Dancing Waters

           Nine-year-old Emma stood in front of the Coke machine at the Chevron station when
she heard the bus driver honk twice, heard the hiss of the door closing, followed by a shift of
gears. She watched as the Greyhound, with everyone on it, sped off down Interstate 10, leaving
her and her mother Yummy stranded in Van Horn, Texas.
Realizing what had happened, she ran to the ladies’ room.
           “Busy,” Yummy said.
           “The bus just left.”
           “Well- great.” She banged out of the stall and slammed her palm into the mirror over
the sink. “Why’d you let them take off without us?”
           “Not my fault.” Emma scratched one leg, then both arms.
           Fifteen minutes later, the two sat on a bench in front of the gas station, surveying the
west Texas countryside. A neon sign popped overhead.
“I wish you’d look at this,” Yummy said, pulling hard on her cigarette.
Down the road a pink motel offered rooms at reasonable rates. With comfortable mattresses
and free coffee. Under their feet, patches of grass struggled to grow and, in the distance, a low
mountain range offered the only decent view. The wind found a paper bag and sent it moving
along the ground.
“How could anything or anyone live here?”
           Emma pointed out a hawk riding an air current. “There’s something.”

           “Isn’t that one of those birds that sits on your chest while you’re dying?” Yummy spoke
from inside a cloud of smoke. “I hope we find someone to get us back on that bus. What must
people think of us, sitting here like two woebegones, no luggage, me in these high-heels that
hurt my feet.”
           “Don’t know. But I know we’re not going to the State Fair,” Emma said. “You fibbed.
About the dancing waters and the Starlight Parade. I’m not even going to get to ride on the
Ferris Wheel ‘cause we’re not going to Dallas. We’re going to see Alan, aren’t we?”
           “That’s not so. I’m taking you to see the damn dancing waters.”
           “Right. Where’s Alan live?”
           “In New Orleans, with his mother.”
           “Wasn’t our bus going to New Orleans? And how come he lives with his mother?”
           “Indeed.” Yummy tossed her cigarette, then rummaged in her purse for her makeup kit,
and, as Emma watched, applied blush to her cheeks and mascara to her lashes. She seldom
painted her lips. Men were attracted to the bruised look of her. “We’re just making a little
           “Is Alan going to be my daddy?”
           “Will you tell me the truth about something?” Yummy asked, pulling her jacket together
as though there was a sudden chill in the air.
           “Do you think I’m still pretty? I mean, I’m twenty-eight-years-old now. Do you think I
am? Pretty?”

           Emma looked straight up, searching for the hawk, and though she couldn’t see him, she
was sure she saw an imprint of where he’d been. “Pretty as any movie star.”
           That’s when a cowboy type came out of the diner and got into his truck. With the
engine vibrating and exhaust roaring, he adjusted his hat to the back of his head. “You the
ladies lookin’ to catch up with the Greyhound?”
           Yummy stood, adjusting her short gauzy dress, smiling her heartbreaker’s smile. “Why,
yes indeed we are. And aren’t you just the one.”
           “Sure hope so.”

Forty minutes later, they caught up with the bus, and, after flagging it down, Yummy and the
cowboy, with his hand on her ass, kissed like they meant business before she and Emma
climbed aboard. Back in her seat, Emma gazed out at the fields by the roadside, the far-off
lightening, the bus driving up over one rise and down into a deep basin as the land rose and
fell, thinking of the promises held out by the Fair. Chinese acrobats, a fireworks display.
She remembered another promise, a couple of years back, when Yummy announced that she
was going to marry Glen Hartshore and she and Emma would be moving to Venice Beach. They
were going to live in a house by the ocean. Swim in the waves. Everyone believed it because
Glen was an ex marine. Plus he showed them photographs of blue water and a bunch of sand
and a town with canals and bridges. He spent lots of time hanging around, feeling Yummy up
and raiding the refrigerator. Emma’s granny, Annie Allen, bought Emma a two piece bathing
suit for the upcoming journey, after a shouting match at the department store where Emma

insisted she did so have the figure for a two piece. Only Glen got picked up one Thursday
afternoon by the authorities. For non-payment of child support.
           A woman seated next to them told Emma she was traveling from town to town to save
souls. With worried eyes, she asked if Emma and her mother had embraced the passion of
Christ. “You do know that God loves you?”
           “Is that so?” Yummy asked.
The woman dug into her bag and extracted a handful of pamphlets with a drawing of Jesus and
the lambs and some scripture. She handed them to Emma. With the bus swaying gently, the
passengers leaned back and closed their eyes, and Emma, her small body snuggled against her
mother, daydreamed of a Ferris Wheel so high and so close to heaven she could gather the
stars with her fingers.

