Winter 2001, Volume 18.2
The Hat Dancer
Nadine Chapman (M.F.A., Eastern Washington University) teaches writing at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. "The Hat Dancer" is part of a collection of stories about women on the camas Prairie in Idaho, where the author spends her summers. Her work has recently appeared in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies and Bridges: An Interdisciplinary Journal.
"Come on over," she yells into the pay phone. "They want me to play for Winchester Days. I know the gal that owns a little place here. She's having a hard time. We'll bring in the action." And there she is at the back of the café, waiting for people to pile in off the sidewalk after the ten minute parade goes down Main Street twice. Rain pelts the tin roof, and the place swells with families, men moving toward the bar, women dragging kids with fistfuls of candy from parade day clowns.
I stand in the doorway, adjust to the dim lights, then enter the room and make my way to the rear. A scarlet mouth reaches out to the metal tip of a microphone, and Aggie growls, "If I never get to heaven, it'll be for lovin' you…" The keys seem to play themselves, while her swollen feet beat out the tune on wooden pump boards. I catch her eye, and Aggie beams, motions me over to a table right next to the organ. I have seen Aggie in one dive or another for more than thirty years, since I was a child and she gave me treats from the store she ran in the back room of her house. One time I got a black New Testament and a cup shaped like a pumpkin with iridescent insides. It still reminds me of her: every time she turns around, there's a new angle, a charmed daring in her relations with the world.
One old guy walks past Aggie on his way to the john, drops something in the miniature white chamber pot with fake fur and pauses, hoping for a little conversation to ease the slowness of it all. Aggie nods, then turns and searches the crowd again, looking for the good-timers, the ones who can help her forget. But the action stays at the broken-down tables with kids getting stuffed on burgers that keep sliding out of the buns onto cracked, brick-colored linoleum. They never look at the figure hunched over Lowry ivories. She launches into "Won't you come home, Bill Bailey?" with all the gusto of a l920s swinger, then peters out before the end of the first verse and starts punching the amplifier, mumbling to herself. She complains to me about the lousy setup and wanders off toward the crowd, still searching.
I breathe the heavy air, thick with smoke from cigarettes and forest fires. It's been a dry year, and rain never amounts to much in August—the dust still has wings. The loud throbbing of the organ box bothers me, but when Aggie calls, I always come. And she never leaves without planning for another gig. I wait, knowing it's what keeps her going. After the last song, she sits down beside me.
"The whole gang will be in town first of November. Mavis knows some tunes I can't even remember. With her on that accordion and Al playing the piano…It'll be a great time. I can bring along my get-up and do the hat dance if anybody wants to see it."
She looks up at me with a flash in her watery blue eyes, waits for the backslapping, "Do it again, Aggie." Someone always comes through. Now it's my turn, even though her movement's down to a shuffle—the taut skin on her legs glistens like glazed casing on two overstuffed sausages. I reach out and squeeze her rounded shoulders. Aggie's all smiles now, but I think back a day. There's just the two of us drinking lemon grass tea without the honey. Aggie's trying to stay on her diet: low-salt, low-sugar, and forget-the-party-time nightlife.
"I'll tell you some scuttlebutt. Probably shouldn't but what the hell?" She pauses, looks off in the distance. "I used to be real religious. Went to church all the time. That's where I met Hank, my first husband. He was teaching for the church school—Seventh Day Adventist. You weren't around yet, Nell." Aggie winks.
"Where was this?" I've never heard the story. Why take up a sore subject after all these years? It isn't her style.
"Right here, part of that old green and white building down the street. Anyway, we got hitched, had two kids. Waited a year to have the first one just to prove I didn't have to get married. But I could see the way things were going, with the money he was making, they were all we could afford. So that was the end of sex for me. Now I would have done things different, but at the time…" Aggie looks sideways, rubs her hand against the table edge. The veins writhe like bloated earthworms trying to break the surface. "Hank was the leader of the youth group. There was this sixteen-year-old girl acting as secretary. Some people were talking incest, like her father was messing around with her, but you never know. Anyway, she was kinda loose, and I came home early one day, found them. I know I should have forgiven him—he straightened out later on—but then I just couldn't get that picture out of my mind."
There are tears in Aggie's eyes, but she keeps them there. Between this tale of lost love and the physical reality before me, there's a gap only faith can accommodate. But it's a sacred moment, and I can't help mourning. Aggie wouldn't want it that way, but the yearning for the road back, the unkempt past, is palpable. Because it's not just Hank; it's the man after Hank, and the one after that who got so bad he drank the whiskey left in his customers' glasses, then vanished, drunken stupor and all. "Fell in the river," Aggie said. "He was always going down there—something about tying up the boat." But there wasn't any boat or any body either.
