01 Feb The Song and Dance Man
There are few left alive who remember the Song and Dance Man.
Time has claimed the ones that survived the long night and I’m sure they went willing to meet their maker. Life takes on a strange tint after a night like that.
The ones still left—Bill Parker, Sarah Carter, and Sam Tannen—don’t talk about it. Sam is lucky. His brain started to turn to porridge a few years back and now he has trouble figuring out how to put on his pants.
He got an early reprieve from his memories. He doesn’t wake up night after night, the music still playing in his ears, with tears still drying on his cheeks.
The Song and Dance Man came to Belle Carne with little fanfare in the fall of 1956. I had just gotten out of high school and was working as a stock-boy at Handy’s Hardware. I was there the afternoon that Sarah Carter burst through the door, making the bell over the door jingle like mad.
“George, you gotta see what’s been set up by the bandstand! There this huge tent up and this man standing in front of it yellin’ like a carnival barker!” Sarah was out of breath and had obviously run from the park and all the way down Main Street.
Her hair was whipsawed every which way and one strand stuck to the end of her nose. She gave a quick puff and blew it out of the way, waiting for me to react.
With Sarah, I was always two steps behind and running to catch up. The girl had energy in those days and in an unlimited supply.
I stopped rearranging the nails and said, “There wasn’t anythin’ up there when I walked by this mornin’. When’d it go up?”
She shrugged her shoulders, a quick raise and drop, “Dunno, but it’s up, and you gotta see this guy. He’s all dressed up, head to toe, and he can talk. Boy, he can talk.”
I thought about it and checked the clock. It was about five and time for me to quit anyway. “Alright, let’s go check it out then.”
Sarah grinned from ear to ear and was gone. I didn’t doubt she was telling everyone in the gang, the ones that were still in town anyway. Most of us scattered to the four winds after graduation. Only a handful of us remained in town and only a handful of us were on hand to witness the dance.
I walked down to the bandstand by myself, not bothering to wait for the others. Most likely, Sarah was already there waiting for us. I met up with Bill as I passed the drugstore, where he worked as a soda jerk. “What the hell is Sarah talkin’ about, George?
She blew in here and then blew out again before I could ask her anything.” Bill was a big guy, the tallest (and heaviest) guy in our class and I just about cracked up the first time I saw him wearing that little peaked paper cap McClearly makes his soda jerks wear. Bill doesn’t really liked to be laughed at, though, and after the knot under my eye went down, I made sure not to laugh at him anymore.
He’s a good guy aside from that temper. He was the best guy on the high school basketball team, too, though he’s one of the few guys who got kicked out of a game. He threw another player halfway down the court, and they were on the same team, too. Bill said the other guy elbowed him in the gut. It had to have been an accident; no one would have done it on purpose.
We both walked down the street, Bill smoking a cigarette, a habit that caught up to him in 1995 when they removed his right lung. At the end of Main Street, we crossed Buchanan and entered the park. Normally, at that point, we would have been able to see the bandstand, perched on a hill near the center of the park. During the summer, there’d be concerts: performances by the school marching band, a church choir singing some hymns, that kind of thing. Once, a couple of kids from the high school had put together a pretty good rockabilly group, but someone on the parks committee passed an ordinance that banned rock ‘n roll in the park. Small towns, you know?
But now, there was a huge, faded yellow tent blocking the bandstand, like the kind in the circus or the kinds those old revival ministers like to use when they’re feeling the spirit and they like to feel your wallet too.
There was already a pretty large crowd around the tent and as Bill and I got closer, we could hear the fellow that Sarah had told us about. He sounded like a carnival barker, alright. Bill and I walked faster down the path that led to the tent. We pushed our way through the crowd, up toward the tent and where we thought the man was.
“Come on everybody, it’s getting close, getting close, we’re going to have ourselves a heck of a time tonight. Yes indeed, a HECK of a time! We’ll be singin’, we’ll be dancin’, I promise you that, and the Song and Dance Man always keeps his promises!”
We still couldn’t see him; too many people were blocking the way. It looked like the whole town had shown up to see the Song and Dance Man. Bill tugged on my sleeve and pointed. I followed his finger and got bug-eyed. It was Reverend Harper, the Baptist minister. I’ve lived a good long time, but I ain’t ever seen a man that could thump a Bible harder than he.
