The Name Is A Vestige
A dramatic urban vision quest / monologue
in the ancient Greek manner, roughly speaking
by Wayne K. Spear
For My Grandmother, 1911-1991
unnamed principal character
master of ceremonies
Bureaucritis, Roman god of Indian and Northern Affairs
The following shall be found on the stage: a bed, centre stage and toward the rear; two bar stools, also to the centre of the stage and toward the front; a telephone, which sits on the floor stage right of the stool. A chorus looks on from stages left and right. A spotlight illuminate the stools. No other objects are on the stage.
The performer shall be dressed as follows: a black T-shirt, white pyjama trousers and a pair of moccasins.
The performance begins as follows: the unnamed character lies on the bed at the centre of a dark stage. The light increases until the character is visible. The character is seen at the edge of the light, dressed and awake, visibly unable to sleep. Tosses and turns. A minute passes. Looks out at audience and is startled by them. Jumps out of bed and walks cautiously toward stool.
Approaches stool uncertainly. Begins to speak.
(Looking out at audience, bewildered) Are you gods? Have I died? This must be the judgement. Should I defend myself then, or worse, should I defend history? That’s what I am, I’m the outcome of history. We all are. We all have a story, maybe a lot of stories. It’s the story that shapes who we are, the hearing of the story, the telling of the story.
I can’t sleep, I can’t go home. That’s the beginning.
Yeah, I’ll tell you a story.
You might laugh when I tell you this, but I’m nostalgic for the future. I reach back into the past and I come up empty. Time is like air, not like a straight line. You can’t hold on to time; you can’t see where it goes. I’m the product of the march of progress. My home has been sacrificed to the gods of technology…you know, the gods. I remember how excited we were when we got our own McDonalds. Whatever you think of the good old days, you have to admit that a McDonalds has quite an impact on a farming community. Not that I lived in a farming community: it wasn’t just that. Listen to me. It was a small town like lots of small towns: it kept changing, but it was always the same. Everything always new, always old.
The old days.
(Character turns to stage left. A chorus member, a woman, approaches character) Look at your eyes. You’ve got such beautiful eyes. When I met you at the dance, I said There’s the girl I’m going to marry. Remember? It was a cold November evening. The music is running through my head (sings) Whenever I want you all I’ve got to do is dream, dream dream dream (laughs). (Pauses) Marry me. We can find a home not far from here, under the lights where we grew up, only a few miles apart. I can get a job at the local factory. We’ll live like a King and Queen, well, like a Duke and Duchess maybe. We’ll be graduating in a month, so we should start planning for the future. Think of it, you and I. We can go anywhere we want, it’s just waiting for us. A big world, waiting for us…(woman returns to chorus)
(Returns gaze to audience) The world fascinates me.
(Stage darkens. Chorus accompanies the character with humming, chanting sounds, or improvised melodies. The sounds blend, and are at first haunting and subtle, gradually peaking to a crescendo. Each chorus member provides a distinct and individual accompaniment. Character approaches stage front). I’ve been having the dream again. That’s why I can’t sleep. Every night I have it. I get into the car and I drive. I’m in a foreign city with sprawling highways that taper into dusty paths. They wind from concrete jungles to the stoic, taught longings of desert paths. I have no sense of beginning, middle and end. The bones ache in my arms and in my legs. I don’t know where I am going, but I have a strong intuition that I have known, that I’ve seen the place before, and so I must be returning. Something draws me forward. I turn the car around. I take a wrong turn, but it doesn’t matter. I’m always back to the same road. It has a different look but it feels the same. When I wake up I get the feeling it is the first dream, the dream the first ones had. The dream possessed them, and when they were gone, when their skulls were emptied to the worms, the dream simply moved on to new skulls and began again as fiercely as if nothing had happened (chorus accompaniment fades gradually to silence).
Maybe I shouldn’t talk about the dead that way. I don’t know. Maybe it’s disrespectful. Maybe I shouldn’t talk…
My grandmother was Onkwehonweh, Kanien’keha:ka, a Mohawk. She had an ambition to write a book of stories. I’d sit down and she’d say to me, Here is a story, about a woman whose husband had gone off to fight in a war, or, Here’s a dream about a man who comes back from the dead.
