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Flatbush Spirit Dance

October 1, 2009

By Daniel José Older

Sierra Santiago got off the Q train at the dimly lit Church Avenue station in the heart of Brooklyn. The platform was deserted and a gentle rain drifted onto the tracks. She tried to shake the nervousness off, but the idea of spending alone time with Robbie had given her a permanent case of the heebie-jeebies. It had all started three weeks back, when this shy looking boy showed up in school – a transfer from Stuyvesant. When Sierra got a look over his shoulder at one of the tangled, incredible murals that he was constantly doodling on every available surface, fascination turned to serious crush.

She had tried to stop herself from becoming suddenly awkward but could never figure out how to stand or what to say when he was around. They barely spoke. Then one day, completely out of the blue, Robbie simply looked her dead in the face and asked if she wanted to hang out over the weekend. Sierra had been so startled she barely managed to say yes. That ridiculous floating feeling in her gut had stayed with her like an annoying sibling through the rest of the week. Now here she was, alone on this wet platform in an uncomfortable skirt that her best friend Bennie had insisted she wear.

Robbie came down the stairs at a sprint, skipping every other step. He was panting slightly when he landed on the platform and he paused to catch his breath. His long locks were tightened and wrapped carefully into a bun behind his head. He had on a dignified looking blazer and some slick jeans, creased and boot cut. He was also wearing old sneakers, but Sierra decided to let that one go.

“Not bad,” she said casually.

He looked relieved. “Not bad yourself.” He stopped just in front of her, a little too close to her face, and then leaned in and kissed her cheek.

“When did you get so slick?” she said, pulling away. “You’re supposed to be the quiet dorky type.”

Robbie laughed shyly. “I am the quiet dorky type,” he said. “I’m really, really nervous.”

Sierra felt her stomach relax a little.

“In fact, that’s all I got really, and believe me, I rehearsed that like six thousand times.” Robbie exhaled sharply and she realized he’d barely taken a breath the whole time they’d been standing there. His fists were clenched tightly at his sides.

“Okay,” she said laughing, “you can relax, buddy, you’re doing fine.”

“Okay,” he whispered. “You ready to go?”

“Where we going?”

“It’s called Club Kalfour. I painted a mural for them and I want you to see it.”

“You’ve been planning this for a while,” Sierra said, her eyes narrowing. “Either that or you take all the girls there.”

Robbie let out a nervous burp and then looked more relaxed. Sierra did her best not to burst out laughing.

“No,” Robbie said, “I’ve been planning this a while.”

They walked side-by-side up the stairwell, through the turnstile and out into the night.

Club Kalfour turned out to be a discreet little operation on the corner of two quiet streets in East Flatbush. Not much to look at from the outside, really. An ancient marquee announced “C UB  K LFO R,” and threatened collapse at any moment.

“Nice,” Sierra said.

“Listen,” Robbie stopped her just below the marquee, “before we go in. Uh, I’m really bad at small talk. Sometimes I get the hang of it, but mostly…” he shook his head. Sierra decided nervousness was a fairly adorable suite on the boy. “So that’s why I brought you to a dance club. We won’t have to talk!” All she could do to stop herself from kissing him right then and there was bite her finger and smile.

“Sounds like a plan,” she managed, and followed him into the old wood paneled doorway.

A disco ball sent tiny flickers spinning around the dim lounge. The lights landed fleetingly on faces of couples dancing, old folks chatting in corners, some teenagers nursing drinks at the bar, and waitresses working the floor. A haze of smoke hung in the air.  Some old swing style jazz melody with a calypso beat chortled softly from a dusty jukebox in the corner.

Sierra didn’t know why, but she felt instantly at home at Club Kalfour. No one turned to glare at them or size them up like at most of the teenage clubs she’d been to. Robbie didn’t appear to be in any imminent danger of getting jumped. People of all ages mingled and joked happily with each other, and most shockingly, no creepy guys were trying to devour her whole with their eyes.

“I like this place,” she whispered to Robbie. Then she surprised even herself by leaving her face by his neck for a sweet moment.

