Short Story – Dori Ann Dupré
Today we are treating you to a short story by the lovely Dori Ann Dupré. The writing prompt was, 'He handed me the keys and a plane ticket.'
We encourage our writers to send us their short stories and they often come to us raw and fresh from the author's fingers. We hope you enjoy!
To learn more about Dori Ann Dupré, visit her website: http://www.DoriAnnDupre.com
He Handed Me the Keys and a Plane Ticket
by Dori Ann Dupré
Sitting in the shadows of an overcast office reception area, it was obvious that the fluorescent lighting needed to be replaced. I peered up at the ceiling and noticed the small black marks in the covered glass, identifying where dead flies found their final resting place at some point. Isn’t it funny how we go through all the trouble to change a long, bulky light bulb but then don’t consider wiping up the dead bug carcasses peppered along the smooth covering?
A teenaged boy with a bad case of acne sat in the chair across from me, headphones in, a tattered flannel shirt covering his too-skinny frame. His overworked and underappreciated mother probably dropped him off for his six-month cleaning and exam just like overworked and underappreciated mothers everywhere do each and every day across America. She’ll probably be back soon to pick him up after a brief run to accomplish household errands. After all, she probably had to take sick time from work for this appointment. Might as well try to squeeze in the errands of running a family in an already over-packed day and life. Fondly, I remembered those days.
Sighing to myself, I felt my internal anxiety meter started to flutter to life. I have hated coming to the dentist ever since I was a little girl, back when I had to get metal fillings. To this day, the sound of a drill makes me vomit. Literally. Must be a case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Dental Edition. Dentists hate to see me too.
I picked up a two-year-old copy of People magazine and flipped to the section where there are random photos of the stars, out and about being regular people - as if this is newsworthy. As if stars don’t sit on a toilet like the rest of us. As if stars don’t cross a street to get to the other side. As if stars don’t also go to the dentist and vomit at the sound of a drill.
A tall, attractive man with a five o’clock shadow and salt and pepper hair opened the door to the office and sat in the chair one over from me. That was the proper reception area protocol. He carried a small briefcase, which was clearly overly used and old, like from the 1970s or 1980s. There were scuff marks and fraying edges and a wear to it that revealed either the abusive toll that life takes on us over time or an overwhelming amount of love or some combination of both. While it was rare to see anyone carrying an actual briefcase these days, there was something refreshing about it, a welcomed touch from more formal and polished times, when a briefcase represented success. My parents gave me a brief case when I graduated from college. I don’t think I ever used it because I hadn’t been successful. And now it probably belongs to some once determined young person who rescued it from the Good Will.
As my mind wandered, the man seemed to sense the weight of my eyes resting on his blast-from-the-past piece of adult life luggage. He eyed me, and when I caught his gaze, I smiled quickly and then looked away awkwardly. I hated being caught staring. I didn’t mean to do it, but I generally amused myself with observing the details of strangers. If there was a paying job for people-watching, I’d be first in line. I’d win awards for those mad skills of mine.
“It’s pretty warm outside today,” he said, his voice cutting through the silence. It was deep, booming, almost like he could have been on the radio just this morning.
I glanced back over to him and grinned, shyly. Nodding my head, I agreed, “It is. Summer came quick.”
He sat back in his chair and folded his arms. He wore a long sleeve dress shirt with no tie. “Do you like it here?”
I was a bit confused by his question, so I answered, “Yeah, I’ve lived here for twenty years now. You get used to skipping over Spring.”
He smirked. There was something deliberate in the way that he did it, almost a resignation, and the way he seemed to look at me in my eyes when he spoke was not something I was used to. It was like he thought he knew me from somewhere. “No, I mean here, at this dentist. Do you like it?” he specified.
I snickered. “I hate the dentist. I don’t care how nice he is.”
“I don’t think most people like going to the dentist. Have you been waiting long?”
“About ten minutes so far.”
“That’s not too bad.” He bent over and picked up his briefcase, sat it on his lap and then opened the top. He pulled out a folder, and I could see the yellow sides of it sticking out from behind. He flipped through a couple of pages and pronounced, “Well, that’s a relief. I don’t have to be where I need to be until an hour later than I originally thought.” Then he shoved the papers back into the folder and closed it up. “When that happens, it feels like finding ten dollars in your pocket that you forgot was in there.”
“That’s an old briefcase,” I said, finding myself in unfamiliar territory…which included such things as engaging in conversation with strangers in dentists’ offices.
“I’ve had it since my first job,” he responded proudly. “It’s good luck.”
Cute. He believed in luck. Or at least, good luck. Even at his age. Which I was guessing was fifty-something. Fifty-five. Fifty-two. I only believed in bad luck these days.
“What was your first job?” I asked, suddenly feeling more and more comfortable with this man for some unknown reason, who was clearly friendly and engaging with probably everyone he talks to. He emanated “people person” with how he carried himself. He was outgoing but not in a fake way, like used car or cosmetics salespeople.
“I was an investment banker for a small firm in New York City.”
