“Still going to be the world’s greatest writer?” said Bug.
“Working at it,” I said.
“You’ll get there,” said Bug and smiled, meaning it. “You were always good.”
“So were you,” I said.
That seemed to pain him slightly, for he stopped chewing for a moment and took a swig of Coke. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I surely was.”
“God,” I said, “I can still remember the day I saw all those trophies for the first time. What a family! Whatever-?”
Before I could finish asking, he gave the answer.
“Put ‘em in storage, some. Some wound up with my first wife. Goodwill got the rest.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and truly was.
Bug looked at me steadily. “How come you’re sorry?”
“Hell, I dunno,” I said. “It’s just, they seemed such a part of you. I haven’t thought of you often the last few years or so, to be honest, but when I do, there you are knee-deep in all those cups and mugs in your front room, out in the kitchen, hell, in your garage!”
“I’ll be damned,” said Bug. “What a memory you got.”
We finished our Cokes and it was almost time to go. I couldn’t help myself, even seeing that Bug had fleshed himself out over the years.
“When-“ I started to say, and stopped.
“When what?” said Bug.
“When,” I said with difficulty, “when was the last time you danced?”
“Years,” said Bug.
“But how long ago?”
“Ten years. Fifteen. Maybe twenty. Yeah, twenty. I don’t dance anymore.”
“I don’t believe that. Bug not dance? Nuts.”
“Truth. Gave my fancy night-out shoes to the Goodwill, too. Can’t dance in your socks.”
“Can, and barefoot, too!”
Bug had to laugh at that. “You’re really something. Well, it’s been nice.” He started edging toward the door. “Take care, genius-“
“Not so fast.” I walked him out into the light and he was looking both ways as if there were heavy traffic. “You know one thing I never saw and wanted to see? You bragged about it, said you took three hundred ordinary girls out on the dance floor and turned them into Ginger Rogers inside three minutes. But I only saw you once at that aud-call in ‘38, so I don’t believe you.”
“What?” said Bug. “You saw the trophies!”
“You could have had those made up,” I pursued, looking at his wrinkled suit and frayed shirt cuffs. “Anyone can go in a trophy shop and buy a cup and have his name put on it!”
“You think I did that?” cried Bug.
“I think that, yes!”
Bug glanced out in the street and back at me and back in the street and back to me, trying to decide which way to run or push or shout.
“What’s got into you?” said Bug. “Why’re you talking like that?”
“God, I don’t know,” I admitted. “It’s just, we might not meet again and I’ll never have the chance, or you to prove it. I’d like, after all this time, to see what you talked about. I’d love to see you dance again, Bug.”
“Naw,” said Bug. “I’ve forgotten how.”
“Don’t hand me that. You may have forgotten, but the rest of you knows how. Bet you could go down to the Ambassador Hotel this afternoon, they still have tea dances there, and clear the floor, just like you said. After you’re out there nobody else dances, they all stop and look at you and her just like thirty years ago.”
“No,” said Bug, backing away but coming back. “No, no.”
“Pick a stranger, any girl, any woman, out of the crowd, lead her out, hold her in your arms and just skim her around as if you were on ice and dream her to Paradise.”
“If you write like that, you’ll never sell,” said Bug.
“Bet you, Bug.”
“I don’t bet.”
“All right, then. Bet you you can’t. Bet you, By God, that you’ve lost your stuff!”
“Now, hold on,” said Bug.
“I mean it. Lost your stuff forever, for good. Bet you. Wanna bet?”
Bug’s eyes took on a peculiar shine and his face was flushed. “How much?”
“I don’t have-“
“Thirty bucks, then. Twenty! You can afford to lose that, can’t you?”