Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 114 in 2007.
Persons in the Play.
A Woman, early to mid-30’s, casually dressed; slacks, white t-shirt (cut so that it reveals her navel), oversized socks, no shoes.
A Man, a few years older, dressed in a charcoal grey pinstriped suit, red tie, white dress shirt, black polished shoes, the works.
A room. Perhaps the impression of a kitchen. A plain table, made of light, perhaps unfinished, wood, with two chairs, also plain and made of light wood. Woman sits at the table reading the latest edition of the local newspaper, whatever it is, headline visible to audience. Also on the table is a book, blue and white cover, title not visible. A telephone sits on the table. Except for the phone, newspaper, and book, the table is bare.
Woman sits at the table. Some moments pass, Man enters, limping slightly. Woman looks up. Man meets her gaze. Brief silence.
MAN: What is it?
WOMAN: How did it go?
MAN: It was all right.
WOMAN: What did they ask?
MAN: Only the usual.
WOMAN: What did you tell them?
MAN: Only the usual.
WOMAN: Tell me more.
MAN: They wanted to know would I do it, and for how much.
WOMAN: What did you tell them?
MAN: I told them I would do it ...
WOMAN: But ...
MAN: I wouldn’t say for how much.
WOMAN: You wouldn’t say for how much?
MAN: Sometimes it is very difficult to say for how much.
WOMAN: Were they all right?
MAN: I wouldn’t say they were all right.
WOMAN: Were they not all right?
MAN: It didn’t show.
WOMAN: One way or the other?
MAN: One way or the other.
WOMAN: Why do you think they wanted you to do it?
MAN: They didn’t want me to do it–or–it’s uncertain–at least I’m not confident that they wanted me to do it–or not me specifically. Any one of dozens of others would surely have served as well. Or better. Hundreds, I suppose.
WOMAN: Do you think so?
MAN: O yes, most definitely, I do think so. If not thousands.
WOMAN: Would you do it if they said yes?
MAN: Yes. I believe I would - if they said yes. Plainly they wanted to be assured that someone would do it.
WOMAN: But you said you would not.
MAN: Yes–and I also said I would.
WOMAN: Apparently we are of two minds.
MAN: Yes. Most definitely. We are indeed of two minds.
WOMAN: You are always of two minds.
MAN: One for you and one for me. As well me as any other.
WOMAN: Did they ask if you will say yes if they ask?
MAN: I believe that that in the end would be up to an individual man.
WOMAN: What individual man?
MAN: It’s not certain.
WOMAN: You mean you’re not confidant.
MAN: No. I mean it–the matter–not the man–is not certain.
WOMAN: Did the man ask if you will say yes if he asks?
MAN: Which man?
WOMAN: The man talking the questions–the man with the voice.
MAN: O yes. He did ask.
WOMAN: What did you say?
MAN: Yes. I would.
WOMAN: If he asked.
MAN: Yes. If he asked.
WOMAN: And did he ask?
MAN: No. He did not ask.
WOMAN: But you would have said yes if he had asked?
MAN: Yes. I said yes.
WOMAN: And did you say yes?
MAN: I might as well have said yes.
WOMAN: What do you mean?
MAN: I mean that everyone says yes–sooner or later. Whether yes is in me in the end, or in some other, does not, in the end, very much matter. I think.
WOMAN: And that other was the man, the man who asked I mean, who it was up to in the end?
MAN: It’s uncertain.
WOMAN: What do you mean?
MAN: I don’t know.
WOMAN: [A silence.] Do you know that I wish you would sit down?
MAN: No. [Man, who has been standing, tries to sit but has difficulty moving into the chair, gives it up, grips the back of the chair for a few seconds, and continues standing.] Perhaps it’s best for now that I do not sit down.
WOMAN: Are you in pain?
MAN: A curious thing, pain.
WOMAN: How curious?
MAN: I hear the dead have no pain.
WOMAN: Do you want some tea?
WOMAN: I could make you some green tea.
MAN: No - thanks. That’s all right–t’s not exactly what I need.
WOMAN: Are you not thirsty? I know you like green tea.
MAN: No–you’re right–I should be thirsty, but I’m not.
WOMAN: Do you think he will call?
MAN: Yes. Most definitely he will call. [Both look at the phone–nothing happens.] Sooner or later he most definitely will call. Or one of them will call. In the end they always call. It’s only a matter of time.
