|Winter that year blew in colder than times before. Cold homes left chilled hearts eager for the warmth the sweet burning South Texas mesquite could not deliver. Souls left hungry for conversation, barbecue and beer and music awaited weekend’s coming. The VFW crowds would be large, everyone there and enthusiastic and for Mama, the dances held promise of the thaw.
“Did you know Senor Palermo is here?” a friend asked Mama.
Mama’s instincts, honed sharp by years of faithful friendship, barred all notions of surprise. “Yes,” she replied. He would be there; that was certain.
Senor Palermo had charter membership in the VFW, he and his wife in regular attendance from the first days the VFW began hosting dances. The dances weren’t popular in the beginning and attracted only small groups. Still the Palermos went often, thrilled to finally have a permanent outlet for their dancing impulses. And later when Senor Palermo took a hand in lining up the musical groups and publicizing scheduled events, they became the community’s most anticipated happenings.
As a boy, he was enraptured by the music blaring out from the nickelodeons in the cantinas that his widowed father took him to. The old folks who still remembered the kid, his fluid steps, his rhythm to the music, said it was magic that made the kid gyrate like he did when the jukebox played — like it was meant for him to do it.
Senora Palermo must have thought so too because she often said it was her future husband’s dancing grace that wrote the first chapter of their life together. Together, they were as elegant a tandem as ever stirred the sawdust on any dance floor in South Texas.
His wife died last summer, her illness quick developing and diagnosed late left little hope she would overcome it. Mama was shaken by the news, the suddenness of it. The tiny community joined hearts to mourn her passing — reflexive ritual in small communities insulated from worldly events where sweet bliss is enough to say there is no greater pain felt than comes from loss of neighbors.
It would have been proper for her to go to the funeral, to pay her sympathies to longtime friends. But it was too soon for Mama, too soon again to confront death’s unwelcome, but inevitable reality. More so after her own pain’s infliction just so recently removed.
“Please, no more funerals,” she begged when her family told her it would be disrespectful if she did not go. The will eluded her. When she asked friends to express sentiments on her behalf, they were reluctant, but in the end they understood.
Seeing him now, his grief had changed him. He appeared older than she knew him to be. His hair had grayed almost completely, unlike his black mustache that showed only salted grains of gray. She thought he looked thinner but without having lost his well-proportioned physique. Gone was his perpetual tan; he was pale now confirming accounts she heard that he did not go out much and was no longer doing much of the construction work that required him to be outdoors. The rest was not clear from the distance.
Her gaze went with him; the dancing couples and the music now
|put at bay in favor of more pressing matters. His steps were short, halting, showing he was uncertain of his bearing as though this was not the right place for him. He seemed withdrawn, wayward, his eyes searching, not finding. Then where the lighting was subdued, he saw his friends at a table in the back and made his way there.
She knew he had not seen her.
She could see his friends fill his glass and she was pleased for him when they drank a salute to his return. She knew his spirits would lift quickly now that he was in the company of his old friends. She knew what he was feeling.
He would be with them for a while, maybe the whole evening. It was to be expected. After all they had seen very little of him for months and there were stories to tell. It was good for him to be with them for a while. “All night too if he wanted,” she convinced herself.
Mama hadn’t seen him after Esposo’s funeral and the grief in attendance then so blotted her memory. It was only her imagination left to tell he offered a few words of condolences and sympathy, nothing more.
“Are you OK?” Her friends startled her away from her thoughts.
“Oh, yes, forgive me. I thought I saw someone. It was nothing,” clumsily dismissing further questions.
But her thoughts wrestled with her. “Would they talk tonight, catch up a little,” she wondered.
Was he troubled? Was he lonely, especially at night? Had he gotten used to it? Did he cook for himself? Had he learned to cook for one? Were his children concerned about him? Did they set limits? Did they make him feel old? How was he managing?
Immersed in deep reflection, her thoughts, like arrows slung rapid fire, subdued her consciousness, so consumed she did not see him approach.
“Will you have a dance with me?” he asked, his hand extended.
“O, mi Dio!. Hola, senor. “
“Oh my God! Hello, senor. Dance? Yes, why yes, of course,” she stuttered, the moment blurred by instinct.
She felt her hand turn clammy as they navigated the few steps to the dance floor, her pulse raced, though she tried to suppress it. But she was sure he felt it, must have felt it through his calming manner.
He held her, a gentleman’s embrace as they danced, feeling her ask a respectful distance. Their steps were out of sync, like the perfunctory pleasantries they exchanged, more mindful of themselves, much less of one another. “Forgive me,” he told her. “I have not danced in a long time. I’m a little clumsy.”
“Not at all,” Mama offered. “You have been away a long time. You are out of practice. If you come more often, soon your dancing will be as it once was.”
When the music was finished, he escorted Mama back to her table, held her chair as she took her seat and politely excused himself. “I must get back to my friends,” he said. “They have many stories. It has been a long time and they want me to know everything.”
“It was good to see you. You are a fine dancer.”
She hid her gaze as he walked away.