Mercury [story] by Anne Burt

Jack hates the casseroles.

“No one died,” he says, “but still they come pick at the carcass.”

“These are our friends,” I say. Also, Sharon Fink is an excellent cook and the pan she left is big.

“Just you wait,” says Jack. “See if they’re our friends in a month when I still don’t have work. They leave food on the steps. It’s embarrassing in front of the neighbors.”

So what does he expect? That we keep our downfall a secret? Hello! When your firm is Lehman Brothers and its flaming descent is an international sensation that topples an entire economy it’s not like you can pretend you didn’t lose your job.

I peek under Sharon’s tin foil. Lasagna. Yum.

“We’ve been here before,” I say. “We started from here, you and me, we did this in 1988 we can do it in 2008. We know how to start from the beginning. People have blazing comeback stories all the time.” Blah blah. This is my timeworn, tried-and-true Jack pump-up speech. Honed over our entire relationship, one of my great contributions to our success.

But he is bitter now, and the bitterness encases him.

“The people who come back, Vic,” he says with acid in his voice, “are the people who never started from scratch. When they fall they don’t fall like us, they fall onto a big fat mattress with trampoline springs made of money. Trust funds. Family emergency back-up plans.”

This time Jack believes himself, not me, and no matter what I say he just won’t rally.

“Rally!” I yell after I whirl around getting the girls’ lunches ready, send them off on three different school buses all over the entire town of River Heights, New Jersey, and return to the house with him still in his pajamas playing some violent video game.

“Hah hah hah hah hah,” he says.

When people lost people in 9/11 we brought them casseroles. So why is it so wrong that the same casseroles come around to us seven years later? He just doesn’t understand this particular kind of barter. The casseroles are dividends from my investments, just like our money was the dividends from his. I bought stock in the right people so we could live off of my earnings as well as his. Nope, he refuses to get it. He just shuffles around in his pajamas making me madder and madder. Like his work is the only work that counts toward this life we built.

When I met Jack, he was the positive one and I marinated in his can-do attitude. He saw everything in a straight line, everything that hadn’t happened yet but, undoubtedly, would. I signed up and fast.

But now I’m stronger than Jack because my line was always wavy, and twisted, and I learned how to force it into the trajectory of success.

Fundamentally, we are different elements in the periodic table of life. Jack has always been gold. Steady, valuable, shiny, desired without question. Me? Mercury. Useful when channeled properly but without its container, poison. His childhood stories are full of solid decisions, each stacking on top of the next in perfect harmony and balance. Mine are rash and random. But now the straight-line theory of life isn’t working for us. Jack’s solidity has become landfill.

One week, okay. Two weeks, I’m pissed. By week three I’m enraged. Jack is now an island unto himself. The girls zip around him keeping their distance like they instinctively know that actual contact is bad for their souls.

Mope, mope mope. There’s a regret for every situation. Like: If only I had moved to Uruguay. Or in my case: If only I had finished that English Lit paper so Princeton didn’t pull my scholarship. Who doesn’t have egg cartons full of regrets by your 40s? Does it make you special enough to deserve to sit around and mewl over what isn’t? No. Close the carton, don’t look at them, keep them in the back of the fridge, change out of your PJs and do something productive for God’s sake.

What’s the point of inertia? How does it help anybody? Keep moving, I say, and somewhere in everything you do, you’ll find the answer, or at least, an answer. But Jack, apparently, is now inert. Like it’s a disease that his life did not vaccinate him against. I stomp around as loud as possible on the hardwood floors in between our Oriental rugs so he knows how busy I am. He turns up the volume on his murderous video game.

So I stomp over to my stuff drawer in the kitchen, yank it open and riffle through the menus and post-its and coffee-stained receipts until I find Elton Ficarelli’s business card, faded now from seven years of dust and papers sitting on it. I turn it over and his handwriting is still as clear as it needs to be: Anytime you need me.

Oh, I need you, Elton Ficarelli. I need you now.

***

Here was Jack’s youthful philosophy of life: “Oh look! A straight path with no foreseeable obstacles. I shall take this path and succeed. Hooray!”

