Confounding Sally Dugan

by Richard Natale

Illustrated by Christopher Hawthorne Moss

sally dugan illo by Christopher MossDan was halfway through an intricate blocking rehearsal when he felt a familiar buzz in his pants.  After a few pulses his cell fell silent then almost immediately started vibrating again.  He held up an index finger to Dahlia who was in the midst of delivering her line while crossing stage right—and she actually arched her back.  Without apology he turned and retreated to the wings.

“Hi, it’s Lisa.”  His sister spoke in a stage whisper as if she was the one in rehearsal.  “Mom’s in the hospital.  You should think about coming home.”

What might be a casual suggestion from anyone else took on a sense of gravitas when uttered by Lisa.  “You should think about coming home” was emphatic for her.  Growing up in the Dugan household where high Irish dudgeon was the default position, Lisa deliberately avoided confrontation by speaking in a barely audible voice even when she had good reason to scream.  Consequently, she was often relegated to wallpaper.  On the rare occasion their mother, Sally, noticed that her lips moving, she would yell, “Pipe up, girl.  Nobody can hear you,” reducing Lisa to tears.

“What’s gotten into her?”  Sally would gripe and one of the boys (usually Dan’s more argumentative younger brother, Carl) would berate her for upsetting Lisa, notching up the argument another decibel.

“I’ll be on the first flight out tomorrow morning,” Dan told his sister.  “I’ll text you the details.  Maybe Carl can pick me up.”

Dan clicked off and motioned to Gerard who was across the room sucking the foam off the top of his cappuccino.  The play’s producer, Gerard Butler (“Not the actor,” he said when introduced—unnecessary in that he was scrawny and slightly cross-eyed), flashed his hail-fellow-well-met grin.

“Listen.  I have to go home to Florida.  Family crisis.  I’ll be back day after tomorrow,” Dan said.

“Ohhhhh.  Sorry to hear that.”

“Thanks,” Dan nodded and flipped open his binder.  “Here’s the blocking chart. Would you be a pal and walk the actors through it a few more times while I’m gone?”

“I could do that,” he responded.  Dan waited for the “but” to drop.  “Thing is, Dahlia…”

“Forget Dahlia.  I’m the director.  You’re the producer.  She does what we say.”

Not entirely true.  Dahlia’s husband, Mort Williams, owned the theater and only agreed to stage the new drama by promising playwright Dudley Carter if his wife played the lead role.  Dan was relieved to find that while Dahlia’s talents were modest, she was more than adequate; he’d made do with far less.  Dahlia, however, had a more elevated opinion of her creative abilities and flaunted her power base, making intrusive “for the good of the show” comments—always uttered with feigned humility, of course.  “If I may, am I the only one who thinks Cliff’s (her co-star) response sounds off?  I mean, would his character really say that?”

“Yes, according to the playwright,” Dan responded in a dry monotone. “Moving on…”

Thus far, Dan had nixed most of her suggestions except the one or two that actually had merit and, mercifully, Mort had yet to intercede on her behalf.  As opening night drew near, he prayed there would be no last-minute line in the sand.  He’d worked with Dahlia types (both male and female) before and seen final dress rehearsals thrown into chaos by sudden tantrums and ultimatums.  Using a combination of diplomatic skills honed through years of trial and error and the famous Dugan family spine, Dan could usually defuse any crisis.  The strain took its toll, however.  After opening night, the adrenaline would drain from his body and he’d take to his bed for days, sometimes weeks, until his emotional equilibrium was restored.

“I have to go home now to book my flight and pack,” Dan explained to Gerard.  “So if you would make the announcement…”

“Oh gee, buddy,” Gerard began with a gulp, wilting right in front of him.

“Thanks. I owe you one.”  Dan smiled, popping him a buck-up shot in the arm.  He grabbed his attaché and dashed out the side door before Gerard changed his mind.

As he walked to his car, Dan speed-dialed the apartment.  “Albert.  I’m on my way home,” he began after the beep.  “I’m flying to St. Pete in the morning and I need you to take me to the airport.  Something’s wrong with my mother.”