She was interested in the supernatural. I don’t know if I would call her a spiritual person exactly; I think she was just someone with stories who was born at the wrong time. Indians didn’t have a lot of opportunities back then. If they were lucky, they could blend into the white world, which is what my grandparents did. Do you know what they call themselves, assimilated Indians? Apples. It means red on the outside and white on the inside.
I come from a family of apples, from a border town.
Life in a border town. I studied history as a border child does. I learned about America; I learned about Canada. I learned that people like to draw lines between things. The lines make one thing into a something which the other thing is definitely not. There were all these maps on the walls of that old brick schoolhouse, and they had nice brightly-coloured chunks. This was what the world first looked like to me. I learned about the War of 1812. You could look out the window and see Fort Erie. You could see the peak of Buffalo’s city hall. In between flowed the Niagara River. We’d go swimming in it, jumping from bridges, holding our noses, waiting for the impact of water, breaking through the water. The tide would grab us by the legs and pull us along. You could only get at the shore on an angle, indirectly. You couldn’t just come right out, you’d have to be indirect. People would stand on shore from a safe distance and watch the heads bob along as the current carried them.
(Character gets up onto chair, pinches his nose and jumps, as if he were diving into the river. The chorus looks on, startled, panicking, screaming. The character is struggling, drowning. The chorus looks on, frightened, screaming. The lights fade to black.)
(Silence. Light on the character, who is sprawled on the stage, face downward. He gets up slowly, looks directly and arrogantly at audience, squinting). Hey you gods, you big happy gods. How come you don’t strike me blind: I want to know. (Coaxingly) I could be your apostle. (With a grand gesture, like one addressing an audience of would-be converts) Here I am to tell you what I, Saint Billy of everytown on anystreet saw with my own eyes. Are you an American? (Caricature of Texan accent) So am I! I was born in the U.S. of A. Are you a Canadian? (Caricature of Southern Canadian accent) So am I. I grew up in Fort Erie, eh! Are you an Indian? So am I! Here’s my Bill C-31 status card. Them are my moccasins (pointing to feet). Bought ’em on the reserve. Are you a European? So am I! Somewhere in my family history is a farmer who left his country for a better life. Maybe he was looking for the New Jerusalem. Okay, so he ended up in New York, but so what? (English accent) How splendid this New World all is. Spot of tea, Love?
(Shouts) No, give me a beer! (Suddenly angry, character rubs hands over chest and thighs as if looking for something in pockets. Looks around) Aw! No money again. Shit! And my keys. I’m always losing my keys. Where the hell am I, anyway? I got to get my keys. (walks up to member of audience) Hey, you seen my keys? (Pauses. Looks around) I’m stuck again. Stuck in this place again with nothing but air moving around, swirling, nothing to touch or hit, everything smooth and without shape. Nothing to drink. Someone give me a drink! (Screaming out at audience) Hey, you hear me? You’re gonna give me a drink!
(Calmly turns away, subdued, clearly very drunk. Returns to stool. Character sits) Bartender! Give me another. Southern Comfort and seven. (Looks up and over audience. He is distracted by two imaginary televisions, one at extreme left of stage, the other at extreme right) Look at this. There are two televisions in this bar: one showing the news and the other some late-night movie. (Chorus begins to act out scenes of violence. The chorus members struggle with one another. (Pointing to stage left) That (points to stage right) looks just like that. Which do you think comes first? Stupid question. They both come together when you’ve got cable, eh? (Laughs abruptly, violently with the exaggeration of the drunk) (Casually) Big deal. (Notices woman, who has come to his side from the chorus after leaving the struggle at stage left, beside him at bar. Her back is to audience. She places her hand on a chair and leans, as one who is drunk. Turns to her and speaks) What’s your name? (responses are not heard) Diane? Nice name. What do you do? Yeah? What’s it like being a secretary for a lawyer? Yeah, that’s what I figured. You pretty much feel like I do right now. (Nodding toward television) Isn’t it weird the way reality and fiction are indistinguishable, and how we long for the excitement of one even when we’re repulsed by the same thing in the other? (She responds, Character shrugs, looks down at floor) No, I guess it isn’t. (woman ambles back to chorus, gradually transforming herself from drunk again into chorus member).
