Every night, Luz Cifuentes kneels by her bed and prays to Saint Vitus, the patron saint of dance. With divine intervention and enough liniment of wintergreen, she hopes to go on teaching tap and ballet as long as unruly young girls line up to register for her classes.
"Dear Vitus, who died a martyr's death, please continue to grant me flexibility and perfect posture. You know I would not ask for these things if they weren't essential."
Luz doesn't worry about having enough girls. Even at sixty-three, she has maintained her reputation as the best tap teacher in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She has been "Miss Luz" to generations of students.
Luz fingers a crease in the bedspread and wonders what else to pray. With her spring recital drawing close, she prefers that God and Vitus focus their attentions on her dance, so she leaves off her usual blessings for her husband, Charlie, and her mother, Mercedes.
Luz never bothers praying for her daughter, whom she pretends does not exist.
She crosses herself, ending with a graceful flourish of her right hand, a habit the nuns at school were never able to extinguish. (Her friends overheard the sisters mock Luz behind her back, whispering, "She's such a star.")
The Saltillo tiles of the bedroom floor feel cold and hard against her knees. She stands and goes searching for Charlie.
Mercedes, the early bird, sleeps in the bedroom across the hall. Luz worries about her mother. At ninety, Mercedes has grown forgetful. Some days she goes outside with naked gums, leaving her dentures in a half-full glass of water on her bedside table.
Luz presses her ear against her mother's door to listen for breathing. Soon she hears the familiar whistling and puffing. "Goodnight, Mamacita," Luz whispers.
Charlie has fallen asleep in his easy chair, fully reclined. The top of his bald head reflects the light shining through the kitchen doorway. Today's newspaper, tented over his face, vibrates with his breathing.
"Charlie?" Luz lifts one corner of the newspaper. "Bedtime."
"What? What?" Charlie blinks, as if he isn't sure which side of sleep he is on. Then he smiles and reaches out to catch a fold of her white nightgown between his rough fingers. "I was dreaming of you."
He claims that he dreams of her every night, ever since he spotted her at the Burger Palace fifty years ago. Luz was fourteen and her family had just moved to Lake Charles from Laredo, Texas. She was trying to reconcile herself to wearing shoes all the time, even in summer, because Mercedes had developed a phobia of hookworms in the damp soil.
After the move, Luz could no longer envision herself as a barefoot Isadora Duncan, skipping over grass-grown cracks in the hot sidewalks. When Charlie first saw her, she was wearing all white, except for her shoes. Luz had taken to wearing shiny black Mary Janes, the same style as her tap shoes. Her friends dressed in checkered blouses and jeans rolled up to their knees.
"You stood out from the others," he told her later. "You seemed to shine, like an angel."
Luz was aware of this shining quality in herself. Her father said that if she stood on the shore, sailors could guide their ships by her.
Mercedes liked Charlie, but she insisted that the two of them sit in the living room, at opposite ends of the sofa. For five years they sat there pining away for each other. Their longing was so strong that, afterwards, anyone who sat on either end of the sofa would tumble towards the middle.
They married when Luz was nineteen. When she was twenty-five, they had a little girl and named her Eva.
After forty-five years of marriage, Charlie still says Luz glows. Even when she declared that they would never speak their daughter's name again, Charlie went along with her, though he dragged his feet for weeks. Luz got so tired of the scuff marks, she made him take off his work boots at the front door.
Tonight, he holds her hand as they walk to bed, and whispers, "My Luz. My light."
The next morning, Charlie picks up his metal lunch pail, which is battered and dull with age. She would like to have him carry something nicer, but he insists that this is good enough.
"I'm working the refinery today," he tells her, after kissing her on the cheek.
"No," she says.
"Just for a few days. Lots of people out sick. They need me."
Luz hates it when he works in the refinery. The company moved him to the office three years ago, after his heart attack. Luz is sorry for the heart disease, but happy not to worry all day long about explosions.
