Friday, September 19, 2008

The Dance - Chapter Two

“Gonna use my arms, gonna use my legs, gonna use my style, gonna use my sidestep, gonna use my fingers, gonna use my, my, my imagination…oh…cause I’m gonna make you see there’s nobody else here, no one like me, I’m special, so special, I gotta have some of your attention, give it to me……”

It was one of those songs that she didn’t know the name of or who was singing, but it always made her feel happy. One of those songs that seemed to enhance the vibrancy of the mid-morning sunshine and new day ahead. She could clean the entire house if they’d just keep playing it over and over again and, every once in a while, she’d hold up the duster to her mouth as she passed in front of the mirror and mouth a few of the words to her reflection. Before she did any of that, though, she better go ahead and hit the “alarm” button on the radio before it woke Jimmy. This was going to be a good day.

She propped herself up on the bed and held on to the nightstand with one hand as she reached down for her braces with the other. The new ones were a lot easier on her feet than the ones she had before, but forced her to have to buy shoes that were two sizes too big. The other good thing about them was that the metal just ran down the sides and the rest was made out of leather, so they weren’t near as heavy and didn’t force her to walk like an astronaut.

Lately, she’d been showering at night because it seemed to help her sleep but she liked to wake up at the same time anyway just to make sure she got some breakfast before work. The smell of bacon grease and frying eggs hit her as soon as she entered the hallway and she just hoped there was enough left in the pan to even mess with. Papa’d fixed some waffles the day before and all she could scrounge up when she got in there around 7:30 was a half eaten semi-circle that someone had left on a plate in the sink and covered in blueberry syrup. Jimmy never did wake up in time to eat breakfast and she guessed they just assumed since she worked in a cafeteria that she could just eat there everyday, but it wasn’t free. They’d take it out of your paycheck and if you weren’t careful you’d have the whole thing eaten up by the end of the week.

She was relieved to find three strips of bacon and a couple of fried eggs on a plate with a grease-soaked paper towel placed over the top of it to keep it warm. At least they’d left her something. When she pulled open the microwave, she noticed an extra biscuit on a crumb-filled piece of aluminum foil and wondered why someone would even have put that in there. It was one of those great big kind that pulled apart in layers so she tossed it on top of her eggs and threw the piece of foil in the trash. There was some coffee left in the pot so she poured herself a cup and took it over to the coffee table with her plate, flipping on the TV and hoping to catch a few minutes of Good Morning America before she had to leave. Robin Roberts was pretty good and she liked Diane Sawyer, but neither one of them were Joan Lunden. Joan just had one of those faces that made you happy, kind of like she imagined her mother would look like. If she wasn’t a good host, then why had they let her interview every US President since Gerald Ford?

Papa had shown her a picture once of her real mother when she was little, but her head was turned to the side so that you couldn’t really see her face. Her hair was light blonde and about shoulder length with the bangs combed off to one side. People always used to say that Bethany had her eyes but that the nose and dark hair definitely came from Papa before he went gray, which was the only way she’d ever known him. She asked him once if her mother looked anything like Joan Lunden and he told her not really, but that he guessed she kind of did.

“Be sure and turn the TV off before you leave,” Papa said, having snuck up behind her while she was daydreaming. She heard the click of the latch and turned around just in time to see him shut the sliding glass door behind him. He was wearing the same gray coveralls that he wore every day but Sunday and the red and black flannel hat she’d bought him from Cabela’s last Christmas with the flaps that come down over your ears. The first thing he’d do when he got out there is check all the houses and make sure they had plenty of seed. He couldn’t be getting up and re-filling it a bunch of times throughout the day because all the commotion would scare the birds away. Once he’d gotten them filled to the top, he’d come back in for another cup of coffee and then take it out there with his binoculars and notebook and sit in the same chair until dinnertime. She thought it’d be weird, for some reason, if she was still there when he came back in for his coffee, so she flipped off the TV, walked back to her bedroom to put on her uniform and headed out front to the bus stop.

