Trouble at the Dance Hall
My true love is a blue-eyed daisy,
If I don’t get her, I’ll go crazy,
My true love a blue-eyed daisy—no siree, Rufus Corn thought as he short-bowed his fiddle. MY true love a strappin’ gal with skin like coffee and eyes like golden raisins.
He resettled himself on the seat of the four-legged stool, watching the young woman on the dance floor. Her eyes were blue like the song said, and her hair blonde and curled. But he felt no lust—neither he nor the establishment would allow it.
Fiddling was Rufus’s calling. Every Friday night he came to a one-story white clapboard dance hall, in Pangburn, Arkansas, called The I, and there he fulfilled the task he believed God had given him.
This night, there was a bigger crowd than usual. It was the Fourth of July, and the Civilian Conservation Corps started that year by Roosevelt had built a platform for lighting fireworks out near the swimming hole.
Rufus knew from earlier summers that the gravel parking lot, weed-filled yard, and The I’s long front porch with its wooden benches and white columns were the best spots in town for viewing fireworks. Through the open door, he’d watched folks arriving early, while the sun still hung a good stretch above the horizon. Some walked, some came in open-back trucks, some rode horses they then tied to a railing at the end of the porch. As he stood for a short break, Rufus watched Gilroy Tucker park a fancy new Model-B far to the side, where the hooves of the skittish horses couldn’t reach.
Rufus couldn’t remember why the place was called The I. He did know, however, that the summer The I opened, he had read a brittle Letter to the Editor in the Pangburn Press, edited by Gilroy Tucker, from a Seventh Day Adventist. He had pinned one paragraph to one tarpapered wall in his home.
“Whatever you call it, we are worse than our neighbors in Heber for they keep their sins outside the city limit and now we are going to allow music and drinking and dancing right in the middle of town."
Rufus was a life-long resident of the poor part of Pangburn and had long known how narrow-minded his white neighbors were. Now nearing 70, an urgent anger had risen in him. He also knew that at least part of the task God had assigned him involved opening the eyes of the people of Pangburn to what was going on not only in their town but the rest of the world. Most recently, he’d been reading—and he was the only member of his family who could read—about what was going on across the ocean in Germany. He especially liked Gilroy Tucker’s editorials warning about Adolph Hitler’s election to power and the torture going on in barbed-wire pens for prisoners. But he knew that most folks in this down-country town preferred to imagine evil as something far away.
Yet violence had come knocking several times in Pangburn, as when members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered the Governor. To Rufus’s everlasting dismay, the trials had ended in acquittal for all the Klansmen.
He turned his attention to the blond woman dancing in the middle of the room. He’d seen her here often, had even heard her name called out: Maisie. She came to The I most Friday nights and was beautiful like a painting, one he, of course, could never touch. Rufus knew that without his ability to play the fiddle, he would never even have been allowed inside the dance hall.
Rufus had also figured out that the angry crippled man who always drank too much was Maisie's husband. He looked around now and found him seated in a back corner, nursing whiskey from a Mason jar.
Rufus came to the last stanza of “Sourwood Mountain.” He looked once more at Maisie and caught her eyes. He knew what she saw when she looked at him: a skinny black-skinned man with a too-long neck and worn-thin overalls and creek-washed shirt.
Rufus watched her turn away from his face and look back up toward the tall stranger who was her dance partner that night. She was always dancing with strangers who’d come into town for a night or two on their way to somewhere else.
Her husband Bill was missing his lower leg; Rufus had never heard why.
He watched Maisie and the out-of-towner move to sit at a table far from Bill, who was talking and drinking with three other men. The stranger’s hair was parted straight down the middle and was so tall he had a hard time fitting himself into his chair. Rufus could tell that the stranger, like all the others, had fallen head over heels in love with Maisie.
Outside the open door, the ball of sun perched on the horizon.
Rufus moved his small hat to a more comfortable position on his head and touched his wooden bow stick to the steel strings again. The bridge on his fiddle was cut low enough that he could play all three strings at once. He started on “New Five Cents.” The dance floor was crowded more than usual in anticipation of the fireworks. Couples swung wildly to and fro as Rufus played the fast dance tune in the key of D. Since Maisie still sat with the stranger, Rufus looked toward a woman dancing alone near the back wall. He didn’t need to stop his fiddling and stared as the woman danced without shame, drowning in desire and the warm waves of song.
