At a Union 66 gas station along a desolate stretch of highway in Pittsburgh, Kansas, I used my cell phone to call a man I’d never met in person but whose bag I had. “John, it’s Paul. I’m at the Union 66 in the heart of Pittsburgh, right next to the car wash. Do you know where it is?”
“I’ll be right down there.”
Delivering the goods to a stranger in a place I’d never heard of was the last thing I expected as I was planning to attend my maternal grandmother’s 100th birthday party. It was to be held in Bedford, a very small farming community in Southern Iowa. I flew from Logan International Airport in Boston to Kansas City International Airport to meet my sister Margaret, who was flying in from Chicago. Her flight came in four hours after mine, so I busied myself doing yoga poses in a remote corner of the waiting area. Flying always made me tense, and so did my sister. From the way people were listlessly hailing cabs from the curb, I could tell it was a steambath outside.
I wheeled my suitcase to Margaret’s arrival gate. When Margaret arrived with a carry-on, we gave each other perfunctory hugs and went to the baggage claim area to get her luggage. After 20 minutes, when all the bags were removed from the belt, hers was not among them.
“I’ve got a bunch of board reviews to look over. I don’t need this!” she complained.
I was happy that this was in no conceivable way my fault. We alerted the baggage department and then took a shuttle to our car rental agency. Outside the airport, the air was like a wet electric blanket—uncomfortable and ready to explode. After Margaret rented the car (sadly, failing to sign me on as a second driver), I loaded three suitcases from the pile on the curb into the trunk, and we took off for Maryville, Missouri, which happened to be the closest town to Bedford that had a decent hotel.
“Not all the grandchildren are going to make it, so we’ll make Mom proud,” Margaret said.
I didn’t respond. Was this what the whole trip was about for her—Mom’s approval?
As she drove, Margaret received several emergency phone calls, in which she micromanaged patients’ care, and reamed out some hapless medical residents from afar. I felt strangely inadequate: Not only was I not getting emergency phone calls, but I wasn’t chewing anyone out. Sometimes I thought my sister became a successful and respected doctor and medical school professor just to make me feel bad.
We got to the hotel, and Margaret popped the trunk. As I was lifting a green suitcase out of the car, Margaret asked, “Wait a minute. Is that yours?”
“No, I thought it was yours.”
“My carry-on is right here—and my checked bag never made it—remember?”
We looked at each other in silence as the full gravity of the situation sunk in. “This is just great! We’ve stolen someone’s luggage!” she exclaimed.
“We didn’t steal it—it was an accident!”
“Only a Bentley male could pull something like that.” It was true that my brother, my father, and I were extremely absent-minded. My father, an archetypal absent-minded professor, attributed his own lapses to ADD, which he said generally only occurred in people with superior intelligence. (When I had such a lapse, Dad attributed it to a basic character flaw.)
“Look, we can call the rental agency and see whether someone’s missing a bag.”
“I don’t have the number.”
“What do you mean you don’t have the number?” I growled at her. “You rented a car from them!”
“Well, maybe I’ve got it somewhere. I just mean I’m washing my hands of the whole thing. You deal with the problem! I’m not bailing you out of this!”
“Since when have you bailed me out of anything?” I muttered under my breath.
Mom was reading in the lobby of the Best Western when we checked in. Margaret explained what had happened, being sure to make it clear whose fault it was. “It could have happened to anyone,” Mom said. To me, she said, “You look like a deer caught in the headlights!”
“Well, I’m stressed out. I just ruined the weekend!”
Once we had checked into our rooms, Margaret jotted down the number of the rental place for me. I called on my cell phone. “Did anyone lose a bag this afternoon? I picked up an extra one by mistake.”
“Well, there’s a John Shepherd who got here about the same time you did and whose bag is missing. He would be very, very interested in speaking with you,” the rental agent said, and gave me his cell phone number. I recognized the San Francisco area code. San Francisco was a nice city, I reflected, and nice people tended to live in it.
“Did he sound irate? “ I asked.
“Well, let’s just say he sounded very, very concerned.”
After I hung up, I took a deep breath and dialed John’s number. “Hello?”
“May I speak with John Shepherd?”
“My name is Paul. I understand your bag is missing.”
“Yes, it is!”
“Well, I picked up an extra bag—by accident—at the rental place, and I think it’s yours.”
“Oh, thank God! I was worried that someone had stolen it!” He was soft-spoken, with an understated Midwest twang. I guessed he probably grew up in Missouri, and lost his accent as he melded into San Francisco professional circles.
“I’m awfully sorry. I want to see about getting it back to you. Where are you?”
“North or South of Kansas City?”
