A Dance Down Happiness Street
She fell in love with a man she'd never seen on a beautiful autumn day when red and gold maples blazed on Jack Dance Street. Lost as she was, Kayla drew in her breath. Her eyes shone. She loved Jack Dance, whoever he was.
"He's not real," her roommate said. "It's only a street."
"Of course he's real."
"Then he's someone with dirty white hair sprouting from his ears. Some deaf old lecher."
"Be quiet," Kayla said. "He's mine." And I love him, she told herself while her hand wrote out Jack Dance, Jack Dance, then Jack and Kayla Dance. I'll change my name. Zuleika. Serrano. Alika. Amika. She would do it the minute she met him.
The next day she drove to City Hall and, in a small voice, asked who Jack Dance was.
The clerk chewed on his pen. "Jack Dance. He work here?"
"I don't know. Do you think?"
He rose and lumbered toward her, vast as a grizzly on its hind legs. Muscled arms folded themselves on the counter, taut under his knit shirt.
"Jack Palance. That's who you mean. The movie star." He took aim at her with both forefingers. "Have Gun, Will Travel. Jack Palance."
"I never heard of him. I just want Jack Dance." She held onto the counter to hoist herself on her toes. Standing stick straight, she said, "It's a street."
"A street? Come on, girly. A street named Jack Dance?" He'd called her girly, grinning like a trained bear. She stuck out her chin and stared into his face.
"Do you have a map?"
"Yep. You want a map?"
"I want to look at it, not buy it," then added, "Please," before the bear could fix her with another vast and awful grin.
He padded over to a cardboard box and pawed out a huge laminated map. Kayla bent over it, at once dizzy and disoriented in a tangle of streets the width of threads. Adrift on jumbled avenues and roads, she finally turned the map around and searched the index. No Jack, no J— Here it was. Dance. Dance Street. Oh, lovely. Right here, north and west of downtown, exactly where she remembered.
"Thank you, thank you," she warbled. All was forgiven. The clerk's little eyes blinked hungrily. Fingers bent the plastic into shape before she flew back to the parking lot.
Kayla knew her car and fate would lead her to the street of dreams. In no time, she'd turned the corner of Harry Frank Way, cruised along Madge Phipps Avenue and arrived, breathless and eyes shining, at Jack Dance Street.
With no idea how to find him, she parked and set off. I'll know it when I see it, she thought, and eyed every lawn, every flowerbed, every tree in front of each white wooden front porch. She recognized it at once. Two finches dipped their golden wings and frolicked in a green glass birdbath filled to the brim with sparkling water. A bronze and glass sundial peeped from behind the house, whose front door gleamed in shades of plum and pale green. Forest green shutters picked out in sunny yellow lay against red brick. Her hands clasped in breathless enchantment, she whispered, "Oh, how wonderful!"
At that moment, a man as comely as the house, dressed in khaki slacks and a navy blue blazer, stepped out with car keys in hand. Jack Dance. It had to be. It absolutely—
"Excuse me, sir?"
He stopped. The look in his dark eyes held her effortlessly as he sprang down the steps.
"Looking for me?" Warm and nice, his voice sounded like laughter.
"Yes. Hello. I wondered if you're him. The one they named the street after. Jack Dance?" God, he'd think her an idiot. Maybe she was, accosting a man she'd never met but whom she loved.
"Jack Dance." His smile grew wider and he winked. Ridiculous, isn't it, the wink said, but the smile said, We know, don't we.
"Yes," she whispered. "Jack Dance."
"My dad. He was a friend of the developer." He stepped closer as she moved his way, comfortable in her presence. I love him, even if—But oh, she had so hoped he would be Jack Dance.
Her face fell, then brightened. "But your last name is Dance."
He nodded. "Actually, my first name is Jack. But they didn't name the street after me."
"Really? You are Jack Dance?" Her feet tapped and skipped as she spoke.
His lovely smile widened as he watched her bob and skip, then he held out his arms as if to invite her into a waltz or a tango. "I'm a terrible dancer, though," he confided. He took her hand between his.
"Your wife never taught you—"
This time he laughed. "No. Definitely not that." He glanced at his watch. "I have to go. I'm sorry."
"All right." She stepped aside to allow him to pass.
"You'll come back, won't you?" he called on the way to his back yard.
"Please. Will you?" He turned and turned again in a graceful swooping circle. Kayla caught her breath.
"What's your name?"
"Kayla," she answered. She'd forgotten the names she had nestled next to Dance.
"Kayla. What a wonderful name. You will come back?"
"Of course I will." He was running now and she closed her eyes, perched on the edge of her seat high in the stands. He tucked the ball under his arm, head held high as he sped toward the end zone, then ran in for a touchdown. So smooth, so graceful. Jack Dance. What a wondrous thing to happen. She swayed and skipped until she could move from his sidewalk, his house, his birdbath where a cardinal now flashed like a semaphore in the lovely glass bowl.
She drove slowly down Jack Dance Street while she cooled her flushed face with damp hands. A quivering smile shimmied around her tingling tongue. She yearned to close her eyes to hold him close. Jack Dance. He was real, he loved her. Jack Dance.
Lost in her dream, she took a wrong turn at the corner and giggled as she drove along Henry Balsam Street, then began a series of turns along streets with names so absurd they had to be real. But not Jack Dance, she told herself. A hundred others but not Jack Dance.
How simple—you followed your heart and found Jack Dance. Or maybe it was— No, no it wasn't. But once the thought took shape, she couldn't stop wondering. Maybe it was too easy to be worth anything. Jack Dance. Pretty much an ordinary guy, wasn't he? Really?
That's when she saw the billboard. Residential lots. Build your dream house. Turn right ahead and make it all come true. I'll be there to welcome you. A huge photograph of an intensely gorgeous man smiled down at her. Underneath she read Pierce Stryker. What an incredible man: lovely tanned face with eyes deep set in nets of laugh lines. Marvelous teak brown hair, sleek silver waves over his ears, a wonderful smile that lit his eyes and curved his splendid mouth. She knew at once that Pierce Stryker was the man she'd always loved. She had always known she would find him one day. Today. And he was hers.
She fastened both hands to the wheel and the car jumped ahead. Now all of it would come true, like his sign said. That sign was for her. Darling Pierce. Pierce Stryker. Mrs. Kayla Stryker.
She drew in her breath and watched the speedometer climb. I'm almost there, darling, she called, careful to follow the name printed on his red arrows that ran along the edges of each lawn, blazing the way to happiness, to the man of her dreams, to everything she'd ever wanted.
Carol Papenhausen, born in Chicago, is a graduate of Northwestern University and a Fellow of the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Stories in North American Review, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner and Colorado Quarterly; two received honorable mention in Best American Short Stories. Poetry in several journals, plus a handful of online stories.