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The Highest Jetés in the History of Riverport by Danica Cummins

You see, Death was stalking the vineyards.

My grandmother Beaty had just gone to Heaven. On top of that, a fireman’s wife had been shot. She’d shielded her chest with a Tupperware bowl, but the bullet blew clean through it. Then a hothead teenager from town, swollen with reckless abandon, had gotten himself thrown in front of a lumber truck.

I was only seventeen–and not the kind of seventeen you read about in the magazines by the check-out counter. No, I was a put-on-your-best-dress, go door-to-door for the Lord type of seventeen. I was a tentative, C-average, good-values type of seventeen. I was a squint-down-my nose-at-a-book-without-reading-it type of seventeen. Don’t think my illiteracy affected my exuberance for life. I could yodel. I could dirt-bike. I could gut a fish. I could keep myself from the black road of sin. I could scrub the whole house with unfocused, daydreaming eyes. Crossed eyes. I was that type of seventeen.

But mostly, I could dance.

I lived in the town of Riverport, six thousand souls sleeping between checkerboard plots of dusky grapes. I think we knew when we slept that Death stalked the vineyards. The count was rising all the time. An insurance agent died of pancreatic cancer. The mayor locked herself in her garage and let her Mazda’s engine purr. And in the midst of these tragedies, as graceless as it sounds, I danced.

Y’see, I was practicing for the Annual Riverport Dance Recital. I had several routines to perform, but the finale, the last dance of my career before I graduated high school, was to be the Waltz of the Sugarplum Fairy. What a crescendo! Those curtains would close and cocoon the stage and–voila! So would end the last hurrah of Scot Hock, ballerina.

I was the Sugarplum Fairy for a reason, you know. My grand jetés were the highest in the history of Riverport. My legs parted lickety-split in the air, and my shoes didn’t thud on the landing. Maybe that mural of Riverport’s history–the one on the side of the Wells Fargo building, with the carriages, outlaws, and corseted ladies mingling in all their sepias–should have a picture of me on it, soaring above a stage in my pale, starched tutu.

#

The morning of the show was placid and cloud-washed, but at noon the clouds shattered like eggshells and the sun dripped down its golden yolk. The day climaxed into a sweltering evening. The sun was swallowed down the long throat of night, and mosquitoes danced in the twilight.

The Riverport Auditorium was built on an isthmus, encircled by the churning waters of the Starkhaven River–and the river water had black depths in it that day.

As darkness settled, three hundred chairs were unfolded in the auditorium. The families of forty young ladies buzzed in the audience, sweating against the heavy fabrics of their Sunday best. Most waited impatiently for the beige curtains to swing wide. The old hands, however, the parents with daughters in high school, watched for a ripple in the curtains with the incurious attention a dentist might give to an opening jaw. They’d seen it all, plaque or pas de deux, before.

Since the actual changing rooms were holding the fidgety youngsters (dressed, if anything, like mutated daisies), the older girls changed their costumes in the men’s bathroom. It was a dank place–I remember one of the urinals delicately cupped an unknown man’s pee.

We changed facing the walls. We stretched, flexed our feet, and spoke with sharp, nervous smiles. We laughed when our tutus collided. The concrete floor was cold, even through tights (which was faintly revolting)–but what a joy it was to dance!

My grandmother once told me that, when I dance, I move like a puma.

“Pumas do not wear pink,” I responded emphatically.

Beaty just smiled like she knew a secret.

We were all there, the oldest dancers, in that bathroom. These were girls I had known, in a single context, since infancy. Beanpole and buxom, everyone was there–everyone, that is, except Amanda July. Amanda July was in the dark wings of the stage, staring at the undulating sea of camcorder lights in the audience.

Amanda was the only other graduating senior in the dance recital, that year. The seniors always danced the final number of the show together; so a duet, at this quintessence of my career, was the prerogative of tradition. My last act was Amanda’s too: to my Sugarplum she was to play the handsome Nutcracker Prince. In some ways we’d been dancing a duet for a while.

Beware of a woman in men’s clothing! She knows not her limits.

Or perhaps she knows her limits for the first time.

