The last time I saw Tango Master was downtown in front of Veracrúz Church. A busted gramophone sputtered on the sidewalk in front of the stone chapel. I was sitting on a bench across the avenue, waiting, sweating under the before-shower sun, irritated with the slowdown of life in the dank heat.
A collective whisper leapt: It’s him! I jumped to see the elder showman pause in front of all that crumpled architecture and adjust his suit and tie.
He started gliding around, eyes semi-closed. One arm was raised: his wrist was circled with string. Attached to this string was a cloth puppet: a saddening woman with a dark bob. Her vino-tinto dress whiffed across her knees. Tango Master held her blank face to his cheek. His feet slunk over the pockmarked tar, and he paused, dipped, straightened his back. She did the same. He closed his eyes, reached up to touch his cap with his fingertips. She reached with her padded hand.
Her woven heels moved within the beat of his dusted wingtips. We didn’t say a word. There was no music: they were still warming up. A few more steps, then a little stumble. His poise fell, his arms slipped to his waist, she drooped over his thin shoulder. Tango Master took a long persuasive stride, then bent and placed his partner on a plastic tarp lying next to the gramophone. He unhooked the strings from his wrist and released his friend.
He straightened his back, his shoulders, his tie. He lifted his hat, revealing a crooked nest of hair on his grainy scalp, and slid around the square of sidewalk. Some people deposited money into his cap. Tango Master nodded, wisely hid the cash, and returned to the gramophone.
In the following scratchy moment, he ran to retrieve his partner. They fastened themselves to one another and floated into position at the center of the crowd. A purple milonga emanated from the cracked cornucopia. It grew, dipped, stretched. We watched antique melodies ripple and reveal the floating figures of Tango Master and his doll as they danced in front of posters peeling to the ground, damp with humidity, even under the before-shower sun.
Rants and harmonious groans steamed our psyches. The mechanical horn belched. Sparks from the vinyl record stuck in my sideburns and accordion notes flung themselves at old Veracrúz Church.
Tango Master’s cap flew off at a spin. It settled near a young woman. She picked it up. As the duo swung their way to the other side of the clearing, the nest of hair on Tango Master’s dome fluttered.
Our inner ears churned as we inhaled the velvet swoon. The couple dipped over holes in the concrete. The rhythm was too much. The feeling was out of control. We tried to swallow our tears as Tango Master’s dance pulled us into the bowels of our deepest, most melodramatic recollections. We shut our eyes, revisiting failed admissions and car accidents and our first real breakups. We won our first trophies and lost our religion. I found myself tapping my toes as I ran a deadly half-marathon, years earlier, and then clenched my jaw as I recalled the result of that race: a melodious ingrown toenail. Strangers by my side made similarly anguished noises and faces. We swayed and swerved to the tango. At the end of the dance I was sweatier than before, and exhausted.
I remember turning to leave, shirt damp and hair slick, heart pounding. I had heard only that one song. To watch the full ricochet of dance moves in the street takes time. It takes years of avoiding bursting clouds, years of sprinting two blocks over during lunch. I had to return to work before getting soaked by the incoming rain. Tango Master and his friend glanced my way. He lifted a hand, and his woven companion did the same. I waved back, hopefully in time with their tune. He recognized me: I was sure of it. He knew I spent my lunches there, waiting for a memory, every other day.
Behind me the crowd applauded: their affections overflowed in front of old Veracrúz Church. I crossed the avenue, patting my forehead with a cloth and wondering if his woven friend had a name, not yet knowing the elderly showman was dancing his last tango.