Harper preached against the evils of sin—sin in drinking, sin in smoking reefer, sin in smoking tobacco, sin in lying, and, most of all, sin in dancing. Yet here he was, lining up to get inside the tent, too, ‘cause he certainly wasn’t preaching. We waved at him, Bill waving with the hand that held the cigarette, and that old Baptist turned red as the Red Sea and turned and walked away. Bill and I grinned at each other and kept on walking toward the front and toward the Song and Dance Man.
Finally, we broke through the crowd and there he was. He stood on an old crate, splintered and looking like it was on the verge of collapsing under his feet. On the grass beside him lay a black fiddle case with gold trim along its edges. It looked old, older than the crate, older than the town. It seemed like something ancient.
He was all angles, all knees, elbows and shoulders. He was tall and gangling, his body moving and bopping to the rhythm of his words. He wore a red and white pin-stripe jacket, looking like he belonged in a barbershop quartet. A straw hat sat on his head, always getting pushed back or pulled forward by his long fingered hands. Long, six fingered hands. I stared when I saw that. I had read that some folks are born with six fingers, but reading about something and seeing it are two different things.
His eyes just about flashed blue lightning as he spoke, and sparks nearly flew from those white teeth, and he just never stopped talking. He didn’t stop for breath, for questions, or anything. He just kept up that pattern like his very soul depended on it.
“Alright, alright, alright, we’re getting close, getting real close, yes we are. Are you ready to dance? Are you ready to sing? ‘Cause I’m ready to play my fiddle, yes I am, yes I am. Got a fiddle at my feet and I’m ready to play. Ready to make those strings sing, can you believe it?”
He’d clap his hands and that’s as close to a pause as he was willing to do.
Sarah and Sam came up to us now, having found us in the crowd. Sarah elbowed me in the rib and said, “What’d I tell you? Looks like he should be in a carnival tryin’ to get us to see the bearded lady or somethin’.”
Sam nodded his head in greeting to us, which caused his glasses to slide down his nose, and he gave them a short push back up to where they belonged. He was as tall as Bill, but nowhere near as built. He was the smart guy in our gang. You had to have someone like him around to tell how to do things, like take apart the principal’s car and rebuild it in the school gym. Not that we ever did anything like that.
“What’s he sellin’?” asked Sam.
“A dance, I figure,” I said.
“What’s it cost?”
The Song and Dance Man must have heard him because he said, “What does it cost, I hear you ask? Why, it don’t cost a dollar and it don’t cost a quarter and it don’t cost a dime. Folks, this will cost you nothin’, just get on in and dance to the song all night long.”
We all looked at each other. It was a good deal. A little free music and space to dance? There wasn’t much to do in town back in those days and there still isn’t. This was almost too good to be true.
The Song and Dance man stopped now, a minor miracle in and of itself. He dug deep in his pocket, pulled out a gold watch, checked the time, and then grinned a grin that must have shown every one of his teeth. He pocketed the watch and said, “Folks, it’s time for the dance so come on in. Come on in, everyone, because it’s time for the dance to begin.” And with that, he hopped down from his crate, grabbed it up with the fiddle, and darted through the tent flaps.
Sarah, Bill, Sam, and I nearly got mowed over in the rush to get inside, but we were still the first ones in. We stopped short when we pushed aside those big old tent flaps, but were quickly driven inside.
It was huge inside. There was a hardwood floor beneath our feet that looked like it must be oak, a dark, dark oak polished to a mirror shine. There were candles in holders all along the tent-pole posts and when I looked up, I couldn’t see the ceiling for all the darkness. It was like looking up at a starless night sky, where the moon didn’t dare show her face.
The crowd kept driving us and more and more people poured in. It wasn’t just the young people, either. There was Misses Crenshaw, our junior year English teacher who was in her fifties. There was Mr. Hoskins, the principal. There was the good old Reverend Harper, still looking embarrassed, but also like he couldn’t help himself. It really was the whole damn town. Hell, even the mayor was there with his wife, standing and talking with the chief of police.
