NICK OF TIME
I paid for spiting Bill Christian, paid in money I couldn't afford. When I got back to Santa Fe, my husband Buck was gone.
I'd driven my pickup faster than the seventy-five mile-an-hour limit on the throughway north from Albuquerque, and when I topped the rise at La Bajada, it wasn't a ragged Indian boy I saw but my own cozy town, spread out in twinkling lights.
I roared down the hill, my little Ford showing what she's made of, and whirled along Cerrillos Road past the car dealerships and the big hotels, dust and litter flying, the sky over the Sangre de Cristo mountains bruise-purple, showing the first star. All I wanted was to get home to Buck, sit on his lap and tell him about my adventure, maybe open a beer.
I turned into the Land of Enchantment Trailer Park, slowed down, finally, for the speed bumps, and parked next to the big Wilderness we've been living in for the past five years. Right away, I saw the awning was gone.
Buck cranks that awning out the first hot day of summer, and we set our folding chairs under it. The nights I'm not dancing, we sit there for an hour before bed; after ten years, there's not much to talk about, never was, maybe. Words aren't what count, anyway. Now and then Buck steps into the Wilderness to fetch us each another cold beer, and sometimes he brings out popcorn or pretzels, too. Generally, that's our dinner, unless we decide to climb into my truck and drive down the road to the Sonic for two old-time hamburgers served on a tray that clips to the door.
Now the awning was gone.
I unlocked the Wilderness door, and the entire thing vibrated when I stepped in.
"Buck!" I called down the hallway that leads to our bedroom.
There's nowhere much to hide, in the Wilderness.
Then I started in to wait, figuring he might have gone out for something to eat. The refrigerator's too small to hold food for regular meals, and besides, I don't like to cook. But all the time I knew Buck would never in his right mind have gone off when he knew I was on my way home.
I sat outside on the metal step; what in the world had he done with our folding chairs? We've used them all over the West, even carting them down to the beach in Oregon a couple of summers ago; we take a road trip once a year, going someplace we haven't seen. Buck lives off his Social Security and savings, plus my wage and tips, and the only fixed part of our life is my job and my two or three nights a week dancing at the clubs. Other than that, we are both free in a way we never imagined when Buck was foreman on million-dollar haciendas going up on the ridges and couldn't miss a day of work without throwing the project off schedule.
When it came on to full dark, I went inside the Wilderness and opened the clothes closet; every stitch he had was gone.
I sat down then and cried. Buried my face in the daisy-print pillowcases I'd bought with my last paycheck and howled. I missed those clothes almost more than I missed the man. I knew every article Buck wore from the day I met him, broke down by the Taos road, thumbing for a ride. I'd hauled his checked flannel shirts and white T's and patched jeans (not my patches; some other lady in Buck's long past must have had a special ability I don't claim) to the Laundromat so many times those man-shaped pieces of cloth felt like my own skin: worn down and soft, the way Buck himself felt when I held him in my arms. Buck, who'd insisted on marrying me when living together was going far enough, the way I saw it; Buck, who even though he was deep asleep and snoring when I came home from the clubs, never failed to turn over and kiss me goodnight.
After I'd cried myself out--my first good cry in years--I called Buck's sister Fern in Tulsa.
It was late by then, and I woke her. Fern tried to be helpful, but what could she say except she hadn't seen or heard from Buck since he called to wish her happy birthday last January?
I went back to the Wilderness and sat on the step.
Jean and Marty next door were having one of their midnight go-arounds, fucking or fighting, it sounds pretty much the same, and I remembered how Buck would grin when we heard them going at it, and nothing I could say would wipe that grin off his face.
The first time I saw him, thumbing on the Taos road, he dropped his hand when he glimpsed me, a woman driving alone, not likely to pick up a grizzled guy with a backpack, and it nearly dark.
So I stopped my truck because this man, this stranger, seemed to think I'd be afraid.
"Why'd you drop your hand?" I asked him when he was settled, beat-up backpack on his knees. I needed to know if something about me looked that feminine.
"Women don't generally stop for me," he said, sounding West Texas.
Which was about all the conversation we had, driving down to Santa Fe. I felt no need to tell him I wasn't like all those pretty women afraid of their own shadows--the kind that gape at me, now, when I ask them to dance.
