It's in the Bag
He sits up and yawns. The sun is shining through an open window, lighting a dreary, beige room. He pulls the sheets off and sits on the side of the bed. The alarm clock on the dresser reads 6:00 am; he is late.
He shakes his head, rubbing his eyes and yawning once again. Moving slowly from the bed to the bathroom, he trips on a small plastic car and curses to himself, kicking the toy into the corner of the room. Voices sound from the hallway; they are already up.
He steps into the stand-up shower and closes the door behind him. Staring at the lime-covered wall, he lets the hot water bathe him, unwilling to move. One by one, the drops of water slide down his back, his legs, his feet. They slip to the ground from the tips of his fingers, splash around his feet and eventually swirl around the drain once, twice, then dive into the dark abyss that lies beneath. The heat begins to envelop him, starting at his scalp then moving through to his shoulders, his chest, his groin, his thighs, turning his skin slowly pink, then red. He begins to glow with a certain type of power only early morning showers can give. The rejuvenation of the heat spreads finally to his toes. He smiles and the tips of his fingers quiver slightly as the liquid gets into his eyes, blurring the cracked ceiling and the mildew growing along the edges of the shower door. His smile widens and he feels the water get even hotter.
Suddenly there is a loud knock on the bathroom door and the sound of a woman's voice rings out through the gentle beat of the shower.
"Let's go! You have to be out of here in twenty minutes and you haven't finished packing yet!" The man sighs and reaches for the shampoo.
Soon he is out of the shower with a towel around his waist, his hair slicked back. As he steps back into the room, he sees the woman placing clothes neatly but quickly into a beaten brown suitcase. She doesn't look up as he walks behind her and stretches his arms around her swollen stomach. He kisses her on the cheek and rocks her back and forth. Almost immediately she pulls away and continues to pack, not once looking up.
"Could you possibly take longer in the shower? You know you can't afford to miss this flight, especially considering the price they're charging to reschedule these days."
"Laurie, you worry too much," he replies, standing behind her still, arms at his side. He looks out the window and adds softly, almost to himself, "Soon you won't need to worry about a thing."
Laurie explains that if he doesn't put his clothes on immediately, she may give him something major to worry about that's a thousand times worse than mere rescheduling fees.
"Can't you for once take things seriously? You know we can't screw this up, especially with Joseph due in two weeks."
"So you've settled on Joseph then?" he asks while pulling his arms through a white dress shirt.
"I don't know, I guess so. We don't even know if it's going to be a boy or not." She pauses to adjust the position of a buckle on the suitcase.
Buttoning up his black suit pants, he says, "Just don't worry, okay? This one's in the bag. Out of everyone, these guys sounded the most excited."
"Just remember to be polite. And if they offer you a drink or a cigar or anything, just take it this time, won't you? I don't want a repeat of last time." She zips up the suitcase and watches him tighten the knot on his tie.
"It's in the bag."
Sitting at the breakfast table there is a small child sitting in a creaking plastic highchair. She is playing with a bowl of brown oatmeal and a bright green spoon. Most of the mealy solution is on the chair's makeshift table, but some has reached her mouth, albeit only to dribble out again in a slightly less viscous state. The baby girl giggles.
The man is sitting at the table as well, in a worn wooden chair. There is an opened newspaper sprawled on the table in front of him. His finger is tracing the words in the classifieds. Chevy truck for sale. 300,000 km, good condition. 7,000. He shakes his head and his finger moves down the page. 240,000 km, new engine. Needs air-conditioning. 12,000. He taps the ad once, then twice, then turns the page. A plate with toast and bacon remains untouched beside him.
Soon he has reached the end of the paper and he gets up and scrapes the contents of his plate into the garbage can in the corner of the kitchen. He makes sure Laurie is not watching then shifts some paper towels over the toast so as to hide it. Placing the plate into the sink, already half-full of dishes, he walks over to the table and leans down next to the baby girl still laughing at her own culinary antics.
