"You're sure we're not going to have to sign any contracts?" I asked Murray -- for what he claimed was the fifteenth time -- as I executed a death-defying u-turn before an oncoming streetcar full of homeward-bound drones in seersucker suits and nosed my Volkswagen Bug into the curb in front of the Gene Kelly Dance studio on St. Charles Avenue. As we approached the door, Murray assured me, once again, that ten dollars and three introductory lessons were the extent of our commitment to self-enrichment.
Though I myself was in complete control of my own nervous system, as always, Murray did seem to exhibit some hesitation as we passed through the tinted plate glass door with the gold decal of a dancing couple in formal wear. From the outside, the nondescript two-story brick building that housed the studio could easily have been mistaken for a dental clinic or a tax preparer's office -- a fact that had impressed itself upon Murray and me during the half hour that we circled the block before resolving to park and enter. It would be so much simpler, were any of our cynical compatriots to spot us entering the premises, to confess to overbites or underpayments, rather than admit to a noble determination to improve ourselves. The inside, however, was a different story.
Within, the decor was a bizarre combination of discotheque and kindergarten, the overall effect being that of a nightclub for preschoolers. The brief foyer with its plush mauve carpet and chest-high reception desk (reminiscent of an airline ticketing booth) opened on a large ballroom with parqueted floors surrounded by mirrored walls and sidewalk cafe tables, terminating in a dais equipped with sound system. To the right of the dais stood an upholstered red vinyl bar well stocked with discount spirits. The walls were festooned with multi-colored cr�pe paper, and balloons of varying hues hung from the ceiling fans above the dance floor. Festive cardboard cutouts were taped to the mirrors above each table. Framed photographs of spindly septuagenarians draped in obscenely cut and garishly sequined sheaths, documenting their triumphs at regional dance competitions, adorned the walls in the reception area. Polaroids of playfully posed oldsters being fawned over by the studio's post-adolescent personnel (inscribed with maudlin or suggestive sentiments) were pinned to a corkboard near the door.
As Murray and I gazed at the photographs wondering if our own mothers could be persuaded to humiliate themselves in public in this manner, while paying dearly for the privilege, our reverie was interrupted by a rich fruity greeting that seemed to have come from behind the reception desk, which to all appearances remained unoccupied.
"Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!" was what the disembodied voice had seemed to say.
Murray looked at me the way Costello might have looked at Abbott under similar circumstances, and just as we prepared to leave stenciled images of our fleeing forms in the plate glass of the decaled door, a neatly moussed head popped up from behind the counter. "I wish that bitch would quit moving the thank-you notes. How am I supposed to butter up the old buzzards if I can't find the thank-you notes? -- Well, hello there! I must say Gaylord's been holding out on me. He didn't tell me he was expecting two handsome strangers today. Are you girls new in town? I haven't seen you at the Club Tiresias."
I hadn't followed the conversation any better than Murray had, but it did appear that a case of mistaken identity was involved, and something about this gaunt, diseased-looking young gigolo in a dingy tuxedo told me that the sooner it was cleared up the better. "We're here for our introductory dance lessons," I volunteered, and, to dispel any remaining confusion, added: "with Tiffani and Brandi."
"Well, of course you are!" the bony rou� exclaimed, flapping his manicured hands at the wrists. "I had you going, though, didn't I? Just have a seat and I'll see if Miss Twickler and Miss Leroux are ready for you." He scampered off and disappeared through a door marked "Staff." We heard a shrill "Whoops!" as the door closed behind him, followed by muffled voices and a generalized tittering.
Presently, the two veritable goddesses appeared, greeted us warmly, and with clipboards in hand escorted us to the ballroom floor. As we stood gaping at them as politely as possible, Brandi and Tiffani, each snugly garbed in a kind of opaque Saran Wrap, explained that the two basic types of dances were the smooth type such as the waltz and the foxtrot and the rhythm dances such as the mambo, the cha cha, and the swing. Since there was only so much we could cover in three introductory lessons, they went on, it was advisable that we concentrate on one dance in the limited time available and content ourselves with a mere sampling of another -- a foxtrot entree with a side order of cha cha, as it were, or vice versa. That would mean missing a lot, of course, but what could you do in just three lessons? "Any questions?"
It was clear, to me at least, that Brandi had intended to solicit inquiries pertaining to the direction of our impending course of instruction. Murray, however, took a broader view. "Who was that guy behind the counter?" he asked.
"A little weird, don't you think?"
"Oh, he's just a practical joker. He likes to make people think he's gay."
"He does a good job of it."
"I'll tell him he impressed you."
"Please don't!" Murray entreated, and we all laughed.
