Waltzing Birds

John Minichillo & Katrina Gray

When Jessica fed the baby bird in the afternoon, it waltzed. One-two-three, one-two-three. The moves were unmistakable. It waltzed for its water dropper, and it waltzed for its raw hamburger, the bird slightly better than Jessica’s worst student, and she spent the rest of the afternoon trying to capture the surprising phenomenon on her camera phone. But when she held the phone close to the Tupperware nest, the little guy froze, wide-eyed. Or the one time she thought she’d gotten him, she’d blotted out the tiny lens with her thumb. The prospects of saving him were slim, but she’d refused to give up. Now she couldn’t help but think the baby bird would waltz all night while she was at the open house.
…..The Mavis Erlewine School of Dance Spring Open House was a big deal. A good portion of Jessica’s repeating students had come from the open houses, and Mavis Erlewine herself would make an appearance, which was also a big deal. Mavis lost her lesbian lover and both legs in a car wreck in the late 80s and the studio was locally famous because same-sex couples danced together long before that sort of thing was kind of normal. So there were people who would show up to be looky-loos. But there would also be people to meet who mattered, people who wanted to learn to dance. Jessica would debut her new hair color, and she also got to bring out her Waterford crystal punchbowl.
…..Jessica unlocked and opened the glass door at the front of the Mavis Erlewine School of Dance and the small cowbell and clapper Mavis had secured inside the door decades ago answered with a clankety-clunk, the same sound no matter how the door was opened, and the first thing Jessica would replace if the studio were hers, to something light and bright, because as much as she loved dancing, the cowbell always reminded her this was a job. The calligraphy painted on the large storefront window advertised the Free Spring Dance Open House, Saturday, April 4th, and she’d felt the weight of those words for weeks, with the day finally here, and Jessica, for the first time, in charge.
…..The folding chairs were already lined up along the mirrored walls, and all that was left for her to do was to bring in the refreshments and set up the coat-check. She floated across the familiar dance floor and paused as her feet met the painted footprints that mapped out the foxtrot. She danced a few bars, the eight-count musical in her head, and she skipped to the kitchen counter in the back of the long room where she unlocked and rolled up the aluminum shutter at the service window. The small kitchen would serve as refreshment stand and coat-check, a change this year. It may get claustrophobic, but doubling up at the service counter saved them the dance floor space of people loitering at a table, and Jessica’s plan was to look through the women’s purses as she pretended to tray more cupcakes. That way she’d know for sure who lied when they said they’d forgotten to bring the checkbook. She imagined these women accepted the free dance lesson with an easy conscience, but this was her livelihood, and her peace of mind, and her magazine subscriptions depended upon it.

Being in charge this year meant that Jessica could choose the music. Mose Allison did not make people want to dance; he made them want to drink and smoke. Chet Baker was too sad. She wanted something hipper and more modern. She still did not have an iPod—which was embarrassing—so she dragged along a stack of CDs from her collection: River Dance, Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, and, of course, Coolio. She put them all on rotation in the CD changer. The Tom Jones remake of Prince’s “Kiss” was up first, and it instantly put Jessica in a party mood. Audrey Vance’s car pulled up as soon as the music was pumping.
…..Audrey taught contra and line dancing, and she wore tight jeans over her giant bottom, which was out of proportion with the rest of her petite body. She liked tee shirts, but Mavis had asked her to show some class and not wear the ones with outdated sayings: If Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy. Love Machine. Disco Sucks. I Just Stole Your Boyfriend.
…..“This is way better than that other shit,” Audrey said when she came through the door.
…..Jessica shushed her. “Mavis will be here any minute.”
…..“Shit!” Audrey said, and she looked around. She crunched the end of a granola bar and wiped the crumbs from her plain black tee shirt. Shit was Audrey’s favorite word, and Jessica thought she probably owned a T-shirt that said just that.
…..“Ready Freddy?” Jessica said.
…..Audrey rolled her eyes. “I guess. Always feels like a waste of time.”
And she was probably right. Out of all the classes, contra and line were the bottom two as far as enrollment went, and Audrey was nervous about getting fired.
