GHOST OF A VALENTINE • by Walter Giersbach

Alison was gone, but never forgotten. Not in the morning when I brushed my teeth and looked at her toothbrush, which I neglected to throw out. Not in the evening, when I unconsciously poured two glasses of wine.

Alison had died of cancer a year earlier. A melanoma, though why she had skin cancer I don’t know because she avoided the sun like a vampire,. What she loved most was her guitar playing. Jazz guitar, and she was good. Good enough that she did backup on several CDs and played clubs in New York and had just signed a contract to record.

When she died on a snowy mid-February night, I didn’t say goodbye as much as I said “See ya soon, kiddo.”

I rattled on with my life, and never strayed far from our old haunts. I always believed Alison would turn up again, but I was shocked the following winter when she passed me coming out of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue.

The very same Alison, who I always kidded about being my Funny Valentine. Her eyes used to get all squinty when I sang that familiar ballad. It was Alison’s song, and the first one that got airplay.

Her clothes looked unfamiliar now, and she’d never worn that color lipstick, but it was her, down to the mole on her lip. I walked up and hummed a few bars of “Funny Valentine”. I reached out my hand.

Alison glared at me, then charged off, crossing Park against the traffic.

I told Jimmy I’d seen Alison when he came on duty at the bar where we worked. He frowned. “Really?” he said. “Give her my regards if you see her again.”

I went back to St. Bart’s the next day, and the next, but Alison didn’t show.

It was a twist of fate or post-holiday blues that made me answer a computer ad for an online dating service. SWP looking for long-term rel. w/ man in his 30s. Well, I was in my 30s and could have been a professional — maybe a stockbroker or banker — except that you need a college degree. I e-mailed the dating service, followed up with a letter and my check to Box 2446, and almost immediately Francine and I began e-mailing each other. She soon agreed to have a cup of coffee with me in a public place.

My heart went cold when I looked in the window of Rafael’s cafe on Upper Broadway where we had arranged to meet. Alison sat framed in the frosty window. Shaken, I turned and walked around the block fighting demons in the snow that had started falling. Jimmy and I had discussed my vision of Alison. He argued that visitations can’t happen. I told him love conquers time and space and death. A year had passed since she left, on a snowy evening like this one, a night when a ghost will come back if she ever does.

She looked up warily when I finally went in. “Alison?” I asked, sounding like a jerk.

“No. I’m meeting someone. My name’s not Alison.”

“Francine?” I asked tentatively. “I’m Mike O’Malley. The dating service–I mean, we’ve been e-mailing and talking on the phone and everything.”
She broke into a smile and put out her hand–holding my fingers a fraction too long for a getting-to-know you greeting. It was a hand without the calluses Alison had from playing guitar. A nice hand, but not the same hand.

“I saw you once on Park Avenue,” she said. “It was — odd.”

“You looked like someone I knew, someone who’s gone.”

Francine’s mouth moved exactly the way Alison’s had, but the voice was different. She had the same cute way of curling her lower lip as Alison when she was self-conscious. The hair seemed a little lighter, longer in back, but it was Alison staring back at me. I choked and the words tumbled around in my brain, unable to find an intelligible way out.

“Is something wrong?” Francine asked. “You’re making me feel funny staring that way.”

I told her about Alison. How we planned to slow down one day and have a family. About the cancer and the night the music stopped. “You could be Alison’s twin sister.”

“I don’t play an instrument,” she said. “No time, working at Met Life.” The silence draped itself over our table like a snowy muffler. “I didn’t always look like this,” she blurted out. “I was in an accident. Skiing at Stowe. I was in rehab for months and my face had to be completely reconstructed. Remember that experimental patient that got the TV coverage, the one who got the first American face transplant? Me. There was an organ donor. It meant weeks of surgery before I could go back to work, only to find my social life had gone to hell. No one wanted to recognize me anymore.”

By that time, tears were running down my cheek. “I recognized you. Immediately, outside St. Bart’s. I thought Alison had come back.”

She shrank into the seat. “I can’t be anyone else. I’m me. That’s all anyone can ever be.”

“I guess,” I said, “I guess, I have to discover who I am now. For a year, I was half of a couple. I’ve been walking around looking for my other half.”

“Let’s order something, Mike,” Francine said. “Let’s see what falls into place. And,” she gave a little laugh, “call it even for the ghost dating service. Only in New York, huh?”

An odd thought suddenly struck me. “Alison also did a Bing Crosby standard, wondering whether he stood a ghost of a chance with a girl.” I sang a few bars. “Any truth there?”

Walter Giersbach directed corporate communications at Fortune 500 companies in New York for more than 30 years while contributing to business-communication journals. His recent fiction credits include: “Big Willa and a Push Toward the Edge” in Lunch Hour Stories (July 2007), “Not My Wife” in Mouth Full of Bullets (September 2007), “Dreaded Conversation” in Every Day Fiction (October 2007), and “Cable Window” and “Number Eleven” in Bewildering Stories (issues #271 and #272–October 2007). Upcoming issues of MFOB, EDF, Written Word and Bewildering Stories will also carry short fiction. His collection of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, Vol. 2, has just been published by Wild Child.

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