top of page

Breath & Shadow

Fall 2022 - Vol. 19, Issue 4

"Dancing Machine"

written by

Shauna Checkley

Ruth moved the jigsaw piece about the edge of the puzzle hoping to connect it somewhere. But to no avail. It seemed like the great sea of disconnect before her was unfathomable, an unnavigable cardboard mess.

She sighed. She dropped the jigsaw piece.

She reached for her coffee instead.

Beautiful Simone snatched it with her paw.

Ruth chuckled. For the cat had been outraged by her interest in the puzzle since she began working on it, batting wildly, trying to lay across the puzzle, one bold attempt to run off with a piece in her mouth. Yet just as quickly as Ruth ceased working on the puzzle, the cat lost interest in it as well and trundled away.

The cat’s moniker had changed from Simone to Beautiful Simone. Once Ruth had moved in with her son Terry and began to glory over the seal point Himalayan’s lush looks and truculent nature. It had happened once before. Years ago, when their old family cat, Honey, eventually became affectionately known as Dear Heart, an appellation that stuck with her until she passed and was found stiff under the porch.

Leaning back on the couch, Ruth sipped her coffee. Wonder if Terry will be home for supper tonight? Should I phone him? But she stifled the impulse to phone her grown son. He is an adult after all…Allow him his space…

Terry drummed his thumbs on the Formica countertop. Staring out the huge store front window, he watched as the city traffic whizzed past. He was there alone. His crew were out on service calls. Ross, the crew Boss, had phoned in sick. Someone had to mind his business, Electric Royale. So, he had elected to stay behind and man the cash register and the phone. He preferred it that way too.

Could slip downstairs. Could work on becoming a badass dancing machine.

Nah better not. It’d be just my luck that someone would come through the front door. Somebody like Bob. He pictured the tall, long-necked misfit who was alleged to secretly imbibe while at work in the maintenance department of the city’s largest Catholic high school.  Still, he was fond of Bob. As through drunken incompetence, he had turned into one of his best customers over the years. Mind you, I could always take my phone with me, that’d cover any incoming calls. Nah. Better just stay put.

So, he began to just dance on the spot. Occasionally, he twirled right around. He stopped only to take a pull from his Rock Star drink.

Can’t wait to go to the Casino tonight! Gonna dance, dance, dance…

Alternative dancing had become his passion as of late. Since Jenny left him two years ago, it had become his new focus, his outlet. He attended every concert, any event that allowed him to bust a move. Terry believed it was cathartic after all. It gave him a pastime in a life that had gone awry, that deconstructed one step at a time. He was even surprised to learn on google that there were more dance names than there were names for God.

To others, he may appear drunk or possibly unhinged with his arty dance moves. The graying, balding, middle-aged guy, all alone, but dancing with a feverish intensity that others half his age could scarcely muster. He sometimes noticed that he was given lots of space on the dance floor, ample leeway for the drunken maniac it seemed. But Terry remained non-plussed. He happily took advantage of this proverbial line drawn on the dance floor. Gives me all the foot room I need, to get my dance on…

The phone rang.

“Good afternoon, Electric Royale. Terry speaking.”

It was Bob! Terry marveled silently at what he believed was a synchronicity. God or the universe or whatever really does work in mysterious ways just as is said.

“Could I get you guys to come and check a bay of lights that crapped out?”

“Sure, I’ll make up a work order right away.”

“Thanks, man. Bye.”

“Bye now.”

Ruth then recalled Terry mentioning that he was going to a show at the Casino tonight. That’s right! Sipping the last of her coffee, she decided to just make a sandwich for supper. It will be all that I need.

Still, the whole situation worried her. Terry goes out all the time now, usually several times a week. Ruth knew that this is likely the behavior of any newly single person, Terry being no exception of course. It’s what’s to be expected. Yet she didn’t think he was in search of a mate or even seeking the company of others, beyond that of his old mother. He just seemed only to cherish his own company and that queer way of dancing he had taken such a fancy to. Ruth couldn’t understand it. She had watched him practicing in the basement one evening with that horrible, deafening music, the contortions and sudden leg kicks, arms pumping furiously, violent turn arounds that seemed to her more like martial arts than dancing per se.

