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Denise Stallcup

Cimarron Waltz

It is Holdenville, Oklahoma, 1943, and Bobby Lee is sixteen and naked and in the bathtub playing his trumpet at 1:15 a.m. This is the only room in the house with a lock, and he's taken the radio in with him: it's blaring "Careless Hands," Leon McAuliffe and His Western Swing Band from the Cimarron Ballroom, tonight featuring Bobby Lee on trumpet. They are pounding on the bathroom door, his mother and his sister and his sister's boyfriend, and the neighbors are banging on the front door of the green-shingled house, old Mrs. Reinert from across the street and Mr. Dignan, whose two-room house lies to the east with nothing but a blackberry hedge to separate it from the open bathroom window.

"Bobby Lee!" his mother is shouting between blows to the bathroom door, her flowered robe coming loose from the sash, her hose in puddles around her ankles. "You open this door right now! I've been on my feet since five this morning . . ."

His sister's voice pitches in, a whine with "impossible" thrown in every few words, and she's checking the buttons on her blouse and crying and talking about how Bobby Lee came home while she was sitting on the sofa, "talking" to Sid, how Bobby pulled the slop jar up behind the sofa and pissed in it, right there behind them, just as if they didn't have the new bathroom right there at the back of the house.

"For God's sake, Nell," and some part of Ethel registers that Bobby Lee is past warming up, and the volume is coming on strong. "Not now! And just what is Sid Iverson doing in this house after midnight anyway?" Her voice is close to Nell's ear to make herself heard, but before Nell can come up with an answer, there are more neighbors coming up the walk, and the lonely women who weren't sleeping anyway are shouting at Ethel through the screen door, and the gruff, unshaven men resentful that they were too old to go off to war are putting their two cents in.

But Bobby Lee plays on in the cool porcelain of the tub, and he doesn't bother looking to the open bathroom window, to the faces pressed against the screen, mouths open and moving. He is free to gaze into the depths of the sweaty green-tiled wall and give his thoughts over to the three valves of the trumpet, because nothing will happen. His brother joined up last spring and is gone, his father was killed on a collapsed oil rig before he was born, and his mother is a good woman who has raised three children alone. Even the angry old men will cut him some slack when he finally comes out.

Right now all that matters is that he can play, he can pull the music like taffy out of the curves of the brass trumpet, "Oh, Lonesome Me." The clear notes are ringing off the ceiling that sweats the moisture of the hot July night, the melody lifting out the window and past the blackberry hedge and down the ravine to the dark iron railroad tracks, his trumpet coaxing the weeds up from between the rails, calling to the dead in the cemetery beyond, rippling the still surface of the mosquito-dotted lake on the edge of town, its green water merging with the night. He can play, and their voices are the background noises of the crowd at the Cimarron Ballroom, calling out for more.

A Friday evening in the autumn of 1946, and from Chickasha and Wewoka up to Iola, Kansas, from Neosho, Missouri, to Siloam Springs, Arkansas, and down, over the Red River and Lake Texoma and east to the Texas swamps, supper is over. Silent farmers, the dust of the day's plowing still heavy in their lungs, have taken to the porches, to the rocking chairs around the radio. They turn their faces north to catch the breeze, and the green glow from the radio dial lights the night as they imagine the green expanse of California and listen to the ads for Calumet Baking Powder as they wait for the music to begin.

In the kitchen the farm wives, in blue-checked aprons dusted with flour, are still five days away from the weekly trip into town, and five years away from owning a telephone. They're washing dishes and dreaming of Tulsa, of the wide, deep floor of the Cimarron Ballroom. Their hands move against the grain of their cast-iron skillets, they can almost feel a strong hand firm on their waists that will guide them to the floor when the music starts, they can almost hear the band start up, Little Jimmy Hall and Robert Bruce playing "Twin Fiddle Rag." Their skirts move against the edge of the sink to the melody in their minds, the gingham checks brushing their calves in a scalloped wave that speaks of the two-step waltz.

