Month: December 2012

Writer Round-Up: Moira Crone, Rob Magnuson Smith, Teresa Dovalpage, Steven Church, Skip Fox, & Leonard S. Bernstein

Writer Round-Up: Moira Crone, Rob Magnuson Smith, Teresa Dovalpage, Steven Church, Skip Fox, & Leonard S. Bernstein

Writer Round-Up: A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft The UNO Press Authors : Moira Crone, Rob Magnuson Smith, Teresa Dovalpage, Steven Church, Skip Fox, and Leonard S. Bernstein Interview by Cynthia Reeser For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. […]

A Conversation with Rachel McKibbens, Author of Pink Elephant

A Conversation with Rachel McKibbens, Author of Pink Elephant

Interview by Stephanie Renae Johnson For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 6.4, December 2012 I first stumbled upon Rachel McKibbens’ name through a friend of a friend who described the poetess as “a monstress,” in the sense that she is so productive and such a […]

South of Salvation by Brandon Daily

South of Salvation by Brandon Daily

Drama, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012

ACT I
Scene 1

The play will be comprised of four scenes. The first two scenes will be separated spatially on the STAGE (the first scene will be contained to STAGE RIGHT and the second scene will stay to STAGE LEFT). The LIGHTS will only come up according to the scene. This will allow for easy transition with set dressings. The third scene will take place on just a small portion of STAGE LEFT. The fourth scene, however, will play out on the entire STAGE and will require some set changing.

When the LIGHTS come up for Scene 1, we are only shown half of the STAGE. The setting here is a small corner-shop deli restaurant. We see a table with some cups and plates with food on them (sandwich rolls and some potato chips) and two chairs. A body occupies each chair. In the chair to STAGE RIGHT sits JAMES (a man in his early to mid-thirties: clean cut, dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a light jacket). JAMES should seem hesitant throughout the play, especially in this scene and the fourth. Sitting in the chair to STAGE LEFT is a large man dressed in a black suit, PORTER (we should be almost disgusted by this man—the way he eats, talks, his mannerisms, etc.). The chairs should be angled so that we can see in full all the action around the table. Next to PORTER, sitting on the ground, is a sleek black briefcase that the audience should not notice immediately. The play will begin in media res within their conversation.

PORTER
(smiling and leaning back in his chair)
You look a little confused, Mr. Richards.

JAMES
James.

PORTER
Alright, then. James. You are confused, though, I imagine. Yes?

JAMES
(nodding)
A little.

PORTER
I can understand that.

PORTER takes a big bite from the sandwich roll and then eats some of the potato chips without having swallowed the sandwich. He chomps away whole-heartedly at the food, brushing the crumbs from his suit, and then washes the partially eaten food down with the drink.

JAMES
I guess I just don’t really understand what you want from me.

PORTER
(swallowing and patting his stomach)
You’re right. It’s pointless for me to sit here and sidestep around a cart of bullshit with you. So, I’ll be straight with you.

JAMES
Okay.

PORTER
Okay. Here it is, then. Straight at you: one, two, three.
You know what this is, I imagine.

PORTER reaches into his coat pocket and fishes around in there for something, which he eventually finds, and sets it down on the table. This action should correspond with a clear  “TICK” sound.

PORTER
Yes?

JAMES says nothing, but looks down in silent shock.

PORTER
It’s a bullet, James. Nothing special.
BEAT
But, I need you to take this here, and I need you to bury it in his head.

JAMES reaches out and grabs the bullet and looks around the room and then looks down at the bullet.

JAMES
(in a hushed yell)
What?! This is a joke, right? You’re asking me to…

JAMES is interrupted by a waitress who comes over from the darkness of STAGE LEFT. JAMES clenches his fist tightly around the bullet and then looks up at her, panic spewing onto his face. PORTER smiles when he sees her.

WAITRESS
Can I get you guys anything more? Dessert? Anything?

PORTER
No thanks, honey. Why don’t we just get the bill over here. My friend Jimmy here needs to get home. Starting to get a bit homesick. Aren’t ya, Jimmy?

JAMES says nothing.

WAITRESS
Alrighty, then. Let me get that going for you guys… (to JAMES) and get you home.

The WAITRESS smiles and EXITs STAGE LEFT. PORTER smiles, his eyes following her off.

PORTER
(jokingly)
She’s a good lookin’ gal now, ain’t she, Jimmy?

JAMES is still silent. He looks back down at the bullet.

PORTER
You were saying?

JAMES
(in the same hushed yell)
What the hell am I supposed to do with this? I can’t. You want me to kill someone? Really? BEAT
(confused)
Are you a cop or something? Is this some kind of bust or something? Or a hidden camera thing? Because I haven’t done anything wrong.

PORTER
(laughing)
No, no, no. I’m pretty damn far from a cop, actually. And there aren’t any cameras, James. Go ahead and look around for yourself if you want.

JAMES
Seriously, man, if this is a joke then it’s over. Look, Mr. Porter, you’ve had your fun, but I’ve gotta go. Really. I’ve already wasted enough time here.

JAMES gets up to leave.

PORTER
(angrily, changing his entire light-hearted nature from before)
Sit down, James!

PORTER grabs JAMES’s wrist. JAMES looks down at the man and sits down slowly but doesn’t look at PORTER.

PORTER
(soothingly)
This isn’t a joke, James. It’s an offer. Simply an offer. Nothing more. I need someone killed and I’m offering you the chance to do it. That’s all.

JAMES
Who? Who is it you want me to…

PORTER
(losing patience)
Jesus Christ, James. Are you deaf? My god! The man I’ve been telling you about for the last hour. It’s simple business: he screws with us—and even you agreed that what he did was pretty damn well bad—and he’s gonna get it back in return. Retaliation’s a bitch. Remember that, Jimmy. If there’s one thing that I can impart to you today, it’s that there are always consequences, James. Always.

JAMES
This doesn’t make any sense.

JAMES finally looks up at PORTER. JAMES’s eyes are filled with a sheepish confusion.

PORTER
The most important choices in life never do.

There is a moment of silence between them.

JAMES
(with an uncomfortable laugh, then timidly angry)
I’ve never even held a gun before. Did you know that? I would think that since you picked me you would have an idea that I’m a pretty bad choice.

PORTER
So, you’ve never shot a gun. So what? It’s not that complicated. Watch enough TV and it’s pretty much like it is there: point it, pull the trigger, make sure the guy’s not breathing, walk away. Done deal.

JAMES
(shaking his head)
I can’t do it. I can’t kill anyone. The fact that I’m still here listening to your insane bullshit is crazy enough, but that’s it. I can’t do it.

PORTER
Why can’t you? Religion?

JAMES
Morals, Mr. Porter. Morals and ethics and…and it’s just wrong. I can’t.

The WAITRESS comes back over and leaves the check. The two men remain silent while she comes over.

WAITRESS
No rush, guys. Whenever. I’ll go ahead and take these, though.

PORTER smiles and thanks her. The WAITRESS takes the two plates and EXITS STAGE LEFT.

PORTER
Morals, religion, it’s all the same thing.

JAMES takes the bullet and tries to hand it back to PORTER.

JAMES
Whatever it is, I can’t. Here. I’m sorry I can’t help you.

PORTER doesn’t take the bullet back. JAMES sets it down on the table again with another “TICK.”

PORTER
Alright, James. But here…

Porter takes the bullet and tosses it to JAMES, who catches it and looks at it again.

PORTER
Why don’t you hold onto it just a second longer. Just one. First, before you say anything else, before you do anything else, why don’t you take a look at who it is I’m asking you to—I don’t want to sound too much like a movie, but why the hell not, right?—but take a look at who I’m asking you to handle for me.

