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Vol. 3, No. 2

Dancing with the One-Armed Gal
by Tim Gautreaux

~

They dawdled over the Glass Mountains and pulled into Alpine at supper. She told him that her credit card had room for one more motel, and they found a low, stucco place on the edge of downtown and got two rooms. The place had a lounge and café, and she met him for supper at eight, ordering a margarita as soon as she sat down at a table. With his burritos he ordered a beer, and the waitress checked his ID. As the girl tried to read the little numerals in the dim light, he looked around at the other customers and the large hats the men wore. Claudine was wearing blue jeans and a white short-sleeve blouse. He looked at her makeup and smelled her perfume, which was still burning off its alcohol, and felt vaguely apprehensive, as though he was having supper out with his mother.
      "You think it's all right to mix booze with your pills?" he asked.
      She made a sweeping motion at him with her fingers. "Let's not worry about that." Her voice was tight.
      "You think you got a shot at this teaching job?"
      "Oh, they'll need somebody like me," she told him.
      "You going to say to them that you're a good teacher? You know, show them those records you were telling me about? Those forms?"
      "I'm a crippled black woman and a gay feminist." She put her elbows on the table. "I'm a shoo-in for the job."
      He shook his head. "They won't hire you for those things."
      "They'll at least need me to teach freshman English." She took a long drink. He wondered if she'd taken another pill in her room.
      "Why don't you just tell them you're good with the students?"
      "You have to be a certain kind of good," she said, her voice hardening.
      "How's that?"
      "You can't understand. They don't have people like me in icehouses."
      A man in a wheelchair rolled through the front door. He wore a white cowboy hat, and his belt was cinched with a big buckle sporting a gold music note in the center. He coasted into the corner of the room behind a little dance floor and flipped switches on an amplifier. A computerized box came alive with blinking lights. Iry saw the man pick up a microphone and press a button on the box. The little café lounge filled with the sound of guitars and a bass beat, and the shriveled man in the wheelchair began to sing in a tough, accurate voice that was much bigger than he was. Two couples got up and danced. After the song, the food came, and Claudine ordered another margarita.
      By the time the meal was over, she was sailing a bit, he could tell. Her eyelids seemed to be sticky, and she was blinking too much. He began to get sleepy and bored, and was wondering what was on the cigarette-branded television in his room, when she leaned over to him.
      "Ivy," she began, "it's noisy in here."
      "Iry," he said.
      "What?"
      "My name's Iry."
      "Yes. Well. I'm going to get a fresh drink and walk back to my room." She looked at him for a second or two. "If you want to talk, come with me."
      "No, I believe I'll check out what's on the tube," he told her.
      "You'd rather watch TV than have a conversation with someone?" Her face twisted slightly, and he looked away.
      "No, I mean, it might not look right, me going in your room." He felt silly as soon as he'd said it. Who, in Alpine, Texas, would give a damn what tourists from a thousand miles away did with their free time?
      Claudine's face fell, and she sat back in her chair, staring toward the door. The music machine began playing "When a Tear Becomes a Rose," the beat a little faster than usual. When the old man sang, he closed his eyes as though the music hurt. Iry stood up and cupped a hand under Claudine's right elbow, right where things stopped.
      "What are you doing?" She looked up at him, her eyelids popping.
      "Asking you to dance," he said, taking off his cap and putting it on the table.
      She looked around quickly. "Don't be absurd."
      "Come on, I bet you used to do the Texas two-step in high school."
      "That was another life," she said, rising out of the chair as if overcoming a greater force of gravity than most people have to deal with.
      For a few seconds she bobbled the step and they bumped shoe tips and looked down as though their feet were separate animals from themselves, but on a turn at the end of the floor, she found the rhythm and moved into the dance. "Hey," he said.
      "Gosh." She settled the end of her arm into his palm as though the rest of her was there. The little man did a good job with the song, stretching it out for the six or seven couples on the floor. Claudine wore a sad smile on her face, and halfway into the song her eyes became wet.
      Iry leaned close to her ear. "You all right?"
      "Sure," she said, biting her lip. "It's just that right now I'm not being a very good lesbian." She tried to laugh and reached up to touch her crew cut.
      "You ain't one right now."
      "How can you tell?"
      "You dance backwards too good."
      "That's stupid."
      He turned her, and she came around like his shadow. "Maybe it is, and maybe it ain't." About a minute later, toward the end of the song, he told her, "I've danced with lots of black girls, and you don't move like they do."
      "You're making generalities that won't stand up," she said. Then the tone of her voice grew defensive. "Besides, I'm only one-sixteenth African American."
      "On whose side?"
      "My mother's."
      He walked her to their table, his hand riding in the small of her back. He noticed how well she let it fit there, his fingertips in the hollow of her backbone. He pursed his lips and sat down, pointing to her navy-blue purse. "You got any pictures of your family?"
      She gave him a look. "Why?"
      "Just curious. Come on, I'll show you Babette and my momma. They're in my wallet." He pulled out his billfold and showed her the images in the glow of the candle. "Now you."
      She reached down and retrieved her wallet, pulling from it a faded, professionally done portrait of her parents. The father was blond and sun-wrinkled, and the mother lovely and tawny-skinned, with a noble nose and curly hair.
      "Nice-looking people," he said. "Your momma, she's Italian."
      Her lips parted a little. "How would you know?"
      "Hey, Grand Crapaud has more Italians than Palermo. I went to Catholic school with a hundred of them. This lady looks like a Cefalù."
      "She's part African American."
      "When I bring you home tomorrow, can I ask her?"
       She leaned close and hissed, "Don't you dare."
      "Ah-ha." He said this very loudly. Several people in the little room turned and looked in his direction, so he lowered his voice to say, "Now I know why you really got your butt fired."
      "What?"
      "You lied to those people at the college. And they knew it. I mean, if I can figure you out in a couple days, don't you think they could after a few years?"
      She stood up and swept the photos into her purse. He tossed some money on the table and followed her outside, where the air was still hot and alien, too dry, like furnace heat. "Hey," he called. He watched her go to her room and disappear inside. He was alone in the asphalt lot, and he stuck his hands into his jeans and looked up at the sky, which was graveled with stars. He looked a long time, as though the sky was a painting he had paid money to see, and then he went into his room and called her.
      "What do you want?"
      "I didn't want to make you mad."
      "The word is angry. You didn't want to make me angry."
      "I was trying to help."
      There was a sigh on the line. "You don't understand the academic world. Decent jobs are so scarce. I have to do whatever it takes."
      "Well, you know what I think."
      "Yes, I know what you think," she told him.
      "You're a straight white woman who's a good teacher because she loves what she's doing."
      "You're racist."
      "How many black people have you danced with?"
      She began to cry into the phone, "I'm a gay African American woman who was crippled by a horse."
      Iry shook his head and told her, as respectfully as he could, "You're crippled, all right, but the horse didn't have nothin' to do with it." He hung up and stared at the phone. After a minute, he put his hand on the receiver, and then he took it away again.

