“I’m sorry,” he said again.
“I’ll send you an invitation to the funeral.” She turned on her heel and headed for the door.
“Take this with you.”
She stopped, gave him one last withering look. “No, Joe. You’ll have to touch them. Throw them in the trash yourself. Try looking in the mirror after that.”
Then she left. She made it all the way to her car before she started to cry.
Outside the trailer, Meg sat in her car, trying to compose herself. Every time she opened her compact to fix her makeup, she looked at her watery eyes and it made her cry all over again.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d sat there, but at some point it started to rain. Drops thumped on the convertible’s soft top and tapped on the windshield.
Finally, she got out of the car and walked up to the trailer.
Sam opened the door before she even knocked. He stood there, frowning, his eyes already watery. “I wondered how long you were going to sit out there.”
“I thought you didn’t know I was here.”
He tried to smile. “You always did think you were smarter than me.”
“Not just you, Sam. I think I’m smarter than everyone.” She wanted to smile but couldn’t.
“How bad is it?”
“Bad.” When she said it, the tears came back. She wiped them away.
“Come here,” Sam said gently, opening his arms.
She surged forward, let him hold her. She couldn’t seem to stop crying. Then he was crying, too.
When they finally drew back, they stared at each other. Meg had no idea what to say.
Suddenly there were footsteps in the hallway. Ali came running out, dressed in pink footed pajamas, carrying her Groovy Girl. She looked up at Meg. “Do we get to go see Mommy now? Is she all better?”
Meg knelt down and pulled her niece into her arms, holding her tightly. “Yeah,” she said in a throaty voice. “You get to see Mommy tomorrow.”
Meghann tossed and turned all night, finally falling into a troubled sleep around dawn. When she woke up again, bleary-eyed and exhausted, she was surprised to see that it was 9:30. A quick check of the condo told her that Sam and Ali had already gone to the hospital. Bobby hadn’t come home last night. She forced herself out of bed and stumbled into the shower. By the time she got to the hospital and parked, it was 10:00.
The waiting room was already full.
Gina sat in a chair by the windows, knitting a delicate pink blanket. Beside her, Karen and Charlotte were playing cribbage. Bobby stood at the window, staring out. At Meghann’s entrance, he looked up. She could tell by his eyes that Claire had had a bad night. Ali sat at his feet, coloring.
“Aunt Meg,” the little girl cried out, scampering to her feet.
Meghann scooped her niece into her arms and hugged her.
“Grandpa’s in with Mommy. Can I go now? Can I?”
Meg looked at Bobby, who sighed and shrugged, as if to say, I can’t take her.
“Sure,” Meg said. Slowly, dreading every step, she carried Ali down the long hallway.
At the closed door, she paused, pulled up a bright smile, and went inside.
Sam stood by Claire’s bedside. He was crying and holding her hand.
Ali wiggled out of Meg’s arms and slid to the floor. She immediately went to her grandfather, who picked her up. “What’s the matter, Grandpa? Do you have something in your eye? One time Sammy Chan got poked in the eye and then Eliot Zane called him a crybaby.”
Meghann and Claire exchanged a look.
“Leave my baby with me,” Claire said, opening her arms. Ali didn’t notice the way her mother winced at every movement, every touch.
Sam wiped his eyes and managed a smile. “I better go call that plumber. The pool filter sounds bad.”
Ali nodded. “Like shit.”
Claire smiled. Tears glittered in her eyes. “Alison Katherine, I’ve told you not to copy Grandpa’s bad language.”
“Oops.” Ali grinned.
Sam and Meg looked at each other, and a question hung between them, clear as a sunny day. Who will tell Ali things like that . . . ?
Meg backed out of the room, left the three of them alone. She went back to the waiting room and thumbed through a magazine.
An hour or so later, a commotion in the hall got her attention. She looked up.
Mama had arrived. Sheathed in elegant, flowing black, she marched forward carrying a tiny dog in a beaded carrier and leading the way. Behind her was a cluster of people; one of them was snapping photographs.
Mama came to the waiting room and looked around. When she saw Meghann, she burst into tears. “How is our girl?” She pulled a silk handkerchief out of her sleeve and dabbed her eyes.
A photographer flashed a photo.
Mama offered a brave smile. “This is m’other daughter, Meghann Dontess. D-O-N-T-E-S-S. She’s twenty-nine years old.”
Meghann counted silently to ten. Then, in a steady voice, she said, “Dogs aren’t allowed in the hospital.”
“I know. I had to sneak him in. You know, Elvis, he—”
“Elvis is going to be as dead as his namesake in about ten seconds.” At Mama’s affronted gasp, Meghann looked at the man standing slightly apart from the crowd. Dressed in black, neckless, he looked like a WWF combatant. “You. Mr. Bodyguard. Take the dog to the car.”
“The hotel,” Mama said with a dramatic, suffering sigh. “The suite has plenty of room.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Neckless took the dog carrier and walked away.