She could tell from all the cars that it was already pretty busy, but it wasn’t near as bad as it used to be. They used to have her walking around with a pitcher of tea and a pot of hot coffee all day, filling people’s glasses as they ran low. It was hard enough for her just to support her own weight, let alone be on her feet all day long carrying around all that extra. As soon as one of the cashiers retired, she asked to be moved over and was told she could, so now all she had to do was sit there in a chair at the end of the food line and ring people up as they entered the dining area.

Her parents had been taking them to Furr’s for as long as she could remember and Papa knew the old manager so he put in a good word for her when she turned sixteen. Blake had been transferred to another location since then, though, and the new guy, Darren, was a total asshole. Wouldn’t even let her take a break unless she helped bus the tables on her way out.

“Mornin’ Bethany,” he mumbled as he made his way past her and out into the lobby to kiss up to all the old folks and retirees that insisted on eating all of their meals two to three hours earlier than normal people. They all loved him, including Mama and Papa, who never could understand what it was that she didn’t like about him. It’s because Darren was always nice to them. He was even nice to her when other people were around, but it was a completely different story when they were alone. He was a little rat-looking fellow, so skinny he walked with a hunch and had those little black beady eyes that made his face look even more pale than it really was. His hairline was receding, despite the fact that his boyish figure made him look ten years younger, and what hair he did have was an ashy blonde that he wore spiked up on top.

He’d tried to come on to her once back in the break room. She was just minding her own business, trying get a Coke out of the machine when he came up from behind and bumped into her on purpose. There’d been at least three feet between where she was standing and the table, so she turned around and asked him what his problem was. That was when he did it again and then wrapped his arm around her mid-section and pulled her up against him.

“Get away from me!!” She slapped at his hand and did her best to maneuver out of his grasp. “Pervert.”

“What’sa matter?” he laughed, raising both of his hands up as if someone had pointed a gun at him. “Too good for an old guy like me? There ain’t nobody watching, we could go back in my office for a little while. Take a break.”

“Go to Hell,” she told him right about the time Sandra came around the corner.

“You hear how she talks to me?” Darren looked at her and laughed as if nothing had happened. Sandy just shook her head. She knew what a jerk he could be and probably figured he’d said something to deserve it.

She thought about quitting or telling Jimmy about it, but Papa had already lost his job and they needed the money pretty bad. If Jimmy found out, he’d probably put the guy in the hospital or worse and it wouldn’t do them any good to be down two incomes. That was probably why most women didn’t report stuff like that, she guessed. Couldn’t afford to go without a paycheck.

It was pretty busy, as she’d suspected, but it made the day go by faster. One older gentleman had even tried to give her a tip, but she couldn’t accept it. Before too long it was time for her lunch break so she called Sandy over to relieve her for about half an hour. As she made her way through the kitchen, over the constant rhythm of metal pans and muffled voices, one voice in particular found its way to the forefront.

“And just where do you think you’re going?” Darren asked, having snuck up behind her again like he always did.

“C’mon, Darren, I’ve been working hard all day. It’s time for my break,” she explained.

“You think you’re the only one that’s been working hard?” he asked.

“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” she said.

He tossed a dirty dishrag at her and pointed to a stack of two-by-two gray tubs over by the sinks. She reluctantly caught it and felt the cold dishwater splash against her face. Grabbing a tub from the top of the stack, she turned and headed towards the dining area.

“Run, Forrest, Run,” he shouted as she entered the lobby.

Bethany stopped dead in her tracks and heard the dish tub hit the floor as her fingers loosened. Before she could even think to try and compose herself, a tear formed in each eye and she felt the warmth trace a line down each cheek. It wasn’t so much that he’d teased her. She’d heard enough of that in high school, even the Forrest Gump joke had been so overused the last four or five years that it hardly had any affect at all. It was just that she was tired. Physically tired, mentally tired, just tired. That and the fact that the old man had seen it all. The same one who’d told her she looked nice today and tried to offer her a tip. The same one who smiled real big at her as she made her way through the swinging doors and back out into the lobby with the tub and dish rag. The same one who hadn’t once looked down at her legs the entire time and the same one whose eyes now wore a look of confusion and bewilderment as they scanned her entire body from head to toe. It wasn’t so much that he’d teased her. It was that no one had the right to take the smile off that old man’s face. She was tired of people feeling sorry for her.

