This year's WHYY/NewsWorks holiday play, written by Chris Satullo and illustrated by Tony Auth, tells the story of a young man trying to survive the festive season in the wake of a deep personal loss.
SCENE 1 — A CONDO IN THE FAIRMOUNT SECTION OF PHILADELPHIA
NARRATOR: He was having the dream again. He cried out a warning.
SAM: No! Kristin, no!
NARRATOR: But she did not hear. It was happening again. Panic gripped his throat.
SAM (A strangled sound): Nooooooooo!!!!!
NARRATOR: Sam Long jerked into consciousness, howling into an empty bedroom. He clutched after his dream's one moment of sweetness, that first sight of Kristin's ponytail waggling ahead of him on the running path. The image was gone. The ache had settled smugly back onto its throne. Sam got up, shuffled past piles of jeans and T-shirts to the bathroom.
SAM: Uggggg. I gotta tell ya, Kristin, my mouth feels like a small animal crawled into it overnight and died.
NARRATOR: Sam trudged out to the kitchen.
SAM: Arrghh, good going, Sam. Forgot to prime the coffee maker again... What time is it? 7:12!! Damn.
NARRATOR: He snatched a half-full glass of OJ from the fridge, chugged it. Then he bent over to slip on and tie up his running shoes, picked up his keys.
SAM: Get it in gear, Long. Can't keep Suze waiting.
SCENE 2 — FORBIDDEN DRIVE, FAIRMOUNT PARK
NARRATOR: In 20 minutes, Sam pulled his beat-up Subaru wagon into the lot by the Valley Green Inn on Forbidden Drive. He saw his sister bending over next to her royal-blue Infiniti. Her hands held the backs of her ankles as she stretched her leg muscles. Next to her, 8-month-old Kyle slumbered sweetly inside his three-wheeled stroller. It cost more than several cars Sam had bought in his 32 years.
SAM (Walking up, yawing, stretching): Yo, sis. (More yawning) Top of the mornin'.
SUZANNE: Bam-Bam. Full of beans as usual, I see.
SAM: Hey, after the night I had, me even being here — that's a miracle the Vatican should investigate. (Kyle babbles happily to see his uncle.) Yoooo, Mr. Kyle, howyadoin? You ready for your crazy mama to bump you all up and down Forbidden Drive? (Sam stretches.) All right, if we're gonna do this, let's do it. To the cafe and back?
NARRATOR: Suzanne's brow crinkled.
SUZANNE: That's all? How'm I gonna get ready for the marathon next spring if that's all the run you can manage, you wuss?
SAM: Feel free to run all the way to King of Prussia without me, Suze. Me, I got an appointment at 10, then a client thing at lunch. Marc won't be happy if I'm late.
NARRATOR: They started out along the path. Suzanne leaned forward as she ran, shoes slapping the cinders of Forbidden Drive. Sam's big sister had been Type A since the crib. Yet, to Sam's amazement, she'd never gone back to the firm after Emily, her oldest, had been born. Neil the corporate litigator, with his Bleak House cases, made more than enough to pay for plush SUVs and a McMansion in Whitemarsh Glen.
Suzanne now devoted her fierce energy to mothering, charity work, running — and meddling in Sam's affairs. She had a gene for happiness her little brother lacked. For him, happiness had arrived unbidden, and just once. Then it had vanished, 15 months ago.
SUZANNE (Huffing as she runs.): So this Chloe woman, who just moved to the township, mind you, who still can't pronounce the name of the art center properly, well, she gets up, all full of herself, and says she's done a lot of charity events in the past and she doesn't think our idea will — and I quote — "move the needle." If I'd had a needle right then ...
SAM (Out of breath, but amused): You woulda plunged it into her aorta. I know, Suze, I know.
SUZANNE: Well, you gotta admit — the nerve on that woman.
SAM: Hey, for the movie version, I've already mentally cast Glenn Close as her.
NARRATOR: Suzanne gave her brother a grateful grin.
SUZANNE: I knew you'd understand. ... Hey, played any gigs lately?
SAM: Yeah, as a matter of fact. Couple nights ago, Tuesday, guess it was, Tyrone asked me to sit in. His quintet played a benefit at the Ben Franklin House. His drummer was ... indisposed. We got it goin' OK.
NARRATOR: At the Cedars House Cafe, they turned around and headed back down Forbidden Drive. Kyle snoozed sweetly in his stroller as they ran side by side in companionable silence. Back at Valley Green, Suzanne paused in her cool down stretches to give Sam a sidelong glance.
SUZANNE: You got anything going on Sunday?
SAM: Suze, whatever it is you have in mind ... no.
SUZANNE: You don't even know what I was going to say!
SAM (laughs, a little bitterly): I've got a pretty good idea. You are nothing if not predictable, my beloved sister.
SUZANNE: We're having a Christmas brunch at the house Sunday, is all. Come ... Sam, you should come.
SAM: I would rather, and I mean this quite sincerely and with all love in my heart, poke hot needles in my eyes.
SUZANNE (Wheedling): Saaaaam. You've got to eat. You're skinny as a rail. You've got to get out.
SAM: No. What I've got to do is get through this razor-blades-in-the-gut season with as little "revelry" as I can.
SUZANNE: Listen, Sam, it's been 15 months.
NARRATOR: Sam paused a long moment, trying to remind himself that his sister really did love him more than anyone else on the planet.
SAM (evenly): Fifteen months. Really? I had no idea. I mean, who's counting?
SUZANNE: Bam-Bam, I'm sorry, sweetie. I didn't mean to be stupid. But it hurts me to see you like this. Ever since ... the accident, you've been curled up in a ball. I worry about you.
SAM: So, who is she this time, Suze?
SAM: Please. The friend from the Cricket Club. Or the junior associate at Neil's firm. Or the darling daughter of the AAUW president who is just dying to meet your gloomy little widower of a brother.
SUZANNE: Correction. My talented, handsome, and somewhere deep down, still really sweet brother. Anyway ... Claire Mitchell. That's her name. She's a lawyer, but now don't you go holding that against her. She works for Community Legal Services. She helps the poor, Sam. Her virtue is up even to your standards. And .... she's gorgeous. She's funny. She wants to meet you.
SAM: Sure, she does. I suppose Neil promised to take a case pro bono if she came to brunch and was kind to the emotional cripple? Wow, it might be worth it just to see your husband defend a client without "Inc." at the end of its name.
NARRATOR: Suzanne pulled up the windscreen on the stroller; Kyle beamed at her. She pulled her boy up and clutched him close.
SUZANNE: Why do you have to be so negative, Sam? Listen. I am your big sister. God knows why, but I'm the only person who refuses to buy into your "I-vant-to-be-alone" routine. Well, Marc, too.