I let him out at the corner of the Paseo and Washington Avenue, next to the rose-red Masonic temple; from there he could make his way to the Plaza, buy something to eat at the Greek's. I never expected to see him again, didn't even know his name.
He turned up a couple of nights later at Rita's, where I work. As soon as he saw me, he headed in my direction, and I thought, This man has nerve.
He sat down in my section, ordered a cup of "the real stuff," drank about half of it and left me a five-dollar tip.
I went after him with the money. "You don't owe me this."
He was standing in line at the cashier. "I don't like to be beholden," he said, and his blue eyes flashed at me, bright in his shabby, worked-over face.
And I never remembered till now the man has pride.
Marty and Jean had come to the end of whatever they were trying to accomplish in their camper, and the trailer park was quiet. Late as it was, I knew I couldn't face that bed at the end of the Wilderness, with the quilted cover Buck never liked--so many roses--and the vanity mirror that's seen too much. I took some change out of the coffee mug on the dinette table--Buck always keeps it well supplied--and went back down to the payphones. There was one person I could still call: my best friend.
Doris was asleep, but she woke up when she heard my voice.
"I've got to see you," I said.
"Get right on over."
I headed out Cerrillos toward Madrid. Doris works the same shift at Rita's as me; she lives with her son on the edge of the mesa in a little adobe she bought with the money from her divorce.
The city lights faded behind me, and I rolled down my window and breathed in the high desert: piñon, tangy as creosote, and dry red dirt, and sage. Big soft clouds were climbing the night sky; the Sandias heaved up black near Albuquerque, blocking that city's lights.
I knew, even then, I was in my right place. Not the clapboard hen roost in Gloucester where I'd lived in my twenties, working the summer trade; not the dorm in Tucson where I'd managed to survive a year of college; not the little town in the Purchase where my mother raised me with only the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress to help her, but here, on the high desert at the southern toe of the Rockies, the land where heartbreak begins.
It began for me that night.
I cried myself silly, sitting at Doris' kitchen table at one AM--and we both had the first shift, next day.
"What makes you think he won't come back when he's worked his way through this?" Doris asked. "He's run off before, hasn't he?"
"Restless, or chasing some woman. This is different. Did you see my TV show?"
She nodded, pinching her lips. Doris at night looks bone-yellow and brittle, not someone to dispute with over a lukewarm cup of tea; by day, in make-up and señorita uniform (short red dress, white apron; Rita's depends on tourists), she's saucy and wise. All of that had boiled away now, and I knew why I liked her: the bone strength that doesn't soften, doesn't change.
"I saw it. Dumb thing to do," she said, shaking her head. "Very, very stupid."
"I got carried away."
"You were showing off, Mel. I expected you to get up and demonstrate how you lead some woman through an underarm turn."
"I told you, I got carried away."
"Think what Buck saw: his wife, dolled up in boy clothes, talking about how a woman feels in her arms."
"Buck's known all along--"
"Not on national television."
"You sound like you're telling me I deserve him leaving." Something started up in me, a redness kin to rage.
"You didn't think about the consequences."
"There never were any consequences, before. He didn't say anything when I told him I was going."
I took a breath. "I don't usually ask permission."
"There you are."
"Buck knows I like to lead," I told her.
"It's different when a million people know, too. Think how you'd feel if Buck went on some talk show and told about his other women."
"I wouldn't care. I know all about them, anyway." Not true, but close enough to it.
Doris smiled. Then she stood up, tightening the tie on her blue chenille robe. "I'm not going to argue with you, Mel. Just think about what I said." She carried her cup to the sink. "I put a pillow and blankets on the couch. It gets cold, toward dawn."
The rest of that night I tossed and turned, dreams I didn't know I could muster weaving through my head. At six, when I'd finally dropped off, Doris woke me with a cup of her terrible coffee; we both needed to dress and go to work.
I thanked her for her kindness and drove back home.
I expected to find Buck, or at least a message from him, but there was nothing: no note pinned to the door or waiting under the rock from Diablo Canyon we use as a message-holder and key-keeper. No sign of him at all.
I didn't have time to start crying again.
That day passed in a daze. Luckily for me, the restaurant wasn't crowded. I could space out, imagine alternatives to what was facing me: Buck back, still loving me, or me somehow getting over whatever his problem was.
