The Middle-Aged Mariner – short play

CHARACTERS
The Stranger, a man in his 30’s or 40’s, dressed neatly in windbreaker and dress slacks.
The Man, in his late 40’s or 50’s, wearing an inexpensive suit; his shirt is open at the collar and his tie is pulled loose. He is slightly overweight, with a tendency to be overbearing.

SETTING
A small table in a public place—New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. Crowd
noises are heard, as well as an occasional announcement: “Please keep packages and luggage with you at all times. Report suspicious items to police.”

(The Stranger is sitting at the table, a paper plate with some pie crumbs and a plastic fork in front of him. He has packages with him, wrapped in brown paper, on the table and on the floor in a shopping bag. The Man comes by, holding a briefcase and a cardboard container of coffee.)

MAN
Mind if I sit?

(The Stranger is silent but gestures agreeably at the inevitable, since the Man is already seating himself across from him at the table.)

It’s crowded this evening.
These people will take root if security doesn’t
move them out. Myself, I prefer communicating
with my fellow citizens. Please, indulge me
a moment.

(The Stranger gets up.)

No, don’t!

(He gestures expansively for the Stranger to sit.)

Please—
there’s always another bus.

(The Stranger, cautious, sits. The Man impulsively pushes the container of coffee toward him.)

Here—relax—drink this coffee—it’s yours.

(Responding politely to the Man’s actions, the Stranger takes one sip. In order
not to show his displeasure, he controls his face—and smiles his thanks—but he
doesn’t touch the coffee again.)

I hope you like it sweet—it’s cream and five
sugars. You’re the first person I’ve had the pleasure
of conversation with this evening. Usually
my words erupt like bubbles from ginger ale—
if I shut my lips, my mouth would burst.

Yet I didn’t speak till I was five years old—
you see, I was silent from fear of committing myself—
of releasing an expression of my spirit into the irrational
family maelstrom, my parents as likely to paddle me
for a deed that I thought good
as to shower me with kisses and hugs.

(The Stranger opens his mouth to speak, but the Man pushes on.
The Stranger smiles, tying to be agreeable.)

The winter day I spend assembling a loving
valentine for my mother—while she sleeps off
the previous night’s alcoholic indulgence—
does she upon waking utter oo’s and ah’s
of appreciation? No! She rages at the scraps
on the carpet, the flour on the pantry shelf (I made
my paste from flour and water). Is it any wonder,
with the world impossible to make odds on, I deem it
the superior part of valor to swallow any impulse
to speak?

(Waits, staring, until the Stranger smiles in agreement.)

Of course, disturbed by my silence,
my parents had my ears tested, as well as my intellect.
It wasn’t like the old joke—the boy who says
at age six, “This oatmeal is cold.” His mother asks,
“Why didn’t you speak until today?”
and the boy replies, “Everything was fine!”

(Laughs heartily. The Stranger good-naturedly joins in the laughter.
He is now intimidated and resigned.)

No! I became enraged by my father’s verbal
abuse of my mother—and I yelled at him:
“Go drink your whisky and go to bed!”

Tell me, are you familiar with Piaget Avenue [Pie-AJJ-itt]
near Passaic? Passaic is sometimes pronounced Puh-SAKE,
but Pie-AJJ-itt is always Pie-AJJ-itt. The spelling
is P-I-A-G-E-T,
same as the philosopher, of course.
I earned a scholarship from Passaic High School
to Columbia University—a long bus and subway ride
morning and evening—a ride, in effect, from one world
to another.

Not a bad achievement, you say,
and I was holding my own, till the assignment
of a text by the noted Swiss philosopher
with the same name as our lowly thoroughfare.
In class—an attempt, I confess, at showing off—
I told the instructor: “I don’t agree with a certain
proposition stated by Pie-AJJ-itt.”

