by Edward Crosby Wells
For Ron, my companion in life,
who knew the best of me and the worst of me;
and for my brothers, Richard and Michael,
who never knew me at all.
The first image I recall is the jungle tree.
The jungle tree is in my mind. My mind is somewhere in or around this body. Who really knows about that sort of thing—the mind? It’s not really the brain, is it? I think with my brain. But, it is the “I”—the mind—doing the thinking. Is the mind the remembrance of all that which passed through the brain? I believe it is, at least in part. So, being of a mind to explore and sort through the memories contained herein, I begin.
The jungle tree represents something known in youth before becoming lost in time and space. Its branches brushed against our house on a farm known as Greyridge Farm in Stony Point, New York—a short commute from New York City; less than a forty-five minute drive at most anybody’s speed in those days. The jungle tree was a gigantic weeping catalpa with large thick leaves and covered with bean pods that grew to a foot or more in length.
Once inside the jungle tree all heaven could break loose, yet not one drop of it would penetrate its leafy umbrella. Its roots ran wide and deep. The jungle tree, the house and the farm are gone. They survive in the mind. But, it is the jungle tree I remember most vividly. The jungle tree that concealed a table filled with tea things and chairs for visitors who would enter into this world of mine from time to time for refreshment in the quiet summer shade of antiquity.
My earliest memory of that tree is in the late nineteen forties. Mom and Pop called it the “umbrella tree,” but, for me, it was and is the jungle tree. I don’t remember who it was named it “the jungle tree.” It could have been me or it could have been Aunt Pearle who—being about five years older—could well have been the one who named it. Certainly, the “tea things” were, quite naturally, hers. The short of it is I remember it as “the jungle tree.”
I was born Edward Crosby Wells on October 19, 1944 at 11:10 AM (a breach) in the Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, New York. “Crosby” is not a family name but rather an expression of my mother’s infatuation with the singer Bing.
Martin Jones, whom we referred to as “the English gentleman,” was a playwright, producer and theatre owner who owned the house directly across the road from our farm. The English gentleman used it primarily as a summer escape from New York City and for weekend retreats during the remainder of the year. Van Johnson, Helen Hayes, Mitch Miller and Gloria Swanson were but a few of the frequent celebrated guests of Mr. Jones and were, from time to time, guests of my grandmother, Florence Elizabeth Blake, who had become personal friends with them, especially with Miss Hayes and her playwright husband, Charles MacArthur. (Parenthetically, I wouldn’t learn till after my grandmother’s death when she was well into her eighties that her middle name was, according to her birth certificate, Elaurene and not Elizabeth. For me it will remain Elizabeth.)
My grandfather was a tenant farmer. By that I mean the house came with the job. I was a brown-eyed pudgy kid with the nicknames of Bing and Bingo, depending on whom it was speaking directly or referring to me. More often than not, whomever it was would find me serving imaginary tea to imaginary folk in the embracing solitude of the jungle tree. There were times, however, when I may have served “real” tea under the jungle tree to aunts Helen and Gloria and to my “real” aunts, Pearle and Edna. I say “may have served” because I am not sure if the images were planted there from my grandmother’s stories, or if the memories are indeed true. I don’t see my mother in any of those early memories. Odd. In any case, I still love tea parties, Oscar Wilde and cucumber sandwiches. Sometimes, as an alternative to Sunday brunch Ron—my companion in life—and I will treat ourselves to Sunday afternoon high tea. What fun.
Recently, I saw on one of the cable channels a Miss Marple adventure from the mid-nineteen eighties starring Miss Helen Hayes. Her resemblance to Mom in her later years was striking. Not only were they contemporaries, they seemed to share a common sensibility—a certain agreeable charm and stature, a naturally keen intelligence mixed with an aura of genuine goodness. There also was an impish glint in their eyes that told of something shrewd and cunning—something of the fox.
For a while my father, Richard Conrad Wells, was in military jail for going AWOL from the army before WWII was officially declared over. That explains why my mother and I still lived with Mom and Pop as we would, off and on, for many years to follow. My mother Ada Marie, who would change her middle name to Maria with the addition of Teresa upon converting to Catholicism, had two younger sisters, Pearle Elizabeth and Edna Mae, and a younger brother, Howard Spencer Weyant whom everybody called Buddy. Pearle, the youngest, was from Mom’s second marriage to her childhood sweetheart, Rufeard Blake, after suffering the abuse of the violent and ill-tempered Howard Weyant, the elder. I never knew my genetic grandfather, but his dark and brooding genes still haunt me to this day. Rumor has it that he died penniless, alone and insane; a source of fear and anxiety I have had and continue to have for my own fate. My mother, his firstborn, would be first to fall victim to the gravitational pull of genetics. She would make me an accomplice in her suicide some years later—a few weeks shy of my twelfth birthday.
At times, I feel as though I am that jungle tree; spreading my ambiguous branches, protecting a place within where I go and—on occasions of illuminated introspection—serve tea and crackers, or whatever other lovely goodies there are in season, to perfect strangers. It has always been my nature to serve and to entertain, as I like being served and entertained. As a boy I would invent backyard carnival rides for my cousins and for my brothers who would come along much later; I loved carnivals. I would spend two high school summers traveling with a carnival. As an adult I would teach myself to write plays because I love the sound of the English language and I love Theatre. For me, the English language is filled with magical words that, when combined just so, can build a bridge to God. Or, so I think in my often other-worldly state of mind. Theatre is my place for service and worship. Playwriting is my way of reaching out to God. When you reach the end, when all is said and done, I pray these memoirs are heard as something better than a tower of babble.
Neither a history nor an autobiography, these are the conjured images and memories of this playwright. Do not mistake them for fact. By nature, according to me, a playwright must listen between the lines—there is where the story is told. The playwright deals in the poetry and the ambiguity of a truth that is a reflection of the reality of a specific character, time and place. At least, this playwright does. Therefore, we are not talking about the truth of that so-called “reality” we all have supposedly agreed upon, but rather the truth and the reality of an individual character; the truth of the state of mind of the observer. Truth in this sense is quite subjective. Facts—‘though I will endeavor to present them as accurately and unambiguously as this much-underused brain will allow—are of lesser importance as they fall more into the realm of prose for which I may prove to know little. The playwright steps into the shoes of a character and, if he or she is a good playwright, channels the truth of that character. Allow me to channel myself.
The elements that have gone into the character of this playwright are what I wish to conjure and to examine. It is the essence of this playwright’s journey that I wish to evoke—perhaps, to summon a familiar spirit in the reader as well.
I am a jungle tree.
Beyond the jungle tree was the graveled dirt road upon which I would travel countless times during those early years. The road or “the lane” as we called it, connected the farm proper with the seminary of its owners, the Salesian Order of Roman Catholic priests. Years before I ventured to journey along that lane alone, I would walk with my mother to the seminary where she was studying with Father John in preparation for her conversion from Methodist to Catholic. I don’t remember ever walking hand-in-hand with my mother. Perhaps I was too busy hopping from rock to rock and turning them over to see what lay hidden or crawled beneath. We would walk past the barns and the machine shop, past open fields where cows grazed and meandered seemingly endlessly, before crossing over the footbridge while a small stream fed the pond where my mother would often stop to gather watercress. Watercress sandwiches were a favorite delicacy served in the cool shadows under the jungle tree between wedges of my grandmother’s homemade bread spread thick with freshly churned butter.
In autumn we would rest on the wooden seat beneath the grape arbor before continuing our journey past the cherry, pear and apple orchards on either side of the lane. There, in the quiescence of the arbor, we would feast on large concord grapes, sun-warmed and juicy-sweet. Then, onward through the orchards where the white and pink blossoms scented the breeze with the unsullied fragrance of spring before giving way to the luscious and more pungent scent of fallen fruit in autumn.
