The memorial assembly was held at the end of the new school year’s first day, and if one can measure success by damp hankies, the show Sadie and I put together was boffo. I’m sure it was cathartic for the kids, and I think Miz Mimi herself would have enjoyed it. Sarcastic people tend to be marshmallows underneath the armor, she once told me. I’m no different.
The teachers held it together through most of the eulogies. It was Mike who started to get to them, with his calm, heartfelt recitation from Proverbs 31. Then, during the slide show, with the accompanying schmaltz from West Side Story, the faculty lost it, too. I found Coach Borman particularly entertaining. With tears streaming down his red cheeks and large, quacking sobs emerging from his massive chest, Denholm’s football guru reminded me of everybody’s second -favorite cartoon duck, Baby Huey.
I whispered this observation to Sadie as we stood beside the big screen with its marching images of Miz Mimi. She was crying, too, but had to step off the stage and into the wings as laughter first fought with and then overcame her tears. Safely back in the shadows, she looked at me reproachfully. . and then gave me the finger. I decided I deserved it. I wondered if Miz Mimi would still think Sadie and I were getting along famously.
I thought she probably would.
I picked Twelve Angry Men for the fall play, accidentally on purpose neglecting to inform the Samuel French Company that I intended to retitle our version The Jury, so I could cast some girls. I would hold tryouts in late October and start rehearsals on November 13, after the Lions’ last regular-season football game. I had my eye on Vince Knowles for Juror #8—the holdout who’d been played by Henry Fonda in the movie — and Mike Coslaw for what I considered the best part in the show: bullying, abrasive Juror #3.
But I had begun to focus on a more important show, one that made the Frank Dunning affair look like a paltry vaudeville skit by comparison. Call this one Jake and Lee in Dallas. If things went well, it would be a tragedy in one act. I had to be ready to go onstage when the time came, and that meant starting early.
On the sixth of October, the Denholm Lions won their fifth football game, on their way to an undefeated season that would be dedicated to Vince Knowles, the boy who had played George in Of Mice and Men and who would never get a chance to act in the George Amberson version of Twelve Angry Men —but more of that later. It was the start of a three-day weekend, because the Monday following was Columbus Day.
I drove to Dallas on the holiday. Most businesses were open, and my first stop was one of the pawnshops on Greenville Avenue. I told the little man behind the counter that I wanted to buy the cheapest wedding ring he had in stock. I walked out with an eight-buck band of gold (at least it looked like gold) on the third finger of my left hand. Then I drove downtown to a place on Lower Main Street I had bird-dogged in the Dallas Yellow Pages: Silent Mike’s Satellite Electronics. There I was greeted by a trim little man who wore horn-rimmed glasses and a weirdly futuristic button on his vest: TRUST NOBODY, it said.
“Are you Silent Mike?” I asked.
“And are you truly silent?”
He smiled. “Depends on who’s listening.”
“Let’s assume nobody,” I said, and told him what I wanted. It turned out I could have saved my eight bucks, because he had no interest at all in my supposedly cheating wife. It was the equipment I wanted to buy that interested the proprietor of Satellite Electronics. On that subject he was Loquacious Mike.
“Mister, they may have gear like that on whatever planet you come from, but we sure don’t have it here.”
That stirred a memory of Miz Mimi comparing me to the alien visitor in The Day the Earth Stood Still. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You want a small wireless listening device? Fine. I got a bunch in that glass case right over there to your left. They’re called transistor radios. I stock both Motorola and GE, but the Japanese make the best ones.” He stuck out his lower lip and blew a lock of hair off his forehead. “Ain’t that a kick in the behind? We beat em fifteen years ago by bombing two of their cities to radioactive dust, but do they die? No! They hide in their holes until the dust settles, then come crawling back out armed with circuit boards and soldering irons instead of Nambu machine guns. By 1985, they’ll own the world. The part of it I live in, anyway.”
“So you can’t help me?”
“Whattaya, kiddin? Sure I can. Silent Mike McEachern’s always happy to help fill a customer’s electronic needs. But it’ll cost.”
“I’d be willing to pay quite a bit. It could save me even more when I get that cheating bitch into divorce court.”
“Uh-huh. Wait here a minute while I get something out of the back. And turn that sign in the door over to CLOSED, wouldja? I’m going to show you something that’s probably not. . well, maybe it is legal, but who knows? Is Silent Mike McEachern an attorney?”
“I’m guessing not.”
