The Dance

Boots’s Pick
Robert Watts Lamon


Broken Pilings
Photo Credit: Randy Bayne

He had recently closed his bookstore. The Internet and Barnes and Noble had beaten him fair and square. Now, as he lounged in his North Carolina home, he was thinking, not of his failed bookstore, but of his days in the military. The memories seemed unreal—not only the peculiar dust and bare stone, the heat and cold, the unique vermin of far-flung posts, but also the cheap drink and easy sex of exotic towns. And now that unreality was creeping toward him like a shadow, encompassing the land, increasing the despair, distorting the laughter. Maybe he was getting to be an old fogy, a retread puritan, who had reached an age that allowed few alternatives.

In the midst of these reflections, he left his chair, climbed the stairs, grabbed a suitcase out of the closet, and began tossing things into it. And at last, with his packed suitcase in the trunk and a small clothing bag dangling over the back seat, he steered his Toyota east on Route 64, heading for its juncture with Route 17. It was early February—still the off-season—but the weather had warmed into the sixties and promised to be even warmer on the coast.

Traffic was light on Route 17 as he drove past the dark furrows, the marshes, the waterways, the boats lining the shores. He reached Elizabeth City and headed for the Outer Banks. Crossing the water in the setting sun, he decided to seek shelter and found a pleasant, barely occupied motel. The garrulous manager asked to see his girlfriend—the off-season brought secret romances. He assured the manager he was alone and getting too old for romance.

But his room was clean and looked out on the ocean. He awoke the next morning well-rested, found breakfast at a diner, and drove to Hatteras, where he strolled the beach and climbed to the top of the lighthouse. As he looked out over the ocean, he felt a delight he hadn’t felt in some time. The warm spell had stayed on. The sky was clear blue except for the vague mist over the water—the hint of colliding currents. He could see orange-colored trawlers near the horizon, hear the gulls as they lighted on the waves, feel and smell the salty breeze. He spent hours wandering the broad beach like the plovers, going where the breeze took him—or so it seemed.

As the shadows lengthened, he drove back to the motel. But once in his room he grew restless. He stood at the full-length window, gazing at the darkened shore. He slid the window open and inhaled the night air. Funny how invigorating the salt air is, he thought—and how the sea attracts us. Perhaps it’s traceable to some evolutionary ancestor who lived in the water. He stepped out onto the small brick terrace and slid the window shut. There was a light on, several rooms away, and a country tune was playing softly. He stepped off the terrace onto the sand and strolled toward the breakers, stopping as the sand grew moist and firm. The sky was full of stars and further lit by a quarter moon and mirrored by a thousand ripples on the water. He thought about swimming out until the ocean absorbed him—like that movie protagonist. The producers hadn’t shown the fish and crabs feasting on the remains. He wondered how long this warm spell would last. Sooner or later, the rain would come, and then the cold. Maybe a twister would pull the water from the ocean. Years ago, he had seen a waterspout.

He walked back to the dry sand that sifted through his sandals. He found a hillock and sat down and leaned back against it. He closed his eyes briefly, but opened them wide when he heard music accompanying the surf. It was big-band music—from the swing era. He had an uncle who had loved the big bands and had often played their records on the Philco phonograph. He remembered how his uncle dressed up for a dance and how his girlfriend looked when he brought her home to show off.

But where was the music coming from? He assumed young people still gathered on the beach at night, but their music had become an inscrutable pounding. He was about to doze again, when he noticed a distinct glow in the sky above the next dune. He forced himself awake, got to his feet, and brushed the sand from his shirt and trousers. He walked toward the light, watching his footing as he approached the crest of the dune, expecting to find a picnic for old folks, or a group of superannuated surf fishermen.

When he finally looked up, he saw an enormous wooden building—a pavilion—sitting over the ocean, propped on a procession of pilings, like a great enclosed pier. Most of its glow came from a tall sign on the roof. Swingtime Pavilion, it read, in letters outlined by light bulbs. Groups and couples were leaving their cars in a nearby parking area and walking toward the pavilion. Most of the people were young, some still in their teens. But their dress was unusually formal. There were no jeans, bare midriffs, or running shoes. The men wore coats and ties; the women wore dresses and heels. And their cars—a ’37 Plymouth with its raised back, a ’37 Ford with a rumble seat, a ’34 Pontiac with a running board, a ’41 Oldsmobile with its Hydramatic buzz. He noticed a beautiful wallflower—she had a club foot—and a young man in uniform, but with an arm missing and the empty sleeve pinned up. When did the Army start wearing the old pinks-and-greens again?