I attended to my few customers, so used to the routine I didn't need to think about it, and claimed my paycheck at the end of my shift. There was a deduction I didn't understand, and I knew how near the edge I was when I heard myself raising my voice with the manager, Mrs. Lopez.
Doris heard, too, and came over. "Melanie's under a lot of strain," she said.
Mrs. Lopez was glaring at me over her shoulder, hand on the swinging door to the kitchen. She glanced at Doris; they were good friends, sometimes went to the pueblo casino to play the slots on Sunday night.
"She'd better keep her voice down around me," Mrs. Lopez said, and Doris hustled me out.
"Let's get something to eat," she said, but I told her I wanted to go straight home and change.
"You're not going out," she told me, giving me a look.
"I always hit Club Alegria on Friday night."
"Not this Friday, you don't. What if Buck takes it into his head to come home and you're not there?"
"He'd know where to find me."
"You're stubborn as a mule, Melanie. I'm starting to wonder why Buck put up with it as long as he did," Doris said, going to her car.
I didn't feel stubborn, standing there on the gravel, watching her charge off.
I cared about Buck, but I couldn't let that stop me. I needed to go to the darkness and the music and the feel of a woman in my arms; my spirit was wilting, and I knew only the Two-Step could save me from giving out altogether--at least for a while.
I showered and put on my blacks (as I call them; I don't own a piece of ordinary clothes that's black, just my dancing duds) and shined my boots, sitting on the trailer step. Buck used to watch me do that, sucking on his cigarette, and I wondered for the first time what he'd been thinking.
We tried dancing together once or twice, years ago, but it didn't work. We're both strong, well-built, almost the same height, and when we stepped out on the dance floor, we seemed to lock. When we finally did more, it was like two heavy wooden crates bumping along. We decided dancing was one thing we were not going to do together.
That's when I started going to the clubs alone.
We never talked about that, either.
I put on my boots and went back in the trailer to check myself in the mirror. I liked what I saw. My long-sleeved black ruffled shirt was tucked in my belt, and the red bandanna I'd knotted inside my collar looked fresh and sharp. My concho belt (Buck gave it to me our first Christmas) couldn't measure up to what the tourists wear, but I like its plainness: silver disks with a pie crust rim, strung on a narrow piece of black leather. The crease in my jeans was sharp, and I'd learned how to tuck them into my boots so there were no wrinkles below the knee. Underneath, I had on pantyhose and my push-up bra.
I combed my short, orangey hair with my fingers, and set my black Stetson (Buck again, our second Christmas) flat on my head. Then I was ready.
Going out to my pickup, I thought how it was the way I wore my hat that made the difference. Most girls cock a Stetson, give it a flirtatious angle, but that hat's meant for business, and I always wear mine flat, like I have some branding in mind.
I roared out of the trailer park, sailing across the speed bumps, raising dirt and litter and setting the dog chained outside a big Winnebago into a frenzy of barking.
I enjoyed that.
I turned on Airport Road and again on Aqua Fria, going a little too fast, and when I heard my poor old tires squealing, I looked in the rear-view mirror and wondered what I was up to:
Fifty-nine years old, fresh out of a husband, and already hitting the road.
It's Friday night, I told that frowning stranger in the mirror. I always go dancing on Friday night. What am I supposed to do, sit in the Wilderness and cry?
Buck wouldn't want me to do that.
My face in spite of everything I'd done for it looked bleached, and I remembered catching a glimpse of myself, coming off the TV set in New York, flushed so I looked almost like the girl I never was or even wanted to be.
Maybe that was what bothered Buck, more than me bragging about dancing with women: the way I'd enjoyed the attention, the way I'd turned into somebody I never was and didn't want to be.
I pulled into the Alegria's parking lot and stopped under the big arc light, my only precaution against walking back to my car alone, later. The Alegria used to be known for rough carryings-on, but things have changed since Father Garcia leads the combo; most of the crowd are his parishioners at San Isidro up the road.
The little guy who takes your five dollars at the door bobbed his head at me, and José who shines shoes and boots at the back called out hello. They both know me from way back; I'm one of the few women who remembers to give the little guy, Pedro, an extra dollar now and then, and I'm a pretty frequent customer of José's, sitting up high on his chair while he busies himself around my boots.