"You trust me, don't you Heather-Bear?" She responds with a loud snort and playfully slams her spoon into the oatmeal. He smiles and kisses her on the head. "You'll see. This time it's in the bag for sure."
Laurie appears in the doorway and gives him a stern look. She grabs his hand and places a heavy suitcase into his palm. Kissing him on the cheek, she pushes him towards the front door, reminding him quietly to call her after the meeting. He nods and steps out the door, his face stony. One of the buttons on his dress shirt has come undone beneath his discoloured suede jacket.
On the subway, the man sits with his suitcase held tight in his lap. There is a woman to his right in a large faded jacket wearing numerous tattered sweaters. A ratty toque adorns her unwashed hair. The man looks over and crinkles his nose. He looks her up and down twice, pausing on her torn sneakers for a moment before looking to his own polished leather shoes. He flattens a wrinkle in his pants and lets slip an almost imperceptible grin.
He sits back in his chair and closes his eyes. The sound of the rushing subway fills his head, trickling through his ears and into the crevices in his brain flushing out thoughts of the rusted drains and leaking sink of home. Images of a couch with duct tape-patched holes and a phonebook holding up one corner of his daughter's crib quickly fade to white and his mind is
free to wander. Thoughts of his book flash into his mind. He remembers the years of research done after coming home from his night shift at the factory, the painstaking task of outlining and reviewing his work endlessly, all the while trying to drown out the sound of Heather-Bear's cries for attention. Laurie's face appears, scolding him for staying up so late every night, all the while bringing him yet another cup of coffee. He sees her going to bed alone every night, her eyes growing bright and wide with anticipation for the improvements his toiling will bring. When he comes home from this trip, she will hug him at the front door and whisper into his ear that she knew he could do it. They will all go out to dinner and Laurie won't sleep alone again.
A bill flashes into his mind, the cost of copying and binding seven hundred pages and two and a half years of his life into one compact, easy to read, accessible and irresistible package. He can feel its weight in his lap. A swell of pride washes over him as he thinks of the reward he is about to receive on this trip. He wonders about how they will pay him, and more importantly, when. He can see a cheque in his hands as he leaves the big city office, a smile on his face as he takes a taxi back to the airport. He will buy an expensive cappuccino from the airport café and watch the people go by, hurrying to their dead-end jobs and their broken down homes while he enjoys the richness of a Moroccan blend.
A sudden bump knocks him back into the present. The woman beside him has nudged him.
"This yer stop?" she asks in a low, coarse voice.
He looks around and a look of realization crosses his face. He quickly gets up and rushes towards the closing door. He makes it out with less than an inch to spare. He looks through the window to the woman now sprawling over the bench where he had been sitting. She is fingering a small, rectangle object in her hand like an animal foraging for food in the dirt. The look of eagerness on her face is impossible to ignore.
He stares at her for a few seconds longer then spins around and walks quickly towards the exit and soon enough he finds himself on a bustling downtown street. Making his way to the nearest bus stop, he fumbles in his back pocket for the bus ticket he had specifically bought for this trip. His pocket is empty. He stops mid-step and looks straight up into the sky. His eyes squeeze shut after a few seconds and his knuckles turn white around the handle of his suitcase. After standing in the middle of the sidewalk for forty-five seconds, he continues much more slowly towards the bus stop. Once there, he sits down on the bench stares at a piece of gum on the sidewalk in front of him. The white of his knuckles spreads to his fingers as he wrings the sweaty handle of his suitcase, once again on his lap.
The bus arrives and the others at the stop step up and pay their fare before finding a seat. When everyone has gotten on, the driver looks down at the man sitting on the bench and asks him roughly if he's getting on or not. The man looks startled when he looks up and replies that he has forgotten his wallet at home. The driver's eyes tighten into slits for a moment before softening.
"Don't worry about it, bud. Happens to everyone. Hop on." The man on the bench appears dumbfounded and doesn't move. "Didja hear me or what? Forget about the fare."