Here was mine: “Oh look! I see the straight path with no foreseeable obstacles but wait! Look over there! See, there is this other longer path with a really threatening dog with huge dripping fangs waiting halfway down the block. Whatever shall I do next?”

This is not a metaphor. When I was in third grade and still in South Jersey I walked to school and there were two streets to choose from: Dog or No Dog. This moment every morning I paused. Tiny dice rattling in my head. But I always chose Dog. Two houses away I heard it start in his throat, a rumble. He was one of those dripping big-toothed dogs. That sound was his warning shot: I’ll never forget how my legs froze when I heard it.

But here’s the odd thing: it was satisfying to hear it and freeze like that. Kind of a rush, you know? Like: what if my worst fear comes true? Like I could make it come true by choosing that scary street over the safe one. While my legs stuck in place I had this energy all over my body, this blood flow that felt like power.

I found the sweet spot, the border of his territory, by inching forward tiny step by tiny step. The moment I stepped in front of the driveway one house away, the growl became a bark. He leaped! I shot across the street like liquid fire. Shaking, I stared at him from afar as he barked full throttle, fury in his eyes and drool oozing from between his teeth. My escape was epic.

I played with that edge every morning. Turning the corner near Dog Street my heart would explode with the excitement. I didn’t care for it in the afternoon, it was a morning thing, before school and friends and activity and stuff kicked in.

Then one morning he was gone. I walked to the growl spot but nothing happened. Inch by inch—still nothing. I found myself somewhere I had never been before: in front of his house. In silence. I had never noticed anything but him and now I saw: blue metal mailbox. Wooden front door painted white. And across the entire front yard, to the border of each house on either side: explosions of violets. Purple clusters in the green, a spring riot. When had that happened? Up and down the block I looked—no one else had violet explosions, only the dog house. Was this what he was protecting? Did he suspect that little girls would pick his flowers?

As I stood in front of the house the white wooden door creaked open. A lady came out, grey hair pulled back in a bun. She wore something red. She came down her front walk toward where I stood and opened her mailbox to place three letters in it. When she was near me I saw that even at eight I wasn’t much shorter than her. She closed the mailbox—it squeaked—and when she turned she saw me. She got that smile on her face that grownups get when they talk to kids they don’t know, that I probably get with my kid’s friends now, and said “Do you need help with something?”

I forgot about not speaking to strangers, I had to ask. “No…it’s just…where is your dog?”

The smile dropped off her face. “Oh, you knew Poochie? We had to put him down this weekend. 13 years old, the sweetest dog that ever lived. Everyone loved Poochie. I bet you miss seeing him. Everyone does.”

My archenemy was her beloved Poochie?
“He hated me,” I said.
We stared at each other for a while, an impasse across the violets. Her skin looked like a candle that had been burning for a while, dripping folds of white wax.

“You’re wrong,” she said.

This is probably me looking back as an adult misremembering, but in my memory she said it like I was an adult. I must remember incorrectly, who talks to a child that way? We all have kids, we know.

Our family moved away soon after that day, my dad got work in Weehawken and we took school buses instead of walking, so Sean started kindergarten in Union City and never walked the dog street with me once.

Here’s what I wish, though: Those violets. I never again saw so many, and so purple, big saucers clutched into the ground. I wish I had said: “Mrs. Lady, you have the most beautiful violets in the whole wide world.”

***

Jack was my second plan in life. My first plan was all about those violets. Not kidding.

Here’s what happened: At Princeton I took this poetry class. It was too early, like 10 AM, and it was spring, and I remember almost nothing until the end of the class when we finally got around to the 20th century and one poet. Hart Crane. Professor Moore read this piece out loud, about the Brooklyn Bridge. He—Hart Crane—is walking across it and there was this line where he looks up and sees all the arcs of the cables above him and the sailboats and Wall Street. I felt funny hearing this, kind of dizzy in the inner ear, like the poem was buzzing inside me in a dark place. Then Professor Moore pulled out a piece of some other poem where Hart Crane’s thinking about this sailor he is in love with and he writes—I’ll never forget—about the Argosy of your bright hair.