WOMAN: Perhaps it would be best if you did not say yes.
MAN: Yes. You’re right. As so often. It would surely be best. But ...
WOMAN: But what?
MAN: I can’t sleep.
WOMAN: I didn’t know. Why?
MAN: My stomach hurts. And my knees.
WOMAN: You are in pain ...
MAN: I wouldn’t call it that, exactly.
WOMAN: Do they know?
MAN: I don’t know.
WOMAN: Does he know?
MAN: I don’t know.
WOMAN: Perhaps you should relax. [He tries again to sit, and succeeds, though with difficulty.]
MAN: Not if he asks–if I can’t stomach this–if I will stomach this.
WOMAN: You can–it’s just a question of whether you will–or not. I don’t mind.
MAN: No. He said I would be given the works if I said no. They all said I would be given the works if I said no.
WOMAN: Is that why you’re not thirsty?
WOMAN: Is that why you will say yes?
MAN: No. Understand, I am thirsty, I just don’t want anything to drink. I can’t stomach anything back down. I can’t hold all of this just now. Do you understand?
WOMAN: I don’t understand. I don’t mind but I don’t understand. [Pause.] You should loosen your tie. [His hands move toward his tie as though he would loosen it, but he lets the hands drop to his lap before they reach the tie.]
I think you should.
MAN: You should understand. It is difficult right now to hold much of anything down. The tie helps that way. You must understand.
WOMAN: I can’t understand. [A silence.] What happens when the phone rings?
MAN: It won’t ring. Not yet.
WOMAN: But when it does ring?
MAN: Let them call and when he calls. It will be him. You can pick up if you will pick up, and tell him if you will tell him that I am gone. Even if I am here I am not here. And gone to stay.
WOMAN: I will if you think it will be all right.
MAN: I hope it will be all right.
WOMAN: But even if I say you are not here they will know that you are here and if you are not here they will know that you have been here.
MAN: It is understood if I am found that no matter what happens I will talk sooner or later. Everyone talks. It is understood from the beginning that I will talk in the end when I am found.
WOMAN: I feel that I’ve missed something.
MAN: He wanted to know could I turn substance into accident or accident into substance. It was difficult to know which.
MAN: Exactly that.
WOMAN: Exactly what?
MAN: Pardon. That motion, that turning of substance into accident, or accident into substance, is, as he said, after they have done, what is needed to gain pardon.
MAN: Because he could find no mark between a man and his mind.
WOMAN: Meaning he wanted what?
MAN: Meaning I think a distinction between what is thought and what is done.
WOMAN: And therefore pardon?
MAN: Yes. Perhaps. And therefore pardon. Or so I feel I am allowed to imagine.
WOMAN: And after pardon, then what?
MAN: If there could be pardon, perhaps they will not call.
WOMAN: Well ...
MAN: Well what?
WOMAN: I think you are not feeling well.
MAN: I think I’m all right. At least that’s what he said.
WOMAN: Are you sure you’re feeling all right?
MAN: I feel all right. For the moment. But I’m sorry it hurts for me to be sitting down. I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I stand for a bit.
WOMAN: I wouldn’t mind. [He stands, resumes his slow limping around the table.] Are you hungry? I’d like to make you something to eat.
MAN: No you’re right. I mean yes. I should be hungry, but I don’t want to eat anything. There is nothing that could be whipped up that I could hold down. Even less I could hold up.
WOMAN: I do think you should loosen your tie.
MAN: Sometimes it is very difficult to loosen your tie.
WOMAN: Do you want to fuck me? Would it help if I let you fuck me?
MAN: You’re right as so often you are right and I should want to fuck you but in the end it is better that I don’t. Not for now.
MAN: Sometimes no matter how much you love a woman it can be very difficult to fuck the woman.
WOMAN: I don’t understand.
MAN: I don’t blame you. No sane man would blame you. For not understanding, I mean.
WOMAN: It’s difficult.
MAN: You’re right. It is difficult. But you must understand ...
WOMAN: What must I understand?
MAN: When I told them yes, when I said yes, that I would do it, if they asked if he asks I am sure he will ask they always ask. I hoped in my heart if a man in my state of mind can be said to have a heart. I hoped somewhere anyway, for all I know in my belly that I would find a way not do it. I felt like a man who had been murdered. I felt for a moment something I can only call an apprehension of nothingness. They always ask and I can’t deny ...