NARRATOR: She handed Kyle to Sam, reached out and framed his cheeks with her palms, gazing into his eyes.
SUZANNE: Bam-Bam, you are coming Sunday. It's Christmastime. Come. That's an order.
NARRATOR: Sam grimaced. And sighed. Then, shifting Kyle to his left shoulder, he saluted with his right hand.
SAM: Yes, ma'am!
SUZANNE: Good. 10 o'clock. And do not, on pain of death, wear jeans with holes in them.
SCENE 3 — A therapist's office in the Bella Vista section
NARRATOR: Sam Long sat in his shrink's office, leaning forward, face down, his haunches on the edge of the couch, playing idly with the cap on an empty bottle of Vitamin Water. Kiwi-raspberry.
DR. TOMASKY: So, the dream again?
DR. TOMASKY: Exactly the same, or some new twists? Tell me about it.
NARRATOR: Sam looked up at his therapist.
SAM: Really, Sean? What's the point of that? By now, you know the drill.
DR. TOMASKY: Humor me. Hey, when I get to interpret dreams, it makes me feel like Sigmund Freud.
SAM (short laugh): Hey, Freud's idiot intern could interpret this one. Not much mystery to it. I'm not very inventive. .... Well, OK. Here goes ... Pretty much the same, this time, although it seems like the weather was different, the time of year. Lots of clouds. A chill in the air, maybe. Kristin had black leggings, not shorts. I'm trailing behind her ... like, like I always did. She has ... had such a stride, that girl.
Then all of a sudden, somehow, the river comes up to the path, or we veer into the river, but anyway I notice the water's rising up, past her calves, up to her thighs, up to her waist. I'm trying to yell, to warn her, to tell her what's going on but it's like she can't hear me, or really it's more like I have ... no voice. My throat is going through all the motions, the struggle to yell, but no sound is coming out.
Then all of a sudden she's all the way in, up past her neck, and I'm trying to lunge ahead to grab her, but she's moving away from me and my legs are like freaking lead and I can't shout and then all that I see is her ponytail floating on the water — then I wake up.
DR. TOMASKY: And ...
SAM: And it's the start of another freaking day in freaking Philadelphia, PA. And I just gotta trudge through it somehow.
DR. TOMASKY: But you do. You do that. Day after day.
SAM: Yeah, I do. So when do I get my medal, Sean?
DR. TOMASKY: Oh, I don't know, Sam, whenever you decide you deserve one. Whenever your heart decides to accept what your brain knows. That this wasn't your fault, and slowly ... eviscerating yourself as though it was, well, that does nothing to help you work through this. ... Sam, this is our last time before the holiday. I'm heading out of town. Anything I can do to help stock up your Christmas survival kit?
SAM: Yeah, snap your fingers and make it Jan. 2. That might do the trick.
SCENE 4 — BACK AT SAM'S CONDO
NARRATOR: Sam Long slipped the key into the front door of his Green Street condo in Philadelphia's Fairmount section.
The door opened onto a scene to make a mother weep – tangled power cords dangling from countertops, towels flung over chairs, a regiment of Yard's bottles sprawled across the kitchen counter. As Sam walked through the carnage, he riffed through his mail.
SAM (Murmuring to himself): Bill, bill, bill, and, oh, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation wants my money. Well, they should get some of it; remember that one, Long. And what's this? An actual Christmas card. Who would do such a thing? Oh, of course, Kristin's Aunt Lydia.
NARRATOR: Kristin, well trained by her old WASP family, had been an old-fashioned Christmas geek. Even in the era of e-cards, she still had mailed Hallmarks to a list hundreds of names long.
Sam thought back to their one married Christmas together, the day they drove out to what he could only regard as the boonies to cut down the tree ...
FLASHBACK TO TWO CHRISTMASES AGO
SAM: There, there's another one. About the eighth one we've passed.
KRISTIN: The eighth what?
SAM: The eighth parking lot full of perfectly nice, already cut Christmas trees. Why not just buy one? Then afterward, we can check out that inn we just passed for a nice, warm lunch.
KRISTIN: Samuel, the only proper way to find one's Christmas tree is to tromp through the woods until you find The One that's been waiting quietly for you for years. Then you cut it down ... yourself.
SAM: "The only proper way ..." Ahhh, Kristin, you and your Wentworth family rules. Where the heck is Skippack anyway? You sure you know your way to this place? Why we couldn't just plug the address into the iPhone app ...
KRISTIN: That would take all the adventure out it, Sam. We're in no hurry. Every turn we take takes down a new road, one we've never seen before. I like to rely on serendipity.
SAM: And I like to rely on Apple. But whatever ...
NARRATOR: It'd been nearly dusk by the time Kristin's quirky internal GPS had gotten them to the tree farm, and fully night by the time Sam had finished strapping the tree to the car roof with a web of bungee cords. They had stopped by that inn on the way; had a lingering dinner. Then they decorated the tree until well past midnight back at Green Street, Kristin taking care to position her cherished heirloom ornaments just right.
It had been one of the very best days of Sam Long's existence.
Last year, Christmas had arrived soon after the river swallowed his happiness. Inside his tunnel of grief, Sam hadn't even noticed the holiday season happening. This year, he was trying to pretend it wasn't.
It'd had been a blessedly busy day so far. After his morning run and brain tuneup with Sean, he'd handled the lunchtime pitch to the marketing VP for a line of women's active wear. The guy had liked Sam's ideas for using Instagram and Pinterest, the ones Marc had fought up to the last minute.
Afterward, Marc had said:
MARC: Well, Samuel, unlike some, I'm man enough to admit when I was wrong. He gobbled up all your social media patter. Good God, what's this bedraggled business of ours coming to? Buzzwords R Us. Eh, whatever works.
SAM: Sooo, boss, wonder if I could claim a reward for being such a good boy.
MARC: What ...? Oh, you want to go to run home and bang the drums for an hour. Again?
NARRATOR: Marc waved his hand.
MARC: Go, go. Go annoy the neighbors with those tribal rhythms.
NARRATOR: Sam had been playing drums since he was 7, one of those kids who drove everyone crazy by tapping fingers, pencil, keys against any available surface. He'd done the bar band thing. Now, just playing covers bored him. He had no regular gig but had a network of contacts, from jazz to zydeco, who called to ask him to sit in when their regular guy went AWOL. Drummers being drummers, that happened.
The occasional good moment at work. And his drums. Those were the only things that propelled Sam through the dark passage of his days. At least, being really good at doing creative in the digital age, Sam earned some leeway at work to take the occasional slide to practice his music. It helped, of course, when your boss was also your best friend.
