Author: johnpaulporter (Page 1 of 3)

A Woman on Fire

Play Three of the Adventures of Fiona MacQuillin

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Atlanta, 1864.  A young woman finds herself trapped in a house where two men love her and then a third man shows up.  4 men, 3 women, simple sets.

*******

Scene One

(Rosenbloom parlor; morning; a well-dressed but uncomfortable FIONA is seated; UNCLE MAX is showing her dresses from a pile of dresses on the couch; NATHAN is in a wheelchair, leg still bandaged; behind him stands SELMA, the maid/slave of the house)

UNCLE MAX: (with dress)  Do you like this one?  Or…(second dress)…maybe this one.

FIONA: They’re both…nice.

UNCLE MAX: I have decided I can give you one of these dresses, Fiona.  Or…maybe two.  Depending.

FIONA: I’m fine in the dress I have now.  Thank you.

UNCLE MAX: Now when I saw this one I just knew it would fit you.  And I knew I wanted to see you in it.  Why don’t you go upstairs and change into this one?  Let me see how this looks on you.

FIONA: I don’t feel like changing my clothes right now. 

UNCLE MAX: Oh, but my dear…

FIONA: The dress I am wearing is fine. 

UNCLE MAX: But don’t you want another? 

FIONA: I don’t need another dress, Mister Max.

UNCLE MAX: Oh, never in my life have I heard a woman say she doesn’t need another dress.

SELMA: The woman say she don’t need another dress.

NATHAN: I heard her, too.

UNCLE MAX: No kibitzing from over there.  And what are you two doing in this room? 

FIONA: I asked them to be in here. 

UNCLE MAX: Why?

NATHAN: She knew you were coming home from the store with more dresses.

SELMA: Again.

UNCLE MAX: (pauses, overcomes his embarrassment)  If you must be in the room then you both can just mind your own business.  (with scarf)  Now…this is a very fine scarf.  Here, feel this material. 

FIONA: I’m warm enough already, sir.  In this dress and with this collar.

NATHAN: And with all this attention. 

UNCLE MAX: This scarf has an Irish lace pattern.  Women in this town would stab each other with knitting needles to have such a scarf. 

FIONA: Nine out of ten women in this town are dressed in black, sir.  I can see them out the windows.

UNCLE MAX: Now you shouldn’t be looking out any windows, Fiona.  You’ve got to keep the curtains closed. 

FIONA: I can’t stare at the walls all day.

UNCLE MAX: Nathan has given you books.

FIONA: And I thank you, Nathan.  I do.  I thank you very much for those.

NATHAN: You’re welcome.

UNCLE MAX: And I have given you…

FIONA: I know everything that you have given me. 

SELMA: And I know what he wants in return.

UNCLE MAX: Selma, shut up!

SELMA: Maybe I shuts up and maybe I won’t.

UNCLE MAX: Leave the room.

SELMA: I can’t be sold again.  Not since them blue soldiers is here.  Ain’t gonna be no more selling of black people round here.  Now ain’t that so? 

UNCLE MAX: I did not buy you, Selma. 

SELMA: No, you traded for me.  You sent Mister Beasley a bunch of things from your store.  Including dresses that looked just like those. 

NATHAN: I remember that.

SELMA: And the girl is right.  Every woman in this town is wearing black.  She goes out in one of those ball room dresses you got there the whole town is gonna stop and look.

UNCLE MAX: No one asked for your opinion.

SELMA: No one ever does.

UNCLE MAX: Get her out of here, Nathan.

NATHAN: I’m not the help.

UNCLE MAX: Both of you are forgetting your place.

SELMA: Ain’t a day of my life anyone has ever let me forget my place.

UNCLE MAX: (to Nathan)  She’s like this because of you.  There is not a colored woman in this town, in this whole state, in the entire Confederacy I would wager, who can get away with saying the things she says in this house.  And I blame you.

NATHAN: She does have a streak of unremitting belligerence, which is often followed by an impenetrable sullenness.

SELMA: I love it when ya-all use them big words. 

UNCLE MAX: Oh my God…

SELMA: I’m the most educated black woman in this town because I’m living in this house.

UNCLE MAX: Take these dresses upstairs to Miss Fiona’s room.

FIONA: Oh, Mister Max…

SELMA: Ain’t no more room in that bedroom.

FIONA: I’m smothered in that room.

MISTER MAX: So put them in the other bedroom.

FIONA: No please, just take them back to your store.  I don’t want them.

MISTER MAX: But I want you to have them, my dear.

FIONA: Oh, Mister Max, please.  Stop.  (rises)  Just…stop. 

UNCLE MAX: Fiona…what’s wrong? 

(FIONA crosses into library, closes door, sighs, exits L; pause)

NATHAN: I believe the lady wants to be left alone.

UNCLE MAX: Selma, take those dresses upstairs.

SELMA: (gathering dresses)  Some folks got more than they need, some folks got nothing, and some folks don’t like what they’re being offered.

MISTER MAX: And no muttering today. 

SELMA: Mutter, mutter, mutter.

UNCLE MAX: There isn’t another house in Atlanta where you could get away with talking to me like that!

SELMA: That don’t mean I like here.  That don’t mean I like it here one bit.

UNCLE MAX: Take all the dresses.

SELMA: If you don’t want them wrinkled I gots to make at least two trips.  (exits upstairs with dresses)

UNCLE MAX: It’s your fault she’s like this.  (begins to pace, stops now and then to stare at library door)

NATHAN: Like what?

UNCLE MAX: Oh, don’t give me that.  You know exactly what. 

NATHAN: Talking back to “massa”?

UNCLE MAX: I have never liked the word “master.” 

NATHAN: It does have an ugly tone.  Would you prefer “boss?”

UNCLE MAX: I would prefer to be obeyed when I give an order. 

NATHAN: Have you tried ordering Fiona to just visit your bedroom?

UNCLE MAX: I’m not that kind of man.

NATHAN: Not yet.

UNCLE MAX: She’ll come to her senses.

NATHAN: You have given her half the store and she still hasn’t come to her senses.

UNCLE MAX: Oh, I can’t sell those.  Had them from before the war. 

NATHAN: She’s right.  Women only buy black these days. 

UNCLE MAX: If they buy anything at all.  Which they don’t.  How could they? 

NATHAN: And everyone wants credit. 

UNCLE MAX: If everyone paid their bills I’d be the richest man in town.

NATHAN: Is the store closed today?  You’re home.

UNCLE MAX: Cousin Leo is behind the counter.  Did you want to go down and help him?

NATHAN: With this leg?

UNCLE MAX: Ah yes.  Your perfect excuse for doing no work.

NATHAN: It keeps me from going upstairs.

UNCLE MAX: That’s your problem.  A shame our guest cannot receive you in her quarters. 

NATHAN: Does she receive you?  In her bedroom? 

UNCLE MAX: If she did……would half the store be here in the house? 

NATHAN: (laughs)  You’re embarrassing yourself.  Do you know you’re embarrassing yourself?

UNCLE MAX: Yes, yes, yes I know.  I’m a fool.  And I can’t help myself and I don’t care. 

NATHAN: Well that is at least…refreshingly honest.  And deeply disturbing.

UNCLE MAX: You had your chance with this woman.  And you abandoned her.

NATHAN: No, I saved her.  I saved her twice.   

UNCLE MAX: You saved her at least once, yes.  She even said those words to me herself. 

NATHAN: She did?  When?

UNCLE MAX: She and I have had certain conversations.  And she is well aware that I am the one saving her now, hiding her in this house. 

NATHAN: How long are you going to hide her?  Until you get what you want? 

UNCLE MAX: Don’t be crude.  I’m still young enough to start a new family.  Fifty years old and fit as a fiddle. 

NATHAN: You’re going to propose?  I had no idea you had become this…what would be the word? Affected?  Deranged?

UNCLE MAX: Why?  Why is that so hard to believe?  Her and me.

NATHAN: Well for one…age.

UNCLE MAX: Stability and prosperity are great attractions, my boy.  They are two things you will probably never know.

NATHAN: Our community will frown.

UNCLE MAX: Oh, tell me something I don’t know “Mister Smart as Hell.”   

NATHAN: Would you keep a kosher home?

UNCLE MAX: Well…if I got her to convert.

NATHAN: Oy vei.

UNCLE MAX: I have never been more on fire with love for a woman.  Never.

NATHAN: At your age?

UNCLE MAX: At any age.  A man my age knows life becomes more precious.  He knows the things he’s missed.  Why should I be denied a little joy in the middle of all this…pain!  Agony!  Chaos!  The whole world falling apart. 

NATHAN: And you chose now to fall in love?

UNCLE MAX: You don’t stop living in the middle of a war.  Quite the opposite.  The days become more precious.  The hours.  The minutes.  Everything intensifies. 

