Dancing with Lightning: Chapter 9

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Synopsis

After a lifetime of transience with his now estranged migrant worker parents, Dave Copersmith wants nothing more in his adult independence than to settle down with a permanent job, home, and his own family in Denver. But owing to the severe handicap of a childhood brush with lightning that has scrambled his nerves, severed his ability to dream, and initiated a dangerous habit of sleepwalking, his ambitions remain elusive. Waking up in Mexico City from his longest sleepwalk ever, stealing dance lessons with a telescope, and pretending experience with diapers don’t help his cause. When the final indignity of losing his apartment to the new landlord’s aged mother threatens, he promptly infiltrates her senior living center with an alias and an unformed agenda to keep her at bay. His thoroughly improvised campaign forces him to waltz in cheap furniture TV commercials, engage in a protracted battle of wits with a crafty real estate agent, sing disguised in a talent show for the elderly, chase 80-year-old lovers joyriding a motor home all the way to Seattle while keeping a beautiful but nosy single mother off his lengthening trail of deceptions, and smuggle an exotic animal for safekeeping into the Denver Zoo with a band of bohemian actors. With a subconscious boost from movies as dream substitutes, the combined impact of these spirited misadventures forces him to accept the relationships he’s worked hardest to avoid and possibly provides the keys to realizing his long-tendered desires.

Chapter Nine
The Amateur’s Brief Duel

Mountains of cumulonimbus assembled in the high altitudes west of the city and scudded overhead as patiently as continental drift throughout the morning. The towering white masses augured heavy convection storms for Denver but ultimately held off loosing their power till reaching the eastern plains. Once there, sixty miles off in the afternoon distance, the clouds were illuminated from within by constant electrical activity. Blue veins of thermal light pulsed in lingering strobes against the soft plum and rose of the puffy interiors, kicking out every few minutes to stab the earth with a white-hot flash.

Colorado’s June lightning season was rumbling into full swing, and Dave Copersmith was on edge, dreading the next night that a thunderbolt would crack the sky directly above him. He punched the time clock at Big Al’s to go home and slipped out the warehouse door to his pickup without talking to anyone, then raced down the frontage road for the Pecos Street connection to I-70, the quickest way home.

It wasn’t enough that his life was already coming apart at the seams ten stitches at a time. Veronica, the house, Ron Condon’s stupid idea about him being in Al’s commercials. He’d just been sleepwalking somewhere the night before in half a tux. The only cognitive artifacts were something sparkling at him from a ceiling and the quiet reverberations of ballroom music that sounded like his dance practice record. Now his ramshackle nervous system had to deal with the PTSD tremens of thunderstorms.

Turning off the interstate at Lowell, he sped west on 46th Avenue, still glancing in his rearview at the clouds until he came to his senses, recognizing that ahead of him, the sky was blue, and all the storm action had passed, by now become a welcome sight to dryland farmers watching it roll into Washington and Yuma counties.

The Smiley Library came into view and the old Berkeley Lake bathhouse. Straight ahead, Lakeside’s white tower. As he passed Zenobia, headed for the alley to park the pickup, Dave’s peripheral vision noted the yard sign in the vicinity of his address, big enough to register in a half-second glimpse yet barely a match for his powerful denial. Colorful Colorado Realty. For Sale. A phone number. He refused to look back for a double-check and promptly dismissed it as if it were in front of another house. He didn’t have to finally accept it until he’d brought a beer out to the front steps to sit and watch the daylight leave another Wednesday behind.

And there it stood. Not disappearing with the other hallucinations. Not in somebody else’s yard down the block but stuck eight inches into the dirt of his own. Red, white, blue, and gold, the colors of the Colorado state flag, flying low for some local patriot to claim the land out from under the lovesick transient. The moron warehouse worker hanging around an old Northwest Denver neighborhood, making snug with the local bugs. Tucked in with the car nuts, the artists, the Christmas lights burning year ‘round on the porches, the noisy amusement park full of beat-up old rides and ancient booths of chance under eighty annual layers of gaudy paint. Dave, the stubborn boll weevil who thinks he’s found a home. Trying to make his landlady fall in love with him. Positively schoolboy.

