Jeffrey

Once More Unto the Breach
Jeffrey DeVries

He leaned back in the salon chair, his eyes closed, as the old woman fussed over his hair with her scissors and comb.  Truth be told, little silver hair remained on his head and even less settled on the black apron spread across his chest and lap.  But he was a creature of habit, and every Thursday afternoon, he came to the salon on the first floor of the retirement home and had the hair above his ears and the duck down tuft in the center of his head pushed around with a comb and nibbled at with shears and a razor. And even if he didn’t really need the haircut, being here was a routine and a social occasion, and beyond that, he had his reasons.

The woman who cut hair was a resident.  She lived on the second floor, the Alzheimer’s ward.  In younger years she’d been a seamstress and then a hairdresser.  Now, long after her memories of family and friends had faded, her muscle memory of these skills remained sharp, and she felt deep joy in using them, so the staff had set up a schedule. She provided haircuts, perms, and manicures every Thursday, working strictly for tips. She was popular with the other residents.  She talked a little, listened well, and knew her craft. She always worked Thursdays, so Oscar bent his routine to hers.  On any given Thursday afternoon, he’d be found in her salon chair.

  The snipping of the scissors paused by his ears as the woman cutting his hair put two fingers under his chin and gently tilted it up so she could get a better look at where his bangs would be if he still had them.  Her fingers were cool and strong and certain, and he liked the way they felt. The hairdresser clucked softly to herself, muttering about his cowlick, and grabbed a spray bottle off her counter.  He felt a quick spritz, and then her fingers, tender like a lover’s, massaging his scalp.  His shoulders slumped as he relaxed into the chair, a half-smile twisting his lips. His eyes remained closed.

Two other people were waiting to get their hair cut too.  Herman, a man with a mop of curly brown hair, sat with one leg crossed over the other, his hands folded on his knees.  He wore powder blue scrubs; he was a nurse at the home, and his job every Thursday was to bring the hairdresser down to work and then back to her room.  Some days, like today, Herman would also stay to get a trim. He stared up at the ceiling as he hummed tunelessly to himself.  In another salon chair, a heavyset woman with her hair in tight curlers paged through a gossip magazine.

“Hey, Herman,” the man in the salon chair said without opening his eyes.  “I ever tell you about how I met my wife?”

The man in the chair dropped his gaze to the man in the salon chair.  He smirked and said, “Maybe I’ve heard that story before.”

“Is it a romantic story?” asked the woman working on his hair. “I love a good romance.”

Her client shrugged.  “I think it’s romantic, but then that woman was the single best thing that ever happened to me. She saved my life.”

The scissors stopped.  “Saved your life? Now you have to tell me the story.”

“I’ve heard it before,” Herman said. “I’m going to go get a cup of coffee upstairs.”  He smiled sadly at the man getting his hair cut, but the man still did not open his eyes.  Herman shrugged and shuffled out of the room.

“Well?” said the hairdresser as she went back to work on Oscar’s hair.

 “Up the street from the farm, when I was a boy,” he said, “lived two older boys with whom I was friends. Well, not friends maybe, not really.  But they were the only other children who lived within five miles of me.  So circumstance made us friends, or if not friends, then at least playmates.  Their names were Bo and Paulie.

“First time I met Bo and Paulie, they were beside the pond between our property and the Rychik place.  Old Man Rychik had a little wooden pier of sorts that went out in the shallows on his side of the pond.  The boards were gray and half-rotted, but if you was careful where you stepped, you could walk on it all right.  Bo and Paulie, they was sittin’ on the end of the pier, their bare feet trailing in the water.  Paulie, he was a year older than me but maybe a good three inches shorter, he was holding a bamboo cane pole. He had beady little eyes that were set too close to each other, and he’d stare ’em at you until you squirmed in your own skin. Bo sat next to him.  Bo was a big kid, a boy trapped in a man’s body.  He was the oldest of all three of us.  He had unruly brown hair with a cowlick that swooped over the front of his head like a ski jump. A thin purple scar leapt from his right ear and run just under his jawline toward his chin.  He said he got it when he was rough-housin’ with his pop years earlier—said he tripped and put his head through a pane of glass.  We all knew his daddy was a mean drunk who beat him.

