Short Story: The Ghost Waltz


“Dance me, Pop-Pop,” I beg, wrapping my whole hand around just one of his thick, calloused fingers.

“Aren’t you getting too big for this, sweetheart?” he teases, but I know he doesn’t really mean it.

I shake my head, my golden-brown braids whipping back and forth, “Never,” I answer, followed by “Please?” Being winsome has always been a special talent of mine, and as a five-year-old, I’m at my peak.

“Alright,” he says, and he envelops each of my hands in one of his, and helps me balance while I place one of my bare feet on top of each of his sturdy shoes.

I love his shoes. His work shoes, he calls them. I know he has shiny wing-tips for when we go to Sunday brunch at the officers’ club, but his every-day shoes are made of brown leather and have thick soles, and sometimes Grandmom has to remind him not to track dirt all over her clean floor.

(He always answers her with the words “Yes, dear,” half-spoken and half-sung, and she can tell he’s not really listening, and when she swipes at him with a dish towel and scowls at him, we all know she’s really saying “I love you.”)

While we dance, he hums a waltz that is as familiar to me as the way the purple striped cotton sheets feel against my sun-tanned skin when I slide into bed after my bath at night. I don’t know its name.

“You’re my super-special sweetheart,” he tells me, as we sway in circles around the dining room.

“I love you, Grandpop,” I reply.

Hours later, when I’m playing with blocks underneath the baby grand piano, and I stand up too quickly and bang my head, my grandfather is there, gathering me into his arms and drying my tears with a white cotton handkerchief.

He holds me in his lap and hums the waltz, then, too.

* * *

“Dance with me?” I ask.

My grandfather wrinkles his unruly eyebrows. “You don’t want to dance with your old Grandpop,” he protests, but he doesn’t really mean it.

It’s my sweet sixteen, and he’s rented the hall at the officers’ club for my party. My mother and grandmother are across the room, pretending not to watch us, and my father – well, he’s never been part of the equation.

“Yes, I do,” I insist, and I really do mean it.

“Alright,” he agrees and heaves himself out of the captain’s chair he’d claimed hours before. I glimpse the folded newspaper with the crossword puzzle hidden under his empty dinner plate, and I grin, but I don’t betray his secret.

The DJ pauses the endless list of pop songs to play the waltz I’d requested earlier in the night. Apparently it’s a standard tune for father-daughter dances, but I still don’t know the title of the tune.

I don’t ride on my grandfather’s feet any more. Instead, I follow his lead as we swirl in a graceful circle, and I smile when I hear him humming along with the song.

When the music ends, he strokes my hair. “Thank you, sweetheart,” he whispers.

My answer is a gentle kiss to his whiskery cheek, just after I breathe into his ear, “The answer to fifteen down is ‘zephyr.'”

* * *

“Got enough energy for one more dance, Grandpop?” I ask at the party to celebrate my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. He’s danced with Grandmom and my mother, my aunts, and all my cousins, but I want to be last.

“I think I can manage one more,” he says.

The waltz – our waltz – is slow enough that he can manage it, but his steps falter, and I have to take the lead. To his credit, he allows it, and if there’s any sense of indignity, he never lets it show.

When the music stops, he kisses me on the forehead. “You’re my super-special sweetheart,” he says, his voice still strong inside a weakening body.

The old endearment makes me misty, and I bury my face in his lapel. He smells the way he always has: Ivory soap and Aqua Velva, and somehow it seems vitally important that I memorize his scent.

* * *

At his funeral, I watch my mother and my aunts go to the coffin and stroke my grandfather’s silvery hair, but even though the body lying there in state looks like him, his essence has long since left.

I hold my fiancé’s hand so tightly that he loses feeling in it, but he doesn’t complain. Instead, he pries my fingers loose and wraps his arm around me, holding me close and offering me a cloth handkerchief.

Sometimes I think I fell in love with him because of those cloth handkerchiefs. I’m half convinced he and my grandfather are the only men who still use them.

