August 13, 1928
She leaned against the front balcony of the dance hall and shook her shiny dark hair in its neat, new bob, reveling in the delicious sensation of goose bumps on the back of her bare neck. Through the open door came the wail of Mo Wheeler’s saxophone, bluesy and beckoning, while the plaintive piano answered with a seduction of its own. She smiled, realizing that one of her patent leather pumps was tapping the time with Dale Digg’s trap drum. She loved this new “jazz,” the way it snaked through your veins and made you want to writhe and sway, to merge with that resonant, relentless beat and sing your blessings out loud. Amen.
And she was lucky tonight, wasn’t she? Despite her mother’s admonition to skip the dance: “It’s Friday the thirteenth, you know.” But her twin sister had practically pushed her out the door at the first honk of Charlie Walter’s Plymouth — his father’s car, actually. The gang packed in both seats tighter than ammunition, Dash unfolding himself out of the back, gallantly throwing open one silver door for her. She had ignored her mother’s dark, meaningful look — a nice young man comes to the door! — and shrugged off the subsequent twinge of guilt almost as easily as the gauzy beige hip-length jacket she would shed at the dance.
Now she leaned over the rail and breathed in a deep lungful of the August night, a mixture of sunbaked earth and the slightly cool damp of leaf decay. Lamb’s Dance Hall was the top floor of a two-story red brick building that housed an auto dealership and garage on the bottom floor, the smell of which left the slightest metallic tinge of grease on her tongue. From her perch, she could see a few young men talking through the open windows of their cars on the downtown square in front of the solemn courthouse, while others stood near the streetlamp, smoking cigarettes.
Which reminded her: cigarettes. The reason she had excused herself from the dance and her date in the first place. Her sister had shoved a half-open pack of Lucky Strikes into the beaded blue purse that now hung from her shoulder: “Here. You’ll neeHer twin had cocked an eyebrow at her. It was always alarming to see her own exact features — large brown eyes in a pale face, pointed nose, small pink bud of a mouth — configured in an expression she would never use herself. Perspiration had trickled down her underarm as her sister scrutinized her head to toe, from the narrow-brimmed blue cloche hat to matching shoes, a peacock in borrowed finery. Then: a sudden frown.
“Just a minute.”
Her twin disappeared to their small shared bedroom and returned with a gold heart-shaped locket with a single diamond chip embedded in its center. “Let me put this on you.”
““I insist.” Her sister sounded the tiniest bit bitter as she closed the minuscule clasp. “There.”
The sisters looked at each other apprehensively for a moment and shrugged at exactly the same time. And then they laughed together, an identical charming giggle.
“Have fun tonight. Just be yourself.” Her twin smiled, but her face was gray. “Or on second thought: don’t.”
“Thank you,” she had replied, pulling her jacket closer around the thin lavender drop waist with a beaded fringe hem. She reached up self-consciously to pat the back of her hair, surprised once more to find the length gone, what was left curving at her nape with a slightly longer frame around her face. This could take some getting used to. “Feel better, okay?”
“Wake me up when you get home. I want to hear all about the dance. Every. Single. Thing.” Her sister winked. The car horn sounded two sharp blasts. “Bye now.”
Then she was off into the car and the hot Ozarks night.
And so far, so good. She had hardly stepped off the dance floor. And managed to keep up with Dash in every department but drinking.
“Violet! Thought you’d skipped out on us.” Fern and Ginger edged in beside her, one on each side.
“Can I bum a cigarette?” Fern Watson was always well turned out, with stylish dresses and shoes to match. But a closer look revealed ragged cuticles and nibbled nail polish, and her dark brown mass of natural curls may or may not have been combed all the way through underneath. Fern was a little haphazard, the type who would forget her head if it weren’t attached, which was why she never carried a purse. But she had an easy charm about her — much like her father, the mayor — and felt no compunction about asking for smokes, rides or even the answers to her math homework.
Ginger sighed and tapped out a cigarette for Fern before placing her own between her bright red lips and lighting it. Her family owned the pharmacy, so she always had the latest lipsticks and powders to help compensate for her plain features. Not to mention cigarettes. And a pocketbook full of cash.
“Dash is on the prowl for you. It’s almost intermission.” Ginger released a lazy cloud of blue smoke through her nostrils with a sidelong look. “I don’t know how you keep up with that boy.”
“Yes, do tell, Violet.” Fern’s giggle was punctuated by a couple of hacking coughs as she choked on her last inexpert inhale.
“Oh, we all have our little secrets.” She fingered the locket at her throat, reminding herself that she belonged here.
“Until he gets bored with your little secret and wants to uncover someone else’s.” Here, Ginger gave a lazy, feline grin.
“Well, it definitely won’t be yours.” She watched Fern’s jaw drop and Ginger’s kohl-rimmed eyes widen slightly. That felt good. “Tootles, gals. See you on the dance floor.”
