When my oldest son was five or six (he turned 49 on August 13), we left the women—his mother and grandmother—in the cave and went to forage for lunch meat and hard rolls at Muller’s delicatessen on Harford Road, in Northeast Baltimore. (Muller’s still has the best German cold cuts and sandwich breads in the city.) Next door to Muller’s is a bar called “Dead Freddie’s.” It’s been there for as long as Muller’s has, but the name has long intrigued me for several reasons. For one thing, I can’t remember if “Dead” was part of its name back in the day. Was it just “Freddie’s” then and, when Freddie (the owner?) died, rather than get rid of what is a fine example of a classic neon, the word “Dead” was added as a dark joke? Or was the word always part of the sign and I just didn’t notice? (If anyone out there knows the history of the bar and/or the sign, please set me straight in the comment section below.)
Anyway, to get to the point of my little story about that day of male bonding, either my son asked to go into the bar or I volunteered to take him. Either way, I thought it was a good idea, so in we went. Once inside I think I bought Shawn an orange soda, in much the same spirit my father used to buy them for me when he took me to bars to keep him company while he drank a few of his “Arrow” brand beers. (The sins of the father really are passed down.) And I clearly remember that I took the opportunity that day to demonstrate to Shawn how the pinball machine worked. In fact, I’m pretty sure he got to shoot a few balls himself. As you and I know, most boys love bright lights, fast-moving objects and noise, so of course he was delighted. And so was I, still being a kid at heart myself. That was it. We two happy guys finished our pinball game and headed back to the home cave with provisions for lunch.
But now comes the sad ending to my little narrative. (Here I feel it’s fair to speak for Shawn, too, because I remember how boys think and feel when it comes to neon and pinball machines.) When we got home, still very excited about our wee adventure, we couldn’t wait to share our delight and high spirits with my wife and her mother. Their reaction was not what we expected. Well, you know what comes next. My wife and her mother were shocked, shocked, that I had exposed the child to the dark and sordid interior of that bar. Their disapproval was clear in their words and the expressions on their faces. And here I won’t speak for Shawn, but personally I felt the morning’s fun feeling exit my soul in much the same way air instantly leaves a pricked balloon.
Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.
Scene From A Failed Play
There are times when failure is more interesting than success, especially to the person who created the mess—which in this case is me. Of the five plays I’ve written, three have been produced in the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival, but the one I like best—the one that I think is the most original and accomplished—is one of the two that were rejected. The following is a scene from that play.
SETTING: A modern living groom.
CHARACTERS: ALUNA, female; SKILLET, male; and PASSIE, female; all three attractive thirty-something’s.
ALUNA ENTERS with PASSIE close behind. ALUNA pauses to pick up a gift-wrapped package from the coffee table. She opens it and looks at the contents with mild disgust, then drops it in a wastebasket. PASSIE arranges herself on the sofa as ALUNA straightens the magazines on the coffee table, then she goes to the door and peers through the peephole. After a beat ALUNA turns to face PASSIE and speaks.
ALUNA: Damn—you’re still out there!
PASSIE (nods and smiles): Yep.
ALUNA (again looking through the peephole): You’re hugging the wall, trying to blend in with the paint. This lens makes you look all distorted—thin on top, fat in the middle, thin again at your legs and feet. (ALUNA turns to face PASSIE, continuing): And your face is red and puffy like you’ve been crying.
PASSIE (formal): I expect that’s because I’m concerned about the nature of your interest in my husband.
ALUNA: Your husband? Where did you get him—at the Husband Store in the mall? Was he on sale?
PASSIE (quiet, mean): Bitch. Slut. Maggot.
ALUNA: When it comes to men, all I get is the eccentric, half-baked, pussy-whipped, mother-dominated—and/or married.
PASSIE: Lust is all it is, just animal lust.
ALUNA (laughs): That’s the best fucking reason there is—pun intended. (pause) Can’t help it if a man follows me home, wants and needs what I have. Not my fault the guy only has one brain cell with my name on it.
PASSIE: You lure him. Lure him! (pause) Skillet was raw when I found him, like something that’s been dug out of the ground, some root that when it’s refined you have something wonderful—coffee perhaps, some narcotic even—but first you have to grind it up.
ALUNA: Look, he’s a grown man—mind of his own. I know he’s not mine, but he ain’t yours, either. He’s nobody’s, right? Fair game. Nobody owns nobody.
