The Dance King of Riga (Part 3 of “Sadie in Love”)

She couldn’t breathe, then she couldn’t sit.  Men didn’t men wear bone torture chambers under their clothes, they’d never put up with it. Take them or leave them, that’s what you got. Worse, her new shoes, shiny and red, with curving heels, made her feet, her best  feature, everyone said so, look smaller, but hurt harder than the corset.

She was still standing in the entry, thinking that the path leading to Herschl Diamond was through the first room, into the second, that nothing good comes from doing nothing, when the band struck up a waltz.  She wiggled, hoping to loosen the hold her corset had on her right thigh, rotating one red leather shoe, then the other.  Resisting the impulse to plunge ahead, she walked slowly, head up, stomach in, toward the bar and Lippke.

“So, Sadie…”  He smiled, his gold tooth winking.  He needed a new dentist, maybe the one on Dean Street upstairs of the barber who sold Fivel those beautiful teeth the summer before he died.  “… how’s the marriage business?  How many weddings this month?”

“Some good beginnings starting up, no endings yet, ask me next week.”  She slid two coins across the bar.  “Who is here tonight?”

“A few regulars.”  Lippke half-filled a small shot glass.  “Summer, things get quiet.”

Sadie glanced into the next room, where the women were taking seats along the wall.  “I see Nussy Fishkin’s back from Atlantic City.  Probably lost his job, and also his what’s-her-name…?” Sadie crossed her eyes. “…the healthy looking redhead with all the money, and the funny look to the eyes.”

Lippke nodded.

“And Jake Zeisler, still a shifty look on his skinny face.” Not like Herschl.  God-only-knew where he was tonight. Home, maybe, reading poetry, those sweet, serious eyes.

Lippke sucked a wooden toothpick in silence.

Sadie turned to him.  “So? You got something to say, say it.’’ She emptied the shot glass.

“Tonight I got a good one, a new fella, Ike something from Riga.” Lippe pointed to the other room. “Off the boat one month, a good dancer, a smart talker.”

Sadie, following Lippke’s pointing finger, saw a young man, taller than the others, taller certainly than Herschl, wearing a checkered suit and a pleased look.  His hair was like black patent leather, probably pomade.  Sadie watched him smooth his pompadour, straighten his tie.

“He looks to me like a pint of trouble, that one.”  Thirty, thirty-two, a pisher.  She pushed her glass across the counter.  “Sometimes a little smart turns into too smart.”

“I’m talking dancing, you’re talking is he a mensch,” Lippke said.  “What’s one thing got to do with the other?”

“I’ll let you know,” she said, moving toward the music, then, remembering, took the announcements out of her purse and handed them to Lippke. “Please pin up.” She took a seat next to Malke Dlugatch, a thin blonde with watery eyes.  Sadie’s corset strings pinched, but Mitzi said, one, two dances, she’d forget she had it on.

Malke put a damp hand on Sadie’s arm. “I’m coming to see you,” she said, eyeing a tall, skinny young man with a giant-sized moustache across the room. Sadie rubbed her handkerchief over the toe of her shoe, and gave him a quick once-over.  “Make an appointment, I’m very busy this month.”  The young man ran a comb through his pale hair.  “Only, make it soon, you don’t have time to waste. His kind, all the girls want.”

The band moved into a lively two-step.  Sadie watched Ike approach, pause in front of the plump lady two seats away. He certainly knew how to wear a suit, a regular walking clothes hanger. Probably not much to talk with, but good to look at.

Moving closer, he nodded to Lettie. Herschl marched across Sadie’s mind, in work shirt and suspenders, the polka-dotted bandana, his cotton cap, his book.  She’d hug him this minute, sweat and all, if she could get her hands on him.

Ike was watching her from the corner of his eye. She knew the look, a come- hither, mixed in with a little I’m-making-up-my-mind, like he owned the world and you should pay him rent.  He took his toothpick out of his mouth, wiped it on his sleeve, slipping it into his pocket and stopped in front of her, half-bowed, and held his hand out.

Sadie took it and followed him onto the dance floor. “Permit me,” he said in Yiddish, “to tell you I was once the dance king of Riga.” Sadie held herself very straight. The corset relaxed its pinch. “Latvia,” he added.

“Good to know,” she said, and sniffed: schmaltz herring and hair oil, not as good as Herschl’s leather and cigar smoke. Ike led like he was born to lead, she followed easily. She’d talk to him in Yiddish. At her age, her weight, dancing and talking mixed together was not easy, especially with someone like this man, who probably gave two meanings to every word.   

“Teach me to talk American,” he said, “I will teach you to dance.”