Dave noticed the growing pressure of his teeth on the bottle. He put it down and thought about what he’d come to. This. Flipping out over just having to move. Biting glass, forgetting to breathe. It was ridiculous. He’d spent so much of his life picking up and half-settling into the next camp, he could live with the birds by now. But he’d drawn his line in the sand. If nothing else was going to stabilize, at least he’d keep the key to one place for a few years, not months.

Winning Veronica’s undivided attention had to be the second most important thing in his life. Right now, he was a mortgage signature away from being evicted. It rains, it pours, it drowns the boatless. Forget that everybody kept telling him what a good damned tenant he was. Pretty soon he was going to meet a new owner, and he would be nothing but a stranger with a checkbook, and a thin one at that.

Across the street, an orange-striped cat walked close to the concrete foundation of Zayda Etzel’s house below the white siding, occasionally rubbing itself against the warmth left by an afternoon of sun. Zayda came out the front door, and the cat ran off. As she tottered toward the water spigot, Dave wondered where he’d be at her age.

When he started breathing normally again, Dave noticed Reese Bernalillo, his next-door neighbor the wood sculptor, wheeling up the street on his ten-speed. Aka Ace or Phones (outside of his jazz poem conversations, he took his headphones off only to shower). Dave closed his eyes again, his head in his hands.

“Why so sad, dad?” Reese had reached the end of Dave’s walk. Black hair streamed out the back of his Spanish beret, curling over the tops of his shirtless, dark shoulders. His eyes were invisible behind the burgundy glass circles of his sunglasses.

Reese leaned on his bicycle like he had the week wide open to discuss Dave’s problems. He nodded at the realty sign. “Sellin’ the digs, huh?” he asked a little louder than necessary, Steppenwolf still blasting into his ears.

“That’s the story so far. What can I do?”

“Don’t be a chump. Buy the dump.”

“Are you still readin’ Dr. Seuss? I thought you were a Silver Surfer man.”

“Don’t be chappin’ my stick, Bud.” Reese’s tone had turned mock serious. “The doors are yours if you wanna go for broke.” He finally took off his headphones but hung them on the bike’s crossbar, now tiny speakers for “Magic Carpet Ride.”

“Right. Get your cigar out, and I’ll light it on a hundred dollar bill I forgot to wipe my ass with.”

“You knick knack mu-thuh-.... You don’t you know Bo Diddley about real estate. Get back in the house and bring me one of those,” Reese said, pointing at the beer, “pronto, caballero. And find the I a pencil. The professor is in.”

“Forget about it, man. My pig’s empty.”

“Spot me a beer anyway. You’re too down to drink by yourself. The advice factor’s on the house. So to speak.”

Dave brought out another bottle. Reese laid the bike down on the grass and sat cross-legged beside it. He sipped the beer and curled his lip at the absent flavor, spit half out into the grass. “Fuchi, man. You get this outta your toilet tank?”

“What are you, the beer police?”

“Maaann,” Reese said with emphatic disgust. “What’s the name of this weed killer?” He looked at the label. “Old Style. More like the old man’s whiz. Gimme a coffee cup an’ lemme unload the king’s bladder. I can make better suds than this, Jones.”

“Yeah, whatever. When do you drop off the $10,000 so I can put a down on this place?”

“Get back, Jojo. I ain’t Banker Bob. Check, here’s your plan, if you decide to accept the mission. You need to see Mr. CHAFA. It’s Colorado Housing blah blah, somethin’ else. Loans for your moans. See the mansion at 4469?” he said, nodding toward his own house.

Dave looked at Reese’s tiny abode. It wasn’t spacious, but he and his wife and the necessities of their art careers fit neatly inside. Priorities were met.

“It’ll be paid for in twenty two months sharp,” Reese continued. “We got in there for beans, and they weren’t even magic. Look for CHAFA. They’re in the book, an’ I know you can read. Then if you can find a HUD, you are set, my man.”

“What’s a HUD?”

