By Alice Baburek.
The aged senior shuffled slowly through the deserted alleyway. Smells of rotten garbage permeated the dank air. Night had fallen early on the cold, winter day. The taste of chicken noodle soup lingered in his dry, parched throat. He got to the shelter way too late. Meat was for those who came early. Even if it meant sleeping on the sidewalk. Any kind of meat had long been served and gone. He shivered then tirelessly made his way towards his empty home. A tiny run down shack near the freeway. It wasn’t much, but it was home. A roof over his head. Leaky, but still a roof. No electricity or heat. Modern conveniences were overrated.
Northern winds whipped in between the tall buildings. He pulled his worn, tattered coat tighter against his frail body. His paper thin shoes slid along the damp pavement. A few more minutes. Strands of fine, grey hair clung to his sweaty round head.
Suddenly, he felt faint. Dizzy. His breaths short and quick. Pain seared through his left arm. Into his deflated chest. Within seconds, he crumpled heavily to his bony knees. Twisting, falling onto his curved spine. The old man’s pale face stared blindly at the white covered sky above.
It seemed like an eternity before he could move his listless body. Oddly enough, the air felt warm blowing gently across his blotched skin. Rays of sunshine silently crept over the swaying tree tops. Stanley Stewart rolled on his left side. The grass felt damp from morning dew. He hoisted himself with ease. All the aches and pains from the crippling arthritis ceased to exist. His buttoned long sleeve, ivory shirt, suited with the blue and tan, scalloped plaid jacket and two button notch lapel offset the neatly pressed twill weave pants. He wiggled his toes inside the brown and white wing-tip shoes. Laying off to the side sat a dark brown Fedora. Eagerly, he snatched it up and placed it on his slick backed, black hair. Perfect fit.
It was then Stanley realized his attire had not been his own. Nor the shoes or expensive hat. In fact, his entire body was not his own. He hadn’t felt this good in years. Many, many years. A lean, strong, virile body.
“Excuse me, Sir, are you alright?” came a sweet calming voice. Stanley immediately turned on his heel. A lovely, young woman dressed in a puffy, short-sleeved, black dress with white target dots, stared at him with magnetic green hazel eyes. Her laced up black and silver oxford shoes matched perfectly. A dark “bell” shaped hat fit snug and hugged her petite head. Locks of short, blond, curly hair peaked out.
“Well, are you or are you not?” she repeated. With one slender hand placed firmly on her shapely waist. A tiny, crooked grin crept across her vivid face. Stanley stood mesmerized. He knew her in an instant.
“Leslie? Is that…you?” he asked in almost a whisper. His bushy brows crunched. Stanley immediately stepped forward.
And without hesitation, the puzzled young woman took one step backwards. “How do you know my name, Sir? Have we met before?” Her smile disappeared.
Long forgotten memories came flooding back. Stanley’s heart skipped a beat. How could he ever forget the love of his life? It had been years since he gazed upon her lovely face. Years since he held her in his loving arms. Years since her untimely death.
“Don’t…don’t you remember me?” His hands flew to his muscular chest. “It’s me. Stanley.” She tilted her head ever so slightly.
“Had we met at the Fox Lair on 5th and Wilson?” she asked. “It is considered one of the elite dance halls here in Bellingham.” Stanley swallowed.
Suddenly, a horse and buggy pulled up behind the mysterious woman. An old gent in his top hat and grand suit smiled.
“Good day to you, my lady. And to you too, Sir. May I offer either of you a ride?” The enormous horse whinnied. “Whoa…there, there, Biscuit.” The aged footman gently pulled on the reins.
“Your name. Sir. What is your name?” she questioned.
“Stanley…Stewart. Stanley Stewart and you are?” asked Stanley as he tipped his hat.
“Miss Leslie Cunningham.” She giggled. “Well, Mr. Stewart, would you like to ride with me? It seems there is plenty of room in the carriage.” She turned around and the old gent helped her into her waiting escort. Stanley quickly moved. Seconds later he was sitting across from the woman he had shared his life with for over forty years.
“Yaa!” The elderly man snapped the reins. Biscuit shot forward. Stanley could not believe his eyes. Was he truly in Bellingham, Washington? How could it be possible?