PORTER reaches down, takes up the briefcase, and sets it on the table in front of him. He undoes the latches, which are loud, and then lifts the lid of the case. From inside, PORTER takes out a manila envelope and slides it over across the table to JAMES.

JAMES picks up the envelope, undoes the string sealing the envelope, and takes out the contents, which is just one photograph. JAMES’s hands are shaking as he looks at the picture.

PORTER
(smiling)
He’s changed a bit, I imagine.

PORTER closes the case and replaces it on the floor next to his feet.

JAMES
I don’t know who this is. (looking at PORTER)
Who is he?

PORTER
Take a closer look, yeah? I think you know.

JAMES looks back at the photo and stares intently at it for a few seconds before he looks up at PORTER in shocked recognition, letting the photo drop to the table in front of him.

JAMES
What…?

PORTER
I understand, James. I do. Just relax for a second. Take a breath… Here, take a drink.

PORTER pushes JAMES’s drink over to JAMES.

PORTER
And now focus on me…James.

JAMES looks around in complete confusion, looking to his left and right.

PORTER
James…

JAMES
I…
BEAT
(suddenly angry)
Why me? Huh? Why come to me with this?

PORTER
(smiling)
Why you?
BEAT
That’s a legitimate question, I guess.

JAMES
(angrily)
Then give me a legitimate goddamn answer.
(shaking the photo at PORTER)
Why do you come to me? With this?! It makes no sense! Come to me and say go kill this guy and then show me who it is! Me! Nothing me!
BEAT
(becoming angry)
You come to me, out of nowhere, call me on the phone, say you can help my daughter, look  me in the eyes here, and tell me I have to kill someone, and not just anyone, but…him.

PORTER
(calmly, almost amused)
I thought seeing who it is might have changed your mind a bit. Might settle any doubts you might have.

There is a long silence.

PORTER
Look, James. I know all about you. I know about when you grew up, where, I know all about your family… My god, James, I probably know more about you than your wife does. I know everything there is to know about you. And, that means I also know all about your daughter.

JAMES looks up angrily at PORTER.

PORTER
Relax, James. That’s how I got you here, is her. Isn’t it? You just admitted that.
BEAT
Without her, you’d never be sitting here considering my proposition. Right?

PORTER bends over, undoes the briefcase, reaches inside, pulls a slip of paper from the case, and locks the latches, leaving it next to him. He looks down at the paper.

PORTER
Christine Richards, age seven… Hmm… There’s a lot of big words here, James. Words I can’t begin to try and say. And, if I know one thing, I know that big words from doctors usually means bad news for patients, yeah?

He pretends to read the sheet of paper intently and then looks up.

PORTER
Ah-ha, enlarged heart. I can read that one.

JAMES
(calmly, angrily) How did you get that?

PORTER
I just told you, James. My god, you don’t seem to hear well—you might need to stop in and check that out.

JAMES
How?

PORTER
I can get whatever I want, James. Information, papers, money, drugs…
BEAT
And yes, James, I can get a heart.

JAMES
That’s impossible. We’ve been on the list for four months.

PORTER
And in another four months, you won’t have a daughter to worry about transplants or hospitals, or…

JAMES
Shut up! Shut the hell up!… Please…

PORTER
Unless…

PORTER scoots his chair closer to JAMES and theatrically “whispers” to JAMES.

PORTER
Unless I get her one. It won’t be that hard for either of us. You simply shoot that man in the photo there, shoot him in the head, and I simply make a phone call and your daughter can keep being your daughter. You can buy her a bike for her birthday instead of flowers for her grave, yeah? Listen, James, I don’t mean to sound heartless. That’s not at all what I’m after.

JAMES wipes his eyes with his sleeves.

PORTER
(handing JAMES a handkerchief)
Here.
BEAT
You see, James, I try to look at myself as a philanthropist of sorts. You ask me why I chose you: I only want to help someone when I can. Now is one of those times that I can. And you are the person that I can help.

PORTER slides back his chair abruptly, grabs his briefcase, and stands. JAMES watches him intently.

PORTER
(matter-of-factly)
And, you’re cheaper than anyone else I would hire. You can get close to him when someone else wouldn’t be able. He won’t even know.

JAMES looks at the bullet, running his other hand through his hair.

PORTER
The gun that goes with that is in your glove box, along with the address of where you’ll find him. You have five days. If it isn’t done by then, no hard feelings, that’s fine, I’ll find someone else. But you should probably think about praying to your God for your daughter’s sake.
BEAT
See if he can’t get her name up on that list they have. Huh?

JAMES
How do I know that you’ll come through on your part?

PORTER
(smiling)
You don’t, James. Faith alone. Faith alone.

PORTER reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of money, takes a couple of bills, and sets them down on the table.

PORTER
Lunch is on me, okay?

PORTER turns and begins to walk to STAGE LEFT and then turns back.

PORTER
What is it your Bible says, James? Sins of the father brought on the son, right?

PORTER turns, chuckling at himself, and EXITs.

JAMES watches PORTER leave and then sits silently at the table. He looks down at the bullet, puts it in his jacket pocket, and sits, lost in thought as the LIGHTS dim and then go out completely.

Scene 2

The LIGHTS open on STAGE LEFT. There is a couch and coffee table that we can see. On the table are books and magazines strewn here and there. We should have the feeling of a scattered messiness in the room. The couch is angled toward the audience. On the couch sits a woman, around the same age as JAMES. She is SARAH, JAMES’s wife. She is dressed in sweatpants, her hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail, and she wears a loose-fitting sweatshirt. She shouldn’t look like a slob, but rather like someone who is purely exhausted, physically and emotionally.

While she sits on the couch, SARAH frantically bounces her legs up and down. She rubs her face, pulls loose strands of hair from her eyes; she is always moving. She grabs her cell phone from next to her on the couch, dials a number, and puts it up to her ear. She waits a few seconds, then angrily tosses it next to her.

SARAH
Goddammit, James! Answer the phone!

She goes back to nervously bouncing her legs then reaches to the books and magazines and begins to organize them, but she cannot and reaches for the phone again, dials, and listens. While she is waiting for JAMES to answer, we hear the sound of a door open and shut at STAGE RIGHT. SARAH ends the call and puts it down. JAMES ENTERS from STAGE RIGHT; SARAH stands.

SARAH
Jesus Christ, James. Where the hell have you been? I’ve been trying to call you for hours now.

JAMES
I’m sorry.

JAMES begins to walk, passing behind the couch to EXIT STAGE LEFT.

SARAH
Sorry?!

JAMES
(angrily, turning around)
Yeah, Sarah. I’m sorry!

SARAH
Sorry?! Jesus. That’s it, James? That’s all you say? Goddammit. It’s ten o’clock. I thought you were gonna go to the hospital with me. Christine kept wondering where you were; I told her you’d be coming any second. I tried calling you over and over and you never answered, and… Goddammit, James, I thought something happened, I thought you got in an accident, or something, and all I could think about when I listened to that goddamn doctor telling me the same shit that I’ve heard over and over and over and over again was you and wondering where you were and if you were okay and worried to death about you and then I come home and, for hours I sit here, calling you, afraid to get up and move in case you call and I miss it, and you come in and sorry is all you can say to me.
BEAT
Christ.

SARAH sits down heavily on the couch and buries her face in her hands. JAMES walks back to where she is, around the coffee table, and sits next to her. He puts his arms around her and she falls over, into his arms, crying heavily. JAMES rocks her back and forth, quietly whispering to her. Finally, she composes herself and pulls away and looks at him.

SARAH
(wiping her eyes, her expression a combination of concern and anger)
Where were you?

JAMES
I had a meeting. That’s all. It wasn’t anything bad. I promise, Sarah. Really. I didn’t think it would last as long as it did. I’m sorry that I wasn’t at the appointment. I’ll talk to Chrissy in the morning. Okay?

