Monday, May 27, 2002

Letter to Roy Conboy


Roy,

Did you say to write a ten minute piece, or a ten page piece? Yipes! I did ten pages, then I got into it so much that I wrote another piece to go with it that's 5 pages long, since I owe you a coupla more pieces anyway, I hope you don't mind...otherwise I'll have to toss out every other word....who knows, it might be more interesting that way...

I tried to salvage my Sept 11 dialog...that I was too shy to turn in as I thought it was a buncha crap...and it ain't improving with tinkering....I think I can only write about what really happens to me...in mea maximum culprit confessional mode... that's why I love this monologue process.

It's just hard trying to find a venue where I can develop multiple voices outside of myself...(other than becoming schizophrenic or a Gemini, that is). Any suggestions on who to read? I've a few playwritng books I'm looking at. I think I'm panicking over structure here. I know how to do it in a poem, which is organic—it just happens, but it seems dialogues need another approach. More distant, more removed, more LOGICAL! (My brain rebels...)

But what really moves me are those quirky, if sometimes historical monologues. I love anything from Billy the Kid (Oandatje)—the cannibal spaniels, or the monologue from the Long Day's Journey (O'Neill) where the character gets hypnotized by the sea and discovers God and everything enroute to Buenos Aires, and the one from East (Osbourne?) where the penny drops and the character realizes he gets what he deserves, the scrubbers, not the bird he's clocking. Or Maureen's speech in the Beauty Queen of Lenane..when she's crossed over reason after murdering her mother...It's not like I haven't been exposed to the theatre...

Maybe it's the epiphany of self-realization that moves me, I think, but it seems I have to blunder up onto it, which means going back to the piece again and again until I discover what it is I want to say as I'm usually the last to know. Ah well...


Maureen

DRIVING LESSONS


DRIVING LESSONS                                                              

West county back roads 45 minutes from anywhere gives you time to think.
Behind the wheel since I was 13, w/o a license, pedal to the metal, swinging my rear end
around curves with a permit for black ice & road rash, it goes with the territory.
I get some real writing done on back roads. A friend kept driving cross-country,
it was the only way she could write novels. Gas was cheaper than rent.
Busted by the CHP at 17, it was a matter of pride to see how far I could get w/o a license.

Before that, it was the horses I was addicted to at an early age.
Never did learn to ride a bike but my quarter horse, she was fast,
a Three Bars mare, from a long line of Preakness and Derby winners.
She was the fastest animal on four legs except maybe a cheetah,
not many cheetahs in west Marin, it’s a veldt thing.

Once I saw a servil in a dumpster—escaped from a wildlife preserve.
Poor thing was declawed and defanged, and surviving on garbage.
I thought I was having a flashback on account of being up so early.
But it was sitting on that garbage heap with tufted ears the size of a jackals’
like an Egyptian god greeting the dawn, thin and long as a journey.
That’s how I knew it wasn’t a bobcat mutating in the imagination.
For starters, it didn’t have spots. I’ve seen bobcats and mountain lions a plenty.
I kept looking around to see if I was on Candid Camera or Publisher’s Clearing House,
or something like that. Not likely living out in the sticks.

Big cats. One time I saw a lion drag a deer across old man Schivo’s meadow.
The doe outweighed me, with only a barb-wire fence and a walnut orchard between us. . .
And a black catamount used to patrol the ridge. Terrified, we thought it was a jaguar.
Just melanistic. Someone shot it, I guess. We watched a cougar drag cubs to a new den
on Mt. Barnabee. Never could get the binoculars to work, a big hairy eye in the middle.
The servil made Eye Witness News. Guess I was the last one to see it alive, poor thing.
Seems like I’m always catching the tail end of things, as if I was born stradding eras.

Coming home from grade school, we had the afternoon session
on account of Lagunitas School being so crowded and all—
There were no other little kids on my road, so the bus dropped me off on the highway
at the bottom of the hill. I had to walk that mile fast to make it home before dark
as it was mid-winter. Up the canyon, under the canopy of trees,
fallen trunks glowed with a ghostly phosphorescent in the leaf mold—
I told Billy Joe—he was in high school. I told him they were silver snakes or fairy paths.

Anyway, as I was saying, my horse was the fastest in the valley at the quarter-mile.
Fast as my math teacher, Archie Williams who shook Hitler’s hand at the Olympics.
We used to race along the old railroad bed that ran through Taylor Park
and slalom through ravines so fast, no one could catch us, not the ranchers,
or even a cheetah, not that there were cheetahs in west Marin.
Once a cougar leaped in front of Mr. Lindsey’s palomino, Lady, she did the splits
never having seen a lion before; it’s not exactly something you can train for.
Our ponies were Sherman tanks, no fire road or gate was safe from us.
I used to win armloads of blue ribbons and cheesy trophies on Gymkhana Day.
I always took the dollar race, the bill clamped nicely between thigh and horse.
I come from a long line of horse whisperers. It’s in the family. So’s wanderlust.
My great-grandfather had a brute of a red mare—red as Peig’s hair.
She (the horse) was sweet as could be to him and he did well by her at the races.
But she reared up and took a chunk out of my granny’s arm for no reason at all—
that’s why she’s so afraid of horses. But I’m getting off track.

My truck is older than most of the kids I go to school with.
I call it Blue Lazarus because it just keeps on truckin’.
The odometer is approaching the 300,000 mile marker,
most of those miles spent between Bolinas and Fort Bragg.
I’m thinking of throwing a party for it, now that it’s old enough to drink.
My uncle used to have us kids breathe into the breathalyzer lock
attached to his ignition so he could start the car.
A proper drunk knows all the back roads home.

When I was 18, my dad—he was an ex cop—looked me up to see how I turned out.
He let me drive his sports car and here I was, heel-toeing the gas & brake
double-clutching, double shifting the curves down Highway One.
He wanted to know who taught me to drive. Boyfriend? No.
Said, that’s the way he drove the race car. In the blood, I guess.
Remember when personalized license plates came in in the ‘70s? when Nixon got impeached?
I was driving over Waldo Grade and the car in front of me said “FCK NXN”
and so I decided to customize my mthers’s license plate. She had this old Rambler
that said 456 SEK; well, with a little paint, I modified the K into an X
and she got great mileage out of it—until the cops pullede her over and said it was stolen.
She said the cop who took down the plate, he shaking his head.
Couldn’t believe that one got by the censor board. I don’t think he wanted to bust her
but the car got impounded. She said it was junk anyway. She was pretty cool. You know, turned on?

It really bugs me the way people drive in this city, they’re always lost
head up their ass in a nicotine cloud, brain dead, or worse—on their cell phones,
always picking their noses and generally wasting time lollygagging.
I’m stuck half-way between gears like a buggery turd, lugging it.
All this open road going to waste and they’re guarding their lanes
like jealous dogs worrying a bone, not about to let anyone else take up the slack.
One time I crammed the gear shift to get around some cow hogging the road,
and it just came off in my hand. I was in third gear, a steep grade ahead,
I’m holding the stick shift like a cattle prod, wondering what the fuck to do next,
and the whanker ahead of me, oblivious to the world, was prospecting
his nostrils like he just struck a rich vein in the Sierra Madre.

People tell me to slow down. Stress kills. They equate it with speed.
I consider it a dance. Following some whank stresses me out.
I grew up on roads with dangerous curves, it was a matter of pride
to see how fast we could take Dead Man’s Curve or White’s Hill.
Fast women in loose cars, we out-raced the cops on Lucas Valley Road
trimming curves like a seamstress shortening the distance between two points.

It comes down to this: some are born to burn up the miles, living
in the fast lane, others hug the slow lane, afraid of commitment.
Like the man I’m currently involved with, or not involved with,
depending on who’s asking. He’s so afraid of love, he straddles
the white shoulder line as if his sanity depended upon it.

I once had a boyfriend who spent a lot of time on the road
and I kept finding these dirty rolled up socks in the van.
I couldn’t figure out why they were falling out of the laundry basket
and then he finally spilled the truth, he was whacking off on the road.
Should’ve seen the writing on the wall: when sex goes, it’s a matter of time.
Bases loaded and the fat lady singing. Only I couldn’t make out the words.
Hey, you got a license for that thing? That I was the one with the seven-year-itch
is beside the point. Back when we were dharma bumming it on the road,
I used to come down on him on those long empty highways.
It was a matter of pride to see how far we could go.

My neighbor George, this cat, he really was a dharma bum.
I can’t remember his name in the book. Something like Jep,
but that was Gary Snyder’s literary name. You know, Kerouac?
Anyway he and Janis, yes, THAT Janis, were in the back seat balling.
What a word, that really dates me, doesn’t it? He was just in it for the drugs.
When we used to walk home from school she’d be waking up—
Big Brother and the Holding Company took over Barbano’s summer camp
after old man Barbano shot himself. I saw them take him away.
Seems he couldn’t bear to live after his daughter was murdered.
It was in all the magazines and newspapers. But we were the last to know.

Janis was burning the candle pretty hot at both ends by then
and she’d get up around 4 PM and crank up the amps.
We’d hear her crooning to herself between sips of Southern Comfort.
Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz. My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends. . .
My best friend was a groupie and we used to score from the musicians.
But my horse would throw a tizzy every time we rode past Jefferson Starship’s place.
They had this toy twin prop biplane in the oak tree that spun like a hornet.
You know, the one on the album cover? Rock musicians moved to the valley en masse.
We were outside civilization—the suburbs and the city were far away.

