“Good afternoon, Charlie. Isn’t it a lovely day?”
The voice was tinkling silver bells and Charlie Flannigan’s heart thudded in his chest, his scalp prickling under its fringe of white hair. He turned to see Sarah Pauls coming out of the Cypress Hills dining room.
“Hello, Sarah. It’s a beautiful day indeed. You haven’t forgotten our, ah, date tonight, have you? The movies?”
She laughed and Charlie heard the bells again.
“Oh my, no, I haven’t forgotten. I’m looking forward to it, Charlie. I’ll see you at eight.” She walked off down the hall toward her room; a spry little woman with an erect carriage and a spring in her step that made her look younger than her seventy-three years.
“What a fine-looking woman she is,” Charlie thought. “Cypress Hills would be just another boring retirement home if it wasn’t for her.”
He hurried off toward his own room, to take an after-lunch nap so he’d be fresh for the evening . . . fit company for a vivacious woman like Sarah.
Charlie stretched out on his bed and closed his eyes but the bells still echoed in his ears and he couldn’t drop off to sleep the way he usually did. He finally gave up and went to stand in front of the open door to his closet, looking at the suit he meant to wear when he took Sarah to the movies. It was his best dark blue one, still in the plastic bag from the cleaner’s. There was a new dress shirt in his bureau, along with the red tie and pocket handkerchief he favored.
The tie reminded him of his own dear Maggie. She used to chide him gently about the red knot peeking out from the neck of his robe when he sang in the church choir.
“Too loud,” she’d say, and he’d say, “Now Maggie, I’m not an undertaker. A little touch of color can’t hurt.”
His eyes were damp and he blew his nose hard and shook his head. Poor Maggie . . . gone almost five years now and he still missed her terribly. Well, at least since Sarah Pauls had moved into the retirement home he hadn’t felt so alone and miserable. Oh, the men at Cypress Hills were mostly fine people, but he’d always enjoyed having a woman around . . . someone soft and gentle to have a bit of conversation with every now and then. He knew Maggie would have liked Sarah, too, and that made it all the better.
The suit, shirt, handkerchief and tie were fine and he’d wear a new pair of navy blue socks. His good black shoes were spit-and-polish shiny, so he guessed he was ready.
But something was still missing and Charlie sat down in his easy chair to puzzle it out. He’d had his hair cut yesterday so that wasn’t it. He’d give himself a good close shave just before he called for Sarah. What had he forgotten?
And then it came to him. He’d never gone courting without a flower for his date. Why, he must have bought out two flower shops in the years he’d courted Maggie. A fellow just had to take a pretty flower along to show the girl she was special. Ten minutes later, Charlie was on his way to town, to the nearest florist. The silver bells tinkling in his head set the pace for his feet.
* * *
The Miami sun was warm and Charlie was glad he’d put on his straw hat. He sure didn’t want to take a sun stroke on an important day like this, before his very first date with Sarah. He stepped smartly along, paying little mind to the traffic, his thoughts focused on what he’d buy at Flower World. Maybe he should get a corsage. No, that would be too formal for just going to the movies. A little bunch of violets would be nice, or a single rose.
A teenager on a skateboard came flying around the corner and they collided, leaving Charlie sprawled on the sidewalk. Did the kid help him up or ask if he was okay? Not a chance. He just checked his board to make sure it wasn’t damaged, got back on it and went charging up the street, yelling back at Charlie, who was still struggling to his feet.
“Watch where you’re going, old man!”
“As though it was my fault,” thought Charlie, as he dusted himself off and looked around for his hat. “He might have killed me.”
The hat had flown into the gutter and Charlie limped across the sidewalk to retrieve it. Before he could reach it, a delivery van roared around the corner, ran over the hat, and smashed it flat.
“Sorry , Pops,” the driver hollered. He was gone with a jaunty wave.
Charlie swore under his breath and hobbled on, thankful that at least no bones were broken, but painfully aware of the damage to his seventy-five-year-old body. The sun was hot on his bare head and he was sweating. As he reached for the handkerchief in his back pocket, his hand encountered someone else’s fingers. He spun around to see a man in a T-shirt and jeans back quickly away and melt into the crowd on the sidewalk.
