Dancing in the Dark

My father isn’t talking—just staring out through his car passenger window. He‘s making muffled tapping with his feet and twisting about in his seat as if he’s hearing music.

He’s angry with me in the vague sort of way men suffering from delirium are sometimes angry.

I’m a little upset with him too. For the second time in less than a year, I am taking him to another home, the Methodist Long Term Care Facility in Brookings, South Dakota. I had a devil of a time getting another place to take him. Most had long waiting lists and then there was—what shall I call it?—the problem of his personal history. I suppose some people in town thought that what happened here in the Eventide Home was amusing, but I didn’t. God knows I embarrassed him often enough as I was growing up: swiping some car rims, wrecking several cars, one mean little DWI…

You have to understand that I’ve always been proud of my father. He worked hard to develop a respectable professional reputation in the mortuary business in town. Being a funeral director involves trust and dignity—yes, unquestionable dignity. He always kept a tall elegance as he moved about among the quick and the dead. Every detail of every ceremony was completed with calm precision.

Everyone in town knew and respected my father. Back then.

But now he seems to have moved into another age, another character that has been in him latent, unspoken…This lately father of mine has acted out his romantic propensities, his deep body rhythms, his foxtrot madness in—of all places—the Eventide Home, a “rest” home just at the edge of our town.

Ah, yes, “…fast falls the eventide”—a phrase from some droning old hymn.

Yes, he’s very angry as we drive toward Brookings. He mumbles things I can’t quite hear. And then that exclamation: “Fuck this!”

These words—and from him!

*   *   *

Mrs. Erna Huntley, who is on the school board and the church board with me, called me at four a.m. this morning. She’s the night supervisor at the home. I’ve never quite gotten used to being called at such hours and, of course, when I am called at such hours (I’m an attorney) I usually have to go bail someone out of jail or sit in on a police interrogation. Four a.m. is an aching, miserable time for me.

“Hello,” I said into the phone, my tired head buzzing, my voice rough and embarrassing.

“This is Mrs. Huntley. Please get out here as soon as possible.”

Oh, I said to myself. It’s GET out here, not COME out here. “What’s going on?” I asked. (I really wanted to ask, “Couldn’t this wait?”)

“It’ll be much easier to SHOW you what’s going on than to explain it all.”

“All right. I’ll come right out,” I said and the phone disconnected with a certain petulant click.

“What’s going on?” my wife, Deborah’s voice asked behind me.

“Dad,” I said.

“Oh, dear. Well, do you have to…”

“Who else!” I snapped back at her.

“Well, you don’t have to…”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Mrs. Huntley wouldn’t say what it’s about.”

“I can guess,” my wife said, her face full of that knowing amusement of hers. “I’ve heard things,” she said, getting up to go past me into the bathroom, kissing me lightly on the way. “Oh, yes,” she whispered into my ear. “They say he watches all those old Sinatra and Kelly and Astaire movies; he Youtubes into the dawn and then he’s up and away dancing for love in the wards…”

“I know, ” I said. “Late life high tech!”

“See you later!” she exclaimed from where she sat in the bathroom.

Out to the garage and into the car and out to the Eventide Home I went. The home was down Main in a very businesslike building placed at the center of a former alfalfa field on the edge of town. Most of the windows in the place were dark except for a couple, one of which was certainly his, and where, I guessed, he was letting his little light shine.

I entered Nurse Huntley’s office with a resentful politeness. She was standing behind her desk, her whole body as starched and stiff as her nurse’s uniform. She stood there upright with anger and a bit of her legendary Presbyterian righteousness. Behind her that picture of Jesus—the one with great compassionate eyes and long flowing hair—hung on the wall above E HUNTLEY RN.

“Is he all right?”

“I’ve given him a hypo,” she said, the needle (a needle?) there on the edge of her desk as if to threaten me with it too. Chromed anger, power.

“He was in pain?” I asked,

“Hardly,” she said. “He has BEEN a pain, but he hasn’t been IN pain!”

“In what respect?” I asked.

“Respect? Why, he’s been a terror—a holy terror out here and we can’t have that here.”

“Him—a terror?”

“A TERROR!” she snapped into my haggard, four a.m. presence. As she spoke, her eyes fixed hard on me.

“A terror?” I asked again. I was getting angry. I was about to ask tell her she ought to be a helluvalot more specific in her indictment of my father.

When she spoke again her voice had a thin, sarcastic edge. “Thaaat’s right,” she said. “Oh, we’ve had a couple of perfectly nice dances out here. But he—he thinks he’s forever at the Prom or something. I’ve personally caught him dressed merely in a sheet and black dance shoes leaping about and grabbing his dance partners in his arms. Let’s see. There was May Garner, Carrie Weston and—and—Sylvia Thompson who is this far—this far—from death, as you may know.” She used a thumb and pointer finger to show me the distance between Sylvia Thompson and death. It looked to be about a fourth of an inch at most.

I was, for a moment, strangling on my own impulse to laugh.

She pinched that thumb and finger together with mortal pressure as if to finally snuff out something—a brief candle—my father.

“He’s been quite out of control and we can’t have that here!”

“Well, I don’t appreciate your referring to my father, who is suffering from delirium, as a goat,” I retorted. Dear God, I cried to myself. My father doing Dirty Dancing!

“Well, pardon me, but I didn’t say ‘goat.’ But it’s just so, so ungainly!”

“Ungainly?”

“Yes, ungainly!” As she stood there behind that big desk she began to look around the office as if she might be looking for something to illustrate ungainly. Then, as she began to pad about the office in those flat white shoes nurses wear, she bumped an elbow on the edge of a counter, looked up toward God knows what and cried, “No! Absolutely not!”

Above the door leading to patients’ rooms a red bulb began to bleep like a tiny heart: Number 17.

“No!” she cried up at the tiny pulse of the light,”—you can’t have any more chocolate!”

I thought I had just a moment of tactical advantage then. “I know you may think old people are ungainly,” I said. “But Emmie West is out there in the wards, too. She sings and dances around here. She’s been in the AARP Journal…”

“Sorry, Robert, but it’s a done deal, as they say. It’s all been arranged. No more late life, three a.m. prom or Guys and Dolls or whatever it is in the wards…”

“That bad is it?” I asked.

“Yes, it is. He could hurt people in there, don’t you understand?”

Her voice was softening into the comfort voice nurses take on. She had made up her mind, all right, and she knew I was accepting her decision.

One last try. “Couldn’t we use something?” I asked. “In the Navy they gave sailors something to keep them…”

“This ain’t no Navy ship!” she snapped. “The Methodist long term care home over in Brookings is perfectly nice. He can start over over there, take some new medications.”

“I thought he had already started over.”

“We’ll give him early dinner tonight. And we need to get him ready,” she said, her voice suddenly tired, very tired.

“Five-thirty or so?”

“Yes. That’ll be good.”

*   *   *

“What’s going on?” Deborah asked as I came into the bedroom, pulled my shoes off and lay on top of the bed  next to her..

“I have to take him to another home,” I said.

“Did they actually say why?”

“Yes. And we both really know why.”

“It’s too bad we can’t have him here,” she replied. One of those I-don’t-know-what-else-to-say replies.

“I don’t want to have him here,” I said. “It wouldn’t work.”

“We tried,” she said. She was stroking my forehead and looking very, very serious.

“We did try, didn’t we,” I replied. “But then he began to dance about the neighborhood, suddenly showing up for breakfasts, lunches, dinners, softball games, et cetera. Dashing about in the rain and one hail storm!”

“Why don’t you try to get a little sleep,” she whispered.

“What?”

“A little sleep.”

“Rounded with a little sleep?”

“I suppose it is finally, isn’t it?”

She was turning over on her right side, her back toward me. “I want to sleep now” that movement always told me.

I lay in a fitful kind of daze for a couple of hours, fell asleep, did a day’s work at my office.  Then, at five thirty or so, I drove out to the Eventide Home.

*   *   *

I hardly knew him when they wheeled him out into the lobby. He looked very frail, the skin on his face a tightly pulled parchment, the thin white hair combed back over his high forehead, the eyes pale and resentful, the hands at the wheelchair crooked and limp. Dear God! They had dressed him in a baggy purple gown with white pajamas under it.

