Very early in the morning, exactly a week before my sixty-fifth birthday, I found a letter tucked into the mailbox beside my front door. It was an invitation to a birthday party, but I didn’t know that yet.
My front porch was inside the city limits of Gulfport, Mississippi, only a couple of blocks from the beach. It was the kind of gray morning that you really only find in the South. The air touched my face, wrapped my cheeks with warm hands, said it would be sunny and hot in an hour; there wouldn’t be any more snow and ice for me, no sir, not in this lifetime. I had moved here to forget about ice pellets on dirty wind, white stars in black skies, snow swirling in headlight beams. Those things were inventions now, relegated to the occasional bad dream.
From nowhere, I felt the urge to light a cigarette in celebration. It was an impulse that came from another lifetime, since I hadn’t smoked in thirty years. I remembered the first-of-the-day anticipation though, the feel of cellophane and filter, the comfortable scratch of the lighter, the smell of tobacco that somehow surprised you a moment before you tasted it. It wasn’t a habit I usually missed, but the moment brought a bittersweet nostalgia, a sense of other mornings now lost.
A man walked past on the sidewalk, trailing a Chihuahua on a leash that wasn’t much more than a length of string. I recognized him as a neighbor, another old man like me who couldn’t sleep when the clock got past four or five. He had invited me to golf with him shortly after I moved in. When I told him I didn’t know how, it had surprised him, as though I had achieved my age without passing some essential initiation.
“Morning, Bink,” he called, and stopped to let his little dog relieve himself on my grass. I knew he wanted to talk. I didn’t. I sketched a wave and looked back down at the envelope in my hands.
It was the creamy yellow that good, heavy paper gets, and it was postmarked Hollywood, California. The handwriting on it was beautiful, feminine but definite, somehow unconventional, drawn rather than printed. The letters looked as though they had been made with a fountain pen, and they told me that the envelope came from someone named Cora Moon who lived on Loma Linda Avenue.
I knew who she was. I hadn't thought about her in years.
Down on the sidewalk, the neighbor sighed audibly at my unfriendliness. The little dog finished pissing on my lawn, and scratched at the grass with its back paws a couple of times to punctuate his contempt. They moved on.
The invitation inside didn’t match. It was too small for the envelope, exactly the kind of thing you bought in packets of ten or twenty at the dime store. These days they were called dollar stores, but this had the look of a different time. “You’re Invited to a Party!” it said, gleefully, in a cascade of yellow balloons. Inside, the lines beside “Time:” and “Date:” were filled out in the same elegant hand. The birthday was mine, and the party was for me.
I hadn’t seen Cora since 1963, the year we both turned eleven. It made no sense that I remembered her at all, but I did. I had loved her hopelessly that summer. My own parents had moved us away in the autumn, and I had never spoken to her again. People discount romance before you’re a teenager, as if love can’t be real until there’s sufficient age to allow for sex, but as I get older, I think maybe the opposite is true. I think maybe you learn to replace true love with something else.
Daughter of a famous actress, Cora had lingered in the limelight afterglow of movie stardom, even after her mother’s death. She popped up in newspaper articles now and then. I read somewhere, perhaps in a copy of People magazine, a vague allusion that she had gone mad.
I looked at the card in my hand and wondered insensibly if it had been mailed and then gotten lost for the last fifty-odd years. I wondered how a girl from 1963 had found me here, so far away. I stood there, an old man on a porch, and wondered if I still loved Cora Moon.