“Dancin’ Fool” was the first story that came to me whole and nearly fell on the page by itself. That us why we called magic. The inspiration for the story was, what seemed to me then, an elderly relative at a family reunion. He danced by himself or with any woman or child who would dance with him. I couldn’t get the image of him out of my mind. A few years later, I was taking a college writing class and needed to write a story. The narrator’s voice came to me as though someone were whispering the story in my ear as I hurriedly scribbled down on a yellow legal pad. Of course, this story is a fabrication of my own imagination and in no way relates to the actual person who inspired it. I know nothing of his personal life. I still think of that old guy from time to time. He’s probably dead now, but on a late summer’s many years ago, I saw a man full of the joy of living. In a way, he gave me a great gift:
Some folks might have called him a dancing fool, but Henry liked to dance. He guessed it had started when he was a baby and his folks took him along to play parties, square dances and such. Now as a grandfather he’d come back to the place he grew up for a reunion with all the people he remembered from the old days. It was a time to renew old acquaintances and relive memories.
Henry’s earliest happy memories were of being seated on a quilt in the corner while one by one, farmers and other country folks came together to form the impromptu band. Rough, calloused hands turned tuning pegs on banjos and guitars. Old McMurty rosined his bow, dragged the horsehair across the strings —they gave off a groan and a whine. He plucked the strings, gave a nod, then with three stamps of his foot the music began. The grown-ups and older kids whirled and twirled about the room to the sound of “Old Joe Clark,” “Shady Grove” and “Shoot the Buffalo” while Henry watched and clapped his chubby baby hands.
Henry learned to dance by watching the others. His mama told him she could remember when he started patting his foot to the music. Then there was the day he toddled onto the dance floor and did a few steps —bow-legged around the bulk of his diaper. Henry watched and took in everything. The girls swinging their skirts high to show off a lacy petticoat or a nicely shaped leg. Young men’s hands grabbing low to feel the curve of hip on their giggling partners. All the while the mason jar making its rounds at the back of the room.
When he got a few years on him, Henry learned the secrets of the mason jar. “Go ahead, Henry. Take a swaller,” Joe Benton had urged. “Hit won’t hurt you. Take a drink.”
Joe was old, maybe 16. Henry looked him straight in the eye. No, Joe wouldn’t lie. Besides, Henry didn’t want the other boys to think he was chicken, and there was Joe nudging his hand with the jar. Henry did take a long, deep drink. Nothing happened. Then he swallowed and knew why white lightnin’ was a proper name for the clear drink. The warm liquid ripped down his throat, through his gullet, and into his gut like sky daggers on a summer night.
They guys laughed. Henry gasping looked about him. The world was moving in slow motion and there wasn’t any way to spit out the drink without losing the respect of the older fellows. Butch Miller spat tobacco juice in a long amber stream on the ground. Sarah Jarvis and Hank Bottoms were kissing under with willow tree. At 14 Henry swore off hard liquor for the rest of his life and, for the most, part he stuck to his oath.
Henry learned a lot of things at dances and play parties. The same bunch of older guys gave him his first smoke and chew. The smoke choked him. The tobacco juice was too much. But he did develop a liking for rubbing snuff. It became a pure pleasure to dip his finger into the little silver can, bring out some of the cocoa-looking powder and put it into his mouth. Between his cheek and gum, on the right side of his mouth—that’s where it went. Then when he stood around swapping stories with the guys, he could spit something besides clear slobbers. That was for little boys. Little boys who imitated the men would stand all cock-legged—one foot ahead of the other and one hip thrown out—swapping second-hand fishing and hunting tales, punctuated by spit.
The grown men swapped stories whenever they got together. While sharing work in the harvest or at butchering time when the hog or cow was hung to drain, its blood spilling on new snow, they would take a rest, squat on their heels and swap their stories.
“You shoulda seen old Blue. My, that dog’s got a pretty voice. He and Speck can tree anything in this here county.” Spit—by turning the head from the group and aiming a distance away—shot rapidly over lower teeth. “One night me and Riley had our dogs out. We was settin’ passin’ the jar, you know, when we heard the dogs set to barking.” SPIT! “I knewed old Blue had somethin’. I could hear his voice come ringing through that night air.”
