First Dance by Jacqueline Osborn
I wrote this short story after my dad died in 1992. It was published in SKYLARK, Purdue University's literary journal; I was so thrilled I framed the acceptance letter. I still have that letter hanging around someplace. Not literally hanging anymore, I packed it away in storage during one of our moves. Like my memories, it's in there somewhere.
I wish I could give you this stuff in order, begin at the beginning. If I could do that, I'd write a book. Instead I have to grab at what glimpses I can. It's as though all the places and people stuffed inside my head are like yards and yards of once beautiful fabrics, ripped from their bolts and shoved into one large bin. Velvets, jewel-toned satins, richly-textured tapestries, billowy silks. Cotton, denim, gingham and chintz. They're all jammed in there together, some faded now, some in tatters, a loose thread here, a trace of a connection there. A smell, a smile. So many stories, all crammed into that one cardboard bin. Pawing through it for the right material is turning out to be tougher than I thought; I reach in for a particular piece of silk, and I come up with a scrap of moth-eaten old corduroy, barely enough to sew on a pocket. Beginning at the beginning? Not going to happen.
While I'm digging around in there, trying to find some place to start; here's Last Dance from my personal archives, it takes place in the middle.
Shannon squeezed some Lubriderm into her palm and took her father’s foot with its familiar high and bony arch in her other hand. She felt its weight slip into place, her fingers curling comfortably around the misshapen toes, the lotion easing into the parchment-thin skin. He would love the cool shock of the liquid seeping in.
“Ahhh,” he used to say, “such lovely, cool hands.”
“Oh, great,” she’d snorted but hadn’t minded, not really, rubbing his feet for a bit in front of the TV.
She’d been fascinated by the gnarled toes, the thick curling nails. The feet of an old man. Nothing like her own, soft and callous-free, peeking out petitely from under a pair of frayed and faded jeans. She hadn’t known then that her own feet would not stay shapely and pink, toes topped with delicate little pearls for nails. Had barely noticed the layers upon layers of nail building up, becoming brittle little by little, cracking and peeling with the slow and steady course of time, yellowing with age. She hadn’t known she would grow older too.
She worked one foot and then the other, gently massaging until all the Lubriderm was distributed evenly and then pulling the sheet back down over them and with a final caress looked up to find her father’s face. She wasn’t sure he’d felt a thing.
“There you go,” she said with one last pat.
She thought his eyes squeezed more tightly shut for a moment, his mouth pulled more deeply inward for an instant. It was as close as she would get to an “Ahh, such lovely cool hands.” He was going to die. She saw it in the ochre tint of his skin, the yellow hue spread by the diseased liver. She heard it in the gentle tones of the doctors, for once it seemed without condescension, and in the quiet movement of the orderlies and nurses. No jokes in Room 312, please — Mr. Simmons is on his deathbed. She saw it in the terror in her mother’s eyes. Her father was going to die and she was giving him foot rubs. Sorry, Dad, for all those times I said no or went through the motions just to get it over with quickly or thought you were a pain in the ass and told you so. How many foot rubs could she do in penance? How long before the scent of Lubriderm no longer carried the smell of death?
Shannon smoothed the left-over lotion into her hands, soothing the rough edges of her large knuckles. At forty her fingers were already beginning to bend in bony mutiny, arthritis would be her fathers legacy. Wiping her hands on some toilet paper — "Why aren’t there tissues in his room?” she’d have to ask someone — she wished she believed in God. But what would that change?
Her father was close to eighty. “He had a full life,” she could hear them saying at the funeral. “It was his time.” She saw him half smiling out from an old photograph on her dresser that she’d had since she was a girl. It was a copy of a sepia tone he’d sent to her mother during the war and right over the place where he’d signed the original he’d written, “To my dearest girl. Love always, Daddy.” The skin of this distinguished British Intelligence officer, confidently wearing his perfectly-pressed uniform and a finely drawn mustache, would still have been smooth to the touch.
“Mum, tell me again about how you and Daddy fell in love.”
It had been her favorite bedtime story, sweeter than any fairy tale.
“We met while he was back home in London on leave.”
Her mother would wait for Shannon to ask the question she always asked.
“Was he really as handsome as in the picture?”
“Even more. And so sophisticated. Remember, he was ten years older than I was. He’d seen the world. I was only twenty. Still a girl, really.”
“But he didn’t look old?”
“Older, but not old. Like in the picture.”
“But even better?”
“But even better, yes.”
And so began the familiar tale. Her friend Trixie has warned her, “Stay away from that one. He’s a right Playboy, he is” foreseeing her heart in shreds on love’s battlefield. Her mother had resisted what she called, his obvious charms, by bringing uninvited friends along on their dates. He countered by winning them over with perfectly accented French and Italian, none of which they understood. So, he threw in some Arabic to tip the scales. When her father had returned to duty, he kept up the fight, sending her mother back stockings and finely made Italian shoes. In the end he’d been the victor and they’d ended up beautiful and happy like the couple on the cake. It was an image she would carry with her long after the age of bedtime stories had passed.