One day my little cousin wandered into Jerry Garcia’s house on Resaca Ave.
to play doctor, and she took all the pills in the medicine cabinet.
God only knows what was in his cabinet. He sure as hell didn’t.
We had to get her stomach pumped. Jerry never really left the valley.
He died trying to kick the habit at the Gregg’s old summer camp.
Linda Gregg became a poet, her old man challenged Jack Gilbert’s manhood
and handed him a chainsaw; Jack climbed the Doug fir, the tree snapped his back.
She drove that wheelchair of his as far away as she could from that valley.

Sweet old Bob, you know, the guy who had a thing for his socks?
Yeah him & my cat! He used to drag me to all these Beat readings in the City.
I heard this cat Gary Snyder’s poem about my valley and said: I can do that!
I didn’t know I was in for a life sentence. I took up writing, but the SOB
said I needed a poetic license, then wondered why I ran off with the poet
who said some pretty fast words in my slow lane. It was an easy conquest:
four on the floor, we tailgated on soft shoulders and dangerous curves.
I yielded to oncoming traffic. I let him look under my hood, but the poet
got cold feet at the bridge. Here I was, knocked up, and no place to go. . .
So I slept in the back seat of a VW bug in Safeway parking lots—made me feel safe.
The words, they just kept coming down the line. I never thought to look back.


Saturday, May 25, 2002

EXTRA!


EXTRA!

I came back from the fields of West Marin
having spent 2 long days with a thousand others
an untrained army of first timers like myself.
Come as you are, we were not actors
the logistics of moving us in geometric formations
when we’ve had no formal training, or never stood in bread lines.
Across the potholes, the stars arrive in a stretch limo
and a woman in a pink bathrobe and curlers steps out
to join the Basque herder with his sheep
and the Japanese business men bow low.
People hover like guardian angels to powder and primp them
while we, AT&Ts legions of feudal peasants,
the ordinary, the mundane, we are left
to fend for ourselves against the elements.
My lip doubled in size from windburn and a spiderbite
As we stood in countless formation,
conversation wandered from boundary to boundary
The young woman Shauna, who’d beaten childhood cancer and won
was fey and could see my well-dressed wounds;
Santa Claus (you recognize him from the magazines and catalogues)
limps from a bad car accindent down the Grapevine.
those having survived near death experiences shed a different light
a homing beacon to others, tribe within tribe.
As the camera crew aligns us for the nth take
and the copter again swoops up the valley
In this setting, conversation takes on epic proportions
and people’s lives become poignant
reduced to five-minute fragments
shaped by location and group consciousness
despite the fact that we were doing a commercial for cell phones
where we too were far away from civilization for the real cell phones to work
we reach out and touch the Basque farmer (really from Tomales)
The idea being one small planet
Cards and stories swapped like a swap meet or stockbrokers

we had transcended the mundaneness that is the death of art
the prize was the sky and wind

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Promised Land (monologue)

(revision iii)


SETTING: In the near future—say, in the year 2025—an old woman in a run-down rest home waits for visitors—any visitors, including the staff, but what is eventually revealed is that her ultimate appointment is with death. She makes do with whoever drifts into her perimeter. She spends all her time sitting in a chair.

The rest of the stage is black; scrims could be used to suggest the public nature of institutions where the idea of privacy is a relic of the past. Suggestion of patients in other beds being administered to behind scrims, being removed with increasing frequency and urgency towards the end of the piece.

The old woman’s garrulous and could talk the legs off a chair. She’s bored and she isn’t interested in listening to anyone. I envision a Jessica Tandy type in “Fried Green Tomatoes” telling the story. Various caretakers drift in and out at intervals, but her conversation continues on unabated as if she was talking to one person. We are meant to be put off by her. Yet she intrigues us in a Beckettian sort of way. What we don’t quite realize is that she is a mirror of our future selves.

Towards the end of the monologue, mirrors facing the audience could be unveiled to drive the metaphor home. (A possible rewrite could feature two old ladies chatting it up, trading war stories, thus making the stakes higher, perhaps desiring to hurry death up by hoarding pills, Kevorkian style.)

CHARACTERS:

OLD WOMAN in a nursing home
NURSE(S), caretaker




(OLD WOMAN in a roll-up bed to a nurse who drifts in and out of the monologue.

(Spotlight on OLD WOMAN, Wherever there’s a beat, the spotlight could dim, as if it was another scene.)

OLD WOMAN
What’s your name girl? Pearl? Now that’s a real nice name. I know we’ll get along real fine. You know, I used to know a Pearl once. She was a real gem from Louisiana. Never been to Louisiana. You from Louisiana? You could be. You got the right look for it... Lord, how I hate all this waiting. So boring. Gimme my cards. That’s a good girl.

(OLD WOMAN plays a game of solitaire.)

Pearl. Pearlie Mae we called her. Let’s see, I first met Pearlie Mae Timberlake—when was it? Right before the Summer of Love. Pearlie Mae’s family moved in soon after the Scotts did. Right next door to the Schivos who’d been coming here every summer for a coon’s age, they were practically neighbors. We knew them from church. Italian, see?

You Italian? No. Guess not. The first Italian word I learned was “manja-manja” from Mary Bianchi. She and my grandma were great friends. I loved watching the way her hands grated hard cheese as she talked. She’d feed us raviolis or sponge cake when we’d come home from school. It was a long walk up that road. When Mary Bianchi’s first husband died of mushroom poisoning, a brother come out from Italy to marry her and take care of her boy but he died from a weak valve in his heart, my grandma said. If he had lived, I guess the boys would’ve been brother-cousins. They didn’t think it incestuous or anything. See, in Italy, that was how things were done. She was a widow on her own in a strange country.

My grandma said there was a big Italian-Swiss colony moved in up our road around the turn of the century. So most of the year-round neighbors were Italian. I guess the narrow valley felt a little like home to them though we were far from the Alps—Italian or Swiss. But my grandma said it looked like Ireland. How could this place be so many other places in the eyes of all the beholders? And the city folks fleeing the city like rats, why were they always trying to recreate the place they just left? We had a lot of summer people. From the city. See? They’d come migratin’ like birds to better pastures. We didn’t mix much with them unless they went to our church.

(beat) (NURSE exits).

I went to Switzerland when I was a girl, you know. Younger than you. Worked there one summer as a waitress in a resort but I was positively starved for friendship or even a kind word. But the Swiss, they wouldn’t have anything to do with us—see, to them, we were summer people. Now the tables were turned. I was so homesick—I even missed Mrs. Decker’s damn dogs barking. That was the first year I quit going to church.

The Schivos, they were summer people, their place was up the hill from the Bianchis and right next door to the Scotts. At first we thought the Scotts were summer people too but one year they stayed on. Sometimes that would happen. One fall, a summer family would defect and stay on for the winter. But the lack of amenities and the rural isolation usually drove them back to the city the following year. You wouldn’t see the Scotts in our church, so we didn’t know too much about them.

But they had a real cement swimming pool with a diving board at the deep end. A pool with a bright chrome ladder with three steps to get out of the deep end. Not like the Schivo’s wading pool which was filled in with pond scum and tadpoles. Mrs. Schivo going on like how it was pure as a baptismal font. And with Gail —a grown woman—peeing in it, mind you!

It was a cryin’ shame about the Schivo’s daughter, Gail. Sometimes I used to play with her. Or I tried to. She wasn’t right in the head. I overheard my grandma telling Mary Bianchi that the cord was wrapped twice around Gail’s neck when she was born. That was why. I didn’t know what cord they were talking about. But she was sort of like Lindsey’s brother. They said it was a fall from a horse when his mother was pregnant that made him so strange.

I think Mrs. Schivo was desperate for someone—anyone—to play with her poor demented Gail. Mrs. Schivo would bribe us with lemonade and candy, calling us little angels and whatnot about our goodness and inheritin’ the kingdom of heaven. But it was too weird to be wading in a slimy fountain or to play dolls with a grown woman with the mind of a child. No, I was a child and her mind was anything but angelic.

And if we complained, Mrs. Schivo would deny it. Said we were making things up. Twisting the heads off dolls and then moving up to lizards and the like. And then, the poor kitten. She denied everything of course. We were afraid of the water snakes and the frogs were exempt on account of not having any necks, I guess. She said that we did it. Said it was an accident and we couldn’t come over any more. Mrs. Schivo, she’d claim black was white... oh I didn't mean anything by that to you girl... I didn’t understand her loneliness. Not yet. Well, it made me feel defiled but it was so hot that summer and the Scott’s pool yard—well, it was a siren call just to watch it.

I used to look through a crack in the weathered fence board that kept us from that clean, shining pool. I once heard about a precious stone called Tears of Allah. Like an opal, that pool. It was a jeweled oasis set in a dull matrix of summer grasses. We were out hiding out in the scrub brush. Hissing crickets and sizzling greasewood and acrid dust rising up around our ankles teasing our noses nearly gave us away. Stray water from the cannon balls made us the most jealous. We were positively green with envy.