“That’s a fact.” Riley gave his support to the story. SPIT! “I’se there. I seen it.”
“We commenced to runnin’ and when we got to the tree,”—SPIT!—“There was Blue and Speck with that crazy Leroy Ben from Crossville up a tree.”
“That’s true.” Riley again gave support. “I seen it all.” Riley finished with a he-he-he laugh.
So Henry learned to rub and swap and spit.
One summer evening when the dancing was in Musser’s barn, Henry was there. He stomped and swooped and swung all the pretty girls who were dancing. All of them wanted to dance with Henry.
“Honor your partner. Now bow to your corner. Skip, skip, skip to my Lou. Grand right and left. I’ll find another prettier than you. Now swing that gal and bring her home. Skip to my Lou, my darling.”
When the set ended, Henry went to the well for a cool drink. The battered tin dipper hung from the shelter roof for use by any thirsty dancer. Henry pumped a dipper full, drank deep, and tossed the few remaining drops on the barnyard cat. The tattered old cat slunk away without complaining. She was used to this treatment. Henry laughed, rolled up his sleeves, pumped another dipper full to pour over his sweat-beaded head. With his bandana from his pocket he wiped his face dry then ran his hands through his hair and turned back toward the barn.
“Hi, Henry.” Patsy Mae Jarvis stood in his path.
“Hi, Patsy Mae.”
She was wearing a pink cotton dress with some kind of a frilly collar and she wore lipstick. Bright red lipstick.
“Where you goin’, Henry?”
“Back to the dance. They’re lining up for the Virginia Reel.” Didn’t that gal used to wear her hair in pigtails instead of those curls down to her shoulders? “You want to dance, Patsy Mae?” he asked, hoping to get her out of his path some way.
“It’s too hot to be dancin’. I was takin’ a walk to cool off a bit. Want to go with me?”
Henry didn’t really want to go walking with Patsy Mae. People might see them together, and she’d been called a fast girl. Oh well, he could hear that the music had already started, and he was just a bit curious to see what she did so fast.
Henry wasn’t ignorant about women. He’d been to all the county social events: dances, play parties, box socials and church suppers. He knew what went on between males and females. He was, after all, raised on a farm. He’d been around when Deek Winston brought his bull to the pasture to service the cows. He’d seen the hogs frolicking (as his mother called it) in the mud. Henry was even a little bit experienced. A couple years before, Patsy Mae’s sister Sarah had taken him behind the barn, as was her habit with young men. At 16 he’d had his first kiss. It wasn’t much, just two sets of dry lips coming together under a full moon. It soon graduated to two sets of teeth coming together. Sarah had buck teeth.
Since then Henry had had several trips behind the barn or under the willow tree. He’d kissed a lot of girls. He’d put his hands on their backs, letting his fingers slide down on hips if the girls didn’t back away giggling. He’d brushed his work-toughened hands across young breasts and felt the bud of nipples harden at his touch.
Henry was careful. He held himself away from the Timber County girls. He didn’t intend to settle here. Farm work was hard with little reward. He’d seen his mother grow old and plain from hard work and babies. His dad had become an old man with a permanent stoop from following the plow.
Henry had a dream. He was going up the river to one of the towns he’d heard about. There were potteries and factories in the Ohio River towns. Chester, Newell, Wheeling were magic words to him. He’d find some town gal that used perfume and wore pretty dresses. That’s the kind of wife he wanted.
He looked at Patsy Mae now, in her pink homemade dress. She’d be old someday too soon. He could save her from that life of hard work, he could ask her to go up the river with him. But, no, she didn’t fit. She still had too much farm about her.
“Patsy Mae, what do you dream about?”
“Well, one night I dreamed me and Ma was warshin’ and we had a hole in the warsh board and all the clothes?”
“No, I mean about your future. What do you want?”
“A husband that would buy me one of them wringer warshers.” She took Henry’s bare forearm in both her hands. Her fingers were rough and calloused.
“Heck, gal, your folks ain’t even got the ‘lectricity.”
“Well, if I had a man, I don’t suppose I’d still be livin’ with my folks. Now would I?”
Henry laughed at her then, but she didn’t realize and laughed with him.
“Henry, I’m near old enough. I turned 16 last month and I finished eighth grade two years ago.”