She once saw a refinery fire on the evening news. When Charlie works there, she can't tear herself away from the television, as if watching it will keep away bad news.
In the afternoon, Mercedes brings in the mail. Silently, she hands Luz a letter, in a plain white business envelope. The return address is in Bridge City, Texas.
Luz hands the letter back. "I do not know this person."
"Eva wants to see you."
Luz says, "I do not wish to see her. She came out at me."
Mercedes shakes her head. "Eva came out to you."
"What's the difference? She shouldn't have come out at all."
Five years ago, Eva told Luz that she had taken up with a woman, a "partner." This is a term Luz does not understand. Are they in business together? And what is coming out supposed to mean? Had anyone locked Eva in a dark cellar? Had she burst forth, squinting like a mole in the sunlight?
The woman Eva calls her partner is named, inexplicably, Montana. The name certainly does not reflect the woman's physical endowments. She is short and as flat-chested as a man.
A name should mean something. Luz loves her own name, which means "light." It has always seemed an almost-perfect choice.
"Why did you not name me Estrella?" Luz asked Mercedes once. The double "L" tickled in her mouth. She was progressing rapidly in her dance classes, and carried herself as if always on stage.
Mercedes answered, "You do not have to be a star to be a light."
Eva never did shine, however much Luz scrubbed her and dressed her in angel colors—white or the faintest shades of color (shell pink, blue as pale as the reflection of sky on snow). Luz used to send her to school every day with no less than six bows in her braided hair. All she had wanted was to pass her own gifts to her daughter.
For years, Luz tried to teach Eva the Buffalo shuffle. The child would stumble her way across the room, ignoring the beat from the vinyl record whirling on the turntable.
"Smile," Luz would say. "And stop clenching your fists."
The last time Luz saw her daughter, Eva wore all black, and her hair was shorn as short as a Labrador's coat.
Today, Luz watches the television all morning, warding off bad news from the refinery. In the afternoon Luz teaches classes. First come the tiniest students, who aren't yet in kindergarten.
At the beginning of the year, some of these girls stood so sway-backed, Luz thought she would have to tie them to fence posts to straighten their spine. Now they have all mastered both the front Irish and back Irish.
"Perfect," Luz says when class is over. They line up in front of her and hold out their hands. "Your parents will be so proud at the recital."
"Thank you, Miss Luz," they say, as she applies a foil star sticker to each one of them, on the back of their hands.
"Thank you, Miss Luz."
"Thank you, Miss Luz."
How she loves them.
Mercedes spends her afternoons at the studio, sitting on the loveseat in the business office. The office is a cubby just large enough for the couch and desk. More than one new student has looked into the office and mistaken Mercedes for a life-sized doll in her lacy black mantilla. It is only when they venture in to touch her that they realize their mistake. Mercedes' body is warm and her thin, crinkly skin feels like crepe paper to their touch.
At five o'clock, the advanced class comes. Luz catches her breath when she sees Avery Alonzo, a ten-year-old who takes three classes a week. Avery wears her dark hair in neat French braids. She walks with her head held high, like a true dancer.
Luz has decided to let Avery help her with classes next year, as a sort of junior instructor. She plans to announce it at the recital with the awards. She imagines Avery's surprise, her radiant smile. Luz secretly imagines that Avery will grow up to take over the dance studio.
The five o'clock class performs well, except for Laurel Mars, who ties the laces of her tap shoes so loosely, they come undone and trip her.
Luz's last class is the "tap biddies," three older women, who show up every week in sloppy work-out clothes. Today Jackie wears gray sweat pants and a yellow T-shirt that says, "Ask me about my grandchildren." Wanda and Ruth both wear baggy shorts, which end just above knobby white knees.
The way they have let themselves go, it is hard to believe they are roughly Luz's age. Jackie might even be younger.
When Luz advertised this class, she hoped to meet artistic, graceful women.