I dug in my backpack for the pocket dictionary Princeton made every freshman buy and I found Argosy. Squinting into the well of my pack so I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of my smarter classmates I read the definition: a flotilla of well-heeled ships.

Oh, that woke me right up. I didn’t know what an Argosy was a moment before, but immediately when I learned that word I thought back, wait, no I didn’t—I felt back to that front yard and Mrs. Lady and this clicked in my mind: An Argosy of violets, sailing through the grass.

How can I explain without this sounding crazy? There I was in this lecture hall and the colors of the room all came into focus. The dark cherry wood chairs with built-in desks, the raked stage with this green podium. Professor Moore, his grey beard not really grey as I always thought before but yellow with blazes of orange and shooting stars of silver and egg-white. Hart Crane’s words make me look up and notice—how could I have missed it before—that the lecture hall was a church, a cathedral, but not of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary and the Apostles: these huge stained glass mosaics on either side of Professor Moore showed a great image of Aristotle, all wreathed and gowned, with millions of tiny plates of green, blue, pink, yellow glass glinting together—and Plato on the other side, winking and blinking with light too. The sun must have been behind Plato that morning—a shaft of light spinning with dust motes bled down to the ground at Moore’s left. I shut my eyes and the dust motes danced behind my eyelids, turning into those dotty purple violets, that Argosy of them.

What was that phrase from the Brooklyn Bridge poem, the one that dizzied me? I turned to my copy of the book and flipped through till I found the page Professor Moore had read from? There it was, that was it: inviolate curve. Inviolate—like violets! I read it again. Not violets, but a seagull, dipping and flying above and around the Bridge. How tremendous words could be—just one could contain a seagull flying over Brooklyn in 1926, a dog put down in 1975, and the day I woke up in 20th Century American Poets ten years later.

I walked out after class behind a small group of the smart ones—those kids who always argued on from the lectures after they were over. Until that day I steered clear of anyone with a whiff of that private school excellence about them, my scholarship status weighing me down around people who seemed so unattainable. I mean, even my parents didn’t believe I actually got into Princeton Freaking University when it happened. High test scores, guidance counselor made me apply, I didn’t even tell them I did it until I got in.

But the smart kids were talking about Hart Crane and I wanted to keep talking too. Hey, we’re going to The Annex, they said. Come with.

The place was dark even at noon; it took several seconds of blinking hard before I could see. I slid into a booth with two boys and a girl from class. I imagined my academic future clearly for the first time: I would major in literature, write my thesis on Hart Crane. We would critique each other’s papers. I would spend the summer taking myself into New York and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to see what he saw. The slice of pizza before me was hot and gooey, glistening with oil and shining with the new colors of my wide-awake life.

“Hart Crane’s language is just so magical,” I said, a bit in love with myself for talking about Hart Crane’s language.

The boy across from me snorted. “You know he was like a total man-whore, he slept around with a million sailors.”

I shrugged. “Great artists, right?” and took a bite of pizza. Too hot, the roof of my mouth seared immediately.

The girl next to me twisted a long piece of her straight brown hair around her finger. “Well the really pathetic thing was that he killed himself. Hurled himself off the side of a boat into the Gulf of Mexico. Like Virginia Woolf, only without rocks in his pockets. His water was deeper.”

Oh. Oh no. How could someone capable of writing “the Argosy of your blond hair,” throw himself into the Gulf of Mexico? The conversation moved on but I was stopped, stuck. Someone proposed blowing off our afternoon classes and then shot glasses appeared on the table. The colors were still brighter than ever but now it was vodka that winked and refracted the light before me. The first shot was fire on my already burnt hard palate. Each one after that was a balm.

“Victoria, you’d better pace yourself,” I remember somebody saying at some point before I lost the rest of the afternoon. That night I ended up in the ER having my stomach pumped.

I must have set a world record for deciding my academic future and destroying my academic future in the shortest amount of time ever.