Murray and I then withdrew with our respective instructresses to separate lesson rooms, he to take a whack at the waltz (this being the dance he thought most likely to bring him into close and sustained contact with Brandi) and I to take a jab at the jitterbug (with the long-term view of returning to Breaux Bridge some day and showing the jeunes filles who needs their pity and who doesn't).
It's amazing what you can learn in sixty minutes, even under adverse conditions. Comparing notes afterward, Murray and I were both astounded by what we had accomplished in such short order, despite the necessity of continually having to ask our instructresses to repeat what we had missed while absorbed in ogling them. Murray claimed, for instance, and demonstrated to my satisfaction, that he had conquered the complex art of walking in a straight line -- in quick and slow steps, mind you -- this being the foundation, he had learned, not only of the waltz but of the foxtrot as well. That was something, I had to admit, though no more remarkable than my own certifiable ability to shift weight from one foot to the other in three separate tempos, the sine qua non of the jitterbug. What's more (and herein lay an extraordinary coincidence), according to our separate tutoresses, who had had no contact with each other during the hour-long period of our individual training, Murray and I had mastered our respective maneuvers in less time than any previous students they could recall.
Needless to say, we were justifiably full of ourselves, and longed for an opportunity to demonstrate our virtuosity before a wider audience. Brandi must have read our minds. "By the way, Murray, Huey, I'm conducting a group lesson for the next hour, and you're welcome to join us if you like. We'll be reviewing the copas in the samba. I know you haven't been introduced to the samba yet, but you might enjoy it. After the lesson, we'll be having a practice party, in preparation for the big Showcase tomorrow night. That'll give you a chance to try out your new steps, and meet the other students.''
Sensing our hesitancy, Brandi emphasized that, this time, there would be no charge for the group lesson or the party. Whereupon we quickly assented, assuring her that the possible cost of the added features had been the furthest thing from our minds. Like new kids in school, we were led into another practice room and introduced to the students already assembled there. "Dot, Zula, Major Bummer, Mr. and Mrs. Brown, Willie, I'd like you to meet two new students -- Murray and Huey."
"You mean two new victims," commented the short, scrawny, middle-aged man standing in the corner in the clothes that his mother must have dressed him in -- topsiders, chinos, and a pale pink crew shirt with a red alligator appliqu�.
"Don't pay any attention to Willie," advised Dot, a tall, statuesque woman with cotton candy hair and taut features, encased in a snug, belted white jumpsuit, gold bangles clanging on her wrists, a big rock glinting on her ring finger.
"No one else does," chimed in Zula, a stubby little Munchkin with thick glasses, a tightly curled store-bought coif, and an outsized petticoat.
As Willie smirked and the others giggled, Brandi switched off the video camera and player, turned on the stereo, picked out a record entitled The Gene Kelly Dance Studio Orchestra Presents the Samba, removed it from its sleeve, and cued the needle to one of the more sedate selections. As Brandi counted out the beat (one-a-two, two-a-two, etc.), Dot snapped her thin gnarly fingers with their interminable nails and bobbed her sugary hair, Zula pumped her feet up and down in place like a grape-stomper, Major Bummer rotated from the waist like a figure on a mechanical clock, the Browns shuffled arhythmically from side to side, and Willie -- securely in the corner -- tapped his right foot.
The lesson went well. Brandi had asked Tiffani to step in to give us an even number of men and women, and Murray and I quickly figured out that the best way to ensure personal attention from our instructresses was to feign difficulty with the step being shown. We couldn't avoid practicing with Dot, Zula, and Mrs. Brown altogether, but we never lost sight of our ulterior motives. Notwithstanding the dissimulation, by the end of the hour Murray and I had learned how to hop from side to side while embracing our partners, how to spring apart from them and hop shoulder to shoulder for a designated interval, and how to return to the hopping embrace at the appointed time with most of our dignity intact. When the class ended, Brandi and Tiffani excused themselves so they could dress for the party to follow. Major Bummer, Dot, and Zula darted for the bar. The Browns exited slowly, bickering as to which of the two of them had most impeded the other in their effort to conquer the copacabana as a couple (each having had no problem, so they said, performing the stunt with partners to whom they were not married). Remaining behind, Murray and I seized the opportunity to discuss the historical development of the samba as the national dance of Brazil, Murray digressing a bit as he highlighted the part that Carmen Miranda had played in popularizing the dance in the United States during the 1940s. Okay, okay, so we passed the time making childishly obscene speculations about the sexual proclivities of Brandi and Tiffany -- what kind of underclothing (if any) they might be wearing at the moment, what erotic techniques and positions they might favor, what adult toys might be found lying about their apartment, what size batteries we might need to bring along just in case -- that sort of thing.