“Anyways, first time I met these boys, there they was fishing, or Paulie was anyways, and old Bo was just sitting there kind of slack-jawed and watching, and I walked up behind them and I said, ‘Hey, guys, what you fishing for?’

“‘Bluegills,’ Paulie said, and just then Bo nudged him with his elbow and said, ‘Now,’ and old Paulie he pulled back on that cane pole and up come a nice bluegill, bigger than my pop’s hand.  Paulie dangled the fish out in front of him, admiring it, and then before you could say a word, he gave the pole a quick snap with his wrists so that fish come swinging around behind him like a tetherball and walloped me upside the head.  Bo and Paulie busted out laughing while I rubbed at my face. I grabbed the fishing line to hold the bluegill off my hip where Paulie had it resting.

“‘Sorry,’ Paulie said, and his beady eyes sparkled with cynical mirth.  ‘It was an accident.  Hey, if you take my fish off, I’ll give you a turn with the pole.’”

“Well, I was still mad, but what could I do? Nothing, really. And I decided I wouldn’t mind fishing a little, so I took the fish off the hook and eased it back into the pond.  It rested there for just a second, and then with a flick of its tail it was gone.

“I spent the next couple hours there, fishing with them.  And that was fun, mostly.  But what sticks in my head is the last fish we caught, a great big bluegill, biggest we’d seen the whole day, and he hit that bait hard, swallowed the hook like they sometimes do when they’re real hungry.  It was my turn with the pole, and when I grabbed that fish to take him off, I could see I had trouble, so I asked them if they got a needle-nose pliers or something so I could reach down into his gullet and take the hook out.  

“Paulie, he looked at me like I was soft in the head or something, and he said, ‘Give me that fish.’ Then he started tugging at the line, and every time he pulled, I heard crunching and I  saw the fish’s belly spasm up, but that hook was lodged in there, and Paulie, he was only making it worse.  When I told him that, he turned to Bo and told him to work his magic.

“I was wondering what kind of magic that might be when Bo scooted back behind us on the dock, grabbed the line about two feet from the fish, then whipped that fish like a rock in a sling before slapping it against the wood.  The hook was still in the fish, but it had moved up toward its mouth.  Bo started swinging that fish back and forth, like an upside down pendulum, thrashing it on the pier again and again until finally the hook popped out.  The bluegill lay there.  Blood leaked from its gills.  One translucent eye, barely attached, rested below its socket.  

“I didn’t say anything. I just looked at the fish and then at Bo, who was coolly tucking the hook back in the handle of the pole, and then at Paulie, who had a hint of a smile twisting his lips.  Paulie grabbed the dead fish by the tail and flung it as if he was skipping stones.  The fish hit the surface, bounced once, then floated on its side, twenty feet away from us.  Bo barked a sharp laugh and Paulie giggled. I didn’t say anything.

“Walking home, I kept thinking about that fish and those boys killing it and laughing, and it didn’t sit right with me, but I convinced myself that it was no big deal. I mean, I’d killed fish before—filleted them while they gasped their last breaths on a plank in the back yard.  How was that any different? I asked myself.

“Bo and Paulie, I played with them all that summer, watched them administer their casual cruelties, and over time I grew immune.  One day in late June I joined them at the pond where they were standing knee-deep in the water amongst some lily pads.  Paulie was holding a butterfly net and Bo a glass jar with some air holes punched into its lid.   

“ ‘Watchya up to?’ I asked as I kicked off my shoes and rolled up my pant legs to join them in the pond.

“’Show him, Bo,’ Paulie said without turning his concentration from a lily pad a few feet in front of him.  Bo thrust his jar at me as I sidled up next to him.  Inside were three dragonflies—two had long, thin blue bodies.  The third was twice the size of the others—its exoskeleton a sort of army-green.  Its two sets of wings so broad that they touched both sides of the jar when it unfurled them.  

