The birthday club had been meeting at The Inn at Smoky Hollow for five years now. Ordinarily they would have rotated—each year the June birthdays would go somewhere different to celebrate. But Ginny’s was the only June birthday left since Evelyn had died, and for five years now she’d chosen The Inn, even though she didn’t particularly care for pan-fried trout, and the meals were a mite dear. It was a fancier place than she was used to, but still she chose it. All because of the man at the corner table.
Who wasn’t here yet. She saw the waitress place the silver and napkins, position the water glasses just so, arrange the bottle in the ice bucket—the same setup every year. Ginny glanced toward the doorway. Still nothing. She returned her attention to Cora, who was waiting for Ginny to make over the subscription to TV Guide Cora had gotten her. Ginny hardly ever turned on the television anymore and could barely see to read her large print Bible, but Cora was a creature of habit. Ginny returned the favor and bought Cora a subscription each December when Cora’s birthday rolled around. Cora wouldn’t buy such a thing for herself, but she’d curl up and die without her crossword. She carried it around in her purse and was prone to pull it out at odd moments and fill in a line or two. Ginny didn’t see how it could take a person more than five minutes or so to work the entire thing, but that was Cora for you—come up with the right answer, then fiddle and fret for an hour before she wrote it down. “Now are you absolutely positive it was Linda Purl that was the first daughter on Matlock? Because I thought it was that other one—the redheaded gal.” And so on.
Ginny plastered on a huge smile and patted Cora’s hand—an old veined hand. She looked at her friend’s face—the skin creased and parchment thin—and she was stabbed with tenderness. Cora had been her friend for nearly all of her seventy-nine years, as had the others, since they were girls together in Sunday school class. Nearly eighty years of heartaches and happiness, of courtships and marriages, of births and deaths, sorrows and joys. Of birthdays.
“Thank you, darling,” Ginny said, and Cora beamed, no doubt thinking Ginny was tearing up over the tender gift.
“You’re as welcome as rain,” Cora answered, thumping the TV Guide with a knotted finger. “I knew you’d be expecting it.”
Ginny smiled, a real one this time, and watched her friends fondly as they chatted on around her. The years had scattered them from the small town of their beginnings, and these birthday outings were their chance to catch up. Marie was telling Laura about her great-grandson. He’d gotten into some big school, and she was about to burst her buttons with pride. Cora, not to be outdone, interjected that her great-granddaughter had made the fourth-grade honor roll for the third semester in a row. Ginny turned her eyes back toward the door. That piece of glass they’d put in since last year—three quarters of a wall of frosted flower etching—was cramping her style. All she could see were legs and tops of heads. Here came a bunch of them, a whole knot of women’s sandals, men’s big feet, and a couple of children’s chubby legs. She watched hopefully. Maybe he’d hooked up with the lady of the empty chair and they’d come back this year with the whole family to celebrate. The legs and heads came around the corner. Ginny scanned them quickly. None were familiar. They filed in, a huge clump, and sat at the big round table in the middle. The corner was still empty.
The waitress came around with refills. “More decaf?” she asked, holding the orange-rimmed pot in her hand.
“Oh, I’d better not,” Cora said. “I won’t sleep a wink.”
Ginny exchanged a glance with Marie, but neither one of them said a thing. That was Cora. Dingy as a bat. Marie checked her watch, and Ginny felt a pinch of anxiety. Crossing paths with the dark-haired man was getting harder and harder the older she got. She fretted again but comforted herself with the fact that he had never missed showing up. Every year he came in at seven-fifteen, took the chair facing the doorway at the corner table, sipped an iced tea, and waited.
The first year had been awful to see. That was the year his plight had captured Ginny’s heart. That was the year he’d brought the little box and the roses. Deep crimson roses, a full dozen, long-stemmed. He’d set them on the table by the empty chair and sat there, the ice melting in his tea, his heart and eyes raw and wounded. Oh, she liked to have died for him, watching the minutes tick by. After twenty or so he’d taken out the little box, flipped it open, looked at it, then closed it back up again and put it in his pocket. Oh, how her heart had ached. And his face. It showed everything, that face—hope in his eyes, guilt and despair in the lines from nose to mouth, a hint of anger in the set of his jaw and mouth. That’s when she had begun to pray for him, the dark-haired man.
“Oh, Lord,” she had whispered, “you know everything. Nothing is hidden from you. Whatever the situation, whatever the hurt, you can heal it. Do it, Father. Have mercy on this man.”
