The Wing of the Rhythm
From the outside of the open barn doors everyone looked small and equivocal in the low light, twirling and hollering in little flashes of cotton print and corduroy. The electric light cast shadows strange and raw. Shoes left aborted at the room’s edge bounced with the stomp and shuffle of the dirty feet, feet that would be heel sore and blistered when the dew began to settle outside and the fiddler was drunk and the party all over. But that was hours away at least. The fiddle pulsed not as notes but as pure sounds—the grind of a train; the whistle of a train; the screech and whine and growl of a train; all sounds train-like and indefatigable. It was a good dance and a better party.
The drunks had already been expelled from the dance floor. They occupied the corners, the doorways. Some old and wiry and buttressed to the walls like integral parts of the barn. Others were still kids, drinking for the first time. They passed little carafes and swayed arm and arm. One hung his head from the barn’s only window and puked.
“Boy, I’m cattywampus,” he yelled while heaving.
Between the drunks and the dancers ran children who dodged or climbed anything that could be dodged or climbed, wild-eyed and yipping tumbling climbing in a seemingly infinite loop.
A banjo kicked in, clucking, out of tune but tucked tightly under the wing of the rhythm. Ladies twirled. Swing your partner, a voice hollered. Young men swung them tightly. Hands on hips or tight little backs. Bold hands trending downward or upward, depending. (Many fathers were absent that night.) Sweat rose from too-hot clothes. Sweet heat mixing. By the fifth dance, most everyone knew whose arms they wanted around them.
When the fiddler stopped sawing everyone cheered and stood panting for a short, hot minute.
Someone called out for a square.
Someone called out for a drink.
Someone called out for a waltz.
Someone called out for a polka and was booed.
During the break, a dance was requested. The requestor had no beard. He asked, palms up, “Meagan, care to dance?”
Black-haired Meagan’s lips pursed. “I’m here with Henry.”
Offense was not intended, the requestor made that much clear.
Palms still skyfaced he said, “Hey Henry. I simply did not know. You know how it is, not knowing sometimes.”
Offense obviously taken. A challenge. Accepted, no other choice. Sleeves were rolled, shoulders squared. The dance floor emptied. Hands shot out nervously trailing hoarse grunts, quick breaths. A girl screamed, sweating all over. Children stood still. The fiddler plucked at his strings. Round sounds decayed. Only the shuffle of feet hung in the air. Fist met chin. Chin met chestnut floor boards, dust sticking to the skin like paint. The sound again, wet and smacking, once twice once more “just to teach you some manners.” It lasted a minute at most. The music kicked up, something quick and devilish, and the whole barn hummed like a box of bees.
My favorite souvenir is usually my most recent, so right now it’s an ugly wool sweater that I bought this fall in Vik, South Iceland. I had been camping in the wind and rain for a week and all of my clothes were wet. So in between hikes, I stopped in Vik and found a sweater store with a wooden sheep-shaped billboard on the roof. The only sweater that I could justify (or really afford) was from the discount rack and had large faux wooden buttons. I bought it and pulled it on before even leaving the store. It’s warm but awfully itchy.