#

My old mother always says that the Lord gave me more than my fair share of imagination. Some days I’m brimming with poetry. Some days I can’t see the real telephone poles of the world for the words that spring up in my head to describe them. I can’t explain why, but Amanda July, from the moment I met her, became a myth like that in my mind.

Y’see, she was my enemy, and an enemy is a dear thing to the soul.

An enemy can twist the soul inarticulate with passion. I feel heavy and inadequate when I try to describe Amanda July. She moved to Riverport when she was fifteen, from Arizona–but what kind of person was she? I can tell you that she threw a baseball faster than any girl in the school, but only when she had someone at whom to throw it. She never joined the softball team and always used her period to get out of P.E. She was godless, an avowed atheist, but crossed herself before every physics exam. She always dressed in dour black, but had a smile for everyone she passed in the hall. She collected potato bugs, but bolted in fright when she saw a spider. She’d throw a punch for an injured cat, but gleefully dissected the carcass of one in Advanced Biology. She told me conversationally the first day we met that she was a lesbian; she’d noticed that I was reading the Bible under my desk, and said, raising her eyebrows, “I just wanted you to know that I’ll respect you, if you respect me.”

When you try to shake a person out of your head, what comes back to you again and again are the hard knots, the paradoxes of character that can’t be made to conform to pat definitions. Amanda’s battle cry was, “I will not be generalized!”, and she flew the flag of her own specificity in everything she did. Even in retrospect, she has the power to surprise me.

She was a dancer, so we met often, but we hardly spoke. I soon discovered, though, that her new house was only four doors down from mine–the one with the sudden outcropping of cacti on the front porch. She noticed that I was trailing her on the walk home from ballet, and, without saying anything, subtly dropped back to my side.

We made many journeys together–past the Chinese Diner, under the stoplight, onto Main Street, and a left at Harding Lane–but I wasn’t a gabber or a good friend. She walked quickly, eyes twinkling, relishing the company of her own thoughts. I, more often than not, skipped behind her with my nose buried in the Good Book. “Hey Scot,” she asked one day. “How do you keep from tripping?”

Without looking up from the text, I said solemnly, “By the mercy of God.”

Her mouth opened.

“What?” I asked.

She hesitated. “I didn’t know you had a sense of humor,” she finally admitted. Then she looked back at me sheepishly.

I shrugged, obscurely pleased. “Glad you done found that out.”

We walked on. “Hold on a tick,” she said suddenly.

She stopped, stood on her toes, and picked two apricots from a tree overhanging the sidewalk. She scrubbed them on her shirt and handed one to me. “Feel like a little theft?” she asked. I bit into it, and we walked on in a silence laced with unsounded laughter.

#

Please excuse me while I diverge from the main thread of this…history. You need some atmosphere: a little bit of night music.

Riverport is a small city tucked into the highlands of Northern California’s Mendocino County. We have two stoplights. We have a grocery store. We have three gas stations. We have a drug store and a Chinese restaurant and (reputedly) an airport for private planes. Wine is the lifeblood of these hills–wine and gossip. We have an indigenous way of speaking, a twanging, yearning type of sound that thickens when we linger on the local scandals. Maybe it sounds like the water that gurgles on all sides of us. They say that on dark nights, an outlaw dances with his wife to the rush of the Starkhaven River.

As local legend has it, in 1894, a gentleman-bandit by the name of Archibald Tucker made a daring stagecoach heist at the spot where later generations built the Riverport Auditorium. Unfortunately, one of the coach passengers was a Miss Gloria Starkhaven, Archibald’s fiancé. Starkhaven swung open the coach door when she heard the voice of her intended. “Archie?” she reportedly gasped, running out to him. “I thought you were in Cincinnati!” The coach driver took advantage of the bandit’s distraction to fire the Winchester rifle he kept under the seat, which, badly aimed, hit Miss Starkhaven in the shoulder just as she reached the bandit.

She shrieked, stepped backward, and slipped over the edge of the cliff into the river that bears her name. Her body was never found. Archibald Tucker was captured and hung.

My grandmother Beaty told me that story while teaching me to make rhubarb pie. I still remember how she pummeled the heels of her hands hard against the dough as she related the deaths.