Dan guessed that Albert was listening on the other end.  He picked up the phone for no one, including Dan, his partner of two years.  As he stuck the key in the ignition, Dan murmured “Cunt.”

He walked into the apartment just after eight.  Open food containers and empty plates were stacked on the coffee table and the kitchen smelled of burnt toast.  Albert was still in his pajamas and had clearly not left the house all day.  He pretended he hadn’t heard the message and looked none too pleased at having to get up at five to drive Dan to the airport.  Albert was a location coordinator on a network cop show that shot in Chicago and was currently on hiatus.  When he wasn’t working, Albert passed his days watching ESPN and playing video games.

***

“Thanks for doing this,” Dan said, leaning over to peck Albert on the cheek as they pulled up to the terminal.  “The return flight gets in at 10 a.m. on Thursday and I need to go straight to rehearsal,” he said, handing Albert a slip of paper with the details, which he would surely misplace.

“Safe flight,” Albert said.  “I hope everything’s okay,” he added in the pro-forma manner of a casual acquaintance.  Still it represented progress.  Most of the time, if Dan was having a personal problem, Albert simply got annoyed and shut down.

The flight was turbulent and Dan busied himself with a crucial transition scene in the second act that still didn’t quite cohere.  He tried to think of a tactful way to convince Dudley to take another whack.  Like most fledgling playwrights, Dudley panicked when he was asked to alter so much as a comma, which is why so many never advanced beyond the promising stage.

Intermittently he thought of his mother, one of the world’s foremost hypochondriacs.  Blessed with the constitution of an ox and freakish strength, she’d never been truly sick a day in her life, though not to hear her tell it.

The words “I feel great today” or any similarly buoyant sentiment had never passed Sally’s lips.  She always had a litany of minor ailments at the ready.  “I’m not feeling so hot, Danny.  I woke up this morning with a headache (stomach ache, back ache, pain in my knee).  Never should have gotten out of bed.”  Sally never inquired after her son’s health based on her belief that a man in the prime of life had no cause for complaint.

At the curb, Carl jumped out of his pick-up and gave Dan a bear hug followed by a hearty pat on the back.

“What happened?” Dan asked.

Carl’s shoulders drooped.  “She and Dad were down in Cuernavaca visiting Uncle Des and Aunt Lily when she started not feeling well.  At first they thought she had one of them Mexican bugs.  She went right to the doctor the minute she landed, which meant something was up.  You know Ma.  She could take two bullets to the gut and refuse medical treatment.  Anyway, the doctor couldn’t figure out what was going on.  She just kept getting worse.  So he put her in the hospital two days ago.  It’s been downhill from there.”

“Well they say the worst place to be when you’re sick is a hospital,” Dan said, trying to conceal his annoyance.  How was this the first he’d heard of his mother’s condition?  He phoned at the beginning of the week to inquire about their vacation and his father hadn’t said a word.  “Everything’s jake, Danny boy.  We had a great time.  Des and Lily send their love.  Your mother’s watching her soap.  Call back later.”

The moment Dan stepped into the hospital room he saw that his mother was not sick.  She was mortally ill.  It was not only her appearance: a distended stomach, sickly pallor and short gasps of breath.  Her pupils were dilated in terror like a driver bracing for an oncoming collision.

Fear was not part of Sally’s emotional vocabulary.  She believed it served no earthly purpose.  “This is foolishness.  Stop at once,” she would admonish Dan or his siblings if they expressed even minor trepidation.

The entire family, except for Carl and Lisa’s kids, was gathered around the bed as Sally batted away the nurse like she was fending off a mugger.  Also out of character.  Feisty and obstreperous at home, around strangers, particularly anyone in the least position of authority, she became positively taciturn.  A geisha would be considered brash by comparison.

Yet here she was, pushing away the diminutive nurse with her stinging, fat hands and shouting, “I told you to get her away from me.  She’s a fool.  A goddamn fool.”

