“Broken watch, set of keys.” The old man set each object onto the desk with a clunk as he lifted them from the drawer. “Baby rattle, nasty old sweatshirt. Oh, my favorite.” He lifted a small wooden box and set it gently on the desk. He brushed the lid with reverence, then looked furtively around the small office as sweet tobacco wafted across the room, his eyes passing over me.
“Cubans. The real deal.” He smiled, admiring his treasure. His teeth were a little crooked, but surprisingly retained their original white. “Been here twenty years, and I swear my boss still checks on them every night. Like he thinks today is the day I’m gonna smoke one.” He barked a laugh that quickly dissolved into a cough. “Like these lungs could handle such a treat.”
Right then, I didn’t give a damn about cigars. That kiosk wouldn’t hold Lyla for long and soon she’d wonder where I’d gone. The drumming of my fingers was loud enough to break his trance, and he shut the box.
“I’m sorry, son. I don’t…”
The office door shuddered, nudged ajar, then fell closed again. A soft, muffled grumble came from the other side. I rose and gently opened the door, startling the short old woman behind it. She raised a bony hand to her heart, then nodded thanks and gingerly stepped inside. Her head leaned forward, eyes squinting. Each measured footfall was taken with great care. As I reached out to take her elbow for assistance, the old man glided across the room with surprising grace and speed, though a slight grimace as he stiffened his back betrayed a deeper truth.
“A-allow me, ma’am.” His voice was barely above a whisper, almost hidden in his throat with stage fright. As we shouldered her weight and eased her into a folding chair–the one with slightly less tattered cushions–she pursed her lips in embarrassment.
“Dear me. I’m afraid I must admit I’m a bit lost. And, well, I don’t see so well, so the signs are rather hard to read. By any chance, might some kind soul have found my glasses and brought them here?”
The man looked over at me, then down at the pair of horn-rimmed glasses attached to a chain around the woman’s neck. He took the seat beside her, face flushing. “Well, ma’am, it seems you’ve come to the right place.” Softly, with a bit of trepidation, he reached out and lifted her dangling glasses from her chest and raised them up to her face. He gently slid the earpieces through her wispy hair until the frame rested snugly on the bridge of her nose.
The woman stiffened a little, but softened as she spoke. “Oh my, thank you kind…” Her voice trailed off as her vision gained focus, the man’s awestruck, grinning face staring back at her. “…sir.”
“Mr. Wilbur Cosgrove, at your service.” He smoothed his already pressed shirt, his eyes not leaving hers. She adjusted a lock of hair under her glasses and stared back.
“Penelope Wilson. But please, call me Penny.” Her hair was a blanket of white, with just enough of a honeyed tint to belie its once-red roots.
“When I was a boy, I had a goldfish named Penny. Shiny coat of coppery scales. Any relation?”
The woman’s lips curled with a touch of amusement. “I doubt it. I’ve got some trout in my family, and one striped bass we don’t like to talk about, but no goldfish.”
Forgotten, I coughed lowly, pointing back at the remnants of the lost and found drawer.
“Huh? Oh, sorry. As I was saying, I’m afraid nobody’s turned in a lost ring.”
My shoulders sagged, my lungs emptying themselves of their last breath of hope. One faulty zipper and what should have been the greatest trip of my life was already a disaster. I opened the office door.
“She must be very special.” Penny was looking at me, but her hand was now entwining its fingers through Wilbur’s. I arched an eyebrow, puzzled. “The lucky lady. Tell me about her.”
Feeling a little odd, but welcoming any delay to face reality, I let go of the door. Despite my mood, I couldn’t help but smile as I spoke. “Her name is Lyla. And she’s the most amazing person I’ve ever met. She’s a vet, over at County Zoo, but she’s just as great with less furry creatures like me. She’s got this wild mess of brown hair that sticks straight up when she sleeps, and her nose crinkles with these cute little lines when she laughs. She’s got the biggest heart, and I’m just happy to take up home in a little corner of it.”
Penny nodded in silent approval. Her fragile little fingers pinched her necklace. On closer look, it held not a charm, but a shiny ring. She twirled it in her fingers. “My Johnny gave me this when we were only eighteen. He went off to war a few months later.” She unclasped the necklace and carefully slipped the ring free. “Never came back. But my heart doesn’t feel so lonely at this moment. And this ring deserves to be on the finger of some pretty young lady.”
Penny reached out and took my hand. Her skin was thin and dry, but radiated warmth. She pressed the ring into my palm and closed my fist. “Give this to her. It will mean the world to me to know it brings joy.”
My mouth agape, I was unable to muster a response. She settled back into the chair, now supported by Wilbur’s shoulder, as if she’d always fit into that nook. Wilbur touched his forehead to hers, then looked over at me, holding up a finger. He reached across to the desk and opened the lid of the wooden box once more.
He withdrew a single, slender cigar, and I swear a smirk crossed his face as he thought about it. With a wink, he handed it to me. “Don’t smoke it ’til after she says yes.”
—Steve Forti is a writer and IT project manager whose mind bounces between novels and flash fiction. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two kids (though she’ll insist she lives with three kids). Precious little can be learned about him at sjforti.blogspot.com.