Once a month my father came home with someone else’s luggage. He purchased them for five dollars from the Amtrak station, these unclaimed parcels left by wayward travelers. The station sold them as a way of making a little extra cash and, simply put, to be rid of the things. What else were they supposed to do with them? This was in the early ’80s, in the thick of a recession. Unemployment in Rockford hung around 25%. So people like my father were content rooting through other peoples’ forgotten baggage so that they could forget about their own, if only for a little while.
This ritual became an enchanted element of my childhood, Though no specific day was devoted to these little treasure hunts, the feeling that the time was getting near hung in the air, electrifying everyone’s mood: me, my sister, and even my mom, who was seldom excited about anything, especially something to do with my father — a hapless man who liked gambling but was not quick enough to learn any real game. The suitcases were a kind of lottery for him. Where other men bought Pickle Tickets or devoted weekends to blackjack and roulette, my father dug ravenously through other people’s ill-fitting suits, ragged nighties, and half-used toiletries, convinced he’d find a payday if he just kept looking.
Always, the suitcases came with a bouquet of plastic flowers that, in retrospect, lent the event a funerary feel. Think: big box, rumpled clothing, the idea of someone now elsewhere, and those lurid flowers. How could a funeral not come to mind? We didn’t catch on at first that someone at the station was putting flowers in each suitcase as a sort of thank you. On the third or fourth opening, upon seeing them, we stood there agape, staring at the bouquet in my father’s hands as though we’d stumbled upon some conspiracy.
My mother had figured it out, though.
“They all come with flowers, Jack,” she said. “Anyone can see that.”
She stared at him over her glasses, lighting another cigarette, and after watching him carefully extract a few more items, handling them like an archeologist at a dig site, she huffed into the other room and turned on the television.
My older sister, Elle, was the next to drop off. This happened after Elle demanded to be the one to open the bag that month. She did so in drastic fashion, slowly undoing the zipper a few teeth at a time, building up the anticipation, then throwing the top open and presenting us with our loot. This quick movement, though, created a sort of vacuum in the bag which happened to contain a fine powder that filled the air and coated Elle’s face. She screamed. Unsure of what it was, my father shut the bag. While he and Mom tended to her, I peeked inside and saw the urn — this black, bulbous thing with a mother-of-pearl band and gold-limned lid, which had shook free of the scotch-tape meant to hold it in place.
Surely, this was the invaluable relic we’d been waiting for. Quietly, I pulled on my father’s shirt and led him back to the suitcase while my mother tended to Elle. There, he peered into the bag and stared solemnly for a long time. Then he tugged the zipper shut. I never saw it again.
After that, my father stopped bringing home bags as often, but they still came once in a while. Though now it was more of a clandestine affair. My father would give me a look during dinner, and I knew what it meant. Once my mother and sister settled in, we moseyed out to the garage and tore into the thing. Stuff had changed over the years. For starters, they stopped putting flowers in each bag, which to me meant we were the first people to lay eyes on the contents. No Amtrak worker was rifling through them beforehand, separating the wheat from the chaff. And speaking of the chaff, I saw it on my father more often — a necktie here, a leather belt there, for a week a fedora that my mother crammed into the garbage compactor. And once, I saw him walk out in a whole suit that hung off him in baggy clumps. He looked like a coatrack at a party.
Then came the wooden trunk covered in leather bands, dimpled rivets, and padlocked hasps that jangled when my father dropped it onto the cot in the garage where’d been sleeping. Briefly, I looked at my reflection in the mirror above the tool bench, the one he shaved in each morning. Then we both stared at the thing for a while, as though afraid to open it. My father ran his hand over the glossy finish.
“See how the lid is rounded,” he said. “Know why that is?”
I shook my head.
“They made a rounded lid so the bagmen couldn’t stack trunks on it. A trunk with a rounded lid has to go on top, see? So then the bag doesn’t get all scuffed up.”
“This is a rich person’s trunk,” I said.
“That’s right,” he said.
There was a glint in his eyes, almost devilish.
And I knew then this was it. This was the parcel we’d been waiting for. It all lay within. Yes, this was it. Our lives would change in the way they always do after one finds a treasure. That is, tragically, without resolution. Treasure hunts are always the same: something lost, found, then lost again. That is the story of treasure, the destiny of men who seek it.
My mother called my name from the back porch. My father and I locked eyes.
“Tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll open it tomorrow.”
I nodded and walked hangdog through the yard to my mother, like I always did, like I always would. In the morning, the garage was empty: no trunk, no cot, no sad little mirror, just two cut padlocks and the key to our house.
Nick Bertelson is a fourth-generation farmer from southwestern Iowa. His work has appeared in multiple journals. He is a James Hearst Poetry Prize finalist and author of “Harvest Widows” (NDSU Press 2019).