Remembering the Path of Ambition

Waltz in Swing Time

Jill Caugherty

1932. When her family suffers an unthinkable tragedy, Irene Larsen longs to leave their Utah farm and become a musician. After a neighbor's farm is foreclosed, Irene's brother marries the neighbor's daughter, who moves in with the Larsens and coaches Irene into winning leading roles in school musicals. Clashing with her mother, who dismisses her ambition as a waste of time and urges her to become a farmer’s wife, Irene leaves home. During a summer gig at Zion National Park, where Irene sings in a variety show for Depression-weary tourists, she meets professional dancer Spike, a maverick who might be her ticket to a musical career. But ultimately she must decide: Does pursuing her dream justify its steep price of losing her home and family?

2006. Stricken by heart problems and short term memory loss, Irene is in an assisted living home. As memories surface of her girlhood in the thirties, she sees parallels between her struggle and her granddaughter's to forge an independent path.

Book Excerpt

We had a week to rehearse before the show opened. Between my maid duties, cooking and cleaning rotation for the girls’ cabins, and rehearsals after supper, I fell into a corpse-like sleep each night, my arms, back, and legs aching from bending over buckets.
Benny Quinn, my duet partner, had worked at the park for three summers and had performed in the show each time. Like Tommy, he had a strong voice that complemented mine. Tall and thin, with a lanky frame and solemn demeanor, he took his role on stage seriously. Although he must have only been a few years my senior, he acted far older.
“Wrong way,” he frowned, when I turned right instead of left during our routine, and sharply propelled me in the opposite direction.
We sang three songs together: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Indian Love Call,” and “Ho Hum.” By opening night, we had settled into a comfortable rhythm. He stepped back slightly as I sang a solo measure, and I did the same for him, until our voices joined and we gazed upon the crowd, faces radiant, arms rising in triumph during the finale.
I couldn’t wait for the guests to file into the Lodge, ready to be entertained after a long day of hiking and fishing. They seemed to hunger for beauty and Nature, where the harsh realities of the world could temporarily be forgotten, and they could slip into a bubble of music, art and dance, things of the soul. Always at the moment when the lights dimmed, their conversation halted, and they gazed in anticipation at the stage.
The other entertainers on the show included several soloists, musicians, magicians, and four dancing couples, one of whom was a college-aged boy from Salt Lake City and his sister. I enjoyed watching their snappy tap routine, “Sunday Afternoon,” apparently inspired by a picture starring Buddy Ebsen. The pair tapped toward each other from opposite ends of the stage and joined in the center, where, beaming at the audience, they moved in perfect sync, feet clicking in rhythm, arms pinwheeling until they struck the same pose.
Halfway through the routine, the boy flew into a series of handsprings, then bounded back into his toe-heel tap-tap-tap amidst cheers. His sister, dressed in a black and white checked chiffon dress and beribboned bonnet, took her turn in the spotlight with a short tap solo. Sashaying in a semicircle, she flashed her deep dimples and winked at the audience. Near the end of the set, still tapping steadily, the boy swooped his sister above his head, sailed her around the stage, then dipped her down like a rag doll to shouts and applause. The pair shared a striking resemblance with their large, brown eyes, full lips, and dark hair.
During the day, I occasionally saw the boy, whose name, I learned, was Spike, strolling jauntily up and down the path from the bathhouse and swimming pool, where he was a lifeguard in the afternoons. I noted that he also bell hopped at the Lodge in the mornings before the pool opened.
Late one afternoon, when Annie and I left a cabin we had just tidied, we met him on the main path as he wound his way toward the Lodge.
He tipped an imaginary hat at us, and we stopped to greet each other.
“Say, I’ve just made a marvelous speech at the swimming pool,” he announced, winking.
“Have you, now?” I said, noting his sly smile and figuring he had a punch line to follow.
“Sure. There’s a shortage of towels up there, and they’ve limited us to a hundred a day. But wouldn’t you know, these dames are using one towel to stand on, one to dry with, one to put around their shoulders, and one to take back to their rooms. So I gave them a little speech. Told them this is an unnecessary extravagant use of towels and a shameful waste, given the country’s economic situation, so on and so forth. You should’ve heard it! It was a fine speech. Put all my oratory skills to use. But sad to say, they didn’t take me seriously. Fact, they just howled with laughter and called for an encore.”
“You poor thing,” I teased. “I for one would have listened to you.”
He grinned and took a step closer. “I do believe you would have.” He turned a scrutinizing gaze upon me, and a blush crept up my cheeks. “Do you go to the BYU?” he said finally.
“Yes, I just finished my freshman year there.”
“You look mighty familiar. I must’ve seen you around the campus.”
“I’m a music student in the fine arts department.”
“That’s probably why. I teach dance over there sometimes.”
I blushed again. “You and your sister dance like champs.”
“Thanks. Jimmie’s my younger sister. She’s a good kid. Works awful hard at it. You’ve got a damn swell voice, like an angel’s.”
The next day, we saw him again on the same path.
“So did they take you more seriously today?” I asked.
“Who? Those old bags at the pool? Nah. They think I’m a joker or else their personal entertainer. They’re still using four or five towels apiece. Sipping lemonade and having a ball.”
I suppressed a giggle.
“Say, you won’t believe what happened to me today, though. Hell of a day. Turns out I thought it would happen, and now it has.”
“What’s that?”
“I fell in the pool with my clothes on. See, first I bell hopped, and that made me late starting at the pool. Then when I got there, I found a big branch that had blown in the pool. Entire bottom was covered with dirt. So I hooked up the vacuum, and just as I was leaning over the water, the damn thing slipped, and there I was in the pool, cussing. Finally finished vacuuming in my trunks.”
Now I laughed outright. Never had I heard a boy say such things. Spike was a maverick. Annie rolled her eyes and continued up the path.
Later that day in the washroom, as Annie and I ironed our uniforms, I declared I was smitten with Spike.
“He’s such a kick,” I mused. “Full of practical jokes.”
“He’s a character all right,” Annie said, shaking her head. “Got a mouth on him.”
“And you know something else? I’ll be dating him in a week. I just know it.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jimmie, Spike’s sister, on the opposite side of the washroom, scrubbing a stain out of her waitress uniform.
“I’ll bet you a nickel you won’t,” Annie replied.
Jimmie raised her head and smirked. “My brother? He’s been at the Parks for ten summers. Seen hundreds of girls around here. There’s always some dame or other who falls for him. Happens so often he doesn’t give it a second thought anymore. They’re all the same to him.”
She must have seen my crestfallen look, for she quickly added, “But maybe you’re different. Maybe you’ll catch his eye.”
“You watch,” I said to them both, and flounced out of the washroom.

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Jill Caugherty is the author of the debut novel Waltz in Swing Time, set in Depression-era Utah. Jill’s short stories have been published in 805Lit, Oyster River Pages, The Potato Soup Journal, and The Magazine of History and Fiction.

A Stanford graduate, Jill held software development, product management, and marketing roles in the high tech industry for many years before deciding to pursue her childhood passion, creative writing, full time. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband and daughter.

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