(Character sits still for a long moment. Looks around. No longer drunk, but clearly restless) Am I ever bored! (To audience) God, you’re not very interesting. You just come here to look at me or what? You’re probably like those people in southern California I met. (In a whiny, nasalized voice) Come on, let’s drive our motorhome into Nevada for the weekend. (Deep, resounding Prophet voice with one arm extended in good orator fashion) Behold, a voice cries in the desert! Make clear the way. Wheel of Fortune! (Chorus makes appropriate “ooo, ahh” sounds. Character looks off into the distance, stage right).
Look. You can spot them from miles away. At first you’re not sure whether they’re insurance salesmen or not. I guess they are either way. It’s the suit, and the briefcase. The two groups of people share a look. They have the same determined gaze. If I remember right, both have a fee. But if they like you, and if they think you’re a potential apostle, you get a free Watchtower. (Stands and moves toward stage front. Looking off stage right) They came up the driveway while I was in the yard raking the leaves. They always come in twos, one to learn, one to teach. The young one had a rapt, intoxicated gaze. The other kept talking about the wonders of the universe. He did all the talking. He said, How can we trust our senses? Matter is mostly space; everything moves faster than the eye can see, faster than the tongue can name. Then he points across the Niagara river to city hall, and says, If city hall were reduced to its constituent atoms –if the spaces in between those atoms were removed– the entire building would fit into a vial this big (Character brings his fist in front of audience, mimicking one who holds a one-anda-half inch vial between fore-finger and thumb) –and he makes a gesture as if the tower were there in his hand. (Character slowly closes his fist over the imaginary vial and smoothly brings fist back down to side)
(Character becomes rigid and visibly nervous. Stands at attention with arms affixed to sides, fists clenched. Speaks loudly, rapidly, without emotion) Mr. Principal, Teacher, Honourable Ladies and Gentlemen: to appreciate how insignificant our world is in space, we must remember that the sun, an average-sized star, is only one of the 100,000 million stars that are held together by gravity in the spiral Milky Way Galaxy; and that the Milky Way galaxy is only one of millions of galaxies that can be observed through large telescopes: distances in space are so vast that they are measured in light-years, one light-year being the distance travelled by light in the space of a year; because light travels at a speed of 300,000 kilometres per second, one light-year is the equivalent of nearly 10 million million kilometres (during entire speech chorus is looking on, visibly bored).
The nearest star to the Sun is the faint Proxima Centauri, 4.3 light-years away; the nearest star visible to the naked eye is Alpha Centauri in the constellation Centaurus: it is 4.3 light-years away from the Sun; the Milky Way galaxy is 100, 000 light-years in diameter, and our solar system is located approximately 27, 000 light-years from its centre; the largest star in the Milky Way galaxy is IRS5 in the Perseus constellation, with a diameter of about 15, 000 million kilometres, or approximately 10, 770 times as large as the Sun; the nearest external galaxy is the Megellanic Clouds, 160, 000 light-years away.
There are nine planets in the Milky Way galaxy: Mercury is the closest to the sun at a mean distance of 58 million kilometres…
(Relaxes. Sits on stool) Every year I gave a speech for the public address day. From grades three to seven, I spoke on the topic “Our Universe.” It wasn’t that I was lazy or lacked imagination: I was genuinely fascinated by our universe. I say, our universe, but of course we’re only visitors.