My guide to sixties-era electronica reappeared with a weird-looking gadget in one hand and a small cardboard box in the other. The printing on the box was in Japanese. The gadget looked like a dildo for pixie chicks, mounted on a black plastic disc. The disc was three inches thick and about the diameter of a quarter, with a spray of wires coming out of it. He put it on the counter.
“This is an Echo. Manufactured right here in town, son. If anyone can beat the sons of Nippon at their own game, it’s us. Electronics is gonna replace banking in Dallas by 1970. Mark my words.” He crossed himself, pointed skyward, and added, “God bless Texas.”
I picked the gadget up. “What exactly is an Echo when it’s at home with its feet up on the hassock?”
“The closest thing to the kind of bug you described to me that you’re gonna get. It’s small because it doesn’t have any vacuum tubes and doesn’t run on batteries. It runs on ordinary AC house current.”
“You plug it into the wall?”
“Sure, why not? Your wife and her boyfriend can look at it and say, ‘How nice, someone bugged the place while we were out, let’s have a nice noisy shag, then talk over all our private business.’”
He was a geek, all right. Still, patience is a virtue. And I needed what I needed.
“What do you do with it, then?”
He tapped the disc. “This goes inside the base of a lamp. Not a floor lamp, unless you’re interested in recording the mice running around inside the baseboards, you dig? A table lamp, so it’s up where people talk.” He brushed the wires. “The red and yellow ones connect to the lamp cord, lamp cord’s plugged into the wall. The bug’s dead until someone turns on the lamp. When they do, bingo, you’re off to the races.”
“This other thing is the mike?”
“Yep, and for American-made it’s a good one. Now — you see the other two wires? The blue and green ones?”
He opened the cardboard box with the Japanese writing on it, and took out a reel-to-reel recorder. It was bigger than a pack of Sadie’s Winstons, but not by much.
“Those wires hook up to this. Base unit goes in the lamp, recorder goes in a bureau drawer, maybe under your wife’s scanties. Or drill a little hole in the wall and put it in the closet.”
“The recorder also draws power from the lamp cord.”
“Could I get two of these Echoes?”
“I could get you four, if you wanted. Might take a week, though.”
“Two will be fine. How much?”
“Stuff like this ain’t cheap. A pair’d run you a hundred and forty. Best I can do. And it would have to be a cash deal.” He spoke with a regret that suggested we had been having a nice little techno-dream for ourselves, but now the dream was almost over.
“How much more would it cost me to have you do the installation?” I saw his alarm and hastened to dispel it. “I don’t mean the actual black-bag job, nothing like that. Just to put the bugs in a couple of lamps and hook up the tape recorders — could you do that?”
“Of course I could, Mr.—”
“Let’s say Mr. Doe. John Doe.”
His eyes sparkled as I imagine E. Howard Hunt’s would when he first beheld the challenge that was the Watergate Hotel. “Good name.”
“Thanks. And it would be good to have a couple of options with the wires. Something short, if I can place it close by, something longer if I need to hide it in a closet or on the other side of a wall.”
“I can do that, but you don’t want more than ten feet or the sound turns to mud. Also, the more wire you use, the greater the chance that someone’ll find it.”
Even an English teacher could understand that.
“How much for the whole deal?”
“Mmm. . hundred and eighty?”
He looked ready to haggle, but I didn’t have the time or the inclination. I put five twenties down on the counter and said, “You get the rest when I pick them up. But first we test them out and make sure they work, agreed?”
“One other thing. Get used lamps. Kind of grungy.”
“Like they were picked up at a yard sale or a flea market for a quarter apiece.” After you direct a few plays — counting the ones I’d worked on at LHS, Of Mice and Men had been my fifth — you learn a few things about set decoration. The last thing I wanted was someone stealing a bug-loaded lamp from a semi-furnished apartment.
For a moment he looked puzzled, then a complicitous smile dawned on his face. “I get it. Realism.”
“That’s the plan, Stan.” I started for the door, then came back, leaned my forearms on the transistor radio display case, and looked into his eyes. I can’t swear that he saw the man who had killed Frank Dunning, but I can’t say for sure that he didn’t, either. “You’re not going to talk about this, are you?”
“No! Course not!” He zipped two fingers across his lips.
“That’s the way,” I said. “When?”
“Give me a few days.”
“I’ll come back next Monday. What time do you close?”
I calculated the distance from Jodie to Dallas and said, “An extra twenty if you stay open until seven. It’s the soonest I can make it. That work for you?”
“Good. Have everything ready.”
“I will. Anything else?”
“Yeah. Why the hell do they call you Silent Mike?”
