THE DANCERS - chap one
This is the opening chapter of my second novel, We Danced To Ray Charles. In it the novel's bad girl begins to weave her seductive web around our poor hero. This version reflects changes suggested by Robert Flynn. As always, any input would be greatly appreciated.
by Bill Fullerton
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 in Louisiana called Sandtown, an innocent black man was beaten and arrested.
But in nearby Pinefield, everything was perfect. At least, that’s what Mark Cahill kept telling himself. Bebe Boudreaux’s head rested on his chest as they moved in languid harmony to sound of 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.
He almost hadn’t come. After three years in college, a Junior League, End-of-School, dance held little appeal. Still, he needed to keep connected with his hometown friends and remind them he still existed. That might be very important in a few years. So when his mother, a Junior League member, strongly suggested he stop by and check on things, he agreed.
Arriving late, he paused just inside the front door to shake hands and mingle. Thick cigarette smoke couldn’t mask the 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 couldn’t hide all the World War II era posters and dated fixtures.
Black-and-white photographs of serious looking men in funny looking hats like those soda jerks wore filled the far wall. 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, then broke into another spasm of jerking legs, flailing arms, and twisting bodies.
As Mark watched from the sidelines, congratulating himself on not being out among them, someone tapped 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 delicate face with the big, liquid-brown eyes that commanded your attention, he felt sure she never looked better.
As they spoke, Ray Charles began singing “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Mark hesitated, then asked her to dance. To his surprise, she 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. Without leaning away, she gazed up at him through long, thick lashes. "Ah didn't remember you being such a good dancer.”
Mark wondered when Bebe’s new “Gone With the Wind” drawl had replaced her soft Cajun lilt. Her unexpected compliment pleased him, though he couldn’t recall the last time last they 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 and hoped she hadn’t noticed. "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.” What looked like a pleased expression crossed Bebe’s face before 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 the reason for her being so nice, but he liked it, a lot, and wondered where it might lead.
The song ended and they sat at a rickety folding table with some friends from high school, flirting, telling jokes, and catching up on gossip. Later, when everyone else got up for a fast song, Mark made no move to follow.
"I don't know about you, but I'm grateful we're sitting here and not working ourselves to death out there." Bebe stopped nodding to the beat long enough to give him a slow wink and say she agreed. To Mark, it seemed sexy beyond belief and convinced him to test the limits of her new and improved attitude.
He cleared his throat, then spoke in a voice he hoped sounded calm and casual. "Of course, the Cajun two-step and juke-joint shuffle don't take as much energy. Are you, uh, still interested in us looking into that situation?"
After a thoughtful sip of Tab, she tilted her head and gazed into his eyes. "What did you have in mind, Mark?"
For just a moment, he hesitated. "Well, I was thinking we might go down to Shep's in Mansura. It's a pretty long drive and I've never seen any real two-stepping going on there. Still, it's a first-class Cajun honky-tonk."
"That might be fun,” she said. “Shep's is one of my favorite places. When did you want to go?"
"Oh, I don’t know," he said, trying to act calm. “If tomorrow night’s too soon, what about next weekend? John Fred and The Playboy Band are supposed to be there both Friday and Saturday."
"Well, I’ve got to admit I'm getting a little tired of hearing, ‘Judy In Disguise.’ Ah mean it's been on every radio station around here just about forever.” She exaggerated the word, “forever,” and gave her head an amused shake which sent her long, dark hair into motion. “But other than that, the band's great and John Fred's really cute."
Not having an opinion on the cuteness of the state's current leading rock star, Mark just nodded. She seemed to be considering the alternatives. "Why don't we go next Saturday?”
The tension in his body began to ease. The age of miracles hadn’t passed. After all these years, he and Bebe were going on a date. While he tried to process this development, Bebe continued, "Ah really like Shep's better on Friday nights. To me, it's less crowded and friendlier. The problem is, Saturday mornings at the store can get really busy. Ah'd hate to try and handle a big rush after being down there Friday night."
Someone bucking for sainthood played a slow Ray Charles song "You Don’t Know Me” and they got up to dance. “Born To Lose” came next and they continued to move. Mark decided another Ray Charles fan must be running the stereo and silently blessed him.
As the song’s last melancholy notes faded away, Bebe said she had to go. "Ah really am sorry. But like Ah said, things can get really crazy at work on Saturday mornings, and according to that calendar over on the wall, tomorrow is Saturday."
Mark’s initial disappointment vanished in a flash of inspiration. “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 Bebe made her way toward the cloakroom. The sight of that celebrated Cajun derriere swaying in a seductive rhythm was always arousing. Over the last eight years, he'd witnessed that wonder of nature many times. Far too often after another rejection. This time he felt no mixed emotions. Tonight, she would be walking back to him.
Out on the floor, Penny Harrison and Ralph Lawson gyrated past him. Penny, a slender, pretty brunette, smiled and waved. Mark liked her, always had, and wondered if she and Amy were still fussing. Ralph, Penny’s long-time steady, pretended to be looking the other way. While Mark and Ralph were almost always civil to one another, their relations were, at best, tense. They’d almost gotten into it tonight. Ralph had made a crack about “niggers” and Mark responded with a joke at Ralph’s expense.