“Why Mr. Stewart, you seem to be a bit out of sorts. Where can my driver, Alfred, drop you?” Leslie’s hazel eyes twinkled in the early morning sun. Once again, he felt captivated by her unblemished beauty. “And I must say, you keep staring at me. Is that where we met? The Fox Lair? I would say from your lean physique you must be quite a dancer.” She adjusted herself on the thick cushion. Stanley hesitated a brief moment.
“Why yes, Miss. Cunningham. It must have been the Fox Lair. And you are quite correct, I was a dancer,” he replied in a low tone.
“Was? You no longer dance?” she questioned.
“I’m sorry…I meant I am a dancer. I mean…I dance now.” Stanley tripped over his words. Leslie let out a chuckle.
“You’re quite the comedian, too, I see, Mr. Stewart. On the contrary, I, too, enjoy the dance halls of Bellingham.” Her left eyebrow raised.
Abruptly, the carriage stopped. Alfred slowly descended from his seat, and then tied Biscuit to the tall wooden hitch. “We are here, Madam.” He opened the carriage door.
“Well, Mr. Stewart. It was a pleasure meeting you—again!” She held out her hand. Stanley graciously lifted it to his warm lips.
“The pleasure is all mine, Miss Cunningham,” replied Stanley. Leslie smiled.
“Miss Cunningham. May I call on you?” Stanley removed his Fedora.
“Of course, Mr. Stewart. I live here, at the Center Square Inn. My mother and I run the boarding house. In fact, she’s probably wondering where I am.” Leslie moved gracefully toward the painted green wooden door.
“Boarding house? You run a boarding house? Do you have any rooms available?” he asked. He felt a tad nervous. Sweat lined his upper lip.
“In deed we do, Mr. Stewart. Five dollars a week. However long your business keeps you here in Bellingham, that is. It includes breakfast and dinner. If you insist on being served lunch, it is an extra two dollars a day.” She waited for his response.
“That’s fine. But…” Stanley shoved his hand inside his right pants pocket. He withdrew a wad of greenbacks. “How did I…?” His words trailed off. Instantly, he looked up at Leslie.
“I’ll take the room for a month. Including lunch.” He pulled out a ten and twenty dollar bill.
“By all means, Mr. Stewart. Please come in inside. You’ll need to sign the registry. I will introduce you to my Mother, Mable Cunningham.” And with that said, Leslie hurried inside the three story brick building. Stanley jumped down onto the dirt sidewalk. He glanced about the hustle and bustle of Main Street. Carriages pulled by horses scurried back and forth. People happily strolling along the walkways. Ringing bells from the steeple church a half block away. He closed his eyes for just a second. Could he be dreaming? Or was he really in Bellingham with his wife Leslie, alive, and fifty years younger?
“Mr. Stewart?” Stanley’s eyes burst open. He was still there. Bellingham. “Mr. Stewart. If you don’t mind, Sir, I have to get Biscuit inside the stable, Sir. It can get a bit uncomfortable for good ole’ Biscuit. Like me, she’s on in years and needs the shade, Sir.” Alfred tipped his tall, black hat.
“Yes, yes, Alfred. I am so sorry. And sorry to you, Biscuit.” Stanley patted the old horse, then rushed up the steps to be with his precious Leslie inside the Center Square Inn.
The sleety rain had finally turned to snow, freezing the entire city. Northern winds gusted, intensifying the frigid atmosphere. One of Chicago’s finest bent down to check for a pulse. The body was frozen, covered in ice. It had been there awhile. He didn’t know his name but had seen the elderly man a few times waiting in the food line outside the shelter.
“Another stiff? How many does that make this week?” asked the young rookie. He shifted his feet. “I hate winter,” he mumbled with gloved hands shoved deep inside the police issued jacket.
“Show some respect, will you?” The middle-aged cop stood up and made the call. Minutes later an ambulance pulled up at the end of the alley.
“Any ID?” asked the husky paramedic as he and another emergency crew member loaded the body onto the gurney. The older cop shook his head.
“Nope. But I know he frequented the shelter. I’ll check it out and see if anyone there knows his name,” said the concerned officer.
“Don’t bother. He’ll be assigned a number and buried next to the other derelicts in the city cemetery,” replied the indifferent paramedic. He hurriedly closed the back doors of the ambulance then drove away into the frigid, falling snow.
ALICE BABUREK is an animal lover and avid reader. She shares a house with her partner, three feline friends and five canine companions. Other titles available through Amazon.com and AmericaStarBooks.