Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Another labor strike had ended. The Local 563 Paper-Workers’ Union had rolled the dice and come up a winner. To celebrate, my folks threw a potluck: piping-hot casseroles, homemade bread, and crock-pots of beef and cheese with tortilla chips for dipping. There was ham, roast beef, and chicken. There was sweet tea, Pepsi, Sprite, hot chocolate, coffee — and beer. Dad’s union brother George pulled a cooler to the edge of the bonfire, slung it open, and thrust his forearm into the cold water as if to save someone from drowning. He tossed cold beers to people while he shimmied to the music. From where I sat on a bale of straw, I could smell oak and hops and the tang of sweat. I was ten.
My parents were fine with beer in moderation; both caught the cans George fired at them. They took small sips, smiles appearing on their ruddy faces, as if the beer were an elixir. I was struggling to stay awake, my eyelids heavy. I didn’t want to miss anything, especially the dancing.
The air was brisk, and the nubs of the harvested corn-stalks were covered with hoarfrost. A cassette player blared a Waylon Jennings song someone had recorded from the radio. George hooted at the dark autumn sky as if trying to summon some animal spirit. In the shadowy light I caught the disapproving glances my parents gave each other. It wasn’t that all dancing was bad in their eyes, but it was shameful if you did it like George: with a passion, legs jigging, steps straight out of the Appalachians. Our father wanted my siblings and me to be more than foolish hicks like our great-great-grandfather, who had been run out of Kentucky for unspecified crimes and ended up here in Indiana. But George’s dance fascinated me like nothing else, the taboo sway of his knees and hips. I had seen men dance like this before: at high-school graduation parties or weddings, the graduate or bride and groom children of other union members. I longed to watch and learn.
My two brothers were playing cards, and my two sisters were engaged in a game of hide-and-go-seek in our landlord’s haymow. The bonfire dwindled, and someone tossed on some desiccated tree limbs, planks from old livestock trucks, and the quartered hunks of a downed tulip poplar my father had split nearly a year before. The fresh wood crackled like popping corn, and the flames shot upward. George stood on a bale of straw to declare his love of the union and his undying gratitude to my parents, the Crandells. They looked nervous, probably afraid our landlord might get a call about the noise. My father took a few steps toward George, who by now was drunkenly singing along with the music, but George skittered away around the fire, his elbows lifted from his side like a rooster in midcrow.
There were several families left, and I sensed they were getting ready to go but also wanted to stay and see what would happen. George cantered to the music, blowing kisses to the people around the fire. His wife, Sandra, had gone to sleep in their Camaro hours earlier, her short skirt so tight it constricted her thighs. I thought she was beautiful. I thought George was wonderful, and his dancing was extraordinary, but I could not say so out loud where my parents might hear. I’d never seen my father even tap his toe to music.
Dad finally took ahold of George’s arm and looked at him with pity. George escaped the grasp, waved my father off, and started a slow, rhythmic side step, as if edging around a deep hole no bigger than a dinner plate. An owl hooted in the copse of leafless trees behind us. Cars revved to life, and their headlights passed over the bonfire area, leaving it seeming darker than before. The smell of burnt marshmallows and oily meat filled my nose.
My dad told George he’d had enough to drink. My mother said, “Why don’t you put that beer down, Georgie, and let me take you inside and cook up some scrambled eggs?” But George only danced harder, even after Dad had shut off the tape player. I stretched out on the hay bale and pretended to be asleep, keeping one eye open a bit.
George looked over his shoulder at my father, face full of glee, cheeks afire. I’d never seen a person so drunk, and it was both scary and funny. George’s arms and legs seemed hinged like a stringed puppet’s.
As the few remaining couples dispersed, Dad gave my mother a nod and then cut his eyes toward me. She stood up and tugged on my jacket sleeve to tell me it was time to go to bed. When we reached the steps of our rented farmhouse, I glanced back at the fire and saw George silhouetted like a cutout against the flames. Then Mom tugged me inside, and my siblings and I all washed up and went to our rooms.
