Nine Ladies Dancing
My back hurts me. I stand, stretch my arms over my head, and then settle back onto the concrete stoop. I push myself up against the door so I don’t hang off the tiny step too far. Folding my hands on my lap, I look up and down at the front doors lining the city sidewalk.
I really got to pee.
There’s that pigeon again, strutting on the sidewalk like he was a peacock. I swear he gets paid to keep an eye on me. He bends to the ground, pecking among the brown leaves at invisible treats. If he gets paid more than I do to sit here, I’ll be pissed.
I lock eyes with the pigeon. ”Can you watch while I go pee?”
He nods. I jump up from the stoop, fling open the door and slip into the bathroom just inside. I hear their voices from the basement. Some laughing. Some yelling. Panic runs through me at the thought of them hearing me come inside. I almost can’t pee. Oh, there it comes. I button up, fly back out the door and sit on the stoop again.
The pigeon looks up from his pecking. His expression seems to warn me not to leave my post again. I knew I shouldn’t have had that soda this morning. It always makes me pee.
I scan the doors and windows around me. I catch a glimpse of a shadow in one of the windows across the street on the second floor. Squinting, I see the apartment is still vacant, the way it’s been since the old guy who lived there died a couple of months ago.
Tom Spinosa walks down the sidewalk towards me. He must be running late today. Or maybe he had an errand to run.
His loud voice always startles me. “Morning, Howie. How’s it goin’, kid?”
I stand and step to one side so he can go in the door. ”Oh, you know, Mr. Spinosa. The usual.”
“Take it easy.” He closes the door behind him. I sit again.
I check my watch. 10:30am. I hope I didn’t miss her while I was inside peeing. I crane my neck around the side of the building. Nope, here she comes: my favorite scenery of the day.
She floats down the sidewalk, blonde hair slicked back. Her long black coat is unbuttoned; it sweeps open as she walks so I can see her costume. I’m going to cry when she has to button it against the cold. Pink, gauzy fabric covers her. Her hips sway, ruffling the gray ballet skirt flaring out from her waist.
Some days she is running late and doesn’t glance at me. Today she’s early. She smiles at me with fiery lips and tosses her head, flipping her ponytail. I attempt a smile but it feels more like a smirk on my face. She walks past and leaves a soft scent of fancy perfume behind in the crisp air. I breathe it in as I watch her continue down the sidewalk.
Once she’s out of sight, I pull on the corner of my baseball cap and settle back against the stoop. The pigeon looks at me again and seems to raise his eyebrows, if he had any.
“No, you can’t have her. She’s all mine.”
I hear Christmas music from one of the nearby apartments and recognize it instantly: ”Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” from the Nutcracker. I have plenty of visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.
Chief Miller falls to the carpet in the second floor apartment, as Howie looks straight at him.
He says, “Shit. He might have seen me.”
The Chief crawls on his knees until he is well back from the window in the shadows and resumes peering down at Howie on the stoop. He sees Spinosa arrive. Scanning the checklist on the table – the only furniture in the room besides three folding chairs – he makes a checkmark next to Tom Spinosa’s name. All the other names already have checkmarks. At some point during the morning, all gang members have entered the house and nobody has left.
The Chief says, “I figure we have at least another hour while the group is there to make our bust. Let’s go ahead and radio the guys to take their positions. Tell them ten minutes to ‘go’ time.”
The Lieutenant picks up the radio mic and says into it, “Attention all units. Operation Ballerina will commence in an estimated ten minutes, at 11:00am. Take your positions and wait for the signal.”
Chief Miller turns to the rookie standing next to him. “OK, kid. Your job is to get Howie away from that door without him ringing the buzzer. I think our plan will work, but in the end, just do whatever you have to do. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, if you know what I mean. I’ve known his family for years. I’d really rather not have him involved in any of this.”
“OK, Chief,” the rookie says. “I’m ready.”
A kid about my age comes walking down the street. He stops when he gets to where I’m sitting.
“Hey, how’s it going?” He says.
“It’s going okay. What’s up?”
He slips his hands in his pockets. “Oh, nothing. I’m just on my way to the dance studio around the corner.”
