A Tango for Mere Mortals a short story by David Patrick OC.
Lousy. If a word could describe Dan’s day so far that would be it. After trudging through the arduous grind of a ten- hour shift, a meeting was called. In all, it took twenty minutes of shifty eyes, unsettled shuffling of limbs and a pile of lame remarks concerning the current economic situation before his employers sprang the news. Apparently, due to matters totally out of the company’s control, half the workforce would be made redundant in the coming weeks.
Dan wondered how many other businesses had leapt at the chance of blaming the meltdown as an excuse to hack their staff numbers. A lot? Maybe. Even if the reasons were legitimate, it did little to quench the numbness spreading through those assembled in the canteen.
Dazed, he left the meeting without a word to his colleagues who hovered between disbelief and anger. Dan wasn’t sure if he imagined it or not, but those he considered friends only moments ago seemed instantly reticent as cloaks of self-protection shrouded the cards dealt to them. He could nearly hear them siphoning through their own worth and past history within the company while weighing the risks of accepting the offered package or holding off for a better deal.
And why not? If he were not so fatigued, he too would have clutched his hand close to his chest, counted the chips, and prayed for a flush. The mongrels were becoming increasingly hungry in the dog-eat-dog world and the obese cats would never diet. But nothing was going to ruin his night. Right then, more than anything else, he wanted to get home.
Turning to the front passenger seat of his car, he examined the foliage propped up against the back-rest. A half-dozen roses interwoven with baby’s- breath and complimented by an exotic fleshy leafed collar held their form within a glossy cellophane blanket. Dan managed to make it to the florist during his lunch break, and feared the condition they were in. Thankfully, they still looked fresh without a hint of wilting. At least that was something, he mused while driving off to meet the evening traffic.
On reaching the apartment he awkwardly tucked the flowers between his thighs while fiddling for the front door key. The balancing act caused his knees to bend slightly; turning inwards like a child needing the bathroom. While sliding the key into the lock, an animalistic bawl vibrated from behind the door. It was penetrated by the unmistakable sound of glass shattering.
‘Not tonight. Please…not tonight,’ he whispered.
Pausing, he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, took a deep breath and exhaled, and then turned the key. Once inside he placed the bouquet on the tabletop of a small three-nest tier. When the door closed behind him a fragment of glass crushed under his foot. Its cracking filled him with a mild satisfaction. It reminded him of accidentally trampling on snails during a damp evening’s stroll, but lacking the guilt.
He retrieved a broom from the utility closet next to the front door. Scanning the open-floor apartment, he noticed the table was set with their only pair of fancy plates, one wineglass and an open bottle of rouge lacking a sizable drop. A single candle, yet to be lit, sat central to the table. Standing proudly in a squat tarnished brass holder it defied any hint of a sorrowful existence.
To his left, a bare wall separated a cabinet from an adjoining doorway leading to the bedroom. Its dull nicotine coloured surface had been freshly corrupted by a crimson starburst which slowly trickled to the floor. Beneath it, Connie was busying herself with a dustpan and brush. At first, her back was to him with her frame bent and listing. She shifted her position to better view the lay of shrapnel from the minor eruption. Strands of straight sandy hair covered her face as it swung like a pendulum with each bob and roll of her head. Behind them a tint of anger washed her cheeks.
Dan took note of her mobile phone lying on the fake sheepskin rug next to her toppled handbag. He could sense her sister’s work was behind Connie’s humour. Of all the nights to call she had to pick that night. You could be the toughest, wisest and calmest person in the world; be unfazed by powerful or crazy people, but even living to the ripe old age of a hundred and two, it took the briefest of exchanges from a brother or sister to agitate the hell out of you and set the blood cells boiling.
Dan knew it was best to ignore for now. Instead he began herding the remaining splinters of glass towards her with the broom. They scratched across the green linoleum floor eager to flee the sentinels of bristles, but he was careful nothing escaped. No sneaky shards left to wreak havoc on a sole. Words were not spoken as Connie gathered them into a pile and quickly whisked them into the dustpan before disposing of them in the pedal-bin.
He next poured water on a shimmy, rinsed off the heaviness, and began daubing the spatters of wine. Connie soon twined his actions on the opposite side of the wall. They were destined to meet in the middle. Their movements, like their lives, complemented each other. It was nothing as complicated or as enthralling as a tango, but a natural dancing flow nonetheless that an outsider might have believed was choreographed
Their combined dapping did little other than smudge the stain into an abstract pastel pattern. If he were an artist it would sell for millions, he was sure, but alas…
Dan admitted he would finally have to buy paint. Having threatened to do so since they first took a lease on the apartment, it was just another of those things he put off. Connie always jeered him for his total lack of any D.I.Y. ability. He normally shrugged off her taunts and freely admitted such things were entirely alien to him. He was all thumbs. Even through the patient guidance of his woodwork teaching father, hammering a nail into a plank without bending it was a strenuous task. Being able to change a plug and light bulb was the pinnacle of his abilities.
Regardless of his cognitive flaw, he had a firm grasp on the mechanical applications of structure and engineering which explained his love of architecture. Though like all things concepts and realities were two completely different types of melon. Yet painting was one of the herculean tasks he felt comfortable in attempting. Connie would make sure there was no escaping it this time.