SARAH
You had a meeting until ten o’clock, James? With who? That doesn’t make any sense.

JAMES
It was with a client from work.

SARAH
(frustrated)
Please stop lying to me, James. Just stop.
BEAT
Just tell me the truth. Please.
BEAT
Are you seeing someone?

JAMES
What?! Sarah, come on.

SARAH
(sternly, but letting the emotions get the better of her)
James! Yes or no?!! Just tell me.

JAMES
No, Sarah! No! I can’t believe you’d even think that. Honestly.

They sit in silence. JAMES rubs his hands over SARAH’s legs, affectionately, but absent-mindedly. They both seem mentally removed: JAMES looks up at the ceiling, SARAH looks away to UPSTAGE. Finally, SARAH breaks the silence:

SARAH
(still looking away) I’d understand.

JAMES
(bringing his attention to SARAH) What?

SARAH
I’d understand if you were seeing someone. It wouldn’t hurt me. I mean it would, but I’d understand it.

JAMES
Jesus, Sarah. I’m not seeing anyone else. I’m not. I promise you.
(soothingly and seriously)
Look at me, please…

JAMES gently holds SARAH’s face and directs her attention and gaze to him. He brings his face up close to hers.

JAMES
There’s no one else. I promise, sweetheart. Please believe me. I love you so much. Don’t you understand that?

SARAH
I do. I do. And I love you, James. So much.
BEAT
But I just don’t know how I can take it anymore. And I don’t know how you can either. Any of this. I mean, I don’t know what to do.
BEAT
At what point do we quit, James? What point do we give up what we’re doing? Or what
we’re trying to do? I know things aren’t the same between us since this all began with her. I know it. And I’m sorry, but I can’t do it anymore. I can’t pretend. I can’t try.
(her voice begins to break; she is having a minor anxiety attack. Her hands begin to shake slightly)
I can’t take it much longer and I know you can’t either.
BEAT
I don’t know what to do, James. I’m sorry, James. I am. I’m so sorry. But I don’t know what to do. I don’t know. But I love you, James. As much now as I ever have. I know that. I just hope that someday this can all be over and we can be happy again. Do you think we can?

JAMES doesn’t know what to say. He nods slightly.

SARAH
Do you?

JAMES
I do. I really do. I’m trying, too. And I know you are. And I’m so proud of you. You’re such a great mother. Do you know that?

SARAH shakes her head. JAMES leans over and kisses her cheek. They separate and JAMES continues to rub her leg. They sit quietly, neither looking at the other. Finally,

JAMES
How did it go at the hospital?
BEAT
What did the doctor say?

SARAH
The same as always. Every day it’s the same.

JAMES
If it’s the same, then that doesn’t mean it’s getting any worse, though. Right?

SARAH
I don’t know. I don’t know.

JAMES
Did you ask about the list again?

SARAH
(shaking her head)
He said there’s no chance of her getting moved up for at least six months, maybe more.
(she begins to cry)
But he said he doesn’t even know if her heart can last that long.
(she begins openly weeping now)
He said he doesn’t know. Oh God, James. Our baby! Our baby! What are we supposed to do? I can’t. I can’t.

SARAH is in hysterics now. JAMES holds her tightly and she sobs into his shirt. He whispers soothing “Shhhs” to her as he gently rubs her back. Eventually, she begins to calm down and they are quiet, JAMES holding her tightly. Over her head, JAMES looks around at the room, as if judging it for its worth.

There is a long silence between them. Then, seemingly out of nowhere:

JAMES
How far would you go to make something right?

SARAH breaks away from JAMES’s hold and dries her eyes with her sleeves. She looks at him.

SARAH
What?

JAMES
I don’t know. I’ve just been thinking, I guess.
BEAT
I’ve been thinking all day about it.
BEAT
But, I guess I’m just trying to figure something out, you know.
BEAT
I don’t know, Sarah.
BEAT
Do you think it’s alright to do something bad if it’s for a good reason?

SARAH
I don’t know. Like what?

JAMES
You know, like the greater good thing: do one thing wrong so that something good can come from it. Does that make sense?

SARAH
Yeah. A little.

JAMES
But what do you think, though?

SARAH
I don’t know. Like what kind of bad thing?

JAMES
I don’t know. I’m just thinking out loud.

SARAH
(thoughtfully)
I don’t know. It depends, I guess.

JAMES
Depends on what?

SARAH
On how important that one thing is.

BEAT

JAMES
What if it’s that important?

BEAT

SARAH
Then you have to do what you can, I guess.

The two sit in thought. James stares at the floor, SARAH back to UPSTAGE. After a few seconds, she rubs his hands a little, then gets up and begins to walk off to STAGE LEFT. She stops and looks back at JAMES, still sitting on the couch: he hasn’t moved.

SARAH
(tenderly, lovingly) Are you coming to bed?

No response. JAMES is still lost in his own thoughts.

SARAH
(still tenderly and lovingly)
James?

JAMES finally hears her and looks up. He smiles sadly at her.

SARAH
(same)
Are you coming to bed?

JAMES
I’ll be in in a second.

SARAH
Okay.

SARAH begins to walk off.

JAMES
Sarah…

She turns and looks at him.

JAMES
I love you.

SARAH
(with a sad smile) I love you, too.
(hesitantly) Come in soon. Okay?

SARAH EXITs STAGE LEFT. JAMES is left sitting by himself on the couch. He looks around the room, lost. Then he reaches into his pocket and fishes out the bullet and looks at it, examining it. He sighs heavily and then puts the bullet away in his pocket.

The LIGHTS go down slowly on JAMES, sitting by himself. Finally, the room goes completely dark.

Scene 3

The LIGHTS come up on STAGE LEFT. All we can see is a door (facing from STAGE RIGHT to STAGE LEFT). The LIGHTS only illuminate what is to the STAGE LEFT side of the door; STAGE RIGHT remains in complete darkness. The door is freestanding.

The STAGE remains like this for a little while before JAMES ENTERs from STAGE LEFT. He is dressed in jean pants and a large coat, one that looks maybe a bit too big for him. He approaches the door slowly. When he reaches it, he looks from side to side—we assume he is looking up and down the street. He is cautious. JAMES reaches into his left coat pocket and pulls out the gun, once again looking nervously from side to side. He looks at it and shakes his head a little, then puts it in his pocket and begins to walk off STAGE LEFT, but he stops, takes a deep breath, and turns around. He approaches the door quickly and knocks on the wood. The sound echoes through the STAGE. There is no answer, so he knocks again—this time harder and longer. We can hear the sound of shuffling, a cleared throat, movement coming from STAGE RIGHT, but it is still in darkness and we can only wait. JAMES puts his ear to the door, then backs away and knocks again. From STAGE RIGHT we can hear someone at the door, still hidden in the shadows. JAMES is about to knock one more time, but the door opens. Whoever it is that opens the door (STEPHEN) still remains in the dark of the shadows. JAMES takes a short step back.

STEPHEN
(just his voice)
Yeah? What do you want?
BEAT
Huh?

JAMES tries to speak but can’t. STEPHEN shuts the door. From inside the house and through the door:

STEPHEN
I ain’t buyin’ whatever the hell you’re selling, so get off my doorstep and get the hell out of here.

JAMES remains in front of the door, seemingly shocked. He reaches his hand into his pocket; we can tell he’s holding the gun. He knocks on the door with his right hand; his left remains in his pocket. The door opens quickly, as if STEPHEN has been waiting by the door.

STEPHEN
Goddamn it, boy. Get the hell outta here. I swear, I’ll call the cops if you don’t get.

JAMES
(strongly, loudly) Take a look. One look.

BEAT

STEPHEN
Yeah? At what?

BEAT

JAMES
At your son.

JAMES takes another breath, one that is shaky. There is a long silence while JAMES stands at the door.

