Right around the third time my mother asked my father to move out, Mom decided that I needed to take dancing lessons. I was just twelve, it was summer, and I had been wasting a lot of time hanging around the house, working just three days a week as an umbrella boy at Loch Arbor Beach, and doing a little boxing on Saturdays at the Boys Club. My father had introduced me to the “sweet science,” and while I didn’t much care for getting hit, I did enjoy the adrenaline rush of sparring, dodging a punch, and occasionally landing a soft left (we wore twenty-ounce gloves) on the cloth helmet of one of my buddies from the neighborhood.
Pop had done some fighting while in the Army—flyweight—and he taught me footwork, how to jab, and a couple of basic combinations. He was a small man, five-five and maybe one-twenty, but he was tough—he drove a truck for the county road department—and, unfortunately, he was also tough at home. We’re an Irish-German family, my mother’s mother having been born in Munich; grandma was a large woman, loud and fond of vinegary cabbage, fatty meat, and ice tea. My father’s family was Irish, but I never knew his parents. Pop drank too much, but he wasn’t a violent drunk—in fact, he’d calm down after a whiskey or two, stretch out on the ratty old couch in our living room, and doze off. But Pop did like other women, and Mom was a tight-fisted, jealous person who was always accusing my father of “spending every last dime on some floozy,” which, who knows, he might have been, but now I suspect he didn’t do much more than smile at women he thought were attractive and maybe buy one or two a drink at Flanagan’s Bar, his favorite place right there on Ocean Avenue.
Our neighborhood was what came to be called “ethnic,” meaning all-white, all-Catholic, all-working class. Later on, in the late sixties, a black family moved into a bungalow down the block, and aside from some nasty comments from our next-door neighbor—a legless ex-Marine who hadn’t a good word to say about anybody—everyone felt fine about having the neighborhood “integrated.” We reserved our rancor for our “betters,” for the rich people who lived on the other side of town, whose lawns I cut in the summer, and onto whose doorsteps I tossed the Home News on Thursday afternoons all through my youth. Black people were fine because they were poor; what upset my father was that there were people in our town who had a lot of money but never worked a day in their lives. That was his term of disapproval; “working” meant sweating, being outside in bad weather, and not having soft hands. “That Bill Markel, I bet his hands are soft as a girl’s was something my father might say at dinner after having a disagreement with a guy at the motor vehicle division. Men in ties and jackets, even if they made a miserable two grand a year, which is what Pop made with the road department, were no good since they dressed like monkeys and sat around an office all day.
My father’s resentments were broad and simple, but I don’t know if they ran that deep. The truth was he got along with almost everybody—the guy at the bank who lent us the money to replace our roof, the Jewish man who ran the local pharmacy, heavyset Mr. Siliato at whose little pizzeria we ate every Friday night, and the folks in the neighborhood, mostly Irish and Italian, who he might refer to as “dopes” but with whom he would play bocce and drink Rheingold on summer evenings. People whose walks he’d help shovel on snowy days, whose kids attended the same public school as me, with whom I played baseball and basketball, the kids who boxed at the Boys’ Club of Asbury Park. This was the world I grew up in, blue collar and full of large passions. My mother didn’t like our street; she hoped I’d be different from my father, more sensitive maybe, capable of finding my way to an undefined, but somehow better life. It was these ill-defined hopes of my mother’s that led to my taking dancing lessons.
Mr. Musto was a professional dancer. That’s what Mom told me, though I had no idea what a professional dancer did, aside, of course, from dancing. Mr. Musto wore pastel-colored slacks and coppery Nehru jackets and always kept a hankie in his top front pocket. He had reddish-brown hair—lots of it—and he wore tap shoes, or at least shoes that made tapping sounds as he moved, quite gracefully, across the linoleum floor of our finished basement. He wasn’t the sort of man you would think my father would like, and yet my father adored Mr. Musto, adored him because he was affordable, a “snazzy dresser,” and “sophisticated,” meaning he was a good dancer who was willing to come to our run-down row house every Saturday afternoon to give lessons to half a dozen pre-teen boys for an insignificant amount of money.
