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Contemporary Drama Sad

The ringing phone pulled Derek from the depths of his stupor. He was on the couch with the TV blaring and an empty bottle of rye lying on the floor next to him. 

“Who the fuck–” he slurred as he groped for the phone on the coffee table. Every time his finger touched the wood, the tips tingled with pins and needles and bubbling fear returned to his stomach. He found his phone. “Hello?” he croaked.

“Derek?” came Sally’s voice, “Where were you? I’ve been calling you.” Her voice sounded frantic.

“Sorry, I was sleeping,” Derek said, “What’s wrong?”

Sally’s breath shuddered. “It’s Mom. She’s at the hospital. Annie took her in this morning.”

“What?” Derek said, sitting up. The sudden movement made his head throb and the room tilt.

“She’s having organ failure. Derek,” she choked, “she’s not gonna make it. The doctor said it will probably be a few hours. You have to get here.”

Derek felt tears welling in his eyes. “Sally,” he started, “I– I can’t. I–”

“What do you mean you can’t!?” Sally cried over the phone. “Our mother is dying!”

“I’m sorry,” Derek sobbed thickly. “I– I can’t drive. I–”

“Jesus Christ, Derek, you’re fucking drunk! Again! You are un-fucking-believable!” she yelled. 

Derek started to cry. “Maybe, I don’t know, someone can come–”

“Nobody is going to drive over an hour to come and get you and drive back, Derek,” she spit his name out. “You figure it out. She’s at Johnson Memorial.”

“Sally, I–” but she hung up. “Oh God,” he said. He dropped his phone and stood up, staggering. “Oh, God, Mom– Ow!” he bumped into the coffee table. He stood in the middle of his dirty apartment and tried to think of what to do through the fog. It was dark, so he turned on the standing lamp, illuminating the room and mess.

Ashley. He would call Ashley. He stumbled towards the couch, fell to his knees, and picked up the phone. Between the alcohol and the numbness, he struggled to open it and call her. “Come on, please pick up. Please,” he said as the phone rang. It went to her voicemail, so he left a message. “Ashley, honey, it’s Dad. Please call me back as soon as you can. I don’t know if Aunt Sally or Aunt Annie called you already but Gramma is in the hospital.” He had to stop, “And it’s not looking good, sweetie,” he croaked. “I was hoping you could pick me up and drive us there. Daddy– Dad can’t drive right now. Please call me back, honey, I love you.” He hung up and put his phone down. He hoped that she would call him back, but she rarely did. 

He ran his hands through his thinning hair and his fingers prickled. What could he do? He only had on a pair of sweatpants and figured it was best to get ready to go in case he found a ride.

He grabbed a pair of jeans and a (mostly) clean shirt on the back of the couch and threw them on. He was looking for a pair of socks when he heard his phone start to ring. He was sobering slowly and rushed towards the couch for it. He wanted another drink.

He had more feeling in his hands and he answered the phone easier than he had when Sally called. Before he had a chance to say hello, he heard Ashley’s voice.

“Dad?”

“Ashley!”

“Are you at home?” 

“Yes, I am. You got my message?”

“Yeah. And I just got off the phone with Aunt Sally. I’m coming to get you. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“Thank you, honey,” he said thickly.

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

Please don’t have anything else to drink.”

“Ashley, I–” but she had hung up.

“Fuck,” he said out loud. Shame seemed to creep up from the floor and crawl up his body until he thought he would be sick with it.

He decided that with twenty minutes, he would try to quickly tidy his apartment; he didn’t want Ashley to see it in such a mess.

He grabbed the garbage can and went through the house like a whirlwind, collecting garbage. Then he gathered up as many glasses and bottles as he could in his hands and started carrying them into the kitchen. He had just stepped onto the linoleum floor when the rye bottle slipped out of his hand and smashed on the floor.

“SHIT!” he yelled. He looked at the clock; Ashley would be there any minute. He stepped around the shattered bottle and ran to the sink with his armload and unloaded. That’s when the buzzer for the building door went off.

He rushed over to the intercom and pushed the button to open the door. Then he rushed into the kitchen and started to pick up the shattered bottle as fast as he could, careful not to cut himself.

He’d just finished with the big pieces and grabbed the broom when he heard her knock; He’d just have to keep her out of the kitchen. He ran over and opened the door and Ashley was standing there, her hair up, frowning, and with tears sparkling in her eyes. She was holding a cup of coffee. “Hi, Dad,” she said before her eyes grew wide. “You’re bleeding!” she said grabbing his hand– he’d sliced it on the bottle. There were red lines of blood running like rivers around his hand and on his arm while blood dripped on the floor. He hadn’t even noticed.

Ashley cleaned him up and bandaged him before sweeping up the rest of the remnants of the bottle. “Your hands are getting worse aren’t they?” she asked as they headed out the door. Fear crested in Derek’s stomach and he could only nod. 