She left the tub on the floor where she’d dropped it and was sure to wipe her eyes before she turned and pushed her way back through the swinging doors. Darren was still smiling that weasley little smile and started to open his mouth to say something when she plugged it with the dirty dishrag. Good God almighty he was pissed. You’d have thought she’d slapped his mother right there in front of him. As she shoved past, he grabbed hold of her, like he had that day in the break room, but this time in front of several employees and pulled her up against him. He was so mad he couldn’t even think straight.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” he whispered in her ear, biting the tip of it with his teeth as he pulled away.

“I want to take a break,” she said, not being able to get through the last part without her voice cracking. The tears followed and this time there was no hiding it.

“I’d like to see you back in my office,” he said.

“Let me go,” she twisted and pulled, but his grip was too strong. “Please, Darren, I just want to go home.” By this time a small audience had formed and he’d cooled down enough to realize for the first time how much of a scene he’d been making.

“Get your stuff and get on out of here,” he whispered coldly into her ear, this time keeping his mouth at a safe distance. His breath was like someone dropped a peppermint into a pile of horseshit. “You’re fired.”

As he turned back towards the lobby, no one moved a muscle. All eyes were on his. She half expected him to yell at them, too, but he didn’t. Just pushed back through the swinging doors and when they opened she could see that even a few of the guests had become aware of what was going on, or at least that something was. Just before it shut again, her eyes met the older gentleman’s one last time and she could see that he knew and it broke her heart.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Dance - Chapter One

Bethany watched the floodlights from the house next door paint the grass a deep yellow, casting disproportionate shadows across the overgrown blades. Her brother, Jimmy, had been meaning to get out there and run the mower over it one of these weekends, but it had been too wet in the mornings with all the rain. With the Texas winter in full bloom, afternoons at Roland’s were long and often turned into nights. It wasn’t a bad gig during the summer, might just have an Oak to pull down somewhere or, lately, a wild Pecan and you’d have all afternoon to do it. In the spring, folks would be interested in having some landscaping done and that was where the money was. If it wasn’t a real big job, Roland would let him go ahead and make the bid himself and keep anything he could talk them into over the standard asking price. But the wintertime was a whole ‘nother story altogether. It was firewood season, which meant that anything they’d cut down over the past few months would have to be broken down into cords and packaged so that all the customers had to do was just swing by on their way home from work and toss a couple into the back of their truck.

She could sit there all night and look out the window, Papa told her, but it wouldn't make him get there any faster. Maybe he was right. Maybe she'd just go on over to the couch and lie down for a little while. With them expecting two to three inches of snow in the morning, Roland might have kept him there a little later that usual. She let the drapes fall as she turned her face to the darkness of the house. She couldn't remember if they'd been that color all along or if the years of smoke had taken its toll on them like they had everything else. Even Papa’s nice brown leather recliner that she used to steady herself had burn holes up one side and down the other from when he used to fall asleep in there in front of the TV.

These days, he just sat out on the back porch and watched the birds all day, writing down the names of each one in his little black Moleskine. She knew he cheated sometimes. There were only a few types of birds that were native to those parts so it wouldn't make sense that he'd discover a new one everyday, but he always claimed to. He'd even gotten to where, at night, he'd sit there with a flashlight and shine it into the trees suddenly, turning it off and on in hopes that he'd catch some rare species but all he was really doing was scaring the neighbors who already thought of them as some kind of circus freak show.