I have a picture in my head of the outlaw, sprawled on the grassy edge of the cliff, next to wild vetch, Starkhaven’s boot-print, and a yawning blue sky. Yelling with remorse.

I’ve always hoped that Gloria’s name had a kind of magic over her destiny. I hope that she found a haven in the river–a stark haven, but a haven nonetheless.

#

Before I go back to the night of the recital, I have to talk about Mick.

Mick Ames was a bona-fide small-town boy, a mechanic’s son who had a way of slurring his words when he talked about something he didn’t understand. He was always nice to me, and I can’t say I returned the favor. But sometimes when I was watching the shadows of grasshoppers by myself in a corner of the high school quad, he’d ramble up and start a conversation. I can’t remember what we talked about. It never significantly penetrated my solitude.

But I do remember his laugh. It was obnoxiously enthusiastic. When roused, he trumpeted with delight.

Mick and Amanda started dating the April of senior year, just as the trunks of the oaks in the quad were knee-deep in miner’s lettuce. I’m sure he treated her well–he took her to the prom and let her drive his car–but I’m equally sure that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be Mick’s girl. I’d seen him slip his fingers under the edges of her shorts, and you know what her expression was?

Woebegone.

My grandmother Beaty once told me that some folks are never as happy as they claim to be, while some are never as unhappy as they claim to be. I think I’m one of the latter: I dearly love to complain. But Amanda, Amanda kept her lips shut on her underlying discontent all through our latter teenage years. I watched the set of her face become sterner. When she was a high school junior, she tried to start a club on campus for queer rights. This, remember, was cowboy country: Amanda found few allies, and many former friends refused to be seen with her in public. She stopped walking home with me, then, preferring to trail behind. On her seventeenth birthday, I know for a fact, she had a bout of drunken fornication with the quarterback of the football team. He bragged to the entire school about how much she bled when he broke her hymen. I had the distinct impression that, at that point, Amanda’s will to fight crumbled. She hid from the rumors behind gentle Mick Ames.

It was none of my business, but one day when I was too sick to dance–head-cold–I sat on a fence near Amanda’s house and waited for her to pass by. I swung my legs, ate a bag of cherries, and spit the pits down the drain.

When my target turned the corner, her mouth was twisted in preoccupation. She was looking at the ground.

I hopped off the fence and stood squarely in her way. I must have looked demented, because she stopped five paces from me, eyes hooded and wary.

“Cherry?” I asked.

She put her hand on her hip impatiently. “No, thank you.”

“All right.” I settled myself back on the fence, and cut to the chase. “I thought you were gay.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits. She started to shove past me, but I grabbed her arm. “No, really. Why aren’t you a lesbo anymore?”

“Do you have zero social skills?” she demanded, turning to face me angrily.

I tilted my head, considering. “Nope. So why aren’t you gay anymore? I thought you were a troublemaker.”

“What can I say?” She grinned dangerously. “I’ve got a friend in Jesus.”

“You do.” I nodded seriously. “But you know what Jesus was? A troublemaker.”

She started laughing hoarsely. “What are you, Scot? My conscience?”

I didn’t answer right away. “Amanda,” I yanked a leaf off a bush and shredded it with my fingernails. “You and I aren’t friends.” She stuttered, but I forged on. “I’m not even going to say that I like you. We believe totally different things, we’re on different sides of a war. A war of ideas, as I see it. But,” my voice quickened, “but we both know how to fight for what we believe. For the right to believe it. And you take it from me, because I’m not your friend, that I will never respect you again–I will never respect you again if you don’t keep fighting.”

Breathing hard, I fumbled for my handkerchief and dropped it on the ground. She picked it up for me. I blew my nose.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said when I finished. Her voice wasn’t cold, only distant. I grabbed her hand (it was rough on all the edges), but she walked quickly away.

#

“Have some wine with us, Scot,” said Mick, the night before my last recital.

He was picking Amanda up from ballet, and good-naturedly invited me to spend the evening with them. Amanda shot him an affronted look, but he, oblivious, was saying, “You’re only young once. Come on. Socialize.”