I was hoping he’d say Because I can keep a secret, but he didn’t. “When I was a kid, I thought that Christmas carol was about me. It just kind of stuck.”
I didn’t ask, but halfway back to my car it came to me, and I started to laugh.
Silent Mike, holy Mike.
Sometimes the world we live in is a truly weird place.
When Lee and Marina returned to the United States, they’d live in a sad procession of low-rent apartments, including the one in New Orleans I’d already visited, but based on Al’s notes, I thought there were only two I needed to focus on. One was at 214 West Neely Street, in Dallas. The other was in Fort Worth, and that was where I went after my visit to Silent Mike’s.
I had a map of the city, but still had to ask directions three times. In the end it was an elderly black woman clerking at a mom-n-pop who pointed me the right way. When I finally found what I was looking for, I wasn’t surprised that it had been hard to locate. The ass end of Mercedes Street was unpaved hardpan lined with crumbling houses little better than sharecroppers’ shacks. It spilled into a huge, mostly empty parking lot where tumbleweeds blew across the crumbling asphalt. Beyond the lot was the back of a cinderblock warehouse. Printed on it in whitewashed letters ten feet tall was PROPERTY OF MONTGOMERY WARD and TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED and POLICE TAKE NOTE.
The air stank of cracked petroleum from the direction of Odessa-Midland, and raw sewage much closer at hand. The sound of rock and roll spilled from open windows. I heard the Dovells, Johnny Burnette, Lee Dorsey, Chubby Checker. . and that was in the first forty yards or so. Women were hanging clothes on rusty whirligigs. They were all wearing smocks that had probably been purchased at Zayre’s or Mammoth Mart, and they all appeared to be pregnant. A filthy little boy and an equally filthy little girl stood on a cracked clay driveway and watched me go by. They were holding hands and looked too much alike not to be twins. The boy, naked except for a single sock, was holding a cap pistol. The girl was wearing a saggy diaper below a Mickey Mouse Club tee-shirt. She was clutching a plastic babydoll as filthy as she was. Two bare-chested men were throwing a football back and forth between their respective yards, both of them with cigarettes hanging from the corners of their mouths. Beyond them, a rooster and two bedraggled chickens pecked in the dust near a scrawny dog that was either sleeping or dead.
I pulled up in front of 2703, the place to which Lee would bring his wife and daughter when he could no longer stand Marguerite Oswald’s pernicious brand of smotherlove. Two concrete strips led up to a bald patch of oil-stained ground where there would have been a garage in a better part of town. The wasteland of crabgrass that passed for a lawn was littered with cheap plastic toys. A little girl in ragged pink shorts was kicking a soccer ball repeatedly against the side of the house. Each time it hit the wooden siding, she said, “Chumbah!”
A woman with her hair in large blue rollers and a cigarette plugged in her gob shoved her head out the window and shouted, “You keep doin that, Rosette, I’m gone come out n beat you snotty!” Then she saw me. “Wha’ choo want? If it’s a bill, I cain’t hep you. My husband does all that. He got work today.”
“It’s not a bill,” I said. Rosette kicked the soccer ball at me with a snarl that became a reluctant smile when I caught it with the side of my foot and booted it gently back. “I just wanted to speak to you for a second.”
“Y’all gotta wait, then. I ain’t decent.”
Her head disappeared. I waited. Rosette kicked the soccer ball high and wide this time (“Chumbah!” ), but I managed to catch it on one palm before it hit the house.
“Ain’t s’pozed to use your hands, dirty old sumbitch,” she said. “That’s a penalty.”
“Rosette, what I told you about that goddam mouth?” Moms came out on the stoop, securing a filmy yellow scarf over her rollers. It made them look like cocooned insects, the kind that might be poisonous when they hatched.
“Dirty old fucking sumbitch!” Rosette shrieked, and then scampered up Mercedes Street in the direction of the Monkey Ward warehouse, kicking her soccer ball and laughing maniacally.
“Wha’ choo want?” Moms was twenty-two going on fifty. Several of her teeth were gone, and she had the fading remains of a black eye.
“Want to ask you some questions,” I said.
“What makes my bi’ness your bi’ness?”
I took out my wallet and offered her a five-dollar bill. “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”
“You ain’t from around here. Soun like a Yankee.”
“Do you want this money or not, Missus?”
“Depends on the questions. I ain’t tellin you my goddam bra-size.”
“I want to know how long you’ve been here, for a start.”
“This place? Six weeks, I guess. Harry thought he might catch on at the Monkey Ward warehouse, but they ain’t hiring. So he went on over to Manpower. You know what that is?”
