First Look: The Other Mother by Teresa Bruce
“In the beginning there was dance
because people just needed to move.”
Beaufort, South Carolina – 2001
She’s wearing headphones, listening to something that has transported her far from here. Her magenta sweat suit and costume earrings, normally so bright and cheery, look garish. It’s the fluorescent lighting, I tell myself, pulling the headphones away from her springy silver hair.
“Hello, gorgeous. Is your dance card empty?” I ask.
She doesn’t recognize my voice. She does not tell me it’s wonderful to see me. She does not ask me about the drive. She does not give me a kiss. Instead, I touch the top of the hand whose fingers hang onto the bedrail like a ballet barre.
“Byrne, it’s me,” I say. Her shoulders, coat-hanger thin, carry the unmistakable frame of a lifetime of training.
“I’m not hungry,” she says. A smile of benign politeness drifts over her face – run along now, don’t bother me. Instead of introducing her to Gary, the man I am about to marry, I will have to introduce myself. “It’s me, Teresa.”
Wipeout pulls away from her leash, jamming her wet nose between the railing and Byrne’s broken hip. Byrne drops her hand onto the silky fur between Wipeout’s ears.
“Oh! Hello friend,” she says in a deep, breathy tone of recognition. It’s the voice she always reserved for Wipeout, the voice that reminds me of a cello. Hearing it is like eavesdropping on a secret password spoken through the peep hole of a speakeasy. Wipeout nuzzles even more insistently, like there might be a stick to find hidden under the magenta sweat suit. Byrne reaches for my hand.
“Come, darling,” she says. “Let’s have a glass of wine on the porch.”
A black patch covers where one eye used to be. The other catches only peripheral, ephemeral shapes, certainly not the bottle of champagne I kept chilled in a cooler on the long drive from Washington, D.C., to Beaufort, South Carolina.
“How about I open the window, so we can catch the breeze off the river?” I propose. There is no porch or river, only an empty assisted living parking lot outside her window. She lifts her chin, elongating her neck as if her ears and nose need to be a little higher to find the breeze. I open the window, then quickly flick on the ceiling fan – a river breeze without the low note of decaying pluff mud.
“Byrne, I have wonderful news.” I wait for a sign that she is with me. “I found my Duncan, remember?”
“Pleasure to meet you,” she says, in the come-hither voice she uses with men. She thinks my Duncan is here in the room at Helena House. “Please, pull up a chair.” Her wrist leads an open palm on a graceful swoop through the air, a dancer’s grand gesture of hospitality and flirtation.
“He stepped outside,” I tell her, “to let us girls catch up.”
“Is he a handsome man?” Byrne asks. I squeeze her hand so she can feel the affirmation in my answer. “Good,” she says. “Because you are a handsome woman and when the two of you step out together, heads should turn.”
I know, with settled certainty now, that she is describing herself and Duncan. Handsome, hell, they were magnificent. I know the Byrne-and-Duncan love story by heart. For a long time, it was my only fairy tale. Now it is my turn to tell the storyteller of how my Duncan proposed on the steps of the Alhambra in Spain, and how, in a few months, we will elope. She responds purely to the rhythm of my voice. I could be reading a beautiful poem in a language she doesn’t speak. Her verbal responses to my presence are out of sync; her one eye not quite tracking. She isn’t following, so instead, I listen.
The words she assembles on this imaginary porch lift in the breeze before they start to circle, a little confused, like a kite that’s lost its string. The updraft of memories is all that keep them dancing.
“It’s going to be a disaster,” she tells me, sitting straight up from the waist in her mechanical bed. White sheets fan out from her hips like a Martha Graham skirt. The black-and-white framed photo of Duncan on the wall is now level with her head. He’s smoking his pipe and listening.
“What is going to be a disaster?” I ask. The dreamy smile is gone. Every tendon in her arms is tense. The eye patch twitches
“The entire first act,” she answers, in a stage whisper.
“Is there anything I can do?” I whisper back. I think maybe I should get Gary to come open the champagne. The sound of a cork popping might snap her out of this. But she turns her head in the direction of my voice, considering it.
“Can you charm the conductor?” she asks. “Perhaps the orchestra can just keep tuning up until I can make that damn girl remember.”
