My friend had a briefcase that was quite impressive. It was tattered in places and the clasps didn’t shine anymore. It may have had a small tear here and there but you could tell – you could just tell – that in its time, this briefcase had been a real gem.

My friend showed me his prized possession only a few times, in moments of particular melancholy. I’d make the climb up dingy stairs to his third-floor walkup in downtown Lewiston. We’d get to talking about the old days and a faraway look would cross his face.

A trip across his tiny apartment to a very tiny closet. Way, way at the back of the closet, he kept the briefcase. Whenever he reached way back there for that treasure, I got the feeling he was reaching in the same manner back into his memory.

The case was filled with impressive documents. They were yellowing a bit and bending at the corners. But they were authentic and at one time, he was in charge of them and what they represented.

They were from a time when he was an important man. An engineer, a scientist with some powerful companies. He was part of a brain trust in his day, trusted with top secrets and the man behind some of them.

Of course, that was before the divorce. Back before the move into this dark apartment with peeling paint and scuffed floors. Back before he started drinking brew for breakfast instead of sharing bacon and eggs with the wife and kids.

My friend’s life had gone to hell long before I met him. But when he pulled open that briefcase, you could tell he was seeing back to the good old days. He was seeing that lovely accessory polished to a shine and every piece of metal on it gleaming. Maybe he remembered how great it felt to carry the case, decked out in his favorite suit while strutting to work.

A glimpse of glory

There is a sad convergence of emotions when a broken man gets to reliving old memories. It’s sad that the fall from grace can be so swift and so complete. Yet, it’s somehow gratifying that there is at least this one little item – this old briefcase that creaks when you open it – to provide a glimpse into the glory days.

Not a mile away, I had another friend who lived in a similar walkup. Heroin was his undoing a few years back. No more boat, no more house near the ocean. He told a tale of detoxing in some state lockup while guards taunted him from beyond the bars.

He didn’t talk about that stuff often. He kicked the smack, but the shadow of booze and drugs never slipped from his soul. Now, it was beer and pot around the clock instead of a needle in a vein.

This friend, he’d hole up in his apartment for days at a time in fits of paranoia. He would not answer the door; he would not answer the phone. When he was out of his funk, I’d go see him.

This friend had no striking briefcase to show me. What he had were stacks and stacks of paper, some still bound in spiral notebooks, some floating free like pets he had freed of their leashes.

A real wordsmith

A word man, this friend. Poetry, short stories, essays. Reams of it he kept stashed away in a place he never showed me. If the paranoia was on hiatus and he was feeling mellow, he would read some of his work aloud to me. Or he’d let me read it.

Grand stuff. Stellar stuff, in my opinion. It was writing of the kind that makes you wonder how many mad geniuses are hiding behind closed doors, afraid of every knock and every outside sound. Afraid to let their words out of their sight.

I lost touch with him for a while. When I heard he had died a few years ago, I wondered what had happened to all those words. Surely, he had family somewhere, but he never spoke of them and I have no idea if they came for his stuff.

I really hope some long-lost family member gathered my friend’s things and discovered his writing. I hope they keep it close by and take a look every once in a while. It was his life scratched in pen scrawlings or typed on a manual typewriter.

I have no idea what happened to the briefcase, either. That friend passed months after we last spoke. He died hard and left people behind. I wonder, too, if they open the briefcase now and then just to remember when he ate bacon and eggs for breakfast and then strutted to work.

I’ve seen other friends go under similar circumstances. As far as I know, many left no profound items to mark the pinnacles of their lives. No cherished item you keep hidden just for certain moments. Just the stuff you hang on your wall or put on knickknack stands. Mundane items that don’t mean much of anything.

I kind of wonder which is worse: to leave behind vivid mementos of what your life was – and what it might have been. Or to leave nothing at all and let people remember what they will.

Mark LaFlamme is the Sun Journal crime reporter.

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