One life for theater characters

Sometimes, I am slowed down in my play writing because I don’t want to let go of alternate scenarios that cannot coexist in a single play.

Since I usually start from character and place and never use an outline, my early thoughts and drafts go through a wide range of what-ifs and I find myself resisting doing actual scene work because I want these characters to be able to do this AND that rather than this OR that.

Eventually, though, I accept that these paper people become more human when I accept that they can only live, like us, second to second, minute to minute, and day to day, eventually forging one path through life.

That’s when I start to seal off those alternate routes in an effort to cover up any evidence that those dead-end tunnels once existed.

But I’m not there yet. For now, Donna and her daughter Connie and Mark and his brother Joey are living lives in multiple universes at the same time. Eventually, they’ll tell me the story–the one story–that they want written about them.

 

 

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UTB: a short story

This afternoon, 9/21/12, I entered the Masterpiece in a Day writing contest at the Art Squared festival in Fountain Square, Indianapolis. At 11 a.m., I was told the three elements that needed to be in my under-1000-word story: A police officer, a spotlight, and a boardwalk. Here’s what I turned in at 2 p.m. The story won first place.

UTB

by Lou Harry

They always lie. First thing out of their mouths.
“We weren’t doing anything.”
Well, come on, kid. Everyone is doing something. You may not have been doing that, but you were doing something. Fumbling around. Exploring. Blood racing. You think this is something new? First time the thin strips of light through the boardwalk slats were suddenly washed out by my spotlight? A tradition as entrenched around here on the island as soft-serve ice cream, tram cars, and vomiting off hotel balconies.
Blame “Under the Boardwalk.” The song. Gives the whole thing a got-to-try-it romance. A mythos. Truth is, though, amorous couples would be a lot more comfortable out on the jetty. Or, better yet, on a lifeguard stand. Under the boardwalk means you could get doused at any moment by whatever gets spilled up on the boardwalk. And even in the cleaner spots it’s sand and skin. And friction. Which adds up to sandpaper. Which has minimal erotic value.
Never made an arrest under the boardwalk. Official policy—at least, what I was told when I joined the force: Just get them to move on. Unless she looks young and he doesn’t. That’s another matter. It’s not safe under the boardwalk at night. At least that’s what we have to tell them. So in most circumstances, you just shoo them like stray dogs rooting through your garbage.
I know one rookie who went ahead and made the arrest. He never heard the end of it. Cupid, they started calling him. Cops’ idea of irony. And it stuck. He’s still Cupid. Always will be.
Cupid and I were on overnight boardwalk duty last week, waking up people sleeping on benches, ushering confused drunks back to their rooming houses, keeping the peace when it’s already as peaceful as this town is ever going to be in summer. And while we’re walking, Cupid asked me if there was anything I could do to help him get rid of the nickname. “Tired of it,” he said. “A nickname should say something about who you are. Not just something you did once.”
I said he should just relax about it. Having a nickname means people know who you are. People don’t know me. Not really.
And, you know, Cupid—the mythological one—had a pretty good gig. When you think about it. There are worse jobs.
Hands flying. Clothes clutched. I shut the light off quickly. Always.
“We weren’t doing anything.”
“You’ve got nothing to be afraid of, kid. Just stand up.”
“I’m not a kid.”
A little bravado. Trying to impress his guest. I respect that.
“Kindly stand up, sir,” I say. “And watch your head.”
I told a kid to stand up once and…bam. Right into the crossbeam. Thought I was going to have to get him to the ER.
Girl is already standing. Brushing sand off herself. Looking up.
Jenny’s kid. Fourth time I found her down here this summer. And it’s only July. Tempting to judge. But I’m not a judge. I’m a cop.
First time I shined the spotlight on this girl, back in early June, I immediately saw the resemblance. There was Jenny’s hair, yes, but it was more about her presence. Something grounded. Something right here/right now about her. And I could hear Jenny’s laughter echoing off the water slide plastic.
We were in high school. Between sophomore and junior year. Early November maybe. And we were with a group of other kids down by the beach and some of them walked down toward the water—probably to get high, which I wasn’t into. Instead of going with them, Jenny and I snuck out onto the new water slide on Morey’s Pier. Hopped the fence easily. Scrambled up through the tubes. Laughing. Shushing each other. Making it up to the top where we looked down over the empty boardwalk, the boarded-for-the-winter shops, the Ferris wheel stripped of its baskets for the season.
“Cool isn’t it. Growing up here,” she said.
“I guess so,” I replied. Or said something like that. I don’t know.
I tell Jenny’s kid and this boy to walk out to the beach. Out into the open.
They do. Not that they have much of a choice. I’m a cop.
“What?” demands Jenny’s kid as we clear the boardwalk and head toward the water, crashing—but silently—in the distance.
“Just walk,” I say, staying a few steps behind them on the thick sand. Behind us, the boardwalk sounds—the calliope music muted by the rumble of the crowd accented by the cries of thrill riders in descent—start to fade. Roller coasters make their slow rise, take their twists and turns, and return their riders to where they started.
“Where are we going?” the boy asks. But I don’t say anything. Because Jenny’s laughter echoes from a water slide a long, long time ago. Because a day hasn’t gone by without me reliving that climb, that silly struggle through the tube.
Because while I’d take any nickname, I’m jealous of Cupid’s.
We stop at the lifeguard stand. And before they know I’ve done it, I’ve turned around and am already walking back to the boardwalk.

–end–