YOU ARE NOTHING BUT A SET OF OBSOLETE RESPONSES
A Play In Verse
“You are nothing but a set
of obsolete responses.”
T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party
CRAIG — A Young man, age 18. His mother died when he was 14 and now, unknowingly, he envisions himself as someone who ought to be in a play—and speaks accordingly.
AUDIENCE — A felt presence.
MOTHER — CRAIG’S mother, who died four years ago, yet persists.
DR. MERCY — CRAIG’s psychotherapist, selected by his bewildered father. She has developed an unusual attachment to her patient.
HEART – A Valentine’s Chocolate, but the size of a plate.
[We see a bedroom in which CRAIG sits in an old easy chair, an open novel splayed over one of its arms, while he writes furiously in a spiral notebook. Suddenly, he looks up at the AUDIENCE, which sees a scrolling marquee above the stage. The marquee reads “Please save your applause, if any, until the end of the show. We apologize. There will be no intermission, nor an ending. Such is the way of things.” CRAIG stops writing and starts to talk.]
I suppose one must simply start
talking if one wants to get anything said:
I was born at an early age, but not
so early that I caught
the beginning of my story, which,
as it turns out, may have been
generations, if not centuries,
in the making, its origins having been
belched out of the deep belly
of time, along with others’ stories.
And its ending may alter
its beginning, as with all good
poems—and life is more poetry
than prose, tripping as it does
over a few exquisite lines
and, at best, merely the shadow
of an attempt at an improbable plot
that can’t resolve. I have learned
this much in my few leaden years,
which have left me
young. Though I know I’m not
from anyone else, except that I
have elevated my story with elevated
speech. My teenage years
brought me down too low to see
the level field where
my peers at school are playing
soccer, baseball, football, girls lacrosse,
and winking at the cheerleaders.
I am the same, but I am different.
[CRAIG stands and begins to pace the stage like a professor in front of a large lecture hall.]
I stand before you with
a sadness as common as a cough,
private as the space
between two snowflakes, to parse
enemies from friends, to meet
Fate and ask her for the break
I must deserve.
Join me? to watch
help, cry out…
[At this moment, the AUDIENCE sees a new message scroll across the marquee: “DO NOT cry out. Anyone caught exclaiming, divulging information observed in other scenes or otherwise aiding the actors in any way will be shocked mercilessly by electrodes implanted in their seat cushions, which may also be used as floatation devices. Also, it is now appropriate to laugh at the actor on stage. LAUGH!”]
…So, youlaugh? My so-called friends
laughed me off the field
when I was five. They laughed
in eighth grade when I wore
T-shirts with the logos of my favorite bands,
when I grew my hair long as a sheep dog’s
to absorb my tears.
But they stopped laughing
when my mother died! They stopped
then. How does that make you feel?
Death left with my mother in her arms.
I have lived with a father
whose vague shape
lumped widely in the ocean
of his bed, asleep when he should
wake and prepare for work! I stand before you
now making the sound, the indefatigable
ticking down of the cosmic
stopwatch, whose start button some angel
clicks after he gets his wings
on the birthdate of some human boy
or girl, and which is clicked
again just as that boy or girl, now
withered whether old or young, draws
a final breath; the time elapsed
is recorded quickly in a ledger
and then the angels move on, bored
but resigned to clicking again
as life moves onward and awkward, a truck
on a highway passing a car wreck
soon forgotten! Do you recognize
[The AUDIENCE once again sees the scrolling marquee illuminate: “Kindly refrain from responding to the patient on stage. This is for his safety / your entertainment.”]
[The rustling of candy wrappers is heard, then a cough followed immediately by something like a bug zapper in a suburban backyard. Then a hushed cry of pain from somewhere in the back.]
Are you alright? Hello? Hello?
I know you’re there? Why won’t you
[“Keep quiet,” scrolls the marquee, threateningly.]
Fine. Nevertheless, youare going to hear what happened to me
between my first click and today, how I’ve been
mauled by circumstance. One cannot trust
fate any better than a sidewalk
that cracks and lifts
for the amusement of those who watch you trip..
