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That Friday was a real broiler, but just like for everyone else in town, Friday nights always meant Daffan’s for Kenneth Bushrod and his wife, Lula, no matter how hot it got. Lord, you should’ve seen the dance floor that night! Even with all the fans in the rafters spinning so fast they seemed about to either fly off or lift the roof, everyone looked to’ve just stepped out of Lake J. B. Thomas without even bothering to give themselves a good dog shake. Not even the hardiest of couples could string together more than three dances in a row without needing to head outside for some fresh air, though it wasn’t any cooler. Even Roy Buxtemper and His Odessa Ramblers had to take a break every half hour, which was next to unheard of for them.
Nonetheless, everyone was having a ball, even the ladies who got lightheaded and had to sit and then assume the very unladylike position of hanging their heads between their knees just to keep from passing out. But even at her advanced age, Lula Bushrod wasn’t one of those delicate flowers. In fact, somehow, she seemed to get stronger the longer the night went on — so much so that Kenneth worried that he might wilt first. He couldn’t have that, so when he excused himself and stepped into the john, he did so in order to soak his face in a sinkful of cold water.
He expected to find other fellows doing the same thing, but nobody was in there except for a young man he didn’t recognize. He was leaning against the wall next to the trash can with a cigarette in his mouth. His cowboy hat was too big for his head.
“Hidy,” Kenneth said.
The boy, who Kenneth thought looked like a rabbit hiding under a cabbage leaf, nodded but didn’t say anything.
Kenneth drank a few handfuls of water and then splashed his face. Just to make conversation, he asked the boy where he was from.
“Kinda far to come for a night on the town, don’t you think?” Kenneth smiled just to let the boy know that he was only joshing. Strangers were an uncommon site at Daffan’s.
“My girl’s out there. She’s dancing with somebody else.”
So that was the reason for the glum face. Painful young love. “Well, don’t tie yourself up in knots over it. She probably just wants you to make a show of taking her away from him, that’s all.”
“I aim to.”
“There you go.” Drying himself now, Kenneth decided to change the subject so as not to stir the boy up any further. “It’s a hot one, ain’t it?”
“It’s gonna get hotter before the night’s through,” the boy said, leaking smoke.
“I suppose you’re right about that,” Kenneth said, and then he wished the boy good luck with his girl.
He stepped out to find Lula waiting for him, and they returned to the dance floor. Kenneth immediately forgot about the young stranger in the john, and he would’ve never thought of him again if that night hadn’t ended the way it did, and not even ten minutes later.
It should’ve come as no surprise to anyone that Daffan’s burned as quickly as it did. The place was nothing but ancient wood and sawdust, after all. When Roy Buxtemper shouted, “Fire!” and everyone turned to see smoke and flames climbing the wall, everything turned from happy to awful in a whipstitch. The ladies screamed, and the men hurried them toward the exit. This went about as easily as trying to get spooked cattle to move from the pen to the chute. The pushing got rough almost immediately, and as the smoke thickened, people started tripping and falling and coughing for air and getting trampled on by their neighbours and best friends, because fire has a way of making people forget everything they’ve ever known.
After doing a few things that Kenneth later wasn’t too proud of in order to speed Lula safely through the door, he started helping the folks on the floor because he’d been raised just like everyone else in town had been: to never turn your back on a person in need. The smoke and the heat were getting much worse by this point, but he didn’t let it stop him. He pushed and pulled, yanked and hurled. Eventually, though, he had to stop. The smoke and the flames just got to be too much.
Six days later, the town came out to bury seven coffins. It was the worst tragedy in its history.
The morgue in Snyder hung onto the eighth body because nobody could identify what was left of it and everyone in town had been accounted for. Kenneth told anyone who’d listen about the Oklahoma boy in the big hat and how the body might be his, but nobody else remembered seeing him.
“How the hell could I be the only one who saw him?” Kenneth asked Lula while she was brushing her teeth one night.
Lula spat into the sink. “I don’t know, honey.”
Eventually, the unknown corpse got laid to rest in Greasewood Cemetery along with the rest of the Daffan dead. Its headstone said only here lies a victim of the dance hall fire, identity unknown.
Kenneth swore that the body buried out there belonged to a boy wearing a Resistol too big for his head, but who had his girl been? Someone from Yonder, or had she been from Oklahoma, too? Kenneth asked the folks who didn’t remember seeing the unfamiliar boy if they at least remembered seeing an unfamiliar girl, but nobody did. Whoever she was, she had disappeared.
On some nights, the boy came to him in his dreams. “He doesn’t do or say anything,” he’d tell Lula in the morning. “He just stands there with his head bent down, so’s all I can see is cigarette smoke rolling up over the brim of his hat.”
“Did he start the fire to get back at his girl?” he’d ask Lula. The exact cause of the fire had never been determined, mostly because the causes of the town’s fires rarely were. “Was that what he’d meant about the heat, how it was going to get hotter before the night was through? Or had he simply been talking about the press of all the bodies on the dance floor? Or maybe he was referring to the dust-up he was anticipating on having with that other boy. And who was that other boy, anyway? He knows who that girl was. Or was he yet another goddamn stranger?”
“I don’t know, honey.” Lula sighed as she slapped more bacon onto the skillet. “I don’t know about any of it. And please don’t curse like that.”
Kenneth apologized. While eating his bacon, he said, “Or maybe it was just an accident. Maybe he dropped his cigarette in the trashcan on his way out of the john and lit the toilet paper on fire without meaning to.”
“Or maybe I’m all wet. Maybe he made it out of Daffan’s with his girl and then married her. I’d like to think so.”
“Me, too, honey. Now, how much more bacon you want this morning?”
He knew Lula was tired of hearing him go on and on about the boy in the hat too big for his head, but he didn’t like that there was a man lying in a Greasewood grave who nobody missed. It wasn’t how the world was supposed to work. And he liked it even less once the nameless headstone somehow became some sort of a shrine. It had started with the usual flowers and teddy bears, but then came candles and coins and folded-up notes and whatnot. Nobody knew for sure who was responsible, but Kenneth told Lula that the smart money was on all the wastrels who congregated on the Estes land outside of town to build bonfires and push each other into the flames.
“They probably think it’s ‘cool’ that it’s a big mystery who he is,” Kenneth said, lying in bed one night next to Lula. “Well, I don’t think it’s ‘cool’ at all, not one bit. That boy had a mother. That boy had a mother!”
“You’re too kind-hearted for this world.” Lula rolled onto her side and laid her arm across Kenneth’s chest. “I’ve always said that. But if you don’t let me get some sleep tonight, I’ll be joining that poor boy out there, so please hush.”
He listened to the night settle itself around him. While Lula’s breathing deepened and slowed, he stared up at the ceiling. He knew that it was six feet above his face, far beyond the reach of his outstretched hands, but in the darkness it felt mere inches away.