Shannon saw him dancing with her mother on a rooftop in Istanbul, the starry sky their ceiling. Her father still young and dashing, her mother vibrant and glamorous in a filmy white party dress that floated and flirted with his tuxedo pants, the other guests a mere backdrop to their performance.
She saw him dancing at her own wedding —an early first marriage, one that didn’t last. No longer young but still dashing. Shannon herself his partner this time, engulfed in white satin, captivated with the charm of his foxtrot. Like every other woman in the room, Shannon would much rather have danced with Frank Simmons than with her own husband.
She saw him standing at the bottom of the stairs of that apartment in Toluca Lake. Seeing the place in April, she’d fallen in love with the bay window in the front; the same bay window that faced west and let in too much sweltering Valley sun in July, so she’d had to move again. He was leaning against the large white dresser she’d bought at the Salvation Army Thrift Shop, resting, just for a moment, he’d said.
“Dad, maybe I should get one of the neighbors?” she’d offered but he’d insisted that between them, the two of them working together, they could do it. Could carry the enormous dresser up the stairs to her second-floor studio apartment. And they had done it even though she’d doubted her own strength and had been petrified he would keel over with exhaustion. He’d been seventy-four years old.
“You really must get yourself settled in somewhere, Shannon. I can’t go on doing this forever.”
Shannon had lost count of how many times she’d moved, but each and every time he’d been there. Renting the truck, carrying boxes, leaning red-faced up against a counter for a rest, taking a huge drink of water. Making fun of her new neighbors but joking and flirting foolishly with the pretty young woman who always seemed to live next door. The way he joked and flirted with the nurses just a few days ago.
“Nurse, will I be able to play the piano when I get out of here?”
Kimberly, fresh from nursing school, was eternally sweet. “Well, Mr. Simmons, I don’t see why not. I mean, you know if…”
Shannon and her father delivered the punch line together.“That’s funny. I never could before!”
There was the inevitable blushing and polite chuckle. “Oh, you. I can’t believe I fell for that old thing.”
“Well if you really want to fall for an old thing…”
“Frank, give the girl a break,” her mother warned her father with a smile, and said to Kimberly, “He doesn’t mean it, dear. Please don’t take offense.”
“Bloody hell, Sylvia! The girl knows I don’t mean it. For Christ’s sake. Shannon? Tell her.”
“Keep me out of it, Daddy,” she’d replied, as she looked out the window, avoiding both her parents’ eyes.
Her mother was insistent. Her father gave up in disgust and the rest of poor Kimberly’s duties were performed in awkward silence. Of course, this was all before the disease reached out and shook him by the shoulders and for once he was the one who had to listen. You can’t kid a kidder. He knew he was going to die. He never said the words but in quiet moments he approached the fact warily.
“Ron, your mother’s hopeless.” His mouth was so dry, the words caught against his lips. Her brother had to lean in closely to hear. “I can’t tell her anything. You’ll have to look after things, you know, when…”
“Don’t worry, Dad.” Ron jumped into the pause. “It’ll be all right,” and he’d patted his father’s arm where it lay bruised and shrunken outside the sheet.
Shannon stayed silent and finished the sentence in her head. It was pounding from her being stuck in the stuffy little room, breathing the same stale air over and over again. What she really wanted was a cigarette, except that her throat was aching, too. She watched while the bruises and liver spots blended together in a blur.
With her father’s arm guiding, Shannon glided around a ballroom, his hand pressing gently into her back. They veered left, another press and now around, his arm both holding her firmly and propelling her forward. She didn’t need to look at her feet, the floor, the room. Didn’t need to know where they were going next, he would handle everything. She just had to glide and slide. Step and swing. Swirl and twirl. One and two and three and four and around and around and feel the music and her father’s arms leading her along. The dance ended with Shannon arcing down into a graceful dip.
He was cremated on Thursday. Ron had gone. “Someone from the family should go,” he said, and so he had. On Saturday they had a scattering of the ashes at sea. The day was brilliantly sunny, the ocean still and glassy where the boat sat moored and gently swaying. After the little basket holding the ashes and flowers was lowered into the water, Ron and her mother stood rocking in the center of the deck and together raised tiny cups of orange juice to her father’s memory.
From where she stood at the railing, Shannon could see when her mother’s body began to quiver and how Ron, his had stumbling down their mother’s back, patted her. “It’s all right. It’s all right. It’s all right,” she could almost hear his fingers say.
Her own hands frozen to the cold metal bar, Shannon wheeled away and watched while her father’s remains floated free. Caught in the wake of the boat, the specks of ash and wilting petals were being tossed to and fro among the waves. All Shannon had to do was simply climb over the railing and she could dive right into the dance. She could cut right in and go twirling and swirling around and around and one and two over the shimmering sea.
•••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••originally posted on 2/22/14 Last Dance is now on Scriggler. A platform for all kinds of writers. This is a rare short story from me.
If you want to read something else, #5 The Arab boy who took out his eye is still one of my favorite pieces. Beware, it's not masquerading as a short story, it's memoir, unvarnished.
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