A Man of the World
By Clark Zlotchew
Fifteen-year-old Randy Remington III could not have foreseen the heartbreak followed by joy that would accrue to him because of the flamboyant Ms. Josephine M. Burke. It all started with her fateful intrusion into the meeting room of Boy Scout Troop 56 one warm April evening.
This curvaceous twenty-five year old woman wore a black leotard, black fishnet stockings and red high-heeled pumps. Her long golden tresses crowned her beautiful face and gleaming blue eyes. She illuminated the drab room like the sun bursting forth from behind grey clouds to shed light and warmth over the scouts. This welcome intruder received the full attention of all the hormone-driven adolescents in the troop and of Mr. L. Johnson, the fifty-something-year-old scoutmaster. Mr. Johnson unsuccessfully attempted to suck in his ample midsection, and broke out in a smile so broad as to make visible not only his canine teeth, but his wisdom teeth as well. It is quite possible, a witness later claimed, that his tonsils also briefly made their appearance, but this is unverifiable. Simultaneously, his normally pallid face took on a healthy pink glow.
The young scouts did not smile, but their lively banter abruptly ended. They stared at her, and as she proceeded from the doorway to the table on which were lying ropes tied into bowlines, slipknots and square knots, the boys’ heads swiveled to follow her progress. The boys were like sunflowers turning to follow the sun as it travels through the heavens from sunrise to sunset. Wide-eyed, their pupils visibly expanded, they seemed mesmerized.
Ms. Burke sashayed her way over to Mr. Johnson, put her mouth close to his ear, and whispered her request for permission to speak to the scouts. Feeling her warm breath in his ear, his newly florid complexion suddenly turned deathly white for a moment, then turned a deeper red than before. His face still glowing like a sunlit ruby in the navel of a belly dancer, perspiration rolled from his forehead, down his cheeks and dripped onto his shoulders. Sweat visibly darkened his tan shirt at the collar and underarms. He forced himself to look at the boys, and commanded, “Listen up, scouts…,” but on arriving at the word scouts, his voice cracked and squeaked into falsetto. He paused, cleared his throat, tugged at his collar and started once more, forcing his voice to the lowest register possible. “Ahem. Listen up, scouts: Ms. Burke is going to address you.” He winked and added, “And I really think you’ll like what she’s offering.”
“Oh yeah,” several of the scouts breathed in unison, bug-eyed with anticipation.
Six-foot-five Jeffrey Hicks, familiarly known as Doofus or El Doofo, his eyes bulging, his breath ragged, whispered into Randy’s ear so forcefully that spittle blew into his ear, “She’s gonna undress us?!!”
Randy, inserting his finger into his ear to extract some of the saliva, said, “No, you doofus! She’s going to address us.”
“What’s the difference?”
Ms. Burke announced, in a warm, smooth alto voice, “Boys, I wonder if you could help me out.”
She opened her mouth to explain, but was cut off by cries of, “Yes, yes,” and “Anything,” and “Awesome!” Even Mr. Johnson had joined in the general acceptance of her offer, even though it was obvious he was not to be one of the chosen. The moment he impulsively burst out, “Yes, please!” he clapped his hand over his mouth and looked around the room to see if anyone had heard him. His face turned still redder: tomato red, cherry red. He jammed his hands into his pockets, in an attempt to appear nonchalant, looked up at the ceiling as though it were the most fascinating sight in the world and started to whistle a tuneless melody.
Ms. Burke, taken aback for a moment, stiffened her facial muscles and strained to repress a violent urge to burst out laughing. Instead, she cheerfully said, “Wonderful! Now let me explain.”
She then clarified: She had been hired to provide dance lessons to twelve young ladies, as she phrased it, whose parents would pay for the instruction, but needed young gentlemen of about that age to serve as dance partners for the girls.
“What will we have to pay?” One scout piped up, eliciting murderous glares from his fellow scouts.
“Oh, no; it will be absolutely free for you. The girls need partners, so you’d be doing them and me a huge favor.”
