“Across the Lines” by Theric W. Jepson

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Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

                                “ACROSS THE LINES”

                                              A One-Act Play

                                       CAST OF CHARACTERS

LIVING:
PETER . . . . . . . . . A HEALTHY AND ACTIVE 70 YEARS OLD MAN WEARING A LARGISH OVERCOAT
HAZEL . . . . . . . . . A WARMLY DRESSED WOMAN OF THE SAME AGE RANGE AS PETER

DEAD:
EMILY . . . . . . . . A BEAUTIFUL YOUNG ANGEL OF ABOUT 20 OR 25 YEARS OLD
RICHARD . . . . . . A GLUM FELLOW OF ABOUT THE SAME AGE

STAGES RIGHT AND LEFT ARE SEPARATED FROM EACH OTHER; EACH HALF REPRESENTING A SEPARATE LOCALE. STAGE RIGHT IS HEAVEN. AT THE CENTER OF THIS SLICE OF PARADISE STANDS A SMALL ROUND TABLE WITH A BEAUTIFUL OLD-FASHIONED TELEPHONE. POSSIBLY, THERE ARE SIMILAR TABLES AND PHONES UPSTAGE. STAGE LEFT IS EARTH; THERE IS A BENCH AND EVERY OTHER INDICATION OF A CITY PARK THAT SEEMS NEEDFUL. AS WE OPEN, HEAVEN IS LOVELY AND SERENE. EARTH IS MUCH THE SAME, ALBEIT WITH BIRDS AND TAXIS AND THAT AMBIENT NOISE THAT WAFTS OVER THE CENTER OF ANY CITY PARK. PETER SITS ON THE BENCH. AFTER A MOMENT, HE REMEMBERS SOMETHING AND DIGS INTO HIS POCKET, PULLING OUT A CELLPHONE. HE OPENS IT UP, THEN PAUSES TO FIND HIS READING GLASSES. HE PUTS THEM ON, PLACES A CALL, AND PUTS THE PHONE TO HIS EAR AS HE PUTS AWAY HIS GLASSES. THE PHONE IN HEAVEN BEGINS TO RING. EMILY FLOATS IN TO ANSWER IT.
EMILY: Hello?
PETER: Emily?
EMILY: Peter! Oh, it’s so good to hear from you!
PETER: You too. Guess it’s been a while since I called, huh?
EMILY: And good for you. Been keeping yourself busy?
PETER: Sure, sure. As busy as an old retiree like me is apt to get.
EMILY: So . . . . Where are you now?
PETER: Sitting in the park.
EMILY: Is Hazel there?
PETER: Soon. I am meeting her, but I’m a little early.
EMILY: You’re not chasing her down? Parking to show her the city lights? Just waiting patiently then holding hands as you take a daytime stroll through the park, I suppose.
PETER: True, true. I am old, don’t forget.
EMILY: Oh, I know it. No hanky-panky for you.
PETER: No. (Beat) I’ve decided to ask Hazel today.
EMILY: Oh, Peter! Finally! I’m glad you’ve finally picked someone. You better not back out this time. I’ve been watching you, you know.
PETER: I know and I won’t, I won’t. I’m all ready. I’m—going to use your ring.
EMILY: That’s so sweet. Thank you. It’s been forty years since anyone’s worn it.
PETER: I know.
EMILY: It’s about time you stopped moping.
PETER: I haven’t been moping! (Pause.) At least not all forty years, I haven’t been.
EMILY: You still need a wife.
PETER: I know.
EMILY: And Hazel’s great. I’ve met her daughter. She’s a good choice.
PETER: Thanks. Here she comes.
EMILY: Don’t hang up.
PETER: Okay.
(As he carefully puts the phone in his pocket, HAZEL and RICHARD enter. PETER stands.)
HAZEL: Peter!
PETER: Hazel. I’m so glad you’re here.
HAZEL: Me too.
(They hug and sit.)
HAZEL: Oh! isn’t it just a perfect day, Peter? So crisp!
PETER: It is, it is. I was just—Hey, look! A skywriter!
HAZEL: I haven’t seen one of those in . . . I don’t know how long. What is he, Starbucks? Well. That’s disappointing.
PETER: I guess every corner of the city just wasn’t enough.
HAZEL: They’re like starlings that way. Speaking of, I forgot those crackers.
PETER: That’s okay. I finally remembered that bag of stale bread I told you about.
HAZEL: The one you found in your trunk?
PETER: The very same.
HAZEL: Oh, good. Let’s feed the ducks.
EMILY: Oh, ducks. I used to love ducks. (EMILY stops watching as she ambles around, twirling the cord in her fingers, remembering.) They’re just so cute with their little waddles and their quacking and… (Suddenly, she snaps to the present, dropping the receiver and knocking the table to the ground; she runs across the boundary between heaven and earth yelling.) WATCH OUT FOR THE SANDWICH!
(PETER slips and begins to fall backwards. EMILY arrives in time to catch him and return him to his feet.)
EMILY: (Noticing where she is.) Oh dear . . . .
HAZEL: Oh my goodness! Are you okay?