These three come mainly to socialize. Luz tries to teach them the basic shuffle-ball-change, and they giggle like children over their mistakes. The class has been practicing a soft shoe number for the recital, with canes and gloves. So far, they haven't gotten through one song without someone dropping their cane.
"Hey, Luz, are you going to do the same solo this year? I really loved it last year, when your taps sounded like a drum roll." Jackie says.
"I have a new routine," Luz replies.
"Do we have to dance after you?" Ruth asks. She looks down at her feet, as she practices a simple shuffle, a movement she has been working on for two years. She moves more like a scarecrow than a dancer. "I'd hate that. Put us as far in front of your dance as possible."
"Luz will get us over with quick, so people can enjoy the show," Jackie says.
Wanda, the shyest one, drops her cane and giggles.
After class, the three women huddle together. They are going to the boats, to gamble, as they do every week. Their favorite casino has a senior special on Wednesdays—half-priced Manhattans.
Ruth breaks away from the huddle. "You want to come, Luz? You'll have a grand time. Guaranteed."
"No, thank you," says Luz. The women ask her every week, and every week she turns them down.
They head towards the front exit.
"Ready, Mercedes?" Ruth asks, poking her head through the office doorway.
"You bet, hija."
It takes a moment for Luz to register that her mother is going out with these women. "But, Mamacita... "
Mercedes looks at Luz without recognition, and Luz understands that her mother has stopped speaking with her again. Five years ago, when Luz sent Eva away, Mercedes had posted a letter to Luz, spending the money on a stamp, when she could have walked into the kitchen and handed it to Luz. The letter said, "I will not speak to you until you make up with her."
She kept her vow of silence for months.
As Mercedes leaves, she drops a scrap of paper on the floor. Luz picks it up. In Mercedes' blue handwriting, it says, "Aluminum."
Luz stares at the note. What can she mean by aluminum? Luz thinks back. The only association she makes is to the time her family lived in Laredo, and the sun shone so bright and hot, Mercedes had applied foil to the inside of their windows, to turn its rays back towards the sky.
No matter. She will not worry over Mercedes and the meaning of the note. She has the recital to look forward to.
After the women leave, Charlie shows up. He likes to see Luz dance, and he says Luz still looks good in her leotard. (She considers this an extra benevolence from Vitus.)
Charlie has showered, and she can almost forget that he worked in the refineries today, except for the grease under his fingernails. He walks like his shoes are too heavy.
"Pick up your feet, Charlie."
He hugs her, then glances around the studio. "Where's Mercedes?"
"Out gambling with the tap biddies."
"Ah," he says. "Why didn't you go?"
She wrinkles her nose. "I have nothing in common with those women."
The next morning, Charlie wakes before Luz. The bed creaks as he eases out of it. He tiptoes across the bedroom in his bare feet, as if trying not to wake her. She lies still, listening to his padding footsteps.
The footsteps pause. "Yes, Luz?" His tone is apprehensive.
"Be careful today."
She wants to say, "How can I help worrying?" but he is gone.
After she makes coffee, Luz peeks into Mercedes' bedroom. Mercedes is still in her bed. A red velvet money bag lies on the nightstand next to her false teeth glass. Mercedes snores louder than ever. The tap biddies must have given her liquor.
Luz eats cornflakes and stares at the rooster on the box. She turns on the small television in the kitchen. The morning show host announces that Mother's Day is two weeks away. In all her preparations for the recital Luz has forgotten.
She wonders if Eva will send her a card. Last year she sent one, signed, "Love Eva and Montana." Luz threw it in the trash.
Mercedes gets up at noon and enters the kitchen without saying a word. Luz silently poaches an egg and lays it on top of a bowl of brown rice for her mother. Mercedes sniffs the dish, as if she suspects it might be poisoned. Then she eats, never looking at Luz.
Luz cannot bear the thought of silence between herself and her mother another minute. "Do you remember when I was a child in Laredo?" she says. "How you used to sing me to sleep?" Luz begins to hum the tune of "This Little Light of Mine."
