The Tap Dance
By Steve Carr
Fog gently rolls over the brick wall in undulating curls. It slowly fills the garden – now nothing more than a plot of bare earth – within the three red brick walls, forming a misty gray soup that swirls about in slow motion. On the large window that looks out onto the garden, drops of water slide almost imperceptibly down the outside of the glass, leaving behind streaks that quickly disappear. Mrs. Howell sits licking her paws where a rose bush once stood. Eddie Balmer stands at the window, silently drumming his fingers on it. He’s unable to identify the tune that keeps playing in his head as if caught in a continual loop. On the stand beside him the six gerbils in an aquarium filled with wood chips and an exercise wheel are being more active than usual; they are either restless or playful. Eddie has had them for a month and other than their smell and when he feeds them and fills their water bottle he rarely notices them.
When there’s a knock on the door, he turns from the window and steps over the body of Akari who lays prone on the floor. When he opens the door, Akari’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Yua, is standing on the doorstep. The chilly air that is funneled down the narrow walkway that’s bordered by houses on both sides washes over him and rushes into his apartment. Goosebumps rise on his bare arms.
“Is Mom here?” Yua asks, already knowing the answer.
Eddie steps aside and inhales the fragrance of the coconut-scented shampoo that wafts from Yua’s hair as she passes by him. She kneels beside her mother and shakes her several times.
Akari slowly opens her eyes and blinks hard several times as she tries to focus on her daughter’s face. “What is it?” she asks, her speech slurred.
“Time to come home,” Yua says. She puts her arm under her mother’s back, helps her sit up, and then puts her arm under Akari’s arms and helps her stand.
Wordlessly, Yua leads her mother out of the apartment. With Akari leaning on her daughter, the two amble down the walkway and through the wooden gate that leads out to the sidewalk.
Mrs. Howell runs in just as Eddie closes the door. She stops abruptly at the base of the stand that holds the gerbil aquarium and then jumps up on the stand. She stares at the gerbils and begins to chatter at them, clicking her teeth and uttering a guttural growl, in the same way, she does when she sees birds.
“No, Mrs. Howell,” Eddie scolds her. He picks her up and holds her cradled in his arms. Inexplicably, the cat’s fur smells like Yua’s hair.
The sky is gray, the color of steel, without a change in hue all the way to the horizon. Eddie sits on the wall that divides the parking lot from the beach. The lot and the beach are mostly empty, with those walking along the shoreline seeming like lost stragglers, strolling aimlessly along. He holds in his lap a pink cardboard box with the last two steamed pork buns nestled inside it among sheets of pink tissue paper. He and Akari ate four of the six buns that were inside it while on the bus they rode from the dim sum take-out restaurant on Clement Street to the highway that runs parallel to the ocean. The wind coming in from the water is brisk and carries grit that stings his face. He runs his tongue across his upper teeth, feeling the sand that has adhered to them. He draws moisture into his mouth and spits, barely missing Akari who is sitting on a mound of wet sand at the base of the wall with her camera held to her eye.
As if on cue a man wearing a black divers wetsuit, an oxygen tank, goggles, and flippers rises up from the water and walks ashore. Akari lets out a sharp squeal, part fear and part amusement. Startled by the sight or thrilled by it – it’s always hard to gauge her reactions – she quickly stands and takes several shots. As if exhausted by the experience, she reaches out and grasps Eddie’s knee and holds on, anchored there.
“It’s only a diver,” he tells her.
“I’ve had dreams just like this,” she says. “Nightmares too,” she adds.
The diver removes his gear, kicks off the flippers, bundles everything in his arms, and plods off in the direction of the Sutro Baths.
Eddie turns his head and watches as a motorcycle pulls into a parking space near where he is seated. Its noise is jarring, seeming out of the place where only the waves washing up onshore and the distant din of the highway traffic had existed all morning. The bike comes to rest and is turned off. The driver removes his helmet and remains seated on it. His shoulder-length hair is the color of copper and is tousled by the breeze. He reaches into his black leather jacket and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. With his eyes fixed on Eddie, he lights a cigarette and puts it between his lips.
Eddie looks down at Akari who has stripped off her clothes. She’s crying.
“What are you doing, Akari?” he asks, alarmed.