PETER: Oh—! Oh—! Oh—! Baloney? Who would leave a baloney sandwich on the path like that? That’s that’s that’s dangerous!
HAZEL: Are you okay?
PETER: I’m fine. I’m sorry. Did I scare you?
HAZEL: A little. It looked like you were going to land on your back. Nice reflexes.
PETER: Yeah. Seventy never felt so— Hoo! So much adrenaline! I feel great! Look, let’s pause for just a second. (He goes through his coat pockets; takes out a large loaf of bread in a bag.) Could you hold this for a second?
(Still looking, PETER pulls out a variety of unlikely items, handing them to HAZEL, for whom the act of holding them becomes increasingly tricky. When he comes across the cellphone, he looks at it, then returns it to his pocket. While PETER searches his pockets, EMILY walks over to RICHARD.)
EMILY: Hi! I’m Emily.
RICHARD: Richard.
EMILY: I didn’t realize Hazel had been married.
RICHARD: Is married.
EMILY: Of course. When did you die?
RICHARD: 18 months, 14 days ago.
EMILY: Ah, so recently. Why haven’t I seen you around?
RICHARD: I’ve been here.
EMILY: You’re not over it yet?
RICHARD: Yes.
EMILY: I guess you can’t tell me how to get back then.
RICHARD: No.
EMILY: Dang. Well. Isn’t this exciting?
RICHARD: What?
EMILY: Them.
RICHARD: What about them?
PETER: Here we go! (He pulls out a small paper and begins to unfold it.)
EMILY: Oh, a poem. I’m glad he finally listened to me.
(RICHARD sulks over to toe the sandwich.)
EMILY: I would have helped you write it, you know.
PETER: I know. Wait. Are you here, Em?
EMILY: I seem to be. How do you think you avoided a broken pelvis?
PETER: Oh. Thank you. (He pats his pockets.)
EMILY: My pleasure.
(PETER notices HAZEL has his reading glasses and he plucks them from her pile of stuff and puts them on.)
PETER: Thank you.
(EMILY moves closer in order to read over PETER’s shoulder.)
PETER: Hazel, oh Hazel, with eyes like your name
Hazel, your mouth, bespeaks a large brain.
EMILY: That’s okay, I guess.
PETER: Hazel, remember when we went downtown?
I think since that day I’ve ne’er worn a frown
EMILY: Cute.
PETER and EMILY: Hazel don’t ever forget that you’re great
(PETER stops to breathe but EMILY continues.)
EMILY: Hazel, I think that you should be my ma—Woh. No, no, no, Petey. Um . . . . Use this: As we walk here . . .
PETER: As we walk here . . .
EMILY: . . . upon this thwaite . . .
PETER: . . . upon this “thwaite”?
EMILY: And for the next line, change “really quite swell” to “real fantastic.”
PETER: Hazel, I think you’re real fantastic
EMILY: And change “from hell” to “elastic.” No! “Spastic.” No! Um, “enthusiastic.”
PETER: Uh, Hazel, I’m sure you’ll keep me—
EMILY: “Life”!
PETER: —you’ll keep life—
EMILY: “Enthusiastic.”
PETER: Enthusiastic.
EMILY: Go on.
PETER: Hazel, I thank you for sticking with me
I think we should do this eight days of the week.
EMILY: That’s sweet. Nice job, Petey.
HAZEL:(Laughs and claps.) Peter! That was lovely! Thank you.
PETER: You liked it?
HAZEL: I did! I really did. It was much nicer than that silly cobbler I gave you.
PETER: What? No! That was delicious! Thank you.
HAZEL: I was afraid I’d made it too sweet.
PETER: Not at all.
HAZEL: Richard was kind of sensitive to sugar. He wasn’t diabetic or anything, but it bothered him sometimes.
PETER: Oh, how awful! I can’t imagine life without dessert!
EMILY: Ain’t that the truth.
PETER: What? I never got that fat.
EMILY: Pay attention to your girlfriend, Petey. (To RICHARD.)I swear they’ll never get married if he can’t focus.
RICHARD: Married?
EMILY: Sure. It’s not good that man should be alone. They two shall be one flesh. That sort of thing. You must be really happy to see your wife finding someone so quickly. Mine’s been single for so long . . . . Maybe if I had stayed here like you— But that’s all over now, I guess. I died clear back on my thirtieth birthday. Kind of lousy timing don’t you think?
RICHARD: Mm.
PETER: Honestly, it was the best cobbler I’ve had in years and—believe me—I know my peaches.
HAZEL: That’s sweet of you to say. Could—could you, um, take all this stuff back now?
PETER: Oh! I’m sorry. (He collects and stashes his things, except the bread.) Let’s feed the ducks.
EMILY: That seemed to go well. Did poetry always work well for you?
