Perfume

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By Roland Howell

An old man sat alone at a small table outside the village coffee shop. Each May, after a week of certain Spring warmth, the two girls who ran the coffee shop put four bistro tables with their colorful umbrellas outside along the sidewalk. It was the Saturday of Memorial Day week-end and the old man was glad to sit outside where he could watch the people walking by.

He came at nine-thirty each morning and the girls knew to bring him the same each time, Costa Rican Terrazzu coffee and a croissant with strawberry preserve. In the colder months he would sit at a corner table inside the shop and read the morning paper. The two girls liked the old man. He was always polite and left a generous tip. They knew he had lived in the village all his life and was a widower living alone now and they worried that someday he would not come and they would feel they would have to call the police.

The day was cloudless and the sun had baked away the early morning dampness. Occasionally, someone would smile and speak to the old man but no one sat to talk. One of the two girls finished serving another sidewalk table and when she came inside she spoke to the other girl.

“No one ever spends time with him,” she said. “He must be lonely and it makes me sad to think of him that way.”
“That’s because most of his friends are either in a nursing home or dead. I hope I never live to get that old,” the other girl replied.

“It looks like he’s ready for more coffee,” the first girl said.

“She filled a small glass carafe from the urn and walked outside to the table where the old man sat. She bent down close to his ear and raised her voice.

“I’ve brought you your second coffee,” she said.

The old man looked up and nodded and watcher her pour his cup half full and set the carafe on the table. A young man and an attractive girl walked by and the old man straightened up and seemed startled.

“Oh!” he exclaimed.

“What is it, Mr. Manning?” the girl who brought the coffee asked.

“The perfume, do you smell it?” he answered.

The couple had passed but a lovely soft fragrance of gardenias lingered.

“Yes, I smell perfume,” the girl said. “It’s very nice.” She wondered where someone with perfume like that was come from or going to at mid-morning.

“It’s like, —” the old man began and then he stopped.

“Like what, Mr. Manning?”

“Nothing. For a moment it made me think of something. It’s nothing,” he replied.

The girl gave the old man a quick smile, picked up his empty plate, and walked back inside the coffee shop.

The perfume had carried the old man’s thoughts back in time. He felt certain it was the same fragrance she had worn on that defining evening over sixty years ago when they were sixteen and she had asked him to the Sadie Hawkins dance. The girl had been pretty and it had been his first real date.

After the dance he had walked her home and how it had been was in his mind now. She had reached for his hand and they had walked slowly through the quiet darkness of the village, the soft warm rain of late Spring falling through a light mist that haloed the street lamps. He sensed her warm hand in his and her perfume like the smell of gardenias.

There had been no further intimacy that lovely time so long ago. What there was had been enough to make the young man happy then and it was enough now for the old man to be happy with the memory of it.

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