Sam tried some zydeco beats. From time to time, Sam filled in with Les Haricots Verts, a zydeco band that was getting a nice rep for bringing that Creole sound to Quaker Philly.
After an hour's practice, Sam felt cleansed, if not whole. Never whole. Never again.
On his way out, he checked voicemail on his cell. How about that? Speak of the Cajun devil. He had a message from J.J., the head Green Bean himself, leader of Les Haricots Verts.
JJ: Samu-el. This is J.J. We could use you, mon frere, for a gig next Thursday. Wiley has ended up in the usual place in the usual way. You drummers. We're playing a little Christmas party for folks in suburb-ee-a. If you willin', it's the usual dough. Not much, but it is green. Text me. Say oui.
NARRATOR: Sam thought: Thursday. A night not alone. A night helping J.J. make squeezebox magic. Just ignore the Christmas part. Why not?
SCENE 5 – MILLION MONKEYS OFFICE IN PASSYUNK SQUARE
NARRATOR: Marc Thibodeaux swept up to Sam's desk at Million Monkeys Advertising with his usual air of drama.
MARC: Well, Samwise, that was quick. Magarian just called. Annnnnnd ... we got the account! Good work! . . . That's your cue to smile, Samwise. Say, 'Thank you, Marc. It was an honor to get this key new account, Marc. I'll kill myself to make the campaign work, Marc.' "
SAM: Absolutely, Marc. What you said.
MARC: Ahhhh, Samwise. You are the joy of my existence. .... So ...
NARRATOR: Marc draped his long limbs over a chair, pushed his ever-floppy, prematurely gray hair out of his eyes. He wore a lavender shirt, black suspenders, and a smartly tied purple bow tie. He grinned.
MARC: So. The O'Neill Group's Christmas party is tonight in the 'Yunk... Many lovely young practitioners of the dark arts of marketing will be on hand. You should attend.
SAM: You want me to go to Main Street? In Manayunk? Deepest, darkest Bro-ville? Where you can't swing a dead cat without hitting some loud, drunken jerk in a tight T-shirt with his baseball cap on backwards? (He imitates.) 'What's up, Bromosapien? Don't be up in my face, Bro.'... You're joking, right?
MARC: Hey, the bros are a target demo for some of our top accounts. Consider it research. But here's the main thing. I would never send you into such combat alone. Fine friend that I am, I shall serve as your wingman - a service of which you obviously are in dire need.
SAM: Explain to me again: What is the point, exactly, of having a gay wingman?
MARC: Ah, not just any gay wingman, Samwise. C'est moi, mon frère. My diffident charm, my sly wit, my elegant features. Before them, the women are helpless. Poor dears, they flock to me. They trust me, precisely because, unlike all the pumped-up bros around them, I ... do ... not... want ... them. Then, while under my spell, they notice the dark stranger next to me, with the haunted, intriguing look, straight out of Twilight. They think: 'Could I be the one?, Oh, surely I'm the one, to unlock the mystery of his gaze, the one to heal his pain.'
SAM: Watch yourself, Thibodeaux.
NARRATOR: Marc frowned, dialed it down.
MARC: Sorry, Samwise. Got carried away. Anyway, point is: Come. You should come. I'll protect you.
MARC: What if it's boss' orders? Call it psychographic persona research.
SAM: Still no. You already helped Patti browbeat me into going to her Christmas party Monday night. I'm sure she's got some friend of a friend she wants to fix me up with. And Suze is doing the same to me Sunday morning. Brunch at the McMansion farm. Here I sit, trying to ignore the season, just trying to survive until Jan. 2, and my so-called friends keep ordering up new helpings of pain.
MARC: Well, I agree with one part of that: Patti is one hell of an office manager, but I can't imagine that her South Philly idea of a nice girl is going to match up too well with you.
SAM: And neither will the stiletto girls from O'Neill Group. No one will. Ever. So go do your pollen-to-the-bees thing with McCloskey. He's in the market. He needs the help. I'm not, and I don't.
MARC: McCloskey? I'd rather be staked to an ant hill, naked and slathered in honey. I'll go alone and do it for the great cause of brand visibility. Your loss. Because, dear Samwise, you do need the help. You do. You know I love you and I worry about you. For the last time, come.
SAM: Thanks, really. But no. Really.
SCENE 6 – THE WHITEMARSH GLEN DEVELOPMENT IN MONTGOMERY COUNTY
NARRATOR: Sam Long steered his aged Subaru Outback up Germantown Avenue, past the Persian place where he and Kristen had eaten that one time, and made a right turn between wrought-iron gates, into the Whitemarsh Glen development. He hadn't been to see his sister out here in the 'burbs since she and Neil had "upgraded," again, a few months before.
SAM: Whew, Suze, long way from Leverington Avenue.
NARRATOR: Their mom and dad, a PSFS secretary and TastyKake foreman, had raised two kids in a Roxborough twin, working hard, laughing harder and loving each other madly. They'd died too young to see their brainy daughter join the 1 percent. Or to see their baby boy's life collapse in an instant.
Sam was late, but not insolently so. He eased his olive, rusting Subaru into a spot on the street between a gleaming Lexus and a Beemer. Sam, apostle of urbanism, rider of gearless bikes, rarely rolled out the Subaru, but when he did people were perplexed: "Him? An Outback?"
The explanation was, in a word, drums. Every drummer knows you need a roomy, stable car to haul your precious kit. Few drummers earn Lexus green. The Outback did the job.
Sam rang the bell beside the ornate front door; he didn't feel comfortable just walking in.
SUZANNE (Mixing delight, relief and exasperation): Sam! Finally! You made it! ... Uh, nice pair of jeans there.
NARRATOR: Sam's Levis had a healthy hole by the left knee.
SAM: Hey. At least they're the clean ones. I compromised.
SUZANNE:You're hopeless. But you're here. I'm so glad. Let me introduce you to everyone.
NARRATOR: At some point, Sam had met most of the dozen people sipping hot cider and eggnog in front of a fireplace festooned with greens. But he couldn't have summoned their names, even if a suitcase full of cash had been at stake. The one he'd never met, the one Suze had plans for, stood near the fireplace chatting with a partner from Neil's firm, her back to Sam. She was tall, red curls cascading onto her slim shoulders. She wore a forest-green pullover, black skirt and black boots.
SUZANNE: Claire, there's someone I want you to meet ... .
NARRATOR: Claire turned. Suze had not lied. Graceful neck, startling green eyes, high cheekbones, warm smile. Sam noted all this clinically. For him, desire was an artifact from a long-lost age.
CLAIRE: Hello, Sam, it's good to meet you.
SUZANNE: Sam's my baby brother, Claire, up from the city.
SAM: Yep, all of 11 miles away. What a trek it was.
CLAIRE: So glad the authorities didn't detain you at the border, Sam.