I loved listening to the dull smack of feet against that diving board. You’d see a head rising up over that fence as they practiced winging it with birds and angels against that blue vault of a sky. Their feet jumping against the board reminded me of something I saw in a movie—a fist slamming into a side of beef. And then that sound off that board right before the splash cut through us like a door stopper spring. We were just dying to get in. They must’ve known we were out there torturing ourselves all summer long, but they never invited us in. Not even once. Not for years. It took Old Man Barbano’s death and my friendship with Pearlie Mae to change all that.

Yep. The slap of feet on that diving board was a real summer sound. Not like the board across the Inkwell on Papermill Creek—so deep, they said it was bottomless. They said divorced couples used to throw their wedding bands in it. So us kids was always trying to get to the bottom of it. See if they could get a ring. Or drown tryin’. They said someone found a real diamond solitaire. I bet it was real rhinestone paste. Every time I tried to swim across the Inkwells, I was so scared, I nearly drowned for lack of breath. It was practically a religious experience. Gasping for air I was. Never did find any rings. You like my rings? I’d give you one but they’ll have to cut ‘em off when I’m dead. Won’t be long now.

(The NURSE enters and takes OLD WOMAN’s pulse. Gives her a glass of water to take her pills in a small paper cup.)

Ptooy! Did you get this from a goldfish bowl? It tastes like sump water. Or pond scum. No, no, no I am not an expert in bouquet du pond scum! I don’t want any more of them pills. They make me all fizzy. (She falls back into her reverie).

(beat) (NURSE leaves).

When I was a girl, I was a regular water dog, yessiree. I spent summers submerged in the Scott’s pool. Once they invited me in, there was no turning back. I was like a stray turned up at the doorstep one day and come to stay. My hair turned blonde, then green. That was before it was hip to be punk with all that spiked hair and all. Or whatever you call it these days. Seems like fads are always changing but the types stay the same. I was brown as a nut so you couldn’t see the dirt anyway. I don’t think I ever had a bath the whole summer—which was useful.

Our spring went dry most every August. But we had these two big wine tanks. See? So we were on water vigil most the summer. Besides I hated being last in line for the bath. My grandma got first washing, then me, then my brother on account of him being the youngest. That bath water, it was as gray as the water in the ringer washer after the last load. My grandma would use the same water for all the loads, see? Real gray water. And the bath tub for rinsing. We didn’t wear much white clothes. Too hard to keep ’em clean. Real washing machines, dishwashers and swimming pools were rare as hen’s teeth because you had to be on a county water line in order to fill them.

Most of us were dependent upon wells or springs. The water company wasn’t interested in piping it to us. Not enough money in it. So they sat on the water. Kent Lake wasn’t used for drinking. Nor was Nicasio Lake for that matter. I remember when they drowned that poor valley, And every summer the bridge poked its head out if there was enough of a drought, that is. It just sat there evaporating all summer long; it was for a fire or just “in case,” only we didn’t rate as a “just in case.” It was really for future expansion—they had an eye on planting a subdivision but it was too far from town, thank God.

Our revenge was to swim our horses in the back side of those lakes. And to steal water from the fire line with long hoses. The pressure was so great from those fire lines, we were able to run water uphill to the tanks at night. Ready for a fire we were—or a phoenix on the rise.

(beat) (NURSE enters and turns on a light, fusses with things and leaves).

Speaking of fires. at my mother’s memorial service, we had ringsides seats on the front steps of St Mary’s church. It was a grand fire. B-52 bombers sliming the ridges, helicopters scooping tarp-loads of water from Nicasio Lake like dragonflies... and a camera crew filming cowboys in a big rig creeping around the Nicasio baseball diamond like Indians circling the wagons. The cops closed off one end of the road because of the movie in progress and the other end because of the fire in progress.

So we sat there that hot afternoon watching helicopters spilling payloads of water—waiting for folks to drive around the horn to San Rafael and up Lucas Valley. But nobody came to her funeral. My mom was too crazy for them anyway... Except for Billy. Even in a wheelchair, he got there all the way from LA to pay his last respects to his new-found mom. That’s what made her crazy, the State taking him like that while he was napping in his crib. I’ll tell you that story another time. But let me tell you, she would’ve liked being upstaged by a fire and by Hollywood. I never went back home much since my mom died. The kids I went to school with. Few from our end of the Valley escaped alive.

(beat)

Mrs. Scott took over teaching all us kids to swim after Old Man Barbano shot himself at the summer camp down the road. I guess Mrs. Scott was thrilled to get all of Mrs. Barbano’s old students by default. See, Mrs. Barbano, she originally had the market on swim classes because she salted her pool instead of using chlorine—which meant us lead-bottom swimmers could float and maybe even learn to swim. It was like having the great Salt Lake, the Salton Sea, or even the Dead Sea right down the road from you.

All that salt—we were like corks on a fishing net but I think it also gave us such a strange thirst for wanderlust that distance never quenched. I learned late to swim—I was going on ten—so I needed all the help I could get. But I couldn’t float in Mrs. Scott’s pool—even if my life depended on it. I used to cheat on the Red Cross lifesaving tests—sculling with my hands under my butt and holding my breath so I was tight as a balloon.

Mrs. Scott stood there with a timer timing us on hour long swims and floats in case we ever capsized in the ocean—not that any of us had a reason to be out in a boat to begin with. Except for poor Jim Ahola. But he died from exposure sailing back from Hawaii the summer after we graduated from high school on The Spirit, it was called. Funny name for a boat. Well, it took theirs' all right. Didn’t it? Poor Jim, God’s gift to women, drop-dead gorgeous—feeding all the fishes of the deep. I got my Red Cross card all right, but I still can’t float. Not even in the tub. ’Course, all I get nowadays is a sponge bath now and then.

Where was I? Oh! Mr. Barbano. We were walking home from school when they wheeled Mr. Barbano out on the gurney—he was draped all in white and the bullet left a red carnation at his temple. It matched the ambulance. I’d never seen one before, but it had a big red cross just like on my CPR card. I never did figure out what Switzerland had to do with the Red Cross.

You see, Old Man Barbano went crazy in the head after his daughter was killed. Yep, murdered. See, she got a strange case of wanderlust from that same pool—just like Linda Gregg, you know, the poet? You never heard of her. Linda, she wound up in Greece after her man Jack what'shisname? he fell out of the tree, trying to top it to prove how macho he was to her redneck father, and he wound up in a wheelchair. Handsome man, he was, with legs like twigs. She stayed with him out of guilt, I expect. Mrs. Barbano’s daughter—I can’t remember her name—she was traveling in Switzerland, or was it Mexico? when it happened. In those days, it was a big event—it even made Time magazine. Mrs. Barbano—well, she just gave up on life after that. Lost a daughter, then a husband—see, she’d lost the center of her heart...it just couldn’t float any more. Salt in the wound.

After that, Mrs. Barbano retreated from life, and to get by, she rented out the dorms to rock musicians who turned it into a sleazy commune. You’re too young to know the Sons of Champlin or Big Brother aren’t you? You remember Janis Joplin? She lived there. Yep. Got up about the time we were coming home from school, walking up the road—Pearlie and Abe. Me and Billy Joe—I was plumb crazy about him. Pearlie Mae’s brother John was back in LA for the school year. Nine months was too a long time to wait.... Janis would get well oiled on Southern Comfort and be warming up to the mike, singing, Come on and take it, take another little piece of my heart now baby...Lordy, how she could croon. How that girl could croon...like the Darkies.

(beat) (NURSE enters, pulls the curtains. Leans against the table to listen.)

We didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of the end. After the Summer of Love, more people began to stick around year-round, buying up all the summer places for dirt cheap, then reselling them to folks from LA and New York. Soon all of Marin was changing hands so fast, it was a real sleight of hand. We locals were all either left homeless or land poor after the taxes skyrocketed through the roof from all that buying and selling, buying and selling. That’s why I’m here, dearie. Taxman got the family home.

But some of the old timers, they managed to hold onto their land. Like my grandma and Mary Bianchi. Neither of them was American. They was immigrants from the Old Country so they weren’t eligible for public assistance. You know, welfare. Old ladies with next-to-nothing, they were left to starve. Starve in the richest county in the nation. But they still had their victory gardens from the war. Mary Bianchi, now she had three gardens. She used to put rags up in the orchard at night and then next morning, empty the rags loaded with earwigs—pincher bugs—into the chicken pen. The chickens went clean mad for the earwigs. So I guess we were living off chard and earwigs by extension of their eggs.

Billy Joe Bianchi, Mary’s grandson, he wasn’t particularly handsome. But I loved the way he smelled. One time he called me up on the telephone out of the blue—we just had a phone put in and so the novelty hadn’t worn off. It wasn’t the courting tool it is now. No cell phones. See, the telephone company finally decided to run poles up our road so everyone was getting phones but we were all connected to party lines.

(OLD WOMAN gathers up the cards, reshuffles, and deals a hand of solitaire, no one’s in the room. She’s talking to ghosts. Maybe Pearlie Mae. NURSE dims lights as she makes to leave.)

Damned cards. Seems I can’t get enough of them. Sill use real ones. None of that virtual solitaire for me....

(beat)

I knew it was wrong but I loved listening in on the party line. Old Man Latinfdorf’s thick German accent and Mrs. Decker’s spinster whine. Neighbors at the end of the road—they didn’t speak to each other except to tell each other to get off the line. Now Mrs. Decker, she worked at Guide Dogs for the Blind. Damned dogs barked their heads off the minute you stepped outside to fart. I could hear them barking morning noon and night. It even echoed down the stovepipe when I built the morning fire. We didn’t have none of this interior heating stuff. It seems I was always growing up between eras. Hauling wood and whatnot.