* * *

They had twenty minutes or so left on the highway before getting to the hospital. Derek had asked about Brandon, the kids, and Ashley’s work, but she didn’t give up much. They both steered clear of the reason for their spontaneous trip. It was a door neither dared to enter, too afraid of the sincere feelings it locked away

After the conversation fizzled out, they rode in silence, Ashley guiding the car toward the hospital and Derek watching the lights and highway lines flash by and thinking about his Mom.

As the ride wore on, Derek was becoming more and more sober and his thoughts and memories were becoming clearer. He thought about warm days by the beach while Olga watched from shore and cold winter nights where they’d sit by the fire singing while Olga played piano. 

The piano. It was Sally’s now; she was the only one with the room for it. It was an old upright Heintzman, with yellowed ivory keys and the gold worn off the pedals. Olga’s father had bought it used and it stayed in the family ever since. It sat against the kitchen wall, the lacquer faded and the bench worn down to bare wood in places. Derek could remember his mother wearing polyester skirts and how the tiny splinters sounded when she stood up, trying to cling to her.

The upright sat against the kitchen wall, with the west-facing living room window on the right. On Sunday evenings after supper was cleaned up, Olga would sit down at the keyboard and play her favourite pieces. Derek would sit on the couch behind her, while the golden light of sunset streamed through the window.

Ashley said something but it was far away and distant, like it was coming from a television in another room while you had your nose inches away from the pages of a good book.

“Dad? Are you all right?”

“Hmmm?” he moaned, half asleep.

“Are you all right?” Ashley asked again, watching him more than the road.

“Yeah, honey, I’m all right,” he said. He started to sit up when a wave of dizziness slid over him and he slumped back. His heart was racing.

“OK. We’re almost there.”

“OK.”

There was silence for a few more seconds. “Did you remember your insulin?”

“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” he said. He hadn’t, but he hated it when she started on him about his blood sugar.

Ashley grabbed her purse and threw it onto his lap. “I knew you’d do this. There’s some orange juice in there. We’re almost at the hospital and we’ll get you a sandwich before we go to see Gramma–”

“I’m not hungry,” Derek said, shorter than he meant.

“Too goddamn bad, Dad. You’re not going to pass out in the room while Gramma dies. Aunt Sally will kill you and, honestly, I won’t stop her.”

Derek, defeated, pulled out a box of orange juice and fought with his numbed fingers to get the straw open and through the foil, while fear cooly rolled in his stomach and tears slipped quietly down his cheeks as they continued down the highway and into the night.



* * *


They stopped for Derek to get a sandwich and another coffee. He had lied about not being hungry but he didn’t want to stop. He just wanted to get to the hospital.

Once they got to the hospital they parked and made their way in. “Aunt Sally texted me. Gramma’s in room 415,” Ashley said.

“Ok,” Derek replied in little more than a whisper. He hated hospitals.

They found the elevators and rode up in silence. Once on the fourth floor, they stepped out and Derek froze, staring down the hallway. It seemed endless, doors, floors, and fluorescent lights all converging at a single point in the distance. Derek’s mouth was dry and sweat was beading on his forehead. He started to put his hands on the counter and noticed they were shaking. He dug them into his pockets and felt the rumble of numbness roll up his hands.

Ashley took a few steps before realizing that Derek hadn’t moved. “Come on, Dad,” she said, tugging at his shirt. 

He broke out of his trance and started to slowly follow Ashley like a nervous child on the first day of school.

They found the door to 415 open and Ashley stopped. She gave Derek a sad, tired look, and stepped aside for him.

He went into the dim room. Standing in the corner across from the door was Sally, who looked at him with anger and grief on her face. Next to her, asleep in a chair with her head resting on Sally’s hip, was Annie.

Derek looked awkwardly at Sally for a moment before forcing himself to look at the bed.

There lay Olga, withered and small underneath the blankets.

Her eyes were closed, and she was intubated with various other medical devices attached to her. An EKG machine beeped softly next to the bed.

Derek seemed to float in, past Sally’s glare and Annie’s slumber, until he stood beside his mother. There was an empty chair and he gently pulled it next to her. Tears dripped off the end of his nose and onto the edge of the bed as he sat down. “Hi, Mom,” he said, “I- I- m-made it.”

He heard soft crying behind him. He turned and saw Sally and Ashley hugging each other, with Annie looking around dazed as she woke up.

He looked back at Olga, at a face that was equally familiar and hard to recognize. He took her small, wrinkled hand in his and thought about being young, five or six, and sitting on the bench next to his mother, her hands guiding his over the weathered keys while his feet dangled next to hers, her feet working the pedals. 

