BY SHEILA HORNE
Copyright is held by author.
SHE HEARS the band start to play after a 20-minute break. The singer goes into a version of “All of Me” imitating Billie Holiday but doing a bad job of it. Soon the girls will be back on the dance floor and men will line up to give them their tickets. “Ten cents a dance, save another for me,” they’ll say and hand them two.
For the fourth time that night she applies lipstick. Tangy Orange the shade is called. The cosmetic saleswoman said it was just the thing she needed. It suited her and no man would be able to resist it.
“Including him over there,” the saleswoman had pointed to a man at the other end of the store. “And he doesn’t like anyone.”
Another shift at Cyril’s Dance Hall finished. Natalie hates it. But no matter which way she looks at it, she knows she’s lucky. She has a job. The Depression hit her hard. It hit everyone hard. The factory shut its door months ago leaving the people who depended on it broke, some homeless. Yet the men always seem to find a few dollars to spend on whisky and women.
Cyril barges through the dressing room door. “Natalie, where the hell you at?” He adjusts the red carnation pinned to the lapel of his grey suit and tries to look like he means business. “Gladys gone home sick, so get yourself on the dance floor.”
“Someone needs to put a lock on that door,” Natalie says. She takes the flower out of her hair and throws it on the dressing table. If that’s what you can call a piece of wood on top of two boxes. “Sorry, Cyril, shift’s over.”
“What I tell you, nine girls on the floor. One girl out, someone got to pick up the slack. Now get that nice ass of yours out there.”
“Not this time, Cyril. I’ve got a train to catch.”
“You know the rules, always nine girls.”
She rests a leg on the chair, runs her index finger down the seam on her stocking and glares at Cyril. “Give a girl a break, will you.”
“I give you a whole lotta breaks. If you ain’t happy here, plenty good-looking dames wanting to take your place.”
“Yeah, and like they stay.”
Cyril takes a handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes his face. “Take this any way you want. No more warnings, next time you up shit creek.”
“You’re forgetting something.” She turns to face him, stretches out her right hand, palm up and wiggles her fingers. “It’s Tuesday, pay day.”
Cyril reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of money. He counts out a few bills and throws them on the dressing table. “Why you got to be so . . . so tough?” He grabs her by the waist and pushes his body up against hers.
Natalie steps on his foot with her heel, pressing hard enough for him to feel it. He releases her. “Why you can’t be sweet like them other girls?” he says.
“I am sweet, Cyl, but a lady has to look out for herself.” She picks up the money and counts it. “You know what I mean, don’t you.”
She watches Cyril breathe in, inhaling the smell of her. She knows she drives him crazy. She knows he’s wanted her ever since she walked into the dance hall a year ago and asked for a job.
He takes a strand of her hair and twirls it around his finger. “He ain’t gonna, ya know. He never gonna.” He lets her hair fall to her shoulder. “I know him better than anyone, known him for a long time. And you just another dance girl, that’s all you is to him, that’s all you ever gonna be and all he ever gonna want.”
“It don’t matter to him, and I’m still respectable,” Natalie says.
“Respectable as hell.” Cyril laughs then turns serious. “Looky here, sweet potato pie, the depression turn us all into the wrong kind of folk, make us do things we think we never do. I know you a nice girl trying to feed your family, but that not gonna make no difference to him. To him you the same as all the others.”
“I ain’t no dance girl.”
“Ah, you got no sense,” he says and waves her away. “I don’t need the likes of you. I got a room full of girls all wanting to keep their jobs. They’d do anything I ask them.”
Before he closes the door Natalie throws her silver dancing shoes at him. Not because she wants to hit him. She’s hoping somehow by magic they’ll disappear. Every time she puts them on it’s one more night in a dreary, dusty hall with blown-out light bulbs. And the ones that work don’t give off much light. Too cheap to replace them, Cyril places lit oil lanterns around the room. Every time she puts on the shoes she prays she’ll lose a heel or snap a strap or the sole will peel off. Cyril forced her to buy them, told her they’d make her dance like nobody’s business. She’d make the money back in no time. Liar. Up to now she hasn’t. She hates them and Cyril more than she hates the rough hands of the men on the dance floor. The way their sweaty bodies seem to penetrate through her dress to her skin. The smell mixed with their cologne makes her want to vomit.
When she’d mentioned she didn’t want to spend the money on shoes, she could wear her own, Cyril said, “But sweet potato pie, shoes make a girl. You show up every day in them broken-down things.” He’d pointed to her brown boots in the corner. “You look plain, but you put on them dancers and you a real beauty. You want to be a beauty, don’t ya? You want men to want you, don’t ya? You want to make money, don’t ya?”
He’d run his hand down her ass. She’d slapped it and he’d shrugged and walked away.
Now she slips on her royal-blue high heel shoes — wowza, they’re sexy — and checks her face in the mirror. Satisfied that the lipstick will do everything the saleswoman said it would, she picks up her bag and opens the door.
