The Last Waltz
The recreation room of the Karl Wainwright Memorial Convalescent Home, Inc. was not a ballroom, but there was music—guitars and pagan drums echoed off the bare white walls. The dancers moved a step slower than the music, old men and women in bright, cheerful colors. Some leaned on canes or metal braces; others sat in wheelchairs and danced with their arms alone until the music ended.
“Places!” Mary Terry, the woman who led them, was the only young one in that place. She was dark‑haired with lovely smooth flesh and bright green eyes. She smiled a lot.
The dancers obediently reformed the lines broken in the heat of the dance; Mary went to change the cassette.
“‘All Night Long,’ Mary!” called a bent old man in an “I’d Rather Be at the Beach” t-shirt.
Mary laughed. “Mr. Bellamy, that’s twice today already. I think we should try something else—”
“Miss Terry, I’ve come to dance.”
A very small, very frail‑looking woman stood in the open doorway. Her hair was the color of old silver; she wore it pulled tightly away from a face as delicately lined as a china cup. She wore a long black dress that hung on her like an overlarge cape. Every step made her wince.
Mr. Bellamy kicked at an imaginary stone. “Aw, you know what she wants to do…”
Mary glanced at him, and his voice fell to a mutter. She moved quickly to take the old woman’s arm, but the lady pulled away.
“I’ve come to dance,” she repeated, a little louder. There was an echo of another time and country in her voice.
Mary smiled again, only now the smile was forced. “Frau Kessler, you know what the doctor said.”
The old woman said nothing, but the tired glance she gave Mary was clear enough. Child, at this point it doesn’t much matter what the doctor says.
The others were calling now, impatient. Soon the hour would be over, and the nurses would come with their little pink pills and tight rictus smiles. “Time for our naps….”
Mary took the woman’s arm again and this time held on. She whispered, “Eva, if I disobey Dr. Mendel again I might lose my job.”
“Yesterday,” Mary said gently. “‘The Hungarian Waltz’? We were interrupted.”
Eva tried to reclaim her dignity. “Yes…of course. I didn’t mean to cause trouble for you.”
Mary shook her head. “It’s all right, really. I will come visit you later, if you’d like. You did promise to show me the steps.”
“I’d like that very much.” Eva turned to the others. “You needn’t worry. I’m going.” She turned very stiffly and went back out into the corridor.
Behind Eva Kessler the staccato sounds—she would never call them music—began again, and in the corridor the reality of where she was reasserted itself with more bare white walls and the reek of pine-scented disinfectant. This was the truth, Eva reminded herself. Not the bright colors nor the dances that meant nothing to those here who chose to do them. They were new, that was all. As new as the dancers were old. As if time could be fooled by new clothes, new sounds…
And they say no one believes in magic these days. Eva Kessler tried to smile, but the pain wouldn’t let her.
When Mary came to Eva’s room that evening, she found the old woman sitting at a small table laid out for tea. An electric pot steamed near a centerpiece of dried wildflowers, and Eva poured while Mary looked around the room. No matter how many times she had seen it, she never tired of looking. The furniture was made of rich, deep woods. There was a canopied bed and large mirrored dresser. There was one picture on the wall—a faded photograph of a young man and woman in evening dress; behind them a hundred couples were frozen in mid‑waltz beneath a crystal chandelier. With time running out, Mary asked the question she had long wanted to ask.
“Is this you?”
“It was. Vienna, 1932. Before the Nazis.”
“You were very beautiful,” Mary said and immediately blushed. “I didn’t mean…”
Eva smiled. “I know.”
Mary almost didn’t ask the next question, but she felt a need to move forward with Eva, as if hesitation would provoke doors to close before she could step through. “Who’s that with you?”
“Ernst Falken. We were to have been married, only he managed to get himself shot. An idealist, he was. Never did think things through.”
“I sympathize with him.” Mary sighed. “I seem to be saying all the wrong things tonight.”
Eva waved it away. “It was all so long ago. Ernst. The war. So much has changed. Sometimes…sometimes it’s as if all the things in my life happened to someone else long ago, and I was cursed with this other girl’s memories. But the dancing belonged to me. I do miss the dancing.”
Mary saw a way out. “You promised to show me that waltz step again.”
“Put the music on.”
The Victrola must have been ancient, but it gleamed like a new thing. A seventy‑eight was already in place. Mary lowered the stylus, and the “Hungarian Waltz” scratched and popped its way back out of time. Mary got up from the table, lifted one corner of her dress slightly as if clearing the skirts of an elaborate ball gown and, the other arm around an imaginary partner, stepped slowly through the motions of the dance. Eva watched her, smiling. In another minute she was laughing.
