What’s in a Name



Neighborhood: Bronx, Midtown

Sitting in the second row of the balcony at the New York City Center ballet, I, sixteen, entranced by the melodies of Swan Lake, watched a tall, muscular sun-god pirouetting and jeteing on the stage. As he soared, I gasped at the height of his jumps and his sure-footed landings. But I had not come to behold his square shoulders, his sinewed arms swaying like palms, nor his broad feet pushing his legs upward like a heron in flight. No, I had not come to watch this Adonis lift his partner as though she were an extension of his own body. No, I had come to check out his teeth, his pearly whites, his choppers.

After a busy Saturday afternoon of stocking shelves and ringing up scores of Tangee Lipstick, Pond’s Cold Cream and Blue Waltz Perfume, I stood staring, glassy-eyed, at the black and white dollar sign atop the mahogany cash register on my counter at F. W. Woolworth’s on 138th Street in the Bronx. At the end of my counter stood my boss, Mr. D’Amboise, pronounced Damboys. His fat belly, hidden by a mustard-colored polyester jacket, hung over the four-inch glass that enclosed the merchandise. Glaring at me with his pig-like eyes, sweat rimming his upper lip, thin hair flat on his bullish head, he said, “Haven’t you anything better to do?” I cringed.
“Well,” I said, Mr. Damboise, “I filled in all the missing items on my counter, straightened out all my under-stock and dusted. Since I can’t leave my register unattended, what else am I suppose to do?” He sniffed and waddled, dragging his big feet in his brown loafers, toward the soda fountain where I was sure he would consume any food inventory that hadn’t sold.

As I was punching out at six P. M. in his cluttered office, next to the wire cages filled with parakeets and canaries, Mr. D’Amboise stood smiling and clucking, his belly as full as Templeton the Rat’s. He asked me how I had liked West Side Story, my first Broadway play, which I had attended with a  coworker the week before.

“It took my breath away,” I said.

“Would you like to see a ballet?” he asked, in a high-pitched voice too thin for his large body, his white teeth gleaming. He had bicuspids so long that all my friends who worked for him called him “Fang” behind his back.

“I’d love to see a ballet,” I said, inching my way out of the office.

“Okay, I can get you free tickets. My brother Jack is a featured dancer at City Center.”

“Right,” I said. I was too chicken to add, “In your dreams, Porky,” visions of a hippopotamus flopping about the stage in a blue tutu dancing in my head.

“You don’t believe me?”

“No, I don’t, Mr. D’Amboise.” I left the office, my legs throbbing from standing for eight hours, my head pounding from listening to “Oh, Susannah” playing every time a toddler decided to ride the horse next to the candy counter. As I walked home, I laughed to myself, thinking only a schmuck from Queens would fabricate a story about having a brother, a grown man, who was a ballet dancer.

The following Friday afternoon, as I deposited my Latin and Trig books on the oak table in the office, Mr. D’Amboise, grinning like he had swallowed one of the goldfish from the huge tank outside his office, handed me a brown envelope with my ten dollar pay check and two pink tickets for the ballet. “You’ve got to use them Saturday night,” he said.

On Saturday afternoon, after work, I ran home, donned my tan linen dress, ribbed in black, and heels, tied my long hair back with a black grosgrain bow, grabbed my brown patent leather bag, and my less than willing sister, still gagging on the roast beef she was chewing from dinner, and we both caught the Lexington Avenue Local to fifty-ninth Street, walking distance to the theater.

And when, in the middle of the second act, the dancer, aware of his power, grace, and elegance, suspended in air, spun about and flashed a smile, bigger and brighter than the lights on the Brooklyn Bridge at his cheering fans, I saw the family trademark, the long bicuspids, the fangs shining like north stars in the mouth of my boss’s kid brother, Jacques D’Amboise, which he pronounced the French way, Dambwa, who was soon to become one of Balanchine’s most famous dancers.

Liz Dolan’s second poetry manuscript, A Secret of Long Life, was nominated for the Robert McGovern Prize. Her first poetry collection, They Abide, was published by March Street Press. A six time Pushcart nominee and winner of The Best of the Web, she has also won an established artist fellowship in poetry and two honorable mentions in prose from the Delaware Division of the Arts. She recently won The Nassau Prize for prose. She has received fellowships to attend residencies at The Atlantic Center for the Arts and Martha’s Vineyard. Liz serves on the poetry board of Philadelphia Stories. Her nine grandkids, who live one block away, pepper her life.

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