Our neighbor’s Dancing Under the Stars party happened the last Saturday in August. I asked Steph to make her lasagna as our potluck item. I said I’d go to the store to get what she needed. But before I went to the store I took my boys on a bike ride down to the school playground and my youngest fell off the monkey bars and hurt his arm. When we got home he said it still hurt and I thought his hand maybe looked a little purple. We piled everyone into our minivan and I drove us all down to the emergency room. You know how that goes: Hurry up and wait. We finally got in and they did an x-ray. No break but a bad sprain. They gave Owen a sling and sent us home. That’s the good news. Bad news was now there was no time to make lasagna.
Driving home I panicked a little bit. I barked at Steph how we’re supposed to bring a potluck item but it’ll be 4:30 by the time we get home, so what the hell are we going to cook in 30 minutes? Steph looked at me and said we could just take carrot sticks. That made me laugh and calmed me down. We decided to just go to the grocery store and buy fried chicken from the deli. People love fried chicken.
At home I took the chicken out of the box it came in and laid it out on a platter and covered it with foil so maybe people would think we cooked it after all and then Steph and I headed next door to Bob and Marie’s.
* * *
I have to say Bob and Marie went all out. They work on their yard all the time, but this was special. The grass was perfect, like a carpet. They’d made a pathway leading across the yard to the sport court. Star-shaped lights lined the way and flower arrangements in little pots between the lights fluttered in the gentle breeze.
It’s not easy to make a sport court look nice – a basketball hoop is a basketball hoop – but Bob and Marie had wrapped white Christmas lights around the poles of the basketball hoops and the light post and there were little white lights strung up above the court like a pavilion. Steph and I slid our chicken platter in with the rest of the potluck items on the table beside the court and we each picked up a glass of wine and walked around. Bob came over and introduced us to everyone. Marie even gave us a hug and thanked us for coming. The whole time, Bob and Marie’s dog, Porter, a big Siberian Husky, was running around jumping on people and biting at their shoelaces. Bob said we could tell the dog to go away if we wanted. But the dog kind of lightened the mood and gave us all something to talk about.
After a little more mingling and another glass of wine, Bob said a welcome speech and said grace and we all loaded our plates with food and sat down in lawn chairs. Steph and I both watched to see if anyone took our chicken. We saw a few people grab some, so we felt like we were in the clear and we just sat down and started enjoying ourselves.
* * *
The dance instructor showed up while everyone was eating. A tall, slender woman with straight shoulders and a narrow waist and every step she took looked like reeds bending in the wind. Her grace made everyone nervous and people made jokes about how bad their dancing was. The dog was running around the dance instructor, bouncing and going after her feet. Let Porter dance with her, people started joking. He’s more graceful than we are anyway, people said. We laughed with our mouths full.
Then it was time to dance and the instructor called us all to the sport court and lined us up, men on one side of the court, women on the other, across from the person we came with. “West Coast Swing,” she said. Men start on their left foot. Women start on their right foot. “So remember ladies, if you get confused: the woman is always right.” The women all clapped at that. HA HA, the guys said. A dumb joke, but it actually worked to remind us how to move and we came together with our partners and gave it a try. We went once through the basic steps and then the instructor had us shift to the left and dance with another partner. Once more through the basic, shift to a new partner. Basic, shift. Basic, shift. Basic, shift. On and on. Until finally I came back around to Steph and we were so happy to see each other after dancing with strangers that we got into a little impromptu swing and the people around us cheered. Their laughter was just settling down when Marie screamed.
I thought something had happened to her. She screamed out and we all looked over at her and then we saw she was pointing at the food table and yelling at the dog. Porter had pulled something off the table. Our platter of fried chicken. He smacked at it as fast as he could, crunching through the bones and swallowing everything. Bob charged toward him and Porter flinched, then made a grab for one more chicken leg and ran off across the lawn with it. Bob picked up the platter and showed it to Marie.
“He ate all of it,” he said.
We all looked over at Porter. He had finished the chicken leg and was standing there just kind of smacking his mouth again and again, his legs splayed out at an angle. He just smacked and smacked and then he started to shake his head.
Bob hurried over to Porter and took his snout in his hands. He lifted Porter’s face and pried open his mouth and looked inside. “He’s bleeding,” he said. “Marie, he’s bleeding. Come look at this.”
Marie hurried over to Bob and Porter and the rest of us inched toward them too. Bob opened Porter’s mouth for Marie to look and when he did blood poured out the side of the dog’s mouth and stained Bob’s hand.
“What is that?” Marie said. She sounded worried.
“He ate the bones,” Bob said. “Dogs can’t eat chicken bones. They shatter. Cuts them up inside. He’s cut inside.”
Bob let go of Porter’s face. Porter shook his head some more and then he opened his mouth wide and bent his face toward the ground like he was going to throw up but he just hacked and a bubble of saliva and blood dropped out on the grass. He shook his head and hacked and shook and hacked again and again. The more he hacked, the more blood came up, like he was getting it from deep inside himself.
“He’s in trouble,” Bob said.
Porter started to whine. He opened and closed his mouth and shook his head. Bob grabbed the dog’s jaws again and pried them open. He looked inside. Porter’s tongue ran red with blood and he whined and tried to pull his head away.
“How bad do you think it is?” Marie said.
“He ate all the chicken,” Bob said. “I think he’s cut up.”
“What can we do?”
“Vet,” somebody said. Then everyone agreed and nobody was thinking about dancing anymore, they were all saying take him to the vet. The dance instructor said how sorry she was and she would come back another time. Take the dog to the vet, she said. Steph and I brought the chicken so we didn’t say anything.
“Bob we can watch him,” Marie said. “This might not be as bad as it looks. It might not. Everyone, please. It was so lovely to see everyone dancing. Please let’s go on.”
We all looked at Marie and hesitated. Then we looked at Bob. Then back at Marie. Then back at Bob. Like watching a tennis match. Bob was down on one knee in front of Porter who was still shaking his head. “You don’t think we should take him?” Bob said.
“Everyone’s here,” Marie said. “We’re loving the dancing so much.”
Bob looked at Porter and rubbed his hands to get the blood and dog saliva off. “If that’s what you think, then. “
“Wonderful,” Marie said. “I’m sure it’s not as bad as it looks. Everyone, let’s dance.”
* * *
Back on the sport court with our partners, the mood was definitely broken. None of us felt like dancing. But the instructor turned up the music and clapped her hands.
“Well, alrighty. Let’s rumba!”
She lined us up again. She started showing us the first steps of the rumba. Her hips moved like they were on bearings and everyone grumbled again. We moved in and held our partners and that’s when Porter fell over.
He sat down hard, and then moved like he was going to lie down, but instead of going smoothly he flopped and his head bounced against the lawn.
Bob hurried over to check on him. Porter’s side was rising and falling as he tried to breathe. Bob got down next to him and lifted his head and I could see that Porter’s eyes didn’t open.
We all gathered around again and Bob looked up at Marie.
“Marie,” he said and he raised Porter’s head a little toward Marie, like he was presenting the head to her. That’s all he said, but he didn’t take his eyes off her and they looked at each other for a long moment. Nobody talked.
Marie turned to all of us. “It was lovely to see you all dancing,” she said.
“Marie,” Bob said.
“We’ll take your car,” she said, still looking at all of us. “I’ll get the keys.” She turned and walked toward the house and Bob scooped Porter into his arms and followed her.
Steph and I held hands walking back to our place. I carried our empty chicken platter and I laughed out loud, but not because I thought anything was funny.