A Suitcase Full of Dreams
By S Lynn Knight
Weaver Hempy keeps a locked suitcase under his bed. It’s been there, in the same shadowy spot, tucked up against the creaky iron bed frame since 1949.
The pressboard case, modern for its time, is blanketed with dust and spider carcasses, the polished gold latches pocked with corrosion.
Weaver never has to doubt the suitcase is right where he put it many years ago. Each night before he retires the day, the tip of his boot finds the side of the case with a soft thud as he undresses beside his bed. There’s a slight swale worn into the pine floorboard where repetition has marked its path.The depression leads right to the corner of the suitcase.
It always does.
Nobody but Weaver Hempy knows what’s inside it, unless you count Martin Shepherd, but he’s long dead.
Weaver and Martin were neighbors and school chums, they were as close as any two boys could be, really. You never saw one without the other and though they seemed like opposites in every way they fit together with what some might describe as ‘unnatural ease’. Weaver was solidly built with thick, wavy hair and intensely dark eyes, while Martin’s slight frame and fair complexion often made strangers mistake him for a girl. Some folks in town, mostly men, whispered unkind things about the friendship, said it was ‘unnatural’ — but, everyone else grew accustomed to the boys’ closeness, and to what they called Martin’s ‘queer’ mannerisms. The boys’ mothers had proclaimed they’d grow out of the friendship once they found wives, thus Martin’s father finally stopped threatening to whip the ‘nelly’ out of his effeminate son. No one knew what Weaver’s father would’ve said or done about the rumors. He’d left his family in a three room, ramshackle house near the at Carroll County line on the premise of looking for work during the Great Depression. Old man Hempy was never seen again.
Weaver Hempy wrings the water from the dishcloth and hangs it on the nail above the sink. Arthritis curled the thumb and pinky of his left hand a decade ago, and the task brings a grimace. He looks out the grimy kitchen window and follows the trail of dust back to the bumper of a shiny, blue Oldsmobile traveling down State Route 49, which terminated another half a mile at the Carroll County line. It wasn’t often anyone bothered to slow down through the last stretch of potholes. Instead, they seemed to mash the accelerator harder, eager to leave the poorest county in Missouri behind them. Something Weaver could never do.
As he watches, the car slows, then turns onto the dirt road leading to his front porch. Weaver is not expecting anyone. There hadn’t been a single visitor to this house since his mother died twenty years ago. The old man moves cautiously through the tiny living room. Not wanting to appear lonely or anxious, both of which he most definitely is, he waits for the sound of steps on the porch before opening the door.
The site of the young man before him causes a swirl of dizziness to descend upon him like a Texas dirt devil. Weaver believes he is eye to eye with a ghost.
“Mr Hempy? Weaver Hempy? the younger man inquires, are you alright?”
The delicately handsome, fair-complected stranger takes Weaver’s arm and leads him to a wicker chair on the porch. After dusting it off, he sits beside him on the only other piece of furniture, a wobbly plank bench.
Weaver stares straight ahead, afraid to look at the man in fear he’d discover he’d hallucinated everything. But then the stranger spoke.
“Mr Hempy, I’m Martin Shepherd the third. I believe you knew my great grandfather…um, quite well?”
The long silence which follows is bloated with untold secrets and unreleased grief. Hempy is visibly shaken. Finally, after what seems like an eternity to both men, Weaver Hempy breaks the quiet wide open and begins to speak.
“Your great-grandfather was the kindest, gentlest person I’d ever known. From the time we met in primary school I knew I was supposed to protect him. He wasn’t like me or you, he was special. Martin knew who and what he was born to be, and even though his body betrayed this fact, he never wavered.
“I loved Martin like a man loves a woman. I’m not ashamed to say it, now. He knew it and I knew it but we never spoke of it. The small town rumors were only half true, we never touched one another in ‘that’ way but, yes, in every other way our hearts fit together like man and wife.
“Martina was determined to become the woman she knew herself to be, so we could be free to be together. She researched a doctor in Berlin, Germany who had performed the first gender reassignment surgery on Lilli Elbe in the 1930’s, and in 1961, she travelled alone to Europe.
“In awhile, the letters from Germany started coming regular. Martina had found the famous doctor but, he was quite a bit older and reluctant to operate. She convinced him to perform one more miracle by promising him that unlike Lilli Elbe, she would live. The doctor agreed to try and Martina began taking pills and hormones and eventually the surgery was done.”
Martina’s great grandson didn’t dare speak. He understood this was the first and possibly the only time the truth would be spoken aloud about his great-grandfather. And Martin Shepherd the third, an openly gay man, was here to set the family record ‘straight’ if he could.
“I should have gone with her. Maybe if I’d had she’d have come back to me. I blame myself. I tried to convince Martin to move away with me, to a big city where we could live as we wished. I’d heard there were communities that tolerated two boys together,” Weaver said shyly. “But he wouldn’t hear of it. He insisted he was not a boy but a woman, and I should not have to live in the shadows with him.
“One day the letters just stopped. I never heard from her again. Eventually, I had to accept that Martin and Martina were gone. All I have left of her, of us, is a suitcase of letters and my memories.
“I have so many regrets, son. I never married, how could I? I’ve been right here in this house ever since. I would have laid down my life for her, but she would not let me.”
The young man rested a hand gently on Weaver’s shoulder and said, “Mr Hempy, I think you did just that…”
©S Lynn Knight, 2018, All Rights Reserved