Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
1926 words
SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Dance With Me!

by Walter Cummins

The Dixieland set ended with a thumping drumbeat, and the cornet player took the bar stool next to Hall even though several other seats were empty. A sign on the bandstand identified him as Lucky Larssen—a small man with a wispy grey goatee. Hall looked straight ahead as if studying the arrangement of cognac bottles in front of the peeling mirror, aware from the reflection that Larson was looking right at him. Uneasy, he turned to face the man.

“You weren’t tapping your toes,” Larssen said.

“Is that important?”

“Everybody else was.” Larssen gestured toward the people behind them at the wooden tables crammed into the small semi-basement bar room. Their voices echoed off the low, beamed ceiling, mixed with bursts of laughter. “Our music makes people happy. They come here to feel good.”

Hall shook his head. “I just wandered in because I was cold.”

The door opened as a group of people entered, wool caps on their heads, scarves wrapped around their faces. Hall could see up the steps to the empty square outside, the night wind whipping paper scraps across the cobblestones. He shivered even though coals glowed red in the fireplace against a far wall.

“Not a night to be wandering,” Larssen said.

His Danish accent was common to the people his age Hall had encountered during his two days in Copenhagen. The younger men and women spoke a neutral transatlantic English, textbook perfect. Solveig had her own way of speaking, quite musical, clearly from somewhere else, though Hall hadn’t been able to guess until she told him. It was the accent that had drawn him to her, the speaker unseen among all the people standing around the refreshment table for morning coffee before the conference began. He had excused himself from the men he was chatting with to seek that voice. Even before he found her, he knew she would be lovely, though he had never imagined a face framed by a crown of pure white hair. But she wasn’t old. He had seen that immediately, her skin without a wrinkle, her body lean and taut. When she met his eye and smiled, Hall said, “I’d like to know you.” “Isn’t that nice,” she had answered. That evening at dinner he had asked about her accent. “I grew up in Norway, went to university in England, and have lived in Copenhagen for years,” she told him. “Do you consider yourself Norwegian or Danish,” he wanted to know. “I consider myself an amalgamation.” Hall carried the word with him from that moment on, whispered it to her again and again when they made love during the nights of the conference—“My amalgamation.”

“I shouldn’t be here,” Hall said to Lucky Larssen.

“Where should you be?”

Hall gave him a bleak look. “I don’t know any more.”

“Then let’s say you’ve found a port in a storm.” The clarinetist signaled Larssen, touched a finger to his wrist. “Break over. I’ll be watching your toes.”

When the music started, joyful and raucous, cornet and clarinet singing to the beat of the banjo and drums, Hall felt self-conscious. Larssen’s eyes kept returning to him as he threw his head back, the instrument pressed against his lips. But Hall kept his toes still, unwilling to submit. Instead he let fingers tap on the bar top, hiding them under his other hand. The bartender, a young man with a head of blond curls, noticed and gave him a smile. Hall stopped.

A ceiling light glinted off the bartender’s gold earring. Hall thought he should order another beer even though he didn’t want one. He pushed his glass toward the man.

“Not your style?”the bartender asked as he tilted the glass under the draft handle.

Hall shrugged.

“Not mine either. For me it’s another generation. No guitars. No amps.”

“They don’t need amps in a place this size.”

“Loud and wild for me. The louder the better. Heavy metal. Punk.”

“Then working here must be dull for you,” Hall said.

“Never. Something happens every night. Always a story to bring home to my girlfriend.”

Hall felt something bump his shoulder, turned abruptly to see a red dress leaning against the bar. The woman had a thick braid of dark hair fixed to her head with a barrette, her eyes as dark as her hair. But they seemed to be floating in liquid, unable to focus. She held out a round, stemmed glass. “Brandy,” she told the bartender.

While the bartender chose a bottle, she clicked a high heel against the floor in time with the music. Hall noticed the bartender was giving her what looked like a triple serving. “Tak,” she said when he put the glass down in front of her and took a deep swig before turning back to the room. With her first step she swayed, then regained her balance.

She was a big woman, Hall saw, her weight firm and curved against the tight red dress. Shapely, she could be called, with an attractive face, but not his type. Even sober she wouldn’t have appealed to him.

“Why did you give her so much?” he asked the bartender.

“Saves her return trips. I put it on her tab, and I know she’s good for it. Norwegian.”

So different from Solveig. “So she lives here now.”

The bartender shook his head. “She shows up once a month or so to give herself a good time. That’s what Norwegians do. They live in a repressed country.”

“Is she having a good time?”

“Are you?” The man began washing glasses.

The music stopped again, and Hall joined in the brief applause, people at the tables quickly immersed in animated conversations, breathless laughter from one corner of the room, from behind the group standing to put on coats. Hall wondered if it was the Norwegian woman.