Just beyond the orchards was the evergreen forest with the year-round scent of pine. This was my favorite part of the journey because through the woods were carefully cut trails that led to clearings where the Stations of the Cross were erected. There were cool stone benches to languish upon and gather our strength in the serenity of the pine while Jesus made his way towards his crucifixion. As I got older and traveled this well-known route on my own, hours would pass in communion with the spirits of the forest. And, spirits of the forest there were. There was the white swooping bird spirit that brought with it a sense of belonging, the screeching black bird spirit that brought uneasiness and dread, the spirit of the wind speaking through the rustling of leaves; spirits in all of nature communicating and all divine aspects of God. It was a time of being and knowing; before the age of reason came and explained it all away.
When we arrived at the seminary there were always brothers and priests to greet us and to escort my mother to her lessons with Father John while I was left in the care of these convivial men who watched over me as though I were their collective son. As though I, too, was a prince of the church. We ran. We played tag. We played hide-and-go-seek. We hugged and I was, in spirit and in body, lifted high into the air. It was a time of very great joy. It was a time to savor. It was a time that would not last. It was a time to marvel at Nature and Creation. It was a time.
One of the great marvels was the giant sleeping statue behind the mansion of the seminary. This stone icon was never designed to stand erect but rather to rest eternally prone in the carefully pruned meditative-garden of the Salesians. I remember it only as “statue” and nothing more. I do not remember whether the statue was male or female, but I seem to remember that the prone figure and the coffer in which it lay were carved of a single stone. If not, it should have been.
When my mother was finished with her lessons for the day she and Father John would find me and then the three of us would walk the Stations of the Cross before he left the two of us to continue our languorous journey home. Father John would take my hand into his and speak in his pleasant Italian accent with a low voice that soothed and reverberated with warmth and charm. I remember loving his melodious voice. I seem to remember loving him—if feeling joy and happiness in the presence of another human being constitutes an aspect of love.
The woods have always been a special and mystical place for me. Until leaving the farm to join the navy much—if not most—of my youth was spent in the woods hiding, crying, listening to the sounds of nature, smelling the sweet and pungent scent of earth, communing with the surrounding life—visible and invisible—and experimenting with sex. As a child I was tenacious in my belief that not only did I communicate in the silence of thought with trees, but they in turn spoke with unfaltering voices and with certitude to me. They shared their secrets and instructed me on the nature of Nature. They imparted one dizzying revelation after another.
Sadly, those life-altering revelations are long lost to conscious recall; nothing mystical to report, at least for the moment. Perhaps one day those revelations will once again come to mind attended by the half-remembered yet long-forgotten rapture of a higher knowledge. However, one bit of information told to me while in one of my altered states was that long before Darwin’s monkey there was the tree—our true and ancient, vastly conscious ancestor. That, of course, should strike one odd since those of us who think and move freely about do not tend to think of ourselves as vegetable (although I’ve known some who definitely fall into that category, including times in my own life). We are mineral and vegetable, as well as animal. We are all things separated only by our limited senses. And, on a certain and collective level, we are one and indivisible. I remember the consciousness of the One. I remember knowing. There remains a belief in the memory of a “higher knowledge.” I would forget that for many years until falling “victim” to the drug-crazed days of the Sixties and Seventies when I would once again find myself under the tutelage of a wise and ancient pine.
The gods all looked like Tony Curtis
My earliest theatrical memory is that of a puppet show put on by the brothers over at the seminary. I remember it being colorful, having music and involving Jesus. It would be more than a year later before my next theatrical experience when I would make my acting debut as a vegetable containing wondrous vitamins in our first grade play at Saint Something’s in Haverstraw, New York. I attended, on average, two schools per year the first five years of my schooling—some years as many as three—and every other one of them was named after a saint; there were also the Our Ladies of Something and the Hearts—Sacred, Blessed and Bleeding. This moving from one school to another all had to do with my father’s inability to hold a job and our living like gypsies. I inherited the inability-to-hold-a-job gene from my father.
Shortly after my mother and I were baptized in the Roman Catholic faith, my father was discharged from the army and returned to us. It took no time at all to learn to fear him and to hate him as only a child can hate. Hate in a child lingers long and is often fierce. Leaving Tampa [circa 1990] addresses our tumultuous relationship. My father shows up elsewhere in my work, but it was from writing Tampa that a catharsis transpired and quite literally transformed my life and my work in its wake. Central to its theme is learning to forgive others. One premise being that it is through our forgiveness of others that we learn to accept and love ourselves. I did not set out with that premise in mind. I simply wanted to explore my relationship with my father. The catharsis was an unexpected reward. When the person needing forgiveness is a mother or a father, it is an especially difficult task and yet an especially important one in order to get on with the day-to-day business of our lives. Sometimes it is reconciliation with our God; now that’s a big one. Leaving Tampa attempts to deal with all of the above. What is most pleasing is that many have told me how that little play had changed their lives. This is, for me, what Theatre with a capital “T” ought to be about.
Below is an excerpt—the last passage of the play. Note that Marc and Roy are lovers and Wayne is the ghost of the dead father of Roy whom only Roy can see. They are having lunch in an airport restaurant while waiting to leave Tampa.
WAYNE: Feel your life. Grab it.
MARC: The pain you cause is just too much for me, sometimes.
WAYNE: Touch it. Touch him.
ROY: I'm afraid. . . .
MARC: I know he treated you and your mother like shit.
WAYNE: Touch him. Touch life.
MARC: But, it's over. Finished. For God's sake, Roy, let it go.
WAYNE: Break the pattern, monkey. Break the pattern.
ROY: You set the pattern!
WAYNE: It was set long before me. I never began to do to you what they did to me.
ROY: You expect me to feel sorry?
WAYNE: I expect you to feel life! Don't be responsible for another's tears!
MARC: Break the chains.
WAYNE: You want someone to blame? Here I am . . . your daddy. But, nothing's going to change until you break the cycle.
ROY: Don't you understand? I'm afraid.
WAYNE: Of what?
ROY: Of ending up like you!
WAYNE: There are worse things.
ROY: I'm afraid of ending up old -- nothing but old -- and derelict, telling anybody who will listen what I could have been. . . .
MARC: Please, Roy. Please. . . .
WAYNE: You're about to commit one of the greatest crimes of all, monkey.
ROY: . . .I could have been . . . happy. . . .
WAYNE: You are about to make another human being cry. Believe me, that's a tough one to forgive. . . .Remember why you called me here? (Putting pressure on ROY's shoulders.)
ROY: You're hurting me.
MARC: I never wanted to hurt you, Roy. But, most of what you feel, you do to yourself.
ROY: I never called you here. I came to your funeral because I'm your son. For Christ's sake! Why didn't you let me know you were dying?
WAYNE: What good would it have done?
ROY: There was so much I wanted to say to you.
WAYNE: (Crosses back to his table.) Then, say it. Say it, monkey. Say it. (He sits.)
ROY: I can't. You're dead. You're dead.
MARC: Roy, are you going to be all right?
ROY: Yes. No. I don't know. . . .
MARC: I think we'd better leave.
ROY: In a minute.
WAYNE: Say it.
MARC: The plane. . . .
ROY: To who? You're dead, you sonofabitch! You're dead.
MARC: We don't want to miss the plane.
WAYNE: To your lover, monkey boy. Say it.
ROY: I can't.
WAYNE: Cat got your tongue?
ROY: No. . . .We won't miss the plane.
WAYNE: You sure are a tough nut to crack!
ROY: My father is dead.
WAYNE: You're all alone, now. Got no one but yourself . . . and your mate, if you're lucky. Do you feel lucky, boy?
ROY: (Trying to hold back the tears.) He's dead. He's really dead.
MARC: I know. I know.