“A HUD house is a dump. Some wrecked place that a chump like you with no change could fix up. Maybe this place’ll qualify,” he said, hooking a thumb at Veronica’s duplex. “It’s pretty old, even though you got the outside spiffed. Go for it, man. You can move in with no down. Hey, I’ll even help ya move,” he added, laughing. “I’m serious, man.” He was on his back now, coughing. “I don’t care how long it takes. You can count on the Count. Chocula, that is.”

“Yeah, I really appreciate it.”

“Hey, what about the cowgirl? You wouldn’t make your sweet little squeeze move out if you bought the joint from her, would ya?”

Dave threw on a defensive game face. He’d never admitted to Reese or any other neighbor that he was sleeping with Veronica. “Squeeze? What makes you say that?”

“My line o’ sight over your back fence, Romeo. Plus, The Boss can tell.” He rarely referred to his wife by her real name. “Women just know, man. You can’t fool ‘em unless you got....” He gave Dave the head-to-toe once-over. “Never mind. You ain’t got it.” Reese sniffed the air and turned his head toward his house. “Check. Gotta fly. The Boss’s got Berkeley’s finest on the stove. Smell that chile verde? Ahhh.”

“I can’t really smell too well.”

“Listen to you, Johnson. You can chime. I knew there was a poet somewhere in that sack o’ dog bones. What’s wrong with the sniffer?”

“Old lightning injury.”

“Ooh, that’s cold, Bubba. Well, I guess you better stay outta the rain. Thanks for the side o’ fries,” he said, holding up the beer.

Reese picked up the black Centurion Super Le Mans. Some of the letters had been scratched off so it read Super Man. In his own yard, he turned around and shouted, “Davey Gravy! You’re the hound dog, man. ‘S gonna be tight an’ work out right. It’s CHAFA time.”

Dave waved goodbye. His neighbor had his mind turning somersaults. If it were possible, really possible to buy without a down payment, then it wasn’t inconceivable that he, himself, youngest member of the original Traveling Copersmiths, could actually buy the place. He’d never heard that bottom feeders were considered for housing loans. It was a revelation. His rent and Veronica’s mortgage kick had added up before. All she needed was to find work again. He’d get everything squared with the CHAFA people first, so all she’d have to say is yes. The thought of everything coming together at once thrilled him. He could have his cake and eat till he burst.

On Saturday, the Colorful Colorado selling agent, Phyllis Shell, brought over a pair of prospective buyers. Dave was called ahead of time so he could either be gone or presentable when the lookers arrived. They would want to see both sides of the duplex, of course, since they’d be purchasing the whole place, Phyllis said in her message, and she hoped it would be no inconvenience.

Dave was surprised to see the shoppers pull up in a fairly new silver Mazda coupe. So maybe the neighborhood really was on its way. The next Washington Park, people kept saying. Meanwhile, the hood hadn’t really changed. It was still an ethnically mixed congregation of residents keeping up a lot of brick bungalows. Unlike the yuppified Wash Park, however, most dogs in northwest Denver were Dobermans and Chow Chows instead of Golden retrievers, and the summer night gunshot ratio was still 10:1.

First, Phyllis led her prospects into Veronica’s side to look around. After they’d circulated out to the back yard, they startled Dave by knocking on his back door.

“Hi there, David,” Phyllis opened, as bright as a radio commercial. He’d never seen her before. She was a pleasant looking woman in her early fifties, wearing an Ann Taylor linen dress. Her lipstick was stoplight fresh. She wore her short, ash-blond hair in a concise helmet of bangs and simple curves. The thin lilac rims of her glasses stopped halfway down the lenses. A woman who didn’t let fashion get too far ahead of her. “I hope we’re not disturbing you. We’ll just be a minute. You did get the message I left on your machine, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, sure. Come on in.” Phyllis shot in first with her radar on high, scoping everything in sight so she’d be ready with the right intercepting comment.

The husband wore an ironed Polo shirt and pressed olive khakis. He gripped Dave’s hand with the self-assurance of a politician. “Love the landscaping. Veronica said you’re responsible for most of it. I’m Chris. This is my wife, Chenelle.” Her metallic blue eyes met Dave’s without blinking, letting go a thin, whiplash smile and turning her attention instantly to the walls and floor loaded with Dave’s thrift store furnishings.