“I was hoping you would,” he said, a goofy smile breaking out across his usually serious face. “Come with me.” He led her over to the jukebox corner and said, “You see it?”

“Uh- the music box?”

“No, Sierra, the wall.”

She had completely forgotten that he’d said he painted murals for the place. She squinted through the fog of smoke at the walls. It was so dim in there that at first she could barely make it out, but as her eyes adjusted the swirling lines and figures seemed to jump out at her. She followed a blue pant leg up to find a well-dressed fellow waltzing with his skeleton bride.  Behind them, palm trees swayed before a burning red sky and beyond that churned a wild ocean, full of beautiful, dark skinned mermaids and swirling dragons.

“It’s beautiful,” gasped Sierra.

“Thank you,” Robbie murmured.  “Look over here.”

A tall black man in an elegant colonial military uniform stood on top of a jungle mountain, staring intently down into a thick forest full of growling tropical creatures and magnificent birds.  The light blue Caribbean sky was alive with angels of all colors and sizes; they fluttered merrily towards some unseen source of brilliant light.

Sierra spun slowly around; each wall of Club Kalfour was covered with an epic masterpiece rendered in Robbie’s distinctive graffiti-like style.

“You see,” she said, “you say you’re not slick, and yet, here we are, in this romantic little club surrounded by all your hot paintings. I think you might be slick, mister.”

Robbie replied with a ‘who me’ shrug of his shoulders and eyebrows. “You wanna dance?”

“I suppose so. But I don’t dance Haitian.”

“Do you salsa?”

“More or less.”

“Then you’ll be alright.”

A group of older gentlemen in matching white suite jackets and black slacks began shuffling onto the stage at the far end of the club. Most of them looked well past retirement age, and a few seem ready to check out any moment.

“Don’t they have curfew at the nursing home?” Sierra asked.

Robbie rolled his eyes and led her onto the dance floor. The old men all raised their instruments at once and the room filled suddenly with a shock of horns over the gentle footsteps of conga drums. Then the pianist let loose in a sequence of rising and falling syncopations and a man’s crooning voice stretched over it all.  It sounded like some of the old boleros that Sierra’s great uncle Lázaro used to put on his phonograph, but the little fellow on stage was definitely not singing in Spanish. Whatever he was saying, it was heartbreaking.

“Can we, uh, dance now?” Robbie asked. Sierra had just been standing there staring at the band. She put her arms in salsa position, remembering the feeling from weekend after weekend of classes between the ages of seven and twelve. Robbie took her in his hands and they stumbled lightly and then caught the rhythm.

“It’s salsa!” Sierra laughed, her feet stepping naturally in time with Robbie’s.

“Not exactly, but close enough.”

The music swirled around them, moved with them, for them. Sierra saw little old couples absolutely tearing it up, putting some of the awkward younger folks to shame with their moves. Two eight or nine year olds spun happily past. The music grew and strengthened as the crowd swelled, or was it the other way around? Sierra couldn’t even tell anymore. Didn’t even care.

Soon everyone was covered in sweat and laughing. Some octogenarian politely tapped Robbie on the shoulder and Robbie offered him Sierra’s hand. Sierra smiled down at the old fellow as he wrapped his little arms around her waist and the band glided smoothly into another song. Two middle-aged women blocked Robbie’s path back to the sitting area and escorted him back to the dance floor.

Something in a far corner caught Sierra’s eye and she swung her partner around to get a better look over his head. It was the walls – they were definitely moving. Not only were they moving, Sierra realized, the vast paintings were churning and swaying in time with the music. The elegant soldier leapt from his peak into the sky and found himself a pretty angel to swing with. The classy fellow and his death bride spun wild circles from one wall to the next.  The pretty black mermaids formed a dancing ring around one of the dragons, who appeared to be showing off a sultry two step.

