After the Dance, A Short Story by Nancy Lane

After the Dance, A Short Story by Nancy Lane

“The once red leaf, the last of its clan, that dances as often as dance it can.”  ~.Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

Three weeks after the last dinner/dance at the Elks Lodge

Mae pulled a pen from the junk drawer by the refrigerator and squinted at the calendar affixed by magnet to the refrigerator door. She glanced at the wall clock—11:17 p.m. When Lou joined the Elks Lodge, he told Mae the traditional meaning of 11 p.m., the time when the great heart of Elkdom swells and throbs. She imagined a herd of elk in Heaven, all with angel wings, and Lou astride the lead elk.

She crossed off days on the calendar around this same time each evening. She had marked off twelve days. Only twelve—time was going by so slowly. That made her think of words sung by Bobby Hatfield, and that reminded her of their last night at the Elks Lodge. She and Lou had sat at a table with an engaged couple. The fiancée asked Lou whether Unchained Melody was a wedding song or a funeral song.

“It’s tender and sweet and about love and loss,” Lou said. “You could make an argument either way. You two will find your perfect forever song. We did.” He winked at Mae.

Mae took the groom-to-be’s slight smile to mean Lou’s answer jibed with his reluctance to embrace his bride-to-be’s suggested wedding song. Lou—the quintessential diplomat!

Mae opened the refrigerator, a habit at this time of night because she had routinely poured Lou a glass of milk before bedtime. That night, the glaring light of the refrigerator bulb illuminated Bobby Hatfield, wearing a pink sports coat. He was only a few inches tall and sat atop a Twinkie Lou had left on a plate two weeks earlier—two days before 9-1-1, the wail of an ambulance over Mae’s screams, and a flatline on the ER monitor. The hallucination didn’t shock her, perhaps because other shocks had oversaturated her brain. She stared at the crooner, who shrugged his shoulders with arms out. She agreed—what now? Her dance with Lou now ended, and she sat on the stage of life, like Bobby sitting atop the shriveled Twinkie, a bright light glaring on her one-woman show—no rehearsals, no script, no choreography, no partner. Guilt hounded her to the bedroom. She climbed into bed, still wearing her housecoat, and sobbed for hours. She should have prepared herself.

The phone rang early. She ignored it. She answered when it rang later.

“Hi, Celeste.” She managed a congenial voice and a lie. “Thanks anyway, but relatives are staying with me to help. I appreciate your concern. Yes, I will. Thank you.” When relatives called, she switched the lie: “My good friends from church are staying with me to help out.” She didn’t want anyone there but Lou. At the funeral, too many offered inane platitudes: he’s in a better place; you’re strong, you’ll get through this. The worst—time heals all. They wanted her to think about the future, but she couldn’t think ahead, only back.

 

The last dinner/dance at the Elks Lodge, three weeks earlier

Outside the building, wind-driven rain pelted those hurrying from the parking lot toward the entrance doors. Inside, members and guests swayed on the parquet dance floor to canned sixties and seventies music piped from a backroom to speakers hanging from the tiled ceiling of the Elks Lodge Hall, built in the fifties and renovated minimally in the intervening decades. White-aproned staff cleared the last dessert plates from plastic tablecloths. The monthly prime rib dinner and dance always drew a near-capacity crowd comprised mainly of senior citizens.

Mae had giggled when Lou forked his dinner entrée in a mocking way, swinging a forkful toward his mouth and breaking into an exaggerated grin. She was ready for a pleasurable evening. They hadn’t been on a “date” for over two months. Lou’s hospitalization and recovery had scared Mae. When she made the dinner reservation for the evening, she ordered two vegetarian plates. He complained. She reminded him their heart-healthy dinner was just a prelude to an evening of dance—doctor’s orders: no red meat, but occasional moderate exercise.

The playlist of twenty-five songs never varied. Lou had written down the titles and carried the playlist in his pocket. She watched each time Lou would sneak a peek and then announce the next three songs to newcomers at the table. Mae also knew the playlist, at least when her favorite, Marvin Gaye’s After the Dance, would play next. She’d tap Lou’s arm and skip to the dance floor ahead of him.