NATHAN: (pauses; quietly)  I know what it is like to be in love with Fiona MacQuillin. 

UNCLE MAX: Yes, Boy Chick.  And you blew your chance.

NATHAN: Maybe.

UNCLE MAX: No maybe about it.  Most certainly you did.  Without a doubt.

NATHAN: Has she said something to you? 

UNCLE MAX: Well…

NATHAN: In one of your private conversations?  Upstairs or anywhere else?

UNCLE MAX: A gentleman would not say what a lady has told him in confidence.

NATHAN: What did she say? 

UNCLE MAX: What am I?  Your go between?  A gossip?  Some messenger?

NATHAN: Has she said anything about me?

UNCLE MAX: Actually, when I think about it…I don’t think she’s said a single word about you.

NATHAN: Really?

UNCLE MAX: Has never mentioned your name even once.  Go figure.

NATHAN: Oh God, listen to us.  Two school boys.

UNCLE MAX: Yes.  Ridiculous, I know.  (sits)  But what is a beautiful woman for anyway?  To make you dream of something you never had?  Perfect happiness?  Ha.  (pauses)  Still…

NATHAN: We are all drawn on by the unattainable.  And disappointed when it is beyond our reach. 

UNCLE MAX: Some even have it for a while.  Then let it slip through their fingers.

NATHAN: We are both fools.  But you are the older fool. 

UNCLE MAX: No doubt.  I don’t even want to leave the house anymore.  It means being away from her.  And putting up with what the world has turned into.  Out there.  Misery and grief.  In here.  Barely enough to feed ourselves.

NATHAN: Much less our guest.

UNCLE MAX: And for that she should be grateful.  When I first saw her she was in rags.  Out on the street in rags.  I gave her dresses.  And jewelry. 

NATHAN: You gave her colored glass.

UNCLE MAX: That one piece is not glass.  That one piece is three carats.

NATHAN: Maybe I should tell her about the other two.

UNCLE MAX: No, no, no, please don’t do that. 

NATHAN: (laughing)  Oh, Uncle Max.  I’ve never seen you like this.

UNCLE MAX: Am I a bad man?  Because my appetite is worn on my sleeve?  You want her, too.  I know you still do.  (pauses)  Have you been sneaking into her bedroom in the middle of the night?

NATHAN: In this wheelchair?  Up the stairs?

UNCLE MAX: Oh my God.  I can hardly think straight these days.

NATHAN: I’m in the servants’ quarters.  In the room next to Selma.

UNCLE MAX: Where you belong.  With your equals.  Because neither of you wants to work. 

NATHAN: Maybe neither of us likes the wages.

UNCLE MAX: I pay you a salary.  At least I did.  Do you know what it cost me to get you that wheelchair?

NATHAN: I know exactly.  It was a lot.  Thank you.

UNCLE MAX: There’s probably not six of them in the whole town.  And right now they could use about a thousand of them. 

NATHAN: So you’re telling me I’m lucky? 

UNCLE MAX: I’m telling you…you best be careful when it comes to this girl. (loud knock on front door; pause) Selma.  Selma!  (no response)  Were you expecting anyone?

NATHAN: Me?  No.

UNCLE MAX: If we just sit here we can pretend that no one’s home.

NATHAN: You just called out for Selma.

UNCLE MAX: Do’h!  (pauses; fierce whisper)  Selma!  Selma!!

(second loud knock on front door; pause)

NATHAN: What if it’s someone from the Union Army?

UNCLE MAX: Why do you say that?

NATHAN: You know the rumors.

UNCLE MAX: Of course I do.  Do you think they’ve come to tell us something?

NATHAN: I don’t know.  Maybe we should answer the door.

(a third knock at front door)

UNCLE MAX: Where’s Selma?  Why do I have a maid if she won’t even answer the door?  Selma! (another knock at front door) Ohhh…. (rises, crosses, opens front door)

MISS SALLY: Hello, Mister Max. 

UNCLE MAX: (taken aback, pauses; regains himself)  What can I do for you, Miss Sally?

MISS SALLY: You can invite me in.  We have business to talk over.

UNCLE MAX: What business would you and I have?

MISS SALLY: Invite me in and I’ll tell you all about it.

UNCLE MAX: Why don’t you come by the store tomorrow? 

MISS SALLY: I was by your store yesterday and today.  Never known you not to be in your store, Mister Max.  And with all these new customers in town? 

UNCLE MAX: Another time would be best.

MISS SALLY: (pushes her way in)  I think you want to see me now, sir.  (looks around)  Oh my, very nice.  I don’t think I’ve ever been on this particular block.  (to Nathan)  Hello there.  And your name is ah…

NATHAN: Nathan.

MISS SALLY: That’s right.  How is your leg?

NATHAN: Still attached.

UNCLE MAX: They might still cut his leg off.

MISS SALLY: I’m sorry to hear that.  If I remember correctly you’ve been down to my place…or what used to my place…only two times.  The first time was some months ago.

Atlanta Is Burning

Play Two of The Adventures of Fiona MacQuillin

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1864.  A young woman strikes a bargain to be a card dealer in a bordello.  As long as she wins at cards she does not have to do the other kind of work in the house.  4 women, 3 men, simple sets.

*******

SCENE ONE

(morning; street, Atlanta; lights rise on exhausted FIONA; a well-dressed middle aged woman, MISS SALLY enters, stops, regards her)

MISS SALLY; You tired, honey?

FIONA; Between you and me…I am down to my last bone.

MISS SALLY: Looks like you could use a bath and a good meal.

FIONA: You got one?

MISS SALLY: You want a job?

FIONA: Doing what?

MISS SALLY: Being nice to men.

FIONA: I got a record of being not so nice to men.

MISS SALLY: That’d be a something my house don’t handle. 

FIONA: Pardon?

MISS SALLY: You got to go all the way to New Orleans to get into that whipping business.  That’s a specialty item my house don’t provide.

FIONA: Huh?

MISS SALLY: Honey, at my house we’re just old fashioned kind of girls.  We’re nice to men.  Real nice. Nice as a woman can be.

FIONA: So I have to sleep with them? 

MISS SALLY: Tell you the truth there ain’t much sleep involved.  But there is money.

FIONA: How much?

MISS SALLY: As much money as a woman like you could ever make in this town.   

FIONA: How much?

MISS SALLY: Depends on how much you wanna work.  Woman really wants to set her mind to it she could make a dollar a night.  Maybe even two dollars a night.

FIONA: How many men would I have to be…”nice to”…to make that kind of money?

MISS SALLY: At my house it’s a dollar a throw.  And you get ten percent.

FIONA: A dime?

MISS SALLY: Now how about that.  You are the first girl I ever met actually knew what ten percent of a dollar was.  Here I thought you was green as grass, come down out of them hills.  You did come down from out of them hills, didn’t ya honey?

FIONA: I did.  Got an education on that road, too. 

MISS SALLY: How far you walk to get to Atlanta?

FIONA: Hundred miles if you walk straight line.  But I ain’t walked no straight line getting here.

MISS SALLY: None of us do, honey.  Now me, I’m in the only business they let a woman be in.  Called the oldest business for a reason.  Not a bad business.  Look at it this way:  you got it, you sell it, but you still got it.

FIONA: Maybe.  But you got all those strangers who come and go.

MISS SALLY: (laughs)  Why don’t you stand up turn around for me?

FIONA: Why?

MISS SALLY: I need to take a better look at you.

FIONA: I ain’t some cow at a fair.

MISS SALLY: Okay.  I got no doubt we can work with what you got.  I reckon after a nice hot bath and some new clothes, a girl like you could clear seven dollars a week easy.

FIONA: Would that be gold or Confederate folding money?

MISS SALLY: Ain’t much gold left in this town.  But what little there is does tend to visit my house. 

FIONA: You pay your girls in gold?

MISS SALLY: I pay my girls three things.  Room, board, and good Confederate folding money.

FIONA: If I ever went into your line of work…I would only take gold.

MISS SALLY: My, my, and listen to you.  I bet you ain’t got one friend in this whole town, Missy.  Else you wouldn’t be sitting our here like you’re doing.  Now ain’t that so?

FIONA: Just about. 

MISS SALLY: You already look like a woman in my line of work.  Except I’m dressed a lot better than you.  Would you like a dress like this?

FIONA: Yes. 

MISS SALLY: I got a whole room full of dresses.  That’s part of the deal, too.  Forgot to mention that.

FIONA: (pauses)  And shoes?

MISS SALLY: Sure.  Right after you take a good long hot bath.  Wouldn’t you like to be clean again?

FIONA: (pauses)  Yes.

MISS SALLY: Way you’re dressed now you be lucky to get a penny a throw.  Be lucky they don’t throw you in jail.  Think you’re gonna get paid in gold out here?  I bet you never even seen gold.

FIONA: Yes, I have.

