The Melody Lingers On


By Herschel Cozine



I

Whenever Paul heard "Theme From Moulin Rouge" he thought of her. It's funny how a song can affect one, years later, evoking an earlier time. Long ago sights and sounds come flooding back, and all the emotions are released. With a little imagination, one could almost return to that day. Almost.

It was 1954. The Harvest Ball was the first social event of the year at the small two-year college in Northern California. The gymnasium had been transformed into a ballroom. The Harvest Ball was one of the few events the coeds were allowed to attend without an escort. There were stricter codes then. Most of the guys went alone as well, hoping to meet someone at the dance. Paul, being new to the school, had no one to take.

She was standing apart from the main crowd, talking to another coed. It was her smile more than anything that attracted him. He crossed the small dance floor and asked her to dance. She accepted with just the right amount of reticence. The local disc jockey providing the dance music started playing "Moulin Rouge," the perfect music for his kind of dancing.

She felt good in his arms. And she danced with an easy movement that made Paul's clumsiness seem almost graceful.

"What's your name?" Paul asked.

"Lacey," she said. She gave a quizzical frown. "And I'm betting you have a name, too."

"Paul," he laughed.

They said little to each other. But it was a comfortable silence. The scent of her perfume, the softness of her hand in his, the touch of her hair as it brushed across his face, were exciting, almost intoxicating..

The dance ended too soon. He thanked her and returned her to her friend.

He danced with Lacey twice more that night; once to Doris Day singing "It's Magic," and again to Nat King Cole's "Somewhere Along The Way." He had planned to dance with her again, but when the traditional "Goodnight Sweetheart" started to play, she was dancing with someone else. It was a breach of etiquette to cut in on the last dance, so he left before it was through.

The student union, a small room with a few tables, a snack bar and jukebox, was the gathering place for students. Paul went there every day, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays he saw Lacey.

He didn't know why he was drawn to her. It wasn't her beauty. She was, after all, not beautiful. Pretty, yes. Very much so. Her warm open smile was engaging, and her eyes revealed an inner beauty that made him want to know her better. She had so many good qualities that made her stand out from the rest of the coeds. Paul called it "class," an indefinable quality that could not be taught. One was born with it, and Lacey had it.

He eventually worked up enough courage to ask her on a date. Sitting at the table in the Student Union, he stirred sugar into his coffee, looking sideways at Lacey.

"Big game tomorrow night. Would you like to go?"

"I'd love to," she said quickly. Her answer sent a glow of warmth through him. He wanted to stand up and shout. Instead he glanced at his watch, picked up his books and started for the door.

"Good. I'll pick you up at six. OK?"

"Do you know where I live?" she asked.

"Yes," he said, then, realizing what he had said, he grinned self-consciously. She had never told him. He had found out from a friend and had driven by her house several times.

"I've been doing some research," he said.

Her eyes twinkled and she blushed. The soft redness on her cheeks made her glow and Paul resisted the impulse to take her in his arms. He strode through the door and headed for his next class. He hardly heard the lecture, and was the first one out of the classroom when the bell rang.

Paul spent Friday afternoon washing and cleaning the car.

Lacey met him at the door dressed in slacks and a pullover sweater. Her eyes peeked out from under a woolen hat and gave her a gamin like appearance that made him smile.

The other team won the game, but Paul didn't mind. The school team was at the bottom of the league anyway. And with Lacey sitting next to him, sharing a blanket, he was happy. After the game they went to the drive-in for hamburgers.

Lacey lived in a town a few miles away from the school. At the door she turned to him.

"Thank you for taking me," she said. "I had a nice time."

"Me, too," Paul said. He didn't try to kiss her. He had learned from past experience not to rush things.

"Maybe we could see each other again?" he said.

"I'd like that."

Paul drove home in a haze.

On their second date they saw "Marty" at the local movie house, followed by another trip to the drive-in. Again he drove her home and walked with her to the front door. She put her hand on his arm and looked at him with inviting eyes.

"It was fun," she said. "Thank you for everything."

