Snow Dancing with Ghosts




 


I dreamed last night of a fountain in Woodruff Place. Icicles covered the statuary in the center. The basin was filled with a dark mirror of ice that reflected moonlight and two ghostly apparitions waltzing in the snow. The couple danced slowly in a circle around the fountain to music composed of cobwebs and dream dust. With each turn around the circle, I felt myself grow younger, as if the ghostly waltz somehow served as a time machine transporting me back to a Christmas long ago and a place I had all but forgotten.

I lived during the late 1960s in Woodruff Place, a formerly opulent neighborhood, built at the turn of the century in Indianapolis. Three esplanades, once walled and gated, cut a ribbon from Tenth Street to Michigan in front of large mansions with carriage houses in the rear. Statuary, flower-draped urns, and cultivated gardens adorned the median that separated the esplanades, East, Middle and West. Three ornate fountains pumped cascades of cool water into basins surrounded by traffic circles at the intersection of the fourth street, Cross Drive.

It was a neighborhood that had survived well beyond the age of magnificence when I arrived. Gradually, the inner city encroached until Woodruff Place was an island surrounded by gypsy neighborhoods, seedy bars, and pawnshops. The original residents had vanished to newer neighborhoods on the north side of town. Mansions were sectioned into apartments by absentee landlords and became the domiciles of hippies, recent college graduates, young couples, and students. The fountains still gushed water, but they reigned over cracked and patched pavement and rows of cars lining the narrow one-way streets. The medians became a gathering place for flower children playing guitars in multi-colored sunglasses and earnest young men with stacks of leaflets protesting the war in Viet Nam.

Shortly after leaving my hometown of Madison, I rented a house on East Drive in Woodruff Place with three other roommates: a copywriter, a social worker, and a law student at IUPUI. I found a job as an office worker at a baking company and attended University classes in the evening. In my spare time, I filled notebooks with short stories and verse and attempted to write the next great American novel.

That Christmas found me living in Woodruff Place for almost three years. My roommates had left for their respective homes the previous evening, and had I not been forced to work late at the bakery preparing for a company audit, I would have left as well.


A gray sky dawned on Christmas morning to a landscape painted entirely of white snowdrifts. The plows had yet to clean the streets of fifteen inches of accumulated flakes, a hazardous driving advisory was in effect, and four slick tires on my monstrous Chevrolet Biscayne made the trip impossible. As much as I wanted to be at home in the company of my family, it was not meant to be. The presents selected and wrapped with ribbons would not go into the trunk of the car, but would remain under a small artificial tree decorated with peace symbols and a single strand of colored lights. A dinner of roast turkey with sage stuffing would be exchanged for whatever was left in the almost bare pantry.

It was almost noon before I took a shower, put on jeans and a sweatshirt, and made myself a cup of hot chocolate. "It's a Wonderful Life" flickered across the television screen, as I sat on the couch drinking cocoa and thinking of past holidays. While George Bailey was listening to Uncle Billy's confession, a flash of movement outside the front window caught my attention. Curious, I picked up my cup, walked to the window, and peered out the cold, frosted pane.

Facing the esplanade, the view revealed a stone statue of a sphinx-like lion crouching on the snow-covered median and a bent elderly woman shoveling small piles of snow with her gloved hands. Slowly, she scooped snow from between the lion's paws until she exposed bare brown soil. Finally, she opened a blanket, placed it upon the ground, and sat down

It was cold, barely above freezing, on that Christmas. Her breath formed dragon swirls around her head. Her face was pink with the beginnings of frostbite. She sat there on that chilled ground with her arms wrapped around her, as if she were waiting for something to happen, as if she were waiting for something or someone to appear. I also waited behind my window, glancing back and forth, up and down the street, wondering who might inquire about the strange behavior of this odd woman.

The telephone rang, and I reluctantly left my post to answer it. The call was from my family. They passed the phone from one to the other, expressing regret that my presents were still wrapped beneath the tree. I could almost smell my mother's spices in her warm kitchen. I could almost taste her fragrant stuffing and the pungent fruitcake that would be sliced and served with coffee and eggnog.