The man nods fiercely as he gets up, glances behind him at the bench, then steps onto the bus and smiles widely at the driver; his eyes are still wide with surprise.
"Where you headed?" the driver asks as the bus jerks into motion, pulling away from the curb and back into the current of cars.
"Airport," is all the man manages to say.
The driver glances over at him then returns his gaze to the road. "Hey, don't worry about the money, man. I've done it before, and I'm a bus driver for crying out loud." The man manages to let out a small chuckle. He is looking out the windshield and leaning on a pole. "Name's Jim Rockefeller, no relation." The driver lets out a friendly chortle.
The man looks closely at the driver and sees that he is much older than he first appeared. There are wrinkles lining his eyes and his chin seemed to be hanging loosely from his lips, as if it were barely attached. "Nice to meet you, Jim," is all he can say. Neither Jim nor he say anything for the rest of the ride, save a pleasant goodbye when the man steps off at the airport.
The man is leaning forward in his seat uncomfortably, his suitcase in his lap. The stewardess passes by three times before asking him to stow it underneath the seat in front of him. He nods approvingly and does what she asks, although his eyes stay on it until the plane takes off.
Sitting next to him is a man in a sleek black pinstripe suit, adorned with all the accoutrements of a successful businessman: silver cufflinks, silk tie and a pin of the American flag on his lapel. Once the plane is airborne, the man orders a gin and tonic for nine dollars. He drinks it all at once, leaning his head back, his sunburnt neck pulsating. He leans over and speaks to the man with the beaten brown suitcase. There is a small trickle of liquid slowly running down his chin from the corner of his mouth.
"Gotta have a drink every time I fly, or else I get nauseous, you know?" He looks out the window, then back at the man with the suitcase, "Gregory Silverburg." He holds out a veined hand with a large ruby ring on the middle finger.
The two men shake hands. Gregory begins to talk about the purpose of his travels; he is the vice-president of a small television network and is returning home from a large conference down south.
"What's your business in the big city?" Gregory asks brusquely.
"Well, I'm actually off to a meeting myself."
"Really? What for?"
Before the man can answer, the stewardess comes by again and Gregory orders a martini for twelve dollars, two olives. "You sure you don't want anything?"
The man with the suitcase reaches for his back pocket but quickly settles back in his seat and admits that he's trying to cut back in a conversational tone, smiling broadly at the stewardess. Gregory snorts at this and downs his martini in the same fashion as his last drink. The stewardess smiles back and moves on to the next row.
"So, you were saying?"
"Well, I'm going to try and get my book published."
"Yeah? How's the prospects?"
The man smiles warmly and looks forward at the seat in front of him. "It's in the bag."
"What's it about?"
"Just some economic stuff."
"So it's about money then?"
"You could say that, yes."
"Maybe you should let me in on it. I've got money, makes sense I should know what it's all about." Both men laugh at this, Gregory's guffaws easily drowning out his companion's polite chuckle. "But seriously, what's it about exactly?"
The man starts to reach for his suitcase, but pulls back at the last second. "I suppose it's mostly about the uneven distribution of the economy in North America." The man looks down at his laps and his hands, which have begun to fiddle with their cuticles. "It's nothing as exciting as the goings on of a television network executive though." The man turns to Gregory for a response, but Gregory is staring out the window. After a few seconds, he turns back and stares at his hands once again.
A few minutes later, Gregory turns to the man. The man looks up and sees a pained expression on Gregory's face, his cheeks a bright red, his eyes seeming to bulge out of his head ever so slightly. There is a small panic as the man asks Gregory what is wrong and Gregory explains that the martini is not sitting well. A small bustle ensues as Gregory scrambles over the man and makes his way to the front of the plane. Only now does Gregory's height make itself apparent; he is a mere five feet. The man watches him stumble through the aisle and open the door to the bathroom.
By the time Gregory returns, the plane has begun its descent and the stewardesses are hushing Gregory back to his seat. The man asks him if he is okay with no response. The pair do not speak again for the rest of the trip.
