The Last Dance With Mary Jane
Mary Jane didn’t have many hobbies, but dancing was the one thing that she enjoyed more than anything else. Whenever there was an opportunity to go to a social, she was ready for the occasion with her white dance shoes on.
This upcoming dance was special. It was a weeknight dance, which was unusual for Mary Jane to attend, as she typically only went to the Friday or Saturday night dance halls. However, Halloween this year fell on a Wednesday. It was also less than a week from her nineteenth birthday. She had the sneaking suspicion that her boyfriend may have something special planned for her.
They had met nearly two years ago at a Labor Day picnic at the town square. Peter had worked for her uncle before the textile strike. Even though there was tension between the union and the industry big-wigs, the picnic was a time of peace and relaxation during such an exhausting period. Their eyes met over her mother’s homemade potato salad. You can’t get much more romantic than that.
Peter was a strikingly handsome young man around the age of twenty-one with a rugged jaw-line, chestnut brown hair, and emerald green eyes. The hard work at the textile mill had made his body toned and strong. He was immediately drawn to her ice-blue eyes and innocent smile. She was a delicate, pale, blonde flower next to his brawny, dark physique.
Their quiet conversation spilled over into the night as he asked her to accompany him to the Labor Day dance that evening at the Liberty Grove dance hall. The two stopped dancing only to take a few sips of punch and engage in some pleasant conversation. They were soon inseparable, with every weekend spent at any number of dance halls in the neighboring towns. Their dancing was a picture of fluidity as their bodies became one on the dance floor. Watching them waltz was to see poetry in motion.
As Halloween of 1934 approached, Mary Jane was thrilled as she was deciding what she and Peter would dress as for the dance. They often matched when they attended social affairs. If she wore an orchid dress, he would have a matching tie and pocket square. Their appearance was as sequenced as their Lindy Hop. Mary Jane had the idea of them going as a bride and groom. She could use the dress that her mother wore at her wedding. Peter could use his brother’s suit from his wedding last summer. It was set.
To make the outfit complete, Mary Jane used money that she had saved from babysitting neighborhood children to buy a new pair of dancing shoes. She was so proud of her brand new silver T-Strap Cuban heel evening shoes that were just like the ones that Ginger Rogers wore. She stood in front of the mirror, twirling in her mother’s dress and her new shoes. She wore her favorite perfume that smelled of geraniums. Tonight was sure to be magical.
Mary Jane wasn’t the only one who just bought something brand new. Peter arrived at Mary Jane’s house in his recently purchased 1934 Hudson Straight 8. The ticket price of just under $700 was a hefty sum for Peter to manage, but he had been saving every penny for the past four years to get it. This car was a beauty with 108 horsepower under the hood. It had an enclosed baggage compartment and three-beam headlights. He was like a kid at Christmas with a new toy.
He hopped out of the driver’s side door with a rag in his hand to polish the headlamps and the Daphnis Green fender before knocking on Mary Jane’s parents’ front door. His hair was slicked back with a pomade like Clark Gable in “It Happened One Night”. He managed to grow a modest mustache to mimic the one that Gable had in the movie, however, his mustache was quite a bit sparse.
He skipped to the porch and gave the door a ginger knock. His breath was taken away as the door opened to reveal a stunning Mary Jane as his “bride”. He had surprised her with a bouquet of geraniums tied with a white, satin ribbon; after all, what bride costume would be complete without a flower bouquet? She was ecstatic! They both awkwardly giggled at each other as they headed toward the car. Peter opened the door for Mary Jane, and then popped into the driver’s seat. A few small flakes of snow started to drift down onto the windshield. “The snow came early this year,” remarked Mary Jane. Before they made their way to the Liberty Grove Ballroom, Peter removed a pewter flask from his jacket pocket and took a long swig. Visibly upset, Mary Jane snipped, “Do you have to do that right now?” to which Peter replied, “It’s not prohibition anymore!”
This would set the tone for the rest of the evening. What had the hopes of being a wonderful, fun-filled evening was slowly turning into one of bickering and frustration. During a Foxtrot, their tiff turned into an all-out squabble. She wanted to know when they were going to get married. He retorted that he couldn’t afford to get married since he had just bought the car.
