"When Sylvester Dances"
Sylvester thinks it’s 1942, and he wants to go see Glenn Miller at the Tropicana. Sylvester’s heard the news Glenn has enlisted, and wants to catch him one more time. He watches from his hospital bed as the woman he ought to recognize as his granddaughter prepares for battle, applies lipstick, a broad stroke of purple, having already dressed herself in his old Navy blues to go out to a disco party. She’s a pretty girl, like a star, like one of those sweet hairnetted girls from after the FFA meetings, the ones he used to kiss in the exhaust behind the rattly buses; he sees so few of them anymore, just these recalcitrant nurses who prod his arms and palpate his pecker, to no avail, sadly, though he likes to have them do it.
He’s woozymust be too much beer or somethingand barely hears Meurine say to her mother Judith, standing tense-lipped and arm-crossed nearby, Sister Margo’s, yeah, a hot club been there forever, Dinky and I are gonna go for the Halloween show. Meurine is visiting, but waiting for her boyfriend to stop by and pick her up after visiting hours. She stops in to see him fairly often, to pay homage like so many of his family seem to be doing these days. He’s glad to see them all; families should visit.
Sylvester’s never been able to recognize the pretty girl’s boyfriend, though he’s met him several times; he can see it makes the girl twitchy, but Syl can’t see why, as he’s always glad to see the man he calls Bushy, after his old Navy buddy from Mississippi who’s been dead since 1989, and everybody used to laugh when Sylvester called him that, but painfully, forced-like, and now
they just look down or away, as if he’s lost his cotton-picking mind. He doesn’t care much, in his mind he’s stationed in the South Pacific again, still has his cocky smile, that lanky frame, a slight ability to dance, and the knowledge that these things will get him over with many USO women, but he seems to be surrounded by nice old ladies instead, so he feels itchy and pent.
His daughter Judith and his wife Esther want him to sit up and pay attention to something, want desperately for him to weave a way through the barely translucent wall age has created between him and the rest of the world, but Sylvester can’t really remember how he got here in the bed; he figures he’s in the infirmary; he’s got some weird tropical shitting disease, beriberi or something; he knows he’ll be getting out soon, he’s well enough for a weekend pass, as they say, because those Filipina ladies are so pretty, so fine, and he smooths back hair that’s no longer there. The IV needle pops out of his black-bruised chicken-skinned hand, and an alarm sounds, steady like his heart isn’t. Esther with her shaking hands puts it back in before the nurse reaches the room.
Baseball hat on backward, Meurine’s boyfriend arrives, wearing some kind of shirt that shows off some mean muscles, and he doesn’t know if that pretty girl should be dating someone like Bushy, a former dockworker. She should be dating a nice young man, like himself, but this girl is wearing some man’s uniform, he can’t quite make it out, so he has no chance with her. For a moment, something catches and hangs and he remembers Esther, too, who wore his sharp Navy cap and nothing else that time when he was home after Pearl Harbor. He remembers her breasts and long hair after she unpinned it and came to him, yes she did, and then it’s gone again and Dinky comes over to the bedside as Meurine watches, says hey Mr. Lewis, got me some new ink, and Dinky pulls back the slick plastic wrap from his forearm and shows off his bright new orange devil, flipping off the world from his stylized orange fist. Sylvester leans in as far as his oxygen line will allow, says in a low voice which everyone hears, Yeah, Bushy, let’s go out and fuck some of them Jap ladies tonight, find out if they really are slitted sidewise.
Bushy laughs it off, and looks around, wipes his brow when he sees Esther
and Judith are talking to the nurse. Bushy looks over at Meurine, whose eyes are bright and shiny, watches her wipe at her eye with the cuff of the overlong-in-the-arms shirt. Meurine kisses Sylvester on his foreheadsweet coolness!pushes the last bits of his hair back, then grabs Bushy by his sore arm and wheels him out the door.