She lifted her face, a slight smile on her lips. Paul leaned down and kissed her. Her lips were soft and warm on his. It was the sweetest kiss he had ever had, filled with promise and affection. He walked on air all the way back to his car. He was falling in love with her, he knew that. He felt silly admitting it. After all, they had only had two dates. It was much too early to fall in love. But, he thought, if he were honest with himself he would have to admit that he had fallen in love with her at the dance. Love at first sight. That was for romance stories, not real life. Still, he couldn't help feeling the way he did. And why not? Lacey was special.

They started dating regularly. Picnics, trips to the beach, movies, dances. By the end of the school year he was hopelessly in love.

It was during a summer outing at the beach when he told her how he felt. And, as he expected, it came as no surprise to her.

"I love you, Lacey," he said.

"I know," she said. "I'm flattered." She kissed him playfully on the nose.

She didn't tell him that she loved him as well. That would come in time, he hoped. For now he had to be patient. He was going to marry her someday, and in fact almost proposed to her right then. But he was afraid she would turn him down. Better to wait until fall when they were back in school.

Then Lance came along. He was everything that Paul was not: tall, well-built, with a self-effacing manner that disarmed people. He made his first move on Lacey at a Wednesday night dance in the gymnasium, cutting in on Paul as Patti Page warbled "Tennessee Waltz." Paul watched them dance with an uneasy premonition. The feeling persisted for the rest of the evening, and despite Lacey's protestations, Paul knew that she was growing out of their relationship.

They broke up shortly after. Lacey was gentle but firm. Paul tried to be gracious.

"I love you, Lacey. I don't want to lose you."

"Oh, Paul," she said. "This is so hard for me. You are so sweet and kind and loving. I don't want to hurt you. But it's over. You don't know how much that hurts me to say."

"Is this what you want, Lacey? Is this what you really want?"

"Yes."

Paul looked away, trying to hide the tears that filled his eyes. "Then I have no choice."

Lacey was crying, too. "Please, Paul. Please believe me when I tell you that I am so thankful we had our time together I'll never forget you."

"Oh, Lacey," he said. "I love you so much."

"I wish you didn't. It would make this so much easier for both of us."

She hugged him, kissed him quickly, and walked away. Paul watched her with an ache in his heart that left him weak. Lacey, the love of his life, his reason for living, was gone. It was almost more than he could bear. Her retreating form faded in the flood of his tears.

That night he got drunk for the first time in his life.

The rest of the school year was difficult. He saw Lacey almost every day. She was usually with Lance. They seemed the ideal couple. Paul avoided them. It would be too painful to stand next to her and not be able to have her. He considered dropping out of school, but decided against it. He tried getting on with his life. He dated other girls, but none of them lit the fire that Lacey had. The relationships never lasted more than a few dates.

At graduation, Paul said goodbye to Lacey. It was the first time he had spoken to her since the breakup. "Have a good life, Lacey. I'll always be grateful for our times together."

"Me too," she said. "We had fun, didn't we?" She patted his arm affectionately. He covered her hand with his own, smiled down at her and walked away.

Then, pulling Lance aside, Paul said.

"Treat her right. If you do anything to hurt her I'll come after you. That's a promise."

Lance smiled a condescending smile. "Sure, pal. No hard feelings." He gave Paul a patronizing pat on the back and went back to Lacey.

The wedding invitation came in the mail in late August. Lacey Mills and Lance Matthews were to be married in October. Paul read the invitation with a sense of irony. It would be two years to the day from his first meeting with Lacey. He sent a card and a gift. He didn't attend the wedding.

Paul's marriage to Kelly was a mistake. It wasn't Kelly's fault. She was a lovely woman, and a devoted wife. But the ghost of Lacey was too strong. They were divorced three years later. Lacey had been his first love, and, foolish as it was, he held on to the memory of her with an intensity that made it impossible to love another. He would never remarry.

June, 1976. The class of '56 was having their 20th year class reunion. Paul read the invitation thoughtfully. It didn't seem possible that it had been twenty years since he graduated. He filled out the registration form, wrote a check and dropped it in the mail. It would be nice to see some of the gang again. He didn't know if Lacey would be attending. But there were others he would like to see as well. Hank and George and Billy and Mike — guys who he had hung around with. He had lost touch with them all.