The rest of the family, Dan Sr., Carl’s wife Gina, Lisa’s husband Pete, and his mother’s sister Hazel, talked over one another, either trying to defend the hapless attendant or suggesting that she leave and let them look after Sally.  His father, who normally operated at two speeds, bonhomie or bluster, stood at the center looking browbeaten, helpless, and lost.  When he tried to speak, the words just sat on his tongue and he was forced to swallow them, which jiggled his Adam’s apple.

Dan stood at the foot of the bed.  Though his mother was staring directly at him, there was no acknowledgement.  Lisa touched his arm and smiled.  Gina looked over and said, “Oh, hi Dan,” as if he’d just returned from a quick trip down the hall.

The family phantom was back.  Ever since moving to Chicago to “go do his thing,” as Carl referred to Dan’s career choice, the family had treated him with increasing disinterest.  Whenever he spoke to Carl or Lisa, they were always apologetic and always harried.  The same excuse: The kids were running them ragged, apparently even when they were asleep or at school or summer camp.  His folks were no better.  He suspected that if they ever learned how to use caller ID, they wouldn’t even pick up.  After the standard “everything’s jake,” Dan Sr. would pass the phone to Sally who, though recently retired, was preoccupied with one of the “million things on my plate.”  She would briefly inquire after his eating habits, ignore his response and bring him up to date on her latest petite maladie; or the illness and/or death of a friend or relative; or the grandchildren’s latest triumphs and/or failings.

At holidays, there were hearty greetings when he walked in the door but within fifteen minutes they forgot about him, as if he was a toy a kid had picked up, played with for a few minutes and then gotten bored and walked away, leaving it behind on the living room sofa.  If he got antsy and decided to pop out to visit friends—who were always pleased to see him—they accused him of abandonment.  “Then why won’t anybody talk to me?” he once groused.  The best Sally could muster was “We just like knowing you’re here.”

Aunt Hazel, who never married and since retiring from the public library more or less lived with his parents, would massage his ego by repeating the myth that he was the apple of his parents’ eye—aka the consolation prize.

Dan may have been the favorite, but only by default.  By his parents’ calculation, Carl, the baby of the family, hadn’t put a foot right since taking his first step.  He was clumsy and unambitious, forever getting into scrapes and, worse, getting caught.  Until Gina, all his girlfriends fell into the category of what his parents referred to as “floozies.”  Dan did well at school and was a natural athlete.  His worst infraction growing up was backing his father’s car into a post, denting the rear fender.  (Repair costs were deducted from his allowance).  He had no problem dating “good” girls since he had little inclination to turn them bad.  In fairness, the girls he brought home were not always as virtuous as his parents assumed, though it was usually Dan who had to fend off their advances.

Lisa, the eldest’s, sin was being born female.  “Nothing but trouble, girls,” Sally used to moan even though his sister’s sole act of rebellion was to dye her hair strawberry blonde a few days before her Confirmation.  While Dan Sr. and Sally had been born only a few years before the baby boomers, they adhered to their parents’ strict pre-Vatican II moral code.  Pope John XXIII was dispensed in a few words as “that troublemaker who turned the Latin mass into a hootenanny.”  The sexual revolution was a non-event.  And though they were lifelong, pro-union Democrats, they still believed Ted Kennedy and John Kerry should have been denied Communion for their stance on abortion, though they stopped short of excommunication.

As soon as Lisa reached puberty, Sally began to fret about her virginity.  “God help you, if I find out you’ve disgraced the family, I will kill you and then myself,” Sally threatened.

“What she means is that she’ll kill you and then maybe think of killing herself,” Carl clarified, always happy to put his big foot in his big mouth.  “She can always go to confession after a murder and be absolved.  But if she commits suicide it’s straight to Hell.”

“You think you’re so smart,” Sally smirked, whacking him on the side of the head.  “The Lord knows I have my reasons.”  The Lord was more than a passing acquaintance.  Sally claimed to receive regular communiqués from the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, which she graciously passed on to her children.