Later I crept to the stairs to eavesdrop on Dad telling Mom that George had passed out. “Makes a fool of himself with that hillbilly dancing,” my father said. He slurped some coffee; I could smell his Salem Light. I knew we were sort of hillbillies, too. My mother’s father was a coal miner who had died of black lung at sixty-seven. Dad would tease my mother that they had barely made it out of Vigo County themselves before the mine sucked them down. It was a joke but also a warning. He was fastidious and shaved twice a day, kept Scope mouthwash and Mitchum deodorant in his truck. He insisted my siblings and I keep ourselves and our clothes clean. Dad told Mom he wouldn’t invite George again if he was going to act “that way.”
I slowly made my way back to bed, already missing George. He’d seemed happy while he was dancing, as if he’d been drunk not on beer but on the music. I would even have said I loved George, but I’d been told a few months earlier that it was wrong to say that about a man: Another of Dad’s union brothers, Monty, had stopped by our house to talk union business. I liked the way Monty’s bad teeth made him look like he was pouting. He made excellent paper airplanes and could gargle water and talk at the same time. After he left, as we ate our chipped beef and gravy over white toast for dinner, I told my family that I loved Monty. Dad perched his cigarette carefully in the ashtray and said, “You don’t love him, Son. You admire him. You respect him.” As he picked his cigarette back up, shame warmed my cheeks.
When I was fourteen, I took a job on another farm, scooping manure and bedding hogs with straw, often on nights when the temperature fell near zero. George worked there, too — a second job for him — and he became my ride to work. On the twenty-minute drive George would smile that gap-toothed grin and crank up Hank Williams on his Kenwood cassette deck. He’d splurged on an amp and big subwoofers behind the seat that gave my back a massage. George provided me with cigarettes and cans of Mountain Dew, and by the time we reached the farm, I believed I could do any job there was, as long as he was my partner.
While we spread straw in the hog pens, George showed me the “flatfoot two-count,” a seemingly simple move called “step dancing,” and something named the “kickin’ Alice.” For the first time I was aware of a brighter side to my hillbilly ancestry. I hadn’t come from a culture that was just endless toil. I was part of something joyous, too.
We were doing the flatfoot to a song on George’s boom box when my dad showed up unannounced. A circuit breaker had been tripped at the factory, and everyone had been sent home early. Dad stood silently under one of the hewn-timber beams, smoking. George saw him first.
“Just about done, Dan,” George announced to my father, and he poked me in the ribs and flashed that smile. I stopped dancing, too.
Dad walked over to George’s boom box and turned it down, then waited for us to finish the job. On the ride home, Dad instructed me to avoid distractions and focus on my work. At a four-way stop he asked if I understood. I nodded. The eyes of deer in a dark field reflected the truck’s headlights back at us, and the music from George’s boom box echoed in my head. We rode the rest of the way home in silence, the radio off, as usual.
Seven years later, to pay for college tuition, I got a job at the ceiling-tile factory, working alongside George, who taught me more dance moves. George was fond of calling me “Baby,” and though it was slightly embarrassing, I liked it. I tried to keep this fact and the dancing from my father, who also worked there, driving a forklift. I was the first in my family to go to college, which meant anything I did to reflect an aptitude or desire for manual labor would be seen as a threat to my future. But during those summer months at the ceiling-tile factory, I found myself drawn to the easy ways of George and his pals, men who worked sixty-hour weeks and on the weekends still had the energy to shuffle their feet across a cracked linoleum dance floor sticky from spilled dollar beers.
My father made it clear to me on our rides to work: “Not my business if you’re foolish enough to spend your hard-earned money on tavern beer, but you’d be well advised to steer clear of George. He and his kind throw away their money and act the fool.”
I’d stare out the car window and secretly wish my dad could find room for some frivolity.
At work, asbestos fibers drifted down from the catwalks like sharp snowflakes. The stuff burrowed into your skin and left red bumps, but it was a crucial ingredient in ceiling tile. Workers in hazmat suits used industrial vacuums on the beams fifty yards above George and me.
