Worshiping Van Dawson (R)
We first became aware of each other in junior high when Mrs. Gibson the drama teacher made us act out a play in class. Van and I wooed our classmates with the way we played our characters and that's when we caught "the bug".
From then on, it was all theater all the time - high school dramas and musicals, community theater productions, even comedy performances at a club near Green College. We both went to Green College following high school and we continued our theater obsession. I got my teaching degree with a minor in Theatre and Van got a double major in English and Journalism with a minor in Theatre with both of us performing in anything that we could get ourselves casted in throughout our college years.
The Hillsboro Players Acting Company had been around since the early 1950s but it was nearly dormant when Van and I graduated from Green. We almost single-handedly revived the theater group by bringing some of our friends into the fold, enlisting family members and friends to serve on the Board of Directors and contribute financial support, and staging some powerful productions.
The old Hillsboro Theater had just undergone a total make-over thanks to a federal grant and The Hillsboro Players Acting Company (HPAC) became the resident company of the new Hillsboro Community Center. Following college, Van and I were involved in just about every production HPAC put on. Van established himself as one of the most talented performers the area had ever seen and while I wasn't his equal as an actor I could hold my own on stage. We directed and produced most of the plays and the non-profit HPAC became the premiere acting troupe in Blue County.
It was a good run for twenty years. Van and I enjoyed a close personal friendship and a strong theater allegiance. We were proud of our accomplishments and achievements in strengthening the theater group's reputation, quality, talent level, and success. We developed a large stable of actors who auditioned for nearly all of our productions. We forged relationships in the community that underwrote our group. We became the face of HPAC and I was proud of everything we staged, even the duds.
Van was worshiped as a community theatre actor and director. He had always been a perfectionist, even back in the early years, and as he grew older his quirks and demands became almost obsessive. He could be difficult to work with, moody, insensitive and temperamental but most were afraid to stand up to him because of his stature being on loan from God in the talent department. He was eccentric, egotistical, self-centered, and increasingly narcissistic. In the later years, Van caused division and resentment among the group as he took on various board members in philosophical and ideological confrontations that caused friction and stress. He began drinking too much (although it never affected his on-stage performance). Yet he continued to be worshiped as an acting and directing icon.
For a while, I was put in the position of being the middle man, running interference, playing peace-maker, and picking up the pieces after Van's tornado personality left ruin and debris in its wake but there came a point when I just couldn't take it anymore. Van and I had a huge confrontation that resulted in a parting of the ways. We hadn't spoken in nearly two years and he disassociated himself completely from his artistic responsibilities at HPAC although he continued to audition for roles he liked although he was even more unmanageable and uncontrollable when he got cast in them. He refused to speak with me whenever our paths crossed but because he was such a talented and worshiped performer I didn't stop directors from casting him in HPAC plays.
I taught English and Drama at St. Anne's Catholic High School but my marriage had ended five years earlier. Van worked at the Greenville News and Dispatch for a while but he became disillusioned with journalism and he bounced from job to job for most of his career, working in retail, substitute teaching, managing a restaurant, running a local recycling company, and most recently being a home health care aide. He never married but he frequently had a girlfriend (always younger than him) along with a reputation of sleeping with women he acted with. I think some women worshiped him more for his sexual talents than his acting abilities!
What I realized most about Van as the years progressed was that he never really matured, adapted, or changed in his personality or temperament. He still approached life from the perspective a twenty year old college student with no responsibilities or concerns. He dated women who were younger than him and his vanity was apparent in the way he dressed and styled his hair. Sometimes he looked like he just walked out of a time warp from twenty-five years earlier.
Still, in recent times, Van appeared to be slightly bloated and out of shape. He stopped doing shows that required physical exertion (like musicals) and he finally started taking roles that were more in his age range instead of insisting on playing the romantic lead no matter what the age of the character. I heard that his drinking had become problematic with several drunken incidents occurring around town. He was living in the house of the old guy he was taking care of and he didn't have a car anymore. I felt sorry for the guy who I had once worshipped myself, pegging him at age fourteen of going places and doing things but he seemed content on being the best local community actor ever and he didn't seem to care about anything else.
We were fifty now but Van had burned so many bridges, alienated so many people, and gone through so many women that his life seemed to have come to a strange intersection and he needed to decide if it was too late to try to get himself back on track and not rely only on his worshipped acting talents to get through his days.
It's never good when somebody's ringing your doorbell after midnight on a Tuesday night. I stumbled down the stairs in a sleepy daze and opened the door to find HPAC President of the Board Karen Price standing there with tears rolling down her face, escorted by Mark Taylor, a long time actor with the company and one of Karen's closest confidants.
"He's dead," I said, knowing the reality of the situation as if a guardian angel had just whispered it in my ear.
Karen burst into tears and collapsed against me. I led her into the house and sat in her on the living room couch while Mark gave me all the ghastly details. Neighbors of Augustine Borcelli (the old guy Van was caring for) heard a gun shot at about 9:30 p.m. Police responded and found that Mr. Borcelli was fine but Van's body was discovered in the cellar, dead from an apparent self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head. A note was found by the body but Karen and Mark didn't know its contents yet.