STEPHEN
James? No…

BEAT

JAMES nods his head slowly.

STEPHEN
(in disbelief)
My God. How are you here?
BEAT
Jesus, James. I can’t…My God. Do you want to come in, or…? Jesus…

As JAMES walks into the house, the LIGHTS go down and then the door shuts in the darkness.

Scene 4

There should be just a little break between Scene 3 and Scene 4. When the LIGHTS do come up, we see the whole STAGE. At CENTER STAGE there is a wooden kitchen table with four chairs set around it—the table should be angled so that the audience can fully see the two at their respective seats at the table. JAMES sits in a chair that is further toward STAGE LEFT. He is alone, his coat still on. Though the audience will not notice it, JAMES’s left hand is in his coat pocket—he will remain this way for a majority of the scene, unless otherwise noted.

JAMES looks around the small room (which consists of a couch and a wooden table with a television set on it, all of which are located behind and to the left of JAMES). After a little while, STEPHEN comes in, carrying two beers. STEPHEN is an older man, with gray and white hair, a bit pudgy  but not fat, and he wears glasses (the kind that were popular in the late seventies and early eighties). He is dressed in jeans, a white shirt, and boots. STEPHEN sets the beers on the table and pulls out a bottle opener. He opens the two bottles and hands one of them to JAMES. JAMES takes the beer, drinks a sip, and sets the bottle down on the table in front of him. STEPHEN takes a seat at the chair that is further toward STAGE RIGHT. He settles himself, takes a drink, sets the bottle down, and then slides the bottle slowly from left to right in front of him, trying to keep himself busy, trying to break the awkward silence. STEPEHEN stops moving the bottle and looks up, his hand still holding the beer.

STEPHEN
Look, I can take that coat of yours. It’s pretty hot in here.

JAMES
(short and direct) It’s alright.

STEPHEN
You sure? I can go turn the air conditioner up if you want.

JAMES
(short and direct) It’s okay. Really.

STEPHEN
Alright then.

STEPHEN takes another sip of the beer and sets the bottle down again. JAMES looks around the room. There is a long, awkward silence between the two. Finally, STEPHEN talks, bringing JAMES’s attention back to the man across from him.

STEPHEN
(with an unsteady voice, almost hoarse-sounding)
How’s your mom?

JAMES
(short, direct, and angry) Dead.

STEPHEN
Oh…I’m sorry about that. I didn’t know.

JAMES
(short and direct)
I know you didn’t. If you did, you wouldn’t have asked.

JAMES takes a sip of beer. His face is set and hard.

STEPHEN
She was a really good person, your mom. But you know that, I’m sure.

JAMES
(near angry) Yeah. She was.

JAMES brings the bottle up to his face, looks through the dark glass, and begins to read the label to himself.

STEPHEN looks at JAMES quietly, almost sadly.

STEPHEN
So you probably’ve hated me all your life. Yeah?

JAMES sets the bottle down and then looks at his father; there is a true sincerity in the old man’s face.

JAMES
I never knew you enough to hate you.

STEPHEN
Well.
BEAT
You should know that it wasn’t you or your mom… Okay? It wasn’t either of you did anything wrong.

JAMES
I appreciate that, but I gotta be honest and tell you that I don’t really care about it right now. What’s done is done as far as I’m concerned.

STEPHEN
Yeah, but, James…

JAMES
(cutting STEPHEN off)
I learned how not to be a father. I can thank you for that.

STEPHEN
Do you have a family? Jesus. The things that happen when you don’t look for them.

JAMES
(dryly)
Or when you don’t see what’s in front of you.

JAMES lifts the bottle up to the light, examines it, then takes a drink.

STEPHEN scratches his head, brushes his hand through his hair, and looks at JAMES sadly.

STEPHEN
Look, James, I understand you’re angry at me. I do. And you’ve got every reason to be. But why come here now just to be angry? Why find me just to make me feel bad? …I’m sorry for what I’ve done to you and your mom. I truly am, but I don’t need any help understanding the problems and the consequences of my decisions.

JAMES nods his head slowly. He looks around the room again, then back to STEPHEN.

JAMES
(trying to be nice) I have a wife and a daughter.

STEPHEN
(smiling)
My God, James… How old?

JAMES
She’ll be eight in May.

STEPHEN
(still smiling—even bigger now)
Eight. What’s that put her in, first grade?

JAMES
Third, actually.

STEPHEN
(nodding his head)
Third. Yeah. Damn, I remember third grade. Christ, that was a long time ago.

STEPHEN scratches his head.

STEPHEN
Mrs. Bosworth was my teacher, I think. Or, maybe that was fourth or fifth grade? Too long ago to remember.

STEPHEN places his hands on the table, then scratches his left hand with his right.

STEPHEN
Do you have any photos?

JAMES
No.

JAMES takes a drink of beer.

BEAT

STEPHEN
How are they, your daughter and wife?

JAMES’s hand in his coat pocket moves slightly, almost unnoticeably. He sets the beer back down.

JAMES
Okay. Things are okay, I guess. But I think they’ll be fine.

STEPHEN
(smiling)
Things have a way of working themselves out, you know?

JAMES
They do, I guess. Yeah.
BEAT
I hope so, at least.

STEPHEN looks down at his watch.

STEPHEN
I’ll be right back. Gotta take a leak. But look, if you want anything to eat or anything, feel free. I think I got some crackers or something in the cupboard and some bread and meat in the fridge if you want.

STEPHEN slides the chair noisily back and stands and EXITs STAGE RIGHT.

JAMES stares at the bottle in front of him for several seconds, moving his right hand over the table, feeling its smoothness. After a while, he stands and begins to walk around the room. He walks over to the table with the television on it, swipes his finger across the screen, and looks at it—we can assume his finger is covered with dust—and then he wipes his finger on his pants. He rubs his feet over the floor and looks around at the floor. He turns back to the table with the TV and closes his eyes. His left hand comes out of his pocket finally and he brushes his fingers through his hair. He squats down and rubs his eyes; we can see that he is visibly breathing hard. Over toward STAGE RIGHT we hear the sound of a door shutting; JAMES stands and watches STEPHEN ENTER from STAGE RIGHT. The old man shuffles over to the table and sits as he had been. JAMES walks over to the table and sits, also. STEPHEN takes a drink and sets the beer down, moving it across the table’s surface again.

STEPHEN
You want another?

JAMES
I’m okay.

STEPHEN
Alright.

There is a silence between them. STEPHEN takes a deep breath. JAMES takes another sip of the beer. Finally:

STEPHEN
Back in the war—I don’t know if your mom told you this, but I was in Vietnam…

JAMES shakes his head no.

STEPHEN
Well, I was. That’s where we met, actually. She was a nurse—you probably know that, though. Married her after only a month and a half of knowing her. But anyways, I’m sidetracking a bit, but when I was over there, in the jungle out there, we always tried to keep ourselves busy. An idle mind there and you might as well stick your own gun in your mouth and pull the damn trigger is what we always said. But, we’d play cards, all types of games, you know: Poker, Fish, Rummy. Sometimes we even made up our own. Anyway, we had this one guy, used to call him Black Jack. Son of a bitch could play cards, I’ll tell you. That’s how he got his name—one hell of a card player—plus that boy was black as midnight. A real dark guy, but a good guy, though. Really good. He was the kinda guy you want behind you in a place like that.

STEPHEN takes a drink of the beer and sets it back on the table. JAMES slowly, almost imperceptibly, moves his hand to his coat pocket.