Sadie stopped dancing.   “Excuse me, if you will be so kind as to notice, I am doing that.” They resumed dancing. “Dancing, I mean.” 

“Of course.”  He said he’d watched her the week before, he knew she was good.  He, however, was better.  He’d also heard her speak, and knew from Lippke that she’d studied English in night school.  “Do we have a bargain?”

“Your name, please?” Why tell him Lippke had reported news of his name, city, brains, dancing talent.  He was already too puffed up with his own importance.

“Tabatnik,” he said, and executed an elaborate bow that involved swinging one arm in a wide arc. “Ike Tabatnik, just two weeks off the S. S. North Atlantic Princess.

They continued dancing. This was not a man to have a calm conversation. From him she’d never hear, “I’m not too good with words.” She closed her eyes. Herschl’s sweet smile smiled at her. Ike twirled, she dipped.  His hand touched the middle of her back.  He was nudging her without looking like he was nudging, a man who liked to be in charge. A real let-me-take-over.  All right, Ike Tabatnik, we will see who’s the pusher and who gets pushed.

“Your job is…” she asked.

“A fresh meat butcher.” He led her through two dips and a whirl. So, not a clothing model after all.

The band struck up a cakewalk.  Ike hesitated.  Sadie put her hand out.  “An American dance, permit me.”  Now she led, he followed.  They made an unusual-looking pair; a short, wide, intense woman propelling a taller, younger man across the floor, gesturing:  this way, this way; count, one-and-two-and three.

He felt good, not in the same way Herschl had felt good that night in her flat – Herschl was a man, this one was a boy – it was another kind of good, more about the dancing than the thinking.  His shoulders and arms were strong, but not too.  His hands were a nice kind of easy moving. This one, yes sir, this one just might be the one to help her win the dance contest. 

She smiled. Herschl was asking:  “Who’s that good-looking young man you danced with?”  She’d murmur Ike’s name, then add:  “Just a boy I met at the club, no one important.” Then, Herschl would say, in his strong, quiet, poetic voice, “Enough!  From now on, Sadie, you will dance only with me.” 

The cakewalk ended. Ike dipped, bending Sadie backwards in an extravagant arc, his face close to hers. A sharp, pungent scent floated past her nose, making her eyes water.  An onion eater, bad for dancing. “Ah,” she breathed, “onions!” He said nothing. Mister chutzpah, all right. She patted her face with her handkerchief, her mind racing.  Good dance partners with nice muscles and shining pompadours were not hanging from every tree on the east side. The judges liked nice-looking, it counted high, right up there with nice-moving.  Maybe she could interest him in a love knot.

The music began.  He folded his arms across his chest.  This man, like all men, made nothing easy. “I agree,” she said, “A good time to rest,” and, inviting him to sit with her over a glass of seltzer, moved into the next room without waiting for his reply, found an empty table, set her purse in the center, then went to the bar to buy two glasses of cold seltzer.

Lippke’s eyebrows were question marks. Sadie shrugged. “So far, the dancer part wins over the mensch part.” She glanced around the room. “My announcements?”

“Why pin? I give two, three, to everyone who buys a drink. If they take ten papers, ten percent discount. Only, Sadie…” She turned back to him. “All this fuss over nothing.”  

No time now to talk about voting. She gave Lippke a wink and a smile, and got back to Ike, who was waiting at the table. “Friends?” she asked, sitting down. He wore a tight smile. Probably an only child, or his mama’s only boy, fed the plumpest piece of chicken, the juiciest bit of brisket,  before anyone else got a glass of cold water.  She raised her glass. “So, tell me about you.”

He was, he said, a man who made the most of every chance. His job was cutting up meat in a wholesale market on Fulton Street, but he planned to have his own shop soon, a man couldn’t be expected to work for strangers. Not in America.

Even sitting down he seemed to swagger, and whoever made his teeth did a good job, or maybe they were his own. 

“Your wife?” she asked, eager to get the love knot question settled.  


 Maybe he didn’t understand her Yiddish, she didn’t speak it often, her words  were rusted up.  “You know…” She shaped a female figure in the air.

He nodded, but said nothing.

Wife,” she repeated, and rocked an imaginary baby in her arms.

His story was familiar. His wife, their two children, waited in Latvia for him to send tickets.  He took a sepia-colored photograph from his pocket, and slid it across the table. Sadie saw a sad but pretty young woman in a marriage wig, a little girl perched atop a stool, and a younger boy clutching his mother’s skirt, both children smiling as though sharing a secret.