Standing outside the airport, the man steps onto a bus, but the driver refuses him for lack of fare. The second driver does the same. Not until the fourth bus arrives, an hour after the man first tried, does driver have sympathy on him.
Sitting on the bus, his suitcase in his lap, an image of a woman with a low, coarse voice rings in his ears. This yer stop? The words seem to get louder and louder, rushing in from every angle, strangling all other sounds. The whine of the bus, the scream of the children in the back, the crackle of the radio, everything dulls, the only sting coming from the woman in the toque, frantically counting the ways in which to spend his money. He can see her at the liquor store, cashing in on his foolishness; he can see her in an alley, bartering with a man in a trenchcoat for some white powder; he can see her laughing with broken, yellowed teeth as she has the first bite of a meal intended for Heather-Bear at a fancy restaurant.
Laurie's voice starts to overlap with the guttural grasp the woman has on the man. Can't you for once take things seriously? Somehow this stings more than the woman on the subway.
Somehow it cuts his head in two, leaving only a bloody mess to try and piece together, all the while maintaining his composure on a bus that he couldn't afford to take a ride on.
The man misses his stop and has to walk twelve blocks to reach his destination. By the time he opens the enormous glass doors of the building, his face is drenched with sweat from fighting through the swarming crowd on the sidewalk. The air-conditioning is a welcome relief, but his shirt does not dry, even with the hole created by the button he had missed that morning.
The ceiling in the building is three stories high and has an intricate painting all across it. The couches lining the wall of the lobby are trimmed with velvet, the fabric a soft cotton. The floor is made of white marble tiles separated by deep red.
The man steps up to the reception desk and addresses the woman sitting behind the counter. She is dressed in a slim red dress that showed an inch of cleavage.
"Hi, I'm looking for J.T. Kinsey's office please?"
The woman looks up for a moment before typing something into the computer in front of her. "I'm sorry, sir, Mr. Kinsey is in a meeting right now. Would you like me to reschedule?" She does not make eye contact throughout this speech, which sounds robotic and rehearsed.
The man admits sheepishly that he must leave town early tomorrow morning so unfortunately it would be impossible to see Mr. Kinsey at any other time. At this, the woman looks up inquisitively. She explains that the meeting will most likely be over in about two hours, if sir would like to wait. He nods fervently and sits down on one of the cotton couches.
Heather-Bear's face appears in his mind. He remembers the first time she looked at him, in the hospital room. That look of expectation, the need he saw in her eyes filled him with worry, with shame for what he was, what he is, what he won't be soon. He can still feel her grip on his finger as he held her in his arms for the first time, her own fingers only a fraction of the size. The busy activity of the hospital room drowned out, the only sensation is her weight in his arms, seven and a half pounds of responsibility dragging on his arms. Yet her warmth makes him forget her weight, a warmth that moves from his scalp to his shoulders, his chest, his groin, his thighs. A certain rejuvenation, a new motivation in his life, a strange sort of kick to his psyche, that is what he sees in her face. It's in the bag.
He waits. He reads his book. He plays with the zipper on his suitcase, carefully placed upon his lap. Every once in a while, the woman in the red dress looks up from her computer and makes sure he sees her raise one eyebrow at him. Finally, three hours later, the woman calls the man over to the desk.
"Mr. Kinsey is available now, if you'd like to meet with him."
The man nods and is pointed to the elevators where he can find the office he is looking for on the thirty-sixth floor. The man walks dutifully towards the elevator, pushes the button and awaits the tell-tale ding he has seen in movies.
Once he has reached the office of J.T. Kinsey, a man with a large gold watch, a pot belly and an Armani suit walks out the door and stops short at the sight of the man.
"Can I help you?" he asks as he sees the man is clearly looking for him.
"Yes, I'm here to discuss the publication of my book?"
"What was your name again?"
The man with the brown suitcase tells him in a hopeful voice.
