Give Them the Bag

by Deb Olin Unferth

This story first appeared in the literary annual NOON and later in Unferth’s story collection Minor Robberies (McSweeney’s, 2007).

At last the sisters were traveling together—because sisters should never have to do anything alone but often do for reasons that may include:

  1. the swelling of industrial society
  2. the splintering of the family unit
  3. the annoyances one must go through if one is with one’s sister

Annoyances, such as—and this was the first day of the trip—the sunscreen and the fact that neither of them had any. And the fact that the younger didn’t put any on once they’d gotten some. And that the younger left the bottle open when she did put it on and some spilled on the elder’s dress.

Or, as another example, the fact that the younger couldn’t manage to do anything without the elder’s assistance, so the burden lay on the elder (yes, it was a burden, burden and a gift) to ask for the check, to lift a hand to call for a taximan.

That was the second day.

On the third day they went to Leon and they fought because the elder made a statement that made the younger get up and saunter across the plaza. On the fourth day they went to Granada and it was very pretty but they fought again because the younger made a statement that made the elder put down her fork and refuse to eat. And then the younger said the elder really was so awful and wasn’t it awful to be such an awful person and to have to be with oneself all the time. And then the sisters sat, not speaking, for the rest of the meal. The waiter came around and cleared their plates of barracuda and rice.

The next morning they went to see the waterfall. They hiked on for an hour, never came close to any water of any sort—river, ocean, falls, nothing—lost the trail, doubled back, tried another way, came to a dead end, stopped, and argued among themselves. On the bus back to town (out the window, houses pinned up between clotheslines) the younger made a list of things she was angry at the elder about.

The elder was bossy, first of all.

And mean.

And bossy.

And the elder made her own list.

The younger needed someone to tell her what to do every minute or her head would fall off.

The younger had a mouth on her.

The father loved the younger more, always had. All the elder’s life, he had loved the younger more.

A neat trick, said the younger, considering that for some of the elder’s life the younger didn’t even exist.

They spent the sixth day writing letters at separate tables in the café.

So everything was wrong and going wrong and they still had four more days of sisterly events to get through.

Then the elder said the only course open to them (since of course the elder could see all courses) was to go to the movies, here in this foreign land, because everyone knows the movies are dark and other people talk over a loudspeaker so the sisters wouldn’t be able to see each other or argue, and that is what she decided they should do. So they did. It was an adventure, or a sci-fi feature, or men with guns, done in digits, digitized, with a neatly typed sentence below explaining to everybody in one language as the people on the screen explained, or tried to, in another. The two sisters sat in front of the giant screen. They didn’t argue or see each other but it wasn’t quite the moment of sisterliness the sisters had hoped for.

Afterwards they walked back to the hotel.

Anyone watching them would have unquestionably seen two sisters, walking along, each with a “day pack” on, bought special for this purpose, bags that looked like actual school backpacks, as if this were the walk home from school—an activity they’d never done together, a sister situation denied them (fault of parents: different schools, big city, numbered bus lines) (and perhaps why they couldn’t get along in this present sister condition: they’d had so little practice) (the elder had spent her life alone). No one wanted to interrupt this. Anyone watching could have seen it and of course two men were watching and did want to interrupt it, possibly two brothers themselves, most likely two brothers, and the two brothers took this opportunity to rush up behind the sisters, grab them, hold knives to their throats and say, Dame la mochila.

Now what does that mean?

Give me the bag.

Well.

What happened next is the source of confusion, not for the one sister, the younger, who (head screwed on properly, having benefited from more of her father’s love, and who, being the younger, knew how to take an order) quietly slipped her arms out of her mochila and handed it to the man—no confusion. The confusion came from the other, the elder, who later would say she fought for her bag, that no one was taking her mochila (she hadn’t known that word mochila until that moment and now would know it forever, proudly—her mochila, freshly purchased, now gone), fought for it, she would say. But others in the area (the only other, the sister, since the brothers with knives could not be reached for their comments) would think it didn’t seem like the elder was fighting, exactly. She seemed to be falling or melting or slinking, as if she could slink away from the scene. And the slinking sister has told the story of her fighting back so many times since that she has nearly closed out of her mind any other possibility, so that any other possibility (the truth, say) returns only in sleep or when alone and with less and less frequency so that one day that door will slap shut for good.

She wasn’t fighting. She was running and screaming and falling and an object, a man, was on top of her. Suddenly she heard her sister’s voice, coming over the loudspeaker of her heart, calling to her, finding the words, having the solution. Give them the bag, she said, and the sister on the ground (not alone), bent up her arms as if she’d been waiting all this time, all these years, for the single clear order (Oh, that’s what they want, the bag) that she could never agree to follow.


Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the novel Vacation and the short story collection Minor Robberies, both from McSweeney’s. Her next book, Revolution, is forthcoming from Holt.

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