Wow, I thought. That is impressive. I never did anything big or intelligent or interesting with my life and certainly never went anywhere to work like New York. It was nice to hear about others who did. I lived my insecurities and shortcomings through their leaps of faith. While I was a sideline watcher in the game of life, this man was clearly a player in the game. And he had the old beat up briefcase to prove it.
“Did you like living in New York?” I asked him, starting to hope that the hygienist wouldn’t come out and interrupt my odd string of confidence.
“It was okay for a while, but too busy and too many people for me. A job like that in a place like that is for the young. I like people, but not so many of them at one time.” He sat back again and folded his arms, revealing a small stain on the left elbow. “How about you? What do you do?” His eyes were fixed on mine, almost like he dared me to look away. I was both comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time.
I hated when people asked me what I did for a living. I was always such a disappointment to anyone who had high hopes for me and my potential that it became the kind of question I avoided altogether. There was nothing special about what I did to pay the bills. It required no hoity-toity education or a whole lot of effort and sacrifice on my part. No one paid homage to what I did. There was no special day or week dedicated to honoring people who did what I did.
“Nothing special,” I replied, wanting to avert the conversation somewhere else, like onto him. It just made me feel like a loser. Just another thing, really. This man seemed much more interesting than I could ever be even on my most interesting day. I was willing to wager that the stain on his elbow had a better story than I had in my index finger.
“Hmmmm….let me guess. How about you let me guess what you are? Then you can tell me if I’m right.”
“No, really, it’s okay. I don’t do anything worth talking about.”
“Let me guess, and if I’m right, you will buy me coffee at the Starbucks across the street after this dentist visit.”
That was a surprise. He said it with such ease - as if he asked women in offices to coffee every day. I couldn’t believe how forward he was. I felt caged in, almost. Like he had violated something between us. But his stare remained firm. He held my eyes with a firm but gentle gaze.
“I’m married,” I blurted out. “I don’t have coffee with other men.”
His face adjusted. He seemed amused by my confession and then apologetic. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything untoward by suggesting we have coffee. It was more just a friendly bet is all. Please don’t be offended.”
“I’m not offended,” I responded to him sharply, starting to feel stupid, like I overreacted to his is-it-or-isn’t-it invitation. Which wasn’t really an invitation - just me being one of those stereotypical overthinking women who can’t handle herself when in public.
The hygienist came out and announced, “Justin Walker?” The acne-faced teenager pulled his earbuds out of his ears and shuffled over to the door, following her into the back.
I glanced down at my left hand, my wedding band still resting on my ring finger. It sat on there for twenty-seven years, never taken off except for the one time I had a tubal ligation in my late thirties. Four kids was enough. The ring remained in place, even though he was gone, even though I could no longer technically check off the box in the questionnaires that indicated I was “married” or file joint tax returns with the IRS or have him be my plus-one at some family member’s wedding reception. My ring told the world I was taken, that I belonged to someone else. But it was a show, like everything else had been in my life so far.
“I’m not really married,” I stated, suddenly, out of the blue.
The man looked at my ring finger. “You’re wearing a ring.”
“I just haven’t had the strength to take it off.”
I noticed a glaze of gloom and sorrow sweeping across his face, almost like he knew how I felt, either a loss that he chose or a loss that he didn’t. And isn’t that always the case with loss? It hurts the same either way.
We remained quiet for the rest of the wait. He was obviously out of his element, a man who did not know exactly how to be silent if there was another human being around to talk with. He looked melancholy, as if I had ruined his good day without realizing I had done anything of the sort. I was just being me, and I guess that’s my downfall every time. I can even manage to shut up a charming “people person” like this brief-cased stranger.
I went back to the dentist’s chair for my six-month round of torture. When I returned to the reception area, he was gone. As I walked up to the young girl sitting at the desk in order to make my next appointment, she handed me a manila envelope and said excitedly, “Here. Mr. Farbeau asked me to give this to you.”
“Who is Mr. Farbeau?”
“He’s the gentleman who was waiting with you earlier.”
Shocked, I looked around again. “Is he still here?”
“No, he left around five minutes ago.”
I hustled outside of the office and into the small parking lot housing my car. There was no one outside but me. Curiously, I opened the envelope, and my heart started racing. Why in the world would this man leave me a package? Out fell a note, written in neatly formed penmanship, probably honed in some small Catholic school a long time ago.
It read: “You seem like you could use this more than me. You are a beautiful woman with a vibrant spirit, but I can tell that you’re very sad and you might carry the weight of the world with you. I hope you find that fire again, the one I know for certain is still inside of you. Because I could see it in there clear as day. Sincerely, John Farbeau.”
I put my hand inside of the envelope and pulled out a small set of keys, adorned with a teal keychain that read, “Trepid Falls Resort, Lake Tahoe” in gold ink along with a single round trip plane ticket to California in the name of “John L. Farbeau.” He was slick. He knew and I knew that I could not accept such a gift from a stranger. Not because I was too proud, but because in this day and age, airlines will not allow one person to fly under someone else’s plane ticket.
John L. Farbeau knew I’d have to find him. And he knew that I would try.