"Ah, yes, of course," says the man in the suit. "J.T. Kinsey." The men shake hands quickly. "We were just about to go out to the bar for a few drinks. Why don't we discuss it there?"
"Alright," says the man after a brief pause.
They take the elevator down together. Kinsey asks the man about his book as if he had never heard of it before. The man answers more eagerly now, glad to be getting to business so early.
"Yes, that's excellent," Kinsey interrupts. "Tell you what, we'll run it by everyone when we get to O'Donnell's."
They reach the ground floor and step out of the elevator together. The man glances at the receptionist and finds that she is looking over at the pair. He looks to Kinsey and sees that he is smiling at her and waving.
"See you on Monday, Cara." She smiles back, all of her teeth showing, her eyes completely unchanged.
They reach O'Donnell's in about five minutes; it is two blocks away. Neither of the men say a word on the way there. When they walk in, the smell of beer and sweat hits the pair like a wall; Kinsey appears unmoved by the stench. He waves to a group of people sitting in the back of the pub, beers already placed in front of them. He walks towards them, seeming to forget about the man with the suitcase. Kinsey sits down with the group of men, all of them wearing equally impressive suits. The man with the suitcase reaches the booth where the men are sitting and waits for Kinsey to finish greeting every man individually. Finally, Kinsey motions for him to sit down across from Kinsey himself. Kinsey introduces the men at the table as John, Akim, Liam, and Hal.
"So, gentlemen," declares Kinsey, "we have a man here who wishes for us to publish his masterpiece." The entire table chuckles at this while the man with the suitcase jammed uncomfortably on his lap pulls out a thick, slightly water-damaged manuscript out of the side pocket of the bag. He places it gently on the table.
"We're not gonna read it right here and now, bud," states Akim. He grins at Kinsey.
"Oh. Well, I knew that, I suppose," says the man with the suitcase, "I just figured you'd want a copy of it is all."
The waitress arrives with a brilliant white smile and asks if everyone is doing alright. She is wearing a flattering black blouse that accentuates her hips and a pair of tight jeans. Her hair is tied back but a few locks have snuck past the elastic and frame her face in an almost heavenly blonde aura. Her nametag reads Victoria. All the men at the table stare at her, some of them not at her face.
She asks if the newcomers would like anything to drink. Kinsey orders a pint of Irish beer while the man with the manuscript in front of him meekly says he'll just have a water. At this,
the other men at the table let out a mocking moan of disappointment. Kinsey urges the man to get a beer.
"I really can't, I'm sorry." The man looks down at the manuscript.
"Don't tease him, he's obviously got better things on his mind than getting wasted like you pack of boars," teases the waitress coyly. She smiles at the man with the suitcase and tells him she'll be back in a second with one water. On her way past them, she pats the man on the shoulder reassuringly. He looks up at this and a small smile teases the edges of his mouth.
The man on Kinsey's right, Liam, lets out a low whistle and describes in somewhat graphic detail what he would like to do to the waitress were he not married. The rest of the men, save the one who ordered water, laugh and nod at this, their faces now a mottled pink from the heat of their suits and the bar's atmosphere.
"So!" says Kinsey, "Back to business then. Explain to these men what this book's all about, my good man."
"Well," starts off the man with the suitcase, "it's an exploration of North America's economy in general, with separate focus on Canada and the States. The basic synopsis is that it outlines the major issues in terms of distribution of government aid and services in relation to general population income and expenditures–
"Right," interjects John, "that's all fine and good. Our biggest concern is whether or not it has mass appeal. Don't forget that our main job is selling books, and that–
"Hear me out. We sell books. We can't sell books that make people feel bad about how poor they are. Our company's image is about the well-being of our readers and if they see that they're getting screwed out of all kinds of money, they're not going to feel very good, are they?"
"Yes, but my book will make people feel good about themselves. You see, by realizing the situation they're in, they can then take steps to remedy their problems." The back of the man's neck has suddenly changed from a mild pink to a vibrant red.