The area where we worked was isolated from the rest of the factory. I rarely saw my father, except when he zipped in on the forklift to remove our cartons of ceiling tiles from the scales, then sped off again. George kept a sheet of plywood behind some wall slats and pulled it out once in a while to show me new footwork, the sound of his feet striking the surface audible even over the roar of the factory’s furnaces.
At the end of one shift, as the whistle blew at midnight, I told George, “I get this. I can feel it in my bones.”
He grinned. “Baby, don’t ever say that to your daddy.” He patted me on the back and turned up a radio strapped to a steel beam.
With George’s help I did learn how to dance like my distant kin. We kicked up factory dust to Glen Campbell and Roger Miller and the old Possum, George Jones himself. As the hot summer days crawled by, George prepared me for my big debut: a night at the local tavern, where I’d showcase on the dance floor all that my body had learned but my mind still feared was improper.
Even as George brought me closer to my ancestry, I was aware that I would soon be getting my degree and moving away from that job, that place. George was curious about college life. He thought my being an undergrad psychology major meant that, after I graduated, I could prescribe him drugs: “Don’t you go forgetting that ol’ George taught you how to cook this cancer tile and showed you how to do the two-count.” My heart sank, because I realized I wouldn’t be staying on at the factory after college, which meant I might not know George much longer. I felt caught in a tug of war between the old life my parents somberly led and something new I could not wholly grasp. And the old life was slipping away.
George’s brown eyes widened. “If you’re ashamed to dance,” he said, “well, that’s just a shame.” Then he elbowed me and pulled me in for a hug.
It was late summer, only a week or so before I’d head back to college in Muncie. The air outside the dock doors was sticky with humidity, and the waste lagoons gave off a rusted-iron smell as strong as a bloody nose. George and I were working the noon-to-midnight shift. He danced past me, arms out at his sides, then circled back and performed a tangled shuffle, intentionally goofy, self-mocking. After work we would be headed to Smitty’s Bar, where the twangy music would kick up, and I’d try to find the courage to dance in public.
George used to tell me, “Son, there ain’t no way you can outrun your kin.” He meant the dance and the music were in my bones, though my father thought letting your feet follow the beat was disgraceful, undignified. He rarely went to the bar, but occasionally he’d make a showing, to drink the free black coffee and snack on peanuts. Part of me hoped he would be there that night — or, at least, that he’d hear about it. My plan was to drink and drink some more, then dance and dance some more.
When the lunch whistle blew at 8 PM, I did not go and get my lunch box. I remained with George, who proceeded to give me some last-minute pointers. He turned up a country station on the radio, put his fingertips on my temples to position my head, and told me to stare straight ahead, never let my eyes stray. George gave my foot a soft kick, to get my leg stance correct. We did a few steps together, the whiskey on his breath strong, and he laughed and told me I might end up a dancer after all.
Four hours later, at Smitty’s Bar, I cashed my check and bought George and me a round. The dance floor was still empty, but a man and his uncle — both former factory employees, disabled in a car wreck — hobbled through the back door and began setting up their gear on the meager stage: a snare drum, a fiddle, and an acoustic guitar connected to a worn amp. The mirror above the bar was adorned in white Christmas lights, and the bottles of booze gleamed. Jars of hard-boiled eggs, sugary cherries, and green olives sat open, silver tongs hanging at their edges. The red vinyl stools, small tufts of white sprouting from their cracked seams, were reserved for the union leadership. I could hear the snap and pop of chicken tenders descending into fry oil, giving the space the warm smell of batter and onions.
We moved toward the smooth dance floor. The dancing always started out slow, with the tap of a work boot. Then the arms would loosen, the neck and head held squarely in place. When a grunt or single clap egged the dancer on, the shuffling turned into feet flashing in a blur, the taps of soles sharp and rapid, the eyes always straight ahead, as if in a trance, trying to make their visions real.
After three beers and several cigarettes, something eased inside of me. My worries lifted. George and I stood at the edge of the dance floor, warming up. The music made my entire body feel electric.