I was in the hospital for two weeks. It was almost finals, so I had to take incompletes in all my classes. My mother cried by my bed every day and kept asking me: was this a suicide attempt? A call for help? I couldn’t figure out why until I was better and I saw back issues of the Daily Princetonian from the time I was in the hospital – the girl with the long brown hair gave an interview that we had been talking about suicidal writers like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath before I started drinking with abandon and she wondered if I was making some kind of poetic statement of solidarity.

Dumb cow. We never talked about Sylvia Plath.

Here’s what I didn’t tell my parents: The drinking, how it happened. The vodka glistened at me. I know, that sounds completely insane, but I’m being honest here. Beer was stupid, mixed drinks insipid. But straight vodka was like liquid silver. Mercury drops, escaped from a thermometer, beading up and glowing with danger. It was unbearably attractive to me. I think it wasn’t vodka when I drank it but liquefied magnetic force drawn to the back of my throat.

They never told my brothers. At first because they didn’t want to scare them. Then, once it appeared I would be fine, because they realized that the entire incident was horribly embarrassing.

I took my punishment for failing in the form of unpaid babysitting for all of my brothers. Sean was 14 and could have been trouble but all he did was lie in his room with the shades pulled down and listen to The Cure. Maybe he should have been the one my parents thought was suicidal but they didn’t know anything about The Cure. The three little boys screamed and ran around the backyard with the other neighborhood boys and I gave them all the popsicles and bubble gum they wanted.

I was supposed to finish my incompletes. Princeton wasn’t ungenerous. I had till July 15th. But June kept going, then it was the holiday weekend. All I could think about was my paper on Hart Crane. He made me so sad. I imagined him jumping off the side of that boat, right into the Gulf of Mexico where everyone goes now for spring break and floats around on booze cruises with glass bottoms to see the fish slither below their feet. Did anyone float unknowingly over Hart Crane while they were full of booze wooze? Did his bloated body turn like a log to reveal his distended blue-white face smashed up against the glass bottom under somebody’s Topsider, only to roll back again under the deep while the cruise sailed on?

“Your daughter has a rare form of alcohol intolerance,” the doctor told them. “Her body rejects it like an allergy, but we don’t use that term in a technical way for this condition.”

In other words, no drinking or I’ll be back on an IV drip, if I live through it at all. There is no drunk for me, only poisoned.

I felt poisoned anyhow, in my airless bedroom that sticky week in July, poisoned by visions of Hart Crane like a whale in the water. He became a fever dream, a hologram boiling in my blood, in my very cells.

I had to write the paper, I only had a few days remaining. The shouts of my brothers in the yard flew in and out of my consciousness as I sat in front of the blinking cursor of my Apple IIc, the paper like an egg in the center of my forehead that would not hatch.

“Vic, the boys need lunch,” Sean yelled from outside my closed door.

“So feed them, Sean,” I yelled back.

“Not my job,” he yelled before he walked away. Focus on the egg, I told myself. Write from the center, then write a paragraph before, then a paragraph after. Build the paper that way. I made myself dizzy by whirling around that center paragraph and fell out of my chair. Later, Sean said he found me on the floor when he shoved open my door, all pissed off that I wouldn’t make lunch.

Mononucleosis, they told my parents. Nothing to do but rest, she’ll be fine in a couple of months.

“And I thought you snuck into the liquor cabinet and poisoned yourself again,” said my dad.

My mother sighed dramatically. “I’m just so glad we wont be putting you on suicide watch.”

From my fevered state I thought they were hilarious and started laughing but I guess it came out like psychotic burbling on the outside because I remember some hospital person handing me a little cup of blue liquid and then I don’t remember anything for days.

***

Isn’t it odd how all of this led me to Jack?

This was the smell of our first meeting: stale beer, moldy carpet. The entire residence hall at Stockton College became the smell; the rising liquid laughter and the thump thump of the Beastie Boys became the smell.

I sat next to Jack on this couch covered by one of those Indian print cotton spread things that were everywhere in the ‘80s. A broken spring under my left thigh poked at me but I didn’t move because I was the perfect amount of close to him, a calculated amount of close. Murmur close, so he could confide his hopes and dreams. Which he did.