“As I studied the specimens, a splash of water grabbed my attention. I turned to see Paulie’s net over a pad while a dragonfly buzzed inside.  Paulie closed his hand around the net, trapping his catch inside. Bo grabbed the jar and waded over to where Paulie stood waiting.  I wondered how they’d get the new dragonfly into the jar without the others escaping, but they’d clearly had practice doing this before.  Bo loosened the lid but kept it on, then gave the jar a sharp shake to stun the insects already in it.  He removed the lid just as Paulie worked the throat of the jar into the pinched off part of his netting.  With a flick of his finger, he knocked the new catch into the jar, which Bo proceeded to cap beneath the netting. Now the jar held four. Its newest occupant had a luminescent lavender body with bulging red eyes and cellophane wings tinged with pink.  It was gorgeous—a flying jewel.

“We spent the next hour catching three more dragonflies.  They was hard to catch.  They bobbed just at arm’s length, and their movements were unpredictable.  Our net came up empty more often than not, but we laughed at our miscues and all in all it was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.  Our rolled pants wet, our toes pruned from the water, we sat again on Old Man Rychik’s pier, cross-legged and passing the jar back and forth to admire.

“‘Now we get to the best part,’ Paulie said.  He dug in his pocket and pulled out a matchbox.  He turned to Bo and said, ‘Get one of ’em for me, Bo.  Maybe that big green bastard.’

“Bo gave the jar a ferocious shake, and the next thing I know he had the army-green dragonfly out.  He had its tail pinched lightly between his fingers.  The insect buzzed, its two pairs of cellophane wings rattling like machine gun bursts, but it was trapped.

“‘Did you know,’ Paulie asked as he struck a match, ‘that their wings are highly flammable?’ 

He held the flame to the right side of the insect’s body, and the two wings on that side disappeared in a hissing burst of flame that was there and then gone almost instantly.  Paulie smiled at me over the still burning match.

“‘Like flash paper,’ he said.  ‘Drop him, Bo. Let’s see how he flies now.’

“Bo did as instructed.  The dragonfly, floating on the water, spun in circles, its left wings twitching uselessly.  

“Paulie watched with a smug smile and said to the dragonfly, ‘You’re fish food now.’ 

“‘Yeah, fish food,” Bo aped. I watched the insect turn in futile circles and I wondered what it was thinking if it could think at all.  Why had the gods plucked it from flight and burned its wings away?  How could it make sense of that story?

“ ‘Next!’ Paulie ordered and in a moment Bo held the tail of another. This time Paulie burned off all four wings. 

“ ‘Let’s see how you swim now, my little friend,’ he said as he flicked the bug off the end of the dock where Bo had set it down.

“ ‘Next!’ Paulie shouted again.  Bo produced the lavender dragonfly with the red eyes.  Paulie thrust that matchbox at me.

“ ‘Your turn,’ he said. His dark eyes coolly challenged me.  

“I grabbed the matchbox and, with hands only slightly trembling, pulled a match free.  One sharp scratch, then a burst of blue.  I held the burning match near my lap as I studied the dragonfly pinched between Bo’s thumb and pointer finger.  The light purple body nearly glowed and the color-tinged wings sparked sunlight in a fire all their own.  I pictured myself as it must have seen me through its kaleidoscopic eye—my own image reflected and refracted a dozen times, my thin lips and frightened eyes grimacing miserably as fire smoldered in my hand.

“ ‘Light ’er up!’ Paulie demanded.  And with a pulsing thrill, that is exactly what I did.”

The woman in curlers looked up from a story on England’s royal family and said, “This is a funny kind of love story—a tale of a bunch of naughty boys.”

The man stopped speaking. He clenched his jaw, and his face flushed with irritation.  “Necessary exposition,” he replied without opening his eyes. 