His bow raced across the strings, faster and faster. His foot tapped the floor, one leg moving up and down like a slender piston. Then, pleased by his ability to magically control the crowd, he made a sudden switch to a Wee Bonnie Baker tune.
He continued to watch the woman dancing alone. He knew who she was: Augusta Sweet, another life-long resident of Pangburn and descendant of a long line of bonesetters whose skills were admired even in his own Negro neighborhood.
Rufus watched as Augusta’s long black dress swirled around her ankles like dark churning water. A chimney lamp swung crookedly above her stern, sad face, and he was puzzled, not for the first time, as to why she danced alone. Her face wasn’t what most folks would call pretty, but there’d always been something about her that attracted him. He knew that, unlike Maisie, Augusta Sweet had neither beau nor husband
His fiddle playing sounded more inspired than usual that night, even to his ears.
He picked up the pace again and watched Augusta dance more wildly in the corner, letting the music move into and around her in ways, Rufus suspected, no man had ever done.
How you can love!
Oh, Johnny! Oh, Johnny!
Then Maisie’s husband Bill limped past Rufus on his way to the front porch, his snake-head cane hammering the floor planks. The three men he’d been talking to, one of them Pangburn’s sheriff, followed him.
Two more dances and it was time for a break. Rufus balanced his fiddle atop his stool and set the bow beside it. Most of the dancers had already wandered out to the porch to find a good spot to see the fireworks. Rufus picked up the one free beer the owner of The I allowed him and leaned against the long bar. Through the window behind the bar, he could see a shaving of white moon. Below it, light danced on the shiny black hood of Gilroy Tucker’s Model B, a car Rufus admired but knew he would never set foot in.
Through the window he could see the back of Bill where he’d sat down on a bench. He watched the sheriff lean toward Bill, his mouth moving fast.
“Here’s tonight’s pay,” the bartender said, handing over two liberty dimes.
Rufus dropped them in the front pocket of his overalls, picked up his fiddle and bow and made his way to the door and onto the porch. He saw the sheriff point to the glass whiskey jar Bill was emptying into his mouth and heard him ask, “Where’d you get that stuff?”
“Found it,” Bill answered. “Mason lost it—his name was on it!”
All three men standing around Bill laughed; Rufus knew better than to join them.
But Bill looked over at him anyway, scowling.
“You ever see anything like that?” Bill asked.
“No siree,” Rufus answered, though he didn’t know what Bill was asking, whether he meant the jar or the fact that Maisie had danced with yet another stranger.
“You ever see anything prettier than that?” Bill nodded toward Maisie, who stood in the open doorway Rufus had just stepped through, her hair lit by the light within The I.
Rufus took one step toward the three stairs that led down to the yard. To his left he saw five men in white suits and straw hats kneeling on the porch floor, shooting dice. From where Rufus stood, it looked like they were praying.
“Hey now,” he heard the sheriff say, as though from a long distance. “Watch yourself there, Bill.”
But Rufus was used to being baited. He’d let the sheriff stand up for him; he wasn’t looking for any trouble. Just came to play his fiddle. He’d seen plenty of bar fights, been called every name in the book, but they rolled off his skin like drops of oil. It wasn’t words that hurt people, Rufus figured. It wasn’t words that brought him real pleasure either. It was music. It was rhythm. It was something deeper than he knew how to talk about. It was the touch of a woman, something he hadn’t had since his wife died last year. Anything other than those things wasn’t worth getting upset about, he figured.
Rufus heard a noise and looked up at the flat tin roof of the building. Some boys from town had climbed up there.
“I’m goin’ inside to get myself a bowl of chili before the show starts,” the sheriff said. “You stay here and keep yourself calm, Bill Kline.”
As Rufus turned back to step down the first stair, he saw Kline stand up, leaning heavily on his cane.
“Look over there!” It was one of the boys, shouting from the roof.
Rufus turned again to see the sky lit by a bright shower of sparks
Sometimes when Rufus played the fiddle, he’d improvise lines of music in an unexpected key, and it seemed to him that this was exactly what was happening now.
He felt a strong hand pull on his shoulder and because he was mid-step, he stumbled backwards and fell onto the porch.
He saw the gray fabric bunched up where Bill’s leg stopped and saw a Bowie knife in Bill’s hand.
Rufus reached up to stop him but was too late. He felt the cold blade on his cheek.
He tried again to stand up, looking to others on the porch to help him, but no one made a move. Bill pushed Rufus back down and fell on top of him. He’d dropped the knife, but his fists pounded like a jackhammer on Rufus’ head and stomach and legs.