For all that, Sally could be oddly flexible in her beliefs.  When Lisa sheepishly confessed that she and her fiancé Pete were having relations (not until after they were officially engaged, she assured her mother) there were no fireworks.  Sally merely rubbed her hands together and said, “The deed is done.  You’re either a virgin or you ain’t.  But if he can’t control himself until you take your vows in the sight of God, then at least make sure he wears protection.”  Like even the staunchest Catholics, contraception was a non-issue for her.  “Hey, I’d be happy to keep pumpin’ out a kid a year if Father Cleary agreed to support them,” she complained after a Sunday sermon stressing abstinence.  “Until then, I suggest he let me and your father handle things our way.”

Similarly, when at the age of ten, Dan said he was considering studying for the priesthood, he expected that like most Irish-Catholic parents they’d be overjoyed.  (At their son Michael’s ordination, his Uncle Des and Aunt Lily nearly popped their buttons.)  Instead, his mother snapped, “Get out of here.  You can’t be a priest.”

“Why not?” Dan said, offended.

“Because men need to have sex, and that’s all there is to it,” she replied with the authority of someone citing canonical law.

The only other time his mother ever alluded to his sexual maturation was when Dan was sixteen and had already lost his virginity to a girl named Myra who got him drunk on gin and pounced on him in her basement.  Sally was thumping melons at the supermarket when she mused, “Danny, there are things you need to know about life that your father and I can’t discuss with you.  You should talk to your friends or Father Cleary.”

Dan was hardly in the position to cast the first stone in regards to sexual candor, having stubbornly dismissed his attraction to men until he was in college.  But then at home, except for coded references (Sally’s hairdresser Dion was “very social”), homosexuality was a foreign language, even when it was discussed or depicted on TV.  Gays fell into the same category as Republicans, Baptists, Jews, the very rich and the very poor:  “Not our kind of people.”

Then, in her infinite capacity to confound, Sally slipped the subject into one of her mid-night calls.  His mother suffered from a particular strain of insomnia, an inability to rest if she divined that one of her children might be in danger.  “Are you okay?” she rasped into the phone, rousing Dan out of a dead sleep at two a.m.  “I was so worried.  I had a dream that you were in an accident.”

Reassured that he was still in one piece, Sally used the occasion to gossip, something she swore she never did.  (“It’s only gossip if it ain’t true.  And I never say nothing that ain’t true.”  Was there anything in the grammar books about triple negatives? Dan wondered.)

“So Danny, you remember Richie, Ellen Murphy’s oldest son?” she began.  “You were altar boys together.  Well, I ran into Ellen last week after ten o’clock Mass.  Poor thing.  She’s a wreck.  Last week, out of the blue, Richie’s wife just up and left him.  And get this.  For another woman.  Who ever heard of such a thing?  I mean, I can understand what two men might do together.  But two women?  I don’t know.  Am I missing something here?”

***

A team of young doctors who appeared to have been drafted by a United Nations panel on global racial harmony swept into his mother’s hospital room and politely asked everyone but Dan Sr. to leave.

Out in the hallway, Carl was nervously chewing on the skin around his fingernails.  “Could you take dad home?” he asked Dan.  “He’s in no condition and I can’t deal with him right now.  He’s driving me batshit.”

Lisa asked him to dinner, not so much an invitation as a coy reprimand.  “The kids are starting to forget what their uncle looks like,” she said with a nervous laugh.

Dan had a hard time locating his father inside the husk beside him in the passenger seat.  “Dad?  What did the doctors say?  Do they have any idea?”

Dan Sr. shook his head and in a distracted voice said, “They said it could be any number of things.  But right now they don’t know for sure.  They don’t know.  They don’t know.  They just don’t know.”

“It’s going to be okay,” Dan said, not believing it for a second.

“Yeah,” his father said with even less conviction.