Paul decided to make a vacation out of the trip. He packed his golf clubs, his fishing gear and his handgun, hoping to get in some target practice along with fishing and golfing. He threw a suitcase in the trunk and started out on the ten hour drive to the reunion.

Driving up the winding road to the campus gave Paul an eerie feeling. The road belonged to another time. He felt like an intruder. He parked his car in a parking slot he had used often in the past and walked up the brick steps into the gymnasium. The basketball backboards were pulled up and decorated with orange and black — the school colors. A big sign covered the far wall: "WELCOME CLASS OF '56." Paul handed his ticket to a young man at the door and checked his coat. Looking around the room, he saw familiar faces, some of which he could put a name to. Sandy and Fred. Laurie. But most of them — at one time students who had shared classes with him — were strangers.

Then he saw her. She was sitting near the back at a candlelit table. He drew his breath in sharply. She was as lovely as the first time he saw her. A different hairstyle, of course. And a more mature dress. But she hadn't changed.

He worked his way across the dance floor and stopped at her table. "Hello, Lacey," he said.

She looked up and put a hand to her mouth. "Paul!" She stood up and hugged him. "Oh, Paul. How wonderful to see you." She stepped back and straightened her dress, looking furtively around the room. Paul studied her face. Mingled with the softness and beauty he had come to love was a sense of melancholy. In a strange way it made her more beautiful than ever.

"You look gorgeous," he said. "Simply devastating." He laughed as he said it, remembering how often he had told her that in the past. It had come to be a joke between them. She laughed nervously and sat down. Motioning for Paul to join her, she said. "Lance is getting drinks. He'll be right back."

"And how is he?" Paul asked.

She dropped her eyes. "Fine. Fine," she said.

Paul reached over and put both of his hands on hers. "Lacey. I was hoping you would be here." He searched her face. She was looking over his shoulder. Her eyes suddenly grew wide with a hint of panic. She pulled her hands from Paul's and sat up straight.

Paul turned to see Lance approaching, drinks in hand, a slight scowl on his face. He had a paunch, and his face was full. The sprightly bounce in his walk had dissolved into a shuffle. Paul rose to greet him. "How are you, Lance?"

Lance grunted, then his face relaxed. "Hiya, Paul," he said. He set a drink in front of Lacey and sat down next to her. "Sorry I didn't bring you a drink, pal. I didn't know you were here." He cast a meaningful glance in Lacey's direction. She laughed nervously.

"No problem," Paul said. "I'll get my own. Be right back."

"No," Lance said, standing again. "Let me do the honors while you put the moves on my wife." He laughed at his joke. But it was a laugh without humor. "What are you drinking?"

Paul started to protest, but Lance held up a hand. "I insist."

Paul shrugged. "I'll have a screwdriver," he said.

Lance shook his head in silent disapproval of Paul's taste and headed back to the bar. Paul watched him work his way through the crowd, then turned his attention back to Lacey.

"So," he said, looking around the gym. "This setting sure brings back some great memories."

Lacey nodded her head in agreement.

"In fact," Paul went on. "We're sitting in almost the exact spot you were standing when I asked you to dance. Remember?"

Lacey nodded again, but her face was troubled.

"What is it, Lacey?" Paul said. "Did I say something wrong?"

Lacey shook her head. "No, Paul. It's not you."

"What, then?" Paul asked.

Lacey looked at her hands, gave a nervous shrug of her shoulders and lifted her eyes to meet Paul's.

"It's just that...well, I'm not comfortable being alone with you."

"Alone?" Paul's hands swept the room. "There must be 300 people here."

Lacey smiled. "I know. But Lance is extremely jealous — particularly of you."

"Me?" Paul laughed at the thought. "Shouldn't it be the other way around? He's the one you're married to."

Lacey nodded. "It's not rational," she said. "Jealousy seldom is." She sat up straight. "Forget it."

"Does he get violent?" Paul asked.

Lacey looked at her lap again. She didn't answer the question directly. "It's not important, Paul. I just wanted you to know that if I appear a little distant it's because I don't want to upset Lance."

