Cheryl Lynn Smart’s Non-Fiction

Jan 9, 2017 by

Cheryl Lynn Smart’s Non-Fiction

Vague Castles


From the pulpit we were told, “A dancing foot and a praying knee don’t belong on the same leg.” We grew older. We got restless. Maybe we danced from defiance. Or dance was essential, inside us all along, our hips born to sway with a smattering of Native American and bits of harlot weaved into our DNA. Our ties to this country’s indigenous people are clear from family photographs. The legacy of harlotry my father’s youngest brother traced back all the way to the concubines of one of the Tudor kings. It would be nothing so glamorous as that our ancestry led us to the remarkable Anne Boleyn or anything of that sort. Sadly, no, as my uncle told it, “From the King’s whores. The common ones.”

“I always told him this family was trashy,” my Aunt chuckled.

I can’t say if all trashy women have dance in them, but as for me? I was born to it.

My father caught me dancing once when I was twelve years old. I was electric. My electricity was decked out in a dingy white cotton tee shirt, the sexiest underwear a farm girl was allowed to own (cotton bikinis with the days of the week on them), and a pair of my sister’s high heels. I was playing the devil’s music loudly in my bedroom, and quite comfortably, because I had watched my father go out into the fields. I did forbidden things when Dad went out into the fields. Among the forbidden was dance. I was sure he would be gone a good while because I knew of his fondness for long walks and time spent meditating in our woods.

I was singing as many lyrics to Blondie’s “Call Me” that I could understand, and mumbling new ones. All around the room I shared with my sister, my lithe young body whirled and gyrated. Weaving between twin beds, I admired my moves in the dresser mirror. I mutilated Blondie’s lyrics but I didn’t care. I was giving the song just as much hell as I was giving farm life.

I saw the scowl on his face the moment he opened my bedroom door and I froze in mid-pirouette. Panicked, I searched for words that would allow my father to ignore the scene. I knew he wanted to ignore it because he just stood there in the doorway scowling and the scowl meant I had a chance to talk my way out of a bad situation.

“Hey, Dad…um…I’m exercising.”

Ridiculous, I know. But I was sure these were the right words at the time because there on the farm, daily exercise was strongly encouraged. How could my father argue with that? And he didn’t argue. Dad closed the door and I walked across the room on shaky legs to turn off the radio. I fell breathless onto my bed and kicked off my sister’s high heels, my chest heaving from exertion and the thrill of being caught in such wickedness. Unruly giggles smothered underneath my pillow burst into braver laughter as my father’s footsteps faded away down the hall.

I was so sure fast thinking allowed my father to set the incident aside, not realizing then it was what moved through me and all around me – the spirit of my mother in her youth in the City of Angels – that made dad grant me a dance pass that day. There were glimmers still of the girl she once was but the rural south had dimmed many a glow. But how she must have shined. Strong, beautiful, independent girl who changed ‘41 to ‘40 on her work permit with a ballpoint pen so the manager of Westlake Theatre in Los Angeles would think she was sixteen and hire her. A stunner, she handed Dad his movie ticket, took his fifty cents, and all the adoration and affection he had to give. He couldn’t look too long, could barely speak, so he sent his brother in to pinch hit. It worked out or I wouldn’t be telling this story.

How could my father not see Mom when I danced? I wasn’t alone in the forbidden when he wasn’t around. It was Mom who taught me all my moves. Praise God and her for them! She taught me how to twist, and stroll, and how to do the mashed potato. She danced all those dances when dad wasn’t around, the dances young people danced in the fifties. I paid attention.

Dad opened the door to freedom that day when he caught me dancing, and maybe for a moment, he allowed himself to miss being free. To miss the way he and Mom were when they were young, living in California. I’ve spent my whole life wondering who they may have been if they’d never left L.A., who I would be. Why put down roots in Memphis in the sixties? Tension in that southern city peaking so high and so hot, growing hotter every day, rising higher than the throbbing summer climate that drenched their California clothes and dropped their pace down to a slow southland tempo. Dad’s roots were already in Memphis though. And ever mindful of the patriarchal system within his family’s structure, when the boys called, Dad went home. He took Mom with him, a woman-child of only twenty when they rolled into Memphis from L.A. in ‘62.

They rolled right out of Memphis and onto the family farm after Dr. King was assassinated and Memphis imploded, falling in on itself so hard, you can still taste it. God knows you can see it if you know where and how to look. But that was Memphis, and the farm was the farm, and we cocooned ourselves out there, binding our wings, our free spirits, the way women bind their breasts so overly-buxom bosoms don’t offend, or the way Chinese women have caged and broken their feet in the pursuit of the perfect golden lotus.

Mom shook her body and her lovely wings loose when she danced. And we loved and we laughed and we listened to Mom’s old 45 records. My sister and I took turns being the lookout so we could keep dancing, but mostly so we could watch Mom be-bop to Jailhouse Rock. When the lookout gave word that Dad had been spotted trekking across the field headed home, we stopped dancing, turned off the music, and turned on the television set. It was impossible to turn off our snickers of surreptitious rebellion.

Of course, Dad knew all about us. I imagine him slipping up to the back of the farmhouse, peeking through windows, watching Mom grow girls into women, teaching us to escape the confines of subservience, even if it was just in secret, even if it was only through dance. The pride he must have felt watching her, the longing for his Pretty Blue Jean Baby. Maybe he felt the buckle of the southern rural Bible belt pinch too hard as we did. I never asked. But I thought I felt it on him from time to time, saw it in the way he looked at Mom when he thought no one would see.

Sometimes I watch old 8mm home movies of them on Malibu beach, Dad tossing Mom into the foamy Pacific as if she were just a child, Mom laughing and flashing a glorious smile that rivals any Hollywood beauty. They are less than half the age I am now in those films. I ache trying to remember them that unfettered.

Dad missed Mom’s dancing, he had to. And although he never said so, I believe he missed California, or at least the California versions of himself and mom. Maybe he missed the ocean and the mountains and the noise. Or those times stretched out on a shimmery beach with mom when they were so enamored, they lay beside one another in the sun talking sweet love talk all day. They laughed at matching sunburns, hers on the left half of her face, mirrored by his scorching right half. Sacrificing comfort to hold a lover’s gaze. To hold a lover. To hold.

I was allowed to dance that day.

That night I heard music. Creeping down the hall, I pressed my ear against my parents’ bedroom door and listened to them go back. The two of them a record played in reverse until they were young again, the way they were in those old movies. They were in there swaying, foreheads touching, holding one another steady inside their castles of youth. A castle for that day on the beach. Another for windy thrill rides on Dad’s old Indian motorcycle, Mom looking more than ever like a movie star behind dark glasses, her dainty arms tightening around Dad’s waist. Yet another castle for strolls on the boardwalk, Mom in pedal pushers and a lacey top, sliding her hand down into the back pocket of Dad’s rolled-up jeans. He pops a smoke from the soft pack of cigarettes folded up into one sleeve of his white tee-shirt. She keeps her hand inside his pocket the whole time. Every vague castle made clearer by the music and their soft steps.

I stood in the darkened hallway, bare toes digging into shag carpeting. They stood in sun and wind, in salted water and sand.


Cheryl Lynn Smart is an essayist, a teacher, and a final year University of Memphis MFA candidate harboring a farm girl/city girl dual identity which stems from a lifelong migration between Memphis and her rural southern hometown. 


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