The Dancing Man

A city street, a restaurant. Across the top of the restaurant's grimy window is a fading sign promising air-conditioning inside. She walks to the door, opens it, goes in. Standing near the cash register is a young man. "You Amber?" She nods yes. Gesturing at a line of tables along the far wall, the young man says, "He's waiting for you."


Welcome to my world. Have a seat... no, over there. I like to see who's coming through the door. So what is it, you taking a walk on the wild side? Somebody downtown say I'm local color? My associates checked you out, or you wouldn't be here.... Taking notes, eh? I got to tell you, you reporters are getting younger all the time. Maybe it's just me....

I can tell, I'm making you uncomfortable. You are young. This is your first interview, isn't it. Poor you. Tell you what, for now, I talk, you listen.

First, you may be operating under some false assumptions. Like for instance, contrary to what you may have heard, I'm a simple guy. Fact is, I grew up in a neighborhood not too far from here. It was a tough place then, just like now.

Same as a lot of kids around here, I had a father who drank too much. When he drank, he liked to use his fists on people who were smaller than him. Like me. Like my mom. That went on the first fifteen years of my life, then one day he started to smack Mom around again. I unloaded on him. Fifteen, and I beat the holy crap out of my dad.

But I don't do that anymore – beat the crap out of people. Let me see you write that down. I am running on at the mouth, but later, you can ask your questions.

Okay, at some point, early on, even I realized I was headed in the wrong direction. I wanted something different out of life.

Tell you what I wanted more than anything. I wanted a certain girl named Antonia. Toni, for short. She was an Italian girl with brown eyes and dark hair. Been thinking about her a lot lately, not sure why. Guess that’s why I’m running my mouth now. Toni was everything I wasn't. For starters, she did good in school, I didn't. She was pretty, I looked about the way I do now, except a lot younger.

Best thing was, when I was around her, I felt, well, I felt better about me. When I was with her, all things were possible.

Can't say we ever dated. I'd run into her at the drugstore, her and her friends, and we'd horse around, that'd be about the extent of it.... You're thinking she was getting thrills doing something dangerous, something her parents warned her about. I was bad, so you may be right.

Anyway, I don't read into things the way a lot of people do. On the other hand, I'm not blind. Sometimes, when she looked at me, I had this feeling she liked what she saw. I don't know any other way to put it.

I got her off by herself one day. I suggested we'd make a good team, and I'd do right by her. I might have frightened her a little, which wasn't my intent. I never wanted bad things for that little lady. She said, while she liked me a lot, she didn't think we had that much in common. She was right, and she was trying to let me down easy. I thanked her for her time. I told her I was leaving town.

With Toni, I made a real effort to be better than I was. Long and the short of it.

And I had been thinking about leaving. I was going to join the army, learn a skill at Uncle Sammy's expense, come back a new man. The Vietnam War was in high gear – I thought an enterprising young fellow like me could make his mark. I had my young man dreams.

As it turns out, I was a good soldier. Was sent off to Vietnam, got noticed, got a couple of stripes and a medal. But the only skills I learned were in the way of how to do to the other guy before he did to me. In the army, that's a positive. Back here, driving a truck or fixing a radio looks better on your resume'. I'm not complaining, that's the way of the world.

Yeah, I enjoyed my time in service. If that's the word, enjoy. It agreed with me, and I got to do things I was really good at.

Eventually, I made it back to the states.

You come home, you go to work for the man, he writes you out a regular paycheck, you owe him loyalty. You marry that one woman, you owe her your loyalty. That simple. Why do people make things complicated for themselves?

Personally, life comes at me in black and white, I don't do Technicolor. Black and white. It's right, or it's damn wrong. Is that simple, or isn't it?

Back to my story, I get off the Greyhound, I am primed and ready to sell Toni on the idea of the new, improved me. I was young, see, and I didn't know much. You can laugh about this later, you won't hurt my feelings, because it was true.

Four years. That's a long time. That's certainly a long time for a young woman. I didn't write letters, I didn't receive letters. I was out of the loop. Somehow I thought I'd return after four years, and the world would be waiting for me just the way I left it.

I got back with practically twenty-four months of combat pay socked away. First thing I did was rent a room in a boarding house, where they gave you a change of sheets every two weeks. Nice place.

Next, I went shopping for some cool threads, because, you know, you can't wear them army duds and not draw attention. I've got a practical side, so I didn't buy a lot of fancy stuff, but what I did buy was good quality.

And you know, I was in a hurry. I wanted to see Toni again. Not a day had gone by, I didn't think about her. This is silly, but I helped her up once when she fell down – slipped on ice or something. I got a whiff of her hair. Man, that was heaven, that was something fine. Don't write this down, I'm just talking here. But that was a strong memory, I got to tell you. Oh yeah.

I wanted to see Toni in the worst way. I had this idea in my head that maybe when she saw me again, she'd rush over, put her arms around my neck and kiss me on the cheek or something. Oh hell yeah. Like I say, I was young, I didn't know nothing. Thought I did, but I didn't.

