By B. J. Lawry
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Copyright 1999 by b.j. lawry
Where she sat, on a broken curb facing the firefly lights of a large sizzling marquee, no one could see that she was a dancer. It was as if they didn't see her at all, actually, some stumbling over her, some bumping her with their knees, stubbing her with their pointed leather shoes, and going on.
The snow had begun to fall in miniature powdery puffs and she could smell a blizzard in the air. The gutter, under her slender feet in their canvas shoes and her gray cotton stockings, was still dry, the tiny snowflakes gobbled up by bits of paper and cigarette wrappers whipped along in the gusts. Slowly-moving cars cracked her view as the marquee across from her flashed the name of the dance company. Tucked inside her blouse was a ticket to the matinee.
She closed her eyes and her toes tingled. She could feel the joy of the music as it leaped from the orchestra pit, the wood stage beneath her feet. She recalled that feeling from when she was a child, when the dream was real. She caught her breath and opened her eyes as a large man in a woolen overcoat stumbled against her.
"What the hell...!" he spat, collecting himself in mid-fall.
She looked up. "I'm sorry." Her voice was soft, still in the dream of the dance.
"You sure are!" he lashed back, taking the arm of the elegant woman beside him and disappearing into the crowd.
The woman with the dancer feet and the long neck stood, wrapped her gray and mauve fringed shawl tightly around her shoulders, straightened her black pencil-slim, ankle-length skirt and walked against the wind. At the corner, she looked back with longing at the marquee, then entered the side street where there was but one light, that of a cigarette, held by a lone man seated on the stoop of a darkened store. She opened a door at the side of an abandoned building, an alley door that enclosed the stairwell to their two rooms, and the door slammed behind her as a wicked gust struck her back. A single overhead bulb, wayward as a tear in the whipping wind, cast demented shadows against the floor.
He would be up there, waiting. Tim. He would wonder where she had been. Like those near the theater, he would not acknowledge her dancer feet, as he once had.
She took hold of the railing and climbed slowly up the stairs, opening a door on her right where a broken number twelve hung lazily upside down against splintered blue paint. He was sitting at the small wooden table beside the closet-sized kitchen and he stood when the door opened.
"Manda! I've been worried sick!"
"I went for bread," she said, smiling, pulling off her shawl, breathless from the climb as she never used to be breathless.
"But I told you not to go out. It's damn cold out there. I'd have gotten the bread. Besides," he said, his voice growing quiet, "you were gone too long just to get bread."
She pulled the French loaf out of her satchel, still smiling, and placed it with a thump on the oilcloth-covered tabletop. He always worried too much, didn't he? He loved her too much, that was all. She wondered how much she loved him. She never used to wonder.
"He said we can pay him when we have it." She did not say the store owner had an extra ticket to the matinee.
He sat again, reached across the table and grabbed the loaf, twisting off an end for himself and the other for her, and bit hard into it. "I just don't want you to get sick, that's all," he said, not looking at her, chewing against his words.
"The street is very busy."
"The man offered me a job."
"What man?" His words shot out as though she had pricked his skin with a pin.
"The man at the store. He needs somebody just for an hour a day so he can take a break. He's open ten hours, Tim, and has no one to help him. So, for an hour, I did."
"What's on his mind?"
"Nothing's on his mind. He needed help for an hour. And he'll need it tomorrow, too."
"You're not going tomorrow."
She watched him swallow his bread and break off another piece for each of them. She was saddened by his spiritless eyes, his stubble of beard, the hopelessness of hard times. Day after day, week after week, job openings slipped from his grasp. Here and there, a tiny spark of somebody wanting him, somebody needing a few hours of maintenance work, but that was all. The burden had ground him down, and she knew without his admitting it that he was ashamed.
She stood, laid her satchel beside the two-burner gas stove. On tiptoe, she leaned across the sink and opened the window just an inch.
"What are you doing?"
"It's so stuffy," she said.
"We might better save the heat," he said, not looking up, not wanting to face her. "They said they're cutting it off tomorrow."
