GF_Fiction

 

One Two Three

by Wayne Faust

 

 

Yuma, Arizona, in January: half the cars on Business 8 hogged the road in front of Harry Middleton, most of them with their left turn signals on. Very few of them actually turned left but simply drove all day with their blinkers on, ancient geezers so shriveled that you couldn’t see their heads above the steering wheels of their Cadillacs.

“Shoot me before I ever get that old,” muttered Harry to himself. He’d been doing a lot of that lately— muttering, not driving with his turn signal on. That happens when you spend months crisscrossing the country in your car.

Harry cruised onto Main Street and parked his red Mustang convertible. Even though it was a pleasant 70 degrees, he didn’t have the top down. He’d been more susceptible to colds lately, and besides, when the top was down he couldn’t hear his Jimi Hendrix mix over the wind.

Harry stepped out into the parchment dry air. He breathed deeply through his nose and smelled pinion trees. January in Yuma was much better than July, when it routinely hit 115 degrees; he’d experienced that thirty years ago when he was stationed down here in the Army.

Ever since walking out on Esmeralda he’d been the vagabond he’d always wanted to be. Esmeralda never understood his need to do that. He’d practically had to beg her to go on the few vacations they’d taken. Although she seemed to know people all over the country and talked to them incessantly on her cell phone, she never actually wanted to go visit any of them. All she wanted to do was hang out in the basement with her old hag friends on Friday nights and play bridge. At least they were supposed to be playing bridge down there, but Harry always wondered. Whenever he asked how the game had gone she would just giggle. And the whole basement smelled like incense for days afterwards.

He had watched his wife become an old woman right before his eyes. First her health started going downhill. Then her looks followed down that same hill. So Harry finally walked out on her. After all, being married to an old hag was not what he signed up for all those years ago.

Harry knew that he wasn’t old yet, not by a long shot. So he’d come back to Yuma to recapture his lost youth before it was too late. But he’d forgotten that the place absolutely crawled with retirees in the winter. So he’d decided to only stay for a few days and then move on to Phoenix or San Diego. Besides, Esmeralda might be able to find him if he stayed here too long; she’d grown up in Yuma, after all – this is where he met her in the first place, and she still knew a lot of people down here. At least, he thought she did. Her family had always been secretive. None of them had come to the wedding, and she had no pictures. It seemed kinda creepy when he thought about it.

He grabbed a burrito and a Dos Equis at a little Mexican place on the corner. Then, he took off wandering down the sidewalk as the sun went down. The desert was nice this time of night, getting pleasantly cool. It would get downright cold by midnight, but for now it was light jacket weather. It was a lot better than being up north in January, although Harry hadn’t come down here to escape the cold. Only old people did that.

The town had changed a lot in thirty years. They’d remodeled the old theater and courthouse. Main Street was now a pedestrian mall, complete with a gushing, marble fountain in the middle of the square. A cool breeze wafted up from the nearby Colorado River, smelling of willow trees and algae. Harry relaxed as he strolled. After spending the whole day crossing the barren desert in his car, it felt good just to be out walking, to be gazing at the rows of brick and stucco buildings with their lights blinking on for the night.

Dance Tonight!

Admission only $5!

Come inside and cut a rug!

Harry chuckled. Cut a rug? How old was that saying? Probably as old as the people inside. Harry didn’t remember a dance hall here. But there it was. He listened to the music seeping through the door. It sounded like a live band.

“Fox trot,” he mumbled, surprised he still recognized the beat. Esmeralda had dragged him along to ballroom dancing lessons back in the day. But then he let her go by herself because that kind of music was for old people.

But tonight, something drew him in. He was out on the road to experience life, to see new things, so why not experience this? Besides, there might be some young women in there. But of course there wasn’t much chance of that.

He opened the door and the music swelled. The band had started a new song - a waltz. He knew about waltzes. That had been the one dance he’d actually enjoyed with Esmeralda because it was so easy.

One-two-three, one-two-three.