Where was I? Billy Joe. His mama—her name was Bobbie Joe—there was a real fondness for Joes in that family. Maybe johns would’ve been more appropriate. Bobbie Joe, she was drop dead gorgeous. A Tennessee woman. Came west to escape the stigmata of the Blue Ridge mountains, but Joe Senior, he couldn’t hold her. Just long enough to breed the kids, Billy Joe & Cottie Joe.

And then their mama got wanderlust—maybe she swam in Barbano's pool—and was off to God-knows-where with little Cottie, my best friend, in tow. I was ten and I was heartbroken. We used to play solitaire, hearts, crazy eights till dawn whenever I slept over. Later,we migrated to strip-poker and spin the bottle. I guess we had our own Appalachia festering right here in West Marin. But Bobbie Joe had bigger plans and skedaddled. Never did hear what happened to her but I hear Billy Joe wound up in Virginia.

(NURSE comes in bringing a straggly bouquet of flowers on the breakfast tray.)

Oops! Hand me that card will you? Why it’s the Queen of Hearts. Why thank you for the flowers. They’re real lovely. No one ever brings me flowers.

Bobbie Joe drew on her eyebrows like she was always surprised. With her Betty Boop lips she was the Queen of Hearts. Everyone was mesmerized when she wore those tight cowgirl shirts—the kind with the fringe along the vee yolk acrost her boobs—she was so stacked—even the weaner calves were lovesick. My mind keeps wandering. Where was I? Would you look at that dawn breaking. I never can get enough of it. So gorgeous.

Billy Joe said he wanted me to come on down and visit one night but I was to come to the back door. But there wasn’t any back door. I knew it wasn’t right. But I went on down the road like a sheep to the slaughter. Fog was rolling in over Mt. Barnabee—Barnabee was Samuel Taylor’s pet white mule. Buried near Devil’s Gulch, he was. Why call a jackass Barnabee anyway? Maybe Barabbas. They say a first kiss is supposed to be charmed. You know, remember it forever? But he damn near got more than a piece of my heart. I was scared stupid, all I could think of was an umbilical cord wrapping around my neck. There goes my life. No escape from the babies and poverty ’cause the men always left eventually. That was for certain.

Aha! Won the game. Finally. You know the real cause of carpet tunnel syndrome? Electronic Solitaire. All them millions of mouse clicks on Jokers and one-eyed jacks. Not word-processing. Why we’d be rich and living in Monte Carlo if we got a penny for every mouse click squandered on solitaire. They ain’t getting my money. That’s why I use real cards.

(beat)

Billy Joe was a real jock in high school....

(beat)

Course cheating’s always a problem with real cards....

(beat)

My neighbor Agnes, now she loved the cards—she used to cheat at solitaire and she'd cheat on her husband Lucien when he was out at sea. And there is always the danger of losing your real cards. She was the type to roll doughballs until they were good and gray and feed them to the dog, and play solitaire till all hours. I found one of her cards lost behind a dresser. Apparently she didn’t mind not having a full deck as long as the bourbon bottle was full. But I guess he was cheatin' on her too on account of the fact that he gave her a disease and didn’t even tell her. She wanted kids so bad and compensated by drowning her sorrow in the bottom of the bottle. But she was a real mean drunk. I kept away from her. All that poison in her. She eventually swelled up like a big frog. They said the uterus turned black and all kinds of things slithered out.

(beat)

The door to Billy Joe’s room was on the 2nd floor of the farm house. He lowered a ladder down and hoisted me up. Fog made my hair curly. Like an angel, he said as he touched it. And closed the door. Cat and mouse or cat and dog—more like it. I was treed and I sure as hell wasn’t going to make it out the front of the house without getting noticed. His granny and mine, they were good friends. You’d think that would’ve protected me. But I was too ashamed to call out for help.

Kissin' wasn't fun. How my jaw ached—his stubble cut my face like knives. He was wearin’ gray sweats. One thin drawstring between me and...it was poking out like a tent. I couldn’t stand the tension. Why is it men always think if they get you off alone they have the right to take advantage? He was like that dog barking, barking, barking. If only he didn’t rush it, things might have been different, I might have had a family to take care of me instead of living in this hole of a room playing solitaire with ghosts.

Or I suppose I might have wound up like Bobbie Joe or my mom dropping a litter and always looking beyond the next ridge for a man splayed out in greener pastures. You know, sometimes when I’m playing a good hand I get a faint whiff of after shave, as if some man was lazily stirring under summer sheets in the next room. But I think he started going after the married women after that. Never saw him with a girlfriend the whole time we was in school.

(beat) (NURSE enters, checks OLD WOMAN’s pulse, lines up her morning pills.)

Where was I? What’s your name again, dear? Oh that’s right, Pearl. I was telling you about Pearlie Mae, wasn’t I? But I didn’t finish up with Mrs. Scott. I hate leaving things undone. Makes me uneasy in my soul. Now, Mrs. Scott, just like my mom, she went off the deep end herself after they moved to Vashon Island in Washington State in order to save their family—on account of the fact that it was a regular Peyton Place with everybody wife-swapping. And they thought us kids didn’t know a thing. But Christian Burkhardt—he was a strange one— had this telescope in his tree house, see? (Laughs.) People started putting up curtains after that.

But in the end, Mrs. Scott, she couldn’t save her family or her mind, for that matter. They said they found her naked as a jay bird—draped naked on a small rock right in the middle of Puget Sound. Imagine that! Loneliness made her crazy, they said. She must’ve been swimming in that frigid water for hours. What was she escaping, where was she going to anyway? The deep? All that prolonged baptism in the Straits of Juan de Fuca couldn’t cleanse her soul. Must’ve been some big Red Cross card she was carrying. I heard she later died. Was it by her own hand I wonder? I never did know.

You leave my bed sheets alone girl. They don’t need no changing...what is it with you people changing the sheets every other day like we was in some fancy hotel? All stiff and scratchy. They’re just getting comfy now. Besides I like my own smell. Makes me feel more secure. Lord knows, it gets so bad that I can’t sleep at night with you moving bodies in and out at night, all night long, when we’re trying to sleep.

(beat) (NURSE leaves.)

Where was I? Let’s see. That’s right, You wanted to know about Pearlie Mae. Now Pearlie Mae’s mother, she was cross-eyed as their Siamese cat. Did I tell you about the cat yet? Pearlie Mae’s mother talked kinda funny ’cause she was from the bayous of Louisiana. She was remarried to this Inca guy from Peru who wore a lot of gold and had gold teeth. Like a pirate. He was a waiter along with Pearlie Mae’s mother—they worked nights in the city—only he called it mayter-dee. I believe that’s how they met—and they raised little chinchilla rats on the side. They had big plans to harvest the skins and to strike it rich.

Pearlie Mae’s stepdad was always scheming on how to get rich, but the chinchillas—they looked like lemmings—had different plans. They were so timid, some always died of fright whenever Pearlie Mae cleaned their cages, no matter how quietly she moved. They never got a chance to live out their destiny as a fur coat on some rich woman. Usually it was the mama chinchillas who croaked—Pearlie Mae would flush ‘em down the toilet hoping her parents wouldn’t notice, as if they’d come down and count them—then we had to feed the orphan babies with tiny toy baby bottles, which was kinda cute. Them nursin’ away like real babies.

From what I could gather, Pearlie Mae’s mother thought Pearlie Mae was heaven-sent in order to be a slave to cook and clean house. She worked that poor girl so hard, I never saw a house so clean. If there was one speck of dirt anywhere, Pearlie Mae would get it—with a strap from her stepdad. I think her mother had a past—though they were religious now, Jehovah’s Witnesses—but she wanted to make sure Pearlie Mae grew up right—even if she was from outside her own kind, which was a bit of a mystery. So Pearlie Mae was forever cleaning up and bleaching for germs. And keeping out of the sun. But she never got any lighter.

Sometimes we’d get into the liquor cabinet and she’d crank up “Exodus” real loud on the stereo and mix ammonia, cleanser and bleach together like a mad scientist and this greenish vapor would creep out of the toilet and, if luck would have it—gas the poor cat who liked to perch on the toilet seat on account of those dead chinchillas—sometimes when Pearlie Mae flushed them they wouldn’t go down. And he’d reach down into the toilet bowl and snag a little meal. While he was perched up there on the rim, sometimes he’d do-do his thing if he wasn’t gassed, that is.

The cat, he was a very sensitive Siamesie. Didn’t like the sound of dirt between his toes, I guess. I secretly suspected that Pearlie Mae trained him not to use the litter box on account of the dust. Poor cat, he’d circle the seat 'cause he had to go and then he'd and get a good whiff of that concoction of hers, and then he'd go tearin’ out of the house like his tail or his asshole was on fire and we was laughing and crying and coughing until our lungs turned inside out, and we’d have to run out of the house too in order to breathe.

My aunt had a Himalayan Siamese named Mest-up-o-fleas, he was a real axe murderer, he was. Always letting rodents & lizards go in the house, then giving them the coo-coo-de-graw right in your bed in the middle of the night. And if he didn’t wake you, you’d find these little heads and feet or a tail on the bedcovers. My aunt, she was always wantin’ me to Believe so that when the time came to go upstairs, I would be saved. Bit I was a heathen. Not like now.

