Or So They Say

Fiction
Heidi Vornbrock Roosa


Mr. and Mrs. Jones dancing
Photo Credit: State Library of Victoria Collections

True love is forever, or so they say.

A half an hour before we found the bodies of Ralph and Edie, John was singing under his breath, as carefree as the wind that feathered my hair as we drove out of Great Barrington toward where they waited, lifeless. We didn’t know they were there, of course, or else John wouldn’t have been singing.

Or maybe he would have been. As many years as we’d been together—and yes, this trip was all about exactly how many years it had been—I was becoming unsure if there was anything that could dampen John’s spirits. He seemed the same boy I’d met way back.

He was the same boy I’d met way back.

“Ah-five, ah-two, ah-three, four,” he sang over and over, somehow hammering the syllables to fit the tune of “I’m Awfully Glad I Met You.” His thick, ash-blond hair blew back from his clear, unlined brow, and his blue eyes looked ghostly pale against the sun that shone too brightly down on us. The Auburn Speedster, John’s favorite of the six cars he had kept garaged outside the city for the last three years, floated easily through the heat. The light yellow paint of its hood appeared a washed-out white to my eyes, the hood ornament the only contrast between it and the hazy sky as we crested another hill.

“I wrote down the code, you know, John.”

I had. I’d written down all four of the codes the Realtor had given us. The other three were for summer rentals, most just a couple miles out into the Berkshire Hills around town. But the code John kept singing was for a house for sale.

“It’s not a typical house, as you can tell from the photos,” the Realtor had said, a man in his middle forties, tanned and salt-and-pepper distinguished, casual in his chinos and hiking shoes. There was something attractive about him, I managed to think through the shock I felt at what he was showing us, something calm and nice about his age and experienced air. “It’s a ways out. Housatonic. But it’s been converted, the building. Used to be a dance hall, built at the turn of the century, or so they say.”

“1909,” I had murmured, there in the office on Railroad Street, my words floating from nowhere while my eyes stayed fixed to the spread of photos before me on the glass-topped table.

The Realtor glanced down at the listing sheet. I knew he didn’t see the actual date. I suppose they didn’t keep such great records back then, and he wouldn’t know there was anyone left to remember, anyone who could know more accurately, who could state the fact without that offhand ‘or so they say.’ Certainly, he wouldn’t have thought of it as something I, to all appearances a gal of just over twenty, would be able to tell him.

“What’s a decade or so?” he asked flippantly, and gave a chuckle. John laughed along with him, both of them missing the hard stare I gave him before John looked over and put a hand on my knee and squeezed.

The Realtor had gone on about how the interior was redone in a design purely rooted in this century. I could tell that, seeing in the photos all the stained wood and stainless steel of the kitchen tucked in the corner of the open living space, where once couples had danced.

I didn’t want to go to see it. But John did.

The Realtor had no problem giving us the codes for the ones John picked out, including the dance hall. He’d seen the car after all, seen the money that it and our rings, clothes, hair, everything, spoke about us. He urged us to go out this afternoon, even though he had an open house to attend to. They were all tenantless, no need for a formal appointment, and we should get back to him right away, call him on his cell even, as there had been some couples who were also interested in certain of them.

John knew I didn’t want to see it, but then, I hadn’t wanted to come back to the Berkshires at all.

John stopped singing the code after my comment, but switched to humming. I turned from him and tried to listen only to the wind, tried to pay attention only to the road we drove. The trees covering the hills seemed too close into the sides of the narrow road. They seemed to drip the hot, moist air over us, their green not a cool relief, as one would expect.

It had been years since we had been back. I didn’t recognize anything.

What’s a decade or so?

Multiply one by ten and it was long enough. Too long.

“Come on, Trudy,” John had exclaimed as we pored over the map in our Manhattan apartment. “It’s our anniversary.”

That line had long ago worn out its ability to excite me.

“And this is a biggie,” he continued, with his constant boyish enthusiasm. “It would be damn odd to celebrate it anywhere else in the world.”