Used, I correct my own thoughts. Used. My fiancé uses hankies, but my grandfather used them.

Back at the house, after, while everyone is exchanging memories and trading stories, I slip away from the group and go into my grandfather’s den. I curl up in his ancient leather chair and fiddle with the photo-cube on his desk.

The invitation to my wedding is pinned to his cork board, along with the photo of my fiancé and me standing in his garden – my proposal had come as the love of my life and I were helping my grandfather pick tomatoes.

The old man had helped set it up – arranging things so I’d find the ring box tucked in against the fragrant vines.

I open the drawer where I know he stashed those tins of hard candies – lemon, usually, but sometimes coffee flavored – and find a wrapped package with my name on it. I know I should wait, but it seems like he wanted me to find it, so I tear the tissue paper apart.

It’s a CD. The track listing has one tune circled in black sharpie, and I don’t even have to put the disc in the player to know it’s our waltz. For the first time, I learn the title, and I have to smile through my tears.

It’s called The Ghost Waltz.

I play it obsessively for the next six days, until I, too, know it well enough to hum every note. Then I pack the disc away until I need it again.

Mom and Grandmom look worried, but my partner understands.

* * *

It’s the night before my wedding and there’s a full moon shining brightly over the officers’ club. The base is closed now, and the facility has been turned into a hotel and event center, but the owners are long-time friends of my family, and they’ve made sure our group is the only one in residence.

My almost-husband is asleep in a bed so tall I have to use a step-stool to climb in it (we’ve been living together for over a year, so sleeping apart seems silly and contrived) and I know I should be sleeping, too, but I can’t get my grandfather’s waltz out of my head.

I’d wanted him to be at my wedding.

I’d wanted him to dance that waltz with me.

I slip into my wedding dress and stare at my reflection in the mirror. I’m in my twenties now, but I swear I still see the echo of five-year-old me in the oval glass.

Maybe it’s the song in my head, or maybe it’s the moonlight, but I leave our suite and padd barefoot down the grand staircase to the main ballroom.

There’s a figure waiting in the center of the parquet dance floor, and my breath catches in my throat, because the perfect posture and slight paunch could only belong to one person.

As I approach, the moon shifts, and the figure solidifies. He’s wearing a tuxedo, but his work shoes are on his feet.

“Dance me, Pop-Pop?” I demand, using the words of my child-self.

His calloused hands wrap around mine, and he helps me balance one of my bare feet on each of his shoes.

We hum the waltz together as he spins me around the room, and when we get to the end, and my feet are on the ground again, he pulls me close for a hug that smells faintly of Aqua Velva and Ivory soap.

“You’re my super-special sweetheart,” he says, his voice rough and ethereal at once.

“Always,” I respond.

The clouds cover the moon and I am left alone in the darkened room, surrounded by bunting in my wedding colors.

I sink to my knees and start to cry, and suddenly I’m in bed and my fiancé is soothing me in hushed tones that turn first to soft caresses and then to kisses, until,  in the first hours of our wedding day, we are making tender love on the soft white sheets.

* * *

Hours later, it’s time for our first dance as a married couple and my husband – my husband – takes the MC’s microphone, and makes an announcement.

“For most of her life,” he says, “my wife had another man in her life: her grandfather. He was her mentor and teacher and best friend. She was his sidekick and student and princess. They shared a song that they used to dance to. Last week, I found a CD on my desk with a track marked in sharpie and a post-it note instructing me to ‘dance to this when you marry her.’ Well, I’ve married her – or more accurately, she’s married me, and now we’re going to dance.”

He returns the mic to its rightful owner and returns to my side. “I love you,” he tells me.

The music starts, and I’m immediately touched and teary, resting my head against my husband’s chest (he smells like cashews and fresh apples) while we dance, and when I start to hum along, he surprised me by doing the same.

What’s the song? You ask.

Isn’t it obvious?

It’s The Ghost Waltz.

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by the song “The Ghost Waltz,” by Fats Kaplin, which I stumbled across quite by accident on Friday night. Play the video below to hear it.