Dash Emmonds was stinking drunk. Not that it was anything unusual, especially on a Friday night. He noticed it after the Lindy, when he attempted a low bow to his dance partner of the moment, Hazel, and had a hard time pulling his upper body vertical again. She reached for his arm to help right him, letting her hand rest there for a couple of beats too long. His eyes bounced around a bit before settling on her face. A nice face with a lovely mouth. Forgetting himself, he continued down her neck — long and pale — to her breasts, which seemed bound tightly beneath the shapeless, sparkly dress. Why did these girls want to look like boys these days? He liked curves, he couldn’t help himself. Anything but the straight and narrow for Dash Emmonds.
Hazel was blushing when he finally looked up, but her eyes didn’t waver from his. Definitely something he wanted to keep in mind when this thing with Violet went south, as he knew it inevitably would. He wasn’t the going-steady type. Scratch that. He wasn’t the going-steady-for-long type.
“Bye, toots.” He caught Hazel’s hand up in his and put it to his lips and then headed crookedly for the door. He nodded at Mo and Dale, who had started up a slow, lazy tune and caught the eye of Beebe Monroe who peered at him over the top of her upright piano and winked. Where was Violet, anyway? How long can it take to smoke a damn cigarette?
The dance floor was filling up again as he pushed past the crowd at the bar and the coat check counter and through the open door at last. He reached up and straightened his tie and then smoothed his hair back with his hands except one dark blond curl, which he allowed to fall onto his forehead. More than one girl had let him know she liked that curl, starting with his own mother, who used to train the lock of hair with a lick of spit and her forefinger. His father had shaken his head against their vanity, Dash’s and his mother’s, but then, his father was against most everything: pride, envy, vanity, gluttony, drunkenness, dancing, sex (not that he ever said that word out loud). Everything fun, anyway. God, he hated being a PK: preacher’s kid. He was twenty-five now — practically an old man — with no real prospects. Most of his buddies had gone to college and were either back in town learning the family business or off to the big cities — St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago — to seek their fortunes. He’d tried college, too, which he had loved right up until the moment he flunked out. And to his father’s unvarnished disappointment, he wanted nothing to do with God or the church. As far as Dash was concerned, religion was for the stupid, the unimaginative and the chicken-hearted. People who were too afraid to admit there wasn’t anything after this life and spent their time banking their prayers and good deeds in hopes of eternal reward. He was having none of it. He’d take his rewards now, thank you very much.
“Hey, Violet.” Dash lurched right into his steady, who was coming in the other way. He slid his arm around her bare shoulders and gave her a small squeeze. Her skin felt cool to his touch and he had the urge to rush her off to the Plymouth in the back parking lot and explore some more of it. She’d let him that once, hadn’t she? They had both been drinking that night. Gin. He had started gently at the nape of her neck, brushing back the hair with his hand and discovering a dime-sized birthmark, an ink stain on pale onion skin. He had kissed it reverently. And then, not quite so slowly, he had worked his way around her throat and down. And further down, his hand finding his way beneath the slippery dress and her stockings while his mouth stayed on her breasts. She may have protested a little bit, he couldn’t remember. But she let him push all the way into her with just the slightest moan, her arms wrapped tightly around the back of his head. Now that was heaven. Every girl just a different window into it.
“Want to go out back with me?” He hoped his tone sounded light.
“Dash, are you drunk?” His date hesitated a brief second before reaching up to hold his face in her hands, searching his eyes. He couldn’t quite focus on hers, although they were large and shiny as a wild animal’s.
“I might be.” He smiled crookedly. “Pretty please?”
“Mmm. I’d love another dance? It’s almost intermission.”
He felt her steering him back the way he came. They had just made it through the door when a large young man with Brilliantined black hair and his striped tie askew pushed them both roughly to one side as he parted the sea of merrymakers in his path, his face dark and thunderous.
Dash had heard that Jimmy Jeffers’ girl had given him the heave-ho. He scanned the room for her. Nell. Dancing with someone Dash didn’t know, probably from somewhere outside of Possum Flats. People came from fifty or more miles away for the Lamb Hall dances each month. He reached for Violet’s hand and wondered, ever so briefly, what it would be like to be thrown over for someone else. Not his experience. He typically broke up with a girl before it crossed her mind to drop him. Not that any girl would ever drop him, of course. But his attention span was short. And so was life. Too short to be tied to one girl, no matter how gorgeous or witty or charming. Even Violet here, her sweet breath against his chest as they moved onto the dance floor. She wore the gold heart he had given her at her throat, but he knew — even if she didn’t — that it was a useless talisman against his restlessness.
He felt himself strangely moved by this thought. Or maybe it was just the gin. He drew her closer, wanting to protect her somehow, from the inevitable. Not tonight, of course. But soon. He would miss Violet, he really would.
