Learning to Slow Dance -Chapter 1

Late that Saturday afternoon Jonathan Clayton came once again to the front door of their house and looked out through the glass panels to see if the snow had started. Then he stepped out onto the wide porch that went along the front of the two-story white frame house so he could look up at the sky. Snow had been predicted by the Raleigh radio stations, and the air had that slightly metallic smell that reminded him of snow. The clouds were thick and heavy looking. But no flakes were falling yet. Dusk was coming on fast.
He was already dressed for the dance that night at the country club out on Glenwood Avenue. There were a lot of parties and dances that year leading up to Christmas. The wool blue and gray sports jacket he wore had belonged to his older brother, who had outgrown it the year before. Jonathan came back in the house. He didn’t sit down because he didn’t want to ruin the crease in his pants. In fact, he walked a bit stiff-legged to protect the careful job he had done in ironing the pants. He was waiting for his friend Will Ponds to come over in his mother’s car that she let him drive on special occasions. Will was a year older than Jonathan, and already had his driver’s license.
Will called Jonathan “Jack,” a practice Jonathan was trying to get all of his friends to do. He thought Jack Clayton sounded, oh, maybe classier or a little more two-fisted or something more than Jonathan. His older brother told Jonathan that Jack was not a nickname for Jonathan, that Jon was. But, just the same, he preferred Jack and more and more people were calling him that. In fact one of his teachers, young Miss Hopkins, actually had started calling him Jack, but she was leaving the school after Christmas vacation to get married and so she was very friendly and easy-going and smiled a lot. She was pretty, too, Jonathan thought. Once, while they were taking a test, she had gone to the back of the classroom and taken a seat at one of the student desks to fill out a report. Jonathan happened to glance back at her. The right side of her skirt had caught on the side of the desk as she slid into the seat, revealing her thigh above where her stocking stopped. Her thigh looked so naked to Jonathan. He could even see the little freckles on her bare thigh. Jonathan thought that was one of the prettiest sights he had ever seen. He felt like he was halfway in love with her. For a long time he didn’t tell even Will what he had seen because he knew that if he talked about it too much it would no longer be as real to him. But he did tell Will a couple of weeks later.
Will said, “Wow, she’s the sexiest woman I’ve ever seen.”
“Crap, Will. You say that about every girl or woman we know.”
“I can’t help it,” Will said with one of his big Mickey Rooney grins. “I guess I’m like my daddy. He said he was forty-five years old before he even saw an ugly woman—and she wasn’t so bad.”
Jonathan just shook his head. He knew that Will was always quoting something that his daddy had supposedly said but Jonathan knew, too, that Will seldom saw his father, maybe only briefly a couple of times a year. His father worked down at Cherry Point in the eastern part of the state. Although not divorced, Will’s mother and father did not live together. Jonathan figured that maybe all these quotes were Will’s way of holding on to his father, making him seem more real. So Jonathan went along with Will and never mentioned to him what he really thought, that Will made up the quotes or got them from someone else and claimed his father said it.
While Jonathan paced around by the front door, waiting for Will and watching to see if it really was going to snow, his mother, Irene Clayton, came out of her sewing room that was off the hallway that ran down the center of the downstairs. The living room and dining room were off to the left upon entering the front door and the stairway to the second floor was on the right. The living room and dining room flowed one into the other but could be separated by heavy wooden sliding French doors. In her sewing room, which was piled high with fabrics and laces and half-finished doll costumes, Irene sewed hoop-skirted antebellum dresses, complete with pantaloons and bonnets, for china head dolls she had sold to help keep them going during the Depression and now added to the overall household income. She stood there, a half-smile on her face, watching Jonathan as he peered out the glass in the front door to see if the snow had started.
“You look nice,” she said.
Jonathan didn’t know she was watching him. “Oh, yeah, thanks.” He was a little embarrassed for some reason, standing there looking eager, almost anxious, dressed with a jacket and an awkwardly knotted Windsor tie around his neck.
“Aren’t you going to eat supper before you go?”
“Will and I are going to the Toddle House.” He looked at his mother. She was always dressed nicely, even when she was at home working on her dolls. His friends, Will and the others, had often remarked how pretty she was, with her dark hair and green eyes, and always a ready smile. She had a good figure, too, Will said, and Jonathan had frogged him lightly on the arm for saying it. Jonathan turned back toward the front door. “I believe it will snow,” he said.