After dinner at Lisa’s, during which her two sons quickly left the table and disappeared to their room and she upbraided Pete to referring to his mother-in-law in the past tense, Dan returned to the hospital, hoping to get in some alone time with his mother.  Sally was asleep when he arrived, making disconcerting rumbling noises followed by periods when she seemed to stop breathing altogether.  He sat on the window ledge and stared out at the lights in the parking lot for almost an hour before the night nurse appeared.  She said the doctor had prescribed Sally a strong sedative and she was unlikely to stir for several hours.  He wrote his mother a note and slipped it under the TV remote on the nightstand.  He could have sworn he heard her voice when he was halfway down the corridor.  When he doubled back, she was still snorting away like a bull from another planet.

His father was passed out on the sofa when he got home.  He draped a lap blanket over him and pressed the mute button on the remote.

Though he was exhausted and had an early flight, he couldn’t sleep or concentrate on work.  He phoned the one person he knew would be up at this hour.

“Get your fabulous ass over here,” Rafe said.  Dan jumped into the car and headed north to Tampa where Rafe now lived.

Dan was still having unsatisfying affairs with coeds when he’d first encountered Rafe Terrell (né Rafael Gonzago) lurking in the men’s room of the University of Miami’s administration building.  Dan was unaware of the lavatory’s notoriety as a campus tea room.  He just needed to take a leak.  As he was shaking off at the urinal there was a voice behind him.  He turned around and Rafe beckoned him into the stall.  A while later, as Rafe was washing up at the sink, Dan said, “I’d really like to see you again.”  Rafe was so startled he nearly chipped a tooth on the faucet.

“Dear boy, that isn’t necessary,” Rafe said in a voice as theatrical as it was deep.

Dan looked at him, confused.

“I take it you’re new at this,” he said, and Dan nodded.

Rafe reached for Dan’s hand but he pulled away looking around nervously, afraid someone might walk in.  “So you’ll have sex with me in broad daylight but when I try to touch you, you become shy?”  Dan bobbed his head up and down as if this made perfect sense.

The young man let go a cackle then babbled something about “Auntie Rafe” taking him places he’d never dreamed of—paraphrasing a line from “Auntie Mame” Dan later learned.

Rafe wrote down his address, a hovel in Hialeah.  “Come by later.  I’ll provide the drinks. You be the dinner.”  Dan immediately regretted his impetuousness.  Rafe epitomized every fear closeted men have about homosexuals.  He was a flamer and didn’t care who knew it.  He worshipped all the obvious divas, dressed loudly enough to be clearly visible for fifty miles on a foggy day, and wallowed in elaborate dramas of his own creation.

He went anyway.  As soon as he arrived, he informed Rafe that he wasn’t interested in a relationship.  Rafe laughed in his face.  “No offense, dear, but if I wanted a boyfriend it wouldn’t be you.  I want a longshoreman type with body odor who will abuse me in all the right ways.  So shall we get down to it?”

Curiously, Rafe accelerated Dan’s coming out.  Had he been more conventionally masculine, Dan would have been abashed, frightened of ceding his manhood.  But Rafe was so flamboyant that Dan felt neither threatened nor compromised—he felt liberated.

“I greased the skids for you,” Rafe would later joke.  “And a few other things as well.”

They eventually became friends because, for all his flash, Rafe had a nurturing side.  “You have to look at being gay as a blessing, hijo, not a curse.  Because of our nature, we are privy to experiences that are unavailable to most men.  We are forced to confront our inner freak. And once you do that, everything else in life is easy.”

Rafe steered Dan to therapy, where he slowly acclimated to his desires and came to terms with his decision not to come out to his parents.  He hadn’t made up his mind one way or another but, after first discussing it with Carl and Lisa, was advised to adhere to what in the world of politics is known as a “non-denial denial.”

“I mean it’s not as if they don’t already know,” Carl said.  “When she’s had a few, mom makes this joke—only in front of us, never when the rest of the family is around—that she has one son, one daughter, and one yet-to-be-determined.”

“She prays to Saint Monica every day,” Lisa added.  St. Augustine’s mother, whose entreaties were rewarded when her dissolute son reformed his ways, was also in regular communication with Sally.  “It’s kind of sweet if you think about it.  So as long as you play it cool, she can keep saying novenas and telling herself it will all pass and eventually you’ll straighten up and fly right.”

