The past is never where you think you left it — Katherine Anne Porter
In San Francisco I keep my past in a trunk. The trunk is old and barrel-topped, bound in copper patterned like crocodile skin, with a lock that has no key. Each time I come back, I pick the lock and rummage to see what I’ll find — a tray from the President of Mexico, given to me and every other foreign journalist there that year; my grandmother’s crocheted lace; a necklace from Yasir Arafat’s sister (this is a personal gift); a blue vase made by a college friend in hospital after she tried to kill herself — fragments for which there is no present place but without which, mysteriously, I would be bereft.
The trunk has a past of its own — a fantasia of theft, requited love, and honour with a coda of small triumph.
It was given to me my mother’s friend S., a Dust Bowl refugee, an Okie, whose life lay somewhere among songs by Woodie Guthrie and a Steinbeck novel. “I thought chickens were only necks and wings ‘till I was about twenty,” he’d say.
He was a big man, married to a big woman. They made their living “buying junk and selling antiques.” The lot with the trunk contained, among other things, a three sided mirror, an 1890s book of pressed flowers, an old stove, $350,000 in securities, $42,000 in cash, and it sent S. to jail. He’d bought the contents of a house where an old man had died without heirs; a bank had been given control of the estate. While S. loaded his two tone Chevy pickup someone from the bank, in a grey suit as I remember, searched everything for valuables. The searcher skipped the stove — I think he didn’t want to get his hands dirty — and that was where the money was.
S. kept the money, feeling he had as much right to it as the bank. Enough people on the jury agreed with him to deliver a hung verdict on the grand theft charge, but had to find him guilty of perjury. They’d all heard him lie about what he’d done with the cash. When S. was led away to start his year in prison and we, his friends, were crying, the prosecutor walked across the courtroom, shook S.’s hand and smiled. “See you again,” he said.
We hated him for that.
My mother and I visited S. every weekend and when S got out he wanted to leave his wife for her. I think it was difficult, but she refused. “I wouldn’t be as good a wife as the one he has.”
In the end, though, she did do something for S. She humiliated the prosecutor.
I spent my last week of high school sitting-in to protest atom bomb testing in the Pacific. We camped out in front of the main post office, Joan Baez sang to us, and I missed my senior prom. After a week we were arrested for trespass. In those days peaceful protest was a right, arrest was optional and juveniles were routinely released.
My mother showed up at Juvenile Hall to reclaim me and was told I had to stay in jail. The U.S. Attorney, the same man who had prosecuted S. and by then the first African American U.S. Attorney in the continental United States, had decided to charge us with a felony. My mother was so incensed she tracked him down, had him summoned over the loud speaker out of a San Francisco Giants game and got him to rescind the order. We were freed that night, but I’ve always thought it was the victory for S. the Everyman.
My mother is sitting in the sun at the dining room table. “Did you love S.?” I ask.
“I don’t know any more.” She closes her eyes.