by Bill Vernon
With the fluid plucking of strings, Diane Grey imagined a circle of white-and-black costumed Greek men emerging from the walls and in a shoulder hold dancing, circling around as she, in white athletic socks with cushioned soles, slid in time to the music left and right across the room while dry-mopping the oak floor. “Hasapikos.” She loved the song.
When the CD track ended, her father’s voice reached her from his bedroom. “Diane! Diane! DI—AN—“
“Opsa” began, drowning out his voice with a slow Serbian rhythm. She danced down the hall, into the kitchen, mopping.
Ten minutes later, in a phone call from San Francisco, her sister complained about Diane’s last letter.
Diane said, “I don’t dance all the time, Angie. Just three times a week. I have to get out of this house a little bit.”
“I know you do, Honey,” Angie said. “You’re a saint. I couldn’t put up with Dad for an hour, let alone months.”
“It’s over a year now. His strokes were in January.”
“God, that’s right. You’ve been at it 15 months already.”
Which meant that Angie would send, as requested, more money because she certainly couldn’t leave her job and fly to Cleveland to take care of their father herself. Growing up, Angie had enjoyed being the apple of Daddy’s eye, but she couldn’t care for Dad herself. Angie was a high muckity-muck in an ivory tower in Silicone Valley, raking in yearly higher salaries. Therefore, sending money to support Dad and his caretaker was no strain. In fact sending the money made Angie feel good. Eased Angie’s guilt. Diane would never be shy about asking her for money. So, things were fine. It was a trade-off.
An hour later, Diane put on her earphones, turned on a CD of Scottish and English country dance songs, put the little CD player in a breast pocket, and went to the bedroom.
“Lunch time, Dad.” She laid the tray on the wheeled table and turned it toward him.
Dad was sitting with two large pillows on his sides just as she’d left him at 10:00, but when she sat down, the mattress depressed with her weight so he slumped left. Diane shoved him up straight, explaining that he’d be eating ham, potatoes, cabbage and string beans, all diced up and watered down into this goopy syrup.
As usual, his mouth kept moving, saying nothing she wanted to hear. Curse words of course. When she was absent from his sight, he called her name. When she appeared, he grew agitated and cursed. Seldom said anything else.
“Bless you, Dad. I know you can’t help it.” She spoke to his spirit, which was like an aura she sensed around him. If Dad could just calm himself, he might understand.
Right now, his mind was stuck on “SHIT!” She saw his lips repeating it in combination with other words. This rendition would last only a few minutes before depleting the subject’s repertoire. Then he’d switch to another obscenity and recite all of its possibilities. Fuck was the term he used most often.
“I know you can’t help it,” she repeated, spooning in a mouthful of pap that shut him up. Some of the gray stuff dribbled out of his mouth. He’d slumped over toward her again.
She stood, removing her weight from the bed, straightened him up, wiped off the dribbling, refilled the spoon in the bowl, and shoveled in another mouthful.
The music in her ears turned insistent and fast. Sometimes she couldn’t distinguish one Scottish or English country dance song from another, but this one stood out. It was English, “The Black Nag.”
She filled the gaping maw again and imagined two nights ago doing this dance with Nick Dimaggio as her partner. Before the music had begun, a woman in their three-couple group had said that the title’s reference to an old black horse was inappropriate because the dance was so fast. Nick answered very seriously, “It’s not about a horse. It’s about a black woman who nags a lot. The movements imitate how she talks.” That craziness had made Diane laugh.
Dancing “The Black Nag” had been fun too, and she remembered how its abrupt ending had again surprised her. It was only 74 seconds long. She’d often thought that they ought to play it through twice or three times to prolong their pleasure. The song ended, and her eyes refocused on Dad.
A gray viscous mass coated his chin.
“Messy, messy,” she said, wiping him. “Sorry.”
He said, “Fuck a duck!” one of his favorite phrases, but it barely registered because a new song had started. She bent, fed him another spoonful and straightened back up.
