Chapter One: The Man on the Stage One THE MAN ON THE STAGE Tuesday
Relly L. Morton could dance where there was no stage. Everybody from grandmommas braiding hair on front stoops to the incense man trying to make a sale took note. Harlem knew Relly as the kid who danced from Marcus Garvey Park to the barbershop. From the Schomburg Center to the Apollo. If Relly L. Morton was not dancing, the world may as well quit spinning.
“Broadway!” a man selling Harlem T-shirts shouted, giving Relly a nod.
“You the boss round here!”
“Boss” was Relly’s nickname.
It was a bright blue Monday in March when Relly used the rail of a nearby brownstone to pretend it was a barre. He needed to warm up each muscle before the evening show. Sure, all the actors could warm up at the Ethel Merman Theater, but why wait until he got there? As he grabbed the rail, he bent his knees. He moved slow, stretching down, then lifting himself back up. Slower. Down, then back up. Steady. Down, up. Three quick pliés as his brother, Bobby, crossed the street.
“Really, Relly? In the middle of Seventh Avenue!”
The brothers were on their way to 132nd Street. Relly nodded back to the T-shirt man as he eased into a walking dance, a dancing walk. Then he hopped the curb, lifting his feet off the ground until they were on their points. Tiptoes. Relly did a quick triple-time step, thinking of the move he would do on stage during the show’s opening number.
The role of Pax in the Broadway musical Our Time called for Relly to be flexible, nimble, alert. Each show was a performance, each performance broken into acts. Each act was a workout. The show opened back in November. Since then, Our Time had sold out every day by noon. When tickets opened, they were gone in minutes. Even though it had only been four months since the start of the hit show, Relly felt he had been on Broadway for a lifetime.
This was on his mind as Relly ignored his brother, concentrating on loosening his muscles. At the corner, he did a brush tap that made his foot go forward. It hovered over the smashed gum on the sidewalk. Crossing 129th Street, Relly’s feet did a single Cincinnati time step. He dug his heels into the sidewalk, then shuffled and brought them back. The move was in tune with the chime of the pedestrian walk sign.
When Relly walked, he danced. When Relly danced, he tapped. And Relly’s taps had zeal. Even if he had on sneakers, Relly’s dancing had essence.
“Hurry up, Relly!”
Relly let both feet riff. Three counts, three beats against the sidewalk as he stepped past a toddler sound asleep in her stroller. Then he swiveled and swirled into the grand finale, an array of toe stands and rubber legs. Left and right, front and back, zigzag moves that made him feel free as a golden eagle taking off in flight. The motion of Relly’s feet was a force on the ground. A force so strong, it lifted him straight into Juanita’s door.
In the middle of Harlem, Juanita’s Market was known for cheese sandwiches and a cat named Harold, and the cheapest pineapples this side of the Hudson.
“What surprise come through my door this evening? Mr. Morton himself!” said the woman behind the deli counter, Juanita.
“Harlem’s Broadway star. You come to let me have your autograph? You come to teach me some of your moves?” she joked, lifting her left foot forward and backward, showing off her own moves. Her off-white apron had the green embroidered nickname “Nita.”
Relly inhaled the scent of beef and toasted bread. Melted cheese and freshly cut tomatoes. Then, the smell of cleaning solution. His feet were still in movement doing quick tap moves across the bodega floor. In front of the candy stand, Relly was on his toes, then back down with his heels to the floor. Toes again, then heels to the floor. Up, down. Up, down.
“Nah, not today. We’ve come to get some groceries, Nita,” said Bobby, picking up a silver basket. Relly’s moves must have been a little too swift, because Bobby gripped Relly by the shoulders and squeezed so tight, Relly felt his soul leave his body. A yelp left his mouth.
Bobby twisted his brother around.
“I’m begging you. Swear l’ll give you the most valuable thing I own if you teach yourself how to be still.”
“Valuable?” Relly asked, pausing to take a step back from his brother’s grip. It wasn’t that Bobby didn’t have valuable possessions, but Relly was trying to think of a comeback. “You mean like those socks you collect? I’ll pass.” The two brothers were used to exchanging words back and forth. Relly, being the brother who could not keep still, naturally annoyed his older brother Bobby. Bobby was quiet and calm. Bobby hated excess noise and could always be found with a textbook on his lap.
“Be studious, Relly. Open a book like your brother instead of doing all that running and jumping, commotion-making round the living room,” their grandfather said before the brothers left the house. Bickering or not, aggravation or nah, it was all love.
“Ha!” came Nita’s laugh from behind the counter. She wiped her hands on a cloth as Relly slid farther from Bobby’s reach.
“I’m serious, Relly.”