SUZANNE (Anxious): So, Sam, I met Claire at Project H.O.M.E.; she volunteers, too. You should see how Reginald, one of the regulars, moons over her and tries to flirt.
CLAIRE (Laughing): Reginald does seem a little unclear on precisely what services the volunteers are there to provide.
NARRATOR: A lovely laugh, Sam thought, involuntarily. Kristin's laugh had been like silver. Claire's had a bit of that in it, he thought, then angrily exiled the comparison.
SUZANNE: Sam's in advertising or social marketing or whatever they call it now. Million Monkeys. That's his firm, down by Passyunk Square?
CLAIRE: That's a great area down there now, so much amazing stuff going on. Were you guys in there before it got hot? Or maybe you're part of the reason it got hot?
SAM: We've been there five, six years, I guess.
CLAIRE: Of course, at Legal Services, we see the flip side, too. Like what happens when a neighborhood gets hot. The long-time residents get harassed by landlords, who want to boot them out so they can charge those gentrified rents. So we defend their right to stay. It's complicated. Like everything in Philly.
SUZANNE (Desperate to get some momentum going): Sam's also a musician. A drummer.
CLAIRE: Ahhh, really. Do you have a band?
SAM: Not any more. I sit in with a lot of different type bands, jazz, indie, zydeco.
CLAIRE: Zydeco! I have this strange love of that. I mean, I've never been down to Louisiana in my life. But there's such a spirit to zydeco, genuine pain mixed in with a sense of fun. So, Sam, what places have you played gigs? I'm wondering if I might have heard you play somewhere.
NARRATOR: Panic rumbled in Sam's stomach. His plan had been to stay the civil minimum, treating Claire with laconic politeness, just enough to keep Suzanne from beating him with a fry pan on the way out. But he had to admit: Claire was . . . nice. Smart. At ease inside her beauty. Her eyes offered him kindness; the offer hung calmly in the air between them, waiting for him to grasp it. Suzanne guided Claire to the seat next to him at brunch. And a sliver of gladness wedged into his brain. He tried to pluck it out, grind it beneath his heel. For Kristin.
Brunch lingered until noon, yet Sam made no move to leave. He half-listened to the bright chatter around the table.
BRUNCHER 1: So, we get to deposition and the guy totally changes his story ....
BRUNCHER 2: So, I tried to tell her, not getting early acceptance to Brown is not the end of the world, she could still make it in the next round, but she cried and cried ...
BRUNCHER 3: I dunno, I'm starting to think maybe Foles really is the answer and they should spend the first rounder on a cornerback who can cover ....
NARRATOR: Over the berry flans, Suzanne's Neil began declaiming on politics, as was his wont:
NEIL: Tom, I know you won't agree with me, but I have to say it: I think Ted Cruz is a patriot. I think he did the country a service. We can't keep laying more loads of debt on the coming generations. Someone has to take a stand against the cycles of selfishness and waste down there in D.C. If you have to break some eggs to do it, violate a few of Congress's silly rules, well, I say, good for you. The Tea Party is right about a lot of things, I'm telling you. I mean they warned us that Obama would mess everything up. Take this website fiasco, for example ...
NARRATOR: Sam leaned toward Claire.
SAM: The principle Neil particularly favors is that he shouldn't be taxed so the cleaning lady who tidies up his office can get health care.
CLAIRE (Laughs): I'm pretty sure if Neil had been around in the 1770s, he'd have been a Tory. And he'd have called the original Tea Party a bunch of terrorists.
SAM: A snort of laughter.
NARRATOR: Neil shot Sam an annoyed glance. Sam could see Claire next to him, trying to wipe a wry smile from her lovely mouth. He felt a light touch of her hand upon his. A jolt of pleasure curled his toes.
Sam's spine stiffened in shame. ... Fifteen months. Only 15 months, and here he sat giggling like a teenager with this stranger.
Sam excused himself, went to the upstairs hallway bathroom. He sat on an unopened john, thrust his knuckles deep into his eye sockets.
SAM: What the hell were you doing down there?!?
NARRATOR: Under the pressure of his knuckles, his eyes saw stars. But nothing could erase the image that seized control of his mind's-eye: Kristin's ponytail floating on the water, only the crown of her head visible above the stream. Then a hand pushing down, down, down on her head, until it disappeared beneath the surface. His hand.
SAM (Choked sobs): Oh, God. Damn. Damn. Damn.
NARRATOR: Sam's shoulders shook; salt streaked his cheeks. He tried deep breaths. Finally, the grief settled back into its normal, watchful crouch. He slapped cold water on his face, headed downstairs. The brunch had come to the moment of finding coats and goodbyes in the foyer. Suze spotted him:
SUZANNE: Sam, there you are! I was just talking with Claire. I hadn't realized this, but her Legal Services office is just a few blocks away from yours. They've got their annual holiday open house this week. Perhaps you could come, Sam.
CLAIRE: Suzanne, it's a lovely idea. But I'm guessing Sam might not be ready to be out and about this season. Some things take the time they take - and not a day less.
NARRATOR: Moments later, after a flustered Suzanne had kissed him goodbye, Sam found himself walking down the path with Claire.
SAM: So ... you know.
CLAIRE: Yes, Sam. I do. I went to Springside with Kristin. She was a year ahead, so it wasn't like we were close friends or anything. I was on the track team with her, though Lord knows I wasn't half the runner she was. Sam, when it happened, I saw the story about the accident in the paper. I was just sick at heart. I can't imagine what you went through. ... Don't be mad at your sister, Samuel. She just loves you.
SAM: Yes, she does. She just never has quite known when to stop trying to remake me according to her specs.
CLAIRE (Laughing): Well, we women can't resist a fixer-upper.
SAM: Hey, thanks.
CLAIRE: Just teasing, Sam. Look, it just stands to reason how hard a time of year this is for you. Don't let anybody stampede you into doing things you're not ready to do. I'm going to evensong at my church tonight; I'll send a prayer to the Big Guy on your behalf.
SAM: Well, seems to me He skipped town and left no forwarding address. But thanks for the thought anyway. You are a good person, Claire Mitchell, and it's been a pleasure to meet you.
CLAIRE: And you, too, Sam Long. See you on Passyunk Ave. sometime.
NARRATOR:With that, Claire walked briskly to her Prius. Sam noted how her curls seemed to catch and hold the winter sunlight. He sucked a gulp of cold air deep into his lungs and headed for his Subaru.
SCENE SEVEN – PATTI DiANGELO's ROWHOUSE, 10TH AND MORRIS, SOUTH PHILLY
NARRATOR: The South Philly block where Patti DiAngelo lived was one where the old ways held. Most railings twinkled with colored lights; most windows were dressed elaborately for Christmas, none more than Patti's. As Sam and Marc walked up, the rowhouse was ablaze in lights, awash in aromas, alive with laughter. They knocked.
