“Gotta Dance,” a story by Kevin Barry Howe, was a finalist in our recently concluded 51st Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author
Kevin Barry Howe
…..The rain had simply just stopped, as suddenly as it had started, with only an occasional leftover droplet now falling from a street sign or lamppost. Some made it to the sidewalk where they joined the puddles in tiny splashes; others were interrupted in their descent, hitting the folded newspapers held overhead by those caught without an umbrella.
…..Rosemary McNulty waited in line impatiently, wondering why for chrisssakes was it always sunny as shit when she was inside at work, and whenever rain was on its way it was because she was stuck outside. She was down to her last 10 minutes of a lunch break, having spent much of the previous 20 wet and involuntarily listening to Martha and the Vandellas (and who knows what else) from the loud transistor being held by one of the new moms. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide…She might not sound like me, but I have no problem with what that girl says, Rosie thought.
…..Now here she was still in line at Foster Park, attempting to sign her youngest kid, Declan, up for a freakin jiu-jitsu class, whatever in god’s name that was.
…..Since she first joined the line, it had now grown well beyond the side door, and in an orderly fashion that surprised no one more than Officer Delaney.
…..Old man Delaney wasn’t really an Officer, though he demanded that everyone in the neighborhood address him that way.
…..His walk was as cockeyed as his dime store hat, but the “swear ta god” explanation that had been shared by the older guys was that Delaney had once been a Chicago cop, injured on duty while performing a heroic deed, and when his disability check could no longer cover his monthly nut, the parents in the parish had agreed to unofficially hire Officer Delaney as a full-time security man for any neighborhood functions.
…..Whether a wedding, funeral, First Communion or graduation, Officer Delaney in his thrift store uniform could be counted on to keep things in order: it could mean shagging boys from between cars in a game of lampost-to-lampost touch football, or keeping order at the Foster Park playground.
…..His warning to the boys playing in the street (You realize you run into one of these cars comin’ down the street, somebody not lookin’, how much that’s gonna cost your old man to fix?) established Officer Delaney’s priorities in a way that was familiar for all of the guys.
…..When Declan once asked Officer Delaney how he injured his foot, he was told, I shoved my size nine up the arse of a juvenile delinquent much like yourself, and it bent while being retrieved.
…..Young Declan doubted the story, but knew not to ask again.
…..Looking past Officer Delaney, Rosie could now see Declan being picked on by the more athletic kids in the neighborhood. She could hear him being called McNutty for added measure, but she sure wasn’t gonna lose her place to go save his ass now. Small chance somebody’s gonna let her back in line. More like, no butt-inski’s here, sister.
…..Jeez, at least she had time to cop a smoke before her part of the line entered the gym, when most folks obeyed the ‘no smoking’ sign.
…..She was well past half-way with her smoke when she saw a lady inside motioning for her to step forward. A quick glance at her square and she thought: This ain’t worth a pinch an’ save. Instead, she took a long, last drag. Then, using her thumb and index finger, launched the butt towards one of the small rain puddles on the tarmac. The slight, brief sizzle and final mini-cloud of smoke when it hit meant that she at least just freed herself from being called a firebug. That was the worst, especially from these kids.
…..Just before entering the gym, Rosie turned her head over her shoulder, and with a Popeye expression on her face, exhaled her last drag, sending the smoke behind her. Without skipping a beat, she then continued walking into the auditorium while swatting away any telltale signs of smoke from in front of her face, and approached the sign-up table.
…..When it was her turn to talk, she asked about the Saturday morning class Declan’s been screaming about.
…..Well, there have been a lot of changes around here, she was told. As if she hadn’t noticed, for Pete’s sake. As if.
…..Not only had the City cut back on its Park district budget, but also the classes they were now going to offer at Foster Park were those it was decided were more in keeping with the recent demographic shifts in the neighborhood.
…..What freaking language is this broad speaking, Rosie thought, but rather than give her any guff, she took the lady’s advice and signed Declan up for the only Saturday morning class with an opening: Modern Dance.
…..As a matter of fact, she was told, the proper lady speaking to her from behind the banquet table was herself scheduled to be the instructor. Rosie was surprised that an old biddy like this was up to leading a class, but the more she eye-balled her, she came to the conclusion that she was one of those kooks who had nothing better to do than to stay in shape. Whadda life.
…..You gotta promise me one thing, Rosie pleaded.
…..Another quick glance at the wall clock told her she was down to her last four minutes to get back to work, before old Mr. Johnson at the A&P had a total conniption: He (using her thumb to motion over her shoulder to Declan, who was having a basketball bounced off the top of his crew cut) thinks he’s going to Jiu Jitsu class. Can you just not call it Modern Dance?
…..Your son will be taking Modern Dance but he thinks it’s a form of self-defense?
…..The teacher, no doubt realizing that the class would be cancelled if no one enrolled, and its funding returned downtown, saw no good reason why she couldn’t agree to Rosemary’s unusual request, especially if the young man’s attendance guaranteed her the chance to finally teach a subject she adored. If no one else attended, so be it. More of a tutorial, she reasoned.
…..Her spirits brightened at the thought of having more freedom to explore her passion. Tutorial, indeed.
…..So when Declan showed up as the only student for his first class, in white pajamas no less, mimicking the gi worn by ‘sensei’ and the jiu-jitsuka he saw in magazine articles and in the ads on the backs of comic books, Mrs. Brookfield didn’t bat an eye. And it stayed like that for the next eight weeks, Declan dressed in his pj’s, learning his new self-defense moves to the sound of Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein and others.