MISS SALLY: Well, that may be.  But right about now a good stiff breeze blow you half way across town.  But if you come with me…by tonight you’ll have a bath, a meal, a dress, a place to sleep, and you won’t get yourself arrested being a common woman of the town.    

FIONA: I’m don’t want to be in your line of work.

MISS SALLY: Oh, ain’t so bad.  Some girls even learn to like it.

FIONA: That ain’t gonna be me. A whore ain’t gonna be my identity.

MISS SALLY: What the hell does that word even mean?  Identity. You oughta listen to your stomach, girl.  I bet you’re hungry.

FIONA: Ain’t that hungry.

MISS SALLY: Ever slept with a man?  Is that it?  Never done it?  Saving yourself?  For marriage?  Like a good girl? You a virgin?

FIONA: Why should I tell you?

MISS SALLY: We do a special thing when a virgin comes to my place.  Or any new girl.  Any new girl is a virgin.  Men set such stock in that.  I have made a damn good living from the foolishness of men for the last ten years.  And there ain’t nothing makes a man more foolish than to think he’s going to bed with a virgin.  So we do a special thing when we get a new girl at my house.  We hold an auction. 

FIONA: An auction?

MISS SALLY: Never heard of one?

FIONA: I seen a slave sold at auction once.

MISS SALLY: So there you go. 

FIONA: And now it’s my turn? 

MISS SALLY: It’s kind of an honor.

FIONA: No thank you.  I have seen an auction. 

(a well-dressed middle aged Jewish man, UNCLE MAX ROSENBLOOM, enters, crosses, touches his hat but does not take it off)

UNCLE MAX: Ladies.

MISS SALLY: Mister Max.  How are you this morning?

(in distance cannon fire; he stops; all cock an ear to the sound; pause)

UNCLE MAX: Well…I guess I have seen better mornings.

MISS SALLY: Haven’t we all.  First time I heard that, gave me the willies.  Few weeks later, almost sounds like a rooster.

UNCLE MAX: (closer look at Fiona, now takes off hat)  Is this a new girl of yours?

MISS SALLY: We don’t know that yet. 

(a second distant roll of cannon)

UNCLE MAX: Have to hurry.  Good morning to you both.  (exits)

MISS SALLY: Regular of mine.  One of the richest men in town.  What you need right now is a good safe place to wait out this hell.  Why don’t you come work for me, girlie?

FIONA: How much of that auction money would be mine?

MISS SALLY: Well, let’s do a little figuring.  After I deduct a meal, a bath, a good dress, maybe a splash of perfume…

FIONA: And some sleep.  I need some sleep before I do anything else.

MISS SALLY: And the cost of a bed, well, add all that up and…remember…we don’t know what you’d bring at auction.

FIONA: Plenty.

MISS SALLY: Okay, that’s true.  (winks)  You’ll bring plenty. 

FIONA: Goddam right.

MISS SALLY: Don’t be cussing. There ain’t no cussing in my house.  I don’t run that kind of place.

FIONA: How much of that blood money would be mine?  And it’s my blood.

MISS SALLY: That all depends on who shows up.  Most men are out there fighting Yankees.  But there’s still a few prospects around.  And tonight is Saturday night.  Always my best night.  I’ll send the word out.  Got a new one at Miss Sally’s.  Right nice, too. 

FIONA: I want twenty percent of that auction money.

MISS SALLY: Now just who do you think you are?

FIONA: I Am Not Stupid.  That is who I am.  How much would be my cut?

MISS SALLY: (considers)  I’ll give you five dollars you let me auction you off at my place tonight.

FIONA: Gold or Confederate? 

MISS SALLY: Rule Number One at my house.  Miss Sally, that’s me, gets all the gold.  I told you what I pay my working ladies. 

FIONA: No thank you.

MISS SALLY: Okay.  Suit yourself.  But I got an eye for these kind of things, honey.  Sooner or later I think you are cut out for my line of work.  (turns to leave)

FIONA: Wait!  You got a card table at your house?

MISS SALLY: Course I do.

FIONA: Then I could do more for your house than just lie down and spread my legs. 

MISS SALLY: Oh yeah?  What’s that?

FIONA: I can deal cards.

MISS SALLY: Now where in the hell did you learn to deal cards? 

END OF SCENE



ACT I
Scene Two

(bright sunshine; a country road in Georgia; birds sing; from cart FIONA takes a bucket, a rag, a book and a pair of boots; sits on stump; cleans her face; when finished cleaning her face she opens book; pause)

(NATHAN ROSENBLOOM enters, turns poles of the cart from US to DS, as if just arriving; he is a young, handsome, and brilliant Jewish man)

NATHAN: Yes!  My God!  (sets down poles of cart)  It must be in the bloodlines.

FIONA: You sold something?

NATHAN: One dollar and twenty cents worth. 

FIONA: Woo-hoo.     

NATHAN: They had a certain kind of laundry on the line, and I said to myself, “Nathan, they will buy from you.  They are good clean living people and they want better things.”

FIONA: Good. 

NATHAN: On the road three weeks and this is the first day I got off my tuchis[1] and knocked on doors. Necessity is the mother of invention and convention.  Today I am a salesman.  And look.  I traded that mold to make bullets for a little side of…(pulls it from cart)…bacon.

FIONA: Oh, Nathan!

NATHAN: There’s a verse in the Talmud about a Jew eating bacon.  And one of these days…I will find that verse.

FIONA: Let’s eat now.  I’m so hungry.

NATHAN: Oh my dear.  For the first time ever I’m on fire with drive and ambition, to sell. There’s still time for one more house.  Maybe even two. And the next half mile of road looks to be downhill.

FIONA: Oh, Nathan…(kisses his cheek)…can’t we eat early tonight?

NATHAN: Well…come to think of it…early is not a bad idea.

FIONA: Thank you.

(take skillet and plates from cart to “make dinner” [no real food, all mimed]

FIONA: How far are we from Atlanta?

NATHAN: Twelve miles is my best guess.   

FIONA: Can’t we go straight there?

NATHAN: Let’s take it in stages, my dear.  A mile or two a day.

FIONA: I almost think you don’t want to get back.

NATHAN: Only because I’m having too much fun here.

FIONA: Do you have more books in Atlanta?  Because I finished everything you brought along.

NATHAN: Everything?

FIONA: (shows book)  I started this one a second time.

NATHAN: You are some sort of genius. 


[1] Pronounced “took-us”

Close Encounters of the Pulitzer Kind

One
1975

The year I turned 23 I was in San Francisco.  That day I went to Baker’s Beach to stare out at the ocean and bathe myself in failure and regret that I had not written a masterpiece by such a late date in my life. It would take a few years before I knew why this made me a perfect fool.

That night I went to a bar in North Beach on Broadway just over the hill toward the bay.  It wasn’t a big room but it did have a dance floor, about a dozen long haired hippies hanging around, and one unique looking older man sitting at a table by himself.

He wore a blue serge suit with a snap brim fedora, sported a walrus mustache, held a pearl handled cane between his knees and had a full mug of beer on the table in front of him.  There was a passing thought I should speak to him, but I didn’t.  I did wind up sitting at the very next table.

That night I danced with woman who was probably in her thirties.  When I told her it was my birthday she asked which one and laughed when I gave the answer.  “Oh,” she said, “you’re just a baby.” This made me feel vaguely insulted and after the dance I went back to sit my table next to the man who, if only in passing, had to be watching me, for there were maybe three couples on the dance floor that night.

Twelve years go by.  One day at work at a law firm in Manhattan I opened that day’s copy of the New York Times and saw a picture of that man in the same hat, the same mustache, maybe even the same suit.  There was no mistake.  It made me leap out of my chair and exclaim, “Oh my God, that was him. That was him!”

That’s how long it took me to find out that William Saroyan sat on the edge of a dance floor in a bar in San Francisco and watched me have the time of my life on the night of my 23rd birthday.

Two
1977

Tennessee Williams paused beneath my shoulder one night in a theater lobby.  This happened on Melrose Place in Los Angeles.  The real Melrose Place should not be confused with the fictional one. The real street is only two blocks long and full of warehouses except for a small theater on its north side.  The lobby is about as large as your average bathroom.

I was on a waiting list to see Scott Wilson in Outcry and the lobby was full of buzz that Tennessee Williams was going to attend.  Eight o’clock came, then eight oh five, then eight ten, then the door opened and he entered.

That night he was high as a kite drunk with a beautiful blonde boy in tow.  Right in front of me he stopped, turned with one hand across his chest, the other hand near his eyes, striking the melodramatic pose of an aging coquette, and said to someone behind us, “Who, me?” and then giggled in a drunken, demented and delighted way.

Then they hustled him into the theater because they had been holding the curtain for his arrival.  The man who was the producer or director, the man who had done the most to spread the delicious rumor that Tennessee Williams was going to show up that night, rolled his eyes, which was his remark upon the scene.

