather.”
After a few long corridors and an elevator ride, I reach the airport lobby area. It’s filled with old men holding signs with surnames on them. Others crane their necks in attempt to locate family members. Two parents rush by to embrace and slobber a teenage girl.
I’m scouting the crowd for my mother when I spot something inferior: my 19-year-old sister Kelly. Not happy about this. She’s the most pampered little slutbucket I’ve ever seen in my life. No job, no work ethic, no chance. Last year she volunteered at a telethon and later described it as an ordeal. These days, I’m stuck studying architecture overseas while she mooches college tuition off Mom and Dad. And all that cash is going toward a deplorable culinary arts degree.
Unfortunately, Kelly spots me and waves. She gestures for me to walk over, and I bristle through the crowd with my suitcase.
“Burt!” She runs ahead to hug me. “How was the flight?”
“Down right phenomenal,” I say, hugging her back with my free hand. “Where’s Mom?”
“Back home,” she says, loosening from our embrace. She wipes her chestnut hair away and tells me that she drove here to pick me up.
“Since when do you make four-hour round trips as favors?” I ask.
“Dad said he’d give me a hundred bucks and pay me back for gas and parking fees.”
“Yeah, great, you haven’t changed a bit.”
She scrunches her face, and we start toward the exit.
“Hey,” she says. “I thought your suitcase was black—you know, the one with all the side compartments.”
I clear my throat. “Well, you see, I borrowed this one. Easier to pack.”
She takes a hard look at my alleged luggage as we pass through the automatic doors.
Kelly bails on captaining the return trip, so I drive us home. After seeing cars drive on the left side of the road for the past six months, the whole experience is unsettling. I almost cause two accidents in the airport parking lot, but this doesn’t faze Kelly. She props her head against the passenger’s window and drifts to sleep.
It’s cold enough to snow, so I dial up the heater. Warm air crashes into Kelly’s face, and she stirs awake. She orders me to turn it off, then yells about what a hard week she’s had. Although she mentions mountains of school-related stress, she offers no details. She’s just stressed for the sake of being stressed.
I ask her if Grampa’s death is bothering her. She tells me she cried over it when she heard the news, but hasn’t since. At this point, I notice we’re running under a quarter-tank of gas, so I drop the subject and tell Kelly to keep her eyes peeled for rest stops.
Twenty minutes later, I’m pumping fuel when she rolls down the window and suggests we stop at this quaint little Italian restaurant across the road.
“Kel, just go inside the minimart and buy a cookie or something.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she says, “they’re loaded with fat and sugar. I can’t eat that.”
“Great,” I say. “Get a bagel then. Less fat, less sugar, and less time I have to spend hearing this.”
“Shut up, Burt. You don’t understand what—”
I tune her out as I remove the nozzle and grab my receipt. Soon as I sit in the driver’s seat, she thrusts her hand into my shoulder like a lobster claw. Even under three layers of clothing, I feel her nails clamp my bones. She starts wailing about pasta cravings and how I apparently owe her one.
“Kel, don’t you think it’d be better to go straight home to our mourning family instead of sitting down to a fancy meal?”
“Burt, listen,” she coos, “I’m just hungry. And Dad said he’d pay for any expenses, so it’s no big deal.”
“By expenses,” I say, “he meant gas and airport parking.”
“And you honestly think he wants his little girl starving in the middle of nowhere?”
“Christ, we’re almost home.”
“But there’s no telling if anyone will have food on hand when we get back. Everyone’s preparing for the viewing.”
“Y’know what, fine. As long as the money comes out of your wallet, whatever.”
The Italian place is called Chevetti’s, and everything on the menu costs roughly a month’s salary. We walk inside, grab a table, and sit across from one another. This Chevetti guy has solid taste in atmosphere. Plastic vines wrap the ceiling lights, oil paintings hide the whites of the walls, and Italian opera fends off any empty silence. Everywhere I look there’s a bottle of wine I wish I could afford. I’m so enamored by the place that I tell Kelly to order stuffed breadsticks as an appetizer. Nothing more. I consider ordering a plate of fusilli, but the waitress looks Russian, and this derails the whole experience.
