Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Tarantella

BY DJ SHOEMAKER

The teacher starts each class by writing a series of vocabulary words on the board. The conversations between students, mostly adults, many speaking different languages, die down as she writes. They read the vocabulary words like bad news. When the list reaches twenty, the teacher brushes chalk dust from her sleeve, sits at her desk, and lights a cigarette.

The students write the words in silence.

Catherine isn’t sure of their meaning, and by the blank stares of her classmates—some of whom hail from Greece or Eastern Europe and don’t have the slightest grasp on Romanized written languages—she guesses they understand even less. She writes the words and commits them to memory.

The instructor appears to navigate the complex cultural dynamics of the class by having an equal level of apathy for all of her students. She is college aged and smokes while they read aloud and do silent writing lessons. When reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, she stands at attention behind her desk saluting the flag. Her husband is in Korea. Her name is Ms. Feuerstein. She tells her students to call her Misfire.

“Because if you try to pronounce it,” she says, “you’ll probably miss the mark.”

The men work at the mill. Some Catherine recognizes as her husband’s coworkers, men she’s seen at the community pool on the rare occasions she can convince Bruno to take her. They try talking to him, but there are few he can converse with in his native Italian if he were interested. Catherine wishes to test the words she learns in class – start a conversation at the pool, say hello to the neighbors she has yet to meet – but can’t with Bruno around, lest he question where she picked up this new skill and why she feels like she needs it.

Others in the class wear their employment in the black under their fingernails and behind their ears, men who have just enough time to shower and eat before the Saturday evening classes at Aliquippa High School. Some immigrant families come together. Elementary-aged children make corrections on their parents’ papers. The children don’t struggle as much. During reading exercises, they speak clearly, rarely pause, and though they mispronounce words, it’s with an efficiency that lends a poetic flair to their stumblings. These children will make it farther in their new country than their parents.

The steel mill set up Catherine and her husband with a house in Plan 2, a neighborhood of fellow Italians just up the hill from the blast furnaces. From their bedroom window she sees fire bursting from the furnaces, and sitting on the front porch, she swears she can feel the heat. At night she writes letters to her parents. Out of the money Bruno allots her monthly, she folds half inside the letters, and then she translates the letters her parents send her into English.

“It’s a good exercise for picking up the language faster,” Misfire says about writing and translating letters, “for those of you with family to write to.”

Students are allotted twenty-minute breaks between lessons, and Catherine takes them at the top of the bleachers at the school’s football field. The sun sets by that point in the evening, its hot glow cooling into the same shade of purple as her plum. It’s late August, and the football team has started practices. Like their fathers in the mill, their bodies are tools, backs bent like well-worn shovels planted in the earth.

Misfire sits next to Catherine some nights. Sometimes she offers a cigarette to Catherine, which she refuses.

“That one’s failing two classes,” Misfire says, pointing at number twelve with her cigarette. “The kid can catch a ball like nobody’s business but can’t read for shit. Number nine over there is a goddamn genius. Straight A’s, 4.0 GPA, and he’s been a starter since freshman year.”

“That is good,” Catherine says.

“His dad died at Pearl Harbor and his brother died in Korea,” Misfire continues, blowing smoke between sentences. “The kid will get scholarships to whatever school in the country he wants but he’ll end up joining the military. The worst part is I can’t tell him to change his mind. Henry’s whole life has been the army and I willingly married into it. How would that make me look if I tried to steer kids away from it?”

“Bad,” Catherine says.

“That’s why I like teaching foreigners,” Misfire says. “You’re straight shooters because you can’t sugarcoat things.”

 

Bruno wakes Catherine as he sits heavily on the bed. Her eyes open to her husband’s silhouette. Though freshly showered, he still smells of sulfur and beer. In the light of the rising sun through the curtains, he mumbles his prayers—Nel nome del Padre, e del Figlio, e dello Spirito Santo—crosses his chest, and falls into his pillow. His damp mustache moistens the pillowcase, the dark, coarse hairs made darker by soot that never washes out. Catherine dresses herself to the hum of his snoring, stepping over creaky floorboards and slowly closing the door.

