the old man sat in the Lobby watching the days pass with an aged eye locked firmly on the door that led into the lobby from outside. His half sipped cup of coffee has long ago been turned cold, and the barely nibbled muffin sat alone and uneaten on the small plate beside of it. The man’s demeanor seemed, rumpled and disheveled. He was tired, the bags under his eyes spoke to that fact, but his suit was neatly pressed and wrinkle free even though he had been sitting there, in the huge oversized chair, in the lobby for some time.
“Sir?” I asked as I approached him. “Is everything alright?”
He smiled softly and nodded. “Yes, thank you my young friend, I’m just waiting.”
“Waiting sir?’ I paused and picked up his cup and muffin to take them away. “What are you waiting for sir?”
The smile faded a little bit. A light glimmered in his eyes. “Her.” was all he said.
“would you like to hear a story, my young friend?” he asked with an expectant smile.
“Of course, sir.” I said and sat in the oversized chair that matched his.
“The year was 1946 and America was heady with the rush of the second world war having ended….”
The Hilltop was in full readiness for the grand Halloween ball they threw every year in the grand dining room. Black paper streamers hung from the ceiling and cotton “cobwebs” decorated the corners of the room. Skeletons danced alongside paper bats, and witches cavorted with ghosts on the walls. The buffet table was laden with sweets, cakes, cookies, pastries, and sumptuous treats of all kinds an flavors. The aromatic waves of fresh-baked goods wafted into the lobby and made everyone who smelled it more than a little hungry. The guests of the hotel were milling about in the lobby in their costumed finery. Witches walked arm in arm with devils, ghosts flitted about between grinning clowns, harlequins and jesters. There were monsters and demons there amongst the revelers, and all were smiling and laughing awaiting the doors to open.
Mister Archie Teele smiled as he entered the lobby. The crowd awaiting the ball to begin all knew the dapper young gentleman, recently returned from the liberation of France, and cheered the hometown hero as he entered. He nodded politely and shook the offered hands. He was dressed sharply in a tuxedo that perfectly fit his young frame. The doors to the grand dining room were flung open with a grandiose gesture by the hotel’s concierge. “Ladies and gentlemen, the ball shall commence!” he announced to a round of applause. Everyone filed into the room with a murmur of giggles, small talk and the loose lips of people who have had a bit to drink. Mr. Teele politely stood aside and let the early revelers into the ball room.
That’s when he saw her. She descended the grand stairs with an ease that seemed almost unearthly. To Archie’s eye she seemed to glide down the stairs without her feet touching the floor. Her pale skin seemed to glow in the soft lights of the lobby, and her chestnut colored hair framed her angelic face like a veil. She was the most beautiful woman Archie had ever seen. Her smile lit up the room and warmed the shadowed corners of Archie’s war-hardened heart. He was transfixed instantly and he found himself waiting for her to come to the door of the ballroom. She approached him, that smile turning his spine to jelly.
“good evening, Sir.” she said and nodded slightly. Her voice sounded like music to Mr. Teele and his voice trembled slightly when he finally did muster up the courage to speak to her.
“And a good evening to you Miss….?” he smiled and offered her his hand.
“Jennifer Greene” She answered and took his hand lightly. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Teele.”
He smiled broadly. “How did you know my name?”
Her laugh was light and trilling, with a trace of southern manners. “Why, Mr. Teele, everyone knows you in Harpers Ferry, sir…even those like me.”
He didn’t know what she meant by “those like me” but he paid it no mind at all. He was enraptured by the southern beauty. If she had asked, at that moment, he would have reached up into the sky and grabbed the moon for her.
He stammered….”Might I have the honor of escorting you to the Ball, Ms. Greene?” he smiled and offered her his arm.
“Why, Mr. Teele,” she smiled and took his arm, “I can think of no one id rather have as an escort.” Her touch was cold, unexpectedly cold. He could feel the chill of her touch through the fabric of his tuxedo. And her pale blue eyes almost seemed to have a pall pulled over them. None of this distracted Archie from that angelic face or the smile that would melt the hardest, coldest heart.
The ball was a grandiose affair, opulent and decadent at its core. Alcohol flowed freely, food was consumed with vigor, and the dancers spun on the floor with a grace and abandon that, some of the more conservative townsfolk, would call decadent. Archie Teele seemed to notice none of it. His attention was focused on Ms. Greene. In his heart he knew this was the woman for him. In all the world he knew this was “the one”. They talked, drank sparingly, and danced the night away. Near the end of the ball, they finally took a seat.
“Miss Greene…” he began.
“Please, Archie, call me Jenny.” she said smiling and placed her cold hand on his.
“Jenny,” he said smiling “Might I call on you tomorrow? I would very much like to see you again.”
She nodded. “Yes, Archie. I would like that very much. If I’m not here, for whatever reason,” she winked coyly “Do say you’ll wait for me?’
He nodded in ardent agreement. “Of course Jenny, I will wait for as long as it takes.”
Her smile warmed his heart. “I’m glad to hear that Archie, because I like you. and I would like to see you again too.” she stood and grabbed her small clutch purse from the table. “I should turn in, Archie. It is almost one in the morning after all.”
Archie stood and nodded. “Then I will wish you a good evening and see you tomorrow.” he said with a gentlemanly aire that he did not feel.
