The cave incident unfolded without conscious thought. Alone with Renford—his mother refused further invitations—Richard’s shield had evaporated, didn’t protect his ego like during past sessions. He felt naked as if his pants were again around his ankles.
“How did that make you feel?”
For the first time after three years of on-and-off-again counseling, Lt. Col. Renford’s question often asked just to annoy, Richard surmised, suddenly seemed sincere. Being jilted by a dance partner felt shitty, but he couldn’t admit it. He merely shrugged, as if such a response was obvious.
Renford continued, “What did you do with those unpleasant feelings?”
“I wanted to shoot the Mexican Hat Dancer.”
“But you didn’t.” An extended pause. “What held you back?”
“Well, he wasn’t with us at the time, and I didn’t have a gun. Two pieces of luck for him.”
“Maybe you had a chance to cool down. Some time to think about consequences?”
“I doubt it.” Renford hadn’t a clue as to his deepest, darkest secret, or—Richard’s mind swirled—had the psychiatrist led him to this self discovery and was now suggesting a solution? No matter; the strength of his Scottish roots could control whatever situation arose. He’d avoid the issue until the questioning took a different tack.
“What kept you from taking drastic measures?”
Richard had already lost count of the clock’s ticking before Renford accepted the challenge and changed the subject.
“Did you go to the Prom Ballroom the night of the contest?”
Mary Lou uncrossed her legs, but before she could stand Richard put his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t bother to get up.” Across from her, a man with olive-tone skin, red silk shirt bloused and opened to his waist, got up from his chair, Adam’s apple eye level, Richard assessed the situation. Nothing he couldn’t handle. He lowered his gaze to an astonished and still-seated vixen, Virgil’s term for Richard’s New York model. “I just wanted to wish you and—he shot a glance at the Mexican daring him to make a fuss—your dance partner good luck.”
Mary Lou scanned his military dress uniform. “Did you reenlist?”
He faked a confused expression. “No.” He turned his back to her. “I just couldn’t find anything colorful enough, so I went drab.” His adversary avoided eye contact, but Richard faced him long enough for Mary Lou to react to the contest number pinned to the back of his shirt.
“I see you decided to join the contest after all. I’m happy for you.”
“Made the decision at the last minute.” Mexican José Mendez safely seated, Richard faced his ex and unfaithful dance partner. “Got lucky. Number eighteen, exactly the number of months I spent in the South Pacific. Not a record but a good average.”
“Where’s…who’s your partner?”
“I haven’t decided yet. According to the lead judge, first time anyone ever signed up without a partner.” Richard scanned the room as if looking for one.
“His son was a paratrooper. Not my unit, but men who jump out of airplanes form a kind of bond.” His gaze settled on the two girls who, no doubt, came to watch their friend show off. “Didn’t even charge me the entry fee.”
Mary Lou, her composure restored, beckoned to her dance partner who moved closer to her side. “I would like you to meet José Mendez. He came all the way from Guadalajara, Mexico, to participate in this contest.”
José offered a slight bow and Richard stood at attention.
“I see your girlfriends came to show support. I never did get to slow-dance with Trish like you suggested. I think I’ll go over and make it up to her.”
When the psychiatrist removed his glasses and set them on the desk, Richard worried his account of the evening might not be believable. Was he being dismissed?
“First prize!” Renford slapped his desktop as if at a neighborhood bar and someone told a lusty joke. “And the two of you never even danced together before. That’s unbelievable.”
His self image restored, Richard filled in the details. “I tole Trish that I felt bad never asking her for a dance. My timing was perfect. An announcement over the loudspeaker explaining the change of order; I would start the contest, assuming I could find a partner.”
Lt. Col. Renford’s face no longer resembled that of his psychiatrist.
“I had noticed her style while she danced with the other girl who was the better dancer, but Trish was a perfect follower. I had an instructor like that who could anticipate even my beginner’s bad moves.”
“Are you and Trish going to continue dancing?”
“Nah. The entire bunch left town. Wherever Tommy or Jimmy Dorsey’s bands are performing, they show up and collect trophies. Trish and the other friend just tag along on Mary Lou’s tab.”
“You don’t sound disappointed.”
“Good riddance.” He squirmed as if his shorts had bunched. “Frankie introduced me to this nice quiet girl who sometimes shows up with her sister.”
“Yeah, the female half of Frankie and Johnnies.
“I didn’t realize they were real people who owned the tavern. Tell me about this girl. What’s her name?”
“Norma. I’m not sure of her last name.”
“Just on a first name basis?”
“She’s getting divorced and hasn’t decided about a name change.”
“She a good dancer?”
“You don’t like to dance, and you nursed that same beer all evening. What do you like?”
A wry smile. “I like White Castle hamburgers.”
Richard beckoned Virgil to their table. “Let’s move the party to the cave in Swede’s Hollow. You and whoever else is interested commandeer some beer from Frankie, while me and Norma grab a bag of White Castles.”
Norma tugged Richard’s arm, and whispered, “I’ll have to leave pretty soon. My sister, Gladys, is coming to get me. Besides, I need to say goodnight to my kids before they get tucked in.
He faced Virgil. “Forget it. Go back to your dart game.” He turned to Norma. “Kids? You got kids? How many?”
“Two, a boy and a girl.”
“I like kids. Got a bunch of nieces and nephews.” He downed his beer and set the mug on the bar. “Tell you what. Instead of beer at Swede’s Hollow, you, me, and Gladys will grab some White Castles and find an empty bench at Phalen Park. You got that much time.” Her continued grip on his arm, an answer to all his unasked questions. “I want to meet your kids. Not tonight but maybe some time during the day, when they’re not napping.”
Lt. Col. Renford’s glanced at his watch and grimaced. “Have you taken Norma to meet your mother?”
“That might be a bit touchy. A divorcee with kids. I’m going to wait for a while. Ma doesn’t even know Mary Lou left town.”
“She aware you two won the contest?”
Richard curled his lip into a smirk. “I gave Trish our trophy to rub in Mary Lou’s nose. Never told Ma anything about it, just that I’d won a contest.”
“Maybe you should keep her more informed about what’s going on in your life.”
“She’ll ask questions that I can’t answer. I’ll just wait and see what happens.”
After a moment of silence, Richard stood and walked out of Renford’s office.