Near midnight she pedals her rented bike past Checkpoint Charlie. Vacant, but suitably restored, the off-white, utilitarian guard box occupies the middle of the street, protected from a barrage of ... [+]
"Yes, that's true, but I'll pay the difference," the old man said to the operator.
"That's not how the credit card plan works anymore," she explained. "The rules have changed. You have to make purchases that add up to the total amount of points to fly."
"I have to go to my granddaughter's wedding. Do you understand?" he asked. "I haven't seen her since she was two years old."
The operator couldn't see that he was clutching a picture of his granddaughter in his hand. It was faded and curled at the edges. He had carried it in his wallet for the past 25 years—staring at it and crying on each of her birthdays.
That was the last time he had seen her—on her second birthday. He could barely remember it now. His mind had been playing tricks on him lately. Only brief scenes laced his memory. No doubt because of all the years he had spent—or misspent—drinking. The alcohol had both numbed and sharpened his pain. It was cruel that way.
"What can I do?" he pleaded with the operator. He couldn't tell her that he had been drunk on his granddaughter's birthday.
The wound opened as his voice cracked. He remembered how he started pouring shots for himself at breakfast that morning so many years ago—how he had ended up just emptying the contents straight from the bottle down his throat. By the time he had arrived at her party, the room was hazy.
"You're drunk," his daughter had hissed under her breath in the kitchen.
He remembered her jamming the two candles into the cake, a cake he would never taste.
His mind was in a pleasant fog when his granddaughter had run into the kitchen. Did he smile at her? Did he really grip her too hard trying to pick her up? Did he really collapse in the kitchen with her in his arms? His daughter had screamed at him. That he remembered. No amount of alcohol could keep her disgust of him at bay.
"Sir, are you still there?" the operator asked. "Do you understand, sir? You don't have enough points."
"Please," he implored. "There must be something you can do to help me. I can pay the difference. Please."
Surely, she could forgive him. His granddaughter wasn't hurt badly. It was just a scrape, a wound that would heal, he thought in a brief moment of lucidity. That wasn't the case.
Years passed. Years in which his granddaughter grew up. Years in which he had written and called. Years that his letters had been returned to him unopened—up until he had a no fixed address.
"I'm working again," he told the operator. "It's been almost two years. I've saved. I've always paid my credit card in full. Look at my file. See. It's good, right? I almost have enough points."
The operator paused. "One moment, sir. May I put you on hold?"
"Yes, certainly," he replied.
Maybe she felt the rawness of his pain, or maybe it was the emotion she heard in his voice. Did she have a father that she missed, too?
He had sent his daughter letters from his new address. They hadn't been returned. He had dared to hope. He had written to her about the new program his was in, and how much it was helping him. He had told her about his new job and how he had embraced being responsible and responsive. In his final letter, he had overcome his fear and told her how the war had impacted him, how he had faced his demons, and most of all how sorry he was.
The invitation had come a month later.
"Sir, I've spoken to my manager. We can extend the old rule in your case because of your record."
"Yes, my record of service, yes," he said. The tears welled up in his eyes.
She gave him his flight details.
"I can go," he confirmed.
"Yes, sir, enjoy your granddaughter's wedding."
He hung up the phone and stared at the faded image. "I'll see you soon."