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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Flying Trunk

(This flash challenge asked for stories based on childrens fairie tales. I found an obscure Aesop fable called The Flying Trunk. A young man who inherits his father's meager estate becomes obsessed with a beautiful princess in a far off land and wins her parents' permission to wed her, only to lose her to his own follies.)


Donny Markham lugged the old steamer trunk up the third and final flight of stairs of the renovated three story walk-up. Like all of the other converted Victorians still standing along the Cass Corridor, there were no elevators. Not that there had ever been any plan to put one in. The tenants who now rented the flats were transient college students going to Wayne State University. Most had started off as commuters but by the time they hit twenty, they realized the myth of Detroit was far from the truth of Detroit. Yes, there were pockets where one didn’t go after dark or even after sunrise; but, on the whole, the city had more to offer than to fear.

If only Donny’s dad had known this. The old had man closed his string of party shops along Woodward and Jefferson and moved all of his business north to the suburbs, along with every other white business man in the epic flight of the 70’s. In the end, his premature bailing on the city cost him, but not much. His empire of liquor shops went from ten to two. He switched to high end wine for the one in southern Oakland County and to cheap booze in the one in Macomb County. His marketing strategy worked and while he didn’t die a wealthy man, he did die a well-off man which meant Donny Markham, at twenty-two, was off to a considerable start over some of his college counterparts.

The inheritance wouldn’t last forever, Donny knew that. He sold off the shops to separate owners who were now in a legal battle over who got to keep his family name over the door to their shop. Donny didn’t give two figs. He was taking his money and going back to school to get his teaching degree. He knew that Wayne made all School of Ed candidates do a semester of pre-student teaching in a Detroit city school. He was fine with that. He loved Detroit and wanted his admiration of the city to be shared by the students he would one day teach outside of it.

The trunk was the only other thing Donny kept from his father’s estate. When he was a child, Donny used to keep his most important treasures inside the various drawers, cases, and secret compartments. His mother used to worry that he would somehow get locked inside it. The idea that he could accidentally get locked in was impossible. There were two loop and snap latches on either side of a large circular lock on a hinge that needed to be flipped into place. The trunk never frightened Donny the way it did his mother. He used to imagine the trunk was a portal to another world or a magical vehicle that would fly him to wondrous adventures that took him far away from the dark world he lived in with his parents. His dad used his liquor stores like personal caches. His mom hated everything about how they made their money. They argued incessantly. Sometimes, it became physical.


Every second step the base of the trunk fell against the bare wood step Donny pulled it on to. He wished the trunk had the power to fly now as he bent his back and pulled up one more time. No one had come out to complain about the noise. Sometimes he wondered if he had any real neighbors on the lower two floors. He heard noises coming from them but he never saw any one.

The move would have gone a lot better if Shelley had come along like she promised she would. At the last minute something else came up. He wasn’t pleased with this turn of events. His displeasure triggered thoughts of relationship insecurity. Shelley wasn’t shaping up to be much of a girlfriend. If she even was a girlfriend. Like the unseen people living below him, Donny wasn’t sure there was anything there.

He had met her in a children’s literature class where she had stuck out like a diamond in a room full of coal. Long blond hair that draped over her shoulders, narrow hips that skinny jeans clung to for life, and large breasts she could barely keep contained: Shelley Lavinder just didn’t strike Donny as a candidate for being an elementary teacher in an inner city school. She should have been in the fold out of a Playboy spread.

Miss September.

He called her that sometimes. She giggled and then made love to him like he was going off to war and she might not ever see him again. They made love a lot but he never felt the connection afterwards. She rolled away; she didn’t leave but she did roll off on her side. He had thought about breaking it off with her. He just couldn’t picture himself as her type of guy. He waited for her to scream it at him the way his mother had often screamed it at his father.

A door opened below. Donny started to apologize to whichever of his neighbors for the noise he was making when he heard his name called out two flights down from where he stood.


It was Shelley. This surprised him, and then he thought of how convenient it was that she showed up just as he was nearly to the top.

“Donny? You up there?”

“Come on up, Miss September,” Donny said. There was a gap between what he said and her distant giggle.

Donny raised the trunk on end. It rested precariously on half a step; two tiny coasters hung over the step’s lip. He waited for her to come up. He could hear her talking and assumed she was on the phone until he heard a voice, a man’s voice, answer her. When at last they appeared on the second floor landing below him, he recognized the man as a guy from one of their education classes.

“There you are,” Shelley said.

“Here I am,” Donny said. “Hello, Frank.”


If ever there was a logical counterpart for Shelley, it was Frank Delgato. Tall, handsome, the antithesis to Donny, who was actually a couple of inches shorter than Shelley and a lot less structured than Frank. ‘It’s got to be the money,’ Donny thought. He smiled down at the two approaching people.