“Bo’s old man bought him a brick of firecrackers that year for the Fourth of July.  Stole it, more likely.  He was a hard man.  

“We were typical boys.  We liked fire and we liked exploding things. And like with most boys, to keep finding the thrill, things had to escalate.  We started by blowing off single firecrackers.  Then strings of them in empty coffee cans.  Neighbors’ mailboxes.  We caught Paulie’s little brother, Fritzie, and we lit one and buried it in the back pocket of his pants.  We laughed as that boy danced in a panic trying to escape. It blew the pocket right off his hind end.

“Within a few weeks, we were meeting at the pond, catching bluegills and stuffing firecrackers down their mouths so only the wick stuck out.  We’d light the wick, let it burn down a little, and then Paulie would lob ’em back over the pond like they were hand grenades.  Paulie’d giggle like it was Christmas morning every time one of ’em blew up.  Bo’d just reach into our creel, grab for the next bluegill and wiggle a firecracker between its lips and down its throat.  He was real calm, like what we were doing was just one more chore to do.  Like one more dish to dry and put away in the cupboard or something.”

“And what’d you do?” the woman in curlers asked coolly.  

“I lit the wicks.”

The woman slapped her magazine shut, turned to the hairdresser, and said, “I think I’ve heard all I want to hear about sadistic little boys. Could you finish with me so I can go?”

The hairdresser stopped cutting and rested her hands on the man’s shoulders.  She asked him, “You care if I stop to take out Mary’s curlers?”

The man smiled, his eyes still closed.  “No, I don’t mind.  I got nowhere else to go, and I certainly don’t want to offend her precious sensibilities.  I’m just trying to tell a story here.”

Oscar could hear the hairdresser shuffle over to the next chair, then the ping of curlers landing in a stainless steel bowl on the counter.  

From beside the other chair, the hairdresser’s voice drifted back to him.  “I wish you’d continue your story.  I want to get to the good part. ”

“Me too!” he said.  “And we’re almost there, but you know there’s no good part without a bad part first. At least that’s how it worked for me.  Ain’t no appreciating heaven until you’ve experienced hell.  Life’s like that, you know.  It plays tricks on us.  Now you just follow me in my story, listen to my voice, and I’ll lead you out of hell and we’ll get to the good part.”

The woman in the other salon chair snorted derisively, but otherwise both women were silent.  The man leaned back and craned his head toward them, listening for the sound of movement.  For a moment, his eyelids flickered almost imperceptibly, as if he’d considered opening them, but then he squeezed them tight and shook his head, driving away any doubts as a horse shakes away flies.  

He continued, “So those were my friends—bad boys who only got worse as they got older.  By high school they were getting caught shoplifting in town and bullying kids at school.  And I was always there with them, never quite approving, but never standing up to them or doing anything different either.  I was just a pathetic follower.  No spine at all.

“You know neither one of them boys made it to thirty years old. The war took it out of both of them.  Paulie, he died on an island in the South Pacific somewhere. He wrote home a few letters, disturbing ones where he talked about what he was doing to the bodies of Jap soldiers he’d killed.  Paulie was a sadistic shit, right through to the end.  Then he stepped on a landmine, blew his legs clean off, and that was that.  I don’t know that anyone cried when they got the news, not even his own momma.

“Bo, he come back home, but he wasn’t ever right in the head.  Mind you, he maybe never was right in the head, but now he got drunk all the time.  He ending up killing his old man one night, beat him to death with a fireplace poker.  Next morning, one of his dad’s farmhands shows up, finds Bo just sitting at the kitchen table, a bottle of scotch half gone in front of him, the bloodied poker lying next to his dirty highball glass.  Bo didn’t say a word to him. Didn’t move even.  Twenty minutes later, that’s where the cops found him.  He died in prison within a year. Just stopped eating, I heard.

“So what about me?  That’s your part, ladies.  What about you, Oscar?  How come you’re still here?  You were no different than those two lowlifes?  Why are you still here?”