This song was even faster. Scottish. “The Bees Of Maggieknockater.” The club didn’t dance it often because the four-couple set frequently ended in tangles of confused people, but also laughter. Sometimes, flubbing up was the most fun.
Diane rose onto the balls of her feet and did the setting step, matching the rhythm of “Bees.” While setting, she imagined being the woman in first position, passing her partner taking right hands, casting into second position, doing right hands across with the third couple, turning over her right shoulder, holding hands with the third man, circling outside and around the first man’s position, then dancing down the middle to—
The mattress jiggled hard against her right thigh, returning her to Dad. He had slid down off his perch between the pillows and was thrashing. His head was thrown back so his Adam’s apple protruded on the stretched neck. He was choking!
She laid the bowl on the table, knelt on the bed, wrapped her arms around Dad from the back, locked her hands together at the base of his sternum, and squeezed hard enough to lift him a little. She did this easily. Dad had shrunk into a little elf. Before the strokes, she couldn’t even reach clear around him. Now he was just skin and bones.
The maneuver didn’t work. She elevated his head on pillows. He was blue around the gills, his mouth stretched as wide open as possible. His tongue was free, not curled back as had happened several times before. The problem was definitely food, not tongue.
She grasped his throat between both hands, pressed in on the sides, and tried to move the food manually, using an up-and-down motion with her fingertips, as if milking a cow. She pressed her fingertips in harder. Up and down.
How much time had passed since he last breathed?
She looked at the table and saw the sharp little knife by the bowl. This might be the time she’d need to use it. Not yet though. Try the tube first.
She held Dad steady with her left hand, leaned sideways, took the curled plastic tubing off the table, straddled Dad’s waist, and fed the end of the tube down his throat.
It stimulated a reflex that entailed desperate swallowing. Dad gasped, sucking in air loudly. Good!
Loosening her legs around his waist, she shifted her hands, gripped his armpits, lifted him, and swung him to sit back up against the headboard. She held him in place, stood, jerked the pillows free, and stuffed them at his sides again.
Dad was beginning to forget how to swallow. His automatic responses were shutting down. A doctor had said that one of these days his mind would simply forget to breathe or make the heart beat or something like that. Then he’d go.
Would he be aware at the end? Those flailing movements a moment ago seemed to imply consciousness. Did panic at not being able to breathe imply understanding?
She stared into Dad’s blue eyes to see the truth. There was no fear there, no sign of awareness of suffering or anything else. He had that same mechanical look he always had, and she heard his cussing now because her headphones had been knocked askew on her ears.
“Son of a bitch,” he was saying in a low voice as if he were reporting the sun shining. “Son of a bitch.”
No, he’d not been aware. His panic had been more like a chemical reaction than a result of reasoning.
She smelled him and shook her head. He’d have to be bathed now, have his diaper changed. He always evacuated whenever he choked so she’d have to clean him and oil him and change his pajamas. Well, she’d have done it in a couple hours anyway so it’d just have to be done earlier than she’d planned.
She put the earphones in place and tried to identify the song playing, a soft, slow English country dance music, “Well Hall” or “Hole In The Wall.” One of them for sure.
She retrieved the bowl, filled the spoon, and turned back to him. “Here, Dad. Just four more bites.”
By three in the afternoon, he was cleaned, changed, strapped in his wheelchair in the living room, staring out the front storm door. He’d be no trouble now, watching cars and pedestrians pass, except that the mail might come. The people who did that job changed so frequently, one might show up who didn’t know about Dad.
The mailbox hung on the inner front door, which she’d opened back against the wall so the mail person would have to open the storm door to drop the mail inside. Then the person would see Dad sitting there, say something and try to hand him the mail. Dad would of course start cursing so the mail person would get an earful. Three months ago a young mail woman had flown into a rage, hearing obscene insults.
Diane spent five minutes trying to explain the situation to her. Did the mail woman apologize? No way.