Hanging up the phone, I felt sorry for myself as I walked into the kitchen to search the pantry for my own holiday meal. Peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, a box of crackers, canned tuna, and spilled cereal were the offerings. The fridge was even less hopeful. Something green and moldy left in a bowl on the shelf, a couple of cans of cola, and condiments stared back at me. A plump turkey did not magically appear even when I scoured the back behind the box of baking soda.

Dinner would be less than appetizing. My thoughts turned back to the scene outside beyond the window. I went back to my post to check on the woman. She was still there, seemingly, exactly as I had left her.

The phone rang again. The call was from Jimmy Weatherby. Jimmy had graduated a year earlier from Morehead College and was working as a sports reporter with the Madison Courier. Once sweethearts, we had seen each on rare occasions after my move to Indianapolis. With each encounter our relationship had become more strained. We had quarreled a few months earlier at our last meeting.

We fought about the war. We fought about writing and who was more serious about it, about his hair, my clothes, and whether it was time for me to come home.

I saw Jimmy as less sophisticated than the young men in Indianapolis, who attended classes at the Free University, organized war protests, and drank espresso beneath smoky clouds in dark coffee houses. Jimmy was content writing about the winners of the local basketball tournament and which team was ahead for the season at Crown's Bowling Ally.


He told me he had never stopped loving me, and he was disappointed that I wouldn't be home for Christmas. He was sorry we had quarreled. I listened in silence. The conversation ended when I told Jimmy it would be better if we didn't talk to each other again.

I hung up the phone and wandered back to the window, trying to erase Jimmy from my thoughts, and the accompanying guilt of ending the relationship.

She was still there. The woman must be frozen by now. She was as silent and motionless as the statue staring into the distance. Why hadn't someone appeared to check on her? I looked up and down the empty street. Finally, I went to the closet and removed a corduroy jacket, a knitted scarf, and wool gloves. I put them on and opened the front door.

A blast of cold air assaulted me as I stepped off the front porch and crossed the street to the median where the woman was encamped. My footsteps landed deep into pockets of snow. Wetness penetrated my woolen socks as I tried to think of the best way to approach her.

"Are you all right?" I said to a woman, who appeared to be in her sixties or seventies. She was slight of build, much shorter than I was, with a gray halo of short curls framing her face. She was draped in a coat with a pelted fox wrapped around the collar. Bare spots punctuated the fur, the head was missing one eye, the coat was threadbare, and her gloves had holes in the fingertips. Above the collar was a lined face accentuated by powder that collected in the cracks. Her mouth was painted into a red cupid's bow reminiscent of the twenties. She was shivering.

She seemed not to hear me or even be aware that I was there. I looked in the direction she was staring. A smattering of traffic crawled between the snow-drenched banks of Tenth Street. Beyond was a small shopping center with a drugstore and a grocery. In between was Woodruff Place, almost deserted of cars since many of the transient dwellers had vanished to spend Christmas with their parents or other loved ones.

"Wouldn't you be more comfortable inside your home?" I tried again.

Her lips parted. Her mouth moved in a whisper formed of words too soft to hear.

"Excuse me?" I knelt down beside her and tried to capture words that had escaped like butterflies. Traces of jasmine, roses, and honeysuckle perfumed the chilled air of the snow-covered median.

"He'll be here soon." She said.

"What?" I tucked my gloved hands inside my armpits and shivered from the cold. Why did she persist in sitting outside?

Suddenly she turned and stared at me. "Who are you?"

"My name is Twyla. I live in the house across the street." I pointed at a stone house with a front porch covered by a blanket of snow.

"You're one of the Millsap girls." She smiled. "I know your parents, Martin and Lucinda. Are they inside?"

"I don't know the Millsaps. Maybe they lived here before I moved in."

"So many changes." She shook her head and sighed. "One loses track, you know."

"Do you live around here?" I did not relish the beginnings of a long conversation, suspecting that I might be in for a listing of all the past residents of Woodruff, including children and grandchildren. "Maybe I could help you back inside your house." I gently touched her arm. It was as soft and pliable as a rag doll's.

"That house." She pointed at a sagging gray Tudor with leaded windows dressed in overhanging icicles. Consuming at least an acre of ground, it was probably handsome once. Having been inside on several occasions, I knew it as a warren of apartments on three floors with cracked walls, a litter of trash, and the collected debris of young students.

"You live in one of the apartments?" I pressed gently against her arm. "I can help you get inside where it is warm."

"Not my house." She shook the arm I held as if to remove an annoyance. "Phillip's. The first time I saw him I thought my heart would just fly away." She smiled. "He was wading in the fountain on Cross Drive. His pants were rolled up and his shirt was pulled out. He was most inappropriate."

"I know the fountain." I said. "It's behind us down the street. I can take you there, if you like." I wanted to encourage any movement, any behavior that would get her off the frozen ground.

"We had just come from church and I was with my father. We were Presbyterians, you see. Father yelled at him and threatened to call the police. Phillip just stood there with his golden hair falling over his eyes and smiled. He was like no one I had ever seen before."

"This was someone you knew in the past?" I bent over and crunched a pile of snow into my gloved hand.

"He's coming for me." She smiled.

"Not today," I said dropping snow that dissolved into shimmers of powdered flakes. "Most of the roads are impassable."

"Of course, he's coming, dear. He has a marvelous black roadster that will make it through."

"Is it an antique?" My father owned a body shop and restored antique cars as a hobby. He had two roadsters in his collection from the late twenties, small coupes with a rumble seat in the back. I wondered that a rare car would be driven in inclement weather.

"Of course not, it is as shiny as a new penny. Phillip takes excellent care of it. He has trouble cranking the engine now and then, but all cars can be temperamental on occasion."

"What's your name?" Someone, somewhere must be responsible for her. How could they not have noticed her absence?

"Lillian." She smiled. "Phillip calls me Lilly. Of course, my father hates him and has forbidden me to see Phillip. But love finds a way, my dear."

"Lillian, Lilly, let me take you inside. Phillip isn't coming." I shook my head. The woman was obviously delusional.

"You must have faith in love." Lillian patted my hand. "It is the only thing that matters, after all."

I wondered if she had somehow sensed my own guilty conscience, but dismissed it as the notions of a crazy, old woman who didn't have enough sense to get in out of the cold.

"We are going to be married," she whispered to me. "Please, don't tell Father."

"That was long ago, Lillian," I commented and stood up again. "Today it is snowing and cold outside and you have to get inside or you're going to freeze to death."

"Phillip said to be ready, he'll bring the roadster, and we'll run away." She crossed her arms. "Love will find a way."

"Do you have any family? Someone I could call?"

"You promised not to tell." She was angry now. "If you tell, Father will kill Phillip. He won't let us get married. I know him."

"I won't tell," I assured her frowning. "I'm going inside now, Lilly. You should come with me."

"I can't miss him. He might think that I don't love him anymore."

"All right." I took a step toward my apartment, stopped, and turned to Lillian. "I'll be across the street, if you decide you want to come inside."

"It was nice meeting you, Twyla. Tell your mother and father I said hello. I always liked them."

Reluctantly, I left Lillian exactly where I found her.

I went back inside the apartment and tried to forget about Lillian. After a couple of hours of studying a blank sheet of paper and the keyboard of a Smith Corona Typewriter, I picked up the phone. I dialed the number of the Metro Police then quickly replaced the receiver. Lillian was an adult. It wasn't my place to decide her fate anymore than it was her place to decide mine. Yet, I knew it was not that simple.

I made a thermos of cinnamon tea, grabbed the jar of peanut butter and a package of crackers from the pantry, found a quilt in the linen closet, and went back outside.

"I thought we might have a picnic while you waited for Phillip." I poured hot tea into the thermos lid and handed it to Lillian. She took it with shaking hands and tested the liquid with her mouth. "I brought you an extra blanket." I wrapped the quilt around her freezing body.

"Your parents brought you up right." She patted my hand. "Not like these young people running around today with their wild clothes and long hair. Boys never looked like girls when I was young. Phillip's hair is always neat and short. It smells of pomade. Quite an enticing smell, don't you think?"

"I'm sure it is." I had never smelled pomade. "What will you do if he doesn't come?

