I’m afraid dear old Harelson won’t be able to dance out of this one!
For You There Will be Dancing
Donald Elerton was the first to arrive, keeping the bulk of his weight on his good leg as he shambled up the overgrown path, and gripping tall gravestones and low-hanging tree branches occasionally to help himself along.
Donald had been Monrovia’s sheriff until a shark took his foot off in the shallows at Conway Beach. There hadn’t been much crime back then, so Donald had spent most of his time taking care of the little complaints like dogs terrorizing trash cans and a few locals getting drunk and rowdy on Saturday night. Mostly Donald’s business was people: soothing bruised egos to keep the peace in his slice of the county.
A few minutes later, coming up from the rear of the plots, was Elly Sullivan, mother of four, grandmother of two, and former owner of Sullivan Hardware. She had run the store full-time all by herself after Paddy, her children’s father, ran off with a hairdresser from the beauty parlor. In her arms Elly held darling Betsy Sue, whom she had given birth to just before the store had sold. Betsy Sue was born with long, slender feet which may have come from Elly’s side of the family, and a head full of blond curls which were unfamiliar to both sides.
“Well don’t that baby of yours just get prettier ‘n prettier every time I see her!” Donald said to Elly, tickling Betsy Sue’s bare feet.
“She’s looking a mite more colorful today, don’t you think, Donald?” Elly asked, and he nodded dutifully.
Next came Elmer Fox, a quiet gentleman who had run the cemetery until his son Ebert took over, which seemed, as Ebert would tell anyone who would listen, to be a century ago. The Monrovia Cemetery was the town’s second oldest after Pioneers of Monrovia Burial Cemetery, which was something of a historical spot and nothing else since no one had been buried there since 1807. Elmer had inherited the business from his own father and transformed the grounds into a respectable and peaceful place to bury the dead.
Elmer nodded to Donald and Elly as he came up beside them and regarded the plot they were gathered around solemnly. It was wide enough for five graves, six if the diggers squeezed ‘em in tight. Only the first had a stone. On it read: Harelson Albert Tucker: Beloved husband and father, faithful Catholic, January 12, 1897- August 26, 1963. The diggers had already come and gone and below the marker they’d left a neat scar in the earth, a six by eight by three-foot dark mouth gaping up from the flat green ground.
“Looks like they dug her nice and straight this time,” the woman walking towards them said. “Ebert and his boys done a real nice job.”
It was Ameroy Daxter with the nervous tick, and her little boy Jeffie zigzagged behind her, picking flowers, chasing flying beetles, and hopping over grave markers. Ameroy and her husband had had difficulty conceiving and Jeffie wasn’t born until Ameroy was in her late thirties. Like most people who conceive late in life, Ameroy called him their miracle baby. He was always at least ten feet behind her and looking for all the trouble he could find.
“Jeffie!” Ameroy tittered nervously. “Jeffie, you get back to your mama’s side right now.”
The boy remained on the other side of the plot, where a particularly large beetle had caught and kept his attention.
“Silly boy,” she murmured. “Jeffie!”
But still the boy did not look up, so Ameroy ran to him and snatched him up, holding him close against her.
Following Ameroy and Jeffie was Sue Clapper, who had counted the pills at the pharmacy and separated them into plastic bottles, staring each day at dozens of tiny labels with instructions like “take with plenty of water” and “take before meals” and the cardinal rule, “do not exceed this certain amount of pills in this certain amount of time,” which she had chosen to discard.
“Donald,” Sue said, “how’s that foot of yours doing?”
Barely holding up Donald’s weight, what was left after the shark got through with it was an unhealthy green.
“Got a bad infection, Sue. Doc told me ‘Infection like that, Don, all I can do is put you on the ant’biotics and hope for things to turn out right.’.” He chuckled sadly. “The pain don’t take too long to get used to.”
The last to come up the hill was George Duncan, followed by three of his seven daughters in single file. George had been Monrovia’s barber til the sickness came in ’39. He had cut everybody’s hair except that of those who cut their own, and since the barbershop was the natural place for gossip, he knew just about everyone in the small town and their goings-on. For a man who was well informed on all matters from who did what to who did who, George was a particularly quiet man who seldom offered gossip of his own but chose to listen most of the time instead.
“Look, there’s Reverend Booker, and hey Elmer, ain’t that your boy Ebert?” George said, pointing to the line of people coming up the hill from Monrovia Cemetery’s small parking lot.
“That’s him all right,” Elmer nodded.
The first to reach the site was the reverend, followed by Harelson’s three sons and strongest nephew sharing the weight of his casket, then Ebert, Harelson’s wife and daughter, a handful of people from the home, a couple of orderlies to help the aged, and, bringing up the rear, a barefooted Harelson Tucker himself.
The sons and nephew set their burden down next to the grave and the funeral attendees settled themselves down on the folding chairs Ebert had arranged there a couple of hours earlier. Reverend Booker took his place by the headstone and began the service.
“Harelson,” Donald whispered and the old man turned and caught sight of the silent witnesses to his funeral. A smile flashed across his face.