“Yeah, n he workin with a bunch of niggers.” Only it wasn’t workin, it was woikin. “Nine dollars a day workin with a bunch of goddam niggers side a the road. He says it’s like bein at West Texas Correctional again.”
“How much rent do you pay?”
“Fifty a month.”
“Semi. Well, you could say. Got a goddam bed and a goddam gas stove gone kill us all, most likely. And I ain’t takin you in, so don’t ax. I don’t know you from goddam Adam.”
“Did it come with lamps and such?”
“You’re crazy, mister.”
“Yeah, couple. One that works and one that duddn’t. I ain’t stayin here, be goddamned if I will. He tell how he don’t want to move back in with my mama down Mozelle, but tough titty said the kitty. I ain’t stayin here. You smell this place?”
“That ain’t nothin but shit, sonny jim. Not catshit, not dogshit, that’s peopleshit. Work with niggers, that’s one thing, but live like one? Nosir. You done?”
I wasn’t, quite, although I wished I were. I was disgusted by her, and disgusted with myself for daring to judge. She was a prisoner of her time, her choices, and this shit-smelling street. But it was the rollers under the yellow headscarf that I kept looking at. Fat blue bugs waiting to hatch.
“Nobody stays here for long, I guess?”
“On ’Cedes Street?” She waved her cigarette at the hardpan leading to the deserted parking lot and the vast warehouse filled with nice things she would never own. At the elbow-to-elbow shacks with their steps of crumbling cinderblock and their broken windows blocked up with pieces of cardboard. At the roiling kids. At the old, rust-eaten Fords and Hudsons and Studebaker Larks. At the unforgiving Texas sky. Then she uttered a terrible laugh filled with amusement and despair.
“Mister, this is a bus stop on the road to nowhere. Me’n Bratty Sue’s sailin back to Mozelle. If Harry won’t go with us, we’ll sail without him.”
I took the map out of my hip pocket, tore off a strip, and scribbled my Jodie telephone number on it. Then I added another five-dollar bill. I held them out to her. She looked but didn’t take.
“What I want your telephone number for? I ain’t got no goddam phone. That there ain’t no DFW ’shange, anyway. That’s goddam long distance.”
“Call me when you get ready to move out. That’s all I want. You call me and say, ‘Mister, this is Rosette’s mama, and we’re moving.’ That’s all it is.”
I could see her calculating. It didn’t take her long. Ten dollars was more than her husband would make working all day in the hot Texas sun. Because Manpower knew from nothing about time-and-a-half on holidays. And this would be ten dollars he knew from nothing about.
“Gimme another semny-fi cent,” she said. “For the long distance.”
“Here, take a buck. Live a little. And don’t forget.”
“No, you don’t want to. Because if you forgot, I might just be apt to find my way to your husband and tattle. This is important business, Missus. To me it is. What’s your name, anyway?”
I stood there in the dirt and the weeds, smelling shit, half-cooked oil, and the big farty aroma of natural gas.
“Mister? What’s wrong with you? You come over all funny.”
“Nothing,” I said. And maybe it was nothing. Templeton is far from an uncommon name. Of course a man can talk himself into anything, if he tries hard enough. I’m walking, talking proof of that.
“What’s your name?”
“Puddentane,” I said. “Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same.”
At this touch of grammar school raillery, she finally cracked a smile.
“You call me, Missus.”
“Yeah, okay. Go on now. You was to run over that little hell-bitch of mine on your way out, you’d prolly be doin me a favor.”
I drove back to Jodie and found a note thumbtacked to my door:
Would you call me? I need a favor.
Sadie (and that’s the trouble!!)
Which meant exactly what? I went inside to call her and find out.
Coach Borman’s mother, who lived in an Abilene nursing home, had broken her hip, and this coming Saturday was the DCHS Sadie Hawkins Dance.
“Coach talked me into chaperoning the dance with him! He said, and I quote, ‘How can you resist going to a dance that’s practically named after you?’ Just last week, this was. And like a fool I agreed. Now he’s going down to Abilene, and where does that leave me? Chaperoning two hundred sex-crazed sixteen-year-olds doing the Twist and the Philly? I don’t think so! What if some of the boys bring beer?”
I thought it would be amazing if they didn’t, but felt it best not to say so.
“Or what if there’s a fight in the parking lot? Ellie Dockerty said a bunch of boys from Henderson crashed the dance last year and two of their kids and two of ours had to go to the hospital! George, can you help me out here? Please? ”
“Have I just been Sadie Hawkinsed by Sadie Dunhill?” I was grinning. The idea of going to the dance with her did not exactly fill me with gloom.
