The Dancing

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
He discovers his mother in the library, dancing.

Submitted: October 16, 2010

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Submitted: October 16, 2010

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Dancing 
Back then, Doreen had what she called benefits. They were parties, really, loud, besotted, and edgy affairs.
"I'm hosting a benefit tomorrow night," she'd say to my father. "For the Assumption of our Lord Polio League. Try not to be pathetic."
He would nod his head and later, of course, go with pathetic.
It was at the polio party that I saw Doreen--my mother insisted we call her by her first name, she apparently thought it risqué and intimate and bohemian--with her arms around a man whose back I didn't know. I thought they were dancing. Their room, my father's study, was darkened by moon clouds, and jumpy big-band music boomed from the hi-fi in the formal dining room at the other end of the long hallway, where the sounds of hissing spritzers and raw laughter indicated the party was on its usual course.
It would be years before I fully understood what I saw, even though Susan would try in her own way to explain it to me that same night. By the time I did understand, the memory would become, in retrospect, prescient: My father would have drifted away from our family several times, and finally away for good, humiliated by his oblique and tedious dispute with alcohol, with Doreen, with life. And Doreen would have taken a third cynical trip down the altar, she, too, the bad judge.
But the night I saw the two in the study I didn't fully understand her hair dripping over the man's shoulders, or their soft whispers and quick breaths. Still, I sensed drama. The scene had the quality of an opera, like the one my father once took us to see in Atlanta: seen but not understood, language and movement foreign and florid.
I jerked away, unnerved, from the slit in the doorway and resumed my furtive trip through the back doors and hallways of our rambling Southern Federal-style house, a house that had passed through three generations of my mother's precise and wealthy family, a house so massive it crushed people.
I returned upstairs, breathless, having dodged my swaying father as he exited the kitchen. I had been half holding my breath since I'd seen Doreen in the study, and was anxious to get back upstairs before my father came up to check on Susan and Billy and me, and the two Beazly boys. His visits would become infrequent as the night progressed. Finally there would be none.
I stumbled into the room, flopped down on a bed, and sucked air. In the faint moonlight I could see their faces, wide at the nostrils and eyes. They sensed a story. John Beazly broke the silence.
"Well, Dub, what did you see?"
"Nothing," I said. I wished I hadn't.
"Chicken, you didn't even go down," Billy said. He rolled his eyes and sang in a whisper, "Chicken, chicken."
"What about the rum punch. You were supposed to see how far down the punch was." This was from Joe Beazly.
"Same as before, no change," I said. "And you Billy, I was down there longer than anybody. You want me to bop your nose, you just say that again."
My little brother smiled. "What else?" he whispered.
I blathered on. I said something about the music and about loud conversations and small dough-wrapped sausages. I told them about Mrs. Clarendon, whom I had seen lurching toward the bathroom, covering her mouth while making the sound of a wounded deer.
They all gasped. "Who?"
"Mrs. Clarendon. The teacher."
They sighed, relieved it wasn't one of our parents. Susan laughed loudest. "Well, that's a hoot. Mrs. Clarendon. Mrs. Ralph Clarendon. That's great." She looked at me, fierce and straight. "Dub," she said, "I get to tell this at school. I claim it."
Protesting always proved useless with Susan, who was stronger and always seemed closer to the truth than anyone else I knew. Yet, reflexes are also strong, and I objected: "No way."
"I'm the oldest here, Dub. What I say goes as far as the moon. Besides, you wouldn't tell it right anyway. You lose the story." She glared at the Beazly boys and Billy. "That goes for all of you."
"Then I won't tell you what I really saw." I regretted this as soon as I said it. 
"What did you really see," Joe Beazly said, "a naked lady?"
Billy, youngest of all, said, "Yeah, a naked lady?"
"Shush, Billy," my sister hissed. "What was it, Dub?"
"I'll just keep it to myself. It wasn't anything."
Susan’s brow furrowed and she stroked her hair for a moment; years later I would see that stroke often, a flip of the bangs between her scissors fingers. I would see it as she observed my father slowly giving up. I would see it as my mother brought new and strange men into the house, some who leered at Susan as if she were fruit. It was to become a signal of imminent danger.
"Tell me, Dub," she said. "Alone if you'd like."
"It isn't worth it," I said.
"Dub, tell me."
"Okay, I saw Doreen dancing."
Susan was startled. Joe Beazly said, "They never dance at these parties."
"Yeah, you're wrong," Billy said.
Susan exhaled. "Go on, Dub." The moon was bright across her face, and her forehead tightened. "Go on," she said.
"They were dancing," I said, "that's all."
"What did you see, exactly?" she said.
"She was dancing with this man. I don't know him."
"Where?" she said.
"In Dad's room. In the study." I felt nauseated, as I did on a roller coaster.
The Beazly boys and Billy were silent.
"What makes you think they were dancing?" she said.
I answered from the core of my experience. "Because they were moving slow, like they do in the movies."
"Who else was dancing?"
"Nobody."
"Nobody?" and she shut her eyes.
"They were alone in the room. They were alone, I think." I almost couldn't remember.
A gauzy silence wrapped its way around us, and Susan stood up in a quick movement. "I'm going down," she said.
