The Jazz Dancer.
“I don’t care if someone wants to go out there and worship the bark on a tree.” Jesse Ventura
We didn’t see much of her the first couple of weeks. She left for work later than we did, and didn’t get home until eight or nine in the evening. Al, her landlord and our neighbour, said she worked as a dancer at a jazz club. Al didn’t care much for jazz. “As long as she pays her rent,” he’d tell us in our shared driveway, “I don’t care what kind of dancer she is.”
One evening we’re talking to Al, and she comes walking down the street, dressed in overalls, a tank top, high boots, and a gym bag. Her left shoulder had a large tattoo. She comes up and Al says, “This is Marie Claude.”
I thought Marie Claude looked exotic, but not exactly what I’d expect a jazz dancer to look like. Then again, what did I know? Now, Ben, one of the guys I lived with, he thought she was attractive. After meeting her that night, he started hanging around outside. When he’d see her coming, he’d act like he was getting something out of his car.
He kept waiting for her, night after night, until Randy and Colin, our other roommates, told him to ask her out.
She’d stop and chat, still carrying this big gym bag. “It has all her costumes,” Ben told us later. He kept waiting for her, night after night, until Randy and Colin, our other roommates, told him to ask her out.
“What have you got to lose?” Colin said.
So Ben asked her out the following evening. Actually, he invited her in for a beer. She said, sure, but she had to shower and get changed first. A half hour later, she opened the front door and said, “Hello?”
Colin and Randy were out that night. I was sitting in the kitchen, having a late dinner. Ben brought her through, introducing us, even though I’d met her the same time Ben did. “Hello,” I said, and she said, “Hello,” back.
She looked around the kitchen, not saying anything, mostly pushing back her hair. I asked how her jazz dancing was coming along, and she said it was okay. Ben brought her a beer and offered to put on some music. “What do you like?” he asked. She shrugged and said she didn’t care. Ben put on Brubeck’s Time Out. She drank her beer, not commenting on the music at all.
“Don’t you like Brubeck?” I asked and she shrugged again. Her expression never changed. She stayed for an hour, then said she had to get going. Ben walked her over to Al’s place. When he got back, he told me he’d asked her out officially, meaning a proper date. “She wants to go to the zoo,” he said. “This Saturday.”
I asked if she always took so much stuff on a picnic. “Sometimes,” she said. She kept shifting from one foot to the other, looking outside.
Saturday came and Marie Claude shows up with this big picnic basket along with her gym bag and another bag. Ben was still upstairs getting ready. I asked if she always took so much stuff on a picnic. “Sometimes,” she said. She kept shifting from one foot to the other. Her hair was done up in a loose bun, some ringlets hanging down. I still didn’t think she looked like much.
Ben came downstairs and off they went. I expected them back that evening, but I didn’t see Ben again until the following afternoon. He comes in the house with scratches all over his face. Marie Claude wasn’t with him. I asked what happened. He said he’d driven all the way to Montreal and back.
“I thought you went to the zoo,” I said.
Turns out, as soon as they got out on the highway, Marie Claude asked him to take her home. He thought she meant back to Al’s place, but she meant Montreal.
She started explaining everything, including the fact that she was a stripper. Before Toronto, she’d worked in Windsor, Sarnia, then this place out in Etobicoke. She was on a circuit, but she didn’t get along with the other girls. Marie Claude hated stripping, anyway. What she really wanted was to start a family.
“Did Al know she was a stripper?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Ben said.
“Why didn’t he tell us?”
“He thought he was going to get a regular piece of ass.”
Along with telling Ben she was a stripper, she admitted she couldn’t pay her rent. Everything she owned was in the picnic basket, the gym bag, and the other bag. She’d done a runner, in other words. Al was out six hundred dollars.
“Al’s not going to like that,” I said to Ben.
Thing is, she did a runner on Ben as well. When they got to Dorval, just outside of Montreal, she grabbed her stuff, and jumped out of the car.
“Is that when she scratched you?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “It’s a long story.”
As it happened, Marie Claude didn’t like jazz at all. She liked Meatloaf. Once they’re out on the highway, all she wanted to hear is Bat Out of Hell. “We listened to that all the way to Cornwall,” Ben said. By that point, they were both tired. Marie Claude suggested they stop and get a hotel room. Ben was all for that.
She scratched his face, she howled. They had to take the stairs back down to the lobby.
They found a Best Western, checked in, then got on the elevator. Out of nowhere, Marie Claude suddenly starts freaking out. She couldn’t stand closed-in spaces. Ben tried to calm her down, but she scratched his face, she howled. They had to take the stairs back down to the lobby. “It was crazy,” Ben said.
They ended up back on the road, Marie Claude all apologetic. “It’s not my fault,” she kept saying. “You don’t know how I grew up.” She started telling Ben how she lived with this stepfather, someone she hated from the start. Bad things must have happened. She left home right after high school and got on the “circuit.” She’d been stripping ever since.
As Ben was telling me all this, Al opened the front door. He was still in his suit. Al was a salesman. He asked if we’d seen Marie Claude. All her stuff was gone.
“She went back to Montreal,” Ben said.
“How do you know she went to Montreal?” Al said.