Old enough. Most girls married between 16 and 18. She’d finished eighth grade, which was considered adequate education unless you were bookish and wanted to be a schoolteacher. Henry had stopped after eight years in school, too. What did a farmer need with more years in school? Besides, Henry had heard from Dutch Polling that education didn’t matter in the pottery, or the factories, either. Dutch had said the work was hard there, but they paid a man for the hours he worked, not by the bushel or dozens of produce.
“Henry, did you hear me?”
“What, Patsy Mae?”
“I’m near old enough.’
“To find me that man who’d buy me a wringer warsher.” She laughed and Henry did, too. Good naturedly he pulled her into the circle of his arm.
They were walking in no particular direction. Just two young people on a hot August night under a new moon.
“Henry” Her voice held a question.
“Would you like to kiss me?”
“Might.” He gave her a little squeeze.
They passed the corn crib where Junior Hill and Joe Benton were handing round the mason jar and smoking home-rolled cigarettes.
“Hey, Henry,” they called to him. “Where you goin’, boy?”
Henry waved them off.
“Want a swig, Henry? It’ll give you courage.”
“Naw,” he called back to them.
“Hoo-hoo. Henry.” He could hear them calling after him.
“Those boys are nasty, “Patsy Mae pouted.
“Don’t pay them any mind.”
“They’re Sarah’s friends. I don’t like them”
“Don’t worry about them.” Henry took in the smell of the new-mown hay stacked in the cow pasture. It came to his nose sweet and green smelling.
“Now what did you ask me, Patsy Mae?”
“Just back there by the corn crib.”
“Oh. If you wanted to kiss me.” Was this Sarah’s little sister blushing beside him.
“Why did you ask that?”
“Ain’t that what happens when a guy and a girl go walkin’?”
“Sometimes. If a guy is interested and a girl is willin’.”
“Are you askin’?”
“‘Peers to me you already did.”
“Well, are you willin’?”
“I could be.” So this was why she was fast.
Henry took the tip of her chin between his thumb and forefinger, tipped her head up, and pressed his lips against her closed mouth.
“You ever been kissed afore?”
“Not by a man, Henry.”
“Well, open your mouth a bit.” She let her chin go lax. “Not that much. You look like a fish takin’ the bait.”
She looked a little pained, turning her eyes away from him.
“Hey, gal, look up here at me. You want to do this?”
“You want to do it right?”
“Yeah.” She looked up at him. He put his hands on her shoulders.
“Close your eyes.” She did. “Now just let you lips go soft and parted.” She did. Then Henry kissed her like the old hand that he was. She wasn’t too good, but she had an eagerness that made him think she could learn most anything if she put her mind to it.
They sat in the hay, her head on his shoulder, and watched the clouds roll across the sliver of a moon. He kissed her again and again. He felt with delight her nipples harden. He felt himself harden, too. Her thighs were bare under the pink cotton dress. Her panties were cotton, too.
He was moving toward her when he heard the snickering behind him.
“Hey, Henry, what you doin’?”
Henry turned to see Junior and Joe staggering across the empty field behind him.
“He’s doin’ Sarah’s little sister, ‘peers to me.” Junior dug his elbow into Joe’s ribs.
“Those Jarvis girls are fast.” Joe laughed. “Make a man forget where he’s aimin’ his backside.”
The two buddies staggered off.
Patsy Mae sat up quickly, pushing her skirt over her knees. She had begun to cry. “I ain’t like her. Not a bit like Sarah. Now you’ll hate me and all I wanted was for you to like me.” She sniffed.
Henry didn’t really know what to say, but he felt he should comfort her. He wasn’t all that good with words. He could really cut a rug on the dance floor, but words just fled away from him before they could get from his brain to his mouth. He put his arm around her and said the obvious. “Don’t cry, Patsy Mae. Please.”
“You believe I’m not that kind of girl?”
He wasn’t sure but he nodded, yes, have believed her, anyway.
“Henry, if I get with your baby, will you marry me?
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Patsy Mae. You didn’t do nothin’ to get a baby. And you ain’t goin’ to do nothin’.” She was more ignorant than he expected and possibly not like Sarah.
