First place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2009.
Basements Are For Dancing
by Sandy Raney
Melody never said much to me about her father. At unexpected moments, she presented his life piecemeal. “My dad used to own a nightclub,” she said when we met in freshman year at our Catholic high school. During gym class a month later she said, “Dad was shot five years ago during a robbery.” And while eating ice cream she confided, “Dad’s paralyzed now but he used to be dashing, like Clark Gable.”
Dumbfounded after each offering, I began to doubt she was Catholic. All of the Catholic families I knew were exactly like mine. Fathers worked during the week; none of them owned nightclubs or had ever been shot.
I envisioned Melody’s mother reading to him in the evenings, holding his hand as he drifted off to sleep. It wasn’t until my first visit to her house that I discovered her mother had run off with another man four years earlier. Melody’s sister, Susan, in her early twenties, had to return home with her new husband to care for her dad and Melody. Even though I’d been to her house lots of times after school and on Saturday afternoons, I had never seen any sign of her father.
Mom and Dad disapproved of my friendship with Melody. They said she was wild and they refused to let me spend the night at her house. I begged for months, trying to make them feel sorry for her. She’s practically an orphan, I told them. Susan’s mean to her. Her family’s poor. Finally they relented and the following Saturday, I had my first overnight at Melody’s. I could hardly wait. At her house, we’d be able to have boys over and play loud music and stay out late.
I hadn’t been at her house long that afternoon when Melody said, “Want to meet my dad?” pointing to the door off the kitchen.
“Okay,” I said, imagining a sickly Clark Gable.
Melody opened the door and yelled, “Hey, Pops! I’m bringing a friend to meet you.”
I followed her down the stairs into the damp basement. Melody went through the open door of a small room and perched on the bed. “Hi ya, Pops.” I hung back in the doorway, afraid to go into that room with the iron bed and the bony outline of her father under a white sheet. The smell of urine made me gag.
“Well, come in,” Melody said, daring me to enter.
I stepped into the room and stood frozen at the edge of the bed. “Pops, this is Linda,” Melody said in that fast, clipped flirty way she had, her head tilted to the right side. “Her dad owns a grocery store down on 12th Street and they have the neatest pool in her backyard. We’re really good friends.” The words tumbled out in one breath as Melody’s hand absentmindedly bounced her father’s limp hand up and down.
Mr. Cirello’s eyes moved slowly from his daughter’s face to mine. For once in my life, I couldn’t think of anything to say. He had the same narrow eyes as Melody. A thin dark mustache, like a slash of ink over his mouth, made his withered face menacing instead of dashing. His shrunken body smelled musty from years as a prisoner in his bed and I imagined mold growing between his toes. The only healthy-looking part of him was his hair—thick and black. It was the only possible connection to Clark Gable that I could find.
Melody’s eyes darted around the room as she talked to her dad. Her hand, moving as fast as her mouth, tugged at his fingers, pinched his thumb, tapped on his palm. I sat on a hard-backed chair, hugging my thin sweater tighter around me.
After a few minutes, she said, “Well, Pops, we gotta go.” She blew him a kiss, then grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the chair.
“Goodbye, Mr. Cirello. It was nice meeting you.” We dashed upstairs and out the side door.
Susan yelled, “Where do you think you’re going, Melody? Get back in here and finish the laundry.”
I stopped but Melody yanked on my arm. “Let’s run,” she said. “She’s a slave driver. I hate her.” I didn’t like Susan either. She kind of scared me. When she wasn’t yelling, she moped around, then collapsed into the couch, burying her face in the cushions while Melody cooked dinner or washed dishes or cleaned the house. Once I saw her shove her burly husband against the wall when he came home drunk after work. Melody said Susan hated her because she was jealous. Susan was short and dumpy, and Melody was beautiful with olive skin, long dark hair, and black eyes.
We passed the low-cost housing development with its broken windows and sneering boys who delivered long low whistles like invitations to a party. Melody flipped her hair to the side and yelled, “Who you looking at?” I stared straight ahead, wishing my toothpick legs were as shapely as hers.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her dad. He hadn’t said one word to either of us, not that Melody gave anyone a chance.
“Melody, can’t your father talk?”
“Of course he can talk. He’s paralyzed, not dumb.”
“But he didn’t say anything the whole time we were there.” I should have tried harder to speak to him. He probably saw how terrified I was of his staring eyes and silence.
“Sometimes he talks, sometimes he doesn’t.” Melody shrugged. “I like it better when he’s quiet because he’s usually griping.”
My dad made us laugh at the dinner table with stories about practical jokes played on fellow soldiers in World War II, making us believe he had a great time in the army. He puffed his cheek out for a kiss when we said good night. He held Mom’s hand when they sat on the couch. He read the newspaper in his recliner at night and played golf on Saturdays with his friends. We always knew he would be home right after work. We could never banish Dad to a cold dark basement. I didn’t understand how that had happened to Melody’s father.
I wondered what her dad was doing right now, if he was sleeping or just lying there thinking about his family, wondering what they were doing upstairs, wishing someone would come visit him.
We wandered down to the river to skip stones. Mine scudded across the water halfheartedly. I didn’t feel like staying overnight at Melody’s anymore. She would think I was weird if I told her that I wanted to go home. I wanted to see Dad, hear his voice, laugh with him over a corny joke. Go home were it was safe, where my family was exactly like all the other Catholic families I knew, where basements were for dancing, make-believe and doing the wash. I looked at Melody and for the first time, noticed the hard edges of her face, and saw her life as she grew older.
Remembering the cold basement, I shivered, worried that no one had remembered to put a blanket over her father. He must be freezing down there with just that sheet.