I remember circles—the swirling cuff of my father’s pant leg, the layered hem of my mother’s skirt. A neighbor lady polkas by, the one who yells so loud at her kids, every night when she walks to the barn, that we can hear her across the still fields. She has a delicious smile on her face tonight, and the creamy half-moon of her slip shows under her long, tight dress.
The dance hall is an octagon, eight sides squaring off in subtle shades to a circle. The Ray Schmidt Orchestra is on the bandstand, a family of musicians. The two young daughters wear patent-leather shoes, chiffon dresses and white tights as they patter away at the drums and bass. Their mother, her lips a wild smear of red, stomps and claws chords on the jangled, dusty upright.
The father and the son take turns playing the accordion, the bellowing wheeze of notes, the squeeze, the oom-paa-paa. Years later, the son will become minorly famous—wildly famous in this county—when he makes it onto The Lawrence Welk Show. He’ll be groomed as the new accordion maestro, the heir apparent to Lawrence Welk, a North Dakotan who grew up 30 miles from here. This is polka country. The accordion is our most soulful, ancestral instrument.
Someone is getting married—a cousin? Who knows? Everyone is a cousin in this town. I have a new dress with a flared skirt and a matching ribbon; I get to stay up late. This has been going on for hours and promises to go on for more. Old ladies in shawls, looking like everyone’s Grandma, sit around the edges of the dance hall, smiling with sad eyes at the children.
A man who looks like everyone’s Grandpa makes the rounds with a tray of shot glasses, spinning, golden pools of wedding whiskey. The recipe is 1 cup burnt sugar, 1 cup Everclear, 1 cup warm water. The old man bends low with the tray—three sips for everybody, no matter how small. Sweet burning warmth down my throat; sweet, swirling dizziness. This is Hochzeit, the wedding celebration.
Someone lifts me up. An uncle? An older cousin? I have no idea. He dances me around the circle, my short legs dangling in the air, then returns me to my seat. The old women are there to receive me. They laugh and pat my shoulders, straighten my skirt.
The music speeds up, the accordion pumping chords like a steam engine. My father clasps my mothers hand and pulls her tight. The dance floor flexes and heaves like a trampoline. Women swing by in the arms of their partners. High whoops and yips escape from their ample bosoms. They kick their big, heavy legs and throw back their bouffants. The building sweats; the accordion breathes.
My father secures his arm around my mother’s waist. They spin and reel as they polka circles around the room. If left to itself, gravity could take over, centrifugal force could spin them out, away from each other. My mother smiles behind her cat’s-eye glasses, confident of her partner. They hold tight, their young, slim bodies enjoying the thrill of almost spinning out while being held in. My parents. Everyone says they are the best dancers on the floor.