Now that she had explained the proposition, she awaited their reaction. She saw that some of the boys silently but vigorously nodded their heads. Gigantic Doofus and four-foot-nine Tyrone simply stared at her, mouths agape, arms hanging loosely at their sides. Ms. Burke, needing to have a firm answer, added, “So, is that acceptable, boys?”
Not one of the boys actually spoke, but they all robotically nodded their heads to signify acquiescence.
# # # # #
A month and a half and the use of many CDs later, the boys were experts, in varying degrees, in salsa, hip hop, that throwback to the 1940s called swing dancing and even that dance of nineteenth-century Vienna: the waltz.
At the end of a salsa, little Tyrone, now recovered from his initial shock on first meeting Ms. Burke, had the guts to ask, “Ms. Burke, won’t you teach us how to slow dance?”
“Slow dance?” she asked, as her eyebrows shot up into two rounded arcs. She smiled indulgently. “Don’t worry about that, my young gentlemen. When the music is slow, just put your arms around your partner, your cheek to hers and sort of sway very slightly back and forth to the music. That’s all there is to slow dancing.”
Hearing this, a couple of scouts murmured, “Cool!” Others whispered, “Awesome!” Their female partners giggled and looked at their shoes, except for redheaded Tracy, who put her hands on her hips, smirked, and in a tone oozing condescension, declared, “Who doesn’t know that?”
One of the scouts felt light-headed and had to sit down. But these instructions for slow dancing sent a shiver of anticipation down the spines of all the boys, except for Doofus, the gangly giant, who clapped his hand to his forehead and simpered, “But Ms. Burke, won’t her parents make us get married if we do that? ‘Cause I’m too young, ya know, to get tied down with a wife.”
Chuckles, chortles, groans, hoots of derision and even courteously smothered guffaws were heard among these young swains and their ladies. “What a doofus!” muttered Danny Rodriguez, his lips turned down in disdain. The term retard was distinctly heard among the general merriment, like the shrill strains of a flute amidst the brass and woodwinds.
Ms. Burke held her breath, clenched her abdominal muscles and sank the fingernails of one hand into the back of her other hand in a heroic effort to stifle an explosion of laughter. A moment later, she released her breath and put her hand gently on Doofus’s shoulder. This somehow turned his complexion from pasty white to stoplight vermilion. She patiently explained, “No, no, Doof…, er, uh, I mean Jeffrey, that will not force you into a wedding. I can assure you. Really.”
“Awesome!” breathed El Doofo.
# # # #
At their last dance lesson, Ms. Burke, in her signature costume –black leotard, black fishnet stockings, red high-heeled pumps– clapped her hands for attention. She opened her mouth to speak, but she progressed no further than placing her hands on her well-rounded hips and pronouncing the first syllable, “Now…, when Doofus, aka Jeffrey Hicks, shot a question at her.
“Ms. Burke, if we ask a girl to dance and she says ‘No!’ what do we do then?”
Amid the general looks of consternation at this terrifying possibility, gutsy little Tyrone, affectionately known as Weasel, looked around at his fellow scouts and vehemently announced, “You tell her you weren’t talking to her, and add on that you wouldn’t dance with her if she were the only girl there, because she’s ugly and dumb and gives off an objectionable odor!”
His dance partner looked at him with disgust and clenched her teeth in anger. Across the room, red-headed Tracy jutted her head forward and ferociously yelled, “You little turd! You never talk to any girl like that!”
“Any girl except you, skank.”
Tracy balled up her fists and strode toward him, a homicidal look on her flushed face, lips pulled back to show large teeth. Tyrone turned white and skittered away at warp speed to take shelter behind El Doofo. The Doofus cocked his head like a puzzled canine and scratched his head. Ms. Burke, who for a moment had been transfixed with shock, quickly put herself between Weasel and Tracy, forcing a smile, and said, “Now, now, kids, let’s not lose our cool.”
Tracy stopped in her tracks, pointed the V-shape formed by her forefinger and index at her own eyes, and then turned them 180 degrees to aim at Tyrone, in the well-known pantomime signaling she would be keeping her eyes on the little fellow. Tyrone dashed out the door.
