Military

-The Dancing Man- – Kevin Stamps

The rain had kept the salesman in the bookstore 30 minutes longer than he intended. The torrent was cold and promised to only smudge his lenses and he had left the little microfiber cloth they give you when you buy your glasses in the catch-all drawer of his work desk. So he waited until he could delay no longer and headed for the door. His wife had already sent the “You on your way?” text.

He needed to get home for dinner. The muffin he’d indulged would be his own secret as his wife was sure to berate him should she find out. “Don’t complain to me when Doctor Crenshaw tells you your sugar is high. I don’t want to hear it.” No matter, it was good. A mini marital-rebellion.

The rain formed puddles outside the store which he did his best to avoid. His loafers weren’t fancy or of high quality but he still didn’t want to get them wet any more than he could avoid. Oil that had escaped the undercarriage of cars swirled and danced in the ponds creating deformed purple pinwheels.

The moisture caused him to squint harshly and tuck his chin low. He forced his eyes upwards so to see any oncoming traffic and seeing none, he made his way across the street to his car and pushed the fob button rapidly as if the multiple beeps from the horn would somehow repel the water slowly soaking him.

He hated the feeling of wet shoes on his black carpet because it inevitably meant a chore later. Black looked sharp at the showroom but he cursed at the interior daily. Everything sticks to it and shows, he thought. Never again. He didn’t attempt to shake the pooled water from his shoes before setting them on the floorboard, there was no point. I’ll deal with it later.

He placed his faux-leather workbag on the passenger seat, inserted the key into the ignition, and turned the engine over. The car made its familiar symphony of dings as the instrument cluster came to life. The fuel gauge showed less than a quarter tank of gas remaining; he made a mental note to stop on the way home.

The drive to his house took him across the city and though not far in distance, the traffic and stop lights made it a 40 minute trek. He typically wouldn’t have stopped at this bookstore so far from home, but a mid-afternoon sales call had brought him here. He had finished early but desperately wanted to avoid going back to the office. While hardly a reader, he figured a bookstore was as inconspicuous a place as any to sham off work for the rest of the afternoon. The meeting had not gone the way he’d hoped and he knew the client’s, “I’ll think on this and let you know” was just a poorly veiled “no.”

His job was boring. Terribly predictable. Terribly benign. He drove the same car to the same parking spot to have the same weekly meetings each week. He’d done it for eight years. Eight years was enough time to have some savings and investments in the company. He wasn’t quite to ten years, but close enough he could see it. And what if he were to reach ten? He’d have to stay. It’d be insane not to do another ten and really pad the 401K — people reminded him of this all the time. He never liked how cavalier others were with his life math but he never resisted.

“What’s another ten at this point?” They always asked the question as if it were a yawn that slipped out against their will. Just had to be said. And that was the point. Even the damned question bored him just like his boring commute and his boring desk and these boring sales calls. He wasn’t even paid that well but he’d managed the American dream: two sedans, a mortgage, and a Prozac prescription set to automatically refill at the end of each month. His wife was happy. She liked the security and domestic feel of their life. Delayed gratification was the name of the game for her. Twelve more years and he’d hit twenty. Hell, what’s ten more at that point?

He’d decided to waste a few hours at the bookstore which was full of things he didn’t even really care for: books. He was a tv man but there aren’t stores where you can go and just watch tv and be left alone. If there were, he’d be pulling out of that parking lot and not this one. The last two hours of the day, when he could’ve been at the office polishing off the P.O. he knew he wouldn’t have to send (he’ll call you, remember?), were spent thumbing through niche magazines about mountain biking, knife making, and animal trapping. Who reads this shit?

Still better than the office.

He put the car in gear and drove towards the exit. The wipers, which he had recently replaced, only gave him three seconds of visibility per swipe before the rain replaced itself. Looking both ways, he guided the sedan to the stop sign and seeing no traffic, he pulled into the street that connected the entire shopping center. The bookstore wasn’t the only place there, just the only place he felt he’d be left alone. The bookstore was large and stood alone but shared the parking lot with a Chinese restaurant on one side and a discount home goods store on the other. No magazines on animal trapping at either, of those. Across the street was a gas station with a KFC connected. Something about those places depressed him. Eating fast food was bad enough but eating it from a gas station felt plain sad. But he was guilty of indulging occasionally so he kept his judgment to himself.