Mary’s arms fell to her sides helplessly. “I told you it needed work.”
Eva shook her head, wiping a small tear from each eye. “You do the steps beautifully, child. As well as I ever did.”
“Then why were you laughing?”
“It was the way you did them. Like the demonstrations of the waltz I’ve seen from time to time—expert dancers showing their range, I suppose. The way our nuns recited the day’s lesson—very correct, very formal, very dull. You don’t have the heart of it, Mary, but how could you? The waltz wasn’t a relic to us–it was ours. For fun, for friendship, and once, just once, for love. We danced it so.” Eva put her arms in the air and gazed languidly into the handsome, dark eyes of a memory, and when she moved her arms in that phantom embrace, nothing else seemed to exist for her.
Mary watched, fascinated. “I’d give a lot to have seen you dance in Vienna,” she said. “It must have been wonderful.”
Eva did a little curtsey, graceful despite the chair. “It was,” she said frankly. “I met Ernst at Herr Sandor’s New Year’s ball, and before the first dance was over, he asked me to marry him. I fluttered my fan and blushed most becomingly, though I had already said yes in my heart. It was a year before I let him know that, of course.”
As she spoke, the light slowly faded from her eyes.
Mary touched her hand. “Are you in pain again, Eva? There’s a resident on call—”
Eva shook her head. “I can’t be in pain again, Mary. It never leaves. I’m just a little tired. And I’m expecting someone tonight.”
Mary was halfway out of her seat, beginning her apologies when the words sank in. “But it’s after visiting hours….”
“It won’t make any difference.”
Mary understood, though she didn’t want to. “Eva, please don’t talk that way. I hate to think you’ve given up hope.”
“But I haven’t,” Eva said earnestly. “You fear for me and that’s sweet, but try to understand—hope has more than one face, more than one name. So much of my life was beyond my power to change: the Nazis, Ernst, the war that destroyed the world I knew and brought me to this one. But I’ve made myself a promise, Mary—this thing tonight will not be beyond me. That is my hope, and I ask for none other. Can you remember that? Whatever happens?”
“I don’t understand,” Mary said. “But I will remember.”
Time wasn’t a river—it was a mad, rushing torrent. The boy in the studded black jacket rode it as long as he dared, felt it batter and tear at him. When it finally let go, he was left dazed and shaken in one more place he didn’t know; one thought alone had the strength to remain focused through the confusion and fear.
They’ll find me… I have to hide!
He looked around, tried to see something, anything he recognized. Nothing. He was on the grounds of what looked like a hospital. Floodlights pushed back the friendly darkness from all but the few shadows underneath the window where he crouched. Beyond that a brick wall rose high and featureless, its surface bathed in the damned revealing light. No way out there. And he couldn’t stay where he was, not for long.
The window above him was dark, its square panes reflecting the light. It was a chance, and he took it. One more quick looked around, and then he slipped inside into blessed darkness.
His eyes didn’t even get a chance to adjust before the lamp went on. He was blinded for an instant, and in that instant the knife was in his hand. He didn’t remember reaching for it. He didn’t remember having it. He did remember what it was for.
The old woman sat in a high‑backed, antique stuffed chair, her hand still on the lamp chain. Fear took him again, drove him forward with quick purpose.
Mustn’t let her scream.
She didn’t scream, but he had nothing to do with that. He never reached her. She looked at him with reddened, ancient eyes and she stopped him cold.
“You,” she said, “won’t do at all.”
I know where I am now, he thought wildly. This is the loony bin.
He’d lost his chance; there was no way he could reach her before she cried out. He inched forward slowly, letting her see the knife. “Just stay calm, lady. I don’t want to hurt you.”
She smiled at him. “Yes, you do.”
Almost true. He was going to kill her. He didn’t want to, but she’d seen his face. She had to die now. Another step closer…
“Young man, are you as deaf as you are rude? I said you wouldn’t do and I meant it.”
He was almost close enough. Just keep her talking… “Wouldn’t do for what?”
“Death, young man. Mine. Don’t be dense.” Her eyebrows arched just the slightest bit.
He stopped again. He couldn’t help it. “What are you talking about?”
She cocked her head to one side and considered him with exaggerated patience. Another step. He was close enough now. No time to lose…
“I survived the Nazis,” she said. “How can I look at Death and not know him?”