WAYNE: Come on, monkey. Feel it. Feel it, boy. Feel it. It's your life. It's all yours . . . and only yours. It's in your own hands, son.
ROY: I . . . I. . . .
WAYNE: Say it!
ROY: Am I really so abusive?
MARC: Is the Pope a heretic?
ROY: I don't mean to be.
MARC: I know that. I'm sure the Pope doesn't, either.
ROY: I just get crazy, you know?
MARC: I know.
ROY: Crazy . . . like my father used to get with my mother and me.
MARC: I know.
ROY: It's like he's inside me sometimes . . . acting out all his hostility.
MARC: He's dead now. Maybe . . . maybe, you can let him go.
ROY: I wanted to tell him I understood him. I wanted to tell him that I've walked in his shoes. I wanted to tell him that I understand. I wanted to tell him so much. Now, he'll never know. Never.
MARC: I'm sure he already knows all you had to tell him, Roy.
WAYNE: I do, son. I do.
ROY: I'll try, Marc. I'll really try. I want us to make it. I don't want to lose you. I really don't want this to end . . . us to end.
MARC: Nor do I. . . .Ready?
ROY: Yes. I'm ready. Now.
MARC and ROY rise and walk upstage toward exit. They stop for a moment and then ROY turns around and comes back to the table. He reaches into his pocket and takes out a couple dollars and lays them down on the table for a tip.
ROY (Continues. To WAYNE.) I'll try.
WAYNE: I know you will. (ROY turns to leave. After a pause.) Hey! (ROY turns back) That's a good beginning.
ROY: Yes. Yes it is. . . .Thank you. . . .Dad.
THEY embrace and kiss fully on the mouth.
WAYNE: Goodbye. . . .Son.
ROY picks up the hand luggage, turns and crosses to MARC. They exit as LIGHTING slowly begins to dim.
The idea of Theatre as Temple is not a new one. The fact that the early Roman Catholic Church banned theatre and then recreated their own kind of theatricality downstage of the sacrificial altar suggests an irony that has not gone unappreciated by this writer. However, magic in Theatre is almost as rare as unicorns. Almost never does the playwright alone create magic. The playwright, director, actors, designers, and the audience must align like planets in syzygy on the appointed moment to transport the attending spirits into the rarefied atmosphere of the Temple of Magic. I have been fortunate enough to experience this magic on more than one occasion. The original productions of Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice and Terrence McNally’s Master Class come quickly to mind. Albee’s Three Tall Women requires only the reading to summon magic. I was a young man of twenty in the winter of ’64 when, stunned and in ecstasy, I leaned toward my companion in the back row of the orchestra in the Billy Rose Theatre in New York City after watching a preview performance of Tiny Alice and said, “Bobby, I’m going to be a playwright.” And so I did and so I am. Thank you, Mr. Albee.
Few other moments in this playwright’s life are as indelible. There is the moment I heard of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. There is the time I was arrested and hauled off to jail for criminal sexual contact of a minor. There is the collapsing of the twin towers of the World Trade Center that I had watched years earlier slowly rise into the lower Manhattan skyline from the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights where I was living at the time. There is the terrible hurricane that brought devastation to Louisiana and Mississippi—most notably an abrupt end to the city of New Orleans as we knew it. And, there is another: September 26, 1956. All will be addressed, through-and-through, in due course.
Sometime in 1948 or ’49, the Wells family set up housekeeping. Helen Hayes had gone off to London, I would later learn to play the mother in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. My mother was now a “converted” Catholic and the rest of our Methodist family was no longer eligible to enjoy as much as the speculation of heavenly redemption. When you are a converted Catholic, merely being a Christian is no longer any guarantee of salvation. For that fortunate peace of mind one must be Catholic. My mother’s zeal, more than a half century after her death, remains unmatched in my mind. Attending church services became a daily torture, as was the saying of the Rosary. Not having any choice in the matter of having to go to church under duress, the scent of spent incense that had permeated the walls, the books, the very atmosphere we breathed, became my sole reason for attendance. Then there were my mother’s detailed accounts of visitations from the Virgin Mary, as well as from some saints and some blessed beatifications who were yet to be exalted to sainthood by the Holy Roman Church. Collectors of religious paraphernalia might have envied her growing collection of plastic encased relics.
My mother was quickly becoming something mysterious, otherworldly and unapproachable. She also grew increasingly ill physically. Her migraine headaches kept her in bed a great deal of the time. Sometime in 1950 Roy Kent Wells was born, baptized, given his last rites and died; all on the same day. Sometime in the early 1950s Mother would have a kidney removed. She began having miscarriages one after the other. She was a young woman in her early twenties, good looking, intelligent, and had a definite bent and talent for recognizing and creating literature. The pain in her life must have been excruciating. My father became more and more abusive towards the both of us. The beatings were daily. His rage and sudden mood shifts made him someone around whom we learned to tread with great care. At least, I did. She would challenge him and it only made matters worse. He too was good looking, intelligent, and young. Both were avid readers. She had hair and eyes the color of coal. He had hair the color of corn silk and his eyes were a pale shade of blue. He was not a drinking man so his sudden outbursts of violence were inexplicable and seemingly without reason. I inherited that terrible gene as well. She smelled of April in Paris, an inexpensive and popular perfume at the time, and he of cigar smoke. I withdrew into the woods.
By the age of six or seven I had already created a mythology populated with many sparsely clad and beautiful young gods. In hindsight, yet unknown to me at the time, I had pretty much recreated the entire male populace of Mount Olympus. There is something to be said for Jungian archetypes. These gods all looked a lot like the guy on the Stephen’s poster for hair tonic in the window of the barbershop—perfectly beautiful with his black, wavy hair and piercing blue eyes. By the time I reached my teens the gods all looked a lot like Tony Curtis. They were capable of punishing my parents. They also teased me with sexual visions of a dark and forbidden nature. Bad things would happen to one or both of my parents if I promised to the gods that I would be good, submissive and obedient to the deity du jour. And since my parents, especially my father, were in dire need of punishment, there were incalculable promises made and broken in those ambiguous prayers of youth. I became much enamored with the gods. Some were resplendent masters who would force me into sexual submission. They tended to be rough and had more muscles and larger penises than the tender gods who would soothe me in times of pain, ‘though they were prone to create in me guilt for my lusting after the darker side of sex. There began decades of confusion to follow.
I had no way for knowing it at the time, but I had begun my quest for the Temple of Magic.
In the wake of many of those beatings, while Mother and I were left alone, bloodied and bruised, among the rubble of broken objects and fist-holes in plaster walls, Aunt Edna would miraculously appear with peanut brittle, fudge or some other sweet treat and whisk me off to the movies. Mother would stay behind in bed, spirit-broken.
“Go, go with Teddy,” she says, “I need to be alone.”
“But, mommy . . .” I’m crying and shaking and wishing he were dead.
She lies there with her face bruised and swollen; blood streaming down from her nose or from the sides of her mouth. They ask me to leave the room. I do, closing the bedroom door behind me. I hear the soft murmur of their voices from the other side of the door. Then there is silence. A long silence. A worrisome silence. A shivering silence. Silence. Just silence. My aunt emerges and we leave my mother to that silence. Once, in twilight, I tiptoe into her room to be sure she is still breathing and I see the glass syringe with the long needle attached setting on her nightstand. Once, in the morning, I bring her tea and toast on a Chinese-looking tray and ask her what the needle is for.
“Pain,” she says. I never ask again.