“You care more about that stupid car than you care about me!” Mary Jane released her grasp of his hand to turn and walk away. She stormed out the door and into the dark, cold night. Peter ran his hand through his greased hair in aggravation and headed off toward the gentlemen’s room to throw some cold water on his face and imbibe from his flask once more. Once he gathered his thoughts, he proceeded to get into his car to look for Mary Jane. The snow was lightly falling onto the ground, and he knew that Mary Jane had only a light shawl over her shoulders to keep warm.
By now, Mary Jane had briskly walked about a mile toward her home on Damen Avenue which was nine miles from the ballroom. She shivered from the cold, and her feet began to blister from her new shoes that hadn’t been broken in properly yet. As she started to cross South Lafayette Street, her already aching feet stumbled on the uneven pavement, and she twisted her ankle as she fell sharply to the ground. She tried to regain her bearings and stand upright after her fall only to see headlights blinding her view. She held up her hand in front of her face to shield the light from her eyes as well as the car from her body. Before she could get out of the middle of the road, the oncoming car struck her knocking her into the adjacent ditch.
In an instant, her life was over. The car came to a screeching halt. The driver stepped out of the car to see what he had hit. His breath stunk of cheap gin as he staggered to the front of his Chrysler to find a smear of blood across the bumper. On the opposite side of the road was Mary Jane’s lifeless body with blood dripping from her nose and the corner of her lips down to her neck and stained, white dress.
The driver was Thomas Shelton, a 36-year-old sanitation worker from the East Side whose wife had just left him for an Army soldier. That loss was devastating enough, but nothing compared to what he was now facing. He quickly reacted by removing a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the bumper clean of the blood. In a panic, Shelton swiftly left the scene of the accident.
Twenty minutes later, Peter approached a roadblock of sirens and flashing lights. As he drew closer, he realized that a person was lying on the side of the road in a pool of blood. He immediately recognized the white dress and leaped out of the car. Two police officers tried to hold him back as he screamed out “Mary Jane!” He pled with them to see her. They allowed him to identify the body, which he confirmed as being his girlfriend. He knelt beside her and held her cold pale hand. As the snow continued to fall, his tears burned an icy cold trail down his cheek as he wept.
Peter was devastated, and Mary Jane’s family was heartbroken. The funeral was on Saturday, November 3, 1934, two days before what would have been her nineteenth birthday. She was buried in a beautiful white party dress with her brand new silver dance shoes.
Albert Church was in charge of the gravediggers, and when they decided to strike, it was his duty to retrieve the bodies and bury them in a temporary grave at Revival Cemetery until the strike was over and the bodies could be permanently interred in their proper lots. The gravediggers’ strike dragged on for months. Due to the poor construction of the coffins and the rate of decomposition, Mary Jane’s body was too badly decomposed to be identified from the other corpses by the time that the strike was over. Because of this, the bodies were left where they were temporarily buried, without headstones, to remain in the Revival Cemetery forever.
Time stood still in the Revival Cemetery. Months flew off the calendar with seasons fading from one into another. The living went on with their lives. Peter went back to work after the textile strike was over. Mary Jane’s parents regretfully stopped setting an extra place for their daughter at the dinner table. Life moved forward without Mary Jane in it. Or did it?
About a year-and-a-half after Mary Jane’s accident, a young man named Jerry arrived at the Liberty Grove dance hall for a night of frolic. Halfway through the evening, he noticed a pretty blonde young lady in a white party dress with silver shoes. He was instantly enamored by her charming beauty and asked her to dance. They spent the rest of the night dancing. He didn’t know much about her other than her name was Mary Jane. She was oddly quiet and her skin was chilled to the touch.
As the evening was winding down, Jerry offered to give the young lady a ride home to which she accepted. She said that she lived on Damen Avenue, but would like to drive down Archer Avenue, which was the opposite way of her home. Jerry didn’t think much of this at first since it was a lovely, warm evening, and his car’s top was down. They seemed to be enjoying the ride, but when Jerry tried to break the silence with small talk, Mary Jane only responded with short answers. Suddenly, Mary Jane startled Jerry by insisting that he stop the car.