Pinned, like a moth to cardboard. No chance for the quick kill, no chance to snatch a moment to himself before the summoning voices howled again. No chance not to remember. He knew who he was, and so did she.
“I ought to hurt you,” he said.
“I dare say you learned a thing or two about that from the SS.” Eva sighed. “Did they teach you how to dress, too?”
Death looked down at the black leather and chains, an actor caught in doublet and hose and the play long over. He gave them up with a thought, taking a shape more shadow and mist than human. His face remained the same, but now his voice carried the echoes of many voices. “Eva Kessler, come with me.”
She picked up a silken fan from the night‑table, spread it open and made several slow passes before her face, considering. “No,” she said finally.
“Frau Kessler,” she corrected sternly.
“Frau Kessler. It was not a request. You don’t have a choice.”
“Certainly not,” she agreed. “A lady addressed in such a manner would have to refuse.”
“I make no distinctions,” he said in his best hollow, echoing voice. It conjured images of empty rooms and darkened hallways, of loneliness and desolation.
The old woman was not impressed. “Am I to believe you’d use that same bit of theater to scythe a Basque shepherd? Leather jacket and boots, the… what you call… switchblade?”
“I am what’s expected.” So odd to be answering questions. He didn’t think he was supposed to, but it had never come up before. He felt uncertain for an instant‑‑he, the only certain thing about anyone’s life. He felt the anger returning. “I said come with‑‑”
He reached out for her arm, and Eva rapped him smartly across the hand with the edge of her fan. He drew back in pain and surprise, staring dumbly at the line of red across his knuckles. “How did you do that?”
“Impatient lovers required the same, long ago. I do remember.” Whatever that memory was, it made her smile.
The young man stared at his hand. “No. I should have been able…” He paused, then finished, “It’s what I do.”
“It’s not all you do; you said so yourself.”
“Said what?” Questions again. A new feeling. He was starting to enjoy it.
“That you are what’s expected. Is that true?”
He finally looked at her. “Yes,” he said, rubbing his hand.
“You’re not what I expect.”
“Didn’t say that. Just…what’s expected. Sorry.” Damn, why was he apologizing?
Eva nodded gravely. “I understand now.”
He shrugged. “The Age of Information. Everyone knows what Death is supposed to be: war, horrible diseases with little names, kids killing one another for a pair of shoes…”
He didn’t look so young anymore. The weariness in his eyes was almost a mirror to Eva’s, except there was pity in hers.
“So much to be, isn’t it?” she said. “So much expected.”
He didn’t answer; he was listening to something else. “They’re calling me.” His face went white with sudden pain.
He grimaced. “When I’m late the burden of pain…shifts, a little. Incentive.”
“Whose pain now?”
“Some people I haven’t met. But mostly,” he said, “it’s yours. Frau Kessler, please…”
“I would think you know.”
She shook her head. “I would think you know. What am I expecting?”
“It doesn’t matter; I told you.” He made an expansive gesture at the world. “It’s them.”
Eva Kessler shook her head. “It’s just their world, and I’ve lived in it long enough to pay for greater sins than mine. But right here, right now, it’s me. I’m what matters. Listen to me.”
It was as if Eva Kessler had drawn the curtains against the outside world. The other voices were locked out, and for that time of silence he listened. When he finally spoke again, it was with the simple earnestness of a child “I’m a creature of the moment, Frau Kessler; I don’t know, couldn’t know if what you’ve told me is the truth. Is it possible? Was there ever such a wealth of time that I could have been as you say?”
“You could be now. It’s possible.”
“It’s too much to ask.”
“For one moment’s peace? A moment that will be yours as much as mine?”
He smiled bitterly. “Why do you think I tried to hurry with you? With everyone? I’m so far behind… But sometimes‑‑never quite but almost‑‑I catch up. Can you imagine what that means to me? When it happens I steal a moment of my own, a little time away from the voices calling me. But the price is high, Frau Kessler. Their pain is always waiting to settle accounts.”
Eva nodded. “For everything there is a price, always. But I pay my own way.”
He stared at her. “You can’t be serious.”
“Is this a time for jokes?”
“But…you don’t know what you’re saying! You can’t know!”
“You carry my pain now, so don’t tell me the funds can’t be transferred, so to speak. It’s a simple transaction‑‑all the pain of dying in the world, a moment of time purchased for every moment I can bear it. But the time I buy belongs to me, and I’ll have it as I wish. Are you really so certain it can’t be done?”