PASSIE: He’s innocent, like a baby animal in the zoo. No history. (pause, then continuing in dreamy baby-talk) He’s my pumpkin, squeezums, honey cuddles—my duckie, my poopsie. (continuing, adult voice) At night, waking from a deep dream, he’s beside me. Lying there, I nourish him. We drift in and out of sleep. A film of moisture covers our naked flesh. (pause) There’s nothing original in that. We are ancient, repetitive. We could be any two out of millions, billions—even trillions. (pause, defensive) Hey, I don’t kid myself—I know that being a mother is one big vanity, but so what?
SKILLET ENTERS dressed only in trim boxer shorts. He’s carrying a video camera and the women ignore him as he tapes the following action:
PASSIE (continuing): I’m upholding traditional values here—sanctity of the family unit—that sort of thing. It’s my job. Some have to breed, or then what? Zero-population growth—curtains for the human race, right? (pointed, sarcastic) Not every woman is up to it, right?
ALUNA (sarcastic): Never trust a man raised by a woman.
PASSIE lunges and grabs ALUNA by the throat with both hands. They struggle and wind up on the floor, PASSIE’s knees pinning ALUNA’s arms. ALUNA squirms free and they now sit facing each other, glaring.
SKILLET continues taping for a beat but when it’s clear the fight is over he loses interest and EXITS.
ALUNA (fingering her throat): You . . . you tried to kill me! (pause, looks around ) Where’s my mirror? I’ll bet there’s marks. And they’re expecting me to show up at that damn party! (picks up mirror from end table and inspects her neck)
PASSIE (joining ALUNA on sofa, softer) I was a little angry, yes, but in complete control—didn’t mean to hurt you. (smiles) Enjoyed seeing the tip of your tongue, though, between your teeth. (pause) At least we got to know each other a bit better. (laughs) Should be friends, right?—with all we’ve got in common.
ALUNA (pointing to her neck): Look at this! Christ! (pause, then out to audience) Would you look at this?
PASSIE (shifting closer to ALUNA on the sofa): Want some tea?
ALUNA (surprised, shifts away): What?
PASSIE (after a beat, dreamy): There are people I couldn’t stand when I first met them, but now we’re friends. That happens. Loved some others and now they’re mortal enemies. You never know. (sweet smile) Who knows—maybe we’ll become fast friends. (pause) So, can I get you something? Coffee, tea or Coke? I’ve got milk. (she picks up a glass ashtray from the coffee table, distracted) We bought this on our honeymoon at Niagara Falls. (calls upstage) SKILLET! Come here and feel the ashtray! (hands ashtray to ALUNA) Feel it. (ALUNA inspects the ashtray as PASSIE continues): Nice, huh? All smooth and cold like that? Look at the bottom, what it says. (ALUNA turns the ashtray over and PASSIE continues, reciting): “Niagara Falls—Where Love Reigns.” Isn’t that sweet? Touch it to your cheek.
ALUNA (starts to the raise ashtray to her cheek, then checks herself): Just a damn minute—this is MY ashtray! (continues, pointing) MY coffee table! MY magazines! (gestures around living room) All of it! All of it! (points off) MY coffee and tea and milk in the goddamn kitchen!
PASSIE (takes an envelope from her purse and hands it to ALUNA): Snapshots. We’ve traveled all over, Skillet and me. Documented everything. (ALUNA looks at the pictures as PASSIE continues): Shots in front of every vertical object in the world, seems like—statues, fountains, cathedrals—
ALUNA (overlapping): Ha! Towers, smokestacks—a rocket on the launching pad at Cape Kennedy, and—
PASSIE (overlapping): You name it.
ALUNA (continuing): Mosques, the Washington Monu—
PASSIE (overlapping, digging in purse again): We lived in Florida for awhile. Everglades. Did a lot of stuff with gators down there. Got married up here and went down there so Skillet could meet my family of origin. (she pulls some items from her purse and hands them to ALUNA, continuing): Them’s decals from the states we traveled through—Virginia, the Carolinas’, Georgia—check ‘em out.
ALUNA (soft, humoring her): Sure. (she flips through the decals and hands them back, continuing): Nice.
PASSIE: Skillet was fun and full of surprises. He’s kiss me in unexpected places—moving conveyances, mostly. Elevators, helicopters, airport vans. We enjoyed many mutual experiences back in the day, like the time I woke up in a beach house in California, Cheese Whiz squirting from a can into my bellybutton.
PASSIE (sad, distracted): Some friend of his. Some naked woman. She smiled and kissed me. (pause, brighter): I collect state flags, too!
ALUNA (losing patience, mild sarcasm): Wonderful. You may need that memorabilia later—in case you forget who you are.
PASSIE: Exactly! That’s what it’s for. Or I’ll get a tattoo! For purposes of identification—name, rank and serial number on my arm or ankle, or . . . or . . . (trails off, then recovers with false bravado): You know, I’ve decided that unhappiness is inevitable.