Lack of evidence didn't affect Aggie's opinion, one way or the other. She didn't need physical evidence for that empty feeling, empty from the first man on.
"And the church. They took Hank back like nothing happened, like I was the bad one."
"That's hard. I guess you'll get that any place, with any institution, Aggie."
"Told my son he might as well get a SDA minister to bury me, though, when the time comes. Even found an Adventist Doc, fallen away…" Aggie laughs. Her lip curls up on the side where the red lipstick always bleeds. "Played organ for the church years back, right after Carl…you were just a kid, six or seven, when I started up with him."
I nod. "I remember the store you had in the back of your house. You always gave us things." I don't remember Carl. He's got a place now, somewhere between the lecher and the old drunk who fell in the river, but no face.
"Aggie, why don't you stay around here for awhile. We could clear out a place for the organ. Take a little time off."
"I've got too many things planned, but thanks." Her voice is like flint again, all business.
You're supposed to learn from history, but knowing that never brought second chances did it? Not for anyone. Sometimes you just go into a skid, like when my mother started praying three hours a day and spent three more consulting with that blue-eyed preacher about sin, the work of the devil, filth and debauchery that only moans and testimony—sweet, sweet Jesus—could combat. The preacher always stared and licked his full bottom lip when he talked to her, but looking into his eyes was like looking through window glass into an empty room. If it hadn't been for those juicy lips, I would have questioned his existence. Our soft spoken mother, so fragile and brittle the sound of a slamming door could break her—though that never stopped my younger brother, Jim, or me from slamming it—kept asking for forgiveness. "What sin could you ever have committed? You don't do anything," Jim and I would say, incredulous. But she just gazed out the window, saying oh yes, yes, she had sinned, if we only knew, while her delicate hands, shrouded in oversized yellow vinyl gloves, rested against the dishpan.
I am that sin. Years later I find out it is my unblessed existence that makes her life a sealed jar, a secret forever. I am the reason she stares out the kitchen window without seeing anything and moans, while the sunlight catches the dishwater's floating grease spots, making them look like oil slicks on a miniature pond. All we know is that she is busy making reparations for her sins—absent, not that she means to be, but gone just the same.
Then there's Aggie with a makeshift beauty salon in her house and women filing in day and night. The haircut isn't always even, and the dye job might be an original, the blondes a little on the brassy side, but no one seems to care. Aggie's always got a story. She gives me a few dollars for sweeping up. The gossip falls as fast as clipped hair, and I forget about my penitential mother for awhile. Aggie lives in the moment, not the what-might-have-been. When a stroke stops the preacher's visits and leaves the left side of his face permanently askew, his speech like that of a child's with a mouth full of apple sours, our mother starts looking up at us again when she speaks. I try to tell Aggie thanks for all the trouble, the nuisance some kid hanging around every night must be, but she never lets on.
From then on, it's payback time.
A week after Winchester Days, I walk into Aggie's club. She's standing at the bar, waiting for the next customer to amble off the street into drum-tight darkness, out of a dry Lewiston sun or the flashy middle classness of the motel across the street. Mostly, they come sidling in around the vacant buildings, soapy windows, and alleys that flank her pint-sized drinking hole.
"How are you doing, Aggie?"
"Not so good. Fell down, hurt my hip. Laid me up in this heat, so everything got behind. I need to get back to the Prairie where I can breathe. It'll suffocate you down here. The people are great though, do anything for you."
Aggie's huge sombrero hangs lifeless against the covered organ. I can see the effort it takes for her to breathe, how the words come out raspy and short. It doesn't matter as long as there's a crowd, the action.
A head appears in the glass half of the door, and Aggie shuffles behind the bar, serves up a beer and waits. At the second jerk of the door, she yells, "Ralph," and starts frying up a Big Boy Burger. A skinny guy in dust brown shirt and jeans comes from behind a draped doorway. He leans down to put his arm around the sagging lumpiness in Aggie's faded smock. She points him here and there with a chipped red fingernail as the barstools fill, and greasy smoke rises from the grill, mixes with the crazy din of beer-soaked laughter at four p.m.
"I'll see you the next time I'm in town."
Aggie doesn't hear, but when the door jingles her eyes flip up like the numbers in an old cash register. "Are you going already?"
Ten days later, Aggie's out in the sticks in an old country store, half the food on the shelves outdated, half the regulars over sixty. Aggie's on the move, dragging her bloated legs through the aisles, checking out the three-seat café, the meat freezer—always on the move. She smiles from the fruit stand, mouths out the words, "Got it for a song." We laugh. A private understanding. When it comes to business, Aggie doesn't waste time.