STEPHEN
One night, though, we were stuck off in the jungle. Whole goddamn place is a jungle, mind you, but me and Jack are just sitting there, just the two of us up against this big stump of a thing. And he’s got his cards out, shuffling them, trying to get me to play. And I can hear explosions off in the background—got to be a normal thing—I still wake some nights hearing them—but after a while of sitting there, and listening to him talk about playing, I look at him and ask him, I say, ‘Are you afraid to die?’ Those days, it seemed a natural question to ask. Over there it surrounds you until it becomes part of you. I used to stop some days and think about it, but Jack, he just stopped shuffling and looked straight at me and he says, ‘No. I ain’t afraid to die.’ And he goes back to shuffling them cards and then he looks back at me and says, ‘I guess I’m more afraid of living than dying.’ Says, ‘We all die. Everyone dies. That’s easy.’ But then he stops shuffling the cards and looks at me and gets all serious—which for him was something new—and he says, ‘To look back at the end and see that you didn’t really live and try new things, test your limits, test God if He’s there, that’s a hell of a lot scarier to me. It’s a lot harder to live than to die, Stevie,’ he says. I didn’t pay much attention to it, but then two mornings after I found him out there in the jungle. And there he was, shot some twenty times or more.

STEPHEN stops for a second and stares off into the distance. His eyes are watery and he wipes them with the back of his hands.

STEPHEN
(quiet, somber)
I can still see his face, James. Eyes shut, blood in his hair.
BEAT
And that’s when I really started to think about what he’d said to me and I realized that a person’s life is all his own, you know? Why pull someone into something they don’t want? Or that you don’t want for them?
BEAT
After I got back…life, all of it, seemed slow, boring. I tried to live the normal life and settle down, have a kid, raise a family. But on those long nights, with your mom sleeping next to me, I would think of Jack. And finally I realized I wasn’t really living the life I wanted and I wasn’t gonna be living it if I kept it all up like it was. So I left… I figured the two of you would be better without me there anyways, better off without me lying to myself, telling myself I was happy, or telling you I was…pretending for you. Pretending that I was content, you know? I mean, if I had, if I kept it up, I would have just been dragging the two of you down with me.

JAMES looks at his father. STEPHEN’s eyes are wet; his lips quiver gently. JAMES takes his left hand out of his pocket and sets it on the table—both his hands are in front of him.

STEPHEN
I know you don’t care. But for me—that was for me. I needed to say it. And I’m glad you heard it. Maybe you… I don’t know if it means anything, but I am truly sorry, James. I can understand if you can’t, though.
But I’m sorry.

The two sit in complete silence, neither man wanting to look at the other. After a while, James brings his left hand up and brushes his hair back with it. JAMES smiles and then shakes his head from side to side.

JAMES
What can I say? What should I say? Huh? I forgot about you. You know why?
BEAT
Because I never remembered you. I’ve seen maybe five pictures of you ever. All in boxes, all on accident. I forgot about you.

STEPHEN
(quietly)
Then why did you come here?

JAMES’s hand moves quietly and slowly to his pocket.

JAMES
I…

JAMES stands and begins to walk back into the room behind him, over to the television table and then he looks back to STEPHEN, who is sitting at the table, not looking at JAMES; STEPHEN’s eyes remain fixed on the table before him, studying some unknown place.

JAMES
What happened to you? Where’d you go? I mean… You say you had to go out and live…what was that life you lived? What was it that you left us for? …Was it worth it?

STEPHEN
(finally looking up at JAMES)
I…
BEAT
I’ve seen the world, James. I can say that. Things come in grays you know. I could say it was worth it, and I can say it wasn’t. But the thing that I’m proud of is that I did it. I’ve seen the good, and I’ve seen the bad. I’ve been part of both. I’ve had mistakes, some bigger than the normal man, I guess. Some people like me and others don’t, and, to be honest, I really don’t care all that much who thinks what. But, I’ve lived, James. I’ve learned, I’ve experienced… And, to me, that’s all I ever needed.

STEPHEN puts his elbows on the table in front of him and puts his head in his hands. He seems exhausted.

JAMES looks at STEPHEN and then down at his own feet. From his coat pocket he pulls out the gun, slowly, hesitantly. JAMES looks back at STEPHEN sitting there, his head in his hands. JAMES takes a deep breath and lets it out unsteadily.

STEPHEN brings his head up and looks at JAMES standing before him with the gun in his hand.

STEPHEN
They got to you, huh? They got you to do it?

JAMES
What’d you do? They told me some story about you, but I need to know from you, I need to hear it. What’d you do? What made them come to me for this?

STEPHEN
(gently)
I could tell you, but it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Would it? I’m not gonna sit here and tell you I don’t deserve it and I’m not gonna say I do.
BEAT
But now, my last hope for you, for me, after getting to see you again and talk to you for once, I hope you remember me the way you want. Remember me the way I am now. The way you are now. And if you hate me and forever, go ahead and think that and remember me that way, and that’s your choice and I respect it. But I want you to know that seeing you here today has meant more to me than I could have ever thought.

JAMES looks down at his hand and then back up to his father. His face looks lost, confused, devastated.

STEPHEN
(gently)
Let me just ask one thing, though… Will it be worth it? For you to do this?

JAMES stares blankly at STEPHEN. STEPHEN’s face is set—there is no pleading there, no sadness or hope.

JAMES
(quietly, almost a whisper)
It will.

STEPHEN lets out a shallow sigh and then smiles weakly, sadly.

STEPHEN
Why don’t you come behind and do it. It’ll be easier on both of us.

JAMES stands still for a second, then slowly moves around the table, keeping his distance from the seated man. Finally, JAMES stands behind his father. JAMES wipes a tear from his eye and stands quietly, breathing heavily. STEPHEN continues to sit with his gaze directed at the table in front of him. STEPHEN lifts the bottle to his lips and drinks, then sets the bottle on the table and pushes it away from him. STEPHEN wipes the water from the bottle off the table, rubs his hands together, and finally folds them in front of him.

JAMES, with strained effort, raises the gun. We can see that his hand is shaking slightly. STEPHEN takes in a deep breath then lets out a muffled, shallow sigh. JAMES clicks off the safety and directs the barrel at the back of his father’s head. His hand begins to shake even more, there are tears in his eyes. He holds it there for several seconds. The LIGHTS dim on the two figures on STAGE until we are left in complete dark and then, finally, we hear the shattering sound and see the bright, quick flash of the gunshot that erupts through the quiet. The STAGE remains in complete darkness and silence for a while.

~ END ~

Mother’s Orange Sorbet by Amelia Nierenberg

Mother’s Orange Sorbet by Amelia Nierenberg

Drama, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012 Lights up on a small kitchen, 2:55 a.m. Rain sounds outside. A woman slumps against the counter island, her white nightgown well worn and sagging around her varicose veins. She is a young middle age, late thirties or early forties. […]

The Great God Morel by Norman Waksler

The Great God Morel by Norman Waksler

Fiction, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012 The Great God Morel: Projected Wikipedia Article Arrival of the Great God Morel: The Great God Morel first appeared on the side lawn of the home of George Crowther at 73 Riley Road, Carbury, Massachusetts, sometime during the morning of […]

Auras of Glass by Ajay Vishwanathan

Auras of Glass by Ajay Vishwanathan

Fiction, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012

Rajani hears her mother talking to someone outside the door, chatting excitedly about a movie that is coming to their village after a long gap, about a good robot against a bad one, both played by the same hero. Rajani picks up her mirror and stares at the unforgiving reflection. She wishes her mirror was broken. Her friend Pari’s mirror is cracked, and it makes one eye appear larger than the other, skews her brows, elongates her normally round face, and even distorts her lovely smile. Rajani’s mirror is oval, with a J-shaped green handle that fits snugly in her little hand; it is not broken, yet Rajani can see the disfigurement that has plagued her from birth.