On this overdue date night at the Elks Lodge, Mae’s mind drifted back to the night they met in 1976 at a trendy nightclub and danced to this song. She had felt awkward in this stranger’s arms but didn’t want the dance to end. It played on and seemed to bend time—as if forever could start with a Marvin Gaye song. Lou, this handsome young man, shifted his body and, bending forward, brought his lips close to her ear. Surprise—she heard his deep voice whispering some of the lyrics to her, lyrics suggesting they should get together after the dance. After she had heard those words repeatedly, the song ended and she felt her face flush. She knew his intentions and hers too. Together, after the dance that night and continuing almost fifty years—her forever started with her first dance in Lou’s arms.

At the Elks Lodge dinner/dances, the 1965 recording of Unchained Melody played twice—the first song and the last, the only song repeated in the list and for some a cue to bid good-night to friends and head to the coatrack before sauntering to the exit doors. Lou and Mae, never in a hurry to claim their wraps and scurry to the parking lot, savored the last dance before leaving. On that brisk evening, Mae enjoyed the feel of Lou’s warm hand as they stepped carefully over slippery downed leaves. After the dance that night, laughter and well wishes from other dancing Elks and their partners leaving the hall became a memory from before forever broke in half.

 

Four weeks after Lou died

Mae had not hallucinated again since Bobby Hatfield shrugged in the refrigerator, and there were other things she had not done, such as clean out the refrigerator. The stale Twinkie and sour milk remained. She had not shopped for groceries or eaten out. She heated instant oatmeal in the microwave twice a day and consumed coffee hour after hour. She passed her time the way a prisoner might, crossing out days on the calendar. Every night she went to bed in her housecoat, with its coffee stain and drip of crusted oatmeal. She had not washed it or done any laundry in the last twenty-eight days.

Rain pelted against the skylight in the vaulted ceiling of the master bedroom, a surprise birthday gift Lou had installed twenty-seven years earlier while she was out of town at a reunion. This night, she awoke startled. She did not see it but felt a face looking at her. Her swollen eyes scanned the bedroom. The window blinds were closed. Rolling raindrops on the skylight merged and trickled in streams. Behind the streams, a friendly face emerged—the man in the moon—filling the skylight, edge to edge, with soft light. Dark splotches on the heavenly orb formed the eyes, nose, and open mouth. Could she discern any heavenly message from this delightful surprise? The face watching her gave her a strange sense of Lou’s presence and reminded her his gift persisted. Even now, after their life’s dance together had ended, she still felt his love.

A shaft of light fell across the free-standing mirror in the corner of the bedroom. Mae slipped out of bed and turned on the nightstand lamp. The moonlight faded from the skylight, and in the dim lamplight, she caught her reflection in the mirror. Even in the soiled housecoat, she looked younger, like a past version of herself. She picked up her phone from the nightstand and turned on her one-song playlist. As she listened, she glided to Lou’s side of the walk-in closet. She took down his tweed blazer and Trilby hat and breathed in Lou’s scent.

When she put on the coat and hat, they felt so good—why hadn’t she done so before? She watched herself in the mirror, dancing, arms up and stepping as if following Lou’s lead. The song played again and again. Gaye sang, but she heard Lou’s deep voice. After that first dance with Lou years earlier, she knew her intentions, but now she didn’t.

She paused the music and pulled a clean t-shirt of Lou’s from the dresser. She watched herself in the mirror as she replaced her housecoat with a nightshirt. Take it slow, she told herself—perhaps three new intentions each day, little ones, rewarded by a dance in the mirror at 11 p.m.

The next day, she cleaned out the refrigerator, bought groceries, got a book from the library about coping with grief, and danced before going to bed.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

Nancy Lane earned a B.A. degree with a major in Mathematics and a minor in English from UCLA and began writing short stories after years of industry-related writing and teaching. Her stories have been published in many online publications and in the print anthology, “The Best of Fiction on the Web.” 

Her story collection, “Pretty Chrysanthemum and Other Stories,” was published by Open Books Publishing in 2020. Nancy teaches a writing class at public libraries and has also taught writing at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Southern Oregon University.

 

Visit Nancy’s website at https://nancylanewriter.com