She swears she feels the heat of the mill pouring through the front door when she retrieves the newspaper. Traffic fills the street toward the downtown corridor where the commercial district connects with one of the entrance tunnels to the mill. She checks her parking job from the night before, measuring with her foot the distance between the tires and the curb. When she comes home late on Saturday nights, she parks the Mercury Eight with the headlights off so the neighbors don’t see, so nobody gets ideas about where she’s been without her husband.

Advertisements for the San Rocco Festa plaster the newspaper. This year is the twenty-fifth installment of the annual celebration of Saint Rocco. Bruno’s brother, Joseph, who had immigrated to Aliquippa two years before them to work in the mill, told stories of the Festa in his letters. He wrote of crowds numbering thousands parading shoulder-to-shoulder in the city streets, singing, dancing, and proclaiming “Viva San Rocco” to the smoke clouded heavens.

One letter spoke of the Tarantella. On the final night of festivities, a band playing traditional music introduces the eight-foot-tall wooden baby doll. The large, inanimate woman in folk dress dances her way through the crowd, firecrackers attached to protruding beams on her back like wings. The firecrackers are lit, and she shuffles and spins in a sparkling fury. Shadows flicker over her face and her red skirt sways. At the end of the dance, when the firecrackers are extinguished, the dancer underneath the doll is revealed. To Joseph’s disappointment, having professed his love for the doll and its controller to anyone willing to listen, that dancer was a man. A year later, as Catherine and Bruno crossed the ocean to join him in the Festa town, Joseph fell into a ladle of molten iron.

Using her notes from class, Catherine translates the advertisements. She recognizes more words without having to reference her dictionary. Patterns in sentence structure become familiar, and she sees how the language in newspapers differs from books and letters. Later, after Bruno looks through the paper—he can’t read it, but he likes to look at the pictures—Catherine will cut the advertisements to send to her parents. She’ll say that America is great and she misses them dearly. She’ll ask how much more money they need to make the journey themselves, and she’ll sit at home and wait for their answers as Bruno works in the heat she swears she can feel.

 

Misfire lives across the street and two houses down. Catherine sees her teacher lifting the American flag up the pole in her front yard in the morning. The woman salutes the wafting flag just as she does at the beginning of each class. Her eyes squint and her lips move. Catherine reads her lips and fills the space with that week’s vocabulary terms.

Doctor. Medicinal. Hospital. Surgery. Heart. Brain. Voice. Smell. Spirit.

Misfire waves with her saluting hand. Catherine waves back, then stops, feeling her husband’s eyes on her from the bedroom window. When she looks up, the curtains are drawn. Nothing is there but the oppressive smoke of the mill pressing down on the sky. When she looks back down, Misfire has gone inside.

She feels those eyes each Saturday if the men in class watch her for a second too long. They search her face, wondering why she looks familiar, and she lowers her hair across her eyes until they look away. Each morning after Bruno’s prayers, when he climbs into bed with a muffled grunt, Catherine waits for a hand on her shoulder, a question about where she was the night before, why the car is parked in a different position.

It would be the latest of many questions Bruno has asked her since leaving northern Italy for the steel town. Why do you want to speak to the neighbors? Where were you? The grocery store is not that far away. Why would you want to learn how to drive? What do you have to do that’s not here at home?

“We aren’t in Italy anymore,” she always says. “The Black Shirts aren’t listening.”

But the paranoia grew stronger with each friend who disappeared in the night after speaking poorly of Il Duce, and those suspicions traveled with him to America. When he doesn’t know Catherine’s listening, he prays aloud to Joseph.

“How did you die?” he asks. “Did the neighbors know who you were? Who I am? Did they get their orders from back home?”

Rosary beads tremble in his hand, rattling like teeth.

“Who pushed you?”

