**This short piece was conceived after seeing a picture of Wayne Maunder in a full tilt boogie from back in the day. He had his Custer hair so I’m assuming it was ’67—he looked like he was having fun! But Scott Lancer dances a bit differently…
It was a makeshift October dancehall that had sawdust on the floor, free peanuts in the shell alongside a sickly sweet punch and apple pie, with an honest-to-goodness five piece band that played waltzes and jigs if you smiled nicely at them, and a schottische if you didn’t.
Alicia Hennessey rarely smiled.
She hummed softly to herself, and occasionally strange notes spilled from her thin lips with strange words. She stopped, horrified that anyone would hear. Eyes darting around the room as her heart galloped, she edged into a deep pocket of shade provided by the long flannel curtain of the window. She wished the girls would just move on. But they were hanging around for a reason, with their pretty faces and blue gingham: they wanted to see her. To see if the rumors were true. She pulled a long piece of her hair forward and fanned it across her mouth and chin, wishing for something she could throw.
Aunt Tilda and Uncle John, standing next to the punch bowl, weren’t looking at anything. Just staring off into middle space as though they would find the right excuse to head on home. Aunt Tilda nodded politely to a neighbor who stopped by to chat, then saw Alicia in her haunt by the curtain. And judged her with those pity-filled soft liquid eyes.
Alicia tilted up her chin and smoothed her hair back. A loud conversation to her right spiked around the curtain and she found herself listening.
“How long do you think she was with them?”
“A long time,” the man with the big belly said. “Maybe she forgot who and what she was.”
She crumpled against the wall, half hidden again.
As the music swelled, the dream returned again, the one she’d hoped was gone forever, and she remembered the bearded man laughing as he took her small hand into his roughened one. She stood on the tops of his boots as he whirled her around. One-two-three-four. One-two-three-four. They stopped to clap for the black-haired woman in the fine green dress at the piano. Riders arrived, reining their lathered horses to a hard stop. Their own black hair dancing in the wind as they sang and danced to a different song, in a different language. She remembered the bearded man yelling at her to hide, and she ran and ran until she found a hole in a stand of ash trees near the river. She covered her ears to stop the screaming coming from the bearded man and the pretty woman who had played the happy tune. After the screams stopped, she crawled out of her hole. But she went back to see the horses were gone and the piano was tipped over on its side. The bearded man and the pretty woman had had bloody patches on their heads, where the hair once grew. She sat down beside them and cried until the smell drove her back to the river. As she drank the water, coyotes yipped in the hills and she wondered what to do next. When she turned around, she found a man wearing the same boots the bearded man once wore, and he smiled at her and held out his hand, taking her to her new home.
Then suddenly Alicia knew something was different. Not the music. Not the waning sunlight filtering silver through the dirty pane of the window. Not the smells—sweat, smoke and pie. But something. Something.
She blinked and discovered a cowboy as fair as Uncle John’s fall wheat, looking at her curiously.
Turning her head away, she whispered to the curtain, “Yes?” Because she thought he wanted something. More than likely he just wanted to stare.
It was the cowboy’s deep voice, and he had stepped closer.
She thought of leaving, but the music kept her pinned there. Instead, she side-stepped nearer the open door, for a quicker escape if she needed one. The cowboy moved in her direction, she could hear his boots scrape through the sawdust on the floor.
“I’m Scott Lancer, Miss.”
Alicia pressed herself tightly against the wall.
‘The musicians appear to be in fine form tonight,” he said. “If you haven’t already promised someone else…”
Then, he was standing right in front of her.
“…I would enjoy a dance.”
“I’m sorry,” she said and began to edge toward the front door.
“You don’t have to go.” He sounded disappointed. “Not on my account. I’ll leave.”
“Alicia Hennessey,” she blurted out, without really knowing why. She frowned. Sometimes her given name didn’t seem to fit.
The man studied her face briefly. Her chin, with the blue tattoos made from ground turquoise, felt scorched, as if newly branded.
“You haven’t heard of me?”
“Well, my brother and I don’t get into town very often.” He crooked his head to the far side of the room. “That’s Johnny in the colorful shirt, sidling up to the doubtful-looking young lady doling out the awful punch. Should I? Know you, I mean.”
“I’m no one special.”
“Oh, I think you’re someone.” His eyes narrowed and shifted from pale grey to winter blue with the emphasis.
She moved a step closer, enough to know he smelled of soap and leather and to hear his starched white shirt crinkle when he shifted his weight.
“Aren’t you worried about your reputation if you dance with me?”
“Which reputation are you talking about? The fact that my brother was a gunfighter of some renown? Or that I’m a Boston butterfly who doesn’t know my way around the west?
She didn’t know what to think.
“Let’s give them something to talk about over their eggs and bacon tomorrow morning, what do you say?”
It was the third time in her life a man had held out his hand to her with a smile.
She walked a bit behind him as they moved to the dance floor, sure now that the whole thing was a mistake as the other dancers parted like the Red Sea before Moses. Some children played by running in and out of the musicians. Until they stopped and stared at her. She felt odd, out of place, and looked back at them as if she had never seen children before.
Her feet moving through molasses, she reached up to tug on Scott’s sleeve and found instead the heat of his arm, the strength of the muscles taut and bunched under the fabric. She held on as he veered away from a squabble of gossips. As they neared the next corner, more talk arose and once again Scott guided them away.
“If we keep this up, we’ll be dancing outside,” she murmured.
“Indeed. Shall we make a stand here?”
“Doesn’t it matter to you?”
He turned to face her. “Johnny and I were talking, then I saw you.”
She waited for him to tell her it had all been a mistake or worse, a betting game played out with his brother.
“It wasn’t the marks that drew me to you. It was your feet. They were tapping and moving with the music while you were standing by the wall. As if they had a life of their own. I wanted to dance and I saw someone who wanted to dance, too.”
She choked back a quick release of air, swallowed the surprise, then exploded with laughter that robbed her of breath and made her eyes tear. Scott, his color rising, cracked an uncertain grin, holding it for a moment until the first chuckle slipped out. They laughed, chests struggling for air.
The unkind voices of Green River floated away.
The banjo struck a chord and the rest of the musicians followed suit. One of the violins dipped in and out of tune, but it didn’t matter. Closing her eyes she caught the music, and pressed her hand into his.