Each corner of the room is set at a different angle. There is a low-level ceiling with a jagged hole in it, stage left, towards the rear.
Center stage is a freestanding coatrack on which hangs a fedora and a dinner jacket. Rectangles of dust mark the walls where pictures used to be. No windows.
The skin and clothing of the actors are colored in matte shades of gray, as if their bodies have been clipped from an old film noir. The hat and jacket are an irradiated maroon color.
Lights dim on at the beginning and dim out at the end of each scene.
With a few exceptions, all action takes place in this room, in this light.
Long tableaux of the room.
A young man wearing jeans and a collared shirt ambles onstage, pauses, turns and stares blankly at the audience, turns and ambles to the coatrack, turns and stares at the audience again, turns and stares at the coatrack, removes the dinner jacket, puts his arms in the sleeves, smooths out the lapels, buttons the jacket, turns to the audience, glances down at the jacket, glances at the audience, and grins a plastic grin.
The coat begins to strangle the man, tightening on his midriff and closing around his throat, forcing the man's arms behind his back in an awkward, anguished pose as he struggles for his life. He falls down. We hear the sound of bones breaking as his head and limbs pound the floor and he squawks, croaks, and gurgles in pain. Then he lies still.
As the lights dim out, the jacket goes limp, like a boa constrictor releasing its grip on prey.
Holding hands, a young couple enters stage right. They walk across the room as if strolling leisurely through a park.
BRENDA: Isn't Dagny a girl's name? I never heard of a boy called Dagny. You sort of look like a girl, I guess. And a boy. What's that called?
DAGNY: Androgynous. I take after the son of Hermes and Aphrodite.
BRENDA: Who? That doesn't make any sense. My point is, in certain lights you look like you could wear a dress. I don't think Dagny is even a name.
DAGNY [unhanding her]: What's it to you, Brenda? I'm a man and that's my name. [Sees the coatrack.] What's this?
BRENDA: I don't know. It doesn't belong to you, though, so don't touch it. You're always touching things that don't belong to you. [Hits him playfully.]
DAGNY: That's not fair. You haven't known me long enough to know what I touch and what I don't touch. [Touches the jacket.] What a handsome number. I think I'll try it on for size.
BRENDA: You can't do that!
DAGNY: Who's going to stop me, Brenda? You? I'm a man, remember. I was kidding about the gods.
BRENDA [restrained]: Just put the hat on, ok?
DAGNY: I intend to put on the hat. A man puts on a jacket first. First the jacket, then the hat. That's the way men work.
BRENDA [hysterical]: This is crazy! [Screams.]
DAGNY [takes BRENDA by the shoulders and shakes her]: Calm down! Calm down! Calm down! [Screams.]
Tossing BRENDA aside, DAGNY removes the jacket from the coatrack and yanks it on. He makes a satisfied frog-face and is about to speak when the jacket breaks his arms, then forces him to his knees and completely engulfs him, squeezing him to death in one great contraction. Brenda stands there in a daze, knees buckling, head and lips twitching . . . She screams again as the lights dim off.
Tableaux of a man being strangled by the jacket as a group of bystanders dressed in burial clothing watch in wide-eyed horror, clutching their mouths and pointing at the crime scene.
Detective Johnson, Detective Cork
Two detectives enter, canvas and examine the room. Their guns are drawn and cocked. They don't notice the coatrack.
CORK: What do you think, Johnson?
JOHNSON: Dunno, Cork. Thirty-nine murders in forty-eight hours. And all of them presumably took place right here in this room. It doesn't add up.
CORK: What are the clues again?
JOHNSON: We don't have any. How many times do I have to tell you?
CORK: I don't know. I figure if I keep asking, somehow a clue will turn up. I mean, how do we know the murders took place in the vicinity? Doesn't a clue have to tell us that?
JOHNSON: Put a cork in it. [Guffaws.]
CORK: I'm serious, Johnson. This is serious. Life and death, like.
JOHNSON: My ass. If you can't laugh at the dark, you shouldn't grin like the Sphinx. Understand?
JOHNSON [eyeballs the hole in the ceiling]: What's this bullshit? [Points gun at the hole.] Is anybody up there? Hey!
The jacket flies off the coatrack, soars across the room, slaps JOHNSON in the head, and knocks him over. CORK shrieks. JOHNSON staggers to his feet and fires on the jacket, chasing after it. CORK continues to shriek but also starts shooting. The jacket flies around like a mad bat. Eventually the detectives catch one another in crossfire. They fall over dead. The jacket flies back to the coatrack and gently hangs on it.