 

A black car is parked in front of Misfire’s house when Catherine steps out for the Saturday newspaper. A man in an ash-colored suit stands at her door with a hat tucked under his armpit and watches Misfire read a notecard from an envelope. They stand on her porch for a long time, the man waiting in silence. She says something to him, he responds with a slow nod, and she drops the notecard to the ground. The man returns his hat to his head and goes to his car. Catherine catches the glint of an American flag pinned to his chest. She waves.

“Class is canceled,” Misfire yells, slamming the front door.

The man drives away, and Catherine waits until his car has disappeared before crossing the street to Misfire’s home. The noise of the mill seems so distant from her teacher’s porch. She picks up the cream-colored notecard before the breeze can blow it away.

Misfire’s address is printed at the top next to a stamped American flag. A short paragraph is typed in the center, few words of which she is able to make out. There are some she knows, and she mumbles aloud as she reads: Office. Regret. Missing. Action. Duty. North. Contact. Country.

She takes the notecard home to the desk where she writes letters and turns on the lamp. She removes the dictionary from her purse, flips through the pages for the first word of the message, and translates.

 

“We called them victory gardens,” Misfire says, writing the words on the chalkboard under a heading that reads Patriotism. The chalk squeaks when she makes cursive loops. This is the first class since the man in the suit delivered a message to her door a week ago. “My family had one, and so did all our neighbors. Our soldiers needed food, so families here grew their own while the country’s supply got shipped overseas. If you planted right and shared with your neighbors, you never went hungry. We had cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, all kinds of greens, carrots. A family down the street planted apple and pear trees and berry bushes. Everyone helped each other because that’s what Americans do.”

Catherine struggles to keep up with her notes. Misfire, who usually takes care to speak slowly and clearly for her students, talks faster than she can write on the chalkboard. She’s smoked two cigarettes already and lights a third.

“A lot of the steel that won the war was made right in this town, and it was made by some of the very people we were fighting. German workers molded steel that armored the Sherman tanks that drove the Nazis out of France. Italians made pieces that went into the bombs we dropped on Rome. Some of you might have a hard time imagining this. It might feel like treason building the weapons to fight against your homeland. But if there’s one thing you learn from this class, it’s that once you’re living here, you’re an American. Not Italian, German, Slav, Greek, Pole. American. If you want to be treated like one, you need to display unwavering patriotism. Sometimes earning your freedom means fighting against your family, or even yourself.”

Catherine raises her hand, and Misfire points at her with the cigarette.

“My husband,” she says, “he fight other Italians in war. This is patriotism?”

“Was he fighting for freedom?” Misfire asks.

“Yes. From Mussolini.”

“Then yes.”

“If he fight for Mussolini?” Catherine asks.

“That’s fascism.”

The notecard from the man in the suit is in Catherine’s purse, her rudimentary translation scribbled in the margins. Her interpretation is scattered, some words beyond her skill level, but it tells her enough to understand why Misfire rushes through the lesson, why she’s flown the flag in front of her house at half-mast all week.

Misfire goes for another drag of the cigarette but lifts the wrong arm and places an end of chalk in her mouth. Children giggle in the front row.

“Read silently,” she says.

She leaves the room, her heels clacking down the hallway until she disappears behind the slam of the stairwell door. From the window, Catherine sees the glow of the cigarette in the parking lot below. Students in football gear filter between parked cars toward the field. They acknowledge the teacher with adolescent stares. Bruno used to give Catherine those looks in the town square when she worked the stand outside her parents’ store. His eyes were lighter then. He smiled more and prayed less. She gets up from her desk and leaves.

Misfire lights cigarette number four when Catherine approaches. The teacher leans against a car and caresses the hood ornament with her finger.

“Do you miss being a kid?” Misfire asks, looking toward the football field.

“I do not know,” Catherine says.

“I don’t. So damn awkward. Everything is terrifying, particularly the opposite sex.”

“What is…terr-fing?”

“Terrifying,” Misfire says. “It means scary. Consider that your vocabulary word of the night.”