The sun is above the horizon as she gets off the bus. A man standing outside the railway station with a sign around his neck says, “No job, no food, five to feed.” Natalie points to the soup kitchen down the street. “They’ll help you,” she says and walks into the building. The early-morning trips are the one drawback to making the trek from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, New York twice a month. But being early is the only way she can get her favourite seat by the window. She likes to watch the long shadow of the train on the grassy fields or look out at the sky or the river in the distance peeking between the trees. It’s her alone time. She doesn’t get much of that at home. Not with a farm to run, a grandmother and two younger brothers to care for. But once she sits down in the train it’s a different story.
She’s been making the trip for a year now. It’s what Anton wants, and Anton gets whatever he wants from her. Besides, he gives her a nice time; buys her an expensive dinner and then breakfast before she makes the trip back to Niagara Falls.
She’d met him at the dance hall. He liked her, bought nearly all her tickets so he could dance with her the whole night, and he’d put out a lot of money buying her drinks. Cyril was pleased. Anton is a good friend of his, both from the same part of the south. Cyril never says it, but he likes when the girls allow those suckers, as he calls the men, to move their hands under their dresses or down the front. Yeah, she’d let Anton feel her ass and boobies while they danced. He was the only one she’d allowed to touch her. Not because of Cyril. She has her own plans. Anton has a good job as a salesman. He could take her away from her life making money only to have to spend it feeding her family. He could help with the farm. But things are moving too slow. You’d think by now he would want to marry her and have her with him all the time. But it seems he likes the way things are. But on this trip all that is going to change.
By late morning the train arrives in Buffalo. Anton had said the hotel where he usually stays was booked solid. He’d found a smaller one farther down the road. She would have to take the bus.
On her way to the bus stop Natalie walks past a group of men doing nothing but leaning against a building and smoking. She sways her hips to give them something to make their day. She can’t help herself. It’s the blue shoes. They put her in the mood to be a tease. And by the way the men are staring at her it’s working. She knows they’re imagining having her in their beds. She wonders if they’d be like Anton and insist she wear the shoes. He bought them for her, told her they were expensive and he wants her to wear them whenever she meets him. She loves them only because they remind her of him. She hates them because they’re a reminder she’s not getting what she wants.
Natalie gets off the bus and puts down her bag. Hotels and rooming houses line both sides of the street. When she’d shown the bus driver the address Anton had given her, he told her she still had a bit of a walk. She didn’t expect it to be that far from the bus stop. If she had known, she wouldn’t have worn the slinky dress that is now sticking to her. And she would have taken off her garter belt and stockings. She can feel the hooks on the belt digging into the flesh of her thighs. She’d have changed into the old shirt and overalls she’d thrown into her bag just before she left the house for the dance hall. And she wouldn’t have worn the shoes. She’d have put on her boots. They’re nowhere near as nice as the blue shoes but they’re soft and comfortable—she loves the feel of them on her feet. Those boots and the overalls are more her than anything else in the world. But Anton not only wants her nice and tidy, he wants her sexy.
She picks up her bag and starts towards the hotels. Some are shabby, some nice and clean. She hopes he chose one of the clean ones, but with him being a first-time customer, they might not give him a day rate and he won’t pay for a week. He hardly stays in one place longer than a day. Finally she spots it. From a distance it seems okay, but as she gets closer it’s nothing but a run-down building with weeds sticking out of the holes in the gravel parking lot. A sign in the front window says, ‘Hourly rates, sign in.’ She stops. No way is she going in to ask for him. No way is anyone going to look at her like she’s street trash. She’s about to turn around and head back to the train station when he calls her name. He’s standing at the side of the building watching for her.
“Trip okay?” he asks.
She fakes a smile. “Fine.”
Anton takes her hand and leads her down the hall. He opens the door to their room. It’s not as bad as she thought it would be. It’s not good either. At least there’s a ceiling fan keeping the place cool. And for once there’s an attached bathroom.
“Sorry about the place,” he says. “But it’s all I could get.”
He hugs her. She holds on to him and kisses him. He tastes good. He always does. Then he takes off her clothes, leaving her wearing only the red garter belt, her stockings and the blue shoes. And she forgets everything she planned to say to him.
Later, he goes to the front desk and returns with two coffees. Natalie takes a sip. It’s more like water than coffee. It’s another thing she hates about cheap hotels. They can’t afford the good stuff. She puts down the cup and watches Anton light a cigarette. He might be handsome if he got rid of that black line above his lip that he calls a moustache, and if he lost some weight. Not that he’s fat, just a little too flabby for her liking. She’ll change all that the minute they’re married. A few hours on the weekends working on the farm and he’ll grow some muscle. She wonders what it’ll be like to be his wife. If he’ll always be a happy sort of fellow, the way he is now? Will he expect her to change? Not that he mentions her hair or her breasts or her slimness. But being a businessman, and a decent man, those things probably aren’t important to him. Not the way they are to Cyril.
“We got a radio,” he says, “switch it on.”
Natalie leans over and plugs it into the wall. The man on the radio is talking about Germany and somebody named Hitler. The man on the radio doesn’t like him. He says he’ll cause another world war.