Brief tableaux. The room is empty, but now a construction ladder angles down from the hole in the ceiling.
The jacket lies on the floor in a clump. Sound of heavy breathing as the fabric rises and falls, rises and falls.
Brief tableaux. The jacket is back on the coatrack, but now the hat lies on the floor.
An old man with a long white beard wearing an undershirt, suspenders and trousers enters stage right. Manipulating a cane, he hobbles slowly across the room to the coatrack, bends over painfully, retrieves the hat, stands with a groan, hangs the hat on the coatrack, hobbles across the room, and exits stage left.
The same old man from SCENE 9 appears in SCENES 10-13. In this scene, he enters stage left, hobbles across the room to the coatrack, and puts on the jacket, which strangles him to death.
The jacket is back on the coatrack (as it is when the lights dim on in SCENES 12 and 13). The old man enters stage right, hobbles across the room, and puts on the jacket, which strangles him to death.
Trembling, the old man enters from the hole in the ceiling, climbing down the ladder one precarious rung at a time, with the cane tucked into an armpit. He hobbles to the coatrack and puts on the jacket, which strangles him to death.
The old man pushes open a trapdoor in the floor, crawls out of it, hobbles to the coatrack, removes the jacket, stares at the jacket, stares at the hole in the ceiling, stares at the jacket, and hangs it back up. He removes the hat, inspects it, places it on his head, and makes a face, pinching his wrinkled eyes shut . . . Nothing happens. Mumbling in consternation, he removes the hat, drops it on the floor, hobbles back to the trapdoor, crawls in, and shuts it behind him.
Father, Mother, Boy, Girl
This extended scene concerns a family of middle-aged parents and their young children.
FATHER wears a button-down shirt, tweed slacks, and black galoshes. MOTHER looks like an over-the-hill stripper in a tight, short dress and high-heels. A ten-year-old BOY and GIRL wear the same outfits. They are fraternal twins but look identical; only the girl's pigtails differentiate them.
FATHER enters stage right and staggers around the room in bewilderment. He gripes to himself as he regards the ladder and the hole in the ceiling. He kicks the ladder. It falls on him.
FATHER: Mother! Mother! I'm stuck! I'm stuck! Help! Help!
Followed by CHILDREN, MOTHER rushes into the room, shrieks, and falls down. She continues to shriek as she gets up, scanning the room in horror.
MOTHER: I broke my heel!
FATHER [squirming like a pinned insect]: Achtung, you people! Get this thing off of me! Get it off! I'm immobilized, by God!
MOTHER and CHILDREN scurry to the ladder. Together they lift it so FATHER can crawl out.
FATHER [standing]: Holy hell! I wasn't expecting that. Usually I'm ready for anything.
MOTHER [limping]: I can't walk right. My heel's broke and they took all my pumps!
FATHER: They took more than our clothes, Mother. They took our furniture. They took our appliances. They took our pictures and our carpet . . . They even took the monkey! Boo! Boo Radley, where are you! Goddamn it. They wrecked my ceiling, too, breaking in here. Only things they left behind were my hat, my dinner jacket, and the stick of wood I hang them on. Sons of bitches! [Picks up hat, slams it on coatrack.] How the hell am I supposed to eat dinner? There's no food. There's nothing to sit on. There's nothing to eat off of!
MOTHER: I had a casserole in the fridge.
FATHER: Casserole? Let's keep our eye on the ball, Mother. The refrigerator is gone. Hence the casserole is gone. It's part of history now. All we have to work with is the residual present and a potentially dangerous future.
MOTHER [pacing in an effort to fix her shoe]: This damn heel won't go back into place!
MOTHER: Stop yelling at them, dear! They love you!
FATHER: Apologies. Extreme circumstances beget extreme behavior.
CHILDREN run to FATHER and hug him.
FATHER: It will be all right once I get my dinner. I need a table and chair. I need food. I need satisfaction, is what I need. Achtung!
CHILDREN scamper offstage.
MOTHER removes her shoe and tries to fix the heel, jerking and tugging on it, grunting as if lifting a heavy rock. FATHER creeps up behind her, reaches under her arms, and begins to massage her breasts, sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully. Obsessed with the shoe, MOTHER ignores him.