“Oh,” Catherine says. “Things scary when I am child.” She pauses, hears a whistle blow from the football field. “Things are scary now.”

“Yeah,” Misfire says. “Same here.”

Catherine rummages in her purse, sifting through scraps of paper between lipstick tubes and car keys and mints. She finds the scrap she’s looking for and presents it to Misfire.

“San Rocco Festa,” Misfire says, reading the newspaper clipping then returning it to Catherine. “That’s this weekend. What about it?”

“I want to go. Will you go?”

“Wouldn’t you rather go with a fellow Italian? What about your husband?”

“No,” Catherine says. “Bruno will not go.”

“Then he’ll be the only Italian in town staying home. You really don’t have anyone else to go with?”

Catherine shakes her head. Misfire flicks her ashes into the wind and becomes aware of the hood ornament between her fingers.

“Okay. We’ll go tomorrow. I could use the distraction. You’re a good student,” she says. “You’re the only one who seems to give a damn.”

 

Joseph never wanted to come to America. Catherine knew as much before he left, listening to his confessions on walks through the vineyards outside of town while Bruno sheltered himself in the basements of clubs and bars with other saboteurs, plotting against Mussolini and the Germans.

“The man’s time will come soon,” Joseph once said. “I believe it is still possible to find happiness in this country.”

Catherine wasn’t sure if he referred to Mussolini or Bruno with that statement. He squeezed a grape between his fingers and licked the juice that flowed into his palm. A spider tightrope walked the vines. They weren’t supposed to be there.

In the first letter Joseph sent from the steel town across the ocean, he urged his brother and Catherine to make the journey themselves.

“It’s not safe at home,” he pleaded. “You’re running a fool’s errand and it’s only a matter of time before you’re killed.”

In a separate letter to Catherine, he said, “I miss you. Life is lonely here.”

She keeps his old letters where Bruno can’t find them. After Joseph died, Bruno burned all the ones he received, spreading their ashes like the ones of his brother that he would never possess.

 

“There is a woman at our door,” Bruno says. He peeks out the curtains onto the front porch.

“Would you like me to answer?” Catherine asks.

“Tell her to go away,” Bruno says, sitting down at the kitchen table.

Misfire smirks at Catherine’s bathrobe when she opens the door.

“Did I come at the wrong time?” she asks.

“No. It is time,” Catherine whispers. She looks over her shoulder at Bruno chewing a buttered roll with teeth like headstones. “I need you to say ‘help.’”

“Help?” Misfire asks.

“Yes. You need help.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Say it,” Catherine says. “Loud. I need help.”

“I need help,” Misfire says, almost shouting, and then takes a cigarette from her purse.

“Good. Wait, please.”

She closes the door and joins Bruno at the table. He flips through the newspaper comics, tracing the outlines of the panels while looking at the pictures. She remembers the landscapes he used to draw before the war. He’d pin them to the wall by the window, his graphite-stained thumb leaving streaks on everything he touched, including her.

“It’s the neighbor,” Catherine says. “She needs my help.”

“What for?” Bruno asks.

“It’s her husband. He’s fighting in the war in Asia and he’s gone missing. The woman is inconsolable.”

“How do you know about her husband?” Bruno asks. “I heard her speaking English. How could she have told you?”

“I saw the man in the suit,” Catherine says, “from the government. He goes to soldiers’ houses and tells their wives that the men are missing or dead. He’s been to our street before. I see him when I get the newspaper.”

Bruno sighs.

“If you must,” he says. “Don’t be gone long. You don’t know this woman.”

Catherine closes herself in the bathroom and takes off her robe. She smooths the wrinkles in her dress and straightens the crucifix hanging from her neck, then grabs her purse and slips on a pair of heels. Gliding downstairs to the front door, she slips outside to meet Misfire, who leans on the railing as she smokes.

“You get ready quick,” Misfire says.

Catherine does her makeup in the side-view mirror of Misfire’s car while she drives.

“Can I ask what all that was about back there?” Misfire asks. “What do I need help with?”