After Kelly orders, she tries to make small talk about school. I nod a lot and blink really fast to appear interested. While she kicks off a monologue, my attention drifts out the window. It’s getting dark, so there’s little to see but gloomy conifers and car headlights. I turn back to Kelly, whose hand is flopping in the air like a hooked fish. My eyes wander until I notice a decorative flower vase next to the salt shaker. There are a few plastic flowers curling out. One of them looks considerably faker than the others.
“Kelly,” I say, pointing behind her at the kitchen entrance, “do you think that’s where the bathrooms are?”
She swings her head around. Right before she turns back, I swipe the imitation flower and jam it in my pocket. All’s good.
“No, dumbass,” she says. “Not unless you wanna piss in a sauce pan.”
“Hey, take it easy.”
“Check behind you.”
I hop out of my seat and head toward the men’s room. Once inside, I take the flower out of my pocket and inspect it. Earlier, I felt ripped off about being rushed with the suitcase. I couldn’t savor the moment. Now, this cheap decoration makes up for it.
We’re merging onto the turnpike. As Kelly turns around to check my blind spot, she fires another skeptical look at my suitcase.
I got caught stealing five times as a kid. The first time happened when I was eleven. Mom and I were in the checkout line of a grocery store called Hammond’s. I stood behind my mother while she handed food to a zesty blonde cashier. With my eyes pinned on the babe, I moved my hand toward the candy rack. I couldn’t see what I was reaching for, and I ended up reeling in a box of Milk Duds. The rattle of those chocolate blobs alerted Mom, and she swung around just in time to catch me wedging the box into my pocket. Had I grabbed a pack of gum or some silent candy, nothing would have happened. Instead, Mom shrieked “Put that back, mister. Right now!” and then she slapped me across the face. The hot cashier winced and said “Aww…” in a way that made me feel more like a cheated hero than a foiled shoplifter. Since then I’ve wrapped my fingers around thousands of non-purchases.
I follow the orange throb of streetlights until I finally park in our driveway. Kelly grumbles in the front seat while I hurry out to grab my backpack and suitcase. I’m excited to see what’s inside, but it’ll have to wait till I’m in private. I roll the suitcase up the sidewalk to the front door. Just as I find the house key, Kelly rushes up.
“Hey Burt,” she says, “since when do you tie girly ribbons on your suitcase handles?”
“Well, Kelly,” I say as I unlock the door, “it helps me find my stuff among the rest of the luggage.”
She pauses to suck on that thought, and I enter the home of my youth. Memories flood me the same way old war stories drown army vets. Everything’s the same—same pottery in the foyer, same closet door off the hinge, same scuff marks on the kitchen walls. The house seems smaller, but that only makes it easier to drag the day’s plunder up to my room.
I shut my bedroom door behind me as Kelly yells that she’s gonna shower off before we leave. Great, sure. I set the suitcase next to my bed and reach around for the zippers. My fingers connect with both of the cool metal zippers and—dammit. We’ve got a lock on our hands. It’s a three-digit number lock, and as much as I’d like to twist through the thousand possible combinations, I’m better off cutting through the mesh along the zipper. I run down to the kitchen and grab a steak knife.
It cuts smoothly above the zipper, and I take surgeon’s care not to slice too deep. I drag the knife slowly around the corner, pick up speed along the straightaway, and curl it home with ease. I brush my fingers against the new opening and feel the satisfying tingle of shredded mesh. From there I throw open the case. Dress pants and button-down shirts spill out. I sweep them aside and dig through socks, sport coats, and undershirts. My hand is halfway submerged into the suitcase when my knuckles tap a strange metal compartment. I toss the underwear aside like wrapping paper and investigate. Turns out there’s a compartment that resembles a dull gray briefcase. I pluck it open and check inside.
First thing I see is a handgun. Goddamn, I’ve gone too far this time—knew I should’ve just peeled the ribbon off and swiped another bag. Now I’ve pissed off people who can conceal handguns from airport security.
