June, 1947. Page, 24, sits at the bar in the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla. It’s hot, Florida in summer hot. She sips a drink alone.
A man walks in. A sport coat and pressed shirt drape over his lanky frame. His nose is sharp, eyes the color of coffee. As he crosses the room he seems to point to the floor — his eyes, his nose, his head, his chest. He served in the war. It’s that walk, she can tell. He comes toward her.
“Hi,” he says. “May I sit down?”
“Yes, of course,” Page replies.
He pulls open the chair and sits. “Thank you.”
The past can be hard to picture, it leaves only shadows. The impression remaining is cobbled together like scenes from old movies — the characters are real, but the settings are wooden, the dialogue imagined, almost fiction.
But Page is real. And so was he.
They talk. He’s witty, makes her laugh. She orders a second drink. He finishes his first. Late afternoon slips to evening, but the dark Florida June is still stifling. Soon he has to leave.
“I’m giving a talk,” he says. “It’ll be an hour. Will you wait?”
She smiles. “Wait for what?”
“I’d like to have dinner with you,” he says, standing.
“An hour?” she says. “Yes, I’ll wait.”
When he returns they leave together, walk out of the bar, out of the hotel and into a restaurant. They keep talking — him telling stories and her laughing. When they finish dinner they go to another bar, then a third. It’s after midnight when they walk back to the Sheraton Plaza.
“Thank you,” Page says, leaning against the door to her room. “I had a wonderful night.”
“Me too,” the man says.
She steps inside, closing the door behind her as he walks away.
The next morning early there is a knock. Page pulls on her robe. “Yes?”
“I wanted to thank you again,” the man says. She opens the door and he hands her his card. His fingers trail across hers as she takes it. “It was the perfect night.”
He smiles. “Write me,” he says, and then turns.
She looks at the card: J.D. Salinger, writer.
1947, four years before “The Catcher in the Rye.” Page is now 92. Her birthday just passed. She lives in South Carolina, still drives, still lives in her home. She is my grandmother.
I knew none of the story when I visited last fall. She’d fallen, broken her pelvis and was in a rehab center awaiting surgery. I drove down to offer help. Aside from the break she was healthy and strong, “This place is full of old people,” she told me. “Not like me. I’m old, but these people have no idea what day it is.”
But not her. Ninety-two or not, she remembers.
“You’re a writer, so you might appreciate this,” she said, and she told me the story: the bar, how he came in then left then came back. Dinner. The next morning. All of it.
“Go in my desk,” she said. “In the back there’s an envelope. Look inside.”
“Write me,” he said. And she did. And he wrote back.
The envelope was yellow and stuffed with clippings. The return address — P.O. Box 32, Windsor, VT 05089 — lacks a name; the postmark read May 23, 1976, 29 years after the hotel.
“Dear Page B.,” the letter begins, typed in the irregular stroke of a typewriter. “Mainly, I suppose, because of the kind of work I’ve got myself into, my memory seems to be almost extinct. Or so cluttered and cross-cluttered that I can get at things only at their convenience, not mine. Not that it doesn’t all come back if someone very kindly presents me with an artifact or two — the seating plan of some old dining room, say, or a sketch of the way deck chairs were placed around the swimming pool, or sometimes just a plain wet black bathing suit does the trick.”
But even faded, the memory survived: “I was back at that Daytona hotel a couple of winters ago, with my children, but the place had turned seedy and the weather was cold, and we cleared out in a hurry.”
One page only, signed “JDS.” He referred to her children (“I’m aware of what goes into having just two. The algebra of seven is too much for me.”) and her separation, indications of past correspondence. Her words, however, are silent, only echoed on the page of a man who splashed letters like paint.
“You do sound intact, but very much, though, and I’m glad. For what very little it must be worth, I send you all these inanities with warm apologies.”
He is dead now. She is 92. But the letter remains. Thirty-nine years later, 68 years later, the past is still cluttered and cross-cluttered. Memories fade, then disappear, and from the rearview it sounds almost like fiction.
This story appeared in The Conway Daily Sun in July of 2015.