The old man shuffled slowly down the street, keeping one eye on the youngster who trotted merrily along ahead of him. He wasn’t even sure why he was here, except his daughter had asked him to be.
“Grandpa, let’s look in here,” the young boy tugged at the old man’s sleeve urgently, pointing into the new jewelry store that had opened up in town just a couple…. decades ago, was it now? He couldn’t quite remember. Funny that. He could remember the days when Tompkins’ General Store was the only option in town as clear as a bell.
He followed his grandson, still tugging at his sleeve, into the shop. But his mind was seeing his friends pouring off the street and through the single door with a bell mounted over it. A grey-haired grouch stood watch, making sure they didn’t ‘mess anything up.’ The single mercantile hadn’t carried half the products available today at the Woolworth’s down the street, but then it had seemed like you could get just about anything in the world there. He snorted in amusement at himself, the folly of youth.
“What about this, Grandpa?” The boy pointed to a beautiful diamond necklace, the stones laid out in a lacy pattern that glittered fiercely in the harsh glare of the artificial miniature suns fueled by that new-fangled electricity. He missed candlelight. It hadn’t hurt his eyes the way these false lights that were going in everywhere did.
“I think you’d better look at something a little less expensive,” he suggested gently, pointing the boy toward another counter covered with costume jewelry the child had a fighting chance of affording. Sure, he’d been saving his money for a couple of years now, but that didn’t mean he should waste every last cent on a single purchase.
The old man continued to let his eyes roam across the room even as they crossed time. So it should’ve come as no surprise when the two intersected in front of him.
“Ohhhh,” he breathed in awe, stopping in mid-stride for a moment. Then, ever so slowly, he stepped to his left, toward a counter covered in porcelain figurines. He reached out a shaking hand to glide a single finger down the side of the tallest figurine in the display.
So that’s where she’d gone. He’d wondered sometimes where she was. She’d always been there, at his side. Until one day, she just wasn’t. He’d wondered where she’d disappeared to and now he’d found her. Such an odd place for her to go. He couldn’t really understand her choice. She’d always preferred the outdoors and fresh air to being cooped up inside. And she’d hated these electric lights as much as he did. Then again, maybe she’d just been humoring him on that.
But it was definitely her. The graceful curve of her arms, hands held aloft in jubilation, celebrating some event. The head thrown back, a joyful smile gracing her mobile face, her long brown curls trailing down her back. The large, belled out skirt, fancifully decorated with various colored flowers. Lace edging the sleeves, neck and skirt of the beautiful gown. It all proved it was her. Just the way she liked to dress for special occasions.
The single word slipped between his lips unnoticed, like a thief escaping into the night, there and then gone again so fast one wondered if it had ever existed at all.
His Lou. She’d always loved to dance. It was no wonder she’d chosen to spend eternity here, dancing her heart out. Dancing was how he’d always remember her.
It had been obvious from that very first dance they’d ever attended together. He could see her clear as if she were in front of him now, wearing her boy’s clothes, leaning up against the wall with her arms crossed protectively over her chset, staring at the ladies in their pretty dresses with a look of such naked longing on her face he couldn’t ignore it. He’d risked it all, her secret, his reputation, both their jobs, to sneak her out back behind the schoolhouse to the corrals for their first dance in the moonlight.
So many precious moments in their life had been marked with the magic of her dancing. There’d been the typical church socials, harvest festivals and Founders Day celebrations, of course. And she’d danced her heart out at each and every one. Oh, how she’d rejoiced the first time she got to wear a dress to a dance. The smile that had lit her face that night had been rivaled only by the smile on her face the day they’d married, and at the birth of each of their children.
She’d celebrated those events with dance, too. He could remember walking into their bedroom less than 24 hours after their first child had been born to find her twirling around the room, their newborn daughter held tightly to her chest, as she hummed a happy tune.
She’d pulled him into a whirling dervish of celebration over every little thing in their lives. We’re pregnant! Let’s dance! The biscuits ain’t burned! Let’s dance! Katy delivered a beautiful colt! Let’s dance! He didn’t count his memories by time or place, but by how she’d danced.
So caught up was he in his memories he didn’t notice the wistfully happy smile splitting his features, or the single mournful tear coursing down his cheek. But the boy did.
“She’s beautiful isn’t she?”
“Hunh?!” He looked up, startled. He hadn’t heard anyone approaching him, but a young lady dressed in a simple blue frock stood at his side, smiling up at him. She was pretty, but not like his Louise. Her eyes didn’t hold that same mischievious glint, her mouth didn’t curve into that fun-loving smile, her spirit didn’t scream out for adventure. She was content with her lot in life. And that was fine for her.
“We call her, The Dancer,” the sales girl said. “She’s only $50.”
“Oh,” he said, realizing she thought he wanted to buy the figurine. “That’s alright. I was just looking. She… reminded me of someone I… used to know.”
With a last lingering glance behind him, he turned and walked over to the boy’s side at the other counter.
“Well?” he asked. “Anythin’ fer yer Ma’s birthday?”
“Naw,” the boy sighed. “She wouldn’t care fer any of these gew gaws. I think I’ll just make her a nice card. Maybe carve her something myself.”
The old man put an arm around the young boy’s shoulders as they walked toward the store entrance together.
“I think she’d like that, son,” he said, smiling down at the child. “You know, Ma’s always like what you make yourself the best. Did I ever tell you about the time yer Ma gave yer Grandma a dance fer her birthday?”
It had been a long day. First there’d been the confirmation of his youngest granddaughter at Sunday services. Then, they’d come home to celebrate his daughter’s birthday. As he’d predicted, she’d loved the gift her eldest son had made for her. It was a beautiful card, cut in the shape of a heart from a large piece of red paper and decorated with bits of lace, old buttons and ribbons pulled from her sewing kit. And the little cupid he’d carved for her from a piece of driftwood he’d found down by the river had been a hit. It now sat proudly on the mantle over the fireplace in the living room, next to her wedding portrait.
With a sigh, the old man climbed the stairs to his bedroom and pushed the door open. He ignored the light switch by the door, moving by memory through the room to the fireplace. There was no fumbling as he reached for the packet of matches lying on the mantlepiece and skillfully lit the candle.
As his eyes adjusted to its flickering, golden glow, they widened in surprise. There, on the mantle, standing in solitary splendor, was The Dancer, a slip of paper peeking out from under the figurine’s base.
He pulled it out and read it by the candlelight.
“Grandpa, I know you miss Grandma. We all do. So, I thought I’d bring her back home for you.”