We had lived all over the world, moving every three years or so. It got awkward after that, you see. It was his turn to choose too. We’d finished our last four books living in a building off Central Park, but it was time to go, just as it was time, yet again, to change the pseudonym we wrote under. An author could only have a career of a certain length before the invitations for lifetime achievement started to come in, and they were even harder to turn down than the other invitations to appear at conferences and to meet our eager editors, so it was time to find someone new to be and somewhere new to live. To start it all over again. And if John wanted the Berkshires, the Berkshires it would be.

But the dance hall? It was too much of a coincidence. John hadn’t been as shocked as I to see it in the agent’s window there on Railroad Street. I realized that now. Had he seen it on the Internet, a toy he loved more than any of the other technological goodies he’d acquired over all our years together? Had he planned this, thinking it would be an anniversary gift like no other? After all, John had given me plenty of anniversary presents over the years, and I’m sure it was difficult for him to keep coming up with something that excited him as much as this one seemed to be doing.

I looked over at him. He was humming and smiling, and when he caught me looking, he reached for my hand and squeezed my fingers, making the wedding band dig into my skin. I gave a brief smile, which always was satisfaction enough for him, and he placed his hand back on the wide steering wheel, turned his eyes back to the winding road.

He was as handsome as when I’d first laid eyes on him, in the same dance hall we were barreling toward just now. When we’d pulled up today to the curb in Railroad Street, John wedging the boat of the Auburn in between a tiny Boxster and a Subaru wagon, it wasn’t just the rarity and flash of the Auburn that made people stop, made them turn and stare while holding shop doors half-open, made them forget their hurry and errands. He had always been a beautiful boy. Twenty-something shopgirls emerged onto the sidewalk, looked him up and down as he dashed around to get my door, thinking they recognized the vitality of one in his prime, assessing for a quick, but calculated, second whether they might be a match for me, wondering what it was I had that they did not.

Years, I would have told them. I’ve got years.

It was the inaugural dance at the St. Stanislaus Dance Hall, a country place whose opening excited talk in three counties, when I had first seen John. I had come with Ralph, my second cousin, whose family I was staying with before my last year away at Miss Price’s. Ralph wore a check-woven lounge suit. I was self-conscious, in a square-necked silk dress of his sister’s. There was cake and punch, a band with brass and strings, and even a flower seller.

Also, a gypsy woman set up in a dim corner to tell fortunes. Spiritualism was all the rage those days. Her scarves, rings, and fissured face when first I glimpsed them were only props adding to the excitement of the dance hall. Nothing more than props.

John was leaning against the far wall, scanning the dancers. He wore a suit even newer and more handsome than Ralph’s. His hair was a bit longer than he wore it now, but it was slicked back as was the style then, the same almost as it was now with the wind blowing it back as we moved through the air in the Speedster, though the hair oil of back then had made it a bit darker, a nice contrast with his pale blue eyes.

We’ve written a bit of romance into each of our mysteries over the years, and each successive editor had always cried that those romance lines were what would be missed most when we told them we, as the pseudonym they didn’t realize was only our most current, were retiring. It was those romance bits that sold so many books, and couldn’t we reconsider, write a bit longer, a bit more? As much as literary critics damn the trope of love at first sight, we included it in our books almost half the time. It worked in the stories, we said to each other, because we knew it worked in real life.

We’d experienced it ourselves that inaugural night.

In the books, we wrote in a lot of racing hearts and widening eyes, but it really hadn’t been like that. It had been a strange, comfortable sort of first glance—John tapping a foot as he surveyed the dancers, one eye on the stairs to see who would be next to arrive, looking dapper and at home, as if he were the host of this party. It was like we had known each other a long time and were only now meeting again, right then as I came up the stair, on Ralph’s arm, his neck craning as he looked at all the other girls, making it clear we weren’t a couple. I had felt a welling up of something mellower than passion when John first noticed me across the floor. His pale blue eyes met mine. He flicked a stray hair back from his forehead, cocked his head, and let his lips curl away from his teeth in a most engaging smile. I felt a warmth and sense of well-being; a great happiness is the way I described it to John in a whispered confession on our honeymoon. He said the same was true for him, and the passion grew from there.