“Oh Archie…” she giggled and leaned in to kiss him lightly on the stubble of his cheek. With a wink she turned and glided out of the room and up the stairs as if she was a Valkyrie ascending the stairs to Valhalla.
Archie walked home that night on feet cushioned by clouds. He knew that when he saw her tomorrow he would ask to marry her. There was no doubt that this woman was the one meant for him. Archie went to bed that night, exhausted, and with dreams of Jennifer Greene dancing in his mind.
The next morning found Archie practically skipping down Ridge St. to the hotel to meet Jennifer. He had a plan to take her to a breakfast befitting a queen, show her around town, and over dinner, for he was sure she would accept his invitation, he would ask her to be his wife.
“Good morning Will.” he said to the front desk clerk as he approached the desk. “How are you this morning/”
Will was bleary eyed and had the look of a man battling a raging hangover. “Good morning Archie. Enjoy the party?”
Archie nodded. “I did. Looks like you had a grand time as well, my fine young friend.”
“Heh, yes well….” Will said with a half pained smile “Old Jackie mixes his drinks sweet and strong. I think I may have over indulged.”
“It happens.” Archie said leaning on the desk with his left elbow for support.
“Anyway, Archie, what can I do for you?”
“Could you ring Miss Jennifer Greene’s room and Tell her I am here to call on her?”
Will nodded and leafed through the reservation cards in the rack. “Um…do you know what room she is in Arch?”
He thought for a moment. He never did ask what room she was in last night. “Oh, no WIll, I don’t. I never did ask….silly of me I suppose.”
Will kept looking through the cards. “Sorry Arch, I don’t have anyone with the last name of Greene in the rack. Let me check the guest book.” He flipped open the giant, leather-bound tome and leafed through the pages shaking his head. “Arch, no one with the last name of Greene has checked in. Not in the last week or so anyway.”
Archie felt a cold hand squeeze his heart. Had she been the wife or consort of another guest who slipped away? Had she been someone just there for the ball? Had she left in the night to avoid him? “May I?” he asked and flipped through the pages.
Will nodded and slid the book across the desk to him. “Sure.”
Archie flipped through the pages madly searching for her name. The days, weeks, months then years rolling through his fingers. The pages went from the crisp white to the aged yellow of old paper.
“AHA!” he exclaimed and emphasized his point with a finger slammed on the page. “Told ya she is here Will!” he flipped the book around so he could see clearly the name Jennifer Greene. “There she is, right there. Jennifer Greene, room 53.” Archie Teele smiled triumphantly.
Will pushed his glasses back onto his nose with an ink-stained finger. “Archie….come on.” he quipped with a raised eyebrow. “You been having breakfast in the back with Old Jackie?”
Will sighed and flipped the book back around so Archie could see. his finger pointed to the date in the top corner. “Yeah she was here…50 years ago.”
The date that was scrawled in the top corner was “October 1896”
Archie felt the blood leave his face and the warmth drain from his body. A cold shudder ran through him and he felt his knees go weak.
“You alright Arch?” Will asked coming from behind the desk. “you look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Will gently but hurriedly ushered Archie to a chair. “Have a seat Arch, I’ll get you a coffee.”
Archie sat in the chair, numb and stupefied. His mind tried to piece together the puzzle he was given, to no avail. The hotel lobby spun around him and he closed his eyes. Things swam around him, her face, the ball, the shocking information he discovered…all ran through his head at a break neck pace, impossible for his mind to grab onto and make any sense of…then her words came to his mind.
“If I’m not here, for any reason, do say you’ll wait.”
Archie resigned himself to do just that. He would wait for Jennifer to float down those stairs like she did the previous night and then he would sweep her off her feet.
I sat there transfixed by the old man’s story. The entire time he spun his tale his eyes never left the stairs. His voice was soft, but deep, and he spoke with the tone that rang of truth. “How long have you been waiting here Mr. Teele?” I asked with my chin resting on both hands.
He smiled. “Oh I waited for 3 weeks in the hotel before I went home. Then a week. Then several days. Now…I make sure I’m here on the night I met her and the morning after. Its been another 50 years.” he grinned. “I think I’ll see her today.”
I stood up and nodded to the manager waving me over. “I hope you do, sir.”
I went back to my duties and left the wizened old Mr. Teele to his vigil. He nodded politely to me, in silent thanks for listening to his story. I felt a twinge of sadness for the old man, he had spent his life waiting for this fabled love of his to once again come down the stairs.
I was just about to leave for the day, when the screaming lights and blaring siren of an ambulance sped by me and came to an abrupt stop in front of the hotel. I ran down the sidewalk to see what was the matter. My friend Jake stopped me as I got to the door.
“Hey man, that old dude you were talking too…”
I nodded watching the human drama play out in front of me.
“He just died sitting there in the lobby.” Jake said with a blunt matter-of-fact tone.
Jake nodded, his afro bobbing on his head like a dandelion. “Yep, he said, ‘I knew you’d come today” as he was looking at the stairs…there was nobody there man…and he died.”
I felt a tear swell and roll down my cheek. “Guess his wait is over.”
“Say what?” Jake asked.
“Nothing.” I answered.
I walked home that night with my coat pulled a little tighter around me to cut the November chill. As I walked past the windows of the grand room that once held the great Harpers Ferry Halloween ball I swear I could see two figures dancing and laughing.
“Well worth the wait, Mr. Teele.” I said to no one and walked down the street with the fire colored leaves whipping around my feet in the early evening breeze.