Because her brother always worked late on Saturdays, he'd sleep in Sunday morning and without fail, they'd be the last ones to the church house and have to settle into scattered seats before a sea of disapproving eyes, asses scurrying to fill the spaces on the bench between them and the next guy to avoid having to sit by the bird man or the cripple or worse still, the fat, bearded lady. They didn't mind her brother though, Jimmy was quite the ladies man and all of the girls would bat their eyes as he walked past, but he refused to sit anywhere there wasn't room for he and his sister both.

Yesterday was her eighteenth birthday. A few of the neighbors showed up along with several aunts and uncles, but Jimmy couldn't make it, as usual. It wasn't an easy job, but somebody had to do it, he'd always told her. How would it look if the whole town ran out of firewood?

She dipped her finger in some blue icing that was left on one of the plates and licked it off. As she watched Angela Lansbury close the deal on some wife-killer, her mind began to wander. What would Mama think if she knew? She'd always told Jimmy that your feelings could never be wrong, but did she really believe it? Would this be an exception? No one had ever cared for her like Jimmy. Her little brother wasn't always staring at her legs or trying to help her with things that she didn't need help with. Made her feel like a movie star. She didn't want to do wrong by God, but at the same time, she couldn't understand why He'd allowed her to feel that way if it was wrong.

She loved it when Jimmy would talk about his plans for the future, take her off to some podunk town in some faraway state where nobody knew their names. She'd miss Papa, but figured he'd come around eventually. She was his only daughter and Jimmy was he and Mama's only birth child. Her parents didn't love each other anymore and everybody knew it. She didn't see how her being in love with Jimmy was any worse by God than all the lies her parents were telling each other everyday.

It made her feel bad that Papa just thought she was afraid of the dark all this time and that's why she waited up for Jimmy every night, but maybe there was some truth to it. She felt safe there in his bed, his one arm pulling her tightly up against him, their faces illuminated for just a split second at a time as Papa spotted one imaginary bird after another in the backyard. That strong arm of Jimmy's never seemed to loosen, even when he'd fall asleep. She loved that when the alarm went off to tell her it was time to get into her own bed, he wouldn't let go of her without a kiss.

She’d overheard Papa telling Mama that he’d seen some wheelchairs on clearance in one of the medical supply catalogs and that he’d gone ahead and ordered one just to be on the safe side. They were in the guest bathroom with the door shut and didn’t realize that she was right next-door in the extra bedroom. The wheelchair should be there before Christmas, she heard Papa telling her and when they came out she was crying. Mama just shook her head and walked on by, but Papa stopped in there and told her, “Bethany, now don’t you get all worked up over nothing. I was gonna tell you about it right after I got Mama’s permission to order it.”

“You already did order it,” she frowned and tried to hold back a whimper, “I can walk just fine on my own. I don’t need everybody’s help with everything.”

“Well, now just ‘cause I sent for it don’t mean you have’ta use it,” he reasoned. “I just thought it’d be good to have around just in case. You know what the doctors been sayin’.”

“No, I don’t know what they been sayin’, because I ain’t been to see one in three years.”

“There’s a fella on one of my bird sites that was a general practitioner out in Memphis for forty some-odd years. Retired back in ‘01. He says them muscles ain’t gonna fix themselves. Just get worse over time. Could even effect your breathing if you’re not careful.”

“If I’m not careful,” she shouted. “It’s always been about me. It’s always been my fault, hasn’t it? That’s what you and Mama think? You blame me for it?”

“Of course not, Honey,” he turned his head and looked away. “It’s just that Mama thinks you oughtta rest a little more than you do and quit walking around town so much. It can’t be easy on your legs.”

“Of course that’s what Mama thinks, but what do you think? Have you ever stopped to consider what it is that you think?” She leaned over to the right and forced him to look her in the eye. “What do you think, Papa?”

“I think it’s gettin’ awfully late and you’d better go put on your pajamas. I’ll see you in the mornin’,” he muttered, still doing all he could not to look directly at her. “Don’t wait up for Jimmy. With the freeze coming in tomorrow, they may end up keepin’ him all night.”

