After Carson Miller hugged the dance hall bar the whole evening, drinking, chuckling behind designer sunglasses, he took my hand. “What a dancer,” he said, “a really good dancer. I watched you the whole night.” I replied to AM radio’s popular slow talker with a polite thank-you. Then he repeated himself and I repeated myself and there we paused, hands cocooned, smiles frozen as overhead halogens came up, and a disc jockey dismantled amplifiers and stacks of CDs.
Five hours earlier, Carson had spoken on Trying Times in Therapy for our Communication Disorders Benefit. He retold how he overcame stuttering. He exaggerated unusual body movements with prolongations (lllllike this). Then he clinked away the rest of the evening with bourbon on ice, fielding questions from other barflies about MILLER AFTER MIDNITE, his statewide show for third-shifters and insomniacs.
He had nodded to me earlier in the evening when I snatched some napkins from the bar, blotted my face and neck, caught my breath, and raced back to a vast maple floor. At first I thought he wanted to dance with me. That nod, the way he rolled one shoulder, keyed me up. I was a heavyweight, a size 16 despite diet pills, counseling and calorie counts. Cha-cha, fox trot, or mambo transformed me to a lightweight, though, a dancing queen reveling to Mony, Mony and Scarborough Fair. Whether jitterbugging or waltzing, I forgot I preserved fat as a national treasure, fat as so-called protective coating. On the dance floor I forgot I was thirty-five and single, a childless speech therapist with a way with kids. When dancing, I said screw it to biological clocks, research papers, and my refrigerator magnet--you can teach your body to think thin. I was old enough to know I could teach someone else easier than myself.
Now, in pearly blue light, Carson studied my stationary body, a plumpkin in an era of gaunt cheeks and protruding collarbones. Embarrassed, I wanted to be far from him, content with his electrifying praise. I knew how these things went, how they played out or didn’t play out. I had a 15-year history with cool guys like him; they liked my dimples but saw sister material, not girlfriend material. A haze of smoke and dust hung in the air. There were whiffs of spilled beer and sweat and, for the chosen few, an aura of sex. The crowd wandered out, chattering and backslapping. One kid stammered, for real, not forever, I hoped. Carson continued to hold my hand even though several parents approached him, thanks for coming up from Milwaukee, you’re a great success story. My pleasure, he said with a big smile, it was grand, nice little town. On the radio dial his voice overlapped hard-edged cynicism with the little boy he must have been--intent, happy, lost in play. Now I noticed how that voice belied his physical self: mid-forties, five feet ten, an oval face with acne scars. He appeared shy and boyish in wrinkled khakis, white polo, and a Norwegian fisherman’s hat. The last admiring stragglers filtered by, and finally, he released my hand, took a step back.
A nimbus of light fell on his canvas sneakers, messy and chic. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my crazy friend, Roxie, give a thumbs-up. Roxie was always having a sense, looking for a sign. Evidently the spirits had moved her again. Later, she would calculate where my sun and moon were that night and which sign of the zodiac was rising as explanation for what happened. Carson cocked his head toward me, breaking my line of sight to Roxie. “W-w-what’s your n-name?”
I liked his ability to poke fun at himself. “Sarah,” I said, “with an H.” The need to mention “H” should have been a major clue to my self-deception. He absorbed my answer, analyzed it. His body was lean, soft--both willing and asking--but tired, mostly tired. I grasped my tank top and waffled it. “Sorry, I’m boiling over.” Deodorant goo stuck to my armpits and my underwire dug in.
He removed his hat with aplomb, revealing a sun-blotched forehead with deep lines and thinning hair the color of sand. He jiggled his glass, downed the last bourbon. “Boiling? How about a stroll?” he asked with a stammer. “A cool-down stroll?”
I didn’t answer. My ’92 Honda with 125,000 miles on it was in the parking lot. It was one a.m. I taught Sunday School tomorrow morning, then services, then a parish council meeting. He put up his fists. “You gonna make me fight for it?” I recognized the reference; he’d fist-fought kids who teased him. I myself had withdrawn to reading--with a double chocolate Blizzard. Not only was I a bookworm; I was a fat bookworm. I had learned to read people in books, not real life, and so I hesitated to check my list of fictional characters, see what they’d do. Before I could answer, he said, “What do you say, Miss Sarah with an H.”
“It’s Mrs.,” I said and didn’t know why. It was a lie. I seemed to raise one palm in a stop motion while waving him in with the other.
“Missus? You here alone?” His face was plain, unfettered, and his swagger off-balance. He buttoned his tatty sport coat. Lining sagged below the hem.
“Tell mister you got carried away,” he said, ironing his lips to flatten a decided smile.
And that was it. A decision. I walked next to him out of Wayside Inn’s big dance hall into a foyer with ‘fifties wood-paneled walls, yellow with thick wax and old smoke. A neon Budweiser sign buzzed on one wall, while Hamms the Beer Refreshing lit up another. He opened the solid oak door to the outside, followed me across the parking lot where he spotted a car with TERAPY vanity plates. “Look at that,” he said, tipping his hat at my Honda. “Someone can’t say their t-h’s.” He laughed, laughter that jumbled sweetness and sadness, like Ferris wheel music that swells at the bottom and fades at the top. “Where to?” he said.
I pointed toward the dimly lit sky above Stangelville where I owned a small home, a small garden, a bicycle, and my grandmother’s set of dishes. We were half a mile from town. We could have driven, then strolled. Driving would have been the sensible thing to do. But that night I did not want sensible. That night I did not want a life defined by a license plate. I wanted something--but what?
We walked. He sauntered beside me, then broke into long, wild strides for thirty yards and stopped. “Come on, slowpoke,” he yelled. Gravel jabbed my white tennies. After a night of dancing, my legs were drunk, moving the way a rollerskater’s do after the skates come off. He circled back, hands in his pockets, shuffling the balls of his feet. An owl hooted. Behind us at Wayside, car doors slammed.
“Smell that clover and quack grass,” he said, tugging air into his lungs.
“I usually smell asphalt and cement. Foundry dirt. Unless the wind shifts, then the Red Star Yeast factory makes us all believe Mama’s home, baking bread.”
“I remember that,” I said intently, now thinking about his palate, tongue, jaw and lips. “It blew over Marquette’s campus.” Air-borne calories surely compounded my freshman fifteen, I thought, recalling the nauseous mix of yeast and city bus exhaust. “Yes,” I fibbed, “what a homey smell.”
Minutes of silence settled in except for June bugs and an occasional croaking frog. Dewy air swished around us. I wondered where he grew up and thought that might be the next icebreaker when he raised his elbows and posed, awkwardly, in a forward-twinkle dance position. He said, “How’d you learn ballroom?”
“Classes. At community college.”
“What’s that? Gym class for grown-ups?”
I glanced at him, a growing sense he wanted to know me. “It was okay,” I said. “Better with a regular partner.”
His gait went floppy. “You didn’t take the mister?”
“Lenny?” The name of my father fell out of my mouth.
“Yeah, Lenny. That your husband’s name?”
“Lenny doesn’t dance.”
“What does he do?”
“Construction. He works construction.” My mind darted to Peter, my oldest brother who worked construction. Carson better not ask anymore. Not only was my family not that big, there was nothing wrong with them. No dysfunction, no trouble. Nothing for good stories on night walks with a man. My usual mantalk involved fund-raisers, an ice-sculpture committee, or careful conversations with a father of a child with a lateral lisp, or a dad heartbroken over his son’s verbal apraxia.
“So who was your dance partner?”
“Other singles, a mixture of doozers and dorks. Even husbands required to take turns because Brian, our instructor, said it benefited everyone.”
“Brian was right. It worked on you.” He patted his back pocket, like he couldn’t remember where he put his wallet or keys. Or, address book. “I never learned to dance,” he said. “That’s why I’m glued on good dancers like you.” Glued. I could feel it, a sturdy, long-lasting bond. A little voice inside me said: from now on go for the banana, skip the caramel corn. Yet another voice said: food is safer than being dumped again.
We walked with a dense slow wind behind us. We came up to the lily-white sign that read Stangelville. And underneath that, in smaller letters, Population 1183. “How’d the name get this town?” He smiled at himself. His radio success came from a silver tongue and quick thinking, though he surely used that line before. I responded with a polite exactly. We walked another eight hundred feet to the first sidewalk, with old-fashioned molded lampposts. Honey pot light radiated from carved, glass bowls. The streets were deserted with our one cop predictably parked at the edge of town to snare an OWI or two after the dance. Sweat crystallized between my breasts.
I relaxed, ran my fingers through my hair. “I’m a mess,” I said. He was supposed to say something, something complimentary. Instead he rattled night air into his nostrils with exaggeration. He held that breath and then blew out a throaty treble. He took off his Howard Stern sunglasses and tucked them in the sport coat. Next he removed the sport coat and flung it over his shoulder. Without the glasses and padded shoulders, he almost lost his status. He smelled of Giorgio Armani and cool mints and Wayside’s fried chicken, cigarettes and cigars.
“Talk to me, Sarah. About Stangelville. About yourself. Really about yourself.”
I didn’t tell him about my biological clock or boxes of Oprah Magazine. I told him about four brothers, a100-acre dairy farm with a long gravel driveway, how I grew up playing outfield and swishing hockey sticks, how I drove a tractor and baled hay. I told him now I traveled the entire rural district from school to school, the same route every week. I told him I loved kids. I didn’t tell him my bathroom curtains and towels were color-coordinated beige. He listened attentively, then said, “And Lenny?”
I balled up my hands and dug my knuckles into my hips. Then I twisted my head toward him and hunched one shoulder. “Do you have any lies?”
He imitated a fisherman sizing up the fish that got away. “The lies no one catches get bigger. Look, let’s not let Lenny or other ghosts ruin this night. My whole life, all I ever wanted besides sluts and whores was . . .” He paused.
“Yes?” My eyelid twitched, an involuntary tic that appeared when I got excited.
“Funny. I can’t even finish that sentence.” He scooped up a few pieces of gravel. “In my business, it’s mostly loose women who come on to me. Bitchy ones with fake boobs, all ages. They give. I take.” He pitched a pebble. “Here I am, baring my soul.”
To a real woman, I wanted to say. I imagined his address book scribbled with Nicoles and Tanyas, svelte women with sharp yellow hair and flawless faces, area codes in California or the Carolinas, women who wanted him but couldn’t keep him like I would, simply and honestly, no feminist agendas. He would fondle me at the stove, goulash would simmer while we made love on the table or window seat or on the stairs. Afterward he would wolf down the meal and then do me again.
Despite my musings, we seemed disparate, though. I craved closeness; he favored aloofness. He seemed worldly; I was small-town. Still, we might balance. We entered Orchard Road where white picket fences bordered both small clapboards and large Victorians. The night smelled of peonies and roses. “Small towns make me realize,” he said, “even here, I belong to the public.”
“Of course you do. You talk public all night long. The public loves you.”
“No,” he said. “I belong to the public because I’ve never belonged to anyone else. I’m adopted, always lived with someone else’s ideas about myself. I’m anonymous. It’s all I know.” We walked past a neat little clapboard with wrap-around porch and suspended wicker swing. At the sight of it he meandered up the front walk, perhaps reminded of some place. “Let’s swing,” he said.
“Jitterbug or Lindy?”
“Can’t dance, remember?”
Of course I remembered. It was just that the swing he wanted to swing on belonged to my Granny Elsa who at this hour slept, hearing aids on her bedside table. Many childhood evenings I sat on Granny’s porch swing in jammies, eating homemade peanut butter cookies before bed. I spent two weeks with her every summer, played hopscotch and roller-skated on sidewalks, bicycled on paved village streets. It was a sign that he had picked Granny’s swing. A sign, Roxie would affirm.
I wanted to teach him to dance. I wanted a regular dance partner, a companion. We climbed ten porch steps. A floorboard creaked. Subtle lamplight fell on the white wicker swing. We sat down. He pushed off. We lifted our feet and swayed behind a see-through hedge of Japanese yew trees at the porch’s edge. A car of teenagers crawled by, flicking red-tipped cigarettes to the beat of a thumping bass, or the beat of their groins. A harried man walked a black Labrador who bucked the leash. Across the street, widowed Mrs. Schmidt clicked on her bathroom light. We watched her shadow advance and recede about the room until the light went out, her entire two-story brick Georgian went dark, and the huge elm in her front yard was no longer back-lit. And then it was true night, luminous and unchained. When the swing slowed, he pumped it. “I feel eighteen,” I said.
“Me too.” He lifted his hand and traced a vein. “Rivers of life or rivers of life?”
“Accents and punctuation are easy,” I said. “Trouble starts with metabolic breathing and emotional vocalization.” I tagged on a nervous little laugh, my signature. Right now I didn’t give a damn about fricatives, labiodentals or sibilants. Unless he had kids who needed me. Unless he needed me. Had he been married? How many times? He seemed ungrounded, wounded. I waited, but he didn’t put a move on me.
“Why talk radio?” I said.
“Why speech therapy? Why dance? Why anything?” He pumped the swing.
“Right. The sooner you realize life’s an act, the better you get along,” I said, surprised by my own bitterness. We seemed to be on an airplane, buckled into time for emotional truths. I leaned forward and pressed my cheek to his. There was a tingling sensation from his four o’clock shadow.
“You’re sweet,” he said and placed his palm on my Stove Top thigh. Warmth seeped through my moody blue skirt. Granny’s swing swung, allowing a huge lapse of silence. Clouds fingered their way across the moon’s surface and disappeared, leaving a shiny, white saucer alone in the dark wide sky. I pushed my nose into the hollow of his neck.
“That’s nice,” he said. I ran my lips up and down his neck. I smelled him in a heady, close breeze, a hint of clove and sandalwood. He slowed the swing, fondled one breast. “Stop me,” he said bashfully. I stood up and he paused the swing. I angled between his legs and laced my fingers with his. Streetlight drizzled over him and when he lifted his face to look at me, I saw his eyes, bluebird-blue. I pulled him off the swing and led him to the other side of the porch where I picked up Granny’s homemade lap quilt. Without a word, we went down the stairs into the side yard of poplars, lilacs and roses. I opened the quilt and tossed it on the damp grass. He took off his hat, placed it on my head and bent to untie my tennies. Then, he rose. He rested his right hand on his hip, held his left hand up to hold an imaginary partner.
“Something easy,” he beamed. He shuffled a bit and kicked off his sneakers.
Waltz, I thought, tremulous. I formed my right hand into oath position and with three fingers tapped daa-da-da, daa-da-da on his polo shirt. “You need to feel the rhythm,” I said. “Count one-two-three, one-two-three.” I pressed myself to him. Our arms butterflied open. I continued to count one-two-three, one-two-three and took him with me into the forward box step. With calm regard, he followed me in the soundless dance. Each barefoot step glided, airborne and unbroken, until we dropped to the quilt.