…..Afternoons he would race home to practice in his room with the scratchy albums his parents kept by the hi-fi. On his old man’s side of the stereo was jazz: Al Hirt’s Java, Herb Alpert’s Taste of Honey, things like that. His old lady’s side was mostly musicals, show tunes like Oklahoma and West Side Story. Alone in the enclosed back porch that was converted to his bedroom, Declan tried his best to match the music that Mrs. Brookfield played in their seminar, and if that meant a scratchy “Grazing In the Grass,” so be it.
…..The beat of the music will help you internalize your rhythm, Mrs. Brookfield told him, and your moves will come more naturally.
…..The more she said things like this, the more she sounds just like a female Kwai Chang Caine, Declan thought. I know exactly what she means. That the moves he was learning were new to him, and that he had never seen any of them before on the TV shows, was justified by Declan because of their advanced level. You just can’t show secret stuff like this on TV, he reasoned. Not to just anyone, for cryin’ out loud.
…..Why, even Mrs. Brookfield herself would remind him each class meeting that he was receiving an unparalleled education — a private seminar she called it — and needed to appreciate it. His motivation to learn kept him practicing at home for the remainder of each Saturday, until his ma yelled for him to put a lid on it before the old man gets home.
…..The day of reckoning for Declan’s tormentors came soon enough. In the brick school gymnasium that held lunch tables and chairs, and was the site of midday food fights as well as Friday night skirmishes with visiting fans, Declan grew used to the little confrontations that added up to his embattled life. Now, however, he had the self-confidence, and the skills, to stand up for himself.
…..One of the new guys, Leroy, began innocently enough, asking Declan and the others at the table if the Bulls won last night, and how many did Michael put up?
…..It wasn’t until Declan heard the refrain, that’s what I’m talking ‘bout, little man, delivered good-naturedly as a response from Leroy to one of underclassmen at the table, that Declan, thinking this bullying had to be stopped, jumped to his feet. He had had enough. This was the moment that would change his life. These new kids were bigger and quicker and not as easy for him to be around as his old friends, and this was Declan’s chance to set the record straight. He wasn’t going to be the little man, the one who got laughed at and ignored while the others got up to play ball.
…..Before Leroy could react, Declan was in his face.
…..Declan knew the power of his moves, and from reading about Bruce Lee and Caine and other martial artists, he also knew he had an obligation to his opponent. This is not an art that can be kept secret, he thought. At some point my hands will need to become registered as weapons. I need to honor my dojo and come clean with Leroy. I’ve had a seminar.
…..Declan told Leroy to step back. That he had the power to disable him, and to cause him permanent injuries.
…..Leroy stared at Declan, and slowly tilted his head to get a better understanding of what this kid was all about.
…..With the words, this is just a taste of what I can do, Declan began a very ambitious yet poorly executed rendition of Riff doing the ‘cool’ dance from West Side Story, which segued into a Ramsey Lewis-inspired kick-ball-change-step, all in the narrow aisle between the tables.
…..When Leroy –head now tilted in the opposite angle- and the others simply stared in disbelief, Declan thought he had them in the palm of his hand, right where he wanted them, and would scare them to kingdom come with another little shimmy courtesy of “Anything Goes” from one Mr. Cole Porter.
…..Knowing that a strategic ending to this fearsome demo would be enough to put their asses back in their chairs and stop this intimidation once-and-for-all, Declan chose to offer a few shuffled feet and a twirling battement- soutenu combination to the rhythm of his inner John Cage and punctuated it with a mid air heel click. Declan was done.
…..In the days ahead, Declan might be seen outside a crowded Altar and Rosary Society meeting offering Officer Delaney a simple move that might save his life, or giving a demonstration that brought smiles to his ma and her ‘bridge club’ while they sat on the front porch with their deck of poker cards, drinking whiskey from porcelain tea cups (why give the neighbors anything to gab about? Rosie would say).
…..But now, as he revealed his secret for the first time, Declan was at his finest. This was His Moment.
…..All eyes in the cafeteria were on him. The silence was so overwhelming that it seemed like a special effect, like some invisible power was preventing the others from talking. Even the slow-motion perception he had of everyone staring at him seemed like a scene from a late night sci-fi movie.
…..The long beat of this otherworldliness ended when a table that Declan nudged sent a can of pop rolling to the edge and teetered, seeming to ask permission before dropping to the floor, the sound breaking the spell that all the kids had fallen under while watching Declan.
…..Leroy, his head now returned to its upright position, was the first to react.
…..A broad toothy smile came to his face.
…..Man, you all right.
…..At that, everyone began to laugh. Someone in the back let out a two-fingered whistle. Some of the girls even came up to ask him to do this move or that move again. The boys mostly shook their heads.
…..But Declan sat in peace, allowing his legend to grow, steadily, like theater seats being filled by a matinee audience.
Kevin Barry Howe is a writer who lives with his family in Cork, Ireland. He was born on the Southside of Chicago, where he attended grammar school (St Sabina) and high school (St. Rita) in the Englewood neighborhood. Following service in the USMC he attended the City College of Chicago (Richard J. Daley Campus) and later the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where he received degrees in Economics and English. Following a career with the Directors Guild of America he has returned to writing fiction, mainly in short story format.