Whatever happened to the graceful twirls, beautiful waltz moves by couples passionately linked? It was beyond her. It seemed more indulgent that social that’s for sure. But to each their own. Dancing is harmless after all. There are so many bad things my only child could be into that I should be thankful that he has chosen only to dance away his misery, not lapse into liquor and dope and what have you. Praise God!

Ruth suspected it had a lot to do with the breakup. Terry was much like Roy, her late husband, the Stuart men unable to express emotion but able to speak through bursts of action or activity, nails pounded, cables run from room to room, three generations of electricians now.

She had tried to speak to her son about his feelings over the dissolution of his marriage. And he was able to divulge bits of affect here or there. But he would also rush away once he became teary eyed, shaken. She had learned not to press him on the issue. It’ll come in time. He’ll open about it when he can.

Ruth couldn’t believe that Jenny, his ex, was capable of such deceit. That fresh faced girl with the silky hair and the smokey gray eyes, with the shy, almost faraway manner didn’t seem capable of the intrigues that put her online then back into the arms of some old flame. Earl-whatever-his-name-is. It didn’t seem possible when Jenny dutifully struggled through all the lean years with Terry, working side by side with him to establish their fledgling business. Nor when Ruth saw Jenny consoling girlfriends over strong cups of coffee about their faltering marriages and unravelling lives. Yes, how could it be? Ruth had wondered at length about the whole debacle, especially in those quiet times when she was all alone in the house and marveled at its secrets.

Feeling Beautiful Simone rubbing, Ruth patted her. Wonder why Terry was so adamant about the cat, especially when he hardly seems to notice her? When Jenny left, Terry refused to give up Simone, even threatening to hire the most expensive lawyer in Western Canada to ensure he got custody of the cat, bankrupting them all if need be. Hence Jenny’s decision to leave Simone behind.

Ruth sighed. She never could make sense of the whole fiasco. But she felt the need for the supper sandwich. So, she went to the kitchen with Beautiful Simone at her heels.

Though he would have loved to dance with his eyes shut, Terry didn’t dare because it was a public venue after all. It wasn’t crowded, in fact, the only other person dancing was another guy situated closer to the stage. Someone he vaguely recognized with his long platinum blonde locks and rocker persona. Terry then continued to dance wide eyed at the back of the dance floor.

The Casino Show Lounge was sold out with a mostly older crowd in attendance. Some of the younger fans came in full face paint, emulating their favorite character. The ambience was carnival like with even a smoke and light show. But Terry wasn’t there so much for the Kiss Tribute band. Rather, he just wanted to dance and welcomed any chance to emerge from his basement and into the real world. 

That’s all.

Slight of build, Terry did have a dancer’s physique after all. He wore T-shirt and black Adidas sweatpants. Moving until he could feel sweat building on his brow and upper lip, until he felt his breath occasionally catch, he was elated. It was a workout and therapy all in one. He was glad to be there.

But once the dance floor began to fill up, he toned down his flamboyant moves and stayed and swayed in his own corner. He would pause only to chug down some ice water.

He purposefully kept his distance from women as he believed they represented only headache and drama. Especially this party crowd, he knew. He didn’t even like to stare into the pretty blonde faces for too long in fear of catching a glimpse of his ex-Jenny.

Terry was still reeling from their breakup. Though it had been two years ago, he was impacted as if it had been a car crash or train wreck. An emotional upheaval that he was wont to sort through or make sense of. Why did she do that after twenty-seven years of marriage? I thought those were good years. I never drank or beat her or anything. So, what was the problem anyhow?

Then he recalled the words of Ruth, his mother, who observed, “The grass is always greener…Especially if it’s digital grass.”

Fucking computer! Was she doing that at work or just at home behind my back? He pictured himself walking innocently about while she minimized screens or X’d quickly out, deleted all messages, search history, everything. Did everyone at work know and snicker behind my back? Probably. They are such ungrateful fucks too…Especially Ross…

It was the betrayal as much as the loss that spoke to him with such grievous intensity. But whatever. This is modern love, he believed, a sure sign of the times.

