Dancing With a Stranger

Fiction by David K. Slay

Blurred dancers

Franklin first noticed her off in the distance, a solitary figure in motion, in the mostly empty parking lot. He’d look up from his newspaper and see her gliding in great circles around the few cars there. He’d lose track of her, return to his reading, and then she’d flash by in his mirrors, behind his parked car. Then he’d see her farther away again. It was unusual to see a girl skateboarding alone. She usually wore vintage-looking plaid shirts and a gray knit cap pulled low over her ears. Strands of long brown hair escaped from the back of her cap and trailed behind her.

New to southern California—SoCal, as he learned it was called—several times a week he would bring morning coffee and a newspaper to a nearby park. Although not that old, he had taken an offer from Uncle Sam to retire early. He had been a postal worker, a mail carrier, mostly in the Beacon Hill area of Seattle. When the offer came down, at first it didn’t interest him much. Being a mailman suited him well. He liked routines and structure, and preferred being on the periphery of things. Younger co-workers were incredulous he needed to give it any thought. It’s a no-brainer, they said. Nice package with great bennies. He had to admit—to himself at least—years of walking hilly routes in cold, damp weather was taking a toll. His knees were wearing out. It seemed he always had a runny nose. While mulling over the offer, he recalled an unhappy stint in the Army after high school, in California, just south of Monterey. He had enlisted to get some sort of job training, but couldn’t adjust to the noisy close quarters of barracks life. But at least the weather there had been very nice: sunny, warm and mostly dry, even during the winter months.

At the park he had a favorite parking spot overlooking a putting green and duck pond, half-encircled by a stand of bamboo and a variety of palm trees. Palms everywhere was the first thing he noticed after relocating. He would bring the Los Angeles Times, turn a soft-rock station on low, and slowly page through the various sections of the paper, reading whatever looked interesting. Then he would finish off with “Ask Abby” and the comic strips. Sometimes the comics reminded him of the cartoons he used to study in The New Yorker, when he was at work. After getting back from his route, he would sit in the substation toilet—“the library” it was called—with several of the undelivered weeklies, going from one cartoon to another. Although he didn’t get most of the humor, he liked how each one was a glimpse into the lives of others—at work, on dates, in their houses, even in their bedrooms.

One morning after reading a while, he was leaning back in his seat, resting his eyes, and the skateboard girl spoke to him through the passenger door window.

“Hello in there, are you alright?”

He was startled. “What? Yes—why?” 

She stood a few steps from the side of the car, leaning in slightly and holding the skateboard under crossed arms, wheels out.  

“I thought maybe you were homeless or something, because you’re here a lot.”

“Homeless?” Franklin was still flustered by her sudden appearance. Could he look homeless?

“In this car?” he said. With the bright morning sun behind her he couldn’t see her face very well.

“A lot of homeless people live in their cars.” 

“Yeah, but not this kind of car. They usually have old wrecks, and all their belongings in them.”

She leaned back slightly and appraised Franklin’s silver Buick Century. “Yeah, you’re right. Plus it’s real clean.”

“Thank you,” he said.

She placed the skateboard on the ground, cast a sidelong “See ya,” and pushed off. He watched her coast down to a lower parking lot, crouching slightly with arms extended to manage the speed.

The following week, while parked in his usual spot, a patrol car came into the mostly empty lot and backed into a stall several rows behind him. At first Franklin didn’t pay much attention, but then he remembered what the skateboard girl had said about seeing him there often, and about thinking perhaps he was homeless. He adjusted a side mirror a few degrees, so he could covertly watch the black and white car. The policeman lit a cigarette and smoked it slowly, hanging his arm out the window. He wore wraparound sunglasses. Franklin’s chest tightened when it occurred to him the cop might be watching him at the same time. After a while, he dropped the cigarette out the window, rolled it up and drove away.

Franklin looked around the parking lot at the few other cars there. All were empty. Everyone else must be doing something—taking walks, picnicking, playing with their kids. He tapped one finger idly on the steering wheel. Maybe he should skip a few days, or park somewhere else for a while. After all, there were other parking areas throughout the park, connected by a winding, two-lane road. Then he thought of the skateboard girl again. His finger stopped tapping. Maybe she had complained.