A pattern began to take shape. My parents, Dick and Ada, would set up housekeeping and within a few months they would have another terrible row. His beatings were merciless. Only when he was exhausted would he stop. Then, he would disappear for months at a time. She would give me the largest knife from out the kitchen with instructions on how and where to stab him should he return in the middle of the night. I kept the knife under my mattress. She would take to bed, and we would go on welfare and, after a time, the knife would miraculously appear back in the kitchen. Eventually we would move back in with Mom and Pop. Then, once again, he would return, they would make up, and we would move out and the cycle would begin all over again. The only clues as to where he had been during those long periods of absence were in the assortment of odds and ends he would bestow upon on us in lieu of much needed cash. There were bola neckties with turquoise set in silver from somewhere “Out West”; a stuffed alligator from somewhere “Down South”; maracas, beads and sandals from “Old Mexico”; a stuffed parrot and a kewpie doll from God knows where—and once, a crate of inedible bananas still on the stalk from “Sunny Florida”. So went my youth in this cycle of insanity.
Sometime in 1951 Pop took a job at Arden Farms in Harriman, New York. Arden Farms was about thirty miles north of Greyridge Farms and was owned by Averell Harriman who would be elected the Governor of New York State four years later. This was at a time when Dick was nowhere to be found. Mom, Pop, Pearle (who would soon enter her freshman year of high school), and my mother and I made the move. Buddy and Edna were each recently married and remained in Rockland County to begin families of their own.
Arden Farms no longer exists. While visiting the East Coast some years ago, Pearle and I took a drive by where the old farm had been. The rolling hills of the south pasture that led to the lake was now the site of a sewage treatment plant. The thick wooded areas around the farm, the pasture to the west and the entire farm including our old two-story stucco house were all replaced with spanking-new condominiums. Only the giant oak in front of where our home had been remained. We each took in a deep breath and sighed. There was nothing either of us could say.
Again the prodigal father returned. Again my mother’s short-term memory failed to temper her seemingly endless abundance of Catholic forgiveness. So, once again, the Wells family was on the move. We didn’t miss a town along the lower Hudson Valley. There were houses, bungalows, apartments in apartment houses, and once an apartment over a kosher fish market—in the summer!
The final year of my mother’s big affair
The apartment over the kosher fish market would be Monroe, New York. The following September for sixth grade my grandparents would drive me to a Catholic boarding school for boys a few miles to the northwest in Goshen, run by the Salesian Order. This was all very curious since not once in that entire year did my mother come to visit. Mom and Pop came nearly every Sunday bearing candy, new underwear or money for a new canteen card, but my mother never came. My father was, again, nowhere to be found. That year was the final year of my mother’s big affair.
My mother had taken on a lover during Dick’s long disappearances. His name was Bill P. and I first met him several years prior when we were living in West Haverstraw, New York. I was in second or third grade. I thought he was just wonderful. He was a tall good-looking guy whom I would much prefer to have had as my father. He was slim and muscular with dark wavy hair and dark eyes and I learned he was of Cuban descent on his mother’s side. Even then, at that tender and early age of innocence, I found him sexually attractive and would masturbate to his image in my mind. I used to sign my homework papers using his last name. When questioned about this, I explained how my mother had a new husband and that I was adopted and was no longer a Wells. After my mother was summoned to the school office of Her Most Holy Mother of Something (we lived just across the street) I was instructed to revert back to my proper surname. There was no escaping Dick—even in the middle of my mother’s affair. The thing I liked most about Bill was the money. He came around on weekends mostly and would always give me a buck for the movies, popcorn, whatever. That was my kind of love. Just give me the money and you can do it with my mommy all day; just don’t beat her, don’t hurt her like daddy does. Well, it wasn’t exactly from the goodness of Bill’s heart; it was just a “get lost” fee and I knew how to extort it. I knew how to get lost and stay lost till long after nightfall. A dollar went a long way in those days. I was precocious of course and I knew exactly what was going on. Most of my youth was spent on the street. A Parochial school education doesn’t begin to compare with the education a child can receive on the street.
Another curious thing about those years of my mother’s big affair was that Dick did make a showing from time to time, would stick around awhile, and then disappear once again. Shortly, thereafter, Bill P. would appear like magic and all would be right with the world. Mother and I weren’t getting beat up and I was getting paid to run the streets. How divine is that?
Some of my fourth and fifth grade was spent in Middletown, New York (about twenty miles northwest of Arden Farms) with my mother and father. I had a sixteen-year-old lover at that time whose name was Johnny N. He lived on the next block and had an enormous talent for keeping me entertained. I cannot think of Middletown without thinking of him or his talent; the alleys, his room, deserted railway cars down by the fairgrounds, the cemetery, basements of buildings on old mattresses with other young men who also shared his special appreciation for willing and tender innocence. Innocence is a relative term.
My brother, Ricky, was born around then and I gleaned, first through intuition and then through confirmation, that the father was Bill and not Dick. Many years later I learned that Dick also knew of my mother’s affair, but not from me. I merely supplied some confirmation.
Shortly thereafter was when we moved to the apartment over the fish market. Dick abandoned us again and once again we moved back in with Mom and Pop on the farm—just a couple miles down the road. This all gets crazy and confused in my head. There were so many schools and so many towns I can no longer keep track. So, I really don’t remember for certain the exact times that were spent in what town. Anyway, that would be it. We would not move again. Ricky and I would now call Arden farms in Harriman “home” for the rest of our childhood. For Mother it would be her home for the rest of her life. In many ways, I still think of it as home, as in the answer to “where are you from?”—a dairy farm in upstate New York.
I guess the old farmhouse was getting a bit crowded, what with my grandparents and Pearle, and with mother being pregnant again with Michael who, as with me, is definitely Dick’s son. I always envied Ricky his beautiful father who always treated our mother with kindness and, what I imagined to have been, fabulous sex. Ricky would not learn the truth of his conception until nearly forty years later when, in anger, I would use it as a dagger to pierce and break his heart because I felt he was breaking mine. Not a pretty moment to remember, but then there are many moments in a life that, when looking back, appear ugly and tinged with shame. Would I repeat them? I don’t know. Would it change who I am today? I wouldn’t want that. Would it make me a better person? Better than what? It is probably a fool’s game to question the unanswerable. Still, we do it all the time, don’t we? That’s rhetorical, isn’t it? To get here from there we do whatever it is we do. As we mature, hopefully, what we do becomes better than what we did.
At first, I hated the Salesian School for Boys in Goshen, New York, but soon grew into it. It is interesting to note that these schools do not come cheap. All my parochial education was costly, but a full year of boarding school had to have cost someone dearly. We were on welfare most of the time. Looking back, I can only imagine that Father John from the Salesian Seminary back in Stony Point pulled strings and got the tuition reduced or managed an all-out scholarship.
It seemed a place for delinquents. This was circa 1955-56 (grade six) and juvenile delinquency was all the rage. Most of the other boys were from the city. (Parenthetically, when a New Yorker says “the city” you can be certain that it refers to New York City—there is none other in the mind of a New Yorker.) The school went up to the eighth grade. I don’t remember where it started—perhaps with the sixth. The upper grade boys seemed quite dangerous to me. I soon learned that these were boys from the mean streets of the city; streets much meaner than I had ever known; boys far tougher than I had ever met.
For instance, once I wandered into the lavatory to discover some of the older boys busy with carving names and designs on the backs of their willing victims with razor blades. I froze.
"What?” I said, trembling.
"Call chicky," the boy being carved demanded. "Stand outside the door and if anybody comes this way call chicky. Chicky, chicky, got it?"
I had it all right. Chicky, chicky.
Most were there because they had been in trouble with the law and their parents could no longer control them, or their parents just didn’t want them anymore. I believed I was there for the latter.
Nowadays there is so much talk about the children who have been victimized by Catholic priests and brothers. Archdioceses across the country have settled with hundreds of molested victims going back fifty years for no small stipend. In all my experience with boarding schools and summer camps run by the Roman Catholic Church I was never once molested, nor did I hear of a single boy who had been. I was, doubtless, the most willing and agreeable young boy on campus and I couldn’t flush out a single pedophile. It was crushing to my fragile ego. I should sue the bastards for making me feel so terribly unwanted!