We were 18. Well, actually, I was 20 and he was 18 but I didn’t tell him. Not because I was ashamed to be an older woman or anything, but because I was already starting over after a colossal failure and he was so fresh that night, like wet fruit.

Stockton was his proving ground, he told me at the party. Everyone was playing beer pong but us.

“I don’t drink,” he said, shining at me from under this really beautiful blond hair. This Argosy of hair. “Obviously, I don’t mind it,” as he waved around the room. Only 10 PM and even the walls looked sticky.

I shined back at him.

“I don’t drink either,” I said. Which was absolutely, completely true at that moment.

Of course I confessed my age to Jack once we were dating and even confessed that this was my second freshman year. I am a truthful person. So I fudged the reason a little bit: hey, he didn’t drink!

How could I explain what happened to me that year to someone who looked at alcohol as no temptation at all but as a barrier to success, something to be shunned at all costs? So I focused on my illness—which was true, after all! I did come down with Mono that year and I was in the hospital twice (only once with the Mono but still: true).

It’s like we were meant to be, that what seemed like the waviest line in the world suddenly straightened—pulled itself taut—within ten minutes of sitting next to him at a party. If I hadn’t been devastated by Hart Crane I never would have downed all that vodka. I never would have pulled incompletes and had to work in the summer. If I hadn’t come down with Mono I would have finished my paper and gone back to Princeton. If I hadn’t been sick for two months and missed the deadline to apply to Rutgers, I wouldn’t have thrown in my rolling admissions last-minute application to Stockton just two weeks before fall semester began. The plan I thought I came up with was one year at Stockton while reapplying to Princeton, explaining all the circumstances, come back as a sophomore even thought the people I started with would be juniors, but only lose a year. I was wrong. The real plan was Jack.

I loved being engaged our senior year. It set us apart from everyone. I got looks like I was crazy. Actually, people even said to me: you’re crazy! Well, I didn’t care. We knew what we wanted, so why wait?

Our timing was perfect. Jack got his MBA at Rutgers, then a job with Shearson Lehman in their New York office, and from there it was everything we planned. We moved to River Heights when Melora was two and the other girls came right when we hoped.

No one in River Heights knows I sort-of went to Princeton and almost became a literary scholar. I’ve remade myself with the tools I had left and I used them well. Jack was the best tool in that box.

It’s not like I ever forgot my first plan—it just kind of blended itself into my second plan. Like what happened at that River Heights PTA benefit. I was seven months pregnant with Julianna and two months in our big new house. I stood under these Christmas lights in the Women’s Club, sipping my seltzer with lime. The theme was New York, New York. I joined the decorations committee not because I was a great decorator but because I had figured out that the tastemakers always put themselves on the decorating committee and I needed to spy, to learn what was considered tasteful around here.

Merry Hollister chaired the committee. Her idea was to ask local artists to create their interpretations of New York and hang the canvases around the club, under the criss- cross Christmas lights.

“Then we’ll auction the paintings too and that will be part of the fun and profit!” she said. Merry, I soon learned, thought of herself as a local artist and was always looking for ways to “promote her community.”

“Just because we live in the suburbs doesn’t mean we have less talent than artists living in New York,” was her mantra. “I made a lifestyle choice to live here, a choice that put my family first. Does that inauthenticate my voice?”

Authenticating One’s Voice: big theme among these women. I logged some serious face time with my bathroom mirror practicing saying stuff like “I’m trying to find my authentic voice,” until I was ready to say it in public.

Under those Christmas lights, full of pregnancy, I stared at Merry Hollister’s giant canvas. Her New York dripped gray fuzzy buildings with sizzling yellow for the lit-up windows inside a cloud, floating in the upper left. Then she had a bridge in black and gray diagonally toward the right. When I tilted my head I saw that she meant it to be the Brooklyn Bridge. My Brooklyn Bridge. It spilled right into River Heights which took focus and had Technicolor flowers and trees. I tilted my head the other way. Certainly not geographically correct, as the Brooklyn Bridge does not go to River Heights, New Jersey.