Terry didn’t believe the narrative that human relations were expendable. He saw beyond the lies, shadows, and contradictions of liberalism. He valued marriage. He believed in family. He took his vows very seriously not like others who mumbled the words as they stood hung over and dazed under the bright lighting, nursing both a pounding headache and lingering regret. Rather, he aimed to establish a successful union here on earth that would perhaps follow into the afterlife, something his devout mother referred to.

Swaying back and forth on the dance floor, rhythmically rocking his hips, Terry recalled how he and Jenny first met. It was on the dance floor. Terry had always loved to dance. Jenny too. “So glad that you’re not a cowboy and you’ll actually get up and dance.” Jenny cheerfully noted that first evening. He had bought the white dress pants that were en vogue back in the day especially at Disco Inferno where every slouching male sought to be Travolta like and cool. They smiled shyly at one another. They boogied. And as both had been using borrowed, fraudulent I.D.’s they were promptly ejected upon a police raid. Then they went to a nearby pizza joint. And while sharing fries, they forged a life union. Just for a moment, Terry reveled in the memory but winced as a blundering drunk crashed into him, returning him to the darkened, din of the Show Lounge.

It was Bob. His customer at Electric Royale. Was this synchronicity number two?

“How the fuck are ya!” Bob slurred, sprayed.

Propped up on many pillows, Ruth was in bed watching TV. Beautiful Simone was cuddled in with her. As the evening news was set to start, Ruth refused to watch it, having given up years earlier on the biased media. Bullshit CBC! She pointed the remote control like a gun at the TV, Elvis style, and happily watched it disappear in a poof.

She tried to sleep but began to fret instead. Please Terry come home safe. How can I help him, God? What do I do? She wracked her mind to think of anything she could say or do to heal his wounds. And she marveled at how mother’s never cease worrying over their children, even grown ones like Terry. Eventually, though, Beautiful Simone’s warmth seemingly spread like some invisible current throughout the bed. Ruth felt her eyes go heavy and shut.

When Terry climbed into bed that night, he should have instantly dropped into a deep and mysterious sleep like he usually did. But his excitable, high-strung nature wouldn’t let him easily exit the night’s grand excesses. He shifted about in bed. He still saw the faces of KISS in his mind’s eye. The Bat. The Cat. The Spaceman. The Lover.

Staring deep into the darkness, Terry yearned for sleep. Even though tomorrow was Friday, and one could always flounder through one botched day at work, he still hoped for a decent night’s sleep. Shouldn’t all that dancing have knocked me out? You’d think as much…

But his mind had returned to its central dilemma. It was where he was stuck, spinning his wheels.

Terry had been overwhelmed by the gap between his weaknesses and his desires. He was a vulnerable soul who only wanted his wife and his life back. Specifically, he wanted that invincible sense of purpose and belonging to return as it was before or in some acceptable facsimile thereof. That’s all. But he also knew that that wasn’t likely to happen. I can dance for all eternity and she’s never coming back.

Goddamn that Earl guy who took her from me, who took my whole life in fact. It shouldn’t have happened, though he knew it was happening in droves these days as online cheating had become the thing of things. Hmmpf. Earl was her old high school sweetheart that she had reunited with on Facebook. It figures! And soon the song Goodbye Earl began playing non-stop in his frazzled mind. The Dixie Chicks, those perky Chanteuse’s, cooed “Earl had to die/”

Terry chuckled in the growing dark.

But then another realization struck. That’s why I moved mom in here, rushed her out of her own place when perhaps she wasn’t even quite ready to go. He winced at the thought. How selfish of me! That wasn’t exactly right. He felt his flaws as certain as if they were prickles or thorns.

Still, he assured himself that his mom was happy here. All things considered of course. Besides she was older now and he could watch over her better if she lived right with him.

The next day at work was an uneventful one. Customers came and went. Ross and the rest of the crew were out on calls. Terry found himself alone and waiting, drinking his Rock Star, anticipating as ever.

But what exactly was he waiting for? He didn’t know. Though his life had not ended, it had certainly stalled, faltered, like a dance miscue.

He was reminded of Ross from his work crew. Ross the inveterate jogger, who continuously set new and higher running goals for himself. But for what? It was an intangible that could never be reached like the snake chasing and swallowing its tail.