She let her cheek rest against Dash’s chest. She tingled, like her nerves were on the outside of her skin. The band was winding up the first set with “After Sunset,” and practically everyone was out on the floor, each couple jostling for their square foot of space. At the piano, Beebe had sweat on her brow as she teased out each melancholy note; Mo’s eyes were closed as he blew sweet agony on the sax, his fingers moving up and down the keys like a lover’s spine. She wanted to be held like that. Like this. Before Dash, she had never done more than hold the clammy hand of that splotchy, nervous boy from the funeral home. She had refused the silver flask that Dash had offered earlier, but still, she felt like she must be drunk anyway. It was intoxicating, breathing in his smell and seeing how all the eyes in the room watched him — either with thinly concealed desire or naked jealousy, depending on the gender. These were not parents, of course — those looks might have contained disappointment, disbelief or even a bit of contempt for this beautiful man who lived with absolutely no thought of the future. These were his contemporaries. She felt Dash’s hand slide down to the small of her back and pull her in close. She shut her eyes and let the beat of the drum take over for thinking, the rhythm of it a question that made her body want to answer: yes, yes and yes.
Then: a flash so bright she could see it through her eyelids. Her eyes flew open and she turned her face up to find Dash’s, surprise written in the “O” of his mouth and the crease of his brow. Almost instantly, a deafening explosion followed and she felt the floorboards rising beneath their feet, as she and Dash continued up, up, up, as though they were flying, launched into the sky and literally dancing on air as the floor and walls fell away around them. She felt the night air on her cheek. The ceiling had opened up into a brilliant night sky, stars in their stasis coolly winking at the dancers, frozen in the air at their apex for those few unbelievable seconds, still embracing their partners. She saw Nell, Charlie, Beebe and her piano, Mo with his mouth still on his horn, all suspended against the inky sky.
“How impossibly beautiful,” she thought in the strange sliver of silence before the screaming started and the dancers began their terrible fall. As she was ripped from Dash’s arms, she heard the cries of women and men, crying out for their husbands, wives, partners. Their mothers. God.
She clawed desperately at the air as she watched the ground rushing up to meet her, a horrible black smoking hole where the dance hall had been.
Then: a sharp rip of pain in her shoulder as she was halted in her fall while Dash continued to plummet.
No. She hung suspended from a still-standing timber, stuck through the shoulder and left armpit and what remained of her dress by a large, pointed piece of wood. She knew she should feel pain, but she felt nothing but wonder. She saw the bodies and bricks and beams begin to fill the hole beneath her, felt the rain of rubble and rock on her exposed flesh, marveled at the bloody wound around her left armpit and ragged flap of her naked left breast. Her purse still hung from her right shoulder. Her feet were bare.
People were littered everywhere, covered with debris and screaming and crying for help. Some didn’t move at all. But she was alive. She was alive.
A light caught the corner of her eye and she watched with morbid fascination as the dark pile of rubble was overrun with bright orange and blue flames, and frantically writhing victims worked to free themselves, screeching in agony as they were engulfed. The flames reached higher, and she felt her dangling feet warm and then grow hot as the fire licked at her, gently at first and then with a pitiless greed. Her nostrils filled with the smell of burning flesh. She was going to die. God, she didn’t want to die. Please. It was her first dance. She had just found out what it felt like to be alive.
It hurt. It hurt to be alive and be on fire and God, please, please, please make it stop. She screamed, just once, and everything went black.
She seemed so far away from him as he lay there in the pit that used to be the dance hall and garage. He watched her, dangling above him by an arm — or was it her dress? He saw that she was practically naked, a beautiful pale angel against the night sky.
He tried to free himself from a large timber that had wedged his ankle under the pile of debris, pushing against the wooden beam and trying to lift it with both hands. But it was no use. He heard the flames before he saw them, racing toward him with a roar in a menacing blue line. He heard Violet’s scream, like the terrible shriek of a wounded rabbit, before her body lit up completely in a brilliant flame and that quickly extinguished itself, leaving her hanging there, charred and lifeless as a piece of meat.
No. I will not die like this. Dash struggled to pull his ankle free, pushing up on his elbows and bracing his arms behind him.
“God, help me,” he whispered. If I make it out of here, I will be a different person. I swear.
The fire was at the timber now, slowed only briefly by the bricks and rocks. He felt the heat of the wall of flame on his face and turned his head. He tried to brace himself. He wasn’t going to make it. His mind flashed on his father. You were right, he thought. I have gone to hell.
He felt movement at his ankle as the timber shifted, then the excruciating relief of freedom and the simultaneous searing pain of the crushed bones as he tried unsuccessfully to stand. Then two strong arms were lacing themselves through his and dragging him backwards, away from the fire.
“Hang on, Dash. I got you.”
It was Jimmy. Dash watched as his own legs jounced along the ground in front of him as though they belonged to someone else. They passed the piano, upside down and splintered, Beebe crushed and lifeless beneath it. She lay on her back with her arms outstretched, staring at the sky as though she had been trying to catch her dear piano, to break its fall.
After about twenty yards, Jimmy dropped Dash to safety on the sidewalk, and ran back to the rubble. Dash lay with his cheek scraping against the rough concrete which still held heat from the summer day, curled onto his side and watching the fire rage and burn, unable to do anything but weep.