PATTI: Sammy! You're here. Come in, come in. Oh, you too, Marc.
MARC: Gee, thanks, Patti. I only sign your paycheck.
PATTI: Oh, shush, you. Come up off the sidewalk and get yourself warm.
MARC: Good Lord, looks like Patti invited half the population south of South tonight.
SAM: Good, that increases my odds of being able to avoid this woman she wants to sic on me.
NARRATOR: Back in Patti's kitchen, a legion of wide, purposeful women in aprons bustled about there, giving orders to one another, clanging pots, opening and closing cupboards. Every once in a while, one would emerge with a new platter for the table, which already groaned beneath an array of antipasti, cheeses, mostaccioli, and bragioli. Sam sidled over to a sideboard laden with an army of wine bottles, picked a pinot noir.
Patti had been insistent upon her invitation. One day last week, she'd looked up at him from her desk at Million Monkeys, which was covered with photos of her five kids and her beloved Sicily.
PATTI: Come, Sammy. There's a girl you should meet. It's time to take off the black, Sammy. She's fun. She's gorgeous. You'll like.
NARRATOR: Sam had doubted every one of Patti's assertions. But he'd come anyway, for Patti. No one in the world had been kinder to him in the 15 months since Kristin's death. She was, all 4 foot, 11 inches of her, the closest thing to a mother he had now in this life.
PATTI: Sammy, there you are! Here's that someone I want you to meet.
NARRATOR: Damn! Trapped. Sam looked up and saw Morticia Addams grinning back at him: a tall, thin woman with gleaming black hair, parted in the middle and flowing down her back. She had olive skin, dark eyes limned in thick mascara, ruby-red lipstick, long nails of identical hue. She wore a gauzy black blouse opened one button too many, a short black skirt and high, high heels. She had perfect teeth.
PATTI: Sammy, meet Ilana Haytaian. Ilana, Sammy Long, the mad genius where I work. Ilana's our new neighbor. She's Armenian! Imagine that. And something else, too, what is it, Ilana, dear?
ILANA: Basque, Patti. My mom was Basque. My dad's Armenian. He always said he married her 'cause she'd blow up the Turks before they could get to him.
NARRATOR: Sam was no stickler for political correctness, but ... wow.
PATTI: I'll leave you to get to know each other.
ILANA: So, Sammy, I hear you're quite the star at Million Monkeys.
SAM: It's Sam. And I wouldn't say I'm much of a star. So what do you do?
ILANA: What haven't I done, babe? Up north Jersey, where I'm from, I did hotel management — but that whole thing kind of fell apart on me. Of course, there was a guy ... ya know the drill. It was him or me, and he was middle management, so who were they going to believe? Then I was a roadie for Bon Jovi for a while. Good times, sure, but like the song says, living on the road gets kinda old.
Then, babe, I realized I had a mission to serve. I do, I really do. So I went to study nursing, got a job at Rancocas down in south Jersey. That's when I moved to Philly. Now I'm at Hahnemann. Surgical nurse. "Scalpel, stat!" and all that stuff, just like on TV. I love it, hon, just love it. Just got to stay away from the doctors, you know what I mean. When they ask ya out for a drink, they have a funny way of not mentioning the wife and the kids out in Ambler, know what I mean?
SAM: Yeah, I guess so.
ILANA: I mean, I was two months into it with this attending, really having a great time. Then I find out he's married. And I'll tell you, babe, that's all it took. I dropped him quick as an Alaskan sunset. That was four months ago, and I've been cold turkey since. Scout's honor. And that, babe, is a long time for me, let me tell ya.
NARRATOR: Ilana's perfume floated up his nostrils. As she looked down at his wine glass, her lustrous hair tumbled forward, a curtain framing her profile. Kristin's hair had done that, too, when she loosened the ponytail. He flashed back to that moment at the music store, when he met her and knew he would marry her; her hair had draped like that, as she leaned over a display case.
ILANA: Oh, you're empty, hon. Let me get you another. Pinot noir? Be back in a sec.
NARRATOR: An opening to escape, Sam thought. Hit it like Shady McCoy. Yet he didn't move. His eyes followed Ilana's form as, arms raised, she shimmied through a narrow opening in the mass of humanity to get to the wine. As she stood pouring each of them a refill, Sam drank in a side view. The makeup was over the top, yeah, but Ilana really was pretty. Great cheekbones. His eyes swept downward, and soaked up a blatant fact: Ilana Haytaian had great legs. Endless, shapely legs. His mind tingled with images he'd not entertained in a long time. Ilana approached, offering him the wine glass.
SAM: Uh, thanks so much, Ilana, but, really sorry, but I'm not feeling all that well. Think I'm gonna pop outside for some air. Be right back.
ILANA: Oh, OK, hon. Whatever. I'll be right here when you do.
NARRATOR: Sam weaved through the mass of humanity, bumped heavily into a man with a bushy walrus moustache, found the door, shoved open the screen door with its white-iron latticework, stumbled down the stoop. He felt a hand on his shoulder. Marc.
MARC: Oh, no, you don't. Not so soon. Patti will get agita ... Samwise, you look like a ghost. What's wrong?
SAM: Feelin' a little sick to my stomach.
MARC: This isn't my area of expertise, obviously, but I wouldn't think this Ilana woman would provoke such a reaction. Pretty attractive, if you wipe off some of the mascara.
SAM: Yeah, Marc. That's just the problem. I did find her attractive. I was ... feeling attracted, if you know what I mean.
MARC: Well, that's excellent then. Just what we had in mind.
SAM (Savage): No, Marc, it is not. I can't believe myself.
NARRATOR: Sam stood coatless in the street, shivering, his right hand idly twisting the ring on the fourth finger of his left.
SAM: I've got to go. Where did Patti put my coat? Oh, hell, I can't go back in there. I'll just walk home from here.
MARC: You'll freeze, Sam. The wind chill is probably 10 degrees. Come back inside. I promise to be a more attentive wingman.
SAM: Thanks, but no. I've got to calm down, clear my head. The walk will do me good.
MARC: Ahh, Samwise. Suit yourself. I've got a plate of mostaccioli getting cold in there. I'll tell the lovely Ilana you were spirited into the heavens by a winged chariot of fire. Or something.
SAM: Thanks, man. Tell Patti I'm really sorry and it's a great party.
MARC (gentle): I'll bring your coat into the office Monday.
NARRATOR:It took Sam about an hour to walk home to Green Street, shivering all the way. It took a lot longer for him to get the image of Ilana Haytaian at the wine table out of his mind, so he could drift into a fitful sleep, trying not to dream.