Mercedes doesn't answer. She pulls a note from the pocket of her housecoat and slips it under her plate. When she leaves the table, Luz reads the word, "Glitter."
Aluminum? Glitter? What could they mean? Luz is still pondering, when the television newscaster breaks in with an announcement.
Luz's heart skips a beat. There has been a fire at the refinery, she just knows it. Charlie could be injured. He could be dead. She imagines a house with no noise except the sound of footsteps. And when Mercedes dies, whose footsteps will she hear?
But other words proceed from the newscaster's mouth. An outbreak of complicated strep throat in east Texas, in the Beaumont area. Ten cases of rheumatic fever over the past six months. Luz realizes she has been holding her breath. She lets it out. As far as Luz knows, none of her students live on the other side of the Sabine River. This news has nothing to do with her. She takes another deep, cleansing breath. Everything is O.K.
The girls' recital costumes have arrived at the studio. Luz always looks forward to this day, sorting through a sea of spangles, netting and feathers. She gives the youngest students their costumes after class, instead of stars on their hands.
They whirl around, holding the sparkling outfits like dancing partners. When the girls' mothers arrive, a group of them talk about the rheumatic fever outbreak.
"It hasn't come across to Louisiana?" Luz asks them.
Luz sits on a short stool in the corner, as she waits for her older class to arrive. Normally, she would visit with Mercedes in the office, but she cannot bear to hear her own unanswered words ping around the room like an echo. She leans one shoulder against the cool mirror. The stool is really a child's wooden step stool, and if she straightens her legs in front of her she can feel a stretch.
The front door opens and closes. Just outside the dance floor entrance, she hears a girl's voice say, "I hate dance. Why do I have to come? Miss Luz is old, and she smells like medicine."
The voice sounds like Avery's. But it couldn't be. Avery loves dance. She loves Luz.
Luz could understand if it had been Laurel who complained.
Luz waits for the mother's voice, expecting her to scold the child for her disrespect, but only hears, "I know you have mixed feelings about dance, and that's O.K. Sometimes people have more than one feeling about things."
There is no more. Luz leans toward the door to listen and almost falls off her stool. She rights herself.
Avery glides into the room, smiling, followed closely by Laurel. Luz glares at Laurel, who meets her gaze, and then rolls her eyes. Luz decides it was certainly Laurel who made the comments.
Avery would never break her teacher's heart.
"Are you chewing gum, Laurel?" Luz asks.
Laurel opens her mouth to reveal a great wad of lime-green.
"Spit it out."
Laurel ambles over to the trash can, and lets the gum fall from her mouth.
They practice their recital piece, to "Fly Me to the Moon." Luz accepts no mistakes from Laurel tonight, making her repeat her double paddle turns until the girl complains of being dizzy.
Avery does every step perfectly. After class, she asks Luz, "Why can't we have modern music?"
Luz glances at her turntable. "These songs are classic. Frank Sinatra. Dean Martin."
Avery shrugs. "My grandmother likes them."
Mercedes does not speak to Luz all evening. After class, Luz finds her pockets stuffed with single-word notes in blue handwriting.
When Luz arrives home, the answering machine is blinking. She presses the play button.
"Mom. It's me, Eva. I'd really like to see you soon. There's something important I need to tell you." Her voice sounds hoarse, and Luz wonders if she has taken up smoking.
Luz presses the erase button. Her throat feels tight. She sets herself to the task of gathering all of Mercedes' notes. Each slip of paper holds a single word, but Luz cannot find a pattern. She stretches a piece of string from one wall of her bedroom to another. Then she clips the notes to the string, side-by-side like laundry on a line.
"What is this?" Charlie asks, when he sees them.
"Mamacita gave them to me," Luz says. "But I don't know what they mean."
"Ah," he says. "She's not talking again?" He puts his arm around her shoulders.