I tried to catch Amanda’s eye, but she was glaring at a corner of the ceiling.

“Okay,” I said. I shrugged.

We swept into Mick’s Honda–me in the backseat–and drove to Amanda’s house. Mick filled the silence by singing country songs along with the radio. Once we filed into her kitchen, he produced a bottle of sweet white wine, a Zinfandel or a Gewürztraminer or some other barely-pronounceable mead. Amanda crossed her legs and spoke in monosyllables while sipping hers, until, with a feral growl, she tossed back the whole of it in two gulps. “I’ll be upstairs when you want me,” she declared, stalking off.

I took a glug of mine. It was my third glass, and I was moving in sharp, predatory jerks. “Mick, oh Mick,” I sang, to buoy the disconsolate boy’s spirits. I giggled. “I met you in the nick of time.”

“Sit over here, Scot,” he said, patting the sofa and trying to smile. As I scooted closer I stumbled, and my face fell against his knee. His knee smelled of grease and diesel and, for a reason I will never know, apples. My mind moved against my will into the memory of Amanda walking away from me, the rough edges of her hands. I turned my eyes against Mick’s khaki pants.

What happened never did make sense to me. I’d had too much wine, and I was mad at Amanda, and Mick teased the short hairs at the nape of my neck with his fingernails, and I was learning about a hunger that had nothing to do with food.

The devil got into me, I guess. In one swift move, I undid the zipper of Mick’s pants. Still a virgin, I kept thinking, y’see. The wine had tasted like licorice. He moaned; I moaned. I thought about how Death was stalking the vineyards. When he ejaculated, I gagged, and, not knowing what to do, I lurched out the door and spit the semen into the soil of a potted cactus. I stared at it. It kept its form like jelly.

When I turned back to the house, Amanda was on the stairwell, looking at me. At me, not at Mick.

Before guilt hung its hat on a peg in my mind, blackness crowded across my sight. I sank to the floorboards of the porch. When I woke up, Amanda was blocking my vision. Her hair hung down in my face. I grabbed a hank of it, she slapped me, and all I could do was laugh.

#

I was half-expecting, the night of my last jetés, to find potato bugs dumped into my dance bag. But Amanda was not bent on revenge. Her thoughts were thick, tenuous, and introspective, I sensed. I tried once to apologize–but she refused to look me in the eyes, until she was the Nutcracker Prince and I was the Sugarplum Fairy, and we were circling each other like buzzards.

It was a spectacular dance. It was a dance for the Riverport ages–and I can’t remember it at all. I do, however, remember how it ended. For the grand finale, Amanda laid one hand flat on my stomach while the other snaked around my waist. She dipped me across her lunging thigh. We’d rehearsed this thirty times–me caught in her arms–but this time I looked up at her face, and something was different.

It didn’t belong to the Amanda I knew. We paused in the dip for a half-second, and in that half-second I wanted to scream, because the sweat-washed cheeks above me had taken on a ghoulish promise of freedom.

Yes, freedom. The American dream.

The light had thickened her eyebrows and transformed her eyes to a dangerous orange-tinted hazel. Her teeth were waxen and her skin was crevassed by shadows. She looked like a bandit. Her nostrils flared.

She drew her upper lip off her teeth, and so did I. In that instant I felt that neither of us was a woman.

That was the moment when I learned that I could. A lucky, exhilarating epiphany. I learned that I could kiss her. So I did. My mouth leapt up to hers like a salmon leaping to its spawning grounds. It was my first kiss, and I still don’t know if I shared it with Amanda July, or the Nutcracker Prince, or the ghost of Archibald Tucker, or Death himself.

The arms of my partner tightened around me, and the audience stirred in civil unrest.

The music continued, without us, to the hush in the wake of the crescendo. As a profound silence settled over the auditorium, I felt my heartbeat slow. It was a still moment, an utterly peaceful, cyclical, self-sufficient moment. I heard the staccato clicking of camcorders being switched off, one by one. I heard a soda fizzing against the aluminum sides of its can. I heard tonsils bobbing as a hundred throats swallowed. I heard an owl alight on the rooftop. I heard bullfrogs croaking huskily on the banks of the river. And I heard the Starkhaven River itself, roaring. Then Amanda muttered a round, passionate “Fuck!” and shattered the stillness.

