Francis took his normal seat at his regular table. The black night filled the windows like mirrors of yesterday.
“Well, you certainly look dapper tonight, Mr. Harold,” Lynette said with a smile. “Very handsome.”
“Hmm? Oh please, call me Francis,” he nodded, fiddling with his napkin.
His hearing was dull, pounded so long ago from the blast of artillery. But as the candles danced with opportunity and Count Basie rippled through the dining hall, his vision sharpened and his mind ventured through the fog, exiting free and clear, attuned to the possibilities of the night.
The parades and cheering left him throbbing and dizzy. The war was over and he was back in the states. The rousing festivities of the day had bled into the night, carrying with it the patriotic tide of comradery. He was still riding high, picking ticker-tape from his pockets when he agreed to the blind date.
Her name was Elsie and she walked in like a thief, stealing the attention of every servicemen and regular joe in the joint. Young Fran’s foot tapped as she swept towards him. Don’t blow this Corporal.
He leaped up to help with her coat, remembering a few scraps of advice from his father. He slid out her seat and his knees nearly buckled from her flowery smell. After nearly two years in barracks, with men who smelled of sweat and smoke and desperation, she was like a wisp of magic.
Fran found his footing and returned to his seat, scooting in and sipping his beer. His heart flopped like a small mouth bass in his canoe. It was with heroic restraint that he managed to keep a lid on the foot tapping.
Jack and Barbara sat nearby, in a corner booth, giggling like school children. The plan was jumbled from the start, complete with a secret signal if things didn’t click. It was Barbara’s idea, but the day’s festivities had left her and Jack wobbly and sloppy and now Fran thought they’d just get in the way. He waved them off without ever taking his eyes off of Elsie.
She was stunning. Her cheeks blossomed like spring when she smiled, washing him clean from the sins of war. They chuckled about their friends over there in the booth. Fran found himself lost in her gaze and dazzled by her easy laughter. When she spoke her voice was like an old familiar song from home. I’d marry her before dessert if she’d let me, he thought.
It was right then that his life played out right there before him. Two kids–no three. They’d move back to the coast and he’d drive an Olds to the plant. He’d rush home before the whistle finished blowing where she’d have to fend off his advances with varying success. Little Jack would make four.
“Mr. Harold, there’s been an emergency.”
He’d retire early and they’d vacation. The kids would visit and with their kids and they’d pile onto his lap for stories. He’d look up to see Elsie watching, beaming with pride and…
“Mr. Harold, it’s about your wife.”
Later, when they were a couple of geezers, they’d downsize, share a bed at some place nice and quiet with a pond, taking walks…
“Mr. Harold you need to come to the hospital.”
The day had been a whirl of joy and peace, but now something magical was happening at the table. They were young with their whole lives to enjoy.
“I’m sorry Mr. Harold, Elsie didn’t make it…”
He’d survived the atrocities of war only to come home, find the purest truth then have it all ripped from his grasp in a flash. War is hell. Life is brutal. Death is inevitable. But…no.
“Mr. Harold,” Lynette touched his shoulder, soft and gentle, her face wrought with concern. Francis rubbed his eyes, finding a dining room that was too bright, too clean, too…real. He looked back to his server, relocating his mind. She knelt by his side.
“Did you see her again?”
Francis nodded. She was gone. Just an empty chair. Jack and Barbara’s booth smoke free and sterile. Count Basie a mere note in his memory. Lynette nodded, glanced over to the others, then helped the frail man to his feet where they took a moment before shuffling out of the dining hall.
Francis glanced back to the empty table, where only a plume of smoke spiraled out of the candle. “She was right there,” he said, then pleading to the young lady on his arm. “Right there.”
“I know, Francis,” she said in a familiar way. They treaded towards the corridor, back to his room, where Lynette helped the feeble, heartbroken man to his single bed. His foggy eyes were lost, somewhere in the soft gaze of his pretty wife trapped inside the frame he clutched. Lynette dabbed at her eyes then kissed his forehead.
“Happy Valentines Day, Francis”