The others began snickering, then laughing out loud—
those glib prep-school degenerates and loquacious
alumni of Stuyvesant High School. The instructor
said, in a kindly way: “We usually pronounce it
Pee-ah-ZHAY,” but his eyes were sparkling at the others.
They haunt me to this day, those loathsome syllables:
Pee-ah-ZHAY! Pee-ah-ZHAY!!! Pee-ah-ZHAY!!!!!!

(He is scaring the Stranger with this shouting. The Stranger looks
around to see if the commotion is noticed. It isn’t.)

That night, on the bumpy, endless ride to Passake,
my anger expanded to a giant sphere of fury
and pain. The next day I withdrew myself
from Columbia University.

You’ve barely taken
a sip of your coffee . . . . Well, I married my wife
because she happened to be a good listener.
Soon after we wed, I learned the price of a good
listener’s attention: she expected me to listen
in return! Life became hell. Then she read
an article entitled: “Sign a Contract with
Your Mate.” After a month’s negotiation,
we agreed on the Equal Time Amendment: for every
five minutes by the clock I listened to her,
she would listen to me for five.

My wife,
meanwhile, is a jealous woman. She imagines
I’m conducting a passionate amorous affair
with every woman I telephone on business
or nod hello to on the street. And yet I never—
in all my married life—had anything you would call
an affair, so help me God, except maybe once
or twice. But you should hear the Little Woman:
“You were staring at her chest!” she’ll say, or,
“Why at the holiday party was conversation
with Mrs. Blankenship so interesting?” Hearing out
her allotted segments became unbearable.

To escape
her questions . . . her suspicions, I took long drives
into the city. Mostly I sought a kind ear to talk to—
to share insights regarding the human condition.
Often my explorations ended in that lonely hour,
as the earth spins through its monotonous orbit,
when a clerk on the graveyard shift might tear a leaf
from the calendar, or his computer will register
a higher number for the date. In brief, at midnight.

I saw on certain streets, as you drove to the Lincoln
Tunnel, young women standing on the sidewalks.
They package themselves in provocative manner—
even in cold weather wearing skirts
that barely cover the merchandise.

(The Stranger looks at his watch, observes the Man still intensely
speaking, and settles back in his chair.)

I notice
at curbside a charming individual with light blonde hair
and large blue eyes . . . and a little skirt
of black plastic poorly disguised as leather.
I instantly become interested in her character, her soul,
the humanity of her face and the sadness of her large,
sweet eyes. Also, her behind is round and appetizing,
I confess I notice that as well.

So I pull
to the curb. We negotiate a fee which is not
unreasonable, though it’s conversation I’m in
the market for, and not, I swear, her usual
line of goods.

(He sighs.)

My friend, I see you’re not
partaking of your coffee. Some people
don’t drink or eat when they listen, fearing
distraction, and you, sir, are a very good listener.

(The Stranger starts to get up. The Man holds up one hand to stop him and with his other hand pulls something wrapped in waxed paper from his briefcase. He partially unfolds the wrapping and places it before the Stranger. It is a brownie. As the Man resumes speaking, he gestures for the Stranger to eat; he does so, taking one small piece at a time.)

I’ll omit the details of our relationship on that
and subsequent evenings, when I excuse myself
from home and hearth and find her at her post—
which is not often, since Baby Hot Stuff (needless
to say, not her actual name) is,
because of her provocative waif quality,
a busy lady. But how she listens to me!—
in addition to the standard transaction—which we
observe, since her pimp would beat her if her earnings
proved insufficient for the evening.

As time goes on, I begin to crave her company,
often driving 80 or 90 times
around her usual block before nosing
my lonely Buick into Lincoln Tunnel
and home.

Each time we meet, the conversation
involves me more intensively in her life.
You can’t imagine the deprivation, the humiliations
of her existence, often merely to keep her pimp,
Big Herbert, supplied with his cocaine.

(The mention of “cocaine” makes the Stranger look around nervously.)