“I don’t care why you’re here,” Mary said as she climbed from the other chair, “but since you are, I think I’ll be leaving.”

Mary pulled a ten dollar bill from the purse she’d hung on the armrest of her chair and handed it to the hairdresser with one hand as she laid a gentle hand on her forearm.  She said, “I’m sorry, Sweetie, but I’m going to have to leave you with this golden-tongued master of the macabre.  I’ve got an appointment with my gentleman friend Marvin for coffee this afternoon.”

“Ooh-la-la,” the hairdresser teased as she folded the bill and placed it in the front pocket of her apron.  “A little afternoon delight?”

Mary laughed and slapped at her hand playfully.  “You are a wicked thing.”  

She slung her purse across her shoulder and started toward the door where she stopped and turned back to say, “He’s just a friend.  And it’s just coffee.”  Then she smiled mischievously and added, “And maybe a little of momma’s sugar.”

The hairdresser gasped as she threw up both hands to cover her blushing grin.  Oscar smiled in his chair, his eyes still closed.  She stepped behind him again, grabbed her spray bottle, and rewetted his hair, massaging the water into his scalp.

“So shall I finish my story for you?” he asked.

“Your story?” she repeated uncertainly.

“Yes, yes.  My story.  The story about how I met my wife.”

She smiled as she took her scissors and comb and started trimming at the ends of his hair.   “Ooh, a romance. I love a good romance.”

“So like I said, Bo and Paulie, neither of them made it out of the war, and I just barely did. I saw things I won’t talk about, horrible things.  I went into the war disgusted with myself, and I came out disgusted with all of us.  What Bo and Paulie and I did as kids, that was just a preview, a very understated preview, to the depravity I saw.”

Her scissors stopped and she murmured, “You paint a very bleak picture.”

“I was in the 42nd Infantry, the boys who liberated Dachau Concentration Camp.  My battalion was one of the first through the fence. I’ll never forget it.  The bodies, half-naked and emaciated—you couldn’t hardly tell the living from the dead.  And the smell!  Everything reeked of decay and excrement.  It made me vomit.

“I was on a machine gun team that was left to guard about fifty German prisoners who had surrendered. We were to confine them in an L-shaped courtyard that had been used to store coal.  The rest of our platoon was moving toward the center of camp.    

“So the nine of us are standing there with our weapons, and we line these German guards up against a masonry wall.  I’m nineteen, and I look at these guards, and half of them look younger than me.  Behind me, three of the guys in my squad are under twenty-two years old.  I start thinking to myself, we’re all just a bunch of kids.  What are we doing here? Why aren’t we home playing ball or trying to dance with girls?  Then I think about the bodies I walked through and over and around to get here, and I wonder what the hell kind of people could do that to other people?

“I’m standing next to Birdlegs, this nineteen-year-old kid from South Dakota who looks like a turkey, all chest and shoulders and arms perched on a couple of toothpicks for legs.  Birdlegs, he’s pacing back and forth, and you can see the storm in his face. He’s brooding on something, too. He glares at me, and I look away, back to the Germans who remain beside the wall, their hands held aloft.

“All of a sudden, someone behind me shouts, ‘They’re trying to get away!’ Machine gun fire ripped the air, and German guards started dropping like sacks of cement.  I turned around, and Birdlegs, he’s spraying bullets and screaming like someone’s flaying the skin off his back.  Cries of pain and terror rise behind me, but I can’t tear my eyes off Birdlegs.  I want to stop him, but it’s just like being back with Bo and Paulie when I was a kid. I feel paralyzed.  I’m still staring when an officer comes running around the corner.  He runs straight at Birdlegs and punches him in the mouth.  Birdleg’s weapon clatters to the stones, and he scrambles for it when the officer kicks him in the stomach.  Birdlegs is on his hands and knees, his nose broken and dripping blood, and he’s gagging but still insisting the prisoners had been trying to escape. He’d killed twelve of ’em, and a half-dozen more were slumped against the wall, groaning.  