It was raining when Alan picked them up at the New Orleans bus station in a large black sedan.
He was still tall and handsome and thin as a cracker, but Emma thought he seemed different
than before, when he lived in El Paso.
She sat in the back seat without saying a word, peering out the window at the unfamiliar
landscape of oak trees with branches that grew together and formed tunnels along the wide
avenues. She rolled the window down and held her hand out to feel the rain, inhaling the sweet
smell. Alan pointed out things of interest: Jackson Square, City Park, St. Louis Cathedral, a
trolley with a weird name.
           “I left my jacket on the bus,” Yummy said. “Why’d you let me leave my jacket? I feel

           “Not my fault.” Emma wished she’d brought Sam, her brown teddy bear, with her. In
spite of the fact that Sam was missing one button eye and his fur had seen better times, he kept
her safe.
           “Since you moved back home, how is it living with your mother?” Yummy seemed
impatient with the tour. “And what have you been doing since I last saw you? Out of curiosity.”
           “I’ve been,” Alan cleared his throat, “considering my options.” He looked in the rearview
mirror at Emma and winked.
           Yummy opened her bag and found a cigarette. “This business of considering options,”
she said, flicking her lighter, “How long exactly does that take?”
           Alan took a left and turned into a long drive, lined with beds of white azaleas, and
headed toward a two-story house with a wraparound porch and front doors with insets of
beveled glass. Inside the house it was cool and dim. They stood in a spacious entry hall, Emma,
her mother-in her skimpy dress and no jacket, Alan, and his mother. A large arrangement of
pale roses took up all the space on an antique table.
           “Well, isn’t this something?” Alan’s mother said. In a navy dress with pearls at her neck,
she held a folded newspaper in her hand.
“This is really something.” Alan, leaning against the doorway, with his jacket over his shoulder,
sounded out of breath, as if the trip up the front steps with the luggage had taxed his lungs.
           “Now where is it that you’re headed?” Alan’s mother asked. “Wandering around the
country on a bus with this little girl?” She put her hand on Emma’s head as she led the way to
the kitchen.

           Silk draperies hung at the windows, tied back with tassels, and a grand piano stood in a
corner of the living room. Flowers on every table. Emma had never seen anything quite so
grand. What would it be like to live in such a house, if she and her mother were to live here. Her
house, her grandmother Annie Allen’s house, was old, in an old neighborhood with a buckled
sidewalk and a single elm growing at the curb. The wallpaper was stained and the sofa had a
shawl thrown over one arm where the fabric was worn. She had an orange cat named Howard
who had his own little bed in Emma’s room. According to her gramma, it had once been a
stylish residence, but time had darkened the place, that was all.
           “I’m not exactly wandering around.” Yummy laughed uneasily as they entered the
kitchen. “We’re going to the State Fair in Dallas. I’d planned to drive the family car, but…”
           “She wrecked it,” Emma spoke up.
           “I didn’t wreck it, you silly billy.”
           “Isn’t New Orleans a bit out of the way?” At that moment a fly flew by and Alan’s
mother went whack with her newspaper.
           “Did you get him?” Alan asked.
           “I’m not sure if I did.”
           As Alan’s mother searched for the fly, Emma walked toward a pair of French doors,
where sunlight falling through the branches of the cedar trees laid patterns on the summer
On the stone path, a striped cat lapped water from a puddle left by the passing shower.
Something about a need for water, the long, pink tongue, grabbed hold of Emma’s heart, and

when the cat spotted her, opening his mouth to form a perfect O, she felt the pain of
separation from Howard, her own cat, and from her grandmother.
“Is that your cat out there?” Emma asked.
           “Good Lord, no.”
           Emma marched back to the sink and looked up at Alan’s mother. “Bet you didn’t know
my daddy was executed by the state of Texas.”
           The room turned deadly quiet. Yummy’s eyes narrowed, a signal for her daughter to
shut her mouth.
           Alan’s mother picked up a towel and wiped the counter, then patted her hair, which she
wore in a chignon at the back of her neck. She smiled. “We’re going to the club for dinner. We’ll
have gin and tonics at six, then leave around seven.”