For two years now my father,
first drunk then hazy,
has remarried. She is kind, but
she stole him from the
death we shared! What right had she??!
Now he has her. Who have I? Not him,
drink-spun and lost in his manic attic
where he’s invited her
but not me!
Friends? No. They sleep close
to their mothers, still suckling, spitting
the milk for show in a parade
of adolescent reversals and unruly
Who have I? Not you.
I have only Dr. Mercy,
my therapist, the family a father can buy,
an ear strung to an invisible heart,
her body hollowed to house my words,
which fill it like nuts in a
squirrel hole. Do I love her, my confessor?
Help me now, my audience,
by watching, which I know
you can, which a dead mother can’t.
Yet she does.
for a session…
[The curtain rises on DR. MERCY’S office, a blank room with an easy chair and a brown couch. DR. MERCY, an attractive young woman with a long, gray beard, sits on the easy chair, clipboard and pen in her lap. CRAIG sits tensely on the couch.]
Good afternoon, Craig. How are you feeling this week?
Despondent, as ever.
My heart feels like leather.
Why are you withholding again? Don’t you want to talk?
What kind of question is that?
It’s not talking that I mind,
it’s the topic I need to discuss,
and the fact that my topic
demands discussing, that I must
discuss it instead of anything
else, and with you instead of
anyone else, anyone I don’t have
to talk to, anyone unskilled
in eliciting commentary and self-
analysis on such topics as this.
And what topic is that? I’m here to help you, you know…. When we left off last week, you were expressing some very harsh feelings about your father….
What topic? The only one there is!
Death! The end of life and its
object, the goal that my mother
has already scored! Why
would I want to come to talk
about that? And why to you?
You’re exaggerating and being facetious. Don’t the two of us get along? Don’t you enjoy our conversations, or at least benefit from them–a little? Aren’t you getting what you need? And if not, can’t you channel some of that angry energy into our conversations?
I like my friends,
I loved my mother.
I’d rather talk to them
than any other.
You’re playing with me–playing hard to understand, hard to get. But I do understand; I do get you. Therapy is a duel, and my job is to fight the truth out of your head and into the room. I think you are desperate for therapy, at least in desperate need of it. You feel impelled to seek refuge in my ear—its bosom—to gently suckle the teat of my attention, to come between the legs of all my years of experience. Our work is just beginning and you have a long way to go.
I have no one to talk to
but you. My days
are torture, my nights are dark
before the sun goes down…
Where else can I go? No one
else listens to me; you do,
you must. I am terrified
to talk for fear
I’ll hear myself, and
scared that a life of silence
stretches out before me, or
a life of words I’m hiding
between, saving all my true speech
for my past, where my mother
still waits. She seems nearer
than anyone else I’ve seen.
So you wish to rejoin your mother? It’s as if you conceive of death as a hotel where you’ll have a private bath in which for eternity you’ll soak, your mother gently pouring water over your hair… it drips over your eyes and your lips carefully as searching fingers… it’s as if you believe yourself to be an old man already…
I AM already old! A mother
is supposed to stand by
her son until middle age
at least, so I must be at least
that old, probably older, standing
by the river, waiting for my mother.
I want a conversation with
a memory, to speak and feel
heard by her in the way she always
heard me. I know only I
am speaking and hearing, eating
my own tail, but in my mind
I could crawl into her ear
and be warm and protected from
the cold wind that blows and blows.
It’s a form of perversion to be quite so fascinated with death, which you have conflated with your grief over your mother, among other longings. It’s my role to lead you out of Hades, like Orpheus led his dear beloved. We, too, must not look back, lest we return to hell, however we might wish to return. I must train you to train your gaze ahead.
But I don’t want to leave hell!
Nowhere seems nearer to now
than the past; I see it
just ahead, like a threshold
through which I should be able
to step with almost no effort.
The door to my childhood, right
here, seems to back away
as I approach, teasing me
like the other children
who littered my childhood.
They were cruel as this is.
