The two-suiter lay open on my bed. A hard-sided suitcase covered with light-brown leather scuffed by years of use, it offered two deep packing spaces separated by a pair of dividers. Elastic straps crisscrossed to hold the contents in place. Metals clips provided anchors for hanging items.
Piles of clothes surrounded the suitcase. Jeans, t-shirts and underwear, certainly, but also the two sports coats I owned, and one suit. A few dress shirts hung in the closet nearby. Maybe a half-dozen ties unfurled on my quilt, next to a couple of belts. Shoes. Socks. A black toiletries bag. An overcoat.
As I surveyed it all, my dad stood by my side. It was 1986, and I was packing to move from Indiana to Washington, D.C., where I would take my first “real” job after college. Dad had come into my room – still decorated with the movie posters, hang-glider mobile and other evidence of a 1970s/80s adolescent – to help.
An old-school guy who liked his steaks a little rare and his martinis dry, Dad leaned his 6’4” frame forward to show me the best way to fold a dress shirt. With long, thin hands he situated dress pants in the bag. He demonstrated how to layer in sports coats. He strategically placed items around the dress clothes to keep them in place. He slipped the handful of ties into the leather strips that would secure them. He arranged everything precisely and then showed me how to close the bag and snap it shut. He lifted the bag and shook it. Then he opened it again to show me how everything had stayed in place.
Dad had used that suitcase for decades. I can picture it in the truck of his Olds 98 on family vacations. I can see him setting it by the front door before he and Mom left for weekend trips. I remember watching it gain a Bahamas travel sticker as Mom and Dad traveled farther and wider in later years.
A few weeks ago that leather bag slid into my consciousness as I worked with my co-creator/co-producer Lou Harry on Going…Going…Gone, a play in this year’s IndyFringe Theatre Festival. Set in Ed’s Auction House, the play is a long-form improv piece in which our actors auction off a mish-mash of memorabilia and junk. You see, Ed has died, and everything must go so the auction house can close for good. The audience members have arrived on closing night. As the play begins, the auctioneer is lowering the gavel on the last lot.
To bring this story to the stage, we’ve assembled some of the best actors in town and turned them loose for fun and games on the IndyFringe stage. Their job: create the story behind the items that Ed held back from the auction block over the years.
Simple enough? Not necessarily. You see, we’ve throw a few variables at our actors.
First of all, the actors don’t know what items they’ll be auctioning off until they open the boxes they find onstage. Furthermore, it’s up to those actors (Wait: Did I mention that it will be a different pair of actors at every performance?) to create the stories behind the items as they auction them.
Oh, and another thing I might have forgotten to mention: the actors really are auctioning off the items. As an audience member, you’ll get a packet of play money when you walk into the theatre, and you’ll use that money to bid on the items being sold. And if you’re the high bidder on an item? That’s right: you take it home. As a result, we’ll have a fresh batch of items at each performance … and, therefore, a fresh batch of stories – hilarious, poignant, disturbing, bizarre stories – about Ed.
As the word “improv” implies, Going…Going…Gone has no script. Instead, we sat down with the actors and asked them to talk about their own experiences with “stuff,” their own thoughts on how we put meaning on material objects. Then we asked them to tap into those conversations and use the items they find onstage to conjure up a sense of who Ed was, and who they are as the characters who must confront, decipher, and dispense with the items that became touchstones in his life.
It was in the course of those conversations that I recalled that day in my bedroom. Dad was never one to say, “This is how you do it.” He taught by example more than lecture. By watching him, we learned how to work hard, do the right thing, treat people well, and more. But, occasionally, on more tangible matters that he felt were particularly important, he would teach.
This was one of those times. I was a young man going out into the world, and Dad felt I should know the proper way to pack a suitcase. So he taught me.
After that day, that suitcase became mine. I used it to move a few more times, took it on vacations and a couple of business trips. But then I got new suitcases – soft-siders that could squeeze into smaller car trunks and withstand airline luggage handling. The two-suiter got shoved to the back of the closet. Now it’s in the attic. I can’t remember the last time I used it.
But I’ll never get rid of it. It connects too directly to Dad, who died in 1998. It embodies too much of who he was. And, with its worn corners, musty smell and tacky tourist sticker, it virtually vibrates with memories of a day when Dad walked me through what he saw as a rite of passage.
Things have a way of doing that … of becoming touchstones. Through some secret alchemy of the heart, a thing that once stood meaningless on a store’s shelf becomes imbued with significance. Sometimes this happens quickly – “She said, ‘Yes!’” – other times it creeps up on us. Sometimes we choose an item with significant intent; other times, meaning seeps into an object unexpectedly.
Think about it: a child might receive a dozen blankets when it’s born, but somehow one emerges from the pack to become “Blanky.” You couldn’t have predicted which it would be. It’s not necessarily the prettiest one, or the softest one. But once the child forms that attachment, you do, too. That average-looking piece of light-green fleece becomes something you plan to hold onto forever. So it takes its place in a special box or on a high shelf, next to the goofy snowglobe that reminds you of a hilariously disastrous vacation, the tarnished trophy that represents a youthful dream deferred, or the handmade gift that makes you smile.
Or a suitcase that hasn’t hit the road for years but nonetheless takes you on a satisfying journey.
John Thomas is the co-creator with Lou Harry of “Going…Going…Gone,” a part of this year’s IndyFringe Theatre Festival. See “Going…Going…Gone” in the IndyFringe Basile Theatre on Aug. 17 (9 p.m.), Aug. 18 (6 p.m.), Aug. 19 (1:30 p.m.), Aug. 21 (9 p.m.), Aug. 25 (10:30 p.m.), and Aug. 26 (6 p.m.). For more information on this and other IndyFringe shows, go to www.indyfringe.org.