The first thing you have to understand is community theater. It's a hobby for most people, not a profession, but it's every bit as melodramatic, not to mention as catty and backstabbing as Hollywood itself. What else can one expect when you get a bunch of people together for the express purpose of getting up on a stage to entertain others?

The second thing you have to understand is small town mentality. You can get fired from a civil service job for "knowing too much". You can go from hero to zero and back again in the space of three conversations, at least one of which will be mentioned in the local paper. You know everyone, you've known everyone, and anyone new isn't accepted until you've given them your own three kinds of hell and stood back and waited to see if they flee town or not.

The last thing you have to understand is the family about whom I am about to write. They were my kind of people, much more so than the family into which I was adopted. They're the kind of people who videotape their chubby son in a perhaps over-orchestrated high school band performance, and of course something totally unusual and remarkable and America's Funniest Home Videos-worthy occurs. Over many years, I often visited this family to talk, but I always, always ended up just listening. From oldest to youngest (there were 2 parents and 4 kids) they were actors, storytellers, entertainers, and each a unique person. No one will ever remember the kids in the high school band who were perfect and flawless. Everyone will remember the chubby kid who couldn't strip off his uniform into his luau costume and thus spent the rest of the performance with his pants proudly puddled around his ankles, waddling back and forth the length of the football field playing his trombone. And that's the kind of person I wanted to be. Still want to be.

So, knowing these things, when I recently returned to the village that hosted my hell-spawned teenage years after a fifteen-year absence and spent an all-nighter catching up with Sandy, you'll understand why the story of the death of the father of this remarkably loving and accepting and unique family had me crying with joy, and not with sorrow. This is the way I wish to be remembered some day.

Sandy and Betty, two of the community theater's leading lights (in fact, Betty founded the troupe) had decided they wanted to put on a production of the female version of The Odd Couple. Sandy's husband, Bill Don, also an actor, was interested in playing one of the male-counterparts of the Pigeon sisters. Sandy and Bill Don wanted Betty to come over one night to read through the script to see if it was, indeed, a do-able thing.

Okay, one more thing you need to understand. None of these people are pretty in the Hollywood, or even the conventional, sense. Most especially Betty. Betty's a cop, she smokes too much, she's got a gravelly butch lesbian voice, her hair is too frizzy, and she's about 150 pounds overweight. Sandy's got bad teeth, and Bill Don's the type of person who wants to take a tuxedo to the Grand Canyon and have a nine-course meal on the back of a burro. So when Sandy and Bill Don call Betty to get her over to their house to go through the script and Betty refuses unless she can 'come as I am' you should be feeling a bit of apprehension at imagining just what Betty might look like upon her arrival at the household.

Which of course, she does, since it's a small town, five minutes from anywhere, she's good friends with the married couple and they don't care what she looks like. Clearly, the love these three people share is based on something on the inside, not on transient and outward appearances. The play is the thing, and they want to see if it'd be a thing this small troupe of players could actually do.

So they read through the script, and afterwards, shoot the shit until well into the wee hours. Bill Don, as was his wont just sort of nodded off at some unremarked and unremembered point in the conversation, most likely with a More cigarette dangling from his perfectly-groomed goatee.

At around 3 AM, Betty prepares to leave, and punches Bill Don affectionately on the shoulder to rouse him. He doesn't rouse. Betty, being a damned good cop, knows he's gone, knows he's already suffered and survived one vicious heart attack and knows he doesn't want to survive another one. She calls 911, and she and Sandy just sort of wait for the processes and machineries of the things that happen after one dies to begin. The ambulance comes, Sandy, Betty, one of Sandy's sons and another couple with whom Sandy is dear friends trek to the hospital, so that Bill Don may truly be pronounced good and dead. There's that little waiting room. They're all there. There's not much being said. Everyone's sort of in a state of shock, but not sad. They knew this day would come.

So, sort of sitting silently in a room, they all wait. Enters a man in a three-piece suit, a stranger to them all. When you live in small town, when you're in the hospital at three AM, and when someone walks in wearing a suit, someone you've never met, well, you'd have to be a pretty dim bulb not to figure out that this man is the undertaker. "Digger O'Toole" as Betty calls him.

Said man walks in, identifies Sandy as the most likely person to which to speak, clasps her hand in both of his and asks in his best undertaker's voice (you know the one), "Are you the bereaved?"

At this point in the story, you'd expect that this unlikely apparition, this profound reverence for the wife of someone for whom irreverence was a way of life, would cause everyone to burst out laughing. But, no. Everyone's still sort of in this calm, pleasant shock. After Sandy tells this man that she is, indeed, said bereaved, the man looks around at the rest of the motley bunch, and creates a pregnant pause.

Well, as all stage actors know, a pregnant pause means certain death, and thus Sandy went on automatic, introducing everyone to the undertaker to fill the void which said pause had produced. She introduces her son, first. Then the couple of dear friends. Then, as she turns towards Betty, Betty, who--if you remember--had arrived to begin the eventful evening clad 'as I am' pulled herself to her full 5 foot 7 height, in her dirty, stained, garishly flowered muumuu, her wiry and slightly-piebald hair sticking up in every direction but the proper ones, and with large Garfield fuzzy bedroom slippers on her chubby feet and in her most theatric, most dramatic, most dead-on imitation of the voice of Lauren Bacall pronounced, "And I was his mistress."

Again, had I been there, I wouldn't have been able to contain my hysterical laughter at the oddness of the situation. But, again, no. That calming shock was still massaging everyone who was present with a velvety hand and so everyone sort of looked over to the undertaker and, in unison, all nodded. Gravely.

Now on Six Feet Under, this sort of situation must happen all the time with new employees. But not in real life in a small town. Obviously flustered, the undertaker grins wanly, and leaves the waiting room. Everyone sits down, still in shock-mode. Forty five seconds later, the still-flustered gentleman in the impeccable suit returns and tells Sandy to call the funeral home in the morning, to make all the necessary arrangements for Bill Don's service, and all that stuff. Then he leaves. Quickly.

The next day, Sandy calls the one and only funeral home in the town and speaks with the owner, who she knows quite well. He picks up the phone to speak to her brimming over with (finally!) hysterical laughter. During the 45 seconds the undertaker had left the room, it seems, he had called his boss, the owner, and stated--still in that perfect undertaker's voice--to his boss thusly:

"A man has died," says he, "and I've got his wife and his mistress in the same room together. What the hell do I do?"

"Tell the wife to call me in the morning, ignore the mistress, and get the hell out of there. That's the best I can do for you." Conversation ends.

Well, of course in the intervening six hours, the funeral home owner has full knowledge of just who it was who had 'passed on' and who must have made the declaration of mistress-hood. Still laughing hysterically, he relates to Sandy that prior to Sandy's call, he had told his newest and youngest employee that Sandy and Bill Don were a loving couple, there was no mistress, and that he, an undertaker who should never be surprised by anything, had just been taken in by a bunch of master thespians performing at the height of their craft, simply because it was their default-react mode.

Apparently, said junior undertaker quit his job, and was never heard from again. And, fourteen years later, Bill Don's ashes are in a cardboard box at the bottom of Sandy's bedroom closet.

But that's a story for another time.

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