Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris’s play, Fool Me Once, appeared in Plays, The Drama Magazine for Young People. Her ten-minute play, Lost Girls, was a finalist for the 2008 Headman Award given by Actors Theatre. Morris is the author of SURRENDER (Finishing Line Press). Her fiction has appeared in Great Jones Street, Shenandoah, Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, South Carolina Review, Sliver of Stone, Santa Fe Literary Review, and Upstreet, among other journals.
The Last Minute
Bernice Wilson, Age 68
Baby, Age 0
Jake Barnes, Age 44
Bare stage with lawn chair. A small table next to the chair holds a magazine.
(LIGHTS UP on BERNICE sitting in the lawn chair reading an O magazine. She reads for a minute and then lowers the magazine. She smiles at the audience, as if to welcome an old friend.)
I was in Wal-Mart when it happened. Wal-Mart cheers me up – all that shiny new stuff, those bright lights, the sweet old fellow at the door who says hello. Sometimes they put a handicapped boy up there. I take special care to tell him that God sees his courage. That God, and me, are real proud of him.
I grabbed a cart and started my rounds. Some folks mall walk, but I did the Wal-Mart shuffle. I circled the perimeter twice before stopping at the snack bar for a hot dog and a Coke.
It was Senior’s Day, ten percent off of everything but prescriptions and magazines. I never buy magazines. I just browse the selection and then wander over here to lawn and garden and set myself up in a chair.
The place was packed like church on Easter Sunday. I saw Mary Ann Bunton and her daughter Lilly. Those two are joined at the hip. Some people’s children have all the time in the world to spend with their mothers. When the green monster raises its head I remind myself that poor Lilly was barren with no kids of her own.
Not like my Alice with four, her oldest ready for college and her youngest a junior in high school. Once or twice a year those kids filled my condo with life. I’d bite my tongue if they put their feet on the furniture or knocked anything over.
I’d saved my spare change all year. Their eyes practically rolled back in their heads with joy when I handed them those paper bags full of change.
I said a brief hello to Mary Ann, passed the gun aisle and headed straight for the magazine section. I picked up a stack of cooking magazines and started placing them in front of the fashion rags. Cosmo, my butt, that thing should be called Porno the way that woman’s tatas are hanging out.
I grabbed the new issue of Oprah and headed for home and garden. My feet were up. The display umbrella shaded me from the florescent lights. I could smell the popcorn popping up at the snack bar. The glossy pages of the magazine felt like silk on my fingers.
The article on page 42 was called The Secret of Life. I found the page. I took a sip of my Coke. It tasted so good. Then I felt it slipping out of my hand. Before I finished the first sentence I went numb.
(Voice comes over the loudspeaker –Clean up in lawn and garden.)
I threw a clot and was gone. Stroked out. Mary Ann and her daughter found me, cold to the touch.
(LIGHTS UP on BABY standing, dressed from head to toe in white clothes. There are gentle heartbeat sounds in the background. BABY sways slightly from side to side and looks at the audience in an unfocused way).
It was warm in there, warm and quiet. I heard muffled voices every now and then. They sang to me. They called me baby. I hope that wasn’t the name they picked – so generic.
It was a great gig. Plenty of quiet time, access to food 24/7 and the demands were really low – grow ten fingers and ten toes, learn to smile.
It was cozy in there with just enough room to turn circles. I danced each morning – round and round
(BABY moves slowly, rapturously in circles.).
Every night my mother would tell me a new secret of life -- dogs make the very best people, always have a private stash of chocolate, listen to your heart.
I’d reach out my hands to touch the voice, but there was nothing there.
I had lots of time to think.
(Heart sounds get louder.)
After a while I quit thinking and just listened. I listened to the beat. Don’t tell me you don’t hear it. You have to hear it (voice rising). Because when that sound stops, it’s time to start over. At least that’s the way it was for me.
(Offstage sounds of the screech of brakes, a metallic crash sound, a scream and then silence).
Then I returned to the great unknown, the world of if, the world of possibility I think about the voices sometimes. I don’t miss them so much. I didn’t really know them yet. It’s the idea of them I miss.
(LIGHTS UP on JAKE. He stands, hands on his hips, looking angry.)
Cancer is no longer a death sentence. That’s what the doctor told me right after he said I had breast cancer.
Yes, men get it. I am one of the 1/10th of 1 percent of men who get breast cancer. Around 2,000 men are diagnosed every year, 450 of them will die. I beat the odds. I was one of the 450.
I’m a gambler.
(Call to the post sounds).
I started when I was ten and my buddies and I would race cockroaches in shoe boxes with cardboard partitions. I lost my milk money more often than I’d care to remember, but the rush. Oh, the rush! My blood would run faster. I was more awake, more alive.
Here’s how I found it. After three glasses of wine and the appetizer sampler I convinced Carol from accounting to come home with me. She was running her hands over my chest when she felt a divot on my chest – inverted nipple.
She laughed at my nipple. I laughed too, but I made a doctor’s appointment the very next day
Breast cancer, he said, stage three. Not good. I thought of all the women I had known, all the lovely breasts I’d touched – full and rounded, pointy and cone shaped, small tight mounds. All of that tissue cut away and mourned. Empty bras, empty mouths, empty
It was nothing to me. I‘d bear my scar like a man. It would be my war wound, Ten days after my double mastectomy I was back at the racetrack. I hit it big on the three horse in the third race.
Three months later the cancer was back. My gamble had failed. Chemo was no use. I bet my best friend Jack $100 that I would last until Christmas. I lost.