Someone cries in the distance, and he hopes it’s not that pretty little thing Bushy was squiring around, but Bushy wouldn’t ever hurt a woman, would he? Sylvester feels righteous, chivalrousreal men don’t hurt womenand a little angry at Bushy. He’s never known Bushy to mistreat women, but this isn’t quite right, so he gets up out of his body and he feels a sudden vertigo, a twitch really, nothing more, not so unpleasant, like he’s rid of something ugly, and he’s floating, sort of, the way he used to feel in water, graceful and turning like he’s never been in his life, except on the dance floor, where the moves are all prescribed, Charleston, jitterbug, fox-trot, waltz. This feels unencumbered and just plain right, like his body knows all the moves to make and he just needs to feel it, and so he floats out the door, following Bushy and the pretty girl.
The big mother-humping automobile Bushy drives is cruising down the road and Sylvester, following, humming with the car positioned just above the right rear tire, is surprised at how easy it all feels, free of his body, floating sometimes, sometimes flapping his arms, blurring them like a hummingbird’s. It’s the only way he can imagine a man could flyflap ‘em as fast as you can, the way the old joke goesand he guesses that’s what he’s doing.
He watches Bushy and Meurine, hears Bushy say, Meury, you gotta get out some more, forget this for a while. They’re all in the parking lot of some downtown bar, all bright lights and a long line of people waiting to get in to see somebody. It’s not Glenn Miller, not with that loud guitar, but Sylvester is feeling some oats, and he’s going to follow Bushy and his girl in, and maybe something good will come of it, he’ll meet a looker with some sweet legs, yeah, and feed her some seabreezes or a Singapore sling, and maybe they’ll walk on the beach at midnight in their barefeet. Maybe he’ll sing to her, if she understands the language, but maybe not.
Inside the club is all dark, it feels deep and primitive, smells funky like old woodsawdust?like that place in Como, Mississippi where he went with Bushy on his leave that time, some old nigger man in a sharp hat, picking and singing, what was his name, Honeyman, that was it. He remembers how he tried to play his harmonica with the man, how Honeyman’s eyes went all whiteBushy’d had to drag him out eventuallyand this is a different sort of place for sure, but swell.
Bushy’s here somewherethe sign on the wall says Yo! Retro Halloween Swing!!so he’ll track them down and have a beer or two and meet up. It will all be fine, when he finds someone, some nice lady, some woman, even a not-so-nice one, to dance with, some B-girls which there always are in places like this. He sees Bushy walking to the head, and the pretty girl at a table alone, so he decides to walk up to that pretty girl. Her nose is running, she looks like she’s lost her best friend, and he decides he’ll put a smile on her face tonight, all right. Jitterbug the night away.
She looks stunned a bit as he grabs her by the hands, says hello. Her hands feel soft in his, if a bit cold, but she gets up a little stiffly and follows him to the dance floor. People give them wide berth, because Sylvester means business, they must be able to see it on his face, and he wags his finger to the music, right in time, and the pretty girl looks scared for a minute, but then she smiles as something comes over her, like the way when pretty women dance, they can feel the whole room watching them and wanting them, and she begins moving, snapping her hips, swinging her long hair, as Sylvester balances himself just above the floor now.
Sylvester hums as he turns on his toe, watches Bushy come back to the table now, watches him stare at the pretty little thing, who is moving to the beat in the middle of the floor, people staring at her as she pops and writhes and swings, baby, with Sylvester, who moves like a man filled with air, like Fred Astaire in Top Hat, no, better, like Astaire wishes he could move; Sylvester is like a piece of the music itself, moving as if the notes are part of his body, one in his finger, another in his tapping toe, a chord forming and resolving as he
holds this pretty little thing’s hands; he can see her eyes widen. She feels him now. Sylvester loves this, loves this pretty little thing, all brown hair and big, sad eyes; he’s showing her a good time.
Back in his hospital bed, as the nurses gather round and his numbers fall, as his monitor flatlines, as the code blues are called, as Esther buries her head in her hands, Sylvester’s feet are tapping slightly against the metal rail of the bed, his fingers thrusting up and down in time, and they all gather, continue to gather, till there’s a small crowd, crying and laughing and panicking all at the same time, because it’s 1942, and when Sylvester dances, the world, by God, pays attention.