Black Duffel Bag
By Mark Ortega
It occurred to the man, as he packed, that his entire life was contained in this dusty, worn-out, black duffel bag.
The man paused, raised himself from his hunched, crouched position with the slightest of movements – just the tiniest fraction of an angle – and took in the small rented room around him, and the sum of everything it contained. And they – these things – they fed this very peculiar, very particular thought of his. He became conscious, without looking, of the various items and accoutrements and knick-knacks scattered throughout the cramped, cluttered apartment. The man paused for a moment, furrowed his brow tightly, thinking. No, no. These did not change his original conclusion – stark in its simplicity – that his entire life was contained in this black duffel bag. The tiny, scattered things which surrounded him were not his life; they were merely incidents, necessary consequences of all the requirements and humdrum of living.
But here, in his black duffel bag, packed with deliberation and care, was his whole life. It encapsulated everything. It was, for one, his livelihood (for now, for now). And yet it also contained the grand means by which he would transcend this temporary state of existence. It was his ladder, his flaming chariot, from which he would ascend and leave behind this place of waiting. Yes, and so, he must be careful and pack the items with the sharpest attention and the greatest care. Yes.
First, the six large cylinder bottles. They were made of a hard, almost industrial-grade plastic, orange, and each with a blue circular cap. They were arranged neat rows of two by three and as he lifted them, one by one, the man was pleased to note that the thick, viscous liquid they each contained did not slosh around too much. Good. This means they were full, and packed tight with that essential liquid. Good. He lowered them carefully back into a corner of the duffel bag, leaving the space for the other items he would pack.
Next, his papers. He counted them, checking them off. He needed all of them, and it would not do to leave a single one behind. They were all carefully laminated in plastic and he laid them out in the proper order.
He smiled to himself. Good, good.
Next, sustenance. A plastic water bottle, reused many times before, filled with tap water, and with its blue cap screwed on tight. A plastic tupperware container with food wrapped in clingwrap. He put these into the black duffel bag as well.
Finally, he would fit the main items. (He left the just right amount of space for four of them.) They were mechanical contraptions, some parts metal, some parts plastic. There were detachable fittings on each of them, and a trigger. He carried them reverently, and slowly lowered them into his bag, alternating the direction each one faced, in order for them to fit snugly in the remaining space.
Then, satisfied, he zipped the bag close in one swift, decisive motion. Without hesitating.
He stood up and gazed at the bag, hands on hips, smiling to himself, widely.
The man's heart was filled with hope. One day at a time: for small, single steps make a journey of a thousand miles. He liked that idea. He thought of that Scottish song, about five hundred miles and five hundred more, which got into his head just as he was about to leave his rented room. He thought of jogging. He felt so much like jogging.
The man made sure he left his apartment before 7am, and not a single minute later. Bad habits form, after all. The rot sets in. That morning was beautiful—cool and crisp, before the long, hot day ahead. Leaving his apartment before 7 a.m. allowed him to beat the general crush of humanity at peak hour. But already there were people up and about. Ready for another hurried, hurried day of work.
The man walked steadily onwards, putting one shaking foot before the other. One step at a time, this makes a journey of a thousand miles. He tried not to be aware of the people walking, buzzing past him, rushing, impatient, like mad dogs, or annoying flies. He tried not to be aware of them, of how they see him and yet do not see him.
Let them, he thought bitterly, for a brief moment. Let them, Lord, for they know not what they do. He thought briefly of flies, swarming, swarming, stupidly, inevitably towards an intricate web. The web was so large it was the Universe, and the flies, well, the files would be trapped.
And he (oh, yes, he) would be the Spider, of course: an agent of change and chaos. He would eat them. He would eat them, Oh, but he would not enjoy it. Not really. He would be doing a duty, a sacred duty, to the web. To balance.
No, no. This is unhealthy.
He perished the thought. He had a train to catch.
He boards the train at a station that is far away from the city centre, where he is headed for the day's work. There are no free seats when he gets in, struggling, as he is quietly shoved around and ignored by the mass of people.
Someone offers him a seat, but he refuses with a wide smile and a nod of the head. He keeps nodding his head, steadily, as if he has forgotten when he started nodding… (Oh.) Well, that nodding's probably gone on long enough. He stops, as his cheeks flush red in embarrassment. The young man who offered him the seat is very handsome, and wears the most immaculate clothes. Soft, expensive Egyptian cotton (it must be). His watch was intricate and shines gently. Noticing these, the man loses himself in the details, for a while. When he comes to himself, he feels exposed and ashamed, and looks away. Let the old aunties and young children have the seat, he thinks to himself. Not him. Oh no, not him.
Somewhere near the middle of the journey, the man decides to put his black duffel bag on the train floor, and checks through it again, to make sure nothing is lost. Or nothing spilt, or spoilt. He is hunched over and deftly shifts his body weight to counter-balance the train's movements. He is used to this. Yes, everything is here. Yes.
No one takes a second look at what is in the black duffel bag. (No one.)
In a corner of a corner of his eye, he is vaguely aware of a shadow, like a black cat, moving swiftly. His heart races. And he twitches, turns – widely and suddenly – to look. See the devil and shame the devil. Shame the devil and destroy his earthly shell. His heart is racing, still, and he does not see the thing which was spying on him, peering slyly over his shoulder.
"Hey!" A tall, handsome woman exclaims, annoyed. "Please watch where you're turning, Uncle."
The man turns, to look up at her, while hunched protectively over his precious duffel bag.
He realises it is still unzipped, and mutters something to himself. The words are incomprehensible to the people around him, but he knows they are important. He zips the bag, violently, then turns back to face the tall, handsome woman. She looks slightly over 40. There is something about the pale smoothness of the skin at her neck, at the tender spot just below her chin, that makes him stare for far too long, unblinking, hungry.
He notices how her face twists with disgust (and pity, always pity). He becomes painfully aware of his own shabbiness, and that he probably smells.
He looks away.
Finally, the train arrives at his stop. The man waddles to the door, carrying his black duffel bag, which contains his whole life, as he says, too loudly: "'scuse, 'scuse, es-scuuse me, thankeeww." He is vaguely aware of the cold, cruel contempt of those around him.
Let them hate me, he allows himself to think, again. But they are fools. They rush and slave for other masters. Not me, though, not me. One day, this will lift me up, and then they'll see. They'll see.
No, stop, stop. No point thinking these hateful thoughts. Just do the work. One step at a time, makes a journey.
He takes the escalators, up and up. And soon, he emerges in the morning light, at Raffles Place MRT station, in the heart of the financial district.
Around him, people are smoking, and drinking coffee, talking on their mobile phones, and carrying bags of sport shoes. They scurry to their gym appointments and breakfast appointments and early morning conference calls.
They are too busy to notice.
There is a quiet, open space: a field of grass, on an elevated platform. All around, there stand tall glass buildings – silent sentinels who kept stoic watch in the night, and who now stand still, stern, as the dawn moon fades and the sun rises and glimmers in their glass walls, each a facet of a turning jewel. And the Earth itself turns, imperceptibly, a kaleidoscope on its axis.
It is beautiful.
The man smiles to himself, as he lays the black duffel bag on the patch of grass. The grass smells sweet, fresh with the last bits of morning dew.
(It is beautiful.)
The man lays out his apparatus. He carefully counts and takes stock of everything in the bag. Everything is here. Good, good.
He takes up his plastic water bottle, uncaps it, and takes a small, measured sip of water. Then, he screws the bottlecap back on.
The man then liberates one of the four mechanical apparatuses, and removes the black plastic cap from the lip of a hungry hole. He takes one of the five orange cylinder bottles, and unscrews its blue, round cap. He then pours the thick, viscous liquid into the dark hole, very slowly, very delicately. When it is filled to the brim, he places the orange cylinder bottle down on the raised platform. Then, he screws black plastic cap back on.
The man considers, for a moment, the thing he now holds in his right hand, as his index finger moves slowly to the trigger of the gorgeously-built machine. With his left hand, he caresses the mechanical contraption, taking in its wild and lonely contours. Its bright, primary colours. It is truly a thing of beauty.
(The man notices that an auntie has stopped walking, and is watching him. She opens her mouth – a wide, gaping hole – to take a large bite of a pork bun, hungrily, and chews with her mouth open.)
The man smiles to himself and, with a spring in his step, ascends the raised platform, and steps onto the green grass.
Here was a stage, and the world, his audience. He gazes up at the silent sentinels—the Gods of Glass and Steel and Money—and he bows, deeply, with a formal flourish. The colossal Sentinel-Gods gaze down upon him in stern, silent bemusement. Inside them are tiny people (are they the Gods' Gods? or merely prisoners?), and they too watch, as he takes centre stage.
Behold, Lords, Ladies, Gentlemen!
Behold this wonder, this thing of simple, child-like delight!
Is it not glorious how, as you pull the trigger, glorious, soapy bubbles emerge? Each a sphere, perfect in its imperfection! Each a slightly different shape, a different size – ever so subtly different – no bubble ever quite the same! Each one of them a world; a work of perfect, transient art.
And look! How they change in the golden morning light. How they reflect and shimmer, in strange and subtle pastel colours: green and pink-lavender and electric blue.
And see – how the world changes as the sky is filled with these fantastical globes! They rise, rise into the air like hope. (You remember hope?)
And here, now, there is wonder. There is silliness and imagination and the creation of worlds – these emerge from a toy gun from a black duffel bag.
And for a brief moment, all this, all this does not seem ludicrous at all.
For a moment, this all makes perfect, perfect sense.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 1 Jan 2018