The show was sold out and I did not get a seat.  The more personal show happened in the lobby.  All these years later I realized the one thing I might have said when he stopped in front of me:

“Mister Williams…thanks.”

Three
1986

In the lobby of Manhattan Theater Club I saw David Mamet and Gregory Mosher enter and thought, gee, that’s interesting.  When I took my seat there were two empty seats beside me and sure enough a few minutes later in they walk, Mamet to sit next to me and Mosher on the other side of him. The play that night was “It’s Only a Play” completely appropriate, as it is a show about show business.

On such an occasion one should be witty but of course I was tongue tied.  No sparkling words leaped out of me and over the years the things I have thought to say would have been wholly inappropriate.

“Mamet, I saw Glengarry Glen Ross. The curtain went up at 8:15, at 8:45 there was a twenty minute intermission, and at 9:20 the curtain was down. You call that a meal? That was more like a shot of booze and an appetizer.”

“Fuck you,” he might have said.

“And how do you feel about your contribution to the coarsening of the American language?”

“Fuck you,” he might have said.

Maybe it’s best we didn’t have much of an interchange.  But if one is sitting next to the man one should say something, right?  It happened to be the week before the Super Bowl the year Da Bears went, and my too simple conversational gambit became a bet on the game.

That’s how I wound up owing David Mamet ten bucks.

Four
1989

One morning I walked out of the law firm where I worked and went up Fifth Avenue. This was about a month before I was to exit New York and return for a second bout with Los Angeles.  At that time my wife and I were breaking up, which added to my usual gloom how the world did not know my plays, though in truth at that point I had only five one acts worth knowing.

It was nine short blocks to Central Park and once there I took the sidewalk that led to the zoo.  There in a line of benches sitting alone on a bench was one of America’s most famous playwrights.  He was reading the New York Times and as I walked by I thought, (a) “that’s Arthur Miller” and (b) “what could I say to him?”

Nothing came to mind except all my troubles and I kept walking up the sidewalk to the zoo.  A little time was spent seeing the animals in their cages, which is always depressing, and before long I was walking back down the same sidewalk.

Arthur Miller was still there, still reading the Times but was now on its last section, the Business Section, the other sections folded neatly against his leg.  Except for him the bench was still empty so I sat down on the other end.

I was tongue tied, not an unusual condition when one is so tied down with troubles. What could I say to this man? “What advice would you give a young playwright?” That might have been good. That might have got him talking. That might have given us a real encounter.  But my intensity was turned inward and I could not utter a word.

After a bit Arthur Miller stood up.  I was struck by his broad shoulders and his height. Someone once told me Biff was really Miller.  In that moment I thought of that statement and thought, “Of course, this guy went after Marilyn.”  He would have been seventy-two that year but he was still fit, trim, and holding his shoulders erect walked away without a word from me.

A few years later in Los Angeles an actress in a play of mine told me she was on the reading committee of some theater. They were doing a one act festival and had just turned down a submission by Arthur Miller. “Oh my God, you are kidding me,” I said. “You turned down Arthur Miller?  For a one act?”

They had. This black box theater in L.A., whose name I can no longer remember, had turned down one of the country’s best playwrights for a one act play, one he had probably personally printed out, bound up, wrote a transmittal letter, addressed an envelope and made a trip to the post office to put in the mail.

Think on that awhile, and think about the life of a playwright.  A few more years went by before it occurred to me that Saroyan was sitting in that bar that night dressed the way he was waiting, and hoping, to be recognized.

Five, Six
1994

The best five weeks of my life were spent at the O’Neill and August Wilson being there was part of it being special.

“Your computer arrived, man. It’s up at the big house.”

Those were the first words he spoke to me. It was good it was him who broke the ice because you know how I can be around famous playwrights. August was easy to be around for his nature was genial and so completely unassuming, modest and humble, it was hard to believe the man had won two Pulitzers.   At the breakfast table he would be in the middle of us, gabbing away, but never really gossiping.

“One year the food was so bad here the cook served spaghetti with sauerkraut,” he told us.

After Ma Rainey had been done on Broadway he went home to Minneapolis and there, at least for a time, worked as a short order cook again.  He did this because this was the rhythm he had known when his work first got good.  The man didn’t drive, didn’t own a car, didn’t have a license and cared not a whit about any of these things.

One night a bunch of people dragged him to an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.  After fifteen minutes August walked out and sat in lobby for an hour and a half, telling us later, “I couldn’t stand it.  It was too stupid.  What a waste of time.”

One dusk at that beautiful place on the Connecticut shore he stood in front of a small crowd talking as I strolled up to his left.  He was talking about the Emile Griffith–Benny Parret fight.  It is a story I know well, how Parret had called Griffith a “maricón” at the weigh in, how Griffin caught Parret in the corner and hit him with twelve straight unanswered shots to the head, how Parret died in the ring.

I knew this story but didn’t walk into the man’s space as he told it, but oh, over the years how I wish I had.  Because to my left in the group of people listening was Vinnie, the longtime photographer of O’Neill summers.  Among my regrets is that I don’t have a picture of me and August from that night discussing this story.

A week later it was the 30th anniversary of the O’Neill.  A big white party tent was put on the great lawn.  How jealous I was a friend’s play was going up that night instead of mine, for VIPs were coming for a barbecue and then the show; Edith Oliver, John Lahr, Jane Alexander, Derek Walcott, and a U.S. Senator, a man I would see sneaking out at intermission to be driven away in his limousine.

At the edge of the tent where the playwrights had gathered I met the dapper John Guare, who was among the inaugural class who first came to the great wooden mansion on the ocean. “This is where it all began for me,” he said. “There is no better place.”  Any playwright who has been to the O’Neill would agree there is no greater paradise on earth. The only problem is the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference is not reality.  It is paradise but it is not reality.

Clouds had been building through the day and as soon as we were seated and the speeches began an enormous summer thunderstorm erupted with a violence that was close to scary.  For a few moments the wind threatened to lift the big party tent right off the ground.  Amid crashes of thunder and cracks of lightning Lloyd Richards was introduced.  In our corner the playwrights pounded the table and yelled as loud as we could at the height of the storm, “Lloyd, Lloyd, Lloyd!”

Lloyd Richards was one of the few men I ever met who I thought had greatness about him.  He too had a quiet demeanor but don’t be fooled.  His perception was precise and powerful.  To be in his presence was an honor.  August’s plays were not as good when he and Lloyd no longer worked together.  The same is true of Tennessee Williams after he no longer worked with Elia Kazan.

Anyway…

A couple of hours later, sitting in the dark on the front porch of the mansion, somebody in the group around me said, “August said your play was his favorite one done here this year.” There was a pause. Then Lori, who was sitting to my left said, “Yeah, I heard him say that, too.”

* * * * * *

At the breakfast table on the last day of the O’Neill I read August Wilson’s palm, a talent for which I once had a superficial and modest knowledge. August had the longest life line I had ever seen, running off his palm and down into his wrist.

“Yeah, I’m going to have a long life,” he told me. “When I get old I’m going to take up painting.  Death is going to be looking for me over here but I’m going to be over there doing something else.”

That long life line must have meant his work, for he would die too soon from liver cancer.  In the five weeks we spent together I never saw him take a single drink. The rest of us would hang out till closing at Blue Gene’s, the conveniently located tavern on the grounds before taking the van back to the dorm.  But August would catch the first van back and spend the nights working with words.  My sense was that he was indifferent to alcohol.  I don’t think it was liquor that gave him liver trouble.

“I am ready to go,” he announced a few weeks before his death.  “My life has been blessed.”

The last time I saw him was fifteen months after that summer at the O’Neill.  I was at a preview of Seven Guitars at the Walter Kerr Theater.  As the lights went down on Act One I ran as fast as I could to be the first in line for the men’s room.  As I reached for the door it flew open and there was August.  His face broke into a big smile, he held out his hand, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Hey man, I told them to do your play.  I acted out the whole thing for them.”

I thanked him and asked who.  He gave me the name of the artistic director of a major theater.  You would think when a two time Pulitzer winner recommends a play, is excited or charmed enough to “act out the whole thing,” you would think that play might get done.  But you don’t understand the life of a playwright.

Upon such wisps of encouragement one lives for years, and during those years every theater in the country would turn down my plays again and again.  On my bad days I am bitter and enraged.  On good days I believe Fortune will yet find reasons to smile on my luck.

Kidnapping Kenny Boy

Three high school teachers in Kansas plan an outlandish act of political theater.  Enraged by the lies that got us into Iraq they hope to kidnap an aide to George W. Bush, interrogate him, and post video to out the lies and embarrass the powerful.  Call them citizen activists, domestic terrorists, or rank amateurs in way over their head.  But in slapstick fashion they almost succeed. 