I shook my head with sadness and regret. "I knew he wasn't happy," I sighed. "But I never thought he'd resort to this."
"He was just too talented," Karen wailed. "Too talented for this world!"
I wanted to respond 'He was too messed up for this world' but I let it go, instead soothing and consoling Karen for her unexpected and gut-retching loss.
I didn't know what to think or how to feel once Karen and Mark left after an hour of reminiscing soul-searching, worshiping and consoling. Van had been my closest friend for such a long time before our falling out but he was also one of the most demanding and difficult individuals I had ever known. In the later years, he took all the fun out of the theater experience for me and before news of his death came I felt nothing but resentment, bitterness, anger, and disgust toward him.
Now that Van was dead, I was left confused and full of guilt, wondering if I should feel responsible for my negative feelings toward him. Shouldn't I have been willing to forgive him for his behaviors despite the anger I was feeling about him taking his own life? I was left with sadness for everything but I was too numb and drained to feel much of anything. I didn't sleep much that night and I was up at dawn the next morning.
It happened to be school vacation week so I had plenty of time to deal with the unfolding events as word got out regarding Van's death. My e-mail traffic was non-stop and the phone wouldn't stop ringing. HPAC was a tight community of actors, directors, stage managers and other artistic talents and the news of Van's death sent shock waves through the company. Van and I had been part of the group for thirty years and there were still folks around who were with the Players before that. It was a family of sorts and we had lost one of our own.
Several of my HPAC friends, associates and acquaintances stopped by the house to express their condolences, vent their grief, share their stories, or just hang out for a while. People didn't seem to know what to do with themselves and it was extremely difficult for many to come to terms with the reality that Van had taken his own life.
The doorbell had been ringing all day and I had become accustomed to opening the door without even thinking about it but I wasn't expecting to see Lilly Atkins standing on my porch with a blank look on her face when I opened the door. Lilly and I met in college and I got her involved in theater including a couple of summer productions with HPAC. I quickly fell head over heels for her but then she met (and worshipped) Van - the natural ladies man who had the Captain Kirk knack for bedding anybody he wanted, including Lilly who chose Van over me. I felt betrayed (by Van) because he knew that I was smitten with Lilly but he seduced her anyway.
They didn't last, of course, - Van's relationships seldom did - but I had moved on and I wasn't willing to go back for Lilly who I never completely trusted again anyway. We remained friendly and did several shows together but I met and I eventually married Judith although I knew deep inside that I never quite got over Lilly who went on to marry (and divorce) and I think she and Van had another fling several years later but I really didn't want to know about her sex life because, deep down, I never stopped loving or wanting her.
And now here she was standing on my porch looking like she was just waking up from unconsciousness.
"Oh, Jack," she sighed as she fell into me and I instinctively hugged her knowing the pain she had to be feeling.
"Hello, Lilly," I said, helping her into the house.
She looked like she hadn't slept in a while. Her eyes were dark and bloodshot but even in her disheveled appearance she still looked terrific. She was a few years younger than Van and me but even now, in her late forties, she was still sexy like those middle aged seductive women in those erectile dysfunction commercials. She had dyed her blonde hair chestnut brown several years ago and cut it to her collar but her figure was still trim and she could play roles twenty years younger if she wanted although she hadn't been doing theater for a while. She and a friend co-owned and operated a bakery these days.
"I feel like there's a cannon ball sitting in the bottom of my stomach," Lilly told me as she sat on the couch with her head buried in her hands. "How could the bastard do this to us?"
"I'm pretty sure he did it to himself," I replied, still not sure how I felt about any of it.
She lay down on the couch, curled into a ball, and fell asleep.
Karen had been calling all day. She told me that the family had already made the arrangements for a service on Friday and that Van's body was being cremated. She didn't think the service would be enough to properly say goodbye and she wanted HPAC to host some sort of celebration for the theater community.
"The funeral is for the family but we need something more," she insisted.
I agreed to let her use the Hillsboro Community Center for a theater gathering on late Sunday afternoon. The theater group could gather and share theater stories and memories about Van and what he meant to us.
"Not everybody like him, you know," I reminded Karen.
"People are free to say what they think, feel and want," Karen replied. "If people want to be honest with their feelings that's okay with me. I know Van was no angel. Hell, he pissed me off so many times I lost count, but I still worshiped and loved him."
I tried to remember if those two ever slept together but given that Karen was married with a couple of kids now I decided not to ask. Karen decided to have some food served and she'd show videos of some of Van's performances on the big screen over the stage. I wasn't going to argue with her although I thought the idea was a little much.
People kept stopping by the house and Lilly awoke from her nap and chatted with many of the visitors. It suddenly occurred to me that people were stopping by (often with food) to check on me, assuming that I was going to be a basket case as a result of my long time friend's death and maybe even wracked with guilt for causing it. I wasn't about to say anything to insult, offend or upset them but the truth was I was neutral at best in my reaction to Van's passing. We had been estranged for a couple of years and at odds for several before that so it wasn't exactly as if we were close friends. Truth be told, I felt relief and satisfaction when I no longer had to deal with Van's shit and drama and I hadn't missed him at all in recent years.