“What’s wrong?” asked an alarmed Jerry.
Before he could get a response, Mary Jane had exited the car and crossed the road. She seemed to disappear behind the gates of the cemetery. Jerry got out of the car to follow her, worried that it may not be safe for a young girl to be alone in the dark. When he reached the gates, he realized that they were locked. There was no way that anyone could have entered nor exited the cemetery. Where could she have gone? It seemed as though she disappeared into thin air.
This would not be the last mysterious appearance that Mary Jane would make. It seems that she enjoyed dancing in death just as much as she did in life. She would go on to be frequently seen at dance halls throughout the city. She would also disappear as inexplicably as she appeared.
Six months later, another young man and his brother saw the enchanting lady in the white dress and silver shoes dancing as carefree as can be. The one brother, Edward, had finally worked up the gumption to ask her to dance. They danced for the remainder of the night, and as the evening was ending, she asked them if they could give her a ride home. They happily agreed and escorted Mary Jane from the ballroom. They squeezed into the front seat with Mary Jane sitting in the middle. Once they reached the front of the cemetery gates, Mary Jane insisted that she needed to go. When asked where she was going since there was no house to be seen, she replied, “Where I’m going, you can’t come.” She headed toward the main gate and was gone. The brothers were dumbstruck and speechless. She had disappeared right before their eyes.
Time and time again, a young man would happen on a melancholy yet alluring young lady at the ballroom. As the ending drew to a close, she would accept a ride home from the gentlemen. And each time, she would disappear near the Revival Cemetery, either by exiting the vehicle and vanishing toward the gates or vanishing from the car itself. It was like a broken record that continuously looped without fail. They all agreed that she was cold, both physically and emotionally.
A few years later another young man named Vince was preparing himself for a Saturday night on the town. He put on his favorite grey double-breasted suit and bright blue tie and matching pocket square. His hair was waved back with Brylcreem, and his top was down on his Chevrolet. He was headed to the Oh Henry Ballroom, which had used to be named Liberty Grove just a few years prior. With the new ownership of the dance hall, some of the biggest bands of the day performed there. Tonight was to be no exception with the Chet Barris Big Band.
As soon as he arrived, he spotted the cute blonde girl who was standing by herself against the wall by the punch bowl table. He casually waltzed up to her and said, “It ain’t right to be standing while Tommy Dorsey is playing. Why don’t we cut a rug?” A shy smile crept across her face as she took his hand to join him on the parquet dance floor.
They didn’t talk much as they were too busy jitterbugging. That didn’t bother Vince. He hated having to explain that he worked at the stockyards. Some girls would get the heebie-jeebies at the idea even though he didn’t work near the slaughterhouse itself as he was only a bookkeeper. He wished that he had a more exciting career to talk about, so he dressed a tad flashy to create a more interesting topic of conversation.
The band finally segued into a slower song which allowed the couple to get closer in proximity. He asked her name, but couldn’t get much more information from her than her name was Mary Jane, and she lived on Damen Avenue in Brighton Park.
“That’s not far from where I live,” said Vince. “Do you have a way home? I’d be happy to give you a lift if you don’t.”
“That would be wonderful,” said Mary Jane.
He shared with her that he lived with his parents. This was something that he seldom mentioned as he was embarrassed to admit that to other girls. She shared that she, too, lived at home with her parents. He felt a sense of relief that they had such a thing in common. He was a bit more relaxed with that brief exchange of personal information.
“Your hands are so cold,” he noticed. He also couldn’t help but notice that her skin felt thin and brittle. “Cold hands, warm heart,” he added with a chuckle. Mary Jane tensed up slightly, but displayed a sheepish smile. They continued to dance together for the entire night.
As they made their way to his Chevrolet Cabriolet, he asked if he would be seeing her there again next weekend, to which she replied, “Possibly”.
They drove north down Archer Avenue in the direction of their respective homes. The moon was full and the sky was full of twinkling stars that they admired from the converted top. After a few miles though, Mary Jane shot up in her seat, demanding that he stop the car. Vince pulled the car over to the side of the road just outside of the gates to the Revival Cemetery. Vince was bewildered by her urgent request but conceded. Mary Jane opened the car door and stepped toward the gates.