 He stayed away for a week but then returned to his favorite place. He was paging through the Calendar section of the Times when the girl coasted around the lot and then stopped by his car, this time on the driver’s side. She stepped on the back end of the board, making it stand up smartly, and then held it against her chest under crossed arms, like before.

“Haven’t seen you around,” she said.

“Oh really? Well, I’ve had other things to do.” He wanted to sound indifferent, but he was glad she still was friendly. It meant she probably hadn’t complained about him.

“Don’t you have a job?” she said.

“Not anymore. I’m retired, actually.”

“Retired? You don’t look that old.”

“Well, actually I did retire early. From the Postal Service. I was a mailman. How come you’re here so much?” he asked. “Shouldn’t you be in school or something?”

“I am in school. I go to City College,” she said. “And I work part-time. Retail.”

“Really. What’s your major?”

“Don’t know yet. I’m interested in art and fashion.” She pushed a few strands of hair back behind her ear, under her cap.

“Fashion. I bet you like “antique” stuff. You always wear those older kind of shirts.”

“I do?” She looked down at her shirt, a mostly red and black plaid. It reminded Franklin of a hunting shirt. “Spying on me, huh?” She gave a quick smile to show she wasn’t serious.     “Wait,” she said. “You’re into fashion?”

“No way. But I used to see those shirts a lot in Seattle. At one time they were everywhere. Never thought I’d see them down here, though, in So-Cal.”

“Yeah, that was grunge.” 

“Grunge?” He thought about the word. “You mean like grungy?”

“It was just a look. You know, flannel shirts, work boots, stocking caps—and usually from thrift shops. It was popular down here too for a while.”

“Well, that’s easy to do in Washington.”

“I wasn’t into grunge, but I do like vintage clothes and stuff.”

Just then he had an idea. “You won’t believe this,” he said, “but I was just about to give away some of those shirts and things to Goodwill. I need to get rid of more stuff since I moved here. Maybe you’d be interested in them.”

She cocked her head slightly and squinted at him. “Oh sure. You just happen to have this great stuff you’re giving away, like, right now. How likely is that?”

“What? No, wait. . .” Franklin was confused but then he realized she didn’t believe him. He remembered something a coworker used to say:  No good deed goes unpunished.  

She looked over toward the putting green. Two older-looking men were practicing putting and chipping.

“Well,” she said. “Maybe I’m being a little unfair. How about you bring it here with you sometime.”

That evening Franklin went through the closets in his condo, gathering together winter shirts and clothes he no longer had any use for. While sitting on the edge of his bed and carefully folding them, he thought about the girl possibly wearing his shirts. There was something both casual and intimate about it, like dancing with a stranger. He had a daydream about slow dancing with the girl, with her in one of his shirts. The image was vaguely arousing but mostly disquieting. He had never danced with a girl. Growing up he always had been painfully shy around girls, and more so with young women. A counselor in high school said he would grow out of it, but that hope had faded long ago. Before bagging the shirts, he smelled some of them and checked their collars to make sure they were clean. In the morning he loaded into his trunk four brown paper bags of flannel shirts and a few wool scarves.

Several days passed without the girl coming to the parking area, and it seemed her absence was longer than usual. He caught himself leafing through the same newspaper section several times. He told himself he had wanted to take the clothes in the trunk to Goodwill anyway, so he could do that any time now. Then, on a Thursday morning, she coasted into the lot. When Franklin spotted her he got out and stood with the car door open, almost waving to her, but then he felt self-conscious. For the first time in years he was giving some thought to his appearance, how he looked, what clothes to wear. This morning he had put on a salmon-colored polo shirt tucked into khaki walking shorts, and a Titleist golf cap. The shirt and cap, along with a putter and package of four golf balls had been a retirement gift from some co-workers.

“Hey,” she said, coasting to a stop. “Fancy seeing you here.” She was wearing another plaid shirt, this time green and black over black leggings.  