Billy opened his mouth to protest. He thought it might have been his turn.
"Billy, I can and I will do something very dangerous to you if you say one word. You know I will." Susan walked to the door, cracked it open, and cocked her ear to the hall. "Don't any of you move an inch." She walked out and shut the door, silently.
And we waited, confused by Susan's reaction. Years later I would remember a clock ticking loudly somewhere in the bedroom, ticking for me, signaling that my betrayal was a unique one. I alone had caused Susan to move quickly and ominously.
The boys kept to their private thoughts. The Beazlys downed imaginary airplanes with their fingers, and Billy crawled up on the bed and dangled his legs from the side, humming a child’s song. We waited. We waited twenty minutes.
She walked upright, back into the bedroom.
Susan dropped to her knees and held her finger to her lips, shushing us. We all moved close and waited for her to start. She glanced at each of us in turn, and when she came to me her eyes glistened like oiled marbles. She lingered, then turned to the other boys.
"Well," she whispered, and began slowly, hushed.
Susan told us who was drinking what, that the women were gossiping in the kitchen about Miss Bobby LeAnn Tremont's short skirts (they all think she's too fat for that type of attire), and that Mr. Beazly was delivering his old lecture about thieving lawyers, because he himself is a lawyer godammit, and if he had the money he'd buy himself a state Supreme Court appointment like the rest of them. The Beazly boys, his sons, flushed at Susan's use of their father's word, but were silenced by her tight urgency.
She paused and took a breath. "And Mr. Greerson's cigarette has burned clear down to his fingers, but he's still standing there talking and not noticing that he's near on fire. He must be drunker than a worm in an apple, or maybe he's got leprosy or something," she giggled. "You know they can't feel things." I wasn't precisely sure, but the word itself brought a horror.
"And then," she said, "Miss Lucy Tiggles, the mayor's secretary, was out on the back verandah with the other ladies, talking about her boyfriend. I'm getting the impression a lot of ladies talk about their boyfriends. Her back was turned to me so I couldn't hear the whole story, but what she does is she picks up her hands and holds them about a foot apart, like she was describing a fish she caught, but all those ladies laughed so hard I'm sure it wasn't that kind of fish she was talking about." Susan snorted. We were silent, and a hot flush crossed my face.
"What kind of a fish was it?" John Beazly said. His brother and Billy exchanged frowns.
Susan cleared her throat. "Well, it doesn't matter anyhow." She sighed.
"Now listen," she said. "We have got to be quiet and we have to get to bed right now."
I'd begun to think it might be safe, that there was reprieve from the dancing business, when Joe Beazly opened his mouth, "But Susan, what about your--"
"Shush up, Joe Beazly, I haven't got time to talk. None of us do. Get to bed." She shot him a steady glance, and he backed down. "You jump into bed with your brother. Billy, you get to sleep by yourself tonight. I'm going to sleep with Dub in the big bed." She glanced at me.
Billy snorted a giggle, clearly pleased. Susan handed him a stuffed lion with button eyes. She said, "Now be quiet and go to sleep, all of you."
They lingered for a moment, but sensed her power. Within a few minutes they had slipped into their beds, Billy humming again to himself. Susan walked to the door and cracked it open to listen to the party below. I slipped into the sheets, she closed the door silently, and came to bed.
My sister's skin, freckled and nearly translucent, caught the moonlight and moved with it as she crossed the room. Her ankles, neck, and wrists were long, her eyes bright green. Pictures of my mother at Susan's age showed the same frail limbs and features, and I was uncomfortable as I assessed their beauty. They were both striking, their mouths severe. When they were children, they both looked like women.
When she reached the bed she knelt on the covers facing me and leaned. Her long ginger hair fell and brushed my lips lightly. Susan's eyes were still wet marbles, from her storytelling and laughing, I thought. She sighed through her nose and brought her hand to my forehead. She seemed sad and lovely, like the last scene of a movie. She cocked her head sideways, then moved to her side of the bed.
As she crawled in she said, "Hi."
My head was light. It was her smells, the baby powders, shampoo, cold toe smells. Her flannel gown was fresh and laundered. I looked at the ceiling and said, "What happened?"
She propped herself on one elbow. "We used to sleep together before Billy was born, remember?"
It had been only a few years since we'd stopped sharing the same bed. It seemed distant.
She shifted. "It's sort of nice, isn't it?"
It was. My body was tense and I felt I needed to stretch my muscles, uncoil myself. She rolled over and my head lifted on a waft of her. Her smells were like limbs of her body, stretching and reaching. I looked at her and I knew this: I wanted to dance with her.
"Dub, you're breathing hard. Where's your pump?"
"It's not the asthma. I'll be okay."
A cloud moved in front of the moon and I lost her face. She said, "So what is it?"
I rolled over on my stomach. "Just out of breath, is all."
"Oh," she said, and socked me lightly in the small of the back. She left her hand there.
"Did you see Doreen?" I said.
Susan drew back her hand. "Yeah, Doreen," she said, and flopped back on the pillow. "I saw them."
"Dancing?"
Susan stared at the ceiling. She pumped her arms up and down, push-ups against the air. She studied her nails. Then she stroked her hair. I sat upright. "Well?"
"She's truly, utterly mad," she said, and she whimpered, a whispered wail, a desperate sound.