Vince asked, “Where are you going?”
Mary Jane turned her head softly and said, “I have to go, but you can’t follow me.”
When she reached the gates, she grabbed the iron bars to the side of the cemetery door. She vanished right before his eyes. Vince had to inspect the area for himself. Could that be? He couldn’t be hallucinating. And he was sober as a judge as he had not drunk at all that evening. But who would believe him? She must have slipped out of his eye-line somehow. He looked at the gates where she had her hands, and they appeared to be seared in the very spot she had been holding. How odd!
He got back into his Chevy and rode up and down Archer Avenue for the next few hours to see if he could locate the blonde beauty, but she was nowhere to be seen. As dawn was approaching, he gave up his search and headed toward home. But first, he wanted to drive to the address she had given him earlier in the evening. Most of the houses on the street were practically identical with the only noticeable differences were adornments on the yards and the color of the front doors.
Vince noticed that a light was on in the house, so he rang the doorbell. He hadn’t considered his disheveled looks when the door opened to a middle-aged woman’s surprise. Her confusion grew when he asked if Mary Jane was home.
The woman who looked as though she may be old enough to be Mary Jane’s mother answered a hurried “No”. Over her shoulder, Vince noticed a photograph of Mary Jane on the table in the foyer. He asked, “Excuse me, but isn’t that Mary Jane in that photograph there?”
The woman was puzzled but quipped, “Yes, but she died in a car accident four years ago. Pardon me, but who are you?”
Vince was now beyond stunned, but had enough wherewithal to muster the lie, “I knew her from school. I haven’t seen her in a while. I’ve been out of town.” That seemed to be the only conceivable reasoning for his query and lack of knowledge of her death.
The woman apologized, “I am sorry to be the one to tell you of her passing. She died of a hit-and-run accident as she was crossing the road one night after a dance.”
Vince was visibly shaken as this news took his breath away. He somehow gathered the words to say, “I’m terribly sorry to hear that.”
The woman went on to add, “If you would like to visit her grave, she’s buried in the Revival Cemetery over on Archer.”
Vince stumbled over his words, “I…know of it. I’m so…I’m so sorry for your loss.”
He bid her good day and turned to walk back to his car. He sat in the driver’s seat, frozen in fear. He knew that he had danced with her. He touched her. He felt her skin…her very, very cold skin. Her skin was pale as the moonlight and thin as paper. This experience had petrified him so that he vowed never to return to the Oh Henry Ballroom ever again. Not only did he keep that promise to himself, he never stepped on another dance floor ever again, even at his own wedding five years later.
She had only been seen a few times more as the era of the big band music that she loved much had come to an end. But that would soon change as her grave was disturbed. The unmarked graves and term graves that had not been kept up-to-date were to be moved to the back corner of the cemetery. Once that began, an increase in activity was seen in the area.
It was a bitterly cold winter night when a cab driver picked up a young lady right outside the Willowbrook Ballroom. This is the same ballroom that had once been known as the Liberty Grove Ballroom as well as the Oh Henry Ballroom. Despite it being quite inclement weather, the woman was wearing a lovely white dress with a light shawl covering her shoulders. She climbed into the backseat of the taxi and said she needed to head home which she said was down Archer Avenue and motioned toward the road ahead. She was quiet, only speaking to answer the driver’s questions.
She appeared a bit confused and disoriented. She seemed in a daze, and some of the answers that she gave the cab driver were incoherent. The one sentence of clarity, though awkward, that she muttered was “the snow came early this year”, pointing toward the shack across the street from the cemetery. At that moment, she shouted to the driver, “Here!” The cab driver slammed on the breaks. He turned around to see the backseat completely empty. No doors opened or closed. She was gone. All that was left of her was the smell of her geranium-scented perfume in the air.
He knew he couldn’t be imagining her. He distinctly remembered how her icy blue eyes cut right through him. He recalled her honey-blonde hair that brushed her shoulders with a slight curl at the ends. How could it be possible that she just dematerialized in the car?