“Okay, I’m going to look into the possibility of driving it down to you or getting a messenger or something. Then I’ll call you back—okay?”
“Okay. Thank you so much for calling. I just knew it was a mistake—I knew it!”
Mom volunteered to get the road atlas out of her Volvo. She often volunteered to fetch things when she wanted an excuse to go outside and sneak a smoke. Sure enough, when she returned, I could smell tar on her breath. “I need to find Columbus, Kansas,” I said. Mom put on her reading glasses and began scouring the map.
“How did he sound?” Margaret asked.
“Concerned but not particularly mad. “
“If it were me, I’d beat the crap out of you!”
Mom found Columbus, Kansas on the map. It was due South of Kansas City, right next to the Oklahoma border. Using the scale, I measured the distance from Maryville and figured it was about a four-hour drive. Oh, Christ! “Looks like we’ll have to messenger it to him.”
“You’re paying for it!” Margaret blurted out.
I immediately checked out the Maryville yellow pages for “Messengers” and “Couriers” and came up empty.
Ideally, I would have made the drive myself, but my name was not on the car rental agreement, meaning that I wasn’t covered under its insurance. I would have to drag Margaret along. At first, Margaret suggested we leave the next day at 4 a.m. to get to Columbus at 8 a.m. and return in time for Grandma’s birthday party around noon, but I dreaded the thought of getting up so early to ride with my sister, who was sure to be even more cranky than she was now. And then we realized that the car was low on gas and didn’t know when the gas stations opened. We agreed on a plan.
I called John. “Hi, John, it’s Paul again. How soon do you need your suitcase?”
“As soon as possible.”
“Listen, it’s my grandmother’s hundredth birthday party tomorrow, and it’s going to be an eight-hour drive round trip. How would you feel about getting your suitcase tomorrow evening, around five-thirty or six?”
“That’ll work. How could I deprive you of your grandmother’s hundredth birthday? Actually, I’ll be at a family reunion in Pittsburgh. It’s almost a half-hour North of Columbus.” Bingo! That would save a little driving.
“Sounds perfect! I’ll call you if anything changes, and if not, I’ll call from the road.”
At breakfast the next morning, I joined my mother, aunts, and uncles at breakfast downstairs. We had pretty much taken over the motel. I ordered biscuits with sausage gravy because Mom said it was a local delicacy.
As I took my first sip of coffee, my Uncle Lowell said, “I heard about what happened yesterday. It could have happened to anybody.”
I wondered if Mom had coached him to say that.
“Yeah, this afternoon, we have to drive down to the southern tip of Kansas to get him his bag back.”
“That’s more than most people would do. A lot of people would just throw the bag in the dumpster and be done with it.”
“Wouldn’t that be crime or vandalism or something?”
“There’s no court in the world that would convict you,” Uncle Lowell said with a sober face. I always trusted my maternal uncles’ judgment when it came to matters of common sense and the rules that most people live by.
“Besides, how could they prove it? There’s no evidence,” I added with a smirk. “And I don’t have any priors on my rap sheet.”
“Exactly,” he responded with a deadpan face, drinking his coffee and staring out the window.
My biscuits with sausage gravy appeared in front of me. It was light brown and glistening, with little dark brown specks throughout it. I took a bite.
“The sausage gravy isn’t nearly as good as I had expected,” Aunt Claire whispered. I decided that it was exactly as good as I had expected.
The “uniform” for the birthday party was chinos and a short-sleeve button-down shirt for guys and sleeveless dresses and brimmed hats for the ladies. Here were the six of her surviving children out of eight, with their spouses, her 30+ grandchildren, and their spouses, and great-grandchildren too numerous to count. It was difficult to tell whether Grandma was stunned to see everyone—or just oblivious. I kissed her on the cheek even though I’m not sure she knew who I was. “None of these people would even be alive if it weren’t for you!” I said but didn’t know whether she understood me. “It’s like you created a small village!”
I drifted around, drinking punch and nibbling on tiny pieces of birthday cake. I asked how everyone was doing. Cousins I didn’t know were married or had kids were now divorced and celebrating their kids’ graduations.
Sometimes at these gatherings, I would hang out with my father, who was using a walker due to a car accident ten years earlier. He had valiantly persevered through rehab, only to have the titanium rod in his femur break twice and put him back to square one, and now he was perfectly content to have my mother wheel him around all day in a wheelchair. (My sister sometimes described my parents’ relationship as co-dependent.) Dad didn’t like to engage people he didn’t consider intelligent—which included most of my mother’s extended family—and didn’t like any topics other than politics or psychology. Today, however, I was not in the mood to sit with him because I was trying to stay positive.