“You? Serious? You better catch me first.” Relly did a quick turn, a fouetté in the middle of the floor, almost knocking over the rows of Kit Kats and Twizzlers with his stretched-out leg. He stood back on his two feet, easing away from the stand.
“Listen to your brother, Relly,” said Nita. “Love you both, but you knock over even one shelf, it’ll be you behind this counter making cheese sandwiches. That’s a promise.”
Relly couldn’t tell if Nita was serious or playing. He was not about to take a chance and find out. Before they stopped in the store, the sun had already started to tire. Its bright yellow hue had been exchanged for a muted orange. The last thing Relly needed was to be late for sign-in on account of destroying Nita’s store.
“Noted!” Relly caught his reflection in the bodega window. Then he caught Bobby’s side-eye and narrowed eyebrows. The pointed look that told Relly to apologize.
“I mean, I hear you, Nita! Sorry. Will not happen again. Promise!”
The afternoon sun gave Relly’s deep brown skin a glow. Same shade as his momma’s, a shade darker than Bobby’s, a match to his grandfather Gregory’s complexion. Relly smiled, pleased with the dye job he had done on his hair. A purple mixed with pink that reminded Relly of a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting. He forgot the title, but he never forgot the colors during that third-grade school field trip to a SoHo art gallery. Only thing different about Relly was his height, if anybody dared call five foot three short for a twelve-year-old.
“You got the list?” Relly caught up with Bobby down the baked-goods aisle. “Dang, you’re fast.” That quick, the basket in Bobby’s hand was stuffed with sugar, salt, plus a giant bag of pecans. Bobby handed Relly the creased piece of paper and nodded toward the aisle of canned goods. Relly hadn’t been able to figure out why Momma wanted to make a pineapple upside-down cake for his and Bobby’s grandfather’s birthday. Thursday was almost a whole three days away. Plenty of time to buy a real cake. One full of buttercream.
“Get the rest,” Bobby instructed.
“You literally almost got it all.”
“Imma ask Nita to make me a sandwich.”
There were only two items left on the list to pick up. Pineapples and cherries. The two most important pineapple upside-down cake ingredients. Relly walked down the aisle, passing up the artichokes, green beans, three different types of corn. He thought about his ninety-four-year-old grandfather back home. Grandpa Gregory would be ninety-five on Thursday. Does a ninety-five-year-old even care about cake?
Relly picked up the glass jar of cherries from the top shelf. He made a mental note to check them off the list as he did another fouetté. With Nita’s warning still stuck in his head, Relly made sure not to stretch his leg out nearly as far. One fouetté up the aisle, then one fouetté back down. No, let me do that again, Relly thought. Because what harm was there in practicing another? One more fouetté down the aisle. An extra fouetté back up. By now Relly had found the pineapples.
Nita sure did keep an odd number of pineapples. Three rows packed with pineapples. Three rows stacked with pineapples. Momma wanted whole slices, big enough that when you pick up your fork, every bite of cake had a piece of fruit.
In one hand he held the jar of cherries. With the other, Relly picked up a blue-and-yellow can. Ready to turn around and meet up with his brother, his eyes shifted back to the shelf. There were the pineapples in their cans, but there was an object behind the cans that his eyes gravitated toward.
“Aye! What’s up with the timber? You selling firewood now?” There was one random slim piece of wood lying on the shelf. Relly shifted the can and cherries in the palm of his hand. Then he picked up the piece of wood and held it between his thumb and pointer finger.
When he flipped it over, it warmed to his touch. Sun-shining-on-your-skin type warmth. The tingling traveled up the length of his arm. From the crook of his elbow, across his shoulders, the tingling went down into his spine until it turned into a tickle that crept into his feet. Relly wiggled his toes. Relly wiggled his nose. Nita had not answered his question.
A rhythm swept into Relly’s ears. It was a pulse that strummed against his eardrums until his vision began to blur. If Bobby wanted Relly to get a grip, now would have been the time.
Relly watched what looked to be the bodega tiles morphing. Underneath his sneakers, the tiles dissolved. Then they were replaced with a deep-red carpet. Above his head, the ceiling fizzled and melted into wavy lines. It turned into a solid ornate proscenium arch. The overhead lights transformed into a crystal chandelier. Aisle three was now a row of red-velvet cushiony seats. When Relly glanced behind him, each seat was occupied by folks dressed in suits and ties, fascinating tilted netted hats, and dresses etched in lace.
The shelf that used to hold pineapples vibrated so violently, Relly knew it would tumble right on top of him. It did not. Instead, the shelf slowly shifted and shrunk down into a stage. On the stage, Relly saw a man.