He fell silent, and the hairdresser, whose scissors had stopped minutes ago, brushed the hair clippings from his shoulders.  She let her hands come to rest there, and Oscar could feel the cool, papery skin almost touching his cheek.

He continued, “I promised you a love story, and don’t hardly seem one, I know.  But to understand my beautiful, wonderful wife, you got to know who I was without her.  That moment in Dachau became the defining moment of the next decade of my life.  I lived that day over and over, the images distorted like the reflections in a funhouse mirror.  No one in my company could process what we witnessed.  It didn’t seem real. It didn’t seem human. My buddies wondered aloud how the Krauts could do this to people.  How could no one step forward to stop it?  

“But I knew.  I kept seeing the look in Birdlegs’ face as he mowed down unarmed men with their hands up.  Turns out a lot of those guards had arrived only two days before us.  They weren’t the torturers, but Birdlegs killed ’em anyway, and I just stood there and watched.  I didn’t lift a finger. I didn’t say a word.  Not a damn word.”

He grew silent, and a single tear broke loose and ran down the edge of his nose.  He squeezed his eyes shut tighter, and wiped the tear from his face with the back of his hand.

He continued, “Whether you’re burning wings off dragonflies and blowing up bluegills or shooting unarmed men and stacking ’em like cordwood, it’s only different by matters of degree. It all comes from the same brokenness, the same dark heart.  

“By the time we left Dachau a few days later, I knew that no love created us, no love was in us, and no world of love awaited us.  We were bred in darkness, passed our days in meanness, and then disappeared back into the darkness.  Any talk of love or virtue or beauty felt like a pretty lie that I just couldn’t hardly believe anymore.”

“Love just a pretty lie?” she repeated in a whisper tinged with disbelief.  She smoothed the cowlick on his crown, running her fingers down the back of his head until her hand rested once more on his shoulder.  “You poor, poor man.”  

Oscar reached up from beneath his apron and gently patted her hand on his shoulder.  When she did not withdraw hers, he left his resting on it.  Still his eyes were closed.

“I was a poor man.  Emotionally and morally bankrupt.  I come home from the war and drank too much, wandered from job to job.  My real problem was what it had always been, ever since I was a little boy playing with Paulie and Bo.  I was a coward.  Like so many cowards, it started with me not having the guts to do what was right, and it ended with me denying there was such a thing as right.  To be cynical, to walk in the darkness, that’s easy.  It takes courage to believe in good.  What I needed was something to give me that courage.”

“And you found it?” she asked.

He smiled and gave her hand a quick squeeze.  

“You bet I found it,” he said, “in a little dry cleaner’s in Roseland, where I got the first job that stuck, and I got it quite by accident.  I was walking around the 100 block of Michigan Avenue when I see this young woman through the plate glass of a storefront.  She’s bent over the sleeve of a man’s tweed jacket, sewing in the hem.  She had a dusting of freckles on her nose and forehead, and as she ran the sleeve through her machine, she creased her forehead in concentration, creating a little vertical valley down its center.  Her fingers carefully and evenly slid the fabric beneath the needle, and as she finished the hem, she smiled to herself. She had no idea I was standing outside the window, five feet away, staring at her. I don’t know how to describe what was so extraordinary about her. She seemed at ease with herself, absorbed in her work. She radiated joy.  I had to know her.

“A sign in the window said they were hiring a delivery man, so I applied and got the job.”

“And you fell in love?” she asked. 

“Oh, I think I was already in love when I watched her sew that first hem.  But I moved slow.  I didn’t want to lose her. For the first month, I wasn’t even sure if she knew my name.  I didn’t say much when I was in the store.  She was one of two seamstresses who worked there.  Between deliveries, I’d find excuses to work up front just so I could watch her work.  There were parts of the floor I mopped so often I think I wore holes in the tile. For days, she seemed profoundly unaware of me.  She would work in silence or make small talk with Suzanne, the older woman who sewed beside her.  Suzanne noticed my seeming omnipresence before you did, do you remember?”

