It was in the attic room, in the back of a cupboard, out of sight, forgotten, dusty. A black leather suitcase with tan leather trim and straps. There were no Post-it notes affixed to the case – no one had seen it, or no one wanted it. Jack wrote his name on a note and stuck in on the case. For good measure, he also staked his claim to the old desk sitting in the corner. Then he took a moment to look around. He wondered briefly what his grandfather, Pop, had done up there when he was alive.
Her grandchildren and children were gathered at Jack’s grandmother’s house to go through her things. Each armed with a pad of Post-it notes and a pen. The rules had been explained. They could choose one small item, something with no price tag on it, as a memento. If they wanted a more valuable item, they had to pay the sticker price. Names would be drawn – from an old, faded garden hat that his gran had loved – should more than one of them want the same thing. The proceeds from the ‘sale’ would go to the estate, and ultimately the beneficiaries of Gran’s will.
Jack didn’t know why he put his name on the case and the desk. The concept seemed morbid to him. Scavengers wandering through the house, sniffing around, pawing through her things. Feeling they had to take something, to show they’d loved and would remember her, but thinking that it was all just worthless stuff. It didn’t fit their décor.
He took the suitcase home. It was heavy, but he didn’t look inside – he was late for his run. The need to dash overcame what little curiosity he had about the case’s contents. Jack put it in his basement storage locker on his way out the door.
When he got back from his run, head cleared, pores cleansed, feeling good, he took two minutes to arrange for the desk to be collected and put in storage, checked his phone for texts, answered three of them naked, then stepped into the shower. By the time he was soaped, rinsed and dried, he’d forgotten about the case.
Jack found it again 10 years later, when he moved to a trendier part of town. The movers had left the case in his bedroom. He picked it up to carry to the storage cupboard in his new place. It seemed heavier to him, somehow.
That night, he dreamed about the case. He sensed there was something inside it, wanting to get out. In his dream, when he finally opened the case, he couldn’t make out the contents. They were fuzzy, intangible.
When he woke, the dream still with him, Jack felt unsettled. He couldn’t find his groove. The radio newscast didn’t register. His morning coffee made him edgy. Finally he took the case out of the cupboard, brought it into his dining room, and hoisted it on the table.
Jack opened the case. He was surprised by the contents, which he took out of the case and set on the table one-by-one: A black-and-white framed photo of a man in uniform, with aviators’ wings on his chest; a photo of the same man, in a suit and hat, outside of a church in Ireland, one of him with a young woman, in Montreal; two newspaper clippings about a RCAF lieutenant from Como, Quebec – his uncle Francis – one saying he had received the distinguished flying cross, the other that he had been killed in action over the English Channel; two framed citations from King George VI commending the lieutenant; and the DCF itself.
Jack stopped looking in the case when his phone played music at him. He put the medal down on the table, and went into the kitchen to check his messages, closing the dining room doors behind him.
That night, Jack dreamed of his uncle again. He saw his father and uncle, as young men, running a woman’s bra and panties up a flag pole. Then he saw his uncle, in his plane, pushing the stick forward and diving straight down toward a ship on the water, his thumb poised over the bomb-release button. Jack became the man in the plane, gripped in fear, watching flame erupt from the antiaircraft guns, sensing the shells coming at him, wanting desperately to pull the stick back and climb, but holding tight into the dive.
Jack awoke as the plane burst into flames. He only had a momentary sense of the heat that engulfed the cockpit, the pain of sizzling flesh, the plane falling. The last thing he saw, from outside the cockpit, just before he returned to the reality of his bed, was a woman’s bra and panties on a flag pole, painted onto the plane’s fuselage.
The next morning, the dream still fresh in his mind, Jack phoned his surviving aunt. He arranged to visit her in Como over the weekend, saying he wanted to ask her about the case, about his father and his uncle.
He nearly cancelled at the last minute. There was a text from a woman he liked, asking if he wanted to go for a walk on Mount Royal, then lunch. Jack debated calling his aunt, but didn’t want to face that kind of conversation, her disappointment. He would have sent a text, or even an e-mail, but she had neither smartphone nor computer. So he texted the woman friend back that he couldn’t make it.
His aunt had fixed lunch for him. They started with a glass of wine in the sunroom, then had a second at the table with their food. Jack heard about the bra and panty incident, about the fun they had had that day, in the time between the wars, in the flapper days, that frantic decade before the crash, when young people lived for the moment. He heard that his uncle enlisted in ’39, was posted to an airfield in Manitoba to train British and Canadian pilots, but kept pushing to be sent to France, to the action, the fight.
Jack’s Dad could not go. He’d had an adenoid removed as a child. There had been a trans-Atlantic crossing to have the procedure done in England. His aunt had gone with him, held his hand before he went into the operating theatre. He’d made her seasick on the return voyage, by biting the tops off chocolate-covered marshmallow biscuits, in rough seas.
The procedure left Jack’s father deaf in one ear. Declared unfit to fight, he stayed home, went to university, fell in love, married, got polio, spent months in hospital with his legs wrapped in wet flannel, had six children, enjoyed horses, and lived reasonably happily. Not so the uncle. He was killed at 22, as Jack knew from the contents of the case. But he had not known how much fun Francis had been, how people smiled when they were with him.
Jack also hadn’t known about the wait, the months of hope and despair his grandparents experienced after the first telegram arrived. The one that said his uncle was missing in action, shot down over the Channel. And he’d never been told about the grief that followed five months later when the second cable arrived, saying Francis had been killed. By the time Jack was born, it had faded, like the fall leaves. Still there, but muted.
Pop had retreated to his attic room the day the second telegram arrived, Jack’s aunt told him. He’d taken the suitcase out of the cupboard, put it beside the desk. After an hour, he’d gone to Francis’s room, then to every room in the house, looking for his son. When he found something that said ‘this is who Francis was, this is what my son did,’ Pop brought it up to the attic, put it on the desk. He didn’t cry, he hid his grief and himself behind the pile of things he’d collected. When he was finally ready, when he could cope, he put the things in the case, closed it, and went downstairs.
Driving back to the city, Jack remembered Pop. Him reading aloud to his grandchildren from one of the two children’s books he kept in the den for that purpose; him picking Jack and his siblings up from school in the old Studebaker; him giving each of them a dime to buy candy.
Jack was remembering Pop’s death when his phone played its music. He reached for it on the passenger seat beside him, glanced down at the text.
His sister found the case and its contents on the table when she was going through Jack’s apartment, after his funeral. She saw nothing of value, only an old case and a collection of stuff that she sifted through quickly. She repacked the case, closed it, put it in her car, then storage.
Her aunt died the next year, her memories lost, the case forgotten.