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Cheap Ticket

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"You'll never sell it." My brother's chuckle sounded too loud in my ear. "Who'd want to go to Cleveland?"

That's all I remember about the conversation, even though I know we talked about things besides the airplane ticket I'd bought before the family get-together shifted to a different weekend.

"Of course I can sell it," I mouthed back, sure that my brother's negativism had less to do with the attractions of Cleveland than with my own capabilities.

My family has a limited perspective on the competence of women: More than 20 years ago, when I was moving back to Cleveland for a few weeks between jobs, my parents offered to help. They arrived on my Michigan doorstep with my brother along as designated driver, convinced that I couldn't handle the 300 miles on the highway in my own car. Their doubt was contagious. Even as I write this, with many years of long-distance driving under my belt, I too wonder if I could have handled it. Still, when we hit the road and it started to rain, my brother asked how to work the defroster and I refused to tell him. "Figure it out for yourself," I said, putting both our lives on the line as the windshield fogged over. "You're the one who knows how to drive."

It was the same lack of confidence I heard in his chuckle about the plane ticket.

Of course I can sell it, I repeated to myself as I hung up the phone.

It was a cheap ticket. One of the airlines was inaugurating service from Chicago to Cleveland with bargain basement fares, and I'd only paid $78 for my round-trip fare. I rounded it down to $70, and I was sure someone would jump at it. I couldn't be the only person with relatives in Cleveland.

Sure enough, less than an hour after I put up a sign on the bulletin board at work I had a taker.

The caller's family lived just outside Cleveland, he hadn't been home for a while, and he wanted the ticket.

I imagined the look on my brother's face. Then the guy called back. He had a wedding in Chicago that weekend and wouldn't be able to get away after all.

So, it wouldn't be easy. But there was time. I had purchased the ticket six weeks in advance.

Wendy approached me by the office coffeepot, very excited. Her husband's family lived in Cleveland and this was the opportunity for him to visit them--without her. She'd see what she could do.

Elizabeth answered my classified ad. The drive costs almost $50, she groaned, and it's a hard one. She hadn't been home in a long time, and her mother wanted her to come...

Elizabeth's problem was she didn't have the $70 yet. I agreed to bring the ticket to the restaurant where she waitressed, on payday, four days later.

Meanwhile there were three more calls: Dahlia, Jeremy, and Mark, each a merry flashing light on my answering machine.

But what about Elizabeth? I thought, reluctant to return any calls. Her mother wants to see her.

"Ask her for a deposit," my office buddy George advised. "My dad got burned so many times."

This was the first I'd heard about anyone taking advantage of George's father. He was a used-car salesman. To hear George tell it, he practically stole cars from people who advertised them in the Sunday classifieds. He once sold a car with faulty brakes to George.

I called Elizabeth. If you can give me $20 by tonight, I'll hold the ticket. If not, I added sadly, well, I have other interested parties.

Elizabeth was stoic. Get rid of it, she said calmly.

But you still want it? I pressed. If the other people can't use it?

Oh, yes, she said. Very much.

Dahlia was soft-spoken, hesitant. She had a friend in Cleveland, didn't know if she was free the weekend of the ticket, but would check back to see if it was still available. And one more thing. Was the ticket transferable?

Transferable? Why not? I give it to you. You give it to them. I didn't say any of this, though. What I said was, no one asks for identification when you get on an airplane. Dahlia said she'd think about it.

Mark was crisp and to the point, unconcerned with transferability. He wanted to know the flight times. No can do, he said, and that was that.

Jeremy I didn't even want to call back. I intuited things about Jeremy just from the quality of his voice: he didn't have relatives in Cleveland; he didn't have relatives at all, or at least any who had heard from him in recent years. There was a clipped edge to Jeremy's voice that suggested he was after something besides the ticket.

I went ahead and dialed anyway. I got a machine and that same calculating Jeremy voice. You know what to do and you know when to do it, the voice said. He was right about that. I waited for the beep and hung up.

I dug out the ticket, searching for Jeremy's motive--Aha! There it was, cleverly concealed among the airline gibberish: my MasterCard number.

Jeremy could travel a lot farther than Cleveland with this information. Maybe even London or Paris before anyone caught up with him. And who could find a guy like Jeremy in Paris? I decided that if I sold the ticket to a stranger I would report my MasterCard missing the same day.

I called Elizabeth and left a message saying the ticket was available after all.

Elizabeth didn't call back.

By now the ticket had become a favorite topic around the office. Wendy wrung her hands in despair every time I walked by her desk. Such a cheap ticket, she moaned, but he won't go.

A very young secretary assured me she desperately needed a vacation, had considered Cleveland. But what would she do there?

Joe reported he was going to Graceland in a couple of months. Maybe I could get credit on the Cleveland ticket and then buy one to Memphis, and he would purchase that one from me...

This was getting complicated, but I called the airline. Impossible, an employee told me. No credit on that ticket. A refund then? Only if I were hospitalized or a close relative died, she said.

Then why isn't it transferable?

It just isn't.

Did you ever hear of anything in the world, I grilled her, you can own and not have the right to sell?

No, she demurred.

The Eastern bloc countries used to be like that, I said. Now we're that way.

Yes, she agreed weakly.

I warned her not to cancel my reservation. I didn't want the airline selling my ticket twice.

I didn't tell my brother I couldn't sell the ticket, and he didn't ask. For us, that was progress.

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