“I’m not paid enough to put up with this crap!” the mail woman had said, stomping away, never showing up here again.
Anyway, until the mail came, Diane would keep an eye out.
Except for the intermittent droning of Dad’s mindless Dianes, the house was silent. She sat on the couch with a yellow legal pad on her lap and a memory aid beside her, the three-hole binder full of dance directions.
Diane had the program tonight, and she intended for it to be a good one, meaning she’d play dances that would attract as many onto the floor as possible. That required a balance of line, couple, individual, and set dances. She would not play just her own favorites.
She made lines for four columns on her legal pad and listed the most popular of each type of dance at the tops. These she would play first while the crowd was the largest.
By five she’d eaten, avoiding garlic and onions because she didn’t want her breath to smell. By six Dad had been fed and cleaned. By 6:30 she’d put him in bed. Then she bathed, scented herself, dressed, put her list of dances in the bag containing her dance-shoes, laid bag, purse and coat on the couch near the door, and waited.
Tricia arrived 15 minutes late, at 6:45.
Well, it was irritating, but good help was hard to find.
Diane pointed to the Dance Pavilion’s phone number on a slip of paper taped to the fridge, then reminded Tricia that if an emergency occurred to let the phone ring until someone answered. The music would be playing loudly so people would be dancing, not in the kitchen where the phone was. They would hear the ringing, though, when the music stopped between dances.
“I know,” Tricia said. “I been here a few times before.”
“Okay, thanks. See you later.”
The ten-minute drive took Diane to the pavilion just in time. She began her program with “Lerikos,” a nice slow Greek song and dance that everyone liked. All but six of the 59 people present joined the broken circle, and Diane did too. She’d dance as often as possible, but would have to remember to hustle back to the computer to set up another song.
She played “An Dro Retournee” next, a faster circle dance from Brittany, but not so fast the older members wouldn’t try it. In fact, everyone but two people got into this one. The repetitive left-right-left steps and the quick turning movements into and out of the circle while clapping added a zest and joy missing in the first dance.
As the evening passed, with program director responsibilities occupying Diane’s mind, she felt strangely exhilarated and rushed. When she stayed on the sidelines for Horheronsky Csardas, watching 30 dancers do it, emotion surged through her, and tears fell. She turned away from the dancers and busied herself choosing the next song.
At the end of the csardas she asked Nick to be her partner in “Black Nag,” then announced it, saw that four three-couple sets were formed, hit PLAY and hurried into place beside Nick, grabbing his right hand with her left at the head of the nearest set.
About 10:25, she played “Ada’s Kujawiak #1” because it was inked on the request board, and she watched the couples form ballroom positions.
“Don’t you want to do it?” a voice said.
She turned and smiled at Nick. “I don’t know this one.”
“Oh come on. We do it all the time.”
It was gorgeous music. The old-fashioned song took her six decades back into a café in the pre-World War II city of what, Warsaw? She danced through dim lights and smelled the smoky atmosphere. Around her the seated people at tables were doomed to an onslaught of the coming global conflict. Another sadness enveloped her.
“You okay?” asked Nick.
Her eyes focused on him. She felt as if he were supporting her in his arms, as if she might faint, and in fact she did slump forward against him for a moment.
Younger than she was by 10 years, man of another generation, he certainly had a different sensibility from her own. He also had an ugly, black, rectangular mustache. But he smelled good. Her nose brushed his chest and picked up the scent of musk.
She was attracted to Nick. My God! Wouldn’t he be embarrassed to find that out? Maybe he’d laugh. She’d be very embarrassed herself if the truth were known, but of course it never would be.
Keep dancing, she told herself. Enjoy his nearness and our movements together.
The circle of couples and the music swept her around in orbit the way planets circle the sun. Back in the Warsaw café’s darkened, smoky room Diane watched the woman at the microphone, singing in the spotlight. She had an unusual, throaty voice. It was very beautiful, but also very sad.
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel Old Town, and his poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies.