They had a date at eight every night. If it was raining, if it was snowing; if there was a moon, or if there was none. It wasn’t new, it hadn’t just come up. Last year it had been that way, the year before, the year before that. But it wasn’t going to keep on that way much longer: just hello at eight, good-bye at twelve. In a little while, in just a week or two, their date was going to be a permanent one; twenty-four hours a day. In just a little while from now, in June. And boy, they both agreed, June sure was slow in coming around this year. It never seemed to get here.
Sometimes it seemed they’d been waiting all their lives. Well, they had. Literally, no figure of speech. Because they’d first met, you see, when she was seven and he was eight. And they’d first fallen in love when he was eight and she was seven. Sometimes it does happen that way.
They would have been married long ago; last June, the June before, the very first June that he was a man and she was a grown-up girl. Why hadn’t they? What’s the one thing that always interferes, more than any other? Money. First no job at all. Then a job so small it wasn’t even big enough for one, let alone for two.
Then his father died. In October, after one of those wasted Junes had gone by. His father had been a brakeman on the railroad that went by there. A switch had been defective and cost his father his life; and though he hadn’t asked for anything, the railroad must have been afraid that he would, and so in order to save themselves money, they hurriedly, almost eagerly, paid him a smaller amount than what they were afraid he was going to ask for later, as soon as it had occurred to him to do so. And thus they came out ahead.
It was still a vast amount—to him, to her. Eight thousand odd, after the lawyer turned it over to him. It had originally been fifteen. But most lawyers, the lawyer told him, would have taken a straight fifty per cent out of it, and he hadn’t, so he was quite a considerate lawyer. Anyway, now they could get married the succeeding June, and that was all they cared about. It had to be June, she wanted it June; it wouldn’t have been like a marriage at all if it had been May or July. And anything she wanted, he wanted too. And figures above five hundred lost their reality, they weren’t used to them. One thousand was as much as eight, and eight was as much as fifteen. It became just theoretical at those heights, even when you were holding the check in your hand.
And it was all his, all theirs. His mother had died when he was a kid, and there was no one else to share in it. Gee, June took its time about getting here! It seemed to purposely hang back and let all the other months get in ahead of it, before their turns.
His name was Johnny Marr, and he looked like—Johnny Marr. Like his given name sounded. Like any Johnny, anywhere, any time. Even people who had seen him hundreds of times couldn’t have described him very clearly, he looked so much like the average, he ran so true to form. She could have, but that was because she had special eyes for him. He was a thousand other young fellows his own age, all over, everywhere. You see them everywhere. You look at them and you don’t see them. That is, not to describe afterward. “Sort of sandy hair,” they might have said. “Brown eyes.” And then they would have given up, slipped unnoticeably over the line away from strictly physical description. “Nice, clean-cut young fellow; never has much to say; can’t tell much about him.” And then they would have run out of material on that plane too. He would perhaps take his coloring from her, starting in slowly from this June on. He was waiting to be completed, he wasn’t meant to stop the way he was.
Her name was Dorothy, and she was lovely. You couldn’t describe her either, but not for the same reason. You can’t describe light very easily. You can tell where it is, but not what it is. Light was where she was. There may have been prettier girls, but there have never been lovelier ones. It came from inside and out both; it was a blend. She was everyone’s first love, as he looks back later once she is gone and tells himself she must have been. She was the promise made to everyone at the start, that can never quite be carried out afterward, and never is.
Cynics, seeing her go by, might have said, “Why, she’s just another pretty girl; they’re all about like that.” Cynics don’t know about these things. The way she walked, the way she talked, the little slow smile she had for him as they drew toward one another upon meeting, or the same smile in reverse, going backward as they parted—those things were only for Johnny Marr to see. He had special eyes for her, just as she had for him.
They had their date always at the same place, outside the drugstore down by the square. There was a little corner of the lighted showcase there that belonged to them—that part where, if you stood before it, the powders and the toilet waters were at your back. Not the part where the boxes of chocolates were, tied up in crimson and silver ribbons. Nor yet the part where the scented soaps were, displayed in honeycombed boxes and looking like colored easter eggs. No, only that far end where the powders an the toilet waters were, where there was a shallow little niche, and indentation, formed by a projection of the brick trim between the drugstore and the next shop on. That was their place, right there. The reflectors at the back of the window, striking through the flasks and bottles, made little sunbursts of amber, gold and chartreuse green; acting on the same principle, though quite unintentionally, as the glass jars of colored water it was once customary to display in apothecary windows for just this purpose and no other. That was theirs, that little segment of the window, that little angle of the wall, that little square of the paving in front of the drugstore. How often he had stood there, when it wasn’t quite eight yet, eyes oblivious of everything else around him, whistling a snatch of tune upward at the stars. Tapping his foot lightly, not in impatience, but because his foot was singing love songs to the ground.
That was their meeting place, there by Geety’s Drugstore, their starting-off place. No reason; it had just come to be so. Whatever they were going to do—a soda, a movie, a dance, or just a walk—they did it from there.
So you have them, now.
