Southern Folks: Tap dancing straight to a refund

EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome to "Southern Folks," a new column by Bill Stamps of Cleveland, Tenn. A native Tennessean, Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before leaving Los Angeles to return to his roots with wife Jana and their dogs, Cowboy and Scout. He plans to publish a book of short stories based on his childhood in the South.

I remember the Saturday morning that my grandmother, Miz Lena, as she was known, had her maid, Elizabeth, to come get me. I was 8. Lying on the floor in the den, watching my favorite cartoons. Rocky and Bullwinkle, Felix the Cat, Tom Terrific. After them, I'd watch a few episodes of "The Little Rascals." Yep, it was gonna be a good day.

Elizabeth said, "Miz Lena say she need to see you in da' kitchen. She need to tell you sumpin'."

As with most of my grandmother's speeches and sermons, it was with me sitting at the breakfast table, her standing over me, her arms folded, pointing that one eye at me.

She said, "Now, looka here, I'm not gonna watch you waste yore life away. Watchin' all that TV. Yore gettin' as bad as yore granddaddy. Yuh wanna turn into a vagabond? Grow up and not have a place to sleep? Haf to go door-to-door, beggin' for food? Now, you're gonna take tap dancin' lessons, and that's all they is to it."

What? I was going to become a professional dancer? That's the way I was going to make my living? It just didn't make sense to me.

She continued, "Here, take this $2 to Mrs. Foote, and you tell her I said hey. Her class starts in a half-hour."

Mrs. Foote taught dance classes out of her house, in the basement. It smelled bad down there. Like wet foam rubber. The whole room was painted bright pink. Three stand-up mirrors propped up across the back wall. Worst of all, I was the only boy in the class.

Me and a half-dozen little girls. Twirling around. Sure hope none of my buddies find out.

I just couldn't do it. I only took that first class. I told Mrs. Foote that my grandmother needed me to pay more attention to my homework and that I would not be able to continue classes.

She bought it.

I got to thinking. Two dollars bought a bunch of Goo Goo Clusters! A couple just for me, and I sold the rest of them at school for double the price marked on the silver package with red lettering. It was the best candy going. I sold a few Butterfingers and Baby Ruths, too.

For the several following weeks, I was making out like a bandit. Every week was a sellout. I was rolling in dough! Sooner or later, I was going to have to tell Miz Lena about all this. Maybe, once she saw how much money I was making, she'd drop her notion about me becoming a professional dancer. Maybe I could become a candy salesman.

There just didn't seem to be a good time to tell her.

Like clockwork, every Saturday morning, Grand Mom gave me two bucks, and I'd walk down the hill toward Mrs. Foote's house, until I was out of her sight. I'd mess around for an hour or so and then head back up the hill to the "big house."

At least a couple of times a week, after supper, Grand Mom would say, "Honey Baby, show me what you've learned. Adrian, come in here. I want you to see this too." Adrian was my grandfather.

I would start dancing up a storm. Shuffle my feet and wave my arms around. Amazingly, my grandparents, beaming with pride, would compliment me on how much I seemed to be improving. I was shocked that I was able to pull it off. I pretty much did the same moves every time.

Elizabeth would give me funny looks. She'd roll her eyes. I think she was on to me. I knew she wouldn't say anything. Many times, she and I danced when Grand Mom ran her errands. I'd crank up the radio in the kitchen and we'd dance to Jackie Wilson and Little Richard songs coming out of her favorite radio station in Nashville.

I finally got busted. A teacher caught me selling my candy at school. Miz Lena quickly figured out the rest of my scheme. After she wore me out, she told me that she was worried about me. My lie had been a rather elaborate one.

Grand Mom said, "I wudn't be surprised if I wake up some mornin' and find the devil's already come and got you." She told me that I was going to have to do "a whole bunch a good" to get right with God. She said, "It may take you till you're old as me to get back on his good side. I guess we'll just have to wait and see."

I could see it in her eyes. She was worried for me. She said, "I hope Jesus is going to believe your prayers from now on." She really laid it on thick. "You better not lie no more. If you do, I'm afraid I won't be able to help you, Son."

All my candy profits went to Miz Lena. She doubled her investment.

For a long time after, I remember waking up in the morning and being so thankful I was still there!

Years later, I walked in on Grand Mom and Elizabeth, having one of their chats at the kitchen sink and howling about the dance classes incident. Both of them, laughing uncontrollably! I failed to see the humor.

Grand Mom turned around, tears streaming, and said, "I used to watch you dance and think, this poor boy will never be a tap dancer. Wonder if I should call Mrs. Foote and see if I kain't get me back some of my money?"

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