Well, we will work on that. Your peers are growing up. You’ll forget them soon enough. But how articulate you are. You feel as though you’re surrounded by time, wrapped by a mirror like a blanket. Everywhere you look, you see yourself, and in those reflections, deep within your green eyes looking back, you see your mother staring out from within you. No wonder you want to die: who wouldn’t want to retire into those lovely eyes.
This is weird, but feels good.
I do think about dying all the time,
everywhere, doing whatever
I happen to be doing, slurping cereal,
I suddenly worry a coco puff will lodge
squarely in my throat and block my breath.
I often fear I’ll die in the bathtub,
a toaster or hair dryer thrown
into the water by some faceless stranger.
This obsesses me. Something in me quivers
whenever I insert the dryer plug
into the socket….
Ooh! “Quivers,” “insert!” But never mind. Why do you think that is? It’s quite a creative embellishment, most likely rooted in a terrible childhood trauma. Most likely, you were forced to watch your mother bathing—she craved your eyes on her body—or, during your own childhood baths, noticed her gaze trained on her own reflection rather than on your vulnerable little body.
What! No! That’s just weird!
Your reaction is very telling….
No! When I was a kid my aunt
(my father’s sister, who recently
killed herself, by the way)
let me watch this terrifying movie
in which a woman dies when
someone throws a toaster
into the bath with her…
…thereby seeding a lifetime of obsessive fantasies about death, which seduces you into the past. You were born into a family bent on destroying itself, hence, everywhere you look, you hunt for good-enough mothers. All of your friendships are cracked. Every girl you meet, or will meet, will become an ill-fitting replacement for your mother.
I feel like every time I get close
to a girl, cuddling, almost kissing,
what I want instead is a kind
of sexual swaddling, a sort of
rubbing comfort, something not
quite right that scares them off.
You know, Craig, it’s my job to stand in for your fears, for your loved ones and tormentors, to allow you to practice turning right where you once turned left…. Memory is the root of all trauma, and trauma is forgotten memory you can’t forget. Forgetting is moving on, which is forgetting. Forgetting is living. You are afraid to die in the bath because you are afraid to live clean in the drying air! You must get out of the bath! You must dry off and live! You must put on your underwear and pants and a shirt and live, live, live!
[The stage lights dim as CRAIG begins to storm toward the door; it’s hard to see how CRAIG responds. The AUDIENCE is bewildered.]
[The curtain rises on a graveyard with only one grave. On it the word “Mom” is inscribed and enclosed by a heart, soft, faded, strawberry red like a trucker’s tattoo. CRAIG enters from stage left, always stage left, and approaches the grave, stopping suddenly, faltering, almost falling, about four feet away. He carries a notebook with a cartoon tiger on the cover. As CRAIG talks, he paces, addressing the grave.]
I have come, mother.
I have come because it is time
to move on, to get over you, to
say goodbye once and for all,
for you are gone, as my therapist
reminds me. I have come
to catch up, and then to say
goodbye, for you are dead, and yet
nightly I dream of your return
to our house, and daily I seek you
behind the bathroom door, in the
kitchen, sitting in your old chair
where your old dog, now sullen,
also waits. We have not sold
our haunted old house, which may
indeed have been haunted before
you left, spooked by the premonition
of your exit, which weighed
on us all for years like
the scuba belt with its slabs
of metal that dad kept
from his father and which he tried
to pass on during
the diving lessons he made me
take to spark the relationship
we had never had. I was terrified
of the water, of choosing to go
where I knew I couldn’t breathe,
of trusting the air in the tank
on my back—I was unready for any
new element. Perhaps I am now.
Not that I mean I will resume
the study of diving, but
I’ve swam in death these years,
my tank of memory strapped
to my back, and still I can hardly
breathe. Mother, did you know
we had taken lessons in diving?
Did you know dad went drunk
to therapy? Did you know my school
guidance counselor would take
such an interest in me? Mother?
[The AUDIENCE is aware of nothing more than a pause in CRAIG’s lines.]
Mother… of course you say nothing.
What could you say? And how
could you say it? With what tongue
other than mine could you speak?