That left just Mama, the photographer, and a thin, mouse-faced man with a tape recorder. The reporter.
“Excuse me,” Meghann said to the men as she grabbed Mama’s arm and pulled her into a quiet corner. “What did you do, hire a publicist?”
Mama drew herself up to her full height and sniffed. “I was talking to her on the other line when you called. What was I supposed to tell her? It’s hardly my fault that Us magazine wanted to cover my visit to my gravely ill daughter. I am, after all, news. Celebrity can be such a burden.”
Meghann frowned. She should have been mad as hell right now, ready to deep-fry Mama in some down-home chicken grease. But when she looked into her mother’s heavily made-up eyes, she saw something that surprised her.
“You’re afraid,” she said softly. “That’s why you brought the entourage. So it would be a performance.”
Mama rolled her eyes. “Nothing scares me. I just . . . just . . .”
“It’s Claire,” Mama finally answered, looking away. “Claire.” Her voice thickened, and Meghann saw something honest for once. “Can I see her?”
“Not if you’re bringing the circus with you.”
Mama said quietly, “Will you go in with me?”
Meghann was surprised by that. She’d always imagined Mama to be shallow as a pie pan and tough as nails, a woman who knew what she wanted in life and made a beeline for it, the kind of woman who would cross police tape and step over a body if it was in her way. Now, she wondered if she’d been wrong, if Mama had always been this weak and frightened.
She wondered if it was all an act. Fear was something Meghann understood. Especially when it grew out of guilt.
“Of course I’ll come with you.”
They went over to the magazine people. Mama made a teary plea for privacy in this difficult time, then recommended a restaurant across the street for the rest of the interview.
Mama’s high heels clacked on the linoleum floor. The sound seemed designed to draw attention, but no one noticed.
At Claire’s room, Meghann stopped. “You ready?”
Mama pulled up a smile, nodded, and swept into the room like Auntie Mame, her long black sleeves fluttering out behind her. “Claire, darlin’, it’s Mama.”
Claire tried to smile, but against the white mound of pillows and industrial gray blankets, she looked worn, impossibly pale. The patch of baldness gave her an odd, lopsided look. “Hey, Mama. You just missed Sam and Ali. They went down to the cafeteria.”
Mama stumbled, her arms lowered. She glanced back at Meghann.
“I know I look like shit, Mama,” Claire said, trying for a laugh.
Mama moved slowly this time. “Why, darlin’, that isn’t true at all. You’re lovely.” She pulled up a chair and sat down beside the bed. “Why, I remember an episode of Starbase IV. It was called ‘Attack Buffet,’ remember that? I ate a bad bit of space food and all m’hair fell out.” She smiled. “I sent that episode in to the Emmy voters. ’Course it didn’t work. Too much politics. I sort of liked the freedom of no hair.”
“It was a rubber skullcap, Mama.”
“Still. It makes a woman’s eyes look beautiful. I do wish I’d brought my makeup though. You could use a little blush, maybe a touch of liner. Meghann should have told me. And I’ll pick you up a pretty little bed jacket. Maybe with some fur around the collar. I remember a dress I once wore to the—”
“Mama.” Claire tried to lean forward. The effort clearly cost her. “There’s a tumor eating through my brain.”
Mama’s smile fluttered. “That’s awfully graphic of you, darlin’. We Southern women—”
“Please, Mama. Please.”
Mama sank into her chair. She seemed to lose mass somehow, become smaller, ordinary, until the flapping black outfit swallowed her up, leaving behind a thin, heavily made-up woman who’d had one too many face-lifts. “I don’t know what you want from me.”
It was the first time in twenty years Meghann had heard her mother’s real voice. Instead of the sweet lilt of the South, it had the pinched flatness of the Midwest.
“Oh, Mama,” Claire said, “of course you don’t. You never wanted children. You wanted an audience. I’m sorry. I’m too tired to be polite. I want you to know that I love you, Mama. I always did. Even when you . . . looked away.”
That was how Mama always put it: I was standing there one day, takin’ care of my babies, then I looked away for a minute, and they were both gone.
It had been easier, Meghann thought, than confronting the fact that Mama had simply let Claire go.
“Sam was a good man,” Mama said so softly they had to strain to hear it. “The only good one I ever found.”
“Yes, he was,” Claire agreed.
Mama waved her hand airily. “But y’all know me. I’m not one to go pickin’ through the past.” The accent was back. “I keep movin’. That’s always been my way.”
They’d lost Mama; whatever opportunity had been opened by the sight of Claire’s illness had closed. Mama had rallied. She stood up. “I don’t want to tire you out. I’m goin’ to run over to Nordstrom and buy y’all some makeup. Would you mind if a friend of mine took a little picture of us together?”
“Mama—” Meghann warned.
“Sure,” Claire said, sagging back into the pillows. “Meghann, would you send Bobby and Ali in? I want to kiss them before I take another nap.”