“Don’t joke! It’s not funny!”
“Sadie, I’d be happy to go with you. Are you going to bring me a corsage?”
“I’d bring you a bottle of champagne, if that’s what it took.” She considered this. “Well, no. Not on my salary. A bottle of Cold Duck, though.”
“Doors open at seven-thirty?” Actually I knew they did. The posters were up all over the school.
“And it’s just a record-hop. No band. That’s good.”
“Live bands can cause problems. I shapped a dance once where the drummer sold home brew beer at intermission. That was a pleasant experience.”
“Were there fights?” She sounded horrified. Also fascinated.
“Nope, but there was a whole lot of puking. The stuff was spunky.”
“This was in Florida?”
It had been at Lisbon High, in 2009, so I told her yes, in Florida. I also told her I’d be happy to co-chaperone the hop.
“Thank you so much, George.”
“My pleasure, ma’am.”
And it absolutely was.
The Pep Club was in charge of the Sadie Hawkins, and they’d done a bang-up job: lots of crepe streamers wafting down from the gymnasium rafters (silver and gold, of course), lots of ginger ale punch, lemon-snap cookies, and red velvet cupcakes provided by the Future Homemakers of America. The Art Department — small but dedicated — contributed a cartoon mural that showed the immortal Miss Hawkins herself, chasing after the eligible bachelors of Dogpatch. Mattie Shaw and Mike’s girlfriend, Bobbi Jill, did most of the work, and they were justifiably proud. I wondered if they still would be seven or eight years from now, when the first wave of women’s libbers started burning their bras and demonstrating for full reproductive rights. Not to mention wearing tee-shirts that said things like I AM NOT PROPERTY and A WOMAN NEEDS A MAN LIKE A FISH NEEDS A BICYCLE.
The night’s DJ and master of ceremonies was Donald Bellingham, a sophomore. He arrived with a totally ginchy record collection in not one but two Samsonite suitcases. With my permission (Sadie just looked bewildered), he hooked up his Webcor phonograph and his dad’s preamp to the school’s PA system. The gym was big enough to provide natural reverb, and after a few preliminary feedback shrieks, he got a booming sound that was awesome. Although born in Jodie, Donald was a permanent resident of Rockville, in the state of Daddy Cool. He wore pink-rimmed specs with thick lenses, belt-in-the-back slacks, and saddle shoes so grotesquely square they were authentically crazy, man. His face was an exploding zit-factory below a Brylcreem-loaded Bobby Rydell duck’s ass. He looked like he might get his first kiss from a real live girl around the age of forty-two, but he was fast and funny with the mike, and his record collection (which he called “the stack-o-wax” and “Donny B.’s round mound of sound”) was, as previously noted, the ginchiest.
“Let’s kick-start this party with a blast from the past, a rock n roll relic from the grooveyard of cool, a golden gasser, a platter that matters, move your feet to the real gone beat of Danny. . and the JOOONIERS! ”
“At the Hop” nuked the gym. The dance started as most of them do in the early sixties, just the girls jitterbugging with the girls. Feet in penny loafers flew. Petticoats swirled. After awhile, though, the floor started to fill up with boy-girl couples. . for the fast dances, at least, more current stuff like “Hit the Road Jack” and “Quarter to Three.”
Not many of the kids would have made the cut on Dancing with the Stars, but they were young and enthusiastic and obviously having a ball. It made me happy to see them. Later, if Donny B. didn’t have the good sense to lower the lights a bit, I’d do it myself. Sadie was nervous at first, ready for trouble, but these kids had just come to have fun. There were no invading hordes from Henderson or any other school. She saw that and began to loosen up a little.
After about forty minutes of nonstop music (and four red velvet cupcakes), I leaned toward Sadie and said, “Time for Warden Amberson to do his first circuit of the building and make sure no one in the exercise yard is engaging in inappropriate behavior.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“I want you to keep an eye on the punch bowl. If any young man approaches it with a bottle of anything, even cough syrup, I want you to threaten him with electrocution or castration, whichever you think might be more effective.”
She leaned back against the wall and laughed until tears sparkled in the corners of her eyes. “Get out of here, George, you’re awful. ”
I went. I was glad I’d made her laugh, but even after three years, it was easy to forget how much more effect sexually tinged jokes have in the Land of Ago.