Sierra glanced over at Robbie, who was laughing as he tried desperately to keep up with his two new dance partners. She decided it was better not to catch his eye just now because she was pretty sure any eye contact between them would cause the rest of the world to spin quickly away, and she was not quite ready for that to happen yet. The song wound down and one of the ancient trumpet players announced that they’d be taking a twenty-minute break. When Robbie reached Sierra he was still trying to catch his breath.

“You all right there, buddy? Gonna make it?”

Robbie wheezed and puts his hands on his knees.

“I’m sure someone here knows CPR…”

“Those two ladies…” Robbie gasped. “No…joke…”

“I saw that.” Sierra was laughing. She patted Robbie on his back (oh, his back) and started guiding him towards a table.

“Outside,” he said, mostly recovered now. “Let’s get air.”

The light summer rain hit the spot after the dank air of Club Kalfour. Sierra and Robbie leaned their backs up against a brick wall and watched the cars roll by.

“The murals,” Sierra said, “they were dancing too!”

Robbie nodded.

Sierra’s face said: “And?”

Robbie shrugged. “It’s hard to explain.”

“I bet.”

“And it’s more complicated than it seems.”

“More complicated than dancing murals in a dingy old club? Imagine my surprise.”

“What I mean is,” Robbie said, “there’s some…people…that aren’t happy about the murals. They’ve been tracking me. It’s why I switched schools.”

Sierra planted one foot firmly on the ground and tapped her other one impatiently. “You trying to tell me…what are you looking at?”

Robbie was squinting at some faraway point over her shoulder.

“What?” Sierra demanded.

“You hear it?”

Sierra only heard the gentle drizzle and a few passing cars. “Hear what?”

Robbie’s eyes were getting wide again. “That rumble. They’re coming. I have to go, I’m sorry, Sierra.”

“Go where? What are you talking about?”

Robbie shook his head. “I can’t explain right now, just run – get out of here!”

He moved so fast she wasn’t even sure where he’d gone at first. Then she dashed after him around a corner and into the alleyway behind Club Kalfour. Sierra reached out a hand and was about to call out when she saw Robbie launch himself headfirst towards a brick wall. She closed her eyes, bracing herself for that horrible sound of impacting flesh and bone, but it never came. When she opened her eyes, the wall was intact and Robbie was nowhere to be seen.

Then she heard the rumbling. It sounded like it was all at once very far away and right beneath her. The whole earth seemed to be trembling. She took a last glance at the blank spot of wall where her date’s brains should’ve been splattered and then turned around and ran.

Sierra’d never been to Flatbush before so she didn’t even bother trying to pick a direction. When you’re lost in Brooklyn, the next corner store should only be a block or two in any direction, and they’d be able to point the way to a nearby train that’d lead back to good ol’ Bed-Stuy.  But somehow she’d stumbled into a quasi-suburban enclave, complete with front lawns and porch swings. It was creepy. The southern-style mansions glared out at her, making sure she had no designs on the untold secrets and treasures horded within. Sierra broke into a run. The rumbling had faded some but still haunted the moist night air.

Finally, winded and sweating, she came out onto a brightly lit commercial street. A 24 hour fruit stand presented its colorful array of peppers, onions and melons. The street sign above it said CHURCH AVE and Sierra let out a sigh of relief. She stumbled in the direction that the little Mexican hosing down the produce had indicated.

In the sudden silence of the platform, she realized the rumbling had finally stopped. Or was whatever it was just lurking silently somewhere, waiting to make it’s move? Probably, it had followed Robbie into some inner sanctum of the city. The rain had started up again. It fell in heavy droves on either side of the train shelter, slicking up the tracks, sending tiny mice scurrying for cover. Sierra took a deep breath. Things were about to get very interesting.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ibi Zoboi permalink
    October 3, 2009 1:39 PM

    Hey, my part of town… Cool story. Victorian Flatbush is pretty spooky to me, especially around Halloween.

  2. December 9, 2009 12:56 PM

    That was great! I could picture everything…

  3. December 15, 2009 11:30 PM

    Things are already interesting! I enjoyed this. It could be the start of a good novel. Is there more?


  1. Daniel José Older - » ON WRITING 1: Just Tell The eFfin’ Story

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