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-- Excerpt --

I rubbed my thumb across the worn J.O.E. monogram on the face of the carpetbag. I wanted to open it again. Something stopped me, a feeling, an instinct that said, “Not yet.”

A continuous pinging sound was coming from the table next to me. I looked to my right. An attractive woman in her late forties with shoulder length, auburn hair was sitting alone, facing the same direction that I was, staring out across the room toward the entrance. I wasn’t sure if she was drunk or just had real lousy rhythm as she nervously tapped on her exotic drink with one of those colorful little paper parasols. Scattered in front of her on the table were the shredded remains of two other umbrellas. She glanced at her watch, drained her drink, and let out an exasperated sigh.

A middle-aged cocktail waitress, carrying a tray of drinks, appeared between our tables. She looked terribly uncomfortable, bulging out of a skimpy violet outfit at least a size and a half too small for her. I felt sorry for her. Seemingly in a perpetual state of inhalation, she leaned over next to the umbrella lady. “Can I get you another?”

The woman grabbed her camelhair coat off the chair next to her. “No, I’m fine, but if my invisible date here ever decides to materialize, he’ll have a shot of arsenic on me.”

The waitress smiled as she set the woman’s tab on the table. “Maybe he got held up by the snow,” she said sympathetically.

“Yeah, let’s hope it was a small avalanche. Blind date—what the heck was I thinking?” She grabbed the bill, opened her purse, and dug deep.

The waitress turned around toward me.

“And what can I get you, sir?”

“Oh, um, Jack Daniels. No—actually, just a cup of decaf.”

“Good enough. I’ll be right back,” the waitress said, sucking in a considerable amount of air and unavoidably strutting off down the aisle toward the bar.

The angry woman stood up to leave and looked my way as she began buttoning her coat in the middle. “You know, you got it all backwards. You’re supposed to arrive sober, leave drunk.”

I set the carpetbag on the bench next to me, averting my eyes away from her. I’m guessing she wasn’t in the mood to be disregarded twice that evening, because in a saccharine tone she added, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you at first. You’re one of them, aren’t you?”

I moved the bag closer to me, and fiddled with the handles, hoping to look preoccupied so that the lady would take the hint. But she wouldn’t be denied. “Hey, guy with the goofy bag.”

I finally looked over at her.

“I said, you’re one of them, are you not?”

I could almost see roots splitting down through the soles of her black shoes, pushing their way into the wooden floor and taking hold. The woman was officially planted until she got an answer from me.

“One what?”

“A pholeaziat.”

I didn’t have a clue what she was suggesting that I might be, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a term of endearment.

“A phony sleazy rat,” she explained. “You’re one of ’em, all right. Know how I know? I’ll tell you—because you’re a man. Admit it. You’re a pholeaziat, right?”

This stranger and I had both consumed more than our share of alcohol and rejection that evening, so I understood her anger. I stared into the candle flame and the image of Kathy’s expression as she sat in the rocking chair reappeared to me. “Yeah. Yeah, that I am.”

Apparently my admission of guilt caught her totally off guard. “You are?” She was quiet for a second then said, “No, see, when someone says something rude to you, you’re suppose to be rude back. It’s only common courtesy.”

She stood there in the middle of the aisle for a good ten seconds just looking lost. I searched the room for the waitress, hoping my coffee would arrive soon. Then, as the music floating in the air segued into “The Christmas Song”—sung by Nat King Cole—the woman looked up and took a deep breath, like she was inhaling the silky opening melody line.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . .

She exhaled, and calm seemed to take hold of her.

“Look, I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not usually nearly this obnoxious, really. It’s just . . . I’m really sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize,” I said.

“But I do. My name’s Maggie Olson.” She held out her hand and I shook it.

“I’m David.”

“Do you mind?” Maggie gestured toward the empty chair across from me. I wasn’t really in the mood for company, but as I shrugged my shoulders she plopped herself down. She had an attractive face, but one that looked like it had been pissed off for years. A heavy coat of mascara framed large green eyes that didn’t need the enhancement.

The waitress arrived and set the cup of coffee in front of me. “There you go.”

“Thank you.”

