I began to straighten my desk before going home when Beth tossed an envelope on my desk and tried to hustle away.
“Hey, what’s this?” The envelope was damp, and the mail arrived at our office like clockwork right after lunch.
She turned back, puffing and pouting. Today’s bedazzled shirt featured aqua and magenta dolphins. Better than the silver and gold porcupine. Randy’d told her never to wear that one again.
“Dunno it came that way sorry.” She turned again, and I let her leave this time. Not worth delaying my own escape from cubicle hell.
The envelope was heavy, textured paper a delicate cream color not typically seen by a desk monkey like myself. I was lucky to have received it at all from Beth’s grabby hands.
I looked inside and smiled. There was another envelope within, black sealing wax protecting it. I looked again at the outer one, blank but for my name in black calligraphy.
The wax was sealed with an embellished 2 twined with a D. Driscoll hadn’t lied after all.
“I don’t get it D. You’ve just got all the luck,” I had moped, on the way to drowning my sorrows. D was paying, and damn well should. The only paid itinerant philosopher I’d ever heard of, he loved life and lived like I always wished I could.
“Well, it isn’t all luck Ray. I had to suck a lot of dick to get where I am today, you know.” He slapped me on the back and guffawed. I elbowed him off.
“I always thought we’d end up in the same place, man. How’d you fucking do it?” I slapped the table. D got all serious for a minute, looked me right in the eye.
“Hey, if I can tell you, I will. You’ll know it when it comes,” he paused, and the intensity in his eyes had me biting at the bait. “But you better be ready to suck a lot of dick!”
I rubbed my right hand, still bruised from that outburst.
I cracked the wax. More fine paper and black ink. A simple message, in simple script.
The library. Midnight.
It could only be one library, the old neighborhood extension where D and I would be sent to return videos by our mothers. I think they hoped the books would rub smarts off on us.
I walked. Mom had died years ago, but I never escaped the neighborhood. I’d move out someday, when I got that promotion Randy had dangled to keep me on until the recession made any job a commodity in and of itself. Yeah, right.
The library was sandwiched between a tanning joint and a cash store, both closed for the night. The area was deserted, too boring even for trouble-making kids to bother with. I settled beneath the frayed, moonlight bleached awning to wait.
At precisely midnight, a tiny car pulled up and an elegant woman in an androgynous black suit stepped out. Her hair was pulled back tightly, and her movements were crisp as she walked up to me. She examined me toe to unkempt hair with a steady gaze, as if the shadows in which I hid had no meaning for her. A nod.
“Did I pass?”
Not even a flicker of a smile.
“Raymond Claude Heller, 35 years old, mired in a dead-end job pushing papers while the life you thought you’d have drifts out of your reach.” Her voice was soft, almost sweet, but I flinched at the content. “No living family, no steady girlfriends, no community ties.”
I clenched and unclenched my fists as her recitation ended. She just stood there, watching me fight not to punish the messenger. So I had a shitty life, no reason to strike a lady. No reason at all.
“What you need, Ray, is a second chance. The question that I seek to answer for the sake of my employers is: would you use it well?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
She smiled, just a small curve of the lips, and put her hand out.
I shook hands with her. She gave a good firm handshake, not like so many women’s boneless clasp.
A rushing swelled in my ears, and the woman faded from sight. I was falling against the wall behind me as the world faded into an ethereal mist. A crystal dolphin swam through the mist in front of me, turned to pin me with one ruby eye.
“What would you change Ray?” it asked with a voice like ocean waves inside my skull. I tried to speak, but I had no mouth, no words, so I thought.
I’d get a life.
The dolphin shook its head at me. Fine.
I’d go to college out of state, break out of the old neighborhood. I’d make something of myself.
The dolphin executed a loop and made as if to swim away. If it left, I’d never get my second chance, the chance to replay my life with the conviction I should have always had but just didn’t. All those almosts, and might-have-beens would be in my grasp if I could just-
I thought of Jillian Forrest. She’d be the one who got away, if I’d ever had her. I’d never had the balls even to ask her out, but I heard years later that she’d have said yes. At her wake.
A new vision of my life began to grow in my mind, of me and Jillian, having children, working hard and loving each other, D, the visiting uncle my kids would love not just for the presents he brought but the love and attention he gave them, the hope that they could do whatever they dreamed when they grew up.
The dolphin looped closer now.
“Love?” it asked. “Is that enough?”
Yes, I thought, and the mist began to thicken, obscuring my vision into darkness.