Perhaps I was carrying a grudge that started way back in college when Van purposely auditioned for the same parts I was trying out for just to prove that he was the better actor. I would end up getting cast in a secondary or supporting role nearly every time. Then he stole Lilly from me and whenever there was a show at HPAC I wanted to direct, produce or act in, he would move in and vie for the same positions and I would be left with second-rate productions he wasn't interested in being involved in.
It wasn't until my marriage started to fall apart that I realized how self-absorbed Van really was. He was unhappy with his job at the restaurant around that time so all the focus was on him and his work woes and he hardly gave me and Judith a second thought as our marriage crumbled. He really could be an insufferable bastard when he wanted to be. He missed my father's funeral because he wanted to go to Boston to see a Red Sox game. The final straw for me came when he slept with a mutual friend's nineteen year old daughter (Van was in his mid forties at the time) a week before her wedding.
But despite all of Van's many faults, most were willing to forgive and overlook his transgressions and shortcomings because he was such a terrific actor, insightful director and interesting personality and he was worshiped by so many. And now, in death, Van was being raised to idolized Sainthood and I wasn't about to speak unkindly of the dead even if he was an asshole.
The last of the house visitors had left but Lilly was still there. She had been drinking wine most of the evening while socializing with the various theater people and, given her lack of sobriety and state of emotional vulnerability, she asked if she could stay the night. Judith had been gone for nearly three years and I hadn't had a woman stay overnight yet. It struck me as ironic that it was Lilly of all women who might be the first and in a strange sense I guess I had Van to thank for that.
"I'll get the guest room ready," I said.
Lilly didn't say anything as she went upstairs and when I followed a while later after cleaning up, I found Lilly asleep on my bed, still dressed. I pulled the covers over her and climbed into bed next to her. It only took twenty-five years but I was finally sleeping with Lilly.
Lilly was still asleep when I woke up in the morning, her back to me. I could hear her gentle breathing and I could make out the shape of her hips under the covers. I sighed when the reality of the situation returned to me and I quietly slipped out of bed and went downstairs to start the coffee. I got the paper from the front porch and saw Van's obituary on the back page of the first section:
Van Morris Dawson, 50, of Hillsboro, died unexpectedly on Tuesday.
He leaves behind his siblings, Roberta (Dawson) Rockland and her husband, Bob, of London, England, Michael Dawson and his wife, Rose, of Mt. Griffin and Emily (Dawson) White and her husband, Louis, of South County, as well as several nieces and nephews. Another brother, Samuel, predeceased him.
Van was born December 24, 1963 in Greenville, the youngest of five children born to the late Edward and Theresa (Fredricks) Dawson. He was raised in Hillsboro and attended Hillsboro High School. He graduated from Green College with degrees in English, Journalism, and Theater.
As an actor, he performed in more than 150 college and community theatre productions, most of them with The Hillsboro Players Acting Company, with whom he served on the Board of Directors for many years. He was also a co-Executive Director and co-Artistic Director with the Company.
Van was an avid film buff. He was known for his wry sense of humor and his love of theater.
He most recently worked as a Home Care Worker for Blue County Home Care. He previously worked as a substitute teacher, restaurant manager, supervising a local recycling company, and as a beat reporter for the Greenville News and Dispatch.
A memorial service will be held at the Greenville First Congregational Church on Friday at noon.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to The Hillsboro Players, c/o of Karen Price, President, P.O. Box 100, Hillsboro.
One of his many formal studio head shots ran with the obit and it felt like Van was looking right back at me. The phone started ringing again with people calling to see if I was going to the services or knew about the Sunday gathering (why wouldn't I?). Karen called to tell me that Carl Saunders the local theater writer was going to do a feature on Van's community theater career and he wanted to come by the theater on Sunday night to get some quotes.
Lilly came downstairs later looking slightly hung over and she became teary eyed when she saw the obituary.
"God, he really is dead, isn't he?" She sighed as she fell into the kitchen chair and stared at Van's picture.
"Are you going to work today?" I asked.
She shook her head no. "I just can't deal with it," she admitted with defeat. "Is it okay if I stay here? I just don't want to be alone."
I'd by lying if I didn't say I felt like left overs. Now she needed me?
Lilly glanced up when I didn't answer right away. "You're going to have to forgive me sooner or later," she said.
"Who says?" I asked with annoyance.
"We're the only ones, Jack," she said. "Our spouses left. Van is gone. We're the last survivors now."
"So I get you by default?"
It wasn't a very nice thing to say.
"Do you have any coffee?" Lilly asked, ignoring my remark.
I got the automatic coffee maker going and handed her a banana before heading into the other room to answer some of the endless e-mails that had been amassing in my in-box. The cell kept ringing and a few people stopped by as the day progressed. Once when I went to use the bathroom, I saw Lilly lying on my bed curled in a fetal position sobbing uncontrollably but I left her alone.
Van's brother Mike called and asked me to meet him and his sister Emily at Van's storage bin. I had known Van's siblings growing up and Mike and Emily came to most of Van's shows over the years so I saw them frequently. His sister Roberta lived overseas now and his kid brother Sam died in a car accident several years earlier.