“My husband. He does not like me out.”

“So I was your excuse to get out of the house?”

“Yes,” Catherine says.

“What do you tell him on nights we have class?”

Catherine puts away her makeup, rolls down the window, and sighs.

“He works night shift at the mill, doesn’t he?” Misfire asks.

“You know?”

“Henry did the same before joining the army. That’s partly why I teach your class. It gave me something to do while he was gone nights at work. Better than sitting on my ass at home being lonely.” Misfire flicks the spent cigarette out the window. “He never liked me smoking in the car. Or at all. Guess both of us have stubborn husbands to deal with. If you don’t mind me asking, does yours get mean if you do things he doesn’t like?”

“Yes,” Catherine says. “It is… terrifying.”

They stop at a red light near the high school. Through the open windows, Catherine hears distant trumpets, trombones, and tambourines. The car behind them honks. The light is green. Misfire waves an apology and smiles.

“So,” she says, turning up the hill toward the music, “what do I need your help with?”

The notecard is still in Catherine’s purse. It seems Misfire hasn’t noticed its absence. She’s doing better today, Catherine thinks. She has smiled. Now is not the time to remind her of the notecard, of the man in the suit, of her missing husband in Korea.

“I lie,” Catherine says. “You are good.”

Misfire chuckles, turns the wheel, reaches for her cigarettes.

 

Catherine stumbles when her heels sink into the trampled ground. People fill the park, the sidewalk, the street, the porches of houses. They are everywhere, more people than she has ever seen in one place. Children brush her dress as they run, and they apologize through giddy laughs before diving back into the sea of legs. Lights pulse and flash to the tune of carnival music and honking horns. Thousands of voices churn in rolling waves of language and laughter.

“This is your first Festa,” Misfire says. “You wouldn’t have worn heels otherwise.”

“Why not warn me?” Catherine asks, pulling off the heels. “Teach me.”

“Would changing your shoes have helped with whatever I supposedly needed help with? Don’t want to make that husband of yours suspicious.”

“Some teacher.”

“I must be doing something right,” Misfire says. “You’re already sassing me in English.”

They go to the first food vendor they see and order frappe pastries, the powdered sugar falling onto Catherine’s bare feet. The next booth serves them frittelle straight from the fryer that burns their tongues. They hold them in napkins and blow on them.

Among the game booths is a shooting gallery with pellet rifles aimed at a wall of balloons. Misfire mans a gun and pops twelve balloons in thirty seconds, winning herself a stuffed llama wearing a hat.

“Shooting is one skill from the army Henry taught me,” Misfire says. “The other is swearing. I could teach you.”

“To shoot?” Catherine asks.

“To swear. Or do you know those already?”

“Some,” she says.

“Let’s hear it,” Misfire says.

Catherine looks around, sees children in all directions.

“Don’t worry about them. If their dads work at the mill, they hear far worse at home than you’ll ever be able to say.”

“My husband does not swear,” Catherine says.

“Do you?” Misfire asks.

Culo. Merda.

“In English.”

“Ass,” Catherine says. “Shit.”

“Again, with feeling.”

“Shit.”

“Shit!” Misfire shouts, tossing the llama in the air. The frills of its hat flutter, and it falls through her hands when she tries to catch it. A nearby mother grabs her son by the shoulders and shuffles him away. He’s young enough to know he heard something he shouldn’t have, but doesn’t understand its significance. A group of boys from the football team giggle and elbow each other’s ribs at the ice cream booth. Number nine, the brilliant boy who’s likely joining the military, is among them, but he doesn’t laugh with his friends. He is probably thinking of his dead brother and father, about the future that’s almost upon him. Misfire picks up the llama and brushes dirt and sprinkles off its hat. “It’s a bunch of fucking shit,” she says.

Her eyes meet Catherine’s, and they stare at each other until the boys leave. Number nine slouches, his hands shoved into his pockets. Misfire lifts the llama to her face and shakes it, the frills of its hat flailing.

“Baah,” she bleats.

