Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

THE CANARY KEEPER

Dinah Cox
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 86, No. 3 (Fall 2012)

In a neat house on the outskirts of Market Town lived a small-time actor, a man whose legendary ability to cry on cue had deserted him. Newspaper reviews from long ago called him ‘‘The Fountain.’’ Nowadays he was dried up, his tear ducts clogged with despair. If the footlights grew dim in the presence of greatness, Charlie admitted with some reluctance his own star burned like a dying ember, a white dwarf, less like Gielgud and Olivier and more like Bozo the Clown. Maybe, on a good day, he reminded people vaguely of Gene Kelly or, when he was really cooking, Chaplin. Still, he wanted people to feel moved, maybe not moved to tears, as he had once been able to pretend, but moved to more than boredom or fatigue or—that terrible sound—folding their programs in their laps.

It was 1987, the year Paul Newman directed Joanne Woodward and John Malkovich in the fourth film version of The Glass Menagerie. Unfortunately, it was also the year of the Teen Wolf sequel and another unremarkable installment in the Jaws series. Fred Astaire died that year, as did Bob Fosse. Charlie hadn’t met either one of them, but he’d grieved—without crying, of course—as if he had. One day in winter, during that bleak, quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s, Charlie left behind his customary morning load of laundry and decided instead to walk downtown for an audition. He put on his best shoes—a pair of loafers given to him by the local stage manager—and rummaged through his dresser drawers until he found a comb. These days, his hair seemed stiff, like the bristles on a paintbrush. At the bottom of an old trunk he found a rusty can of hairspray and made himself stiffer still.

The weather forecast called for temperatures below freezing, but he did not have a car, and the bus routes ran only as far as the movie house on the edge of town. On the long walk to the concert hall, he passed a dying business establishment called Market Town Morning Coffee. Waiting at a crosswalk, he recognized the scent of biscuits baking and decided to stop in.

On his way through the mirrored archway, he bumped into a group of departing customers. A cowbell attached to the top edge of the door would not stop ringing. ‘‘Charlie,’’ a man said. Gripped between his fingers, the man held a dog leash without a dog attached. The man opened his mouth and revealed a row of teeth so straight and white they seemed to hover, to hang in the air like the Chinese lanterns in Charlie’s front yard. The man grabbed Charlie by the shoulders. ‘‘Hey, everybody, do you remember Charlie? ‘Super serious discounts that will scare you to death! Never in the history of haunted houses were prices this Low-low-low!’ Come on, Charlie, do a little Lionel Lightbulb for us, would ya?’’

‘‘I don’t know,’’ Charlie said, and here he made a point of breathing through his nose—better to avoid wandering germs. He took a step back from the pastry-filled crowd. Approaching Charlie with a wild stare, the man twirled and swung his dog leash, the metal end meeting Charlie’s kneecap with a thunk.

‘‘Aw, come on,’’ the man said, his voice overtaking the bakery’s cavernous warmth. ‘‘ ‘When things go bump in the night, light up YOUR living room with fantastic fixtures from the South of France!’ ’’
Charlie laughed and shook the man’s hand. ‘‘Those were the good old days, weren’t they?’’

Charlie did not like to lie—the truth was, his tenure as television spokesman for Remarkable Lamps had been the lowest point in his professional career—but he believed in making at least tentative stabs toward polite public behavior. The man tugged on Charlie’s overcoat and invited him to sit down at the front counter. Charlie agreed.
When a waitress brought out a steaming tray from the kitchen, the man finally loosened his grip on the dog leash, took the largest biscuit, and shoved several buttery folds into his mouth. The man chewed and swallowed, his lips long and elastic, like a dolphin’s. Charlie did not like to eat in front of other people, so he just watched. After smearing jelly on the edge of a knife, the man told Charlie he worked as a floral arranger in downtown Market Town. The man did not look like a floral arranger—more like an insurance salesman or real estate agent—but Charlie, never one to doubt the good word of a fellow citizen, believed what the man said.

‘‘You remember me, dontcha?’’ the man said. ‘‘The Whittakers’ Summer Solstice party? I must have planted a thousand tulips in their yard that winter.’’

‘‘Of course I remember you,’’ Charlie lied. ‘‘The tulips were beautiful.’’

‘‘Are beautiful,’’ the man said. Strange, Charlie thought, in the middle of winter. The man took another biscuit and continued, ‘You wanna know the truth, Charlie? I’m not happy. All those years making wedding bouquets and where does it get you? Nowheresville, that’s where. Market Town.’’