Mike and Emily both looked drained when I arrived at the storage area. Van had put most of his stuff into storage when he moved out of his last apartment to live with and care for Gus Borcelli.
"We're going to get rid of most of the junk," Mike told me. "But there's a lot of his personal stuff we need to go through and divvy up."
I ended up loading my car with a lot of Van's theatre memorabilia including photos from shows, programs, cast notes, scripts, props, and other items. I also took some of his old high school stuff and videos of a couple of his productions. It was sad to see Van's life reduced to boxes in the backseat of my car and a U-Haul trailer being taken to Goodwill.
I helped Mike and Emily (and a couple of their kids) clean out the storage area although it felt sort of vulture-ish to be picking through Van's stuff. It was late afternoon by the time I got home. Lilly was still there but I noticed that there was an overnight bag and a dress hanging on the closet door so I assumed she had gone to her place and brought some stuff back. I wasn't sure how I felt about that.
Lilly helped me drag the boxes in from the car and we spent the evening going through Van's stuff, Lilly drinking wine and periodically crying when she came across something that was particularly sentimental or meaningful. I warmed up one of the casseroles that somebody had brought by and we ate it while sitting on the living room floor looking at Van's stuff.
I knew I should be supportive and sympathetic toward the grieving Lilly but I was indifferent at best. Here I was once again cast in the supporting role in the shadows of Van's spotlight even in his death. I couldn't help but feel used and taken for granted, much the same way I felt about both Van and Lilly for nearly thirty years. But how could I resent Lilly so much when I was still in love with her?
Lilly was significantly buzzed from the wine she was drinking by the time we finished with the walk down memory lane. She went to take a shower while I cleaned up and twenty minutes later the shower was still running and that had me concerned so I knocked on the bathroom door.
"Lil, are you okay?"
There was no answer so I knocked again (harder this time) but I didn't hear a reply so I cracked the door open.
"The water was still running but she didn't answer.
"Are you okay?" I shouted.
There was still no answer so I went to the shower curtain and pulled it back not sure what I was going to find. There was a naked Lilly squatting in the tub floor her arms wrapped around her breasts sobbing uncontrollably.
"Jesus, Lilly," I muttered as I turned the water off.
I took her by her slippery arms and pulled her to her feet before grabbing a towel and wrapping it around her as she continued to weep. I dried her off as best I could and carefully escorted her out of the bathroom and into the bedroom. This wasn't how I imagined seeing Lilly naked for the first time, especially after all these years.
I sat her on the bed still wrapped in the towel and she finally lifted her eyes to meet my stare, her face sunk with sadness.
"I just-" Her voice trailed off.
"It's alright, Lilly," I assured her.
"I feel lost," she told me.
I nodded with understanding.
"I miss him," she choked out.
She started to cry so I sat on the bed next to her and wrapped my arms around her, wiping the tears from her cheeks as they fell. Lilly tightly hugged me and the towel slipped down to reveal her breasts but she made no effort to cover herself.
"I want you," she whispered.
"Are you sure?" I asked suspiciously.
"Yes," she replied.
"It'll be grief sex, you know."
"I don't care," she replied, throwing her towel aside and lying back on the bed, her legs spread apart.
"I've wanted you for a very long time, Lilly, but not like this," I sighed.
"If not now, when Jack?" She wanted to know with a pleading edge in her voice.
I looked at her for a long moment, remembering all the times I fantasized about her, wanted her, longed for her, thought about her, and loved her from afar. And now here she was willingly waiting for me.
I stood and she said nothing as I quietly got undressed and lay next to her naked, not believing this was finally coming true. I gently and tentatively kissed her. We had kissed before, chaste displays of affection between friends in recent years, although I remember making out with her long ago before Van stole her from me.
Eventually, I worked my way down to suck her nipples and slowly I made my way between her legs, raising her buns with my hands and kissing and licking her womanhood long enough to cause her to scream and sob at the same time until she came. Then I mounted her and entered her but I was surprised at how physical I became, almost as if I was taking out my years of frustration, hurt, loneliness and longing for her out on her through the sex. I was usually a gentle lover but I found myself ramming her hard, pounding her with all my might, and moving her around the bed with my thrusts.
Lilly screamed with surprise but she suddenly began matching my physical anger with a fuming response of her own, making love in a heated, furious, incensed, even enraged fashion, scratching my skin, punching my back with her clenched fists, kicking my buttocks with the heels of her feet, and biting my lip until it bled. I wasn't sure if she was acting out against me or Van but it didn't stop me from shooting my sperm into her with a vengeance as she screamed out with a shrieking orgasm of her own, both of us climaxing at the same time before I collapsed on top of her exhausted. It was the most physical, exciting and emotional sex of my life.
It took a few moments for the both of us to recover. I rolled off of her and lay along side her and it was a while before either of us spoke.
"What do you want with me?" I finally asked.
"I'm not sure," she admitted. "But thank you for this."
"I love you," I said simply. "Always have."
"I know," she said. "But can you really love me like this? Mourning for a dead guy?"
"Yes," I decided. "I loved you first even if he had you first."
"But we just had angry sex," she noted.
"I've been angry with you for a long time," I admitted.
"I'm sorry I hurt you," she said.
"I'm with you now."