“Good Lord,” Charlie muttered. “What’s the world coming to? First I’m run over and then somebody tries to pick my pocket. Good thing forty years in men’s clothing taught me how a fat wallet can ruin the lines of a pair of pants.” He patted the side pocket that held his money clip.
Two blocks from Flower World, a small bundle of white fur charged from the doorway of a pet-grooming shop and attached itself to Charlie’s ankle. He was trying to shake the little beast loose without falling down when a stout, middle-aged in a bright print dress rushed through the same door, calling to the snapping animal.
”Fifi, stop that,” she gently reprimanded the poodle. “You know Mommy doesn’t like you to do that.”
The snarling decreased slightly as the woman scooped up the little dog and cradled it in her arms.
Charlie snarled a bit himself. “Madam, that dog should be on a leash. There are laws, you know.”
“Oh, I know, but Fifi just hates her leash.” She looked down, surveying the tatters that had been the cuff of Charlie’s pants. “Oh, dear, she’s torn your trousers.”
“Well, they were old, so no harm done, I guess.” He figured it would have been all the same if he’d been wearing a three hundred dollar suit.
“My car is a the curb,” the woman announced. “The least I can do is see you safely home.”
Before he could protest, Charlie found himself on the soft leather seat of an enormous white limousine, beside the plump woman and the poodle.
“I just have one or two errands,” Fifi’s mistress said, “and then we’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
“I was heading for Flower World,” Charlie grumbled, not entirely pleased at practically being hijacked, even in a limo. The dog alternately sniffed at him and curled its upper lip.
One or two errands turned into five or six and Charlie could tell from the lengthening shadows that it was getting late. His watch had stopped, probably when he’d been knocked down. Sure enough, when the block-long vehicle glided to a stop in front of Flower World, the door was closed and the shop was dark.
“Oh, dear, I’m afraid we’re too late,” the heavyset woman moaned. “Well, just tell Victor where you live and we’ll take you home now.”
Wonderful! Here he was, riding around with a fat lady and her yappy mutt in a chauffeured limo, but with no flowers for Sarah. He glared at the dog who quit sniffing and snarled again.
“Please, just drop me off in the next block, by the park.” There was a beautiful rose garden in the park. At least he wouldn’t call for Sarah empty-handed. Besides, if the other men at Cypress Hills saw him in this car with the fat lady and her ill-tempered dog, he’d never live it down.
Victor helped him out of the limo at the corner by the park and Charlie surveyed the rosebushes. The yellow ones were pretty, but he chose a bush with deep red blooms. Just as he reached for his penknife, a deep voice rumbled from somewhere behind him.
“All right, friend, let’s have us a little chat about the roses.”
Charlie spun around to face a tall, muscular police officer. “I was just going to cut one bloom,” he stammered. “That’s all. Honest.”
“Well, I guess that won’t hurt,” the young policeman said, thoughtfully rubbing his jaw. “We’ve been having a problem with vandals in the park and I just wanted to make sure you weren’t one of them. What are you going to do with just one rose?”
Charlie didn’t know if his bare head was sunburned or if he was blushing. “If you really want to know, I have a date,” he said, snapping, even though he hadn’t meant to. “I was going to buy a flower but the shop was closed when I got there. It’s a long story.”
The officer grinned down at him. “I think I get the picture.” He took Charlie’s knife and cut the best rose on the bush, one Charlie couldn’t have reached. “Here you are, sir. Have a good time on your date. She’s a lucky lady, to have her caller bring a flower.”
* * *
Charlie knocked on Sarah’s door, freshly shaved, his red tie and matching pocket handkerchief practically glowing in the dim light of the hall. His forehead felt warm again as he held out the single red rose.
Sarah beamed at him and the silver bells tinkled when she said, “Why Charlie, what a beautiful rose. How thoughtful of you to go to all that trouble.”
No doubt about it . . . he was blushing. “Oh, it was no trouble, Sarah. No trouble at all.”