The fiddler began to play. The clapping got louder. Outside the humidity was stifling, but inside I had goose bumps. I supposed what I felt was wrong, but I didn’t care. George nudged me, then did a crawdad onto the floor before transitioning to a box-step. Under the red lights he claimed an invisible square around him and let loose in ecstasy, allowing the whining fiddle and the guttural croaks of the singer to enter his body. I watched from the perimeter, in awe of how a man my father’s age could still find joy in the sadness of a fiddle riff. George beckoned me with his eyes, then went back into his trance. I gave in and joined him.
Like dance partners, we anticipated each other’s movements. I wanted to dance this way forever, but also never again. I longed to leave this life behind, yet hesitated when I thought about abandoning this place and these people, who worked with their bodies to keep their families fed. The lonesome fiddle wailed, the floor tilted, and I reached for George, who righted me and steadied me for the finale to our dance. When the music stopped, we bowed to the tipsy crowd and exited the dance floor to merge into the mass of sweaty bodies. We sat down at a table, ordered two more beers, and lit one Salem after another. The menthol seemed to relieve the hurt in my heart.
For the next hour or so we chugged our feet to improvised bluegrass. (Only occasionally did I hear a recognizable song.) My father never made an appearance, but I knew he’d likely hear about my hoedown the next day.
Near 2 AM George and I stumbled into the gravel parking lot with our arms around one another, his dyed-black hair damp at the nape of his neck. Our vehicles sat under a sickly yellow security light. The briny funk of the Wabash River wafted over us, and inside the cab of George’s F-150 we took shots from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. George rolled down his window and lit us both cigarettes. We would sleep in his truck until the morning. Exhausted from work and dancing, we stared out the windshield toward the tiny town of Lagro, Indiana. George sighed and, without looking at me, said, “Baby, I can’t for the life of me tell you why I’m still doing this.”
His labored breathing seemed to fill the truck’s cab.
I took a long drag from the bottle. The vehicles around us spit gravel as they left the parking lot.
George said, “My own daddy was a drunk, sure enough.” He pulled a piece of tobacco from his lip. He and Sandra had gotten divorced years before. I knew he had two daughters he loved and was proud of, but they’d moved out of state. George lived alone in a duplex rental. On the small front porch he kept a boom box and a piece of plywood to dance on. Music was all he had now. My head was bogged down by the humidity and alcohol. I thought of that night eleven years earlier, after the strike was over, his pure exhilaration in the dance. My chest felt tight.
I asked, “How do you do the part where your feet don’t seem to touch the ground?”
George grinned and dabbed out his cigarette in the ashtray. “Baby, all you got to do is pretend you’re already dead, and the steps will follow.”
I snuck a look at him, his sideburns turning silver, his face as familiar as my father’s, or my own.
When I woke in his truck early the next morning, George was smiling and lighting two cigarettes. We smoked as the sun edged up over the river. We did not talk. Sparrows cheeped in chorus. The power lines came into focus, the morning light growing brighter. I wanted to tell George that he meant more to me than he could know, but before I could form the words, he found a staticky station on the radio, and we listened to songs from somewhere else. My throat ached, and I felt like anything I might try to say would ruin the moment.
My father heard about my debut at Smitty’s, and, though he didn’t say much, I was embarrassed. I saw George a few more times at work before I went back to college, and one last time at Smitty’s, where I couldn’t make myself get up and dance. He waved for me to join him, but I just watched and nursed a Bud Light in the darkness. He pranced around the linoleum and then bore down into a slide so fierce his feet seemed to hover. His work boots were a blur, his gaze fixed as his steps picked up speed. People hollered, and George took a long swig of beer from someone, then looked right at me and performed a slow, silly side step, his eyes bulging in pantomime.
Occasionally I dream of him stepping from the factory doors. He’s not dancing, just walking straight toward me. “There you are, Baby,” he says. “I’ve been looking for you.” I hug him tight, then wake up. Throughout the day I can hear music.