Anyone who has engaged in them knows that philosophical discussions of this nature can go on for hours, and generally do unless interrupted. So it was with Murray's and mine. It didn't go on for hours, but it was interrupted.
You know, there are some people who can enter a room unnoticed, and to whom one feels obligated to say, upon confronting them, "Gee, I didn't see you come in." There are others, though, who make their presence known upon entering and yet seem to disappear immediately. Hours after you think they've gone, there they are, and what can one possibly say to them but, "Gee, I thought you'd left." Well, that's just what we would have said to Willie Noyes at about this time, if only we had known him better.
I mean, there we were discussing the most intimate personal details, true or false, of Brandi and Tiffani's sex lives when this odd fellow -- whom we'd only just met, and whose ongoing presence he had somehow managed to conceal from us -- blurts out this unseemly remark pertaining to the conversation we were just having.
"So, you've got the hots for Brandi and Tiffani, eh?"
Honest, that's what he said. Incredible, isn't it? Uncouth and all.
"I beg your pardon?" I said, icily.
"Excuse me?" said Murray, not icily exactly, but somewhat frostily.
It's not like we were being so subtle that he could have seriously thought that we wanted him to repeat the offense, but that's just what he did. "I said, it looks like you've got the hots for Brandi and Tiffani," he said again. "I figured it was something like that."
"And what's that supposed to mean?" I demanded.
"Yeah, what's that supposed to mean?" weighed in Murray.
"Normal guys don't take dance lessons, that's all," explained Willie. "They don't need to."
"What makes you think we're normal?" was clearly not the comeback called for, and yet "Thanks for the compliment" seemed even lamer. Deferring to Murray was no use; he was as nonplussed as I was. Then it hit me. "What's your excuse?" I retorted.
"I'm boring," replied Willie instantly, in an unwavering monotone. "I always have been," he went on, giving the distinct impression that he had expounded upon this theme on more than one occasion. "That's how I am. Some people are fascinating, some people are charming, some people are boring. I'm one of the boring ones. I'd rather be fascinating, or charming, but I'm not. I'm boring. It's partly the dull monotone that I speak in, it's partly the uninteresting subjects that I choose, it's partly the repetitive nature of my syntax, it's --"
"We get the picture," I interrupted -- not to be rude, but, after all, the man had made his point.
Murray, however, being a devoted student of physiognomy and body language, was intrigued. "So you figured us out just by looking at us, huh?" he asked with admiration.
Willie grinned almost imperceptibly. "That, and all those perverted things I overheard you saying about Brandi and Tiffani," he confessed.
"Listen, Willie," said Murray anxiously, "Mum's the word on that stuff, okay? We were only kidding around, you know. Just a little harmless guy talk. Not the sort of thing you'd want to repeat to anybody, if you know what I mean."
"You can trust me," Willie promised, averting his face just a bit, for it appeared that Murray was going to kiss him.
The danger passed. "You're okay, Willie," said Murray, with feeling, and at that moment I would have sworn that two of the weirdest people on earth had just become fast friends.
The party was in full swing by this time. Another ten or twelve students had arrived (all but one, women), and two gender-specific lines -- one much longer than the other -- had been formed facing each other on the dance floor, with enough room for couples to dance between them. The first man in line would greet the first lady in line, dance her to the end of this lopsided gauntlet, mouth some pleasantry, and rejoin his line. With the women outnumbering the men by more than two to one, and the men's line moving quickly as a consequence, we were hardpressed to dump one dowager and hightail it back to the front in time to claim another. Dewitt and a couple of other languid young wraiths in faded cummerbunds threw in their lot with the men, and that took some of the pressure off.
The numerical disparity between the sexes having made their services superfluous, Brandi and Tiffani had taken up stations at the bar, filling highball glasses with ice cubes in preparation for the onslaught at song's end. Behind them, an undersized black "cat suit" straining to contain his beefy frame as he dispensed canned peanuts and bagged tortilla chips into little imitation wicker baskets, stood the owner and manager of the Gene Kelly Dance Studio in New Orleans, Gaylord Flagrant�.
"You must be Huey and Dewey," he said to Murray and me, with a twinkle in his eye, as we ended our sprint for spirits in a dead heat at the refreshment stand. Under his breath, he added: "Brandi and Tiffani tell me you're the best students they've ever had." Brandi and Tiffani nodded confirmation.
"That's Murray," said Murray.
"Where?" asked Gaylord.
"No, I mean I'm Murray."
"Well, of course you are."
"But you called me Dewey."
"I like Dewey better, don't you?"
