Alice Whittenburg

The Red-Haired Dancer

Clarissa had spent the day in the sunroom working on a new painting, trying to capture the tender green of new-born crocus leaves and the pastel perfection of their delicately colored heads. She planned to finish the crocus study in time to enter it in an upcoming arts fair, but by 5:00 the light was no longer good enough to paint by, so she cleaned her brushes and got ready for the evening's Over-50s Dance.

As soon as she arrived at the auditorium, her ex-boyfriend, Frank, asked her to dance, and they did a staid foxtrot together. Then she danced the cha cha with Milton from her church. Neither man was a satisfactory partner, and she longed to dance joyfully and extravagantly as she knew she still could. She was 77, but she would always be a dancer.

Then a younger man asked her to dance. He was probably not yet 60, and his hair was the same fiery red as his bristling moustache. Red-haired men didn't attract Clarissa, and the man's too-tight pants implied that he might be a gigolo or a scam artist, intent on finding prey. But he could do the tango with a feral grace she found irresistible, and they went on to the samba and the rumba. She felt good in the way that only dance could make her feel.

During the last dance, a waltz, the red-haired dancer whispered "Oh, Granny!" into her ear, followed by an obscene phrase, and then he laughed at his own impropriety. She pulled away, stricken, went to grab her coat, and hurried out into the chill of the evening without a backward glance.

***

During the month of April Clarissa convinced herself that the pleasant work of painting apple blossoms was keeping her too busy, that gardening was all the exercise she needed, and that she didn't ever really want to go to the Over-50s Dance again. But when it was nearly time for the May dance, she could no longer ignore her desire for music and sociability. Though she still felt uncomfortable and angry about the experience she had had with the red-haired dancer, she thought buying a new dress might give her confidence and help her overcome any remaining hurt and hesitation she still felt.

At a department store, standing before a rack of stylish dresses, she chose a silvery gray chiffon number with a modest neckline and a mid-calf ruffled hem. When she tried it on, she liked its whispery floating softness, imagined being a silver-haired dancer dressed in silver gray.

On her way to the cashier's counter to pay for the dress, she stopped beside a small, white-haired woman who was tidying red and yellow and blue tee-shirts at a long display table. "Excuse me," Clarissa said, "could you suggest some costume jewelry to go with this dress?"

Without a moment's hesitation the white-haired woman held out a necklace made of polished black beads. "Try this," the woman said. "And the first time you wear it, you can make one wish."

"Just one?" Clarissa asked, laughing, but the woman didn't laugh along.

"Yes, one wish," she said, and she turned back to the piles of brightly colored tee-shirts.

Clarissa took the gray dress to the cashier, and she passed it carefully over the counter. "I'd also like this necklace," she said.

The cashier took the black necklace from Clarissa's hand, looked it over, then called the manager, who examined the necklace for a while. Finally he said, "This is very nice, but it isn't from our store. Where'd you get it?"

When Clarissa turned to look back at the tee-shirt table, the white-haired woman was nowhere to be seen. "I guess it was a gift," Clarissa said, and the cashier wrapped the necklace in tissue paper and bagged it with the gray dress.

***

The night of the May dance, there was a warm, sultry breeze, and the air smelled of lilacs and distant rain. Based on the poster at the door, Clarissa knew it was ladies' choice night. As she entered the auditorium, she enjoyed the swirling softness of her new gray dress and the smooth cool feel of the black bead necklace. Smiling, she touched the beads and thought about the white-haired woman's promise of one wish. Though she didn't much believe in fairy tale magic, Clarissa thought that if she did have one wish it would be that the red-haired dancer would get his comeuppance.

She looked around but the red-haired dancer was nowhere to be seen. So she went up to Frank and said "Come dance with me" in such an inviting way, he seemed surprised. He quickly went with her onto the dance floor and began to dance the cha cha with rare enthusiasm.

"Do you ever wish you could be young again?" Frank asked when she tried to slip away from him after the dance.

She smiled at him, feeling a sudden rush of genuine affection. "No, Frank, I wouldn't use my one wish on that!" she said. He looked puzzled but gave her a light kiss on the cheek and let her go.

The next dance was a foxtrot, and she asked Milton from her church to dance. "Your sister tells me you used to win dance contests," he said. "Do you wish you could still do that?"

"What makes you think I can't?" she asked, pretending to be angry, but then she laughed and said, "In 1964 my late husband and I won a trophy for the tango. I wore a red dress and red shoes, and we got a standing ovation. It was delightful, but no, that's not what I would wish for tonight."