Curiosity carried him down the slope toward the wooden hall. Approaching the path to its entrance, he noticed that most of the men had slicked their hair, and some had combed it in a huge wave. He felt out of place in his loose trousers, shirttails, and sandals, yet he sidled his way as far as the broad doorway. He could see colored lights and couples gliding around the dance floor. Standing on the spotlighted stage, the saxophonist fronting the big band looked like Jimmy Dorsey, though he knew both Dorseys had died years ago. Who was that band leader with the smooth tones and competent hands?

He felt a bump from behind and turned to find a lovely woman in a blue dress. She had a fine figure and sparkling eyes.

“You can’t go in there like that,” she said, in a pleasant Southern way, looking him up and down.

“I wasn’t planning to,” he replied.

She smiled and looked interested. “Coat and tie’s the rule.”

“Fine old custom. Glad to see it come back.”

“What ever do you mean?” she asked, obviously puzzled.

“I mean—uh, considering what they wear these days.”

Still puzzled, she smiled anyway. “Well now, you just go home and change, and we’ll dance together. I’ll save you the first one.”

“You’ve got a deal. Say—is this some sort of convention?”

She blinked several times. “No—of course not. It’s a dance—we have them every week.”

“Oh—”

“Now you go on—I’ll wait for you. And you come back now,” she said with a hint of urgency. Then she turned like a ballerina, entered the pavilion, and was lost among the crowd.

He quick-timed over the dune and back to his room. He had brought decent clothes—blue blazer, shirt and tie, clean khakis. Once he was properly dressed and shod, with his tie carefully straightened, he was quickly out the door and striding back to the Swingtime Pavilion. But where was the light? There was no glow above the dune. And when he reached the top of the sandy rise, he found nothing—no great pavilion with its tall sign, no vintage cars, no people—and worst of all, no beautiful woman to greet his return.

He walked down to the place where the covered pier had stood. He gazed at the surf as it hissed among some broken pilings. Was he merely responding to a dream? But who was that woman?—someone from his own past? He didn’t know the answer. He plodded back to his room, feeling silly, betrayed, wondering why the cosmos, the Eschaton, his psyche, had conspired to deceive him. As he reached his small terrace, he noticed a man sitting outside a nearby room.

“All dressed up and no place to go,” the man said.

“You’re right,” he replied simply, though stung by the gibe.

The next morning, packed and ready for the road, he walked down to the ocean for a last look. He saw the broken pilings in the morning sun, along with a faint suggestion of a path and parking area. When he stopped at the motel office to turn in his key, he asked the manager, an old-timer, about the Swingtime Pavilion.

“Oh, yeah—yeah,” the manager said. “That was here years ago. It was the place to go in the Thirties and Forties. But times changed, tastes changed, and folks stopped coming. It got damaged in a storm in—oh, 1960, as I recall. The owner tore it down—no use fixing it.”

Later, on a ferry ride to Cedar Island, he left his car and leaned against the gunwale. He watched the screws churning the water and the gulls swooping so close he could count their toes. And he was still thinking about that dream, or visitation, or whatever it was—and about that woman, so fine in her blue dress.

Driving west on Route 70, he saw the sky cloud over and the first drops of rain hit the windshield. Yes—more cold weather before spring, he thought. Maybe he should re-open his bookstore, maybe specialize in military history, nostalgia—deal in used books as well as new. After all, he still had reality to face. As he drove on, the wind blew harder, flinging the pouring rain against the glass.

pencil

Robert Watts Lamon is college educated, an ROTC graduate, and a former chemist. In addition to papers in organic chemistry, he’s published several short stories in small magazines, including Xavier Review and The MacGuffin. He’s also contributed four book reviews to Liberty. Email: rwlamon[at]frontier.com