He had looked up abruptly as she’d whispered that prayer, almost as if he’d heard her, though that could not have been possible. Their eyes had met for just a moment. Ginny had given him a slight nod. He’d nodded back, forced a smile, then looked back toward the door. For years he’d been coming. And waiting, although not in the outright anguish of the first time. Last year he had seemed more pessimistic, less hopeful. She wondered how much longer he would come. How much longer he would hope. She felt an urgency now, and it burst from her in prayer.
“Lord, all things serve you,” she murmured under her breath. “You hold everything together, and everything follows the counsel of your will. ‘The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water he turneth it whithersoever he will.’ Turn these two toward each other, Lord. Bring them back together. I don’t need to know about it. But do your healing, Lord. Fix these broken hearts.”
Susan cleared her throat. The waitress was at their table, smiling indulgently at the senile old lady mumbling to herself.
“Will you have some dessert?” she asked pleasantly, and Ginny saw a way to buy herself another twenty minutes.
“Why, I haven’t had my birthday cake,” she said as brightly as she could. The others couldn’t deny her that. They readjusted themselves in their chairs, resigned. Ginny checked her own watch. He would be here any minute now. Every year at seven-fifteen. Another five minutes and he’d be rolling in. “Anybody else have some dessert?” she asked brightly.
They shook their heads. “I couldn’t eat another bite,” Susan protested.
Ginny ignored the not-so-subtle hint, and to pacify them she started gathering up her presents. She fixed her eyes on the doorway, and ignoring everything around her, she continued to talk to the Lord. Inside her heart, this time. At her age you had to watch it. She continued to pray and keep watch, and just as the waitress was rounding the corner with the tiny little cake and the silly birthday hat and calling all the other waiters and waitresses to her table to sing, in he came, and she almost sang herself with relief.
He was a very big man. Tall, around six foot two or three, she’d guess, and strapping. He was handsome, too, and Ginny clicked her tongue and gave her head a small shake at this. Handsome men could be problematic. Used to getting their own way and such. Though Ginny’s young man was certainly not hard on the eyes, she liked to think there was more to him than that. His hair was dark, his features bold. But there was something else about him that spoke of character to her, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was. It was just that he spilled out trustworthiness and competence, and although she couldn’t say why, Ginny knew, if it ever came to such an eventuality, her life would be safe in his hands.
He had a calm, steady face. Good, clean, honest lines to it. He looked at home in a suit, but at the same time Ginny could picture him in work trousers baling hay. She shook her head after considering that. He was used to hard work and sacrifice, that she could tell from his face, but there were clues that pointed to his being a professional man. For instance, although his navy blue jacket spanned wide shoulders, Ginny knew without looking that his shirt would be white and stiff with starch. And she would bet those competent hands had no calluses on them. He sat down now with an easy grace, shook his head at the menu being offered, never taking his eyes from the door.
The waiters and waitresses were gathering around her table to sing “Happy Birthday.” He looked over and caught her eye. He flashed her a quick smile, but then her heart lurched as his face settled back into its resting position, for there was something different about it this year. The angry sadness and hopelessness had been incorporated into it, had become part of its landscape. He would give up soon if he hadn’t already. She knew that with a certainty that made her want to drop to her knees right there on the restaurant carpet. Because she also knew with a certainty she couldn’t explain that he mustn’t.
“Oh, Lord Jesus,” she began but was immediately interrupted by that silly birthday song. She shook her head with impatience as someone put the straw hat with the pink daisies on her head and they began to sing. She endured it, smiling gracefully as the restaurant full of people cast indulgent glances at the cute old ladies still celebrating their birthdays. As soon as she could, she tore off the hat, and mercifully, the singers all went away. She took a bite of the cake and her friends all had a tiny slice, even Susan. The waitress refilled coffee cups, and Ginny prayed and nibbled, watching the man watch the feet and heads parading before him.
Time passed. Marie got up and called her son to pick her up, and the others began dividing up the bill. The man took off his jacket. Just as she’d expected, his white shirt was crisply starched and ironed. He rolled the sleeves up to his elbow and loosened his tie, then took another sip of his tea. The waitress leaned over his table and spoke to him. He shook his head again. She took his bill from her apron pocket and set it down on the table. Then, just as Ginny was fixing to pack up her things and leave, the man tensed, and Ginny followed his gaze.
It was a woman he was looking at—a woman’s head, actually, because that was all you could see above the glass partition. This woman’s hair was a mass of burnished red curls and piled in an untidy heap on top of her head. Ginny checked the man once again. He had half risen from his chair, his face alight with equal parts dread and hope. The woman came around the corner, then paused and scanned the dining room. Her eyes passed across Ginny’s gentleman without any flicker of recognition and finally lit on the bunch at the round table in the center. She waved and went toward them. Ginny looked back at the man. His face had gone slack with disappointment. He sat back down, hard, looked away from the woman, and stared at the far wall for a moment. She could almost see him pulling the pieces of himself back together. He took a deep breath in, let it out, then reached for his wallet.
