[Chicago, 1957. A lived-in, working class apartment in a six-flat in Albany Park. The decor reflects a notion of gentility from the 30s, which is when the current occupants moved in: cut-glass candy bowls and Chinese figures in painted porcelain. Sofa downstage center, in the parlor. Big winged leather chair beside it. Bedroom door upstage center. Kitchen offstage left. Bathroom offstage right. An old man, Sam, is lying faceup on the sofa. Small and lean and self-contained, he wears a pressed white shirt, brown wool slacks with suspenders. No socks or shoes. An old lady, Bessie, appears in the bedroom doorway, wearing a nightgown and glasses with Coke-bottle lenses. She is as thick as Sam is lean, formidable as the Venus of Willendorf. From her vantage point she can’t see Sam on the sofa, addresses him as though he were in the bathroom. She has a Yiddish accent processed through decades in Chicago.]
BESSIE Sam. C’mon. I shut the light already. Sam. You in the toilet? How can you be in the toilet so long? Finish in there. I already shut the light.
[Crosses to bang on the bathroom door. Sees Sam on the sofa.]
BESSIE Heh. C’mon. Get up. Get in the room. Oy, nebuch–you’re in your clothes. You could wear that tomorrow, you didn’t wrinkle it so much, you little shit. Get up.
[Shakes him. No response.]
BESSIE Sam. Sam. Heh. You didn’t. You little shit.
[Feels his wrist.]
BESSIE You did. You did you did you did.
[Stands and admires the moment. Sits in the chair.]
BESSIE Ain’t that a kick in the head. [Suddenly, as if to shock him awake:] Sam! [No response.] Heh. And that’s the end of that.
[She sits a long moment, just looking, intent. Then breaks her reverie and stands.]
[She crosses to a light switch on the wall beside the doorway leading into the kitchen. Turns out the light. The room is black but for the glow of street light through imagined downstage windows. She heads for the bedroom.]
sam That’s it?
SAM I don’t expect you should cry, but ain’t you maybe gonna call the kids? [He sits up.] I’m dead, Bessie. They might take an interest.
[Bessie turns the light back on, finds Sam sitting there. Long pause. Something comes up but she pushes it back down.]
BESSIE It’s the middle of the night. They’re sleeping. You don’t want I should disturb them.
SAM Yeah, I do, actually. They can be a bissel disturbed tonight.
BESSIE [Turning back toward the bedroom.] Take off the clothes. Come in the bed.
[Bessie exits to bedroom. Sam lies back down on the sofa. Long beat. Bessie reappears in the doorway.]
BESSIE What? You didn’t hear me, you little shit? You cut it the hell out and get in the bed.
SAM You felt my wrist, Bessella.
BESSIE You’re talking.
SAM I’m talking should be the tip-off. Did I talk, I was alive? I’m dead all right, Bessie. Your Sammy’s finally dead. I want you should call the kids.
BESSIE I’ll do it in the morning.
SAM Bessie, please. Now.
BESSIE I told you. In the morning.
SAM You son of a bitch. [Beat, then he laughs.] Oooh! I’m gettin’ feisty in mine old age! Now you believe me, don’cha? Sammy’s gotta be dead he talks like that to Bessie–cuz she’d kill ‘im! Right? [She glares.] Ah, I take it back. You’re not a son of a bitch. I’m not gonna fight with you no more, Bessie. You’re a very sweet person. Just please call the kids. Call Harry and tell him to call the kids.
SAM What, no?
BESSIE Unh unh, no. You don’t wanna wait, you do it, Mr. Bigmouth Shit.
SAM OK. Stop it, please. That’s enough with the insults. I took it back, I don’t wanna hear that talk no more. That nastiness. I’m your husband 61 years, Bessie. This is the last you’re gonna see me. You could be a little bit nice.
BESSIE There’s the phone, Sammy.
[She turns back to the bedroom, exits. Sam grabs for the phone, but can’t negotiate it.]
SAM Don’t you walk away, you! Why can’t you be nice? Bessie! The kids’ll be mad, they find out you didn’t call. [No response. Then, more to himself than to her:] Wha’d I do made you so fuckin’ mean? You’re such a mean person, Bessie. You got a mean soul. How’d you get such a fuckin’ mean soul? You should ask yourself. I didn’t do nothing to you. I helped you. I helped you. Sixty-one years! That’s my life, too. Not you only. My kids. My house. My fuckin’ bed. I worked. You think I didn’t work? Fuck you. I’m a carpenter, I’m a butcher. What I’m supposed to be an executive, the way I talk? Greenhorn from the shtetl? No. I did as good as I could. You and me. You and me both, goddamnit. Not you only. That’s some nerve you got! [Louder, for Bessie’s benefit:] I gotta hand it to you, talking to a ghost like that. You should be scared-a me, Bessie. You don’t know what I could do!
[Bessie appears at the bedroom door.]