My first universe speech was given in 1972. I went down to the library and took out all the books, big and musty and thick, that I could find on the universe and our solar system. I wrote all of the numbers on small blue cards: (with an even tone, a fierce look in the eye and a fixed gaze, speaking first calmly and with care, gradually becoming more rapid) how many millions of kilometres across, how many billions of light-years away, how many trillions of degrees; thousands of billions of trillion trillion zillions squared. (Stops abruptly. Pauses. Ironically, with a wicked grin) I put them to sleep. While I was talking about the appalling insignificance of life when considered cosmically, how it would take a space ship travelling at 300, 000 kilometres a second twenty-seven thousand years to reach the edge of our puny and ordinary galaxy; how the sun, which could vaporize the earth in a nanosecond if we got too close, was itself just an average-sized star among billions and billions of average-sized stars –yeah, I sounded like Carl Sagan– and while I was talking about this little rock orbiting an average insignificant star which was the centre of an ordinary solar system on the outer fringe of a typical galaxy, you could hear the snoring. I got a “C,” and was told that my presentation was too much. I wanted to convey the awe I felt over this rock that we were sitting on, a rock floating in a vastness of space which no words can convey. But grade three was too early to attempt arousing in my fellow human beings a sense of wonder, or so I concluded.
I tried again and again every year until 1977. And then, in 1978, in grade eight, I brought some money to class.
(Resumes rigid “speech-giving” posture) Ladies and gentlemen. Here is something we are all interested in. I would like to begin with this (Holds up a coin. Chorus applauds wildly) Here’s a coin from Bermuda (response of approbation, applause from chorus) that was in the change from a purchase of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. Here is another coin from the nineteenth century…
The nineteenth century seems like so long ago; but then, what did the late twentieth seem like to them? I guess we were supposed to be living in paradise by 1990 – you know, science and technology and progress and utopia and all. I don’t want to sound disappointed or ungrateful –I mean, seriously, we got flush toilets and cable television. And the thigh master, that’s pretty clever, too. But I guess it’s a good thing that the Victorians died, because they’d probably have a lot of rethinking to do if they hadn’t. Not that rethinking is bad.
(Pauses) I’ve been doing a lot myself lately.
I wonder what they would think of us.
My great-grandfather was born in 1889. He bought a set of encyclopaedias for me when I was born. I still have them. I flip through the yellowed pages, the pictures of a future from a past point of view. It’s like the old versus the new Star Trek. The old future looks like the nineteen-sixties would have if they had happened in twenty-one ten: a U.S.S. Enterprise with harvest gold dilithium crystal casings and detailed files of the explored universe on eight-track cassette. Our imagined futures will also be significant someday as archaeology, like the browning encyclopaedias which assert that someday we will go to the moon.
My great-grandfather died not long after that purchase. I was so excited, because I knew something really significant had happened. Death is surrounded with secrecy and reverence. It is an event that, for a five-year-old, is on the same level as the arrival of a new baby or a new bicycle. I remember thinking that I would go over to my great-grandfather’s house and see him sitting on his porch where he seemed always to sit. I see it in my mind right now, as I saw it then. (Looks out over audience) Hey grandpa. I heard you died. (Grandfather’s voice is heard) That’s right. I sure did.
And he’d tell me all about it.
I don’t know too much about his world. Not really. I remember what he looked like, and I remember his name. That’s about all. (Pauses. Seems to be thinking about great-grandfather. Suddenly recalling another occurrence) There’s this traveller I met; he’s from Australia. He makes a living investigating personal histories; he calls himself a genealogist. For a fee, he goes through every record he can get his hands on, and he can get his hands on a lot. From these he reproduces your past. When he’s done you’ll know where you came from: it’s all in the name. Names are everything in his business.
I met him in a pub during a conference. He had come to Canada for a week to present a paper. He said he had a phone-in show in Melbourne; that anyone could phone in and receive a brief history of his or her family. All he needed was the name.
People are fascinated with the past, with their pasts. Start here, with yourself. Two parents, four parents, eight parents, sixteen parents. A few simple calculations and you find that you are the inheritor of a complex pattern of hopes and aspirations and promise. It’s like a spider web. Each person weaves a line, and the lines are connected to our fathers and to our mothers. The line is a story begun long before they arrived, and which continues long after they are gone. Paths cross, intersect, turn, break. We remember what has come before, because the story continues in us, just as the name we carry continues. And the name is a vestige of the hope and of the promise, that despite everything, there must be continuity.