The orderly—a lank, tall young man I remembered from the local high school basketball scene—loomed over the wheelchair smiling hugely at me. “I gotta tell you, your dad is some kind of old guy!” he exclaimed to me. I suppose he wanted to confide in me man-to-man.  But, I was in no mood for that and gave him my this-is-utterly-serious look, the kind I sometimes give a DWI client who has been in one-too-many traffic accidents and is not quite getting it.

“I’ll miss him!” the young man exclaimed as he levered my father into the passenger seat of my car. For just a moment I sat there with my father in silence. I could feel his eyes on me, and I caught a brief hint of his cool damp breath.

“Better go,” he whispered finally.

No one waved us farewell; the door to Mrs. Huntley’s office was closed and glum. The whole scene, after the orderly retreated into the building, said, “Good riddance!” And you know how those homes look from the outside—always so horizontal—always seeming to suggest repose to me.

*   *   *

As I head north toward Brookings he’s sitting there holding a pair of shiny black shoes in his arms. I am avoiding the big freeway, taking two-lane roads, taking some time, taking some time.

He’s been medicated, all right. His body seems somewhat limp, passive, but the eyes move with a wild distress like the eyes of something released from a trap but still feeling it, anticipating the terrible step into the next one.

“This body,” he cries into the silence in the car, “–-this body!”

“It’s all right, Dad!”

“No, David, it’s NOT all right!” he cries as he bends down to put those shoes on.

David is my older mortician brother.

“I had no choice, ” I say. “And you need room to step about!”

“Into what?” he replies.

“What?”

As I’m slowing down for a stop sign, suddenly he’s trying to get out of the car. He yanks hard at the door handle, wrestles with a tangled seat belt.

I pull off on one of those minimum-maintenance roads that runs all over South Dakota. A grove of dead trees ranges away from the road and bends around deserted farm buildings; an empty house stands white and upright and blank-windowed in the falling dark. Ahead of the car the road disappears into weeds and vague distance.

“You’re Robert, aren’t you?”

“What?” My God! It’s a different, more fatherly voice and he suddenly knows who I am.. “Yes, Dad.”

“How’s the business going?”

“Do you mean my law practice?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Good.”

“Good.”

He seems to drift away again, sits there with one hand on the door handle looking out into the burnished gold of the corn. I wait.

“There are some lovely ladies around these days,” he says. “I had quite a good time dating two or three!”

“Lovely ladies,” I reply, feeling quite stupid.

“Their faces might be withered but they can still do the fox trot and they do have some nice, smooth…”

“Sure.”

“I just wanted to feel the music, the beat of something in me so I would know I’m not dead yet.”

“You scared them.”

“Hell, yes! All that some of those people in there want is an organ recital about livers and kidneys and prostrates, do you know what I mean?”

I don’t really want to discuss any organs with him. I nod and let him go on.

“And now that nurse thinks she is sending me off to medicated celibacy.”

I want to say, “Dad, you can’t do that in those places,” but I just sit and listen. As an attorney I’ve taken quite a few confessionals—a lot of them from men caught at various infidelities, misdemeanors, etc.

“You’re an attorney, aren’t you? Can’t you DO something? Isn’t this unlawful restraint or something?”

“Got no jurisdiction in those places.”

“Got to get out of here!”

My God! He has snapped away his seat belt and is pulling at the door handle. And then his shoulder is hitting the door as he steps out into the dusk.

I let him go. He stumbles onto the road in wide, careening steps like a drunk, but not falling.

I hurry to catch up with him. There, ahead of me, he’s sitting against a cracked, withered fence post at the edge of a ditch. He’s looking out into the field where corn leaves flutter listlessly in the slow wind.

I sit down next to him, bump my shoulder into his. I can hear a mourning dove making pulsing sounds of low, soft music somewhere near us.  He’s whispering something very softly. I lean toward him: “What?”

“As long as I live, I’ll hear music.”

“Do you hear the voice of the turtle?”

He doesn’t hear me.  “You can’t take care of me anymore, can you?”

