The emcee, a short stout man, with a mustache almost the size of a matchbook, announced that the dance marathon — or, as it was more commonly called,“bunion derby” — would start in five minutes. The armory hall was mixed with audience members, charged 25 cents for admission, seasoned professionals, known as “horses”, and local amateurs hoping to win $3,000.00. There was an array of cots. It was 1932 and, outside, Spokane was cold and drizzly. In an energetic voice cultivated from years of hosting marathons in “virgin towns”, the emcee explained a few rules. The dance would last for 12 days. Couples would dance 45 minutes of the hour. If knees touched the floor, it would entail immediate disqualification. He then went on to pair some of the unmatched “amateurs.” He greeted each with a beguiling smile. Then, the dance began.
The two amateurs moved nervously, avoiding each other’s eyes. He introduced himself as “Tom Thumb”, and wore a striped suit with a tiny tear beneath the breast pocket. He looked to be in his sixties.
“Tom Thumb?” his much younger partner asked, her brown eyes twinkling. There was something soulful and deliciously naïve about her Plain Jane face. She reminded him of a wall flower or a school marm to third graders, the body, thin and flat, her hair worn in a bun. Her voice was tense and somewhat musical.
“Yes, ma’am. Before the depression, I sold cars. When it comes to selling, what I had was a green thumb. Well, maybe not exactly but close enough. What I really sold were dreams.”
She looked down at her feet and cleared her throat.
“So what brings you here?”
“Well, my wife died unexpectantly. I needed the money to buy her something special to put by her grave. Something very special. Something expensive. A plaque, a monument. I lost most of my money, ma’am. And you?”
She looked away and stared at a couple up in front.
“My name is Maggie. I wanted to move away. Very far away. I’ve always been a local girl. There’s nothing here… It’s a big country, Tom.”
“That it is, ma’am. That it is.”
A new song came over the speakers: “Bam Bam Bammy Shore”.
By the third day, their feet ached and their movements slowed considerably. Tom urged Maggie to talk so she wouldn’t fall asleep. At times, exhausted, she placed her head on his shoulder. At night, a live band would play or an emcee would spin stories about couples who went the distance.
“She must’ve been a special woman, your wife.”
“Married for thirty years and not one regret.”
“That’s really nice. You were both lucky.”
“I always believed that the magical moment only comes once.”
A physician tended to a collapsed dancer, who threatened suicide if disqualified. By day 4, half the room was emptied.
By day eight, Maggie became the “lugging partner”. Due to his age, Tom began to falter. He suggested she tie his wrists with a handkerchief and hook them around her neck, something he’d heard was done in these contests. To their right, a couple were held to each other by dog chains to keep them from drifting. Despite his sagging eyes, Tom always managed a smile and told Maggie how much she reminded him of his beloved Nancy.
Day 11. Couples were sleeping standing up. The floor judge whacked their legs with a ruler and disqualified others.
Maggie was talking as if she was drunk. Tom went in and out sleep, half listening.
She began singing the words to a Gershwin song she only half remembered, about how if love affairs were made in heaven, God had to have forgotten about her.
Their bodies grew increasingly stiff.
Maggie slid her hand over the back of Tom’s head, pulling his hair, and for the first time, she made forced eye contact. Their eyes were bloodshot.
“Why did you leave me? Why did you lie? Do you know what it is when you believe someone loves you? You stake everything. Why? Why? Do you know how I cried.? Do you? Do you?”
Tom’s eyes opened wide.
“What are you taking about? Who are you talking to?”
She kept mumbling.
He pressed his head against hers and said, “I never left. I never left. I love you, my darling.”
Later he asked her about the man who left her.
She said she never said anything about a man who left her.
He kissed her on the cheek.
Day 12. They were dancing because there was no other way to move. They were dancing for the other. At times, he called her Nancy, then, he apologized. At times, she called him Stephan and she apologized. It didn’t matter. Somewhere around 3:00 p.m. they declared their love for each other. They were giddy, walking on or below water. Coma thoughts.
At 5:10 p.m. Tom and Maggie were declared the winners of the Spokane Armory Dance Marathon.
And in that same hall, two hours later, they were married.
The audience cheered. Many ran up to them and asked for autographs.
In a trance-like state, they went across the street and booked a room.
They fell across the bed and slept with their clothes on.
He dreamed of a girl named Nancy with Maggie’s features. A much younger Nancy.
The next morning, she tried to wake him up. She felt for a pulse. Nothing.
She went to a gift shop in town and bought a small porcelain piece of a sailor dancing with a Flapper.
In the hotel room, she placed it next to the bed. She kissed him on the cheek.
At the door, she turned and said, “Keep dancing, my love.”
Then she traipsed outside into the blaze of sunlight.
Kyle Hemmings lives and works and dies in New Jersey. He’s been pubbed elsewhere.