(Cautiously, like one telling a dangerous secret) Hey. I’ve seen the world end (chorus laughs mockingly). (With spite, looking at chorus) I must have been the only one to notice. (To audience) Do you know how it ends? Slowly, while you are going about something ordinary, like planting a petunia or eating soup (chorus laughing). (Visibly hurt, but determined to speak). The world ended while I was in school. I was dreaming about a home in the country, flowing with milk and honey. And while I was dreaming it was happening. First, there was a gradual shift in market indicators. The economy was undergoing a structural change (laughter). We had dreamed of a world where the sons and daughters could expect to live better than the fathers and mothers (more laughter). But that was coming to an end (chorus laughs with greater spite as, in contrast, the character becomes more desperate and upset). I did my time at school –that’s what it was: and when we got spit out at the end there was nothing there. It was the end of the world (laughter ends suddenly. Silence.).
(With animation) Do you know there’s no polite word in Cree for orgasm? You have to say it by describing it. So in Cree, if you want to say orgasm, you say, You know that nice feeling two people who love each other have when they are very close together…
In English there’s the opposite problem. There are too many words: words for things that don’t even exist; or words that are so vague that they are as good as meaningless. How do we talk about things? The words don’t seem to…(long pause, struggles for the right word)…work. Relationship, for instance, is a funny word. I’ve never liked it; it doesn’t indicate anything exactly, it’s too big, too flabby. Relationship? What do you mean?
You know, that nice feeling two people who love each other have when they are very close together…
(Turns to face woman at immediate right who has approached character from chorus) Come on. You know I love ya, come on. What more can I say? (Pauses. Seductively) You got such beautiful eyes.
When I met you, I said, There’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. Really. You think I’m just saying that, but I’m not. Come on, what more can I say? (woman returns to chorus).
(Turns toward audience) I keep speaking because I believe in serendipity. If I keep speaking and words keep flowing out, soon I’ll hit on the right order and the right combination. I don’t know if I’ve been close yet. Maybe I’ve almost been there, but one word has been the wrong word, or I said it too soon. Maybe it was a matter of adjective-noun agreement or verb tense.
When the right sentence comes out, I’ll know. (Pensively) I’ll know.
That’s the essence of story-telling, that uncanny belief in the power of the word. You’re involved too. Don’t suppose that I’m mad and that I have a fantastic view of the world. You’re participating in this. We are all of us living in the shadows of a secret hope, some secrets more than…(pensively, as if caught in the midst of a great thought) We live all in the shadow of secret…in the shadow of…yea though I walk in the valley of secret…
(Stops abruptly) Sorry. I thought for a minute that I was close.
You probably think I’m obsessed, but I’m not. (Character’s attention is drawn to another imagined figure, this time in the distance, stage left. Staring at apparition) My high school drafting teacher –he was obsessed…by two things.
(Belligerently, with a nasal tone in the character of the teacher) I went grocery shopping the other day, and I saw a cart lying in the ditch. And do you know who pays for that? I do. Where’s the world coming to? It wasn’t like that in the good old days. People were different.
(Raises arm, extending index finger to indicate “number one”) One: the good old days.
(Again, teacher voice) Ya know. Life is uncertain. Nothing is certain but death and taxes.
(Raises arm, extends index and middle finger) Two: life is uncertain. What’s certain? Death and taxes.
I dreamt that I had a time machine. I went back to ancient Rome. I was in a play called Death and Taxes. It was about a man who stood up in the marketplace and proclaimed (loudly, in the exaggerated manner of a bad actor) Nothing is certain but death and taxes!
Here’s the last line, which is all I remember: And immediately the gods granted to this man eternal life…without taxes. (Character freezes. Lights darken. A spotlight focuses on the chorus at stage right. This character becomes the master of ceremonies.)
(We are now in a “play-within-a-play.” The master of ceremonies ambles pompously onstage to stage front centre. He speaks.)
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the show of shows, the occasion of occasions, the event of events: for tonight –one evening only–we have something erotic, something exotic, something o-rac-u-lar, something spec-tac-u-lar; an event that is global, not to mention noble; sure to tickle your fancy, so don’t get antsy. And now without further adieu, something old something new; Ladies and Gentleman, a little ancient Roman number updated for the so-phist-i-cated modern stage: Death and Taxes.
