The old man sat on the outside stairway of his dilapidated old apartment building, silently thumbing through the pages of a magazine that looked far older than its February 1977 cover date. The pages were dog-eared, the cover was torn and held tentatively in place by a single staple... the result of so many years of having been repeatedly thumbed through by a lonely old man sitting in front of a run-down apartment building.

The girls in this particular issue were special, though. They reminded him of a day that he had believed at the time to be the happiest of his life. 

He had purchased the magazine the same day that his divorce had become final. After far too many years of forcing himself to endure life in the company of a hateful bat who never loved him in the first place (although, in fairness, he had never really loved her either), he had finally been granted the freedom to live life any way he wanted. The magazine had been purchased in celebration of that new freedom; the women inside were the sort he wanted to spend the rest of his life pursuing. Young, beautiful, full of life and full of fun and willing to take a chance with their lives. And so he had set out to find himself a woman or two like that. Somebody who would be willing to share their lives with a fun loving, free spirited older man for whom the best was almost certainly still to come.

Except, it never did.

He had never realized his dream, not once. He had come close one time, but the lovely lady who at first had seemed so willing eventually decided that she simply could not go through with it. She'd said it would have been like being with - he still shuddered whenever he remembered - her own grandfather. The sting of that one had never gone away.

And so now all he had left to show for his life was a bad marriage, a lifetime stuck in a dull and meaningless job he had only intended to keep until something better came along, and a lot of broken dreams.

And a single well-worn magazine...

Over time it had become the main focus of his failed and miserable life. He ate with it, slept with it, took it with him to the grocery store when he had enough left in his monthly retirement check to restock his empty cupboard. He probably would have bathed with it, if he hadn't been afraid that the ink on the pages would run.

Today he was judging a beauty pageant. For years he had been torn over which young lady featured in that particular issue was the most beautiful; today he had decided to settle the matter once and for all. So he spent the day thumbing back and forth through its pages, carefully inspecting each model’s pictorial with all the dedication of a Miss Universe judge. 

And by late afternoon he had finally narrowed the field of contestants down to three: Marcy on Page Twenty-One, Cecilia on Page Sixty-Seven; and Centerfold Girl Shelly B. At that point the judging had become more difficult. One of these young beauties - well, they had been young back when he'd bought the thing - was going to be crowned Miss Indiana Avenue. Surely the achievement of a lifetime for any girl, even if they don’t know they’ve earned it. But with all the noise emanating from neighborhood children playing on the sidewalk and teenagers with their loud car stereos and the traffic passing back and forth in front of his perch there on the apartment entryway, he was finding it difficult to maintain the level of concentration necessary for making such an important final decision.

As he continued flipping back and forth through the publication a shadow fell across its pages, blocking out the light as the sun began to set. The old man looked up and found himself facing a much younger fellow, probably a good 20 years younger than himself, dressed in a three-piece business suit and carrying a briefcase. A look of consternation came upon the old man’s features as he noticed that the new arrival was staring at the front cover of his magazine. 

“Is there something I can help you with, mister?” the old man asked in a perturbed tone of voice.

The younger stranger seemed a bit startled, as if he had not intended to make his presence known. “On, no, I’m sorry,” he answered. “Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to intrude.” He paused for a moment. “But I have to tell you, I was just walking by on my way home from work and couldn’t help noticing this magazine of yours. Forgive me for asking, but is that the February 1977 issue?”

The old man nodded. “As a matter of fact, it is,” he answered. “Why?”

A smile came upon the other man’s features. “That’s what I thought,” he said. “I have a copy of that same issue at home.”

“Are you a collector?” the old man inquired.

“Not at all,” was the response. “In fact, I usually don’t read this kind of thing at all. But this one... well, it’s something special.”

“Special? How so?”

The younger fellow’s smile grew wider. “Well, that’s kind of a long story. Well, sorry to have bothered you.”

The stranger turned to go, but the old man stood up and called him back. “Listen,” he said, “this isn’t the sort of thing I usually go around asking other people. Especially a kid like you. But I’ve been trying to make up my mind about something and I’ve been having trouble. I figure, since you have this same magazine, maybe you could help me.”

The younger fellow bristled a bit at the older man’s use of the label “kid,” but decided not to say anything. “Sure, if I can,” he said. “What’s the problem.”

The old man stood silent for a moment, trying to decide whether he should have brought it up in the first place, before finally answering. “I’ve been trying to decide which of these girls is the best looking,” he said. “I’ve got it narrowed down to these three, but I haven’t been able to make up my mind from there.”

He handed the magazine to the younger man and showed him his three finalists. The stranger gave the three girls a quick glimpse, then handed the book back to the old man. “No contest,” he said without hesitation. “Cecilia. Definitely Cecilia. The other two are pretty enough, but they don’t even come close to matching her.”

The old man quickly flipped through all three pictorials again. “What makes you say so?”

“Three things,” the younger man told him. “First: see this one here, the one named Marcy? She’s cute, to be sure, but she’s a little bit plump for my taste. Second: this other one, Shelly, she’s way too thin. She looks like she could use a couples of weeks’ worth of good meals.”

The old man studied their pictures for a moment. “Yeah, I see what you mean,” he said. “But that’s only two things. What’s the third?”

In response the younger man set his briefcase on the bottom step, reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. Opening it, he turned to one of the photographs in the plastic sleeves and handed it to the older man.

The old man’s eyes went wide. The picture was of the very same girl – Cecilia, Page Sixty-seven – and appeared to have been taken around the same time as the photos in the magazine. Maybe just a short time later, judging from the slight appearance of facial lines that were not present in the magazine photos. The other difference, immediately noticeable, was that she was wearing clothes in the wallet picture. A wedding dress, in fact.

The old man looked up and asked, “Say, who is this babe, anyway?”

The younger man grinned as he closed the wallet and put it back in his pocket. “That babe is my wife. I’ll be sure to tell her that you admire her pictures.”

He retrieved his briefcase, gave the old man a salute-like wave, and turned to resume his walk home. The old man plopped back down onto the cement steps, released a heavy sigh and muttered disgustedly to himself, “Doesn’t that just figure?”

He reached into his short pocket for his cigarette lighter, set his well-worn and much loved old magazine ablaze and went inside... 

(Copyright 2014 by John Allen Small)