SCENE 8 – A BAR IN OLD CITY
NARRATOR: Sam shuffled down Chestnut Street, bare hands shoved deep into his North Face jacket. He was two steps behind Marc Thibodeaux as his boss strode jauntily down the street, two tails of a long, multicolored scarf trailing down his back.
SAM: So who is this potential client again, and why the heck do we have to meet them at night at a bar in Old City? Haven't they heard of business hours?
MARC: Lord, you creatives. You're like playful children. You think the client stork just deposits accounts at our front door each Monday? Let me clear that up for you: It does not. It's Game of Thrones in this market right now, pal. You gotta do anything necessary to survive.
NARRATOR: Marc held open the door to the bar; warmth and a happy buzz seeped out onto the chilly street.
MARC: Strap on your broadsword and enter, Samwise.
SAM: Yes, my liege.
NARRATOR: Sam trailed Marc as he zig-zagged towards the back of the jam-packed bar, which was in full holiday roar. Sam craned his neck, trying to spot anyone who stood out as The Client amid the crowd of young code writers, junior associates and bloggers that filled every cranny.
Marc, not looking back, seemed intent on reaching a lectern toward the rear, at which stood a woman with multicolored hair and an assortment of piercings and tattoos. Sam saw Marc say something to the woman, who looked down, tapped her pen on the lectern, then gestured to Marc to enter a room in back. Marc waved at Sam to follow.
Once inside, Sam's face clouded in confusion. A group of men and women, most better dressed than the crowd outside, milled about awkwardly, holding drinks, barely talking and glancing nervously at a long row of two-top tables that ran down the middle of the room. Uh-oh. Sam nudged Marc.
SAM: OK, Thibodeaux, my radar says you're up to something, and I'm about to be overcome by an urge to strangle you.
MARC: Desperate times, desperate measures, Samwise. Sometimes, the only way to get you out of your dark cocoon is to lie.
SAM: Do ... not ... tell ... me that you just dragged me to Speed Dating Night.
MARC: OK, I won't tell you, but here's your number. You start out at Table Seven over there. I'm Table Nine. It's two minutes per person, then the buzzer or gong or whatever it is goes, then the guys all move over one. The women stay put.
And before you dart for the door, my friend, understand that this is market research for a potential client that wants to get into the dating market, and if you don't sit your butt down now at Table 7, that will be dereliction of duty and it could cost you your Christmas bonus.
SAM: You are insane. And I know you don't mean that.
MARC: Maybe I don't, but maybe I do. Humor me. All I know is it'll take not even an hour of your sad existence. If you do this, I promise I will never ever mention an eligible woman to you again, as long as I live.
NARRATOR: Sam felt trapped, devoid of energy to resist or flee. He trudged to Table Seven, sat down, nodded as politely as he could to a nervous-looking woman in a black sweater, lavender scarf and fashionably nerdy black glasses. How to survive this grinding ordeal of frantic sincerity ... He glanced over at Marc, who was already deep into character, the woman across from him smiling, entranced ...
MARC: ... so, yes, while God had certain plans for me when he made me, I am a lover of experiment and adventure, and I realized one of the sources of adventure I've never allowed myself was a whole half of the human race – the half that I much prefer conversing with anyway, by the way ...
NARRATOR: Over the next 45 minutes, a mosaic made up of equal parts desperate insecurity and clueless narcissism took form across the table from Sam.
SPEED DATER ONE: So I work in development for the Ed Fund, before that I was a teacher but it was so exhausting, you know, I felt I had to move on but I wanted to stay involved ...
SPEED DATER TWO: So, I'm into powder. I mean snowboarding ... snowboarding's really my thing. I just love it. My friends and I, we get up there most weekends, to Camelback, and then a couple of times a season we get up to Vermont. Do you snowboard ... or ski, maybe???
SPEED DATER THREE: ... and I have three cats, there's Katniss, she's three, and Peta, he's four, then there's old Gandalf, he's a fat old tabby that I don't even know how old he really is, because I just found him one day outside my condo and ...
NARRATOR: Sam sat numbly through the early rounds. Then, his second single-malt scotch seemed to light a spark of defiant creativity inside him. Sketching personas was one of his core skills at work. Well, by God, if he had to suffer through this torment, it was time to sketch some personas ...
SAM: ... yes, at the zoo. I'm the insemination specialist in the large-animal pavilion. Hippos, rhinos, giraffes, that kind of thing. Poor things, in captivity they just lose the urge, you know, so we have to help Nature out a little. ...
... Well, after Graterford, and then the halfway house – which wasn't half bad, actually – I did spend a little time living under the Tacony-Palmyra bridge. You get used to the cold, but never the trash. ...
... Well, you've heard of the NSA, right? No? Well, anyway, I can't really say much about it but I can tell you I work for that kind of top-secret spy agency. Reading people's emails, things like that. ... What? No, not really for the United States, not exactly. The United Nations actually. We kind of run things now. Very cool blue helmets, we have ...
NARRATOR: It was hard to sustain, and a little cruel, but the play-acting was getting Sam through the night. When the last woman out of 10 sat across from him, he was pretty much out of nonsense. He went back to the zoo riff ... She held up a hand, smiled.
JANE: It's OK. You can stop now. I get it. I didn't want to come here tonight either. Some friend dragged you?
NARRATOR: Sam's face flushed. Shame was one of the emotions he could still feel.
SAM: Former friend, yes.
JANE: Hideous, humiliating ritual, isn't it?
SAM: Well put.
JANE: Well, I am a writer.
SAM: Really? So am I, sort of. Ad copy. What do you write?
JANE: Novels. A blog. My journal.
SAM: You've had novels published? I'm jealous.
JANE: A couple. Small houses. Small runs. That was years ago. Now, with Kindle etcetera, it's all e-publish, do-it-yourself, pretty much. Got a couple thousand downloads on my last book. That was nice. To make a living, though, I teach writing at Rowan ... down in South Jersey?
NARRATOR: Sam reached a hand across the table, shook the woman's hand.
SAM: I'm Sam. Let me apologize for being an ass.
JANE: No need. Sorry to be so direct; it's my main failing. I was looking at you, the lines on your face, and at the wedding ring on your finger, and I'm guessing the same thing happened to you that happened to me. How long ago was it? That she died?
SAM: Fi ... fifteen months.
SAM: No. An ... an accident.
JANE: I'm so sorry.
SAM: Thanks. And ... you?
JANE: Aneurysm. Bubble in the brain. Boom, just like that. He was 35. I got a call in the middle of Creative Writing 201. January 15. Nearly three years ago.
SAM: God, that sucks.
JANE: Yes, it does.