Finally he stopped. Everyone had moved away from Rufus; there was a clear circle around where he lay on the porch. Before he passed out, he saw a strip of white flash across the sky, then dive down into the dark woods that surrounded The I. And he saw two people step into the circle: Augusta Sweet and Gilroy Tucker. And then he saw nothing.
When he woke, Augusta’s black skirt swirled around him on the floor. There was a dark red mixed in with it, his own blood he figured.
Lifting his head slightly, he saw the sheriff walk out to the crowd in the yard and put his arm around Bill Kline’s shoulders. Maisie stood on the other side of Bill, holding her husband’s hand. Her blond hair still shone in the dark night. And the sky once again burst open into a field of bright flowers.
He stared for a moment at the sky, listening to explosions from the fireworks and cheers from the crowd. Anger rolled up behind his eyes, so he closed them.
He felt someone lift his head. It was Gilroy Tucker, easing his white linen jacket beneath Rufus’ head. Rufus shook his head “no” though he wanted to say “thank you”—to both Augusta Sweet and Gilroy Tucker for staying behind to help him.
“I’m okay,” he said, looking both in the eye in a way he’d never done before and would probably never do again. “I want to go home.”
The bartender appeared.
“You okay?” he asked brusquely. Rufus knew that fiddlers were a dime a dozen in Arkansas. Customers were not.
“I’m okay,” Rufus repeated. He rose to his feet, not leaning on anyone.
Gilroy Tucker said, “I’ll drive you home, Rufus.”
The sound of his own name spoken so gently made Rufus weak again, and he reached out to steady himself against a pole. He looked down at his left chest where Augusta had stuffed a handkerchief, now spotted with blood.
She was standing right next to him and put her hand over this spot, right above his heart.
She closed her eyelids but Rufus could see her eyes roll back in her head. Her hand remained on his chest. Her breathing deepened. And whether it was simply because of this rare kindness from white folks or the magic touch of a bonesetter’s hand, Rufus felt something leave him, in that area of his heart. Where there had always been a wound, just not one that showed on the outside. For a moment he realized he was grateful for the scars that would be left. They would show on the outside what was on the inside.
He heard more happy screams from the crowd, saw more starbursts of color—like those little paper flowers that opened in a glass of water. The crowd had formed into a single mass, nothing differentiating one person from the other. And outside the circle of light made by the fireworks and the lights from the porch of The I, there was darkness.
“Let me drive you home,” Gilroy Tucker said again, and Rufus nodded “yes.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said to Augusta.
Augusta neither smiled nor spoke, but she touched him above his heart once more, this time with a single finger.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said again because he couldn’t think what else to say.
Then he followed Gilroy Tucker out to the Model B. No one turned to look at them or said a word other than “oooh” or “aaah” or “isn’t that pretty” each time the sky lit up. Rufus thought how such moments of color were all that kept us going through life, really, so he hated the feeling of begrudging people their joy. But he did.
“You’re a good man, Rufus,” Gilroy Tucker said as he opened the front passenger door.
“You, too, Mr. Tucker.”
“I’ll get you home now. And I’ll send a doctor over. You’ll let me know then if you ever need anything else, you hear?”
Rufus didn’t answer. He knew this night was special, not just because it was the Fourth of July. And he knew that no matter if he and Gilroy Tucker both recognized evil when it brewed, there was still a big expanse that lay between him and the smartest man in town, and that that distance was as vast as the ocean that lay between Pangburn and Germany and all the rest of the world.
It was a hard, dark ocean to cross, whether the sky was lit brightly to guide you or not.
Donna Baier Stein’s writings appear in Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, Washingtonian, and many other journals and anthologies. Her story collection Great Drawing Board of the Sky was a Finalist in the Iowa Fiction Awards; her novel The Silver Baron’s Wife received the PEN/New England Discovery Award and is seeking representation. She was a Founding Editor of Bellevue Literary Review and currently publishes the multifaith literary magazine Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature. Donna has also written for Smithsonian, Time-Life, World Wildlife Fund, and many other clients. Awards include a scholarship from Bread Loaf, fellowships from Johns Hopkins University and the New Jersey Council for the Arts, awards from the Poetry Societies of Virginia and New Hampshire, and fiction prizes from Kansas Quarterly and elsewhere. In 2012 she received a scholarship from the Summer Literary Seminars and her poetry chapbook will appear from Finishing Line Press. www.donnabaierstein.com