So my first full-length, a dramatic piece, Pillars of Salt, was a work that I took a lot of artistic risks on, and it sort of ended up collapsing under the weight of it's own ambition. This scared me off drama for a while and I've been writing a lot of very silly and ridiculous comedies for the past year. Just finished up a full-length comedy, The Show Trial, that'll be produced this Feburary. Now I want to take another stab at dramawith this idea that has sort of been bouncing around in my head for a year or so. It's about - well, just read the monologue. And please let me know what you think.
The Infinite Lives of Hernandez Polk
by Jeff Keele
(Polk comes onstage with an apple and a knife. He cuts a small section out of the apple and chews on it, placing the apple on a small table next to him - cut section facing away from the audience. The sound of this chewing permeates the space - this chewing is drawn out for as long as possible. He swallows then finally speaks.)
Polk: Before I begin, I first wish to prove a point.
(Polk cuts a deep gash into the palm of his left hand.)
Polk: The point is this - that I am not insane. The story I am about to tell is a confusing one, and confusing to no one more than myself. It begins - "begins": what a strange word - begins with my birth. I was born in 1977, in a hospital, in Chicago. I am now 33 years old. Last Tuesday, however, I was not 33 - I was 38. Last Tuesday, I was not born in 1977, nor in a hospital, nor in Chicago. Last Tuesday, I was also not a pediatrist as I am now, but a florist. I was 15 pounds heavier, had a chipped left inscisor, and a strange fungus between my right third and fourth toe. I had no idea what that fungus was then, but do now, being a pediatrist. It was [research required] - which is harmless. I wish I knew that then - I was so neurotic about it. Had an irrational fear that they would chop the foot off entirely, that is, when I was a Florist, and I was 38, and was not born in Chicago - last Tuesday. And of course, the fungus has since vanished.
Pediatrist! I study feet! For a living! I had always assumed all pediatrists were foot fetishists. I am not a foot fetishist, at least not now, I was once, but not now. So why then would I choose to study feet? I even have a card.
(Produces card with his non-injured hand.)
And there is my name. Hernandez Polk. An intresting name, wouldn't you say? I hate it. And it's the one thing that does not change. It's futile to get it changed legally - I talk about how I was once a florist. I remember being a florist. Yet the truth is, right now, right now, at this moment in time, I was never a florist. My past is what changes, so although I remember it, it never really happened.
For example my wife, my wife now, but not always my wife, last Tuesday, she was my employee, at the shop, when I was a Florist, and god, how I pined after her. Obsessed about how much I wanted to bend her over the counter and tend to that flower. Yes, yes, I know Florists are supposed to be these mild-mannered - but I was a Florist who had also, at various times, had been a soldier, a physciatrist, a longshoreman, a thief, a priest, a county clerk - that's when I was a foot-fetishist, an unemployed drug addict - and now, at this point, well the two of us have had sex so many times, as husband and wife, it's become tiresome. An obligation for myself, and for, I suspect, her as well. We're troubled, have been for years, and it's only a matter of time... (A sense of bewilderment crosses Polk's face) No. No. I've never met my wife. We've never met. Right now, were I to run into her, she wouldn't even know my name. I've never practiced medicine. And although you saw me do it, and I remember doing it (reveals his previously injured hand which is now whole.) I never sliced open the palm of my left hand. And I do not enjoy the taste of apples.
Polk turns the apple towards the audience to reveal that it is now uncut and whole.
Polk: I've also been recently diagnosed with brain cancer. I assure you that this is unrelated.
An "eye-catcher" of an opening! Held me to the end. I'd definitely want to stick around to see what happens next. We have entered a very strange world in the opening, psychologically and physically. Something is askew right from the get-go. (Or maybe in the world of the play it is normal!) I am very intrigued.
Have you written this play already, or are you going to write this play?
It's something that I have a bunch of scattered bits and pieces on. About ten pages worth of script, and the short story I wrote about two years ago that I'm trying to adapt it from, called "A Ship Always Arriving." Started work on the script about six months ago, but shelved it at the time because there was a lot of interest in a full-length version of a short I wrote called "The Proud Sons of Porlock". Just finished that full-length so now I'm coming back to Polk.
Here's another excerpt from what I have so far:
Polk sits down on a commuter train, next to an older man, the train pulls out from the station.
Polk: What time is it?
A moment of silence passes.
Watsin: A strange feeling about you. As if I know you.
Polk: I get that all the time, I assure you – it's nothing. I look like a lot of people, I get mistaken constantly. We’ve never met.
Watsin: Polk. Your name is Polk.
Polk: That's right. I'm sorry – I don't -?
Watsin: We used to work at the count courthouse together, you were a clerk, I was a baliff. There were – (starts giggling)
Polk: What? There were what? Wait –
Watsin: Rumors, there were rumors. You used to take women home, around the office, and would only take photographs of their feet. That you were a foot fetishist(starts giggling and props his foot up so Polk can see) What do you think of these? Here. (starts taking off his shoes)
Polk: Please, I'm - don't -
Watsin: No need to be embarrassed. (looks around) Your secret is safe with me. (winks and laughs)
Polk: How – (whispered with a sense of urgency) how do you remember I was a foot fetishist?