“Find another station,” Anton says.
Natalie fiddles with the dial until she gets to one playing Glen Miller’s “In the Mood.” Anton leans back, takes a long drag on his cigarette and smiles. “Wowza, wowza! This song full of Joellee,” he says. “I take her dancing.” He laughs. “How that woman could move. This song make her want to fornicate right there on the dance floor, and if it’s one thing my Joellee could do is screw like a rabbit.” He laughs again, then stares in front of him with a big grin on his face. “Too bad she not around no more.”
Natalie freezes. It’s the first she’s ever heard about someone named Joellee. Over the year she’d heard about a Beatrice and someone he called Kitsy. But he’d never said he wished they were still around. All he ever did was scowl and say, “They made my life hell.” This Joellee sounds like a different story.
Natalie feels a headache coming on. “How come you not still with Joellee? Why you here with me?” she asks.
Anton rolls over and kisses her on the cheek. “Cause you like a mink,” he says and taps her affectionately on the nose. “You like a pretty little mink.”
Natalie jumps out of bed and pulls her dress over her head. She walks into the bathroom, turns on the tap and lets it run. She stares at herself in the blurred mirror, glad that she can barely see her reflection.
“Hey, why you taking so long?” Anton asks.
Natalie picks up his comb and pulls it through her dark hair. “Did you buy Joellee shoes?”
“Red ones,” Anton says. “She like red.”
Natalie hears him laughing. “She a red girl,” he says.
Natalie plops down on the toilet and looks at the blue shoes. They aren’t nice or sexy at all. In fact they’re the ugliest shoes she has ever seen. She takes them off, walks into the other room and picks up her bag.
“Where you going?” Anton asks.
“Home to the farm, where I belong.”
“Why? You mad about Joellee? She don’t mean nothing to me, she was just Joellee.” He flicks an ash from his cigarette on the floor. “And you got no shoes on. Why you not wearing them?”
“They’re nothing but a rotten pair of no-good shoes,” she says.
“You can’t walk down the street with no shoes, girl. Everyone think you one crazy little mink.”
“I’m crazy all right. I’m crazy for coming here month after month. I’m crazy for thinking the things I think.”
“All right, do as you please, but I gonna be here till tomorrow morning.”
“I’m not coming back. Not ever.”
The same men are leaning against the same building. They’re still not doing anything but smoking. They watch her. Except her hips aren’t swaying. This time they’re not imagining her in their beds. This time they’re staring at her bare feet and the blue shoes in her hand.
On the train she throws them on a seat, opens the window and sticks out her head. The train doesn’t leave for another twenty minutes. That means it’s going to be dark by the time she gets off at Niagara Falls and takes the bus to the farm outside of Lewiston. Her grandmother doesn’t expect her until tomorrow night after she finishes at the dance hall. But what if she doesn’t go home? What if she goes wherever the train travels and gets off at the last stop? Maybe it’ll be New York City. Maybe she’ll move there. Enroll in one of those fancy colleges she read about. Buy a new hat and shoes, not boots but good shoes that don’t make a girl cheap. Maybe the train will go to Florida. Anton said it was nice there — lots of sunshine. She could eat oranges every day and get all tanned. Maybe meet a nice man, a loyal one who didn’t have a Joellee and wouldn’t be a nasty Cyril. The family could starve but she isn’t going back. Not to the farm and especially not to Cyril’s. She’s done with all that. Cyril will be mad being left with only eight girls. Let him go right ahead.
It’s her brother Walt’s turn to make the money. He’s 15, old enough to get a job and start feeding them. She’s been working for two long years. Ever since her parents left them with their grandmother, telling them they’d be right back. The next thing, she had to quit school at sixteen and get a job at the factory in Lewiston. When it shut down a year ago she ended up at Cyril’s. No. She’s never going back. No more boots or silver dance shoes. She takes her boots out of her bag and looks at them. She’ll miss them. And she’ll miss the dancing shoes. They’re the best thing she’s ever had. Sometimes when a flicker of light from one of the lanterns hits them, they sparkle like a diamond. She likes that. She might even miss Cyril. Now that she thinks about it, he’s not so bad. She doesn’t mind the ass slapping and him calling her sweet potato pie.
She picks up the blue shoes and puts them on, turns her feet this way and that way. They make her feel sexy, important, the way Anton does. She’ll miss the way he says, “Wowza, wowza, girl, look at you in them shoes,” then calls her a little mink. They aren’t scuffed like her boots or rotting or full of dirt like the ones she wears on the farm.
She’ll also miss the dinners and breakfasts with Anton. There won’t be anything to eat when she arrives at the farm tonight. If there is, it won’t be good. At least not like she’d get with Anton. How she loves a nice meal and the way he makes sure she eats everything on her plate. She’ll miss all the fuss he makes over her. And the blue shoes aren’t bad. They’re pretty. Pretty like her, like a little mink. And they feel good on her feet. Righter than they’ve ever felt. She buckles them up, picks up her bag and steps off the train.