If you ever wanted to change the world but felt small and powerless, take a wild ride with Ted, Jack, and Sophie, the most normal people in the world, until each of them, for reasons of their own, takes a flying leap off a cliff. 

Before there was Trump there was W. 

Kidnapping Kenny Boy
A Comedy of Rage and Resistance

On YouTube you can hear an audio recording of the
Prologue and opening six chapters.  Find playlist
and it will play these in order.

Below are the opening ten pages.

Entire book available
Amazon.com. 

 

Prologue

   Our escapade was notorious.  But it had an object lesson.  If you squint maybe even a moral.  It took a long time to put itself together because we did not start out our lives as outlaws or actors on the stage of national politics.  Quite the opposite.  We were normal.  Until we weren’t.
  The wrong we fought against was, in retrospect, merely a river of stupid as opposed to an ocean of ignorance in which we now swim. But that river was the headwaters of this ocean.  Before Trump there was W.
   The following is fiction based on real events.  If you are an American you may be used to fiction in real events.  With that in mind…this is how it happened and I swear to you it’s all true.

 

Part One
Before

Chapter 1

   There is a time in every young man’s life when he drinks too much beer and the summer of 1974 was one such time for me.  There was a bar called Kirby’s conveniently located right off the Wichita State campus and not more than two blocks from where I lived.  That Jack and I would meet on that particular night was ironic, or perhaps merely fitting.
   Watergate and the impeachment of Nixon were in the news every day that summer.  After work I would race home from my part time job to be in front of the television when Walter Cronkite came on the air.  There were no twenty-four-seven news channels in those days, which increased the civility and tone of events.  The airwaves were not yet infested with spin merchants, programmed into blandly handsome men with too much botox in their forehead or women with too much bouffant blond for brains and cleavage for personality.
   Wing Nut Radio had not yet happened either.  To this day those nattering knobs of bluster still insist Nixon was railroaded by a liberal press.  They are, as they are so often, full of shit.  They are convinced, now more than ever to borrow a phrase, if they repeat something long enough, loud enough and with enough righteous indignation, black will be white, lies will be truth and Nixon was innocent.  He wasn’t.
   Watergate was one of the great public dramas ever.  It had a first, second and third act played out in stately fashion, full of wonderful characters, intrigue, back story, side plots, all overlaid with history and wrapped in an enormous civics lesson.  It was mesmerizing.  Then on a hot night in August the final curtain came down on the great show.  Nixon gave his resignation speech and would leave Washington the next day.
   After the speech the usual crowd drifted into Kirby’s.  The mood at first was surprisingly somber.  Everyone was quiet, the way an audience can be hushed after seeing a great play.  The emotion and meaning were too great to even speak of for a while, and for however briefly, had to be digested and contemplated.
   Then everyone began to drink.  Not as they usually did with a casual ease, but with a vengeance and true thirst.  It became a celebration.  Not surprising for it was a room full of long haired hippies.  What was surprising and what has always stuck in my mind over the years was the solemn appreciation which preceded the usual drunkenness.  That was the special part, the contemplation of the common citizens, reflecting upon the fall of the king.
   At a table in the corner, crammed in elbow to elbow with a pile of people, pitchers of beer disappearing as fast as they could be poured, I found myself next to a guy I had seen around campus but had never met.  His face was easy to remember for he had unusual white boy hair that frizzed out into a natural Afro.
   “It makes you proud to be an American,” he told me above the din.  “It makes you proud the system really worked.”  It was Jack Meade and this was the first thing he ever said to me.
   After a while there were two girls across the table from us.  They had long, straight hair, parted in the middle and wore denim work shirts embroidered with flowers.  It is hard to recall the conversation.  We talked, they talked.  We smiled, they smiled.  Pretty soon one of them said, “Would you like to go outside and smoke a number?”

*******

   We wound up at their house on Vassar Street and Jack wound up with the better looking of the two.  It was something I resented and remember thinking, “Man, he’s fast.”  He and his girl disappeared down a hall.  I and my girl were soon on the couch getting better acquainted.  It’s not that I was so good looking or a lady’s man.  Such fast and easy couplings were common at the time.  To be young and horny in the 1970’s was to be the beneficiary of good timing.
   Soon enough we were at the point where the guy mumbles a few words, finds his clothes and the front door.  But Jack and his girl came back into the room.  She put on a record, they rolled another joint, and we sat around one of those wooden spools everyone used to use as a coffee table.
   That’s when Jack and I had our first chance to really talk, one of those intense and earnest conversations college students have, ranging over history, politics, and philosophy, each of us dropping in names of famous books and authors we knew just enough to quote from.  Being so intent on how intelligent we both sounded we ignored the girls, until one told us, “Really, it’s time for you guys to go.”
   We did.  We went to walk circle after circle in Fairmont Park and continue our discussion of the great issues of the day.  We spoke of the sweeping currents of history and how the subject is poorly taught.  History was a great river which poured into, forming and informing, the present moment.  History was passionate and only the dolts who teach it made it dull.  We wondered if there were no death would there be any religion.  If Spinoza was greater than Voltaire.  Why it is that baseball is a better game than football.
   Then the issue arose whether Jewish girls were good lovers or if their reputation as cold and un-giving was a lie.  Jack had dated three Jewish girls and I had gone out with at least two myself.  Based on our own experience we were puzzled by their reputation, for our field work had shown nothing cold about them, no siree.  Jack insisted the wildest lover he ever knew was a vixen named Rosenbloom, whose passion was so out of control he could not, out of common decency, tell me everything.
   We decided Jewish girls had an undeserved reputation and were victims of calumny, perpetuated by comedians and writers, mostly male and from their own tribe.  Then the thought occurred maybe Jewish girls gained this reputation after marriage, when their sexual behavior might change.  Or maybe they were different with goys.  We decided our sampling was too small to be scientifically accurate and more investigative field work was in order.
   The sky had begun to lighten in the east when we parted, each of us happy to find a new friend.  The odd thing was Jack and I would not see each other for fourteen years.  In a few days he was off to hitchhike around Europe and we did not connect again before he left.  We would meet much later when we both had short hair.  Well, one of us had almost no hair, and we both would be card carrying members of the middle class.  Then we stepped off that path in a grand fashion.  But we will come to that.
   One last note:  when Gerald Ford walked Richard Nixon out to the helicopter on the White House lawn, where Nixon gave one last wave, climbed in and then lifted off, that was the precise instant the 1960’s ended.  When Ford walked back inside and took the oath of office the 1970’s began.  The calendar may have it different, but facts and truth are not always the same thing.  There are times when facts miss the truth.