NARRATOR: The buzzer rang. The last round was over. People stood up – hoping against hope that at least one person to whom they'd offered themselves in humiliating supplication would offer a wink, a smile, a word to indicate they'd be following up with the dating company, getting their contact info, making that call about a drink at Tir Na Nog or coffee at Elixr.
JANE: I'm Jane, by the way.
SAM: Sam ... I guess I told you that already. But, uhhhh, we're never going to see each other again, right?
JANE: No, probably not.
SAM: Well, good luck with It. They keep telling me It ends at some point, or fades, or something.
JANE: Yes, they do keep saying that.
SAM: I really appreciate what you did just then. Not slapping me. Being kind.
JANE: The least one emotional cripple can do for another, right?
SAM: Right. Well, so long.
JANE: Yes, goodbye.
NARRATOR: Jane grabbed her shoulder bag, looped her coat over the crook of her arm and set off. Sam could see Marc craning his neck, trying to parse what was going on with Jane. Sam was in no mood to swap tales with his boss.
He plunged out into the main bar, weaved his way through the thicket of arms holding craft beers aloft, and stumbled into the cold night. Another long, chilly walk home beckoned. But this one, unlike the one a few nights before from 10th and Morris, would be serene.
SCENE 9 – SOMEWHERE ON THE VERIZON NETWORK
Sound of a cell phone ring, playing "Bad to the Bone."
DR. TOMASKY: Hello. Sean Tomasky here.
SAM: Hey, doc. It's me. Your most pathetic case.
DR. TOMASKY: Sam? Hi. Is something wrong? What is it? Sam, I'm afraid I'm about to leave town for the holidays. There's really no way I can squeeze you in. Is there something I can help with over the phone?
SAM: Oh, no, Sean. That's not why I'm calling. No emergency.
DR. TOMASKY: Oh, OK, that's good. But what's up?
SAM: I just wanted ... to wish you happy holidays. And, well, sort of tell you I appreciate everything you've done for me this year. The way you put up with me. And listen.
DR. TOMASKY: Sam, I do believe that's what you pay me to do.
SAM: Yeah, but still. I just wanted you to know it's not really wasted effort, even if it looks that way.
DR. TOMASKY: I never thought that, Sam. Never would. But I'm glad to hear maybe you don't think it. Is that what's up?
SAM: Maybe, Sean, maybe. Hey, I know this call is coming across weird as anything. I'm sorry. I'm not really a stalker.
DR. TOMASKY (Chuckling): I know. I know. Look, I really do have to run. And I'm not going to wish you happy holidays, Sam. They can't be. Not yet. But if some light is creeping into the tunnel, Sam, don't shut it off. Loyalty doesn't require that. Let the light in. Just be quiet with it. Just let it happen. In its own time. OK?
SAM: Yes. Well, maybe. I'll try.
DR. TOMASKY: See you in the new year, Sam.
SAM: Yes, in the new year.
SCENE 10 - ON THE ROAD TO THE MAIN LINE, THEN THERE
NARRATOR: Sam Long stacked the large cases in the back of his Subaru. Long ago, he'd worked out the hairs-breadth geometry of how to wedge his drum kit into the car for safe transit.
He touched the side of his hulking base drum case fondly. The touch took him back nearly four years, to a music store in Mount Airy. On a wintry day, he'd gone there with a fiddler acquaintance The fellow needed, he said, "select Mongolian horsehair" for his bow.
The guy had been a pain-in-the-neck customer, but the clerk had put up with him with serene good cheer. As, at long last, she rang up his sale, she pushed her long blond hair off of her face and behind her ears. Sam's heart did a double flip off the high board. His eyes sought her name tag: Kristin.
The next day, he returned, pretending to need new cases for his drum kit. In the end, she'd sold him a whole new set, the one he still used. Then, he'd come back the next day.
KRISTIN (Laughing): Oh, goodness. What now, drummer boy?
SAM: Coffee at the Trolley Car? No pressure, but if you say no I'll walk out onto Germantown and let a Volvo with a Greenpeace bumper sticker run me down.
KRISTIN: Well, we certainly can't have that. Not in peaceful Mt. Airy. I would go with you, really, I would, but I can't. As you can see, I'm the only one on duty right now.
SAM: When does the next person come in?
KRISTIN: Scheduled for 2, but knowing Troy, it'll be more like 2:30.
SAM: I'll be back at 2:30.
KRISTIN: You do that, crazy person.
NARRATOR: So Sam did. In six months they were engaged, in eight more, married. They'd had one more year of unfolding joy. Then It happened ...
Sam eased the Outback onto the Schuylkill across from Boathouse Row. Traffic was crawling; heavy snow had begun to fall. He was cutting it close; the gig was somewhere in the 'burbs. Earlier on the phone, J.J. Lacroix, leader of Les Haricots Verts, the zydeco band Sam was sitting in with for this gig, had given directions:
J.J: From where you live, Samu-el, take West River Drive ...
J.J.: But ... Aah, of course. Desole, Samu-el. I forgot myself. So take the Schuylkill ...
NARRATOR: Sam's mind traveled, for the millionth time, back to that night 15 months ago. Kristin had left their house at about 9 that night to visit a distraught friend in Bala. Sam had objected; it was too late and it was raining.
KRISTIN: Sam, Katie needs me. I'm going. Case closed.
NARRATOR: At midnight, Kristin still wasn't back. Sam had begun ringing Kristin's cell. No answer. He called Katie. She said Kristin had left around 11:15. Then he'd dialed Marc; his friend answered on the first ring.
SAM: Dude, I need your help. I'm scared. Something's happened to Kristin.
NARRATOR: Within minutes, Marc had swung by in his car, picked Sam up. Then headed toward Bala.
As they'd rounded a curve on the river drive, Marc had spied the flashing lights of the police cruisers first. He'd slowed his car.
MARC: Sam ... get out here ... let me ...
SAM: No. Keep going. Take me up ahead.
NARRATOR: He'd known, but he'd needed to see. Every day since, Sam had pondered one question: By what perverted calculus had God arranged for Kristin's car to go through that green light at precisely the instant that drunk's car fired through the red coming down the hill?
The cop told Sam, as though this were some form of mercy, that Kristin had likely been dead by the time her skidding, cartwheeling car came to rest upside down in that cold river; the river that haunted his dreams.
By that wet roadside, Sam had not wept. He had not howled. An icy grief had clutched him. In turn, he'd held it close ever since. Some days, grief seemed all he had left of Kristin. So to grief he was loyal.
Tonight, if music was to offer its respite, traffic would have to pick up. The Subaru crawled onto clogged City Avenue. Heeding the British voice inside his iPhone, Sam negotiated twists and turns on leafy streets. After 15 minutes, he pulled up to his destination.
