Themes of fate and regret surface as a woman who works at a warehouse for lost luggage watches her boss become obsessed with a mysterious antique bag.
As the man searches for the beautiful, exotic woman he thinks owns it, his personality begins to dissolve and the narrator must make a crucial and shocking decision.
by Kiki Freem
Few people who lose their luggage would ever think to look for it in Alabama. The airlines may not tell you their little secret, but unclaimed bags from almost every American flight end up here in the deep South, lined up in a warehouse and waiting to be unpacked in the fluorescent light of their final destination.
At the front of this clearinghouse for orphaned luggage is the shop where I work. People from all over the county come here to treasure hunt for bargains, thinking that here, they’re getting something safe and proven—pre-validated because someone else had wanted it first. It was my job to catalogue the contents of every bag before my boss, Edwin Mell, put the stuff on display.
"Have you sorted the contents of the leather case yet, Miss Mason?" he asked.
That morning, amidst all the standard nylon pull-along bags, an unusual antique leather suitcase with crocodile trim and tarnished brass fittings had appeared.
It looked very old, the leather a gleaming, hushed honey tone. On the center brass latch was the brand name, Spegia, but apart that, there was no helpful identification on the bag.
For some reason, Mell was especially concerned with it. He stood quaking, waiting for my answer.
"No, it’s been catalogued, but not sorted," I said, motioning to the door on our left. "It’s still in Room B," I followed his eyes as he turned toward the little office.
"Yes, thank you, Miss Mason," he mumbled, then was gone, pulled toward the bag like scattered filings to a magnet.
Mr. Mell had been the first to unpack the leather bag, and the contents were unusual, I have to admit. It was as if some woman from the 1940s had crossed our threshold, waltzing through a whiff of Shalimar and cedar wood on the brassy notes of a Glenn Miller tune.
My preliminary check of the bag had catalogued one jet-black evening dress with pearled neckline, a pair of satin-heel slingbacks (size 7), a white silk camisole, two pairs of white cotton socks, Zeiss birdwatcher’s binoculars, a travel journal, hiking shorts, and a rose-red scarf. There were no toiletries, so I assumed this bag was one of several accompanying the traveler.
Once I’d listed the contents, it was now up to Mr. Mell to sort the items and group them for sale. But at the end of the day, the usually-efficient Edwin was still in Room B when I stopped in to say goodbye. He sat before the leather case with the traveler’s journal in his hands and the other contents in a heap before him.
"I’m off, sir," I said, hoping he’d offer me a lift home. He didn’t even bother to glance up from the travel journal.
As I turned to go, I heard him say, "Miss Mason, do you suppose there’s such a thing as fate?"
"Oh yes sir," I replied. "Fate is what you make, and I am fated to miss my bus unless I get a ride!" It was my thin attempt at humor, but Edwin merely frowned.
"Yes, goodbye, Miss Mason," he said, and dropped his head back into the traveler’s notebook.
Mr. Mell was a quiet, mysterious man. He was a bit older, but I had grown fond of him over the several years we had worked together. He was British and loved odd relics, living alone in a house out near the airport with an assortment of cats, dogs and exotic birds.
We knew little about his personal life, but he once confided in me that he loved smoking his pipe in the evenings, up on his roof, while watching airplanes fly over the house. I pictured him puffing away, wondering about the airplane’s destination and whether he’d end up with their bags.
Despite owning a warehouse full of luggage, Edwin was not a traveler. It was common knowledge among the shop employees that the idea of being lifted off the ground and hurtled through space had plagued Mr. Mell since he was a small boy, often hoisted off his feet by enthusiastic aunts and uncles. Now, decades past childhood, Edwin seemed to have grown comfortable in the knowledge that he was at last in control of his feet and their sure placement.
I don’t think it was so much a fear of flying that kept Edwin grounded, as it was some sense that leaving town might mean missing something important. All the other employees dismissed Mr. Mell as an oddball: an eccentric weirdo who moved slowly and had little to say. But I saw how each of his steps was careful and considered, as if he were leaving footprints to return by later.
Despite his old-fashioned style and quirky peculiarities, he was a good man, and I always did my best for him.
* * *
Three days after the leather bag appeared, Mr. Mell took all the employees out to celebrate our office manager's birthday. Gradually, the group dispersed until only Cathy Solens, Mr. Mell and I were left at a long table littered with nearly-empty glasses of flat champagne.
Cathy brought up the idea of whether people who had left luggage on planes ever yearned for some lost item from a trip long ago, forever regretting the careless moment they let down their guard.
"What I regret most," said Cathy, her smile fading, "is not what I lost on a plane, but what I lost by being afraid."
She reached for her bag and stood to go.
"Not really what I did, but what I didn’t do."
Cathy left before we could persuade her to give us details. "See y’all tomorrow," she said over her shoulder.
Mr. Mell and I sat staring at the flat champagne. After several blank moments, he upended the last gush from the bottle and stared into his glass.
"Of course, she’s right," he murmured, watching a lone bubble find its way to the surface. "It’s the action not taken we regret most."
I was transfixed on his lined, brooding face, hoping he would continue. But he fell silent and fretted with his napkin, so I turned my attention to his glass of champagne, hoping it would offer him another bubble for inspiration.