BESSIE Sha! What is with all the boorching?! Your whole life you don’t say two words. Now you won’t shut up!
SAM I told you, I’m dead! [Beat, then calmly:] It’s like I got mittens on my hands. I can’t pick up the phone.
BESSIE [Dryly:] Thanks God is all I can say. That would be some conversation, you call Harry, middle of the night. “Bubbeleh, it’s your old papa talking. I’m dead.”
SAM Yeah. “Don’t worry, I’ll stay here till ya come for me.”
BESSIE “Won’t move a muscle.”
SAM “Come pick me up.”
BESSIE Heh. “Pick me up.” [Pause. Then, almost affectionately:] Oy, Sam. You goddamn–come in the bed.
SAM Bessie. I can’t.
[Offended, Bessie turns back toward the bedroom. Sam lunges for her, to keep her from leaving. His arms seem to go right through her. For the first time, Bessie is frightened–and so is Sam. They stare at one another.]
SAM Whaddya think, I was kiddin’?
BESSIE Listen, you. You ain’t gonna haunt me.
SAM I don’t think–
BESSIE You ain’t gonna haunt me.
SAM Eh. Whadda you care? You got along pretty good all this time, pretending like I’m a ghost.
BESSIE No sir, mister. I been waiting since I’m 17 years old, wanting you dead I should be free already.
SAM That ain’t even true.
BESSIE Now you’re done, I’m done. If I got a year, I got a month, two days. I’m gonna live here by myself alone–
SAM It ain’t true, Bessie.
BESSIE Ain’t nobody gonna bother me, and not you ‘specially.
SAM You didn’t want me dead.
[Bessie misses a beat at this. Stares at Sam.]
SAM You didn’t want me dead. Peh, kenne-hoorey.
BESSIE Heh. A shit more stupid than you never lived, you shit.
SAM Call me names. It’s true.
BESSIE See, this I don’t understand at all. Sixty-one years, it’s like you wasn’t there. Like it rolled off a duck. I could spit in your face a hundred times a day, if I get tired two seconds you think, Aha! See? She’s startin’ to like me. Sammy the cockeyed optimist. I never liked you, Sammy. I just ran out of spit once in a while.
SAM I’m sorry, no. The problem with you, you get in a mood and you forget. I’m the one remembers. All the way back the first day.
BESSIE The absolute worst day of my life.
SAM Me, too. Only it wasn’t, also. You decided later you hate my guts. But the first day–
BESSIE First day shit. Who cares, Sam? You’re dead–be dead!
All I gotta say is I don’t want you hangin’ around. First day! I don’t believe you! You don’t know what it is in front of your face!
To this day you don’t know.
[Each hangs fire a beat.]
SAM Did you talk to Rose?
SAM Tonight. She wanted you should call. I took the message. Before.
BESSIE Heh. She’s gotta take Bonnie by the doctor tomorrow, wants we should watch Frankie. Now you’re dead, I don’t know.
SAM Well, so she’ll cancel the doctor.
BESSIE Oh, sure, like they’re made of money. You know the doctor charges anyway, you cancel on the day of.
SAM He’s not gonna–
BESSIE Not gonna, nothing.
I’ll tell her I’m busy, she should ask Nettie.
SAM Bessie, Nettie and Maury’s gonna be here by us tomorrow.
BESSIE Then Shirley.
SAM Also by us, Bessie.
BESSIE Then Lee, goddamnit! She can take Frankie with her, she can’t find a sitter! ‘Cause I’m not gonna give the doctor the money like a gift!
SAM Oy, Bessie. I’d do it myself–
BESSIE Yeah, I know, only you’re dead.
SAM A joke.
BESSIE Well, I don’t wanna hear your jokes. You shit. Such a shit. How you could say there was anything good the first day?
SAM I don’t know what I was thinking.
BESSIE I’m standing in my tatteh’s house, a handmade dress. A gown, sewed up so beautiful. And comes in my mammeh. “Bessie, I got very bad news”–
SAM I know–
BESSIE You don’t know nothin’. She says, “Bessie, Avrom broke the engagement.” I’m standing in a wedding dress. “Let me talk to him.” “You can’t. He ran away.” Ran away! You understand that, what I’m telling you? So awful is the thought of marrying Bessie. Better a ghost without a home than marry Bessie. And I’m singing to myself. Right up till they tell me, I’m singing. Honest to God. Such a simcha, such a wonderful thing, to marry for love. Heh. But that’s not the end, Sammy. Right? They ain’t done with me.
[She leans over and gives Sam a hard pinch on the arm.]
BESSIE Hah! I knew it! I knew the whole time you was faking! Faker!
SAM I’m not faking. The ow was faking. Tell the truth, I didn’t feel nothing. You wanted an ow so much, I gave you an ow. You don’t believe me, pinch me again.
BESSIE You’ll be ready.
SAM Hard as you want.
