THE DANCERS - contest entry - first ten pages
When in the course of human events, no, wait, wrong text. Here we go. In defiance of both logic and common sense, I've submitted an entry to another writing contest. This time it's the manuscript contest held by The Writers League of Texas. http://www.writersleague.org/ Not being into heavy pain, the WLT folks asked for only the first ten pages from the manuscript of an entrant's unpublished novel. A copy of what I sent them now awaits those brave enough to trudge onward.
This is a revised and, hopefully, improved version of the earlier "Dancers" posts. Any thoughts, comments, suggestions, and/or opinions, whether they be brickbats or bouquets will be appreciated.
Special thanks to Monica and BK for their comments on the character sketch.
pages 1-10 from chapter one of: We Danced to Ray Charles
by Bill Fullerton
Headlights off, three cars glide through the muggy Louisiana night like nocturnal birds of prey. Each front door brandishes an angry, ornate star and the words Kisatche Parish Sheriff’s Department.
In the dark cab of a pick-up, two men watch the cars turn right onto a dead-end street with no lights and no name in a nowhere place called Sandtown. On one side of the street a derelict chicken coop, several rusting cars, and a weed-choked baseball field occupy an otherwise vacant lot.
Three small frame houses perch on the other side as if ready to flee at the slightest noise. All are tidy but patched and weatherworn. Short fences outline bare-dirt front yards. The quiet procession halts in front of the third house.
No dogs bark as uniformed white men get out. One circles behind the dark house. The others set up a cordon around the front and sides.
A tall, beefy man wearing western boots and a cowboy hat steps up on the porch. After a last glance around, he hitches up his pants, wipes sweat off his face, adjusts his hat, then pulls a pearl-handled .44-caliber revolver from its hand-tooled holster. He yanks the screen door open and bangs on the wooden, hollow-core front door. With his first blow, red lights start flashing on top of the cars.
“Open up! This is the Sheriff. Come on out, Amos. We know you’re in there.”
From inside comes the sound of scurrying feet and frightened whispers. The tall man hits the door even harder. The noise echoes in the night. “This is Sheriff Tobias. Get out here, now!”
“I’m a’comin’. Jes let me gets my pants on.” There are more loud whispers. Someone peers from behind the curtains of a front window. The door opens a few inches.
A black face with wary eyes looks out. “What’s ya want, Sheriff? I ain’t done nothin’.”
“Don’t give me that shit, boy. Get out here or I’m gonna bust in and drag your sorry ass out.”
“You don’t hafta do that. My Momma’s in here. You already done scared her ‘bout half to death.” The door swings inward. A wiry, barefooted man wearing khaki work pants and a bib undershirt steps out. ”What y’all doing here dis time of night, Sheriff?”
“Shut up, nigger!” The big white man holsters his pistol, reaches behind his bulky frame, and produces a set of handcuffs. “You’re going to Pinefield, to jail.”
The black man steps back. His face shows surprise and fear. “How come? I ain’t done nothin’.”
“I told you to shut up. Now turn around and put your hands behind your back.” After a momentary hesitation, the voice of white authority overwhelms any outrage or bewilderment. The man named Amos does as ordered, and the cuffs snap into place.
The Sheriff spins him back around, steps away, pulls out his revolver and uses it to motion for another white man to join them. Then he glares at his prisoner. “You’re a goddamn pervert—you know that, boy? We got an eyewitness who saw you looking into the bathroom window of a white, widow-lady named Myrtis Oglesby. Amos Little, you’re under arrest as a Peeping Tom.”
“A what? Sheriff, I ain’t been looking in no white woman’s window.” The prisoner turns from the Sheriff to the deputy, looking for support. “Least of all no dried-up, crazy old white woman like Mrs. Myrtis.”
Bathed in the rhythmic, flashing glare of red lights, the sweeping motion of the Sheriff’s right hand resembles something from a flickering silent movie as his fist, and the revolver it holds, smash into the side of the prisoner’s head. A scream comes from inside the house; he staggers in a macabre, jake-legged dance of insensibility, then drops to his knees.
Sheriff Odell Tobias leans close and hisses. “Nigger, you’re talking about my wife’s aunt. Now it looks like we’re gonna have to add a charge of resisting arrest.”
Another deputy joins the first. They pull the prisoner to his feet, drag him off the porch, and shove him into the back of the lead car. A ragged volley of closing doors soon follows. With sirens on and lights still flashing, the three large cars with the words Kisatche Parish Sheriff’s Department and an angry, ornate star on each front door swing around and leave. As they drive past the dark pick-up truck, everyone but the prisoner waves at the men inside.
Two thin red streaks emerge from the cab, arc through the still night air, then land with small bursts of glowing embers. Headlights come on and the truck moves down the now deserted street. It stops across from the third house, the one with the front door still open. Inside, a black widow-lady named Bernice Little is alone and crying for her son. The men get out, lift something from the bed of the truck, and lug it into the vacant lot.