And Bobby Lee is waiting with his horn on the curtained stage at the Cimarron. He waits, fingering the valves, spitting into the silvered mouthpiece, as he listens to the changing rhythms, the syncopated chaos from the people below. The lights go down and the curtains open, and the tone of the crowd's voice deepens, like water at high tide, as their faces turn toward the dark stage, conversations ending, those that go on rising in volume. Then Leon's fingers move against the strings of the steel guitar, "Panhandle Rag," Johnny Ryan's voice going out over the darkness of the autumn evening, "Take it away, Leon!" and the lights come up.

Bobby is blinded, he can't even see the rest of the band, it's just him and his horn, but that's just fine. He closes his eyes and lets his fingers move loose and easy against the valves, his lips barely touching the mouthpiece, his tongue teasing the metal into looping percussion. When he opens his eyes again, at the fiddle race, the floor is still in darkness, but the men around him have come clear, the light flashing off Leon's barrel cuff links, shining off Dave Coleman's drums. From behind the piano, Pee Wee catches Bobby's eye and winks, and Bobby thinks of the women he can't see, watching him from the floor, the dark, shining waves of their hair, their flowered dresses lifting from their shoulders in capped sleeves, their lips smoothed into the shapes of love.

He closes his eyes again, letting the smooth notes promise the women that he could play them just as easily as he can play his horn, and if he keeps his eyes closed until Jimmy's last fiddle run he knows he'll be able to see the floor then, the waiting women there, Liz that stands a head above the others, and Lucille, who waits every night by the stage door. But not the woman he's looking for, not yet.

She'll be on the two-lane highway still, with a full tank of gas and the window down, the pull of the Chevy engine a promise under her thighs, Jim Reeves begging her for love from the radio as the red hills rise up underneath her and the white line of the two-lane unspools north, toward Tulsa. He saw her in Chickasha last week. She was standing on the dance floor at the VFW in a red sweater Betty Grable taught her to wear, turning down the boys that asked her to dance, the October air full of leaving, and her pretending not to look at him, pretending not to see his fingers work his trumpet, "Hey, Good Lookin'."

He figures she's dreamed about his fingers on her at least once since then, and thought about him more than she wanted to, and he thinks she's probably decided if she kisses him once he'll become just one more thing she can walk away from. She told him her name was Beverly, and he said it to himself, Beverly, so he wouldn't likely forget, the name like a trill his tongue was playing, and he told her if she wanted to see him again he'd be playing tonight, playing his trumpet at the Cimarron Ballroom.

It's a shimmering Saturday afternoon in 1949, and at Pickett's feed-store in Chickasha, Ernest Pickett stands behind the counter, his stiffened fingers tuning the radio to KVOO. When the call letters come through, the feed store bums gather around, their overalls stained from whatever work they last had, their feet moving, their heads nodding, the dust motes from the red and white Purina sacks swimming in the sunlit air around them. Above them, tap-tap-tap, the five-year-old girls in Miss Elaine's dance class, and one unfortunate boy, are shuffle-stepping to "Turkey in the Straw." When old Miss Emmy stops pounding out the tune on the piano, Cookie Mogab can hear "Milk Cow Blues" coming up through the wooden slats of the floor, and for a second she's standing on her daddy's shoes as he waltzes around the living room with her, his belt buckle cool against her cheek.

And in Tulsa, a white Plymouth with gold metallic fins traverses the spring streets of the afternoon, and Jody Lee, in the back seat, watches the women in the front, her mother and her Aunt Janice. They are talking about men, their husbands and other men, they are speaking of men as though there are none worth having. "Oh, Beverly," Janice says in a low voice, laughing as she lays her hand on Jody's mother's arm, and Jody says her mother's name again to herself. They are putting on lipstick, they smell good, their dresses have flowers that seem to spring from the vinyl of the front seat, and Jody can see parts of their faces reflected in the mirror, their fingers brushing the curve of an eyebrow, their eyes full of promise. They are on their way to the Cimarron Ballroom.

