A violin whines through the history of her mind. Memories intertwine and overlap like the cream into the coffee in her cup. The diner disappears and she’s young and at home. Ice cubes clink and the porch swing creaks, but the laughter of her girlfriends echoes loudest. She sips sweet lemonade through a straw. The balmy breeze sweeps curly blonde hairs off of her sticky neck. She looks down at her legs, tan and lean, her pink toes dangling as she glides. Summer in the south has always been her favorite time.
It was a time characterized by pace, slow like the molasses pouring into her mama’s bread pudding. It meant all day drives to the beach along the two-lane dirt road. She and her sister would run out to the yard in their bathing suits to crank up the 1936 Model A Ford that they were lucky to have. In the heavy old car their sunbonnets were held tightly to their heads with pretty ribbons that matched their bathing suits and trailed behind them in the wind as they bounced along. They rode east past the endless forest that would eventually be home to fast food chains, housing developments and strip malls. They patiently waited to see their grandmother, who also sat waiting in her rocking chair in a black wool bathing suit reaching her knees.
The car never went over thirty miles per hour, and her dad wore his riding cap and told stories along the way. When he was eight years old he sold newspapers on the corner of First Street and Main for a penny. It was called the Jacksonville Journal, now it’s the Metropolis. He sold the papers from one to six each and every afternoon.
She likes to picture her nine-year-old grandson on that same corner selling papers, he’s got the same gumption her father had, but the world has changed around him.
Her smile fades as the nostalgia sinks into deeper and darker waters. She’s seventeen and walking along with her beau. They stroll casually down the road, tennis racquets in hand shaded by the oak trees along the way, he whistles. They talk for a while, and then walk for a while; he holds her hand and walks on the outside, she smiles and bats the eyelashes that frame her sparkling amber eyes.
“Do you think you might win one today?” She taunts him.
“Well, darlin’, that depends on whether I let you win ‘em all or not.”
“Oh, you think you’re so funny,” she pokes at his middle and he grabs both her wrists and holds them behind her back.
“You may talk like you’re big and tough, but like it or not you’re still a sweet little girl.” With this he releases her arms and kisses her mouth. She pulls him close and squeezes real tight.
The coffee ripples and she looks up at the waitress who is walking away briskly, a coffee pot in each hand. It takes a few blinks to adjust to this reality. She looks up at the cracking wallpaper, and wonders when the diner changed from being a nice restaurant to just a decent one. The walls are yellow with big white gardenias, it’s tacky and she frowns. Pain sits stubbornly in her throat. It’s been a hundred years since she has let herself think of him. The violin plays louder.
Her thin gold watch dangles on her frail wrist. She dives back down to where it is strong and sees his long fingers wrapped around it, as they perfect her backhand.
“You have to follow through, like this, see?” She hates to be treated like a child.
“I have a better backhand than any girl in the club.”
“And a better backside too, but if you don’t follow through you could hurt yourself, honey.”
The man in the booth behind her lights a cigarette. She feels the rush of a dance hall. The first night he filled up her dance card she wore a black dress with red flowers and he wore his uniform. She loved the way he looked in it, so handsome and proud. The world was a mess, but he thought not of the Germans and she thought she would never lose him. They danced for hours.
Afterward he took her to the drive-in and ordered two strawberry milkshakes. Her pretty red toes sat in his lap. He couldn’t take his eyes off her, and she could not stop smiling. Billie Holliday sang “I’ll Be Seeing You.” She thought time would stand still for them.
She’s back on the porch swing. There is a cool breeze that tells them summer will be over in no time. He sits beside her, not touching, yet so close. His violin is perched on his shoulder, he plays a sad song. The strings vibrate against his fingers and the bow. She wears a smile, closed eyes, and one of her dads oversized work shirts. The sound throbs deep within her.
“Baby,” she asks, “why do you always play such sad songs?” He pauses, and takes it away from his chin. She opens her eyes.
“The violin is a sad instrument,” he says looking deep in to her, “If you want to dance I’ll go get my fiddle.”
“No,” she breaks his gaze and looks forward, “I don’t want to dance.” He resumes playing and she looks up at the stars.
Her old eyes grow bloodshot as she remembers the night before he left. No one blamed the President or even the Nazis. He was going to perform his natural born duty, and she wasn’t willful enough to question true loyalty.
In their last moments together they took her dad’s car all the way out to the beach. The long walk through the palmetto bushes was silent. The sand was cool, the air warm. He held her close and she let him lead. Her head rested comfortably on his chest. A million reflections of the moon on the water danced with them to the sound of the crashing waves.
His last letter reads itself in her head as she inhales a sharp breath. After sixty years she knows it word for word. Her fist instinctively clenches around it, but it’s not there. She takes short, quick breaths. The day his mother called she hyperventilated and lost consciousness. She wished they had never revived her. For months she cried herself to sleep with the worn paper crumpled in her palm. It took her years to finally let go.
“Hi, Grandma!” The joyful voice of her grandchild calls her back to the present. It’s too soon. She’s still lost in a different time, a time lost.
“Hi, Mom, sorry we’re late. Are you crying?”
“No, honey, I’m fine. I was just thinking about old times.”
She nods at her beautiful daughter and grandson. Pulling a tissue from her purse she wipes her eyes and blows her nose quietly. They would never understand that there were two loves of her life, one cut horribly short, and one that grew to be over a lifetime.
“I miss Grandpa, too,” the child smiles reassuringly.
She sips some coffee, swallows her pain and lets the violin’s gentle strings play on.