Hookers I imagine must often feel something like that. That’s badly said, I realize, but it’s the best I can do. And yet I couldn’t feel that it made any difference whether I had been murdered or not. Also badly said. I know. I’m sorry.
WOMAN: Yes. Perhaps a hooker would understand that. I’m told that they never touch your face. And yet ...
MAN: Do you not understand?
WOMAN: I can’t understand that. I have never managed to understand that.
MAN: No. I suppose not. Understand, I don’t blame you. I can’t blame you. I have no right to blame you. No sane man would blame you for anything and most certainly not for not understanding.
WOMAN: I still don’t understand.
MAN: You must understand. You can’t fuck a man who’s already as good as dead to the world.WOMAN: He didn’t kill you. He can’t have killed you. You’re still walking.
MAN: After a manner of speaking.
WOMAN: And breathing. And besides, he had no right to have killed you.
MAN: [A silence. He looks around as she warily watches his looking around.] I wonder if the dead dream of the living.
WOMAN: Why are you asking?
MAN: I rarely, almost never, remember my dreams. I’ve never been given to vivid dreams. I’ve never been a man who fears bright light or smooth surfaces.
WOMAN: Nevertheless ...
MAN: Nevertheless. Prodding me. I told him that. I don’t believe he had ever heard such things before. Bright light burns but I like fire. I liked playing with fire when I was young. I rather suspect I frightened the man a bit when I said that. Prodding me like that. Prodding fire like that.
WOMAN: But from where?
MAN: From the ceiling - happens all the time or from the south. I tried to shut it out a boss can do this.
WOMAN: Do what?
MAN: Control the sensation, no matter what happens.
MAN: Where the welt rises for example one’s mind must surround sensation with a saffron triangle. Orange will serve almost as well if the triangle is equilateral. The discipline is to confine the welt to the triangle, no matter how it rises or how far.
WOMAN: And a boss can do this?
WOMAN: It sounds hopeless.
MAN: It is hopeless. Sometimes. Depending on what the boss is made of.
WOMAN: You should maybe skin the goat.
MAN: Yes. A goat skin boss works well in hopeless situations.
WOMAN: [She stands; he can now sit in her chair, and he does that, but with difficulty; while sitting and talking to Woman, he does not look at her directly.] Were you touched?
MAN: I was touched. I am touched.
WOMAN: And when you were touched you saw what?
MAN: Recklessly curious I saw a broken bridge fold into free fall; I saw steel fragments burning in the blue air; I heard the sigh of a sea turtle whisper through that turtle’s lacerated throat; I saw it blink once, and then I saw the insane flowers of the spring blossom in that turtle’s throat.
WOMAN: I told you this would happen.
MAN: That is also what the turtle said.
WOMAN: Then steady yourselfñdream in red.
MAN: It is very difficult these days to dream in any other color.
MAN: I shared with my interrogators no common center.
WOMAN: And again you saw further?
MAN: Not what I saw but dreamed.
WOMAN: And you dreamed?
MAN: A sea turtle in an empty pool.
WOMAN: And what words?
MAN: These words: Come. Good. Look at me. Answer. Thank you. Good-bye.
WOMAN: And then?
MAN: Laceration will turn to sigh–sigh to spark–spark to flame–flame will turn to fire–but fire, as the story goes, flowers down to stone.
WOMAN: That is no longer the way the old song goes.
MAN: No, but that is what sometimes happens.
WOMAN: And then?
MAN: Shovel snow: Forget the snow.
WOMAN: And you discovered a solution to this touch by what means?
MAN: I found touch would dissolve inside a saffron triangle. Though, as I said, orange will sometimes serve just as well.
WOMAN: Working this triangle to accomplish what?
MAN: To hold within ice and pain until complete dissolution.
WOMAN: Within what?
MAN: That I don’t know how to tell you.
WOMAN: And what in this case constitutes complete dissolution?
MAN: A small death.
WOMAN: And what is a small death?
MAN: That also I don’t know how to tell you.
WOMAN: And how can that which is small become that which is complete?
MAN: That finally I don’t know how to tell you.