"You'll let me stay, won't you?"
"If you want too," I replied.
I was under no illusion about our future together. Lilly was hurting and in pain and she needed to be comforted by someone she was comfortable with and she could trust: me. I didn't know for how long I'd be needed. Once she got beyond her initial grief and shock she would probably be ready to return to her regular life (of worshiping Van) but I was willing to take what she needed for as long as she offered it. Finally being with her was gratifying and I suddenly felt deeply satisfied being with her.
She rolled into me and hugged me. I pulled the covers up over us and I fell asleep with a naked Lilly in my arms.
I opened my eyes to find Lilly propped up on her elbow looking down at me. It seemed impossible but here she was and I reached out and touched her hair as if to reassure myself that she really was with me.
"Good morning," she said.
"Hello," I said with a smile.
"What could you possibly want with me?" She asked. "Middle aged, my body no longer youthful, my breasts sagging, my ass falling. I broke you heart once and now here we are."
"You are as beautiful as the day I met you," I told her.
"Are you still mad at me?"
"No," I admitted.
"But you're still mad at Van," she said.
I shrugged. "I don't know how I feel about Van," I admitted honestly.
"You haven't worshiped him in a long time," she observed.
"No," I agreed.
"We have to go to his funeral today," she sighed.
"I know," I replied.
"Can we have morning sex without the anger before we have to face that?" She asked.
I reached up with my hand and knocked her elbow out from under head so she dropped down onto the pillow, staring me in the eyes. I kicked the covers off of us and my fingers travelled up her shoulder and danced down her back as I traced motions as my hand rubbed along her spine, caressing her. Lilly let out a low soft moan when I finally reached her buns.
She slid her hand along my hip and side before rubbing my stomach with a light circling caress as I moved my hand to her breasts. I teased her nipples and watched them get hard as Lilly sucked in her breath. I squeezed her breasts, spending time on each one with hand massages while switching from one to the other. I then kissed her neck, nuzzling in to kiss her earlobe while I felt her hand moving down to gently rub my member.
My hands left her breasts and slid down to her stomach and then along her hip and down to her thigh. She pushed into me and my throbbing member rubbed along her leg and she let out a soft moan of contentment as I ran one hand across her ass and down the back of her thigh as she maneuvered her body so her entrance was close to my throbbing member.
I brought my hand around and slid it between Lilly's thighs, slipping a finger inside her easily as I brushed her wet womanhood. Lilly spread her legs and her moans became louder as I continued to finger her while watching her eyes and mouth respond and react.
I ran the palm of my other hand across her throbbing clit and Lilly gasped in pleasure. She threw her head back and let her hips rock in rhythm to my finger motions as shudders wracked her body, her breasts trembled, and the scent of her juices filled the air.
I reached in and kissed her passionately. Lilly reached around me and I pressed against her stomach so she could feel how hard I was. She reached down and took my cock into her hand again, squeezing and stroking it and then sliding her hand up and down the shaft several times before she opened her legs and tried to guide me to her entrance.
I was much gentler this time, easily sliding myself inside her wet pussy and she gently moaned as I began sliding it in and out, long and deep thrusts meant to pleasure her. We both became lost in sensation, the only sounds being our moans and cries and Lilly found her orgasm, her eyes opening to see me watching her cumming intensely and all of a sudden I felt the pleasure of my own climax as Lilly wrapped her legs around my waist and pulled me in harder and tighter as I convulsed inside her.
"Oh, Jack," she sighed with wonderment relief, kissing me deeply as I felt myself slip from her still pulsing pussy.
I rolled onto my side and Lilly laid her head on my shoulder as I held her tightly against me.
"I feel young again," I told her.
"Me too," she smiled.
We cuddled for a while but then we realized what was waiting for us on this emotional day and without speaking about it, Lilly finally rolled out of bed and walked naked to the bathroom.
"Your beautiful ass isn't sagging at all," I told her.
"You should have seen it twenty years ago," she sighed.
"I wish I had!"
I heard her giggle as she disappeared from the room.
We didn't talk much the rest of the morning after our respective showers. I made us breakfast and we sat quietly in the kitchen eating thinking about the service and all the emotions that brought.
Lilly put her black funeral dress on while I wore a tie Van had once given me and a sports jacket and we quietly drove to the church, no words necessary. I guess the soothing gentle morning sex was a way of getting us emotionally prepared for the rest of the day while bonding us together in a shared experience to help us deal with the enormity of the situation.
I was appreciative that my ex Judith showed up for the service. She was surprised to see me with Lilly (knowing our history) but Judith was remarried now and hardly in a position to comment on my social life. Van had been the best man at our wedding and for all his absences and let downs over the years, he and Judith had been friendly and she was always the first to understand his faults, forgive him his sins, and invite him to the house after whatever run in, let down, or disappointment he had caused.
Lilly invited Judith to sit with us and that was a tad bit awkward for me but Judith had come alone so it made sense. We made small talk while waiting for the service to start. Several HPAC folks and other theatre people who worshiped Van came to the service including Karen and Mark but it was mostly for the family. The woman minister did a good job leading the service, Roberta and Mike both spoke, as did one of Van's nieces. The music was nice and the ceremony itself was simple with one white Candle lit before the urn that contained Van's ashes on a table on the small altar along with a couple of photographs of Van as a child and young adult.