Chapter 2

   Fourteen years later I was married, had a mortgage and was thinking of voting Republican in the fall.  For six years I had been teaching history at Ark Valley High School, my life arranged into a dull though reasonably happy routine.  Then my marriage went to hell.
   Asking around for a good divorce attorney a friend gave me a name.  At the appointed hour I was in a law office in downtown Wichita.  There was nothing familiar about the man when he came down the hall to introduce himself. Once behind his desk he started taking down the necessary information.  Married five years, no kids, I was a teacher. She worked as a secretary for a group of architects, though that ended when she went back to Virginia.
   “Virginia is her home?”
   “That’s where I met her,” I said.  Then I added, no doubt fishing for approval as my confidence had been rocked in the past months with a marriage falling apart, “I was doing research on the Civil War.”
   “Really,” he said, for the first time sounding interested instead of merely professional.  “You writing a book?”
   When I said I was, he was impressed.  This was a reaction I was always getting from people and for a few years this response gratified me, an ego stroking people would freely give. It was a great ice breaker at parties when someone might introduce me as “Teddy Thompson, he’s writing a book on the Civil War.”
   “Ohh,” the ladies would say.
   “Ahh,” the men would say, many of them invariably remarking, “I always wanted to write.”
   “Well,” I would say modestly, smiling at my shoes, before lifting my chin resolutely and remarking, “it’s a lot of hard work.”
   This was always followed by the same questions for which I never developed good answers.  “Is it published?” or “When can I read it?”  But the man across the desk did not ask the obvious questions, but asked two intelligent ones instead.  “Are you doing original research?  Did you go to source material?”
   “I spent six years doing research,” I told him.  “Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, the Smithsonian, the New York Public Library.  I went to every major battle field.”
   “Really,” he said.
   “Worked for a summer as a guide at Gettysburg.”
   “No kidding.”
   “I wasn’t with the National Park Service.  I was a private guide.  It was a great summer.  Kind of dull at night, I mean there’s only one little college in Gettysburg.”
   “Six years you did this?”
   “Happiest years of my life,” I admitted.  “Met my wife, well, now going to be my ex-wife, at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.  She was a librarian there.”
   This was an exaggeration.  She had just started and was a page or intern.  It was true she would bring me boxes of old letters to look through and for a week, without permission, brought me a file they had on Jefferson Davis.  This made her feel like a secret agent and was a form of delicious rebellion.  Later I came to see rebellion played a part in our entire love life.  It should be mentioned she was beautiful, blonde, and named Jenny.
   “Those were the good days,” I told him.
   “Then what happened?” he asked.
   There wasn’t a quick answer to this.  There were a lot of smart ass replies I could have given.  Life happened.  The great bitch reality bit me on the ass, bit me down to the bone and held on, kicking me with hunger and desolation until I had to pay attention.
   The modest inheritance I had from my grandfather finally ran out.  Despite my best attempts at penury I could no longer sustain myself in cheap hotels and cafeterias as I roamed the country in an old VW bug, gleaning odd bits of first hand history in unlikely spots.  The small jobs I took here and there helped.  I was a flag man on a highway crew outside Fredericksburg, a night clerk at a hotel in Chattanooga, as well as a guide in Gettysburg.  All this so I could haunt battlefields, libraries, historical societies and meet weird old widows who had a cache of ancient family letters written by Civil War soldiers.  My notes would grow to fill twenty-six boxes, which I would pack up and ship home to my parents.
   By all rights I never should have had a chance with Jenny.  Her father was a retired Marine colonel who had done combat tours in three wars.  He would not approve of anyone dating his daughter, his only child, unless that man was a Marine.  Or grudgingly, if she was ever going to date “one of those Army pussies” he had graduated from West Point, preferably at the head of his class.  It bears mentioning I had shaved my beard and cut my hair before meeting the Colonel, though even at that early date I was losing hands full of hair with every shower.
   That a Yankee from Kansas, and a civilian at that, had become interested in his girl might have occasioned red faced rage and real threats of physical violence.  But it was a tactful bit of lying that won me his good graces.  He had written a book on the Civil War himself.  It had been self-published, which is more correctly characterized as vanity publishing.  There were about a thousand copies of Lee’s Eternal Glory moldering in card board boxes out in his garage.  Jenny had given me a copy.  It was three hundred pages of hero worship.  Robert E. Lee was next only to Jesus, though maybe a bit better, as he had most of the savior’s virtues, plus he was a soldier.
   So when I met the man the first words out of my mouth were about what an outstanding piece of work Lee’s Eternal Glory was, citing points of erudition and insight never before seen by lesser mortals.  Within minutes I had compared him favorably to Tacitus and Thucydides.  That it was undisguised flattery never seemed to have occurred to him.  If you are starved for flattery, honeyed words are merely long disguised truth now thankfully revealed.
   That first night we traded Civil War trivia for hours.  Impressed with the depth of my knowledge and mission he began to like me, to even look forward to my visits.  After a month he compared me to the great English historian John Keegan, who also had a bum set of legs.  It was the greatest compliment I have ever been paid.
   On a memorable afternoon he took me to his VFW Club, introducing me as a “scholar writing an important book about the Civil War.”  This impressed almost no one and within minutes the question was floated, as I knew it would be, if I had served in Vietnam.  At that point I stood up and marched around the table, pointing at my feet.
   “Gentlemen, the Marines wouldn’t take me with these feet, or the Army, or the Navy, or even the stinking Merchant Marines.  All I can say is goddamn all the doctors.”
   The men looked at my feet with pity and at me with what I hoped was forgiveness.  I was born with my two big toes fused together.  The doctors cut them apart of course, but I grew up the most pigeon toed man in all of America.  This kept me out of the service.  This was a relief yes, but also a disappointment.  What historian doesn’t have a fascination with the military?
   Part of me regretted not being born earlier and thus denied the chance to fight in the “good war” that was World War II, when they would have taken me bad feet and all.  That Vietnam was not a good war was a small sorrow for me but a colossal one for the country.
   Unlike legions of Republican hypocrites however, I never became a chicken hawk in my later years, bloodthirsty from the safety of an arm chair while escaping military service in my youth.  There is a decent argument to be made the Iraq war happened because a whole flock of chicken hawks had to compensate.
   The Colonel was from the true warrior class.  He had been in places like Peleliu and the Frozen Chosin.  That I knew of these battles, obscure in history though not in Marine lore, scored major points with him.  One day I said to him, “Everyone thinks opera singers are divas. But some of the biggest divas in the history of the world were generals.”  He liked that and added a few more names to my list.
   The Colonel could tell wonderful stories but could not write them down.  His words turned stiffly formal on the page, probably the result of too many after action reports written in cover your ass bureaucratic speak.  There was talk of me ghost writing his memoirs.
   You might ask where the Colonel’s wife and Jenny’s mother was during all this time.  She was in the living room, smoking carton after carton of Kent cigarettes, watching television.  If you discounted the number of times she acknowledged my presence by saying “Hello Ted,” she said exactly six words to me over the years.  Even around the dinner table she didn’t speak but simply smoked, the television blabbering away in another room.  Hers was a passive aggressive assault against her marriage.  Once I saw her tap cigarette ash into a gravy boat she was about to serve her husband. Catching my eye she glared at me, daring me to say something.  I didn’t.
   My time in Virginia came to an end.  With money gone and beautiful girlfriend waiting I came home to commit to paper my great treasure trove of research.  It turned out I was a decent scholar but like the Colonel a lousy writer, a point I was not then ready to concede. My parents began to ask pointed questions about me making a living.  As completed pages were not rolling out of my typewriter, my dad would actually stand outside my bedroom door and listen for such activity, my youthful spree was over.  It was time to get serious about joining the middle class.  I would be a history teacher.
   For a while I thought about a doctorate.  Then I chanced upon a professor at a party who after about nine gin and tonics told me, “Son, you have a better chance of getting the clap from the Czarina of Russia than you do of ever getting a job with a PhD in history.”  So I decided to be a high school teacher.

 

One Monday a Month

One Monday a month every theater in the country…from the Shuberts and Nederlanders, to Seattle Rep to South Coast Rep, from Florida Rep to the Portland Stage Company, all the way to the second best dinner theater in Pocatello, Idaho … one Monday a month every theater in this country should give twelve minutes on their stage to any playwright who signs up.

The twelve minutes may be a rehearsed scene.  The playwright may simply sit on a chair and read from a script.  It might be possible to have a pool of actors on hand to cold read.  No sets are allowed, nothing but work lights should be used, and the twelve minutes includes any introduction or setting of scene.  There is no talk back afterwards only “thank you” and “next” or if the occasion demands, “your time is up.”

Plays are not meant to be read.  Plays are meant to be heard.  If not heard their value can never be rightly judged.  Plays are notes of music for body, voice, mind and being, and if not heard the music remains only notes on a page.  Could you judge Chopin or Saint-Saens from a sheet of paper blackened with bar notes and musical notations?   No, you could not.

Two examples from my own life:  when young I tried Waiting for Godot three times and never got beyond page 15.  “I don’t get it,” is all I could think.  “What am I missing?  Am I stupid or they stupid?”  Then I saw a production at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theater with Donald Moffat, Dana Elcar and Ralph Waite.  Ten minutes into that show I knew it was a great play, knew why it was a great play, and was utterly captivated.  But on the page I saw nothing at all, which is not the same nothing Mister Beckett intended.

I had no idea why Hamlet was a great play until one afternoon at The Public Theater Kevin Kline showed me why it is a great play.  But from the page I had no clue.  Even its greatest words were as blank to me as an ocean.  Without the resonance of a human voice plays can not be fairly judged.

There are multiple benefits to what is proposed above.  It would cost almost nothing, it brings new people and energy to your theater, and most importantly you are going to find new plays and playwrights.  All of us have sat through bad plays where two hours is an unhappy taste of eternity.  But anyone can survive twelve minutes.  The major houses might develop rules such as one time slot per five years, or after x number of appearances one has to be invited back in order to appear again.  Major houses should at least have a literary manager present for all such Mondays.

I put forth this modest proposal of One Monday a Month and hope to see it happen in my lifetime.

Prelude

When I read that ancient Greeks had Celtic slaves it jostled my cell memory.  Why am I so obsessed with being a playwright, a dramatist even?  With time I have come to believe one of my relatives was in Athens in its golden years.  He was there as a slave, a house slave, as my last name might suggest, perhaps in the house of one of the players, perhaps even in the house of one of the tragedians.  From up close he saw the plays and never forgot.

Mystical?   Yes.   Possible?   Maybe.  Romantic?  Of course.   Welcome to my world and its many cells of memory.

Religion is the Perfection of Evolution

A strong case can be made that  life is about replicating life. The grand design is that all reproduce, give birth to new life, and that each succeeding generation do the same, so that your name, bloodline and species will multiply, flourish, and most importantly, never die.

The great promise of many religions is that you will gain eternal life, that by believing such and such, by calling God by His correct name in the correct manner you will live forever, as will your friends and family, who will multiply, flourish, dwelling forever in a happy place, and most importantly, never die.

