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Where others saw life, Al saw the tango

The Baltimore Sun

In the months before he died, Al made one wish very clear: We were to do nothing by way of memorializing, not even an obituary. He said he'd come back from the other side to hold us accountable if we did.

Al believed in the permeability of the wall separating the living from the dead, so we knew he wasn't joking. When I got the news that Al was gone, I coped creatively. I made a private shrine in the dining room -- cleared the top of the plant stand, laid down a doily, and set out the gift Al presented to me when I got married recently (somewhat late in life, and for the second time): a small plastic figurine of a man and a woman doing the tango. Where did Al find such crazy gifts?

My dancing couple is executing a dip, the man supporting the arch of the woman's back, the woman extending her arms on a plane parallel to the floor. The figurine is apparently intended for hanging, because there's a metal loop imbedded in the top of the man's head. But were you to hang this thing (from the branch of a Christmas tree?), you might miss how perfectly it can be balanced on the tripod of the dancers' legs -- the man's spread wide, the woman's forming a single point at the gracefully closed ankles.

I like their costumes. The man wears black, the blousy folds of his shirt emphasizing fluidity. The woman wears a strapless yellow get-up that's literally molded to her torso. The eye is drawn to the red beading at the bodice and hem, to the red bracelets -- one at each wrist, and a third high on her right arm -- to the dark red shoes with their feminine straps.

This figurine represents two people who look about as much like my husband and me as creatures from another planet. [Message to Al: I'm not memorializing. I'm describing a gift, and crediting you as the giver. As for the following, you know that ultimately these real-life tales are all about me.]

Once, some years ago, Al invited me to see his office on Greenmount Avenue. In the front room, I made the acquaintance of four rescued cats. I also admired, among other marvels, a collection of Blaze Starr-signed posters, and a chandelier fashioned from an inverted, '50s-style, pheasant-feathered cloche. In the back room, I saw something that can best be described as a shrine. Hanging on the far wall was a large, elaborately framed photograph of an older couple. The photograph had to be a hundred years old. Propped below the photograph was a worn, fractured gravestone. I stepped close and read the names on the gravestone -- John and Elizabeth, apparently husband and wife.

"Are these your relatives, Al?" I asked.

"Jeez, no," he said. He went on to explain that he'd found the gravestone in a junk shop. He suspected it had been stolen from a cemetery. He'd been trying to find out where it rightfully belonged. "And the people in the picture?" He smiled at the old folks in their dark, stuffy outfits, and they frowned back. "That's them." "Really? John and Elizabeth?"

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's them," he said, reaching out to straighten the frame, "except I found them in a different junk shop."

I wouldn't have dreamed of questioning Al on this matter. If he said the old couple were John and Elizabeth, then by golly, so it was -- from that moment on, and into this story I'm telling.

Yesterday, I moved Al's dancing couple from the plant stand in the dining room to the desk in my office. Right now, they are executing their perfect dip 5 inches from my computer screen. I've been studying them all day long. It's true they bear no resemblance to my husband and me. It's true that executing a tango dip is something my husband and I will probably never do, for fear it would land us in months of physical therapy. Nevertheless, I do believe that plastic, dancing figurine captures us. Because Al thought so, and because he is gone now, and because I'm ending this story [which bears no resemblance to memorializing] about me.

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