"Of course, he will come." She tasted one of the crackers. "He promised." She shook her head and turned to look at me. "You must get under this blanket with me dear. You're going to catch your death of cold." She moved over and made room for me between the paws of the sphinx.

"All right." As I sat down next to her, Lillian wrapped the blanket around me. Hoping that the warmth of my body could keep her from freezing, I searched for words to convince her to abandon a hopeless quest.

"Have you ever danced in the moonlight?" Lillian said, giving my gloved hand a gentle squeeze. "Twirling ever so slowly, round and round, looking into the eyes of the only man you will ever love?"

I thought back to hot summer's evening and a dance at the National Guard Armory when I was fifteen and wore a spaghetti strapped dress, sandals, and my hair in a ponytail. Were the colors as vibrant as I remembered? We had all worn haloes on that warm summer evening when a boy in a white sport's coat with his hair still wet and smelling of aftershave had asked me to dance. At first it was awkward, neither of us danced very well, and he stepped on my foot. As the music played, I looked into his eyes, felt his heartbeat against my chest, and I thought, "This is it". This is what being in love feels like.

But that seemed so long ago. Now, it was only a memory marked "Jimmy", hiding in a cobweb-infested corner of my mind.

"Phillip used to throw rocks at my window and call to me, 'Lilly, come down and dance with me'. I would run in my nightgown down the staircase and out the front door."

"Your father didn't hear?" My question hung in the air as a yellow plow approached behind a rainbow of dirty snow spraying against the sides of the narrow street.

A man in gray coveralls with a cigar in his mouth braked on the street beside us and put the machine in neutral. The engine clacked unevenly. "Something I can do?" He leaned his head out of the open side panel.

I got up and walked over to the snowplow. "She seems a bit disoriented." I whispered. "I've tried to find out where she lives, to get her to go inside, but she insists someone is coming to get her."

"Christmas lunatics." He turned down the volume of a country music station and flicked an ash from his cigar. "I'll radio the police."

"Maybe that would be best." I answered with a sigh. "She is going to freeze out here in the cold."

"Don't worry. They'll be here in no time." He took something from his pocket and put it in my hand. "Merry Christmas." He winked, ratcheted the gears, and slowly moved down the street. I opened my palm and saw a wrapped chocolate kiss.

I stood there and looked at the kiss. Why did my thoughts turn to Judas and his thirty pieces of silver? I wondered if I should tell Lillian that the police were on the way. I started back for the median, quickly moving to the side, however, when a car crashed into the median inches from where I was standing.

"Phillip." Lillian stood up and let the blanket fall.

A blue Corvair Monza careened to a stop and slid crookedly into the snowdrifts. The undercarriage was caked with dirty brown slush and ice; the windshield was obscured except for a small peephole from the wipers. The driver's door opened and Jimmy Weatherby climbed out of the car. His cheeks were red and his hair was disheveled as he grabbed me either as an anchor or in an embrace.

"What are you doing here?" I pushed him away.

"I refuse to let our last conversation be on a telephone, Twyla." Jimmy planted his feet into the snow and stood firm.

"But I told you it was over." The words hung frozen in the chilled air.

"Maybe I can make you see things differently." He smiled "Let's discuss it over a dinner of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie."

"You must be kidding," I said remembering my scant cupboard and empty refrigerator.

"Your mother sent it. The food is in a cooler in my trunk." Jimmy said giving me a kiss on the cheek. "My car smelled like a turkey roaster all the way here."

I touched the spot where he had kissed me and stared at Jimmy.

"The kiss is from your family." He held out his hand to Lillian. "Jimmy Weatherby." He looked from Lillian to me. "What are you two doing out here?"

"I'm waiting for Phillip to come for me in his black Roadster." Lillian took his hand and smiled. "Twyla is keeping me company."

"A black roadster? I thought Twyla's father was the only person who collected them."

"Phillip likes to take me driving in the park with the top down." Lillian smiled. "It is so heavenly to feel the wind in your hair and see the stars so close you want to grab them right out of the sky." She frowned suddenly. "Please don't tell Father."

"I need to talk to you." I pulled Jimmy's sleeve, but it was too late. A black and white police car slid to the side of the street. A uniformed officer got out of the driver's side and cursed. Another officer remained on the passenger side and talked into a police radio.

