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stories & essays


joseph mclaughlin
joseph mclaughlin recently retired as an associate professor of english at stark state college of technology in canton, ohio.  his current collection of poems is "memory, in your country" (pale horse press, 1995).  recent work has appeared in pif (online) and "the formalist."  a story and a poem are scheduled for publication in "ilya's honey."

Works on this page:
the dance



at last we took the boat out at sunset, running fast, trying to get as far as we could by dusk when we turned for home to drive slowly back into the gathering darkness with running lights reflected on the water, motor humming so quietly you could hear the pontoons gurgle as we entered, as if through a gate, some mystical space

by 10 p.m. the moon was out, other red and green lights were gliding on the inky surface (lost marina twinkling ahead)  a late heron crossed our bow like a messenger, now and again a jumping walleye startled us, nearing our dock we passed boats moving in slow procession, crouched in them more daring, hooded travelers headed out to fish

later, from our campsite, we heard their motors on the lake all night, trolling until dawn for the great silver fish, the shimmering trophy which might briefly satisfy their souls before being unsnagged and tossed casually back into the black void of the watery mirror

a moment later we opened our eyes to morning and the sun was streaming in from the big green tree and white clouds had astonished a blue sky which seemed to have been overhead forever and where did that come from?



every saturday morning, the same business men come to the small-town post-office their secretaries are off and they feel compelled to put another half-day into their little enterprises at least they can dress more casually, some even in jeans, without the need to appear before a judge or see a client or visit a customer it is like a club, this saturday gang of acquaintances who gather early at the scaled-down brick replica of independence hall, waiting for the window to open they nod and speak to each other and sometimes shout over the false front to jesse, the clerk, to open up

here comes robert, someone says, having spotted a white cadillac at the curb they all turn to look the men nod and speak as a stocky, prosperous-looking man shoulders his way through the group a path opens to the wall of old-fashioned lock boxes with tiny windows that let you see right away whether there is mail inside

      hello, robert

      mornin', robert

      nice day, robert

robert is a square-jawed, aging man who is always dressed in new clothes this morning he is wearing checkered slacks, a blue sport-coat, white shirt, and black tie winter and summer he wears a broad-brimmed hat  in winter, it is a gray felt stetson, just now, in mid-july, a close-plaited straw, probably from panama and the only one in town it looks pure white from a distance

robert uses a key from a huge ring of keys to open one of the biggest boxes in the post office wall the mail pours into his square, thick hands he needs both hands to hold it all at least fifty percent of robert's mail looks like checks, envelopes with little windows--brown, green, blue ones of that certain size that you know isn't a bill he begins sorting it on the lobby's central work table with its little postage scale and inkless blue pens tethered on chains      

the men who are waiting for the window to open gather around him they are both curious and bored no one really understands what robert's business is they only see him through a small window in his downtown office which is all of two blocks away they only see him picking up checks at the post-office

looks like another good day, robert, says a sharp-nosed, mustached face which is pretty close to robert's working shoulder

ummm ( robert's eyes are little blue beads)

finally, the window clatters open as the postal clerk raises the venetian blinds and the iron grating from the marble counter the man from the chamber of commerce, the local ford dealer, the traveling salesman, queue up at the window to buy stamps or present tickets for packages being held behind the counter they watch robert finish sorting his mail from their places along the wall  they see the straight line of his mouth, the glint of his rimless glasses under the panama as he drops the advertising pieces into the cardboard trash barrel and hammers his stack of checks onto the tabletop to square them  with a loud "thwack" he snaps a heavy rubber band around his money and turns to go as again the chorus of voices arises

      s'long, robert

      bye, robert

the men feel privileged to call robert by his first name he barely waves his body with its clothes and hat becomes a silhouette in the morning door the postal clerk is thumping things with his rubber stamps one of the men asks if robert comes in like this every day and does he ever talk business? naw, the balding clerk replies without looking up, robert's girl picks up the mail through the week


the dance

finally, as an old man, he got up to dance after fifty years of listening to every kind of music, he was finally moved to dance and got up from his stool at the end of the bar it was his birthday, his sixty-eighth, and he didn't know how many more he was going to have he was determined to celebrate the day, and it was almost gone already white hair shimmering, dark eyes on fire with determination, he caught the waitress softly by the arm as she was sweeping past from delivering drinks to a nearby table

dance with me, he said gruffly she was obviously startled by his unexpected animation, and he watched for her reaction across the canyon of their ages she couldn't be more than twenty-five, he thought such soft brown eyes such perfect olive skin her long black hair shone in the half-light of the bar like the sheen on a record album he'd been watching her closely for the month or so she'd worked there she always brought his beer and glass to him on a small, round tray surely he was familiar to her by now

after a moment, her face relaxed into a smile, and she put the little tray on an empty table and lifted her arms up to him they began to dance with his right hand, the old man could feel the flesh beneath her nylon uniform dress, the way it swelled out slightly from under her bra she was as firm and lovely as his clearest dream had been and the sweet smell of her body and hair, that delectable odor she always trailed past his seat, came rising up for him now, like incense at a ceremony

It was a long, slow song he wanted it to be that way he'd planned it for a long time, picking the music carefully if he didn't catch her right at the beginning of the song, there'd still be time for them to dance he'd tried to think of everything for weeks now, he'd been practicing the steps in his room at night, with the shades drawn and the lights dimmed so he wouldn't make a crazy silhouette so he wouldn't step on her feet

now he was dancing stumbling a little, but dancing for the first time in his life the music was slow this was far too important a moment to be spent hopping around like a jackrabbit maybe he would do that later maybe later tonight for now, he was glad that she seemed to understand drawing herself closer, making one slowly revolving world of the two of them, the girl laid her head on his right shoulder and her warm breath touched his neck just above the collar of his shirt she seemed to relax then, to settle into his arms as if she belonged there, warm and familiar, and their thighs brushed casually together as they slid their feet over the plastic-tiled barroom floor

it was exquisite.  The old man wanted the song to go on forever but in three minutes and twelve seconds it stopped he had to let go of her while they stood awkwardly on display in the crowded, smoky room he felt naked without the cover of the music

can I put in another quarter? he suggested in a hoarse whisper the girl looked hesitantly around her the owner of the place was ringing up sales on the register and watching them over his glasses his warning look made the old man a little angry after spending a lifetime of paychecks there, you'd think he'd be entitled to some of the girl's time but he knew that wasn't the way the world worked

i,uh...have to go now, she said, as if she were really sorry she raised a hand tentatively toward tables of customers god... the old man said in a breath of anguish she touched his hand thanks for the dance, she said with a bright falsity before picking up her tray and moving busily away

the old man returned to his stool at the end of the bar he ordered another boilermaker from the bartender and looked at his watch would he ask her to dance again? probably not, he decided he was elated with his success, and he didn't want to spoil the feeling by taking a risk and then being rejected maybe the owner of the bar would tip her off not to do that again he shook a final cigarette out of the pack in front of him and carefully lit it he always kept cigarettes, matches, and change on the bar while he drank no, he would not ask her to dance again, not tonight she was too busy it had been an imposition tolerated by the girl and her boss he had pushed his goodwill as far as it could go

but he would play the song again picking up a coin from the pile of change on the bar, he dropped it into the jukebox and punched B-6 he sat back and listened to the music, replaying the dance in his mind while he watched the girl in her white dress move around the room like some ethereal being, half-luminous in the failing light

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