"To tell you the truth, I don't care for either one," Murray confided. "But I'm stuck with Murray."
"You just think you are," responded Gaylord. "It's simple to change your name. You just do it. Actually, there's very little that you can't change in the twilight of the twentieth century. If you don't like it, get rid of it, that's what I say. Why suffer?"
All he'd wanted was a cuba libre, Murray thought to himself, and yet, somehow, he'd been transported into the middle of a Scientology seminar. "There is one thing I'd like to change," he conceded. "I don't have a drink."
"Me neither," I chimed in.
With that personal deficiency corrected, and sly winks at our beloved mixologists, Murray and I conveyed our rum and cokes to a table at the edge of the dance floor that afforded an unobstructed view of the bar, and easy access thereto. No sooner had we sat down than we were accosted by the overbearing Major Bummer. "You boys like fried chicken? Who doesn't, right? Here's a coupon for a free 20-ounce Pepsi when you buy a three-piece, extra crispy, extra spicy, white-meat snack pack at any participating Cha Cha Chicken Chamber between 9 and 10 AM weekdays. Don't forget we have 17 convenient locations throughout New Orleans --"
Like a summer shower, the interruption ended as quickly as it had begun, Bummer having felt the urgent need to bestow great savings on the occupants of neighboring tables.
Our attention was drawn to the dais, which Gaylord had mounted to announce a "lady's choice" for the rumba. Murray pled ignorance to no avail when accosted by Dot, and I was still enjoying a hearty chuckle at his expense when Zula latched on to me. Murray had the best of it, though, notwithstanding a little incident that he hesitated to describe as groping only because it had been perpetrated by a 70-year-old woman. After all, the basic credits he had earned at Waltz U. turned out to be fully transferrable to Rumba Tech, and thus he had a leg up on me. I had no idea what Zula was doing, or trying to do, in time to the music. All I knew was that the woman should swear off peanuts if she wanted to make a good impression in close quarters.
The climax of the evening was a demonstration of the paso doble, the dancer's dance, performed by Gaylord Flagrant� and Brandi Leroux.
From what Willie told us, we gathered that in this particuIar dance Gaylord was meant to represent a bullfighter while Brandi symbolized his cape. We didn't ask why. As Murray commented, Brandi could symbolize a rock and still look great, so who cares? We had to admit, though, that even her Rubenesque partner displayed extraordinary grace and agility, for a lumberjack in leotards.
The party broke up after that. And, though it pained them greatly, Brandi and Tiffani were obliged to decline our offer of a nightcap, having committed themselves to several more hours of rehearsal in preparation for the next night's showcase. They did remind us, however, that our second lessons were scheduled for nine the next morning, and that they simply couldn't wait to see us again then. As we passed through the foyer, we overheard Gaylord telephoning the Domino Cab Company to secure passage home for one of his inebriated guests. "Hope to see you at the Showcase, Huey and Dewey," he called out to us.
All was quiet on the avenue outside, except for the scraping noise being made by the seedy young man trying to break into the car in front of mine with an unbent coat hanger. "With the outrageous rates they charge for lessons, you'd think these dance instructors could afford their own cars and not have to go around stealing other people's," I said out loud to Murray.
Dewitt turned and smiled. "Actually, the instructors don't really make much," he commented. "Most of the money goes to the studio. If some rich relative doesn't die pretty soon, I don't know what I'm going to do. This is Zula's car, unfortunately. She's gone and locked her keys in it again, and left the motor running too. By the time I get it open, she'll be out of gas. I guess Gaylord will have to call a cab for her."
Before I could stop him, Murray had played the gentleman, offering to give Zula a ride, and I was obliged to reconcile myself to the prospect that my Bug would smell like a jar of Jif for the next week or so. It wasn't really that much trouble dropping her off, of course -- or, for that matter, picking her up again on the way back to the studio the next morning, as we agreed to do. After all, she lived just a few blocks from Murray's apartment -- in a much better neighborhood, of course. But it was the principle of the thing. Murray and I were two exceedingly eligible young bachelors who had no business providing escort services for harpies with halitosis. That's what the gigolos at the Gene Kelly Dance Studio were for.
But eight hours of intensely pornographic fantasies starring the voluptuous Tiffani Twickler restored my equanimity -- tipped it in the opposite direction, in fact. Thus, when Murray and I arrived bright and early for our lessons the next morning, I was the very personification of good will. It was only natural then that I should take more than a perfunctory interest in the look of alarm on Willie's face as he came hurtling out of the studio just as we pulled up. "Hey, Willie," I called out to him, "what the hell's going on?"
"Dot's been murdered!" he gasped -- in what, for him, was a dramatic manner.