The couple inspected the bathroom first, unaware how much the hollow of the shower stall amplified their whispers. “Doesn’t...perfect...renter. Maybe college girl? Regis University....close by.”

Dave had a sudden sense of time leaking from him like an open wound.

When the contingent left for a second look at Veronica’s side, Dave gobbled two blood pressure pills and choked with the swig of water. It was definitely on. The castle was being stormed, and if he didn’t start fighting back now, he’d never get his own crack at ownership.

Before Chenelle and Chris got back to their Mazda, Dave had keyed the driver’s door in a twelve-inch scratch that left silver paint flecks like sawdust on the pavement. His ace landscaping and their visions of Regis coeds wouldn’t be the only memories of Zenobia Street the pair took home.

Phyllis came back in the afternoon with another couple dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts. They left their black Lab in the car, an older beige Subaru station wagon. Smiling eagerly as they looked up and down the block, they seemed to Dave like nice people. Shit, they’d probably make great neighbors, he thought before reminding himself to get tough with the enemy. They need a bigger house anyway. I see them with three kids. Another dog. I am doing you people a gigantic favor.

“Hi again, David.” Phyllis brought the prospects right to his side first this time. She was even friendlier now, full of conspiratorial winks, the whole charade. The instant ease of business people that made Dave’s skin hike.

“How’s it goin’?” the wife asked pleasantly. Youthfully pretty without makeup. Black hair tied in a ponytail. “Beautiful day, huh? Jill and Tim. Gosh, this is such a cool neighborhood. Great mix of people and houses.”

“Yes, it’s very mixed,” Dave responded numbly.

Jill was looking at the flowers beside the porch steps. “Are those asters or Echinacea?”

“Purple domes. Yes, they’re...a type of aster,” he said, keeping his monotone steadily confined between D and E-flat.

“Well, Veronica has done a beautiful job of landscaping the property.” Dave didn’t bother correcting her.

“And you’re what,” Tim added, grinning, “about three minutes from Pizza Alley?” He was a burly six-foot-three, curly brown hair over the ears. Short-sleeved blue and white plaid shirt. Khaki shorts and trail runners. An outdoorsman. “I’ll bet they deliver over here, don’t they. We’ve been coming to the neighborhood for years just for their pizza.”

Good god, Dave thought, they’re in love with the place already. I have to work fast. He took a chance and let them enter without him. He needed time to think.

When he caught up with them in the back yard, a strategy had at last become obvious. “How about if I show Tim the basement?” he offered to Phyllis. He was pretty sure she wasn’t interested in ducking cobwebs. “Well, it’s not exactly a basement,” he added, “just a root cellar. The power supply’s down there.” He wrinkled his nose. “Grimy man stuff.”

Phyllis smiled her appreciation. “Oh, thank you so much, David. Jill and I will just go next door and look at the other half. How’s that?”

“Great.” Tim followed Dave beneath the duplex, scrunching his head and shoulders together to fit inside the dirt-walled cavern. “Watch your head around these floor joists,” Dave said as they walked past the furnace and water heater. “I knocked myself out cold one time.” He pulled the chain on the swinging light bulb. “Well, this is the boiler room. It’s a little underpowered, so you can’t take showers at the same time on both sides, but you can work out a plan with your tenant for taking turns. That’s what Veronica and I do.” He was surprised how quickly he could invent a deal-killing drawback.

“Hmm” was all Tim could get out before Dave prattled on like a car dealer steering his mark from used to new.

“This house isn’t so bad if you’re willing to keep working on it.” Dave had noticed that despite Tim’s overall bulk, his smallish forearms looked like they hadn’t done much with a hammer. “You seem like a guy who knows his way around tools. Nothing makes the wife happier than a little sweat and a wrench in your hand, right?”

Tim winced. “Uh, yeah. I guess so.”

“Well,” Dave continued, “there’s a few things I haven’t gotten to, like the wall insulation on this leaky old place, but you can drill holes from outside and blow in shredded newspaper and stuff. That’s your cheapest option. You can patch up the wall damage later. And for getting it into the foundation, see how this crawl space goes all the way around? You can just have somebody hold a flashlight while you crawl back there. You’re not claustrophobic, are you?”