"Look," says Kinsey, "in the end, John's right. We need to maintain image. Without our reputation, we're nothing. It's the same in any business. However, don't give up yet. With careful editing, we'd be willing to publish a book about how, despite the problems with the system – which we would be careful to point out stem from the individual – our readers can still live healthy and happy lives without having to change the government." He takes a sip of Liam's beer before continuing, "How's that for you, bud?"
The man with the suitcase and the manuscript looks off into the distance. He sees cars and people passing by outside, some of them on cell phones, some of them walking dogs, some of them smiling, some of them rushed, some of them clean, some of them dirty. Brief scenes from his last meeting flash in his mind. The same indifference, the same need to change his work, the same ignorance to what is, the same imbecilic sense of humour, the same bigotry, the same greasy smiles, the same fat faces, the same assholes. He asks himself what they know of a world where children sit in creaky plastic highchairs, a world where your suitcase is all you have. A grim sense of resolution courses through him as he watches for a few more precious seconds a family walking down the street, parents holding hands, children laughing and smiling, all of them in brand new Nike shoes.
"Sorry, guys. No thanks." He gets up, picks up his manuscript and walks out of the pub, bumping into Victoria on the way, almost knocking a glass full of water over her blouse and jeans. He does not look back or apologize. Once outside, he makes his way to the closest bus stop. Once a bus comes, he sneaks in the back door while others are getting off. He rides the bus for four hours until the driver tells him he has to get off as it's the last stop of the night. Trudging over to a park, he finds a bench and lies down, the night disguising his body. As he sleeps, his grip on the suitcase loosens for a moment and it falls from his stomach to the ground. The sound it makes as it hits the concrete rings out in the park, cutting through the thick silence. He does not wake up.
When he returns home at ten p.m. the next day, his eyes have bags underneath them and his stomach growls every few minutes. He has not eaten in more than twenty-six hours. He opens the door and immediately makes his way to the kitchen. He finds some cereal and eats it dry, hungrily shoveling handfuls of Cheerios into his mouth. When he is satisfied, he wanders around the house. There is no one else there. He searches every room with no results. Suddenly, halfway through searching the backyard for the second time, he does a double take, heads inside quickly and dials the phone.
"Hello? Is Doctor Jameson there?...Hello? Doctor? Yes, my wife...?...Alright, I'll be at the hospital in twenty minutes...yes...okay, I'll be right there." He rushes to the door and pulls on his jacket once again; it smells of sweat.
Forty-five minutes later, he rushes into the emergency room and asks the receptionist for the room his wife is staying in. She points him in the direction of the maternity ward and gives him a number.
He runs down the hall, the faces of patients and nurses rush past, smeared, all part of the background. The only thing he can clearly see is the door of room 1-146. He turns the handle and lets out an enormous sigh of relief as he sees his wife lying on a hospital bed, a pink infant being rocked back and forth in her arms. He walks up to her slowly and smiles.
As she looks up at him, he sees that her eyes are bloodshot; there are tears still streaming down her face. She looks down at the infant that he now realizes is his Heather-Bear and shakes her head slowly. Her shoulders begin to wrack and small whimpers escape from her mouth. A tear runs down the man's face and lands on his white dress shirt, now smudged with dirt. He leans down and puts his arms around Laurie's shoulders, trying to calm the violent shaking. He wipes her tears while his own run down onto her hospital gown.
Heather is fast-asleep. He looks at her face over the shoulder of his wife. Her tiny eyes are closed, flitting only slightly, her fingers curled around nothing, their grip wasted on empty air. Suddenly he feels her weight in his arms again, the feeling of her heart beating against his chest, the sound of her cries in the middle of the night. He squeezes his eyes shut against his wife's shoulders and his shoulders begin to quake uncontrollably. Both parents lie on the hospital bed the entire night, neither of them able to stop crying, both watching as baby Heather-Bear sleeps, blissfully unaware of what's to become of her.