There was always some mystery around Pearlie Mae’s real parentage as she was “adopted.” Like I said, I could never get any farther than the fact that she was from Louisiana—I knew she had a younger brother who lived with his dad in LA during the school year; he was the spitting image of his mother—blond-haired and blue-eyed. I lost my heart over him. he was the first one, you know. You never forget them no matter how awful it was.

Pearlie Mae had this big wild hair and huge brown eyes and skin the color of old honey. I’m sure people speculated, but Pearlie Mae’s mother was always saying that she was just doing her Christian duty by taking the baby off the hands of that poor, unfortunate unwed mother—barely more than a girl herself. About the only thing she left out of the story was the barefoot part.

Poor Pearlie Mae would roll her hair up every single night in orange juice cans because they were bigger and did a lot better job at straightening her hair than the store-bought pink, jumbo-sized rollers that were supposed to give her hair the straightest possible look—only she didn’t need to rat her hair out into a big flip afterwards. It was that way naturally. This was in the days before Big Hair.

I don’t know how she ever slept with her head suspended three inches above the pillow with those cans like that. It made her neck look so scrawny, like a bird’s. Most of us never even had orange juice out of cans, let alone, had enough cans to collect in order to set our hair. If there was rain or fog when we had to walk a mile down Arroyo Road to the bus into school, the rain would undo all the hard work those cans had accomplished during the night, and she’d spend every recess hiding out in the girl’s bathroom with a scarf over her head. Poor thing. Marin was a white county in those days. Except for Marin City, it was a WWII development—labor for the shipyards—but they kept to themselves. Now half of Central America’s waiting on the rich Arabs in their hillfort mansions.

As I said earlier, Pearlie Mae liked ’Tino—that’s short for Valentino—a whole lot. He melted her butter. You know the hard guy in the tight jeans and white shirts I was telling you about who looked like a Latino James Dean? Yes, that really was his real name. And if Pearlie Mae’s hair was looking especially good, she’d abandon me for the hard guys in the parking lot at school. I don’t know how she managed to go out with him, but one time she did. See, we were bussed into town like in Alabama, and most kids didn’t have cars, so it was hard to get home after school and we weren’t supposed to hitchhike, but if you had to stay after school, there was no other way home as it was way too far to walk and too dangerous to go over White’s Hill on foot.

Anyway, she did stay in town after school, and I was left pretty much out of the detail loop, walking that long mile up Arroyo Road all by myself. But during one of the rare times when she did come home with me, she let slip about having some little white pills that made her feel so fine. She offered me one. It looked like saccharine and probably was, but it seemed like Pearlie Mae was wild and getting wilder by the minute. So we sorta drifted apart, as I was a virgin and planned to stay that way in high school—a promise I actually managed to keep, even if I was the last virgin over ten years of age left in the county. I mean, it was the Summer of Love era and all that. I didn’t want to be up at the altar rail Expecting, like everyone else. I bet it was her little baby half-sister Lisa who finked on her. She was born a full-grown little bitch. And Pearlie Mae was the one who took care of her like a mother as her mother was always off in the City working. I never had any sisters, I never learned to catfight like that. Mean, spiteful and related—so you can’t escape.

Pearlie Mae was getting so wild, I didn’t know whether to look for razors in her hair, or what. Must’ve been ’cause she was sorta back with her own kind, whatever that was. Maybe Cajun. I think it liberated her from herself. But she must’ve gotten caught sneaking home late—her parents must’ve come home early from work one night— ’cause her freedom was curtailed. I suspect home was more like boot camp, and anyways, we sorta drifted back into each other’s lives.

Living rural like that, there’s less variety, you takes what’s there. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” my grannie would say. All the other girls were paired up ever since childhood: Wasps with Wasps, Catholics with Catholics—with fine-tuned color gradations from the Scandanavians to the Portuguese and Mexicans, etcetera, etcetera. See, I’d lost my best friend Miranda, she ran off with the hippies in seventh grade—I guess they was really Bohemians ’cause it was before the Summer of Love. So there I was an orphan, so to speak, and so was Pearlie Mae. So we just teamed up to weather high school together. See, we was all called Valley Rats, and the Townies wouldn’t have anything to do with us.

This time Pearlie Mae found religion too. Or her parents found it for her, more likely, so she pretended to be devout just to get a little slack rope. After that, about the only real freedom we ever had was at prayer meetings. Prayer meetings were special because they got us Over the Hill into Town and out of the Valley. But she had this wicked sense of humor and she would roll her eyes as everyone was singing about salvation and we’d be snorting and shaking, and sobbing into our prayer books like holy rollers. I guess folks might of thought we were being saved except for the fact that I went lobster-red and was practically peeing my pants, trying hard not to laugh.

By that time, she’d set her eye on Abe Rezonski, who was tall dark and, well, sorta geeky on account of religion. Abe wanted to be a preacher man, he was the eldest son of a new family that moved onto Arroyo Road. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses too, so this time her parents didn’t exactly mind the connection. I got stuck with his younger brother, Dork Rezonski who was a grade younger than me and spoiled rotten. A real booger-flicker type. The families, they all kept working me over, trying to get me saved, but I wasn’t so easily caught on that hook. Pearlie Mae and me kept up the pretense for almost three years before they got wise to the fact that I wasn’t about to be saved under any circumstances.

See, when I was in catechism for First Communion, I gave the nuns apoplexy ’cause I insisted that God wasn’t crying like they said, ‘cause we were talking in church and it was raining, but that he was really peeing on us. I mean, THEY were talking in church too. So they flunked me. I’m sure I was the only kid who ever flunked First Communion. Aside from the humiliation, it made me suspicious of everyone. Imagine them trying to tell me that the rain was God’s tears! I’m sure Pearlie Mae’s parents thought I was responsible for her getting into so much trouble because of my worldly ways—when it was really the other way around. But who was going to believe me? They made her shun me after that. Biblical shunning means you’re dead, you’re invisible, you don’t exist.

What made it so difficult being shunned was that I was still madly in love with her little brother—who I only got to see during summer and holidays as it was. I used to get the news from Pearl and we'd speculate on every little thing. John and me, we were pretty deep into physics during that fall. He was my first kiss and my first big bang too. That’s why I always get so melancholy during the fall, all those rites of passage. Thank God it cured me of him for good. He was a bad boy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Pearlie Mae, she had a party shack set up in the chinchilla shed at the bottom of the stairs as they all had pretty much died off by this time, not wanting to be saved. Or maybe it was because of all that racket we made. I guess getting rich off of chinchilla skins no longer mattered if the world was going to end so soon (I suspect they were duly dispatched to chinchilla heaven). Besides, people were beginning to boycott fur after they saw those cute baby seals being slaughtered on TV. And her brother, well, John made the chinchilla shed into a clubhouse when he moved up here full time, having gotten himself into some kind of trouble down in LA…but I‘m getting off track…

And after the Jehovah’s Witnesses had “outed” me, everyone had to pretend I was invisible. They all had to turn their backs on me whenever they saw me. It was especially hard to act like nothing was wrong at the bus stop. And when the other kids saw them shunning me, they figured something was up, and so they all did the same thing. They shunned me too. Like sheep.

It was like the time with my first best friend Stephie—in order to keep her friendship with Rebecca Wilson, Stephie, who was a grade younger than me, had to pretend not to like me. I don’t know why I ever went along with it, what was I thinking of? But it backfired at school and there I was all lonely again. And when she was all friendly again after school, it just didn’t matter any more. My heart was broken. It never dawned on me to say anything either, but then, I always had a hard time sticking up for myself.

What is it that makes us go through life accepting small injustices and never questioning or challenging them? They pick away at us until we believe we’re no good at all. That’s what happened to me and most of the dads in the Valley, when they turned to drink. Or the older girls—all knocked up, following in their mothers’ footsteps. I guess sometimes you just have to get mad enough in order to change things—you know, like Rosa Parks at the back of the bus? But first, you have to see there’s an injustice being done. I just knew I had to escape the Valley, I didn’t know how or why.

(beat) (NURSE enters.)

Anyway, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were really getting ready to face the end of the world, which was supposed to happen sometime in July, 1974, which was practically another lifetime away—five whole years— but they wanted to be ready well in advance. They were all being especially holy so as they could all be saved together, like lemmings, in the Promised Land.

It was a time of potlucks and feverish prayer meetings. I figured we had plenty of time to still be friends, but Pearlie Mae—she cried, she begged me to join, saying she wanted me to be saved too, as I was her best friend. Who would she hang out with in the Promised Land? And I wanted to be saved too so that I could see her brother as well. But it didn’t happen like that.

We were moving light years apart: Pearlie Mae towards her goodie-two-shoes preacherman Abe, and me towards a real bad boy, the first of a long line of many. I loved her, but for the life of me, I couldn’t have saved myself if I wanted to. I guess she’d long since given up on ’Tino. And of course 1974 just came and went. No end in sight. So they thought they had miscalculated the time. And they kept on praying. By that time the escalating Vietnam war was like Armageddon, so I could sorta see their point.