“I do,” she said softly.

Oscar drew a sharp breath through his nose and shuddered ever so slightly, then continued in the same tone of voice. “Suzanne used to tease me mercilessly.  In whispers she would call me Casanova or Romeo as she passed behind me, giving me an elbow in the small of my back to nudge me in your direction.  But you never seemed to notice.  

One day I ended up in the shop with you alone.  I come back from a delivery and entered through the back door.  I thought I heard an angel singing.  Do you remember? It was an aria from Rusalka.  The voice drew me out of myself. I hung my coat on a hook in the back of the shop and moved toward the sound.”

Faintly, the hairdresser began to hum the melody of O, Silver Moon.  The vibrations, barely audible, grew stronger as his memories bolstered them and they, in turn, filled the space beneath his words, lifting them toward the light.

When he had first heard her voice, it had moved him beyond reason. Its tone was not sweet or pretty, but something higher and deeper, something that made him feel, for the first time in many, many years, something essential for which he longed but for which he had no word—not then and not now.  He’d always discerned that same quality in her smile, mischievous and tender at the same time, a smile infused with an irreducible universe of meaning that no language or numbers could quite explain and which pushed him back on words like beauty and grace.

His right hand still rested on hers where she had set it upon his right shoulder. The fingertips of her left hand traced the hairline along his neck, gently caressing circles that tickled him. Together they had passed through the darkness in his tale, and he could feel the rush of approaching light.  He nearly had them out of the shadows.

“When I come to the door, you had your back to me.  You was pulling the hem on a pair of pants as you sang.  You had your hair tied up, and I watched the way the muscles in your neck bunched beneath your skin every time you popped a stitch.  You worked the whole time, but you never stopped singing.  I felt like an intruder and thought to leave, but I found myself unable.  Your voice and your demeanor—both so effortless, so pure—I don’t know how to explain.  It was like scales fell from my eyes, like my ears were opened, like I was seeing and hearing truly for the first time ever.  I knew in that moment that life ain’t just meanness and ugliness, that the world—like your song and your smile—is a gift.  You gave me the courage to embrace the good. You saved my life.”

She stopped humming, and with a tender voice she whispered, “O, Oscar, my love.”

His eyes snapped open and he answered, “Iris.”

For a moment, the light of the room blinded him.  In the mirror before him slowly emerged an image of her standing behind him, her hands resting on his shoulders, her open gaze fixed on his face.  The blood rushed to his cheeks as in the mirror his eyes searched out hers.  Their eyes locked, but in that instant he saw her receding inward.  A dense fog of confusion clouded her face.  She looked down to find her hands on a strange man’s shoulders.  Oscar reached for her hands, but she stepped away, and he clutched at empty air.

“Iris?” he said sadly.

She paced nervously behind him, and in the hallway a clock struck the hour.  

“That’s time,” she said.  “You have to go.  I have to go upstairs for dinner.”

Herman appeared in the doorway.  He folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe. He looked sad and smug at the same time. Oscar tried to ignore him as he rose from the salon chair. He pulled off the apron and laid it across the seat.

“Iris, it’s me,” he cajoled.  “It’s Oscar. You know me.”

She wagged her head, and as he repeated himself, she did so with increasing vehemence.  “No, no.  You have to go. I have to go upstairs for dinner.”

Oscar tried to take her by the hand, but she pulled back as if a snake had bitten her.  Then she noticed Herman in the door and turned pleading eyes to him.

“I have to go,” she said.  “Take me to dinner . . . please . . . take me to dinner.”

Herman unfolded his arms and stepped forward. 

“Of course,” he said, offering his arm, which she took.  As they left, he turned to Oscar and said under his breath, “Why do you put yourself through hell week after week?”

Oscar did not answer. He may not even have heard.  He was already thinking about next week, when he would try again to rescue his love from the darkness as she had once rescued him.