The years may have passed but Peter never forgot about Mary Jane. His guilt had imprisoned him. He developed a heavy drinking habit to mask his constant pain. He needed to numb himself and stop the constant images of Mary Jane’s lifeless body lying on the side of the road that played in his mind like an old movie. Those images haunted him to this day. They were burned into his brain. He replayed every moment of that evening in his head over and over, wondering if he had just done this or not done that, maybe she would be alive today. He carried the burden of her death with him.
Even though Mary Jane was dead, she still replayed that evening again and again as well. It was as if she were trying to find the person responsible for her death but to no avail. Each evening that she repeated, she met a new man who would kindly give her a ride to her new home at Revival Cemetery. She took the same path each time with the same recurring ending.
October 31 brought back memories for Peter. He spent every Halloween since her death at a little beer joint right across from the Revival Cemetery. He wanted to be close to her, as close as he could be. He ordered the same drink each Halloween: a Bloody Mary. It may seem macabre, but he felt it was endearing to her memory.
This Halloween, he sat at the end of the bar with his Bloody Mary staring back at him. This was a special evening because it was the tenth anniversary of Mary Jane’s accident. His trance was broken by the sound of the tavern door slamming open and a big, boisterous cab driver stampeded into demanding “Where did she go?”
The bartender looked at him puzzled and asked, “Who?”
The cabbie grumbled, “There was a blonde girl about nineteen or twenty came in her. I think she’s trying to stiff me on my fare.”
The bartender insisted, “No one has come in here for a while.”
The cabbie gave the bartender a look of disdain and began to grill the other patrons, all of whom confirmed the bartender’s pledge. He described her as wearing a faded wedding dress or something like it, and that she was quite moody and cold.
“She said she was going home but had me stop in front of the graveyard,” the cabbie continued.
“You can look around if you’d like, but this is everybody right here”, the bartender said motioning to the few people sitting at the bar.
The cabbie began searching the bathrooms and kitchen, and then seeing that no one else was in the bar, he left in a huff. Peter’s mind began to wonder if it could be possible, and the idea nagged at him terribly. He got up from his seat and stepped toward the door, assuring the bartender that he would be right back.
The cab driver was beginning to pull out of the dirt parking lot out onto the street when he was met with headlights from an oncoming car. Peter couldn’t believe his eyes. In the middle of the road stood the figure of a young blonde girl in a white dress. It was Mary Jane! The oncoming car’s wheels squealed as it veered to miss the girl as well as the taxi and crashed into a pole on the other side of the road.
The noise of the tires and crash brought the bar patrons spilling out of the pub into the parking lot to witness the commotion. The driver of the car had hit his head on the steering wheel and was bleeding badly. Unbeknownst to the onlookers, the man driving the crashed car was the same man who had killed Mary Jane in the hit-and-run accident ten years prior, Thomas Shelton, the sanitation worker, who has callously wiped her blood off of his bumper and drove off leaving her on the side of the road. One of the patrons of the bar ran over to the car to assist the driver. Blood was trickling down the open wound on his forehead into his eyes and mouth, nearly choking him. In between moans, he whispered to the man, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The patron tried to comfort the driver by holding his hand and pressing a handkerchief against his wound. He engaged the driver by asking what was he sorry about.
“The girl. I left the girl. I’m so sorry. I left her. I’m so, so sorry…”
His eyes rolled back in his head, and he gargled through the blood to spit out those last few words before he passed on. The cabbie ran over with nervous anger as the snow started spitting from the sky.
“He was speeding. He came around the corner so quickly! I didn’t see him,” the cabbie urged.
Peter was still cemented in his tracks, staring blankly to where Mary Jane was standing. It seemed that no one but Peter and the deceased driver, Thomas Shelton, had seen her. It seemed fitting that Mary Jane was the last thing that Thomas saw. Mary Jane turned her gaze toward Peter, and they locked eyes. Through all of the chaos, not one person noticed Peter walking toward the road, toward Mary Jane. He stopped about twenty feet from her, staring in disbelief and dumbfounded. Mary Jane relinquished a cold smile and said to Peter, “The snow came early this year” and then faded into the night. The only thing left of her was the smell of geraniums in the air.