She turned to Maggie who politely waved her off. It seemed I had little choice, so I took a sip of my coffee, set it down, and gave Maggie my full attention.

She began with a sigh. “God, I hate this time of year. It tries to turn you into some kind of a softy. The lights, the smells . . . everybody pretending to be in such an exceedingly pleasant mood . . . and then there’re these songs. Nat King Cole just messes with your heart. Who needs it, right?”

She was talking to me as if I were an old friend. I couldn’t help but squirm in my chair. “Not me,” she continued. “Come tomorrow, I’ll be lying out on a sunny beach in Miami, without a snowflake or a Christmas tree or a Santa Claus in sight. Just need to pick up a pair of sunglasses and I’ll be all set.” She eyed the carpetbag at my side. “Looks like you might have the same idea. So, where’re you headed?”

Seizing the opportunity to further test the properties of the bag, and my own mental health, I slid the candle and my coffee off to the side and set the carpetbag on top of the table. I unlatched the lock and eased the carpetbag over in front of her. “You tell me.”

“Is this some kind of a game?”

“Go ahead. Look inside.”

She glanced down into the narrow opening; then pried open the bag and briefly dipped her head deeper into its mouth like a reluctant lion tamer. “Ah, a light packer. It’s empty. I don’t get it.”

I leaned back, confused and even strangely disappointed. Maggie closed the bag and pushed it back over to me.

“Forget it,” I said. “I thought that maybe . . .” I began to sense something. I stared at the carpetbag. Maybe it was my imagination or wishful thinking, but I felt a presence inside the bag.

“You thought that maybe what?”

I touched the side of the bag with my fingertips, gently stroking the nap. The presence began to take on form, a shape, narrow and angular. I didn’t know how I knew, but as sure as Maggie was sitting across from me, there was an object inside that bag.

Without looking in, I dropped my hand down into the bag like one of those mechanical toy claw machines. My fingers found an object along the bottom: smooth, hard, pointy. They closed down around it. My hand trembled as I lifted out a pair of sunglasses with pink cat’s eye frames.

Maggie broke into a smile and applause. I just stared at the sunglasses, feeling like they could vanish from my hand at any second.

“Whoa! Fabulous! So, you’re a magician! Not bad. It’s no bunny rabbit, but still, I’m very impressed.”

There was no more room for doubt. The magic was real and it scared the snot out of me. I gingerly handed the sunglasses to Maggie. “I think these are meant for you.”

“Really? Not exactly my style, but thanks. So, how’d you do it? Or is it some kind of trade secret?”

I eased the top of the carpetbag closed, ready for the show to be over.

“You all right?” Maggie asked. “You look a little pukey. Maybe if you showed me another trick—”

“I’m not a magician.”

“Oh, don’t sell yourself short like that. You have real talent. Not just anybody can—”

All my confusion turned to anger as I leaned forward and grabbed Maggie by the wrist. “Listen to me . . . I am not taking a trip. I am not a magician. And I am not crazy!”

“Crazy? You?” Maggie shook loose of my grasp and quickly scooted her chair away from the table. “No, no, of course you’re not crazy,” she said, standing up. “Who could possibly accuse you of being crazy? Gotta go.” She turned to leave.

“Wait!” I said, rising to my feet. “I’m sorry. Please, don’t go.”

Maggie stopped, her eyes fixed on the exit. “Why not? I mean, why would I want to endure even more abuse than I’ve already experienced this evening?” She looked over at me. “Why should I stay?”

“Because I don’t want to be alone in this.”

She closed her eyes and shook her head.

I leaned on the table in an attempt to calm the tremors in my body.

“How do I know you’re not some kind of lunatic or something?” she asked.

“You don’t. But I’m not.”

“Yeah, well, I’m gonna some need proof.”

I removed my wallet from my back pocket, flipped it opened to a plastic sleeve insert holding a small family portrait taken last year, and stuck it in front of her face.

“This is your proof?”

“This is my wife, Kathy. And these are my kids, Jeremy and Kelly.”

“So you can procreate. Big deal. Lunatics are reproducing all over the world as we speak.”

I closed the wallet, tucked it back into my pocket, and sat down. “You’re right. You should go.”

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