One morning we’re in her apartment. A surprisingly
elegant building, though the bedroom is tiny,
large enough only for her bed. With an easy-listening
station on her radio, it’s like making love
in an elevator. This is a sacred memory, sir . . .
Baby Hot Stuff sitting on my chest
while a choir sings “Killing Me Softly” . . .

(The Stranger is about to warily get up—but the Man breaks out of
his reverie and begins again forcefully.)

I give her my telephone number, assuming
some day she’ll wish to escape that life, and whom
should she call but someone with a fatherly interest,
who’ll refer her to an agency for counseling
regarding alternative careers? Imagine
my astonishment, then, one evening,
when the Little Woman confronts me
with the following item: Big Herbert has telephoned!

I assume he beat Baby Hot Stuff mercilessly
to divulge the number I gave in trusting confidence.
Big Herbert supplied sufficient particulars
to render protestations of innocence vain.

And my wife has chosen to punish me! We carry on
our accustomed domestic routine—but she tortures me
by refusing to listen to me! However much
I yearn to share the details of my daily rounds
or a tidbit of my philosophy, she turns
a deaf ear and blank eye to my words.
Life, my friend, which was sweet, has soured.

Big Herbert, as it happens, perished in a brawl
with a professional associate, so I made
a mere handful of the payments he demanded.
Baby Hot Stuff, it pains me to say, is nowhere
to be found. She told a colleague she was going home
to Minnesota—icy Minnesota,
where the cold will preclude her wearing her tiny skirt!
And yet the frost of Minnesota’s nothing
compared to the mist that froze around my heart.

So that’s why, sir, I travel this world—
just the five boroughs and portions of New Jersey,
and only during hours outside my daily
employment—and I seek out those whose eyes assure
I may speak and they will listen. And this is what
I’ve learned: no matter the pain it causes, or the trouble,
we need to share ourselves in the only way
we have: with words. What else do we have? Am I right?
Am I right?! Tell me, sir, am I right?

(A pause. The Stranger is looking at him, hoping for a chance to escape.)

We can move away from Piaget Avenue, [Pie-AJJ-itt]
but it sticks to us like gum on the sole of your shoe.
And that’s a good thing! It’s who we are,
godammit! The chemicals of New Jersey flow
through my veins! Its hydrocarbons inflate my lungs.
till my final breath!

Consider sir, the oyster!
Just as its secretions will transform
the grain of sand after months and years
into a gleaming pearl, so our memories,
painful or ecstatic, loving or humiliating,
tumbled around in long nights without sleep—
in time these memories become treasures
for the jewel box of the mind. They won’t create
bright sparks, no, but the jagged edges
are worn down, coated with a beautiful surface.
We can touch them, roll them through our fingers,
catch glimpses of the fire with which they glow.

And when I share my philosophy—I guarantee
it’s not the philosophy of M’sieur Pee-ah-ZHAY!—
maybe a kernel takes root for the future. That will justify
my story and my life—for an hour, a day,
a week perhaps. I’m like the Ancient Mariner—
remember him from school?—stopping everyone
he can, reminding them about water water
everywhere, and how each of us must love
creatures both big and small. I’m not ancient yet—
not quite—but I tell my story.

Well, thank you for your time, my friend . . . .

(He smiles at the Stranger who, seeing he has settled back and is silent,
rises—tentatively at first.)

STRANGER
Por favor, señor . . . Gracias por el café.

(Apologetically, with a gesture to his ear)

Yo no entiendo Ingles.

(Pointing toward the departure gates)

Mi autobus ya sale.

(As he gathers his packages)

Por favor . . . Por favor . . .

(He goes hurriedly. The Man is dumfounded for a long moment. Then he turns to address someone—in the direction of the audience—who is not visible.)

MAN
May I interrupt? Indulge me a moment.
You’re the first person I’ve had the pleasure
of conversation with tonight . . . .

(The lights dim out.)

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