Usually she doesn’t look into the mirror straightaway, but peeps into it, peering first at the crown of her head that comes into view, the jet black hair that her mother oils every day, telling her that it is long and thick enough to pull two bullocks, then at her large eyes fringed with generous lashes, and slowly at the ugly curve of her upper lip that arches like an errant wave, exposing some of her front teeth. Rajani brings the mirror closer to her face, and runs a finger over the unwanted ridge that almost touches the edge of her right nostril. She blocks it wistfully with her palm, wishing she had a conventional face like her parents, like Meena, her 8-year-old younger sister, like other children she knows.

*

Rajani is nine. Her parents treat her normally, never discussing the deformity in her presence, but reminders come in many forms: gazing strangers on the street, taunting classmates—especially boys who call her othkati, meaning cut lip—and those wicked reflective surfaces.

She places the mirror back in one corner of the small bedroom in their thatched mud house, cushioned behind a gray pillow, and darts out the door, ignoring her mother’s calls to not stay out for long. “Rajani! They say it might rain in the afternoon,” her mother screams. Without turning, Rajani bounds around the bend and along the gravel street, her pigtails leaping behind her round head, picking up pace as she passes a group of snickering schoolgirls. Rajani has stopped going to school, refusing to sit quietly while the normal-looking world around her takes pleasure in mocking her uniqueness. Rajani had flung the blackboard duster at a jeering boy one day, delivering a bloody cut above his left eye. She was appalled at the teacher’s reaction, which to her was blatantly unfair; he had punished her and not the boy, while the whole class watched in hushed glee.

She now roams the streets unfettered, her parents having decided to not push her into doing something that upsets her so much. They have other things to worry about: flooded rice fields that are breeding explosive clouds of mosquitoes, preparing for Rajani’s sister’s wedding to the 11-year-old son of the local tailor, and an outbreak of a viral disease that has been killing or maiming young children in surrounding villages.

A turbaned ice-cream vendor, his steel canisters weaving in his hands, slows down on seeing Rajani, his potential customer, but she runs by purposefully, passing shapeless clusters of huts, brick-walled cement-splattered houses of wealthier farmers, a noisy scrap metal shop where an elderly man and his son beat down a part of an iron gate with their serious hammers, a pair of startled goats, a woman in a parrot-green sari feeding hay to her cows. A teenage boy in a tight red shirt comes tearing down on his bicycle, and on spotting Rajani, rings his handlebar bell in a series of sharp blasts.

Just outside one of the huts, a little isolated from the rest, Rajani stops and stares at a woman. She is sitting in the doorway with her son, who toddles after lazy pigeons that barely bother to hop away. Rajani waits for the woman to look up, then walks up and crouches beside her. Shanti, a widow in her late teens, has been living alone with her son since her husband was killed in a road accident. They were married when she was ten and he was fourteen. Rajani’s mother had told her that Shanti’s in-laws kicked her out of their house, leaving her helpless with a little boy and no assets. They didn’t expect the truck driver who had run over Shanti’s husband to be caught, and the courts to decide quickly and handsomely in her favor. Since then she has had the courage to turn her repenting in-laws away, to the wrath of many in the village. She even declined an unexpected wedding proposal, preferring to sacrifice the vermillion on her forehead for freedom. Rajani likes her, perhaps because she doesn’t talk much, because she lives with flaws, alone and defiant, fighting slur and slime. Also because Rajani’s mother is fond of her and wishes she could do more for Shanti without fearing what others might say. “She is still just a girl,” Rajani’s mother has often remarked. Sometimes Rajani seeks her in the fields where she works, and spends time watching her hands fly smoothly through tasks. It is usually Rajani who prattles away while Shanti listens, nodding at intervals.

Now, after chattering about the new wedding saris that have arrived for Meena’s wedding, garnished with little diamonds of sutured glass that cast flecks of sunlight on the ceiling, and the dark shade of lipstick that her sister was trying out, Rajani leaves, promising to return soon. She heads toward the marketplace. She often likes to escape into the obscuring chaos of the bazaar, where people are too busy making choices or peddling their wares to ogle at her; where the noise, strangely uplifting, smothers the bantering, phantom voices of schoolkids that Rajani still hears; where most reflecting surfaces are blurred in dust; where distractions drop anchor in rich splashes of color.

Today, there is an extra bounce in her step. She will meet Darshan and his 3-year-old daughter, Banu, who sits at the more peaceful edge of the marketplace, and where the unruly jangle segues into the sudden calm of the woods. It is not that Darshan is not inundated with customers; his clients, mostly women, are hushed and reserved, and it helps that he doesn’t bawl like the others for attention.

Rajani cranes her neck to make sure they are there. Darshan comes to this market once a week, sometimes twice, but Rajani did not see him last week. Now, she is thrilled to spot Darshan standing next to a hooded woman hunched over his merchandise, and Banu perched on a large stone nearby nibbling at something from a paper cone. Darshan is a bangle-seller. On his large four-wheeled cart sparkle rolls and rolls of glass bangles bursting with myriad colors—crimson, cyan, green, ochre, cerulean—arranged in layers of different shades and patterns. His clientele sit on a four-foot wooden bench next to the cart poring over selections, pondering over combinations, haggling over prices, giggling, and admiring hands that clink with glassy color.

In addition to bangles, Darshan sells combs, metal trinkets, purses, toothpaste, toothbrushes, artificial jewelry that looks genuine, photo frames, tiny glass containers for keeping sundries like sindoor, and more recently, perfumes. He sells what women in these villages secretly desire, what they see in magazines and on TV. He sells diversions that keep women from fixating on deficiencies, from crying over fate and losses. He has competition but towers over everyone else in the sheer variety of his goods and his own inherent charm. People like him because they know his story and see him as their own: bereaved, and quietly suffering. His wife died when Banu was just a few weeks old. Instead of tucking himself into a languishing corner and abandoning his duties, he redoubled his efforts, added new assortments to his wares, and has been raising his girl singlehandedly. To the villagers, he is that rare symbol of resistance, albeit a fleeting one; in redoubling his endeavors he has chosen to be a traveling bangle-seller, shuttling between villages, camping at friends’ houses overnight, and taking trains to nearby cities to stock up.

He greets Rajani with a smile, and asks Banu to share her peanuts. “I have something for you today,” he tells Rajani, digging into his cloth bag. He hands her a holographic postcard of Lord Krishna where the images appear three-dimensional. “You can see the Lord moving in there,” he says, a glow of anticipation in his eyes. Rajani brings it close and peers at Lord Krishna painted blue, a large golden crown on his head, one hand holding a flute, and another around his soul mate, Radha. They smile beatifically, a glowing halo around their heads.

Rajani moves the postcard back and forth, and then looks up at Darshan questioningly. “He is not moving.”

Darshan crouches beside her and shifts the angle of the card delicately. “Look at his eyes and right hand,” he says, and repositions the card again.

A half-smile sneaks on to Rajani’s face. She plucks the card from Darshan and repeats the move herself, a short cry of conquest escaping her lips. She does it again and again. “He is blinking!” she exclaims, her eyes widening. “His hand is moving, too!” For the next hour, Rajani sits by Darshan’s cart, enamored by the play of colors and depth in the postcard. Banu beside her is equally beguiled by Rajani’s reactions, while Darshan sells his wares and explains the aural powers of his colorful bangles to captive customers.

The source of Darshan’s proficiency in chromatic influences is an old book, dust lining the cracks of its spine, pages yellowed and well-thumbed. When business slows down, he pulls it out of his bag and reads again, sometimes aloud to Banu and Rajani, those lyrical Hindi words reminding him of his father who, a bangle-seller himself, knew the pages by rote, and loved to expound the theories in his baritone voice.

Orange liberates you from addictions, from the stress of wanting something badly, of wanting something that you know will churn you like a storm roiling a helpless ocean. It soothes your nerves and coaxes you to see beyond desire, to look at things that, until now, were invisible to your myopic eyes.