Ginny rose up then.
“Are you leaving?” Cora asked.
“No,” she answered quickly.
“Are you going to the powder room?” Marie chimed in. “Wait for me. I’m coming, too,” but Ginny stepped away before Marie could get her walker arranged. She crossed to the table in the corner and stood in front of the man with the sad eyes. Blue, she could see now, bright clear blue. She had no idea what she’d say, but that had never stopped her before.
“Help me, Lord,” she whispered.
He looked up from his bill, and Ginny couldn’t help but notice he was a good tipper. He raised his eyes to her, his face polite but without a clue as to why she was speaking to him. She thought of different things to say. Didn’t much matter, she realized. You could get away with a lot when you were seventy-nine.
“Young man, do you mind if I sit down for a moment?”
“No, ma’am,” he answered and was out of his chair in a heartbeat. He came around the table and held her chair out for her. He was raised well, she saw. Had no idea who this crazy old lady was, but was still eager to help her to her seat.
“I want to speak to you,” she said after he’d gone back to his own side of the table.
“Yes, ma’am?” His face grew even more puzzled, but he nodded, sat back down, then waited politely.
“I’ve been watching you,” she said, deciding to come right to the point.
He looked surprised at her bluntness, but then he nodded. “How was your birthday this year?” he asked with a little smile. “Did you get another subscription to TV Guide?”
Ginny laughed and nodded. “Wouldn’t be my birthday without it.”
He shook his head. “You know, that hat they put on you doesn’t suit you at all. Reminds me of Minnie Pearl. I half expect you to shout howdy and say how proud you are to be here. It’s not nearly elegant enough for a woman of your obvious refinement.”
What hogwash. Still, she smiled back. He was a very nice man. She had a flash of hostility toward the red-haired woman who belonged in the chair she had taken, but she quickly repented of it. Who knew what had gone on between these two? There were always two sides to every story. She knew that well enough. “Now listen,” she started in, deciding to come to the point. “I’ve got a message for you.”
His face lit with surprise, which swiftly changed to puzzlement mixed with hope.
Ginny could have kicked herself. “From the Lord, in a manner of speaking,” she added and watched the hope drain out of his eyes to be replaced with bemused interest.
No argument. No disbelief. She liked that. Showed he’d been taught something about the ways of the Almighty, even if the two of them didn’t happen to be speaking at the moment. “Now is not a good time to quit praying,” she said, repeating the thought that had been burning in her heart and mind.
He stared at her, nonplussed. “That’s it?” he asked. “That’s the message from the Lord?”
She nodded. “That’s it.”
He took another one of his deep breaths. She had observed him long enough to know that was what he did when he was discouraged. She felt the Spirit pressing her to do one more thing, and she didn’t bother to argue. She’d finally learned it didn’t pay to disobey. Might as well save a lot of time and heartache and do what He said to begin with. She laid one of her bony old hands on the pair in front of her. His eyes widened with surprise, but he didn’t flinch or pull away. She clasped his hand, and he opened his palm and clasped hers back, his grip firm and warm. They were businesslike, competent hands, but as she had guessed, there were no calluses on them. She held them gently and bowed her head right there in the crowded restaurant.
“Lord Jesus,” she said. “Touch his heart. Touch hers. Begin right now drawing them back together with an invisible cord. Knot a thread through each one and just keep on pulling and pulling until they’re back together again. Do whatever you have to do, Lord.” She paused, waited for a minute, but no other words came. Well, when you were finished you were finished. He heard things the first time. “In Jesus’ mighty, precious name,” she said.
“Amen,” he answered softly.
She opened her eyes and met his gaze. His eyes were a little moist. She looked away to give him a chance to wipe them. Actually, she looked back to her own table. Cora was staring at her, mouth agape, and Marie was at her walker looking like she might toddle on over and join them. Ginny gave the man’s hand one last squeeze and maneuvered herself up and out of the chair, waving him down when he rose. “I’ll be praying for you,” she promised, then turned and made her way back to the table.
“What in the world?” Cora exclaimed.
“Were you praying over there?” Marie asked.
“What happened?” Laura demanded. “I didn’t see.”
“Let’s go,” Ginny said. “I’ll tell you later.” It took them a few minutes more to gather their things and calculate the tip. By the time Ginny had left her nine dollars and twenty-seven cents on the table, the man in the starched white shirt with the sad blue eyes was gone.
At the Scent of Water by Linda Nichols
Copyright © 2004 ; ISBN 0764227297, 0764229877, 0764229885
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.