“Not really, but...are you sure there’s enough space to crawl there?”

“Yeah, but you could hire a little kid, I guess. Just have to convince him there’s no rats down here. I’ve heard some scratching before, but prob’ly just mice. It’s not the tropics, right?”

“I think I’ve seen enough down here,” Tim decided. “I still need to see the rest of the upstairs.” When they got outside in the light of the back yard, Tim’s pinkened face was showing serious concern. “Dave, do you mind if I ask you a few more questions?” he asked. “I mean...the real estate agent is going to tell us everything we want to hear, and frankly, it’s a good looking older duplex on the outside. But could you clue me in on other aspects of the house or the neighborhood that might not be.... No place is perfect, right?”

Dave’s heart leapt. He was ready with a litany of impediments to urban bliss, starting with the summertime din of Lakeside only a block away, which was actually music to his ears, and ended with the questionable quality of the local grade school that he knew next to nothing about. Then he started reeling off stories of local disturbances that had actually taken place blocks or miles away, all memorized from the papers. A burglary that had emptied an entire home during a vacation, a fire set by kids with bottle rockets. He ended with an upbeat account of how quickly the fire department had actually arrived, reminding Tim that the nearest station was only six blocks away, and even though you regularly heard their sirens, it was sort of a reassuring sound. By then, Tim’s worried eyes made clear that he was smelling smoke and imagining himself setting rat traps in the dirty crawl space while gunfire riddled the windows.

Dave decided it was time to put the candles on the cake. “I normally wouldn’t mention such a thing to a rational person like yourself, but since you asked, there’s some pretty serious ghost rumors running around the neighborhood, but hey, I’ve never seen anything I could be sure of.”

Tim was speechless for long seconds, gaze cast to an indeterminate midpoint in the sky, till he finally mumbled something Dave couldn’t understand and mounted the back steps to catch up with his wife.

As they walked back to their car, Tim noticeably fidgeted while talking to Jill, and she glanced back at the house several times with expressions from pensive to regretful. Dave waved goodbye, reserving his widest grin for Phyllis. He had foiled her twice in a row, and the second time, he’d transcended petty crime with the smoother cons of acting and storytelling.

Soon it was apparent that something had clicked inside Dave that seemed wrong if he thought about it too long but felt right if he didn’t. He began saving time by making sure fewer people got as far as looking at the house. When anyone stopped to record the realtor’s phone, he stretched his face in the picture window like an escaped lunatic, picking his nose with one hand and scratching at the glass with the other while mouthing “Let me out!” He moved on to a rubber Halloween mask of a hobo, looking like a bank robber fresh off a job. The effect was exactly what he was after. Most cars pulled away too fast to write anything down.

Dave moved from being civil around Phyllis to charming, and then the minute he was alone with a buyer, he would start in about the cellar flooding during rains and snowmelt because of leaky gutters, and the cracked foundation. Or he’d tell them the dogs on either side stopped barking at night if you threw a small firecracker. Spilling a little gasoline near the back steps gave instant credence to his diatribe about fumes from the service station down the alley.

All had been going so well for Dave’s improvised subterfuge during the first week that he began to feel home free. He had no idea that he was overmatched by a power of ten in his little tug of war. If it had been any other licensed property shuffler, Dave might have prevailed for a few more weeks, months, or longer, but it was Phyllis Shell he was up against, and his cheap tricks were merely stalling the inevitable. Phyllis could survive whatever the market threw her way, and she had the Caribbean winter vacation tan every spring to prove it.

She wasted precious little time with the detective work on 4451 Zenobia. It was day eight into the job of moving it off the books that she discovered Dave Copersmith had been sabotaging its sale. The Petersons, who lived across the street, she had helped find their two-bedroom fixer-upper with mature rose beds and the one-and-a-half car garage to accommodate Hugh’s whirligig workshop. They were more than happy to share. Hugh informed her of the godawful faces Dave made at the front window, and Brenda had noticed a towel draped over the For Sale sign a time or two. Their five-year-old contributed the new rumor about a ghost who lived in the cellar and could make fire siren sounds to start the neighborhood dogs howling.