[She pinches him strenuously. He doesn’t react.]
BESSIE How come I can touch you, you can’t touch me?
SAM I don’t know. Listen, Rose’ll cancel the doctor. This once.
BESSIE Maybe yes, maybe no.
SAM Really, you got nothing to say about it. Soon as she hears I’m dead–
BESSIE And that’ll be when, smart guy? When I tell her.
[Sam falls into a dispirited silence. Bessie struts back toward the bedroom, turning out the parlor light as she exits. Long moment as Sam sits very still. Then Bessie appears at the bedroom door. As before, the only light is that from the streetlight outside.]
BESSIE [With a quiet intensity:] They ain’t done with me by a long shot. They’re all standing there. Mammeh. Bubbeh Hinde. My sisters. Crying like somebody’s dead. “Whatta we gonna do? What it’s gonna be with us?” And finally Bubbeh Hinde–I didn’t know she had it in her–she says, “Stop it!” Like a hiss. “We’ll do what we gotta do. I’m not gonna have a shandeh in my house.” And she calls in my Tante Anna from the other room, and she says, “Anna, Bessie’s gonna marry your Sam.” Honest to God. Just like that, not even looking at me. My sweet schlumpy skinny stupid little cousin Sam. I said, “No, Bubbeh! Not Sam.” She says, “You got somebody better?” I say, “I love Avrom, Bubbeh.” And she gives me this look like I took a shit on the floor. “Avrom . . . don’t . . . love . . . you.” Heh. Tough old broad. I say, No! I say, Mammeh, Tatteh, help me! Don’t let this happen! Gib mer a bissel zeit! But my Tatteh won’t come in the room, and my Mammeh, all she says, “The guests are here, Bessie. They’re already sitting.” And then they went to you. And you said yes. Yes. What kinda shmuck–? Who lowers himself to marry an abandoned woman? In her dress? A man would marry me, that situation, he’s not good enough to marry me! And plain talk, Sam, you ain’t. You wasn’t. You never was.
SAM I was thinking–
BESSIE [Turning on the parlor light.] He was thinking! What was my little Sammy thinking?
SAM It sounds bad now. I was thinking I was saving you.
BESSIE Saving me? You saved me. Six babies–that’s how you saved me. Sitting on the toilet with the paper.
SAM That’s being married, Bessie!
BESSIE No money. I gotta go open a store. Saving me? You little shit. Thanks God you didn’t talk all those years, this is what you thought! Even you’re dead you don’t get it.
SAM Aw, Bessie! Stop it. Bessie. I can’t go like this. I want–
BESSIE He wants!
SAM I gotta–
BESSIE He’s GOTTA!
SAM You know why I stopped talking, don’t you?
[Bessie steps forward, slaps Sam’s face hard, over and over, using all her formidable strength.]
BESSIE GOD IN HEAVEN! MAKE IT HURT!
[Sam retreats across the room, motivated by physics rather than pain. Bessie stands still a moment, then collapses into the sofa. Sam waits to see if she’s spent. Then he approaches and sits on the arm of the sofa.]
SAM You’re done? You shit. You stupid piece of shit. You’re gonna beat me up? And God’s gonna help you. I would close the window shade, I was you, ’cause it’s gonna look awful funny from the outside, an old lady and God beating up an old man and he’s already dead. You know what? You should get a thing from the kitchen. A knife, maybe. Or a rolling pin, like Katzenjammer. Or the big frying pan. What’s the joke? “Hit ‘im? Who’s gonna hit ‘im. I’m gonna fry ‘im up a steak. He can’t keep that up on cookies and milk!” Then when I’m buried you could come to the grave with the pan and beat the shit out of my stone. You know why I stopped talking? [A beat.] The funny thing is, when your mammeh and my mammeh came and said You gotta marry Bessie and I said yes, it wasn’t I was giving in to them. I was taking advantage. Talk about luck! Come as a guest, leave with the bride. And such a bride. The only one I wanted. Believe it or not. I was so sad, thinking Avrom was gonna get you and I’ve gotta settle for I don’t know. I don’t even remember their ugly faces anymore, the girls they picked for me. But then again. One of them would maybe be sorry I’m dead.
BESSIE You shouldn’t go where you ain’t wanted, Sam.
SAM Thank you. That I figured out. But I always was thinking, the whole time we’re married, maybe she’ll forget–
BESSIE I never forgot.
SAM Or give in–
BESSIE I never gave in.
SAM Or fall in love.
SAM I realize.
BESSIE You’re dead, Sam. You gotta stop. We had a lousy marriage, plain talk.
SAM I never didn’t love you, Bessie.
BESSIE That was your mistake.
[Bessie gets up and heads for the bedroom, turning out the parlor light as she exits. Sam sits a minute in the dark, on the arm of the sofa. Then he stands up, moves to the center of the sofa, and lies down on it faceup. Black out.]
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Miguel Gallardo.