Little “Skeeter” Cummings, flashing her new engagement ring, danced by with Mark’s old football teammate, the aptly named, “Hoss” Driscoll. Back at the table, her question 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 he could recall Bebe, who had always been openly racist, ever trying to watch her language. Could she be 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. The big engine sprang into life with a deep, almost sensual, growl. 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 as 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 all seemed like a bad joke. The once unobtainable Bebe Boudreaux, the girl he had always wanted, now seemed interested in him. 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 run for state representative in the next elections 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 bumped into Bebe. What politics couldn’t do, she could, almost. With Bebe around, it’d been hard for thoughts of anyone else to slip in, but not impossible. And the moment she drove away, memories of that night with Amy had come flooding back along with a familiar, sick, hopeless, soul-shriveling sensation.
A swarm of hungry mosquitoes intruded on his thoughts. An absentminded attempt to wave them away failed and he headed for his car. He wanted to be alone, try to figure things out, not feed mosquitoes.
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. Mark ignored these icons of his youth as he tried to focus on Bebe and what happened at the dance. But his mind kept going back to Amy and to what happened.
The party had been his dumb idea. To be dumped by a guy you’ve dated for over a year is tough. To have him do it for another guy—devastating. That’s what happened to Amy, and Mark had never seen her so confused and depressed.
So the idea, the hope, had been that a casual beer-bust with friends would kick-start her back to life. It’d been easy to organize. LSU students consider partying a sacred obligation. Springtime parties on the nearby Mississippi River levee are illegal which makes them doubly popular.
Everyone else seemed to be having a great time, but Mark could tell Amy felt miserable. That’s why he kept checking on her and noticed when she drifted from the center of the party and then vanished into the late evening shadows. At first he thought it best to let her be alone. But an arrogant jerk with a long-standing case of the hot’s for Amy seemed ready to follow so Mark changed his mind.
Once away from the noise of the party, Mark heard a stifled, whimpering sound. He followed it to her hide-away behind a driftwood log.
They’d talked for days about the breakup and how rotten she felt. There was more to her mood, however, than just breaking up with a boyfriend, much more, and they also talked about that. By now he didn’t know what else to say. So he sat beside her on the dry, sun-hardened sediment left by the receding early spring high water and said nothing.
A fresh breeze came off the river and she shivered. He put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. With a low, anguished wail, she buried her face against his chest and began soaking the front of his shirt with what seemed like an endless stream of tears.
When her sobs tapered off, she didn’t pull away and try to apologize. That’s what he’d expected. Instead, she continued to lie against him, silently sliding a fingertip across his soaked shirt. It felt good, very good, and he smiled
That’s when she lifted her face and looked at him. Even with all the crying, she was still beautiful. He’d never been “turned on” by Amy’s looks—neither had Amy. Maybe it was a trick of the mind to protect their friendship. Still, he understood why guys--.
The evaluation of Amy’s beauty came to a sudden stop as she slipped her hands behind his neck, pulled him close, and pressed her lips against his. The kiss was long and erotic and, for Mark at least, changed everything between them. No mental gymnastics could withstand the touch of her lips or the feel of her willowy body in his arms.
The moment Amy’s lips touched his, Mark fell totally, hopelessly in love with his best friend. What he didn’t know was how she felt. Their lips parted and he noticed a look of serenity, or something like that, on her tear-streaked face. But he sensed another, more subtle emotion. With a jolt of disbelief, he realized she was waiting for him to do something. The problem was he had no idea what that should be.
He tried to think, tried to be rational and decide what was best. Amy was wasted, hurt, vulnerable. He’d never taken advantage of a girl, and didn’t want to start with his best friend. But the memory of that kiss, and the way she now kept staring into his eyes, made thinking about anything other than kissing her again, and again, and again, impossible.
This time she didn’t have to pull his face to hers. At some point it occurred to him that Amy was one helluva good kisser. He envied the guys she’d dated.
The next time they parted, he started to say something about stopping. Maybe joke that he wasn’t sure how much more of this he could stand. Only it wouldn’t be a joke.
But Amy snuggled closer and pulled him back onto her mouth. As if on autopilot, his hand slipped under her sweatshirt. Amy shivered and tried to pull him closer. He took possession of one of her breasts, marveling at its firm, silky smoothness. The nipple was already hard. As if handling a sacred object, he rolled it between finger and thumb. Amy responded by breaking their kiss and emitting a low moan.
He took his time kissing her eyes, her cheek, her chin, letting his lips trail down to her neck. There was no resistance as he pushed the sweatshirt higher until her breasts came into view. They seemed to glow in the pale moonlight. A moment later his lips encircled one of her small, hard nipples. Amy gasped and tried to press herself deeper into his mouth.
Once again he told himself he should stop, but his hand seemed to move of its own will down her slim torso. As he fumbled with her zipper, Amy made no move to stop him.
In the most basic, physical sense, he wanted to this woman. And he knew she was his for the taking. But this was Amy, not just some woman. It was hurt, not love, behind her passion. And he wanted to make love with Amy, not screw her. Though sure this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and aching with need, he didn’t want to risk losing his best friend over what, considering his present condition, would be about a two-second burst of ecstasy.
With a resigned sigh, he gave up on the zipper. His lips released her breast and returned to her mouth.
Their tongues performed a lazy dance from one mouth to another. He pulled her sweatshirt down, covering breasts he’d probably seen for the last time. For a moment, he allowed his fingers to caress first one, then the other. He wanted to remember their texture, shape, and warmth.
The kissing became less intense but didn’t stop. He hated to break that last contact with her. Besides, they both needed to cool down before returning to--.
The irate blare of a car horn brought Mark back from the Mississippi levee to one of the few Pinefield intersections with a traffic light. A light he’d just run.
He waved in apology at the offended driver, realized they couldn't see the gesture, felt even dumber, and then headed out of town. If he couldn’t stop thinking about that night with Amy, he better get off the road.