I walked away from the silent auction with Merry Hollister’s hideous giant canvas for $850 of Jack’s money. Merry practically danced the painting into my Honda Odyssey, insisting I was far too pregnant to carry both my baby and hers. Where would I hang it, she asked. Well, I’m just not sure, I said. I certainly could use the advice of someone with an artistic eye who understands her own work better than anyone else could. Of course Merry said she’d be delighted.

This was how I bought my way into tastemaker society and a friendship with Merry Hollister, guaranteeing my acceptance into the right circles. Check! By the time Sophie was born I had a gaggle of Merry-Makers scheduling shifts for bringing us dinners and whisking 2-year-old Julie and 5-year-old Melora off with their own precious babies for afternoons at The Little Gym or the Please Touch Museum.

If you stare at something long enough, especially something in your own house that dominates the wall above your credenza in the dining room, it’s easy to lose yourself in it one way or another. After time, Merry’s vision of New York started to come true for me as well. You stop going in after a while, you know? It seems like there aren’t any surprises left there anymore, once you have the kids and you’re either all thinking about them or if you’re without them you wonder if they’re being good for the sitter and thinking about how the sitter doubles the cost of going out for the evening, thinking about how pissy the kids will be the next day because you’ve left them and they’ll make you pay again, this time with your last nerve instead of your last dollar. The city becomes “then,” or even, after more time: “why?”

***

A few weeks after 9/11 though I went in. By myself. I didn’t tell Jack—he was back at the office, overstressed and terrified like we all were, with the addition of losing so many people at work—the financial industry was a big funeral—but miraculously we didn’t lose anyone we knew really well and somehow, that felt wrong to me, you know? Like, it was supposed to be our tragedy not something we escaped by the skin of our teeth. We were the demographic for it to be our loss. I could have been a widow instead of still having my house, my family, everything. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t some shadow me out there, a doppelganger of myself who was wondering through the ash with Xeroxed photos of my husband from out last vacation—the one at the Sandals all- inclusive family resort with that drink in his hand, the same picture everyone takes on vacation, the same picture every widow and daughter and sister was waving on the news.

I drove to Hoboken and took the ferry. The motor was loud but not loud enough to mask the thwapping of the waves against the barreling front of the ferry, pulling up to 33rd Street but passing those puffs of smoke still choking the air. No towers, the world was upside down. I walked downtown, dazed like everyone else. It smelled charred. And that’s all I did, walk. All the way down to the site, then up to Chambers and around City Hall to the base of my bridge. Hart Crane’s bridge.

That was when I found the studio. I was on Wall Street just walking around and seeing all the fliers everywhere, and smelling that burnt smell that didn’t go away for so long and then I just had to get away, get out, my lungs were exploding.

I needed to be out of it for a minute, to get myself back together, so I pushed open this door and walked in and it was this blond wood floor with mirrors and ballet barres running across the mirrors that made you look sawed in half like a magician’s assistant. And at the bottom of the mirror, lined up all across the floor, were high-heeled silver shoes, pairs and pairs of them. They went from small to large like a police lineup.

The shoes were reflected backwards, behind them, heel to heel, a double row. Just waiting for the feet that belonged to them to step in, right? I could imagine it, this row of women from smallest to tallest, standing there in the shoes. But they were empty. So then the mirror on the side became wavy, and suddenly it’s a door. And this man walked through. He had white hair, really thick like a movie star, but white, so not like a movie star exactly. He was short.

He looked at me and said, “Classes are still cancelled this week,” and I looked at him all confused and said “what classes?” and remember, this was just a few weeks after 9/11 so everyone who was downtown was either looking for proof of someone dead or was an emergency worker and we were all so stunned, you know? So after I said that I could see in his eyes that he thought I was there because of loss. His face sort of fell down so I said, “no, no, I’m not missing anyone,” and I don’t know why, because I didn’t know him but I started to cry.

