This story is by Robert Dyer and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
His hand released hers a beat too early. She looked over, but what Claudia saw couldn’t be real. In a momentary flash, Dexter’s face transformed from the polished smile of the self-assured performer to one that looked quizzical, and then blank. He collapsed and was dead before he hit the stage.
Claudia froze. The audience in Muncie’s Star Theatre gasped as they realized that the act of “Dexter and Claudia” wouldn’t be doing any encores that night. In the middle of their tap routine to “Tea for Two” Claudia became a solo act and a widow.
It was impossible for her to grasp that new reality. He was only 32. There was no way such a dashing, athletic dancer could have a heart attack and die. How often did he joke about vaudeville dying only to have it outlive him? Dexter had plucked her out of her small-town dance studio in Moline, Illinois as a last-minute fill in when his current partner eloped. Just as abruptly as he began their partnership, it was over.
Without him beside her, she wouldn’t take another bow. Claudia hung up her tap shoes and left show business behind her. Any desire to perform was gone. Besides, radio was destroying vaudeville. She contented herself with a new life in California selling hosiery at the May Company department store. It was hardly the same as the applause she loved, but applause without Dexter had no meaning.
On the first anniversary of his death, thoughts of Dexter drifted in and out of her mind all day. She missed his passion for dance and for her. That evening, she had been listening to Jack Benny on the radio when she became aware of the sound she had not heard since that day in Muncie. Tap shoes. Claudia jerked her head so fast at that familiar noise she practically spun it completely around. “Who’s there?” she called out. The only sound that returned to her was the metallic tap of shoes rhythmically hitting the floor.
She rose from her chair and switched off the radio and yet the tapping continued. Clutching at her throat, Claudia moved room by room throughout her rented bungalow. Strangely, the tapping noise never grew any louder or softer no matter where she moved. Even when she went out to the back service porch, the sound continued at the same volume. I must be going mad. I’m all alone! There’s got to be some explanation for this! She dashed back to her chair and covered her ears. Every sound of a single buffalo, shuffle ball, heel step and other tap steps still rang in her head.
Claudia grabbed the phone and her anxious fingers tried to dial. “Please, Mr. Parker,” she begged, “I need you to come over right away. I know Jack Benny is on, but please!” She went out onto the front porch and paced while waiting for the elderly Mr. Parker from next door. While it seemed to take him hours, it was only a few seconds. All the while, the tapping continued.
“What is it, Mrs. Benson? Trouble with a rat again?” he called out as he came through the hedge.
“Don’t you hear it?” she pleaded with him.
He looked at her and cocked his head. “All I hear are the crickets. What should I be hearing?”
Claudia was frantic. “That noise! Surely you can hear it!”
Mr. Parker took a step away from Claudia’s porch steps. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Benson, but I don’t hear nothin’ strange at all. Of course, my hearing ain’t what it used to be.”
The fact that he could hear her plainly and not the tapping made Claudia want to scream. It was pointless to badger him about something that existed only in her head. Before she could come up with a reasonable explanation for her strange behavior, the tapping stopped as suddenly as it started. The only things she could hear were the crickets and her own rapid heartbeat.
She managed a semi-gay laugh and said, “I must have been dreaming something. Just like me to fall asleep listening to the radio. I’m sorry to have bothered you, Mr. Parker.”
Claudia went back inside and collapsed in her chair. It couldn’t have been a dream. I’m wide awake. Dexter, what are doing to me?
She sat in silence waiting for it to come back, but nothing disturbed the quiet. Claudia rose from her chair and went to her closet. When she opened the door, his uniform from the Great War hung before her. She couldn’t stop herself from caressing it. Her fingers traced his corporal stripes and his insignia for the Signal Corps. Of course, she didn’t even know he existed then. His stories of working as a radio man in France and entertaining the troops helped pass the time on long train trips between bookings. Claudia wished she had met him earlier so she could have been his sweetheart waiting at home for him to return.
When she could pull herself away from her memories, Claudia dug around until she found the box. Her hands remained steady as she lifted the lid. Both sets of shoes, hers and his, lay side by side just as their owners once did. There was no flood of emotion. Her cheeks had remained dry ever since she watched him being lowered into the earth.
She sat on the floor and wracked her brain about what she had heard. What bothered her most, besides the sound itself, was the tempo of the tapping. Cradling his shoes, she couldn’t understand why they were so slow. Claudia knew their routines by heart and by sound and not one of them matched that mystical noise. A funeral routine? A dirge tap? Dexter was never morbid. He wouldn’t dream of ever doing a number like that. Whenever he took the stage with her, they radiated life.
Yet she knew it was him.
Taking a deep breath, she grasped her own shoes and, for the first time in a year, slipped them on. At once, she felt a connection to him. Without releasing his shoes, she stood in the small bedroom and tried to mimic the steps she heard. She remembered what he said as he put her through that first routine with just an hour to spare before curtain. “You’re a fast learner. Better than all the others.” With a wink, he added, “And better looking, too.”
She gave him a casual laugh in return. “I think you’ll forget about the others soon enough.”
The recreated taps she performed were odd. Some were slow, some were quick and there were gaps. The same routine, though, had been repeated over and over. He wanted her to learn it. It was just like that night in her hometown when he first taught her. “What do you want, Dexter?” she demanded from the empty room. Again and again, she repeated the performance until she thought she would go mad.
Her eyes fell upon the uniform in the open closet and then the realization came.
Racing to the living room with her tap shoes clattering the whole way, she grabbed the “M” volume from the old set of encyclopedias that came with the furnished bungalow. Claudia took a note pad to the kitchen table and began to tap again as she sat there. Slowly, she transcribed her taps into a series of dots and dashes. The taps became letters as she used the code devised by Morse, and it gave her the answer that had eluded her since he invaded her mind.
Vaudeville isn’t dead here and we’re all headliners. Don’t be in too big of a rush to join me. I can wait. We’ll take a bow together like always.”
Claudia felt his hand in hers once more.