The room was a lot bigger than you’d think from the outside. It was long and narrow, stretching at least 75 yards to the back. The dance floor was polished hardwood, reflecting multicolored fireflies from a slowly spinning glitter-ball hanging from the ceiling. The floor was filled with twirling dancers. Those that weren’t dancing sat at long tables against the walls. A four-piece band was playing on a small stage – drums, upright bass, accordion, and organ. The organ sounded like an old Thomas organ from the ‘60’s, which wouldn’t be surprising since none of the musicians looked a day under seventy. And neither did any of the dancers. Harry felt like Jim Morrison at a polka party.

“You made it,” said a raspy voice from his right. An ancient Asian woman was squinting up at him from behind a small table. She wore a shiny, scarlet-colored dress and lots and lots of makeup. She had a full set of gleaming, white teeth, clearly not her original equipment.

“What did you say?” asked Harry.

“I said it’s five dollars, please.”

Harry knew that’s not what she had said the first time, but he thrust a fiver into her hand anyway. Didn’t Esmeralda have an Asian friend down here?

Harry strolled across the dance floor, heading for the back of the room. He felt like a kid compared to these old relics, which wasn’t a bad thing. A smile creased his weary face.

As he walked past the dancers, he saw some of them watching him out of the corners of their eyes. Well, that made sense. He was probably sticking out like a biker in an old peoples’ home.

He reached the back of the room and spooned himself a glass of Hawaiian punch. He gulped it down and spooned another, thirsty from the beer and burrito. He parked himself at the end of a long table, hoping to be left alone. He wasn’t.

“Hi there,” said a cheerful voice.

He looked across the table and saw a white-haired man in a lime green leisure suit, a pile of sugar cookies on a plate in front of him.

“Hi,” said Harry.

“Bob Comfort,” said the man, thrusting his hand across the table. Harry shook it reluctantly.

Akron, Ohio,” declared Bob. “Although me and the Missus live here now. Winters just got too cold for us up there.”

“I’m not here to avoid the cold,” said Harry quickly. “I like the winters. I’m just traveling around. I was down here in the service a few years back.”

“That so?” said Bob. “Are you retired then?”

Harry squinted his eyes. “Retired? No, of course not. I’m not even close to retirement age. Like I said, I’m just traveling around, checking out some options.”

“Retirement comes a lot quicker than you think,” chuckled Bob. “A lot quicker. But it ain’t so bad. Me and the Missus go dancing whenever we feel like it.”

Yeah, and I bet you drive a Cadillac with your left turn signal on, thought Harry, but of course he didn’t say that. He turned away and gazed at the dance floor, hoping to end the conversation.

A woman was dancing all by herself in the far corner. She twirled to the music, holding her hands out as if to an invisible partner. She held her head up proudly, chin high and elegant, smiling as if having the time of her life. Occasionally she did a pirouette and bowed to the empty air. The other dancers beamed at her whenever they passed by. She wore a powder blue, frilly outfit that could have been a prom dress from the 1950’s. Her silver hair was done up with bangs in the front.

“That’s Mildred,” said Bob Comfort.

“Huh?” muttered Harry.

“That woman dancing by herself.”

“Yeah. Why is she doing that?”

“She’s this year’s winner,” said Bob.

“Winner of what?” asked Harry.

“Dancer of the Year. It’s kind of a big deal around here.”

“What does she get?” asked Harry curiously.

“She gets to dance with the first newcomer who wanders in here. It’s quite an honor.”

Suddenly Harry noticed that the other people at the table were following their conversation intently. He could see where this was going. He was sure that there was only one newcomer in the place tonight, and guess who that was.

Harry stretched luxuriously and faked a yawn. “Well, it’s been a long day and I really should be….”

“You came in here to dance, didn’t you?” interrupted Bob and the others at the table nodded their heads like old parrots. “Mildred would sure be disappointed if you didn’t dance with her at least once. She’s been practicing since Christmas.”

Harry felt like he was being stared down by his long-dead ancestors or something. He looked from wrinkled face to wrinkled face. He felt his resolve start to melt. And he could use a little exercise.

“Aww, what the hell,” he muttered and got stiffly to his feet. The people at the table actually applauded.

Must not get a lot of excitement around here, thought Harry.

He traversed the expansive, polished floor and wandered up to the woman dancing alone. She had her back to him. When the song ended she curtsied to her invisible partner.

