The Big Palooka – a Short Story

A girl’s gotta dance before she knows she’s alive.

Don’t give me any bushwa about that, neither, ‘cause I know the truth. Until she’s out there, letting her body do what it wants, letting her heart just swell with the fact that folks are watching, she hasn’t lived at all.

Me, I’m no Oliver Twist; I don’t dance like somebody who’s trained or knows what they’re doing, but I’ll tell you my secret. When I dance, I do it knowing the room belongs to me.

It doesn’t matter if it does just yet, ya follow? What matters is it will. The whangdoodle (that’s the Jazz band to you, you boob) does its deal and the music crawls right into my skin and makes itself at home, and dancing’s the same as breathing.

Better than breathing. Nerts to breathing!

When I dance, the music moves with me. We heat up the place, turn it inside out like a stained sweater, get it all going hard and strong like a heart, and in less than five, everybody’s dancing with me.

Everybody. Even the wet blankets in the corner become hoofers. It’s like magic, birds and broads.

But the night you wanna know about, that night, there was this guy, and he wouldn’t dance at all.

I was hitting on all eight. Even half the band was tapping their feet and wriggling in their seats, and the bartender (what, you think this wasn’t a speak-easy?) nearly spilled the hootch.

It was good. Real good. And then I spotted him hanging by the door, not drinking, not dancing, not doing anything but staring at me.

He was giving me the willies. So still it was like the room moved around him, like running around a body in the street. Now, isn’t that goofy? He made me think of dead guys, and I hadn’t even met him yet.

Anyway, he stood there in dark blue glad rags, his hair all big and curly like he was some kind of three-letter man, but he didn’t feel like a Nelly. The way this fella looked at me, I felt it, all over, like he had invisible hands.

I don’t need a sugar daddy, you know that. You’re the only palooka I ever hooked up with, and that didn’t go so well, so I thought, whatever this guy wants, he can just beat it ‘cause I’m no chippy. I dance more, wilder, until it feels like the music’s going to rip out of my skin and dance away with my bones.

But still, he doesn’t dance, even though some of the saps around me are gasping and dripping sweat.

(Like water around a rock. There, that’s better than running around a dead guy, right?)

I must’ve taken my eyes off him for a second. Must’ve, though if I was goofy, I’d swear he just vanished and appeared in front of me like a ghost.

And finally, he was dancing.

I don’t know what kinda dancing that was. It wasn’t like nothing I ever saw before, and I know dancing. I’ve seen everybody do it from molls to bulls, and this was . . .

Look, I don’t know what it was, okay? It was like quick smoke. It was like how snakes move, but in the air. It was like the breath of a big, mean dog, but sweet like Coca-Cola. It was like Absinthe, and no, I won’t tell you where I got hold of that. But now I say it, that’s about right. Smoky and strong at the same time, he made the room spin. That’s this guy dancing.

“Good evening,” he says to me, like we’re putting on the Ritz.

“I’m not looking for a daddy,” I tell him, because boyfriends and I don’t get along.

But you know all about that, don’t you, fella? Yeah, you do.


“I am aware,” he says, like he’s been following me around.

And I keep dancing, and half of me wants to be real far away, and the other half wants to push up against him and maybe get us thrown out. “Go jump in the lake, Joe.” And though it costs me, it really costs me, I turn my back to him. He is dismissed like some fancy manservant!

Only he doesn’t go. I feel his breath on my neck, my ear, and it’s warm. And it smells strange. Nice-strange. Like cloves. “I will not stay here long,” he says.

If I scream for help, somebody will help me. I gotta believe it, you know? But I don’t wanna scream for help. “Then don’t.”

“I offer you what you need,” he says in my other ear, and suddenly he’s in front of me again.

And he’s moving like water down a funnel, like the sun sliding down the sky, like a feather caught in that water or clouds caught in the sunset, and I’m getting dragged down with him. My mouth goes dry.

He never blinks, you know? Those green eyes . . . he never blinks. “You need freedom.”

And I can’t breathe anymore.

“You crave it. The need burns you, gnaws at your fingers, withers your flesh and tingles through your blood. If you thought you could find freedom by leaping from a rooftop, you would. If you thought you could find it in the heart of fire, you would set yourself ablaze. If you thought you could find it by slitting the throats of men and women for days, you would sharpen your blade right now.”

And I’m still dancing, still moving, because the music has control like it always does, and maybe nobody notices that I’m crying, that there are tears on my face and I can’t catch a good breath because this bird . . . this scary, hairy, big bad bird is right.

I never let myself think about it too much because he is right and I’d do those things. I’d do anything to find a way, to follow that yellow brick road. To find my freedom.

But there is no such thing as free. Everything’s got a cost.

“Yes, there is a cost,” he says, but I know I didn’t say that out loud, and his green eyes are all I can see or read or feel like he’s blown smoke between me and the world. He is smoke. And I wanna get closer to his fire.

“I can offer you freedom,” he says. “There is a cost, but it is not one you can guess.”

“I can guess a lot, big six,” I manage, but it sounds croaky, dry and dusty and nothing.

“Not. This.” And suddenly, he’s dancing close, so close, so close — “I can see the fire in you. I can feel your need. I would offer you this freedom—my gift—if you ask.” His lips almost touch mine. “All you need do is ask.”

And then he’s gone.

Gone, and I’m shaking like some boozehound trying to go straight.

And I tell you, I tell you, when he left, all the life and warmth and power in the room went with him.

It all felt so empty. So trapped! Like some starving rat in a sack!

So that’s why I did it, see? That’s why I stopped dancing, and kissed a few too many people and drank a few too many snorts. That’s why I left later than I should and didn’t go home, but went up the fire escape to the roof of my mama’s old walkup. And up there, in the shivery-cold dark before dawn, I asked him.

Don’t cast a kitten, you sap. You weren’t there. You didn’t feel what I did. I knew. If I asked the night air, he’d hear me.

And he did. And he brought a friend who could give me the gift I wanted.

So I gotta go now. You understand. I’m taking back my things from you. My pictures. My mama’s jewelry. My gun. You’re lucky you still had her necklace. I might’ve gotten worked up if you’d sold it.

Your fists can’t stop me this time. I got my freedom. And he was right. I was okay with the cost. What’s a little blood between such good friends?

I’m sure someone’ll find you in the morning. It’s time I hit the road. Sweet dreams, creep. Sweet bloody dreams.


Buswha: nonsense
Oliver Twist: a good dancer
Whangdoodle: a jazz band
Nerts: “nuts.” An exclamative
Wet Blankets: killjoys
Hoofers: dancers
Birds: men
Broads: women
Hitting on all eight: in good shape, doing well
Goofy: crazy
Glad rags: fancy clothes
Three-letter man/Nelly: homosexual
Sugar daddy: older boyfriend who gives his girlfriend money in exchange for “favors”
Sap: a fool
Palooka: a weak man who usually goes down in a fight
Chippy: “easy” woman
Hairy: crude, clumsy (obviously, she meant this sarcastically)
Big Six: a strong man
Snorts: alcoholic drinks
Walkup: apartment
Cast a kitten: have a fit
Creep: thief