"What's the problem?" The officer walked toward us leaving heavy footprints in the snow. One hand was at a holstered pistol.

"I don't think there is one." Jimmy looked surprised.

"She's been out here all day," I blurted. "I've tried to find out where she lives, but she insists that she's waiting for someone named Phillip. She seems to be confusing the past with the present."

"Don't worry, Ma'am, we'll take care of this." The officer walked over to Lillian. "Can you tell us where you live?" He gently took her arm.

Suddenly Lillian's eyes had the look of a wild animal. "You can't stop us." She grabbed her arm away. "Phillip and I are going to be married."

"Ma'am, I'm not going to hurt you. All I want to do is get you inside where it's warm." He motioned to the other officer, who hung up the handset, got out of the car, and removed a pair of handcuffs from his belt.

"What's going on?" Jimmy looked at me. I shrugged and looked down at the ground.

The first officer held her while the second officer clamped handcuffs on Lillian's wrists.

"Do you have to do that?" I said.

"Just a precaution-she escaped from Cragmont this morning." The officer checked the cuffs to make sure they were secure. "I just talked with headquarters and she matches the description right down to the ratty one-eyed fur piece."

"Well, at least she has a home," I said sighing. Cragmont was a mental institution about an hour south of Indianapolis.

"They told us not to bother bringing her back." The officer shrugged. "Seems they'd had problems with her before. And nobody's been paying the bills."

"Why was she there?" I looked at Lillian who was frantically fighting to be free of the cuffs.

"Something about her father killing her boyfriend," the second officer explained as the first officer led Lillian to the police car.

"Where will you take her, then?"

"She'll spend the night in jail. It's Christmas, so she probably won't see a judge until tomorrow." The officer blew on his gloved hands. "Let's hope the judge can finagle a way to get her into another hospital." He tipped his hat. "Have a Merry Christmas."

Jimmy followed me inside my apartment and hung up his jacket on a coat tree. We unloaded the cooler and sat down to eat. I had little appetite; I could not get Lillian out of my mind.

Jimmy brought wood in from the back and started a small fire in the fireplace. "You did as much as anyone would do." He said as he stoked the fire. "The police will know how to help her."

"I keep thinking of how frail she is, how awful she must feel to be locked up on Christmas."

"You always were a sucker for any injured animal or person, Twyla." Jimmy got up and removed a bottle from the cooler. "And that's just one of the reasons I'm in love with you." He uncorked a bottle of champagne. "Glasses?"

"Jimmy, you haven't forgotten what I said?" I asked staring at the bottle. "I'm sorry. I know it was a tough time getting here, and I do appreciate the turkey and the presents and…."

"Shush." He said putting a finger to my lips. "I know what you said, Twyla. I know you better than anyone else does. I know that you took Bobbo, the Bear to bed with you until you were sixteen. I know that you shake when you have to give a speech and that you bite your nails to the quick before a big test. I haven't always shown it, but I want you to have all your dreams and more, Twyla. "

"But Jimmy…."

"And I also know I had to try one more time before I leave next week." Jimmy walked into the kitchen and searched the cupboards for glasses. "It might seem foolish to you, but I'd ten times rather be a fool than spend the rest of my life counting what-ifs."

"You're leaving?" I got up from the table, my heart pounding as I followed him into the kitchen. "Going where?"

"Viet Nam. I joined the Air Force six weeks ago. I'll be training as a pilot for the next few weeks, and then I get shipped out. By the way, it's Second Lieutenant Jimmy Weatherby." Jimmy shrugged. "For some reason, they think I have the makings of an officer." Jimmy took two glasses down from the cabinet and clinked them together.

How fleeting is the certainty of youth, burning with the intensity and the reliability of a candle on a stormy night! Suddenly, I knew that I didn't want to see him go. It was as simple as that: one moment of enlightenment fueled by the illumination of love.

"I didn't know." I touched his sleeve as he poured champagne and handed me one of the glasses.

"Not to worry." He kissed me on the top of the head and walked into the living room, removing a small wrapped box from the pocket of his jacket.

"Jimmy, we have to go get her." I said suddenly. "We can't let her stay in jail."