I caught a couple making out in one of the more shadowy nooks on the east side of the gym — he prospecting inside her sweater, she apparently trying to suck his lips off. When I tapped the young prospector on the shoulder, they leaped apart. “Save it for The Bluffs after the dance,” I said. “For now, go on back to the gym. Walk slow. Cool off. Get some punch.”
They went, she buttoning her sweater, he walking slightly bent over in that well-known male adolescent gait known as the Blue-Balls Scuttle.
Two dozen red fireflies winked from behind the metal shop. I waved and a couple of the kids in the smoking area waved back. I poked my head around the east corner of the woodshop and saw something I didn’t like. Mike Coslaw, Jim LaDue, and Vince Knowles were huddled there, passing something back and forth. I grabbed it and heaved it over the chain-link fence before they even knew I was there.
Jim looked momentarily startled, then gave me his lazy football-hero smile. “Hello to you too, Mr. A.”
“Spare me, Jim. I’m not some girl you’re trying to charm out of her panties, and I’m most assuredly not your coach.”
He looked shocked and a little scared, but I saw no offended sense of entitlement in his face. I think that if this had been one of the big Dallas schools, there might have been. Vince had backed away a step. Mike stood his ground, but looked downcast and embarrassed. No, it was more than embarrassment. It was outright shame.
“A bottle at a record-hop,” I said. “It’s not that I expect you to stick to all the rules, but why would you be so stupid when it comes to violating them? Jimmy, you get caught drinking and kicked off the football team, what happens to your ’Bama scholarship?”
“Prob’ly get red-shirted, I guess,” he said. “That’s all.”
“Right, and sit out a year. Actually have to make grades. Same with you, Mike. And you’d get kicked out of the Drama Club. Do you want that?”
“Nosir.” Hardly more than a whisper.
“Do you, Vince?”
“No, huh-uh, Mr. A. Absolutely nitzy. Are we still gonna do the jury one? Because if we are—”
“Don’t you know enough to shut up when a teacher’s scolding you?”
“Yessir, Mr. A.”
“You boys don’t get a pass from me next time, but this is your lucky night. What you get tonight is a valuable piece of advice: Do not fuck up your futures. Not over a pint of Five Star at a school dance you won’t even remember a year from now. Do you understand that?”
“Yessir,” Mike said. “I’m sorry.”
“Me, too,” Vince said. “Absolutely.” And crossed himself, grinning. Some of them are just built that way. And maybe the world needs a cadre of smartasses to liven things up, who knows?
“Yessir,” he said. “Please don’t tell my daddy.”
“No, this is between us.” I looked them over. “You boys will find plenty of places to drink next year at college. But not at our school. You hear me?”
This time they all said yessir.
“Now go back inside. Drink some punch and rinse the smell of whiskey off your breath.”
They went. I gave them time, then followed at a distance, head down, hands stuffed deep in pockets, thinking hard. Not at our school, I had said. Ours.
Come and teach, Mimi had said. That’s what you were meant to do.
2011 had never seemed more distant than it did then. Hell, Jake Epping had never seemed so distant. A growling tenor sax was blowing in a party-lit gym deep in the heart of Texas. A sweet breeze carried it across the night. A drummer was laying down an insidious off-your-seat-and-on-your-feet shuffle.
I think that’s when I decided I was never going back.
The growling sax and hoochie-coochie drummer were backing a group called The Diamonds. The song was “The Stroll.” The kids weren’t doing that dance, though. Not quite.
The Stroll was the first step Christy and I learned when we started going to Thursday-night dance classes. It’s a two-by-two dance, a kind of icebreaker where each couple jives down an aisle of clapping guys and girls. What I saw when I came back into the gym was different. Here the boys and the girls came together, turned in each other’s arms as if waltzing, then separated again, ending up across from where they had begun. When they were apart, their feet went back on their heels and their hips swayed forward, a move that was both charming and sexy.
As I watched from beside the snack table, Mike, Jim, and Vince joined the guys’ side. Vince didn’t have much — to say he danced like a white boy would be an insult to white boys everywhere — but Jim and Mike moved like the athletes they were, which is to say with unconscious grace. Pretty soon most of the girls on the other side were watching them.
“I was starting to worry about you!” Sadie shouted over the music. “Is everything all right out there?”
“Fine!” I shouted back. “What’s that dance?”
“The Madison! They’ve been doing it on Bandstand all month! Want me to teach you?”
“Lady,” I said, taking her by the arm, “I’m going to teach you.”