One night, this night, the last night of the month, he was a little late getting there. A minute or two maybe, not more. He came hurrying along, because he didn’t want her to stand there waiting for him. He was always there before her, as it was fitting he should be. But she’d be there ahead of him tonight, he was almost certain, and that was why he was hurrying so.
It was a spring-like night, one of the first this year, calendar to the contrary. The sky had hives, it was rashy with stars. And, he remembered afterward, a plane had just finished going by somewhere up there, just about then. He could hear its steady drone lingering on for a minute or two after it was gone, and then that had stilled into silence too. But he didn’t look up, he had no eyes for it; he was saving them for her, for when he’d get down there to the square and find her standing there outside the drugstore.
And then when he’d finally turned the last corner and was in the square, the people were so thick, he couldn’t see her for a minute anyway. They were like bees. It was as though the drugstore had been robbed, or there had been a fire, or something like that. They stood there in clusters, with scarcely a lane of clearance left in their midst. A strange hush hung over all of them. They weren’t talking, they were standing there utterly quiet, not saying a word. It wasn’t natural for that many people to stand there in such dreadful silence. It was as if they were frozen, stunned by something they had just seen, and unable to recover from it.
Whatever it was, it was over already. This was the aftereffect.
He threaded his way through them. He went first to the place where she should have been standing, their place, right up against the lighted window, with the powders and the toilet waters at her back. She wasn’t there. There were others standing there, ranged along there, but she wasn’t one of them.
She might have simply strayed off a little way, into the crowd, in the excitement of whatever this was while waiting for him to come. He rose up on his toes and tried to look over the heads of those in front of him. He couldn’t see her anywhere. So then he went out into the crowd himself, once more, to try to find her, elbowing them aside, looking this way, looking that.
Suddenly he came to the curb line, hidden until now by the almost solid phalanx of people standing between him and it. They ended there. The roadway was clear, they were being kept back on all sides from it, in the form of a big hollow square. There was a policeman there to do it, and another man who wasn’t a policeman, but who had deputized himself to help him do it.
There was something lying there in the big hollow square. A rag doll or something equally limp, lying there in the road. A life-sized doll. You could just see the legs and the twisted little body. They had newspapers spread over its head and face, but the newspapers had gotten soaked through with something. Something viscous and dark, like gasoline or . . .
There were jagged pieces of broken glass lying about here and there, dark bottle glass. The entire neck of the bottle, intact, was resting a few feet away.
Some of the people were craning their necks to look up at the windows of the houses overlooking the scene. Some were even looking higher, along the cornices of the roofs. Some higher still, toward where the sound of that plane engine had come from before.
Johnny Marr moved at last. He took a peculiar tottering step down from the banked curb and went out alone into the open space—and what it held.
Instantly the guardian policeman was standing beside him. His hand came down on Johnny Marr’s shoulder, to halt him and turn him back.
Johnny Marr whispered, “Turn the newspaper over a little at the top. I—I just want to see if I know who it is—”
The policeman stooped, briefly curled one of the sodden newspapers back by its outermost corner, then let it straighten out again.
“Well, do you?” he asked in an undertone. “Do you?”
“No,” Johnny said sickly. “No, I don’t.” He was telling the truth.
That wasn’t what he had been going to marry. He hadn’t been going to marry that. The girl he’d been going to marry—she hadn’t looked like that. Nobody’d ever looked like that.
His hat had fallen off. They picked it up and gave it back to him. He didn’t seem to know what to do with it, so finally someone put it on his head for him.
He turned and went away as though he hadn’t known her. The crowd gave way, as he bored his way through it, and then reclosed its ranks after he had passed, and he was swallowed up in its midst.
He regained that meeting place of theirs, by the drugstore window, by the powders and the lotions shining amber and chartreuse, that one little place of theirs, and leaned up against it with a palsied lurch.
No one looked at him any more, everyone kept looking the other way, out at the roadway.
Something with red headlights, a chariot from hell, was jockeying around out there, backing into position. Something was being shoved into it. Something that no one had any use for, something that no one loved, something to be thrown away. The rear doors of the chariot from hell slapped shut. The red glare swung around, glancing across the crowd for a minute, staining its lurid crimson, like a misfired rocket on the Fourth of July that fizzles around on the ground instead of going up; then it streaked off into the distance with a dolorous whine.
He was still there. He didn’t know where to go. He didn’t have any place to go. In the whole world there was no place to go but this.
The shock wasn’t so bad at first. It was more a numbness than anything else. You couldn’t tell. He just stood there quietly, swaying a little at times like a highly volatile weathervane in a breeze that couldn’t be felt by others. The showcase behind him and the little projection at the side kept him upright between them. But the harm went in deep. Deep, into places where it could never be gotten out again. Into places that, once they’re sick, can never be made sound again. Deep into the mind—into the reason.
Then presently his eyes struck upward, as if the memory of a drone, the winging-away of death, overhead in the sky, had briefly recurred to his foundering senses.
Excerpted from Rendezvous in Black by Cornell Woolrich. Copyright © 2004 by Cornell Woolrich. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.