The moonlight shone silver against the oversize buttons of the old man's coat. At first, that was all I could see - three buttons glinting like tiny harvest moons in the shadows of a Storm Lake cemetery.
As my eyes adjusted, I made out the rest. He stood before a small tombstone, arm outstretched. I could hear him speaking, but couldn't make out the words.
I don't usually detour my evening jog through a cemetery, but this night last week I decided to, without knowing why. What the heck, it was one of those full-moon nights when the unusual is usual. A once-in-a-Blue-Moon kind of night.
I plopped down on a grassy knoll at a respective distance, puffing for breath and curiously following the old man's actions. What was he doing out here, of all places, at an hour when the moon flies high? What was his shaky hand reaching out for, and was he going to be all right?
On another night I would have hollered a hello, asked if the man needed some kind of help, or just smiled and passed on by. Not on a once-in-a-Blue-Moon kind of night. Not when the moon glinted off his big buttons in that way, as if a dim spotlight was picking him out among the markers. Not when his mumbled voice created a sort of spell not to be broken. Not when his hand was frozen in the air in that peculiar way that made me shiver, although the night was not cold.
I watched curiously for a moment. Then it struck me - I knew why this otherwise typical, lonely old man had caught my eye, and why I'd stopped at a point along my running route that I normally pass as quickly as my wobbly legs will carry me:
It was the way his arm was poised. An unmistakable gesture - as if holding a hand. The way a man would hold onto the love of his life.
I normally mind my own business, and I don't sport an imagination that is particularly of the romantic variety. Unless, maybe, it happens to be one of those once-in-a-Blue-Moon kind of nights.
A scene leapt uninvited into my mind, flickery and ethereal - like a scrap from a favorite old movie whose name you can't quite remember.
In it, I pictured the old man on another night long ago - tall and lithe, he had the dance's most beautiful girl on his strong arm and the season's last carnation in his lapel.
There was noise and excited people all around them, but they scarcely noticed anything but each other. There was something in her eye that night, a sparkle he could never forget. A look that made him know, in all the years they would spend together - and even if there were a few in which a stormy world would temporarily separate them - they would love as few can ever hope to. No one would cut in on this dance and pull them apart.
They ran from the crowded ballroom, he in close-fitting black tuxedo and gleamy shoes, she in a starched white skirt and long ribbons in her hair to match; laughing and sucking the crisp air of a late September night into their lungs as they raced toward the light-splintered surface of the lake. The sounds of a band playing "Racing With the Moon," chased them as they crunched through the grass, spotted now by the first of the fallen leaves.
They spun and spun in the dizzy moonlight on this night of nights. They did not think about the coming threat of another war to end all wars; of the children who would be born, grow, and leave; of lean times; of the eventual final scene that would take one from the other. They didn't have to speak it - they knew they would endure, together. It was a once-in-a-Blue-Moon kind of night.
I know what you're thinking. My imagination had flown away from me - like the gulls screeching on the rocks shore across the road from this quiet final resting place, racing and wheeling away dizzily in the air.
Imagination can do that to you in such a place late at night. Reality becomes fuzzy, then blurs, then changes to look like something else entirely. On a once-in-a-Blue-Moon kind of night.
No, I have no way of proving my impression of the old man's story, of opening the door into his past. I did not ask him what he was thinking, I did not read the inscription on the stone. I left him as I had found him in the moonlight, hand clasping something only he could know. You might say he was just another lonely old man, a little mumbly and out of step, but not out of the ordinary. You might say his arm was stiffened from some kind of palsy. And you may say I have an ambitious imagination, or that I've lived down the street from a hauntingly silent old ballroom for entirely too long.
But the old man and me, we know. Some things are capable of outlasting even cold, hard reality. I left him there, squeezing a hand I couldn't see, but never doubted for a moment that he could feel. As I trotted quietly away in the opposite direction, I couldn't really make out his face in the dark. Don't ask me how - but somehow I knew it wore a smile.
After all, it was another of those once-in-a-Blue-Moon kind of nights.