When I got my professor gig back in ‘81
my parents bought me a hard-sided
briefcase with a combination lock.
You could sit on that briefcase. Stand
on principle. Smack it against your head
to get your smarts going. You could not
squeeze many books into it. When I pressed
the latches and it clicked open, I expected
it to expose a bomb. I carried it to school
my first Fall until a colleague joked, You
got a bomb in there? He called me
the Secret Agent, though I stopped using it
immediately. It sat in my bedroom closet
with the slippers I never wore.
Thanks, Mom and Dad. I gave it to Good-
will last week with a load of my children’s out-
grown clothes. Some guy down on his luck
is going to love that briefcase—to mess
with his friends, to absorb strange looks
from downtowners passing his home-
less station. Perhaps he will fill it
with meaningful papers or half-eaten
hamburgers or the holy relics
of his sad life. When I got my gig
back in ‘81, two years removed from the line
at Ford’s beside my father, I had a couple
of bad habits and a trunk full of good luck
driving from Detroit to Pittsburgh
with enough drugs to last till I found
a local dealer. A new pair of shoes
blistered my feet. The drugs nearly
covered the shame of my blunt speech
in that nuanced landscape of betrayal.
No wonder, blisters. No wonder, the bomb.
I used the briefcase years later
as a prop for a movie I made that no one
saw, making it that much more experimental
and noteworthy in my annual report. I carry
my books in a backpack and my shame
in my secret pocket. I have less of it these
days, the old professor who survived
the bomb threats of petty emails.
I was a secret agent after all. A double-
agent. An agent who carved his own
decoder ring at weekly meetings
of the special club where the man
with my briefcase might appear
some day, just when I need him.
My parents came to town
when I got my endowed chair.
My blind mother in her green raincoat.
My father in his funeral overcoat.
I myself purchased a new suit
for the occasion. The hors d’oeuvres
were tasteless, but my father liked the stuffed
mushrooms. My mother, the mini-eggrolls.
I kept walking circles around them
like a dog protecting its wounded master.
Though who was wounded?
I keep my old factory lunch bucket
in my office at the university,
dull gray scratches, dull dents
in black paint. I rub it for luck
before meetings of the committee
on screechy chairs. If that seems like
pitiful nostalgia to you,
perhaps you’re right.
But it too is hard.
It too protects what’s inside.