Then the Jehova's Witnesses began to focus on the coming millennium. Just like the monks did during the last millennium. The irony is that in those days, people had no clear notion or even a consensus as to what day, what week or even what month it was until quite recently. Did you know clocks and calendars were invented by the monks so that people would know when to worship? It got me to thinking about how we measure time. But time wasn’t as precise 200 years ago, let alone 2000 years ago. Not like now when we have digital clocks and atomic clocks. Everybody planning out and fine tuning every last minute and millisecond of the day and still they don’t have enough time. It’s like that nightmare painting of clocks melting all over the landscape like candles.

Reminds me of that joke about the farmer who had a tap-dancing pig that won all the ribbons at the county fair. The reporters all wanted to know how the farmer found the time to teach his pig how to dance. Seems they were worried about all the time it took. And the farmer answered, What’s time to a pig?

What’s time to a pig? It seems everybody’s been wanting extra time through the ages. Have you seen the comet yet? I don’t even know its name. A thousand years ago, the monks thought comets meant disasters. The end of the world as they knew it. A new age but no new year. Sometimes I cry for no reason. Remember Kahoutek and Halley’s Comet? My grandmother saw Halley’s Comet. After Kahoutek, someone said to me, “There is no comet, you’re imagining it out of the corner of your eye.” It was like a tear straining the darkness.

(beat)

No, I never had children, it wasn’t a hard decision made after the birth of the Age of Light. The idea of time being measured by atomic clocks had to do with it. Too bright to see. We split the atom and there was all this extra light left over. See?

After that, I heard Pearlie Mae finally got married to Abe and started having babies, and when the world didn’t end as was promised, I heard rumor that they got the wanderlust—must've been the salt in their pool—and went off preaching to heathens in the jungle just like Katrina Larsen. What were they trying to do? Were they embracing their fate or were they running away from the world? No matter how I put it to myself, it just wouldn’t add up.

Blaming natural events like earthquakes and wars on apocalyptic nightmares and horses and retribution. Who wants to believe in a world with a God like that anyway? Worse, who wants to go to a heaven that unjust? All that savin’ of the heathens who just didn’t want savin’. Shoulda just stuck to their own kind.

All these religious types playing poker with God, self-righteously handing you face cards saying “Believe.” Believe like they got a private line to God. Believe in what? What gives them the right? My grandma was always going on about seeking heaven on earth. But I was too busy trying to escape the past to notice. It was never about the meek inheriting the earth. And waiting for your reward in kingdom come! When I think of the wasted lives of all those people abdicating their natural riches and birthright like the Duke of Windsor for Mrs. Wallis. An empty marriage with life. So they can collect their just rewards in the Hereafter. What’s the point?

And here I am sitting here playing cards and waiting like a jilted bride for the Promised Land myself. Only I’m in no hurry to get there. Sure, it’s time to go upstairs. Everyone telling me: Just you wait till you’re on your deathbed. When the time comes. Then you’ll believe in God. You’ll see. Well, it hasn’t happened yet. It’ll be another waiting room like all the rest. That’s what purgatory is, a waiting room. Like Godot. With time suspended from an umbilical cord wrapped three times around your neck. You’ll see. Hand me those flowers Nurse, there’s a good girl.

( NURSE gathers up a vase of wilted flowers and hands them to the OLD WOMAN who climbs out of bed and walks to the front of the stage and tosses bouquet to the audience. NURSE walks into audience as if to retrieve the flowers)

Catch the bouquet? Why, you’re the next one in line, dear. Welcome. Welcome.

(Blackout on the OLD WOMAN. Spotlight comes up on the house, the front of the stage is lined with mirrored tiles facing the audience.)




© 2002 Maureen Hurley

Final project for playwright Roy Conboy's MFA monologue class... we had to use elements of three monologues we'd written previously and combine them into a longer piece. Transitions changed the nature of the work. This is autobiography as memoir in an imagined future. The consistent tone of the voice was my main focus, I had to resist the very real urge to dumb my character down, by making her too uneducated. It was a struggle for me to keep her intelligence without being didactic. Alas, the playwriting elements of storyline and dramatic tension continue to elude me, for I'm a poet at heart. But I learned a lot from playwrights Roy and Brighde Mullin when I had to use pieces of my own life story and transform it. Of course, we were also seeing a play a week and writing on them as well. Michael Oandatje's "Billy The Kid" was somewhat of a model for this piece.

Disclaimer: this is fiction. I drew on stories I had heard as a child. Apologies to the real people whose names I took in vain and the events that occur in this piece, I stretched the truth a bit (in some cases, a lot) in order to make it more dramatic. I suppose I could change names (I did once), but there's so much more power in using the real names. II'm not sure what that's about. If you've an objection to your name being used in this piece, please let me know in the comments section and I'll delete it.

Irish Poem ToC chaphook for Brighde Mullins (I think)



Irish Poem ToC chaphook for Brighde Mullins (I think), Or for Laurie Fadave



House of Memory (Play)

This is a backstory based on the play, “The Steward of Christendom,” by Sebastian Barry (1995), about a Dublin Castle policeman who is senile; his wife and son are ghosts. He was called a traitor by the Catholics in 1922. when the Irish Free State was formed, because he had worked for the British Crown. It drove him insane. Like King Lear, two of his three daughters have abandoned him.

Only ANNIE, whose back is deformed by polio, visits him.

HOUSE OF MEMORY is about a ghost wife of the Dublin policeman, CISSY who died in childbirth ca. 1904.
The events recounted are of W.W.I. Willie is their dead soldier son. The play is set in a cottage in Dalky, near Dublin, Ireland, during two time frames, 1922 and 1932.
CISSY’s story stops in 1904. Though she is still present, she unable to communicate with her family. Cissy is house-bound, tied to the place where she lived and died in childbirth.

ANNIE’s mother CISSY, is talking to her, but ANNIE, not hearing her, has her own monologue about life treating her unfairly, being a spinster, wanting a family, feeling abandoned, feeling guilty about committing her father to the asylum...


LIST OF CHARACTERS:

CISSY, Thomas’ dead wife, a ghost who died in childbirth in her late 20’s.

ANNIE, her daughter, her spine crippled from polio, she hobbles, she plays two time periods, at the age of 19 years and age 29.

THOMAS, a deranged retired policeman (offstage voice)
Two men carrying straitjackets

ACT I
Scene 1
A cottage near Dublin, 1922

Setting: the kitchen in a small country cottage set in two time frames: in 1922, and in 1932. The kitchen is simple, against the upstage wall, a back door Dutch-style, a sink, a curtained window over the sink; the two side walls angle out obliquely. On one wall is a hearth with mantle, a rocking chair, hearth rug, and a front door (or the suggestion of a front door, the characters address the audience as they go out the front door). In the wall above the hearth is a small altar niche and votive candle with a picture of Jesus, and another of Mary, curled palm fronds, mass cards wedged in the frames, rosary, etc. A picture of a W.W.I soldier in uniform, (Will) a man in a policeman’s uniform (Thomas), a prayer book and some momentos. Perhaps there are chairs and boxes stored in the rafters above. (It would be tempting to play Eric Bogle's Willie McBride, if it isn't considered too anachronistic as it's a modern song though it refers to the Great War).

On the other wall, one door leads to a bedroom, another to a formal front parlor which isn’t used—ever. It's like a museum, with furniture draped in sheets. In the center of the stage is a large oval rug, behind which a worn kitchen table is covered in a grubby stained tablecloth, and a jam jar filled with spoons and a sugar bowl, a teapot, a mug. Two or three battered chairs are around the table.

There is a young housewife CISSY, dressed in a simple house dress reminiscent of the Victorian/Edwardian era with its pretensions of wealth. Seated at the kitchen table is CISSY, a woman in her late 20’s, Thomas’s dead wife, a ghost who died in childbirth in 1904.


(CISSY, a ghost, is standing at bedroom door.)
CISSY
Thomas? Thomas? Are you there?
(She moves to the front door looking out towards the audience.)
Thomas! Yoohoo! Where are you love? Where did you go? I bet he’s out walking that cursed meadow again. A lot of good that does him. Thomas! Come in from the cold, and make yourself some tea. A cop of tea and you’ll feel right as rain. Thomas?


(Inarticulate voice of THOMAS moans from back door offstage.)
THOMAS
Arghhh! Ummm. Uhhhh.


(CISSY sits in the rocking chair by the fire.)
CISSY
Oh there you are, Pet. Out in that meadow, morning, noon and night, he is. For the life of me, I can’t see what the attraction is. And here I am left all alone sitting by the fire wringing my hands. A lot of good that does. He never bothers to light it any more. Just as well. He’d burn us out of house and home. And then where would we be? His mind is something terrible queer these days.


(Dressed in traveling clothes of the 1920s, their daughter ANNIE enters from the back door. CISSY gets up as if to greet her.)
ANNIE
Hallo house! Hallo Da. Dear God but it’s musty as a dungeon in here. You’d think it was never aired it out. Or a fire lit, for that matter. Da?
(ANNIE opens the curtains and windows. She peers in the bedroom door, closes it, goes to the back door again, opens upper half of the door and peers out)
Da? Where are you? (pause) Da? Don’t tell me he’s goin’ down the Sea Road again. Da? What am I to do wiith him?

CISSY
No it’s not the Sea Road, Annie, dear, thanks to God. Your Da, he’s out walking in the lunatic meadow again with the cat. It might as well be potter’s field as he’s no longer with us, so to speak.