Dan’s shrink, Grace, who normally favored directness, granted him a dispensation.  “There is never any one solution to a specific problem,” she explained.  “From what you’ve told me, your folks are not pussyfooters.  If they wanted you to tell them, they’d yank it out of you like a rotten tooth.”

Truly, in the Dugan household private thoughts and private space did not exist.  Doors had to be open and unlocked at all times, except the bathroom, and even then…  His parents rifled through their children’s drawers and pockets for drugs and other incriminating evidence under the “my house, my rules” statute.  To this day, they grilled Lisa and Carl about every aspect of their lives, from how much they earned to how often they had intercourse with their spouses.  “Of course it’s my business,” Sally snapped when Carl complained.  “I want to know that the men in the family are pulling their weight and the women are doing their duty.”

Leaving aside that a career in the arts was regarded as an open invitation to damnation, on a strictly pragmatic level his parents would have been more pleased if Dan worked as a seasonal farm worker.  At least then they’d actually have a notion of what he did for a living.  Theater director was an amorphous position because if he executed the job well, his contribution was invisible to the casual observer.  His parents couldn’t point to anything concrete such as “my son wrote the play, acted in it, designed the set.”  They also fretted when he was “in between jobs,” by which they understood he’d been laid off or fired (which he had a couple of times early in his career).  “Are you doing okay?  You need anything, ask,” Sally offered, and his father would quietly try to palm him a few twenties to tide him over.

If he sent them good reviews, they were unimpressed though it gave them some bragging rights with the relatives.  “Your mother says you got your name in the paper, that you’re a big shot,” his Aunt Helen once said.  (“Big shot” was not Sally’s idea of a compliment.)  “Says you’re going to be the next Steven Spielberg.”

“That’s movies Aunt Helen,” Dan corrected her.  “I think in the theater it would be Harold Clurman.”

“Never heard of him.”

***

“My, my,” Rafe said as he kissed Dan on both cheeks. “You’re pale as a ghost.  Sit down. I made mojitos.”

Rafe fingered the imaginary pearls around his neck while Dan detailed his mother’s alarming decline, then said, “But this is not all that’s bothering you,” as if he was the Oracle at Delphi.

After a second mojito, Dan opened up about his work tribulations with Dahlia and his erratic home life, admitting that he and Albert had little in common except for incredible conjugal compatibility.

“You’re right.  She is a bitch and he is a cunt.  But you’ll be through with her on Saturday.  The boyfriend?  I don’t know what to tell you.  It’s either going to work or it’s not.  But at least he’s a good fuck.”

Dan nodded.  “How’d you get to be so wise?” he said only half-mockingly.

“I’m one quarter Choctaw.”  He shrugged as if that was an air-tight explanation.  “Now, before you get on the plane, go back to the hospital and try to see your mother one more time.  Promise?”

“Yes, and thank you,” Dan said embracing Rafe on his way out.  “It’s always great to see you.”

“You were the great love of my life,” Rafe said, posing against the door jamb and fluttering his eyelashes.

“That is so not true,” Dan said.

“Of course not.  But you of all people should appreciate a good exit line,” he laughed, dismissing Dan with the tips of his fingers.  “Go now.  I’ll pray for your mother to Our Lady.  Kisses on your opening.”

“Unbelievable,” Dan laughed as he slid into the front seat of his father’s car with the Saint Christopher medal dangling from the rear-view mirror.

***

Sally was awake, though still groggy when Dan and his father walked in shortly before dawn.

“Am I dreaming?” she said as he stood over her.  “Where did you come from?”

“I was here yesterday.  Don’t you remember?”

Sally shook her head.  “You look pale.”

“That seems to be the consensus,” he nodded.

“Not that I’m one to talk. The good thing about dying is that I never have to look in a mirror again,” she said.

“For Chrissake, Sally,” Dan Sr. scowled.

Sally stared her husband down.  “Promise me something, Danny,” she said.  “Find him a new wife.  He’s useless on his own.”

“Ma, don’t start,” Dan said, gagging on a sob.