I was raped, however. I was raped by a fat, pink, pasty eighth-grader who was the big bully on campus and two of his unremarkable comrades. Here I was, eleven years old, well-seasoned in sex, having had scores of partners spanning from my age up to the age of senility. Yet, as promiscuous as I was, I was raped. And, it was awful. It was unwanted, terrifying, painful, and I’ve never forgotten it. Many heterosexual men do not fully understand this concept. Their thinking being that if you are out there having sex how can rape be so devastating? Well, it is. It really, really is. But, as with just about everything else in my life, I got over it.
There was some holy day that was celebrated at the Salesian School for Boys that involved placing thousands of candles all around the grounds and lighting them at dusk. It seemed as though an entire week was spent carefully arranging the candles in colored glass jars up and down the sidewalks in a spectacular display on the huge lawn in front of the grand mansion that was our school and dormitories. I have no idea what we were celebrating, but it sure was a beautiful sight when all the thousands of candles were lit. The entire town of Goshen was invited to come and view this display of Catholic fabulousness. And, most came. However, the following day, there was the tedious job of returning all the colored glass containers with the melted remains of the spent candles that had burned through the night, and died sometime before daybreak, back into storage for the following year’s celebration.
Where the candles were stored was in what can best be described as a wooden windmill structure without the windmill blades to turn in the wind. In this structure were boxes and boxes of candles warehoused for this singular yearly event. I found myself in the musty shadows of the boxes of candles that I and the fat, pink eighth grader and his two co-conspirators were in charge of restoring to their original order.
“Get him! Hold him down!” The pink boy shouted.
The next thing I know I’m being pinned to the floor and my pants are down around my ankles. The hot breath of the pink boy is on my neck while he tries to penetrate me with what I quickly ascertained to be an unusually small endowment. The little ones can really hurt since they poke and slam on and around the entrance and they rarely ever make an appearance within; and if or when they do manage to get inside, they slip back out and start poking and prodding all over again. When the deed was done we never spoke of it. Only silence and shame. In fact, I don’t remember ever speaking to him again about anything. The truth is, I would have serviced any one of my predators had they asked—had they shown me a bit of kindness. But, this was all about bullying and violence and that’s all I have to say regarding the matter of rape.
Now, keep in mind that the distance between the farm in Harriman and the school in Goshen could not be more than ten miles apart, yet during all that time away I had not seen my mother except during Christmas break. However, for reasons unknown to me, I would not see her on Easter break, as I was left in an empty dormitory, on a lonely campus to await the return of the rest of the students two weeks later. There was one other boy who shared a similar fate, but we never talked. We only shared the silence of our personal misery. We kept to ourselves and, in that silence, felt an unspeakable pain. The brothers and the priests who also had remained behind did their best to see we were kept from idle sulking, but it was to little avail. Being left alone untouched and out of touch is, I discovered, worse than being raped.
When summer came I returned to the farm for a few short weeks before being shipped back to Goshen for summer camp with the Salesians. Was somebody trying to tell me something?
While doing research to help refresh my memory of the physical layout of the campus and anything else that might trigger further memories, I ran across a local newspaper story concerning a nine-year-old boy found in the morning, barefoot and in pajama bottoms. He had plunged thirty-six feet to his death from the roof of the Salesian mansion during summer camp back in 1964—eight years after I had attended. I remember that roof with its four-foot parapet designed to prevent that specific type of accident. Once there was a skunk roaming around the building and we all went up onto the roof of that three-story building to watch while some of the Brothers dumped water on it trying to run it off. I also remember sending my balsa wood plane on seemingly endless glides before landing on the pavement below. Suicide was ruled out and the case, to this day, is open. All student records were burned in a fire a few years later. And, a few years after that, the school closed its doors due to poor enrollment.
After summer camp, I returned to the farm and learned that I would be attending Monroe-Woodbury Central, a brand new school that had gone up during the year I was away. It was within walking distance. I hated it! For the next six years I hated nearly every single day of it. Why? Having been schooled until then mostly in all boys’ schools, I had no real knowledge of the young female temperament. I also learned that girls didn’t like to be treated the same as boys and that when I argued or swore at them there would always appear a boy bigger than myself just around the corner waiting to beat me—with anger I never understood—to restore the damsel’s honor. For six years I was the Monroe-Woodbury Central High punching bag—physically, verbally and psychologically. The abuse seemed an unending stream of torture.
During those turbulent years I ran away from home several times, attempted suicide twice, traveled with a carnival for two summers, was arrested for being an accomplice in a post office robbery and for forging other people’s checks. I tried to murder a classmate with rat poison from Pop’s cellar. I slipped it into his carton of milk, but was foiled by his noticing that the milk had turned yellow. I had a two-year affair with one of my male teachers. I was the cause of an automobile accident by dropping rocks from a bridge onto the New York State Thruway. Fortunately, for both the passengers and me, nobody was hurt. I made a small fortune from robbing the poor box in the local Catholic Church by using a Popsicle stick and a wad of chewing gum. I quit school in the middle of my senior year but, after two weeks, was forced to beg the principal to be readmitted since the Air Force refused to have me. I would lose nearly one hundred pounds and become addicted to amphetamines for the next twenty years and had sex of one kind or another with several farm animals. One might say I was troubled. And, I couldn’t figure out why I was having so difficult a time “fitting in.”
It all began on September 26, 1956 when my childhood came to an abrupt end. Michael was eleven months old, Ricky was less than three years old, and I was a month short of twelve.
Talk about grist for the playwright's mill!
Matricide and the frog in the bottle
The events leading up to that fateful Wednesday, September 26, 1956, are jumbled and blurred in my mind—perhaps, having something to do with the trauma of that day. I don’t know why I was home from school that day—perhaps it was a gym day. For whatever reason, I was home. I have written about this incident so many times and in so many ways for nearly half a century, it will require a great effort of thought and remembrance to separate fact from fiction; the feelings felt at the time from the feelings now felt about the time. Act one, scene eleven in The Moon Away probably sums up the cacophony of feelings best.
About six weeks earlier Dick returned to the family. Mother was all giddy with Catholic forgiveness, Ricky and Michael had no real idea of who he was, and I braced myself for another season in Hell. We drove around looking for a place to live and decided upon a small cottage somewhere about fifteen miles to the south. I remember this because the owner of the rental property lived next door and raised golden retrievers. I was promised a puppy when the next litter was born. An eleven-year-old boy does not forget a thing like that. So, the excitement began to mount. The five of us would be moving into our own home. It was about time for school to begin so I continued with plans to attend Monroe-Woodbury Central, but with plans to transfer to another school after the big move. I was a veteran of moving numerous times during any given school year, so the prospect of starting junior high in a new school and transferring to another a few weeks later was pretty much par for the course. There would be no friends to leave since I’d never been anywhere long enough to cultivate any. However, soon I would learn that I hadn’t the talent, or whatever it takes, to make and sustain friends over any length of time.
The first six years of my formal education would restrict, to one degree or another, my social development and, ultimately, create in me a keen self-consciousness and a lifelong struggle to develop as a human being who cared about anything outside myself. Or, so I was told, again and again and again. Self-awareness became a permanent and burdensome weight. What made the pain of it bearable was the strength one develops over long periods of growing accustomed to it. Michel de Montaigne, in his essay "Of Custom, and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received" tells the story of:
“ . . . a countrywoman who, having accustomed
herself to play with and carry a young calf in
her arms, and daily continuing to do so as it
grew up, obtained this by custom, that, when
grown to be a great ox, she
was still able to bear it.”