Ms. Burke hurried to the door, looked both ways and spotted Tyrone running down the hall. She was puzzled until he turned into a doorway, to the right of which was a plaque on the wall reading: Men’s Room.
# # # #
At the following dance lesson, the last one, Ms. Burke announced to the class, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve borrowed this book from the local library.” She held up a dull green hardcover tome. “It’s a book of ballroom etiquette. Several of you have inquired about how to conduct yourselves at a dance. So, I popped into the library and found this book. I think this chapter is very a propos.”
“Ms. Burke,” piped up Siobhan Murakami, “I don’t know Spanish, so, what kind of app is an App Pro Poe? Does it mean in favor of Edgar Allen Poe? ”
Ms. Burke smiled and started to say, “Oh, it’s not Span…” She stopped herself and explained, “It means appropriate. In other words, it fits right into our wheelhouse.”
“Our wheelhouse?” said Doofus.
“It’s just right for our purposes, Doo…, er, Jeffrey.” She cleared her throat and read from the green book:
When the gentleman has danced to one set with a girl, he must escort her back to her seat. The reason for carrying out this perhaps counter-instinctive maneuver is so that the gentleman provides the young lady with the opportunity to meet the other young gentlemen who are present at the ball. Of course, this will afford the young man the opportunity to make the acquaintance of the other young ladies, as well. If the gentleman does not do this, the young lady is put into the unenviable position of proceeding to her seat on her own, leaving the young man to stand there in shame. He will be taken for a clod and a boor. He will also be thought of by girls as unseemingly possessive and will be shunned by the ladies. If, on the other hand, he follows these rules, he will be seen as sophisticated, well-bred and a man of the world.
Ms. Burke closed the book, cocked her head in thought, and murmured, “Hmmm… I did not know that.” She narrowed her eyes and frowned. She said to herself, “My boyfriend is pretty possessive. He must be a boor! I know he’s certainly a clod.” She chuckled. Then aloud, directly to the class, “Well, girls and boys, there you have it. You are now ready to attend a dance and have a wonderful time.”
# # # #
Toward the end of the school year, the sophomore class of Paddle Brook High planned to hold a dance at the school gym. This would be an extraordinary event for the fifteen-year old Randy. It would be his first dance.
Randy Remington III, resplendent in an electric blue dinner jacket rented from a tuxedo and wedding gown shop, over a pink shirt and red clip-on bow tie, made his entrance into the school gym. His black trousers, sporting what seemed to be a couple of mustard stains above the knees, were donated by a hotdog-devouring cousin who no longer fit into them. The purple cummerbund dashingly held the entire ensemble together.
Under the pink shirt, his heart was pounding rapidly, the pulse throbbing against his eardrums like a kettle drum beaten by a crazed percussionist. His armpits were distilling enough perspiration to make the Sahara Desert fit for growing, well, anything, if it were not for the salt content. His horn-rimmed glasses slid down his nose more frequently than usual, and he kept using his forefinger to push them back to the bridge of his nose. Okay, he told himself, I’m scared, but I’ve got to ask a girl to dance, or this is a complete waste.
He looked around the gymnasium. It seemed so different from when it was used for athletics. There were papier maché streamers hanging in loops overhead bearing the orange and black colors of Paddle Brook High. There was even a sphere paved with small mirrors turning overhead and bouncing the colors of the rainbow over the students and the walls. Looking across the gym, he saw Diane, a pretty girl he had often noticed in his algebra class, but with whom he had never spoken, because he couldn’t think of what to say. He was having that same problem now. Okay, okay, what do I say to her?
She was sitting on a chair by the wall opposite the band, chatting with two of her girlfriends who were standing. Diane looked especially fetching tonight in an extremely short, strapless black dress.
My gosh, she is so beautiful! he thought. Would she want to dance with me? With my pimples and glasses… He inhaled a chest-filling breath and held it for a few seconds. He finally exhaled forcefully and thought, I’ve got to gird up my loins, like it says in the Bible, and go for it. Okay, okay, here I go. Yes, I’m going. I’m going. I really am going. Going, going, actually going. Toward her.
