By Rhoda Huffey
First published in Green Mountains Review Volume XX, Nos. 1 & 2
Eddie Brown taught rhythm tap dance in Los Angeles at the Embassy Hotel, 9th and Figueroa, in the 1980’s. When he was sixteen years old, growing up in Kansas City, he heard that Bojangles Robinson would be in town. Eddie got a recording Robinson had done and reconstructed all the steps to a dance by listening to the tap sounds. Impressed, Robinson invited Eddie to join him in New York City, but Eddie’s mother said he was too young. Six months later, Eddie ran away to New York, where Robinson promptly sent him home. When Eddie turned eighteen, he joined Robinson’s revue at the Apollo Theatre, and tap danced there until Robinson made plans tour the south. “No way,” said Eddie, and moved to San Francisco, where he lived until moving to Los Angeles. He toured Europe with Lionel Hampton, and became a friend and mentor to generations of tap dancers. Eddie Brown died in 1992.
Two days before she left her waitress job to work on an Alaskan fishing boat, Leander called up Eddie Brown by telephone. She was not a professional tap dancer, but she wished to learn the Eddie Brown B.S. Chorus, the mythic dance real tap dancers did, to get through the long dark nights up by the Arctic Circle.
“What you want?” Eddie yelled into the phone.
“Do you teach at the Embassy Hotel downtown?”
“Be there at one o’clock tomorrow,” he yelled and slammed down the receiver.
The next afternoon, packed and ready to go, Leander pulled the hand brake on her blue Volkswagen. Her tap dance courage had not failed. She flung herself out, opened the trunk in front, and grabbed her old high-heeled tap shoes by the straps. She was waiting for the red light at Ninth and Figueroa, a small person in downtown Los Angeles, when she spied him across the street. Eddie Brown was leaning on the Embassy Hotel like a tired king, his dance bag on one shoulder. It could only be him. She stepped forward off the curb before the light turned green, squinting in the sun that shone off the gold dome of the Embassy Hotel. She held up one hand to shield her eyes. When she stepped up on the other side of the street, the glare subsided. She started toward the dark man, who pushed off the wall at her approach, and did not touch his brown derby hat.
“Eddie Brown?” For some reason Leander held out her tap shoes.
He regarded her as if she were a rhinoceros with bad posture. “You’re lucky you ain’t late,” he snarled.
He turned and went into the hotel; Leander followed at a safe distance. Tall and fine-boned, he moved with elegance, but it was obvious to Leander he would not survive this class. He was too tired to have left the house, too tired to cross the lobby. At any second he might collapse. He pushed the elevator button, leaning in with the whole weight of his bones, chin down. The antique car arrived at their feet with an unsettling screech.
“Follow me,” said Eddie, his chin on his collarbone.
Leander stepped in.
Eddie put one thumb on P button, for Penthouse, breathing like a sick man, and they rode up slowly amid dangerously squeaky cables. The elevator stopped for no one. As they passed floor seven, his head in its brown derby hat rose off his chest.
“I wish I had a chocolate muffin,” he said, bitterness in each word.
A chocolate muffin. Her waitress muscles twitched, but she was in an elevator. She repressed her longing to serve food, and Eddie’s head dropped with a conk onto his collarbone again. She stood prepared to catch him if he collapsed. He was somewhere between forty and eighty, and each breath sounded hard, as if it might be his last. She was grateful when the door opened. Holding her tap shoes, she followed his long legs and dark plaid sport coat down a long hallway with a red plush carpet, a very deep red, thick and old. They turned a corner and came to a red staircase. At the next staircase he slowed down, mounting each step with an individual intent to rise, refusing the handrail, neck long, arms dangling, dance bag on his left shoulder. Grunts were coming from a place so deep inside him that Leander’s hair stood on end. They passed behind a ghostly red plush auditorium with steeply inclined seats, the stage far at the bottom, empty. Eddie fought extinction. Then, at a wide swinging double door, he grunted, turned, and pushed through backward. She blinked.