The band struck up the next song.

One-two-three, one-two-three.

Another waltz.

“Would you like to dance?” he said to the woman’s back.

She twirled around, startled. She wore no makeup, and in the shifting dots of colored light, her deeply lined face looked like one of those black and white photographs of Native American grandmothers. But a smile came to her slowly and some of the lines eased. She could have been an older version of Esmeralda.

“Why, I’d be delighted!” she exclaimed. “I was just thinking that I’m tired of dancing by myself.”

He reached out and took her right hand in his left. He put his other arm behind her back, trying to make the waltz frame he remembered from those few lessons with Esmeralda so many years ago. The skin of her hand felt like dry rice paper in his palm. He could feel brittle, thin bones underneath. He tried not to squeeze too tightly, afraid he’d break something.

“I’m Mildred,” she said.

“I know,” answered Harry. “They already told me. And you’re Dancer of the Year.”

She chuckled. “I guess my reputation precedes me!”

One-two-three, one-two-three.

Harry began counting the beat in his head, leading the woman around in a basic box step, the only one he’d learned. It came back to him fairly quickly, and he only stepped on her foot once, and that was just a glancing blow. She was about the same height as Esmeralda so it felt familiar. By the time the song ended, he had actually begun to enjoy himself.

He let go, and Mildred curtsied. He performed a clumsy bow. The band started the next song.

One-two-three, one-two-three.

Another waltz? And this one sounded odd. It was in some sort of minor key and the organ was making a flute sound in counterpoint to the melody. But the beat was still the same. Mildred looked at him expectantly.

“Aww, what the hell,” he said.

She smiled gratefully as he grabbed her hand again. It felt a little warmer this time. It was a pleasant kind of warmth, with just a hint of moisture. His feet began to take on a life of their own, and he no longer had to count off the beat in his head. His right hand gripped her back more firmly and he twirled her around a time or two, improvising. She laughed and her voice sounded much younger than it should have.

He led her around the floor. The other couples had all stepped aside and made a circle around them, applauding each twirl like it was Dancing With the Stars. Harry guessed that Dancer of the Year must be the social highlight around here.

“I’ve waited a long time for this,” shouted Mildred over the music and the applause. She turned her head to the side, holding her chin high. There seemed to be less skin sagging beneath her chin than before, but that was probably just a trick of the light. When the song ended, they danced a few extra steps in the echoing silence. Harry pulled away, embarrassed.

“Don’t you want to dance with me again?” asked Mildred. Her lower lip pouted. Yes, she definitely was looking younger. Harry suddenly felt a little spacey, and his eyes didn’t want to focus. His left hand was still grasping Mildred’s, or maybe she was still grasping his.

One-two-three, one-two-three.

Harry gaped at the bandstand. Three waltzes in a row? And the melody wasn’t like any waltz he had ever heard before. But the beat was the same.

Before Harry knew what had hit him, they were twirling around the floor again. If anything, the applause from the spectators was getting even louder. Harry responded to their enthusiasm by leading Mildred in a spin-turn. He’d never done that before, and the crowd went absolutely nuts.

As he swung her back around, Mildred actually seemed taller. In the beginning she had seemed fragile as a sparrow, but now her body was firm and solid in his arms. Her hand against his palm was soft now and very moist.

“No wonder you people like to dance,” Harry shouted. “I bet it makes you feel younger.”

“You have no idea,” she said.

With all the twirling and spinning, Harry began having trouble focusing on Mildred. But he could swear her silver hair was turning darker with each twirl. And he could no longer see wrinkles on her face.

After another time around the dance floor, Harry began to wheeze. His knees started to throb. But Mildred seemed to be just catching her stride. By now, she was twirling him and laughing out loud. And Harry was definitely feeling light-headed, maybe even dizzy. It was like a ride at an amusement park where you want it to stop but they decide to keep it going for a few more spins.

Mercifully, the song finally ended and the music stopped. Harry breathed a sigh of relief. “You’re making me look bad,” he said as he panted and dropped his right arm.

“Once more!” said Mildred, the word echoing around the now silent room. The spectators watched intently, many of them seeming to hold their breaths. Mildred kept her grip on Harry’s left hand, and it felt to him as if he were caught in a vice.