That night, they lie down, side by side, as always. Luz squeezes Charlie's hand. "It has been a long time since we made love," she says. He has never turned her down, though he initiates intimacy less and less often.
"I've been waiting for a sign from you."
She rolls over and kisses him on the lips. "Here is your sign."
"You are beautiful," he says. "How you glow." Even afterwards, lying beside her, he repeats it. Luz indeed feels a quiver of light glowing from her.
In a moment, Charlie says, "Has Eva been trying to reach you?"
"I can't stand to see her."
Charlie sighs. "Why are you so angry with her?"
She clenches her fists, waiting to experience rage. To her surprise, rage doesn't come. "I don't know," she finally says.
It is not until after Charlie falls asleep, that she begins to wonder how he knows about Eva's attempts to contact her. The following morning, Charlie does not wake Luz, which puts her into a sour mood.
She finds fault with all of her students except Avery. She now sees that they are still sway-backed and chubby, despite her best efforts. And they speak a slang-language she cannot understand. It is as if they talk into their hands, and then hold them up to Luz to reveal nothing but air.
Instead of dancing, the tap biddies gossip about the outbreak of rheumatic fever. Jackie says she warned her daughter to watch for sore throats. "Told her she shouldn't take any chances. This can be serious."
"Best to be careful," Ruth agrees.
After class, the women turn their attentions to gambling.
Ruth says, "Mercedes had a great time last week. Her purse got so heavy, she could barely carry it, so she bought us all drinks."
"May I go with you tonight?" Luz asks. Perhaps Mercedes will even talk to her after a drink or two.
"Sure thing," Ruth answers. "You going, Mercedes?"
Mercedes shakes her head. Is there the trace of a smile on her face?
"Maybe next time," Ruth says.
The four of them ride in Jackie's Buick. Luz and Wanda sit in the back. Of the three tap biddies, Luz knows the least about Wanda's life outside the dance studio. Jackie has her brood of grandchildren. Ruth is divorced and volunteers for Habitat for Humanity.
When they arrive, Jackie and Ruth grab their favorite slot machines. The machines are strange blinking, beeping things, like robots in a space movie.
"Want to find a quieter place?" Wanda asks Luz. She cringes with every clink and beep. "Maybe the bar?"
Luz, who doesn't care for gambling, goes with her. Within ten minutes, Wanda has had two drinks. She begins to blubber about her cats, listing a string of names. Cali, Echo, Bridget, Fangs. Luz stares at her, not knowing what to say. Finally Jackie and Ruth come to find them.
"You poor thing," Jackie says. She dabs under Wanda's eyes with a cocktail napkin.
Ruth whispers to Luz, "She's scared to death her cats will die. They're all she's got."
All she's got. All she's got. The words echo in Luz's head.
The next day, Luz finds more notes from Mercedes, who still won't talk to her. All right. Enough. I'll see Eva, but on my own terms. Luz pens a note: "I will meet you alone, without that woman, if you come to my recital."
She writes Eva Cifuentes on the envelope, seals it, and gives it to Charlie that evening.
"What is this?"
"I assume you know her address."
Charlie reddens, but does not deny it.
Luz begins to go to the studio every morning, to practice her own dance for the recital. Her feet feel frenzied and forgetful. Twice, she forgets her inside slide, and has to repeat hop-double hops to allow the music to catch up. Why is she so anxious about dancing in front of her daughter? It is not as if Eva can fault her dance.
At the recital, people display signs that read, "Miss Luz Still Has It." Luz scans the audience, and recognizes the faces of past generations of students. She does not see Eva.
The tap biddies giggle their way through their number, each one dropping their cane at least once. Ruth stares at her shoes the whole time, her head bowed. Her classes stumble through each of their numbers. Luz sees every mistake. Both Avery and Laurel chew gum on stage.
Luz remembers the voice she heard that day in the studio. Miss Luz is old, and she smells like medicine. She realizes it was Avery's voice.
