Old Times There

Amen, I tell you, unless you turn back and become as children, you most certainly may not enter into the Kingdom of the heavens.
                            —Matthew 18:3


Jim Limber, a mixed-race man who appears to be in his early 60s
Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederate States of America—he remains offstage for the duration of the play

The stage is bare and starkly lit, and the background is an almost metallic, early twilight blue. Jim Limber emerges stage right. He is wearing brown shoes, faded brown slacks, with suspenders, and a white button-up shirt, open at the collar, under which is a white t-shirt. Jim walks to the center of the stage, then turns to face the audience.

Jim Limber: We sleep.     I bet you didn’t know folks sleep

In Heaven,     but we do. I’m     sleeping now.

Folks sleep    in Hell too. Bet you didn’t know.

Enough to keep them fresh.     Enough to keep

Them feeling     something.     Soon as one goes numb—a

Sinner goes numb—the     Devil loses his

Moral authority.     They sleep,     but it’s

Always a restless sleep. It’s always someone,

Some demon, chasing them,     or it’s some demon,

Except the demon     has the face of their

Worst enemy or their best friend,     and when

The demon catches them, that demon stares

Them right in the eye and it     don’t     say     a thing.

In Heaven, we watch their dreams,     and I have seen them

Beg for words from their worst enemies

More desperately     than I have ever seen

Them beg for words from their best friends.

(He hears a voice offstage left, and turns his head to listen.)

Jefferson Davis:                                  Please help

me, Varina!     Save me! Wife! Speak to me!

Please speak to me.     If you won’t speak to me,

then turn your face away, at least, or change

your expression, at least—please, Varina.

Look through me like you used to do,     so that

I feel myself encompassed by your look,

along with the whole world behind me, as

if you would hold the world behind me to

keep me before you. I don’t see that look

in your face. Save me from the look I see.

JL (He turns again to face the audience. As he speaks, he glances toward the voice, then back to the audience.): He’s dreaming—Mr.     Davis. Jefferson

Davis,     my daddy, or he was.      I said

He was, after the Yankees took me,     when

Anyone up north asked.     And I was proud

To say so,     even though I knew he wouldn’t

Have said I was his son. He’s     dreaming, and

I see his dream.

JD:                                   Varina, look     behind

you. Won’t you listen, at least, if you won’t

speak?     Look—it’s Jim, our little Jim. He’s changed

some. He’s big now.     But I know him. Jim!     Jim!

JL (visibly shaken, glancing toward the voice again, then back to the audience):

We…     uh… In Heaven,     our dreams are like our dreams were

On Earth,      except they’re never bad.     On Earth,

I dreamed once     I was president of the north,

Stuck in the war forever,     and I knew somehow,

To end the war I had to let myself

Get shot in the head.

JD:                                      Jim!     You hear me Jim.

It’s been     such a long time. I’m somewhere, now,

and Mrs. Davis won’t respond to me.

Though earlier she seemed to have something

important to tell me, and chased me here,

now she stands before me like a nigger

before a plow.     Surely you can get her

talking—you were her special favorite.

Do you remember how she petted you?

JL: (He turns to face the voice.) I… Can you see me, Mr. Davis?

JD:                                                                                                        Of

course I see you, boy, though I see also

some void between us. I’ve long been somewhere

without even a void to contemplate.

I find myself     immobile in hard space

each day, and am freed each night only to

discover a fear of Mrs. Davis,

and run from her until she interrupts

my running, and then stands as you see now

silently before me, wearing a look

in which I do not recognize myself.

JL:     I’ve watched you     in the observatory. I even—

Once I was watching you     run and you turned

Your head—I thought to check if Mrs. Davis

Was still     chasing you—but you didn’t turn

All the way, but just enough to see

Me.     And I thought you saw me,     but I saw your

Eyes and there wasn’t nothing in them.     I

Thought if you saw me, I would see me.

JD:                                                                             I

thought      I was alone. Though I hear moaning

every day,      I do not see its source, and

I have come to believe I am its source.

Mrs. Davis is here at night, but she

doesn’t speak. And I have never seen you.

Where are we?

JL:                                  Dead.     I’m dead, and so are you.