Soon, it is almost two in the afternoon. The sun sends down splinters, and the bazaar is almost empty. Under a large oak tree, leaning against its trunk, Darshan, Banu, and Rajani rest. The father and daughter are asleep, but Rajani is still enthralled by her new possession. She scans the scene again: a pretty cow against whom Krishna and Radha lean, and the blue moon in the distant background. Darshan told her a few minutes ago that Krishna and Radha met as children, and Radha, with her looks and immense love, continued to engage Krishna for decades. Rajani now asks herself if that is why her sister Meena, still just a child, is getting married so young. She is one year younger than Rajani but beautiful, and lucky to be born complete. She doesn’t have to hide behind bushes when faced with approaching boys, or sit at events with a rag covering her mouth. Meena and Rajani love each other but unlike other siblings in the village, they don’t spend much time together, with Meena in school most of the day and choosing to play with her own friends. Meena will soon have her own Krishna, thinks Rajani, who she will pamper, who will tell her how pretty she is. At an angle, Rajani glimpses the silhouette of her own reflection in the postcard, but ignores it, focusing instead on Krishna and his composed smile, avoiding those unwelcome thoughts that come when she looks at herself.

Rajani turns to Darshan who is snoring, his mouth sputtering gently, his white turban, now unwound, shielding his eyes. She fondly remembers the day many months ago when her father had introduced her to Darshan, little Banu wailing in his arms. Darshan had looked at her differently, unlike other strangers, like he was greeting a normal girl; his eyes didn’t hesitate at her lip and his brows didn’t arch questioningly. He had placed Banu willingly in Rajani’s hands and let her swing his daughter on her hip, which, to Rajani’s delight, distracted Banu and stopped the crying. Nowadays, she talks to him openly about her imperfections, and he responds casually as if they were discussing a bruise on her knee. After they leave the market, Rajani usually goes home and counts days, waiting for Thursdays, when she can smile and play and be just another nine year old.

Rajani wishes Darshan would come to the bazaar more frequently, but knows that he travels to other villages to make more money, and often to the city. “Are cities really that big?” she had asked him once. He had nodded in response, and his eyes glazed over as if an interrupting thought had tugged at his mind. Then he talked of Mumbai, a city, he said, that was bigger than others he goes to, bigger than anything the mind could ever imagine, where markets are so huge children who get lost are often never found, where there are rides that carry them high into the sky in giant spheres, from where you could almost smell the clouds, from where people on the ground seem like undersized puppets. “They say the clouds smell of coffee,” he had said, and they laughed. That was the first time Darshan talked about Guru, his older brother who works in Mumbai. Many years ago, before Banu was born, he had promised to find a job for Darshan and call him over. But having changed jobs himself, he had urged Darshan to stay patient, and wait for the right moment.

“One day you won’t find me here in this market,” Darshan had said wistfully. “Assume then that I have gone to Mumbai.” Seeing the light fade in Rajani’s eyes, he put his arm around her shoulder and said, “Once I settle in, I will send for you. I have heard of doctors there who can mend your lip and make you so pretty you will have to beat drooling boys away with a stick.” Rajani had giggled, her shoulders hunching in embarrassment.

The afternoon sun loses its bite, and the market fills up with people again. Rajani watches two young women beam at Darshan while he helps one of them run her wrist gingerly through a splashy selection of bangles. Rajani has always seen him lively yet respectfully indulgent around women, making them feel good about buying something for themselves. She pictures him with his wife, loading both her hands with a rich set of bangles all the way to the crook of her elbows, whispering something in her ears as she smiles shyly. Rajani’s mother had told her once that Darshan’s wife was a pretty woman with an easy laugh. Also that when they smiled at each other, they looked so inseparable that the entire village was convinced, when she died suddenly of pneumonia, that someone had cast a sinister eye. Rajani wonders if he still thinks of his wife, selling things all week that perhaps she herself would have loved to own.

Now, Darshan tells Rajani about a street play in the adjacent village that he plans to take Banu to. He thinks she will enjoy it, and asks Rajani to run quickly to her mother for permission if she wants to join them.

The actors are all in red, which reminds Rajani of school uniforms. She has rarely seen so many children gathered in one place, exulting and clapping. To her relief, she recognizes no one. Large barrel-sized dhols hang from a white rope around the necks of two of the performers who drum passionately with thick bamboo sticks. The exaggerated dialogs are interspersed with dhol beats, which seem to be exclamation points, highlighting specific messages, not-so-subtle hints to the audience for applause. With every beat, Rajani and Banu join the crowd in saying, “Ha!,” an exercise they find uniquely entertaining. One of the smaller actors comes forward, makes funny faces, and mock-scratches her sides, triggering a wave of amused cheer. Banu is in tears of laughter. “Is she supposed to be a monkey?”asks Rajani. Darshan nods, then points out that the person behaving like a monkey is actually a boy. “Really? She looks like my sister, Meena.” Rajani is fascinated. Darshan explains to her that all actors playing girls are in fact boys.

Rajani wonders whether Meena would have enjoyed this street play. They hardly ever have activities like this in their small village. “Will you come to Meena’s wedding?” she asks Darshan. “It is just two months away.” He nods. That evening, on the way back from the play, Rajani asks Darshan if he thought she would ever get married. “I might turn fifteen or sixteen and still remain unwed, she remarks. ” In response Darshan talks about girls in the cities who don’t marry till they are well beyond twenty. “Not marrying as a child is actually a good thing. That way, you have more time to yourself, to play with Banu and escape to the marketplace without being questioned,” he says, smiling indulgently. Rajani cannot tell if he is telling the truth or just saying things to retrieve her lost smile, but she feels reassured, her hand firmly in his tight grip, little Banu quietly walking by her side.

Rajani spends the whole week with the Radha-Krishna postcard under her pillow, looking at it once in a while to make sure she has not crushed it under her weight. She discovers new details in the postcard: the crested head of a peacock peeping from behind one of the bushes, yellow butterflies flitting on blades of grass near Radha’s feet, and two milk-white swans nuzzling under a waterfall in the far left corner of the picture. Rajani wonders how she could have missed these before. She puzzles over the details; were they already there or had they appeared overnight by some divine play? Mother always talks about God’s hand in everything. Perhaps these appearances are secret missives, one-on-one messages from Lord Krishna himself. She places her mirror on the floor at the angle of the wall and steps away from it, looking at herself imitating a monkey. Then she inches closer and rolls her eyes and blows her cheeks, making funny squealing noises. She hears giggling, turns around, and sees Meena’s amused face at the window. Half-smiling and embarrassed, Rajani makes a shooing gesture at the window and rushes towards her sister, who disappears in a flash. Through flimsy spider webs on the rusted bars of her window, Rajani watches Meena scurry along the small gully that snakes behind their hut, her little bare feet dislodging loose gravel. Rajani cannot imagine that Meena will be married off soon, her mischievous laughter gone forever from the house.

Come Thursday, she sprints to the market like always but doesn’t find Darshan and Banu. She waits until late afternoon but they don’t show up. Week after week passes without any sign of them. She asks her mother if she knows anything, but her mother shakes her head. Rajani is so dejected that her father comes along one day to help her, perhaps to try and ask around. But no one seems to know. The village is abuzz with the recent deaths of three young children, and everyone is convinced that the strange killer virus has moved to their midst from neighboring villages. Two doctors arrive from the city and talk to villager elders about the precautions that need to be taken. An older man dies from the virus, then a young pregnant woman.