“Why, Donald. I ain’t seen you in- what’s it been?- over twenty years now, ain’t it? Who you got with you over here? If it ain’t George Duncan! And these pretty girls of yours, I can’t rightly remember your names right now, but you’ll have to forgive me for that. It comes and goes. But I do remember those faces. You look just like you did the last time I saw you,” his face grew sad. “All four in one day. You know George, they shipped the medicine in only a week after you were gone.”
“Is that a fact?”
“True that, true that. And Ameroy! Gosh darn woman, I see that kid of yours is still a bundle of energy, am I right? You never should’ve run back after him with that car a comin’, that’s what I say. I was there that day on the street, you know. Yep, you never should’ve run back to him, it was too late already, that’s what I told them.
“Elly, Elly, come here and let me see that girl of yours. I called my wife up in Arkerville when it happened and she told me: ‘Harelson,’ she said. ‘Elly is the best friend I got in this whole wide world and I’ll be damned if you ain’t gonna go visit her in the hospital if I can’t!’ And I did, too, I came to see you Elly, but you was sleepin’, and a day later you was gone. I never did get to see Betsy Sue. Now, there is something I just got to see--” he bent down and peered intently at the infant’s face. “Yep!” He said, straightening back up. “I had a little bet going with myself. Beautiful blue eyes, just like yours, Elly. But gosh does she look pretty!”
Reverend Booker was warmed up now and nearly shouting as he issued promises that Harelson was “in the Kingdom of Heaven now, with all his sins washed away.”
“I inherited this place from my pop after the heart attack,” Ebert was whispering to one of the orderlies. “Must’ve been damn near a century ago now.”
“Your boy seems to be doin’ a fine job with this place, Elmer.” Harelson said. “Ebert! Yes, that’s his name, ain’t it? My mind seems to be workin’ near top notch today, I tell you that much. And you,” his eye caught Sue. “I remember you. Your name’s Sue Clapper, right? I was plum sure you’d be by the Devil’s side by now.”
“Don’t believe everything you read,” Sue said simply.
Harelson had come full circle now and was back to Donald. He nodded at nothing in particular, then blurted out: “How’s that foot of yours, Donald?”
“Well Harelson, it got infected real bad.”
Harelson smiled blankly and nodded again. A wrinkle furled his brow. He scanned the group quickly, desperately trying to find someone safe to lock his attention on, saw Betsy Sue, and waggled his fingers at her.
“Harelson,” Donald said.
Harelson looked at him with frightened eyes. Donald nodded at the grave and Harelson turned to see four of Ebert’s strongest men lowering his casket into the earth. Most of the guests were walking back down the hill now; only Harelson’s wife remained, watching them begin to shovel dirt into the hole. She was crying.
“Everyone said you look wonderful in that suit, Harl,” she said. Harelson took a step toward her and then hesitated. “We put you in the blue one you like so much, with that red bow tie you used to wear on special occasions, you know the one. Mr. Greensley from the mortuary did a proper job making you look . . . presentable. Ebert dimmed the lights a bit and closed just the bottom half of the- well, it looked real nice.”
She was quiet for a moment and looked up into the trees, their networks of leaves and branches rustling in the breeze, then shut her eyes and let their shadows move across her face. When she looked back at the grave again they had nearly filled it to the top, and Harelson could see the lines the tears had left in his wife’s makeup.
“I’m taking myself to Wednesday’s Dance Night at the nursing home tomorrow. I know you’d want me to. A couple of your buddies even said they’d dance with me. We know you won’t mind. But gosh, how you loved to dance, Harl! It’s the one thing you’d never forget how to do, even when you looked at me and couldn’t remember your wife of forty-three years’ name you never could forget a single dance step. Remember that contest we were in on our honeymoon? First place we got, remember that? I wasn’t bad, no, just pretty good. But you, Harl, you flew across that dance floor! Made everyone sitting down want to jump to their feet and do a good jig all night long.” She laughed, the good shine of a happy memory in her eyes. “I’ll come visit you again soon Harl,” she said, leaning over to put something on the top of his headstone.
Harelson watched her walk down the hill and drive away. He turned to Donald. “What was it?” He asked.
“It was a train, Harelson,” Donald said. “You wandered away from the home at suppertime and walked yourself right onto those tracks just in time for the six oh five heading north to Charleston and-”
“Kablowie!” Jeffie said, bringing his hands together, then he turned his head and buried his face in his mama’s dress.
“That’s right, son. Kablowie. Knocked you plum outta your shoes.”
Harelson looked down at his bare feet and wiggled his toes in the grass. Then he walked over to his grave marker where his own name was chiseled into the stone, and looked at what his wife had left there for him. It was a ribbon made of imitation blue satin. On it read “First Place Monrovia Dance Competition of 1920.”
“Betty,” he said. “I do remember. Betty.
“What now?” He asked, turning back to Donald.
“Now we take a walk.” Elly said. She put an arm around his shoulders and they all began walking back in the direction they’d come.
“What will there be?”
“For you, Harelson, for you I do believe there will be dancing.”