…..Audrey sauntered to the kitchen to see what snacks there were. Jessica, unable to think of anything else that needed to be done, stared out the window. It was just starting to stay light out past dinnertime, and she wondered if that meant all daylight all the time in Alaska. She knew people went crazy from it, and she hoped John would remember to get a good night’s rest. As for herself, she could write her follow-up thank-you notes while she watched The Tonight Show, but tomorrow there was nothing to do except feed the bird, and so she planned to sleep in.
…..Mavis’s van pulled into the lot. Jessica moved away from the window and waited.
…..She called to Audrey that Mavis had arrived.
…..Audrey got nervous. “Oh, shit,” she said, and she stayed in the kitchen.
…..The access ramp was in back but Mavis appeared at the front door, and when she walked in, it was like witnessing a miracle. Some time between today and the last open house, Mavis had ditched the wheelchair. She wore pants and moved on stilts.
…..Jessica gasped. “Ms. Erlewine!”
…..“Hi, dear,” said Mavis, upright on two prosthetic legs. She leaned over and kissed Jessica on the cheek. “Sounds like a party in here.”
…..“I think it’s fun,” Jessica said. She didn’t know whether to mention the legs or not, or if she did, what she might say. And then she realized, with Mavis Erlewine walking, no one would notice what she’d done with her hair.
…..Audrey poked her head in. “Shit, Mavis! You got legs!” Mavis wrinkled her brow but moved across the floor like a toddler to give Audrey a kiss on the cheek too.
…..Mavis exhaled and sat in one of the folding chairs. “Somewhere in this city lives my anonymous benefactor,” she said. “I told the salesman if I can’t dance, I’m sending them back, benefactor or not. He said we’ve made incredible advances. I said I didn’t need charity. He said I should accept them and they just might change my life.”
…..Jessica knew Mavis spent very little time around other people, and that changing her life would be more difficult than getting up and walking around. The shoes were black orthopedic-looking things, the kind nurses wore. They made a shuffling sound, but Jessica could forgive the shoes, since artificial legs were probably hard to fit at Nine West. Or maybe they weren’t, if what the salesman had told her had been true. Sometimes, Jessica felt sorry for herself for what she’d endured in all her past lives, sorry that she’d been made to live with superstition and so few technological advances. How many times had she upped and died for lack of penicillin?
…..Libby, the quintessential ballerina, with her brown hair pinned in a bun, was next to arrive, her compact frame swallowed by the khaki raincoat she wore on this perfectly lovely sunny afternoon. Libby was the newest hire, since the de facto boss, Bethany, quit and left town to get married. Bethany was the only instructor at the studio since before the accident, and so she stood in as Mavis for all those years. Once Bethany was really gone, Jessica daydreamed about owning the place herself.
…..Within minutes, the other instructors came through the door. Rachel, the short spunky red-haired jazz teacher. And Katrin, the lumbering blonde German salsa and tango teacher who wore high heels and a red dress. No one knew how to properly react to Mavis’s legs, but Mavis put them at ease.
…..“Listen, girls,” she said. “Someone paid for these things. The least I can do is give it a shot. Jessica, you’re going to lead me in a rumba.”
…..Jessica was giddy. All the other girls looked at her, relieved that their only role was to watch and Jessica mistook their relief for jealousy, which made her even more giddy.
…..“Girl,” said Audrey, “I’d need a drink after that.”
…..“I could use one anyway,” said Jessica. “Want to go somewhere after?”
…..They made plans, and asked the others, who each said they’d think about it.
…..Soon, the students drifted in. There were more women than men, the women also better dressed. There was an April chill in the air, but not enough for heavy coats. The coat check was so the women wouldn’t have to worry about their purses while they danced.
…..Jessica greeted everyone individually, and she guided them toward a seated Mavis, who spoke in a story-time voice about the refinement of the discipline. Libby stood with her toes apart and she nodded in recognition of each highpoint in the evolution of choreography while Audrey, Katrin, and Rachel all looked bored.