In this way religion is the logical outcome, even the perfection, of evolution.   Belief in eternal life is not surprising but inevitable.

September, 2003

Two Stories About Birds

A beautiful thing happened to me, but before I can tell that story I have to tell the first one, and both stories are true.

While stewing  in my usual gloom in May of 1994 there was a knock on my door and the UPS man had a special delivery letter from the O’Neill telling me I was going.  After leaping off the walls I called Annie and then Mom and went out for a walk.  Not one block away on a stretch of sunny sidewalk a mocking bird flew out of a bush, buzzed my face, flew over my shoulder and then down to nip the back of my right hand.

I was made uneasy by this, for never before or since has a bird, much less a mocking bird, treated me such, and in the same hour that I had heard the best news in many a year. My next trip down the sidewalk I saw she had her nest in the bush.  But the portent seemed all too clear.  My fate would mock me.  Indeed it did.

I went to the O’Neill and had the best play, something other playwrights and other people  told me.  Six plays from that year have now been produced, on Broadway, off-Broadway and in London, but not mine.

What I would have given if The Clan of the MacQuillins had gone exactly one week earlier, on a gala star studded night, a 30th anniversary celebration.   I believe it would have been born and given life if done that night.  But it didn’t happen that way and the mocking bird told me right at the top it wouldn’t.   Next summer marks seven years.

This year a beautiful thing happened to me on a Sunday morning in the first week of October.  It was the eve of Yom Kippur, an occasion my Father observed except he called it the Day of Atonement, a day of expiation for sin, observed in our family with prayer, study and traditional privations.

As I stood in my attic window in the room that was my office on a sunny day praying, the Hudson Valley autumn colored at my finger tips, a bald eagle soared up to my right from the North over my neighbor’s field.  He soared one circle then crossed and in front of me to the West soared a second circle, and coming out of this flew towards me, passing above my right shoulder, his wings a bare few feet above the eave of my house, every feather in his wings precise, his beak and talons a hard corn gold.

I was amazed and spoke aloud to the Lord, thanking Him again for my life, joyous at the miracle of being alive, and at that moment the eagle returned soaring a third circle, his wings rigid and still and directly above me, while I at my open window a few feet below was at his center.

There are days I am filled with a serene confidence all will happen as it should.

October, 2000

Eulogy for My Brother Quillin

He was handsome, he was affable, when he had a hundred dollars he felt like he had a thousand. When he had a thousand he felt like he had a million. He was always certain that in the very near future it was all going to work out great. It almost never did. But he was always a fascinating guy to have as an older brother.

Because Quillin, starting with his very name, no middle name, was different.

It was my sister Jan, a conduit of all sorts of interesting information in my youngest days, who told me all the way back on Armstrong, that Quillin had a different Daddy than the one we knew.  I once asked Mom, “What was he like, his dad?” She thought a moment and said, “Quillin is a carbon copy of his Dad, both inside and out.”  It would make an enormous difference in his life and it could and would explain certain things.

When grown Quillin tracked him down, his biological dad, a man named Ford, and convinced his progenitor to meet him at the Los Angeles airport.  When he walked toward him Quillin said, “He looked just like me. It was like meeting myself.”  The first words out the man’s mouth were, “Kid, I don’t need this.”  They spent maybe a half an hour together.

Quillin told me he came back from that trip and put his arms around Dad and told him that he loved him, and that Dad, James L., was his real Dad.  Which was true.  He was a Porter.  But he was also a little bit different, and oh, what a character.

When we were young and went camping, you best believe he met every young woman in that campground. There was the time when a whole gaggle of girls taught Quillin to water ski in the frigid waters of a lake in the Rocky Mountains.  His brothers and sisters stood on shore, laughing when he fell, cheering when he held his balance and skied.

An indelible image of that day, besides Scott laughing so hard he lost his balance and nearly fell into the lake, giving Grandpa Porter an attack of laughter that made him wheeze, was the crowd of adoring girls, wrapping Quillin up in blankets as he emerged from the freezing water, triumphant.

Then there was the trip to California, driving there in a white Chrysler station wagon pulling a green trailer.  It was the trip where the camera got left on the kitchen table, which is a shame because it might have recorded an astonishing event.

On that trip our brother Quillin met and fell in love with, and more importantly she fell in love with him, Hayley Mills. She was a movie star of the time, young, blonde, beautiful and famous.  How she lost her heart to a young man from Kansas, only in California a few days, how he slipped away from his parents, how he swept her off her feet, in San Diego of all places, well, it is truly a shame a camera was not around.

Hayley was so smitten with Quillin she wrote him letters and signed her name a special way, a way she only did for ones she truly loved.  I know all this because my sister Jan told me.  Quillin showed her the letters.  He never showed me the letters.  So I had to scrounge through his desk for weeks, reading all his love letters, sent to him by all sorts of women in Kansas, Colorado and other places, but I was looking for that one letter from Hayley.

It was never found.

But as it turned out there were pictures.  Yes, an eight by ten glossy signed “To Quillin with love, Hayley” and a second eight by ten glossy, a contact sheet with twelve pictures, one with a man’s arm around the adorable young blonde.  You could not see the man, just his arm, and in our one and only passing conversation upon the subject my brother assured me, “That’s my arm.”

He was seven years older which is a lot when one is five and he is twelve, or ten and seventeen, and so forth.  For awhile Quillin told me he had been a football star in college.  Many a time I pored over that Emporia State yearbook, looking for his picture on the team and those great games he played. Maybe he was gone the day the pictures were taken.

There is a story that has floated around for some fifty years that Chuck Connors is our uncle.  No, he isn’t and he wasn’t.  We had an uncle who looked a little like Chuck Connors. But when Quillin told the story around school while in the 8th grade The Rifleman became a blood relative and ssshhhh, no one’s supposed to know this, so don’t tell anybody, so only about seven thousand people ever believed this to be true.

All of us have a dream life.  Quillin was a dreamer.  If he could sell you his dream then it might be true.

It was Quillin who broke the unplowed ground with Dad, and you did not bend Dad’s will easily, about playing sports on Friday nights.  He threw a fit and said he was going to play football no matter what.  So Dad relented, and for the first time the start of the holy day could be profaned by the playing of a game, a victory that was a benefit to each of his siblings.

Grandpa Porter took me to one of Quillin’s football games.  His opinion was, “Your brother runs like a coyote.”  I remember going with Dad to the stadium at WSU and watching Quillin run in a big track meet.  He won his race that day and I was proud to be his brother, and was envious of the medals he wore on his letter sweater.

He was a much better athlete than any of the rest of us.  The game he loved was football.  In the great football games at Porterville, Jan and Whitney were on his team, Scott and Kimberly on my team.  Every game he would lay a ferocious block or tackle on a certain younger brother, which would send me tumbling into a nearby wheat field.

So when he went away to college me and my team practiced.  Oh, how we practiced, working on plays my older brother had taught me. Thanksgiving was the big game and it was the only game in about a hundred my team ever won.  And boy did that make him mad, because Quillin loved to win. In the grudge re-match over that one victory, that was the game Scott broke his collarbone in a collision with Quillin, and for the most part the football games ended, for which I was secretly grateful.

Now I will tell you, I think Quillin was a better big brother to me than I ever was to my little brother Scott. I can catch a baseball because Quillin hit and threw them to me for hours. He let me spend a week with him in bachelor splendor in a sprawling top floor of a Victorian house in Coffeyville, giving me a copy of the book Candy, which I devoured in one day, then going out to look for me when I stayed out too late prowling the streets of a strange big city.

On a later trip to Coffeyville he lent me his brand new Buick, a company car from whatever company he was with at the time, and I drove it much too fast, the only time I ever had a car almost up to a hundred and twenty, with a pretty girl on the front seat, a girl Quillin had introduced to me only a few hours before.  I was fifteen.

He was reckless and he was a lot of fun.

He was an encyclopedia salesman, a sports writer, an insurance adjuster, an advertising man, several times a hustling entrepreneur, and ended his business life as a stock broker and investment manager.

When I heard the words Quillin and stock broker in the same sentence I knew there was going to be trouble.  Because our brother, the dreamer, the reckless one, always wanted to go from A to Z and never mind those pesky little steps in between like B, C or D.  He wanted it now, he could dream it couldn’t he, and for as long as we knew him Quillin wanted to be rich.

A couple of times he got close. For a few months I was an eyewitness at XMG.  It was a good product, a Teflon motor oil that actually seemed to work, giving a car better gas mileage.  The first week I noticed the highlight of the day was lunch. Quillin and his partner would adjourn to a restaurant across the street and order two and on occasion even three rounds of double scotches.  Along about the second drink the burning question would arise, “Why kind of company jet do we think we should get?”

Not being wise in the ways of business but being a wise acre, I would point out that they had not, as of that moment, sold ten thousand dollars worth of product.  “Paul,” my big brother explained to me patiently, “you just don’t understand business.  You need to plan for these things.”