I’ve wished for you to return
and set the clocks back—their ticking
from our walls has been the pulse
of my childhood—to a time before
puberty, when most things, enough
things, made sense. But you won’t,
you can’t. My wishing
rubs my raw wound rawer. A black lake
has stretched itself across my mind
like a blanket. It is warm and
boring and predictable, safe as a worn out
womb. Mother, have you watched me?
[The AUDIENCE sees the marquee illuminate—“It is now appropriate to shuffle in your chairs, cough, and rudely unwrap sucking candies”—and obeys.]
I have watched for signs
of your watching. I have detected
none. On the day of your death
I was reborn not as your son
but the son of a mother who had
never lived, a dead mother’s son,
and today I must be re-reborn.
Hence I have come to say goodbye.
Mother, do you, can you, understand?
[Amidst the silence, an impolite number of AUDIENCE members gets up to use the bathroom or to buy overpriced M&M’s from the theater bar. One even dies in his seat, though this won’t be discovered for hours. A frigid wind blows through the theater.]
Before I go, I would like
to recite to you a passage
from my diary, my dark factotum.
a poem—I have taken to writing
poetry, opening a wide, unanswering
ear into which to pour myself.
So here I go:
I have no
friend or brother.
I love her, my
What do you think?
[Now wind chimes ring in the distance. The AUDIENCE sees another line flash across the marquee. It reads: “You should not be reading this, and are.” --from ‘Still Life with Aspirin’ by Lucie Brock-Broido.”]
Again, of course, your answer
is silence. I cannot go on
but I miss you! I hadn’t
grown up at all before your death,
I needed your permission
for everything I did! How can death
take everyone? How could it have taken you,
the sky above my entire world!
[CRAIG stamps around a bit, as if revving up for a tantrum. He nears the tombstone then retreats, then suddenly lunges forward as if to attack, and then kicks the tombstone as one would a flat car tire one doesn’t know how to change.]
Mother,in my head I’m an old horse,
too weak to work, awaiting the farmer’s gun
and the glue factory!
Which is why I have come to say goodbye.
When I dream of you
returning, you are still sick, too fragile
to live, but you’ve come back for my sake.
It’s unfair, what I ask of you, to listen
like someone strapped to a chair. Goodbye!
[The curtain rises on DR. MERCY’s office. She sits in the easy chair, rubbing her skirted legs together like a cricket. CRAIG sits on the edge of the couch, as if ready to jump off into some void below.]
You seem eager to talk. Did something happen this week?
I visited my mother… my mother’s
grave. I tried to say goodbye.
And it worked… for a day or two,
but now I feel immersed in her
more than before, like I betrayed
her trust, committed lust, like
I’m cheating on her with you….
Craig, you knew this wouldn’t be easy. The heart doesn’t change in a day. And you don’t owe her all your love. She doesn’t want it all; she wouldn’t want you to live that way. When I said to move on, I didn’t mean anything drastic. It’s a figure of speech…
…because there is nowhere to go…
…because the heart is always in your chest…
…it doesn’t change…
…but it sometimes turns…
…but you said it doesn’t move…
…but it can shift its eyes…
…but you said it’s locked in my chest.
It has no eyes; it cannot see…
…it looks through you….
It’s buried so deep it would need
…and that’s the purpose of therapy….
Your metaphors conflict; they make
me more confused. Am I my heart
or do I merely contain it? Is it a
baby sucking up my senses and babbling
its own nonsense? Do I need to
protect it or mount my defense?
Will it kill me with its hurt
or will healing it save me?
Was my mother mine or my heart’s?
And can I keep her if it parts
with its attachment to her memory?
Is my heart my truest enemy?
If we go on like this, we’ll be out of time. You’re obfuscating. You’re complicating. Now you’ve got me speaking in rhyme. There is nowhere you can go without your heart. It’s been in hibernation, it went into shock, and now it’s waking up. Hazy-headed, it wonders where its mother went. Your mind remembers, but your heart forgot. You’ve got to tell it gently, ease it back to the present.
