Dancing Lessons

A short story

In June of 1959, on the day before Charles Starkweather was to be electrocuted, my mother went out and bought a Studebaker Golden Hawk. Teenagers were gathering around the Nebraska State Penitentiary, waiting for the lights to dim when 2,200 blue volts went slamming through the murderer's body. I'd been watching them strut back and forth across the television screen from the safety of our living room. They were defiantly hanging off the hoods of cars, slugging beer, their eyes fixed on the prison windows for some sign of Starkweather's passing.

When Lucille, our housekeeper, cried my name, I catapulted off the love seat. I charged through the foyer, fearing that the execution had already happened. I found Lucille standing at the window in the bright green kitchen, wiping her dark hands on her apron as she watched a gold car pull up the drive. My mother was behind the wheel, honking and waving, her scarf billowing out behind her. Lucille placed her warm palms on my shoulders. "Lord, Susan, what your momma got herself into this time?" She squeezed me and chuckled. "Daddy gonna have himself a fit." I pictured my father with a red face, pounding the desk that had once been his father's, or yanking at his tie. It was the only sort of fit I could imagine him having, in the safety of his study behind a closed door.

Then my mother charged into the kitchen through the door to the garage, clutching the car keys in her fist. The kitchen was filled with the scent of mint cookies, my mother's favorite, but she did not seem to notice.

"Girls," she said, "come on." She reached for my forearm and then for Lucille's. She tugged us through the door into the cool garage. The brand-new car sat beside the dusty Chevrolet we'd driven from Chicago to Lincoln the summer before, when my grandfather had died suddenly, leaving the steel company and the house to my father.

My mother opened the driver's-side door of the Studebaker. "Meet the limited-production 1957 Golden Hawk 400," she said. "Without even a scratch." The car was gold-painted, with cream-colored tail fins and a white-leather interior. My mother put her hand on the hood and looked at Lucille. "So, what do you think?"

Lucille didn't say a word. She crossed her arms over her chest.

"Well," my mother said, "do you love it?"

Lucille shook her head. "You don't wanna know what I think, Mrs. Hurst."

"I do so," my mother said. "I always want to know what you think, Lucille. It's very important to me." My mother was always saying this sort of thing. Whenever my mother bought new clothes from Miller & Paine on my father's credit, she pulled Lucille up the pink-carpeted staircase. I'd watch my mother hold dresses with the tags still attached up to Lucille, parading her proudly in front of the mirror, like a ringmaster who had tamed a lion. "Don't you look lovely," she would cry, or "That color complements your dark complexion so well. I don't want it after all. You keep it!" Lucille never seemed to object to these displays of affection, but afterward she would sit in my room and brush my hair while I cracked bubble gum and listened to Gunsmoke, as if she felt she had to make up for something.

"Folks gonna talk," Lucille said cautiously, circling the Studebaker. "You don't do anything halfway, do you?"

"Of course I don't." My mother clenched her fists. "I saw it in the sun off the Cornhusker Highway. I had to have it right then. I came directly home and ordered a taxi. I've never felt this crazy before about anything."

"I love it, Mother," I said. "I think it's beautiful."

My mother turned to me. She crossed her arms. Her elbows looked sharp beneath a silk shirt. "Get in, then, Puggy," she said. "We're going for a ride."

I trotted around the front of the car and opened the passenger door. My mother climbed slowly inside, watching me, and then suddenly stuck her palm out, freezing me where I stood, my hand wrapped around the chrome door handle.

"Take your shoes off, Susan," she said. "God knows where you've been."

I frantically shed my saddle shoes next to the wheel of the Chevrolet and climbed in beside her. The white leather was warm from the late-June sun and as smooth as the inside of a shell. My mother fixed her scarf in the rearview mirror and pulled on her driving gloves. She turned the key in the ignition. The car rumbled to life, and my mother inched it out of the garage. A ray of sun caught the face of my mother's watch and danced over the dash in a happy gold circle. My mother was small and neat, with black hair and smooth tanned skin. The turned-up nose, so unfortunate on my face, lent hers a sprightly charm. I hugged my arm around the flesh hanging over the waist of my skirt. I tried to suck it in. My mother jammed her foot on the accelerator and the car launched backwards. I saw Lucille lift her hands to her face. I heard a honking horn. I turned around. My father was just then coming up the drive on his way home from Capital Steel, but my mother failed to see him, and the back of the Golden Hawk rammed right into the fender of my father's Packard.

Presented by

Liza Ward is a student in the graduate program in creative writing at the University of Montana at Missoula. Her first published story, "Unraveled," appeared in the September 2000 Atlantic. She is at work on a novel.

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