The Last Mambo

I hated school dances, and somehow I always wound up going to them with someone I didn’t know very well. There was no way of getting to know girls at dances. The music was too loud, for one thing, and conversation had a way of doubling back on me.

“Clever how they’ve hung the crepe paper,”I’d hear myself remark.

“I-I’m sorry?”

“I was just saying, ‘CLEVER HOW THEY’VE HUNG THE CREPE PAPER!’ ”

This wasn’t helped any by my habit of planting my dates directly in front of the bandstand. “This way,” I’d say, staring up at Sal Fasalbo and His Pennies From Heaven, “we can get the full effect.” Then, when the music demanded a dance step I couldn’t handle, I’d pretend to be overwhelmed by the sound and just stand there, snapping my fingers.

Dancing never seemed to me to have anything to do with anything. Nobody got out on the floor to interpret spring, or make rain, or keep in shape. Body contact was about the only motivation I could think of, but none of the really flashy steps called for any. There were those who claimed they danced to get in touch with the music, but who wanted to get in touch with Sal and His Pennies, or Biff Tempter and the Tantrums, or any of the other bands that played our school?

All our dances had themes—Harvest Moon, Big Top, Roaring Twenties— which had to be carried through to the last decoration. Nobody thought it would be a good idea just to dim the gymnasium lights and dance. I was Class Artist in the ninth grade, and I was always getting talked into working on decoration committees. I wouldn’t have minded this, but the committees were poorly funded and headed by a perky girl with Olympian expectations.

“I don’t know how you guys feel about it,” she’d tell us, “but I want this to be the best dance they’ve ever had at Eastern. I’ve got it all pictured in my mind. It’s gonna be Winter Wonderland this time, right? So what we’ll do is build a whole town. Kind of an Alpine town. Then we build this chimney around one of the ropes and Craig can dress up as Santa and come sliding down. And I know where we can get a real sleigh, too, and maybe even some reindeer, and I have a cousin who’d love to lend us some trees, and we can rent some stars and hang them from the ceiling and they’ll just twinkle in the light and it’ll be so exciting.”

But sooner or later she would come down with something and disappear, and with her would vanish every hope of reindeer and starlight, and we’d have to make do with construction paper and thirty feet of streamers, two rolls of aluminum foil, and a box of crayons.

Working on decoration committees did have its pluses, however. I was less terrified of girls when I worked with them on something. Conversation progressed naturally, and I could crack jokes without choking up. Among the girls I worked with—I was often the only boy on the decoration committee— was the Class Beauty, a high-spirited girl named Beth Wysock. “Wysock” seems an awkward handle at this remove, but at Eastern Junior High School it was a melodious sound, uttered with awe and longing.

Beth was hardworking. She stayed with me through long afternoons of foil-slicing and paper-pasting, and she seemed to enjoy my company. So much so, in fact, that I began to entertain a crazy notion: that Beth Wysock might agree to go with me to the Ninth Grade Prom.

The idea snowballed into a kind of test I had to take if my life was going to mean anything. I wrestled with it for two days and nights, asked her out a hundred times before my mirror, tried every conceivable phrasing, anticipated every possible response, until I could hold it off no longer.

What seemed to have attracted her to me was my sense of humor, so one afternoon I pulled out all the stops. I did Jonathan Winters routines. I impersonated Cagney. I did Chaplinesque things with the paper cutter. I put Ping-Pong balls in my socks and limped around the room. I had her laughing so hard she was doubled over, begging me to stop, and it was then, when she was my slave, that I asked her.

“So,” I said, sobering suddenly and bowing, “how about if you and I went to the prom together?”

Perhaps it was the deadpan delivery, perhaps it was the little bow, perhaps it was the way my face twitched when I spoke, but this last gag was without doubt the funniest thing Beth Wysock had ever heard. She actually fell out of her chair laughing, and sat for several minutes, tears streaming down her perfect cheeks.

I wound up, again, going to the dance with someone I didn’t know well. Beth Wysock went with Peter Watteau, the best dancer at Eastern Junior High School. Peter Watteau was, in fact, so socially precocious that some suspected he was a midget who had sneaked back to school in pursuit of a second chance. He wore ties and jackets and seemed to be free of shame, uncertainty, and blemish. Tucking his chin against his throat to lower his voice, he was capable of saying anything, from “Good day, gentlemen” to the boys, to “You’re looking very lovely today, Janet” to the girls, or in this case to the Janets.

It was customary, during each dance, to clear a space so everyone could stand around and watch Peter Watteau and his dancing partner demonstrate the samba, the bop, the gavotte, whatever happened to be making the rounds. I didn’t like Watteau, but I would stand around with the others and watch him mambo if it meant not having to dance, not having to talk, not having to do anything.

I usually tried to kill time at dances by fetching punch. My date for the Ninth Grade Prom, a prim, dumbfounded girl who was my alternate homeroom representative, downed seven cuploads before the evening was old. “Isn’t it delicious?” I exclaimed as she drained her Dixie Cup. “Here, I’ll get you some more.” Before she was finished swallowing I’d be back among the dancers again, excusing myself along a weaving route to the punch bowl.

Late in the evening the band struck up a mambo, and a circle formed around Watteau and the unreachable Beth Wysock. Watteau lived for these moments. He had a move for every beat of the conga drum, every hiss of the maracas. Beth played a secondary role, dancing pretty much in place as Watteau did his business around her.

Everything went smoothly until a rowdy, held-back youth named Merenski decided he had had it up to here with Peter Watteau, broke into the circle, and began to cha-cha menacingly around him. Merenski’s Brylcreemed friends, who lived in stucco houses along the river and stuck together like brothers, began to hoot from the sidelines.

“Hey, now,” one of Watteau’s colleagues called out, “let’s not spoil everybody’s fun.” But this only seemed to fan the flames; all through the gym, Industrial Arts majors began making lewd suggestions.

Center stage, Beth Wysock had sensibly melted into the crowd, leaving Watteau mamboing in the spotlight. Merenski began to veer in close, pursing his lips and making kissing noises and having a wonderful time. “Whoa there, friend,” we could hear Watteau say in a faulty baritone. “Let’s take it a little easy there.”

But Merenski didn’t seem to hear him, and finally came up behind Watteau and lifted him off the floor. Watteau offered no resistance and grinned rigidly, as if he were part of the prank. The band raggedly stopped playing, but Watteau kept his feet moving, and in the few silent moments he was carried around like that, still mamboing into the air like a dancing doll, Peter Watteau was ruined.

“Hey, everybody,” he said as Merenski walked away in triumph. “Let’s really do some dancing!” But his hands shook and his voice broke and everyone turned away.

The rest of the evening was a letdown. Refusing punch and marching away from the bandstand, my date demanded that we dance two numbers. My parents were late picking us up and I had to stand with my quenched date in the parking lot for almost an hour, declining rides from chaperones. Still, the Ninth Grade Prom is the only dance I remember with any pleasure. Beth Wysock went on to girls’ school, but Peter Watteau didn’t go on to much of anything. By the twelfth grade he was reduced to crashing sophomore CocaCola parties and making passes at girls who were two years his junior. “Say, Helen,” he once said to my sister at one of these affairs. “I admire your spunk.” □