Soon, everyone was inside and the murmur from all the talking was nearly deafening. It was already getting warm in there and I was feeling cramped and claustrophobic. We were all looking for the Song and Dance Man, to see where he had gone. No one looked up, so no one saw him until the first pull of his fiddle bow.
He was there, on the center tent-pole, sitting on a small, wooden platform about twenty feet off the floor. God knows how he got there, because there certainly wasn’t any ladder going up. He dangled his feet over the edge and held his fiddle in one hand and the bow in the other. The fiddle and bow seemed to be made of that same dark wood that the floor was and gleamed in the candle light like a thing alive. I almost doubted that the fiddle even needed the Song and Dance Man to make its strings hum.
We all looked up at him and he grinned and jumped to his feet while the crowd gasped, worried he might plummet into their midst.
And then he began to play.
He made those strings sing. I haven’t heard anyone play like that before or since and I thank God for that every day. It made the air around us crackle and spark. It loosened the joints and jolted the mind. You felt the urge to move deep in the bone, buried in the marrow. I grabbed Sarah’s hands and we began to move across the floor and everyone followed suit, some with partners and some without. Some were doing the foxtrot, some were doing a waltz, and some of us were doing the twist. We danced, moved, shucked, jived, rocked, and rolled.
I passed Reverend Harper moving his feet in a clunky box step with Eloise Grendel, an old battle-axe of a Catholic. I saw the mayor’s wife waltzing with Dan Adams, one of our firemen.
I swirled with Sarah, moving across the floor, bumping and jostling with the people around us. It was hot and getting hotter in there, and it wasn’t long before it smelled of sweat and bodies moving against bodies. I felt dizzy, but we kept dancing together, kept dancing and not stopping. It was a while before I realized that the Song and Dance man was singing, too, but in a language I didn’t understand.
He lorded over us, standing on that platform, making his fiddle sing and sing. His bow rose and fell, slid back and forth, side to side. He played like he talked. There were no breaks or pauses, just a manic deluge of tunes while his tongue curled around words that had no business being said in this world.
I gave my head a shake as I spun with Sarah and I realized my legs were tired. My feet ached and my lower back was beginning to throb. I checked my watch and realized we had been dancing for a solid hour. I shook my head again, trying to shake off the dozy feeling that was clouding my thinking.
“Sarah,” I cleared my throat. I had only spoken in a whisper. My tongue felt thick and funny. I tried again, “Sarah.” Louder this time, but she still didn’t respond and we kept dancing. I shook her, but she didn’t respond. I kept shaking her until I realized I was doing it in time with the music.
So I just tried to stop, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop.
Underneath the fog, I began to feel frightened. I began to see the faces of the other people now. I saw their terror. Reverend Harper’s face had grown redder than it had been before. Sweat poured down his face, but still he kept moving, twirling Missus Grendel around and around, her head lolling from side to side. She had fainted, but her feet were still moving. We moved past Bill, who danced with Susie Watkins, and I saw her frightened eyes darting around the room, but Bill bobbed his head in time with the music and his glassy eyes looked at nothing in particular.
The Song and Dance Man laughed from his perch and kept playing, tapping his feet. His eyes were glowing in that dark, humid place. They glowed and glowed and light glanced off the bow with each sweep.
I heard a scream and swiveled my head to watch a woman drop to the floor holding her leg. She had cramped up. I was envious. She got to stop. She got to rest. My own legs felt like dead wood and the ache in my back had deepened.
Then her partner stepped on her ankle and I heard the crunch from across the room. He was still dancing; his eyes blank and empty as he moved. She screamed again and started to crawl away, but instead stood up. She started to dance, bringing her weight down on the broken ankle again and again and again. I turned away, but I couldn’t block the sound of her sobbing.
The music ran on.
I checked my watch again and it was three hours now. We didn’t flag or falter. We kept up the same speed as the fiddle. The damning fiddle. Rapping our feet against the floor. Never mind the blisters that burst. Never mind broken toes or broken ankles. Never mind that deep pain buried in the spine that refused to go. Never mind old hearts and bad knees.
We kept up that frantic pace as one mass: a bobbing, thumping, jumping creature with one mind.