“Are you okay?” Catherine asks.

Misfire looks at the llama as if the animal asked the question.

“Fine as ever,” she says. “Why do you ask?”

“This week, you are sad,” Catherine says. “Your flag is down.”

“Ah,” Misfire says. “Well, you know that war in Korea my husband’s fighting in? There was a battle. He went missing. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

Catherine gives her a blank stare.

“I saw you grab the letter from the army,” she continues. “You’re not as sneaky as you think.”

“I am sorry,” Catherine says.

“Don’t be.”

Catherine digs through her purse and hands her teacher the translated notecard. Misfire evaluates it line by line like a class assignment, like she had asked everyone to write an essay about her missing husband.

“You’ve made remarkable improvement since the first day of class,” she says. “You translated almost the whole thing.”

“You are sad?” Catherine asks.

Misfire removes a cigarette from her pack, reconsiders, then returns the pack to her purse.

“That’s the problem,” she says. “I’m not sad, and I feel awful about that. Henry used to be a different man before he joined the army. We never used to have a flag in the house. Then he came back from basic training and suddenly there was a flagpole in our front yard and we had to salute every combination of red, white, and blue we saw. I never used to say the Pledge of Allegiance in class either. You know what that man did?”

Catherine shakes her head.

“He stopped by the school one Saturday and watched my class through the door. He saw me go right into the lesson, no pledge or anthem or anything. When I got home, Henry laid into me. It was…terrifying. My husband is missing. I should be worried out of my mind right now. But I feel nothing. Does that make me a bad person?”

Catherine shakes her head again. “Henry is bad,” she says. “Bad to make you feel terrifying. Good to make you feel freedom.”

Misfire chuckles and nods.

“This is why I love teaching foreigners,” she says. “I’ve been doubly patriotic all week because I’m still afraid he’ll come home. I’m afraid he’s still standing outside my classroom waiting for me to forget the pledge. I’m afraid he’ll come home and see the flag at full mast and wonder why I’m not mourning. It’s like I can feel him watching me even harder when I’m alone in that house.”

Misfire watches the group of football players toss their empty ice cream cups in the trash and walk away into the crowd.

“Next time I see number nine in class,” she says, “I’m telling him to go to college. Go play for a big-time school and get good grades. He doesn’t need to end up like his dad and brother.”

“Henry will be mad?” Catherine asks.

“He doesn’t need to know,” Misfire says, “if he ever comes back.”

“You want him back?”

“I want the man I fell in love with to come back. That man disappeared before Henry left for Korea. Was your husband different before you came to America?”

Catherine thinks about Bruno’s graphite-stained fingers, and about the grease and soot that now blacken his hands. The bell of a test-your-strength game rings in her ears. “Yes,” she says.

“Will you ever tell him that you’re taking my class?” Misfire asks.

Another long pause. Someone slams the hammer down to test their strength but doesn’t set off the bell. “No,” Catherine says.

“Then don’t,” Misfire says. “We’re allowed to have our secrets. I won’t tell if you don’t.”

 

All Catherine has to say is she wants a closer view and Misfire is leading her by the hand and elbowing her way through the crowd. The cigarette dangling from her mouth is a beacon lighting the way. They make it to the edge of the parking lot where the stage has been erected. Rows of children stand and sit on the sidewalk in front of them.

“Even I have my limits,” Misfire says. “This is as far as we go.” She blows smoke out of the side of her mouth away from the children.

The band tunes their instruments next to the stage, muttering test blows from trumpets and plucking guitars. A man in a striped boater hat taps a microphone and coughs into his hand. He surveys the crowd, shielding his eyes with his hand as if the sun hadn’t set hours ago. The man looks to the band, snaps his fingers three times, and points with a flourish.

The music begins with a fast tempo, as if starting mid-song. Nothing comes from the microphone when the man speaks. He doesn’t notice, announcing only to himself as he makes grand gestures to the crowd. His arms flail, fingers splay, and he spins in circles. Catherine recognizes the movements.