A small flame soon spreads up from the base of a wooden cross. Jack Boudreaux and Delmar Bullock get back into the truck. They stop at the intersection to make sure the cross is burning properly. Assured it’s a job well done, they head back towards Pinefield.
It was another turbulent evening in the spring of ’68. Student protests raged from the Sorbonne to Berkeley. Civil rights demonstrations and anti-war rallies were turning violent. Martin Luther King was dead; Bobby Kennedy would be soon. Hundreds of other Americans were dying each week in South Vietnam. Soldiers patrolled the streets of Saigon, Paris, and Washington. Soviet troops prepared to invade Prague. And in a nowhere place called Sandtown, an innocent black man was beaten and arrested.
But in nearby Pinefield, everything was perfect. At least, that’s what Mark Cahill wanted to believe. Bebe Boudreaux’s head rested on his chest as they moved in languid harmony to Ray Charles singing “You Don’t Know Me.” The petite, perfect form he'd always wanted was in his arms, molded against his body. It made for a perfect moment, in a perfect place, in a perfect world--at least it should have been perfect.
The funny thing was, he hadn’t wanted to be there. Since the night on the levee with Amy, all he wanted to do was think about her and remember what happened. But he had to get over being in love with someone he could never have. That night was a one-time thing. Girls like Amy Marshall didn’t go for everyday guys like him, even if they were best friends.
But after being away at school, he needed to re-connect with his hometown friends and remind them he still existed. That might be very important in a few years.
He arrived late, shook a few hands, and walked inside. Thick cigarette smoke couldn’t hide the worn looks or musty smell of the old American Legion hall. The Junior League had done its best to spruce up the place. Balloons, banners, and other decorations were everywhere. But it was impossible to hide all the World War II era posters.
The far wall was filled with black-and-white photos of serious looking men in funny looking hats like those soda jerks wore. All were former post commanders. Among them were his father and grandfather. Fading pictures of American Legion and Women's Auxiliary activities completed the décor.
Aretha Franklin’s demand for “Respect” segued into the Rolling Stones frustrated search for "Satisfaction.” The sea of sweaty dancers paused, looked at one another, then broke into another spasm of jerking legs, flailing arms, and twisting bodies.
Mark was congratulating himself on watching from the sidelines instead of being among them when someone tapped on his shoulder. He turned and saw Bebe Boudreaux smiling up at him. He'd last seen her during Christmas break. As usual, she looked great. Now, as he gazed down at that small, delicate face with the big, liquid-brown eyes you could get lost in, he was sure she never looked better.
Ray Charles began singing “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Mark hesitated, then asked Bebe to dance. She gave him a warm smile and agreed. The next song was “Crying Time,” another slow Ray Charles country ballad. Bebe made no effort to extract herself from his arms, and they kept dancing. Bebe gazed up through her long, thick lashes. "Ah didn't remember you being such a good dancer.”
Mark smiled, wondering when the “Gone With the Wind” drawl had replaced her soft Cajun lilt, and trying to recall when they last danced. “Ray Charles always inspires me. Besides, you’re just saying that because I haven’t stomped on your toes, yet."
"No, really, it's true." Her familiar, sexy, little grin broadened into an all-encompassing smile. "You must have been practicing a lot down at LSU."
He felt his face flush at the unexpected flattery. "Only the juke-joint shuffle and the Cajun two-step.”
"Really? The Cajun two-step? Now you're talking about my people, cher.” She cocked her head and stared into his eyes. “You'll have to show me your technique sometime."
"If you've got the nerve, I've got the time.” Was that a pleased look on Bebe’s face? She laid her head back on his chest.
Mark forced himself to breathe. It wasn’t easy. Everything about Bebe, even her new accent and perfume, turned him on. He couldn’t figure this new attitude, but he liked it, a lot, and wondered where it might lead.
The song ended and they sat at a rickety folding table talking with friends. When everyone else got up for a fast song, Mark made no move to follow. Instead, he cleared his throat, and in a voice he hoped sounded casual, asked if she’d like to go hear John Fred and The Playboy Band the next weekend. Bebe Boudreaux, the girl he’d always wanted, the one who had always rejected him, nodded and said that sounded like fun.
The tension in his body eased. The age of miracles hadn’t passed. After all these years, he and Bebe were going on a date.
Ray Charles began singing "You Don’t Know Me” and they joined the other dancers. “Born To Lose” was next, and they continued to move. Mark decided another Ray Charles fan must be working the stereo, and was grateful.
As the song’s last melancholy notes faded away, Bebe said she had to go. "Ah really am sorry. But things can get really crazy at work on Saturday mornings, and according to that calendar over on the wall, tomorrow's Saturday."
"Don’t pay that fool thing any attention.”
"Pity the poor working girl."
"Well, I should be calling it a night myself. Why don't I walk you to your car?"
"Ah'd like that. Just let me get my purse."