It was getting tougher and tougher for her to get around it seemed like. Not that any one thing was any harder than it used to be, just that she seemed to be getting tired a lot faster. She hadn’t even needed the braces until she was around ten or eleven, but Papa just about threw a fit the first time she fell down off the back porch. It wasn’t that her legs gave out, it was just that the message she sent to her brain and the one it sent to her feet didn’t exactly match and she under-stepped the top stair by just enough to cause her to slip.

It wasn’t quite dark yet when it happened, but that moment every evening when the sun sits just below the horizon and exists more as a presence of light that an actual object. The clouds looked like someone had run them through a food processor and then blown them back out into the sky. They formed a canopy over the entire town, completely torn apart and scattered yet still somehow connected. Maybe she was just in awe of the clouds and wasn’t watching where she was going. Could have been as simple as that, but Papa had overreacted as usual and look at her now. Can’t even walk from the window to the couch without having to hold on to everything in between. That last doctor she’d seen had given her a pair of metal canes that would support her wrists and help her get used to the braces, but Mama didn’t want her using them in the house because she said they scratched up the furniture and would wear out the carpet faster than her and her brother already were.

Perhaps the wheelchair would be a bit more comfortable in certain situations, wouldn’t be so cold on her legs in the wintertime. The only way she knew how to describe it was that it was like having a stainless steel toilet seat strapped to your bare behind but with just enough space in between that your skin never could get used to the temperature. She wondered if Mama would even allow her to use the chair in the house. It didn’t matter right now, though. Jimmy was probably on his way home and she just hoped that the blue icing hadn’t stained her lips.

She was awakened suddenly by the sound of gravel in the driveway and just as Angela Lansbury presented her final piece of evidence to the jury, the undeniable truth for all to see, the lights shut off and the engine died. She licked her fingers again and rubbed them on her lips real quick to wipe off as much icing as she could and then reached into the bowl on the coffee table, digging through the empty plastic wrappers to find a peppermint. Jimmy always seemed to take forever just to get from the car to the front door, but everything seemed to take longer when you were anxious. Finally, she heard the slam followed by the sound of heavy footsteps and then the latch on the screen door.

Jimmy was careful not to be too loud. Didn’t want to wake her if she was sleeping. He’d seen that the TV was on when he pulled up and figured she might have nodded off on the couch. He hung his keys up on the brass hook with all the others and wiped his hands on his once-black jeans. Had it been earlier, he thought, she might still be awake and they could’ve stayed up and watched Letterman or some old Saturday Night Live reruns on Comedy Central. She had this little thing she did with her eyes when she laughed, it was almost like they’d disappeared, two little black lines sitting high atop the biggest pair of dimples you ever saw. Of course, the good thing about it being late like that was that he’d get to carry her back to her bed, which always made him feel good. Like he was her protector and he was taking care of her.

Making his way through entry way and down into the living room, he reached over and shut off the TV, feeling his way to the couch and waiting a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. He put one arm up under her legs for support and the other around her shoulders.

“Damn, that’s cold,” he whispered to himself as the hinge from the metal brace caught him right on the inside part of his elbow. She didn’t weigh but about one-ten soaking wet but it was dead weight and wasn’t easy on his back after loading two-hundred cord of firewood into the back ends of pick-ups all night long. Stopping at the second door on the left, he nudged it with his boot but it didn’t give so he had to lower his arms just enough to grab the knob with his left hand and turn it. He started towards his own bed and then thought better of it with as tired he was and gently lowered her onto hers. He unfastened both braces, slipped them off and let them fall to the carpet. The sheets were still in disarray from the night before, so he straightened them out and pulled them up to her neck, tossing an old quilt that their grandmother had made over the top to make sure she didn’t wake up cold in the middle of the night.
Bethany tried as hard as she could not to smile when she felt his lips on her cheek and was tickled by the stubble. She wasn’t sure how convincing it was, but figured that would’ve been a dead giveaway.