I know this guy named Jakin. Everybody called him Shakin’ Jakin on account of he was so smooth. Smooth like an ice cube skidding across a bar top. Smooth like…have you ever seen those folks from the DC and Baltimore area dance that dance? I think they call it hand dancing or something. Man, those cats are so smooth. They start out with one lady, both dressed to the nines, moving ‘round the floor like they being paid to polish it. Then another lady will glide on in, quiet as you please, and the man will take her up, scoop, like ain’t nothing to it. And the first lady don’t even mind. And just when you get used to that cat twirling them two women like a pinwheel in the wind here come another fine filly. And the four of them just dipping and spinning and easing ‘round each other without nary a cut-eye. And brother man keeps them all dancing like a juggler on payday. The level of smooth is fanatical, man. I’m talking orbital level smooth.
Anyway, so Shakin’ Jakin got his name on account of how nervous he was this one time, but even after he shook that off, became all cool and smooth, it was too late. The name had already stuck.
See, we was in sixth grade, all about twelve or thirteen years old, ‘cept for Big Lucy and Tall Paul, who were both fifteen on account of not being too bright. The gym teacher, Miss Despot, and yeah, man, that was her real name, announced that she was gonna teach us how to dance. She looked kinda mad and determined when she said it, yelling into the microphone in the gym on assembly day. Like weren’t no joy in it for her, but something she had to do. Tall Paul said he figured that nobody asked her to dance when she went out so she was taking it out on us. Talking ‘bout necessary social skills, and human connections and dance as expression, release and communication. Gave us such a lecture, man, that even the girls, who seemed to like the idea ten minutes ago, were slumping on the hard wooden bleacher seats, passing notes back and forth. Just as important as reading and doing sums and such, Miss Despot went on and on. Anyway, the classes would be at gym-time, which was to be increased to five days a week. The principal and vice principal, both women, sat behind Miss Despot nodding their heads. Participation counted for ninety percent of the grade, man. They was brutal. No doctor’s notes. No exceptions. And see, this was back in the day when ninety percent of Mommas’ and Daddys’ passed out whoopins like baloney sandwiches and chores.
So, we learned to dance. We learned Chubby Checker’s Twist, The Orlon’s Watusi, the Capitols’ Cool Jerk. Stuff like that. Those were kinda fun. Then we learned the corny dances like the Waltz and the Fox Trot.
The Fox Trot is what did Shakin’ Jakin in.
The school held a dance party. Of course, they did. How else to embarrass us?
So, the evening of the dance comes. Six to seven thirty. An hour and a half of torture. The teachers knew the boys would never ever ask the girls to dance like we’d been taught. We’d rather be whooped, left back and grounded. So, they came up with a numbering system. All the boys took a number from a brown paper bag when we walked into the gym. The girls had their own bag of numbers too.
Jakin got number one.
And so did Big Lucy.
Jakin had on tan slacks with a matching vest over his beige school shirt. We all pretty much looked the same. A vest being that extra ummph that meant this weren’t no ordinary day. You was clean, you know? Well, when Jakin tried to walk across the width of the basketball court we had all the time we needed to see his knees buckle every third step. It weren’t no bop though. See, a bop requires consistency and Jakin ain’t had none of that. First, he’d lurch to the left, then a kinda fast lean to the right as if he was playing dodge ball. Then he’d take another wobbly step on his new two-toned Stacy Adams look a-likes. He’d lean even further right and down low. Looked like he was gonna topple over, man, like ice cream straight off a cone. Then he’d pop up straight again. He’d take a few good steps and we’d all cheer him on, in our minds, you know, quietly, me, Junior, Bill, Mike and Itchy. I know we did on account of how we looked at each other each time he seemed like he’d be able to make it across to the lineup of girls in their too bright dresses.
