“Pol-ka,” Tom breathes, and his fingers move.
Janet leans over him. He lies, arms open, tubes in his nostrils and the back of one hand, a man being played by machines. At a West Hartford wedding reception, when she was seventeen, he was a gangly guy with pimples but his accordion drove the tunes that spun her silly. He had a Hohner, red mother of pearl. “Right hand keyboard, left hand buttons,” he told her, out behind the VFW hall during the break, and showed her what his fingers could do.
He filled out, fathered three girls, and sold insurance. He always said, “Insurance prevents nothing. It just steadies you.” At home every evening he taught the girls routines for tiny, rollicking dancers. Janet sewed their costumes. They performed in Springfield, Chicopee, Worcester, twice as far away as Belleville, New Jersey. “The half step, the half jump, persistence, resolution: this is life,” he’d declaim, driving the station wagon full of them. “You must keep whirling and not fall.” But he was always nervous, and he smoked.
For their twentieth anniversary she ordered a coffee table book about the Polka Mania, how it hopped from Prague to Paris and London, then swept New York in 1844. The illustrated women with their tiny waists, their partners’ long, glossy hair, the Bohemian dance masters named Josef and Emil, all so romantically alive so long ago. “The polka may be out of style, but it’s still big in Wisconsin,” he told her. “And, of course, in Connecticut it will never die.” He listened to Hartford polka stations in the car, as long as the girls weren’t there to complain.
After forty-three years selling insurance, he retired to their basement with a computer. He found YouTube videos of Zydeco bands and street musicians in Ecuador. Janet could hear him down there, laughing till he gasped. She brought him soup and hot tea and listened to his new discovery, Finnish folk metal or a San Francisco punk group’s polka Purple Haze. “You hear?” he’d say. “Always the bellows. Vacuum and pressure. Smooth and steady or with the little half-shakes, playing the wind. All over the world it goes.”
He moves his fingers now, tapping her wrist. The girls are here, three crying women, but she shushes them. “Jan,” he breathes, and she leans close, her ear by his mouth, to catch each sweet wheeze.
Lynne Barrett’s recent short stories can be found in Necessary Fiction, Mystery Tribune, The Miami Rail, Flash!: Writing the Very Short Story, and Just to Watch Them Die: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Johnny Cash. Her third collection Magpies (Carnegie Mellon) received the Florida Book Awards gold medal for fiction. She lives in Miami, where she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More at www.lynnebarrett.com.