There had been something in the air, as well as in the punch, and it was soon after I saw John that Ralph saw Edie. He abruptly dropped my arm when first he saw her, approached a neighbor girl who was with her, and garnered a quick introduction. It wasn’t long before he had left me with the neighbor girl, and Ralph and Edie were dancing.

I was lost in this memory when John pulled off the road and headed up a gravel drive. From the overhanging trees emerged the dance hall. The renovators had painted the barn-like building a bright, unnatural orange. This delighted John. He gave a hoot and hit the horn, bleating out a jaunty call. He braked hard and tore out of the car, leaving his door flung wide, and ran up to the steps.

“Can you imagine, Trudy?” he called, spreading his arms wide, as if he wanted to take the whole tangerine expanse into his arms. “A hundred years. And look at it!”

I did look at it. In fact, I sat in the car, unable to get out, transfixed by it, even as I was repulsed by it.

It wasn’t the same, but it was.

John already had the code he knew so well punched into the lockbox, had pulled wide the high, carriage-style door that split in the middle, and had disappeared inside.

I got out of the Speedster then, felt the give of the gravel, and almost thought I could sense each stone through the soles of my shoes, like I had that night in my thin, silk slippers, with just a shim of heel. Like I had that night when I’d alighted from Ralph’s father’s cart, feeling timid, but just a little high, as if something magical were truly going to happen.

‘Little did we know’ was a clichĂ© our editors frowned upon in the last decades. We’d stopped ourselves using it as a device, but I knew that it was sometimes appropriate. It was the exact truth that someone watching might well have thought that night. The gypsy woman in the corner, with her scarves and crystals and cards. Perhaps that was what she had said to herself that night as she watched us.

John had come up to me without waiting for an introduction, made a show for a moment of flirting with Ralph’s neighbor, whom he knew in a vague way. But it was my arm he took even as he waited for my answer to his quest for a dance. He was brash then, and was still now as he’d been. It had attracted me to him right off, so many years ago.

Now, it only made me tired. And it wasn’t just his brashness I was tired of. I was tired of his impulsiveness, tired of his eternal youthful buoyancy, his rakish, unchanging grin, his bright, open acceptance of each and every new day as if it were truly a wonder.

Now I realized I was tired, too, of looking at the caustic orange of the dance hall. I think I finally made my way in through the doors simply to be rid of the pain the color brought. I came up the stairway, which at my last memory had been lined with courting couples holding punch cups and fans. Above me, I heard John opening and closing what must have been cupboard doors in the new kitchen. When I reached the top of the stairs, I saw that they had situated the kitchen where the band had sat that night. John had flipped on all of the electric lights over that space, and he had his nose in one of the ovens as he said, “This one’s convection, Trudy. The other’s gas. Perfect, wouldn’t you say?”

I didn’t say anything. They had left a rug, wide and abstract in purples and golds, on the wood of the floor, which had been sealed with many coats of varnish, leaving the surface so glossy it shone. I remembered how dusty and rough it had been, how loudly it echoed with the men’s hard-soled shoes, the women’s heels. And during the country dances, the old folk reels, it sang with a rhythmic clatter.

I had left the side of Ralph’s neighbor, left her alone, which I saw now was cruel, but as soon as John had lightly touched my arm, I knew there was nothing, not propriety, not care for another, not the wishes of our parents, nothing that would ever separate us again.

Not time itself.

Now I left John to explore the workings of the near-silent exhaust hood, and I walked the wide carpet, then went further onto the bare boards again, away from him. There were lights recessed into the wood planks that lined the pitched ceiling, but I didn’t bother to put these lights on to help me see anything more than the sun from the windows could show me.

It was only right that the corner where the gypsy had set up her rickety canopy poles and table was now dim, windowless, and in half-shadow. It had been that way then as well.