And then he started to cry too, it was all that raw. We ended up sitting on the floor with our backs against the mirror on the side wall, our heads right under the ballet barre, and sharing our stories about what happened, and who we knew, and he told me that he had opened up this ballroom dance class studio just a year ago and now it would be out of business and his two children were in college. And I told him my three children were really little but I came here because Hart Crane wrote about the bankers seventy-five years earlier and he would never ever have imagined All This and maybe he would be glad he was dead because maybe poetry was dead too. Then we cried some more and he said did you hear that irony has been declared dead so maybe you are right and then we both laughed. A lot.

When we finally stood up we shook hands, and then he walked me over to the reception desk. He was a very elegant man, as you would expect from a ballroom dancer.

He reached behind the counter and pulled out a beautiful glass bottle of clear shimmering liquid.

“Grappa,” he offered. “A fortification we both have earned.”
Of course I couldn’t do it. He handed me his business card as I left the studio: Elton Ficarelli, Proprietor and

Director, Ficarelli Academy of Ballroom Dance. “Anytime you need me, you call,” he said.

***

Everybody gets one sometime. We dodged 9/11. It could have been us, but it wasn’t. This time, it was us. Jack lost his job. And you know when you think of it that way, how can you even for a split second feel sorry for yourself and mopey? It’s worse than suicide because you are alive but acting like you’re dead and when you have three kids and a wife, well….

I never threw away Elton Ficarelli’s card, not after seven years. So I Google “Ficarelli Academy of Ballroom Dance” on Wall Street and of course he had been right, he went out of business. But a gentleman like that: he didn’t seem like a quitter. He knew he was going to fail so he must have had a second plan, right? He did! I find him on 57th Street and 8th Avenue.

Now he is “Elton Academy: Dance Among the Stars” and is sharing the studio with a Belly Dance thing and a Pilates instructor, but I know it has to be him.

Get this: I show up out of the blue, seven years later, holding his old business card and Elton sees me and recognizes me like that. He comes around from the desk and gives me this huge hug, like I’m his long-lost niece. And he can tell right away.

“What do you need, bella,” he asks me. “Elton is here.”
And I say to him: “Elton, I need a job.”
So that’s it! He takes me to the back room in the studio, the storage area. I have to brush through these long scarves with bells on them that jingle—the Belly Dance outfits—to this long shelf and I see: the silver shoes. Still all lined up in a row.

Elton crosses his arms and looks at my feet. I’m serious! Then he goes right to the shelf and picks up a pair.

“Eight narrow, correct?” he says. And he’s right! He can totally size up my feet with a single glance. That’s a professional.

“I’m a teacher?” I ask him.

“Apprentice,” he says. “But I can teach anyone how to dance so I can teach anyone how to teach dance. Bella Victoria, you came to me for a reason. Just say yes!”

So I just say yes.

***

Now I’m working the reception desk, and cleaning the studio, and registering the students over the phone. And life is so crazy right? In 2001, Elton thought the whole thing was over but who could have imagined that Dancing With The Stars would come on TV and be so popular? Everyone wants to take ballroom dance classes! They ask for the dances specifically: tango, paso doble, quickstep, it all depends who’s on TV with the highest score that week.

I’m especially good at getting the customers in the door. It’s an art, really. When the noon Tango class is full you can either let the customers hang up on you and never come back or you can do what I did: I went to Elton and said “we need to start a Tango clinic that is first-come-first-served no reservations and it starts at 12:15. Then I tell everyone who is shut out that I will put them on the waitlist for Tango class but I will secretly keep their names at the top of the super secret non-existent list for Tango clinic so no matter what they will dance if they show up. And no matter what we get paid!” Hah! I created lines around the hall and the Belly Dancers and the Pilates people are jealous of our success! Tango clinic is lead by his teacher trainees so they do it for free because I told him: you make it part of their training, they must each lead 5 clinics before they are “certified” so now at $20 per person and we have room for 20 couples in clinic: boom! $800 more per night than he made before.

Elton loves me.