“The dance studio?”
He grins at me. “Yeah. You know there’s a class going on right now in the front room. You can stand on the sidewalk and watch it through the picture window.”
My heart beats in my ears. “Really? Those classes are normally in the back room.”
“I know, right? Well, my buddy called me and told me that today it’s in the front room and …” He leans towards me and whispers. “They’ve got nine ladies dancing in there today.”
“Nine? You’re shitting me. There are usually only three or four in that class.”
He nods slowly. “Nine. My buddy just told me. You want to come with me to watch them?”
I shake my head. “No, sorry, I can’t. Um, I’m waiting for a friend to come.” I have butterflies in my stomach thinking about my blonde with eight other ladies dancing.
“Are you sure? It’s just around the corner and it would only be for a minute or two. These women are incredible in their dance outfits with their fluffy skirts …”
“Oh, okay. But only for a minute.” I look for the pigeon but I don’t see him anywhere. My hands shake as I walk with the kid down the street.
We round the corner and I rush to the window of the dance studio. Darkness fills the front room, but a glimmer of light shines through the doorway to the back room. I look at the kid and start to ask him what the deal is.
He says, “Kid, you’ve got to get out of here. A bust is going down.”
I just stare at him and then I hear the shout from around the corner. ”Police! Open up!” My eyes fly open.
“Run, kid!” He pushes me. I stumble and then run in the direction away from my stoop. I hear more shouts in the distance. A staccato of gunshots.
My raspy breathing drowns out any further sounds from my ears. I run many blocks until I feel my lungs seize up and my legs buckle. Panic has now spread to every corner of my body. An image flashes through my mind: the look on Spinosa’s face when he finds out I wasn’t at my post when the bust went down.
I reach into my pocket. $71 and some chewing gum. Plenty to get some lunch.
I have run and walked further than I thought because I see my favorite diner just across the street. I cross, swing open the door and enter, taking a seat at the counter. Sweat pours down my face and neck. I mop myself with a napkin. The silver-haired waitress takes my order, but then my eyes are riveted to the television hanging in the corner.
Dozens of dancers recede to the edges of the stage and one ballet dancer in soft pink floats across the center of the stage as if a string suspends her. The soft plucking sounds come at my ears for the second time today: “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies.” Anger and shame boil up in me.
I say, “Could you change the channel, please?”
The waitress purses her lips and sighs, but she flips the channel with the remote.
The head and shoulders of a newscaster fill the screen. I pour cream into my coffee from a tin pitcher and stir. I put the cup to my lips. The next image on the screen is that of Tom Spinosa. The newscaster says, “We have some breaking news to report…” My hand begins shaking. I put my cup down on the saucer as coffee splashes out of either side of the mug.
“We don’t have many details at the moment, but we are working on a story for the evening report regarding the arrest of the notorious crime boss Thomas Spinosa and many of his gang members. We are getting reports of up to twenty-two arrests. Three of the members of the gang were fatally shot during the bust, which was carried out a short time ago by local police. Be sure to watch the six o’clock report for further details on this story.”
The silver-haired waitress appears with my plate of food in her hand. She sets it down in front of me. “Are you okay, son?”
I pick up my napkin to clean up the spilled coffee. “Yes, thanks.”
As I chew each mouthful of food, I run some calculations. Twenty-two arrests. Three dead. That leaves seventeen gang members who are still free. That leaves seventeen gang members who will be coming after me for betraying them by leaving my post. Seventy-one dollars. Subtract fifteen dollars for lunch. That leaves just enough for a forty-nine dollar bus ticket to my cousin’s house in Spartan. My mom’s been trying to kick me out of the house for years, anyway.
I finish my lunch, leave the fifteen dollars next to my plate and walk outside. It feels much cooler than it did earlier. The pigeon sits just outside the diner door.
“You want to come with me? You know, you weren’t there either.”
The pigeon twitches his head from side to side.
“Okay, suit yourself, but I’ll bet they have ballet dancers in Spartan.” I head towards the bus station, leaving the pigeon to face his fate alone.
This story appeared previously in the 12 Days 2010 anthology, edited by Jim Bronyaur.