“Tarantella,” she says.

“What?” Misfire asks, having to shout in Catherine’s ear to be heard.

“Tarantella. From Joseph.”

“Who’s Joseph?”

“A friend,” Catherine says.

Applause rumbles from one side of the stage and spreads through the rest of the crowd. Sparks rain from the dark as the baby doll emerges. She tip-toes in rhythm with the music, bouncing in place, rotating once, then stepping forward to repeat the process. Black hair falls on her brown-vested shoulders. Her hands rest on a green sash wrapped around her hips. Her bright red skirt flows down from the sash to her feet. The percussion of firecrackers from the wooden beam on her back adds an unsteady metronome to the music. Couples converge from the crowd into the parking lot to dance with the doll, getting close enough for sparks to kiss their skin. The boater hat man continues his mute narration.

I was stricken by the resemblance, Joseph had written in his letter, that you have with the baby doll. I would kiss the hand of the sculptor who carved such an angel into a log of wood. There is no one here for me to dance with. Bruno would have taken you to dance with the doll in happier times. I’m not so sure now.

The frequency of the firecrackers increases from the baby doll. One pops loudly like a grenade, blowing a cloud of sparks over nearby dancers who laugh and duck for cover. She imagines the stories she’s heard from inside the mill, of men being singed and burned by overflowing molten iron and slag falling over their heads like meteorites. Had he lived, Catherine wondered if working in such an environment would’ve changed Joseph, if he would have ended up like Bruno or Misfire’s husband.

A new roar of cheers and applause erupts through the audience. Everyone looks back toward the stage. Even the baby doll stops her dance, her eyes shining in the sparks. From behind the stage, a new light emerges. The second baby doll is dressed similarly to the first in a brown vest, but with a red sash and green skirt. The difference is in the head, in the short cropped hair and black-mustached upper lip. His eyes are dark under a brooding, sloping brow, and he has one arm extended, palm open in expectation of his lady’s hand.

The doll’s resemblance to Bruno is striking.

The male doll meets the female at the center of the parking lot. They bow in greeting, resuming the tip-toe dance to the symphony of firecrackers. They ebb closely, almost touching, then separate again. The dancing crowd makes space for the dolls to rotate around one another like binary stars, feeding off the heat and fuel the other gives.

“Dance?” Catherine asks.

“Is that considered dancing?” Misfire asks.

“It is tarantella,” Catherine says, leading Misfire into the tide of dancers and getting as close as possible to the baby dolls. She places her right hand on her hip and stretches her left arm across her teacher’s hip. They rotate in a circle like the dolls, hands on each other’s waists. After a full rotation, they switch sides and do it again. A few rotations and their motions are in sync, their footsteps falling in tune with the music.

“So what’s the story?” Misfire asks. “About the dance?”

“Spiders,” Catherine says. “Long time ago, if you are bit by spider, you dance. You are crazy. Spider fill you with veleno. Bad water. What is word?”

“Poison?” Misfire asks.

“Yes. Dance until poison is gone. Spin. Spin fast.”

“Someone should’ve told them,” Misfire says, pointing to the shuffling dolls tip-toeing in their circles. Their firecrackers have almost run out. “They aren’t moving fast enough.”

Catherine considers the dolls and their massive size. If they hadn’t been built so large, they could spin faster. But in their current state, they might fall over if they tried, cracking into each other like falling trees and hitting the ground. They’d never survive the spider bite.

Catherine tightens her grip on Misfire’s waist and dances faster. They complete a circle, switch sides, and do it again. They increase speed until it feels like they’re running. Catherine’s head swirls, and she breaks loose from Misfire and spins toward the dolls. She’s consumed by whistling explosions and a rain of sparks, and all around her, she swears she can feel the heat.



DJ Shoemaker is a graduate of Penn State Behrend’s Creative Writing B.F.A. program with a focus on fiction writing. While attending, he served as a student editor for the program’s literary journal, Lake Effect. He currently works as a television captioner in the Pittsburgh area.