I waded into the darkness and found the last seat at the ledge along the dance floor, which is for women alone looking for partners; couples and groups sit at the tables.
Right away I knew it was going to be my kind of night.
Father Garcia was in the middle of a Meringue, playing keyboard with his left hand and leading his three musicians with his right, and Jerry had the rattles flying. The floor was thick with couples, and I waved at a few people I knew; the turning lights caught skirts and belt buckles and earrings, glanced off a bald pate or two, lit up some amazing curls. Over at the pool tables, four or five guys were concentrating on their game, ignoring the music, and the servers were threading through the tables, carrying drinks from the bar. The fine thick darkness was lit with colored flashes from the turning lights on the dance floor, and the air smelled rich with sweat and perfume and popcorn and beer and cigarette smoke. The
sounds were the prancing of the Meringue, the dry rattles, the pump-pump-pump of Father Garcia's left hand on his keyboard and the heavy breathing of people doing what they do best: holding each other and moving to music.
The ledge has ten or twelve chairs lined up, and a woman was sitting on each one, fingers wrapped around a glass, eyes on the dance floor. Here and there, a dress boot was tapping out the rhythm, not impatient, not over-eager, just waiting for the chance to be beckoned or led onto the floor: to move.
That's what I love about women: that patient, certain waiting.
I took my place at the ledge, the only space left.
The woman to my left glanced at me, looked away, looked back: "These places are reserved for women."
I smiled at her. "What do I have to do to prove I belong here?"
She tried to look shocked, laughed instead. "That get-up--"
"I see by my get-up that I am a cowboy."
She laughed again.
"Care to dance?" I asked, taking her hand, which she'd placed on the table between us.
Once I have the hand, I usually have the woman.
She was saying things, but following along behind.
"I dress this way to improve the ratio," I said, to keep her smiling.
Stepping down onto the dance floor was like stepping into a well: swirl, reflections, colors. No one moved aside to let us in, but somehow we found our place.
I hooked my arm around this lady and led us both into the swirl.
Right away I knew I was in luck. She had that airiness and balance, felt the way I imagine a bird feels, perching on a swaying limb: sure, yet delicate, the little talons barely touching.
Now she was turning under my arm like a bright little top, flourishing her skirt--a señorita on a poster. She was smiling and whirling as she'd looked forward to doing when she put on her cherry-red lipstick and hung shiny purple hoops in her ears.
I was her dream come true, for that minute, anyway.
"I haven't seen you here before," I said.
"I'm just visiting"--the standard reply when they don't know whether or not they want to give you their telephone number. Not that I take them, but a few have tried.
Her nose was level with my collar bone, and I was looking down at the white part in her black hair. She wore it the old-fashioned way, pulled back and fastened with pins. The bit of her neck and shoulder I could see was white and smooth as a beach-worn pebble; she wasn't as young as she looked, but she'd taken good care of herself.
"You're good," I said on our second turn around the floor.
"Thanks." She looked up at me. "You always take the man's part?"
I sighed. It seemed so simple to me, so complicated to other people. "I like to lead."
She nodded like she understood, which of course she didn't.
"Haven't I seen you somewhere?"
"Only on national TV." I couldn't hold it back, though right away I knew I should have.
"That show!" She was goggle-eyed now.
"Don't tell anybody." But she was already running to her friends.
After that a few people started asking questions: What was it like? What did they say? I wish I could have told them the way the pillow smelled in that New York hotel.
I sat down to study the possibilities, and it occurred to me what I loved about leading was the order. On the floor, I always knew what was going to happen: I chose. There was some order to the rest of my life, as well--working, good times with Buck--but under that something infernal was always rumbling Hell fire, I'd have called it. Buck's temper? Yes, that--although he wasn't any worse than others I've known, in that department. But the rumbling was more than a raised voice now and then. It was the end coming on, like a freight train. The end of it all, before I even knew what that all was. At least when I was leading I felt like I was clear of the track.
Next I decided to try one of two women sitting at a table near the door. She'd been looking at me like she knew me, because of the show.
She barely reached my chest, which makes leading awkward. I had to rely too much on steering her with my arms.
"You're jerking me," she complained when we launched into a mambo.