"Just a little air won't hurt. I'll close it in a minute."
He took another bite of his bread as she got two peaches form the refrigerator shelf and placed the package from her satchel where the peaches had been. She washed the fruit, bit into one of them and relished the bitter-sweet juice trickling down her chin. She handed the other to him.
"Did he pay you?"
"He gave me meat."
"I told him I'd work for meat. It's been so long since you've had meat."
She could feel the rage explode in him, and she jumped as he threw back his chair and stalked across the room to the kitchen window. She didn't turn to face him as his voice cut against her neck.
"Watcha tell him that for, Manda? You want everybody around here thinking we're beggars or something?"
She hung her head. She could not, would not answer.
He shook his head, picked up the chair and sat beside her again, wiping his brown hair away from his forehead, trying to wipe the frustration from his mind.
Smiling, trying to change the subject, she said, "The dance company is at the theater." But she should not ;have said that. She knew as soon as she did that she should not have said that.
He looked up at her, stopping in mid-swallow. "Well," he said, "maybe the man at the store will take you." Not meaning that. Not wanting to say that. She knew he was kinder than that. It was the times, the so-hard times...
He said, "I'm sorry, Manda." He picked small pieces of hard brown crust from his bread, letting it fall to the red checkered oilcloth. "Besides, I got a job. We can pay the store."
He shrugged. "It's not much. Only a day. A repair job. It'll pay enough for the grocery bill, Manda, but no theater."
"Is it far?"
"About a mile."
"Will someone pick you up?" She was worried about the weather.
"I can walk."
She took his hand and kissed it, and she felt his skin blazing and tight. He was sick.
"You can't go, Tim. You have a fever."
"It's only a cold," he said, then stroked her hair. "Let's get some sleep, huh?"
Why did he never complain? Why did he submerge whatever dreams he may have had? Why did he seem to accept living with this indignity, this lack of hope, with only that pained, muffled, gnawing inside, and not scream, not pound his fist against the wall until the plaster crumbled? Like she wanted to do.
He did it for her, she knew.
She watched him go to undress. Then, breathing in deeply to catch the cold, clean smell of the snow, she pulled the kitchen window down and pushed the ticket carefully and snuggly into a corner of the sill behind the curtain. She smiled to herself. Tomorrow, then, he would be gone. And she could attend the matinee. Her toes tingled again. Her mind whirled. She was a child again. Again, although still in a dream, she would dance again.
Somewhere in the night, she felt him stir and heard his footsteps cross the creaking wood floor. Later, another sound. Heavy and far away. It was cold. She turned, coughed, and turned again. She heard footsteps down a stairway and turned again, peering into the morning. She moved her hand across the bed. He wasn't there.
"Tim...," she whispered, and then remembered. He had a job. She turned again, wrapped herself deeper into the bedclothes, and felt the rough edge of his coat against her face.
Oh, he couldn't have forgotten his coat! He was sick!
She pushed herself up. The rug was cold and the linoleum was like ice on her feet. they had turned off the heat, as they had threatened to do. She grabbed her shawl from the back of a chair and flung it around herself. Then, in the kitchen, she pulled a chair to the sink, climbed on it and threw open the window. Amid the billowing curtains, she stretched into the gray and snowy morning, her eyes searching the street below.
"Tim!" she called left and right, the smoke of her breath bursting around her. "Oh, my God!" He was a half block away, walking fast, a scarf wrapped around his neck over his woolen sweater, his boots leaving exclamation marks in the snow.
"Tim!" she shouted. "Your coat! You're sick!"
He turned, stopped. "Get inside, Manda. Keep the coat. You need it. They turned off the heat."
He threw her a kiss over his shoulder and disappeared into the sooty, snowy caverns of the city.
Slowly, she pulled herself back inside, watching the snowflakes blind the morning.
And then she gasped and a pain struck her heart, and the warm dew of tears clouded her eyes.
The sill was empty.
Outside, dancing on the wind, pirouetting on the morning gusts, flipping up against the rooftops and down, a ticket to a matinee...