Hello, Young Lovers

“It was our favorite spot, our secret place.”

He appeared almost Lilliputian, dwarfed by the big hickory rocking chair he occupied on the porch of the old Riverside Hotel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. But we could hardly help noticing him on that warm mid-April day: While others lounged about in casual attire, he wore a dark-blue pinstripe suit, a Harvard-crimson necktie and a straw boater. The gold watch chain draped across his tightly buttoned vest glinted in the sunlight as he rocked ever so deliberately.

He watched bemusedly as I stepped from the Jaguar XK-150, my pride and joy, and walked to the opposite side to open the door for Diane, my bride. His eyes followed as we trailed self-consciously behind the luggage-laden bellboy, and he smiled a knowing smile when we neared his rocker.

"Hello, young lovers," he said. Our honeymooner status was unmistakable.

The man we came to know as Mr. B was in the dining room, sitting alone with a cup of tea, when we entered late the next morning. His eyes came to life when he saw us. He rose with some effort and beckoned us toward him.

"You'd make an old man very happy if you joined me," he said with an octogenarian's formality. I wonder even now why we did. Perhaps it was the angelic expression his face assumed. More likely, it was our honeymooner self-consciousness -- we'd been found out by an elder and felt compelled to comply with his wishes.

He was a Canadian, an attorney, he said, still practicing in Winnipeg. But he'd been spending Aprils in Gatlinburg for almost fifty years. He and his wife would come with their son and daughter and explore the mountains on horseback, getting to know every scenic vantage point of Mount Le Conte, every turn in the tumbling Little Pigeon River.

After the son had died and the daughter was grown, Mr. B and his wife had kept up their visits. And he still made the annual trek even though his wife had died three years earlier. The mountains and the valley were touchstones for him, sites of pleasant memories that were revived with each visit.

"I've had a love of my own," he said, his eyes misting. He asked detailed questions about our wedding and told us in detail of his own, some sixty years earlier. During brief periods when a conversational lapse threatened, he softly hummed "Hello, Young Lovers," the song from The King and I.

That night he sat alone during dinner, careful, he later told us, not to "get in love's way." But he glanced often in our direction, and we knew he was not alone; he was deep in reverie, dining with his own true love. Returning to our room following an after-dinner walk, we found a ribbon-bedecked bottle of champagne. An accompanying card read: "See Mr. B in the A.M. for instructions as to its use."

He was waiting for us in his rocking chair after breakfast, the look of a leprechaun on his face. He handed me a piece of paper on which he had sketched the river, a place where we could leave our car, a footpath and points at which large boulders made it possible to cross the cold mountain stream on foot. His shaky-handed path led eventually to a river pool indicated with an X.

"The champagne is to be chilled in the pool," he said. "You are to spread your picnic lunch on the grassy knoll to the right of it. It's very secluded. A very romantic spot." We could only gape at him, certain he was spoofing.

"Your picnic basket will be delivered to you here on the veranda at precisely noon." He was on his feet then, moving away. He turned and added: "It was our favorite spot, our secret place."

We never saw Mr. B again during our honeymoon. We wondered whether he'd fallen ill. But inquiries to the hotel staff were answered with, "Oh, he's around," or "He often likes to be alone."

Our firstborn was almost three when we next visited Gatlinburg, and Diane was six months pregnant with our second son. We approached the aging hotel not in the Jaguar, but in a practical sedan. Our arrival went unnoticed.

But when we walked into the hotel lobby the next morning, our son toddling ahead, the old man was sitting in an overstuffed lounge chair. Seeing the child, he stretched out his arms, and our son, as if drawn by a magnet, ran into them.

"Mr. B!" we exclaimed in unison.

He smiled that beatific smile.

"Hello, young lovers," he said.

Cover image via Lumia Studio I Shutterstock

This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Happily Ever After: Fun and Heartwarming Stories about Finding and Enjoying Your Mate © 2011 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.

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