April 16, 2012 § 1 Comment
Sunset, South Philly charlescushing.com
I went to a truly dreadful play last night, which I’m not going to name because it didn’t make me feel vindictive toward the playwright, as some bad plays do.
Delilah thought it was interesting, and I can see why; the acting was excellent and the things I found most unbearable—the endless silences—might have affected me in a welcome manner when I was younger and/or in a different mood.
Stage set: lower middle class Italian living room in South Philly, 1986. Two actors: an old man, his grown son. A silence of about 15 minutes, very like the silences in real family life, but I was going nuts because I hated what was in my head and I didn’t want to be forced to sit and stare at others hating what was in their heads, without even knowing what it was.
Finally, a little talk. Chit. Chat. Chit….. It’s after a funeral. The father’s a fuckhead, the son anxious and placating—“You want a drink, Pa? You want a sandwich? Huh? Pa?”—still living at home and covered in bruises which you slowly see as he takes off one piece of clothing after another (it’s just us guys, it’s hot). You find out eventually that he gets in fights but doesn’t hit back. I spend a lot of time examining the color of the bruises. They’re much too red. Lipstick? We’re sitting very close to the stage, marked only by carpeting, not raised or set back.
The wife/mother died. There was also a daughter who died a long time ago, hit by a “spic-nigger drunk driver” at 13; no clue as to what she was like. Just daughter/sister/icon. Now her overweight brother plays with a ouija board and has visions of her coming back, eating ice cream. The father drinks, smokes his cigar while wearing goggles to protect his eyes, goes upstairs for a nap. You know the kind of guy. Older son arrives from Pittsburgh too late for the funeral. It was the trains. It was on purpose. Trains respond to drama.
Long silence. “You got fat.” “You got thin.” Silence. Younger brother tells older brother he leaves notes on the sidewalk where the sister died, pushed into the cracks. Silence. “You want me to add your name? I can go back and add your name.”
“NO.” Some yelling, drinking. Silence.
Father comes back downstairs, informs his newly arrived son and the audience that years ago this son killed the “spic-nigger drunk driver” (good) then told his mother what he did (very bad) and went to jail, though it’s not clear if the mother had anything to do with that. After he gets out of jail he tells his mother he did it because his father told him he had to in order to be a man (very, very bad) and because of that—after a while?—she kills herself. Nobody disputes this assertion, nor does the older son react to the throat-slit- with-a-steak knife detail, which is properly melodramatic for an Italian mother, perhaps, but it made me laugh.
Father goes to bed, having completed the exposition. The brothers talk, argue, dance, drink a lot, you can’t hear the talk over the music (I forgot to tell you about the music: not bad music, but lots of starts and stops, needle on and off the record, annoying as all hell) so I stopped paying attention, then the killer jailbird brother shoots himself in the head while behind the couch. It took me a while to understand that’s why I couldn’t see him anymore. When the other brother lifted him up, blood seeping through his fingers, I laughed again.
End of act one. I get chastised for walking on the “stage” during intermission. Delilah explains that it’s still the stage, the magic space of the play (she didn’t say magic) and I know that; that’s why I walked on it. Besides the fact that it was the shortest way out and I didn’t notice.
Long hike to the restrooms; you have to go outside. Delilah has a cigarette. Says her mother tells her she looks like a sugar bowl. It takes me awhile to get it: hair scraped back, ears sticking out. A sugar bowl is not what I see.
Act two, no deaths, just another post-funeral feast of silence. (Delilah reminds me, “a cute 8 year old boy.”) True. Also a living woman, the new widow. You can imagine them. The widow has all the stand-up lines, whips the old bastard into shape, briefly. When the two inhabitants of the family home—that they will reside in forever—are alone again, the plump son attempts to strangle his father. The strangling goes on for a long time, meant to be suspenseful, then the son jumps back, the old man coughs and the not-killer-material eternal Peter Pan (with bruises) asks Pa if he wants a sandwich.
It was a lovely, blossom-scented April evening, 72 degrees, and always a pleasure to see Delilah.
Everyone loves a story. Let’s begin with a house.
We can fill it with careful rooms and fill the rooms
with things—tables, chairs, cupboards, drawers
closed to hide tiny beds where children once slept
or big drawers that yawn open to reveal
precisely folded garments washed half to death,
unsoiled, stale, and waiting to be worn out.
There must be a kitchen, and the kitchen
must have a stove, perhaps a big iron one
with a fat black pipe that vanishes into the ceiling
to reach the sky and exhale its smells and collusions.
This was the center of whatever family life
was here, this and the sink gone yellow
around the drain where the water, dirty or pure,
ran off with no explanation, somehow like the point
of this, the story we promised and may yet deliver.
Make no mistake, a family was here. You see
the path worn into the linoleum where the wood,
gray and certainly pine, shows through.
Father stood there in the middle of his life
to call to the heavens he imagined above the roof
must surely be listening. When no one answered
you can see where his heel came down again
and again, even though he’d been taught
never to demand. Not that life was especially cruel;
they had well water they pumped at first,
a stove that gave heat, a mother who stood
at the sink at all hours and gazed longingly
to where the woods once held the voices
of small bears—themselves a family—and the songs
of birds long fled once the deep woods surrendered
one tree at a time after the workmen arrived
with jugs of hot coffee. The worn spot on the sill
is where Mother rested her head when no one saw,
those two stained ridges were handholds
she relied on; they never let her down.
Where is she now? You think you have a right
to know everything? The children tiny enough
to inhabit cupboards, large enough to have rooms
of their own and to abandon them, the father
with his right hand raised against the sky?
If those questions are too personal, then tell us,
where are the woods? They had to have been
because the continent was clothed in trees.
We all read that in school and knew it to be true.
Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows
of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes
into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,
there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles
of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.