“Please,” said Mildred. “This only happens once a year. And tonight is the night. I need you to dance with me just one more time.”

Harry gaped at her face. She definitely looked years younger. Decades. She could have been Esmeralda when they first met, right down here in Yuma. Harry wondered what had been in that punch. Mildred glanced over at the bandstand and nodded her head. They struck up one more waltz, and this time there was no mistaking the driving, Native American beat, improbably still in 3/4 time.

One-two-three, one-two-three.

Harry really didn’t want to dance again, but he didn’t have the strength to resist. He allowed Mildred to lead him around the floor. And whenever he looked into her face, he was struck by how truly young and beautiful she had become. Instinctively, he leaned forward to kiss her. But when he got close, Mildred turned her face away, twirling him harder so the force of the spin kept their heads apart. Round and round they went, her feet flying and his practically dragging. The palms of his hands tingled as if an electric current was passing from him into her. But he couldn’t stop.

After who knows how long, the song finally ended. His hands dropped down to his sides as he let go of Mildred, or, more likely, as she finally let go of him. He stood slightly stooped, looking up at her and squinting. He’d never seen such a beautiful creature, at least not since Esmeralda a long time ago.

“Listen,” said Harry, his own voice sounding raspy and much too high. “I have a motel room....”

Mildred tossed her head back and giggled like a schoolgirl. Then she leaned forward to whisper into his ear. “Can I tell you something?”

Harry nodded in anticipation.

“Esmeralda says ‘Hi.’ And it’ll be her turn next year.”

Harry felt like he had just been punched in the gut. The spectators erupted into laughter. Mildred tossed her jet black hair back like a filly. Then she turned and trotted toward the front door.

“Wait!” shouted Harry, but his words were drowned out in the wild cheering that was filling the room with shouts of “Bravo!” and “Nice job, Mildred!” From over at the table, Bob Comfort shouted, “We’ll see you in fifty years!”

Harry could only stand there and wheeze. What had that been all about? Should he try to follow her? He suddenly felt lethargic and incredibly tired. He staggered to the back of the room and guzzled two more cups of Hawaiian Punch. Then he plopped down at his table.

The band struck up a fox trot and the dance floor filled. But Harry was through dancing for tonight. All he wanted to do now was to go back to his motel and get some sleep.

“What was that about?” he said to Bob Comfort. “That part about coming back in fifty years?”

“Huh?” answered Bob.

“What you yelled out at the end of our dance.”

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” said Bob.

Harry stared at the white-haired man. Alzheimer’s, he thought with dismay. I’m going to see Doctor Kevorkian if that ever happens to me.

Harry stood up and felt his knees protest. He slowly shuffled toward the front door. The old Asian woman was still there. “For better or worse, in sickness and in health,” she said.

“Pardon me?” said Harry.

“Have a nice evening,” she said.

Harry grimaced. Clearly he hadn’t heard her right the first time. Something seemed to have gone wrong with his ears. Everything sounded soft and muddled, as if his head was under water. He pushed his way out the door.

In his befuddled state, Harry didn’t notice his reflection in the window glass. Nor did he check his face in the rear view mirror when he coaxed his creaky body into the front seat of his Mustang.

The motel was several miles away. Driving there, Harry had to turn left onto Highway 8. He conscientiously turned on his left signal before making the turn. All the way down the road, the signal stayed on. It was still blinking faithfully as he made a right turn into the motel parking lot.

Before he turned off the engine, Harry finally got around to glancing at his face in the rear view mirror. What he saw there made him scream like a madman. It was a surprisingly loud scream for such an old, old man.

In the meantime, his left turn signal continued to tap out its relentless beat.

One-two-three, one-two-three….


 

Wayne Faust has been a full time music and comedy performer for over thirty years. While on the road with his show he writes fiction, mostly of the speculative variety. He has had over thirty five stories published in various places, including one in Australia and another in Norway. He published a full length memoir of life in the music business called "Thirty Years Without A Real Job" with Picklehead Music Press. You can find more than you'd ever want to know about Wayne's music and fiction on his website at www.waynefaust.com.

 

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