As promised, this is one of the things I read last night. The scene takes place in 1938, at Gudger’s Stand – a place which figured in my last book. Once a stopping place on the Drovers Road, it is now a tavern and a bawdy house. Redbird, who has been kitchen help and a taxi dancer, has so far avoided the so-called ‘upstairs work’ but things are about to change.
The boss looks at me and jerks his thumb for me to come out and I can see he ain’t going to battle with the sheriff no more.
‘Redbird,’ he says, not quite looking at me. ‘You staying clear of upstairs has brought these fellers near to a boil. I reckon it’s time you started and you might as well begin with Sheriff Hudson.’
All them men is looking at me like they was hungry dogs and I was a plate of meat. I hear some muttering amongst some of them and one of the bolder ones speaks up and asks ain’t there gone be an auction, like when it was Lola’s first time.
Now I know that I am in a pickle, for sure. But rather than hang back and let things be decided for me by a bunch of drunken rowdies with their blood up, I step out bold as brass amongst them.
‘I’ll go upstairs tonight with the feller who can dance me down,’ says I, lifting my chin and giving a slow look round that gang of men. I let my gaze linger a spell on several of the likeliest and give each one a little bit of a smile or a wink. ‘Will that suit you, Mr. Revis?’
Well, there is a roaring and a hoo-rahing like you never heard and though the sheriff tries to argue some more, the boss sees that there will be trouble iffen he don’t side with the crowd. He does about the only thing he can and calls for a dance down with me as the prize. Though, he is quick to put in, it will cost two bits to enter.
The sheriff ain’t happy about this turn of events but he tosses back a glass of whisky and moves away. He ain’t one to take part in any contest where they might be a chance he could lose. I see him grab onto Sharleen’s arm and pull her toward the stairs. She sends me another poison look but they ain’t nothing she can do but go on up with him.
But there ain’t time to worry about Sharleen for the boss has gone to talk to the musicianers – likely telling them to step out and take care of the necessary so as to be ready for a long spell of picking and fiddling. Folks is crowded round the bar getting drinks and now the boss is having some to push back the tables and make more room for the contest.
The fellers who are known to be strong dancers are talking big and making bets. I see a few right young men – just boys, really -- calculating their chances, their spotty faces all grinning foolish-like. Some are turning out their pockets to find their two bits or are asking friends to stake them. Over by the bar a couple of old drunks who can’t hardly stagger are limbering up and doing a few shaky steps. And every one of these is eyeballing me like I was already in the bed with them.
I hold up my hand so’s I can say my piece and, for a wonder, they all hush as I begin to speak.
‘Mr. Revis,’ I say, lifting my voice so’s he can hear me above the scraping of the chairs and tables being moved, ‘now, iffen it happens that I outlast all these fine fellers . . .’
There is a burst of laughing and hooting but I keep my hand up and afore long they settle down.
‘I want to get it clear,’ I go on. ‘iffen I was to win, then there’d be no going upstairs with anyone, not tonight.’
It’s like all them voices come out of one throat and it makes a single sound, a big Awww of disappointment. But then the one voice breaks into many and they all commence to buzz again. I plow right through them, almost hollering to make myself heard.
‘And I’ll take part in a dance down every night till I’ve been bested and one of these good-looking fellers has got the prize.’ I give a little wink at one of the spotty-faced boys and he jerks his head back and claps his hand to his heart like he’d been shot.
The boss looks at me and nods then hollers for the musicianers to get started. I take my place in the middle of the floor and those who’ve paid their fee come out too and circle round me and the fiddle lights into “Sally Goodin.”
The slap and thump of boots on the floor is so great you can hardly hear the music to keep in step. But soon I see that it don’t matter; us dancers are marking our own time and it is the driving sound of a great locomotive CHUCK-a-chucka, CHUCK-a-chucka, CHUCK-a-chucka and all of our feet are hitting the floor at the same time till I fear we will crash right through it. We raise a knee-high cloud of dust and the everyday smell of whisky and tobacco begins to be overtaken by the smell of sweating bodies.
At first, it is hard to bear, there is so many of them-- all facing me and all with the same crazy look on their faces -- but directly one old drunk goes down and two fellers, what had looked like they couldn’t keep going much longer anyways, stop to haul their friend up and all three of them limp off to the bar.
That makes it easier, for no one wants to be the first to quit. But now, one after another of them, seeing that others is going strong while they themselves are winded and like to drop, these ones give it up and commence to making bets amongst themselves.
After a quarter of an hour, it is down to me, one of the spotty faces, and four of our regular customers, strong dancers who have won whiskey prizes back of this. With only five still on the floor, I can hear the music again and the tune slides from “Old Joe Clark” to ‘Roasted Rabbit’ and the crowd sends up a laugh and they all sing together, ‘If you want some roasted rabbit, You can go upstairs and have it . . .’ and I feel my face go bright red and I dance for all I’m worth.
And the music grabs me and it seems that my legs ain’t my own and the floor is rising and falling beneath my feet – that I am a limberjack, powered by something outside myself. And my legs rise and fall and rise and fall and I smile and smile and smile the painted smile of the limberjack.
LV - January 2012
5 years ago