He watched as she made her way to the cloakroom. The sight of Bebe’s near-legendary bottom swaying in a seductive rhythm was always arousing. Over the last eight years, he'd observed that wonder of nature many times. Far too often after another rejection. This time he felt no mixed emotions. Tonight, she would walk back to him.
Out on the floor, Penny Harrison and Ralph Lawson gyrated past him. Penny, a slender, pretty brunette, smiled and waved. Ralph, a barrel-chested blowhard, still not certain if he’d been insulted earlier by Mark, ignored him.
Little “Skeeter” Cummings, flashing her new engagement ring, danced by with Mark’s old football teammate, the aptly named, “Hoss” Driscoll. Her question back at the table about Amy had caught him off-guard. But she didn’t seem to notice his reaction. Probably too excited about getting engaged to pay him much attention.
At the sight of Bebe coming back, all other thoughts vanished. Outside, they hurried past the swarms of June bugs circling the yellow porch lights, and stepped into the warm, muggy night. With the moon hidden by low clouds, the gloom in the gravel parking lot was almost tangible. The sounds of crickets and frogs had replaced the thump of rock music by the time they reached the 1966 Chevelle Super Sport Bebe’s father, Jack Boudreaux, had given her as a graduation present.
"Thanks for coming with me. Dark parking lots give me the creeps. Ah'm always afraid some crazy nig--, uh, nut might be waiting to, well, you know."
“No problem,” said Mark. He had noticed her double-clutching to keep from saying, “nigger,” but said nothing. Everyone knew he was, “soft” on the race issue and that he and Amy were both life-long friends of Willie Carter, son of the town’s leading black preacher and civil rights leader. But this was the first time he could remember Bebe, who had always been openly racist, trying to watch her language. Maybe she was getting better. God knows she couldn’t have gotten much worse.
She unlocked the door and then turned to face him. "By the way, what time did you want to pick me up?"
"Well, uh, what about six? If that's no good, name your poison."
"Six sounds great.” She reached up and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "Ah’m glad you were here tonight. You made it a lot more fun. And you saved me from dancing with Hoss and Ralph or, even worse, high school guys."
Before Mark could recover from the unexpected kiss, she slipped into her seat and closed the door. There was a smooth, powerful roar as the big engine sprang to life. She rolled down her window and gave him another smile. "Ah'm really looking forward to next Saturday."
Bebe fluttered her fingers in a goodbye gesture as she pulled away. The tires made a brief squeal when they hit the asphalt road. Mark watched the taillights vanish into the sultry night while touching the spot she’d kissed.
A warm breeze drifted past. With it came a faint scent of spring flowers and the succulent eroticism of approaching rain. It reminded him of another night and another girl. His hand dropped, his smile faded, and he whispered, “Ain’t life a bitch?”
It was like a bad joke. For whatever reason, the once unobtainable Bebe Boudreaux, the girl he always wanted, was now a possibility. That would be great, except he’d just fallen in love with Amy, someone he could never have, someone he loved so much it hurt to even think her name.
Even the possibility of a well-financed shot at becoming a state representative couldn’t get Amy off his mind. Once, they both loved politics. He still did, and had always wanted to run for office. But after today’s meeting with local big shots, all he could think about was how, after what Vietnam did to her brother, she no longer cared.
Thank God he’d run into Bebe. What politics couldn’t do, she could, almost. With Bebe around, it was hard for thoughts of anyone else to slip in, hard, but not impossible. The moment she drove away, memories of that night with Amy came flooding back along with a familiar, sick, hopeless, soul-shriveling sensation.
A swarm of hungry mosquitoes began intruding on his thoughts. An absentminded attempt to wave them away failed and he headed for his car. He wanted to think, to try and figure things out, not feed mosquitoes.
He cruised around town, instead of going home, thinking about what happened at the dance and wondering why. There was little to disturb his thoughts. The tree-lined streets of Pinefield featured more gentle hills than traffic signs. Even in the downtown area there were few other cars passing the lighted storefronts.
Then hunger began to intrude on his thoughts. By then it was after eleven. The one place still open was the all-night, Hilltop Café Motel and Truck Stop.
He parked near the café’s front door, got out, and heard the insistent wail of approaching sirens. Three Sheriff’s Department cars raced by heading toward town with their lights flashing. He wondered what all the excitement was about. Then he headed for the glass door with its sun-faded sign that proclaimed,
“WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO YOU”
He’d seen that sign and others much like it many times during his twenty-one years on earth. Most went unnoticed. That’s what he preferred. Thinking about all they represented had become a total downer. But tonight, something made him stop and study the old sign. It had once been bright and defiant. Now, like the hatred it represented, it was fading but still around.
Mark shook his head, as if trying to clear his mind of the past, then opened the door and stepped into the over air-conditioned, neon-lit café. A few couples were sitting in the back booths. None looked familiar. Out-of-town kids, he guessed. A lot of them stopped in after dates to check each other out for telltale signs of drive-in passion. After a quick burger, they’d rush home to beat the girl’s midnight curfew.