When CHILDREN re-enter, FATHER abruptly releases his grip, throwing MOTHER off balance. She falls down and continues to struggle with the shoe on the floor.
GIRL drags a lightweight table into the room; behind her, BOY drags in a chair.
CHILDREN [seeing MOTHER]: Father!
FATHER: What wrong? What's the matter? She's my wife. She— [Notices table and chair.] Ah! Well done, children. I won't ask where you got them—a good day's work should never be put in question. But the day isn't over. Food!
CHILDREN scamper away.
FATHER [annoyed]: Goddamn it, Mother. Stop paying so much attention to that thing and arrange this table and chair so I can sit down for dinner.
Frustrated, MOTHER discards the shoe and breaks into tears.
FATHER [assisting MOTHER to her feet]: I'm here, darling. Don't fret. Let me help. [Removes other shoe and escorts her to the table.] There you are. I'll be sitting down in no time.
MOTHER [sniffling]: I'm sorry, dear. I don't know what's come over me. [Pushes the table to the center of the room next to the coatrack, then arranges the chair behind it, facing the audience.] Bon appetite.
FATHER: Let's not get ahead of ourselves. We'll see what the children muster from the kitchen of life. For now... [Strides to the table, sits in the chair, and allows MOTHER to push him in. Sighs deeply.] That's more like it. A man needs a proper seat before he can take the bull by the horns and make it his dog. [Laughing, MOTHER begins to rub his shoulders.] That feels good. That feels right. All will be well, Mother. Focus on the happy moments. They don't happen often, but I must remember that they do in fact happen. Otherwise I become fixated on the monotony of existence. Such a fixation produces anxiety. And anxiety—the root-cause of it, I mean—always ends in the same place: fear of the inevitability of death and nothingness. Fear of the Dark, Mother.
MOTHER: I don't like the Dark.
FATHER: I abhor the Dark.
MOTHER: I don't want to die.
FATHER: Everybody dies. That's life.
MOTHER: I don't want it to hurt.
FATHER: It might hurt. That's an important question. How much will it hurt? Once I'm gone, it doesn't matter. But it matters when it's happening.
MOTHER: Once you're gone, nothing matters. Not even what happened before you left.
FATHER [long pause]: That's a good point . . . and not a happy one. Where's my goddamn dinner! I hope the children don't forget wine. Punitive measures may be in order.
MOTHER [dreamily]: I could use a glass of wine.
Tableaux of MOTHER standing behind FATHER. Fists clenched on the table, he grimaces like an ape, whereas she smiles dumbly with her head tilted to one side.
Punctuated by a clash of brass instruments, an oval of light momentarily falls on the coatrack, blacking out MOTHER, FATHER, and the rest of the room.
Action resumes in slow motion. By degrees, MOTHER's hands pick up speed until we return to realtime. FATHER remains inert—stone-faced and statuesque.
MOTHER [squeezing an eye shut]: I have the worst headache. It's killing me.
FATHER: I don't believe in headaches. In any case, a headache can't kill you. Only the symptom can kill you. Only the dark matter lurking beneath the jigsaw pieces of your skull.
MOTHER: I don't like dark matter.
FATHER: I abhor dark matter.
MOTHER: I don't—
MOTHER is interrupted by CHILDREN, who return with dinner. Panting and disheveled, BOY has secured a half-empty bottle of wine, GIRL a shabby-looking rotisserie chicken. They circle the room in a frenzy. Shaking, they place the food and drink on the table in front of FATHER, cling to MOTHER, and await a response.
FATHER moves his gaze back and forth between the wine and the chicken, like a jeweler scrutinizing diamonds.
FATHER [impassive, fixated on the chicken]: Children? [CHILDREN whimper.] Children? [They whimper harder.] Children, you've done it! You've done it, by God! It's dinnertime!
Elated, MOTHER hugs CHILDREN, admiring them, then they all arrange themselves around the table and sit on the floor. FATHER closes his eyes and bows his head. Everybody follows suit.
FATHER: Lord? Please give me everything I want, when I want it, no matter why I want it or who it hurts. Lord? Please punish the interlopers who broke into my house and took all of my things. And Lord? Please bless Boo Radley. I already miss that son of a bitch. May he be swinging through the jungle of eternity. Amen.
MOTHER and CHILDREN: Amen.
MOTHER and CHILDREN push themselves to their knees so they can peer over the table and watch FATHER eat. He tears a drumstick from the chicken, sniffs it, turns it over in his hands, and brings it to his mouth.