There were understandably some tears shed but there was also laughter and smiles and the service wasn't as brutal as it could have been, although Van's suicide hung over us like a silent dark cloud.
"Too much worshiping?" Lilly asked as we left the church once the service was completed.
"Well, it was a funeral," I allowed.
There was a catered reception in the church basement which Lilly and I attended.
Judith made a cameo appearance before kissing me goodbye on the cheek, expressing her sympathies for my loss.
"I know the two of you had a love-hate relationship but I hope in the end the love wins out," she told me before leaving.
Lilly socialized and visited with various family and theatre members. Afterwards, we went out for a few drinks with some HPAC people and Lilly got understandably sloshed. I brought her home and she passed out in the bed with her funeral dress still on. I took her shoes off and covered her with the bed cover and then I went downstairs to check on the e-mails.
It was nearly midnight by the time I went to bed and Lilly was still comatose as I slipped into the bed next to her.
It was still dark when I felt her stirring in the bed.
"Where you going?" I asked.
"I have to work," she groaned. "Christ, I feel like I got run over by a train."
"You drank a lot yesterday," I reminded her.
"I know," she sighed, peeling out of her dress and walking naked to the bathroom for her morning shower.
I made her some coffee while she showered and dressed even though it was barely five in the morning. She came downstairs dressed in jeans and her bakery smock still looking like shit and she gladly accepted the coffee mug from my hand.
"Thanks for everything, Jack," Lilly said, forcing a smile. "I never would have made it through these last few days without you."
She kissed me on the cheek and headed for the door and it wasn't until she was gone that it occurred to me that I may have just been given the brush off.
I went back to bed for a few hours and then spent most of the day correcting school papers and getting my lesson plan ready for the week. I kept looking at the clock wondering if Lilly was going to come back. I also had a sense of Van being around for some reason although I wasn't sure what was making me think of him.
The phone rang a few times and my heart leapt each time hoping it was Lilly but it was mostly Karen running by the latest updates for the Sunday gathering. She stopped by to borrow some of the stuff I had retrieved from Van's storage area and she asked me if I was okay when she saw the look on my face. She naturally assumed I was feeling sad about Van but what I was really feeling concern about was Lilly.
"I'm okay," I told Karen. "It's been a strange few days," I said.
"Yeah," she agreed.
I left the door unlocked in case Lilly came back and I noticed that her overnight bag was still on the floor by my dresser when I entered my room. Her funeral dress was hanging on the closest door and I could smell her all through the room. The sheets still smelled of sex and I reached my hand out to "her" side of the bed several times during the night hoping she had returned while I slept but the bed was still empty when I awoke in the morning.
My Catholic upbringing brought me back to Mass that Sunday morning to light a candle in Van's memory and say some prayers for his soul but mostly I was thinking about Lilly, wondering if it really was nothing more than grief and anger sex between us.
After Mass, I went on a sentimental nostalgic tour – passing through the old neighborhood where Van grew up, going past our old elementary school and the high school, driving through the Green College campus, the night club where we used to perform and finally back to Hillsboro, stopping for lunch at Johnny C's Diner before heading to the Hillsboro Community Center to help Karen and some of the others set up for the worshiping gathering.
The theatre looked like a Shrine to Van Dawson. As soon as I walked into the lobby, enlarged photographs of Van were everywhere, along with poster boards full of snap shots and other photos of Van in his various roles through the years, during rehearsals and while wearing the director's hat. Paul LeBaron, our resident set design guy, resurrected several set pieces from some of Van's shows from the warehouse and set them up on the stage as a memorial, along with several more enlarged photos. Show music was playing in the background and a video screen was set up to play some of Van's taped productions once people began showing up.
I thought Karen and her friends had gone a little bit overboard but it was a nice gesture as final expression of Van Dawson worship. The caterer arrived and set up the food tables and Karen had a wine table ready to serve in the corner of the lobby. It was quite the gig.
The theatre people began filing in and mingling around the lobby, telling Van stories and sharing favorite memories. It was like a class reunion as some people I hadn't seen in years showed up to pay their theatrical respects to Van. Karen called the 'ceremonial' part of the evening to order (I called it the 'worshiping' part!) inside the theatre where she took to the stage in front of a microphone to introduce herself as Board President and close friend of Van. She shared a few of her thoughts about Van and then moved to "open up the floor" to those gathered, offering everybody the chance to publically share their reflections and thoughts about Van and reactions from his death.
"It's okay to share the full picture of who Van was in an effort to understand him better," she explained. "If you are uncomfortable with that degree of honesty shared here with love and respect then this may not be right for you but you are welcome here, regardless," Karen announced.
I was sitting in the shadows in the back row and I felt a presence appear next to me. I glanced over to see Lilly sitting in the next chair.
"You're just in time for the worshiping," I told her.
"Oh joy," she replied sarcastically.
Several actors and other theatre people wanted to say something. Amy Bolton was the first to speak.