"There was a night," he began, "on the road. Five of us were in the car, coming home from a party. Right before we got on the highway, I saw an injured dog—lying with only his head raised—looking at each passing motorist, his fur whooshing up as cars blew past."
My heart thrummed in my chest, but I dared not breathe for fear of interrupting.
"Everyone had been laughing," he continued. "The car was full of giddy chatter and backslapping. For two moments, in my headlights, they all saw the dog, but ignored him. I saw it in their eyes; each saw and chose not to see—to pretend it wasn’t there. But I was at the wheel. I could have stopped the car and taken action. That, Miss Mason, is regret."
All at once, I wanted to hug this dear, kind man who worried still for the dog by the road. The two of them joined in my mind—hurt creatures in need of rescue.
"But––" I started, reaching, groping, not sure what would comfort, "you wanted to do something!"
"Don’t you see, Miss Mason?" he snapped,
"Don’t you see the difference between ‘wanted to’ and ‘did’? Don’t you see it was up to me to save him? It was up to me to save his life, yet I drove on."
He turned away. Was he crying? At a loss for what to say, I saw his jacket draped over the chair between us and slipped my fingers into the pocket in search of a handkerchief. Just as my middle finger located the square of linen, he snapped up the jacket and left—without even a backward glance or goodbye.
The following day, Mr. Mell avoided me, sulking all day in his office. I wanted to let him know how I understood his story of regret on the highway—but the chance did not present itself. And so I waited, all the while yearning for a private fold of time when I could console him, relieve him, make him see I understood and thought him a truly kind and strong man, a man who should forgive himself, not dwell in regret.
For months after the appearance of that leather bag, he remained aloof and withdrawn. I longed to hold and comfort him, but he seemed so unapproachable––as though the secret regret he had shared with me had forced him into some corner of purgatory.
He kept the leather bag on a chair by his desk and the rose-red scarf stayed on his desk. Never before had Mr. Mell cared about locating the owner of a bag. By the time our clearinghouse got the luggage, the airlines had tried and failed.
One day, we were in Mr. Mell’s office, discussing a new shipment of luggage, and I picked up the scarf and pulled it through my fingers, hoping to work up the courage to invite him out for drinks. He became enraged and demanded I put the scarf back exactly where it had rested. Shocked and trembling, I did as asked, finding an immediate excuse to leave the office.
At last, I understood. It was as though he were grieving for a woman he loved, but had never met. It emptied my soul to watch him pine for this mystery woman, but he was inconsolable.
I waited patiently for him to emerge from his cloud of fixation and see me––the woman who cared––right in front of him the whole time.
In slow increments, Edwin dropped away from all office as we watched him dissolve in his solitude, unraveling in a quiet despair. He began to be late for work, losing all notion of time in his linear obsession for the woman.
One afternoon, Mr. Mell returned from a long lunch in great spirits. "We have a lead!" he exclaimed. "The woman with the leather bag! I may have found her at last!"
Poor Edwin was convinced that the woman had been on her way to visit a friend in Italy, and that her bag had been misrouted in the transfer between an American flight and an Italian carrier. From scrutinizing her travel journal, he believed she had been headed to Florence to bird watch with a woman who worked in an olive grove.
I pretended to be concerned, but felt sure that Edwin’s fear of travel and distance would keep him here with me. I was disappointed when, the next morning, he asked me to book a flight to Florence.
"But, Sir," I offered, "the leather bag has been here for nearly four months. Surely that woman has returned from Italy by now."
"Do as you are told, Miss Mason," he said, standing abruptly. "I must return this bag to its distinguished owner!" He snatched the rose-red scarf from the lamp and clutched it to his chest.
A week after Mr. Mell had departed on his quest, I stood folding a new batch of clothes and overheard a group of women shopping and chatting nearby.
"How does all this stuff end up here?" said one. It was a question I’d heard hundreds of times.
"It’s not so much lost luggage as lost passengers, " I said, repeating Mr. Mell’s store mantra.
"Actually, only one in 25,000 bags is lost and not found."
"Really?" said one of the women. "I lost a bag just last year. I’ll never find another leather case like that Spegia. It was my grandfather’s and had hand-stitched crocodile trim."
Stunned, I turned toward the voice. First I saw the size-seven feet, tan and slim in open-toed sandals. Then there was the elegant Egyptian face; large eyes rimmed in kohl, nestled in honey-brown skin and set off by glimmering hoop earrings. And there, at her throat, a scarf—in a similar rose shade of red.
"What a shame," I replied. "It sounds like a lovely old case. But we get mostly new black bags on wheels these days," I said, turning back to my folding.
When Mr. Mell returned, I didn’t dare mention the woman. Why should I? It might not have been her. And if it was—had I taken her into the office and shown her the scarf left draped over the lamp, what good would it do?
Surely, it was fate that put Edwin out of town the very week she happened by. His absence was surely a sign that we were meant to be together, not the two of them.
I’m certain that one day, I will sit with him on his rooftop as he smokes his pipe, and if he looks up at the planes overhead, he will see that here is where he belongs, with me, with the bags, with his feet flat on the ground.