* * *

At the same time that Jonathan fretted about the prediction of snow, a few miles away Reggie Dunham took a shortcut off of Oberlin Road through the woods behind Needham Broughton High School on his way home to East Raleigh in a section called Colored Town, where he lived with his grandmother. Although it was a Saturday, Reggie had volunteered to deliver an alto saxophone he had re-padded for his employer at Hampton’s Music Store. Reggie was almost seventeen and proud of the work he was doing for Hamp at the store. He was learning to repair musical instruments, and he himself played saxophone and got free lessons from Hamp.
Reggie kept looking up at the sky. He thought he saw the first flake of snow, then another. He quickened his pace through the woods that were brown and bare, with the leaves making crunching sounds under his feet.
Suddenly he stopped.
The glint of the silver metal was the first thing he saw; then the richly polished wood of the stock. It was a shotgun. It looked like a new one. Two maple leaves lay on the trigger housing and leaves partly covered the tip of the muzzle so that it appeared the shotgun had been tossed to the ground rather than dropped.
Reggie stood frozen, looking at the shotgun. Then he bent down and gingerly picked it up with both hands. He was surprised at how heavy it felt. He had never held a gun in his hands before, only play toys. Standing there in the woods, with the first flakes of snow beginning to fall, he looked around, wondering if someone else was nearby. He took a step forward, holding the shotgun waist-high, marveling at the delicate scrollwork engraved on the barrel and the smooth, polished glow of the rich wooden stock.
Reggie studied the shotgun so admiringly that he almost stepped on the outstretched arm that lay partially hidden in the leaves.
He sucked in his breath and groaned in horror. He threw down the gun and jumped back. He felt as though he might collapse. His knees sagged. He stared at the exposed arm and saw it was attached to a body, that of a young white man no older than Reggie. Leaves had been pushed over the body but the face was partly visible, the eyes open and staring. Blood had soaked through leaves that covered the back.
Reggie held both of his hands up, palms toward the body as if trying to push away the image. He made another sound in his throat and then he turned and began to run. He realized he was crying as he ran and his eyes so clouded with tears that he stumbled through brush, fell, got up and ran again. He could hardly get his breath but he kept on running.
He cleared the woods behind the school and cut diagonally across the wide expanse of lawn in front of the school. The air felt colder on his face out of the woods. A few lazy snowflakes fell. One landed on his right eyelid and it felt good to him, but he kept shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe what he had seen.
Reggie cut across the intersection of Peace and St. Mary’s streets and had only gone a half a block when bile spurted up from his stomach, scorching and burning his throat. He stopped, doubled over, and retched, trying to vomit. A white woman had stepped out on her porch and yelled something at him. He couldn’t understand what she said but it didn’t sound friendly and he started running again. His side hurt and his mouth tasted like brass.
It was almost four miles to his grandmother’s house in Colored Town and he didn’t stop again until he stumbled up to their front door, crying and gasping for breath.

* * *

While Jonathan watched a few snowflakes fluttering in the fading late afternoon light, the street lamp that hung on a tall pole near his front yard came on. He could see the snowflakes outlined against the light. They seemed to duck and dart about like white insects. A dusting of snow began to powder the brown grass in the front yard.
Then he saw Will approaching in his mother’s faded tan 1939 Ford sedan. Actually, the car belonged to the insurance company his mother worked for and Will laboriously washed and waxed the car, vainly trying to obscure the name of the insurance company that was painted on the trunk.
Jonathan’s mother came out of the sewing room again. “I’m not sure you all should be going out with it snowing. The roads . . .” she said. “Maybe they’ve called off the dance.”
“Not a chance,” Jonathan said, “and it’s not supposed to snow much.” He opened the front door. “The roads will be fine. Will’s here and his mother wouldn’t let him use the car if she thought it was going to snow much. You know how fussy she is.”
Irene frowned a bit as she came to where Jonathan stood with his hand on the doorknob. “I hope your Daddy and David and Ellen get back from Smithfield before too long. I don’t like them to be out on the highway with it snowing.” Then more to herself, as if looking off into some distant place, she said, “And I hope Congressman Walston can get David an appointment to Annapolis. That would be so much better than the draft . . .”
“Will’s waiting for me,” Jonathan said.
“Oh, yes,” Irene said, coming back to the present.
Will had stepped out of his car, looking up at Jonathan, that Mickey Rooney grin on his face. In fact, his whole demeanor reminded Jonathan of Mickey Rooney, the way he bounced around, his enthusiasm and his compact stature too. All he needed to complete the picture was a young Judy Garland hanging onto his arm.
“Come on, Jack-Son, my boy. Beautiful powdered and sweet-smelling young ladies await us.” His voice was always loud.
Jonathan raised one hand in greeting and started down the steps. His mother stood in the doorway and watched them, a slight smile of pride and pleasure on her lips.
Will bellowed out again: “Lovely weather, Mrs. Clayton.”
“Be careful,” she said.
“Oh, we will. It will be a splendid night,” he called. He started getting back in his car. “Life is good, and all is right with the world.”

copyright©2013 Joseph L.S. Terrell


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