After each number, the audience claps and hoots wildly, as if the performances were perfect. What are you doing? Luz thinks. They don't deserve applause for their mistakes.
Now it is her turn. She feels her legs tremble beneath her, as she takes her place in the center of the stage. Charlie sets the needle down on the record and there is crackling, followed by music. Luz dances to "New York, New York." She performs each move perfectly. At the end, her heart pounds, but not from exertion. She hopes Eva is here. She hopes Eva saw the dance.
After the children's encore, she presents the awards. When she finishes, one trophy remains. Its inscription reads, "Assistant to Miss Luz." She pushes it behind the bouquet of flowers.
People line up to congratulate Luz, who glances over their shoulders, looking for Eva. Eva isn't there.
Charlie packs up the sound equipment. "There was a note on top of the turntable. I think it's for you." He hands it to her. The note reads, "Diamonds."
Suddenly, Luz realizes the connection. All of these things reflect light from other sources. She calls out, "Mamacita?"
"I know you're here." She stands on the stage and looks around at the empty seats. Her eyes sting from tears she refuses to cry. "You're here somewhere."
She sees a hand peek up from the back row. Mercedes' hand. Luz walks down the stage steps and stalks towards the back row. Her tap shoes click against the vinyl floor. She stops in front of Mercedes.
"Don't you think I have a light of my own?" she asks.
"All these things reflect light. I am not like that. I am a star."
"No, hija. The light we have is a gift. And soon you will have no light at all, if you don't accept love from the people who truly matter."
Luz glances over her shoulder at the stage. She wants to say, "My students love me," but remembers Miss Luz is so old…
Mercedes seems to guess what she is thinking. "What are these strangers' children to you?"
On Saturday, Luz drives to the empty dance school. There are no classes for the summer, but she must stay in shape. As she parks in the space marked "Miss Luz," she feels her heart thumping. The varnished planks of the dance floor frighten her. She pictures them rising up like piano keys, to trip her.
The mirror frightens her most, however. Her reflection is dull as dust. She paces back and forth in front of the office, working up the courage to venture onto the dance floor. Instead, she goes into the office and begins to sift through her records and trophies and picture albums.
Luz goes to the studio every day, even Sundays after mass. She doesn't touch the dance floor, just sorts through memories. On Mother's Day, Luz locates the picture albums from when Eva was a girl. In Eva's photographs, she isn't looking at the camera. She never smiles.
One Sunday in July, as Luz approaches the studio, she sees two figures—Eva and a little girl. The girl appears to be about four years old, and wears pink. Eva wears blue. The two of them have been peering in through the storefront window, but turn at the sound of Luz's arrival.
Luz gets out of her car. She cannot take her eyes off the girl.
"I wanted to come on Mother's Day," Eva says, after Luz draws near.
Luz still stares at the little girl, not looking at Eva. "Who is this?" She tries to place the child's eyes. Are they Charles'?
"This is what I wanted to tell you."
"Whose?" Luz says.
"Ours. Montana's and mine," Eva says, with the stubborn look. "I was going to keep her from you, but then she got sick. She had rheumatic fever. I was afraid she'd never meet you."
"I heard about the outbreak."
"She had a complication. Movements. They call it Syndenham's Chorea, or Saint Vitus' Dance." Eva laughs a mirthless laugh. "I never thought I'd be appealing to Saint Vitus."
"Is she still sick?" Luz squats and holds out her hand for the child, who comes to her.
"I'm better now," the girl answers. She stands tall, shoulders back.
Luz glances at Eva. "Does Mercedes know about Luisa?"
Eva nods. "Yes."
Eva nods again.
Luz shuffles one foot. "Do this," she says to the girl.
The child moves perfectly and Eva does not try to stop her. Luisa is lithe and graceful. Luz catches sight of their reflections in the plate glass store front.
They are all glowing, even Eva.
Copyright © Nancy Stebbins 2006.