Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Dancers and Other Freaks Staying up Past Midnight: Part I, chapter 7 from The Edge of the World (a novel in progress)

Leonard packed just a small duffel bag—he didn’t want to carry a heavy load—and walked down to the highway ready to hitchhike west. After being on the side of the road for almost an hour he got a ride from a young couple in a station wagon. They were on their way to New Orleans.

“We’re going there for our honeymoon,” explained the woman.

“I take it you just got married,” Leonard replied. Then added hesitantly, “Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” she said, jutting out her chin. Raising her eyebrows and widening her already bulging eyes, she smiled like a six year old girl who had just won a stuffed animal at the carnival.

“Yeah, thanks,” the man said as he looked into the rear view mirror at Leonard. “It’s too bad you couldn’t make it to the wedding.” Every time he spoke the tone of his voice gradually rose so that with each of his sentences Leonard felt as if he were being asked a question. “But we’re mighty glad you could make it to the reception.”

“Oh honey...” the woman exclaimed as she looked to the dashboard.

He eased up on the gas pedal and moved into the right lane. “Good Lord, I was going five miles over the speed limit there for a minute.”

They were good people, this couple. Bank tellers from up north who always rose before dawn and went to sleep by ten. Sports fans whose love of sports was curiously devoid of enmity for rival teams. Model citizens who in all sincerity wished their neighbors “a nice day” and believed in fellowship and the dignity of man. They were the sort of people I liked when I was a child—the sort of people who now fill me with disgust. As for Leonard, he too found them disgusting. But later he would change his mind.

Lying on the seat next to Leonard was a boom box. Leonard looked down at it and for a moment his thoughts turned to Lily. Noticing his interest in the boom box, the woman handed him a tape.

“Here, put this on.”

“I love disco,” the man said as a song began to play:

Tommy Mottola
Lives on the road
He lost his lady
Two months ago...

Although for once the tone in the man’s voice didn’t seem to beg for a reply, Leonard asked, “So, you two go out dancing a lot?”

“Oh no,” the woman declared. “Discos always start way too late for us.”

“Though last night we were up past midnight,” the man said as he looked into the rearview mirror and winked.

“We just love the music,” the woman continued. “And we just put the music on the tape player there whenever we want... and dance whenever we want. Like sometimes after work we’ll put the tape player on the roof of the car, and then dance right there in the bank parking lot. It’s so much fun. And people passing by think we’re getting in some extra practice for some kind of contest but we’re not. We’re just dancing for ourselves.”

Leonard tried to picture them during one of their afternoon dancing sessions and chuckled to himself. He imagined that their moves would be clumsy, like those of two drunks who, rising from their bar stools at closing time, end up dancing because they’re unable to simply walk. Only with this couple that clumsiness was natural, and the afternoon sun—not the turned up lights of a bar at closing time—was what shone in their faces. But just as the drunk couple would go home to fuck, or try to anyway, so would this couple.

Leonard coughed, then cleared his throat, feeling, for a moment, as if he were about to vomit. The image of this couple fucking made Leonard feel slightly ill. That and the thought that there were millions of Joes and Marys in the world just like them.

They had just passed through Tampa. New Orleans seemed a long way off to Leonard—especially while riding with this obnoxious duo whose ways were completely different from his and who seemingly had no idea of the life that went on beneath the surface of things.

But like an insect shedding its cocoon, he began to discard his old ideas and opinions. Like a tourist in Times Square watching a game of three card monte, he was taken in by the scam. Believing that paradise was gone, he took the bait. And by the time they reached New Orleans, Leonard had decided that he wasn’t all that different from them. That the blood that ran through their veins was the same as his.

At midnight, eight hours after they’d picked him up in Fort Myers, they dropped him off in New Orleans near the French Quarter. Leonard thanked them sincerely, smiling at them as he’d never before smiled at anyone outside of his family.

It was November and at midnight it was too cold for Leonard to be sleeping outside. After wandering around the French Quarter for a couple of hours he went to the train station. In the waiting area he sat on one of the hard plastic chairs, setting his duffel bag beside him. He’d been asleep for half an hour when a man in a uniform woke him.

“Sir,” he said looking down at Leonard, “if you’re not waiting for a bus or a train you’ll have to move on.”

“But I am waiting,” Leonard answered, without looking up. “Only my train doesn’t leave until morning.” He was suddenly afraid, startled by the sound of his own voice.

“May I see your ticket?” the man asked.

“Well I haven’t bought it yet,” Leonard argued. Tilting his head upwards, he looked directly in the man’s eyes. “Because I don’t want to fall asleep here and have someone steal it from me while I’m sleeping.”

He eyed Leonard suspiciously for a moment then moved on. Leonard sat back again and closed his eyes but he was wide awake now. He sat there the rest of the night, and during the whole time he waited the thought of Lily never entered his mind.

In the morning Leonard went to the rest room. Studying himself in the mirror he saw that he had a strange, untrustworthy look about him again. He was just twenty-one years old now, but with his beard grown ragged and his slept-in clothes, he looked like a long time vagrant.

Leonard pulled a razor from his bag and worked at his beard. Soon it was all gone. He washed his face and hair in the sink, then hit the button on the hot air dryer. Leaning over, he placed his head beneath the nozzle and dried himself. When he looked into the mirror once more, he combed his hair away from his face. He looked better now, he thought—almost like a clean cut kid just out of college.

He picked up his bag and walked outside. In twenty minutes he’d found the highway again. Standing by the side of the road, staring down at the cars coming from back east, he held up his hand, ready to make his way through the world. And with the bright, almost blinding sun shining upon him, he stuck out his thumb.

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