Danny once danced at Club Creole out at the end of town. Claudia named it that after Bertha went to New Orleans – the only one anyone knew who’d actually done more than talk about it – and she brought back souvenirs. Her black handbag with the beaded pelican was stuffed with hotel bar coasters and stirrers, and a bunch of napkins, which she gave to Claudia. Napkins with a fat orange fish in profile, looking dazed, and a circle of letters around it spelling Club Creole.
Claudia watched that funny accent man with the cooking show on T.V., so she knew a thing or two about Creole cooking and served it up proud several times a week, the special of the day. It was a little something different. Claudia liked different. She had a couple of dreams she kept stirred up back in the kitchen standing over boiling fish, fried okra.
Danny knew a thing or two about dancing. Danny knew a thing or two about a lot, which he kept real close to himself like a poker hand with plenty staked on it. Claudia figured it was a pretty good one.
Danny left he mill early one Thursday, complaining of back pains, but when he got home and showered off the gritty day, he felt chipper. That’s the word he’d used.
How ya’ doing tonight, Danny?
His smile bounced off the fake paneling in the club, the twirling mirror-ball, the Pabst Blue Ribbon neon sign behind the bar. The local gals saw the smile, liked it. Tried to catch it from their bar stool perches with their skirts hiked up just a little, daring in the dim glow what their daytime duties denied.
"What will it be, sailor?"
Claudia leaned forward on the bar, slinging the damp dishrag along the cracked leather border, dangerously close to Danny’s new blue shirt from Penney’s. Sets his eyes off real nice, Claudia noticed. She leaned a little further, now dangerously close to dropping out of her frilly white blouse, cut low enough for pleasant viewing but high enough for leaning. She knew. She’d practiced it in the mirror at home.
"Well, darlin’. It depends on what’s being offered?" Pretty bold for a shy man. She was encouraged. They grinned at each other, the same grin, the same game of two weeks standing.
Their eyes locked – that’s how she’d described it to Bertha later – and they both knew it was only a matter of time. But for now they played along the edges, testing the depth, standing back for a full view of the horizon before plunging toward it to become part of the snapshot, or the big picture.
Hers was a cheerful landscape, with a house, some clouds, a sun and flowers. A child’s picture, all blue and yellow and white. Claudia didn’t ask for much; in fact, never had gotten much. Danny was much.
His picture was smaller, red and dark, fire licking at the edges of a bed, a curtainless window looking out on scorched fields. It was a man’s dream, first born in the wound in his chest and there it lived even after the wound healed and the nights away from the war far outnumbered the ones spent inside it. Now he added a vase of daisies to the bedside stand. Danny didn’t have much hope. Claudia was hope.
The juke box suddenly rose from the dead, all pink and green flickering lights, rotating records, and its spindly arm dropped to a groove, settling in. It was time.
Danny answered her smile before he left the barstool, spinning away with a jump that covered most of the distance between him and the postage-sized dance floor. Tonight he would prance for her. Spin for her. Heave dreams her way with his body as a promise of more to come.
Too early for anyone else to be there grinding out hope and sexual fantasies, pounding out the day’s woes. He pulled up a table, "center stage." Tested it for strength, then climbed aboard like an engineer on a train bound for glory.
"Come on Baby Light My Fire."
He was good. The patrons formed a respectful circle around the artful steps, gyrations. He flung his long brown hair back, closed his eyes and lived inside the music. Even the old vets in the circle, wary of this interloper who did not share their marching tunes, were smiling. Danny was free. Some of them never got back to that.
The music stopped and the jukebox arm whirred its way back home in silence to a final click. Mesmerized. A tableau of faces struck dumb. No one moved as the body dropped, a limber collapse to the table top, a gentle slide, a final thump to the floor.