Jakin’s hands were hanging loose at his sides but they were trembling so much he was hitting himself pretty hard on the thighs, like he was trying to loosen a cramp. His forehead was so shiny with Vaseline laced sweat that he glowed like a streetlight. He looked over to the sidelines where his mother and Miss Despot, the gym teacher, stood together. Miss Despot was making ‘go on, shoo’ motions with her hands and Mrs. Duggan, Jakin’s Momma, looked like she did when baseballs flew too near her windows, her begonias or her car. That You Better/Try Me You Hear?/You Better Not/Just You Wait look.
By this time, our side was shuffling our feet too, trying to give him courage, make him go faster, like when you’re driving with your Grandpa, say, in his prized Missie Lou, his twenty-year old Cadillac that he only drives on Sundays at fifteen miles an hour, and you’re pressing your own foot down on your pretend gas pedal. Like that. The pressure was on, man. Like that time I had a Jackie Robinson and a Joe Louis on the line in a game of marbles. Or more recently, when I had $120 on Buzzing By in a forty-to- one at the track.
So, Jakin makes it over to Big Lucy, vibrating like a basketball ‘round the rim, all spastic and erratic and before he could even put his hand out or open his mouth Big Lucy grabs his face with both hands and gives him a loud smacking kiss, right on the shiny forehead.
“Glad you could make it,” she said, loud enough for the whole gym to hear and we howled. Lemme tell you, we fell out. Some of us literally, you know, on the floor, rolling around laughing. You know how kids are. Now, I’d say it was tension relief, but back then it was just funny, man. Anyway, Big Lucy Fox Trotted him, backwards, onto the dance floor. When she got him centered just right she held him close and kept him there until we filled up the floor ‘round them and the song finally ended.
We started calling him Shakin’ Jakin that same day. Kept on calling him that, even after he got real smooth with the dancing. No one could top Jakin. See, he started watching that dance show, American Bandstand and even those old black and white movies with all the singing and dancing. He was a real drag for a while, man. Always inside practicing, instead of hooping it up with the rest of us fellas.
Cat could do anything, dance to any kind of music. We’d put on some weird radio station, you know, playing the kind of music only fish, flies and hot grease could dance to and Shakin’ Jakin would show us the beat of it. The flow, you know. He could make us all wanna dance.
We stopped calling him Shakin’ Jakin for a while though on account of he fell on hard times when Big Lucy got sick and he got fired for taking too many days off to take care of her. She died though and Jakin, he got twisted up in that dope and couldn’t stop shaking for real. Just called him J then.
Tall Paul, me, Junior, Bill, Mike and Itchy took turns tryna to look out for him. He was a trial, ain’t no lie. That’s why it took so many of us. We’d have to take a break, every now and then, from the need, you know? Person in that state is needy, man. Needs a lot. Know what I’m saying? Anyway, it took a good three years or so, you know, from when he wanted to quit to when he actually could quit. Did quit. That dope, it had him strong. That and the grief. Him and Big Lucy been together since that dance in sixth grade. Did I mention that? And the anger too. J was plenty angry. See, they both worked at the plant, him and Lucy, you know the one, down on Lockjaw Street, the one that has enough money to have thirty second commercials on TV and the radio every fifteen minutes. They had piss-poor insurance to start with and they lost that, too, on account of they both was fired. After twenty-three years, man. So, anyway, there was shame, too, you know, that J wasn’t able to save Lucy’s life. Keep her laughing and dancing like they always had before. But me and the fellas, we kept at it. Kept setting him up, like pins at the bowling alley, over and over, ‘til he could stand up on his own again. Got that monkey off his back. Got another job and small spot not too far from where him and Big Lucy used to stay. And brother started dancing again. Anywhere there was music, outside the car wash, at the laundromat, in the grocery store. He’d just start up to dancing. Then he’d stick out his hand and ask some lady to dance. Most often they’d do it too, and pretty soon he’d have a whole constellation of women ‘round him, spinning and dipping, strutting and shimmying, laughing and grinning, right there in the street. Man, he took them moves to the next level. Shakin’ Jakin, he’s still ‘round. Yeah, I know him.