She doesn’t answer and runs toward the ocean. He tosses aside the dim sum box, jumps from the wall, and chases after her. He tackles her just before they reach the water. With both kneeling on the wet sand, he puts his arms around her and gently rocks her. He wants to sing a lullaby to her, or just hum something soothing, but nothing comes to mind. For an instant, he forgets what music is.
The biker comes up to them, holding Akari’s clothes and her camera. “Is she okay?” he asks.
“She can’t get used to this San Francisco weather,” Eddie says. “It’s very depressing.” It’s a lie, of course. Akari was born in Japantown. Her parents and grandparents had been interred in a desert camp during World War II.
The biker hands Akari’s clothes to Eddie, turns and walks away, and heads toward the high dunes at the other end of the beach.
As he helps her dress, Eddie carefully slides the sleeve of Akari’s blouse over the fresh needle marks that line the vein of her left arm.
“She’s going to have babies,” Yua says, staring at the gerbil she holds in the palm of her hand.
“That’s impossible,” Eddie says. “The pet shop clerk said they were all females.”
Yua flicks her long hair dismissively. “Well, this one is pregnant. She needs to be separated from the others. Why did you get gerbils anyway?” She gently puts the gerbil back into the aquarium.
“To keep Mrs. Howell entertained while I’m at work,” he answers. He goes into the kitchen, finds a large roasting pan, and returns to the living room.
“Gerbils scare easily. They may not like Mrs. Howell being so close to them,” Yua says as she helps Eddie pour wood chips into the pan and then transfers the pregnant gerbil to the new abode. “If they get too stressed they’ll eat their own babies.”
“Not to gerbils it isn’t.”
“Why do you know so much about gerbils?” he asks.
She sniffs her hands and wrinkles her nose. “Back before dad left, before mom started shooting up, I had two gerbils.” She looks in the pan at the gerbil who has buried itself in the wood chips. “I loved my gerbils.”
He then places the pan on the top of the bookshelf, out of Mrs. Howell’s reach. “I’ll get something better for the little mother to live in on the way home from work tomorrow.”
“That gerbil looks like it is ready to have its babies at any time.”
“Yes, they have litters.” She throws herself on the sofa like a broken doll, arms, and legs askew. “My mom would be dead now if it weren’t for you,” she says matter-of-factly.
“And she has you who she loves, and her photography,” he replies. He goes to the window and looks out. Mrs. Howell is squatting in the space she has turned into a litter box. Pastel pink light cast by a waning sun through a layer of white clouds blankets the garden. It’s a moment of beauty, one that makes him think of impressionist art, of the works of Monet, of the ballerinas painted by Degas. For a moment he imagines he’s looking at a carefully lit stage, one that he’s about to walk onto.
No son of mine is going to be a ballet dancer, his mother’s shrill voice suddenly shrieks inside his head. He turns and fixes his gaze on Yua who is examining the bright green polish on her fingernails.
“They’re showing two Eleanor Powell movies at the Castro Theater tonight if you want to come along with me and Mariana,” he says.
She rolls onto her side and limply hangs over the edge of the cushions. “I thought you were going to break up with her.”
“I have to work up the nerve,” he says.
The front door opens and Akari walks in holding a framed photograph of Eddie wearing his tap shoes. It was taken in the dance studio where he takes tap dancing lessons. The glossy paper brings out the sheen of the wooden floor and makes his entire body glow from the rays of light shining on him through the lacy curtained windows. “For my dearest friend,” she says as she hands it to him and kisses him on the cheek.
The air is filled with the aroma of eucalyptus. The rain that fell while Eddie and Mariana were in the movie theater drips from the long leaves of the eucalyptus trees. The weather is almost balmy. The ocean breeze plays with the leaves of the cypress trees. A full moon, white as a snowball, hovers in the sky, shining its light through the gently swaying tree branches, casting dancing shadows on the pavement.
“Why do you want to break up with me?” Mariana screams at Eddie.
He now rethinks his decision to take her on a midnight stroll through Garden Gate Park to give her the news. She’s astoundingly beautiful even with her face contorted by rage. It was her dancer’s body that drew him to her in the first place. They met in a dancewear shop six months before where he had gone in to buy a pair of tap shoes. She was the store clerk who waited on him.
“I don’t love you and this relationship isn’t going to go anywhere,” he replies.