The room fills with well-wishers, gawkers, mainly the curious, all caught up in Aggie's riotous courtship of the moment. Only two hundred forty-seven people in town, and new management doesn't come every day. When they see her, everyone knows, for good or bad, things are going to change. Aggie doesn't worship the status quo. She's even got the mayor guessing. He stops by, casual like.
"What you planning to do here?"
"Thought I might give the Twin Bar some competition."
"How you going to get another liquor license in a town this size?"
Aggie rolls her eyes. "Oh, I know a few people. You just wait and see. I'm coming home."
They all know she was born a few houses down the road seventy-two years ago. What they don't know, they fill in for themselves. Ralph carries boxes back and forth, sneaks lollipops out of the apothecary jar to give the kids. His awkward frame towers over Aggie's bent shoulders as they pass.
"Nice to have someone like that around to help you out, Aggie." I finally catch up with her at the end of the aisle.
"Ya. He's a little slow upstairs, so he can't keep a regular job, but otherwise he's okay. Works out good for odd jobs. It's got my sister jealous, though."
"Oh, she just can't seem to keep a man. Can't stand it when anybody else has one."
I shake my head. Aggie's in a race with time. If she could just stop a minute, let it all go, realize so many things don't matter anymore. But Aggie's never made a cushion for her sorrows; she'll do it her way.
Two months later, I find her staring out the window, looking for action to come riding in off the highway in a chip truck, an old bus carrying the singing country, anything. She's forgotten to dye her hair along the way, so there's white beneath the strawberry blond, and the frazzled ends frame a face slowly folding into itself, the smile lost in furrows. She's alone in the brightly-lit storefront; only two customers huddle over their beer in the darkened back room.
This time I have Danny with me. Aggie pulls him over to the side, starts throwing skeins of pink-green-purple-gold yarn out of a cardboard box.
"I'm making a blanket for my new grandson. He's crazy about me."
I can't help but smile. "Everybody's crazy about you." Aggie doesn't seem to hear. It's not the same; the sureness has gone out of her words. There's something new and foreign: fear?
"Should have done this a long time ago; made them for all the others. It's so hard to get away…" She grabs an afghan that starts out brown, moves through orange and yellow, and ends up with five rows of brilliant chartreuse. She hands it to Danny. He buries his head in my legs, then peeks out and grins. "I had a better one for you, but with all this moving…" Her voice breaks, and she leans against the wall.
I hold her, hold all the weariness she won't admit. "How long can you keep this up? Your pacemaker was due for a change a year ago. You keep promising you'll get around to it." How long, Aggie? "I thought you were doing so good, getting the liquor license, adding the bar. It's hard to tell where the groceries used to be."
"Ya?" For a moment, there's the pleasure of past maneuverings. "I was doing all right. Then I got laid up with my back a few days. Somebody stole four hundred dollars, a whole bag of cash and receipts. We'd counted it. I was heading for the bank, but just felt bum, you know—put it off. Next time we looked, it was gone."
"The couple that helps out with the snack bar. They've been around for years."
"So you don't have any idea who did it?"
"Oh, you have your suspicions…"
"Did you report it?"
"Naw. Figured there was nothing anybody could do then. When the sheriff heard about it, he came right over. Said I should call him right away if it ever happens again."
"Oh, he left."
"When? Right in the middle of all this?"
"Close, I guess." A thumbnail rests on her lower dentures as she shrugs it all off one more time. "It's hard to remember."
I can't figure out why it doesn't break her. "The November gig still on?"
"You bet." Aggie hands Danny a peppermint, watches his tiny hands unwrap the plastic, watches him plop the candy in his mouth, savor the sweet red and white stripes. "My boys always begged me for peppermint. When they got big enough, they'd climb on the counter and sneak it." She winks at Danny, and he beams. Then there's laughter in the back room. Aggie stiffens. "I'd better get back."
A shriveled driver peers over the steering wheel of a low riding brown Dodge. It stops in the dirt driveway, and I see Aggie slide her swollen legs out with a, "Hi ya, honey, it's so good to see you" and arms full of boiled eggs, tomatoes, cheese, a half-finished afghan. She hands me the load, puts both arms up and delivers her kisses square on the lips. Danny gets two peppermints and, "Are you big enough to carry in my hat?"
He puts the sombrero on, walks to the door like he's carrying a glass. Then Aggie hauls out a long pole with silver bangles clinging to it. A coarsely woven shawl follows. Last of all there is Aggie's grin.
"I'm a little early. The others were getting their things together when I left, but they'll be along."
"Who all's coming?"