Lucky Larssen approached him and took the empty stool again. “You refuse to share in the pleasures of the evening.”

“Are you a social worker?”

“I play happy music. I want everybody to be happy.”

“Not me. Not this time.”

“But you’re in wonderful Copenhagen. Why else would you be here?”

“Let’s say my plans didn’t work out.”

“And what is her name?”

Hall’s first impulse was to send him away, then realized it didn’t matter. “Solveig.”

“Spell it.”

Hall did.

“Aha. Norwegian. Here it would be Solvej.”

“Is that important?”

“You never can tell with Norwegians.”

“I certainly couldn’t.”

“So what happened?” Larssen leaned forward and stroked his goatee.

“She has a husband.”

“Many women do.”

“Not in the flat when they’re supposed to be on business a thousand miles away.” Hall had flown for hours, climbed five flights of stairs with a bouquet of flowers, eager to embrace her, the word “amalgamation” on his lips. “And that man opens the door. She’s standing behind him, smiling, saying how nice it is that I came to visit.”

“So he offered you a drink, and you told him you couldn’t stay. Handed her the flowers and ran.”

“Something like that.”

Larssen pressed a finger into his chest. “I’ve been there myself. The man holding flowers. Do you love her?”

“We met at a conference. I couldn’t keep away from her. I’m here because I wanted to know what I felt.”

“The husband will have other business trips.”

“I can’t just stay here until that happens. I have a job back home.”

“But no wife.”

“Not anymore.”

Larssen grinned. “Like me. But I’m a happy man. No more wife but lots of music.” He walked back to the band and wiped down his cornet with a handkerchief.

When the music started, Hall saw the Norwegian woman seize the arm of a man sitting at one of the tables. She pulled him on to the tiny dance space, joining two other couples who drew back to give her room, her red dress dominating as she swiveled and kicked off her high heels. Her partner made small movements, pumping arms, turning back to the people at his table to share their laughter. At the end of the tune, the woman tried to keep him on the space, but he shook his head, kissed her hand in an elaborate ceremony, and sat again, his back to her.

She pushed her shoes across the wood planks toward the bar and then Hall saw in the mirror her noticing him alone on his stool. She planted herself in front of him, hands on hips. “Dance with me.” Her voice was hoarse, breathy in its accent. He could smell the brandy.

“I don’t dance.”

“With me you will.”

“I can’t. Not to music like this.”

”You will.” The words came out as a demand.

Hall turned away and faced the bar, noticing the bartender’s smirk, the mirrored red hovering at his back.

“I don’t even dance with my wife,” he said, not remembering if he ever had.

“What wife? I don’t see a wife.” She closed her hands on his shoulders.

He shrugged them away. “Look. Listen to me. I said no. Even if I knew how, I’m in no mood to dance.”

She locked hands on his waist and swung the stool toward her. “You will dance with me!”

For an instant Hall thought he would hit her but just hissed, “No!”

The woman put her hands under his arms, trying to hoist him up, grunting against his dead weight. Hall caught the bartender’s eye with a pleading look, but the young man tapped his gold earring and watched. Tonight’s story for his girlfriend.

The music stopped abruptly, followed by a drumroll and a silent room. Lucky Larssen stepped out into the dance space. “We dedicate our next tune to our visitor at the bar and his charming partner.” He reached out in a beckoning gesture. “Please give us the pleasure of your pleasure.”

People began clapping, pounding the wooden tabletops with a steady rhythm, the voices chanting, “Yes, yes, yes.” The bartender joined them, his mouth at Hall’s ear, his whispered “yes” like a scream. Hall contemplated fleeing, seizing his coat and vanishing into the barren night. But the way to the door was blocked, as if the others knew his intention and had moved to prevent it.

Trapped, Hall gave in, not touching the woman, not taking her hand, just following her onto the circle of wood. The drummer twirled his sticks. The room resonated with Yesses, resounding from the ceiling, louder than the music, Lucky Larssen’s head thrown back, emitting blasts from his cornet.

They were the only dancers on the floor, Hall frozen, the Norwegian woman tossing her arms and legs in steps that had nothing to do with the music. Her barrette flew loose, her dark hair whipping wildly. Hall’s feet began to stir, a pulsation moving up his legs and through his blood. He could feel the force of the music. With no idea what he was doing, mind empty, he let his body submit to the rhythm.

The Norwegian woman tried to spin but lost her balance, staggered, and fell forward, her red dress a heap on the floor, her hands grasping at Hall’s ankles. He skipped away, his limbs shaking, his body spasmed in a jolting rhythm. The woman rolled onto her back and pointed up at him, mouth wide, her laughter lost in the shouts from the tables. The people were all banging glasses on the wood, Lucky Larssen bleating his cornet. Hall knew he looked like a fool but couldn’t make himself stop.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury