Mambo After Dying
by Mark Ari
"I think I'm a better dancer now," my father told me. Arms out to he sides, he flicked his wrists and moved in slow circles. He had gotten a pacemaker a week earlier, and was trying to put his heart into it.
"You're not supposed to exert yourself." I took his upper arm. It was not hard like it used to be, but it was still too wide for me to grasp with one hand. When I was a boy I expected to grow up to his size. I never did. Even now that he was a little folded from illness, he was bigger than me. I didn't think I could hold him up.
"Exert?" he puffed and hung on my shoulders with both paws. "What is exerting about this?
Five and a half decades in America and my father still has his accent. Yiddish inflected Ashkenazi Hebrew melded with the schoolboy's Queen's English he learned in British mandate Palestine and a twisty-mouthed New Yorker's nasal brogue into something wholly his own. I used to think it was ridiculous; his every utterance a delivery. Now, after so long and the way things were, it was good to hear it.
"Work is exerting." He wheezed. His mouth went wide and wet and pulled hard for air. "This, what I'm doing, old bean, is not working."
"Are you okay?
"He nodded, shook his head and nodded again. When his breathing came easier, he grinned. "You see?"
"You've got to take it easy?"
"Batteries!" he announced slapping his chest. "Amazing!" A miracle!"
"A few days ago, my heart couldn't keep up with me, and now I'm the one falling behind. Let that be a lesson to you." He wiped his face with his palms. "Every moment is the better one you're waiting for."
"That's good, Pop."
"Sure. Sometimes it hits you like a brick. It can make you giddy, but that's perfect for dancing. You don't dance, do you boychik? The world has got your feet in its mouth. But you're home. You can jump. This place knows all about your jumping." He took in the area around us and much beyond it with his eyes. "I won't rest until I see you shake a little dust from your shoes." The old man grabbed my hands. "Let's go! Let's take it around the room!"
"Come on," I pulled out of his grip. I felt bad about it. It was alright for me to touch him, but the other way around wasn't comfortable. "It's dangerous," I told him. "You had a heart attack."
"You're telling me?"
"This isn't the right time."
"You're certain about that? You've got to take your chances when they come. You can't tell when it might be the big moment, the one that changes everything."
"Yeah, yeah," I said to let him know I knew I was not telling him anything he hadn't already heard.
"Sonny boy, I've learned something through all this."
"You just told me."
"I mean something else." He took the lobe of my ear between his thumb and forefinger and whispered. "Now I get what happens when you're dying."
I brushed his hand away.
"I was dizzy," he said. I couldn't feel my fingers. And this not feeling my fingers was like a cloud that grew and moved over me. I couldn't breathe good."
"I'm sorry," I said. I was. For not wanting to hear him out. For worrying about my words so much I couldn't find them. For leaving him alone once he became that way. I felt distant from him, from everything. Even the house. It was cleaner and brighter than I remembered. And through the window behind my father I saw the neighbors' houses in their right places, with paint fresh as it ever was but all wrong colors and strangers inside. My father in the window light wasn't right either. His face had more cheek and chin. His eyes were smaller and, like the skin all around, faded.
"It sounds terrible." I said at last.
"Oh, I don't know." He tilted his head and patted his chest. "You don't think about 'terrible' at those times. You're not thinking 'this is terrible;" you're thinking 'I can't feel my fingers, the room is spinning, I'm sucking but no air is going in..."
"I didn't hear music. That was too bad. Lately, I find I like the Cuban stuff and I was hoping. Maybe I wasn't close enough. Still, it was an education. The fingers, the spinning, the sucking - now I have what to say on the topic of dying. Except I'm not sure about the breathing part. That might be asthma. But the rest, for sure, is dying."
"That's the great thing you learned?"
"I didn't say 'great;' I said 'something.'"
"Damned right and something is not nothing I didn't know; now I do. That's what makes it something. Everything is nothing until you know about it. I punch your nose and you don't know it; is it a punch? See? And a punch you know is something you have to deal with. That's my opinion, but your mother was the expert when it came to punches."
"Yeah, I remember. She'd belt me and any friend I brought home as soon as we walked into the house."
"With those little fists..."
"...that went right to the bone." I was glad to leave the subject of the heart attack and think about my mother. I saw her at the kitchen door that led in from the back porch, a tiny woman with big hair trying to pull herself up tall on her tiptoes, making circles on the air with her first.
"She was letting you know she was there," Dad went on. "Right there in that moment. Like a brick. After awhile, she couldn't punch like that no more, but she didn't need to."
The old man looked around in no particular direction. He scratched between the buttons of his shirt at a wink of shaved skin on his chest. Then he picked up where he left off.