“Sarah got a baby by one of those guys.” She nodded in the direction where Junior and Joe had disappeared. “She had to go away to Aunt Penny in Bearsville. “’Member when she was gone last winter?”
Yes, he did. But the story had been she was seeing after an elderly relative through the cold weather.
“She had a pretty baby boy, they say, but none of us will ever know ’cause she gave it away.”
“Who to?” This was a new idea for Henry’s head. Women in Timber County always had too many children but none were ever given away.
“Nobody knows or ever will.”
“Do those guys know?”
“Sure. Pa talked to both of them, but nobody knows which one for sure did it. So he couldn’t rightly make either one of them marry her.”
Imagine, Henry thought. Never seeing your own baby, your own flesh.
He wanted to cheer her up and get away from these sad thoughts. “Hey, Patsy Mae. You want to dance with me?”
“Why, Henry. Everyone knows you’re the best dancer. I’m not too good, but if you teach me, I’ll try real hard to learn.” She scrambled up from the hay. “Oh-oh. Henry, have you seen my drawers?”
Sure he had and not too long ago. He fished around in the hay, coming up with the homemade cotton panties.
She took them, bending forward.
“Henry Sanders, you turn your face away.”
“It’s not as though I hadn’t seen.”
“Henry!” She stood erect, staring at him.
“Well, all right, “he humored her. He heard her moving around in the hay behind him and laughed at himself.
“Ready,” she said, coming up from behind to link her arm through his. Let’s go dancin,”
They went back to the barn. The music was lively and only the best dancers were left on the floor. He guided her through “Billy in the Low Ground” and “Birdie in the Cage.” She learned quickly. Patsy Mae was a fast girl all right, but not in the way of her sister. When they do-si-doed, she threw back her head and laughed. They laughed and clapped and stamped their feet. He swung her around, lifting her clean off the floor.
Just before Christmas that year, some place he never heard of in Hawaii was bombed. Henry left Timber County and went to war. He saw a lot of the world. He went to China and Burma and did his share in helping to win the war. Joe was killed in Bataan. Junior got out of the army by shooting himself in the foot. An accident, he claimed. But the folks back home had always allowed how Junior Hill was a coward and would come to no good. He married Sarah Jarvis and they moved away.
After the war Henry followed his early dream —went to Weirton and got a good job in a steel mill. He married and settled down to a steady way of life. He took his wife dancing at the legion hall every chance he could. He bought her pretty dresses, perfume, and an automatic washer when that became the thing to do. Her hands weren’t all rough like those of Timber County women.
As Henry got older, he made frequent trips back to Timber County —at least once a year for the community reunion. There was always a picnic, talk of old times and dancing. Henry usually got trapped by one of his old friends that wanted to talk about their hunting days —still swapping the old stories which had been embellished many times over the years.
“I got me a good huntin’ dog,” Butch Miller told Henry while they watched the younger folks dance.
“I ain’t hunted since I moved away from here.”
“Aren’t you dancing, Grandpa?” Henry’s grandson Hank asked as he set down beside him.
“I will. You wait and see.”
“Your grandad was the best dancer ever in these parts.” Butch Miller told the youngster from his other side. “The best ever.”
“He still does dance good,” the boy answered proudly.
“‘’Deed, Henry?” Butch looked surprised.
“Sure. Keeps me young and my joints moving.”
“I don’t dance anymore.” Butch answered, turning his attention back to the kids. One of the kids put on a record that Henry considered danceable. He hummed the tune absently to himself and watched as, across the picnic shelter, his wife explained to some of the women how she made her strawberry salad with gelatin and some kind of whipped stuff. He couldn’t hear what she was saying but he knew. She took that indigestible stuff everywhere and always told anyone who would listen how easy it was to make. “’Scuse me, Butch.” Henry said. He rose and walked across the shelter to his wife.
“Hey, old woman. You want to dance with me?”
She turned, smiling at him. Her eyes were still bright behind her bifocals. Her hair, gray now, was still as lovely as he remembered it from the first time they had danced. He took her into his arms and two-stepped her around the floor.
All the people stood back, applauding, as he whispered in her ear, “You want to dance out to a haystack with me, Patsy Mae?”
Patsy Mae laughed, holding him just a little tighter. “Henry, you always were a dancing fool.”