Haunted Passages: “Pocket Scalpel,” a one-act play by Nathan Dixon

 

Cast of Characters

C: A 32-year-old college counselor living in Durham, NC. Over the past several years she has been dealing with the news that she carries the BRCA-2 Breast Cancer Gene. She must undergo an array of preventative screenings every six months, knowing full well that in the (not too distant) future she will have to remove both her breasts and her ovaries. She has been in a relationship with D. for a decade. They have been long distance for the past six months.

D: A PhD English literature student living in Athens, GA. Recently, he has been writing short stories about C.’s health issues. Hackneyed existential crises have plagued him through the beginning of the PhD program. He has found solace recently in the publication of one of his short stories. He has been in a relationship with C. for a decade. They have lived long distance for the past six months.

Doctors: The surgery team that C. imagines will one day operate on her.

Swinging Bodies: Dead bodies from the graves in the cemetery through which C. and D. walk.

Setting

Riverside Cemetery contains 87 acres of rolling hills and gardens. It is located within the historic Montford neighborhood near downtown Asheville. Dating back to 1885, it contains more than 13,000 graves, 9,000 monuments, and a dozen mausoleums. There are ancient oak, poplar, dogwood, and ginkgo trees sheltering the paved walkways that overlook the ranges of the southern Blue Ridge Mountains.

Time

The Friday before the second annual women’s march. Nighttime. Full Moon.

 

 

 

Scene 1

At Rise: C. and D. walk through the stone arch of the cemetery holding hands. Down among the granite graves, and the towering white oak trees. A huddled group of doctors in white coats and blue masks follows behind them, their scalpels raised—menacingly— above their heads. These doctors duck and cover behind gravestones when they hear noises in the branches. Ridiculous and clumsy, shuffling about in blue shoe-covers, they whisper among themselves, then break loose to encircle the couple, tiptoeing—closer, closer, closer—until C. looks over her shoulder, and they retreat frantically toward a mound of gravestones to hide behind. To collect themselves and begin creeping again. This breaking apart and coming together goes on for the duration of the scene. Both C. and D. remain oblivious to the presence of the stalking doctors.

C

What are we doing out here?

D

We’re going to rub a grave.

C

Rob a grave?

D

Rub a grave. We’re going to rub one out.

C

I’m cold and everything looks blue.

D

Faulkner rated him the greatest writer of his generation. The most splendid failure of them all.  (twirling in a circle). And I am in the mood for frottage!

(The doctors duck, and crouch behind the leaning gravestones, a pathetic attempt at hiding.)

C

But his generation was nothing but a gaggle of gung-ho white knights.  Proclaiming the pen mightier than the sword.

D

Dos Passos—

C

White.

D

Caldwell—

C

White.

D

Hemingway—

C

White.

D

That’s right. (galloping around the graves). White knights riding typewriter horses. (shaking his fist at the moon) Off to do battle with the status quo.

C

Giddy-up.

(All the doctors begin galloping around the graveyard)

D

Clip-clopping across word-scattered pages.

C

Colored ribbons tied into their colorless hair.

D

Looped about their worm-burrowed ribs. First, second, third, fourth.

C

A lot of good it did.

D

Wolfe had the most courage, Faulkner said.

C

Faulkner said.

D

To experiment, to write down nonsense, to be foolish and sentimental—

C

You know that game well. A ten-thousand-hour-tyro still seeking the magic of a tragic muse’s spell.

D

In his monumental attempt to get down the single instance of man’s struggle.

C

Tyrants. They sang the great burden on the bowed back of the white man.

D

Yes ma’am. A bunch of honkies, there’s no doubt about it.

C

Oh, man. If a boy didn’t know any better, he might link arms with his pals, ring around a rosy cross, and declare himself a member of the triple-K-Klan.

D

Yes ma’am. If he didn’t know any better. If he didn’t read their books, but proclaimed them superior based on the race of the writer.

C

You are vanilla bean.

D

I am mayonnaise.

C

You are a plastic package of white bread.

D

But maybe this boy would wear a pussy hat instead. And use his privilege to BLAST the powers that be.

C

Allied in the good fight with a vulva on his head?

D

Faulkner said he tried to put it all down in one book.

C

Faulkner said, Faulkner said.

D

Tried to do more than he could. Tried to fit the whole world onto the head of a pin.

C

Praise be! Amen! (crossing herself like a Catholic) A holy disciple of pinheaded men!