Am I like that too? Just maybe…

He balked at the thought. He knew that he wouldn’t let go of his dancing. He enjoyed it too much. Besides, he believed dance, like laughter, heals the wounds inflicted by reason and life. It was the necessary and perfect antidote to misery in fact. Eventually, he hoped it would heal the Jenny wounds, the open sores of living that fester below the surface until breaking out and bringing an untimely malaise over everything.

He took an extra big gulp of his energy drink and felt his system suddenly kick in. Probably getting buzzed from drinking too much of this shit. Maybe I should cut back?

But then Bob walked in.

“Hey my man.” Bob said

“Heya.” Terry said

“So how did you like the show the other night?” Bob asked

“It was fun.”

“Yeah, from what I even can remember of it.” Bob joked

Both men laughed.

Then Terry asked, “So how can I help you today?”

“I need a motor for a water pump. Standard size should about do it.”

Terry nodded. Then he disappeared into the back room.

Several minutes later, Terry returned and handed Bob a box with the motor inside. He had folded the cardboard flaps in to make it appear new, though it was a used unit that he was passing off for new. Hate to rip a buddy off, Terry thought, sadly. But what can I do? Business is sluggish. I had to remortgage the house when she left, just when house prices were at an all time high. It’s been so hard to recoup all that I’ve lost.

He faltered at the cash register. In a flash of conscience, he considered returning the used motor to the back room. No, it’ll look odd if I suddenly do otherwise. I’ll try and do better next time. It was something that he had been telling himself often as of late.

He proceeded with the sale. After ringing up the purchase, they chatted.

“These days I’m restoring a classic car I found abandoned in a field.” Bob said

“Oh, what kind?”

“A ’67 Beaumont. It’s not even in that bad of shape really.” Bob said

Terry listened with rapt attention as Bob recounted his mechanical misadventures. He soon forgot the moral qualms he had felt moments ago.

When Bob finished his story and turned sideways like he was ready to go, an idea occurred to Terry.

He grinned broadly. “Hey buddy I wanna show you something.”

Bob followed Terry downstairs. They went into an empty room that had a disco ball light overhead and was set up with speakers and a sound system.

“This is my dance studio. Sometimes when things are slow, I practice down here.”

Bob stared.

They went back upstairs.

“Yeah, I really got my dance on these days. But hell, everybody needs a hobby. And who knows someday I could even run for office. Become the dancing Mayor or some crazy thing.”

Bob stared deep into Terry’s face. His lips twitched like he was holding back saying something. Then finally he said, “I gotta go now. See ya.”

“See ya Bobby.” Terry called as the man strode out the front door.

After supper that evening, a thrown together sort of hash, like his mother had scraped out the contents of the fridge into the frying pan, they went their separate ways.

Terry thought about going to the mall to play Dance Dance Revolution. But he remembered it was a Tuesday night and bound to be extra busy there, so he decided against it.

Instead, he retired to the basement as ever.

Ruth intended to read her Bible before her favorite program started at 8 p.m. As she heard him crank the music, she felt a flutter of fear tickle down the back of her neck. What is all of that about anyhow?

She set her Bible aside. She considered praying for her son.

But then it came to her! Eureka! Epiphany-like. Thank you, Jesus, holy one. Through the misty recall of memory, she remembered a far away time when Terry was twelve, a happier, easier era for certain when they all lived in the old Cavendish Street home, the original family residence and she taught her thin, wiry son with the huge feet how to waltz. It was a fun time. One they laughed about in fact for years afterwards.

Not even exactly certain what she was going to do, Ruth hustled down the stairs into the basement. Beautiful Simone weaved in and out of her legs as she took each step, aggravating Ruth to no end and making her lightly curse under her breath. Shit.

Terry looked up and smiled. But he kept dancing.

Ruth turned the music down to a more tolerable level.

“Son, let’s waltz like back in the old days.” she said

Terry ground to a halt. His face lit up like a thousand shining disco balls.

Then with outstretched arms he received her and they two stepped happily along. Fox trot. Everything.

Shauna Checkley lives and works in Regina, Saskatchewan Canada. She is a long-term employee at Regina Public Library and enjoys writing and cat rescue.

bottom of page