Charlie believed this line of conversation more appropriate for a tavern or nightclub than a broken down old coffee shop, but he tried to look serious while the man continued his sad tale.

‘‘You know, I can’t even get the garbage men to pick up my trash? You know, the mayor flew the goddamned Canadian flag on the City Hall flagpole last year on the Fourth of July? It’s true. Nothing has been the same here since the days of luxurious home furnishings, the days of the best discounts in the galaxy, the remarkable
riches of Remarkable Lamps.’’

Charlie considered what the man had to say. Sure, Market Town suffered from economic malaise. Before its headquarters burned down, Remarkable Lamps had employed a good 8 percent of the city’s population. But Charlie did not care for boomtown success stories. Storytelling itself seemed stale, useless in a world where Michael Douglas in Wall Street said, in that hard, steely voice meant to frighten his underlings, greed is good. Not that he could stand what passed for cinematic innovation these days. The last time Charlie had gone to the movies—alone—he’d fallen asleep, his spilled popcorn and the low hum from the custodian’s vacuum cleaner his only consolation after the closing credits were over. The custodian had tried to engage Charlie in pleasant-enough conversation—something like ‘‘good movie, huh?’’—but Charlie had not cared to talk to him. More and more, Charlie did not care for the company of other humans at all, instead preferring the whistles of his canary and the melodies erupting from his state-of-the-art stereo system. Market Town seemed so depressing, in fact, that Charlie rarely left his neat cottage on the outskirts of town.

‘‘Nice meeting you again,’’ Charlie said. No longer hungry, he found himself feeling eager for the man’s departure. Both hands on the counter, he pushed the dog leash toward the man and looked out the window for some sign of a Saint Bernard or spaniel waiting for his owner to take him home. Oh, to be home again, Charlie thought. At home, he could monitor the progress of the spin cycle without interruption. He could make sure the newspaper in the bottom of the canary’s cage was always clean. Did he change the newspaper a bit too often? Perhaps. If the canary so much as spilled a hemp seed from the shallow confines of his coop cup, Charlie made sure to stand at attention, armed with a trash bag and hand-held vacuum cleaner, always available to serve the needs of others. He told himself he did not mind the mess—really, he possessed all the qualities of an easy-going, relaxed sort of fellow—he just wanted the canary to be comfortable; that was all. Here at Market Town Morning Coffee, he could not be sure everything at home was proceeding as it should. He felt guilty for leaving the canary alone.

‘‘Aw, come on, Charlie,’’ the floral arranger said. ‘‘Just a couple of lines from my favorite commercial,’’—and here the man adopted a booming monotone bass—‘‘The Legend of the Ceiling Fan Space Odyssey.’’

‘‘Another time,’’ Charlie said, and the man’s face fell.

‘‘Just another disappointment,’’ the man said. ‘‘No one knows how to have fun these days. You remember when everyone had a fondue set? You remember that, Charlie? Chocolate fondue.’’

Doubtless the man knew what he was talking about. Charlie could not remember the last time he had enjoyed a real night on the town, a genuine red carpet affair. Instead, he slowly found himself losing his wits, afraid of the oncoming traffic as he stood watching from his kitchen window. The rumbling monster-cars frightened him the most. Everyone in Market Town seemed to drive a red or black truck. Everywhere he went the red and black trucks seemed to follow him. Okay, so maybe the drivers of the red and black trucks possessed little actual interest in him, Charlie, unknown local celebrity whose face resembled a pockmarked potato, small-time actor whose legendary ability to cry on cue had deserted him long ago. The Fountain, indeed.

But Charlie worried nonetheless. Lately he found himself preoccupied with perpetual dread. Fear of infection, for example, led him to use squares of toilet paper to touch the doorknobs in his own house. Worse, he always felt nervous about the consequences of his own negligence: the canary cage door left ajar, his best white shirts accidentally laundered in hot water. Of course, he always remembered to close the door on his canary’s cage, and horrors, he never used hot water, not even for bed linens, but still, he found himself checking both the cage door’s latch and the washing machine’s dial three and sometimes four times a day. He wanted to stop starring in these daily dramas of temporary insanity, but try as he might, he could not.