I reached over and put my hand on her shoulder. Her back was soft, and damp.
She said, "Remember the time Doreen went crazy when someone stole her fifty dollars?"
"Sure," I said. It was early summer in the year before Billy was born. It had happened like this: At dinner one night, without any indication she'd been angry, Doreen had slapped her dinner fork onto the table, next to her wine.
"Well, well," she’d said.
Dad blinked. "What's that, Doreen?" He looked like a dog that's just seen a bunch of boys walking toward it with tin cans.
"Oh, just the money."
"What money?"
"My money, of course," she said, and smiled at him. "Who else has money?"
"What about your money?" Dad said. He emphasized the word “your.”
"It's gone, isn't it. And I think someone took it. Susan Louise? Dub?"
"Not me," we both said, in unison.
"Well, then. The Good Fairy took it."
"Doreen," Dad said. He buttered some bread. "Where did you put the money, and how much was it?"
She looked past his shoulder. Her eyes were small slits in her head. "A fifty-dollar bill, on the counter," she said.
"Maybe it blew behind the stove," Dad said.
"Fifty dollar bills don't blow away," she said, evenly. "Or do they?" She turned slowly to me. "Dub, empty your pockets."
"I hardly think that's necessary," Dad said.
"I do think I know what I'm doing, Mr. Jurisprudence," she said. "I do think I do."
"Doreen, please," Dad said.
"I didn't take it," I said, truthfully. But it sounded weak. I knew my right eye twitched. Susan sat rigid in her seat.
"I said empty your pockets."
"Dub, why don't you and Susan excuse yourselves," Dad said.
Doreen turned to him. "No!" she growled. "You two stay right here at this table. Dub, empty."
It was at times like this when I saw an unnatural fire in Doreen's eyes. It was a reckoning time; the Atlanta Symphony could be playing the 1812 Overture overhead and she wouldn't blink an eye at the cannons. I stood up and tossed a penknife, two stones, fifty-eight cents, and a rubber on the table. It was a Trojan. Unopened, of course.
Doreen's eyes widened. "Jesus Mary and Joseph," she whispered.
I stood at attention, sort of.
"Dub," Dad said, "what in hell is that?"
"May I be excused?" Susan said. This was apparently going to be too much for her loyalty to handle.
"Sit, Susan!" Doreen said. "Do you know what that is, Dub?"
"I think, maybe, it's a rubber. Isn't it?"
Doreen gasped. "Good God, don't you ever use that word in this house!"
"Dub," Dad said, "where did you get that?"
"I just found it. I was riding my bike down by the pond."
"Get that, that thing off my kitchen table," Doreen hissed, and slammed down her wine glass. Red liquid splashed over her fist. I picked up the foil-wrapped condom.
"Don't touch it!" she shouted. "What are you doing?"
"Getting it off the table?"
"Drop it!" she said.
"But, Doreen--"
"What were you doing with it?"
"Just carrying it around," I said. That was the truth.
"Walter!" she said, and glared at Dad. "Deal with this."
He stared at the Trojan as if it were a mystery, and maybe it was, in its own way. Then he stood and leaned over the table to pick it up.
"Walter! Don't touch it!"
"It's not radioactive, for Pete's sake."
"But, it's, it’s a thing!"
Dad picked a fork up from the table. "For Christ's sake, Doreen," he said, and stabbed the condom with the fork. "It's not like it's been opened."
"Sweet Jesus, I should hope not!"
Dad wrapped the foil Trojan in a napkin and threw it in the trash.
"The fork," Doreen said. "The fork, the fork, the fork!" Dad tossed the fork into the rubbish.
"May I be excused?" Susan said.
"What in St. Christopher's name were you doing with it?" Doreen screeched.
"I just found it," I said.
"But you know what it's for," she said, and poured more wine with shaking hands.
I did, in a vague and rudimentary sort of way. At first I thought it was an odd pack of chewing gum, but when I saw the word "Trojan," I knew that I'd found the Holy Grail. I'd heard the boys at school talking about them, and was thrilled at having one in the flesh, so to speak. Of course, at the time, using it, or even opening it, was incomprehensible.
"No, I don't know what it's for," I said.
"Dub," Dad said, "maybe we better have a talk."
"Talk?" Doreen said. "Aren't we good little fathers and sons. No, what this needs is discipline." She stood up and leaned over the table.
"I'd like to be excused," Susan said.
"Go!" Doreen said. And Susan left the table like a Japanese geisha, quietly and with purpose.
"Doreen, it's just a kid thing," Dad said. "He was curious, and now he knows what it is. He didn't mean any harm."
"Oh really? You knew exactly what it was, didn't you, Dub. Don't lie."
I glanced at Dad, and looked away, quickly. "No, ma'am."
Doreen glared for a moment, then her faced screwed tight and she reached out and slapped me hard across the face. "Liar!" she screamed. "Liar, liar!" She made a fist and whacked my shoulder. Dad jumped up from his seat and grabbed her arm.
"Leave him alone!" he said. "It's over. And Dub doesn't have the money. Neither does Susan. It's lost!"
"I know that, godammit!" she said.
Dad's eyes narrowed. "Dub, go outside with your sister."
"Yes, sir," I said, and bolted out to find Susan sitting up in the big weeping willow tree in the backyard. I climbed up, my face still hot from the slap. Susan gazed out over the house as a cool night breeze picked up.
"You just had to toss it out on the table," she said.
"She would've just gone through my pockets and found I was trying to hold back."
"And you knew what it was?" From the house, the muffled sounds of the argument surged and subsided: shouts, thumps, and finally, the sobbing. Sometimes he sobbed, sometimes she sobbed.
"Sort of."
"It's revolting."
"I know."
"What possessed you to pick it up?"
I shrugged my shoulders and listened to the house, now quiet.
"You know, in her mind you've already gone to hell. We've all gone to hell."
"Whatever."
"Lord," she said.
 
