In Pilot Point, I use a New Year’s Eve as the occasion when Clayton Hays finally asks out his neighbor, Leslie Johns. And I introduce the dances held at St. Thomas (Aquinas) Catholic Church.
I attended a dance or two there when I lived near Pilot Point. Like Clayton, I was slightly awkward. And like him, I noticed most there were older then me. (I was about 30 at the time.) There was lots of silver hair. But most of the older people sure danced better than I could.
My experience inspired me to use the parish dances in my novel, and not just as a setting for Clayton and Leslie’s relationship. One theme of Pilot Point is the interaction between youth, time, and old age. And the relation is not always what one may expect. The young may be old in some ways and vice versa. As I saw for myself, the silver haired can retain a lot of youth. Clayton Hays, on the other hand, lost his youth too quickly.
The changing of the year prompts reflection upon one’s past and future. And so it is with Clayton.
But enough background. Enjoy the excerpt. And have a Happy New Year.
Two days after Christmas, Clayton noticed Leslie’s car was back in her driveway. So at dusk, he walked over to her house.
“Hi Clay,” she cheerfully answered the door. “Come on in.”
“I saw you were back, so I thought I’d come over and say hello.”
“Good. Glad to see ya.” She shut the door against the cold. “How was your Christmas working cattle?”
“It was okay. It would have been a lot worse if Bowie’s truck heater didn’t work real well.”
“Oh yeah. Wasn’t it cold Christmas Day? I was thinking about you out in the weather working cattle.”
“It was pretty brisk.”
“How was your Christmas?”
“Oh, the usual. You know, relatives you’re so glad to see just once a year.”
Clayton smiled. Leslie told some more about Christmas with her family. And they just talked for a while.
Then Leslie asked, “Now that Christmas is past, what are you doing for New Year’s?”
“Why am I not surprised by that?” After a pause, she said, “I think the Catholics are having a dance New Year’s Eve over at St. Thomas’s. They do every year. I’ve always been Baptist or Anglican, but I have to hand it to them, they’re not against having a good time. I imagine that will be a nice dance. And I don’t think it’s going to be formal or anything like the city people’s parties.”
Clayton nodded. Then it suddenly occurred to him that Leslie was hinting. He stalled for time. “I guess I’d make a lousy Catholic.”
Leslie laughed. Clayton kept thinking. He figured he ought to be more sociable even if it was against his nature. And he figured he ought to treat Leslie right and that she did need to go out, especially on New Year’s Eve. And he figured Bowie had a point. [While feeding cattle on Christmas Day, Bowie gave Clayton a hard time about not yet asking out Leslie. – Ed.]
So he said, “I can’t dance worth anything, certainly not like Catholics. But if you like, I would like to take you to the dance.”
Leslie smirked. “I would like that.”
Clayton paid Leslie’s and his way in at the door of the St. Thomas Community Center. They walked tentatively into the dimly lit hall and took seats at the back of the room.
They tried to make small talk there. But after a while, they were just awkwardly quiet.
Clayton looked around. He noticed there was hardly anyone in the room under forty. Heads of gray and white hair were scattered among the tables and across the dance floor, throughout the room. “We’re practically the youngest folks here,” he remarked.
“Yeah. Kind of nice, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. It’s different.”
After a long while, he finally asked, “Do you want to dance?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
Clayton was stiff and awkward as they danced. He was trying hard not to step on her feet—and that was about all he was doing right.
“It has been a long time since you danced, hasn’t it.”
“Yes,” he admitted sheepishly.
“Just relax and follow me. And don’t worry about stepping on me. I’m tough.”
He relaxed some. Soon he was almost enjoying dancing with Leslie.
After two dances, they sat back down and talked.
But before long, during a quiet song, they found themselves quiet, watching the other, older folks dance.
“They dance so well, don’t they?” Leslie said.
“Yes. They do.”
They kept watching them slowly, gracefully glide across the floor. There was peace in their steps and quiet joy in their faces.
Later, when the band lit into a lively tune, Leslie said, “Let’s get back out there.”
Once Clayton, under Leslie’s guidance, had gotten the step and rhythm of the dance down, he watched the others around them. Although they had heads of gray, their dancing was spry. He watched a white-haired couple smiling at each other and not missing a step. Another mature couple was even showing off a bit. He smiled and looked at Leslie, who was also enjoying the young/old couples. Being among them dancing with Leslie made him almost feel like a kid. For a dance, they were all young.
When the band finished the song, the leader announced, “Twenty minutes until the New Year!” The crowd clapped.
The band then played a mellower tune, and Leslie and Clayton stayed out to dance that one.
The announcement of the impending year put him in a reflective mood as they led each other around the floor. The time caught him by surprise. He did not know the New Year was that close. He thought about how time is that way—it steadily marches, and, before one knows it, it is gone.
He reflected how time had passed him by—how he lost his childhood early, how the now hazy years that followed passed so quickly. He hardly ever was a teenager. Then there was college and two shining years [SPOILER OMITTED]. And the years in Alaska, too, had already become a dark haze.
Now, he was slowly dancing with Leslie. Time had brought them to this dance.
In spite of himself, he was now in good cadence with Leslie and with the other couples. He watched them as they floated around him, their warm hearts undiminished by their heads of gray. He could see the glow of love in their faces. They had left the struggles of long life off this floor.
He found himself feeling that Leslie and he were one of them, slowly gliding among the couples with time floating by them all. As he watched the glowing faces and the graceful steps from the older pairs young for this night, he found himself with them, and with Leslie, in a slow dance of time.
He felt he belonged in this dance. Yet he knew they must all soon leave the floor.
Before he knew it came, “Ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… one!” And there was the noise of a passing year and the heartfelt singing of Auld Lang Syne.
As he stood beside Leslie, he saw all the couples kiss each other and look at each other with sentimental eyes. He turned his eyes toward Leslie. She was looking at him. She turned her eyes down, blushing a little. He felt awkward. But he leaned over as Leslie looked back up and gave her a gentle kiss. They smiled at each other, a little shyly.
The first dance of the New Year began, and they stayed out on the dance floor and joined in.
It seemed strange to Clayton that a year had ended, and now it was another year. He gazed out at the other couples. He saw faces of joy and contentment. They seemed at peace with the passage of years.
But he could not comprehend that peace. So many of his years were lost. So many were too much like the ones before.
Yet, as he and Leslie danced close to each other, among the young/old couples, he had a feeling he could not fathom that, in spite of himself and his past, this year was going to be different.
By the way, I notice they are still dancing Catholics at St. Thomas. They are holding a New Year’s Eve dance this very evening.
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