“Hey, I got a news flash for you guys.  There’s a time to live and a time to die.  Besides, somebody’s got to go first.  And it’s better this way.  If you’re the last one, there’s nobody’s left to cry for you.  But make no mistake.  Youse’re are all gonna follow sooner or later.  So be sure to make your last confession.  Father Cleary’s coming over at nine to hear mine.  I don’t want to be wasting no time in Purgatory.”

“Ma, you’re not going anywhere.  You don’t even look that bad.  Really,” Dan offered.

“Good thing you decided to become a director.  You’d starve as an actor.”

Dan Sr. and Jr. shook their heads in bemused exasperation.  “Dan,” Sally called to her husband, “go get yourself a cup of coffee and let me talk to my kid.”  Dan Sr. obediently left the room and she waited until his footsteps had faded down the hallway.

“Give me some of them ice chips.  I can’t swallow no more.”

Dan unwrapped a plastic glass and filled it.  When he scooped up a few shards and held them to her mouth, she yanked the glass from his hands.

“So.  You working?” she said, crunching some ice.

“Yeah, I have a show opening Saturday.”

“Good luck with that.  Thank goodness your bubbleheaded brother and sister somehow managed to land good partners.  Even so, I don’t want your father to be a burden on them.  I’m serious.  You gotta find him a new wife.  He won’t last a year without someone to take care of him.”

“Dad swore he would only marry once.”

“Yeah.  They all say that.  I won’t even be cold and all the widows in the neighborhood will come sniffing around, bringing him dinner and lifting their skirts.”

“Ma, please…” Dan pleaded.

“Hey, what do I care?  I’ll be with the Good Lord and Mother Mary.”  Sally took a deep, tortured breath.  “You know, Danny, I wouldn’t mind dying so much if I only knew you were settled and that you had someone to look after you.”

“Ma…” he said weakly.  “I have someone.”

His mother breathed a heavy sigh.  With great effort she turned her body to the wall and fell silent.  Rebuttal was futile, especially since in this instance she was right.

Sally had met Albert the last time she and his father visited Chicago, ostensibly to see his new apartment with a view of the lake.  Over the years, Dan had introduced her to several of his “friends” and it was easy to discern which ones met with her approval.  Albert was not one of them.  They exchanged little more than hellos and when he was in the room she looked right through him.  The only thing worse than being chastised by Sally was being ignored.

Dan sat in the metal chair next to the bed and waited for her to turn around.  A few minutes later, Dan Sr. returned and tilted his head toward the door.  “It’s getting late.”

“Ma, I have to catch a plane.  I’ll be back on Sunday.  You take care.”  He leaned down and kissed her left cheek.  “I love you, Ma.”

As he reached the door he heard her whisper, “Love you too, baby boy.”

A major snowstorm had descended on Chicago and Dan’s plane was one of the last to be cleared for landing.  Albert was not there to meet him and didn’t pick up when he called.  Dan took a cab to the theater.  The driver had to wake him when they arrived.

Dahlia was unusually subdued and cooperative during the final rehearsal.  Dudley meekly agreed to work on the transitional scene.  At least there was one upside to family crises.

“I thought they closed the airport,” Albert said when Dan walked in late that evening.

“Did you even listen to the message I left?” Dan asked.

Hitting the pause button on a rerun of a Bears game, Albert huffed, “I think we need to replace that machine.”

After downing a can of Progresso Chicken Noodle soup, Dan got into bed and watched a CSI rerun.  As he was drifting off, his cell rang.  Lisa.  “Mom slipped into a coma this afternoon.  Her kidneys shut down and they moved her to hospice.”

“How you holding up?” he inquired.

“Been better,” Lisa said, exactly the response Sally would have given.  He took some comfort in that.

“Listen, I’m on the nine o’clock flight Sunday morning.  They said the airport should be open again by then.”

A short time later Albert crawled in beside him.  “By the way, how’s your mother doing?”

Without even turning around Dan said, “I’m going home on Sunday.  When I get back I need for you to be gone.”

# #

© Richard Natale.  All rights reserved.

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