Her father is there, in a string tie and pearl buttons. His trumpet gleams under his fingers, and he can play anything he wants, anything she asks for on those three keys. She knows his favorites, "San Antonio Rose" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and what he wants to play is always what she wants to hear. When the man with the deep voice introduces the band, he will say her father's name, and her father's eyes will find her on the floor.

He'll stand on the stage with the other men: Pee Wee Calhoun, who plays the piano and buys her peanuts and feeds them to her, one by one, as she sits on his lap, his knee bouncing, her hair against the cotton plaid of his cowboy shirt. Cecil Brower will dance and wink at her while he plays his fiddle, and Leon will stroke the yearning mystery of the steel guitar, its strings grooved like an earthworm, and she will run her fingernails down them and hear them gritch at her.

When the lights go down and the music starts she will be sitting with her mother, to one side of the dance floor, and her mother will be happy to be the wife of the trumpet player in the band, and angry that he is onstage and she is not. For as long as she has to be, Jody will be the good girl her mother wants, and then she'll become like the boy her father had wished for at first. One step and she'll be beyond her mother's grasp, five steps for the music to drown out her mother's voice, she will leave these complaining women and skirt the edges of the ballroom and climb up on the stage. If she's caught, her mother will pinch her and hiss, and they may even go home, and Jody will become the reason her mother is unhappy with men and isn't on the stage, and home will be a dark place until her father comes.

But if she makes it—if she can climb the dim wooden steps at the edge of the stage without falling, before her mother can catch her, her father will see her in her new pink dress and hold her up to the silver microphone, bigger around than her arm, its pores large like the nose of an old man, and Leon will introduce this pretty little girl, and she will sing "Take Me Back to Tulsa," her voice going out over the dance floor and over the radio, her knees straddling her father's waist, her arm around his neck, her hair against the broad fawn brim of his hat.

The stage will be enveloped in light, light off the strings of the steel guitar and off her father's trumpet, light off the silver points on her father's collar. The others down on the dance floor, men who smell of cigarettes and Old Spice, and women who have come with their husbands but who dance with other men, will be invisible, a dark mass at her feet. They will be lost in the blackness, the silver ball on the ceiling flickering bits of light on their faces and leaving them before their features can come clear, the curved rim of the stage reaching like arms to hold them in the darkness, and if Jody's voice can hold the darkness tight against that rim, her father's white world will become hers.

The lights go down and she slips away, quiet, she is quiet, and the stairs are under her feet and hands, and the women are farther and farther behind her, she is leaving the women behind, the vibrations tickling her palms as Leon's steel guitar slides against the melody, "Rose of Cimarron," and the edge of the light catches her.

Along the Chisholm Trail, in towns like Koweta and Poteau, church and Sunday dinner are long done, and life moves out to the porches to watch the coming night. Over the radio, station KVOO carries the sound of the music up through Kansas and Nebraska, and over to Missouri, but not as far as it once did; the farm boys who served in the war, who know what it means to be called "Okie," have moved their families to the prosperous cities, to sit shuttered in the darkness of their living rooms, their gray faces lit by the gray glow of a television.

But in Tahlequah and Broken Arrow, families still gather on the porch, the women shelling beans, the men with an eye to the hail sky in the east, the children playing on the steps and venturing into the yard to catch fireflies in a Mason jar. When Jody Lee's voice goes out over the heavy air, the men smile and the women nod, and the children sing along.

In Holdenville, the old men at Ethel's Cafe sit with hamburgers and fried onions and coffee, the air thick with smoke, tall tales of the dust bowl and the Depression set aside for an hour. They turn their good ear to the radio, and there's not a one of them that won't claim he was there the night they had to take the bathroom door off to make Bobby Lee come out.

And without the gray picture to tell him he isn't there, Ernest Pickett, sitting on a screened-in porch with his pipe, nothing but its fire to light the night, closes his eyes, easy, and is a young man again, in his WWI uniform, dark and handsome. He nods to the music, a pretty young girl sidling up beside him to lead him out to the dance floor to the tune of "Panhandle Waltz," her hips moving, slow, under his hand, to the strains of Western swing.

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Copyright 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.

Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at www.blipmagazine.net

Copyright 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.