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John Kessel

The Cardboard Suitcase
by John Kessel

John Kessel

John Kessel is the author of the novels, Good News from Outer Space and Corrupting Dr. Nice, and, with James Patrick Kelly, Freedom Beach. His short stories have been collected in Meeting in Infinity and The Pure Product. He also co-edited Intersections: The Sycamore Hill Anthology with Mark Van Name and Richard Butner.

John Kessel received a dual B.A. in English and Physics from the University of Rochester in 1972, an M.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1974, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kansas in 1981. Since 1982 he has taught American literature, creative writing, science fiction, fantasy, and graduate-level fiction writing workshops at North Carolina State University. He and his family currently reside in Raleigh, NC.


I wrote "The Cardboard Suitcase" as a response to an exercise I assigned to my writing class at North Carolina State University. I hadn't thought much about this incident in the 30 years after it happened, but writing it down made me realize it gave me my first visceral understanding of class in America. The paradox: that I could be humiliated by someone whose name I didn't know, whom I would never see again, and whose values I did not hold. I'm still not sure I know all that this means.

I stood in front of the elevator doors of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. It was the Labor Day weekend of 1969, the World Science Fiction Convention.

In 1969, the Chase Park Plaza was the best hotel in St. Louis. I had never been to St. Louis, and had never stayed in a hotel. I had never left Buffalo, New York, without my parents. I had never flown in an airplane before I'd taken this trip.

My mother had bought me a new suitcase in honor of the occasion. I was proud of it -- its dark blue surface was pressed with fine grain and its metal fittings shone silver. Inside were silk ribbons to secure your clothing, and pouches for socks and valuables. I had packed and repacked it three times in the last two days. In the pocket of my green plaid sports jacket I carried the little key to the suitcase's locks.

IntersectionsI was wearing my gold tie. I had shined my shoes and gotten a haircut before leaving home. I was happy and excited, tall and well groomed and 18 years old.

I had saved up all summer from my job at the post office to make this trip. The round trip airline ticket, standby, had cost $46.50. The bus ride from the airport was two dollars. The convention membership cost $10. The room, split between me and my friend Steve Carper, would cost me $9.00 per night, or $45 for the five-day convention. To save money, Steve and I would avoid the pricey hotel restaurant and eat in a local diner.

The desk clerk had assigned us to room 1244. The bellhop offered to take my bag, but I said no thanks: I was aware of the fact that you were supposed to tip the bellhop if he carried your bags, and I didn't want to waste the cash. I waited for the elevator.

The Pure ProductAs Steve and I waited an older man in a gray suit came up to wait beside us. The bellhop who had offered to take my bag was carrying the man's instead -- two suitcases, of light brown leather with leather handles and gold-plated locks. The man's initials, R.R.W, were pressed in gold into the leather beside the handles. I supposed the man to be maybe 50 years old. His black hair was graying at the temples, and he smoked a cigarette. He was obviously not with the science fiction convention, and he looked supremely relaxed as he paused to glance around the lobby at the arriving teenaged fans.

The elevator doors slid open, and the four of us entered. The elevator walls were wood panels and dark red flocked wallpaper, with a framed poster for the hotel restaurant. "Fifteen," the man said to the bellhop. The bellhop pushed the black button for 15, then looked at me.

Good News"Twelve," I said.

The bellhop pushed 12.

As the doors closed and we started up, the older man turned to Steve. He seemed quite jovial. "What is this get-together here?"

"It's the World Science Fiction Convention."

"Science fiction convention?" The man appraised me, a slight smile on his lips. "Have you taken over the entire hotel?"

"I don't know," I said. "I think there will be more than a thousand people, though."

"A thousand science fiction people," the man said to the bellhop. The bellhop, though young, was still 10 years older than I. He smirked.

CorruptingThe man in the suit looked at my new suitcase, which I had not set down. The man reached out a hand toward the suitcase and touched it with his index finger. I noticed that the cuff his white shirt, protruding an inch from the sleeve of his suit, was secured with a pearl cuff link. The fabric of the man's suit was as finely woven as a satin pillow.

The man drew back his hand. "That's a nice new suitcase you've got there," he said. "Is that cardboard?"

I was startled. I didn't know what he meant by the question. I looked at his suitcase, and felt the plastic handle of my own slick in my sweaty palm. It was cardboard. I hadn't realized that before. Now, looking at the man's leather luggage, I felt confused. Steve didn't say anything. I snuck a glance at the man's face, and the man smiled calmly back at me.

The elevator stopped. The doors slid open. "Twelve," the bellhop said. Steve and I stepped out. Behind me I heard the man in the gray suit chuckle. "Do you believe that?" he said to the bellhop. "A cardboard suitcase."

The doors slid shut. My face burned as we went down the corridor to find our room.