The kids saw us coming and made room, clapping and shouting “Way to go, Mr. A!” and “Show him how you work, Miz Dunhill!” Sadie laughed and tightened the elastic holding her ponytail. Color mounted high in her cheeks, making her more than pretty. She got back on her heels, clapping her hands and shaking her shoulders with the other girls, then came forward into my arms, her eyes turned up to mine. I was glad I was tall enough for her to do that. We turned like a wind-up bride and groom on a wedding cake, then came apart. I dipped low and spun on my toes with my hands held out like Al Jolson singing “Mammy.” This brought more applause and some pre-Beatles shrieks from the girls. I wasn’t showing off (okay, maybe a little); mostly I was just happy to be dancing. It had been too long.
The song ended, the growling sax fading off into that rock n roll eternity our young DJ was pleased to call the grooveyard, and we started to walk off the floor.
“God, that was fun,” she said. She took my arm and squeezed it. “You’re fun.”
Before I could answer, Donald blared out through the PA. “In honor of two chaperones who can actually dance — a first in the history of our school — here’s a blast from the past, gone from the charts but not from our hearts, a platter that matters, straight from my own daddy-o’s record collection, which he doesn’t know I brought and if any of you cool cats tell him, I’m in trouble. Dig it, all you steady rockers, this is how they did it when Mr. A. and Miz D. were in high school!”
They all turned to look at us, and. . well. .
You know how, when you’re out at night and you see the edge of a cloud light up a bright gold, you know the moon is going to come out in a second or two? That was the feeling I had right then, standing among the gently swaying crepe streamers in the Denholm gymnasium. I knew what he was going to play, I knew we were going to dance to it, and I knew how we were going to dance. Then it came, that smooth brass intro:
Bah-dah-dah. . bah-dah-da-dee-dum. .
Glenn Miller. “In the Mood.”
Sadie reached behind her and pulled the elastic, releasing the ponytail. She was still laughing and beginning to hip-sway just a little bit. Her hair slipped smoothly from one shoulder to the other.
“Can you swing?” Raising my voice to be heard over the music. Knowing she could. Knowing she would.
“Do you mean like the Lindy Hop?” she asked.
“That’s what I mean.”
“Go, Miz Dunhill,” one of the girls said. “We want to see it.” And two of her friends pushed Sadie toward me.
She hesitated. I did another spin and held out my hands. The kids cheered as we moved out on the floor. They gave us room. I pulled her toward me, and after the smallest of hesitations, she spun first to the left and then to the right, the A-line of the jumper she was wearing giving her just enough room to cross her feet as she went. It was the Lindy variation Richie-from-the-ditchie and Bevvie-from-the-levee had been learning that day in the fall of 1958. It was the Hellzapoppin. Of course it was. Because the past harmonizes.
I brought her to me by our clasped hands, then let her go back. We separated. Then, like people who had practiced these moves for months (possibly to a slowed-down record in a deserted picnic area), we bent and kicked, first to the left and then to the right. The kids laughed and cheered. They had formed a clapping circle around us in the middle of the polished floor.
We came together and she twirled like a hopped-up ballerina beneath our linked hands.
Now you squeeze to tell me left or right.
The light squeeze came on my right hand, as if the thought had summoned it, and she whirled back like a propeller, her hair flying out in a fan that gleamed first red, then blue in the lights. I heard several girls gasp. I caught her and went down on one heel with her bent over my arm, hoping like hell that I wouldn’t pop my knee. I didn’t.
I came up. She came with me. She went out, then came back into my arms. We danced under the lights.
Dancing is life.
The hop ended at eleven, but I didn’t turn the Sunliner into Sadie’s driveway until quarter past midnight on Sunday morning. One of the things nobody tells you about the glamorous job of chaperoning teenage dances is that the shaps are the ones who have to make sure everything’s picked up and locked away once the music ends.
Neither of us said much on the way back. Although Donald played several other tempting big-band jump tunes and the kids pestered us to swing-dance again, we declined. Once was memorable; twice would have been indelible. Maybe not such a good thing in a small town. For me, it already was indelible. I couldn’t stop thinking about the feel of her in my arms or her quick breath on my face.
I cut the engine and turned to her. Now she’ll say “Thank you for bailing me out” or “Thanks for a lovely evening,” and that’ll be that.
