As it turned out there was so much baggage on the trip to Lake Margaret that Walter's friends, Susan and Mitch, sat crushed in one foldout seat in the back of the car, and Walter was left with the middle bench seat. Robert McCloud had arranged the two aquamarine coolers, the suitcases and the grocery bags. It wasn't for nothing, he said, that Joyce had been a Girl Scout: she was fully prepared for an ice age, a drought, a monsoon and the invasion of the termites. Walter was pinned against the door by the coolers, it was awkward to turn around, and he had to shout to be heard. The teenagers gave up talking after a few minutes on the expressway. Susan and Mitch fell asleep against each other. Nothing had gone according to plan, and Walter stared gloomily out the window. Just as well that Daniel was sick, he thought. If he'd come they'd have had to tie him to the roof rack.
Joyce glanced back now and then to make sure there was nothing unseemly going on between the two lovebirds in the kiddie seat. She gave her husband a preview of the day to come, quietly, and with restraint, evoking her hysterical sister. Even marking the gestures, not imitating them full out, was funny, and Robert snorted into his shirt and twice said, "Oh, Joycie."
She had enough sense not to ask Walter if he was all right. She could see that he was troubled about something, and he in his turn knew that she had taken note of his unhappiness. Her general sympathy brought him a guilty little pleasure. His thin skin and tender heart were at once a source of pride and anxiety to her. He had asked to study ballet, she had known better than to try to talk him out of it, and she had clung to the belief that his enthusiasm for the dance would shield him from the predictable taunts. It had been such a stroke of luck that his two dancing-school friends happened to live in Oak Ridge. They had been put together in the First Junior Class at the Kenton School of Ballet in Chicago when they were ten years old and together they'd advanced all the way up to the Second Intermediate Class. But through good and bad fortune Walter would always have his own temperament, and Joyce feared that he would feel the injuries of adolescence more keenly than his peers. Still, she hadn't given up on a straightforward future for him, and she wondered if it was Susan, if the leggy girl squeezing against Mitch, was the source of his present misery.
Her conclusion was not exactly off the mark. Walter was thinking about the night the week before, when he and Susan and Mitch had been in the McClouds' living room, dancing and listening to records. Walter had picked out Tchaikovsky's Serenade,
a piece that had been their favorite since the previous summer. George Balanchine, the greatest choreographer in the history of the dance, according to Walter, had made a plotless ballet to the music, and Walter, in a tribute to both virtuosos, had the volume up so high that the Gamble dogs, in their yard, cocked their heads this way and that, hearing noises in a frequency Tchaikovsky never intended. The dancers rushed headlong in and out of the doors, running the length of the room with their arms outstretched, doing the bits of the Balanchine choreography they had absorbed over the years. Between the three of them they had seen eight performances of Serenade.
Walter and his aunt Sue Rawson had seen it four times the month before, night after night at Ravinia Park.
Mitch was always the man, intermittently lifting Susan over his head and carrying her around like a barbell. It seemed to Walter that Mitch's strength was inherent, that it was a quality he had not had to work for, no need to lift weights or wrestle or play a lot of catch. It was just there, that strength, a part of him. There were few hard, fast, unstated rules to their dancing game, principles not to be broken or bent. They were meant for Walter. It was curious, he thought, that he understood the protocol instinctively, that no one had ever had to slap his wrist or say, Repeat after me. Funny, that it was the kind of thing he knew with animal sense. He was not allowed to lift Susan, but he could offer his arm if she wanted support for an arabesque. He was not to turn her; the pirouette business was also Mitch's privilege. Susan, however, could turn Walter, with good humor on both sides. He most certainly was not to attempt, even as a joke, to lift Mitch. But he could touch Mitch if, say, they were dancing in a circle, holding hands. Then they were comrades, the three of them. When they spun there was nearly an absence of possession.
Walter, in the first movement of Serenade,
threw himself into the wind of the large fan on the dining-room table and struck a pose. He buffeted back and forth, in and out of the steady push of air. If only he had on one of the blue chiffon costumes that Balanchine's dancers wore, a gown that would flutter and billow after him. He was going full tilt--no one could say that he did not have enough feeling for the entire ensemble of twenty-eight girls. "Not having the blue dresses," he panted as he jetéed past Susan, "for this ballet, is probably on a par with riding a motorcycle and"--he called over his shoulder--"finding that it doesn't rev."
Excerpted from The Short History of a Prince by Jane Hamilton. Copyright © 1998 by JANE HAMILTON. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.