Phyllis had suspected something was amiss that was keeping the adventurous demographic at bay. The first part came clear when she remembered that Veronica Bender had told her with a little too much twinkle in her eye that the wonderful handyman tenant was in love with the place and the neighborhood. To boot, Phyllis thought he was sort of cute. So the little contract assassin had been working around two of her blind spots.

After the Petersons ratted on his games of hide and spook, Phyllis asked Zayda Etzel if she knew anything. The pro broker had been after the old lady for five years to sell off her house with its adorable curb appeal. Even though the interior was in sad shape, Zayda could make a bundle and be taking care of a much smaller place. Zayda still wasn’t budging, but the romance between Dave and Veronica came tumbling out before the hostess’s teakettle squealed. So there it was. Obvious as paw prints in a hen house. The poor love-struck kid was trying to keep his mistress roped in. An odd new wrinkle in Phyllis’s portfolio but nothing she couldn’t handle.

The next showing of the duplex came on a weekday when Dave was safely out of the way at work. The Bjorndals, Doug and Gail, followed Phyllis’s pearlescent white Acura in their red Toyota Tercel to Veronica’s duplex. Doug was a mildly plump thirty-four-year-old with a cleanly bald dome and a sandy caterpillar of side hair. Gail, thirty-one, was taller by half an inch and weighed only six pounds more than her college swim team days. She wore a short ponytail high on the back of her medium-length, straw-colored hair.

Leading the charge from the curb was Phyllis, who was in her famous rhythm. She spotted the unmistakable itch in her new clients which meant she could probably nudge a commitment out of them and still make a matinee of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. She’d already seen it once, but Michael Caine’s oily gigolo was irresistible to her in some sketchy way.

Phyllis’s research and a collection of North High School yearbooks had served her well again. Doug was deeply nostalgic for the neighborhood, having grown up only a mile away near Wolff Park, and some of his best buddies were already drifting back to the old stomping grounds as well. Longtime school chum Ray “Paco” Johnson was resuming his law practice after five years as a dive master in Honduras. Another pal, Miles Galvin, had returned to work the family rhodochrosite mine near Golden.

Doug and Gail were securely hooked in half an hour. They’d been looking for so long that they ran through their priorities checklist in fifteen minutes. Plumbing and electrical recently redone. Check. No significant cracks in the foundation. Check. Both interiors of the duplex were in decent shape, so they could move Doug’s mother into either unit.

Confident of her catch, Phyllis delayed signing off on a bid till the next day so she could make the 3:30 screening of Scoundrels at the Tivoli.

The next evening, Dave had just finished brushing Cisco when Veronica called. As dusk siphoned off the last light from the living room, he continued to trim the dog’s goatee and muzzle fluff with his free hand while Veronica talked about how relieved she was. “Can you believe it,” she squealed. “We’re actually going to sign the contract in less than two weeks.” Dave caught some skin with the scissors, and Cisco yelped.

“Who’s there?” Victoria asked.

“Cisco. Remember? Your faithful dog?”

“Oh, how is my sweet puppy love, Dave?” she asked. “Does he miss us?”

Cisco licked Dave’s hand and sniffed at the brush. Dave looked into the dog’s eyes, wet and huge with adoration for him in spite of having just been nicked on the chin.

So there it was: the duplex had sold. And not to him. He was dead in the water.

“Dave?”

“Yeah.”

“Cisco. Janice wants to know if he misses us.”

“Yeah. Sure. He misses you both...plenty. Like....” He stopped himself. Dave had expected that, with time, Veronica would soften through the growth of their friendship and lovemaking. But, in the end, the opposite proved true.

He finally gathered himself to assess the moment. Contracts would be signed in two weeks. Veronica’s ship was leaving, and he might have no more than this last shot at turning her back. “I don’t think Cisco misses you two as much as I do.”