And he really was going over to where Diane was seated and her girlfriends were stationed, like a queen’s ladies in waiting. Randy propelled himself to within two feet of her when the intoxicating scent of roses blended with vanilla and spices wafted toward him, washed over him, enveloped him. Engulfed in a cloud of ecstasy, he stood there, paralyzed, struck dumb. He gazed at Diane, her dark brown eyes, thick eyelashes. His mind went blank.
Diane looked at him, smiled, which revealed dazzling white teeth, and said, “Hi, Randy.”
“Yes. Oh, uh… Hi-lo, Diane.” He bit his lip and grimaced as though in pain. His tongue felt oversized and heavy.
She said, “Did you say hi-lo, Randy?” She chuckled good-naturedly. “Is that Spanish?”
“No, uh…” He spoke in jerky, nervous bursts. “You see, I started to say ‘hi,’ but then I wanted to change it to ‘hello,’ and I got kind of…” He nervously broke into his own sentence and rapidly burst out, “Listen, Diane, would you like to dance with me?”
“Now? To this? It’s salsa, you know.”
“You know how to salsa?”
She seemed hesitant, but stood and said, “Sure, okay.”
He led her onto the floor and they danced salsa. When the tune came to an end, she enthusiastically said, “Randy, you’re really an awesome dancer.”
“Oh, thanks, Diane. But you are, too.”
“Yes, but I’m a girl. We girls all know how to dance.”
Is that good or bad? he wondered. Is she saying I’m not masculine? That I’m a girly boy? If boys aren’t good dancers, but girls are, then… But, no, she’s looking at me like she admires me because I can dance. Gee, I would love to dance with her all night. Maybe she would be my girlfriend. I don’t want to take her back to her seat, dammit, but rules are rules, and I don’t want to look like a jerk. The book said I need to take her back when the number ends. Well, here I go.
He said, “Okay, Diane, that was great. I’ll take you back to your seat, now.” As he led her back, he noticed she looked at him with narrowed eyes and wrinkled brow. He thought, She looks kind of confused, maybe even a little angry. I wonder why.
After he brought her back to her two girlfriends, he walked over to the first empty chair he saw. He reassured himself, I’ll wait till the next number is over and then go back and dance with her again. Or maybe I’ll wait until they play another slow dance. Definitely. A slow dance.
He then saw a boy he knew to be a senior bring her to the dance floor. The band played a slow tune. I hate this, he thought. I can’t stand watching that guy holding her so close, just swaying in place cheek to cheek. I can’t wait till it’s my turn again.
It was never his turn. Diane and the suave senior stayed on the floor for every single dance. Randy mentally beamed this message: You ignorant creep, you. Don’t you know you can’t stay with her for every dance? Don’t you know the rules? And Diane, why don’t you tell him it’s someone else’s turn to ask you to dance? Randy’s face felt as though it were on fire. There was mounting pressure in his chest, threatening to explode, as he watched them. His stomach felt as though it were in a knot and he finally noticed his fists were clenched. The gymnasium narrowed to a tunnel at the end of which were Diane and her dance partner, seen through a reddish haze. They were all he saw in that crowded gymnasium.
Randy didn’t ask any other girl to dance –after all, maybe the senior would take Diane back to her seat and she would be free once more, and he could ask her to dance again. He just sat there and watched Diane and the senior sway slowly to the beat of the music, even when the music was fast! What is wrong with you two? he thought. Dammit, that’s hip hop! Why the hell aren’t you hipping and hopping instead of just standing there in one spot, pressed up against each other, arms around each other, just swaying back and forth? Can’t you hear the music, dammit? I can. Are you deaf? It’s loud enough to break my eardrums, for Pete’s sake! Maybe that’s it: Yeah. The music destroyed your hearing so you can’t tell it’s not a slow dance. He was thinking this, but didn’t really believe it.