The funny thing about Quillin is that he did know great luck in his life.  There was Dad, a man who adopted and loved him as his own child.  There was Mom.  But maybe his best luck was that he married Yolanda, who was and is beautiful in all the important ways.  Together they had Lexi.

One of my memories of XMG was the day she was born.  Quillin was on the other side of town when Yolanda went into labor, labor that was far too early, and he made the hour’s drive across the length of Kansas City in twenty minutes.  The child born that day was no bigger than your hand and survived in part because her father loved her.

He loved all his children, Traci, Chad, Kenneth, Tiffany and Lexi.  He loved you, he was proud of you, and he regretted that he did not spend more time with you.  One time he said to me, “Dammit Paul, I never knew my own dad, and now my own children grow up without me.”

He knew many defeats.  All of us know defeat.  Few of us wind up spending ten years in prison because of one.  Our brother would spend about one out of every seven days of his too short life behind bars, on parole, or on the run, events which started after he turned fifty. The man who once drove two different Lincoln Continentals, who arrived at our Father’s funeral in new Jaguar, who once gave thought to a company jet, now hid out on the Mexican border sleeping under bridges, becoming a day laborer, happy if he made enough to buy one meal a day.

He learned to speak flawless Spanish, went by foot and horseback for great distances along the Mexican border, working in cantinas as a bartender, and after being out of touch with everyone for four or five years, sneaked back into this country to see Mom.

My Mother told me, “He looked ragged, more like a migrant worker than an American.” Tired of life on the lam, of being out of touch with his family, he turned himself in and from everything I heard was relieved.

It is wrong he is gone only three years after Mom.  He lived long enough to outlive jail and to know again a few years of freedom.  He lived long enough to put to paper his earliest memories of Mom and tell us a story about Dad none of us ever could have guessed.  He lived long enough to reconcile with his beautiful wife, with Lexi, and I hope his other children.

It was fascinating to have him as a brother.  It was also too often sad.

Age plays tricks on you, so I don’t know if it was six months or two years ago that Quillin and I were on the phone.  He told me that he had a hell of life and that he wouldn’t trade it for anybody else’s.  I always told him if he could write the true story of his life it would be a good book, maybe a great book, and he might finally make that million dollars he always wanted.  Not so long after he sent me 150 typed pages.  Some parts I know to be true, some parts I know to be lies, and other parts I just don’t know.

This much is true:  Quillin’s life was an adventure.

There was always something about him that made you forgive him. I knew him to be foolish, but I never knew him to be malicious.  We loved him in the ways us Porters always love each other, both unreservedly and with the judgment of our own strong opinions, Christian or otherwise.  Other than Mom and Dad, he affected my life more than any other single person I ever knew, a fact I did not appreciate until I began to compose these remarks.  Three small examples:

Because he was a Yankee fan, I became a Dodger fan.

Because he was a business man, I became an artist.

Because he was a sports writer I began my own sports column while in high school. It was my first consistent attempt at writing.

One more story.

His first real car was a 1959 red Ford Fairlane convertible, the first in a long line of eye catching cars Quillin would drive.  I shot baskets on the court at Porterville, winning the NCAA championship a remarkable number of times, and I would roll the cars off the drive to enact this miracle.  One day I coasted his red convertible down the cement and the driver’s side door caught on the car next to it and was bent back double.  And did my big brother yell at me for messing up his nice car?

No, he didn’t.

We are a more interesting family because he was our brother.  To my remaining siblings I say no more eulogies for now.  Take care of yourself and get home safely from this day when we remember Quillin, who was, as each of us are, different from all the others, though he was a little bit more so.

Thank you.

Wichita, Kansas
8 August 2010

Eulogy for My Father

I will remind you here at the beginning that it is all right to laugh, and of course it is all right to cry.

I think my father had a good life.  In many ways he was very lucky. Anyone married to our mother for nearly 50 years would have to be considered lucky.  For many of those years he lived in a fine, handsome house — his house — on three of the most beautiful acres of land as could be found anywhere on earth — his land.

Now his children may have been a more mixed bag of luck.  Some of us may not have turned out exactly as he might have wanted.  But there was never any doubt that he loved us, and never any doubt he treated each of us equally, not favoring the righteous over the not so righteous, the loud over the more quiet, the obnoxious over the less than obviously obnoxious.

He and Mom raised good children, and in the end he showed a parent’s greatest love, by letting us go on to become exactly who we wanted to be, never meddling, always pulling for us in our struggles, loving us regardless, and always, always praying for us.

A man starts out as a son, and today for a moment we remember his parents, Grandpa and Grandma Porter as well.  It was Grandpa who taught Dad how to fish, and he was always happy with a pole in his hand and a hook in the water, a love he passed on to two of his six children, and in baseball three hundred is a good average.

Grandpa taught Dad how to fix and tinker and fool with, the same as Dad taught me and others, the fruits of which have adorned and plagued our various houses for years.

Dad went to college and became a geologist, and from there to war as a pilot, nearly being killed three different times in training accidents, a fact he told me once that began his religious search.

After the war he married Mom and us kids, one-two-three-four-five-six came along, nearly as fast as that, and after a life time of not being a church going man, Dad decided there was something missing and thus began his spiritual journey, a journey that was a key to his life.

Dad began to read the Bible, not just to read it, but to study it, not just to study it, but to devour it, and in the end he would breathe its words as naturally as a man would walk.  And he decided that God wanted him to keep the Sabbath.

Now at this time Dad worked for Shell Oil and at this time people worked six days a week.  But Dad didn’t want to work on the Sabbath.  So he left, or they fired him.

At this same time Dad picked a doctrinal difference – not the last time this would happen – with the church we belonged to, and they kicked us out and cursed us, and told my Mother she would soon be a widow.

And in this time we were poor, and lived often on what we grew in the garden, and one hard winter when my brother’s shoes were accidentally put in the trash and burned and there was no money for new ones, my Mother wept.

But Dad would not go back to Shell Oil and he would not go back to the church that threw us out, and he felt if he stayed true to what he believed then God would bless him.

And God did.

I remember his clothes that Mom showed us, that were covered with oil from a well that had finally come in, and soon we moved to that handsome house on those fine three acres, and he had the three things that most marked his life:  his family, his home and his spiritual journey.

Now Dad was not particularly playful.  Jokes and wise cracks were not his forte.  He was reserved and he had a presence.  Even if he did not speak you knew he was in the room.  But he did make two of the most outstandingly playful toys imaginable: a bag swing and the monorail.

Now there are other bag swings, but surely none more perfect than the one we had, swinging down the steep hill and back to its stand.  And for those of us who were there, we cannot forget the sight of our father, all two hundred and ten pounds of him then, stretched prone on that tree limb, twenty-three feet above the hard ground, while Mom stood below, wringing her hands and crying, “Be careful, Jim.”

There might be one or two bag swings that are better.  But the monorail, ah, the monorail.  There was a feat of engineering and whimsy, of playful uniqueness, a one of a kind wonderful back yard toy never duplicated, and it was Dad who made it.  What a shame we didn’t have camcorders then, so we could prove it was every bit as wonderful as we remember.

Now there are other stories I could tell you of Dad, of the camping trip to Colorado when he urged Mom from her warm sleeping bag early one cold morning.  So she finally got up, none too happy, saying, “What? What?”

“Just look at how that fog hangs on the water, honey.”  She could have smacked him one.

Or the time, as all of us watched from the front picture window, when he killed a coyote at a hundred yards with a single shot.  Years later he told us, “You know, I was as surprised as that coyote by that shot.”

But mostly I think we will remember Dad for his great passion for the Bible, for his endless study of its words, his journey to get closer to God, to understand what God wanted him to do, and how he became filled with the Spirit of the Lord.

There were many people who would go see Dad, to be prayed over, to be taught, to be healed. There is no counting the number of pilgrims and refugees who passed through our house.  Whenever I came home from my various travels there would be new ones and he my Mother would always welcome them.  To my knowledge, they never turned anyone away, and there were scores of them.

I sometimes tell people I never heard my father use a single swear word, and never once heard him raise his voice to my mother, and they are astonished.  But it is true.

Now he was not a saint.  I’m not trying to tell you he was.  But he was a good man, a man of great character and integrity, and most difficult of all, he was a righteous man.

Perhaps the best measure of a man’s life can be found in how many days he gets to spend doing exactly what he wants with his time. When I think of Dad I will remember him on the patio, the sunlight slanting from across the river and through the trees, in that serene and beautiful place that was his home, the Bible open on his lap, as evening was coming on.

Faith is the measure of the hopefulness of man, that his deeds on earth will let him know peace, now and through the ages. I think my father had a good life. I think he is now in a place of peace.

February 15, 1997
Valley Center, Kansas

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