The emotion in his voice was unmistakable. Veronica could practically feel his breath and see his hurt eyes through the phone. “Dave, I hope you’re not goin’ any further with that. You know where we stand.”

“Roni.”

“What?”

“You’re never going to say it, are you.”

“No, of course not, and you know exactly why. Quit. It just makes it harder to enjoy what we already have.”

“Then I’m going to say it before it’s too late.”

“Don’t.”

“I love you, Roni.”

“Jesus, David,” Veronica exhaled into the phone. She stood up and paced a circle, then retraced it. “Listen, I’m gonna get to the point with you right now, and I want you to really hear what I’m saying.”

“I’m listening.”

“No you’re not, but it doesn’t matter this time, because I’m just gonna say this and get it over with. Look, you’re so damn sweet, it makes my knees ache. Sometimes I wish.... Look, just get ahold of somebody who appreciates you, and pay attention to her goddamned feelings.”

“Roni, I can....”

“Stop, Dave.” She’d started to tear up, and her voice showed it. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you this before. I should have. I thought I might actually make the break from Vince, and.... We were never divorced, just separated, but it was easier to tell you it was final.” She paused to gather herself. “I don’t know if this is the right thing, but he wants to try again, and we really need his help now. I know it’s best for Janice.” Dave was silent, reeling from the news. “Are you still there?”

“Yeah, I’m here.” Dave sat down, one elbow on the couch arm, his hand covering his face.

“Hey, I’m sorry, but do you understand now? Life isn’t so simple sometimes.”

“Yeah, got it.”

“You’re gonna be fine, you big hunk. And I know the new owners will love you. In fact, I’ll say something before we sign about giving you a break on the rent sometimes for the repairs. I’ll bet they’ll totally jump on it.”

 “I guess I’ll never get a chance to dance with you.”

“Whaddya mean?”

“I learned ballroom dancing for you.”

“You what?”

“Janice told me you like to dance ballroom, so I learned it. Fox trot, waltz, the whole shebang.”

“I don’t know where she got that idea. Country swing, maybe. God, that’s...that was really nice, Dave. Some lucky girl is gonna really appreciate the heck outta that.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore. One wasted surprise after another. You don’t know how hard I worked to kill the sale of this place.”

“I do, too, you slick bastard. Phyllis told me everything.”

“Now you know how desperate—”

“Yeah, like I didn’t already. Well, you met your match in Phyllis, thank god. It’s done. Look, I need to go. Take care, okay?”

“Will do.” They both hung up. Dave’s receiver sounded to him like a bone dropping into a box. Like a shaman had just conferred last rites on his love life.

He took his scope to the roof and aimed it at the moon, which was hoisting its full, gigantic self off the eastern horizon. Cisco followed him up and lay down in the safe middle of the roof.

Waltz music drifting out of the ballroom studio convinced him to swing the scope that way. The dance students were lined up north-south in ready position. Dave decided he’d better practice in case Big Al actually listened to his weird brother, and he had to dance to save his day job. He looked back at his faithful companion. “C’mere, Cisco. You’re gonna have to be the girl, tonight, wogger. I’m fresh out.” He grabbed the dog’s front paws. Cisco struggled backward, making Dave laugh.

“Sorry, puppa.” He stopped and let the dog down. “No more torture.” As soon as he’d sat cross-legged, Cisco curled up against his knees. He massaged the back of the dog’s neck while he watched the dancers twirling around the room together in a big revolving circle of couples that reminded him of the Spinning Hearts ride at Lakeside.

And here he was adrift between both locations, nothing to say for himself, dancing with a dog on the roof of his collapsing life. Touché, Veronica. Well played, Phyllis. Two-zip. Check. But not checkmate.

About the Author

Ran Diego Russell

Ran Diego Russell’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in the journals Witness, Spillway, Tar River Poetry, Oyez Review, The RavensPerch, and many others. His itinerant childhood rambled throughout the deserts and foothills of the Rocky Mountain region. Prior to his teaching career, he worked as a ranch hand, construction laborer, fruit picker, and truck driver. During his non-writing free time, it’s all about jazz bass, carpentry, and serving the Border collies’ energy.

Read more work by Ran Diego Russell .