(Master of ceremonies gestures with right arm towards Character while backing off to stage right. Stops, still visible to audience and looking on. We are now in a first-century Roman market. Character becomes a Roman Mohawk citizen shopping in the marketplace for a toga. A woman comes forward from the chorus to become a toga salesperson. She stands before a table display of Roman garments and, anachronistically, a cash register. Remaining chorus members become Roman citizens. They walk through market area in pairs or single, talking among themselves. Character approaches table, looks through the display, picking through the assortment.)
Toga merchant: (in a New York accent) Can I help you?
Character: I’m just looking for a toga.
Toga merchant: Any particular style? We just got a nice shipment in of acidwash togas; or perhaps you’d prefer the slimfit.
Character: No. I just want something to wear around the house, maybe around the town. (Character sees an appealing toga and lifts it from the table) This isn’t bad.
Toga merchant: Oh, that’s definitely you. We sell a lot of those.
Character: I’ll take it.
(Meanwhile, the master of ceremonies, who has been watching all along, is visibly upset. He looks about in disgust, his arms crossed the entire time except for the odd gesture of displeasure that he makes.)
(Character reaches into pocket for money. Gives a small card to merchant, who is ringing up the purchase)
Toga merchant: (obnoxiously) What’s this? Tax exempt card? You Indian? What are you anyway?
(At this point the master of ceremonies loses control and explodes into the play-within-a-play)
M. C.: (excitedly, but still barely under control) Come on, come on. What is this? You call this entertainment? Look! (points to audience) People are watching; they paid for this. The both of you better deliver, or it’s the streets so help me God. Where’s the eroticism, the exoticism? My God, it’s perfectly dreadful!
Toga merchant: (angry and hurt) Whaddya want from me? Hey, look at the lousy lines I got. I can’t help it. And what about this? (holding out the card toward the master of ceremonies)
M. C.: (looking now at Character) Say, what about that chief? Come on, do a war dance for the people, say something wise. Hey chief, you Indian, or what? Jee-sus, you’re making us all look b-a-d, bad. How about it, chief. You gonna deliver?
(Suddenly there is an intense flash of light and billowing smoke at back stage right. Bureaucritis walks from the edge of the stage as the smoke fills the air. The M.C., merchant and Character are overcome with surprise. Bureaucritis is tall and is dressed in a shimmering white garment. There are no shoes on his feet. He carries a scroll of papers in the right hand, and approaches the master of ceremonies)
M. C.: (frightened, backing away) Wh…who are you?
Bureaucritis: (majestically) I am Bureaucritis, Roman god of Indian and Northern Affairs; defender of truth and justice; maker of mighty terms; healer of strife; bringer of peace and goodness.
M. C.: (curious yet respectfully) Oh son of Jupiter! How is it that I have never heard your name before, nor seen your face? You who are at the right hand of the God of gods himself!
Bureaucritis: (downcast, looking at the floor) I wish! No, the old guy says that this was the best he could do. I was hoping to land god of Finance, or perhaps god of Internal Affairs. I don’t know what I could have done to end up on the bottom rung of the divine ladder. Still, the pay isn’t bad.
M. C.: (reverently) Oh immortal one, what brings you into the woeful world of men?
Bureaucritis: I couldn’t help but overhear your problem –we gods like to keep track of things you know– and I felt I should just stop by and see what I could do.
Toga merchant: (with delight) A blessing! A blessing from the gods! What fortune has come to us this day!
Bureaucritis: (hesitantly) well…actually it’s just some paperwork. But we’re definitely studying the problem, and something will be done. (he gives forms to the M.C., toga merchant, and Character) Remember to press firmly. You’re making copies for the entire pantheon.
(Bureaucritis, master of ceremonies, and merchant freeze. Lights dim. Spotlight on Character) God. don’t tell me I’m gonna live with this forever. I don’t want to live forever.