Reverend Harper died at one point. I watched it happen. He was holding up the still fainted Misses Grendel (whose feet still moved with the music) when he dropped her and fell to the floor. He twitched once, his feet beating a quick, staccato rhythm, and then was still. Misses Grendel got back up and kept on moving. I watched Harper as I danced, trying to see if he was breathing.
He wasn’t. I swear to you, he wasn’t, but he still got back up. He was dead, but he still got back up and began to dance again. He turned to look at me and grinned the Song and Dance Man’s grin. His eyes were red, filled with blood from whatever had broken in his brain. I watched as a single red tear rolled down his cheek.
I shut my eyes and kept moving.
Harper wasn’t the last. He probably wasn’t the first. The old and the sick were the first to drop. No matter what it was—exhaustion, heart attacks, hemorrhages somewhere deep inside—they died, and then they got back up and kept dancing, grinning their grins.
I passed Lizzie and Sam. He had lost his glasses at some point. His eyes darted around, terribly aware. I looked at his leg and I saw a jut of some bone tearing through his denim jeans. There was a trail of blood behind him, and as he swirled a spray landed on the legs of the people around him. He stepped on that broken leg, twirled on it, and jumped on it all in time with that fiddle.
The night passed.
I remember stepping on something at one point and realized I had just crushed Misses Dempsey’s right hand. She was lying on her back on the dance floor. She had been stepped on time and again. I could even see a man’s shoeprint on her stomach. Her head had been caved in and her chest beneath her dress had a sunken look, and still, she was trying to get up and keep moving.
The smell of blood mixed with the sweat and I couldn’t breathe any more. The air was thick and from all around I could hear cries and screams, but nothing that drowned out the fiddle or the Song and Dance Man’s singing.
And then it stopped. I danced one more step and then stopped myself. I looked up at the platform. We all did, craning our necks upward. He was checking his pocket watch.
“Alright folks! That’s all for tonight! The dancing is done and the morning has come. You may leave if you can walk and you should walk quick ‘cause this Song and Dance Man is gonna be gone.”
We all stood there, like stunned cattle, then marked to the tent flaps. No one ran, because they couldn’t. It was a miracle we could walk. Sarah stepped ahead of left, but I stayed behind. I turned and looked, and saw at least twenty people still standing there. Harper was among them. They were all grinning, their eyes empty. They stood and made no sign of wanting to leave.
“Go on now, friend. The Song and Dance Man has what he wants, but he’d be glad to add you, too, if you tarry and dally too long.” I looked up at him and saw him smile, and then I turned my back to him and left the tent. When I turned back again it was gone, along with the people inside.
That’s the story of what happened. The others won’t tell it or pretend it never happened, never mind the 20 people that vanished that night, the mayor’s wife included. They’d rather not think about it.
Sarah and I took Sam to the hospital over in the next county, far from folks that knew what had happened. They had to remove his leg. Sam was quiet before and was quieter still after, pulling odd jobs that a one-legged man could do. He doesn’t move around much nowadays; just sits on his porch, a cane across his lap, and massages the stump with his hand. Says it bothers him on cold nights. And warm nights. And wet nights. And dry nights.
Bill left and joined the army, and stayed in long enough to fight in Vietnam and won a bunch of medals. He came back and settled down to drink and drink hard, and if you want to find him, you can find him in Eddie Dixon’s bar. No matter how drunk he gets, though, he doesn’t talk about that night.
None of us saw much of Sarah after. She came through the best, but that’s how she always was. She left and went to college, but, like Bill, got pulled back to Belle Carne. She teaches over at the high school now, teaching English to the juniors.
I stayed here, plugging away at the hardware store. I ran it for a while, but now I don’t do much of anything. I just sit around with Sam, talking about things sometimes, though not often. If I stay too late, if I stay too long, I’ll see his eyes go glassy behind those coke-bottle lenses and he’ll disappear into himself, and I’ll catch him humming a faint trace of a song and the hair on my neck stand on end and goosebumps rise on my arms in great knots.
My foot will start to tap out a small beat on the hardwood porch and a big wide grin will spread across Sam’s face. The grin of the Song and Dance Man.