Married.  Bad for the love knot business. He’d never ask, so she’d fill him in about herself, he should know good luck was on his side, he’d met an American with a soft spot for greenhorns.  She told him about Fivel, about Yivvy, about the eight-flat she owned on Ludlow Street.

“Your husband left you rich?”

Rich! The word smarted, salt on a cut finger.  “He left me too soon, but…” He was beginning to look bored. “…I’ll look over your pushy question if you’ll look over my pushy answer.  You are living at the present moment – where?”

He was a boarder, he said, in someone’s flat, a cousin of a man he met coming over, and gave an address close to hers.

“Aaahhh…”  An idea took shape.  If he lived in her building, they could practice evenings; dancing, nothing more, no funny business, she’d make that plain from the beginning. “I have in my building a nice flat,” she began. His nod seemed serious enough, no lights blinking in the eyes. “Much better than being a boarder, your own kitchen, and down the hall a clean water closet.  Cheap.”

“I need a place free, not cheap, the wages I get.”

 Not so easy, arranging these things. She’d begin all over, talk up the dance contest. “How about going in,” she asked. The first prize was ten dollars, good money, even split fifty-fifty. No, please don’t thank her, everyone knows how generous she is.   

Had she thought about how she’d spend her prize money, he asked.

She described the fox scarf with both eyes missing in the window of Klein’s Emporium.  Or, the purple lace gloves in a shop on Orchard Street, chocolate cream tortes form the Viennese Bakery.   Also, she saw a frosted glass perfume vial with the tiniest chip in the stopper, in her daughter’s pawn shop.  Last, and she held up one foot, showing off her new red shoes, white leather boots with gold leaf hearts embroidered on the cuffs.  Anything was possible with five dollars.  “And you?”

“Spats,” he said, “pale grey suede spats.”

“Not for the steamship tickets?”  He looked like he didn’t understand. “For your wife, the two little babies.”

“Oh, mmm…” He cleared his throat.  “…of course.” He looked away.

This man could use loyalty lessons from Herschl. She began to mention how much he must miss his family, but the music started up, a polka, and he jumped to his feet and led her onto the dance floor and into a lively two-step.

Was she imagining, it, was his hand on her waist more insistent? He broke into a whirl, a fancy shuffle, ending in a graceful clicking of his heels.  Two couples stopped dancing to watch, applauding.  Ike half-bowed, his face bright with pleasure.  He was good, all right, but she had a few dancing tricks of her own.  He slid backwards, she glided forward, the perfect response.  He looked impressed.

“Of course, we’ll win,” she said, “Absolutely.”

He’d begun a fancy arms-in-the-air maneuver, but stopped abruptly.

He’d begun a fancy arms-high-in-the-air maneuver, but stopped abruptly. ”Repeat, please, that word, I like it.”

“That word is your new word,” Sadie said, “a present from me, no charge.  Absolutely, in four American parts.  Write it down.”

Ike Tabatnik – the first words in her head when she woke up the next morning — was going to help her win Herschl. The dance king of Riga, Latvia, if she could believe him. Greenhorns step one foot into America, and brag about who they were in their old lives, not all of it true.  She summoned his face; the sleek black hair, dark, snappy eyes, flashing smile.  A made-to-order partner for winning, and enough of a looker so that, when they won and Herschl claimed her –-  when she claimed him  — seeing Ike would be an extra squeeze on his heart. 

Later, hearing Mitzi’s heels tip-tap in the foyer, Sadie opened her door to see her tenant, looking like a bouquet of lilacs in lavender chiffon. Stepping out to admire, Sadie said, “You smell as good as you look,” and patted the row of tiny pleats circling Mitzi’s hips.

“Nothing’s too good for church.”


“I meet some interestin’ people there.  Surprised?”

“From you, nothing surprises.  Tell me, do you talk to the priest, you know…”  Her throat was dry like a sand dune.  “… any secrets, I heard it can help. You tell to the priest your sin, you’re innocent. She swiped one palm across the other. “Goodbye, secrets.”

Mitzi smiled. “Wrong church, hon, that’s Catholic. I’m the other kind, Methodist. We sing.” She started moving toward the street door.

Now! “You got a minute sometime, I got questions.” Mitzi made no sign she’d heard. “About Chicago, your home city.”

Mitzi turned. “What about Chicago?”

“That policemens in Chicago who took money from you, that’s whats about.”

Mitzi glanced at the door, then at Sadie. “You got something to say, say it.”

“He’s not in Chicago, he’s here…”  Sadie pointed to the floor.  “…and he says he’s gonna do the same thing in New York.  It’s not only him who says so, the whole police department where he works says so.” She felt the wall behind her, and sank against it.

* * * 

Read another installment of Sadie in Love tomorrow.