D

(making his hands into binoculars and peering through them) Always in search of holy wholes.

(All the doctors hide behind gravestones)

C

Come to witness in the graveyard to the heathens and the witches—

D

To the hobgoblins and the ghosts—

C

To the savages—

D

The half-wild, half-child folk.

C

Come to talk down to them.

D

Sure. But only as a preacher on a gravestone.

(D. leaps atop a gravestone, does a pirouette, then jumps back down beside C.)

C

Come to witness to the unwilling congregation.

D

Aren’t they always unwilling?

C

Come to tell them how their experience is encompassed in your own.

D

And mine encompassed in theirs, as well! (shouting) Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to—

C

Come to fix their experience in place. Come to squeeze them into your book.

D

The whole world on the head of a pin.

C

A butterfly pinned to a page.

D

A necrophiliac on the loose.

(D. drops to all fours and begins digging into a grave)

C

You would like have Experience pose for you (striking poses like a model)—naked and silent—on a pedestal.

D

Stripping rags from corpses to get at their sweet drippings.

(Doctors drag a cadaver from a grave and begin slicing away with their scalpels)

C

Only to wrestle it down in the dirt.

D

An angel among the tombstones here. Jacob turning to Israel upon the face of God.

C

Convinced you can explain the way the world works—

D

No, no. (shaking head). I admit to knowing nothing.

C

Explain it all to the queue-sitters in the wings. A Rube Goldberg machine.

D

If not a queue sitter—pray tell—what am I?

C

I don’t know, and neither do you. (shrugging) Just an ordinary, average guy?

D

Rough and tumble till daybreak among holy feathers and sex parts.

C

Straight white male middle-class: baselines against which to measure the mass.

D

Rub one out, why don’t you? My birth was an accident through and through. We did it down at Faulkner’s grave with PBRs in hand.

C

We did it down at Faulkner’s grave. We did it down at Faulkner’s grave.

D

Come on. A memento mori! It will only take a minute.

C

The queue-sitters are not sitting. They carry knives and bludgeons behind their backs.

(All the doctors hide their scalpels behind their backs.)

D

Ready to topple monuments, I am sure! And I am with them. Death inevitable leads to grabbing life with greedy fingers.

C

You think you are with them?

D

A Durham-ite through and through. I saw the confederate monument fall. Let us begin the ransacking. We steal their souls with their names! Let us dance the dance of death.

C

Go down in a spout of flames.

D

Fuck corpses till daybreak.

C

I’m holding my breath.

(Cue Doc Watson’s “Tom Dooley.” Bodies begin falling from the White oak trees. Tied with nooses to the limbs, to swing like wind chimes, bumping against one another. The doctors peek from behind their gravestones. They creep out and hide behind the dangling bodies, surprised every time a carcass swings this way or that to expose them.)

D

Zebulon Vance is buried over there. The war governor of the South. Defender of Old Tom Dooley.

(C. stands rooted in place as D. runs about pointing at gravestones and calling out names. He reads facts from a little notebook he has pulled from his back pocket. The doctors circle around C. as she talks. When D. runs back towards her they scatter. Then circle around her again. When she takes a step, or uses her arms, or raises her voice, they scatter.)

C

You know I went to the doctor today. There were pigeons in the parking lot.

D

And William Sidney Porter, over here. O. Henry! O. Henry! And Lamar Stringfield, the composer of savage songs.

C

Before I drove up the mountain, I went to the doctor. There were so many pigeons in the parking lot. And cancer patients wandering the hallways inside. Moon-faced. Baldheaded. Looking like they might float free.

D

And over there, Kenneth Noland under a bull’s-eye in the snow. (drawing concentric circles with his toe)

C

They circled me. Singing. In warbling orbits.

D

Here on this black mountain paying homage to Klee. An old angel made new in every expression of the abstract.

C

Why can’t we get at it?

D

The angel of history, blown back. From paradise. You can’t go home again, my friend.

SWINGING BODIES

You can’t go home again, my friend. You can’t go home again.

D

The dead are dead for good.

C

I saw that empty look in their eyes.

SWINGING BODIES

The dead are dead for good.

C

In the waiting room there were advertisements for Prilosec and Levitra on either side of the advertisement for the Golden Corral Buffet.

D

A funnel cloud of spilled wreckage, beginning bloody back there.

(Kenneth Noland’s Beginning bathes the scene—a switch flipped—everything encompassed in the bull’s-eye.)

