by Terry Sanville
During my middle childhood I had this recurring dream. God came to me in the black of night, hovered above my bed, his wispy white beard hanging down, tickling my cheek. “Edward,” he intoned, “you are destined to lose one of your senses. You must choose which one.”
Up until my twelfth year I had always replied, “Lord, if y’all have ta, take ma sense of touch.” But then I met Natane and everything changed.
That summer, my rough-and-tumble father packed his lineman’s gear and headed west into the Oklahoma panhandle, searching for some stretch of wire where my mother’s complaining couldn’t reach him. It was nice having a quiet house. Mom took a job as hostess at Brian’s Restaurant in the heart of hookerville, working the lunch and dinner shift.
“What y’all gonna do now that school’s out?” she asked one sweltering morning. “I won’t have yew hanging around the Impact Zone.” Lawton was an artillery town and she always ragged on me to steer clear of the sleazy bars that played loud rock-and-roll and catered to drunken GIs and their loose women.
I crunched my cornflakes to buy time, trying to think up a clever answer. “Don’ worry, mama. It’s too dang hot downtown. I’ll prob’ly just mess around with Mick and Jedda.”
“Oh no you don’t! You know how I feel about those little weasels.”
“Yes, mama. You keep tellin’ me – ”
“Be serious, Eddie. I’m just tryin’ ta be a good mother, you know.”
That line always shut me up. I sipped my OJ and listened to cicadas rattle in our backyard elm trees.
“So what do yew think I should be doin’?” I finally asked.
“I was readin’ in the newspaper that the Recreation Center has classes and such. They sound like fun.”
“They have art classes, and pottery classes, and dancing lessons and… and a lotta kids your age will be there,” she hastily added.
“How about electric guitar lessons?”
“You know I won’ have that hippie music in ma house. Besides, y’all don’t own a guitar and we can’t afford one.”
“I could borrow Mick’s and …”
Mom glared at me and I shut up. She sipped her coffee. In a few moments, a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “You know, Edward, y’all be going to school dances next year and I just thought that…”
“NO WAY! I ain’t takin’ no sissy dancing –”
“Watch yer mouth, young man.”
“But nothin.’ I’ve already talked with Barbara Evans at the Center. They’ve only got room for 24 in the dance class. I signed you up before they ran outta space.”
“I cun drop ya off on the way ta work. The lessons run from 11 to 1:30 … and they even give ya lunch.”
“You’ll probably see yer friends there, and there’ll be girls and….”
The Recreation Center was a squat green building on Sheridan Road, just outside Fort Sill’s main gate.
According to mom’s friend, Lucille, the Center had been home to the USO during World War II and Korea. You could still see the cigarette burns along the rails of the tattered pool tables where generations of soldiers had wiled away their off-duty hours.
“Now remember, Mrs. Evans is expecting you. Hurry up, it’s nearly time.” Mom tapped her fuchsia-polished fingernails on the Ford Falcon’s steering wheel.
“But do I gotta wear this…this…monkey suit?”
“Don’ be silly. Y’all look the perfect gentlemen. Now skedaddle.”
“A perfect somethin,’” I muttered and leaned over and kissed her cheek.
I ambled up the walkway, slipped inside, and tiptoed across the Center’s squeaky wooden floor. The whole place stank from those pink urinal blocks they used in the men’s room. I pushed through a double set of doors. The main hall had a raised stage at one end but was otherwise used as a basketball court. Two monstrous swamp coolers pumped in wet air while high ceiling fans pushed it around.
“Ah, Mr. Mechum, I’m so glad you could join us,” a heavy woman hollered from the far end.
“Yeah, ah, yeah,” I shouted back, straightened my clip-on tie and shambled toward her. A bunch of skaggy-looking girls sat in folding chairs along a side wall, wearing dresses with flouncy bottoms. The boys sat along the opposite wall. I didn’t know anybody. I was the only boy wearing a blazer.
“My name’s Mrs. Evans,” the woman said, her tight curls bouncing. “Your mother told me you are allergic to mayonnaise so we’ve made you some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. I hope that’ll be okay?”
“Yes’m, that’ll be fine.” I imagined eating PB&J sandwiches for nine weeks and inwardly groaned.
“You look very nice, Edward. Why don’t you have a seat with the boys. We’re just about to get started.”
Strangely pleased by the compliment, I slumped onto the end chair.
“Yer mama make ya come?” the red-haired kid next to me asked.
“Yeah, but she’s just tryin’ ta keep me outta trouble.”
“Same with all of us, except that twerp with the butch haircut. Don’ have no mama.”