…..Jessica ducked into the kitchen to check on the damage to the sweets and she scanned the purses under the counter: Louis Vuitton knockoffs, an old Dooney & Burke, and off-brands from TJ Maxx. The best one was an Oroton shoulder bag that still smelled like cow. A cell phone vibrated. It came from the only heavy coat on the rack, a Jackie Kennedy leopard-skin coat that belonged to a frail old lady who had shown up at every open house but never signed up for lessons, saying, as she walked off, that she would give it serious consideration. Her coat was too young-looking for a white-haired woman with off-kilter lip liner and Jessica was dying to rifle through her pockets, but she knew, from that angle, that someone might see.
…..The first bag Jessica opened was the Oroton. The checkbook was in the front of a full-sized wallet, the checks stately, with a regal script gold leaf “P” in the corner. Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Phillips. And they lived in one of the subdivisions where the utility lines were buried. Not a gated community, but almost. Jessica liked the idea of a single gold “J,” but disliked the plainness of checks without pictures.
…..She had long been unsatisfied with the checks she and John used, with a small shaded silhouette of square dancers. She knew they were square dancers, by the position of the figures’ arms, but no one else was able to really tell. They were the only checks with dancers and she wanted something that symbolized her passion.
…..She sifted through a green Dooney & Burke with beige trim. The end of a checkbook stuck out, in a matching D&B cover, with the miniature duck emblem in the middle. Connie Gaylord. Now Connie had some personality. Her checks were printed with a coffee cup ring in the middle, so it looked like a mug had been set on the checks because there was so much other stuff on her desk—the checks of someone who thought it was funny to pretend to be busy. The checks made Jessica giggle, though she supposed by the time she reached check #541, that this joke would grow stale.
…..Jessica worried people might get suspicious, so she replenished the tray of cupcakes on the counter, and, while taking her time, she made sure she appeared to be working.
…..Mavis tended to over-emphasize the influence of the Peloponnesians, and Jessica figured she had time for one more purse. A flashy red one impressed her, and she went for it. The zipper was loud, so she moved it slowly, and the purse was deep; she had to dig around. There was an Elizabeth Arden lipstick, she could tell from the gold tube. She fished out a case that held white plastic sunglasses. Then she found the checks, with endangered wildcats in the center. She also found a flipbook of family photos and was surprised to realize she’d been rummaging through a black woman’s purse. If this was true, she would be the first, and Jessica couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen her come in.
…..She put the wallet away and just before she could zip the purse closed, a prospective student stood at the door, licked blue icing off a cupcake, and said, “I love your purse!” Then she moved in closer and whispered, “Tell me, is it Hermés?”
…..Jessica was still recovering from shock when she answered. “No,” she said, “not Hermés.” But she liked the feeling of someone thinking she might own one. She had wanted to answer yes.
…..“I still like it,” said the lady, and she winked. “I’m Carla, by the way. Carla Phillips.”
…..The gold cursive “P” checks. The woman never actually bit into the cupcake. Once the icing was gone, she tossed it into the garbage, reached past Jessica, and grabbed another. Jessica wondered if this was some new diet she hadn’t heard of, and she entertained the idea of doing the same. She introduced herself and saw an opportunity to snag a client.
…..“I teach beginning through advanced ballroom,” she said.
…..Carla covered her heart with her free hand. “I just love ballroom dancing!”
…..Jessica tried not to stare into Carla’s mouth as she spoke, at her very blue tongue. She decided every diet had drawbacks and she guided Carla back to Mavis.
…..The crowd divided into groups based on preference of dance types. Audrey had three students, which thrilled her, and one of them was the black lady, which put Jessica at ease. Rachel snagged some spunky twenty-somethings. Katrin took most of the men, as usual, and Libby got the younger women and children. Jessica—whose typical clients were groups of girlfriends looking to try something new, singles looking for spouses, or wives dragging their husbands along because of a lost bet—did not get many men at all, which disappointed the women, who had to dance together, and Jessica made the point of saying this was not the usual set-up, that in her classes there would be men to dance with.
…..“Single men?” asked one.