Looking back , I realize that Mr. Musto was probably one of those down-on-the-heels types who orbited our lives back then—the man who came around with a little cart and sharpened our knives, the black men who came each autumn to the back door to ask my mother if they might, please, rake our leaves for a dollar (she always said yes and gave them two); the grown men who shoveled sidewalks at the houses of the war widows, the tattered house painters and Italian ice salesmen, and a real junkman who bought and sold anything metal from a hand-cart. We lived, my mother and father and sister and I, on the margins—on the edge of town, on the edge of the neighborhood, right where the oldest houses gave way to the woods and the lake, where better-off people might dump tires and batteries and rusted-out appliances; the kind of place where feral dogs chased (and once caught) my mother’s cats and then burrowed in our trash for dessert. Mr. Musto seemed to my mother the intimation of something better or at least something less run-down and hopeless than what she had come to expect.
My mother and father had loved to dance. In their better days, before the war, they would take the bus downtown to the Berkeley-Carteret and dance to Tommy Tucker’s Orchestra, to Benny Goodman when he came to the Convention Hall, to Duke Ellington’s great ensemble at the Casino—a night my mother spoke of with longing. Ellington’s big band had been there in Asbury Park, one night only, and my father had borrowed five dollars from his aunt to get in and paid fifty cents—fifty cents!—for two ginger ales to go along with four hours of the Lindy and Foxtrot and Jitterbug. My father was a fine dancer—a nice-looking man, athletic and slender—and my mother was the prettiest woman in the neighborhood. All my friends said so. And yet, by the time I was old enough to pay attention to my mother’s appearance, she and my father had grown apart, had come, at last, to despise one another.
Or did they? They fought, certainly, but what did they say to one another late at night in their narrow bed when my sister and I were asleep? When he would leave, the routine was always the same: he appeared in the living room with his small cardboard suitcase; he would tell me and my sister Margaret that he was going away for a while and that we should be good to one another and to your mother. He’d look contrite, pathetic with his satchel of clothes, an ever-present cigarette perched in the corner of his mouth. He would come over to the couch and give me and my sister a peck on the cheek, a tousle of the hair, and then he was gone. He had to leave the car for Mom, so I don’t know what he did, where he stayed, or who took him to work. I know he worked because we never went hungry, even when he was in exile for months at a time. He always took care of us, and I have no idea at what cost to his own happiness.
Even when Pop was gone we’d have our dancing lessons. Mr. Musto came on the bus, which would drop him down the hill from our house. I dreaded dancing, so I’d sit in the window and pray that he wouldn’t show up—but he always did, week after week, for almost a full year. When I saw him, I had to run next door to get Billy, whose mother was a war widow and whose son, my best friend, was a sad, bookish boy, my opposite in most ways, but good in just the way my mother wanted me to be, in a way I could never dream of being. And then the two of us walked across the narrow lane to get Stuart, a blind kid who loved music and dancing, and Kenny, a kid we didn’t hang out with but whose mom had persuaded my Mom to let him come over to learn the cha-cha and tango and waltz.
We were the only people on the block who had a finished basement—knotty pine walls, drop ceiling, linoleum floors, and a wet bar—and thus the dance lessons were at my house, which was a great burden for my mother and a source of embarrassment for me, especially since I had to explain to my friends that my father was “away on business.” I often lied about my parents, saying that my father was in the hospital or visiting his (dead) father in Buffalo. Divorce was unheard of in the Catholic neighborhoods where I grew up, and Mom told me never to lie, but seemed not to want me to tell the truth either. So I lied. Lying was at first painful, then routine, and at last, after years of spinning fables about my father’s long absences, lying became a part of my nature, to the extent that I would lie about my father even on those occasions when he was at home.
So each Saturday afternoon, Mr. Musto would walk up the hill and ring the doorbell. I would let him in, take his coat, and ask if he wanted a Coke or a glass of water. He always said no, and then he would follow me downstairs into the dampness of the basement and greet Kenny, Billy, and Stuart. Mr. Musto was especially kind to Stuart. He would shake our hands, one after another, and then give Stuart a hug. Mom said this was because Mr. Musto knew that blind people like a lot of physical contact—how she knew this, or how Mr. Musto came to have insights into Stuart’s needs and desires, was beyond me. Stuart was a quiet and polite boy, whose face was always turned upward and who clicked his tongue constantly, as if were a bat using vibrations to locate himself in the immense and hostile world he lived in.