I had caught her staring at us as we danced. The gypsy woman did not seem to scan the dancers, as she might have if she were looking for couples to dupe, for clues of what to say when she had someone seated across from her at the low, fabric-draped table. Some girlfriends and I had dared each other into the carnival tent of someone like her during our last summer’s holiday. We had giggled over our bags of peanuts the whole rest of the evening about the ridiculous and nebulous predictions she had given each of us.

But this woman did not seem to look at anyone but me and John. Every time John spun me, every time I looked up from John’s magnetic eyes, every time I waited as he fetched me punch, I would find her watching us, with eyes just as fixed, yet terrible. Deeply blank, but foreboding. Asking Edie later, I found that she too felt that uncanny stare on her, only her, the whole evening.

“Trudy, I’m going to see the bath,” John called, then took the stairs down in leaps and bounds. “It has a hammered copper tub, the Realtor said.”

I heard him on the stone floor below, opening doors.

Edie and I had asked the boys for a break from the heat and press of bodies, but they were reluctant to let us from their arms. They relented when we suggested that we take our ease at the table of the gypsy woman, whose low stools were empty when we approached. If they paid her handsomely, I imagine they thought, she might be made to utter the words that would make us theirs for good and ever. They did pay her well. Too well, it seems now. Though maybe she chose to offer what she did because she saw in us the possibility of true love, the possibility of something as transcendent as what the susurration of her words promised.

If we truly loved, she murmured in a voice as smooth as churned cream, we could hold this moment with us forever. If we wished, if we dared. We were of a time that felt that was just as it should be—that love was to be found at first sight in a dance hall, love was to be giddy at first and then sure, constant and forever.

But with this gypsy woman we were transfixed. We felt the gravity of her stare. The lightness I had felt with girlfriends the summer before was not here. Here, from a mouth full of rotted nubs, from lips so cracked and lined, came an offer as sure and serious as an exchange of vows. A grave promise.

Only allow her to drape her scarf over our first kiss, and we should be joined eternally, locked forever in this very moment of our love’s first consummation.

There was no awkward embarrassment at the import of her words. Though the dancing had been only hours, our love felt settled, and yes—true.

She beckoned us close, brought the scarf—a diaphanous black—to drape like a low cloud above us. John and I kissed there and then, without hesitation, without words, without regard for the crowd dancing behind us or for our families. Ralph and Edie did the same.

Did she gain something from us, that gypsy woman, something beside the discreet fold of bills the boys passed over, as she wrapped herself again in the scarf that had sealed our promise? I don’t know. When we left her, headed back out onto the floor, we thought of her no longer. Our thoughts were only of each other, of the feel of our lips pressed together, of the times we saw ahead of us in our future.

Little did we know—yes, I’ll say that here—little did we know that our future would not be what we thought.

It was just as I saw the shadowed heap that was Ralph and Edie on the boards a bit beyond where the gypsy woman had sat darkly, that I recalled that whispered conversation with a still bright-eyed Edie seven years after we’d acted as bridesmaids for each other. No children had blessed either of us—how could they when we were in stasis, our bodies locked in the moment that they’d inhabited at that first kiss. Did I think? Did she? And the boys—did they know? Realize? Care?

If they did not then, it wasn’t long after that they couldn’t help but know. Soon we had to move away and avoid seeing family. And then we did not see even Edie and Ralph, perhaps so we could pretend there was nothing odd about the way we lived, as seeing it in another made it so very clear. But we had run across them last winter in a Manhattan restaurant, and though there was a strain of discomfort beneath every word, they seemed as we must have. Newly married, fresh and fun.

And now I saw them here. In a pile they lay, husband and wife, wrapped around each other on the shiny wood boards.

But they were not the same as I’d seen them last. They clasped each other in the form of a dancing couple, just as I saw them in my mind’s eye, an image from so many years before. Dancing—yes, they’d been dancing. But they were not bright and young any longer.