The rain continued to pound the pavement, his car, and everything and everyone unfortunate enough to be outside. As he scanned the area in anticipation of the upcoming stop sign, movement caught his eye. In the gas station to his right, about 20 yards away, in the entrance to the lot, stood a man. He was black with a low cut fade. His clothes fit him well but were soaked. His white shoes were a noticeably distinct feature of his array and must have been heavy with rain. In all, he was an unassuming man save for one thing.

He was dancing.

Not only was he dancing, he was dancing right in the path of cars trying to enter. The salesman watched two cars make wide turns in an effort to enter the lot but avoid harming the dancer. It wasn’t clear if he was homeless, insane, lost, or simply in ecstasy.

That dumbass is going to get himself killed, he thought. But the man kept dancing while the salesman watched. The dancing man moved with smooth gesticulations; his legs, arms, torso and head were synchronized. His eyes were closed and he had a style about him nobody could deny.

What is he doing?

This side of town was predominately white and upper-middle class. There were parts of town where it wouldn’t be out-of-place to see a black man dancing on the street, white buds in his ear delivering a sonic escape from the monotony and burden of poverty. But this was not that part of town. And he didn’t appear to have any headphones in. The boring salesman had made his way to the boring part of town and this dancing man didn’t fit the scenery.

He was just, dancing.

As if shook awake by the piercing waves of an alarm, the salesman came to his senses and realized he’d been sitting at a stop sign for no apparent reason and for longer than he’d intended. He glanced in his rear mirror to see if anyone had approached. As his eyes shifted from the dancing man to the mirror, he heard the sound.

A grisly thud and crunch simultaneously reverberated from the SUV that had just struck the dancing man. His eyes darted to where the performer had once paraded to find a silver SUV, wheels locked, wipers on, frozen in the place the dancer had just occupied. Smoke escaped the tailpipe of the offending vehicle like breath escaping the lung of a runner having just finished sprints.

The time it took for the salesman to move his eyes from left to right, from the SUV to the body, seemed like a million life journeys. The terror rushed over him like jolts of lightning causing a cascade of all Kubler-Ross’ stages to hit him at once.

Maybe he’s fine. Who am I kidding? He’s probably dead. Lord, just let me get home. I should’ve just gone back to the office. I’m a damned idiot!

The nausea, the sweat beading on his brow, and the quickening of his heart acted in partnership to fire what seemed to be all of his synapses in one instance. His eyes rested on the dancing man, lying on his left side facing away from both the SUV which struck him and the driver still motionless at the stop sign. His legs were scissored as if he were merely taking a spell but his right arm was a portent of the trauma which was sure to be present on his front side. His elbow was dislocated causing the lower half of his arm to face the opposite direction of the top half. His arm had fallen behind his back with his palm facing away from his posterior.

Oh God. Jesus. Jesus.

The salesman’s arms and hands seemed to disconnect from one another like two tourists in a foreign country each speaking different languages and neither speaking the native tongue, attempting to give the other directions. He darted for his phone that hung by a magnet from his dash and managed to paw it across the vehicle to the farthest corner of the passenger floorboard. He put his car in reverse, then in park, then back in drive.

What the hell am I doing? Calm the fuck down, man. Calm down.

The driver of the silver SUV had not exited. From his vantage point at the stop sign, he couldn’t tell if the driver was male or female and how many people were actually in the vehicle. He knew he had to go to the dancing man and check on his condition. He didn’t see him fly through the air, assuming he actually flew, and he didn’t actually see the SUV strike the man. But the evidence was clearly there: A dented SUV and a dancing man no longer dancing lying in the water which was beginning to pool around him.

He kept his car in drive and inched slowly towards the dancing man’s body. He did have the wherewithal to put on his hazard lights — one automatic gesture that made sense. As he pulled closer he could see the SUV driver was a young woman. She was blond and wore a large bib necklace that covered her chest where her black blouse did not. She made no movement. Her hands were on the steering wheel and she stared straight ahead.

You have to be kidding me, she has to get out and help me. How is this my fucking problem now?

A portly man came running down the sloped parking lot of the gas station where the dancing man had once performed. He had a white phone in his hand, the cordless kind people don’t use anymore except at gas stations and the like. The salesman assumed the portly man worked at that station; he certainly looked the part. Between the jeans which were clearly his “daily wearers”, a buttoned short sleeve shirt (tan with thick vertical brown stripes), and his balding front fourth of his head with the remainder thick and unkempt, he nailed the stereotype.