(end of act one)
Act two begins in the same manner as act one, with chorus having resumed their positions. The same set is seen, and again, the stage is darkened. The lights gradually increase, revealing the character at centre stage, standing and facing the audience.
When I was eight years old I dressed up as an Indian for Halloween. We had an outfit hanging in the front closet. It belonged to a relative of mine: I can’t remember who. I remember the smell of it. There was always a smell of leather in the house: my mother was a seamstress and she owned bags of buckskin. We’d always be stepping on pins she had dropped or left around the house by accident. I’d be sitting somewhere in the house on a quiet morning and all of a sudden I’d hear my father’s voice (shouts) Jesus Christ!
Anyway, that Halloween a woman gave me a freshly-baked oatmeal cookie. (Chorus member comes forward and gives to character a cookie. Character looks carefully at it and at chorus member who is returning to stage right.) (To audience)”Eat it right away,” she said, “before it gets cold.” I’m standing there on the porch with this warm oatmeal cookie in my hand, smiling timidly at her with a forced smile. Just a frightened little green-eyed Indian dressed up like an Indian in a big bad White world. Can I take the risk? Is it a risk? I wait for her to go back in, and I slip the cookie into my pocket. I think about grinding it up with my fingers just to make sure, but I don’t want to eat a ground up cookie, so it goes home in the pocket of the costume. When the jacket goes back there is a petrified oatmeal cookie in the pocket, because you can never be sure.
(Startled, looking around) Yeah? Hello? (Pause) God. I swear I heard my name.
I can hear the cars on the highway (chorus makes highway sounds).
What time is it, what time?
White people have a strange notion of time. White time is clock time: regular, exact, scientific. Then there’s Indian time. It’s not a lack of precision or an absence of order. Indian time isn’t an undeveloped version of White time. It’s about being there in the fullness of time, when things are ripe. Winter comes when it is time for the winter to come. You can smell the approach of rain. Relax, smell the wind. You know when it is time.
But the White people! (laughs). The White God is The Great Watchmaker in the heavens!
(Picks up phone. Speaks in confident Texan accent) Hello? Operator? Yes, I’m trying to reach God. Yes, this is a long-distance call. I’d like to make it collect, please. (Impatiently) Yea, I’m sure He’ll pick up the charges. That’s Alpha-Alpha-Omega-One-Three-Seven-One. Thank-you. (Long pause). Hello…God? (Disappointed) Oh, operator. Yes, I’ll hold. Please try again. Yes, I’ll hold. (End of Texan voice. Character keeps the phone in his hand, however)
Not even the sound of music, just silence. Maybe I should just talk anyway. It’s the middle of night: the streets are deserted. Maybe I should just talk. Hey, I know! A story my grandmother told me.
(Chorus, in unison)A man was visited one night by a friend. It was midnight and the friend was hungry, but there was no food in the house. The host thought to himself, I know a place where I can go to ask for some food. The host went to the home of his friend and knocked on the door. The friend answered, Don’t bother me! I’m in bed. The host knocked and knocked, but again came the answer, Go away! He waited and knocked, waited and knocked, waited and knocked. He knocked for minutes, and for hours. The rain began to fall, and still he knocked. Though it was the middle of the night, he would not leave. Finally the man got out of bed and gave him food because he was sick of listening to the knocking(end of grandmother’s story).
(Puzzled) Where’d she get that story from? Ever weird that story. (Long pause, pensively) But me, I’m not waiting anymore. (Puts the phone receiver on floor, with earpiece facing upwards).
(Looks at phone) I bought that phone at the mall. I like to go to the mall and watch people, because that’s where the law of the jungle seems to take over most forcefully. Consumers have a mad gleam in their eyes, a hungry look, that reminds me of those predators from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. (Pointing) There’s Emelda Sharples engaged in a life and death struggle for a new microwave oven. She is an industrious creature who will stop at nothing, even spending hours and hours in a fierce competition for parking spots and bargains. When she sees the prey, she goes straight in for the kill .
Everyone’s looking for something here. You can never have it all, can you. (Looks again at phone) Ever nice phone, though.