Sometime late that afternoon I got back to my room, and changed into my new civvies. I walked out the door of that flophouse like I was the king of the world. I was hot.

I hoofed it the ten blocks over to where Toni had lived before I left – thought that was as good a place as any to start looking for her. Climbed the stairs, knocked, and believe it or not, she answered the door.

She was still pretty. Even prettier. But you know, from where I stood, I was looking at a woman whose nose had been broken and not reset, who had bruises on her face more recent than the nose job, and who looked like she was scared. I got a street sense, I'm not lying, and I can tell things. She was scared, and it wasn't of me.

Took her a moment, but she recognized me, she sure did. No squeal of joy, no kiss on the cheek. What she did was, she leaned her head on the edge of the door and looked at me. So sad.

I wasn't really expecting her to still be living in that house, much less be there, answering the door. I wasn't prepared for what to say. I was curious about those bruises though, yes I was. About that time, my answer started yelling in the next room. A man.

Quick like, he was standing right behind her, looking up at me as though he was something fierce. “What you want?” he said. He was a cocky little fellow, I'll hand him that.

I stated my name, said I was a friend of Toni and I was there to see if she had time for a Coke or whatever. That got a laugh out of him. More like a bark, but I guess that was his way of laughing.

Okay, so at the time, I didn't understand what was funny. I was ready to ask him about that, but I could see in her eyes the fear she was living with. She was afraid of that little bastard, she was afraid I was going to cause trouble for her. Seems that was her husband. She'd married that son-of-a-gun, for better or worse, and I was too late.

I'm not insensitive, not the way they say I am. I could've dropped him cold to the floor in a second. Eventually, I knew I'd have to leave and he would get up off that linoleum, and then he'd settle up with Toni. I couldn't do that to her, so I backed off.

I turned and made my way down to the street. I could hear him yelling at her. Sounded like my old man.

At that point, I put her out of my thoughts and got on with my life.

Only job I could find was with a moneylender who worked this side of town, but who lived across the river someplace. Where he lived wasn't my business. People who'd borrowed money from him and were slow to pay, they were my business.

That was old Mr. Murphy. You'd probably call him a loan shark, I called him a moneylender. He wasn't a bad guy, just another man trying to provide for his family.

Business. I threw myself into it, heart and soul. I didn't go medieval on anyone right off the bat. With me, you say the right things, I'll give you a chance to make good. I'll go to the mat for you. And, too, I knew that paying the vig – the vigorish – could beat a man down. I knew that.

I also knew our customers knew everything up front, so it wasn't like I was dealing with innocent babes or anything. My first loyalty was to my employer. He provided a valuable service, and I was there to make sure things didn't get out of hand.

When you're working the streets, doing the things I had to do now and again, you dressed the part. I mean, I wanted to look nice, and I made good money, so I'd spend a little extra on myself. My value to my boss was, I quickly earned the rep that I flat took care of business. I didn't have to get all that extreme all that often. Sometimes, sure, but not often.

When I did, I dressed special for that job. Dungarees, heavy shirt, jacket, and a pair of steel-toed boots, what I called my dancing shoes. Most important. You work somebody who's rolling around on the ground, you don't wanna smash your own toes, right? Where's the justice in that? You got to wear your dancing shoes.

So everything is going good for me. I'm producing results for my employer, I got a girlfriend whenever I want, I was driving a fine looking car. Hell, I want a table in a club on a busy Saturday night, I only had to ask. Not a bad life.

Did I ever think of Toni? Hey, I'm no saint, of course I did. Never saw her in those days, never went looking for her. Didn't ask about her. I believe in the sanctity of marriage, one man, one woman. They each make a decision to tough it out together, and the rest of us have to respect that decision. Maybe I told you, I'm a simple kind of guy.

So, the day comes I'm hanging around a phone booth, waiting for the boss to call, and he does. First order of business – get this – is Toni's husband. I recognize the name, but I don't let on. Seems hubby borrowed some serious money, and what the hey, he's let the first payment slip. The first payment, I'm telling you. Talk about a lack of respect, the guy's a regular class clown. Word gets out we don't take our jobs seriously, everybody's going to try putting us through the hoops. The guy had no respect.

Listen, what I'm getting at is, there was never anything personal in what I did. It was the nature of the business. Yet at the same time, you can get some major job satisfaction, steering a guy back onto the straight and narrow. It's no stretch to say you've done him a favor.

There you have it, I'm charged with seeing that our client gets what we call an attitude adjustment. I'm not going to bust him so hard he can't go to work on Monday, I'm not going extreme on him. Nothing like that.

But I did have to make a detour to my room. You're a journalist, you want to write good stories. I was what I was, and I wanted to do a good job. To do a good job, sometimes you got to dress special. In my case, on that day, I wanted to change into my... dancing shoes.