Their bodies had shrunk as they’d aged, until they resembled huddled, gray children rather than man and wife. Ralph’s hair had gone white and then just gone, and Edie’s was long and silver, but oh, so thin and wispy. The skin of their faces was deep in wrinkle, etched with years they experienced together right here, in a matter of minutes, I would guess. Their eyes were open—they each had brown—and those eyes looked clouded, deep, tired. And sad, just a bit.

But they had died looking close at each other. Their frail bodies—bones hurting, I imagined, as they came to lie curled here—made a nest where the cloth of their clothes pooled, as if they really were now children. Playing, hiding, dressed in found adult costumes, nestled together to be smaller, harder to see, yet waiting to be found.

If anyone else had found them, that person could not have known them for the young couple who must have graced the same chairs as we at the Railroad Street Realtor’s. Even if they had recognized the linen dress Edie wore, Ralph’s cotton khakis and thin-striped shirt, the bodies in them were now the barest slips of themselves.

I crouched there, over them, their arms and fingers and rings intertwined, and I envisioned them as they had been when first their hands had touched, one hundred years before. It had been love, I saw then, and saw now. It had been love that softened and intensified the gaze, that made the grasp of the hand so gentle, and yet possessive, a bit greedy with want. The bodies that wished to be closer than decorum allowed, the lips that longed to be meshed, the fingers… They had been destined for each other, had been together for years, loving and living, making true the promises of those first gazes. Or had they?

They had returned here to what—relive that moment on this floor? Or to put an end to the endless one they had lived for so long? So peaceful, they seemed to me, that I knew it didn’t matter. Whether they’d come thinking only to reenact their happy meeting, or had known how to bring all this time since to a close, they had been of one mind in this year, just as then, when they’d first stepped out on this dance floor. I saw from their locked eyes that they had been of one mind in their last moments.

I heard suddenly, below the boards, John begin to hum again. The jolly tune faded, then became louder still, as he moved toward the stairs and up.

When was it we had last been of one mind?

You see, John would not understand what he saw if he were to find them. They would not be Ralph and Edie. And if I told him, if I explained, he would grab me by the arm, drag me behind him out the high carriage doors, and drive me away down yet another endlessly long and winding road. He would never agree to come back, would never consider an end, not in a decade, or three, or five.

Not in another ten decades. Not even then.

I heard as his feet hit the floor boards at the top of the stair, and he danced a quick soft-shoe. His humming had turned to whistling, and his shoes played percussion.

“Trudy?” he called, not spotting me across the dim expanse of boards. “Trudy, you going to let me finish this number all by myself?” he called, then took up his whistling again.

To dance with John now. To allow him to pull me onto the floor, knowing as I did what would happen. To let him spin me once, twice, how many times before his hair would begin to silver and thin, before lines would form around eyes and mouth, then deepen as skin grew slack? How many times would he dip me right or left before he realized I was aging in his arms, before he realized the ache he felt in his body was growing?

Before he realized his wife of one hundred years was killing him.

I stood from my crouch and turned to him just as he noticed me across the floor. His pale blue eyes met mine. He flicked a stray hair back from his forehead, cocked his head, and let his lips curl away from his teeth in a most engaging smile.

I looked at him and felt a warmth and sense of well-being, a great happiness. Felt the possibility of relief.

“Trudy?” he queried, sensing something, something new in the look I returned him.

“John,” I answered.

He smiled then, reassured by the simple fact of my voice. “Shall we dance?” he asked, and held out his arms for me.

“Yes,” I said, moving away from the shadowed tumble that was Ralph and Edie, and into John’s arms. “Yes, darling, let’s dance.”

True love is forever, or so they say. What they don’t say is that forever is an awfully long time. Awfully long.
pencil

Heidi Vornbrock Roosa completed her graduate degree in writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her work is forthcoming in Pear Noir! and has appeared in The South Dakota Review, The Summerset Review, and Literary Mama, among other journals. She is the Gallery curator at The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. Email: heidivornbrockroosa[at]comcast.net

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