So I’m split in two, my me
is now and then is my you.
Your heart is with your mother and your mind is with your self. You’ll need to talk to your heart, to tell it to join you here in this office. We should try an exercise. We’ll put your mind to sleep while I talk to your heart. I want you to focus on a point on the wall….
[THE LIGHTS DIM]
[CRAIG is in the background, blurry and hard to see. DR. MERCY sits in her easy chair. Across from her is a floating heart, like a Valentine’s chocolate, but the size of a plate.]
Are you there, Craig’s Heart? Can you hear me?
i can hear
I’m here to help you. Are you afraid?
i am alone i am nowhere
there is nothing you can say
You are not alone. You are in pain. You are scared. I understand. Your mother is dead—she died four years ago.
no one is dead no one is
alive it is so dark where i am
you cannot possibly understand
It’s true I can’t see what you see, but there is more than what you see. Craig is here; he’s waiting for you. He needs you to come to him.
he must be dead
he must be gone i have not
heard from him he no longer
addresses me i must wait
here for my mother you must
go you will scare her away
She’s not coming back. I’m sorry. She died.
you are lying why are you
lying you intend to hurt me
you want to use me to fuck me
you will destroy me i must wait
I believe you are afraid you killed her.
i made her leave yes
i was too selfish had
too much need she simply
took a break from me
she will be back i
understand why she left
it was my fault i will be
better and sweeter if she
returns she must return
It was not your fault. She died of an accident during surgery. You could not have caused it. She would have stayed with you if she could.
i think you are lying
mothers live for their
sons and they die of
their sons’ ingratitude
Is that truly what you believe? Who told you that?
what other cause could a
mother have? Her son is her
body detached she is sworn
She was a person too, before you, for decades. What she died of was set in motion long before you and it will remain in motion ‘til the end of time. CRAIG is alive, he needs you… come back to him….
[The AUDIENCE sees a new line pass across the marquee, a command: "Cheer HEART on!”]
[These are YOUR lines:]
You can do it!
Go for it!
i… i miss the world, the prickly
embrace of experience, the too-frenzied
report from our senses, the coursing
adjectives of one description
after another, the shimmering sound
of the leaves on the branches in the wind,
the growing glow of flesh
pressed against mine, the old scent
of words on paper passing beneath
our eyes like a river, which is like
the passage of flesh across flesh,
like our own hands wringing
with fear met with fear. i want
and i want and i want to come back…
Heart, come back to Craig. Craig, come back to me….
I’m sorry, dear heart, I will try,
I will try to live, I will stand
outside in the wind like a stallion
on the blistering cliffs! I will
talk to girls and try to love again!
I feel you beating!
i am beating! i am beating!
i feel the furthest extremities of
Craig. i feel our fingers, i am
filling them with dark, rich blood,
i can nearly feel them feeling!
i and filling our legs and the floor
presses up from beneath us,
the world is permitting us to stand!
i feel the air coming in through our nose,
our lungs taking in 100 percent
of the oxygen, and, at last, once again,
i feel myself distributing it everywhere,
to our eyes, our lips, to our very soul,
which is pouring forth again, our gift
to the world into each other, to our self!
i am beating again, Craig, and we are beating!
[Across the marquee: "You are here! You are beating! Say it! 'We are here! We beat with you!'"]
We are here! We beat with you!
We do! We do!
…and I beat with you–I am beating!
You are beating! All of you
are beating! This play is
wonderful! We will tell all our
friends! Shows will sell out!
The run will be extended!
[The lights rise again and CRAIG and DR. MERCY are once again in the office, embracing, crying, suddenly kissing. She sits on his lap. CRAIG is cured. Therapy works! This scene seems interminable. In fact it is. The theater doors are chained shut by unseen hands. Now the marquee reads, “We thank you for your patience and apologize for the inconvenience.” The stage lights stay lit forever.]
Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of three books, most recently To Keep Love Blurry (BOA, 2012). BOA what will publish his next book, The Trembling Answers, in 2017. He edited Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz for New Directions and is at work on a collection of essays.