I was in line at the department store paying for it. In front of me there was a guy buying Easter presents for his children. He was buying kits to paint Easter eggs: paints and stencils and brushes. It is all part of the capitalist rhythm of seasons. Christmas ads give way to Boxing Day sales and New Year’s bargains; immediately we enter the season of Valentine’s Day flowers and chocolates. Then without warning, it is time for Easter purchases. Equinox ripens Mother’s Day, a particularly bountiful season, and the days grow longer, stretching into Father’s Day and Thanksgiving consumption. There is a product and a card for each season: our emotional worlds are snuggled between the sheaths of paper. Limerick sentiments, rollicking affections.
(Seriously, in the posture of a court poet) So many are Mothers it’s true/But only one Mom can be best/And Mommy I think that it’s you/Who’s better than all of the rest! (Elegantly) Signed, your son, Weenie boy (Chorus applauds politely, but with enthusiasm).
I read the cards and think, What mother is so evil that she deserves such bad poetry? Does anybody have a Hallmark life? Is that what we are like, or is it meant to be an ideal toward which we should aspire? –how we ought to be?
The guy ahead of me was paying for the Easter stuff and I noticed something else. He was also buying some sort of replica of a high-tech rifle. On the box it said, Four Real Sounds. (Puzzled) Real? Everything is made out of plastic. It’s fake, not real. The stuff comes from places like Guatemala and Korea and Brazil and Taiwan. They send us fake guns that make real sounds from places we see on television. Some day the kids who play with them might be there, only this time with real guns.
(Chorus begins to march in place. The sound of their feet on the stage provides a stark military marching rhythm to the characters words. The rhythmic sound of feet gradually increases in intensity and impels the words of the speaker forward, punctuating his story). I start to wonder if the guns were made by the same people who made the Hallmark cards. They could recycle the cards to make the guns, or the guns to make cards. Guns, cards, guns, cards, guns, cards, guns, cards, guns, cards. The cards could go on talking about real feelings, and the guns could keep on making real sounds. Cards, guns, cards, guns, cards, guns, cards, guns, cards, guns. And I could keep getting in line and asking myself, what’s real? (Marching suddenly ceases).
(Pause) Really, how can you tell? It all depends on what you call it. You say This is real, this is not; This is good, this is not.
That is what you do: you name. You tell a story.
And the stories that you tell come from somewhere. They mean something. They do things.
I had the dream again. (Melodic chorus accompaniment, as before. A haunting sound accompanies the character) I don’t know exactly where I was, but it was so real I could touch and feel. I just got into my car and drove. I had to cross a bridge, a drawbridge. There’s always a bridge in the dream. There are two kinds: one rises vertically in one piece, like a slab of iron being pulled into the sky. The second type is cut across the middle: it opens outward like the petals of a cybernetic flower. Like this (imitates the bridge by using arms. The arms touch at the fingertips and slowly move upward until the arms are vertical and parallel). The bridge starts to open just as I am coming into sight. I never know what to do. Do I stop or make a rush for it? With the second type of bridge there is always the remote chance that I can jump from one half of the platform to the other. With the first type I always have enough time to get onto the slab, but the question becomes, Can I get to the other side before the slab is too high? Because if I don’t, I’m lost. At least, that’s the way it occurs to me.
Sometimes I ride a bicycle, sometimes I run. Sometimes I drive. Sometimes it’s not clear how I’m travelling: it’s as if I were doing all three at the same time. I hear someone from the other side calling my name (chorus silences abruptly).
And then I get there, and you know what I find?
I’m the one calling.
And I was there the whole time.
(Pauses. To audience) I’ve said all there is for me to say right now. I have said it all. Go now, please go. We’ll meet at another time. Go to live and to tell your own stories; to make from what you see and hear something that is yours. This is my story, and I have told it because I hoped you may be listening. I hoped maybe you would hear.
Go now to your homes, and remember what you have heard. I must go now, because my story is only beginning, always only just beginning. (Chorus disperses, light fades, and curtain falls).
–Ridgeway, Kingston, Ontario.
August, nineteen ninety-two.