My cousin Tracy, whom I used to have a crush on, came by to say she heard what happened and thought it could happen to anyone. I wondered whether Mom had coached her. I was actually relieved when my sister tapped me on the shoulder and said, “We should probably head out now.”
We said our goodbyes and got into the car. I called John and left a message. “Hi, John. It’s Paul. Hope the family reunion is going well. It’s a little after one-thirty, and we should be there within about three and a half hours or so. I’ll give you a call from the road. Bye.”
For him, I figured it was a little like being stuck on a subway train in New York City. It helped alleviate the frustration and anxiety to know what the problem was and when the train was likely to start moving again.
“That’ll give him time to round up some of his cousins from the reunion to help beat the crap out of you,” my sister offered.
“Will you cut it out? He sounded perfectly civilized over the phone,” I said, conjuring up an image of a mild-mannered yuppie in a polo shirt, chinos, topsiders, and glasses.
“That’s because he wants to get his bag back. Once he has his bag, then he’ll beat the crap out of you.”
Suddenly it occurred to me that there was no way to tell what someone looked like just by hearing his voice on the phone. He could be some huge bruiser with long greasy hair pushed back loosely over his ears, an earring, maybe a nose ring, rotting teeth, a flaming skull tattoo, a bicycle chain for a belt, and the Frisco Chapter Hell’s Angels colors on the back of his denim vest—an old denim jacket with the arms cut off with the Bowie knife he kept in a sheath on his calf, right over his steel-tipped boots. I pictured him giving a whistle and his thug cronies coming out of the bushes with tire irons and Louisville sluggers to settle my hash.
The Kansas Interstate was exactly as I remembered it the few times I drove down it. As the highways were flat and straight with very little in the way of trees or buildings, it always seemed as if the car were static, with only the hum of the engine and the rustling of the air to suggest movement. Occasionally a mall would float by in the distance and disappear. I wondered where Holcolm was, the small farming community where two ex-cons murdered an entire family in the 1950s, as immortalized in In Cold Blood. The desolate terrain certainly reminded me of some of the bleak shots in that black and white film.
We got to Pittsburgh and pulled off into the parking lot of a Union 66. I dialed John again and told him where we were. He said he’d be right over.
I opened the passenger’s side door. “Where are you going?” Margaret asked.
“I’m going to find a restroom. I’m dying here.”
“You’re not going anywhere. I’m not going to be here alone when he gets here.”
A few minutes later, a car pulled into the parking lot and parked. A thin man about my age in chinos and a polo shirt got out of the car and smiled. “John?” I called out.
“Yeah. I’ve got your bag.” I pulled his suitcase out of the trunk and wheeled it over to him very gently. “Here you go. I’m so sorry.”
He shook my hand. “I’m just happy to get my bag back.”
He quickly inspected the bag, and his eyes started to narrow. Had I damaged it?
“This isn’t my bag, “ he said solemnly.
My jaw dropped open, and my head began to spin, much the way it had when I first discovered the extra bag. I stared at him in shock until his façade broke and he started laughing.
“Sorry, I’ve been waiting all day to say that and see your expression!” he said, whacking me on the shoulder.
My sister cautiously got out of the car. “This is my sister,” I said. “I think I owe her a steak dinner for everything I’ve put her through.”
“Well, I’ve got to get back. Thanks again, and have a great day!”
We took off, my sister watching the rear-view mirror to make sure we weren’t being followed. I felt good. I had demonstrated to my sister how civilized people comported themselves and helped maintain or restore John’s faith in human nature.
About twenty minutes into the drive, the sky began to darken into an ominous purple hue. Some very dark thunder clouds moved in, and one of them developed a little dome-shaped growth at the bottom. “Hey, you know what I’m thinking?”
“Yeah, tornados,” Margaret said. “I’m keeping my eyes peeled.”
“You keep your eyes on the road. I’ll look out for funnel clouds.”
“Does your cellphone have a camera in it?”
“Yup,” I said, pulling it out of my pocket.
The Midwest plains had always been an excellent place to watch lightning unobstructed—and the thunder was always like grenades going off yards away. One thunderbolt shot down out of the sky and separated into a half dozen tendrils that caressed the ground—and crackled like the inside of a bonfire. “Whoa!” we called out in unison, and suddenly we were kids again, watching the fireworks together.
About the Author
Rob Dinsmoor, a frequent contributor to Lowestoft Chronicle, has published three memoirs: Tales of the Troupe, The Yoga Divas and Other Stories, and You Can Leave Anytime. His short story collection, Toxic Cookout, will be published by Big Table Publishing in Autumn.