This man’s legs moved between a walk and a dance, just as Relly had done on his way to the bodega. This man’s arms swayed and swung as his legs floated into each move. He was light on his feet, agile as the smile on his face. The tapping man danced with ease, balanced and smooth. Dance converted into music through the sound from taps on his feet.
It was clear to Relly: this man on stage was breathing out a beat his ears could hear and his body could translate. Because in between the taps were slides. Slick, smooth, sleek slides. Short and sweet slides, until there was a longer slide turned glide across the entire length of the stage. If Relly didn’t know any better, he would have thought there was ice underneath this man’s feet.
Relly had never seen anybody on a stage do tap the way this man did tap. And the kid had seen a lot of tap. Studying the sliding, gliding, drifting man, Relly knew he could have been looking at his adult self, tapping on stage, living out his lifelong dream. Relly knew he could do those same sliding moves too.
Juanita’s and Bobby’s voices cracked through the blur. Still, Relly’s eyes only saw the same scene. The man on the stage whose name Relly had no clue of.
“Hello? Relly! Snap out of it.” Bobby gripped Relly’s shoulders. “First you couldn’t be still. Now you’re staring into space.”
When Relly released the piece of wood, the images he saw were gone. Relly’s eyes watered, unfocused until they landed on the can of pineapples and smashed jar of cherries on the floor.
“So much for Nita’s warning.” Bobby’s words came out annoyed. “You know, you’ve got these times you don’t listen. You’re getting too old for that.”
A wave of embarrassment swept over Relly. Bobby had scolded him before, in their own home. Never in public. And now the store had gotten crowded since Relly went looking for pineapples and cherries. All of 132nd Street may as well have been inside Juanita’s Market.
Relly bent to pick up the pineapple can. He looked at the piece of wood beside it. Bobby must not have seen what Relly saw.
“Weird,” Relly said. Then he used the edge of his sweatshirt to pick up the wood. He slipped it in his pocket before Bobby could see.
“You’ve got a spill in the canned-food aisle!” Bobby hollered. “What’s up with you today?” he asked Relly.
“Nothing is up with me. I’m good.” Relly stood as Nita turned down the aisle. She tossed a roll of paper towels.
“You spill it, you clean it,” Nita said as Relly caught the roll. He bent low and wiped up the mess, shooing away Harold the cat. Relly stood, balling up the wet paper towel. The two brothers headed for the front of the store.
“Good?” Bobby pointed toward the aisle. “That what you call good? I didn’t think you would actually try to knock over Nita’s shelf. Or her whole store. You do know you don’t have to dance all the time, right? You do know there’s this thing called being still?”
“I didn’t actually try to knock over her shelf, Robert.”
“Then what the what happened?” Bobby asked. Now Nita was back up front. She scanned their items, minus the cherries, as Relly tossed the wet paper towel in the trash. She looked from older brother to younger brother, younger brother to older. After Bobby paid, he handed Relly the change. It never hurt to have a little extra cash before getting on the subway.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Said what I said.”
“You were daydreaming.”
What Relly saw felt real. Solid. Alive. Not like any daydream he ever had. But he was not about to tell that to Bobby as they walked out the bodega door. Now Relly wasn’t even in the mood to dance.
“Don’t tell Momma, please.” Relly made his eyes wide. Bobby had never been an easy one to convince, but when his brother didn’t respond, Relly knew Bobby wouldn’t tell. Their momma didn’t appreciate embarrassing situations. Especially if those situations involved her sons.
“I’ll meet you at the Ethel after your show to take you home,” Bobby said before the two brothers parted. “And try to pay attention. Get yourself together. No clumsy stuff like you did in there. What’s it Grandpa’s always saying?”
Relly held back rolling his eyes. Grandpa says a lot of stuff. Grandpa’s always saying too much.
“We have to work twice as hard.”
“And you know this. You’re the one who made it, Relly. Don’t screw it up.”
The two brothers did a handshake. A closed fist. Up, then down, and a tap of their knuckles. Bobby headed back home. Relly needed to make his way to the theater for the Broadway show. But when Bobby was out of sight, Relly stopped. He dug into his pocket, closed his eyes, then pulled out the fragment of wood. It was no more than three inches thick. Smooth all around. Deep intervals of wavy brown lines dotted the piece.
“What are you?” Relly asked. He held it in his hand and squeezed tight, hoping the same scene from the bodega would pop up again. “And who was he?” Relly hoped he would see the sliding, gliding man. His legs wanted to mimic the dancing man’s moves right on the street. But Relly didn’t have time to spend wondering. His train would arrive in three minutes. Relly stuffed the piece of wood in his backpack, then hurtled through the crowded subway stairs.
Almost knocking over Nita’s shelves was one thing. To be late to his own show and have his understudy perform, Relly would never have that.