The man had stopped the car about twenty feet from the body of the dancer. He still couldn’t see any signs of trauma save the right arm but his anxiety had spiked so sharply he could barely grasp the silver door handle and pull. Calm down. You have to do this.

He squinted as the rain pelted the top of his head and ran into his eyes. Of course it would rain today. Of course it would be ice cold rain. And of course it would come down with such ferocity it soaked his clothing nearly instantly. He wasn’t running this time, like how he’d darted from the store to the car. He was going to be here for a bit and had instantly resigned himself to the idea of being wet. And it wasn’t as if he were in a rush to see the trauma.

“Holy shit, man. I saw the whole thing!” The portly man spoke in a thick Armenian accent. He, too, was soaked from his jaunt down the hill. The hair he still had was matted to his head and even his thick black mustache seemed to wilt in the rain like a flower deprived of hydration.

“I’ve already called 911. They told me to stay on the line but I hung up as they were saying it. I didn’t mean to, I was just so nervous. Should I call back? I don’t want to get in trouble.”

Something about the station attendant’s fear, strangely calmed him. Knowing that someone else was as scared as he was gave him the relief of being let off the hook as if this emotional freight wasn’t his to carry alone.

“No, you won’t be in trouble. You gave them the address?”

“Yeah, man. It was one of the few things I could get out. Is he fucking dead?”

“I don’t think so.”

Why did I say that? I don’t know if he’s dead or not.

He approached the dancing man.

Never had a person lay so still. If the image of the still man were placed anywhere else, he’d appear to be enjoying a deep sleep save the grotesque right arm. His torso made no movement and though on his side, his head had landed in such a way the his face was flat to the pavement. The salesman could see blood begin to seep out from under his face.

Why were you dancing in the street? Now you’re my fucking problem.
“Sir, can you hear me? Help is on the way. I’m reaching for your wallet!”

The dancing man made no sound or movement. The salesman felt for a wallet but found nothing. No keys, no wallet, no pocket knife, not a thing. “I didn’t see him. There was so much rain.” The SUV driver had opened her door and was yelling towards “the scene” while remaining seated.

“It’s fine, help is on the way.” She had closed the door again before he’d finished his response. He regretted telling her it was all fine. What he wish he’d said was, “This is all your fault”. He wished he’d gone to her door and banged on the window and demanded she come help. But he didn’t and he stood in the rain as she st in the car perhaps both equally stunned.

The man did the calculus in his mind. Should he roll the man over and listen for a heartbeat? Maybe he should just put two fingers on the man’s neck like they do in his detective shows he’d hopefully be watching in the next few hours. He vaguely remembered being told not to move an injury like this or he’d be found liable for any further injury. Was that true? Who had told him that?

The station attendant was on the phone again recounting the incident to someone, perhaps his wife. As he talked he slowly walked towards the gas pumps so as to be under the giant awning and free from the deluge of water still pouring. The salesman remained on a knee staring at the lifeless body of the man who was dancing just minutes before. In the distance sirens wailed and the salesman knew they were coming to take the dancing man to the morgue.

The salesman couldn’t help but reflect on the events of the day. This day was to be like all the other days prior. A quick jaunt to the office to grab promotional materials would take him down the same roads he traveled daily. He’d part at approximately the same space in the parking lot, he’d greet secretary and take a Tootsie Roll from the communal bowl she keeps filled. He’d frown at his cubicle mate’s music that he hated, even if his neighbor played it low. Grabbing what he needed, he’d head right back out and hope the meeting took long enough to justify not coming back to the building with harsh fluorescence, gray carpet, and beige cubicle walls. He’d gotten his wish but now he wished he’d just gone back to work.

He was alone with the dancing man and could now see the flash of the ambulance lights turning the corner.

It continued to rain.

#

The headlights illuminated the garage door and remained on after he killed the engine. His body had never felt heavier and the short walk to the front door felt like a cruel journey he knew he couldn’t escape. His wife would certainly ask questions and he’d muster the energy to tell her just enough to satisfy her curiosity and hopefully nothing more.

His torso expanded as he took one last deep breath and reached for the door handle.

* * *

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