Rajani grabs her postcard from under the pillow and runs to the rice fields to see Shanti. The normally chirpy girl squats quietly on a barren plot of land next to the fields, and watches Shanti dehusk rice, her oily-faced son secured to her back. The boy, hooded in a white rag, squints into the sun, his head bobbing as Shanti bends and picks up a pestle. Banu was perhaps his age when she first saw her, thinks Rajani. It is humid yet breezy. With the pestle Shanti pounds the shelled rice against wooden boards to loosen the husk, then stands upright and, with a quick sweep of her hand, pushes the rice onto a large blue cloth fastened to the ground with rusted clamps. The heavy rice collects below in a small heap while the wind punts the separated chaff sideways. The small dry hulls waft like strange insects, some latching onto blades of grass, some arching in the air before settling reluctantly on the ground. In the distance, a farmer walks on an earthen dike with his two water buffaloes, their black skin glistening in the sun. Shanti works till late afternoon, and then asks Rajani to join her for lunch.

“I haven’t seen Darshan and Banu for weeks now,” says Rajani. “Do you think they miss me?”

Shanti pats her head and nods. Then she tears a piece of chapatti, dips it into a container of daal, and hands it to Rajani. They eat in ponderous silence. Rajani finds the daal spicier than what her mother makes, but says nothing. Shanti smiles at Rajani as she takes a swig of water from a plastic bottle. Shanti’s son sits next to them punching little holes in the mud with his fingers. When Shanti returns to work, Rajani runs to the oak tree at the edge of the market. Sitting in the shade, she looks at her postcard; her reflection in the postcard seems more prominent today, the silhouettes scarier, and she is unable to focus on Krishna and Radha. In a small cluster of dead leaves, she notices a turquoise bangle. It is cracked but she wears it anyway. It is too big for her wrist. Banu must have played with it, she thinks.

Turquoise heals; like a wet patch on cement ground that weakens and shrivels in the face of conquering sunlight, your pains will dissipate. In its place will emerge elation, slowly, like new skin, pressing your mind to forget that there ever was agony.

Another week passes. Today is Meena’s wedding ceremony. Everyone seems relieved that it was not canceled or postponed due to the virus. Wearing painfully executed masks of make-up, Meena and her husband look older than they are, dazzling in their bright attire. Last night, Meena had hugged Rajani and cried, holding her in an unusually long embrace. A Hindi film song is now playing loudly in the background. To Rajani, the hubbub seems more intense than at the market, noise bouncing off the windowless walls. Rajani is sweating in a stiff new dress. Everyone comes to Rajani and hugs her: her mother, father, her neighbors, even Meena’s in-laws. Rajani looks sad, but it is not what everyone thinks. She hasn’t even concealed her mouth with a cloth this time. Except for Shanti whom she met yesterday, Rajani has told no one that somebody has taken her Krishna postcard. Two days ago, she forgot it under the oak tree, and it disappeared. She has looked for it everywhere.

Now, Rajani looks toward the door. Perhaps Darshan and Banu would surprise everyone by showing up. Maybe they found her card and would come to return it to her. For some reason she doesn’t believe the recent rumors about Banu and Darshan. In this climate of dread and disease, she thinks everyone in the village has become paranoid.

She is certain that Darshan and Banu are in Mumbai, Darshan having found work, content and busy. She pictures them roaming the crowded marketplace, colorful, embroidered dresses floating on thin ropes outside the shops. Then, Banu sitting on the giant wheel, rising and screaming till her head breaks through a cloud. She would find out whether clouds smelled of coffee.

Declan Carmody’s Burning Ambition by Connla Stokes

Declan Carmody’s Burning Ambition by Connla Stokes

Fiction, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012 For days Declan had been fantasising about out-jesting Victor Hanratty—his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend and one of the best stand-up comedy acts in the Republic of Ireland—in a duel of wit and whimsicality at a dinner party in Fionnuala Gallagher’s colossal […]

The Princeling’s Daughter: Cody, Wyoming, 2011 by Mitchell Stocks

The Princeling’s Daughter: Cody, Wyoming, 2011 by Mitchell Stocks

Fiction, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012 By the second day of her pre-spring break, Guo Bo Bo had identified the white-haired horseman on the ad for the Wild West show as Buffalo Bill Cody, the tarnished silver pizza cutters as spurs, the beaded pouch as Plains […]

White Sun Over China: Hong Kong, 1895 by Mitchell Stocks

White Sun Over China: Hong Kong, 1895 by Mitchell Stocks

Fiction, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012

Hong Mei served tea to the leaders of the Revive China Society, each of whom nodded his thanks so as not to interrupt Master Lu. They called themselves revolutionaries, but seemed quite ordinary, except for Dr. Sun whose courtly appearance made her anxious. She had sought refuge with the Lu family nearly thirty years ago and had grown accustomed to the ways of the educated. But Dr. Sun was different. He floated in and out of the Lu family home like a ghost and spoke of impossible changes as if they had already occurred. The image of her father-in-law, too sick to protect her from the village elder’s advances, flickered in her mind. She wondered if the elder was still resting, headless, at the bottom of his own well. She wondered, too, what had become of her husband, Hum Loy, from whom she had received the mysterious box some eight years ago and then nothing more.

Night shadows fell upon the mud-brick farmhouse. The men would soon be hungry. Hong Mei finished refilling their teacups and retired to the familiar darkness of the adjacent kitchen. She stoked the fire with two lumps of charcoal. As she prepared dinner, fragments of their discussion merged with the shrill buzzing of the cicadas and the piercing chweeps of the nightjars. They were planning to capture Canton. Dr. Sun had joined in these final preparations, adding weight to their mood.

“Little Lu, show us your design,” she heard Dr. Sun say.

A muffled whimper disturbed the night sounds. Hong Mei knelt near the open basket and strummed her granddaughter’s stomach. Her large head flopped to its side, lips gently suckling the air, some dark thought quickly forgotten.

“Auntie Hong,” called Master Lu.

He showed her a hand-drawn picture of a white circle centered on a blue rectangle, surrounded by twelve triangles. “Twelve rays of the sun, twelve months of the year, twelve hours of the day,” Master Lu explained while the others nodded. “Please stitch them to this cloth as you see in the picture.”

“What about dinner?” she asked.

Master Lu smiled. “This is the first flag of a new China,” he said. “You do nothing more important than this.”

*

Once again, Hong Mei retired to the kitchen. She retrieved a spool of thread, a leather thimble, and a needle from the box in the cabinet, pausing to touch the items Hum Loy had sent her: a silver half-ring with two leather straps and a sharp wheel that spun freely about an axle; a round silver object that looked like a coin with a large hole in the middle; a beaded leather pouch and a scroll tied with string, depicting a picture she had puzzled over many times, that of a foreigner with long grey hair and a beard sitting on a horse, holding the brim of a large round hat at his side. The box had arrived without explanation. What had made Hum Loy act in such haste? She both treasured and loathed him for the wonder these objects caused her.

Hong Mei sharpened a short stick, seared the point black in the fire, and used it to mark the blue cloth with the pattern depicted on the paper. Then, with a practiced hand, she sewed the white circle and twelve triangles in place. When finished, she inverted the cloth to check her stitches. The reverse side was blank. She would suggest to Master Lu that a flag of such importance must be seen from all directions.

*

The men had agreed and had given her more white cloth to stitch to the back of the flag. Dr. Sun and Master Lu stretched it tightly for all to admire.

“Well, sir. What else can I do for you?” said Hong Mei, her confidence rising with their silent approval.

“Pack our things,” said Master Lu. “We travel to Canton in the morning. And then, pointing to his wife, who had appeared from an adjacent sitting room, “Leave your granddaughter with Madame.”

Hong Mei sensed only vaguely her crossing of some invisible line.

The One-Armed Cowboy: Staten Island, New York, 1886 by Mitchell Stocks

The One-Armed Cowboy: Staten Island, New York, 1886 by Mitchell Stocks

Fiction, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012 Annie finished lashing Kong Sing Fong’s right arm to his chest to keep it from flopping about when he rode. He wriggled into his buckskin shirt on his own, but allowed her to tie a black kerchief around his neck. […]