He could even vaguely remember being even younger, three maybe, and sitting under the bench and trying to push the pedals with his hands while his mother giggled and played above him.

Her hands then had been pink and smooth, with long fingers and manicured nails. Piano hands. Now they were wrinkly and knobby, ravaged by arthritis and covered in purple veins.

“I love you, Mom,” he said, and she gave him a tired squeeze. Pins and needles rippled in his hands.

* * *


Olga slipped away in the night. The four of them were allowed to stay on the condition that they stayed quiet. When she passed, the women hugged each other and cried while Derek wept by himself. He felt sick and his head pounded.

Once the doctor came in, he left, rushing out of the hospital as fast as he could, trying desperately to catch his breath. He finally stepped out of the hospital and into the night air, gasping. He needed a drink.

* * *


They all went back to Sally’s to get some sleep. Sally barely spoke to him, except to tell him that he could sleep on the couch. He slept terribly.

At one point, he got up to use the bathroom and found a bottle of mouthwash. It took the edge off, but just barely. He needed a real drink so he’d stop thinking about the funeral.

He went home with Ashley. The ride was long and arduous; Derek felt awful. He needed to eat. He needed insulin. But most of all, he needed a drink. They stopped for food but it was hard for Derek to choke it down.

Once they got to his apartment, Ashley went up with him to ensure he was OK. He checked his blood sugar, shot a dose of insulin, and called work to start his bereavement period while Ashley made coffee. Satisfied that he would be all right, she left, but not before asking him not to drink.

After she left, he waited a few agonizing minutes before leaving for the liquor store. His thoughts of his mother and Ashley and Sally and Annie and rye and diabetes were only interrupted by the jolt of numbness in his hand as he opened the door.

* * *


“And now,” the funeral director said into the microphone, “Olga’s son Derek would like to come up to the piano to play Olga’s favourite composition; Chopin’s Nocturne Opus nine, number two.”

Derek had called Sally and begged her to let him play. At first, she was vehemently against it, but after nearly an hour of begging and arguing and fighting and crying, she relented. 

“But,” she warned Derek, “So help me God if you make a mockery of our mother’s funeral or you puke all over that piano because you’re drunk or you pass out, I don’t know what I’ll do to you.”

Derek got up from his seat and made his way, as steadily as he could, toward the piano. He looked at Sally and her face was twisted with anger. He’d drank before the funeral; he had to. Once seated, he stared at the piano, nervous to bring his dumb hands to the keyboard, nervous to touch them and not feel them.

Olga had committed Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 to memory and so had Derek. He’d been so proud the day that he sat her down to play it for her without following the music, smiling the whole time.

He worked up his courage and brought his hands to the keys; his fingers responded with pins and needles. 

He took a deep breath and pressed the first note– a B flat. The piano responded with a warm, gentle tone that reminded him of the Heintzman and how it would fill the house and how they’d get lost in the melodies and intricate harmonies. Olga would get so enraptured that she would slam her way through the fortissimo passages (usually to Derek’s father’s chagrin; he would ask her to keep it down regularly) or let her fingers whisper across the keys when the music called for it.

Following the pickup note, he started into the harmony with his left hand, numbly but gently waltzing through the twelve-eight-time signature while his right hand sailed through the melody.

He reached the melancholic sixth bar and started to dig in a little harder on the keys, making the piano sing and pushing the time but not rushing, the way Olga used to. 

He was nervous about the trills but his fingers cooperated in kind and the melody sang out of the funeral home’s little upright. He let the time breathe in the bars that were marked poco rit— the same way Olga would.

Sally and Annie sat stunned; it sounded like it was Olga up there playing instead of Derek. He had always been a wonderful piano player, and maybe at one time had a bright future as a musician. At least until the drink got him, the way it had gotten his father. 

Derek continued to make his way through the piece and thought about how goddamn good it felt to play that way again, in a way he hadn’t in years. He started to think about how Olga had taught all the kids to play, and while Annie and Sally knew their way around a keyboard, they were much more interested in singing. 

But Derek, Derek loved to play. He played anything he could get his hands on. Classical, jazz, rock, it didn’t matter. He loved it all.

He continued to play and with every bar, it seemed he was getting more and more sober. And, it at least seemed to him at the time, that feeling was coming back into his hands.

He reached the last few bars and played the repeated thirty-second note run perfectly before running the last of the melody down sadly to the next-to-last chord. He let it hang in the air, the harmony filling the funeral chamber and surrounding everybody warmly. 

When he laid down the last E flat major chord, his head felt clear and the numbness in his hands was replaced with something else, something he would later swear was Olga’s hands laid over top of his, playing the final chord with him.



September 02, 2023 03:14

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1 comment

Mary Bendickson
18:23 Sep 02, 2023

Hope this inspired him to give up the poison. Thanks for liking my pieces.

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