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.”
"Please, call me Francis," he nodded, unfolding his napkin. The candles danced with opportunity as Count Basie rippled through the room. His ears still rang, damaged from the artillery and throbbing from the lively parades taking place in the streets. He was dead tired but had agreed to a blind date.
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 leapt up and took her coat like a real gent, remembering a few words of advice from his father. Then he slid out her seat. Her flowery smell nearly buckled his knees, he’d spent the past two years in barracks with men who smelled of sweat and smoke and desperation.
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.
Jack and Barbara sat off in a corner booth, giggling like school children. The plan had been a double date, complete with a secret signal if things didn't click. It was his friends over there who had set the whole blind date up anyway. But the day's festivities had made them wobbly and sloppy. Francis waved them off and set his attention back on Elsie.
She was stunning. Her cheeks blossomed when she smiled, with a grace that washed him clean of the sins of war. 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, he’d look up to her and find her beaming with pride and…
“Mr. Harold, it’s about your wife.”
Later, when they were a couple of geezers, they’d share a bed at a quiet community 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.. Death was inevitable, life was brutal.
“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. Jack and Barbara’s booth was smoke free and sterile. Count Basie a mere note in his memory. Lynette nodded, looked back to the other servers, then helped him 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. “Right there.”
“I know, Francis,” she said in a way told him she’d said it before. They tread the corridor, back to his room, where Lynette helped the feeble, heartbroken man to his single bed. His foggy eyes were lost again, somewhere in the smile in the frame he clutched. She wiped her eyes then kissed his forehead.
“Happy Valentines Day, Francis”