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11/22/63

11/22/63

11 22 35


  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?"

  "Day-labor?"

  "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."

  "Furnished?"

  "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."

  "Did it?"

  "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?"

  "Yes, ma'am."

  "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."

  "I won't."

  "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?"

  "Ivy Templeton."

  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:

  George--

  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.

  4

  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.

  "Right."

  "And it's just a record-hop. No band. That's good."

  "Why?"

  "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.

  5

  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 Dogpat
ch. 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?

  "Jim?"

  "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.

  6

  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."