I looked down the line of boys, their legs swinging, faces grim, staring straight ahead, like they were waiting to get vaccinated for whooping cough. Across the room the girls were giggling and carrying on. They looked to be about my age, a few younger, the inevitable tall one, and an Indian girl.
“What’s she doin’ here?” I asked.
“Ya mean the Injin?”
“Her pop’s a big shot officer at Fort Sill. Her mama’s Arapaho.”
“Huh! She’s sure got shiny hair. It’s way longer than my mama’s and…”
Before I could say any more Mrs. Evans and a short man in a rumpled gray suit with spit-shined shoes moved to the center of the room. Another lady of equal girth stood poised over a tweed-covered record player.
“Class, I’d like to introduce you to Charles, my dance partner and husband.”
The man gave a sweet smile and bowed at the waist.
“Today we will teach you the proper way to hold your partner. Then we will show you how to dance a very basic box step. Ellen, music please.”
The woman dropped the record player’s needle and some kind of old music came pouring from speakers on either side of the stage. Mrs. Evans easily slid into Charles’s arms and they moved across the wooden floor, turning all the while, effortlessly, in perfect unison. Suddenly Charles wasn’t this frumpy little guy but a real smooth operator. I watched with mouth open, wondering if I was expected to do the same. I was in deep trouble.
The music stopped. “All right, gentlemen, I want you to ask one of the young ladies for a dance. And this is how we do it.”
Charles stood before his wife. “My name is Charles. May I have this dance?”
“Why certainly, sir,” she answered demurely and smiled. “Now gentlemen, after you have picked a partner, I want all the couples to form a circle in the center of the floor. Go ahead, now.”
The girls remained seated and stared at us. A few of the boys ran across the room and quickly picked someone; most of us dawdled our way over the boards. I wasn’t afraid of girls, had played with lots of them as a kid. But having to touch them was… was different. By the time I got to the other side, all had been chosen, except one.
“Ma name’s Eddie. Yawanna dance?”
The Indian girl stared at me with black eyes. “That’s not how you are supposed to do it.”
“Okay, okay. Sorry. My name is Edward. May I have this dance?”
“Why certainly Edward. My name is Natane. I would be pleased to dance with you.”
Her voice had no accent. But she sounded sorta like our English teacher who came from somewhere up north. I turned and hurried to catch up with the rest of the couples. When I glanced over my shoulder, Natane hadn’t moved. I ran back to her.
“What’s wrong? Come on, will ya?”
“A gentlemen is supposed to take the lady’s hand and escort her.”
“Nobody else did that.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not just anybody.”
“Yeah, you’re the only Inju… er, sorry.”
Her face darkened, lips forming a hard line.
I extended my left hand and she placed her smooth brown one in it. I’m sure she could feel me trembling. We joined the others.
“That was very nice of you, Edward,” Mrs. Evans said. “I hope the rest of you noticed how he escorted his partner. On the dance floor it is the men who are courteous and lead while the women are demure and follow.”
Natane scowled but said nothing. We all formed a circle around Charles and Mrs. Evans.
“Now, gentlemen, take your right hand and place it at the small of your partner’s back. Charles, please show them how.”
We all watched. I moved toward Natane and slid my hand around the belt line of her tightly-pleated dress, bumping into her long braid of hair. She stood perfectly still, staring.
“Now ladies, place your left hand on your partner’s shoulder and your right hand in his, like so.”
I glanced around at the dance couples. We all stood as far apart from each other as the lengths of our arms would allow, our clasped pair of hands raised high in the air, like some deformed group of scarecrows.
“Now ladies, remain perfectly still. Gentlemen take a small step forward.”
Some of the girls giggled as us boys moved in. Natane smelled really good, wore some kind of perfume that reminded me of the wildflowers growing on Mt. Scott in early April.
My hands were damp as dishrags. “’Scuse me, Natane,” I said and wiped them on my pants. They left stains.
Her hands were soft and dry. She had a slender middle but was obviously one of those girls that “developed early,” as my mama would say. My mama had something to say about everything.
“Now class, I’m going to show you how to do a simple box step for a waltz. Listen to my counting. One, two, three; one, two, three…”
Charles and Mrs. Evans slowly moved in a large circle. I watched his legs, trying to remember the sequence: left forward, right slide, together, right back, left slide, together.
“All right, now it’s your turn. Spread out a bit and Ellen, the music please.”
Mrs. Evans began counting. Twelve couples clumsily moved in their own little circles, sometimes colliding. I stared at my feet and tried to remember the sequence.