"What?" Jimmy stared at me with the box in his hand.

"We have to go get her." I repeated. "Quick, help me get this fire out. I ran into the kitchen and filled a bucket with water.

"Are you nuts?" Jimmy watched as I poured water onto his well-tended fire.

"We'll take your car." I grabbed his jacket, handed it to him, and took my own from the closet. Darkness had already fallen as I ran out the door and waited for him by the Corvair.

"Why are we doing this?" Jimmy looked at me as we crawled along Tenth Street through several inches of snow.

"Because of love." I whispered.

It took us almost a half hour to get to the police station downtown. We parked the car, went inside, and made our way through a crowded foyer to the information desk. I told the officer my name and that I was there to pick up a woman named Lillian.

"Lillian who?" He flicked through a pile of papers.

I didn't know Lillian's last name. "She's an elderly woman with gray hair, who was picked up in Woodruff Place about two hours ago."

"Just a minute." The officer got up from the desk and went into another room. We waited perhaps ten minutes before he returned with one of the officers who had arrested Lillian.

"You two want to come in here?" The arresting officer motioned to the room behind him.

"Where is she?" I said after we were in the room with the door closed.

"You're not relatives, right?" The officer looked from Jimmy to me.

"We just want to help," Jimmy said.

"Look, I shouldn't tell you this. But, who knows? You might be able to check around the old neighborhood and find someone who knows a relative or a friend. We haven't a clue what to do with the body."

"What do you mean?" I blurted.

"She died a few minutes ago." The officer stated. "We're still waiting for the Coroner, but it looks like a heart attack."

"No!" I cried. "It's my fault."

"Nonsense." The officer patted my hand. "She was an old lady, and it was her time, that's all."

We drove back in silence. I didn't know what to say. And Jimmy didn't know what to say to comfort me. I was haunted by Jimmy's "what ifs". What if I had just told the snowplow driver not to call the police? What if I had told the police that Jimmy and I would take her inside? What if I hadn't been so ready to allow someone else to take away her ability to choose? What if Phillip were actually coming to pick her up?

We parked the car, and Jimmy came around to open my door. I looked at the statue of the sphinx surrounded by snowdrifts with the barren space between the paws carved by Lillian. It was illumined by moonlight casting ghost-like shadows from the barren trees to the drifts of snow. Why did it remind me of a summer moonlit night when two people danced, one of them in her nightgown and the other one with golden hair that fell across his brow?

Suddenly, I grabbed Jimmy's hand and ran toward the sphinx. "Dance with me." I cried. "Come dance with me in the moonlight."

We waltzed over a blanket of snow, weightless, under the most beautiful Christmas lights imaginable, an infinity of sparkling stars. As we danced, it was summer again. I wanted to throw off my jacket and shoes and feel soft grass under my bare feet. I was with the boy whose beating heart had awakened my first feelings of love at the National Guard Armory that summer long ago.

Lillian had tried to tell me. Love had warmed her heart and set it ablaze with an unquenchable fire that allowed her to sit on that frozen ground for hours.

"Look!" Jimmy whispered into my ear and pointed behind me. I turned around and saw a black roadster came slowly down the drive. It was shrouded in mist, collected, as if it had journeyed through time and space to keep an appointment with a woman who believed in miracles. The car drifted to a halt and the door slowly opened. A golden haired boy in a white summer suit climbed out of the roadster. He glided toward us carrying a bouquet of lilies, scattering white petals that mingled with snowflakes as they fluttered to the ground.

And then she was there. Lillian. Not the withered elderly woman, who had waited by the sphinx, but a more youthful version of Lillian, dressed only in her nightgown with flowing hair and stars for eyes.

For a few precious moments, we were joined in our moonlit dance by a couple who had waited more than a lifetime to embrace each other. Then they were gone, vanished into the moonlight, vanished into forever, as if they had never existed.

"You never did open the box," Jimmy whispered and took the package from his pocket.

"Yes, Jimmy, I will marry you," I said smiling.

"But you haven't even seen the ring. I haven't been able to say all the words that I spent hours rehearsing to convince you that I can make you happy."

I put my fingers to his lips. "Love will find a way."

The End