The broom closet’s singular light bulb and a handheld mirror was enough for Joey to apply her muted black mascara and vermilion lipstick, a shade she never dared allow her Mama to see spread across her lips. She scrunched her short curls even though they’d flatten fifteen minutes later. Her style never quite emulated the Audrey Hepburn look she had asked Ms. Betty for-that’s what you get when your neighbor cuts your hair.
Every Saturday night her routine repeated. Clutching her set of keys to the Gray Rock Inn, she tiptoed to the second floor and used the broom closet for ten minutes to primp. Make-up and hair followed her clothing swap. It had taken her weeks to save up for an outfit from the Bargain Center over on Lexington Ave. A black knee-length pleated skirt paired with a striped blouse. If Mama knew about the length of this skirt, Joey would never hear the end of her prayers. But no one could skate in the long skirts that Mama made—not enough leg spread, forget about a twirl. Behind the dustpan, inside an unmarked paper bag, she stored her getup. Joey was extra careful to never drink anything while wearing it for fear of spilling. She folded it meticulously, knowing that she couldn’t take it home to clean it. Where she lived in the holler over in Black Mountain, young women didn’t wear outfits quite like this- skirts so short, legs showing. Church people, they were, and a troublemaker or two. But Joey wasn’t either. Sure, she went to church with her Mama, Daddy, brother, and sister. She said the Lord’s prayer and all of that, but she didn’t feel it in her bones. The thing she felt in her bones was Saturday night, even in the broom closet.
Her mama believed Joey cleaned the inn Saturday nights on account of her need to be with God Sunday morning. She believed that because Joey told her that. Joey was so reliable that no one ever doubted her truth telling. But her ride home didn’t come until 8 o’clock. Sometimes freedom was the thing you stole for yourself when no one else was looking.
Nearby, choreographer Merce convinced his pal Robert that an adventure in Asheville would be worth it. Rarely did they leave Black Mountain College. Everything they needed was there—the right people, their ideas, their art. But inspiration is a mystery sometimes found in the echo of a drop of rain or in the grocery store check-out line packed with tired women daydreaming. Merce figured movement was movement, that he might locate something new—even spectacular—inside that domed building downtown called Skateland. Roadside, thumbs out, Merce and Robert didn’t wait long. First they landed in the bed of a truck scattered with hay. Merce brushed away the dirt and sat in the back until the farmer pulled over and signaled to them to get out. Near enough the highway, a fella on the way to get his girl on the West Side picked them up. Before they hopped in the car, Robert picked up a lone glass bottle abandoned on the shoulder.
“See, I told you it’d be worth it to you,” Merce joked, knowing that this bottle alone could put Robert into days of overthinking.
Inside the car, Robert studied the cloth of the back seat while Merce chatted up the fella, asked questions about what to do or see downtown, gleaned nothing of real interest.
At precisely 6:10 pm after the end of her shift, Joey crossed the street and stood in line clutching her dollar fee, goosebumps up and down her arms. This feeling was the same every Saturday night. Her elephant ears and other insecurities melted away. She gathered a pair of skates, size seven, switched quickly, sashayed to the floor—the first one out.
Organ music. Skating looked like exercise on many people. Exercise ordered by the doctor. Or ballroom dancing. Waltzes. Synchronized to a partner. Couples paired off like they were announcing an engagement. Periodically, a referee declared couples skate, shooing off everyone who wasn’t paired man and woman or boy and girl. Singles forbidden. Joey refused despite whistles blown in her direction. This was what caught Merce’s attention. Instead of acknowledging the whistles, Joey skated backwards, faster than anyone in the room going forward. She had no intention of leaving the floor until they turned the lights on. Joey wasn’t trying to be defiant, but she knew the value of her dollar, and she knew that nothing else made her feel like this, that she had to use all the time. The referee might have kept it up except that the whistling disturbed the other patrons.
Merce investigated Joey with a deep curiosity. Her bird legs became something of grace with wheels attached. She lifted her leg like she was about to pull some sort of double axel in the vein of Tenley Albright, the ’52 Olympic silver medalist. Instead, Joey halted mid-motion, abrupt, shifted backwards before anyone could even register that she didn’t hit a specific landing. That she did what Merce couldn’t predict mesmerized him. Things that didn’t go together seemed to go together. Her movement wasn’t tied to the music in anyway. She carried her own internal sound. The sweeps of her legs, arms pointed behind her like paper plane wings. Purposeful. A force of power, rigor. Motion both controlled and chaotic.
