I woke up most Saturdays of 1999 in faded flannel sheets. The alarm went off at 5:15 a.m., but I usually snoozed it a few times due to the cold: a pervasive, wet Oregon chill that breezed through our 1880s farmhouse and left a dewy sheen on the wallpaper. My dad would drive us over backcountry roads dusted with frost, past filbert orchards and nurseries that grew starter trees for Home Depot. Saturday mornings he took me to the local community center for a sliding scale ballet class.
The promise of dance is a channeling. I think he knew I had that rage, that if I didn’t find an outlet, I’d start to turn it on myself. Ballet class was warm, full of sunrises and two-name girls: Susie Mae, Sarah Jo, Lee Ann, and our teacher, Maggie Jane.
Maggie Jane wasn’t a renowned dancer. I wouldn’t say, for example, that she ever competed outside county lines or performed at a wider venue than the hanger at the state fair. I still remember Rachmaninoff bouncing diagonally off panels of rusted steel siding, all the way down to the blue ribbon steer yard, diagonal like the lines she’d draw in the air with her sinewy calves. Maggie Jane was an unpredictable performer making work steeped in erratic movement. You couldn’t call her choreography nuanced, but I loved her for her jutting rhythms, sharp lyricism, and stringent economy of movement. She was a good teacher, blasting Tchaikovsky loud enough to drown out the insecurities racking our preteen bodies. Maggie Jane didn’t mind my chubby knees, how I stomped across her maple floorboards and mashed powdered rosin on my toes to keep from slipping, how I started class red and got redder.
After class she’d bang out the door and smoke half a pack on the sidewalk, waiting for some date or another to come pick her up, and we’d wait for parents. Our county was mostly about waiting. Once before we drove away, she motioned for my dad to roll down the window of our Ford and slapped her hand on the frame. “You got a young gun here, buddy,” she said, one hand on her hip, “a live one, a real handful.” Handful. My wife calls me that when I’m bad at parties. “Too candid,” she’ll chide on the drive home, “you have to learn. Let them have their social graces.” Aw, but people should say how it really is, not, “Hand me that tin of butter cookies,” pounding spiked nog like, “those sequins bring out your eyes.” Not fake like they aren’t still angry you didn’t lay down your fair share of the bill at Gino’s. I’m learning to move through it. Channeling. Maggie Jane taught me that, and other things: brisk steps, the confidence to make moves on a stage, to coordinate my own and foreign bodies.
She had these three towhead brats, all of whom refused to take ballet. They’d read Goosebumps in the corner and dump out rosin tins, turn her purse upside down and hunt for gum, orange pill bottles scattered at their feet. If they swept up dust bunnies after class, Maggie Jane’d give them each a quarter. Loose curls all over the hardwood. In any room full of girls you’re bound to get hair on the floor — little whispers, dropped secrets.
One Saturday morning, Sarah Jo, Lee Ann, and Susie Mae were lined up outside the community center, hanging over the railing of the stairwell.
“Door’s locked,” Lee Ann called down, shivering in her leotard. This was before cell phones. We just hung around. Knocked a few more times.
“I guess no class today,” Susie Mae shrugged after thirty minutes or so.
We walked down the street to the bikini barista. Candice was tall and pretty and worked in a little A-frame hut with a sign out front that said BABES R US. She slid open the window and leaned out with her big fake tits and a busted lip. “Mornin!” We ordered three cocoas and a muffin top, stretching up to reach the counter and lay out our couple extra bucks because Dad said you gotta tip them well, “It’s not as easy as they make it look.”
Candice always took her time opening the hot chocolate packets, stirring the powder. God, she was good. Swiss Miss separates into these little round balls. You have to really get in there, whisk it around. The winter sun lit her up like the Madonna as she asked how much water I wanted, and it’s important because if you fill it to the top, it lasts longer, but the flavor’s all muted. Or you can keep it low in the paper cup and get rich, creamy drinking chocolate. I was torn. I was ten.
Maggie Jane overdosed on OxyContin. That’s why she wasn’t there to unlock the door that morning. I don’t know why they did open casket, maybe to put a head on a pike. Always trying to teach us a lesson. Maybe if we tried a little harder. She had these tracks on her forearms, mouth caving in like she was still sucking down a cigarette. Most parents would have sheltered their child from a coffin like that, but my dad had this way about him — wanting me to say how it really was. Maggie Jane’s kids went into the foster system that same day.
I didn’t recognize the social worker with her cropped boots and winged liner; she must have been from Town.
Joni Renee Whitworth is an artist and writer from rural Oregon. They have performed at The Moth, the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts, and the Museum of Contemporary Art alongside Marina Abramovic. They teach poetry at the MacLaren Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Oregon, in partnership with the Morpheus Youth Project. Whitworth was selected as the inaugural Artist in Residence at Portland Parks and Recreation and Poet in Residence for Oregon State University’s Trillium Project. Their work is funded by the Regional Arts and Culture Council. Their writing explores themes of nature, future, family, and the neurodivergent body, and has appeared in Lambda Literary, Oregon Humanities, Proximity Magazine, Seventeen Magazine, Eclectica, Pivot, SWWIM, Smeuse, Superstition Review, xoJane, Inverted Syntax, Unearthed Literary Journal, Sinister Wisdom, Dime Show Review, and The Write Launch.