Death shook his head slowly. “I don’t know that, but I do know how much pain a moment can hold. You don’t.”
“I know how much peace a moment can hold, young man. And you don’t. Would you like to learn?”
He smiled a little sadly. “Very much.”
“Then let’s try, shall we?”
He hesitated. “But after…if it works, I mean…I can’t promise it will be everything you expect. I don’t know how to be what you want.”
“You’ve forgotten, and that’s not the same thing. Listen.”
Eva started the Victrola again, and the scratchy, distant music filled the small room. “Listen,” she repeated, and as he did, the music seemed to heal itself; time and distance both smoothed away like a dying frown. When the scene around them began to change in time to the music, both of them silently thanked the other for the gift.
The hell of agony Eva Kessler visited was everything she had feared, save one‑‑it wasn’t forever. She wasn’t sure how long she had spent there, how much time borne before her will failed her. But now the wracking pain was gone. A moment longer and even the memory of it was a weak, ghostly thing.
Eva was almost startled. Odd how the pain is the first thing we forget.
She tried to remember what the pain was like while she sat at her father’s table in Herr Sandor’s ballroom, but across the music and laughter a young man sought her out, and, once she saw him, it no longer seemed to matter. His face she both knew and remembered at once, and under her father’s stern but indulgent gaze he took Eva’s hand.
“May I have this dance?”
She smiled radiantly. “What kept you?”
He bowed for answer and she curtsied; together they moved to join the others in the center of the room.
“We have‑‑” he began, but Eva put a finger to his lips. “You don’t want to know how much time?” he asked, surprised.
She shook her head. “I spent too much of my life waiting for it to end. I won’t make that mistake now.” Eva gathered the hem of her gown. “Shall we?”
His first steps were clumsy, unsure. “I said I didn’t know how.”
“And I said you’ve merely forgotten. With me, now.”
Eva guided him through the first faltering steps till the music took him, and after that he needed no help at all. He remembered what to say, what not to say. Eva blushed at the right times, smiled at others, and together they never missed another step in a dance that lasted only as long as the music played.
The dancers in the exercise room eyed the Victrola suspiciously. Mary faced them with a smile. “Today,” she said, “we’re going to do a waltz.”
She was ready for the groans, quickly accepted, quickly dismissed. It was harder to dismiss Dr. Mendel when he waved to her from the open doorway. Mary thought of Eva Kessler and took a long, slow breath.
“Excuse me.” She left all the old voices to mutter darkly to themselves and froze her smile in place as she stepped to the doorway. “Yes, doctor?”
He gave a little cough. “Mary, I admit it was nice of Mrs. Kessler to leave you her records, but, considering the patients’ reaction, do you really think this is a good idea?”
Mary kept her gaze level. “Yes, doctor, I think it’s an excellent idea. And, since this is my specialty and the job I’m paid to do, I also think my opinion should be the one that matters. Was there anything else?”
Dr. Mendel, looking a little like a small boy at his first spanking, mumbled that, no, there wasn’t really anything else. He watched from the doorway as Mary went back to the old men and women waiting for her.
“We’ve done a lot of new dances over these last few months, and I think we’ve had fun. But now it’s time to remember what it was like to dance the first time you learned to dance, something that was a part of what you were. We were interrupted the first time we tried this, so let’s start again. Who remembers how to do a waltz? And by that I mean, ‘who used to dance the waltz?'”
Nothing at first, then, slowly, a hand went up. Mr. Bellamy, still in the “I’d Rather Be at the Beach” T-shirt he always wore to the class. He held up his hand like someone admitting a crime. Slowly, by one’s and two’s, more hands raised.
“When Carol and I were courting,” he said and then finished as if speaking for them all. “Too many years ago, Mary. I don’t think of it very much now.”
Mary smiled again. “Perhaps it won’t be so hard if you help each other remember. Perhaps it won’t seem so long. What happens first?”
“He takes her hand,” said a stout lady with hair like a snowball.
Mary shook her head, still smiling.
“They wait for the music,” said a woman in wheelchair, “to catch the tempo.”
Mary shook her head again, looking at Mr. Bellamy. “What’s first?” she asked.
Mr. Bellamy frowned so deeply his face was one big wrinkle. Then he brightened. “The gentleman asks the lady to dance.”
“I’m waiting,” Mary said.
“May…may I have the honor of this dance?”
Mary started the music.
©1995 by Richard Parks. All Rights Reserved.