You know you’re dead,     right? Don’t you know you’re dead?

You’ve been dead long enough     to know. I know

They… Where you are, they…     It sure don’t feel good

To say it, Mr. Davis—used to feel

Good to imagine it, before I saw

You there, but…     Mr. Davis, you’re in Hell.

And sometimes they don’t like to tell folks so—

They like to let them think they’re still alive.

But most folks figure it     out after ten

Years or so, maybe fifteen for some.     You’ve

Been dead a     hundred-twenty years—I’ve been

Watching you run      ninety of those years.

But never like this, in     my own dream. (He reaches toward the voice.) And there’s

Supposed to be a barrier,     a veil,

Between us     you can’t see through. How…

JD:                                                                             Stop.     Stop! (Jim puts his arm down.)

I don’t… I do not understand what you’re

saying to me, nor why you would be so

insulting, and cruel, as to say it.

I know     I cannot be where you say I

am     because Varina is here with me.

JL:     That thing? That ain’t     her. She’s     in that place, too, but

Not with you. That’s     a demon there, with you.     It

Wears a mask.     Mrs. Davis… I don’t like

To think about her.     She runs till she wakes.

She sees you and she runs. I     had to stop

Watching her.     She don’t rest.

JD:                                                           No. This is a

prision, and it is treachery.     I led

my people      according to the laws of

the nation, and according to the laws

of God. Of God! You can’t imprison me

for doing what the law      required me to

do.      I served the cause of freedom.

JL:                                                                        Mr.

Davis,     who do you think I am?

JD:                                                       I see

Jim,     so you are a demon.

JL:                                                         I’m just Jim.

JD:     How can you be Jim?     Where is your demon?

JL:     I’m free,      in Heaven. I’ve     been here ninety years.

After the war, you     didn’t look for me,

Did you? I grew up up     north.     Wasn’t free,

Though—not till I saw you.     When I got here

I looked for you. I looked and then I asked.

But none of the     Angels would say.     But then

I found the observatory,     saw your dreams.

You pleading with that demon in that mask—

I don’t know why, but I felt     scared. But I

Saw you.     That demon has you like you had

Me—pleading with a mask I put on you—

The year I lived with you.      And all my life

I only wanted one more chance to plead

With you—with the mask.     But I don’t want that now.

JD:     You always were a loyal boy.     You fought

like a tiger when the Yankees took you.

JL:     I was an old man      when I died. I wasn’t

Old     like you got to be, but I was ready.

I might’ve died     differently, if I could’ve

Chosen how—but I was old enough not

To care to choose.     I died an old man,     woke

Up an old man in Heaven.     And the first thing

I did, I looked for you,     I asked the an-

gels where you were.

JD:                                            Be loyal now. Help me.

JL:     White folks get old—a rich man, like you were,

Gets old, he finds a seat     in a booth waiting

For him,     and all he has to do is sit him-

self     down and it’s his show playing down there

On a stage other     white folks laid across

The backs of all us Negroes.      I’m old soon

As I can’t hold the stage     up—I’m old soon

As I get crushed.     I died, and then I was


JD:           Enough, Jim!     Look—she turns away from


JL:         But I wasn’t never once a child,

Except the year I lived with you and Mrs.

Davis—I always was     a man or ’bout

To be, before and since. So,     when I got

To Heaven, I looked for you and Mrs. Davis—

JD:     I think she will leave me, Jim.     Please help me.

JL:     I thought, What’s     Heaven if I ain’t a child?

JD:     Please.     Help me!     I’m in prison.      A spy has

taken me,     and I am bound so tightly

sometimes I feel I am submerged in stone.

But I find freedom in my dreams.      Help me

find some comfort, too.      Jim?     For old times’ sake?

Jim takes a step toward the voice, pauses, thinking, for a few seconds, then continues off the stage.

Shane McCrae‘s most recent books are The Gilded Auction Block (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) and In the Language of My Captor (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), which won the 2018 Anisfield-Wolf Prize for Poetry, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the William Carlos Williams Award, and was nominated for the 2018 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. He has received a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and a fellowship from the NEA. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in New York City.

You can read more from McCrae here, here, and here.


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