…..“I hope so,” said Carla, who Jessica knew was married to Mr. Calvin Phillips.
…..“Yes, single ones and married ones,” said Jessica.
…..“I’ll take the married ones!” yelled a large lady, and the women laughed. Jessica wished there were more men: she was feeling open to anything. When she showered that morning, she shaved her legs. She also fished out a push-up bra in a last-minute wardrobe change. She was looking pretty good.
Jessica offered them a mixed bag. She led them in a waltz first, then a foxtrot. They still had energy left, so she taught them the cha-cha too. They were having a blast, and Jessica knew there would be at least a couple of sign-ups. Good. She needed the money. She thought she might pay one credit card’s bill with another.
…..Then, as she was in the middle of breaking down the moves, she looked up and saw the black lady had joined her group. She wondered if Audrey had said something to turn her off. She knew the woman’s name was Trinity and that she had three daughters. Maybe she was checking out the studio for them, but she moved on to another group before Jessica even had a chance to make eye contact. So she was having herself the free smorgasbord of dance, and Jessica supposed Trinity would work her way around to all of the groups before they were done.
…..And sure enough, by 8 p.m., when Jessica gave her usual speech about how she’d be in the back hall signing people up, and how she’d love to “guide everyone on the exciting journey toward effortless ballroom dancing,” this black woman had even made it around to Libby’s group.
…..A few of the freeloaders, and the black lady, snuck out soon after. But most everyone stuck around.
…..“Can you believe the nerve?” Jessica said to Mavis later.
…..But Mavis disagreed, and seemed to think maybe that was the way they should do it from then on, to let people sample all the dances.
…..And when the open house was nearly done, everyone gathered around the coat check and cupcake counter, while Mavis staggered to the center of the dance floor.
…..Mavis nodded to Jessica that she was ready, and she had Katrin queue “Antillana.” Jessica held Mavis’s waist with one hand, and they raised their opposing hands above their heads.
Mavis’s feet stuttered at first, but Jessica made sure they picked up the next bar, and they really got going after that. Mavis smiled at Jessica, who was only inches from her face. She could feel Mavis’s breath, which smelled like licorice and alcohol. Jessica concentrated on Mavis’s legs, and she had to alter the dance, but not much. Mavis’s eyes were childlike, and they were glued on Jessica’s.
…..Jessica felt rattled by this, and her mind wandered. She realized, with Mavis dancing again, that any hope of getting a business loan and buying the studio was dashed. She supposed she should be happy for the lonely old eccentric, and she was reminded of her dancing bird. His immature legs and large watery eyes were entrusted to her by some large force, something big, and she may never encounter anything so delicate ever again. But she would still go out and have a vodka tonic and if the bird were meant to live, then it would live. And if it didn’t, she would accept that too.
…..The heavy plaster legs shuffled from spot to spot, and by the end of the song, Mavis had put her head on Jessica’s shoulder. Jessica wasn’t expecting this, and she didn’t think that Mavis expected it either. The room applauded. The large woman cried. Jessica had done well. She had done her job. And there were cupcakes left over—cupcakes that she would usually take home to John—but tonight she encouraged all the new students to take them. She licked the icing off the ones that were left, and stacked the empty dishes.
…..Mavis and everyone else all thought Bethany would just take over entirely one day. No one thought Harvey would turn out to be that important to her. But when Bethany left, she looked at herself in the mirrored wall and said, “People can be surprising.”

John Minichillo and Katrina Gray happen to be married to each other. Or they are married people who happen to write. They are deeply in love, but you wouldn’t know that if you saw them discussing Lindsey Lohan, Class C fireworks, or the prison problem. They live in Nashville but would live in a tree if it had Internet access and the neighbors were nice. This is their first collaboration and is an excerpt from John’s unpublished novel, The Snow Whale (forthcoming from Atticus Books, Fall 2011), a contemporary retelling of Moby-Dick, in which the main character gets a DNA test, learns he’s Inuit, and leaves his wife and his life in the suburbs to hunt a whale in Alaska. John would never do that in real life, although Katrina might like it if he did.