But she didn’t say either of those things. She didn’t say anything. She just looked at me. Hair on her shoulders. Top two buttons of the man’s Oxford-cloth shirt beneath the jumper undone. Earrings gleaming. Then we were together, first fumbling, then holding on tight. It was kissing, but it was more than kissing. It was like eating when you’ve been hungry or drinking when you’ve been thirsty. I could smell her perfume and her clean sweat under the perfume and I could taste tobacco, faint but still pungent, on her lips and tongue. Her fingers slipped through my hair (one pinky tickling for just a moment in the cup of my ear and making me shiver), then locked at the back of my neck. Her thumbs were moving, moving. Stroking bare skin at the nape that once, in another life, would have been covered by hair. I slipped my hand first beneath and then around the fullness of her breast and she murmured, “Oh, thank you, I thought I was going to fall.”
“My pleasure,” I said, and squeezed gently.
We necked for maybe five minutes, breathing harder as the caresses grew bolder. The windshield of my Ford steamed up. Then she pushed me away and I saw her cheeks were wet. When in God’s name had she started to cry?
“George, I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t. I’m too scared.” Her jumper was in her lap, revealing her garters, the hem of her slip, the lacy froth of her panties. She pulled the skirt down to her knees.
I guessed it was being married, and even if the marriage was busted, it still mattered — this was the mid-twentieth century, not the early twenty-first. Or maybe it was the neighbors. The houses looked dark and fast asleep, but you couldn’t tell for sure, and in small towns, new preachers and new teachers are always interesting topics of conversation. It turned out I was wrong on both counts, but there was no way I could have known.
“Sadie, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. I’m not—”
“You don’t understand. It’s not that I don’t want to. That’s not why I’m scared. It’s because I never have.”
Before I could say anything else, she was out of the car and running for the house, fumbling in her purse for her key. She didn’t look back.
I got home at twenty to one, walking from the garage to the house in my own version of the Blue-Balls Scuttle. I had no more than turned on the kitchen light when the phone began to ring. 1961 is forty years from caller ID, but only one person would be calling me at such an hour, and after such a night.
“George? It’s me.” She sounded composed, but her voice was thick. She had been crying. And hard, from the sound.
“Hi, Sadie. You never gave me a chance to thank you for a lovely time. During the dance, and after.”
“I had a good time, too. It’s been so long since I danced. I’m almost afraid to tell you who I learned to Lindy with.”
“Well,” I said, “I learned with my ex-wife. I’m guessing you might have learned with your estranged husband.” Except it wasn’t a guess; it was how these things went. I was no longer surprised by it, but if I told you I ever got used to that eerie chiming of events, I’d be lying.
“Yes.” Her tone was flat. “Him. John Clayton of the Savannah Claytons. And estranged is just the right word, because he’s a very strange man.”
“How long have you been married?”
“Forever and a day. If you want to call what we had a marriage, that is.” She laughed. It was Ivy Templeton’s laugh, full of humor and despair. “In my case, forever and a day adds up to a little over four years. After school lets out in June, I’m going to make a discreet trip to Reno. I’ll get a summer job as a waitress or something. The residency requirement is six weeks. Which means in late July or early August I’ll be able to shoot this. . this joke I got myself into. . like a horse with a broken leg.”
“I can wait,” I said, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I wondered if they were true. Because the actors were gathering in the wings and the show would soon start. By June of ’62, Lee Oswald would be back in the USA, living first with Robert and Robert’s family, then with his mother. By August he’d be on Mercedes Street in Fort Worth and working at the nearby Leslie Welding Company, putting together aluminum windows and the kind of storm doors that have initials worked into them.
“I’m not sure I can.” She spoke in a voice so low I had to strain to hear her. “I was a virgin bride at twenty-three and now I’m a virgin grass widow at twenty-eight. That’s a long time for the fruit to hang on the tree, as they say back where I come from, especially when people — your own mother, for one — assume you started getting your practical experience on all that birds-and-bees stuff four years ago. I’ve never told anyone that, and if you repeated it, I think I’d die.”
“It’s between us, Sadie. And always will be. Was he impotent?”
“Not exact—” She broke off. There was silence for a moment, and when she spoke again, her voice was full of horror. “George. . is this a party line?”
“No. For an extra three-fifty a month, this baby is all mine.”
“Thank God. But it’s still nothing to be talking about on the phone. And certainly not at Al’s Diner over Prongburgers. Can you come for supper? We could have a little picnic in my backyard. Say around five?”
“That would be fine. I’ll bring a poundcake, or something.”
“That’s not what I want you to bring.”
“I can’t say it on the phone, even if it’s not a party line. Something you buy in a drugstore. But not the Jodie Drugstore.”
“Don’t say anything, please. I’m going to hang up and splash some cold water on my face. It feels like it’s on fire.”
There was a click in my ear. She was gone. I undressed and went to bed, where I lay awake a long time, thinking long thoughts. About time and love and death.