“Dancers, don’t look down. Look at your partners and just feel the rhythm… one, two, three, one two, three.”
I looked up. Natane was staring at me, smiling. The smile changed to a grimace as I crunched her foot under one of my heavy loafers.
She hobbled a few steps. “It’s okay. I’ll probably do the same to you.”
“We’ll be even then.”
The music was relentless.
“Edward, you’re hurting me.”
I was concentrating so hard I didn’t notice I was mangling her hand in my grasp. “Sorry, don’ mean ta be such a spaz.”
“It’s all right. You’ll get better.”
The music ended.
“All right gentlemen, I want you to shift partners to the right.” The music resumed and we stumbled through the morning, trading partners every few dances. Each girl was different: some seemed to be going in the opposite direction, others smelled like vinegar or couldn’t stop giggling when either of us made a mistake. None said much of anything to me, except Natane. Mrs. Evans and Charles circulated through our group, adjusting hand positions, showing us boys how to apply and release pressure at the middle of a girl’s back to lead her around the dance floor, how to spin in circles while maintaining the simple box step. By noon, I was dizzy and my teeth ached from grinding them so hard.
“You don’t tromp on me as much as the other boys,” Natane observed right before the lunch break.
“Yeah, ah, thanks. Yer doin’ pretty dang good yaself.”
We sat at separate tables, eating sandwiches and drinking milk from little cartons. By the end of the lesson, I was beat. I had sent one little bit of a girl limping to the sidelines, had one complain that I was tickling her ribs, and another who insisted on laying her head on my shoulder during slow dances. After class, Natane and I walked out together. The mothers were waiting in their cars at the curb.
“Is your mother coming to pick you up?” she asked.
“Nah, she’s workin’ downtown…at Brian’s Restaurant,” I hastily added.
“Do you want a ride? My mom’s here.”
I looked at a sober-faced brown woman sitting behind the wheel of a huge black Chrysler. She had two braids that were turning gray and wore lots of rings on her gnarled fingers.
“Thanks, but nah. I only got a couple blocks to walk. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes, I’ll see you.”
I turned and headed down Sheridan toward the railroad. It was more than a mile to our house, gave me plenty of time to wonder about cowboys and Indians, to think about what it had been like to dance with all those girls, each one different, each one somehow strange to the touch. But then there was the really different one…and I knew I had found an ally.
The weeks flew past. Charles and Mrs. Evans introduced more and more intricate and challenging steps: foxtrots, rumbas, fast-paced waltzes, polkas, the cha cha, and even the tango. That last one I could do pretty good when I was dancing with Natane. During the breaks we’d work on it, perfecting our dips and turns. She learned how to respond to the touch of my hand on her back, and I learned how to touch her. It was a lot of work, and by the end of class I was soaked with sweat, big wet patches extending down my sides. To make matters worse, one of the swamp coolers broke down. It felt like our house after mama took one of her two-hour beauty baths.
“Ladies and gentlemen, before we start class today, I have an announcement.” Mrs. Evans studied a clipboard. “Our last lesson will be at the end of this week. To celebrate your achievements we have invited your parents to join us and bring refreshments for a party. I have already contacted your mothers and we have a wonderful time planned.”
I had planned on commandeering Natane to work on our tango steps. Now I envisioned the boys floundering around the hall with their mamas. Since the fathers worked, the girls would dance with each other. Us boys would never do such a thing.
“To make the party more entertaining,” Mrs. Evans continued, “we’re going to have a dance exhibition. We will spend the remainder of this week practicing for it.” A rumble went through the class. “Charles and I have been watching you carefully and have identified couples that excel in a particular dance step. When I call your names, please pair up. You will be dancing together for the rest of the week and will receive individual instruction.”
“Jeez, hope I don’ get stuck with Becky,” Larry, the red-haired kid whispered.
She was a friendly round girl who loved to dance close, her hands strong and grasping. I held my breath as Mrs. Evans read off the names. “Rebecca and Lawrence, Natalie and Robert, you will be practicing the foxtrot. Sheryl and Donald you will be practicing the rumba along with Barbara and Samuel.”
Mrs. Evans continued down the list. My stomach muscles tightened as each couple paired up and walked to the other side of the hall. When there was only four of us left, I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed. “Na-tan-e and Edward you will practice the tango. And Bridget and James you will join the waltz group.”
“Jeez, we’re the only ones doin’ the tango,” I told Natane.
“I’d rather have it that way. Wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess. At least they won’ be comparin’ us to somebody else.”
“Face it, we’re good, Eddie. We’ll have fun.”