“So you hailed a taxi and brought me out to this jungle to tell me that?” she yells, waving her arms about.
“It’s a park,” he replies demurely.
She slaps him, hard, the sound of flesh hitting flesh echoing.
Looking for a quick exit from the park, she whirls around, first looking down the street and then back up the street from where they had come. She then bursts into tears. “What a terrible place to be dumped by a sniveling coward,” she says.
“Let me take you home,” he says.
At that moment the roar of a motorcycle reverberates through the darkness. Within moments it appears in the street. Eddie gawks at the rider as the bike slows. It’s the guy with the copper-colored hair. He’s not wearing a helmet. A lit cigarette clings to his lower lip, the red tip glowing.
“You okay?” he asks, looking from Eddie to Mariana.
Eddie stares at the cigarette. There’s something dangerous, obscene, the way it hangs there.
“Can you give me a ride home?” Mariana asks the cyclist. “I live near Haight Street.”
He looks to Eddie as if seeking an okay. Eddie nods.
“Hop on,” the cyclist says.
Mariana climbs onto the bike and wraps her arms around the cyclist. He does a u-turn and rides away.
Eddie watches until they are out of sight and then walks the rest of the way to the end of the park, crosses the highway, and returns to almost the same spot on the wall where he first met the man with the copper-colored hair.
Sunrise floats in through the window filling the living room with hazy light. Eddie closes the door, walks in, and tosses his keys on the coffee table. The room smells of a gerbil. He peers into the aquarium and has a moment of panic seeing only five of them, forgetting for an instant about the pregnant one in the roasting pan. He looks up at the bookshelf and sees Mrs. Howell lying on the books near the pan. She’s watching him as her tail flicks about. He loves the cat but has never trusted her. Her movements and actions have always seemed to border on being suspicious.
“What have you been up to?” he says to Mrs. Howell as he lifts the pan down from the shelf.
The gerbil is nestled in the wood chips surrounded by bits of body parts of baby gerbils. Bile rises up in his throat and he sits the pan down thinking he’s going to vomit.
There’s a pounding on the door that startles him.
“Can we please talk?” It’s Mariana.
His instincts tell him to not let her in, but he opens the door. She looks haggard with a wild expression on her face. He looks down the passageway. The man with the copper hair is standing at the gate. Seeing Eddie, he puts a cigarette to his lips and shrugs. The tip of the cigarette glows red like a volcano seen from a great distance.
“Come in,” Eddie says to her as he steps aside. He looks down at her shoes as the heels tap on his floor. For a brief moment he wants to begin to dance, but no music comes to mind.
Once in the room, she stands facing him with her hands on her hips. “Now, tell me, what is the real reason you’re breaking up with me?”
Stammering, he says, “I told you. We have no future.”
“No one knows their future,” she says. “Is there another woman? Is it that Akari who you’re always hanging around with?”
“She’s just a friend. She needs me. Her daughter . . .”
She abruptly turns her head, fixes her gaze on the photograph of him taken by Akari that is propped up on the sofa. It was the first thing she saw when she walked in. “Did she take that?”
The next things that happen, does so in a flash, a string of actions that Eddie has no reason to expect would happen. She picks up the photograph, rushes at him and hits home over the head with it. The broken glass cuts into his scalp. She drops the twisted, shattered frame and then runs out and down the passageway, leaving in her wake the echo of her tapping heels. He picks up the damaged photograph and wipes drops of his blood from it.
In the garden, Eddie tilts the aquarium, pouring the gerbils onto the dirt. They hesitate at first as if assessing the change in their environment, and then they run off, scattering in different directions. He doesn’t watch where they go. He has no interest in what happens to them. He then does the same thing with the gerbil who gave birth, pouring the wood chips out of the roasting pan along with her. He drops the aquarium and pan into the garbage can and goes into his apartment.
A few minutes later as he sits on the sofa holding a wet washcloth to his head, Yua walks in.
“What happened to you?” she asks.
“I didn’t duck in time,” he replies. “Where’s your mom?”
“Strung out.” She plops down on the sofa next to him and looks around. “Where are the gerbils?”
“I turned them loose in the garden.”
“They’ll die out there,” she says.
He puts his arm around her. “No mother should eat their young.”