Hell. The gig was at a church. In giving the address, J.J. had left out that detail.
Kristin's funeral had been the last time he'd set foot in a church. Sam wanted to keep it that way. He thought of turning tail, but J.J. had already spied his car.
J.J.: You are a bit late, mon frère. These drums, let me help you bring them in.
SAM: You forgot to mention about us playing at a church, J.J.
J.J: And this matters why?
SAM: I don't like churches. I don't go in them. I have a quarrel with the owner.
J.J: You don't believe any more, Samu-el? When we first met, even after a Saturday job, you would get up to go to Mass, no?
NARRATOR: Sam blew an angry breath into freezing hands.
SAM: Oh, I believe in God, all right. Yeah, He exists, as a cruel old bastard who enjoys playing sick jokes on his playthings down here. Apparently, He created us just so He could invent new ways to make us suffer.
J.J.: Samu-el, mon vieux, here is what I believe. I believe in the music. I believe in my squeeze box. I believe in how we sound when you play the drums. I believe that when we play and the people dance, anything that darkens the soul can fade away. So come, mon vieux, and let us play. Play for Les Haricots Verts, play for the people, and we'll leave it to your cruel old bastard to decide whether to applaud, eh?
SAM: OK, J.J. Sure. But since when did you become the philosopher-king of zydeco?
J.J. Let's hurry, Samu-el. I'm getting cold. By the way, if it helps, this gig, it is not a church event. I thought your friend Marc would have told you.
J.J.: Yes, Thibodeaux. It's a Christmas party for some nonprofit or other. He is on the board, I think. He hired us. And asked me to ask you to sit in.
SAM: That little sneak. And you, J.J., you little liar, so Wiley isn't in rehab?"
J.J.: Oh, no, that part is true. He is in a bad way. That is the irony, no? I would have called you even if Monsieur Marc had not insisted.
NARRATOR: The church hall was cozy, with the sweet scent of fresh greens. Sam lay down his drummer's rug and began setting up his kit at one end of a low stage.
MARC: Cut it a little close, didn't we, Samwise?
SAM: You! You and your sneaky schemes! You could've warned me!
MARC: Sneaky? What, a man with Loo-siana blood coursing in his veins can't order up some zydeco to spice up the holiday? When I proposed it to Claire, she thought it would be great fun. Frankly, Philly Helpers Inc. parties are usually kinda drab.
MARC: Yes. Claire Mitchell. My cochair. A lawyer. Turns out she knows you. Says you two have chatted about revolutionary Boston, whatever that means. She just called on her cell. Traffic is bad, but she'll be here in 10 or so.
SAM: You set me up, Thibodeaux. Are you in league with my sister? You must know Claire is the one she tried to hook me up with at that brunch last Sunday.
MARC: You're kidding! No, Sam, I didn't know. Really. Look, I know I've been a bit ... aggressive trying to get you out of your funk lately, but I'm an innocent man here. I really had no idea you knew Claire 'til today, when she called to discuss whether to cancel 'cause of snow. (Amusement in his voice) Hey, you know sometimes the Fates do intervene to help the pigheaded.
SAM: Unh-huh. ... So that's your story. Now, go away, bossman. I've got things to do.
NARRATOR: Snow cut into the turnout, but the party still rocked. Les Haricots Verts were in rare form, J.J. wringing magic from the squeeze box, Mike sawing the fiddle as though the devil was on his tail, Wick working the frottoir, Tim wailing the vocals. Sam felt he was keeping up pretty well, gettin' the band to, as J.J. put it ...
J.J: Roast dat roadkill good.
NARRATOR: At first, the earnest do-gooders of Philly Helpers hadn't quite known what to do with the music. Then, Tim hopped down on the dance floor.
TIM: So, who here wants to learn the Mamou two-step?
NARRATOR: Claire waved her hand and stepped up.
CLAIRE: I'll give it a try. What do I do?
TIM: Just follow me, ma cherie.
NARRATOR: Claire was not just game; she was not half bad. Tim and she got down to it, and soon everyone was clapping, hooting and dancing.
That's what Sam loved about zydeco. The music's pedigree was pain, lost love, and poverty so deep you couldn't afford salt for your beans. But somehow the accordion, the fiddle, the washboard, and the drums transmuted all that into an infectious, knowing joy.
Sam plunged deep inside the music, reaching for communion with the other players. A couple of times, his eyes caught a glimpse of red curls on the dance floor, of flashing green eyes seeking his, but he kept his head down, giving his all to the song.
Break time came. Sam was sweating. He looked for an exit door. On his way, he found Claire waiting for him. She handed him a glass of punch, her fingers brushing his in the exchange. His stomach did a flip.
SAM: Thanks. Hi. Nice dancing.
CLAIRE: Oh, pfffft. What I lack in grace and skill, I don't quite make up for in enthusiasm. But your band ... you're really good. Everyone's raving about you.
SAM: Not my band, really.
CLAIRE: Oh, tonight, it is, Sam. Tonight it is.
SAM: (Draining cup) Thanks for the punch, Claire. Hit the spot. But now, don't mean to be rude, but I really need some air.
CLAIRE: Of course, Sam. I'm looking forward ... to your next set.
NARRATOR: Sam pulled on a huge oak door, stepped outside into an old graveyard. The snow had stopped, leaving a fresh blanket atop older snow. The sky was clear.
Sam sat next to an ancient gravestone, snow soaking the seat of his jeans. It had been a night like this, cold and clear, Valentine's Day, when he'd whisked Kristin from a party in Society Hill, walked her to Old Pine Street Church and asked her to marry him. She'd said:
KRISTIN: Yes, Sam. Oh, so very much yes.
NARRATOR: Sam looked skyward. The branches of an old chestnut tree framed the night sky; a star midway between two branches held his gaze. Its distant light had traveled 100 years to dance upon his retinas in this moment. Kristin's voice was in his head, silvery and light.
KRISTIN: Yes, Sam. Yes, silly, it's OK. I know you love me. I know you always will. It's OK to go on. Forgive me. Forgive yourself. Forgive Him. It's OK. Please ... go on.
NARRATOR: Sam flopped backward into the snow. He moved his arms back and forth through the snow, in childhood's age-old gesture. His legs joined in, arcing out, then back. Flat on his back, Sam looked for his star. It was gone, or at least he could no longer pick it out from the immeasurable host.
Sam Long got up, wiped the wet snow off his deplorable jeans. He looked at the shape he'd made in the snow. It was perfect. Soon enough it would disappear, beneath wind or sun or tramping feet. For a moment, though, it was perfect.
Time to go inside. He had music to play.
Songs to honor lost times. Songs to wake a dead heart.
He was ready to play them.