In the weeks that followed, I almost forgot about Pampa and the Johnson case. There was plenty going on in Amarillo that kept my busy. But a stream of e-mails from Steve and Alfredo reminded me of the friends I had waiting in the town to the north. Then Deedee and Renee started messaging me, too. It was clear I'd get no rest until I returned to Pampa for the Nutcracker ballet. So, on a chilly day in December, I put on a dress and hauled myself back to Pampa.
When I saw the Nutcracker as a child, the story made no sense to me. There were too many plot holes. I found that time hadn't really remedied that failing.
The Nutcracker opens with a party scene, during which a little girl, Clara, is given a nutcracker doll. She falls asleep in the living room. She dreams that the nutcracker comes to life. The wooden doll, with the help of a small army of toy soldiers who have also come to life, battles a bunch of local mice. The king of the mice almost wins. Just as he's about to mortally wound the nutcracker, Clara steps up and whacks the mouse king over the head with her shoe. Either she's unusually spirited, or feminism was alive and well in her otherwise rigid, Victorian family. The Nutcracker steps up and kills the mouse king. For some reason, the death of his rodent foe turns the nutcracker into a real prince. The prince takes Clara off to some sort of magical candyland, which he may or may not rule. Either the Sugar Plum Fairy rules the world, or she's acting as the prince's regent. Regardless of who's actually in charge, the Sugar Plum Fairy thinks Clara should be honored for hitting a mouse with a shoe. Clara gets a flower, a giant lollipop, and the chance to view a series of ethnic dances. With such grand rewards, there's little doubt Clara became a serial rodent killer by the time she hit puberty.
What any of it has to do with Christmas is beyond me.
Don't get me wrong; attending the nutcracker can be a great holiday tradition. I tend to over-think things. I know that. It's what I've done my whole life. Really, if I let got of the nutcracker storyline and just enjoy the dancing, it's fun. And in Pampa it was easy to let go and just enjoy myself, because I knew some of the performers.
I smiled when Dee Dee came out on stage as the family nurse. She led a small herd of children in a dance then settled them on the floor near the Christmas tree. Alayna popped out of a box, dressed as a life-size doll. She danced across the stage, to the delight of everyone at the party. The children had barely calmed down from the excitement of giant dolls and presents when Alfredo moved to the center of the stage. He raised his arms in a grand gesture, and the adults on stage moved forward into a line.
My eyes went to Renee. She was wearing a grand frock with a long, blue skirt. Renee took her partner's hand and danced with graceful ease. If she was that good in the opening scene, I couldn't wait to see her dance in the second act. As for her dance partner, my cousin Steve, he didn't mess up. Some people would even say he did well.
A woman dressed in pink, Clara's aunt, I think, flirted shamelessly with her on-stage beau. I chuckled at the very Victorian shock on Renee's face. Then someone seated in the row ahead of me shifted in their seats, pulling my attention from the stage.
It was Nora Johnson; I was sure of it. The tilt of her head was a dead give away. She turned her to say something to a man seated on her right. I saw her profile, and in the dim light caught a glimpse of her smile.
She smiled? Truly? Something coiled tightly around my heart loosened a few degrees. Somehow, after all the darkness and hate, this woman found joy in living.
I looked for Nora during the intermission. It was surprisingly difficult to find her. The lobby quickly filled with people. The crowd ebbed and flowed around the various themed Christmas trees. I saw more motion than individuals.
The lights in the lobby dimmed, signaling the end of the intermission. I joined the crowd filing slowly back into the theater. Suddenly, I felt a gentle touch on my arm.
“Hello, Maryanne,” said Nora Johnson.
I turned and smiled at her. “I hoped I'd find you,” I said; “looks like you beat me to it.”
“Frank and I saw you, and wanted to say hello.”
“Frank?” I queried. Looking at the man next to Mrs. Johnson, I recognized Frank Barton.
Nora looked at Frank fondly. “We've known each other for years. Recently we've had a chance to talk and, well...” she trailed off and blushed.
“Nora agreed to let me take her out this evening. Dinner and a show,” Mr. Barton said jocundly. He offered Nora his arm. She accepted with a smile.
“I'm so glad,” I said. “It's not often I get to see a client after a case is done. And you're happy.”
“Yes,” Nora said contentedly. “I was able to buy a little house down the road. And I got a job at the elementary school, as administrative secretary. Life is good.”
Mr. Barton looked around at the churning crowd. “I think we're gumming up the works, ladies. We should go in.”
I nodded and led the way. At the entrance to my row I paused to watch the happy couple go past. Nora Johnson looked back at me one more time, and said, “Merry Christmas, Maryanne. God bless you.”
Something caught in my throat, and my vision blurred. I nodded. When I could speak again I whispered, “Merry Christmas, Nora. And Happy New Year.”