“I better not have too much fun or my mama will sign me up for another class.”
“Would that be bad?” Natane looked at me, her eyes wide.
“Not if I get you as a partner,” I said, grinning “Come on, we gotta dance.”
Party day arrived. Mama begged her boss for time off work, baked two dozen cupcakes, bought me a black suit, white shirt and tie, got her hair permed, shaved her legs, squeezed into her best dress and practiced walking around the house in the highest heels she owned.
“So what’s your dance partner gonna wear?” mama asked as she curled her eyelashes in the bathroom mirror.
“Jeez, mama, Natane hasn’t said nothin’ about it. She’ll do okay.”
“Natane, that’s an… an unusual name. Where’s she from?”
“Her folks are from right here in Lawton. Her pop’s a big shot General at Fort Sill.”
“What’s her mama do?”
“I don’ know. Ya can talk with ’em at the party. Why all the questions?”
“Oh Eddie, I’m just nervous…just want you to have fun. I haven’t been to any kinda party in so long. You gonna save the last dance for yer mama?”
“Sure, but only if ya promise not to lead,” I said, grinning.
We arrived at the Recreation Center just fifteen minutes before things started. Some of the mothers had strung crepe paper streamers and were blowing up balloons. A table held enough cookies, cupcakes, and assorted pastries to serve a regiment. I looked around and spotted Natane standing in a corner with her mother. She waved at me.
“Who’s that?” my mama asked.
“Ah, that’s ah, Natane.”
“My dance partner, Natane.”
The smile froze on mama’s face. “You didn’t tell me she’s an – ”
“Now don’ start, mama. She’s real nice, and so’s her mother.”
Natane’s mother wore a simple blue housedress. Only her braided hair and jewelry gave away her Indian heritage.
“You know how I feel about them folks, Eddie. Why didn’t ya tell me?”
“’Cause ya start acting all weird. But you should see us dance, mama. You’ll be proud.”
“Well, at least they didn’t bring their tom toms. I suppose I can be polite.”
I took my mother’s hand and led her across the floor.
“Natane and Mrs. Slater, I’d like to introduce my mother, Loraine Mechum.”
Both of the women glared at each other without smiling. Natane looked at me and raised an eyebrow.
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Slater,” my mama managed.
“Likewise,” Mrs. Slater answered.
The silence was deafening.
Finally Natane grabbed my hand. “Okay, well, we’re going to leave you two to chat while Edward and I go practice.”
Before I could finish, Natane tugged me across the room and we slipped into a small practice studio with mirrors on the walls.
“Jeez, they gonna start a war or somethin’?” I asked.
“Give them time. They’ll be all right.”
I gawked at Natane in the mirror. “Wow, you look, like, ya know, really good.” She wore a sleek black dress, sleeveless, hemmed just above the knee with a slit up the side, V-necked with a very low back. Some kind of intricate silver necklace glistened across her copper chest. Her black hair was pulled back into a bun with a silver and turquoise clasp holding it up. She looked 21. I stared at my own image. I looked maybe 13.
“You look nice too, Edward. Shall we practice?”
We came into each other’s arms and began our routine. I had to get used to touching her warm bare skin… but it made the dancing easier. We moved like dressage horses, seeming to know every direction to go, every step to take, every twist and turn. Natane’s heels clacked on the wooden floor in perfect time, just a hair behind my own beat. At one point we caught ourselves staring into the mirror and broke into gales of laughter. The tango is supposed to be a serious dance and Mrs. Evans wouldn’t stand for any messin’ around. Our laughter was interrupted by a screech from the PA system.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen, we are about to start the presentation. Students, please take your places for the first ensemble dance.”
We gathered in the center of the hall. The mothers sat along the side walls with a whole bunch of their children. Two lonely-looking fathers perched awkwardly on folding chairs near the stage. We waited for the music, a swing tune designed to get our blood moving. The horn music blared. We spun in circles, creating an intricate diagram of movement. Nobody slipped. Nobody fell. The music ended and the crowd applauded as we took our seats.
The waltz teams went first, then the rumba, followed by foxtrot and cha cha. Mrs. Evans had printed up programs on colored paper and the mothers used these to fan themselves while watching with gleaming eyes. My mama and Natane’s sat side by side, stone-faced. I waved, but mama didn’t wave back.
“Ah, jeez. I’m gonna catch it when I get home,” I whispered to Natane.
“Don’t worry. I’ve already heard it all from my mother. It won’t be that bad.”
The performers spun, the music bellowed. My stomach tightened and I wished I had taken a pee.