Indecision and other mistakes had kept Charlie a lifelong bachelor. Years of unemployment left him with little choice but to live off his savings, a nice, but rapidly dwindling nest egg earned doing laborious freelance work writing and editing assembly manuals for a bird cage company in Young America, Ohio. He also made money from the occasional gig doing voiceovers at the Market Town public radio station. More successful family members, led by the proclamations of Charlie’s younger brother Frank, attributed Charlie’s fears to the usual set of limitations associated with middle age and boredom. The rest of Charlie’s theatrical cronies agreed with Charlie’s overconfident siblings. They suggested Charlie start doing volunteer work, maybe take up a position as a delivery man for Meals On Wheels. When Charlie pointed out he did not have a car—Meals Without Wheels?—his theatrical cronies, those morons who possessed all the sympathy of rotting holiday fruit baskets, climbed into their red and black trucks and drove away to their office jobs in the middle of Market Town. Well, all right. Charlie would show them. Today’s audition would make him the star of the show.

At long last, the dog leash man rose from his stool and joined another group of customers beneath a dusty display of fishing rods and reels. Again, Charlie could not spot a waiting dog. He allowed himself a brief moment of relief, paid for the man’s plate of biscuits, and walked back out into the cold.

By the time he reached the concert hall, Charlie’s fingers were numb. In the auditorium, Charlie’s brother Frank, local playwright and director, fiddled with a complicated series of light switches on the back wall. A reluctant stage manager pushed a broom across the stage while a couple of painters splattered a muddy brown wash on a flat in the corner.

‘‘Come in, Charlie,’’ Frank said. ‘‘You’re early.’’

‘‘A pleasure, Mr. Mahoney,’’ Charlie said.

Frank, though fifteen years Charlie’s junior, insisted that everyone, including Charlie, address him with some formality. Addressing Frankie in this manner always felt strange—Mr. Mahoney was his name too—but while in the presence of Frank’s crew, Charlie tried to respect his brother’s wishes. With terrific height and a receding hairline, Frank had always been the more popular brother, but Charlie consoled himself with the knowledge that he was the more unpredictable of the two, not the black sheep exactly, but the reluctant comedian, the friend to animals and unexpected champion of lonely children and friends in need of favors. Frank, though, fancied himself an artist, and it showed.

Charlie watched as the lights on stage dimmed and then brightened, dimmed and brightened again. Mrs. Whittaker let the broom’s long handle fall to the floor. The noise startled Charlie.

‘‘I’m leaving,’’ Mrs. Whittaker said. ‘‘Someone else can finish this.’’

Mrs. Whittaker performed all the duties of set designer and stage manager but not without the occasional complaint. She and her husband, married for decades and fond of frequent trips to Vegas, kept to themselves and did not make friends easily. Their parties to greet the changing of the seasons boosted their reputation and invited admirers, but Mrs. Whittaker in particular had discriminating tastes; she chose her confidantes with care. Over the years, she had developed a slight preference for Charlie over Frank—perhaps owing to Charlie’s having helped her hang Christmas lights a time or two—but both brothers carried with them the knowledge her allegiance could shift again at any moment. Charlie watched as the still-agile Mrs. Whittaker skipped off to the greenroom to make coffee. Pacing the floor, Frank made her promise to return in time for the auditions. Charlie looked around for some source of warmth, a heating vent or a radiator rusted to the wall. To his surprise he found a fireplace in the auditorium’s back corner, but, like everything else in Market Town, like everything else in the world, the fireplace was a fake, a decayed Styrofoam decoy left over from last year’s production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Frank brought Charlie a copy of the script, a bound set of computer-generated pages enclosed in a red plastic folder. The play, as it turned out, was called The Canary Keeper, a biography of sorts, Frank said, though not in the tradition of realism. His latest creation, Frank explained as the brothers sat down in the auditorium’s front row, would make use of rectangular blocks in lieu of actual furniture. The lighting design would offer stark simplicity, and the costume designer would outfit most of the cast members in turtlenecks of various somber hues.

‘‘It’s one of those plays, then,’’ Charlie said, opening the script’s front cover.

Frank closed his eyes, just for a second, his look of deliberate restraint. Charlie was familiar with Frank’s quiet rage. Frank’s fluttering eyelids were meant to suggest he was doing you a favor by refusing to raise his voice, by steadying the cadence of his reply, the stiff syllables like the slow ticking of a clock.

‘‘This is not one of those plays,’’ Frank said. ‘‘Whatever that’s supposed to mean.’’