SWINGING BODIES I & III

Beginning.

SWINGING BODIES II & IV

Bloody.

SWINGING BODIES I & III

Beginning.

SWINGING BODIES II & IV

Bloody.

D

We stare at the storm, arm-in-arm with Mr. Noland—

C

Arm-in-arm with my mother—

D

The catastrophe caught in our collective wings. Progress billowing skyward.

C

Progress, we sing.

DOCTORS

Progress. Progress.

D

Limping backward through

BODY I

Blue

BODY II

Black

BODY III

White

BODY I

Green

BODY II

Red

BODY III

Round

D

Rings.

(Kenneth Noland’s Beginning flicks off like a light bulb.)

C

And as I was walking into the building, a young woman ran out of the revolving door. Crying her eyes out.

She was maybe twenty-five. Her arms crossed over her breasts like someone was trying to steal them.

D

And here, the golden Wolfe on the fold of this purple mountain majesty.

SWINGING BODIES

You can’t go home again, my friend. You can’t go home again.

C

She was sitting—stock still—in her car when I finished with my own appointment. Staring straight through her windshield at nothing at all.

SWINGING BODIES

You can’t go home again.

D

(unfolding a sheet of paper from his little notebook) T-O-M. (bending to the grave with a pencil in his hand) The greatest writer of his generation. (begins making a rubbing). The biggest failure of them all.

C

I knocked on her window. And asked if she needed any help. She turned and banged her forehead into the glass. She left a greasy smudge. She wasn’t crying anymore.

D

(continuing to make the grave rubbing). Rococo fictions like twisted taffy wrapped into his autobiography.

C

When I pulled out my cellphone—I don’t know who I was going to call—she cracked opened her door and threw a brown paper bag onto the concrete. It thumped—lifeless— when it hit the ground.

D

Real life in impressionistic poetry.

C

I did it, she said. I did it. I stepped on it.

D

(looking at the completed rubbing). The last voyage.

C

I thought it would fly away, she said.

D

The longest.

C

But it didn’t.

D

The best.

SWINGING BODIES

You can’t go home again, my friend.

D

(turning to C.) Didn’t what?

C

(walking back toward him, the doctors scattering) You haven’t been listening. You haven’t even asked about my day. Unconcerned—apparently—about the doctors’ visits.

(The doctors, their scalpels upraised, walk back and forth behind the couple. Back and forth behind the swinging bodies. Brooding.)

D

(trying to joke). I was saving it for supper.

C

We haven’t seen each other in a month. And you don’t even think to ask?

D

I do. I was going to. (folding grave rubbing into his notebook). I’ve been writing about it, you know.

C

You never asked me about that either.

D

Yes, I did.

C

No. You didn’t. You told me you were writing about it.  Then you published that story—

D

It’s not even about you.

C

Yes, it is.

D

Maybe loosely.

(The doctors duck, and crouch behind the leaning gravestones, a pathetic attempt at hiding.)

C

(turning and walking away). They said there’s nothing wrong. Yet.

SWINGING BODIES

Yet. Yet. Yet. Yet. Yet. Yet. Yet.

(D. shoves the notebook back into his back pocket, and runs after her but sees something on the ground that catches his attention. He bends and picks up a scalpel, examines it, slides it into his pocket (conspicuously) beside his notebook, then hustles to catch up to her.)

C

It’s all a waiting game.

SWINGING BODIES

Yet. Yet. Yet. Yet. Yet. Yet. Yet.

C

Waiting. Until we can’t put it off any longer.

SWINGING BODIES

You can’t go home again, my friend. You can’t go home again.

(They exit through the stone archway. The doctors follow with their scalpels held above their heads, creeping on tiptoes like villains in a horror film. The bulls-eye of Kenneth Noland’s Beginning flicks on and once again bathes the scene.)

 

 


Nathan Dixon is pursuing a PhD in English Literature and Creative writing at the University of Georgia. His creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Georgia Review, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Crab Orchard Review, North Carolina Literary Review, Northern Virginia Review, Penn Review, and Dreginald, among many others. His one act play “Thoughts & Prayers Inc.” was chosen by National Book Award Winner Nikky Finney as winner of the Agnes Scott College Prize. His critical/academic work has appeared in Transmotion and in Renaissance Papers, where he previously served as an assistant editor. He co-curates the YumFactory reading series in Athens, Georgia.

Image: cnn.com

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