“Let me get that for you, buddy,” Frank said. He stepped around the trunk and caught the leather handle. He tugged up. Donny put his hands down on the top of the trunk.

“You have to be careful with it,” Donny said. “It’s almost a hundred years old. The leather is brittle, especially on the handle. I think it ripped a couple of times as I pulled it up.”

“You got that thing all the way up here on your own?” Shelley looked up at him from the lower steps. The light from the octagonal window behind him was muted but to Donny it felt more like she was looking up at Frank and smirking.

“Well, I had thought you’d be here to help me,” Donny said.

“We’re here now, bud,” Frank said. “Why don’t you take the bottom and I’ll carry it from the lid.”

Donny looked up at Frank. “The lid latch is on so the top compartment won’t flip open.”

“You got it, bud.” Frank gave him a wink, all though he felt it was directed more to Shelley.

He hated that Frank kept calling him bud or buddy. They weren’t anything like that. They even sat across the room from one another.

The rest of the climb went a lot easier. When they got to his landing, Shelley used her key to open his double oak doors. She reached up and undid the latch to the second one and pushed both of them open. Stepping in was like stepping back in time. The heavy, grooved, dark wood trim and wainscoting carried layers of history upon it. The oval throw rugs he bought at a flea market warmed the hardwood floors. The only things out of place were the vertical blinds over the screen less windows looking down on the Lodge Freeway. In many ways, it was similar to the home he’d grown up in.

They carried the trunk in and laid it near a bank of bay windows on what Donny considered to be the trunk’s back or bottom. This would keep the drawers on the inside from sliding open into the empty wardrobe compartment. Donny knelt down next to it and checked the latches and the single hinged lock.

“That thing was pretty heavy, buddy,” Frank said. “What have you got in it? A body?”

Donny gave Frank a wise-ass grin. “Not yet,” he said.

“It’s so dark in here,” Shelley said. She moved through the room as if she owned it, dropping her keys on the round wooden table in the middle of the great room. She pulled down on the blind cords. Light flooded into the room in long shafts. She cranked open the first of the three tall windows so that glass fame swung out behind the house. The roar of the traffic way below droned like far away bees. Shelley leaned forward, her tank top revealing more than it should have as a breeze blew her hair back off her shoulders.

“Nice view,” Frank said.

Donny looked up from behind the trunk. Shelley leaned one hand on the grooved paneling running parallel to window she looked out. She smiled and pulled her hair back behind her ear.

“Yeah, well, the Lodge wasn’t there when the house was built,” Donny said. “I’m sure the original owner had a pleasanter view of Detroit.”

“I ain’t talking about Detroit,” Frank said.

Shelley kept her focus on something outside the window and down below running along the Lodge. Maybe she hadn’t heard Frank’s overtly flirtatious remarks. Maybe she had. Either way, she didn’t play off it.

“I’m thirsty, Donny,” she said. She turned around to face both men. “You got any beer here?”

Donny shook his head.

“Now isn’t that ironical,” Frank said.

“You mean ironic?” Donny asked.

“I mean it’s funny how the prince of the liquor king don’t have any beer here.”

“Yeah, there’s a twist,” Donny said. He sat down on the closed trunk.

Shelley dug a hand into her jeans pocket. They were tight on her and she had to work her hand a bit to get it out. She handed Frank a fold of crushed bills. “Run down to the corner and get some, Frankie.”

“You want me to run down to the corner in the Cass Corridor and get some beer?”

“You’re a big guy,” Donny said. It was all he said, but he thought, ‘Man up, big guy.’ There was a brief stare down before Frankie finally left. Shelley sat down on the trunk next to Donny, who stood up instantly.

“Is there something wrong, babe?” she asked.

“Why did you bring him here?”


Donny bobbed his head and held out his hands as if asking, ‘Who else?’

Shelley ran a hand up and down one of her sleeveless arms. “He called and asked what I was doing today.”

“He called you?”


“Does he call you often?”

Shelley shrugged. Her bared shoulders rose up in a shaft of sunlight and dropped. For a moment, her tan glowed. “I guess.”

“What do you mean you guess?”

“I mean we talk a lot about stuff in class.”

“He doesn’t give two shits about stuff in class, Shelley. All he cares about is you.”

“At least somebody does.”

She might as well have slapped him. The words hit him like fireworks to the face. “What does that mean?”

“It means,” Shelley stopped. “It means I don’t know what you want from me.”

“What I want from you?”

“I sit down, you stand up and walk away.”

He threw out a hand towards the trunk. “I didn’t think the trunk could take both of our weights.”

“Okay, but what about after we’ve been in bed?”

“What about it?”

“Why don’t you ever hold me? Why don’t we talk? Is it me?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about how you just lay there, staring at the ceiling.”