There’s something shiny beneath the weapon. I remove the gun and reveal a gold wall plaque with an inscription: “This Lifetime Achievement Award in British-American Relations is presented to Ambassador Lawrence R. Kraft.” I’m not up on my politics, but those relations can’t be too smooth if this Kraft guy has to smuggle a pistol into the States.
Kelly pounds on my door and insists that I take a shower now that she’s done. I hurry to the door, open it a crack, and tell her that I’m clean and great and looking for my suit at the moment. Jesus. I stuff Kraft’s belongings back into his suitcase. I’ll need to dispose of it sometime tomorrow.
Locating a parking space near the funeral home requires nothing short of a miracle. After what feels like hours of right turns, I park in front of a Chinese restaurant and ask Kelly if I’m close enough to the curb.
“Burt,” she says, ignoring my question, “let’s say I’m supposed to meet a guy at 8:30 tonight. Do you think it looks worse if I tell Mom that I planned the date in advance or that I just received a text and decided spur-of-the-moment?”
I kill the engine and bury my face in my hands. “Do you really want to leave in the middle of Grandpa’s wake? That’s stupid. I might as well just warn Mom—”
“Don’t even dare. This guy finally started talking to me in class the other day. I don’t know if I’ll get another chance.”
“Can’t you postpone it till the viewing’s over?”
“No, we need to leave early so we can get to Allentown by ten.”
“Why not just, oh I dunno, tell him you’ll be at your own grandfather’s viewing all night? I’m sure this guy would understand.”
“Give me a break, Burt. That would be embarrassing.”
Feeling a little embarrassed myself, I step out of the car and head for the funeral home. Kelly hustles behind me, her oversized purse smacking her hip. I’ve seen enough of her for today, so I quicken my stride till I’m at the front door. I step onto the beige carpet and glance around the lobby at empty couches and chairs. No one there. However, on a nearby end table there’s a candy dish with only two foil-wrapped caramels inside. This bothers me, so naturally I swipe the dish and stuff it into my suit pocket.
Kelly rushes in behind me, purse flapping and heels clopping. The two of us head down a hallway until we get stuck behind a line of people waiting to enter the viewing room. I don’t recognize anyone in line, so I peek above their heads. I nab sight of Mom standing next to the casket, and she spots me. Dad reaches out to stop her, but she waddles past the rows of chairs and sidesteps the line. As she nears me, I notice she’s gotten larger since the last time I saw her. Before I can say hello, she snatches me and squeezes till my bones crunch. I try to return the hug, but it’s like wrapping my arms around a redwood.
“Burton, honey,” she says, amidst sobs and smiles. She tries to say more, but nothing comes out. She just hugs me tighter this time, tight enough to drive the candy dish into my ribs. For the moment it feels like a shovel’s wedged into my side.
Kelly and I follow Mom to the casket. I kneel down and whisper the only two prayers I remember from my youth. Kelly walks over to Dad, and he congratulates her for picking me up from the airport. She asks him how soon he can pay her for the trip, and he mumbles something as he brushes her away.
Dad shakes my hand and gives me a hearty slap on the shoulder. “How you doing, Burt?”
“Great,” I say. “Things got frustrating at both airports, but that happens. How’ve you been? How’s the new project?”
“Ah, well, we have to delay construction on Harris Street till I return to work. Other than that I’ve been consoling your mother and such. You get the picture.”
Before I can respond, Dad points behind me. Visitors are bunching up in front of the casket, so I need to move aside. I find a spot in the family line between Kelly and my Uncle Bruce. Although Uncle Bruce takes me to shooting ranges every summer, he and I never have anything to say to one another. Even a quick hello seems ludicrous and awkward. Today, we nod at one another with solemn faces and wait for the oncoming guests.
After each mourner passes, Kelly whips out her phone to check the time. It’s around 7:45, so she’s got a good forty-five minutes until she has to mention to Mom that some scumbag tricked her into leaving the viewing.