"Sorry." I took a firmer hold of her, trying to rotate her with my body, but she pulled back.
"You're that woman that was on the show!"
"Never pretended to be anything else."
She turned on her heel and stalked off the dance floor.
I guess being known has its downside, too.
I went back to my spot on the ledge. The dark-haired lady, my first partner, was waiting for me.
"Care to?" she asked.
I could feel those two women at the table near the door burning my back with their eyes.
Lucky for me, it was a Country Waltz.
We started those small circles, and then I turned her out into Promenade; Shadow came next--my left arm across her shoulders, her back against my chest. She knew how.
"You a lesbian?" she asked when I turned her back into dance position.
The floor was crowded, and I was concentrating on guiding her through. "Not especially," I said.
"It's either yes or no."
"I've never tried it, or wanted to, with a woman, so how would I know?"
"I haven't either," she said, going into an underarm turn. "Don't think I ever will," she added when we were circling again.
"Half the women I dance with ask me that," I told her, "and the other half are probably wondering. Fact is, I'm married."
"To a man?"
"Nothing else is legal, as far as I know."
"Well," she said, and now we were back in Shadow, "I admire you."
Strange words. I don't believe I'd ever heard them before.
"I pay the price," I said.
"My husband just left me."
"He goes off from time to time, but this feels different." "You dancing this way got something to do with it?"
"Maybe. I think more that show."
"You shamed him," she said.
We were coming to the end of the set, and Father Garcia was getting ready to take his break. I didn't want to spend fifteen minutes talking about what was wrong between me and Buck, especially since I wasn't sure yet what it was.
"Do you dance with your husband the way you dance with women?" she asked on our way back to our seats.
"Buck doesn't like to dance."
"If he did, would you take the woman's part?"
"He wouldn't let me," I told her when she'd settled herself with a flourish of red skirts and white petticoats.
Father Garcia passed us, and I reached up to shake his hand. I didn't need to remind him who I am; he has the good shepherd's eye for each sheep in his flock.
"Haven't seen you at mass in a while," he told me. He's tall as a lighthouse, with a big polished dome of a head.
"I went to New York."
"So I heard."
"Did anybody see my show?"
"Quite a few. I heard comments. You've got some explaining to do."
"They've seen me dancing before," I said.
"They never heard you talk about it," he said, passing along; there were hands waving at him, down the line.
Then they put on the taped music, and everybody got up again to dance. It was Salsa, hot and loud.
Buck wouldn't let me, I'd told him. That stuck in my craw. It never had come to me like that before--the meaning of my leading. It wasn't just Buck. The world wouldn't let me.
I went across the room to ask an older woman I'd spotted, sitting with a group of friends.
She wasn't much of a dancer, this lady. The music was a slow rumba, and I explained the basic step-close-step to her and even told her a little about Cuban motion. She was about my height, nicely dressed, with a pretty head of gray hair; I figured she was one of those late divorcées with a whole lifetime behind her who come to Santa Fe to see what it is they've missed, raising four children in a Dallas suburb.
We danced four or five times, and she even started to move her hips a little, like her spine had come unfused. Marriage locks most women at the hips, I've noticed. When I felt her start to soften, I thought about warm water and soft sand and summertime--all still waiting for me when I hold a woman in my arms.
I don't know why life isn't soft. That's one of the first lessons everybody has to learn. Hard is the way we have to go, and hard we get to be. Maybe dancing softens me because I don't need words; leading is touching. The woman gets it, or doesn't, moves, or doesn't. Either way, there's nothing to say.
Words chip. You know they do, I know they do. Music and moving don't chip. They glide. And I lead that glide with my belly and thighs. Pushing trays at work, rocking under Buck at night--that, too: belly and thighs. But not to music.
After our fifth dance, she told me she had to leave, and I gave her my little bow and thanked her for the pleasure from the bottom of my heart.
The stars were coming out through a thick band of clouds when I left the Alegria; there'd been a storm while I was dancing, and the roads were streaming. I knew some folks would have trouble getting home where arroyos had flooded and washed out roads, and would probably end up spending the night in their trucks.
I was driving too fast, singing at the top of my lungs, and even when I pulled into the trailer court and headed for our slot, I didn't shut my mouth.
Then I saw Buck's pickup, parked alongside the Wilderness.