ALUNA (soft): Happiness also.
PASSIE: Is that your story, you happy?
ALUNA: Hope to be, some day. Got my hopes up. (the phone rings and PASSIE leans over to answer it but ALUNA clamps her hand over it) This is MY goddamn phone!
PASSIE (freezes) But, but . . . it’s ringing!
ALUNA: So? Don’t have to respond when some stranger—god knows who—rings your goddamn bell.
ALUNA gets up from the sofa and begins to pace like a caged animal, looking at the phone with fear. It keeps ringing throughout the dialogue.
PASSIE: It’s a sin what you’re doing.
ALUNA: Fuck ‘em. They just want me for my luminosity. My goddam luminosity. They need the light. They invite me, they get the benefit. It’s a trick, a goddamn joke. (ALUNA paces for a beat or two more, then continues) Is it snowing out? (pause) If it is, they’re probably canceling the fucking party. (brighter) Hey, that’s it—don’t you think?
PASSIE: It’s summer.
PASSIE (negative): Huh-uh.
ALUNA: Damn, damn, DAMN! (sad) Do you know what it’s like to enter a room of strangers and wonder who they think you think you are? That moment of dread? You don’t know how to act, what to say, so you stand off to one side, in a corner, back against the wall, watching. A cute guy on his way to the john tells you that you should be out in the middle of things, dancing, out there with the music and bright lights and all. (pause, angry) I hate that, him telling me that, because there’s sights to see and sounds to hear on the edge, also—alone—feelings to feel. (long pause, brighter) So he struts back out of the john, acting confident, but I know better. I know that Truth wears a mask. He’s got this damp spot on his pants leg, near the crotch. (pause) See, right there I know who he really is—just another man. So I relax, smile. He sees my smile and smiles back. ( pause, shrugs) That’s it—boy meets girl.
PASSIE: And you wind up here.
ALUNA: It was romantic. Cold spinach quiche for brunch. (giggles) Never saw the sunrise but I figure they must have had one.
PASSIE (assumes wrestling pose, hands clawing the air in front of her) You’re disgusting!
ALUNA (assumes a similar pose, sarcastic) If you wanna be virtuous, it helps if you’re ugly. (they circle for several beats, grabbing and slapping at each other)
PASSIE: Slut! Maggot! Degenerate witch!
ALUNA: Restraint is the enemy of instinct. (she stops, suddenly soothing) That’s just a line in the mind, you know—it can be crossed.
LIGHTS BANG OUT. End of scene.
The Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival assigns five readers to each new play, and they are required to fill out a four page critique to explain the pros and cons of the piece as they perceive them, and then conclude—based on their comments—whether or not the submission should be recommended for a staged reading, and a possible full production in the festival. On the last page of their critique, each reader is asked to summarize their overall opinion of the submitted play; the following are the final comments they made about Do You Love Me Or What?:
“The playwright’s idea has merit, but the piece is disjointed and confusing. Unfortunately, I feel it needs a complete rewrite. Perhaps it should be be expanded into a two act piece with the first act describing the relationship between the husband and wife in order to give insight into the conflicts the author is trying to present.”
“Good dialogue, credible situations, but the through line is not clear.”
“I’m sure the author feels he has written a very profound play. Unfortunately, I found it merely obscure.”
“I am going to score this play as ‘recommended with severe reservations,’ hoping it will be given a hearing with the playwright given the opportunity to prove me wrong.”
“With a bit of line trimming, could be a tour-de-force.”
I sort of understand their reactions, but on the other hand I did clearly say in my play notes that Do You Love Me Or What? was an attempt to tell a conventional triangular love story in an unusual way. I explained that it is a surrealist/absurdist comedy/drama in one act, and that the action takes place in “real” time, as it is perceived by the male character—it’s all in his head. In his confused mind he and the two female characters combine and change to become still other characters. Past, present and future are compressed. There is no exposition, no explanation of who the characters are—we know them only by their behavior. Everything is contained in the action, what the characters say and do. But their words alone cannot be trusted; the characters (and the writer) are all unreliable narrators. The play is pure action. If the audience goes away confused, that’s O. K., as long as they are also entertained. In my notes I said that I believe that confusion, combined with entertainment, will lead the audience to thoughtfulness, and in that way they will be collaborators in the creative process.
All well and good, but upon reading the play after all this time (I wrote it in 1999), I find myself agreeing with the critiques, at least for the most part. So I’m considering a major rewrite and—perhaps—a resubmission to the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival. Wish me luck.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.