Robert Hill Long
Even when she was very little her hunger was worth something: hunger taught her to dance, and her father noticed. When his thirst was deep enough he could charm any bartender into clearing the narrow bar for just one dance--see, a girl, and feet so tiny. The patrons would shout for a second dance when they saw how the drumbeat of her bare feet could start such a trembling among the bottles on shelves. By the third or fourth dance, the trembling reached the glasses in their hands: they threw coins and bills at her feet to make her stop. Then father would let her climb down and be a little girl again, mumbling thanks in poor english for the chair and spoon and bowls of stew brought her by drunken bricklayers and stevedores.
Afterwards, under the stars of whatever field they slept in, she'd dream the same dream: dancing in a dress with ruffles, polka dots. Some nights, still asleep, she'd rise and wander. Once she woke in the middle of a dirt road: an armadillo sniffed her, a train blew in the distance. Another time she woke on the porch of an old white couple. Her english was so poor they guessed she was deaf-mute. They bathed and fed her, aimed to adopt her. She was trying on a dress with blue dots in front of their radio full of Bing Crosby when her father knocked at the screen door. He made her choose between the dress and him. To protect his livelihood after that, he tied a rope from her ankle to his ankle at night. If she rose to leave, she fell.
It is many dances later, now, many dresses, many men later. The nurses who are otherwise kind tie her old-lady wrists down so she cannot rip out the IV again. Some nights her feet drum against the footboard, but weakly. When she can forget the restraints, she goes over memories step by step: the time she was caught dancing in a bar at age ten and jailed for three days. Emerging, she saw father at the corner holding his hat, which meant he was ashamed of himself. Out of his jacket he drew the most beautiful loaf of of bread, which she ate before allowing him to kiss her. She remembers the night her stitched-up knee opened on stage in Chicago: with every spin she flung blood onto the front-row gowns and tuxedos. By then even her blood was famous.
But sometimes when she was ten, twelve, dancing in those bars, she would not stop. Not even after her father's guitar stopped. She made the coins at her feet tremble and spin, kicked the sweaty dollar bills back at the drinkers and shouters. Having the moment, that was having everything. When she closes her eyes now she knows who it is, tied to her on the narrow bed.