The PA squealed. “Ladies and gentlemen, our last couple this afternoon is Miss Na-ta-ne Slater and Mr. Edward Mechum. They will be performing one of the most intricate and dramatic dances, the tango.”
We walked to the center of the floor and assumed our pose. Natane had her head close to mine. “Remember, we’re the only ones here,” she whispered.
The lights dimmed and music filled the hall. We moved counter-clockwise, our first steps slow and slithery. Natane leaned her head back, long neck creating a graceful arc, her solemn eyes staring. A spotlight tried to keep pace. In the middle of our routine came a series of intricate steps and turns, sharp and staccato. I held my breath and pressed a sweaty palm against Natane’s back. The touch was electrical magic, a flurry of twisting motion, then escape into the shadows, too quick for the light to follow, Natane’s clacking heels drawing us on. Then we were at floor center, in our last pose. The music stopped and the lights came up.
A drop of sweat ran down the bridge of my nose and slid into my eye. I blinked it away, not about to break pose to wipe it. The mothers applauded. The kids stamped their feet. I bowed at the waist and Natane curtsied. We hustled to the sidelines.
“That was a wonderful presentation, Natane and Edward,” Mrs. Evans said, “just wonderful. Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our program. We will now play a medley of music and invite all the parents to join in… and please, enjoy the refreshments.”
As her last word boomed through the hall, us kids made a beeline for the food table. I grabbed a handful of cookies and took them back to Natane who had remained on the sidelines.
“You performed really well, Eddie. Did you hear them applauding?”
“Yeah, we really showed ’em… and you were…were...”
“Maybe we could do some more, you know, dancing, sometime?”
“I don’ know. Our mamas probably don’ like that and…”
“I’d like that.”
“Yeah, me too, but…”
I glanced across the room. Mrs. Slater and my mama remained seated, chattering away. I took Natane’s hand and we joined them.
“Y’all were just wonderful, just…just… and Na… Natane…”
Mrs. Slater extended a hand toward me. “This dancing is not what I expected, Edward. Thank you for being so…respectful.” She clasped my hand in hers and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“Yeah, ah, sure, Mrs. Slater. Ya know, it’s yer daughter that’s the real star.”
“Did you know that Natane means ‘daughter’ in our language?”
“Huh? Yeah, that’s nice… just like, ya know, Natane.”
I must have blushed because both women broke into raucous laughter. Natane grinned, somehow looking her age again.
“Now Eddie, do you think it’s time for that dance you promised?”
I offered my mama a hand and we slipped onto the floor. She was almost a half-foot taller than me, so it was awkward. I felt like I did the first week in class. But in time we managed.
“Do you like that girl?” mama asked.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“She seems very, ah, mature.”
“I don’ know. But when I touch her when we’re dancin’ she knows exactly what ta do.”
“Yeah, touch. I seem to remember that. I remember when your daddy used to take me…”
We spun across the floor, filled now with disparate couples moving to the sounds of the swing era, when people danced cheek to cheek and shared that most wonderful sense of all.
“So how come you never told me that story before?”
“Ah, come on Randall, it was over twenty years ago.”
We’ve been driving west for two days, leaving New York City for our next gig in Phoenix. I’ve got the Beemer’s top down. The cool night wind tugs at our hair, sending long streamers flowing backward. We weave between semi trucks, dancing along the interstate flashing our lights and being greeted by the truckers’ blinking responses. At Oklahoma City I turn south toward Lawton and a stopover at mama’s place. She hasn’t met Randall yet…is still upset over my breakup with Larry.
“Yeah, I’ve noticed that you don’t talk about the women in your life,” Randall digs me in the ribs and smiles.
“What deep dark secrets you must have.”
“What? Natane? We were just kids. But I feel bad about it…should have stayed in touch. Next to you she’s the best dance partner I’ve ever had.”
“You’re just lucky that little minx didn’t get her hooks into you.”
“Relax, will you.” I reach over and pat Randall’s arm. The pat turns into a stroke.
“Well, at least she taught you one good thing.” Randall slides his hand down my cleanly shaven cheek. “Christ, I just hope your mother is more understanding than my own.”
“She is. Remember, she’s the one who made me take dance lessons.”
I reach forward and turn on the radio. Old style swing music and images of couples spinning around a USO ballroom fill me. I feel an overwhelming sense of regret – one sense I would happily give up, if only the Lord God Almighty ever asks me again.
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skinny cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, an occasional play, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 100 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including the Houston Literary Review, Birmingham Arts Journal and Boston Literary Magazine. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his story “The Sweeper.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.