“You roll over and go to sleep.”

“I’m not sleeping, Donny,” Shelley said. Her voice dropped to almost a whisper. “I’m waiting for you to snuggle me but you don’t even touch me.” Her eyes came up to meet his. “What’s the matter? Do I make you feel bad? Do I make you feel dirty?”

Donny fell to his knees. He put his hands on her legs. “No.”

“You don’t think I’m good enough for you, do you?”

‘Just the opposite,’ he thought. Instead, he shook his head.

“Then what is it?”

“Sometimes I can’t understand why a woman as beautiful as you wants to be with a man as lousy as me.”

“You’re not lousy.”

“I look at guys like Frank and I think ‘Why isn’t she with someone like him?’ Why are you with me? Is it the money I got from my dad? There isn’t a lot. There’s enough, but not tons.”

“It’s not the money.”

“Then what is it about me? What do you see in me?”

Shelley stood up. She folded her arms over her chest and leaned back on the narrow strip of wall next to the open window. “You make me smile. You make me laugh. That’s more important to me than anything Frank has given me.”

Donny’s heart turned to ice. “What has Frank given you?”

Shelley shifted uncomfortably. “What do you mean?” She looked back out the window and sucked her lower lip under her top lip.

“You said ‘more than anything Frank has given me.’ What did he give you?”


Donny got up from his trunk. “Did you hook up with him?”

“Even if I did, it was before you.”

“But you slept with him.”

“And you haven’t slept with anyone else before me?”

“No.” His answer hung like a lazy curve ball. “Have you slept with him since?”

“Of course not.”

“Then why did you bring him here?”

“I told you. I knew you were moving stuff in here today and I thought he could help.”

“So you thought it would be a good idea to bring a guy you once had relations with to help a guy you’re having relationships with now?”

“I didn’t think it would be that big a deal.” Shelley took a step away from him. “We both know Frank from class.”

“You’re right about one thing, Shelley,” Donny said. He caught her arm. “You didn’t think.” He tugged on her arm but she pulled it free. She caught her heel on the edge of the trunk and lost her balance. As improbable as it seemed, the force of his yank and the angle at which she stumbled backwards sent her out the open window.

Donny leaned out even as brakes squealed below. He never saw her laying there on the concrete because the flatbed truck screeching to a halt covered her.

He heard knocking. Donny looked at the two closed doors. He assumed it was Frank returning with the beer; but, then again, maybe it was one of the ghosts who lived below him. Maybe someone had heard the argument, saw Shelley falling past his or hers own back windows. Whoever it was would want answers. Donny wasn’t good at answers. He’d barely been able to give any about his own father’s mysterious death.

The knocking became pounding.

He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out his keys. There was a small gold one he clutched as he once again dropped to his knees. The knocking continued. He undid the hinge lock and then quickly undid the snap latches. He raised the lid of the trunk. It would be tighter now that he was an adult, but he could still squeeze himself inside if he removed the tub sized lower drawer. He pulled the green paisley case out of its housing and squeezed his knees down into the space. He leaned forward and reached behind him, catching the same green paisley colored drape of the wardrobe and pulled the lid down on top of him.

He remembered there was no way to lock the trunk from the inside, but he didn’t really need it to lock to do its job. All he needed the trunk to do was to fly him away like it had when he was a kid, when his dad drank and his mom yelled, when his world shook at its core.

“Fly away, trunk, fly away,” Donny said. The pounding on the door of his apartment became the pounding of his heart. “Fly me away.”

He closed his eyes and waited but like his life, the trunk never got off the ground.


Kaye George said...

Another good one, Jack. I was waiting and waiting for the trunk to fly. I like how you did it.

Jack Bates said...

Thanks, Kaye. I had originally wanted the trunk to go out the window but the physics involved didn't work.

Eric Beetner said...

Nice one Jack. This is a great challenge isn't it?

Nigel Bird said...

a lovely last line

pattinase (abbott) said...

Nice to read one set on my home turf. Very creative use of the original tale--which I was not familiar with. In Detroit, it's hard to get off the ground.

R L Kelstrom said...

A very fine story. I especially liked the way you built a feeling of dread, subtle but clearly moving toward something bad.

Evan Lewis said...

Cool! Old Aesop must be proud.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

That was a trip and very well told. Lots to like but this was really awesome.

"realized the myth of Detroit was far from the truth of Detroit. Yes, there were pockets where one didn’t go after dark or even after sunrise; but, on the whole, the city had more to offer than to fear."

Paul D Brazill said...

Smashing tale, right up to the killer last line.

seana graham said...

Great update of the tale. Funny how, psychologically, not much changes over the centuries.

And congratulations!

Jack Bates said...

Man I really need to check here more often. Thanks for all of the accolades, all!