Meeting her was paramount. He attempted to follow her, to gain her attention, but she was transfixed in another world. Either she didn’t hear or didn’t care. He got closer, she skated faster. He played this game with her until she skated off the floor, toward the bathroom. On the sidelines, he ran in his skates to catch up, but missed her. He stood outside the toilet, accepted lewd looks from mothers and fathers.
“I’ve been trying to get your attention.” Merce said, slightly exasperated.
Joey looked up with her beetle eyes, all black ink, mumbled something indiscernible.
“You have something I haven’t seen before. Your movement is powerful, strange, raw.” She pushed past him, and he grabbed her wrist. “Dance with me at Black Mountain College. I need you for my new piece. We are dancing like no one has ever seen before to music that no one has ever heard before. Your moves pair with my thoughts.”
Joey shook her head, said, “Mama says that place is full of the devil.” She heard the stories, little mumblings at church about what went on over there. Sacrifices and the like.
Merce laughed a little before realizing how serious Joey was. “Oh honey, we’re just a bunch of artists. The stories you’re hearing probably aren’t even true. Besides, the devil is inside of all of us. It’s what you do with it that matters,” He smiled his friendliest smile.
She had never considered this idea. Joey fidgeted before concluding, “Mama says that we should never let the devil get the best of us, never be too tempted.”
“Darling, that temptation and giving in on occasion, that’s the human inside of us. What’s your name?”
“Joey, well, Josephine. But I like Joey.”
“I like Joey, too.” He stared directly into her eyes, and it wasn’t something Joey was used to. “You are a dancer. An unusual dancer. A new kind of dancer. Where did you learn to move?”
“Coming here, doing what feels natural.” Joey looked onto the rink with a longing before she excused herself politely. She didn’t give into the temptation of hearing more.
As she flowed back onto the rink, Merce followed every movement. And she couldn’t help but sneak some peaks at him and his friend. She felt them watching. And she wondered. What would it be like to go to a place like that, a place where people gave into their inner selves, indulged, created. She didn’t linger in the dream long. Two girls took a tumble, and Merce watched Joey as she leapt over them without any sort of warning, stretched her body fully. It looked impossible. He bit his lip as he watched Joey glide over their bodies like it was nothing, effortless.
Merce jumped up to go to her. Robert grabbed his arm, forced him to sit back down.
“I can picture it already. The stripes. Everywhere. Stripes on the set, on the dancers.” Robert laid out the set of a dance before Merce even had a dance, or a dancer.
Stomping onto the rink before she flew past him, Merce prepared to catch her by the skirt. “Come to Black Mountain College. It’s a place for artists to explore, to express whatever it is that’s inside of them. You do that when you skate. You aren’t like everyone else out here.”
“Mama says that it’s dangerous to think we’re better or even different than anyone else.”
“Forget your mama. You are better. You have a gift.”
At that, she pulled her skirt free and sped away. Joey had never had anyone tell her she had a gift. Her brother John had a voice that carried—they talked about his gift. Her mama was so funny she could make the horses laugh. Her little sister Lorna milked the most disgruntled cow with ease. Her daddy grew the juiciest tomatoes in the holler. But Joey, a gift? No, she knew how to work hard and that was about it. A gift in her body? No, that couldn’t be right.
For the first time ever, Joey left early. She ran away from him, from his ideas, across the road, into the safety of the Inn. She made her way to the broom closet, wiped off her lipstick, removed her mascara, changed out of her skating outfit. She smoothed down her floor-length skirt, tucked in her long-sleeved blouse. He didn’t follow her, and she realized that she hoped he would.
On Hilliard Street, Merce imagined Joey’s movements without skates on, committed them to memory so he would have wide sweeping options, no constraints, just like that strange girl. He danced in the street while Robert watched, lonesome bottle in his hand. Merce danced while Joey watched, peaking out from behind the curtains on the inn’s front door. Her heart quickened at what she saw—all of her moves captured in his body. Maybe she did have something after all.
Note: Joey is entirely fictional, and so is this story. Merce and Robert are loosely based on choreographer/dancer Merce Cunningham and artist Robert Rauschenberg, both of whom were faculty at Black Mountain College. https://www.blackmountaincollege.org/