We never talked about his being blind. I never asked Stuart how he felt about it—he’d gone blind as a baby after a bout of measles—and I never wondered for a moment what it was like for him to navigate the five square blocks of our neighborhood. I wasn’t insensitive, but it was impossible for me to allow the thought of blindness to cross my mind. This was in the days before handicapped parking, braille numbers in the elevators, or any other kind of consideration for blindness, or for those who had been crippled by polio. Each summer my mother would warn me in the most solemn terms never to go swimming in the lake for fear that I would “grow up a cripple.” Even the word “disabled” was nonexistent. Anyway, I always did swim in the lake—we all did—and many summer nights I would lie in bed feeling my legs grow numb as the disease worked its way up toward my spine. I feared polio and going blind more than ghosts, nuclear bombs, or even communists.
But my legs never grew numb enough so that I couldn’t learn the cha-cha with Mr. Musto. He brought his own records in a black leather case—it looked like a handbag, and Kenny giggled about Mr. Musto having a purse, but what could he do? My parents had a Victrola—a big, white maple box with one small speaker that played 78s and 45s and 33s, but we only owned six records, including the soundtrack to South Pacific. Two Glenn Millers, a Tommy Tucker, and a Guy Lombardo rounded out the collection—no cha-chas or tangos or even a decent waltz—so Mr. Musto would unpack his Tito Puente and Ernesto Duarte and Facundo Rivera discs and drop the needle and we’d be off. First, he’d show us the steps on his own—“one, two, cha-cha-cha”—and he’d swing his hips and smile and put his right hand on his stomach and hold his left hand up in the air as if Chiquita Rivera were right there dancing with him.
Mr. Musto would take my hand and pull me out into the middle of the room and have me count aloud as I shuffled through the steps like Bela Lugosi—to my mortification—and then Mr. Musto would take my hips in his hands and rock them back and forth all the while counting and saying, “Feel it, Bobby, feel it in your body!” My buddies would be smiling ruefully, but their turn would come and pretty soon the four or five of us would be moving around the black, slippery floor, ignoring the music entirely, half enjoying ourselves, half embarrassed by the attention Mr. Musto was paying to our awkward movements, wondering perhaps why we were spending a sunny Saturday pretending to dance when we could have been playing basketball up at the Hurley’s or, if it were dead winter, skating on the lake. Mr. Musto never took the time to explain the point of dancing, or to defend what must have appeared even to him to be such a pointless waste of an afternoon. He just danced.
After a half hour or so, the upstairs door would open and my mother, dressed as always in high heels and stockings and a nice house dress, would descend the stairs with a tray full of cookies and a pitcher of lemonade. Her hair was burnished red-brown and she wore just a hint of lipstick. She would smile at Mr. Musto and ask if the boys had worked up an appetite, and we would say that, yes, we had, and be grateful for the opportunity to eat and clown around for a few minutes before the ordeal of the tango began.
One quiet Saturday afternoon in the middle of February, a day or week after my father had once again left us, my mother arrived in the midst of Tito’s El Cayuco without the tray of cookies or the big, blue ceramic pitcher of hand-squeezed lemonade. Instead, she stood at the base of the stairs, one hand on the railing, one hand smoothing back her hair, and watched as Stuart and I moved in half twirls and, to the best of our twelve-year-old ability, swaying our hips in time to the conga drum. She watched and she smiled at me, and then she turned her smile—it was a lovely smile—at Kenny and Billy as they followed behind us, the four of us moving almost in time with the music—one, two, cha-cha-cha—and then, from Tito’s horn section, a blast of trumpets and his voice rising behind the brass in a staccato cadence, cha-cha-cha, the sound, as I imagined it, of warm sun and a white beach like the one on Key West I had visited with my mother and father before Margaret was born. Just then I did feel the music; I closed my eyes and put my arm on Stuart’s waist—it was odd, but at that moment everything felt right. I was dancing.
When I opened my eyes, I saw my mother dancing with Mr. Musto, not the cha-cha, but some slower dance, one that required Mr. Musto to have his arm around my mother’s slender waist in a way, I thought, that looked calm and natural. Mr. Musto was leading my mother, as graceful as ever, in small circles around the edge of our finished basement. The song ended, the needle swung across the empty vinyl and rose with a mechanical whirl back to its resting place. But Mr. Musto and my mother kept moving—dancing—and the only sound was the light tapping of Mr. Musto’s shoes and the rustle of my mother’s dress.
George Ovitt is the author of a collection of stories, The Snowman. He lives in Albuquerque.