photo taken at night from interior of car of exterior lights with steering wheel in foreground

Trash Bags by Cameron L. Mitchell

You want to tell the world about trash bags, how it feels to stuff everything you’ll ever need inside one. Mother says there isn’t room for more than one, nor is there time. Two trash bags – one for her, one for you. She tells you to hurry up, and don’t forget your toothbrush. You make sure to grab your favorite shirts, like the one with the Smurf on the front. You shove in a pair of denim pants, a pair of corduroys, and two pairs of shorts, even though it’s still cold out. No matter how far away it feels tonight, summer will eventually arrive, and you have to be ready. You add two sweaters, your pajamas with the race cars down the front, and your favorite He-Man toy, Screech the bird – he has floppy wings, and you love him most because he can fly up, up, and away. If you could be anything other than a boy, you’d be a bird with wings that could take you higher. You’re not sure Mother would approve of the toy since it isn’t a necessity, so you wrap it in a plain white t-shirt, hoping she won’t notice. Underwear and socks are boring, but you stuff those inside too.

They came in cars with their blue lights flashing; you like the sound of sirens, but they left those off. They took Father, and it sounded so loud out there in the living room. Even though Mother told you to stay away, you peeked, like a spy. You saw them take your father and throw him down, pulling his arms behind his back as they snapped the handcuffs on. You can’t believe they were strong enough to do it. Father is like a tree that can’t be swayed, but they did it, they took him away. He saw you looking, and he looked scared, which scared you more than anything else ever had, so you ran to your bed and hid underneath it. You heard the strange voices telling Mother they’d take him in for the night to let him dry out. You don’t understand what that means but assume it has something to do with all the booze he’s been drinking. The voices say other things, but the words no longer matter.

You carry your trash bag to the car, put it in the back, and hop in the front seat. Mother turns off all the lights and locks the door, tossing her bag in the back with yours. Before starting the car, she grips the wheel so tight the veins in her hands pop out. You have to look away, so you turn to the backseat, staring at her trash bag. You wonder what she packed – clothes, of course, but what about the things she loves so much, like her hairspray, tubes of lipstick, and all her rings and dangling bracelets? Are they necessary? You want to ask but know better. She doesn’t have time for questions.

You drive into a night that’s as dark as the trash bags, passing houses that are mostly dark too. You wonder what the people inside are like, the ones who live in each and every house that flashes by before you can get a proper look. You imagine them sleeping peacefully in their beds, everything still and quiet. At this time of night, it feels like you and your mother are the only people in the world who are still awake. You bet your father’s even passed out by now. But then, you see a light on in one of the houses, making you think someone else might be awake too, probably up late watching television. It makes you feel less lonely. You wonder if cars with sirens and flashing lights ever pull in front of these houses. There are so many different kinds of driveways – some paved, some gravel, others nothing more than dirt; there are freestanding carports and garages that keep cars safe. A garage seems like a luxury, and you think about how fun it’d be to have one at your own house to play in, though you may never see that place again. Supposedly.

You return to the people inside, wanting to know more about their lives. You want them to know things too. You want them to know you were here, staring out the car window at their house, thinking about them. Someone should know.

But then your warm breath fogs up the window, so you draw a smiley face for everyone to see. You remember that time you were a hero, when you started shaking all over and your head felt so fuzzy inside you couldn’t quite focus on anything. You couldn’t stop shaking, remember? You fell over and rolled across the hardwood floor, shaking, shaking, and shaking until they stopped. Until he stopped, and she didn’t get hit after all. You were a hero that night. You told yourself you’d shake forever if that’s what it took to keep everyone from getting hurt.

But you know it’s not that easy. You also know your mother will soon turn the car around, driving you both home. She’ll tell you to unload your trash bag and take the time to fold your clothes before putting them back in place. You’ll take the hideaway bird out and make him fly across the room, wishing he could keep going. Your mother will check in on you. He can’t know we tried to leave, she’ll tell you. You can’t say a word.

Looking down, you’ll respond, quietly, I never say anything.

Good boy, she’ll say, patting you on the head like you’re a dog.

Right now, you’re still in the car, but you know there will be another night like this, and probably another. Last time, Mother drove in the opposite direction. You wonder how many possible directions there are to take. You wonder how far she’ll have to go before deciding it’s time to turn around.

You pass another house, figuring someone must be inside since two cars are parked in the driveway. Their porch light is on, like they’re waiting for you. You want to tell them things. You feel a sudden, desperate need to explain the thing about trash bags, how they’re as flimsy and unreliable as a dream – and just as easy to forget by the light of day. You want to tell someone everything you’ve learned. You want to tell the world.

Cameron L. Mitchell grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Queer South Anthology, Literary Orphans, Coffin Bell Journal, and a few other places. He lives in New York and works in archives at Columbia University. Find him on Twitter: @CameronLMitchel

Lead image“The long drive home” (via Flickr user Kelly Hunter)

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