‘‘It is too,’’ Charlie said, feeling warm for the first time that morning. ‘‘It’s one of those body-as-vessel things. Aluminum foil headbands and yoga marathons and loose-limbed actors in a race to see who can go the slowest. And I’m supposed to be some great sage, some brooding man behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz.’’

‘‘You’re the canary keeper.’’

‘‘That’s exactly what I know,’’ Charlie said. He could feel saliva collecting in the corners of his mouth. ‘‘This isn’t a real role. This is a charity offering for poor old Charlie.’’

Frank rose from his front row seat and made a move to tuck in his shirt.

‘‘It’s already tucked in,’’ Charlie said. ‘‘Just like a Mahoney. You know, the Mahoneys: they mow their lawn in the winter. They polish their dining room table before and after every meal. They tuck in their shirts when they’re already tucked in. There’s a broom over there, Frank, maybe you should do some sweeping.’’

‘‘Maybe I will.’’

‘‘Wait,’’ Charlie said. ‘‘Why use a broom when you can be the broom? Visualize yourself floating across the floor. Move your arms in the manner of wheat whipping across the prairie. Feeeeel the energy flowing through your entire body.’’

‘‘I don’t talk like that and you know it.’’

‘‘I’ll bet the canary keeper talks like that,’’ Charlie said, turning the pages in a furious rush. ‘‘I’ll bet the canary keeper is a kindly but daft gentleman from the old country, an emaciated, shuffling fool who smokes a pipe and wears a ratty bathrobe. Oh, wait, I forgot: an emaciated, shuffling fool who smokes a pipe and wears a goddamned turtleneck.’’

‘‘It’s a metaphor,’’ Frank said.

‘‘Of course,’’ said Charlie.

Frank picked up the push broom and began to sweep. For a long time they did not speak, the concert hall’s excellent acoustics broadcasting nothing but the long, low swish of Frank’s broom bristles against the floor of the stage. Charlie closed the front cover of the script and watched while Frank deposited collections of dust and paint chips into a growing pile. He swept harder now, his arms in the robotic rotation of perpetual scrub and scour. Charlie suddenly flashed on a frequent occurrence of his teenage years in Market Town: baby Frankie toddling off the edge of their front porch, a feather duster in one hand and a toilet brush in the other. Slowly, Charlie’s anger began to soften. He stood up and looked around for a dustpan.

‘‘Did you see the last act?’’ Frank said, without looking up from his broom. ‘‘The big finale? The last scene. The canary keeper. He cries.’’

Charlie counted the days until ‘‘The Fountain’’ would make his glorious return to the Market Town Public Theater. In the old days, audience members applauded wildly for the curtain calls of King Lear, Oedipus Rex, Captain Hook, and Willy Loman. In each and every role he had not just cried but erupted in great rivers of overflowing grief, like the wails of Hades at the untimely death of Cerberus, the three-headed dog. Many years had gone by since the last time the stage floor had been wet with his tears.

When he read the script in its entirety, Charlie realized he was not actually the star of the show. The canary keeper had only three lines in the entire play, not counting the big boohoo bonanza right before the curtain went down. Each morning after putting the clothes into the dryer, Charlie warmed up his voice with a couple of tongue twisters, sat cross-legged in the space between his sofa and coffee table, and repeated each bit of dialogue with careful precision.

‘‘Got a stick of gum?’’

‘‘Got a stick of gum?’’

‘‘Got a stick of gum?’’

The original line, the way Frank had written it months ago, called for the canary keeper to say, ‘‘Got a cigarette,’’ but Frank, flush with self-congratulation from a recent, unsolicited donation to the American Lung Association, changed the line at the show’s first rehearsal. Charlie resented the change, but a secret desire to make Frank look stupid made him agree to the sanitized version. The canary keeper’s next line came in reply to a character named Julia Loon, the requisite crippled ingénue.

Canary Keeper: Got a stick of gum?

Julia Loon: Here kitty-kitty.

Canary Keeper: I’m afraid I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. Attention all canaries of Market Town: a cat is on the loose.

Julia Loon: Here kitty-kitty.

Canary Keeper: Run for your lives.