 “Yes. Well. You see, I was serious about the Goodwill stuff—it’s all back here, in the trunk.”


They moved to the back of the car and he squeezed the key remote to open the trunk lid. The latch released with a thump, and at the same time a police car turned onto the road below, leading up to the parking lot where they were standing.

“You know what?” she said. “Maybe this looks a little weird.”

“It does?” But then he followed her gaze toward the slowly approaching cruiser.

“Oh my.” He leaned an elbow on the trunk lid until the latch clicked shut.  

“Let’s just get in and leave,” she said, “you know, like, casually?”

They got into the car and Franklin’s pulse was racing. She removed the knit cap, shook her hair loose, and sat looking straight ahead with the skateboard between her knees. The police car entered the parking lot, drove slowly by and parked somewhere behind them. He fumbled with the keys, almost dropped them, but got the car started. As he released the brake and glanced over his shoulder to back up, she suddenly seemed so close. He could smell a fresh shampoo fragrance. It was difficult to believe she was there, in his car, her elbow casually propped in the window, waiting for him to drive off with her.

On the road leading away from the lot, Franklin watched the police car recede in his mirror. He exhaled. “Well, that was exciting. What shall we do next, rob a gas station?”

She gave him a puzzled look. “It’s not like we were doing anything wrong,” she said. “It’s just I know that guy and it’s best to avoid him.”

“You know him? What does that mean?”

“He’s hassled me in the past. He’s a creep.” 

“Good grief,” Franklin whispered.

She leaned back against the headrest and looked out her window. Breeze lifted loose strands of hair, and she seemed lost in thought. But Franklin didn’t know where they were going. He passed another parking area and was nearing the exit to the main highway.

“Maybe we need to stop somewhere so I can show you the clothes,” he said.

“Oh. Right,” she said, sitting up. “How much is there, anyway?”

“Four shopping bags—there was more than I realized.”

They came to the stoplight at the park exit. She looked into the middle distance beyond the windshield; he looked at the dashboard.

“What about this,” he said. “I can take you to your place—if you don’t mind, of course—I don’t have to come in or anything. . .”

She looked at him and smiled. “Sounds like ‘my place or yours…’”  


“Just kidding.”

Franklin jumped as the car behind them honked. The light had turned green.

“Turn left,” she said.

Her street was lined with surprisingly tall, spindly palms, in an older neighborhood near the college. He parked and raised the trunk lid for her. After peering tentatively into several of the bags, she said, “Let’s just take it all inside.”

Her place was a converted garage apartment behind a small stucco house with faded canvas awnings. They carried the shopping bags up the narrow, cracked driveway, he with three bags embraced in his arms, she with one and the skateboard. She turned to him and whispered, “My landlady’s going to freak about this. She always watches me come and go.”

He glanced at a lace-curtained window on the side of the house as they went by, expecting to see a silhouette. At her door, she shifted the bag and skateboard to one arm, and fished in her shirt pocket for a key.

Inside the small room, she took his bags of clothes and put them on the bed, a twin-size doubling as a divan with a fitted corduroy cover. The room had been only a single garage to begin with, so a kitchenette and toilet had been added on the back. There was a waist-high half-wall with an opening in the middle, to give the impression of two rooms, and the musty smell of old linoleum. She had left the door partly open.

“Ok,” she said, hands on hips, addressing the clothes on the bed. “Let’s see what we have here.” She began rummaging through the bags, taking items out, unfolding some to hold against her front. “Not bad,” she said. “I like a lot of them. What I don’t use I can probably sell.”

Franklin shifted his weight from one leg to the other.

“Oh I’m sorry,” she said. “Would you like to sit down? I’m not being a very good hostess.”

“Maybe I should be going,” he said. He glanced at the half-opened door. “Your landlady might be getting worried.”

“Oh, it’s ok. I can tell you’re not a psycho-killer or something.” She smiled and retrieved a chair from the kitchenette. “There,” she said. She turned back to the heap of clothes on the daybed, and began sorting them into three piles.  