After class is over, he teaches me the steps. We all have to wear the shoes – the women that is – that’s his signature, the silver shoes. And Elton has a pair too, a women’s pair, please don’t judge him! He straps them on so he can show me how I’m supposed to move. It helps. And I swear to God, I’m going to be good at this. Really good. Scary good.

I have to be back home by 5 so I rush out to get the 4:20 train. Jack thinks I’m…well, I don’t know what he thinks I’m doing. All our lives he was at work all day so he didn’t know anyhow, and now he’s shooting monsters on the video screen when I leave and when I come home. So as long as the babysitter is there after school—we only pay for two hours a day now, a high school girl, that’s where my salary goes, but I need her or the whole thing falls apart.

You have to understand that I’m not a liar. I’m not! It’s more like, well, I know how much new information Jack can handle at a time. So I’m telling him everything, of course. We are married, we tell each other everything! Just not all at once. Bit by bit, that’s what will work. And right now he needs me to be exactly the same person I’ve always been because he is so depressed! The man doesn’t know how to fail so I can’t go off and become a famous ballroom dance instructor or anything until I figure out how to get him to rally. Or we lose the house, whichever comes first, hah, hah, hah.

It’s okay though. I’m on it. So maybe I’m starting at $12 an hour (plus my door cut for Tango clinic) but if I keep the brainstorms coming I swear, I can help build Elton a Dance Empire and the money will flow! I just need to make sure that Jack is back on his feet before I tell him that I’m wearing silver shoes on mine. It won’t be long now, I bet. But for the time being, I told Elton that since he calls me bella all the time anyway that should just be my name at the studio instead of Vic. So I’m Bella the dance instructor-slash-receptionist-slash-cleanup person when I’m at work. Less risk that Jack will find out. I mean, before I come up with the right time to tell him.

You know what else? I really like the shoes.

***

Back when Jack made partner at Lehman Brothers I threw the biggest party!

Would you ever think a shiver would go through your spine listening to a story where the climax is making partner at Lehman? Well it was supposed to be the climax, in my plan.

That night I looked around at our perfect house, our perfect friends and our perfect children and thought: this is my Princeton. I earned it. All these people at my party, the Merry Hollisters, they knew how to be there, they’d been there since they were born. But this I learned and I learned it to perfection. That party was my BA, my MA and my Ph.D. all rolled into one.

***

Here’s one thing though: Violets. We get a few in our yard here and there and yes, I know they are weeds. But when they do show up, never in an Argosy but one or two little lonely ones scattered about, I never let Jack touch them.

“Don’t!” I scream when he looks like he might go near with that giant power mower that he’s so fond of now we’ve let the gardener go. It’s his outside video game.

“Vic, I have to mow the grass. It looks stupid to leave a patch standing up like that.”

“Just don’t,” I say. “Fine,” he says, all pissed off.

I take care of it. I go outside with scissors—no, really, I do!—and cut the blades of grass around the little violets to even the patch out with the rest of the lawn that he’s mowed.

Oh, and I’m good: I do it at night with a flashlight so I don’t embarrass him in front of the neighbors.

 

 

[Refer: Anne Burt writes, “The story itself is inspired by and deeply connected to the poetry of Hart Crane; then, as I was reading your current issue, I felt a powerful resonance with the poem “For the Swan at White Rock” by Robin Turner. The “inviolate curve” of Hart Crane’s seagull flying in “To Brooklyn Bridge” seemed to be reflected in the “…slender neck, each movement-/slow white grace” of Turner’s swan. And the “liquid lining of my vision” in Turner’s poem links to the uses of mercury throughout this story.”]

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story refers to Robin Turner’s poem “For the Swan at White Rock.”]

Anne Burt’s has appeared in Meridian Literary Magazine (2003 Editors’ Prize in Fiction) among other literary publications, and is forthcoming on National Public Radio’s “Hanukkah Lights” fiction series. She is the editor of the essay collection My Father Married Your Mother and co-editor (with Christina Baker Kline) of the essay collection About Face. She received a B.A. from Yale University and an M.A. in Creative Writing from New York University.

Image by Anthony Easton