At this point, the canary keeper exits stage right where he remains backstage until the big finale, a spectacular display of theatrical magic wherein hundreds of otherwise invisible light bulbs simultaneously illuminate the dark corners of the stage. Remarkable Lamps makes a comeback, Market Town recovers, the mayor breaks out the American flag, Julia Loon reconciles herself to her cat’s death in a house fire, the canary keeper cries. Applause,
flowers, end of story. Charlie found the plot ridiculous and the symbolism heavy-handed. Still, he knew Frank’s new play would be a hit: the people of Market Town, thrilled to see themselves depicted on stage, would pack the place with their mindless enthusiasm.

In the meantime, Mrs. Whittaker came to Charlie’s house on Wednesday afternoons to give Charlie crying lessons.

‘‘You’re going to have to fake it,’’ she said. ‘‘People do it all the time.’’

‘‘Impossible,’’ Charlie said. ‘‘The Fountain never fakes.’’

‘‘Sit down,’’ she said, ushering Charlie into a stuffed chair in the center of the living room. ‘‘Think about the past. Think about . . . a set of china plates, broken. Think about disease, think about drought, think about the door on your canary’s cage, open. The canary flies to his death.’’

‘‘It’s too much,’’ Charlie said. ‘‘It’s too much to think about.’’

Later on, after tea and biscuits and Charlie’s momentary departure to perform some routine household maintenance in the other room, Mrs. Whittaker fired up the Betamax and played tapes of famous and not-so-famous dramatic displays of despair: Richard Burton, Anne Bancroft, episodes from television programs Charlie hadn’t thought about in years, Lloyd Bridges on Sea Hunt, a girl going blind on Little House on the Prairie.

‘‘You see,’’ she said, ‘‘A crinkle of the nose makes all the difference.’’

‘‘I’ve tried that,’’ Charlie said. ‘‘Gives me a tickle.’’

‘‘Here’s something,’’ she said, gathering a stack of newspapers from the polished brass box positioned in between the canary’s cage and the immaculate wall of Charlie’s kitchen. ‘‘Obituaries.’’

‘‘Everyone I know is dead,’’ Charlie said. Surely Mrs. Whittaker understood the dreariness of the so-called golden years, the long list of obligatory funerals, the surprisingly high number of high school classmates already dead and gone.

‘‘Not that, stupid,’’ she said, taking a newspaper from the middle of the stack. ‘‘Strangers. Or acquaintances. People you barely know. Let’s just see what happens.’’

‘‘Fine,’’ Charlie said. Taking his place at the head of the kitchen table, he looked at Mrs. Whittaker and said, ‘‘read.’’

‘‘Here’s one,’’ she said. ‘‘You’ve even heard of him. Joseph Fanning?’’

‘‘Doesn’t ring a bell.’’

‘‘Oh sure, you knew Joseph Fanning. He died last week. A shame, too, since he won’t be around to see the tulips blooming at this year’s summer solstice party.’’

Charlie felt a sudden hardness in his chest, a mixture of panic and dread he kept reserved for the most serious occasions. He knew before she finished reading that Mrs. Whittaker was talking about the dog leash man, the man with the dolphin lips, the man from Market Town Morning Coffee on the day of his audition for The Canary Keeper. The man had died and Charlie felt responsible.

She continued reading from the obituary. ‘‘He is survived by two daughters, of Oklahoma City, and a beloved dog, of the home.’’

‘‘A dog?’’ Charlie said, suddenly choked with despair. ‘‘This is all my fault.’’

‘‘Don’t be ridiculous,’’ Mrs. Whittaker said. ‘‘Not everything in this world is your fault. You just wish it was.’’

Perhaps the man had suffered from the effects of cancer or heart disease or some other incurable malady, but Charlie felt confident the depth of human understanding could have prolonged Joseph Fanning’s short and miserable life, or, failing a miracle of manly connection, Charlie at least could have brightened Joseph Fanning’s
final days with some lines recited from A Ceiling Fan Space Odyssey. What Charlie felt was not grief but self-loathing, the troubling realization his own stubborn melancholy had spread sickness to the soul of another human being.

‘‘I think it’s coming,’’ he said to Mrs. Whittaker. ‘‘I think I feel like crying.’’

‘‘I should have known something so inconsequential eventually would do the trick,’’ she said. ‘‘All right, Charlie. Let ’er rip.’’

Horrified at Mrs. Whittaker’s lack of compassion, Charlie grabbed the newspaper from her unsteady grip. Inconsequential? Had Joseph Fanning’s life been so meaningless as all that? What about all the wedding bouquets Joseph Fanning had assembled for the blushing brides of Market Town? The rosebuds? The baby’s breath? What about the now ownerless dog, alone and shivering on a street corner in Market Town’s worst neighborhood?