Paul studied Lacey for a long moment, then sat back. "OK, Lacey. But if I..." he broke off as Lance returned carrying a drink. Lance placed it in front of Paul, sat down next to Lacey and patted her on the knee.

"Well," he said, nodding to Paul. "What do you think of the old girl?"

"You both look great," Paul answered.

Lance threw his head back and laughed. "Both? That's a good one, Paul." He patted his paunch and laughed again.

A tense silence followed. Lacey was clearly uncomfortable. Lance was outwardly affable, but Paul sensed a hostility in his voice. There were a few attempts at conversation, all ending awkwardly. When some old friends of Lance came to the table, Paul excused himself.

He danced a couple of dances with Irene, one of his brief flings after breaking up with Lacey. But his heart wasn't in it. It was well before midnight when he sought out Lacey and Lance and said his good-byes.

"Hey, pal," Lance said. "The night is young."

"A lot younger than I am," Paul said. "It was good to see you again." He took Lance's hand and shook it. He hugged Lacey — briefly and tentatively. Then he left.

Back at the motel he had trouble getting to sleep. He saw Lacey's troubled face. She wasn't happy. Lance, for all his charm and wit, was making her miserable. Was Lance being unfaithful? Cruel? Did he beat her? Paul sat up in bed and stared into the darkness. Why, after all these years, should he be concerned about her? There was nothing he could do now. He tossed and turned for the next hour, finally falling in to a restless sleep.

He arose early the next morning. After a quick breakfast at the coffee shop, he went to the office to check out.

Lacey was there, waiting her turn in the check out line. She stood looking down at the floor, dark glasses covering her eyes.

"Good morning," Paul said.

Lacey looked up. Seeing Paul she smiled.

"Why the glasses?" Paul asked. Lacey had never worn sunglasses all the time he was dating her.

She turned her face away quickly. Paul put a hand on her shoulder and turned her toward him. It was then that he saw the bruise on her cheek that the glasses couldn't hide. "Lacey," he said.

"I'm fine, Paul," she said. "It was good seeing you again."

Paul reached out and took the glasses from Lacey's face. Before she could turn away Paul caught the sight of a black swollen eye.

"What happened?" he said.

"Please, Paul. It's nothing. I had a little accident is all."

"No," Paul said. "That's a lie! He hit you didn't he? Lance hit you."

Lacey took the glasses from Paul and placed them back on. "Please," she said. "Everything is fine."

"Lacey," Paul said. "Look at me."

Lacey stood facing him, her chin quivering as she looked up into Paul's eyes.

"It's not your concern, Paul," she said. "Lance is emotional. But we'll work it out." She put her hand on his arm. "There is..."

Paul whirled and left the lobby. Going to his car he opened the glove compartment and removed the handgun. Remembering what he had said to Lance at graduation, he took the gun and started back to the lobby. As he crossed the parking lot he saw Lance putting luggage into the trunk of a car.

Paul walked purposefully toward Lance. Lance turned and smiled. Then, seeing the gun in Paul's hand, his smile froze.

"What's this all about?" he said.

Paul pointed the gun at Lance. "You beat her," he said. "You beat Lacey."

Lance put his hands out in front of him. "Put that down, Paul. For God's sake!"

Paul pulled the trigger. Lance's eyes widened and he slumped to the pavement. Paul fired a second shot, although it was apparent that Lance was already dead. While people ran out of their rooms and a small group gathered by the lobby door, Paul walked to his car and drove away. He was arrested a few miles from the motel.

Paul's attorney entered a plea of manslaughter. But the DA, up for re-election, was not in a mood to bargain. It was a clear case of first-degree murder. Lacey's testimony of a history of physical abuse had the sympathy of the jury. But that sympathy didn't extend to Paul. It took them two days to bring back a verdict of guilty. The judge sentenced him to twenty-five years to life. Paul heard the verdict without emotion.

"It was that second shot," the lawyer said. "You shouldn't have fired that second shot."

Lacey visited him in prison and wrote to him for the first several months. But Paul found it too painful to be close to her and not able to touch her. And the letters, as welcome as they were, only made his confinement more difficult. He asked to her to stop writing. Shortly after, she moved away.

continued...


Copyright 2012 Herschel Cozine. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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