4 min

The red suitcase

The adventurous life of a piece of baggage

Credit: Xtra West files

I like the basement part of Value Village the most. I don’t really need another pair of jeans, no matter how good a deal they are, or another faded T-shirt that says, “Save Alaska’s Chocolate Moose”; I have a closet bulging with cheesy polyester shirts and 15 pairs of boots but only two feet. I always just wear the brown square-toed ones, anyway.

The basement is where they keep the furniture, and the records and books. I’m always looking to trade up in the furniture department, and sometimes a fella gets lucky. You have to sort through a lot of fake wood veneered dressers and steamer trunks and bits of stereos, but sometimes for $24.99 you ride home triumphantly with a pine cabinet with stained glass doors that the yuppies would make payments on if they picked it up in Kitsilano.

I had just finished deciding that I really didn’t need a second antique chrome toaster when I saw the suitcase. It was smallish, what my grandmother would call an overnight bag, deep red leather with two wide straps with stern brass buckles and wide zipper. The little pull-tab of the zipper had an intricate lock built right into it, which slipped into the other end of the zipper when the case was fully closed. Its previous owner had thoughtfully attached the two ornate keys for the lock to one of the buckles with a twist tie.

I’m no expert, but I would say it was circa 1950 or so, neither scuffed nor ripped, immaculate, even, aside from the attic-ey smell that all old suitcases pick up from somewhere, and, inside, a small irregularly shaped stain that smelled of ancient lavender.

The price tag said $5.99, a bargain by anyone’s standards, I thought, and I tucked it under my arm and headed back upstairs.

It wasn’t a purchase I made for myself, I knew this even standing in line for the cash register.

For one thing, it was red. A fine colour, to be sure, but I have this superstition about out-of-the-ordinary-looking luggage being more likely to be stolen. Ever since my orange, red and yellow striped duffel bag disappeared out from under my nose at a café once, containing all my favourite jeans and every pair of socks and underwear I owned, I travel with a black duffel bag and one of those carry-ons that looks just like everyone else’s. No red luggage for this cowboy.

Also, there was something unmistakably feminine about this suitcase; maybe it was the lavender scented stain, because the case itself was sturdy in a kind of androgynous way. Something about the spirit of the thing told me that it had belonged to a string of ladies, which is something I am only ever called when the speaker is unsure of what else to call me.

This purchase was to be a gift. A gift for a lady I know.

The romance of the purchase soon had me speculating about the red suitcase’s origins.

The case was originally purchased in Seattle, Washington in 1952 by one Beverly Spencer from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue for her daughter, Patricia. Beverly had considered the more practical brown or navy, but was feeling risqué that spring, seated in her spotless kitchen with the catalogue square in the centre of the lemon scented oak table top. Her only daughter Patricia was going to London for the first time, to summer with her aunt and cousins. Beverly decided on the red one; her husband would disapprove if he noticed, but it would go so well with Patricia’s copper locks, which matched her own. She wrote the order number down on a sheet of crisp notepaper and crossed the word suitcase off her list with a wooden ruler and freshly sharpened HB pencil.

That red-suitcase summer changed Patricia’s life forever. She got drunk for her first time ever on sherry her cousin Evelyn had pinched from her mother’s cabinet in the parlour, which Patricia called the living room.

Evelyn had guzzled straight from the bottle and confided that her period was three weeks late and then threw up on Patricia’s only nightgown.

Patricia kissed an Irish boy named Eamon behind the bleachers at a soccer game. Eamon’s two older brothers and father were all killed in the war and Patricia couldn’t even look at him without her chest hurting with the tragedy of it all. Eamon tasted like cigarettes and cocoa from a thermos that her aunt had filled for them and stuck into her bag as they ran out the door for the train. When he hugged her, he left hair oil on her neck and she could feel his thing, hot and hard with only his wool slacks and her stockings between her and it.

When she and Evelyn got home that night, just after dark, her aunt was sitting in a darkened parlour with most of the lights in the house turned down. She took both of Patricia’s hands into her own and told her through streaming tears that her mother had died and gone to heaven.

It would take Patricia five or six months to eavesdrop and piece together the real story. Her mother had scoured the entire house, took out the trash, shopped and placed a meatloaf in the oven before heading up to the spare bedroom and swallowing an entire bottle of laudanum, the origins of which were never discovered. The last time Patricia saw her mother was at the airport, when she air-kissed her cheek and pressed the handle of the red suitcase into her hand. It was almost Christmas when she overheard two women at her father’s office party whispering that her mother’s suicide note was short and to the point: sorry for the mess, she had written in sensible script, in pencil.

The suitcase had remained in a series of Patricia’s closets, stuffed with her mother’s photos, jewellery, and the contents of her dressing table, which her father had left outside her bedroom door the day the truck came to take her mother’s clothes away.

Patricia had passed peacefully in her sleep in Point Grey, in the basement suite of her son’s character home in the early fall of 2002.

She was almost 70. Her son Eamon had saved the pictures and a few pieces of jewellery, and dropped the rest of his mother’s clothes and most of her books and belongings at a charity box outside the library.

I think I’m going to give it to my girlfriend. It will go great with her hair.