Gail’s cheeks burned from the smile etched on her lips. Waving, she clomped off stage, and once obscured by the wings, dropped her hand and shoved the doused microphone at Patty. She managed to keep the growl in her voice to a whisper.
“Where is she?”
Serenely claiming the handheld mic, Patty waggled it at the riggers across stage. The crimson curtain began to part, revealing the pianist and his ventriloquist partner between the velvet folds. She made a note on her clipboard before looking up.
“Who are you talking about?”
“The woman by the bar,” said Gail.
Frowning, Patty peered beyond the proscenium. “Which one?”
“Didn’t you hear her? Cackling like a hyena between her personal commentary.”
“Oh,” said Patty, “her.” She returned to her clipboard. “Get Mr. Tymes ready,” she said to Linus who stood twitching at her elbow.
The young assistant darted off toward the greenroom, dodging the light trees and the other performers and crew clustered to watch the pianist and the fuzzy blue puppet.
Gail folded her arms and stared into the laughing audience seated at the round bistro tables and in padded booths while mirth and piano music filled the theater. The stools by the bar were occupied by suited men and women in stylish dresses and skirts, most with their attentions on the stage. A few leaned toward one another, conversing or flirting quietly. None seemed to disturb anyone else, let alone be making a nuisance of themselves. She found the seat where the cackling had bellowed but the leather cushion had emptied. The sound chipped at her memory nonetheless and set her teeth on edge.
Patty came to her side, clipboard clutched to her black button-down shirt. “She headed out when you started introducing Key and Pedal.”
“To the lobby?”
“I don’t know, you could ask Vince. He was going to escort her out if she kept at it.”
Gail grunted. “Too late.”
With a hum Patty seemed to note the vacated seat. “Sorry, but it looked like you were handling it.”
“I’d rather handle thrown tomatoes or silence.”
“Maybe next time.”
She snorted. “How long is their set?”
Patty checked the stopwatch pinned to her board. “Another six minutes.”
“I need a quick smoke.”
“I’ll send Linus to get you in five.”
Nodding, Gail turned and weaved through the onlookers and down the corridor past the greenroom. She exited through the side door and inhaled the brisk, midnight air. Shoving the rubber stop across the threshold, she left the door ajar and dug into her jacket’s inner pocket for her pack and lighter. With a smoke at her lips, she flicked on the Bic, the flame dancing and warming her cheeks.
“I thought you’d be out here.”
Gail jumped at the voice, the cigarette falling from her lips unlit. Her thumb blazed upon the Bic’s switch but she left the light on, illuminating the wrinkled face and the pinned up mess of graying hair of the plump figure wrapped in too-tight denim rounding the nearby dumpster. Straightening, Gail inched toward the door.
“So it was you?”
“You saw me?”
“No, but it’s hard not to recognize your mother’s laugh, even if it has been twenty years.” Gail fetched another cigarette, lit it and took a long drag, letting the coils weave into her lungs. “How have you been Janice?”
“You know those will kill you.”
Gail shrugged and blew the smoke out into the night. “Says the three packs a day?”
“Is that what you’ve come to tell me? You’ve cleaned up and want to pick up where you left off?” She chuckled. “Good joke. I might have to steal it.”
“I won’t lie, Donna—”
“It’s Gail now.”
“I’d rather be her namesake than Dad’s. She took care of me a lot better than he did, better than you did.”
“I got a letter from him,” said Gail. Twirling the cigarette between her fingers, she stared at the glowing pearl. “A postcard from Christchurch. He wished you well.”
“Then you’ve heard more than me.”
“Should I be sorry?”
Janice shoved her hands into the pockets of her faded jean jacket and stared at the toes of her cherry red boots.
Gail choked on her next lungful. “Sorry?” She spat out the question again. “Sorry?”
When Janice looked up, the lines around her bloodshot eyes had deepened, matching the clumps of mascara. The pallor of her skin stood out beneath the ruddy blush half blended into her hair.
“I’m sorry, yes. I’m sorry for everything. For being a terrible mother, for leaving, for being too scared to fight through my fears and figure out a way to make it work. I’m sorry for not being there on your first day of school, for not helping you pick out your prom dress, for not coming to your graduation. I’m sorry for it all, for all the time we lost.”
“We lost? We didn’t lose anything. You lost. You lost out on me and if you think coming back like this, heckling me on an opening night, is somehow going to get you back into my good graces you’re crazier than I thought.”
With a frown, Janice tilted her head at the same angle Grandma had used when she hadn’t quite heard what had been said.
“Heckling? You thought I was making fun of you?”
“People usually laugh at my jokes, not their own, but they can only hear them if they listen. I heard you muttering the whole time.”
“I was laughing, Donn— Gail. I thought you were funny. Ask that bartender in there,” she said, pointing a ruby fingernail at the door. “I couldn’t stop talking about you, about how damn funny you were, how proud I was. It got so bad I left before they could kick me out.”
Gail stared into Janice’s drawn face, her mother’s painted lips quivering. The silence stretched until the cigarette burned low and bit her fingers. With a wince, she flung the stub to the asphalt and ground it beneath her boot. She kept her gaze downcast and watched the embers winking away like fireflies.
“That’s all I wanted to say,” said Janice. “I’m sorry, and I’m proud of all that you’ve done, all that you accomplished. I realize it might not sound like much coming from me, but I needed you to know.”
The door creaked open.
“Gail? Oh, sorry,” said Linus, “but Patty says one minute.”
“I’ll be right in,” she whispered.
“Um…Okay.” Linus ducked back inside, the door thumping on the rubber stop.
“Sounds like you’ve got to go.”
“Yeah,” said Gail. “Are you staying for the rest of the show?” She looked up with a sharp inhale, but failed to suck the back the question.
Janice’s eyes grew wide, like two cue balls. “Do you want me to?”
“I….” Gail gulped down the sudden answer leaping on her tongue. She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her slacks and kicked away the smashed butt, wishing for all the world she didn’t feel like the wounded little girl she sensed cowering in her heart. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe I will then.”
With a noncommittal grunt, she thumbed at the door. “I’ve got to go.”
“Don’t let me keep you.”
“I won’t,” said Gail.
Grabbing the knob, she strode inside. The door slammed closed behind her and the corridor breezed past in a blur of painted cinderblock and murmured backstage banter. Walking into the wings, the darkness embraced her and the stage lights beckoned.
She found Patty as the audience’s applause escalated time with Key and Pedal’s crescendo.
“You’re on,” said Patty.
She waved for the curtain to fall, and offered over the microphone.
Staring at the open stage, Gail seized the handheld and stroked the plastic casing with taut fingers. Jokes, puns, quirky phrasing and her introduction for Jerry Tymes flew from her thoughts and when she thought of the audience a single face came into mind.
“Gail,” said Patty. “You okay?”
Gail worked her lips back into a happy smile. With dimples carefully in place, she strode out into the waiting spotlight wondering if the one person she’d longed to see would be waiting.