She released me. Then she spun on one heel, leapt off the front of the stage, and dashed down the aisle to the doors.

I followed, shiny pink shoes and all, tutu wagging as I ran. We broke into the night. I’ve told you that the Riverport Auditorium was on a kind of isthmus, with the Starkhaven River looping around it in a series of waterfalls; once Amanda’s feet landed on the dry grass outside, she was netted by water. She had nowhere to run.

Death was stalking the vineyards, y’see. I guess I told you before. As Amanda neared the edge of the cliff, I had a dreadful fear, and I saw–I swear I saw–a mist darker than the sky rise from the water. It was as black as these mountains must’ve been before Riverport existed, when they were the home of the Pomo Indians. Amanda ran out against the wall of wind at the cliff-edge, and the mist resolved itself for the blink of an eye into the shape of a figure—

–a human figure–

–a man–

–and I yelled out, but the man, the ghost–Death–he pushed Amanda July off the cliff.

She arched back into the air, a gray bit of bone against the night.

#

Death is a gambler.

He gambled that Amanda, like Gloria Starkhaven, would plunge to the rocks of the river.

But Amanda apparently had an ace up her sleeve. When I shook off my paralysis and tore to the lip of the cliff, a pain-strangled voice below me called, “Scot! Scot?”

She’d been caught by the roots of a madrone that jutted sideways from the ledge. She was mangled, but conscious. I got down on my knees, stickers embedding themselves in my tights, and tried to reach her outstretched arms. She was just beyond my grasp.

I cast around for a rope. The Riverport Auditorium had a garden display at its side with poppies lining the California Bear Flag. I yanked the flag out of the soil, rolled it up, and dangled it over the edge.

As Amanda dragged herself up the Bear Flag, the doors opened and footsteps thundered behind us. Our audience had followed us out. So they were there, the families of the forty young dancers of Riverport, to see Amanda July crest the ridge. She was grimacing in pain, limping, bruised, and holding an arm as if it was broken–but it was a glorious sight.

I can’t describe it.

She kissed me again as she passed, on the corner of my mouth. Her lips were dry as lizard skin. Then she said, “Somebody get me a damn ambulance! What are you all, blind?”

She was loaded onto a stretcher. I hear she went to college with a cast on her forearm. I never saw her again.

#

A jar of stones. That’s what I was, the year I turned eighteen. I was a jar of stones polished to a shine and creaking against each other, wanting to burst free. Each stone was something hard and unchangeable that I’d learned about myself.

I’d learned, for example, who I love, and why. I had to forge some kind of compromise with God, and act on my new knowledge of myself. This would involve jumping mighty chasms of prejudice, and I was scared.

But, you know, I did have the highest jetés in the history of Riverport.

I’ve always been good at leaping.

——————-

Though this story’s main character is not based on myself, I did grow up in a sleepy town in the California wine country, and I did take dance classes (ballet, tap, jazz, and musical theater) until I graduated high school.  I see “The Highest Jetes in the History of Riverport” as a kind of California Gothic tale: something that investigates innocence, sexuality, and fear in a coastal and western setting.  This area (California’s Sonoma, Mendocino, and Napa counties) is rife with history, with local legends of bandits and wine-barons and wandering artists; it was even where the short-lived California Bear Republic was formed.  It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine history, when the history was so pervasive, slipping into the present and taking it over…  From my perspective, however, this story is ultimately about an individual’s right to define her own identity–a message that has no genre.

Danica Cummins is a speculative fiction writer from Northern California with degrees in English and Feminist Studies.  She has deep passions for words (in all their incarnations), human and nonhuman rights, hiking, coffee, and irony.  Her fiction has been published in Luna Station Quarterly, Larks Fiction Magazine, and The Ear Hustler.  She writes the blog “Danica’s Intergalactic Coffeeship.”  Visit it at http://intergalacticcoffeeship.blogspot.com/ .  She is currently writing a novel about robots.

 

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