ANNIE
I can’t be off chasing him morning, nooon and night. I’ve precious little time off from work as it is. And they’ll be talking—or worse. Nothing better to do than to let their tongues wag like the hind ends of dogs. Da?
(ANNIE leaves by the back door, leaving it ajar.)

CISSY
Don’t forget to close the door proper now or the birds will get in. And you know what that leads to. Where’s the cat when you need him? Shoo! Shoo! Annie! Annie? Come back inside soon now, I can’t bear all the endless waiting.

End of Scene 1


Scene 2


(ANNIE comes back into the cottage,the house is in a shambles.)
ANNIE
Dear God, I bet he’s out walking the meadow in his nightshirt again. And he won’t come in from the cold. Just look at the state of this place. You’d think it was pigs that moved in. He’s a full time child, he is.

(CISSY is seated at the kitchen table, talking to her daughter ANNIE, who can’t hear her.)
CISSY
Come in from the cold, girl, now, come in. Look at your shoes all wet. You’ll catch your death, you will. Sit down. Sit. There’s a pet, now.

ANNIE
He says the house is whispering something to my Mum, and her some 20 years dead. Nonsense! Whatever am I to do with him? The neighbors are already complaining about him left too much on his own.

CISSY
Ach! Annie-girl, the neighbors are the least of our worries with your father off in his world. He’s not harming a soul. Innocent as a lamb, he is.


ANNIE
Da? He’s a full-time job unto himself, he is. How can I keep up with him? There’s only so much a body can do. Where is he now? He's driving me mad!
(ANNIE gets up from the table looks out the front door)

CISSY
I suppose he’s out walking in the lunatic meadow again—I tell you, after telling me you mustn’t be talking to shadows... Shadows. Conversing with himself, he is, with the trees, and with God Almighty—for all I know.

(ANNIE sits at the kitchen table in defeat. She picks up a spoon and traces patterns on the cloth. Picks up a dishtowel and wipes the teacup clean.)
ANNIE
Do you think he wandered down the Sea Road again? Oh, God, he’s barefoot. There’s his shoes by the fire. What am I to do? What is to be done? (She stifles a sob, fist in mouth).
(ANNIE exits out back door. Lights dim.
CISSY enters and sits at the table, Lights come up,
ANNIE re-enters from back door and circles to the kitchen table as if to sit down, pacing around the kitchen.)

CISSY
NO he’s not down by the Sea Road. Every day he’s out walking that cursed meadow like a surveyor. Shoeless Thomas the surveyor surveying his grass kingdom. I keep telling him he must let go of the past. But he doesn’t listen. Instead, it’s his mind that’s lost. But no one ever listens to me.
ANNIE sweeps the kitchen floor, puts the house in order.)
Watching the ginger cat following him like a dog, her tail curled up in a question, as if she understood every word he was saying. Stopping to sniff the flowers like a large hairy bee with whiskers and mewing as if to answer. Silly creature.

Sit down Annie. Sit down. You’re making me dizzy with all that pacing.

(ANNIE sits down at the kitchen table, she’s reading a letter from her sister Dolly in America.)

ANNIE
Dolly says she misses you, house, and Da. Hmmmf! She should be here by right and not me. It wasn’t supposed to be my place.

CISSY
Oh don’t fret so, child. I wonder what the cat said to him because soon enough he quieted down like a lamb. And the birds singing by the moon. It’s all wrong I tell you.

ANNIE
I bet she doesn’t miss trying to find him. Sure, she’s living a fine and mighty life in America, mind you. Always asking after him. And never a penny home to help with his upkeep. Ohio. It sounds as pretty as a sigh. Ohiooooooh... And her flicking the golden dust of the rich and famous with a lace tea towel.
(Loud knocking at the front door.
ANNIE freezes, looks at the door as if in alarm.)

CISSY
Annie, Annie, get the door, there’s a good girl. I wonder who it could be, it’s been ages since we had visitors. Annie, who is it? I’m afraid... bad news. The knocking. I knew it was bad. A bird flew into the house. Tsk, tsk. Who is dead, Annie. Who is it? Not Maud. Not Dolly... Oh Willie, son, where are ye? Where’s your Da? Where’s the old man?
(More knocking. ANNIE goes over to the front door, wringing her hands.)

(Two men carrying straitjackets enter by the front door )
TWO MEN
Good afternoon, Ma’am. We’re here for the old man. Where is he?

ANNIE
Out in the meadow, I’m afraid. I don’t know what else to do. He’s as mad as Mad Sweeney himself, out there morning noon and night talking to the birds and the trees. This way, gentlemen.
(They follow ANNIE out the back door. She is crying. The door closes. Sounds of muffled shouting, Thomas being dragged off.)

CISSY
So, what’s all this nonsense about mad king Sweeney straying in the meadow? Him dead a thousand years or more. It’s them birds she’s always letting them into the house. No good ever comes of it.
(pause)
Annie, what have ye done? Annie, girl, you’ve been gone so long. Regular as clockwork you are every Sunday after mass. It’s been weeks, months. Annie, where did you go?
(pause)
Am I left her all alone, without even my poor mad Thomas to comfort me? Where’s my doubting Thomas? Thomas? Yoohoo! Thomas, where are you, love? Thomas?



Scene 3
Ten years later, 1932


(Lights dim, ANNIE gets up from the table and goes to the mantle and freezes in a spotlight to signify a 10-year jump ahead in time. It is 1932, perhaps ANNIE puts on a shawl or sweater to signify the 30s.

CISSY walks up to ANNIE, who is still frozen in time, she reaches out as if to touch her.

ANNIE wearily sits at the kitchen table. )

CISSY
What use are these arms? All I could do was watch. My penance, for I don’t know what, reduced to nothing but a shadow myself I am, ’tween worlds. I couldn’t bear it seeing his arms raised up to the night sky and the watery stars weeping. And him keening like Absolom.

(ANNIE covers her face in her hands, rubs it as if to wash away a bad memory then she puts her head on the table, cradled in her arms as if asleep.

CISSY wanders about the kitchen, and settles in the rocking chair.)

ANNIE
Maybe it’s the Kiltegan witch’s curse...taking root after all.

CISSY
It took a long time ripening. A sad harvest it was.

ANNIE
That field belonged to the witch was next door.

CISSY
And her washing the milk buckets in the same well always made us a bit queasy. There was something wrong there.

ANNIE
A sudden chill as if someone...

CISSY
Again! Uisht! Do you hear it? Sure, And who’s busy walking on my grave? There’s been enough of that lately. And the way they paraded round and round that meadow until I was dizzy with grief. Even the small fingers of sunlight couldn’t banish all the fear rising up from the dark eye of the well. Oh Thomas, where are you now?

(ANNIE lifts her head startled, and looks around as if she heard something.)
ANNIE
Funny how the mind plays tricks. Even now. I swore I heard Da coming up the back porch steps. And him under lock and key these ten long years. No chance of that, thank God. Unless he’s escaped....
(ANNIE goes to the back door as if to look for her father.)

CISSY
I keep thinking of Hamlet chatting up his dead father like that. No, I said, Thomas, you come in from the cold. What will the neighbors say?

(ANNIE moves back to the mantle and picks up the picture of her brother Will in uniform.)
Willie’s not coming back. He’s dead...

ANNIE
Willie should be here taking care of this place. A man about the house is what the place needs.

CISSY
...I told your father. Sure it’s your nightshirt all wet from the dew, I said. Sleep, Thomas, that’s the ticket. But grief began anew each time as if it was the first time he heard of it. He just turned his face to the wall. Then the awful silence.

(ANNIE hums a mournful tune, dusts off the photo, kisses it, and replaces it in the niche).

CISSY
Talking to shadows he was. I don’t blame him. But I do blame the hawthorn he slept beneath all the next day, and the bees breaking their hearts over the closed flowers in the stillness of late afternoon. And I was so afraid.

ANNIE
Willie, where did you go, I wonder. What dreams were left to hold you after the Great War was over? Not even a proper burial.

CISSY
I wanted to bring him some tea but it was no use. I thought to myself, if only we could catch the honeyed words. Put them in a jar for some creature comfort later. Ach, I could kill for a good cup of tea.

(ANNIE goes to the sink to fill the kettle for tea, puts it on the stove.)

ANNIE
Shall I make us a nice cup of tea?

CISSY
Make it strong enough for the mice to skitter across it. About time the cat earned her keep. Don’t forget to scald the pot proper. There’s a good girl.

ANNIE takes the teapot form the table, rinses it out in the sink, and sets the tea things on the table. CISSY follows her about the room.)

CISSY
Scald the pot! Oh for God sakes, Annie. That’s a poor way to be making tea. They’ll say you had a bad upbringing. But then, poor tyke, you had to become your own mother—and your own father too after he went off in the head.
(CISSY sits down at the table. ANNIE arranges some flowers.)

ANNIE
Forget-me-nots and rosemary for remembrance. Forsythia and rue. But not the hawthorn, that’s bad luck, and never the bridal wreath. Not for me, it seems.

CISSY
You remember what they say about sleeping under the hawthorn?
I’m sure that’s how it all began. I don’t like the Aram lilies and lilacs.
Makes this place smell like a funeral, it does.