Milton seemed a little mystified, but he bowed to her when the dance was over, and she walked away purposefully. Out of the corner of her eye she had seen the red-haired dancer enter the auditorium, and she wanted to make a wish.

"May I have this dance?" she asked him over the opening strains of a Viennese waltz. He looked uncomfortable, but he acquiesced and danced with her very formally.

After the waltz she went to his table with him, and though he tried to remain standing and waved at a pretty dark-haired woman, Clarissa pulled him by the arm until he sat beside her.

"Tonight, I have one wish," she said, "and do you know what that wish will be?"

"Sorry. I don't want to get romantic with an older woman like you, a gray-haired woman like you, so it doesn't matter what you wish," he muttered.

The band struck up another number, and she had to raise her voice to be heard. "And I surely don't wish to be romantic with you," she said gaily. "You're far too rude! But I am interested in getting the most out of my one wish."

"Hey, look, I really want to dance with that lady, and if you don't leave my table she won't feel free to come over here and ask me."

"As I told you, I have one wish and I want to make it count. So I have to be careful how I wish it. Do you remember the Cumaean Sibyl? No, of course you don't. We learned about her in Latin class. She wished that she would live a long, long life, but she forgot to wish that she wouldn't age, so she kept growing older and older and wanting to die, but she couldn't."

A hint of anxiety began to show in the red-haired dancer's eyes. "Hey," he said, "now you're starting to sound a little bit crazy."

"And speaking of stories from school, do you remember Edgar Allen Poe? The Cask of Amontillado? Surely you've read it? 'For the love of God, Montresor!'" As she said this line, Clarissa made her voice shrill and dramatic. The red-haired dancer's eyes widened as she added, "People don't like to be insulted the way you insulted me."

"Listen," he said, "why don't we let bygones be bygones? I mean, I don't want any trouble, OK?"

Clarissa began to finger the round black beads of the necklace she was wearing. As she idly rolled one of the beads between her thumb and forefinger, she was aware at one and the same time that the red-haired dancer was shifting nervously in his seat and that the other dancers were swirling to a lovely waltz, looking august and stately, yet also beautifully at ease and joyful in the dance.

She thought about the need to be careful of what you wish for, the possibility of wishing to be revenged, and the careful way she would have to word her wish. And then she saw a familiar woman enter the auditorium. She stood up and placed her hand gently on the red-haired dancer's arm. "I just saw somebody I need to talk with. Good night," she said, and she was amused by the look of relief that crossed his florid face.

When Clarissa reached the table near the door where the white-haired woman from the department store was sitting, she asked, "Can I join you?" and sat down before she got an answer. "I wish to be a very, very good painter," she said. "I wish to be such a good painter that my art will show the delight I feel when I'm dancing."

"Why are you telling this to me?" the white-haired woman asked, but she held out her hand and took the black beads Clarissa handed her. The rest of the evening Clarissa danced with Frank and Milton, and she gathered inspiration for her art.

***

One morning in December Clarissa was setting up her stall at the arts fair. In October one of her paintings had won best of show in a juried contest, and a local magazine had done an article about her work. Her paintings had become extremely popular, and people wanted them as holiday presents.

Her new work featured older dancers, the men in crisp suits, the women in swirling dresses. They were executed in black and white and shades of gray, the lines abstract yet evocative, the influences art deco and post-impressionist, the tone joyful but muted. They were inspired by the monthly Over-50s Dance where she regularly took photos so she could paint from them at home. Whether or not it was because of the black bead necklace, Clarissa had found a new sense of purpose as an artist.

She was busy arranging her canvases and was so absorbed in showing off her paintings to best advantage that she was surprised when she looked up to see the red-haired dancer looking straight at her. "Hey!" she said, "I haven't seen you in a while."

"These paintings are good," he said. "I mean, they're great!"

"Why, thank you," she said. "Do you want to buy one?"

"No," he said. "I mean, maybe. But I want to ask you something." He hesitated and tried to smile nicely at her. "Would you paint me? As a dancer, I mean? In one of these moody dance paintings that you do? I've seen you taking pictures, and I saw that magazine article about you, and now that I've seen your paintings I really want you to paint me."

She thought for a minute, and then she slowly shook her head. "I'm sorry," she said, "but I don't think I can do that. You're too young, for one thing. I paint regal, elderly dancers. And your red hair wouldn't go well with the shades of gray that predominate in my work. It's my signature style. It's what people like about my work. I'm sorry. You're just too young." She shook her head again, and he looked baffled but laughed as he walked away.

Then she called after him, "Let's dance sometime. At the Over-50s," but she was really just trying to be polite.

—Alice Whittenburg

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