"Oh, everybody, just about. Al drove over from Seattle. George and Mavis have their van parked downtown." She laughs. "You should have heard us last night. We all went down to the bar, and everybody started saying, `We want Aggie.' Couple of guys heading for Nashville stopped in with their guitars. We had a ball. I'd start in on a tune, and they'd pick it right up. We had the place just agoin'." She stops. "Wonder what's keeping them. They were supposed to be right behind…"
I can see her irritation at somebody holding up a party. The van finally pulls up. Aggie's the first one out the door, helping unload the accordion, reminding Al to bring in his harmonica. Mavis's white hair catches in the breeze; she laughs, pats her jelly bowl stomach, and moves toward the house. They all go slow and easy, except for Aggie. She pushes along as fast as her legs will carry her until one knee gives out, and someone has to help her make the steps.
Inside the house, everyone talks at once. Aggie keeps mumbling, "Is that so, is that so," but all the time, she's checking out instruments. It's taking too long. "Al, get on over there and play us a tune."
"What you want to hear?"
They call for Mavis next. She gets so worked up her rear end starts slapping the seat with each downbeat; her head bounces back and forth as the words come belting out. Tears roll down Aggie's checks, she's laughing so hard. "Hold on. Hold on. I'll get my gear." She plants her pole in the middle of the room, throws the shawl over her shoulders and pulls the sombrero down—a grinning, one-woman carnival. Aggie's hips swing in burlesque pantomime. The rattling stick stomps and shakes with every twist. I can see the claps and hollers are giving her a lift, that she can hardly keep from breaking into outright laughter as she takes a turn around her old circle of friends and swings back in front of the piano, her hand raised to the hat's rim, ready to fling it off onto center stage. Instead, her left arm falls. She slumps into the piano, blanches.
"Whew. I can't take that anymore." A look of lostness contorts her face, half-apologetic. She would never spoil a party. I put my arm around her, feel Aggie's heart beating wildly against the sunken chest.
"Ever get that pacemaker replaced?" Mavis asks.
"It's not that. It's this old leg of mine. Gives out without any warning. I told that doctor the last time I saw him, and he just gave me some more water pills."
"Better sit down."
"I sure got dizzy all of a sudden. I'm supposed to dance around that hat at the end, you know…Stayed up too late last night, got too tired. Boy!"
As painful as it all is, I hope it will slow things down, make Aggie give her worn-out heart a break. There's a little house down the road, vacant since June—yellow roses running rampant in the front yard come June, a garden spot for tomatoes. The seniors' club meets twice a week. They could use some entertainment. Not perfect, but it's something. Just for awhile.
"Aggie, maybe it's time you…"
She cuts me off. "I've got a new doctor all lined up, a young one, a fallen away SDA…We're both going to get back to it one of these days. Thinks he can fix me up like new. Couldn't get to sleep last night. I just need to sit down a few minutes."
There's the rumble of conversation, talk about families, trips, old friends. Aggie nods her head, runs her tongue over faded lipstick on the half-smile and squints past bobbing heads. She drags herself to the bathroom, nursing her leg, then becomes absorbed in gathering scattered belongings. We both know her leg isn't the worst of it. She's told me where she stashed the money for her kids when she's gone, but everything else is a locked mailbox.
"You going already, Aggie?" I try to control my concern, suspect Aggie can't handle it any other way. "You know you can stay for the night, the week, whatever."
"I don't want to get caught on that road after dark if it rains."
Danny puts out his hand, asks for candy.
Aggie looks surprised at the sound of another voice, an intrusion now, but manages a distant smile and taps his cheek. She checks around one more time and heads out the door. I follow with her sweater, but she shrugs off the chill.
It's a couple minutes before everyone else understands she's leaving. When they do, Al's out of the house first, leading the whole group. "Hey, I forgot to show Aggie this ticket I won for a weekend in Reno."
"Better hurry up," Mavis chimes in. "She'd really get a kick out of that. Drove her organ down there a year ago and played in some joint. Had a blast."
Aggie's already backed halfway down the driveway when Al races to the car. She rolls down the window to see what's up. He points to the letter, tells her about the free girlie show, a weekend with slot machines.
"Is that right? Is that right?" But Aggie keeps looking out toward the road, and Al steps back by me. He's deflated, embarrassed at the failure to connect because she was there for him, too, so many times, pumping him up, making him feel like the greatest talent in the world. Now the timing isn't right when he tries to lighten things up, to give back.
"She's worried about rain making the road slick. Maybe you should make her stay, what with those dizzy spells and all."
I shake my head, feel the tears coming, and walk back into the house. I stand alone in the spot where Aggie danced. Does the stillness ever fit or is it always like a hand-me-down dress? Maybe all you ever get is a trace, like the old tunes running through my head that will never find a name, a home, without her.
Through the open door, I see Aggie turn from the dirt driveway onto the gravel.