After they’d settled in, in an airy bedroom on the upstairs’ floor, with soft curtains that billowed
at the windows, Emma sat on the bed with her mother. Dusk slid in, in a smear the color of
“Alan’s mother doesn’t like us very much,” Emma said. “She for sure doesn’t like you.”
           Yummy chewed on her lip. “You’re a hateful child. Telling that awful story about your
father. You know it’s not true. Why do you keep telling it?”
           “I don’t know.” Emma picked at a cuticle.
           “Try making up something else, give him a better life.”
           “So tell me something about him.”
           “I don’t have time right now.”

           “Pretty please.”
           After a silence, Yummy said, “He was a looker, for sure. He attracted all the girls. But he
didn’t believe in hard work.”
           “Why’d he get killed?”
           “I’ve told you. He didn’t believe in hard work.”
           “What’s that mean?”
           “Honey, I’m sorry your daddy’s in his grave, but he always took what he wanted. Like he
was owed. He took things that belonged to other people. Like their cars. And he got shot.”
           Emma thought about this. “Did he love me?”
           “He barely knew you.” Then, “Yes, he did. Love you.”
           “Are you lying? Like about going to the fair?”
           “You’re always accusing me of something.”
           “So how come Alan lives with his mother?”
           “Enough questions.”
           Emma took the pamphlets of Jesus out of her pocket and spread them across the
bedspread. “Look, Momma, here’s Jesus with little lambs.” She traced the outline of their curly-
haired bodies with one finger.
           Yummy leaned over the images and chewed on her lip. “Sacrificial lambs.” She tapped
them with her finger. “You know don’t you, that the lambs represent Jesus being sacrificed?”
           “How’d you know that?”
           “I went to church when I was your age.”
           “So how come we don’t go now?”

           “Cause I’m a terrible mother?” They both giggled.
           Emma rolled off the bed and ran to the dresser. “Can I wear your earrings tonight?
Cause we’re going to the club.”
           “If you promise to stop telling lies.”
           “I promise.”
           “Not the aquamarines, I’m wearing those.”

The next morning, Emma quietly roamed the house, examining the collection of photos on the
piano- which she assumed were parents and grandparents and cousins. Plus large numbers of
dogs, all lined up and looking in the camera. They must have been very happy. As she ran her
finger over the silver frames, she heard a door open, heels clicking down a hall. There were
voices and sounds coming from the library, a smell of cigarette smoke. Emma stood in shadow
outside the door and listened.
           “You all right?” Alan asked.
           “I’ve lived through worse.” It was his mother’s voice. “You turned your back on Joyce.
Who went to Hollins and didn’t have children. Why this one?”
           Emma pulled back against the wall.
           “Look, take it easy. She’s just a friend.”
           “Well, she’s after you.” Emma heard another swat. “There’s that damn fly again.”
           “You think it’s the same one. Here, give me the paper, I’ll take care of it. You go have a
cup of tea. And stop worrying.”
           Emma watched Alan’s mother leave the study, dragging furiously on her cigarette.