FATHER: Wait. [Angrily flings drumstick into the audience.] I can't eat this! I'm naked! Mother, I'm naked! Achtung! Achtung!
MOTHER [gesticulating]: No you're not! You have clothes on! I can see them! Look!
BOY [terrified]: We can see them, Father!
GIRL [desperately]: You're all right, Father!
CHILDREN [in unison]: Please, Father, please!
FATHER: Goddamn it, you people! You know what I mean. What's wrong with all of you? This is dinner. A man can't rightly eat dinner without his dinner jacket.
MOTHER: Ah! [Jumps to her feet, loses balance and falls down. Jumps up and scrambles to the coatrack. Exclaims.] Here it is! [Removes jacket. Drones.] Here it is. [Steps behind FATHER. Whispers.] Here it is.
CHILDREN dive under the table and clench one another, trembling in fear.
FATHER [pushes himself from the table and extends arms]: Right.
MOTHER [tentatively]: Are you sure?
FATHER [irritably looks over shoulder]: Sure about what?
MOTHER: Well . . . technically you don't need a jacket to eat. In fact, even if you were naked—authentically naked, I mean—you could chew and swallow food. You could drink your drink, too.
FATHER: Authentically naked? Are you kidding me?
MOTHER: I don't know what to do . . . Should we put your hat on first?
FATHER: We? Hat? [Pauses.] Who wears a hat at dinner? Nobody!
MOTHER: I've seen men eat dinner with hats on. I've seen them!
FATHER: That's enough out of you, Mother. Give me that. [Snatches the jacket.]
Again the action resumes in slow motion as the father puts on the jacket and the wide-eyed mother backs further and further away from him. Sound of garbled instruments. Once he has his arms in the sleeves and buttons the jacket, we fast-forward to realitime.
FATHER [glances across the room at MOTHER and under the table at CHILDREN]: What's going on? What am I missing? Would you please stop acting like a bunch of weirdos? We're a family. Let's start pretending we're one.
Slowly MOTHER returns to the table and takes her spot on the floor as CHILDREN crawl out from underneath the table and take their spots. They all sit cross-legged and bury their heads in their laps.
FATHER: That's more like it. Now then. [Swigs wine from the bottle.] Disgusting. [Takes another swig and sets the bottle aside.] The second sip is always worse. I'll get to the third soon enough. [Tears off remaining drumstick from chicken and bites into it.] Ak! [Makes a face but continues to chew.] This tastes like my goddamn shoe. It's horrible! [Takes another bite, chewing with his mouth open.] I've eaten shitty birds before, but holy hell if this isn't the shittiest. Christ! [Takes another bite. Continues to eat and talk, occasionally using the lapel of the jacket to wipe grease from his mouth.] It doesn't matter, the taste of food and drink. It's fuel—that's how you have to think about it. If one gives one's taste buds too much leeway, the buds will entirely take over and have the run of the house. It's the same thing that happens to dictators with underdeveloped peckers. In order to compensate for their Great Lack, they conquer the world and turn it into their personal crapper. Do you hear me children? Taste buds are no different, the greedy whores. Give them an inch and they'll take an ell. Before you know it, all of the troops are dead and you're the size of a goddamn whale! Sons of bitches. If I were half the man that my father was, I'd yank my tongue from my mouth and throw it out the window. That's what I'd do. Nonetheless I persevere. I may not be my father, but I know how to control myself. Which is more than I can say for my mother. You should have seen her! Her footfalls were like meteor strikes. She would eat an entire rack of lamb in one sitting, supplementing the meat with a loaf of garlic bread and an entire key lime pie for dessert. Nary a vegetable entered the dining room on her watch. She hated fruit, too, and she only drank wine under protest, blaming her hangovers on the grapes. By God, I miss the old pig. Let me tell you something. If I were my mother, I—
A mouthful of chicken flies from FATHER's mouth as the jacket suddenly, viciously attacks him; the arms coil around his neck like tentacles, snapping the popcorn bones of his arms. Everybody screams. FATHER falls sideways from the chair and writhes on the floor. Still screaming, MOTHER and CHILDREN dash offstage
FATHER's scream weakens and dwindles to a loud gurgle as the jacket tightens its grip and eventually breaks his neck with a deafening, echoic crack.