Despite the futile effort, they continued with their silent work in the hope of minimizing the damage caused. Hope was one thing they had in abundance. He gazed towards her. She strained not to meet his stare as the distance closed between them. Just as her anger begun to subside the piercing shrill of the smoke alarm broke through the silence.
‘Fu—,’ Connie raced towards the oven on the other side of the room. Dan rushed to the balcony doors and swung them open as far as he could. Pulling back the curtain, he stood to one side while she hurried across the apartment with the smouldering remains of dinner. Only the sickening sweet fragrance of burned orange gave any hint to the night’s fare. It was duck breast in orange sauce: his favourite. The charred carcass continued to smoulder from the Pyrex dish threatening to melt one of two plastic patio chairs that furnished the tiny balcony floor. Connie was to cooking what he was to home improvements, but he knew better than to ever say so.
He couldn’t afford to give it much notice. There was still a risk of the smoke setting off the sprinkler system. He busied himself flapping a tea towel under the smoke detector. Thankfully, their quick actions combined with the brisk November wind blasting through the open door were enough to silence the noisy sensor. At least it still worked, he noticed. Despite admitting it was wise to test the alarm once a week as they suggested in the safety advert, he never did. He doubted Connie ever did either, but now was not the time to discuss their failings.
He returned to the wall. Scratching his head, he searched for the damp cloth he was using. He could not remember what he had done with it when the alarm sounded. A small grunt of frustration passed his lips on discovering it was in his other hand. Patting away, he was unsure if he pushed the wine further into the wallpaper or not. It was a feeble effort, but he was too stubborn to give in.
Connie returned limping from the balcony. Her jaw line strained as she fought to keep her temper under control. He looked down to see one of her heels had snapped. They were her favourite pair. He braced himself for the impact of her final set back. She slouched on the arm of a sofa and tore both shoes off her feet. He watched her hoisting them behind her head ready to toss them across the room, but hesitated before letting them drop to the floor. The initial shattered glass whose aftermath he continued to clean took some of the wind out of her sales. Or perhaps it was his presence. People allow themselves the freedom of an instinctive reaction when alone that they restrain in the company of others.
Her hair was a little shorter. Dan gave himself credit for noticing such. He loved it when she let hair down freely, but she usually trapped it up with a multiple of pins and clips, or in a ponytail when going for a run. Her white blouse was new, but now splattered with rain causing those places to stick to her skin. An ugly grease spot licked the inside of her left cuff. Connie had yet to notice, but he knew she would eventually. It was the kind of blemish no amount of scrubbing could rid. A shame. From the little he saw of it, it brought out the slim elegance of the toned body concealed underneath. And in a purely lustful and mannish way, he was pleased to see she wore a neat short dress instead of the suit pants she adorned for work. Her shapely legs seemed buffed in the even light radiating a soft smooth glow not lost on him.
He quickly turned back to the wall and commenced attacking the smudge with new vigour as she moved from the chair. He didn’t want her to know he was goggling in case she misread his interests. Judging she might feel embarrassed, or use the occurrence to flick a switch and rebound any anger at him in the guise of a row. Connie always had that ability. She could take two completely unrelated things and twist them together to form one convincing argument that blamed him on whatever she wanted to. Thankfully, those were few and far between.
Dan had already decided that evening was not the right time to discuss the events unfolding at work. Normally the weight of such a circumstance would have left him feeling as crushed as the wine glass, but not that night. There never is a good time to discuss something as heavy as potential unemployment, but when it was time to tell her, he knew she would be there for him. Connie was always his pillar. He marvelled at her strength. For such a petit woman who barely reached his chin when she wore heals, she was the one who carried him through all the years. He would be lost without her.
Listening, he welcomed the soft padded steps of her approach. He snuck another quick glance in her direction as she came to stand an arm’s length from him. On his peripherals, he could see her briefly glancing at him in return as her delicate hand swabbed away at the blurring smudge. Finally, they met in the middle and slowly worked their way towards the skirting board. The simple contact of their arms brushing gently off each other was the closest thing to a welcome home so far. They reached the bottom together, turned in unison and slumped onto the floor resting their backs against the damp wall. From her clothes the faint residue of burnt dinner undercut the light floral scent of her perfume. It sent his nostrils tingling.
Searching a reason for her initial reaction, his eyes fell on her mobile phone again. Her gaze tracked his. He knew she was waiting for him to make a smart-arsed comment. Dan didn’t let her down. ‘So,’ he asked, ‘how is your sister?’
Connie snapped a dagger stare at him, but it lacked any real malice. She swatted his chest, and her perfect smile slowly crawled across her face. Without realising it, he was doing the same. Soon they erupted with laughter at the ridiculousness of it all.
Dan in his foolishness once tried to pin down one thing that he loved about her: the way she scrunched up her nose when she laughed; how she knew what he was thinking before he did; her touch; her embarrassment. Those and a thousand different moment caused his attempts of understanding love to be abandoned. It was a futile task. But there in the apartment, tucked up on the floor like two drunks trapped in St. James’s Distillery, he loved her for the simplest of things she said.
‘Happy first anniversary,’ she said while resting her head upon his shoulder.
He could not have wished for anything more.