WOMAN: These answers are not exactly satisfactory.
MAN: The defect lies in the question.
WOMAN: And this complete dissolution is to be accomplished by what means?
MAN: The triangle expands with the pain and apprehends the pain.
WOMAN: And if the triangle cannot expand to measure the pain? [No answer.] Then what?
MAN: The triangle must expand to contain the pain. [He stands, again with difficulty; she sits in the chair he has vacated. He can look at her directly now.]
WOMAN: Maybe tomorrow this will all seem but a dream.
MAN: And you?
WOMAN: Everything went backwards. I was held in a grey space, with plenty of light, but grey light, in a kind of open air old ladies’ home, surrounded by towers and wire and mirror smooth walls–though I have not yet flowered old. My father appeared before me as though he were visiting me, though he and I both knew I was visiting him. He stood in front of me, wearing a light blue bathrobe over grey trousers–rather faded I thought–his shoes were black wingtips. He wasn’t wearing any socks. I wondered about this but I don’t know why.
I called out to him, happy to see him, and surprised, though I can’t imagine why I would have been surprised. He didn’t say anything and though he seemed not to see me, he came and stood before me; I saw grey in his eyes and was suddenly afraid. His robe fell off, and when I could see his body, I could see that he had lost an enormous amount of weight. He was not emaciated, I wouldn’t say, but he had become very thin. I told him that–you’ve lost a lot of weight I said–or something close to that. Not saying anything I can remember, he moved on to a place I couldn’t see and then reappeared behind me. Perhaps because I was still afraid I waited for the blows, but they didn’t come.
He seemed to say that I shouldn’t worry–that they would never touch your face.
WOMAN: It would be useless for me to look at your face he said because they would never touch your face. That is not their style. Though he wasn’t speaking at all he did seem to say that. Then I remembered that he had been dead for seven years, and the fear lifted. Then I was told that I had failed, because there were no beatings, and because they would never touch your face–and then I was allowed to go. By whom I was told, by what I was allowed, it was impossible for me to know.
MAN: One learns not to ask.
WOMAN: Yes. One learns ...
MAN: I too of course failed in the end–I tried to extinguish myself in advance of the electricity and its brightness–failed again as always under heaven–I broke as one always breaks under hard ceilings, as under heaven on hard floors. Strange that while one is never permitted to sleep, and one never finds sleep, sleep being turned aside, as it were, prophylactically, dreams cannot be turned aside–strange entirely that under this light, bright as it is, a waking man is given the most vivid dreams.
WOMAN: What dream?
MAN: In a fishing boat a quarter of a mile out on the ocean, seen from cliffs above the strand: Suddenly in closer a car up above along the cliffs view of the ocean from the passenger seat; I don't know who's driving; mirror flat sea water below the cliffs turquoise clear; in the water below the cliffs a gigantic whale cruises close in along the coast, headed north; in pursuit of the whale a shark, far smaller than that whale.
Back on the fishing boat. The whale has shrunk. Shrinking caused perhaps by my rising from boat to cliff and falling back to the boat again. Or perhaps by the saffron triangle that surrounded it, meaning the whale, but which, meaning the triangle, nevertheless remained invisible to me. The whale leaps over the boat. I see his leaping from below, meaning the whale, but don’t know why I have been returned to the boat. Wake up. But to what light over what bed? Has the shark gone? And if the shark has gone then the whale flies from what? Throat for the moment blocked–choke–whisper–then breathe–choking caused perhaps by light in ceiling. All silent in this dream. Lie down in the dark. Light in ceiling bound to the choking. Will eyes open? Breathing bound to silence. Whisper dissolves in the air. Eyes for now bound to the bed I’m bleeding on. Open at least in dream.
WOMAN: You’re not bleeding–are you bleeding? You can’t be bleeding. I don’t see any blood. There are no marks on you that I can see.
MAN: No. I’m not bleeding.
WOMAN: Then that’s all right. You can’t be bleeding. It was just an interview. They promised me when they came for you that it would only be an interview.
MAN: No, you’re right–and it wasn’t their fault–though I’m as good as dead anyway.
WOMAN: I’m sorry.
MAN: No need to be sorry. It’s not your fault either. It was my own fault entirely.
WOMAN: But here you are–alive I mean–and in the pink.