Emma left the house and wandered into a large garden with a well-tended lawn and
more beds of flower than she’d ever seen. She sat in the trellised arbor, a shaft of sunlight
falling across her face. With no breeze, it was sticky hot. What would it be like to live in such a
place, be driven to school in a black sedan. She wished she could kick off her shoes and roll in
the grass, chase the dogs she saw in the photos. A car motor starting up interrupted her
She left the garden and walked to where the family cars were parked. She saw Yummy and Alan
settle into the leather seats and close the doors. The car backed down the drive and rolled into
the street, leaving her behind. She wondered if her momma knew about Joyce.
           Back inside, she found Alan’s mother in her study. “Do you think dead people get to
know one another?” Emma’s face reflected a solemn thoughtfulness.
           “Dead people?” Alan’s mother turned away from her desk, where she was writing a
note and adjusted her glasses. “I think they become very good friends.”
           Emma felt a surge of gratitude since she hadn’t planned on liking the woman. A woman
who seemed put upon by the company in her home. “I wonder if my daddy’s met Tupac
Shakur.” Her borrowed earrings caught the light.
           “I’d say it’s a good possibility.” Her legs were crossed and she bounced one foot. “Now,
who is he? Is he a hero of yours?”
           “No’m. He just died.”
           “Executed by the state of Texas?” A small smile played on her face.
           Emma smiled too.
           “So, since it’s not true about your father, did you know him?”
           “What did he do?”
           “Before he was a dead person?” She shrugged her shoulders.
           “My husband passed away at an early age. Not yet forty. Alan was only four at the time.
He’s all I’ve ever had.” She turned back to her writing.
           Emma stood there for a couple of minutes, not knowing what to do next.
           “Maybe your husband is friends with my daddy. Maybe they’re having barbecue right
now with Tupac.”

The air that night at dinner was chilly. Yummy, with a visible hickey on her neck, kept dropping
her fork. She wore a cream-colored sundress, with sleeves like little wings.
           “Did you have a nice ride?” Alan’s mother asked. “It’s cooling by the river.”
           “Very scenic,” Alan said. “Wouldn’t you say?”
           “Actually, we drove by the Army Recruiting Office.”
           “Why on earth?”
           “Alan hasn’t told you? He’s thinking about enlisting.”
           “A passing thought,” Alan said.
           “How could you be in the military?” his mother asked. “You’re an asthmatic. You can
barely breathe.”
           “That’s what I told him,” Yummy said
           “Why does this fish still have its eye?” Emma asked, pointing at her plate.
           “Because that’s the way we serve trout in New Orleans,” Alan’s mother explained.

           “Yuck.” Emma spit what she had in her mouth into her napkin.
           “It couldn’t be more perfect,” Yummy said.
           Alan stood. He went to the sideboard, poured out a jigger of Scotch, and tossed it down.
           Emma wished she were home, in her own kitchen. With Howard and Sam. As far as she
was concerned, everyone in the room needed a cat and a teddy bear. She wished she were
eating Annie Allen’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes. She hated trout. Hated New Orleans.
Hated the fact that Alan’s mother was always killing flies. Emma hated everyone there.

“I’ll never sleep,” Yummy said, her face distorted and strange.
It was that moment when the windows turned to mirrors against a darkened sky. They were
leaving in the morning, back to the bus station, and the two of them were in bed together,
watching the flashes of lightening through the trees.
Bunching her nightgown in her fists, Yummy said, “I need a drink. Think you can find something
downstairs? ”
           Yummy touched her daughter with her fingers; her face, her arms, the scar on her knee,
and Emma knew, even though she was smiling, a light had gone out in her mother’s heart.
Emma, she kept saying over and over.
           The house was quiet and full of shadows as Emma quietly made her way to the
downstairs dining room. She carried the pamphlets of Jesus with her. The bottle of Scotch was
still on the sideboard.
She remembered how it was, being on the bus at night, the excitement of sitting in the dark
with no idea of where they were, looking out at the blackness all around, the stars holding the

only light. Hanging onto the hope that maybe Alan would want them. Emma knew they’d never
be in this house again. Nor would they ever see Alan and his mother again.
She spread the pamphlets on the dining table, placing them in a circle.

About the Author

Shirley Sullivan’s work has appeared in The Tampa Review, The Carolina Quarterly, december, MacGuffin, High Desert Journal, Glass Mountain, Oyster River, Glint Literary Journal, The Fiddlehead, Midway Journal, Sou’wester, Harpur Palate, The Fourth River, Quiddity International Literary Journal, Writing on the Wind, an Anthology of West Texas Women Writers, and others.