Watsin: You remember being a foot fetishist?
Watsin: I've finally found one of you!
Polk hushes him.
Watsin: (quieter) I've finally found one of you. Someone like me.
Polk: Are you still a baliff?
Watsin: No – of course not.
Polk: If I were to say that if this train, the train we are riding on right now – five minutes ago I did not take this train. I took a train, but not this one. Five minutes ago, I took the 11:05.
Watsin: I would say that five minutes ago, I took the 11:24. This one though, the 11:17 is much more interesting than either the 11:05 or the 11:24. (Pause) My name is Tom Watsin. If you've forgotten.(puts out his hand) “Watsin”: sometimes spelled with an “I” sometimes with an “o”. (They shake hands). So how is it that go? What method? How many times?
Polk: “go”? What do you mean?
Watsin: You're like me. A Lazurus.
Polk: A Lazurus?
Watsin: Risen from the dead. A past, as you know, is something you can never be sure of, not set in stone, but is forever changing. Can never be trusted. It shifts under one’s feet – I can't remember your first name.
Polk: Hernandez. Hernandez Polk.
Watsin: A singular name for a singular man. It suits you.
Polk: Singular? I wouldn’t say so. Outside of my condition – I’m just like everyone else.
Watsin: Like everyone else because you’ve been everyone else. What was your favorite? I was once a mountain climber, worked for the Tibetan government-in-exile smuggling fugitives in or out of the country. That was cool.
Polk: I like the normal ones when I’m a teacher or a policeman. Helps me forget.
Watsin: Yeah, those can be nice too. (pause) I’m more concerned with the ending though. I know mine – what about yours? How many times, Hernandez? The day and time of my death; it moves backwards and forwards. Forwards and backwards. Always the same way – I always burn to death. No matter what precautions I take – I always burn.
Polk: “Always”? How many times? How many have you burned to death?
Watsin: Thirty-Seven. In a car wreck. (scoffs) If only it was more interesting, If only it could change, just like everything else. (ponders) An eight-foot ladybug, and if it must be fire, perhaps it could breathe flame, perhaps it could walk through that door right now (referring to the door separating train compartments; waits with anticipation for the appearance of said ladybug) No. Nothing. (Pause)
Polk: How is it?
Watsin: How is what?
Polk: The –
Wastin: The burning to death? (pause) As hobbies go, one could do better. What about you? How do you go?
Polk: I’ve – I’m not dead – I’ve never died.
Watsin: It’s hard to remember being dead. Not much to write home about. (inspects Polk for a moment) Cancer. I bet it’s Cancer.
Polk: What makes you say that?
Watsin: You look like the type.
Polk: What type?
Watsin: The type that would die of cancer. (An ephiphany) Maybe it’s brain cancer. So that you would never know – all this, your condition, even me, you would never even know – is it true? Or is a symptom?
Polk: I – yes – I've just been diagnosed. Or along one of the -
Wastin: Got it in one. So you can't remember then – can't keep a running tally. All part of the cosmic joke. I wish that you and I would've talked more, when I was a baliff, and you were a clerk. Get to the bottom of this sooner (pause). I would've let you take pictures of my feet, if you wanted. I'm not shy.
Polk: Thanks. - for the offer. I wouldn't have wanted to, but thanks, just the same.
Watsin: I always die in Atlanta. I’m always buried there. I fucking hate the South.
Polk: Where are you headed now?
(Watsin doesn’t recall, searches his pockets and retrieves a plane ticket. He shows it to Polk. Although the audience doesn’t see – it obviously reads “Atlanta”)
Polk: Why not turn back? Get off at the next stop. Go home.
Watsin: Didn’t you hear what I said, no matter how many precautions I take, I always burn. For me, all roads lead to Atlanta. (pauses) Why do you suppose that is?
Polk: I read science magazines. Certain scientists will tell you there is not just one universe but many. Quantum physics. A separate universe to account for every possible state of every particle. Perhaps, you and I, we move through them. Perhaps everyone does - but only we’re aware.
Watsin: How many universes?
Watsin: Infinite… (letting the word segue into a pregnant pause) I suppose then I shall burn – infinite times. (Starts laughing as he thinks of this, amused) No. No. It’s just as I always suspected. I always knew – Polk, Polk – I’ve only burned to death once. It isn’t shifting at all. It’s still, very still. (pause) This is hell. No imps, no pitchforks though. Since though it might be painful - it would at the very least be interesting. Not how you punish people, not nowadays – nowadays you drown them in boredom, in repetition. How many times, do you think, have we had this conversation? Thirty-Seven? Sat here and spoke to one another on this same train. Tell me, Polk, tell me - this train – does it even have a destination?
(At this moment, the train goes through a tunnel, the stage goes dark. They both sit in silence while the train does so. When it passes through the other side, Watsin has vanished)
Polk: (asking another passenger) What – train – what train is this?