RICHARD: I’m sure I wouldn’t know.
EMILY: Oh, you’re kidding. You never read her some Neruda or anything? You missed out! I’ll bet there are whole lands of passion you never quite tapped.
RICHARD: (Defensively.) There are not.
EMILY: Well, you may be right. Look at them. Feeding the ducks. Aren’t they adorable? You’re lucky. You got to be part of an old couple. It looks so . . . comfortable.
RICHARD: Yeah.
(He thinks and listens to PETER and HAZEL.)
PETER: I remember when they first dug this pond. That must have been . . . ’75? ’76? My girls were teenagers.
HAZEL: What used to be here?
(RICHARD walks over to HAZEL and starts whispering in her ear.)
PETER: I think . . . one of those old-fashioned jungle gyms. I suppose they’re too dangerous now.
HAZEL: I’m sure I don’t know how we survived our childhoods. Jungle gyms, no seatbelts, sleeping on our—is it front or back babies can’t sleep on? I can’t remember. And—(HAZEL begins batting at her ear.) —chickenpox—and—isn’t it too cold for mosquitoes?—and—aah! What was I saying?
PETER: I think you were about to say you never died of malaria either.
HAZEL: (Laughs.) Was that it? (This time she smacks RICHARD’s hand and it startles her.) Richard?
PETER: It’s going well, don’t you think?
EMILY: (Watching RICHARD and HAZEL.) Yeah . . . . What has she said about her husband?
PETER: He sounds like he was a pretty great guy. (Pulls a bag from his coat.) Pretzel?
HAZEL: (Sounds far away.) No. Thank you.
EMILY: She misses him?
PETER: Of course. Naturally.
EMILY: It’s no good to be alone.
PETER: No.
EMILY: So you’ll finally have someone to rub your feet in the tub again?
PETER: Rub my— I had forgotten all about that.
EMILY: You forgot? You? Mr Rub-my-feet? Why, Petey! You’re an old man!
PETER: Guilty as charged, my love. Guilty as charged.
EMILY: I can’t believe you haven’t even thought about your feet. I must not have been as good a wife as I thought.
PETER: It’s not that—
EMILY: I know. It’s just—Why does a man your age get married, if he doesn’t even want a pretty girl to rub his feet? You’ve been without me forty years now. What’s changed?
PETER: I’ve been lonely a long time, Em.
EMILY: I know! Haven’t I been telling you to get married all these years?
PETER: Sure you have. All the time.
EMILY: So why now?
PETER: Well. For one thing, I love her.
EMILY: That’s a very good one, at least. I’m so happy for you, Peter. I really am. I wish you all the best.
PETER: And—
(Beat.)
EMILY: Yes?
PETER: And—I need—someone to notice me. I don’t want to just disappear when I die. I want to be mourned.
EMILY: You’re so morbid in your old age, Peter.
PETER: I just—I need to know that if I’m gone tomorrow, someone will know.
EMILY: You expect to go first?
PETER: Men usually do.
EMILY: Usually. You don’t want to be left behind again.
PETER: I miss you, Em.
EMILY: I know. I miss you too.
(Silence.)
PETER: Maybe I will have her rub my feet. For old times’ sake.
(EMILY laughs.)
EMILY: You’re cute.
PETER: At least, I still have that going for me.
(HAZEL moves away from RICHARD and takes PETER’s arm.)
HAZEL: Let’s finish feeding those ducks before they starve to death.
(They move to upstage and talk and laugh and feed ducks. RICHARD glumly tails them but is more directly watching EMILY who is trying to figure out how to get back into heaven. She runs into invisible walls, tries stepping over whatever works the best for the actress. RICHARD slowly drifts back towards her.)
EMILY: You’ve really never been to the other side?
RICHARD: No.
EMILY: It wasn’t a problem the first time. I just sort of . . . went. You know?
RICHARD: No.
EMILY: No. I guess not. Hmmm. (She turns her attention to PETER and HAZEL and sighs.) You know, I used to love feeding ducks.
RICHARD: Ducks?
EMILY: Sure. Why not?
RICHARD: No reason.
EMILY: Didn’t you ever feed ducks?
(They continue watching.)
EMILY: I’m glad they found each other.
RICHARD: He’s your husband!
EMILY: Look how happy they are.
RICHARD: She should be with me.
EMILY: Pfff. She’ll be with you soon enough. They’re not exactly spring chickens, are they?
RICHARD: But I need her now. I’m so . . . .
