Encore – No. 123

Bret laid his hand on Hanna’s, the warmth of his palm pressing against the fine veins rising out of her flesh. The touch stirred her from a near-doze and Hanna found herself on an auditorium’s velvet seat, her grandson’s gentle voice echoing in her ears. She met the concern in his eyes.

“Hum?”

“It’s almost time, Gran.”

“Time?”

She skimmed across the now oddly fashionable spikes of Bret’s cropped hair, the longstanding worry in his brown eyes, the snug cinch of his tuxedo’s bow tie, and then swept across the audience to the stage. Finding the Master of Ceremony awash in the spotlights, Hanna straightened, the silk of her evening gown hushing against the backrest. Recollection joined the tremble starting in her chest and creeping along her arm where Bret enclosed her fingers.

Upon stage, the MC beamed, the bleach on his teeth radiating like the pressed white shirt beneath his long black tie.

“And now for the last nominee for the night’s final award.”

The lights dimmed and a screen descended amid a swell of violins. Lights flickered in limelight shades, reminding Hanna of the whisky bottles stagehands had once held over flickering lamps. Dots of static swooshed over the stage-wide fabric and the music picked up, accompanying a youthful couple in black and white. They danced from stage right to left and back again in pirouettes, hopped sequences, and simultaneous leaps. The trail of the young woman’s dress rippled and the fellow’s tails snapped with each leg kick and toe turn. When Technicolor brightened the video, the music shifted into tighter measures matching her cloche cap, the beads of the necklaces dangling to her waist, and the snug fit of his cashmere sweater.

Hanna lifted her free hand, the arthritis making her point with all four fingers. “He always looked so handsome in blue.”

“You look beautiful too.”

She shooed Bret quiet, but disentangling her fingers, Hanna slipped her arm through his and leaned against his shoulder. His jaw line crunched her hair-sprayed curls, but her sunken chest warmed as she hummed with the music.

The trumpets crescendoed and they held the last note before fading beneath a rise of applause. On the screen, the youthful features had aged when they took their last bow. Vertical lines flickered and a sepia tone tinged their frozen figures.

The screen darkened and the spotlight circled the MC again. He brought his microphone up to his gaping mouth but closed it as the audience gained their feet, their clapping ricocheting upon the auditorium’s curves. One spotlight left the stage and swept through the standing rows.

Bret leaned down, his mouth by Hanna’s ear and the pearl clip pulling on her lobe. “We need to stand up now, Gran.”

“What?”

Hanna frowned at him before realizing the focus of the surrounding ovation.

Pivoting to the edge of his seat, Bret held out his other hand. Hanna clasped his arm and gained her feet. The spotlight circled her in a fuzzy pool of cloudy white, making the dark blue of her gown pale and its sequins glimmer.

The MC’s voice rode over the applause. “Hanna Wallace of Hanna and Davis.”

Hanna tightened her grasp on Bret’s arm when she released her other hand and raised it in a graceful sweep befitting the younger woman who had appeared on the screen. She swiveled her wrist in a royal wave and her hollowed cheeks bunched in a thin, well-practiced smile. It stayed fixed while the applause died and vanished when she descended onto the velvet cushion. The chair caught her slump while the rest of the audience reclaimed their seats and the MC bantered before introducing the final musical interlude before the announcement.

Fighting for a deep breath, Hanna placed a hand at her chest, her fingers grasping the soft swooped neck of her gown. She didn’t fight Bret when he took her wrist, even though she knew he meant to check her pulse rather than simply provide a comforting touch. Her heartbeat, she imagined, was trivial to find beneath her thin skin.

“Are you feeling all right, Gran?”

“I’m just excited dear.”

She slithered out of his pulse-taking touch and seized his hand instead. Focusing on the stage, Hanna encouraged him to do the same, and watched the growing menagerie from various genera come together with acoustic, electric, and audio enhanced singers beneath strobe lights and a backdrop constructed of bars and fabricated doves.

Bret shook his head. “I can’t make sense of that one.”

“Think of it like a timeline dear, from pre-Pasteur to all those radio and micro waves you use now.”

He shrugged. “I suppose.”

Patting his forearm, Hanna smiled at the additions the choreographers had made to pay tribute to the older generations. They repeated notes of songs she could sing in her sleep and melded them with tunes she caught on the current radio stations.

Once complete, a round of far wearier applause led the red curtain down. From between the folds, the MC returned to the middle of the stage, waggling an envelope like a lure.

The entire auditorium hushed and the tremble worked down Hanna’s body once more.

“This is it, everyone. You’ve endured me for the whole five hours for this moment.”

Flipping the envelope over, the MC faked a fight with the adhesive tab. A tired laugh trickled across the rows but he seemed to catch onto the impatience. After a moment, he unfolded the thick cardstock and inhaled.

Hanna squeezed Bret’s hand and closed her eyes. The montage flashed behind her lids but the picture of Davis in his blue sweater froze, framed in black as if sitting on her mantle with the rest of the photographs rimmed in silver and bronze.

“And the Lifetime Honoree is Hanna and Davis everyone.”

The auditorium clapped with renewed vigor, and with a groan of hinges seemed to rise as one.

Hanna opened her eyes and searched for Bret. “Did he say?”

“He did Gran.”

“That’s us then.”

His smile shone, joining the proud glint watering his eye. “It’s you.”

A quiver shook her from the inside out, and wary of standing, Hanna tended her coiffure with one hand to buy a little time. She failed to find any strands escaping the hairstylists’ aerosol cement while the flutter within her withered body eased. Smoothing her gown, she gripped Bret’s arm and they rose together.

By then the spotlight had found them again. An usher darted down the row, maneuvering those between their seats and the aisle out of the way. Bret motioned at the opening and Hanna kept her hand on his arm as she methodically stepped past inspired generations who continued to clap and grin.

When they reached the aisle, the usher offered his arm as well but Hanna waved him off. She laid both on Bret’s and once she secured herself, they plodded along the sloped red carpet as they had from the limousine. The non-stop applause and the shouts from the balconies buoyed her at the stairs where Hanna placed one foot, then the other atop each tread.

When she reached the stage, however, a lightness slipped into her legs. Beside her, she felt Bret quickening his stride to match her swift glide to where the MC awaited with a crystalline obelisk the length of her arm.

“Congratulations.” His microphone vaulted his voice over the audience who continued clapping even as Hanna accepted the faceted award in one hand.

Although transparent, the weighty trophy nearly plummeted from her clawed grasp. “Oh dear, I can’t—”

Bret swooped in before the crystal tumbled and cradled it at her side. Hanna stroked her fingertips along its flawless surface until the MC interrupted with a cough and offer of his microphone.

Clasping it in both hands, Hanna scanned over the rows of seats. The crowd faded into darkness beyond the rays pouring from the catwalks, but she sensed their gazes, their appreciation, and their adoration as completely as if Davis had spun her out of one of their dance’s last twirl.

Words caught in her throat and suddenly the lone act to perform seemed clear. Taking the microphone in one hand, Hanna lifted the other, her elbow bent, her fingers loose as if Davis cupped them. She circled her right foot around to the heel of her left and pinched her gown’s skirt despite the microphone’s bulk. Dipping into her curtsey, Hanna lowered her head in a bow, her knees bending with a long forgotten elasticity.

The applause lapped over her and she felt Davis’ hand in hers, felt the years drain away, felt the clasp of girdles and pantyhose, and the cramp in her toes from her pinched dancing shoes. Lights swirled and the noise escalated until it filled her ears. The cacophony carried her with it, up into the rafters, where Davis waited, and where Hanna knew her dance card would always be full.

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