"The whole first twenty years of our marriage, she punched me every day. Every day. In the shoulder. You know? Not to cause damage. Just to punch. And when a punch wasn't good enough, she'd throw dishes."
"I remember that."
"At the floor; not to hit me. She didn't have it in her to hurt anyone. I never got hurt. Well, very seldom. And you can't blame her for pieces that only once or two or three times went flying and took a piece of meat out of me on their way. The noise was the thing. It's all she wanted. A crash is as good as a bash. It wakes you up. It's what's what."
"What's what's what?
"I'll tell you. When it comes to the what's what of what is and what isn't, what isn't is a doubt about what is when what is is a punch your mother is giving to let you know.
"That's right. Don't forget it. A little key can open a big door. Sometimes you don't even know you're learning something until you've learned it. Sometimes not even then but everything is changed. The older, stupider you of your once upon a time is gone, finished and buried. In his place is a brand new and wiser chap with a whole new set of troubles.
"Thank God for Ma's knuckles and Japanese china."
"Or a pinch. She could pinch like a crab."
I looked at his chest, at the place on his shirt over where I thought the pacemaker would be. Did it hum? I wondered. Did it whir or tick or have no sound at all beside that of the tiny tide it moved? I wished I had a cigarette. I quit several years before but I wanted one then, and I breathed as though I did have one: in slowly and all the way and out again. "Were you scared?" I asked.
"Of your mother?"
He nodded. "What do you think? Mostly, I didn't want to leave the house. You know how people say a person who dies is going home? Where do they get that stuff? A home is as much for leaving. You just don't want to go without someone to shut off the lights. Someone who knows where the switches are and which ones got to be jiggled. Then you can take off."
"But are you scared now, Dad?"
"Not so much. I was always going to die."
"That's one thing to say, but..."
"We're going to die. That's what people do. We know it. We just don't feel it, and why should we until we start doing it? You can't feel something you don't feel. Where's your common sense?"
"Listen to me: You live and, before you know it, you're dead. And that's like sleep. It passes and you don't feel nothing until it's the end of the world. Then you pop up again. That's when the trouble begins."
"You're scared of popping up at the end of the world?"
"I don't know what's going to be. Maybe it's like my father said. Gog and Magog. Judgment. I'm not good man. I don't do the right things. Not like my father. He was religious. He did everything religious, and everyone respected him. Me, not so much."
"Maybe he'll put in a good word for you."
"Right-O, but who listens to an old man. Besides, it could be something else. You could wake up and it's the same as everything you know, only different. Or maybe you don't pop at all. Maybe you leave dropping a hook and arrive catching a fish. Who knows? So what can you do? When I start going off on such thoughts, I think of your mother's fist."
He slapped my arm. Before I could say a word, he cupped a hand over one ear and tapped his chest with the other. "I don't hear nothing?" he said like he knew what I had been thinking about earlier. "Not a peep."
"What did you expect?"
"It should give it a regular sound, so you know it's working."
"You'll know when it isn't."
"Think you'll take care of yourself? Listen to the doctors? Watch what you eat?"
"That isn't a life."
"Well, maybe it is a life, but it isn't my life, so it must be someone else's. I didn't put myself on batteries to live someone else's life."
"Look, there's all these lives in the world, right? There's the one you live, and all the others out there, which you don't live. If you've only got one to live, and you start living another one to preserve the one you should be living, well, the life you're living is the one you've got, and the one that was yours in the first place has gone to waste. I can't do that. To waste a life? To throw away one I've used and broken in for so long? And, at the same time, to live a different one which doesn't even fit and might belong to someone else. It's not fair. You think it's fair? It's not."
"I'm glad you're feeling better."
"What about me?
"Here's news I didn't tell you: suddenly, I'm a radio."
I had to laugh. When I did, he leaned toward me, put his hand to my face and spoke softly though there was no one around besides us. "If I hold a wire hangar in my teeth so it touches the metal parts of the bridge and I stand near the window in the kitchen with my feet in a pail of saltwater, I get some Spanish radio station in my chest. It's something with the pacemaker. Not bad."
He was pale. "Dad?"
"Mambo!" called the old man. Swinging his hips, huffing and shuffling to the rhythm of internal radio waves - three steps forward for every one step back - he grabbed my hands and pulled me along. Our chests met. We spun. Our shoulders stuck walls and our legs almost tangled. Invisible things crunched on the tiled floor beneath our feet. I couldn't tell which of us was holding up the other, but we both held on. I should have known better, but it was so fast and I wanted the moment.
"Atta boy!" he shouted. And he lifted me right off the floor.
About the author:
Mark Ari was born in Brooklyn and lives elsewhere.