That pretty much sums up how so many of us grow to find ourselves overwhelmed from the burden of that which common sense and human decency tells us we should not be able to carry without being crushed under its weight—yet, we do.
All our furniture was in storage. I remember the blue-mirrored coffee table with matching end tables. I remember the porcelain lamps with the Chinese designs. And, I remember some Chinese urns and figurines in porcelain and some Chinese cloisonné. Funny, but I remember little else. I thought them quite beautiful. Perhaps that mythical homosexual flare for decorating was beginning to take hold. If you don’t want your boys to grow up to be sissies avoid exposing them to blue mirrors and anything Chinese.
Sometime shortly after I began the seventh grade, my father, once more for one last time, took to the road—and mother took to bed. The final straw came via the phone when the new landlord called and inquired when we were taking possession of the cottage. Mother didn’t know.
“Had the furniture been delivered?”
“And you haven’t seen nor heard from my husband since the end of August?”
So, there it was. Not only did he vanish, this time he took all our furniture with him. Mother was inconsolable. Grief and devastation poured from out her darkened bedroom.
Now, I had grown accustomed to her frequent bouts of depression and her debilitating migraine headaches that caused her to take to her bed for days, sometimes for weeks at a time. From the time I was four I had learned to open cans and heat Campbell’s soup or Franco-American spaghetti or pork and beans. I could make tea; boil hotdogs; open tinned meats, tuna, sardines and make toast and fry an egg with Spam. I could dress myself, feed us both breakfast, polish my shoes, iron a shirt, and then scurry off to school by the time I was five. After school, I could sweep and dust, wash clothes in the tub with a washboard and hang them out to dry before preparing supper which I would deliver to my mother in bed on a tray, where I watched her cry from pain and from anguish. Often, together we prayed aloud to be delivered from the sorrows of life. Living, for mother, was a deliberate and conscious act of inhaling and exhaling—a vacillation between the pain of the flesh and the pain of a tortured soul.
This time it was different. This time something was really wrong. Unlike the times we were rescued by neighbors from having her hold my head along with her own in the oven with all the gas jets open, or the time when she held me in a death grip in her arms while we lay on the railroad tracks for the next oncoming train which, luckily, hadn’t come before my breaking free of her and calling upon a stranger’s kindness to help drag her from the tracks. Yes, this time it was different. This time the urgency of the drama was calmed by carefully calculated intent. I knew, perhaps before she fully realized that this would be the time. This would be the time that she would succeed in causing her own death. Only, this time I would not be going with her. This time I would not try to save her. Enough was enough. Matricide?
Where were Ricky and Michael? They must have been in their bedroom, or, with Pearle or Edna for the day. Where was Mom? She was working at Orseck’s, a quick-stop hamburger joint next to the Short Line bus station about a mile to the south of the farm. Mother’s bedroom was dark. The shades had been lowered to keep the bright Indian summer day from slipping into her room and reminding her that life was worth living, death was worth re-thinking, depression was transitory.
“Come here, Bing. I want to tell you a story.”
I lie on the bed to the left of her—she under the covers, I on the pink, chenille bedspread. Shafts of sunlight, abuzz with all those fine bits of dust and creation that float in the light of the heated air, were bent over the dresser with the clear crystal perfume bottles setting on an oval, mirrored tray; the book shelves crowded with books she always initialed in green ink and dated after reading; into the corners of the painted pink walls and bounced from off the frog in the bottle.
The bottle was about six inches tall. The bottom two inches was a bulbous chamber about three inches wide that narrowed into a very slender throat of about four inches tall with a diameter of less than half an inch. The bottle’s cap was sealed with deep red fingernail polish and melted wax. Inside the bottle was a slightly yellowing liquid. In the liquid a green frog sat on the floor of the bottle, its nose pressed up against the glass to one end and its feet pressed up against the glass on the other end. For years I stared at that bottle. Something hadn’t made sense. Then, suddenly, it hit me. How did she get a frog that large into that bottle with its long neck so narrow? She didn’t. It was a high school science project and the frog had grown in that bottle till there was no more room for it to grow. A shaft of sunlight continued to dance upon the bottle with the frog resting in formaldehyde.
“Do you want to hear a story?” She asked.
“It’s about being different. Not different by choice, but different because that is what God intended.”
Oh, great! She knows I’m . . . you know, different (only I hadn’t a word for it, yet).
She began her story. From what I remember, it was about an evergreen tree that was made fun of by all the other trees in the forest when autumn came. You see, they would turn yellow, orange and red, while the evergreen would remain the same old green, never changing. Then came Christmas and the farmer walked into the forest and chopped down the evergreen and brought it back into his home where he decorated it with lights and sparkling ornaments of every color of the rainbow. I imagined this was intended to be an uplifting story about the glory of being different, however, in hindsight, it seems a rather tragic story.
Decades later I would write a short story, ”Sailor’s Wake” in which we meet an evergreen in the forest condemned to watch, year after year, the death and rebirth of all the other trees in the forest. The evergreen would stand watch over the death and decay of fallen leaves and friends until, once again, life returned in the spring. In this moment I am wondering what is more tragic? Being made fun of by all and then chopped down? Decorated after your death or remaining alive while all around are dead as the cycle of life revolves leaving one to watch unable to share the experience in any understandable way?
She told her little story while I stared at the frog in the bottle. The slice of sunlight had moved.
“Bing, please go downstairs and bring me a glass of water.” That would be her last request.
I returned with the glass of water and placed it on her nightstand next to several plastic containers of prescription drugs.
“Thank you,” were her last words.
I crawled into bed next to her and went to sleep. When I awoke the shaft of light had moved several more inches away from the frog in the bottle. I got out of bed and noticed that while I was sleeping she had written several pages and had placed them on the nightstand next to the now empty containers of sleeping pills. I didn’t have to read what she had written to know what she had done. I knew. I knew because I had been there many times before. This time, however, I would let her will be done. Matricide?
She lay there on her back holding a large plastic crucifix. Wrapped in her hands was her rosary with its beads made of green cut glass. Decades later, I would take that rosary with its green glass beads to New York City for the Greenwich House production of The Moon Away. Act I, scene eleven follows.
The stage is in darkness except for a single LIGHT upstage center that slowly intensifies along with the haunting recorded MUSIC of a Gregorian chant rising in volume. The bridge, slowly, fades into view. Regally posed, and an imposing presence (no longer THE LAWYER), stands THE POPE on top of the bridge, dressed in regal splendor. A moment to be properly awed – and then, the Gregorian chant fades into silence. JOE falls to his knees beneath the bridge.
THE POPE: (With outstretched arms – a magnificent gesture – he sings.)
COME TO ME MY MELANCHOLY BABY
CUDDLE UP AND DON’T BE BLUE . . .
(JOE applauds. THE POPE now speaks, booming with pontifical fervor.) Ex post facto. Gloria in excelsis. In extenso. In perpetuum. In toto. Meum et tuum. De profundis. De facto. Ad infinitum. (JOE rises to speak.) Not now, boy! I haven’t finished. (JOE kneels.) Quid pro quo. Pro et con. Pro tanto. Pro tempore. Now, boy. Now. Now I’m finished!
JOE: (As a twelve year old – through remainder of scene.) Can you help me?
THE POPE: I am the fire-breathing, flying whatchamacallit! Of course I can help you.
JOE: I lost my . . . my . . . I don’t know. I don’t know what it was I lost until I find it.
THE POPE: Sounds a bit cryptic for my taste. It might make sense to a complete idiot.
JOE: Guess what?
THE POPE: What?
JOE: I can fly.
THE POPE: The devil you say.
JOE: I can. I can. I really can fly!
THE POPE: Don’t you ever let me hear you say that again, young man. You hear me?
JOE: Yes, sir.