"I'm a very outwardly emotional person which is probably why I became a community theatre actress but I get through stuff by sharing, usually too much my friends tell me! I hadn't seen Van lately but I've thought of him often. Coming here today is providing comfort to me and I think this is a wonderful idea."
"How many women gathered here today slept with Van do you think?" Lilly whispered to me.
"Before or after you?" I asked quietly.
She punched me on the thigh as Tim Marker stood.
"There's understandably a lot of angst, drama, trauma and emotions regarding Van," the long time stage manager said. "Van passed was a smart guy, he knew what he was doing and we wish he didn't do it but he did and everyone that knew him is hurting. People grieve in their own way, some hurt worse than others. Everyone is upset and emotions so raw right now so hugs to everyone."
"Hugs?" Lilly asked me sarcastically. "Van hated hugs!"
Mike Smith stood. "We all know that Van had his anger and dickhead issues but when I look around and see his smiles in all these photos I can't help but smile too."
"Yeah, we're all smiling," Lilly told me.
I glanced at her. "Are you drunk or high?"
"Neither," she assured me. "I've just broken the barrier, that's all. I'm done crying for the asshole. It's time to laugh and be silly."
"That's a good attitude to have," I said.
"You should try it," she advised.
The actor Marty Martin stood. "It was pointed out to me that in a suicide the perpetrator and the victim are the same person," he said. "I'm sad that Van lost his life and I'm angry with the guy who killed him."
"Van could be Jekyll and Hyde," Don Ryder complained when he stood to speak. "He could get very angry about things that seemed trivial to me and on other occasions he could be overly considerate and kind. He was mean and ornery sometimes and it could be infuriating and I'd get flustered and be an asshole back. Van's moodiness seemed to come out of the blue and I always had that 'walking on eggshells' feeling with him. I really have no idea why I took his shit for so long to tell you the truth."
"Me either," Lilly whispered.
"Well, I saw the good side of him in the one show I did with him," Stan Kvolski said when he stood. "I was Oliver in Oliver about ten years ago. I was having a difficult time socially and emotionally but on stage I came alive, hit every mark and never missed a line or cue and I have Van to thank for my success. He'd compliment me on what a good job I was doing. It meant a lot to me and it was a special show for me because of Van's tenderness and understanding."
"And he told me never to act with kids or animals!" Lilly said.
Donna Miller stood. She was wearing a skin tight short black mini-skirt and a tight blouse that pushed her breasts up.
"Do you think he slept with her?" Lilly asked me.
"Everyday has been tricky," Donna told the gathered. "I keep thinking of him but the world is different now. It reminds me of a bad breakup. I feel blue and I know that it will take time but I haven't dreamed in a week and I'm haunted by the image of him. It will take time but I'm going to be okay."
"He definitely slept with her," Lilly decided.
"Gee, that's strange, Donna, because I just had a great dream about Van," Maureen Paulson was saying. "I remember my dreams vividly and last night I dreamt that Van was here talking to me, smiling. I was touching his arm and squeezing his hand and he just kept on talking and smiling. And then...I said, 'Wait, you're dead...' and he was gone. I didn't feel sad in the dream but I was when I woke up."
"He probably slept with her too," Lilly mumbled.
JP Morrissey stood next. "Van's temper could get the best of him and he could get snappy with me but I learned not to spend too much time dwelling on it because he was always blowing up and getting flustered. He could be hard on other people but I learned to never take it personally although I think I took this final act pretty personally."
"Me too," Lilly said.
Jenny Hamilton stood. I remember my first play I was in with HPAC," she said. "Van was in it too and I was self-conscious because I had a lot of lines and I felt like Van was scrutinizing my abilities but I forced myself to hang in there and I told myself I wasn't going to be intimidated by this guy that I had heard so much about. What I learned doing that show was what a great actor Van was. He was the best I've seen and even though he could be a tyrant sometimes I always found him intriguing and I thought he was one of the most fascinating, mysterious people I've ever met. We had ups and downs doing other shows together like many here but I'm glad I got the chance to act with him. He was the best."
Sally Ellison stood. "Van could be challenging and amazing at the same time," she said. "I valued his opinions about acting and directing even if I didn't always agree with him because I knew he was trying to stage the best show possible whether he was acting in it or directing it or both."
Brad Britt stood. "Van hadn't done a show in almost a year and that's when I knew there was a cosmic shift in his attitude and outlook," he sighed. "There were other warning signs – his drinking, his pubic scenes, him giving up his apartment, but I guess at the time none of us realized he was becoming depressed and suicidal and that he had given up. HPAC is what got him through all his earlier challenges and disappointments and I think when he lost that he lost everything."
I wanted to stand up and yell "Bullshit!" It was clear that the bastard Brad was taking a sideways slap at me for what many perceived as me "kicking Van out" of HPAC.
"Let it go," Lilly whispered, sensing my rage bubbling within in. "People can think what they want. We know the truth."
Cassie Edmonds stood and giggled. "I probably shouldn't tell this story but I came home one night when I was rooming with Claudia and she was dating Van to find a naked Van smiling ear to ear holding a strategically placed carton of orange juice saying 'Why Cassie...how nice to see you!' just as calm as could be. He didn't skip a beat even though I caught him in a compromising position!"
"I bet the slut slept with him behind Claudia's back," Lilly grumbled.