ANNIE
Is there no man left in Ireland hat would have me? Lilies of the field.

CISSY
Never you mind that. It’s your father you should be taking care of. Instead of that rest home. It’s not his fault his mind wandered to all sorts of strange places. It’s what they did to him in the name of freedom. Poor man.

Once he insisted he was with Hannibal crossing the Alps. Imagine that! Poor lummoxing beasts climbing mountain passes with no more understanding of snow than the man in the moon. Him worried about the elephants trembling at the sight of snowflakes. Wanting me to knit them all sweaters! Me, a knitter of elephant sweaters. I thought to humor him but I’d never hear the end of it in the Hereafter. Should I use the popcorn stitch or a cable stitch like Aran sweaters, dogtags for the drowned fishermen lost at sea?

(The kettle whistles, ANNIE pours water into the teapot.)

Annie, for God sakes, scald the teapot! Scald the teapot.
(ANNIE hesitates, as if to scald the pot, then shakes her head to say no, then changes her mind, scalding the pot first).

CISSY
That’s a good girl now, Annie. Sure, I didn’t know what to make of it. There he was, ranting through the ages, a fine white snow covering him. Petals drifting down on him from the hawthorn until he was blanketed white as snow. I blamed the hawthorn, I did. We were told never to pick it or invite trouble into the house. Thorns into the bed. Or a changeling. And that he was. A changeling.

(ANNIE sits at the table and stirs the tea in the teapot.)

CISSY
Annie, let it steep proper, five minutes. Leave it alone, would ye. Quit fussing over it or you’ll spoil it.

(ANNIE puts the lid back on the teapot, gets up and fixes a plate of biscuits at the sink).

CISSY
Your father was like Hannibal all alone in Abyssinia, he was leaderless after he turned over Dublin Castle to them. A loyal servant of Ireland and the Crown he was. The Crown was good to us. I remember when the king came to visit. It was after Queen Victoria died. Your father called her the Flower of Christendom, he did.
(ANNIE returns with a plate of biscuits and sits down. It begins to rain.)

ANNIE
This hair’s a mess. Should I cut it? Have it bobbed. That’s the ticket.

CISSY
Did you know that King Edward he praised my beautiful hair? Blue-black as the barrel of a rifle it was. It was 1903. I wore a polka-dotted dress for tea. You’d better pour the tea or it’ll get bitter. Did you no get any decent teacakes?

(ANNIE pours her tea, adds milk and sugar, stirs, the spoon clanging like a small bell in the mug).

CISSY
A right proper tea it was. All the little teacakes staring up at us like Christmas presents. Oh! How I loved to dance.

ANNIE
Maybe a new frock. But I’ve no money. Maybe there’s something of Mum’s I could cut down.

CISSY
But your father, he stood like a great tree in the middle of the dance floor. I was afraid he’s take root right there. They began to whisper and laugh. Shame spread like Brigid’s red cloak. I had to coax him off the floor with the teacakes. And them laughing.

(ANNIE sips her tea, warming her hands on the mug. She returns to the mantle and picks up a photo of her father in uniform. She takes it over to the kitchen window to scrutinize it.)

ANNIE
Lovely biscuits. Too bad they’re so dear.

CISSY
Annie, don’t be so hard on your father. There was a time when he was a different man, he wore his invincibility like a cloak but after he turned Dublin Castle over to Collins and the like, he was a different man.

After that, he was always after dreaming candlelight into song and questing for distant horizons. The glory of Rome.

He admired Michael Collins, you know. But they called him a traitor. Blamed him for Larkin’s death. And the others. He never even carried a gun. Just the billy club was enough. He kept Dublin orderly and safe. It was his job.

Ach, it was terrible the way they treated your father. There was some trouble with his pension, with the new government, and him chief constable of Dublin working for Ireland and the Crown 45 long years! And they called him a traitor.

(A rumble of thunder. A tattoo of rain, a thunderclap.)

ANNIE
Is there no end to the rain? Oh, my heart, it’s like a caged bird beating at the windowpane.

CISSY
There’s always betrayal at the heart of it. They should look to themselves. And who was it gave the order to kill the Big Fella? Themselves alone. How he wept when Collins died. There was real hope for the Big Fella, you see. Not for “King” de Valera, him with the stone heart of a mathematician leading us back into slavery with rings through our noses like cattle to Rome.

Dev, the called him, more like devolution. Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. Soldiers of destiny they called themselves. All it brought was more civil war. As if there wasn’t enough bloodshed.

(Thunderclaps. A downpour. ANNIE returns the photo and brushes her hand across Will’s photo).

CISSY
It all began with your brother Willie’s death, it unsettled your father something terrible. You know, he was never quite right in the head after that. I swear he saw God in the face of his newborn son. That settled him down right enough. But why is it fathers and sons never see eye to eye until it’s too late? Poor Willie! All he wanted was a kind word. And your father like a big lump of a stone. Poor tyke.

(ANNIE picks up a prayer book and opens it, closes it, strokes the cover, puts it back. She lights the votive candle.)

CISSY
He was only six when I was with Dolly in the childbed, my own blood racing to meet Lough Derg. Such a long night it was. And I couldn’t stop it for the life of me. When the candle failed, the birds began to sing, it was my father came to me, but it was so queer, for he was my husband with my father’s face. I didn’t know who I was talking to. He began to keen. Hush, I said. But the candle guttered. Him crying like his heart would break.

(ANNIE returns to the table, sits, and resumes sipping her tea.)

CISSY
’Tis a pity I never got to hold Dolly. My arms and breasts ache for her. Where is she now? America? And your sister Maud? She never comes home. Only you. Why do you keep returning to this house empty of memory with no family of your own to fill it?

(ANNIE cradles her head in her folded arms and sobs into the tablecloth.)

CISSY
Poor Annie. Your poor back curving like a riverbend of hammered pewter at dusk that no man would ever set sail on. Have another cup of tea, there’s a pet. You’ll feel right as rain. I always did after a good cry. There, there, pet.

(ANNIE lifts her head and wipes her tears. She pours herself another cup of tea.)

ANNIE
Will this cursed rain never stop? It’s driving me clean mad. Willie, where are you now? What foreign field?

CISSY
Poor Willie. He gave his young life to save Europe, so proud to be in the Rifles. Caught in the crossfire. But you can’t lose a son without blaming yourself, your father said. You can’t fight a battle without spilling some blood. They said it was a whole generation Irish blood—not English—that fed the fallow fields of the Somme. Fodder for the Crown. That’s all they were good for. Fodder, that’s what your father said. They say there’s guns and war medals enough rusting on uniforms in the shadowed back rooms in every country of the world. But in Ireland even more so.

Willie, he was named after a heroic warrior, Willie he was our only Finn MacCool. We called him William after your Gran’Da. But the others, they thought it was King Billy we were referring to. And they shunned us at the market. Painting the door orange. Calling your Da a spy for the Crown. We were good Catholics, we were.

ANNIE
(ANNIE goes over to the niche, crosses herself, half-genuflects).
Da, where did you go now that I need you. Leaving me an orphan. Dolly in America and Maud crazy in her bed. What’s left to hold me?

CISSY
Annie, I don’t blame you for committing your father to the hospital. Really I don’t, pet. Imagine him brandishing a sword over your head like that. You’re absolutely right. Something had to be done. It scared the living daylights out of me and I felt so helpless because I couldn’t even comfort you.

Sure it was the Crown who put the food on our table during the Troubles when there was little to be had. What else could we do? They were jealously counting all our Sunday roasts stacking up into eternity. Accusing us of putting a little something aside for purgatory.

But jealousy is ever the traitor’s mistress. The Have Nots hungering after the hard-earned good fortune of others. I told him it was enough to make any man crazy serving two mistresses, Catholic Ireland and Anglican England. But he couldn’t hear me. Not a single thing I said. ’T’was a pity I was only talking to the shadows.
(ANNIE blows out the votive candle.)

ANNIE
This coffinship of a house is adrift in a sea of memory. And here I am talking to shadows. I’m never coming back to this empty house. Never.

CISSY
‘T’is such a pity the old man completely went off his mind babbling in the waving grasses like a babby wanting his mother. Annie, I swear he wouldn’t have harmed a hair on your head. The sword was a symbol of the power he’d lost.

’T’was the grief of only his wounded pride speaking in the graveyards of betrayal. The crows diving at him like banshees.

When the candlelight fails, when they’ve killed the heroes, and the potential of the father’s only sons lies buried in the cold clay, when that stony love slips down their cheeks into the glittering face of the well, what loyalty was left for there to crown?

There’s a good girl now Annie, put the kettle on the hob for some more tea? Annie? Don’t be leaving me! Annie?

(ANNIE gathers up her things and hobbles to the back door.)
ANNIE
Goodbye house. What arms are there left to hold me? Sure. It’s always a false quiet after the storm. I might as well throw away the key.
(She exits. Locks the door. Lights dim.

A spotlight on CISSY is like lightning, another peal of thunder and at the next flash of light, CISSY too is gone leaving the audience in an empty house.)



© 2002 (rev.iii) Maureen Hurley, the title is a bit of a pun on a Nabakov title, Speak, Memory, which I also used in an unrelated poem. This monologue came to me pretty much unbidden when the playreading was presented at the Irish Cultural Club, the focus was on Thomas, and I began to wonder about Cissy's story.