I’m shaking hands with one of my Dad’s college buddies when Uncle Bruce cranes his head and looks toward the entry doors. I see what he’s eyeing: two full-uniform police officers speaking with the mortician. Cold panic collects within my chest. One of the cops opens a manila folder.
I nudge Uncle Bruce and tell him that I’m heading for the bathroom. He nods, and I sidestep away from the flow of guests. I sift past my Dad’s college buddy, dodge a couple old ladies in sweaters, and reach the side exit. Just as I yank the door open, the mortician calls out from across the room. He waves me over, and I take careful, awkward steps toward him and the officers. I put my hands in my pockets and smile. No one smiles back, and I feel sweat drops leaking along my spine.
“Burton,” the mortician says, “these gentlemen would like to speak with you out in the lobby. They said it would be brief.”
Brief. Oh Jesus. They probably have an airtight case against me already. Security footage from the airport and everything.
My spine turns to jelly as I follow the officers into the hallway. Neither utters a word when we reach the lobby. The men in blue stop at the front door and turn to me. Wild ideas gallop between my ears. The candy dish suddenly seems like a good weapon, and they’re not expecting it, and—
“Mr. Burton Holler,” the bearded officer says.
It’s fair to say I get caught sometimes. And I suppose if you dash across a minefield every day, you’re bound to lose a few limbs. And for as long as—
“Mr. Holler?” The officer pinches his eyes as if he hasn’t slept in days.
“Burt, Burt!” yells Kelly from behind. Her heels crunch into the carpeting as she hustles near. “Is this about the suitcase?”
My face burns red as I turn around. I have no choice but to look away from the cops—all I can offer them is the face of a rattled, guilty man. And all I can offer Kelly are the words “What the hell?” as I lip them to her. She brakes to a halt, just inches away from me. Her face is sincere, but I can see a smirk germinating beneath her lips.
“A suitcase, Mr. Holler?” the bearded cop asks.
I’m squeezing a beg and a plea into my eyes right now. I can’t afford to say a word, but I’m promising Kelly that this’ll never happen again. I’m promising to keep silent on whatever she’s doing in Allentown tonight. Fine, great, you can lie to Mom as long as you let me lie my way out of this.
Forget the hidden smirk, she’s secretly beaming right now. A massive smile hiding behind flat, impartial lips.
“Um, she’s right,” I say, turning back to the cop. “My suitcase got jacked from the backseat of my car today. Nothing valuable, but I meant to file a report with you guys—not that I did yet.”
“I see,” the bearded cop says. “Funny you should mention your vehicle, Mr. Holler.”
“Why’s that?” I ask, plucking nervously at my coat’s lapels.
The officers trade stern looks. The clean-shaven one flips through his manila folder and shows me a picture of my car. The license plate lettering is crystal clear.
I gargle air in an attempt to clear my throat. “W-well. You see, that is my car, but—”
“Mr. Holler, we don’t need your excuses,” the scruffy cop says. He takes the photo from his partner and points at one of my tires. “All we ask is that you move your vehicle out of the fire lane immediately.”
“There’ll be no fine this time, but a fire lane’s a fire lane, and you’ll have to move your car.”
I stare at the photo. It’s my car outside the Chinese restaurant… Turns out I parked inside a painted yellow box. I parked in a fire lane. Sweet Jesus, I parked in a fire lane.
After I move the car, I head back to the funeral home. I have one foot in the door when I spot Kelly and Mom arguing in the hallway. I’ve seen this movie before, so I leave and go for a walk.
The weather’s not terrible for March in Pennsylvania. There’s snow in the nearby yards, but the air doesn’t feel chilly. Or maybe I’m just distracted by the St. Patrick’s Day decorations in this one yard: illuminated outlines of a shamrock, a pot of gold, and a leprechaun lean against the front porch. Every couple seconds, their lights flicker between green and yellow.
It makes for a calming sight until I notice that some of the green lights on the pot of gold appear burned out. This bothers the hell out of me, but I just pass the house and continue down the sidewalk.
Copyright McNulty 2012