EMILY: (she cuts in) lonely? I know. So am I. Before today, I hadn’t heard from him in two months. He’d been too happy with her.
RICHARD: It’s not fair.
EMILY: Mm. Maybe not. (She takes his hand.) But so it goes, you know what I mean? “Que sera, sera”. I loved that movie. We saw it just after we got married. Maybe even on our honeymoon. I was such a big Doris Day’s fan. (Pause.) I met your daughter.
RICHARD: (Showing signs of animation for the first time.) Judith? You did? How is she?
EMILY: She’s great. She misses you two though.
RICHARD: She was such a good girl.
EMILY: You should go see her.
RICHARD: I should— (He looks over his shoulder at HAZEL.)
EMILY: Come on. I’ll show you where she is.
(She takes him to heaven. Then suddenly notices where she is.)
EMILY: Oh. I did it.
(EMILY uprights the table, then picks up the phone—gently returning it to its place and making sure not to hang it up. She takes RICHARD’s hand again and they exit.)
(PETER and HAZEL wrap it up with the ducks.)
HAZEL: Oh! I almost forgot. You have to see this, Peter. (She drags him downstage left and points offstage left.) Have you ever seen anything like it?
PETER: Holy . . . No. I can’t say I have.
HAZEL: I read about it in the paper. No one knows who made it, though.
PETER: What’s it for?
HAZEL: It’s just for looking at, I’m sure. It’s some sort of sculpture.
PETER: No, no. I mean—is it supposed to look like something?
HAZEL: Oh! Well, it’s a couple, isn’t it? See? There’s her head, there, leaning into him. And his head above hers. Like this. (She moves into his chest, his head settling naturally upon hers.) Your arms?
PETER: Oh! Right. (He holds her. They stand there.) But it’s made out of . . .
HAZEL: (Giggles.) I know.
PETER: How much do you suppose that many rolls of toilet paper costs?
HAZEL: A lot.
PETER: People are . . . strange.
HAZEL: What, you never celebrated Emily with a couple thousand rolls of toilet paper? What kind of romantic are you?
PETER: How long do you suppose they’ll leave it up?
HAZEL: I don’t know. I hope they leave it until the rain takes it. It’s beautiful.
PETER: For toilet paper.
HAZEL: For toilet paper.
(Pause.)
PETER: How’s your apartment on toilet paper?
(She slaps his chest and pushes off.)
HAZEL: You boy. Are you ready for lunch?
(They wander in the direction of the bench.)
PETER: Not quite.
(EMILY returns to the heaven-half of the stage and watches; she holds the phone to her ear with both hands. PETER brings HAZEL to the bench and helps her sit down. He seems to try to kneel, but his knees won’t let him.)
PETER: Mind if I sit next to you?
HAZEL: No . . . . Are you okay?
PETER: Fine, fine. I’m great actually. How are you?
HAZEL: Fine . . . .
PETER: Now the fact is, I’m a pretty old fellow.
HAZEL: I’m not so young myself.
PETER: No, I suppose not. Yet still cute as a button.
(HAZEL smiles and turns her head.)
PETER: You are. But the thing about being old is. Well. No one likes to say it.
HAZEL: No.
PETER: But there’s no reason we should be also—Hang on.
(PETER goes through his pockets, removing things—including the cellphone—and makes a pile on one end of the bench, behind him, not between them.)
PETER: Ah. Here we go.
(PETER pulls out a ring box.)
Peter: Hazel. Will you marry me?
(Sobs catch simultaneously in both HAZEL’s and EMILY’s throats.)
HAZEL: Yes. Oh yes. I will.
PETER: I love you, Hazel.
HAZEL: I love you too.
(They clasp hands and gaze into each other’s eyes.)
EMILY: Finally.
(EMILY sets down the phone and walks straight to earth; she pulls the cell phone from the pile of stuff.)
EMILY: You won’t need this anymore, Petey, my love.
(She gently takes PETER’s head in her hands and kisses his forehead, smoothes his hair; then she walks back into heaven, hesitating only slightly as she crosses over. She picks up her phone’s receiver and cradles it lovingly. Kisses it. Hangs it up. Exits.)

                                                         Curtain.

 

 

 

 

Theric W. Jepson is is an editor, writer, teacher, anthologizer, and erstwhile performer of literature both pretty good and reasonably okay. He lives in El Cerrito, California with two pomegranate saplings.

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