I must tread gently now. I’m not sure if she’s the damn girl or I am. “Remember what?” I ask.
“The choreography,” she says, irritated. “We’ve rehearsed and rehearsed but she can’t seem to hear the music. She goes blank after the first 32 counts. And stage presence? The silly thing’s a pretty fish, apologizing for flopping around on stage.”
“Don’t any other dancers know the steps?” I ask. “Maybe you can move pretty Miss Flop-About into the chorus and let someone else perform the lead.”
“But I need someone sexy, with legs worth watching.”
A piece of her biography drifts back to me, like the hint of a familiar fragrance. “I wasn’t one of the great ones,” Byrne once told me. I had thought her modest, knowing, as I did that she had danced in New York, Connecticut, St. Thomas, New Mexico, Mexico and Ireland before she landed in Beaufort in 1969.
“No darling,” she had said. “It was these perky bosoms that got me noticed. That and legs that wouldn’t quit. It was the Great Depression, remember, men needed a lift.”
It is dawning on me what to do.
“Byrne, you’re going to have to step in,” I tell her.
An eyebrow, half hidden behind the patch, lifts up in an arabesque of interest.
I continue. “You did the choreography, am I right?”
She nods, still tense.
“So who could possibly know the dance better? And you said yourself the legs have to be worth the ticket price.”
She reaches for her long legs under the over-starched sheets, rubbing the tops of her thighs. I am shocked at how thin they’ve gotten. She is the elegant skeleton of a lifelong knockout.
“But I’m not warmed up,” she says. “I haven’t even stretched.”
I reach for her feet, loose them from the too-tight tuck of hurried housekeepers. I begin to rub the high arches and calloused balls. Her bones are so brittle my fists could crush them, but I tell myself it’s just that a dancer’s foot never fills out or settles with ordinary gravity. All I need to do is get the blood flowing. One hand cradles her heel while I stretch her toes back, gently, with the other. Her calf muscles lengthen, releasing the tension of inactivity. She’ll need the elasticity for her imaginary pliés to bend and spring into grand jetés across the stage.
“Oh, that feels so good,” she says. “Now the other foot. Hurry, can’t you hear the strings? They’re the last to tune.”
“Hang on. I’ll sweet talk the conductor into giving us more time. What are they playing?”
“Carmina Burana, of course,” she says.
Of course. It was the soundtrack of a lifetime of Byrne seducing strangers to dance. From isolated Navajo reservations in the Southwest to Gullah communities in the Southeast where descendants of slaves still hold community sings. Wherever Byrne lived, this pounding drama accompanied her.
“Start your head rolls,” I tell her as I slip from my chair. “Slowly, keep those shoulders down. I’ll be right back.”
I go only as far as her dresser, where a stack of CDs leans up against a boom box. It still smells of musty dance studios, the southern kind with walls that sweat the musky cologne of trapped humidity. There, on the top, is Carl Orff’s cantata. I put it in, but don’t press play. She’s not ready. I know this warm-up. Every finger will extend and every vertebra will align before it’s done. I look over at the bed. Byrne is marking the movements her body can no longer manage. Her neck and torso gently sway, touching off the invisible follow-through. She is wind through a grove of trees, when all that blows is ghostly moss.
“Can you check on the men?” she asks. “There are lifts we must adjust.”
Ah, the lifts. Duncan called them “worth wearing tights for.” In rehearsals, he volunteered to hold Byrne’s dancers overhead, but never Byrne herself. She was too tall. This is what still worries her. I can see it in her sinking posture. The dancer she’s replacing must have been a tiny thing – all legs and no brains.
“Why not shake things up a bit?” I tell her. “You are strong enough to lift the men.”
She sits up straight again, vertebra by vertebra. “Scandalous,” she says with a thin, mischievous smile. Her hands flutter down to her hips and she pivots one shoulder to a jaunty angle. Her chin lifts. “Just what this town needs. Call the newspapers. Get the TV cameras. You and I are going to turn things on their heads.”
O Fortuna fills the room, timpani and snare drums drowning out the pitiful, piped-in muzak. Helena House is a concert hall today. Byrne is back where she was born to be and I am in the front row, mesmerized. And when Wipeout hears the cello, low as hello-friend, she throws her head back and howls.