Frankie Killman stood next. "What I will most remember about Van are all the things I learned from him that made me a better actor," he said. "I soaked up whatever he was doing or saying. One time, Van was playing a rather small role in a show. He was only on stage for a few minutes with just a handful of lines but he totally consumed his limited stage time by performing with enormous energy and enthusiasm. I learned at that moment that there are no small roles or opportunities."
Andy Nelson stood. "I was in a show and there was a small role that the person who was supposed to do ended up ditching out on at the last minute so Van filled in. I think he got the script the afternoon before the show but he was so fantastic in the role and he literally stole the show! That was how great he was as an actor."
Betty Anders stood. "Van's energy was contagious. He brought everyone up to his level just by being with him on stage. He really was a great actor who gave stellar performances and brought out the best in everyone else's performances too. He was one of those actors whose talent was so great that it was contagious. I did several shows with him and I was a better actor just because he was there. I remember opening night of the first show I did with him and I told him I was nervous and he gave a quizzical look and asked 'What do you have to be nervous about? You're great!' I know some felt Van could be difficult to work with but I never experienced it. He constantly told me what an awesome job I did and how he was so impressed that I took direction so well. He made me feel special."
Jim Izzle stood. "Van could be judicious in doling out compliments so if you received one from him it meant something because it was so rare. I always knew his compliments were sincere and timed perfectly and I never tired of getting one from him."
Matt Wallace was next. "I never got angry at Van for his faults because I knew it was part of who he was. Yes, he could be off-putting, distant, anti-social and overly critical and he was uncomfortable accepting praise for his acting."
"You've got to be kidding," I grumbled. "He ate those kind of compliments up when it came to his own abilities."
"None of that ever offended me because I accepted that about him," Matt continued. "Van was impatient and he was never one for small talk so you needed to have a purpose talking to him and I appreciated that about him."
Roy Richards stood. "Van had the ability to say so much with just the raise of an eyebrow, the curl of his lip, or a sigh when he was on stage. He didn't like to waste time or have his time wasted. When he was on stage the rest of us were drawn to him. He always threw himself into his character and I learned so much from him. He was the most honest actor I've ever known and he wasn't shy about sharing his thoughts bluntly. He was uncompromising in his ideals."
Helen Allen was next. "Van could be annoying but compassionate, sardonic and then unbelievably kind, possessive and then generous. He was a complex man who showed his emotions in his eyes. He never lied so you had to be prepared for his truths. We all aspired to be as good as him on stage. Whether it was in a comedy, drama or musical Van always nailed the role. He could be unreachable and difficult to get to know, dark and unpredictable, and easily frustrating and demanding but all of the swirling, stormy emotions came from the deepest part of his soul because he was trying so hard to do his work honestly. He demanded so much from those around him."
"Why can't anybody just admit that the guy was a temperamental asshole?" I asked Lilly.
"A manic-depressive too," Lilly said.
As if on cue, Pete Daniels stood. "To say I liked Van would be a lie but the one thing I knew about him was his brutal honesty so I can honestly say that he was the best actor I've ever seen. He commanded the stage and I could never take my eyes off of him afraid that I would miss something. I extend my condolences and sympathies to one and all but if you ask me as a person, Van had many faults and shortcomings that clouded his talents and skills."
"Give that man a cookie," Lilly remarked.
Nobody else stood which kind of surprised me because I thought the worshiping would go on all night, especially with a room full of actors! Karen returned to the stage and thanked those who spoke.
"Your words warm our hearts," she concluded. But then she stared out into the house and searched for me, finally spotting me sloshed down in the back row. "Jack?" She asked. "You haven't said anything."
I hadn't said anything since it happened. I offered support, condolences, sympathy and understanding to others in conversations and e-mails but I had yet to offer my opinion or thoughts about Van, our friendship, our falling out, or his suicide. I knew some people resented me for "forcing" Van out of the company (when it was actually his own choice) and some saw me as a power grabbing jerk since I was now the lone Executive and Artistic Director for HPAC.
"You'd better say something," Lilly told me in a stage whisper from the chair next to me.
I slowly stood and cleared my throat. "Van Dawson was my friend," I said before sitting down again.
Karen nodded her appreciation to me. "Okay," she told the group. "There's still plenty of wine. We'll start showing some of the videos of Van and everybody is invited and encouraged to hang around and tell more stories and share memories of Van."
I had put myself out there from the moment the news hit and so far nobody had said anything critical or negative to me about me. I went out to the lobby to mingle and give anybody the opportunity to say whatever they wanted to me. Most who spoke were cordial and polite and those who had an axe to grind avoided me which was fine too. Carl Saunders was there interviewing people for his Van Dawson worship tribute piece.
Lilly hung around until the end. We helped Karen, Mark and a few other board members clean up and take down all the photos and poster boards. When everything was done, I walked Lilly to her car.
"It's not by default, you know," she said.
I looked at her and bit my lip. "You sure?"
"Yes," she said. "I'm sure."
"Do you want to spend the night?"
"Do you want to move in with me?"
"But?" I frowned.
"But I won't worship you," she told me.
"Deal," I grinned, giving her a hug.
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