‘‘What’s the matter, Charlie?’’ Mrs. Whittaker said. ‘‘What, are you going to cry?’’

She was cruel, that was all; he should have known she was just like the others.

‘‘You’re heartless,’’ he said, and when the first, fat tear came rolling down his cheek, he knew he had no choice but to ask her to leave.

‘‘Get out,’’ he said.

He watched as she fished an embroidered handkerchief from the depths of her capacious purse. He thought at first she would offer it to him, but she did not. She folded it into thirds, began the act of returning it to her purse, and started for the door. Just before her hand touched the doorknob, she turned with sudden grace and dropped the handkerchief on the coffee table. ‘‘For later,’’ she said. ‘‘In case you need to polish something.’’
‘‘Thursday is my polishing day,’’ he said, and she was gone.

The show opened, and Mrs. Whittaker forgave him. After the curtain came down, the lobby of the theater shone underneath the twinkling of hundreds of tiny, motorized Remarkable Lamps. Charlie felt an uncommon ease with himself and his surroundings, a stark relief at least in part due to his regaining his status as Mrs. Whittaker’s favorite Mahoney brother. Frank, radiant with the glow of good reviews, showered everyone with gifts.

‘‘A canary for the canary keeper,’’ he said, presenting Charlie with a cage covered in silk. ‘‘Now you have two.’’

‘‘I’m glad you bought a second cage,’’ Charlie said. ‘‘Put two birds in one cage and, forget about it, they fall in love. Never again do they pay a bit of attention to their human companions.’’

‘‘That’s twice the vacuuming,’’ Mrs. Whittaker said. She looked beautiful sipping champagne from a flute. ‘‘You’re causing him a problem, Frankie.’’

‘‘No problem,’’ Charlie said. ‘‘I just bought new filter-bags on sale.’’

He turned to order another drink—tonight he would tip well. As an afterthought, he pulled Mrs. Whittaker’s handkerchief from his pocket and placed it on the bar as if it were a talisman, an offering to the gods. She looked at the handkerchief and then at Charlie.

‘‘Did you use it?’’ she said.

‘‘It smelled of your perfume—’’

‘‘But you used it—’’

‘‘I’m afraid so. I should have had it laundered. Or laundered it myself.’’

‘‘No, it’s better this way,’’ she said, and her voice was like sunlight on a wooden floor. ‘‘Rewards of my labor.’’

A piano player took his seat behind the baby grand and Charlie paid the bartender with a hundred dollar bill. True, Frank’s new play had caused Charlie his share of difficulties: the dullness of rehearsing and performing only three lines had magnified the dullness inside Charlie’s neat cottage on the outskirts of Market Town. Every day he checked the temperature control dial on his washing machine—got a stick of gum, got a stick of gum somewhere between three and six times. The latch on the canary cage door remained closed, though Charlie pressed the ‘‘lock’’ button—a cat is on the loose, a cat is on the loose—as often as he deemed necessary. But the play was a success, and he was proud of Frankie. He considered asking Mrs. Whittaker for a dance but thought better of it. Instead, he turned to her and confessed a fear of falling, an irrational inclination he could not explain with any real precision.

‘‘It’s strange,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s like the floor is rushing toward my face.’’

‘‘Don’t spill,’’ she said, reaching to save Charlie’s bourbon glass from the wild swing of his wrist.

But she was too late, and the bourbon made a dark stain on the lobby’s plush, white carpet.

‘‘It’s all right,’’ Charlie said, covering the stain with his shoe. ‘‘The two of us will be the only ones who know.’’

Charlie began to sway to the music and Mrs. Whittaker leaned her head against his shoulder, the usual stiffness in her body seeming to float away toward the ceiling. For a moment, he thought of the old days, of fondue sets and rotary telephones, dinner parties and drinks named after classy Hollywood stars. Nostalgia, though, was a killer. And the outlook for the future wasn’t much better. But he took Mrs. Whittaker’s hand in his own and closed his fingers around her languid touch. The two were not good dancers, not even close. They swayed to the offbeats, hummed along with the music in a mutual, atonal whine, and, worst of all, stepped on one another’s feet. Still, the lobby lights dimmed, the drinks poured freely, and Charlie closed his eyes against the whole world wrapped in song.