THE POPE: Flying is against the Holy rolling Church. Against the begats . . . the begotten and the begone. Against the beguine. Against the Great Inert Thingamajig, Himself. (Takes out a cigar and lights it.) We’ll make a man of you yet. Did you kill any niggers today, boy?
JOE: No, Daddy.
THE POPE: Faggots?
JOE: No, Daddy.
THE POPE: No niggers or faggots? What kind of kid are you? If I told you once I told you twice, a nigger a day keeps the doctor away and a faggot a day keeps the nurse at bay.
JOE: An apple. An apple a day.
THE POPE: Correct me once more and I’m going to split your skull with a two-dollar whore!
No longer THE PSYCHOLOGIST, THE MOTHER SUPERIOR – dressed in the black and white habit of her order – rushes onstage and coddles JOE.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: You will do no such thing, Big Papa!
THE POPE: Speaking of two-dollar whores. The kid said he could fly.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: Of course he can fly!
THE POPE: You hadn’t ought to be putting ideas into his head.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: He’ll fly to the moon one day. He’ll be the moon away and you won’t be able to touch him. (To JOE.) Now, don’t you let that mean old bogeyman frighten you. I am the Earth and I will protect you.
JOE: Thank you, Mommy.
THE POPE: But, I am the sun and the stars and all that jazz, boy. I’m hot, boy. Hotter than hell. Hotter than lightning and twice as fast. OUCH! A scorcher! Hot as Easter!
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: You will do no such thing! Not on Earth, you won’t. From ashes to ashes he is mine—mine.
THE POPE: No! I will cause floods and famine and little razor-toothed creepy-crawling things. I will cause mind-boggling enigmas to grow and fester with putrefied pus and corruption. Every time you blow your nose you lose your brains! Ha, ha, ha! I will cause inter-galactic thermonuclear fireworks! And then where will you be?
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: Better off.
THE POPE: You never loved me.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: How can you say that? I cook for you, clean and sew for you . . . do your laundry.
THE POPE: Big deal.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: Go to hell!
JOE: Mommy . . . Mommy . . . please . . .
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: (Slaps JOE to the floor.) Shut up! You stupid know-nothing! Just shut up before your father gives you a beating you won’t soon forget. I’m only doing this to protect you from your father. So, thank me, you stupid thing! I never wanted you in the first place. (Points an accusing finger at THE POPE.) He made me have you—you useless thing. I prayed for a miscarriage.
THE POPE: That’s right. Turn the kid against me. (Puffing on cigar. Comes down from the bridge.) You’re the one who put the coat hanger up the old kazoo. Blood all over creation, but the kid came plopping out anyway. Well, let me tell you something, lady. You stink! (Slaps her, punches her, beats her to the floor.) Stink, stink, stink, stink, stink . . . (Each “stink” is punctuated with a blow to her body.) Stink, stink, stink, stink!
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: (Hysterical.) Help! Help! He’s killing me! Joey! Joey! Help me! Your father’s trying to kill me! Help! Help! Joey! Joey! Aren’t you going to help your mother? For God’s sake, what kind of a kid are you?
JOE rises, clutching a long, shining butcher’s knife high above his head and crosses, with cautious apprehension, towards the two fist-flying bodies entangled on the floor.
JOE: You leave my mother alone! You hear me? I said leave my mother alone, please, Daddy. Please. I don’t want to kill you.
There is a terrible SILENCE while THE POPE slowly rises, staring menacingly at JOE who is beginning to back away.
THE POPE: (Breaking the silence.) What’s that, Sonny Boy?
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: You leave my baby alone. (To JOE.) Kill him. Kill the sonofabitch if you have to. It’ll break my heart, God knows . . . but kill the fucker anyway!
THE POPE: Shut up, you silly old cow!
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: (To THE POPE while grabbing onto his legs.) I love you! I love you! I love you!
THE POPE: (Pulling himself free of her.) I’m going to teach that boy a lesson he’ll never forget. You hear that, boy?
JOE: (With knife poised for attack.) Don’t make me do it, Daddy. Please. Don’t make me do it.
THE POPE: I love you, son . . . and the fishes and the loaves . . .and your mommy’s thighs. Does Joe-Joe love his mommy’s thighs? (Moving towards JOE who is backing away.)
JOE: Leave me alone.
THE POPE: Does Joe-Joe want to smell his mommy’s thighs? How about your daddy’s? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?
JOE: Don’t come any closer!
THE POPE: (Cupping his crotch with his hand.) Want to taste something good, boy?
JOE: Leave me alone.
THE POPE: I’m all for you, boy. I love you.
JOE: And I love you.
THE POPE: And that’s why I’ve got to teach you a lesson you’ll never, ever forget. Now, give your daddy the knife.
THE POPE: You don’t want to go to the orphanage, do you?
JOE: (With fear and trembling. ) Na . . .na . . . no, Daddy.
THE POPE: Or the closet? Do I need to tie you up and put you in the closet—again?
JOE: Pa . . . pa . . . pa . . . pa . . . please, Daddy. Na . . . na . . . not again.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: He pissed himself the last time you put him in there, Big Daddy. Aren’t you going to punish him? Beat him with your belt? Slap the little fucker around a bit?
THE POPE: I get a hard-on when I do that, Big Mama. I get a great big hard-on.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR:(Rubbing her breasts.) I want to see the little bastard squirm. I love it when he squirms. Squirm, you stupid know-nothing!
JOE: I . . . I . . . I’m . . . sa . . . sa . . .sa . . . sorry.
THE POPE: Sorry what?
JOE: Sa . . . sa . . . sir, Daddy.
THE POPE: You won’t piss yourself again . . . will you, boy?
JOE: Na . . . na . . .na . . .
THE POPE: Answer me when I speak to you!
JOE: Ye . . . ye . . . yes, Daddy. Na . . . na . . . no, Daddy.
THE POPE: Which is it? Yes or no?
JOE: Ye . . . na . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I don’t na . . . na . . . know, Daddy.
THE POPE: Give me the knife. Don’t let me have to take it from you, boy. You know what’ll happen if you make me have to take it from you, boy?
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: Go ahead, Joey. don’t just stand there like a nincompoop. Tell your father what he’s going to do to you if you don’t give him that knife. Somebody could get hurt, Joey. Don’t be afraid. We only want to help you. We love you, Joey.
JOE: I . . . I . . . I . . . da . . . don’t want him to hu . . . hu . . . hurt me, Mommy.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: Oh, don’t be such a silly goose. He’s your father. He’s not going to hurt you. Just tell your father what he wants to know.
JOE: He . . . he . . . he’ll have my brains for breakfast.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: That’s right, dear—and your what for lunch, Joey?
JOE: An . . . an . . . and my ass fa . . . fa . . . for lunch.
THE POPE: That’s right, boy. Now, give me the knife.
JOE: (Stands his ground.) No! Just stay away. Stay away and you won’t get hurt.
THE POPE: You wouldn’t hurt your old man, would you?
JOE: Ye . . . yes, I would. Sa . . . sa . . . so stay away or I’ll kill you. (Moving toward THE POPE who is backing away toward the bridge.) I swear, I’ll kill you if I have to.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: Don’t swear, Son. I taught you better than that.
JOE: I will if I have to, Mommy.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: Well, if you have to you have to. It’s your choice. Don’t mind me. I’m only your mother.
JOE: He’s a bad daddy. Didn’t you say he was a bad daddy?
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: I might have. Nobody’s perfect, Joey. God knows I’ve tried. If you’re going to kill him, kill him. Do it and be done with it, for God’s sake.
THE POPE: (To THE MOTHER SUPERIOR.) This is your doing. You poisoned the little bastard against me. THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: The little bastard didn’t need my help for that.. Every little thing that goes wrong you blame me for it. Be a man for once in your life.