MAN: Yes. Here I am–roughly–and in the pink, as they say. Roughly in the pink as you said while I’m here anyway. But in that room I was as good as dead.
WOMAN: Though here you’re alive?
MAN: I hope so. With you. I believe so. And yet I couldn’t feel that it made any difference whether I had been murdered or not. It didn’t make any difference whether I was afraid of the telephone or not. I think so.
WOMAN: The telephone is harmless.
MAN: The telephone is not harmless. The telephone most definitely is not harmless. [After a silence.] What is it?
WOMAN: How did it go?
MAN: It lasted all night.
WOMAN: Please take off your tie–at least take off your coat–and let me look at you. [He does nothing; brief silence.]
MAN: Do you remember one time a long time ago you called me a selfish man?
WOMAN: Did I?
MAN: Yes. I believe you did.
WOMAN: Aren’t you thirsty? I could get you something to drink.
MAN: I was asked was I a rummy.
WOMAN: A what?
MAN: Rummy. Old language.
WOMAN: Old language for meaning what?
MAN: A drunk.
WOMAN: Which you are not.
MAN: No I said–no–I imagine not.
WOMAN: Why not?
MAN: Not all of the chemicals they made use of functioned exactly as they had anticipated.
WOMAN: But are you safe?
MAN: I think so. For now. But I can’t stop here. Even though it is sometimes very late before I can get any work done I can’t stop here.
WOMAN: Please sit down.
MAN: Sometimes it is very difficult to sit down. [He tries to sit down, and succeeds.] Maybe I would walk better if I got drunk.
WOMAN: What did he say?
MAN: He promised it wouldn’t show. They never touch your face. He also noticed that I walk funny, and he wanted to know what was the matter with my face, but he promised it wouldn’t show–as long as I kept my proper face on.
WOMAN: Where do you think that slob is hiding?
MAN: He promised not to show.
WOMAN: What more did he ask?
MAN: He wanted to know who was my fat friend and what tribe I belonged to.
WOMAN: And you said ...
MAN: I didn’t say anything–he knew already.
WOMAN: How do you know?
MAN: He knew.
WOMAN: What did he promise?
MAN: The usual. As I said. Not to show. And that I would be paid. If I did it, after he asked, of course.
WOMAN: Not to show what?
MAN: The usual.
WOMAN: The usual what?
MAN: Rum sodomy and the lash. But without the rum. As usual.
WOMAN: Without the rum?
MAN: Yes. No. Rum. Without the rum.
WOMAN: Was he aware of the question?
MAN: My fat friend?
MAN: No. [A silence.] Madelena?
MAN: Who am I?
WOMAN: Ask the fat man in the mirror.
MAN: He’s not been talking for some time now.
MAN: He just left for work. And the lash.
WOMAN: Why the lash?
MAN: One with a clear mind is not wanted - rather one who will be of service. He made that clear.
WOMAN: The other?
MAN: Yes, the other.
WOMAN: And so this for now is to be the conduct of our life?
MAN: Yes. For now.
WOMAN: Doesn’t it hurt?
MAN: O, it stings a bit.
WOMAN: Did they ask would you serve?
MAN: He asked on their behalf how would I make myself, or draw myself down, so as to be of service.
WOMAN: And you told him what?
[The Man stands, with difficulty as before, continues limping about, slowly.]
MAN: I told him that what I had made in the old days with my bare hands he with all his machines still could not make today. He was not happy to hear it.
WOMAN: Is that why you’re limping? Is that why the lash?
MAN: It’s all right. It doesn’t hurt. It only stings a bit.
WOMAN: Was he all right?
MAN: It didn’t show.
WOMAN: But was he all right?
MAN: As I told you–it didn’t show.
WOMAN: [After a silence.] Federico?
WOMAN: Who am I?
[He freezes suddenly, almost in mid-step. He looks at her as she looks back at him. Brief silence.]
What is it?
MAN: How did it go?
WOMAN: It was all right. [A silence.] Do you think he will call?
MAN: No. We’re all right for now.
WOMAN: What was it?
MAN: You tell me. How did it go?
WOMAN: It lasted all night.
MAN: But are you safe? Will you be safe when I am gone?
WOMAN: I think so.
MAN: Then we’re all right for now.
[Both look at the phone. Nothing happens. Brief tableau. Lights down slowly to black.]