Franklin sat with his hands in his lap, tapping the ends of his fingers together. His knees were white and bony and he wished he hadn’t worn the shorts. He looked around the room a little but didn’t want to pry. There was an old floor lamp next to an easy chair, for reading he supposed, and a turquoise clock radio on a worn chest of drawers. Some unframed posters were push-pinned to the wall behind the bed. In one he thought he recognized John Lennon playing a white grand piano in a white room.

“You’ve got some interesting things,” he ventured. “My mother had a clock radio like that. I think it was a Zenith, too.”

“Umm,” she said, without looking up. “Yeah, and it still works. I use it all the time.”

After a while she turned to him. “Would you excuse me a minute?” Before he could respond, she stepped into the kitchenette and washed her hands in the sink.

“Would you like a drink?” she called over a shoulder, over the faucet’s noisy plumbing.

“A drink?” Franklin called back. “I’m not sure about that.”

She shut off the faucet and turned around, drying her hands on a paper towel. “I mean a soft drink,” she said, smiling. “I think I’ve got some Dr Pepper.”

“Yes please,” he said, suddenly aware of a dry mouth. He heard her open and close a refrigerator, and then the snap and fizz of two pop-tops. She returned holding a can in each hand.

She sat on the edge of the twin bed, crossed one leg over the other, rested forearms on knees and fixed her eyes on Franklin. Her soda can dangled from one hand.

“So,” she said. “Can I give you something for all these things?”

“Oh no,” Franklin murmured. “I was going to give it all to you—I mean Goodwill—anyway.” His face was getting warm. “Please keep whatever.”

She sat looking at him, and began to idly swing her leg.  

“Well, it’s not like I’m a charity case,” she said. “There’s a store I go to that buys stuff like this.”

“No, please,” he said. He covered his knees with his hands. A trickle of perspiration began to move down his side.

“Um, would it be ok if I used your restroom?” He made a little grimace, fearing he was being inappropriate, but he very much needed to relieve himself.

“Sure,” she said. She took a sip from the can, suppressed a burp, and nodded toward the kitchenette. “Up the stairs, third door on your left.”

“Excuse me?”

“Just kidding—it’s very small, but it’s right in there.”

He stood and had to be careful because one foot had fallen asleep, but made it to the tiny john. He was afraid she might hear him so he sat to urinate. With the door closed, he found himself sitting in the dark because he hadn’t seen the light switch was on the outside. He hoped she wouldn’t notice. When he returned she was standing next to the bed.

“Last chance,” she said.


“How about twenty dollars for the lot?”

He looked at his shirts and things stacked on her bed, took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Would you dance with me?”

She stepped back slightly, but seemed more curious than offended. “Excuse me?”

“To the radio, maybe? Just one time?”

She looked at his face closely but he couldn’t meet her eyes.

“Ok,” she said. “It’s a deal. But just one time.”

She moved to the chest of drawers and turned on the clock radio. After it warmed up she turned a knob to sample several stations, and then settled on a slow country-western song.

“I think this one’s just beginning,” she said.  

She straightened up, gathered her hair behind her ears and then let it go, raised her right hand to take his left, and placed the other lightly on his shoulder. As they came together he closed his eyes and put his other hand on her side. After a moment of slowly circling to the rhythm, she put her cheek next to his, and softly hummed along to the tune.

After retiring from full-time work, David K. Slay studied and participated for two years in the University of California, Los Angeles, Writers’ Program. His short stories, flash, micro fiction, and creative nonfiction can be found in a group of diverse literary journals, including, Random Sample, Calliope, Wards Literary Magazine, ImageOutWrite, The Magnolia Review, Toho Journal Online, Bright Flash Literary Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, and others. Nonfiction craft articles are in CRAFT Literary and Submittable’s Content for Creatives. He currently is a fiction submissions reader and on the Editorial Feedback Team for CRAFT, and has served as a Guest Editor for Vestal Review.

This story first appeared in Gold Man Review in 2017.

Image by Hulki Okan Tabak

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