THE POPE: Yeah? Yeah? How come every time you don’t get your way you shove the kid’s head in the oven along with your own and turn on the gas? Huh? Huh? If I’m not a man, what are you? Queen of the funny farm?
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: I am Mother Superior. Divine daughter of Our Lord King of Kings, Lord of Lords. Tape up the door and windows real good, son. We’re on our way to Jesus!
JOE: Ma . . . Ma . . . Mommy, please. You’re scaring me.
THE POPE: Kill her, boy! See what she’s doing to our lives? Take a good look at your mother, boy.
JOE: Na . . . na . . . no!
THE POPE: Look, boy! Look!
JOE: No. She’s my mother.
THE POPE: All the more reason you should look—and learn. The truth shall set you free.
THE POPE: You better take a good, hard look. She’ll be dead soon.
JOE: Na . . . na . . . no!
THE POPE: Don’t you remember, Joe? She does it on a warm Indian summer afternoon—with sleeping pills.
THE POPE: You go downstairs and you get the glass of water. Remember? (Ascending the bridge.) A classic case of denial, boy. She takes the sleeping pills and then she wraps her green plastic-beaded rosary around her wrists and then she—
JOE: (Cutting him off.) They weren’t plastic.
THE POPE: What’s that, son?
JOE: The beads were green cut glass. They weren’t plastic.
THE POPE: But, the crucifix was. Cheap plastic with a gold spray-painted Jesus clutched to her breasts. And then she was dead. Dead, dead, dead. The dead bride of Jesus. (Puffs on cigar.)
JOE: And Jesus—all the gold paint just peeled away.
THE POPE: (On top of the bridge.) That’s right. It will happen in a few more days.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: I did it for you, Joey. (She takes from out of the folds of her garment a set of rosary beads and a large plastic crucifix.) I did it for you and I did it for your father. And I did it for the love of Jesus.
JOE: But, Jesus isn’t gold anymore, Mommy.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: Well, what is?
THE POPE: Say goodbye to your mother, Son.
JOE: Don’t do it, Mommy.
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: The razor didn’t work. The exhaust from the car out in the garage didn’t even kill the cockroaches. The kitchen stove doesn’t work for beans. So, what’s a mother to do? Sleeping pills—that’s the ticket.
JOE: Why, Mommy? Don’t you love me?
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR: What kind of silly question is that? It’s because I love you. Forever and ever—you’ll be mine. You’ll never forget me, I promise you that. (She lies on the floor on her back – arms enfolded.) Mine. (She is motionless – and then there is SILENCE.)
THE POPE: (After a pause.) What a bitch! (He snuffs out his cigar.) Say goodbye to your mother, son.
JOE: (Kneeling over her lifeless body.) Mommy, Jesus is peeling all away. He isn’t gold anymore, Mommy. All the gold’s just peeling away. Jesus is turning green and gray and ugly, Mommy. Can’t we paint him again and make poor Jesus all pretty again—mommy?
THE POPE: Wake up, boy! Jesus doesn’t give a piss ant’s fart about you!
JOE: He does!
THE POPE: He doesn’t and he doesn’t because he can’t.
JOE: But, he has to. He’s got the key.
THE POPE: Nope. (Holding up a silver key suspended from a silver chain.) I’ve got the key.
JOE: (Rises, crosses to bridge.) How did you get it?
THE POPE: That’s a mystery, my son. God loves a mystery. He always did and He always will. He’s a slippery old goat, He is. Now, say goodbye to your mother, boy.
JOE: No. I’ve got to find what I’ve lost.
THE POPE: I’ve got the key. (He spins the key on the chain as an airplane propeller. ) No key, no flying.
JOE: I’ll kill you! (Brandishing knife.) I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch!
THE POPE: That’s your answer for everything, isn’t it? Kill, kill, kill. Don’t they teach you kids anything else in school anymore? First you go and murder your mother and now you want to kill your old man. What is this world coming to? You’ll be the death of me yet, you . . . you . . . you juvenile delinquent!
JOE: I didn’t murder my mother. You did. (Begins to climb bridge.) You killed my mother and now I want the key. (He has reached the top of the bridge with the knife firmly in his grip. ) I don’t want to have to kill you, Daddy.
THE POPE: You want the key?
THE POPE: I loved her, son, and I love your mother. That’s the key. (JOE begins to close in on THE POPE.) Do you know what love is, boy? No, I suppose you don’t. Who does? What’s the matter with children nowadays? You sweat and sweat to put a meal on the table. You give them the shirt off your back and what’s the thanks you get for it? Just a knife in the back . . . (JOE plunges the knife into THE POPE’s back. THE POPE then slumps to the floor of the bridge, gasping for breath.) Wake up, boy. Wake up! Kids—who can figure them?
THE POPE’s arm stretches out beyond the bridge. The key dangles in the air from his lifeless fingertips. A moment of SILENCE before the key drops to the floor below. JOE rises, goes down from the bridge and crosses to the body of THE MOTHER SUPERIOR and kneels. He then shatters the silence with a long, agonizing cry of anguish. The stage LIGHTING falls into darkness.
She lay there on her back holding a large plastic crucifix. Wrapped in her hands was her rosary with its beads made of green cut glass. Decades later, I would take that rosary with its green glass beads to New York City for the Greenwich House production of The Moon Away. I gave them to the actress playing my mother. When she offered to return them I told her to keep them as a memento.
“I’ve carried them around too many decades and it is time to let them go.”
I returned to Colorado, but I can still feel the weight of that rosary with the green cut-glass beads and the gold crucified Jesus.
I picked up the frog in the bottle and took it back to bed with me. I listened for her breathing. Yes, she was still breathing. I stared at the frog in the bottle and thought: How awful to be forced to grow in such a limited environment. How awful when there is no more room for you to expand, and the world ends just beyond the tip of your nose.
And, then I went back to sleep.
And, I wonder if I dreamed, so very long ago, that one day I would awaken to find myself here and now?
Subtlety goes to waste in the barren soil of the fixed mind. Sometimes I think the time of the playwright is past. We've become elite dinosaurs, limping our way towards Hollywood.
That awareness would come a long way into futures after futures.
I finally awoke from my sleep of avoidance. I ran downstairs and phoned my grandmother. Before anyone could say, “Oh, no. Not again,” the house was abuzz with paramedics and policemen. I did my best to muster tears. I was certain they knew that I had done it. I had murdered my mother and I was going to fry in Hell but not before first frying in the dreaded electric chair. Mom and Pop were uncannily Stoic. I was conjuring every tear I could muster. I must have sounded like a paid mourner, whipping himself at the death of a stranger. And, then there came the words I shall never forget. Pop walked over to me, stared me in the eye and said with stern and squinted eyes, "I know you, mister. Tainted blood. Don’t go playacting for me.” I was devastated. For six long years we lived under the same roof and for six long years he never spoke more than two or three dozen words to me. And those few words generally consisted of, “bad blood,” sometimes “tainted blood,” or “what’s wrong with you,” and “you’re crazy.” I hated “what’s wrong with you” the most since the answers to that could be infinite. I lived in unbearable silence. I was beginning to take on the persona of that much-feared pariah, the subject of casual conversation that we were warned about in gym class—the juvenile delinquent.
Neither the “D. A.” (duck’s ass) nor the tumbling waterfall of thickly Vaselined hair dripping down the center of my forehead ever really worked for me. I don’t think I had the swagger for it. Nor did the cuffed jeans and the white T-shirt with the rolled-up sleeve holding a pack of Lucky Strikes. I just wasn’t hoodlum enough. I had just murdered my mother but I wasn’t bad enough to be a greaser. I felt pathetic. I was definitely from another side of the tracks other than the “wrong” side or the “right” side. For me, there was certainly a third side, an unseen side where none but a few lived.
And still, after all these many years, I cannot dispel the memory of the frog in the bottle.