A tall, muscular, age-weathered man wearing an orange prisoner jumpsuit and ankle chains enters stage right and removes everything from the room—table, chairs, coatrack, hat, ladder, jacket and corpse. He takes the items offstage one at a time. He puts on the hat before moving the coatrack. He drags the corpse of the father by the ankle. Finally he returns to the empty room, sweeps it with a giant industrial broom, and exits stage left.
Brief tableaux of the empty room. Offstage the sound of a windstorm and several exploding bombs.
Ick, Ink, Irk
Stage left, three homumculi slowly crawl into the room. They are naked and hairless with gills in their necks and ribs. No genitals. They speak to one another as they move around the room in straight lines, turning in different directions when they hit a wall upstage or run out of space downstage.
ICK: My gills aren't working, Ink.
INK: We're not underwater, Ick.
IRK: Where are we, Ink?
ICK: I don't know, Irk. I can't breathe.
INK: And yet you continue to live, Ick.
IRK: And breathe. Look at your chest, Ick. It's expanding and contracting. Like the universe.
ICK bends his neck and pushes his chin into the hollow of his clavicle, scrutinizing his chest. He runs into a wall.
IRK: Watch out, Ick. That's how saber-toothed tigers went extinct. They kept looking at their chests and slitting their own throats.
ICK: That's a myth, Irk!
INK: He's right, Irk.
ICK: Saber-toothed tigers died because they ran out of prey, Irk. Their favorite foods were horses and buffalo and they ate them until there weren't any left. This was about nine million years ago.
INK: You're wrong, Ick. Saber-toothed tigers died in the Quarternary extinction along with all of the horses and buffalo they preyed upon. It either had to do with climate change or the rise of humanity. People probably killed them.
INK: I know, Irk.
The homunculi crawl around stage for several minutes without a word.
ICK: My gills hurt, Ink. They're all dried out, Irk.
IRK: Gills can't dry out, Ick. They're not grapes.
INK: Anything can dry out, Irk. Don't be ridiculous.
IRK: What about sand? Can sand dry out, Ink? What about dry ice? It's already dry, Ink!
ICK: I can hear my heart beating in my chest, Ink. It doesn't feel right, Irk.
Lights flicker to the sound of a loud, telltale heartbeat, then return to normal.
ICK: I don't want to go extinct.
INK: You're not going to go extinct, Ick. Only groups of organisms can do that. Your heart is fine. When it stops beating, then we'll have something to talk about.
IRK: We've got too much to talk about as it is, Ink. If nothing else, we'll never get bored.
They crawl around stage for several minutes without a word.
ICK: It feels like something is missing . . .
INK: Under the anvil of extinction, only memory remains . . .
IRK: Memories are the exhaust fumes of the future of reality . . .
They crawl . . .
INK: Yes, Ick?
ICK makes a choking noise and crumples into himself with a crunch of bone. IRK emits a long, piercing screech as INK hurriedly crawls offstage.
Long tableaux of the empty room. Offstage the sound of a jungle at night.
Long tableaux of the empty room. Offstage the sound of thunder and lightning.
Long tableaux of the empty room. Offstage the sound of a barbershop quartet sings the following lyrics through a gramophone:
Westron wind, when will thou blow?
The small rain down can rain. Christ, that my love were in my arms, And I in my bed again.
As the quartet draws out the word “again,” the gramophone needle skips and the lyrics play from the beginning. This happens several times before the quartet finish “again” and the needle drags across empty vinyl.
Long tableaux of the empty room. Offstage the sound of dull surf.
Long tableaux of the empty room. Offstage the sound of crinkling tinfoil.
Long tableaux of the empty room.
Long tableaux of the empty room.
Stage left, a chimpanzee in a t-shirt lopes into the room and paces back and forth, as if looking for something. He pauses center stage. Pushing out his neck, he squints and blinks at the audience. There is a single word on the chest of the t-shirt, BOO, which is the same irradiated maroon color as the jacket and hat. The chimp hoots, grunts, gibbers and chortles, oscillating between glee and despair, then falls silent and exits stage right.
D. Harlan Wilson's work has appeared in the pages of The Cafe Irreal six times previously, and his story "Giraffe" was included in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader — Fiction and Essays from The Cafe Irreal (Guide Dog Books 2013). He can be visited online at www.dharlanwilson.com and www.thekyotoman.com. Comments on his book Three Plays (Black Scat Books 2016) were a part of Our Year of Reading at the Irreal Cafe.