“I drove her there,” Ben said.
Al wasn’t too happy about that. Ben apologized, saying he’d pay the month’s rent. Al told him it was two month’s rent. “Why the hell would you drive her to Montreal?” he kept asking. Then he was looking at the scratches on Ben’s face. “She do that to you?” he said. He didn’t even ask how it happened. As far as he was concerned, Marie Claude was capable of anything.
“So I’m out twelve hundred bucks,” he said.
“Sorry,” Ben said. “I didn’t know until we were near Kingston.”
“You still took her to Montreal.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
Al shook his head and left.
Randy and Colin were getting home. They saw Ben’s face and he had to tell the whole story again. They couldn’t believe Ben drove Marie Claude all the way to Montreal, especially after what happened in Cornwall
“Why didn’t you leave her at the Best Western?” Colin asked.
Ben just shrugged.
“I’d have ditched her,” Colin said. “How old do you think she is?”
Ben didn’t know how. It never came up. Anyway, it was over as far as he was concerned. He went upstairs to bed.
“Do you believe that elevator story?” Colin asked me.
“Who gets turned down by a stripper?”
“Why would he make it up?”
“Maybe he put the moves on her.”
“Why not just say so?”
“I don’t know,” Colin said. “Who gets turned down by a stripper?”
Al started coming over more after that. He’d take a beer from the fridge, figuring Ben owed him something. Then he’d sit at the kitchen table, saying, “I’ve had it with boarders.” Trouble was, things were tight. Al worked on commission. What he earned wouldn’t cover the mortgage, so he advertised again, renting to a girl working for a car rental company. She only lasted until Christmas.
Christmas Day, she up and left.
“She was a flake,” Al said.
Later that fall, something arrived in the mail. It didn’t even come to our house. It was addressed to Ben, but had Al’s address. The envelope was a large eight and a half by eleven. Ben checked the back, but there was no return address. “Open it,” Al said, so Ben did, and out falls a bunch of pamphlets with titles like: “God Loves You In A Special Way,” and “The Lord Saves.”
Ben started sifting through the brochures until he found another envelope. Inside were these wedding pictures. We didn’t recognize anybody at first, then Al points to one of the women with a bouquet and says, “That’s Marie Claude.”
Sure enough, staring back at us was Marie Claude, a lot heavier, obviously very pregnant. Her dress looked like something out of the fifties, all pleats and folds. It made her look even bigger.
“Boy, she’s put on a lot of weight,” Colin said.
“Even her face,” Randy said.
There was a letter as well. We all wanted to know what it said.
“We’re naming the baby Gabriel. He destroyed Sodom in a rain of fire. I hope you read the pamphlets and are prepared to be saved.”
“Dear Ben,” he read aloud. “Hope you’re well and my package arrived safely. I sent it to Al because I wasn’t sure of your address. Sorry for jumping out of your car like that. I couldn’t let you come any further. The people in the pictures are my family. They’ve forgiven my trespasses. As you can see, I’m married now — ” Ben turned the letter over “ — and I’m due next month. We’re naming the baby Gabriel. He destroyed Sodom in a rain of fire. I hope you read the pamphlets and are prepared to be saved.”
Looking at the photos again, we noticed an old man to right of Marie Claude. He was slightly stooped, hair sticking out at the sides. It might have been the stepfather. The guy holding Marie Claude’s hand looked like a teenager.
A month or so later, more letters arrived. They kept telling Ben to follow the path of righteousness and pray a lot. Included was a picture of her holding her baby. The family was standing behind, all looking solemn.
“Look how fat she’s got,” Randy said.
Her legs were crossed at the ankles, knees dimpled, plain cotton dress.
“It looks like a Baptist revival,” Randy said and then Colin said, “She got pregnant pretty damn fast for a Baptist. Wasn’t she here four months ago?”
Ben didn’t say anything. He went upstairs.
The next morning, Al was over banging on the door.
“What are you shoving this stuff through my mail slot for?” he said to Ben.
He threw all Marie Claude’s brochures on the floor.
That was the last time Al came over. We’d see him walking out of the house, getting in his car. He didn’t talk to us, especially Ben. If they came home at the same time, Al would wait in his car.
Next thing we knew, Al put his house up for sale. One day, a moving truck came and Al was gone. No forwarding address. He wouldn’t have told us, anyway.
Marie Claude stopped sending letters and Ben eventually met a woman. They’re married now, living out in Oakville. Randy and Colin moved out as well. I took in a few more boarders, but none of them stayed very long. Eventually, I decided to leave as well. I got an apartment out in the West End.
“There are purgatory fires, Ben, and they will rain down on the sinners.”
While I was packing, I found some brochures in the sideboard, along with another letter. It was from Marie Claude. “There are purgatory fires, Ben, and they will rain down on the sinners.”
I put the letter and the brochures in the garbage. To me, they meant nothing. I’m sure some people are more worried about purgatory fires than others. Maybe Al and Ben saw their own light. I don’t know what that light is. It could be there’s no light, just our conscience deciding wrong from right.
That’s what I was thinking when I took the trash cans to the road.
Robert Cormack is a satirist, novelist, and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. For more of Robert’s stories and articles, check out robertcormack.net