 

~

The next morning he didn't see her in the motel café, but when he put his little suitcase in the back of the Jeep, she walked up wearing a limp green sundress and got into the passenger seat. Five hours later he had gone through El Paso and was on U.S. 180 heading for Carlsbad when she pointed through the windshield at a ranch gate rolling up through the heat. "Home," was what she said, looking at him ruefully. It was the only unnecessary word she'd spoken since they'd left Alpine. "First time in five years."
      He pulled off to the right and drove down a dusty lane that ran between scrub oaks for a half-mile. At the end was a lawn of sorts and a stone, ranch-style house, a real ranch house, the pattern for subdivision ranch houses all over America. Out back rose the rusty peak of a horse barn. Iry parked near a low porch, and as soon as he stepped out, Claudine's round mother came through the front door and headed for her daughter, arms wide, voice sailing. Claudine briefly introduced him and explained why he was there. The mother shook his hand and asked if they'd eaten yet. Claudine nodded, but Iry shook his head vigorously and said, "Your daughter told me you make some great pasta sauce." He glanced at Claudine who returned a savage scowl.
      The mother's face became serious, and she patted his hand. "I have a container in the fridge that I can have hot in ten minutes, and the spaghetti won't take any time to boil."
      Iry grinned at Claudine and said, "Prepariamo la tavola."
      "Ah, si," the mother said, turning to go into the house.
      Claudine followed, but turned and said over her shoulder, "You are what is wrong with this country."
      "Scusi."
      "Will you shut up?"

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