Saturday Stories #3
A rainy, autumn day at Willow Rest Assisted Living and Nursing Home, late in the 20th century.
The old man looked at the clock and set down his magazine. He stood up, examined himself in the mirror, poured a shot of gin, and downed it in a slow gulp.
He shuffled to the door, took a deep breath, and placed a disinterested but confident expression on his face.
Then, pulling open the door, he stepped into the corridor and strode the 50 feet down the corridor to his destination.
The old man paused at the entrance to the common room and saw her at once – pale, frail, but just as heart-stoppingly beautiful as ever – looking out the windows at the nearby trees as if they were a thousand miles and a lifetime ago.
“She won’t remember you,” said the orderly. “She never does.”
“That’s all right, son,” the old man said.
He walked slowly to the window with the confident air of a man walking as fast as he can.
“Hello, Ilsa,” he said, kissing her familiarly on the top of her head, and she started.
Her eyes were clear blue, glistening in what light was afforded by artificial lamps on a cloudy day.
“Do I know you?” she asked, with the lilt of someone who had learned another language first.
“Not today, not tomorrow, but someday,” he replied with a smile. “I live here, too, next door down from you, as a matter of fact. I come here every day to have a smoke by the window, and here you are every day looking like a million bucks.”
She blushed and smiled back. “That’s very nice of you to say,” she said, “but I don’t think we’re allowed to smoke in here.”
He shrugged. “I was misinformed.”
“What do we talk about, every day?” she asked wistfully.
“Oh, who are you really, and what were you before, what did you do and what did you think – that sort of thing.”
“And who was I really?”
“I honestly never found out,” the old man said. “We always agreed no questions.”
“So did we get married?”
“Oh, the subject may have come up, but those were not times to be thinking that far ahead,” he said. “I owned a couple of gin joints, and we spent a little time together, once for a few weeks and then one night about a year later, and then we – went our separate ways.”
“And you still remember, how nice.”
“Well, we were together for only a little while, but we were together as hard as two people could be,” he said. “That’s why I was so happy to meet you again, here of all places.”
“I think – I think I may remember one of your ‘gin joints,’” she said tentatively. “Was it somewhere in the sand?”
He leaned in and sang so only she could here: “You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss …”
“I do remember!” she brightened. “The smoke, the people, the crowds – it was called the Cafe Americain!”
“Yes, Ilsa, that’s right,” he encouraged her gently. “Yes.”
“And you –” She reached out to touch his cheek and smiled the smile that forever melted his heart, the smile that stabbed him in the heart.
“Yes, dear, it’s me.”
“Oh Sam, I always loved to hear you sing.”
He smiled bravely, with all his might. “You sure did.”
“But it was only for a short time.”
“Yes, it was,” he said. “In a way all of the days since then have been German gray, but the blue of you was enough to last a lifetime.”
“That’s sad,” she said.
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” the old man said. “I fought my battles and I love my children and grandkids like the dickens, and it was a real and full life. Every so often, though, I think back to those weeks we spent, as if they are an oasis in an angry desert, a water so rare and pure and plentiful that I knew I would never be thirsty again.”
“Why, Rick, I never knew what a poet you are.”
“I’m no more a poet than the next man,” he said, forcing his face not to react to her saying his real name. “I live the life the cards have dealt me, and I’ve had my share of good hands and my share of folds.”
He drank in the light in her eyes and reached out to tap her gently.
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” he said, and watched the embers flare and die out as her expression went blank.
She laughed lightly.
“A boy I knew used to say that.”
“Yes, you’ve told me.”
“That was a long time ago. I always wondered what happened to him,” she said wistfully. “I suppose he’s gone by now.”
“I don’t like ponies,” she said in a sudden little girl’s voice. “Why are girls supposed to like horses? They’re big, hot, disgusting animals.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Do you?” She seemed to search for something in his eyes, grown up again. “Perhaps you can tell me what I mean. I feel so lost in here.” Her eyes welled with tears. “I know there’s more to remember, but I can’t. It’s so frustrating.”
He shrugged. “Forget about it. It’s a nice day. Just let it be a nice day.”
“It’s a gloomy, gray day, and it’s going to rain.”
“Is it?” the old man asked. “All I see is a pretty lady enjoying the day.”
“Oh, you.” There was that smile again. She held out her hand. “I’m Ilsa. It’s so nice to meet you.”
And then the time came when it was enough and it was time to leave her.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, and kissed her on the top of her head..
“Of course. I see you every day, Ilsa.”
“Do you? Oh, how nice,” she said. “It’s so silly, I don’t remember you.”
“Don’t worry, dear,” he said gently. “I’ve been remembering for the both of us for a very long time.”