# # # # #
After a week of being verbally raked over the coals and derided by his friends for gross stupidity, Randy decided to visit Ms. Burke. He arrived at her apartment at four P.M., told himself to man up, and rang the doorbell. The door opened and there before him was the beauteous Ms. Burke in all her splendor. She wore a red bathrobe, fuzzy pink slippers and a look of amazement on her face. Her hair was done up in a white towel, though some of the golden strands escaped and curled up at the nape of her neck.
After a moment, she said, “Why Randy, what a surprise!”
Randy simply stood there and gaped, at a loss for words. He managed to utter, “Uh…”
Ms. Burke hesitated, then said, “Randy, come on in.”
She smiled, directed him to the living room and pointed to the couch. He stared at the piece of furniture as though it were an object manufactured by extraterrestrials and he was unable to unlock the mystery of its purpose.
“Sit, Randy,” she said.
He sat. She modestly pulled her bathrobe to herself more closely, which served only to more clearly outline her figure. She sat beside him and asked, “Well, Randy, what can I do for you?”
After an initial hesitation during which his imagination ran riot at her question, Randy explained what had happened at the dance in all its distressing detail. She put a comforting arm around his shoulders and pressed him against her. “Well, you know, Randy, the book said to escort the girl to her seat after a set, not after just one number.” She said this in the gentlest of tones.
Randy frowned. “What’s a set?”
“A set is a group of tunes, of different kinds of dances, like maybe a salsa followed by a hip hop followed by a slow dance. Then the band takes a little break before the next set.”
He buried his face in his hands and muttered, “What an idiot I am.”
“No, no, Randy, it’s all my fault, and I’m terribly sorry. You see, after our final dance lesson, I examined the book more closely and found that it was first published in Mobile, Alabama, in…” She hesitated, looked at his puzzled face, and added, “In the year 1858…” Her voice trailed off on the last few words.
He looked into her deep blue eyes and, in a weak voice stammered, “Wh…What?”
“Randy, that book had rules for cotillions and fancy balls for the antebellum southern aristocracy.”
He wrinkled his brow and cocked his head. Ms. Burke understood his puzzlement and added, “In other words, Randy, those rules would be perfectly fine for a debutante’s fancy ball down south before the Civil War, or at the Emperor’s ball in nineteenth-century Vienna.” She sighed.
“But, not for…”
She finished his sentence, “Not for today, for a high school dance. Or any dance today, I’m afraid.”
Randy stared at the swirls of crimson, black, yellow and blue of the Turkish rug under his feet. They seemed to move, to spin and spiral, like water going down the drain, pulling him down and ever downward. Feeling vertigo, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath and muttered, “God, what a nerd I am.”
“Oh, no, Randy, you’re not. It’s all my fault and I really feel bad about it.” She thought for a moment, took his face between her hands, gazed softly into his eyes, and said, “Listen, Randy, I’ll make it up to you.” She put her arms around him and pressed him to her.
# # # #
Randy’s friends were puzzled. As Randy walked down Main Street with Tyrone and Doofus, Tyrone burst out, “Listen, Randy, what the heck is going on with you?”
“What do you mean?” he smiled.
“There, right there. That dumb smile you’ve been wearing for the last week.”
“Yeah,” said Doofus.
“What?” said Randy, “Can’t a guy smile once in a while?”
Tyrone, his brow wrinkled, answered, “It ain’t just once in a while, Randy. It’s just about all the time. Even when old Miss Sourpuss told you to straighten up or you’d flunk algebra, you gave her this dumb smile. She was so annoyed, she turned around and tossed the piece of chalk at the board. And when you think that the week before you were dragging your butt all over the place with this expression on your face like you lost your best friend. You know, because of what happened at the dance.”
“Yeah, the dance,” Doofus said.
Randy smiled even more broadly and said, “Guys, let’s stop at Mary’s Deli and get some pizza. Treat’s on me.”
Doofus stared in amazement as Tyrone sputtered, “On you? How come?”
“Well, guys, let’s just say I’m feeling good, plus: I’m a man of the world.”
Three of Clark Zlotchew’s 17 books consist of his fiction: Two espionage/thriller novels and an award-winning collection of his short stories. Newer work of his has appeared in literary journals of the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, Germany, South Africa and Ireland from 2016 through 2020.