“No, Dad, I can’t. I’m sorry.”

“So am I.”

I nod.

“What is it we did—or I did, David?”

So I’m David again.

“Help people with death and dying, I guess.”

“But you can’t help me now—can’t help me finish living, can you?”

“I’m trying.”  I nod at him, reach toward him, but pull my hand back. His body seems stiff and angry and I can’t see his face, his eyes.

“Leave me here!”

“You know I can’t.”

I see a co-op milk truck turning toward us off the main road, the driver staring down at us from high in the truck cab. For a moment I think he has passed, but then I can hear the squeaking of brakes and the deep mutter of exhaust as the truck begins to back up.

“You all right?” the driver yells at us.

When Dad turns back toward me I yell, “It’s all right. It’s my father!” back at the driver, who drives away, the big stainless steel truck tank bouncing on the rough road.

What did the driver see when he looked at my father? What did he see that told him he didn’t need to pause any longer but might go on?

“We’d better go now, Dad.”

“I don’t want to go there!” my father yells close at my face.  He then turns and begins to walk toward the corn–the long rows of it, the stalks so tall it would be hard to find him in there if he went far enough.

I step out next to him, take his arm.

He turns on me, his eyes wild and vague. “Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare!”

“Come along with me now, Dad. It’ll be all right.”

He jerks his arm away, steps back–his face suddenly rigid, alien. “Well, hell yes,” he cries, raising a bone-knobbed fist at me. “Time to go home again. But don’t expect me to lie down and die with those people. I’m not some kind of hymn howling saint. I’ll keep at it, you know. I’m an unruly body—one that sits up and scares the hell out of people who think you’re dead. They’ll have to kick me out of there, too. Do you understand that?”

“Come on, Dad. Let’s stop this now.”

“I’m not joking!”

“I know.”

He has dropped the robe to reveal his white pajamas. His legs are bone thin so the pajama legs flap in the wind. The shining black shoes gleam weakly in the falling light.

Suddenly he steps out there on the rough gravel and begins to dance with slow, terrible dignity like some kind of giant white heron. He dances with his arms lifted, one curved around as if it’s at his partner’s waist. His eyes are closed. He is somewhere else, I guess, a wide ballrom lighted with dim first stars…

He stops. Pulls the shoes off.

“Where’re we going?” he asks, suddenly turning and limping toward me in his stocking feet.

“Brookings.”

“Pick up somebody?”

Oh, Jesus! I’m David the mortician again!

“Not this time.”

“Lund in Brookings handling it?”

“I guess.”

Of course, I can’t be sure whether David or I will be saying goodbye at that place over in Brookings.

As we walk slowly back toward the car, I take his hand—take it the way a small boy takes the hand of another boy when both aren’t quite sure where they are or where they’re going.

*   *   *

They take him in at that place. Seem happy to see him.

At home Deborah wants me to look at something. “Cyd Charisse died. It was on the news,“ she says.

We both know who that is.

“Too bad,” I reply, wondering why she hasn’t asked about my father.

“I looked her up on Youtube. Come and see.”

I sit with her at her computer and they appear on the tiny little screen together: Astaire and Cyd Charisse. The sound is vague, but I recognize the dance music easily enough: “Dancing In the Dark.” The two of them move with effortless grace. Both in white, a shadowy Central Park behind them. Beyond the park trees, the skyscrapers loom out of the dark and into the gleam of first stars.

They dance and are lovely together.

Briefly.

Then they swing lightly, weightlessly up into the seat of a sedate black carriage. The driver is not visible.

“So maybe that’s how it will be for him?” I ask Deborah.

“Maybe. Isn’t it a little comforting to think so?”

She nods, smiles—this lovely, wise woman.

“Yes, I suppose so,” I answer.

On the little screen, the ghostlike dancers begin the dance again.

She  turns her computer off and we sit in the darkness together for a little while before we go to bed and sleep.

***
John Solensten has published four novels, more than 40 individual short stories and memoirs and more than 90 poems. His plays have been produced by theaters in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Oklahoma City. South Dakota has been the main spiritual territory in his work.

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