*****
Susan lay on her back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. "I never told you what really happened about the money," she said.
I was confused. The incident was ancient and had been resolved, or so I thought. "You found it and gave it to her, didn't you?" I remembered the next night, when things were calm again. The dinner table had been silent, as if it were empty.
"I gave it to her," Susan said. "But I didn't find it. I took it from my allowance savings."
"Why?"
"Because at first I thought you took it and you were so scared of her you'd never give it back. Or admit to it."
I protested. I hadn't taken it.
"I know, Dub. I know that now. But I didn't when I gave it to her the next day."
"So, how do you know now?"
Susan swallowed. "When I gave her the money she was all puffy and feeling bad, you know how she gets, and she said I know you didn't find it behind the stove, Susan Louise. I told her yes I did but she just took it and said I checked behind the stove and I also know it's not in your character to steal money and besides, I know what happened. Then she said I'll hold on to it for now until I resolve this, now scoot and leave me alone. And I scooted."
I felt left out, and said so.
"Well," she continued, and her voice cracked. Her toes, warm now, brushed against my leg in an agitated motion. Her oily eyes were shiny with the moon. "About a week after that, Daddy took me for a ride to get some ice cream. In the car he handed me a new fifty dollar bill and he said take it Susie because I know you used your own money in that thing. And I said no I didn't but he said just take it and let's keep it between us, sweetie. He said that he knew I didn't steal it and you didn't steal it, and he put the money in my hand and said I was a good girl and then he said now shush, honey, you know I love you more than anything in the whole world, you kept your mother happy and that's always a good thing to do because you know how she takes things real hard."
Susan turned over and closed her eyes before her face hit the pillow. I could hear only her breathing. I felt heavy, fat with her story, sluggish and stupid.
"Susan," I whispered, "did you see them?"
"Yes, of course. They were just dancing. Like you said."
I reached over and touched her shoulder. Her back rose up and down, rapidly, as it would for most of the night.
 
END


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