The Future is Uncomfortable: A Very Short Play
CAST: HANK, JOLENE, A WOMAN
(Music is what we get first: hits from the 90s playing softly one after the other. Maybe some kind of theme night? It’s a mystery. The curtain opens. Two stools are doing their thing up on stage. Between them and the audience is a bar, or rather a tall, skinny table acting like a bar, but with the advantage that one can see through it and thus know that there are two stools there, doing their thing. On one of them sits a man with poor posture and a beer. This is HANK. For a few minutes we just watch him; he taps his foot for a while and actually sways to the music, but he catches himself and stops. Hastily, he pulls a cellphone from his pocket and glances at the screen, smiles as if he’s received a funny text message, but he hasn’t. He doesn’t know why he’s pretending. He pretends to respond to the pretend text before putting the phone away. He takes a sip of beer, rolls his shoulders.
Enter JOLENE, comely but approachable. To see her jib is to like its cut. She scans the bar for a vacancy and evidently settles for the stool next to HANK. She points at it.)
JOLENE: Is anyone … ?
HANK: Oh. No. Go ahead.
(She goes ahead, hopping onto the stool, stowing her purse on the bar in front of her, and catching the eye of the bartender, who the audience will just have to imagine, all in one motion.)
JOLENE: Can I get a gin and tonic, please?
(They sit in silence for a tick or two. HANK, discretely, he thinks, gets a sidelong look at his new drinking companion and tries to think of something to say. The moment stretches. One can easily imagine the gears in his head whirring, humming, glowing red, eventually cracking under the strain. But then he has it.)
HANK: Hi. (JOLENE smiles at him, and it’s a very good smile, but let’s not read to much into it.) I like your … bag, there.
HANK: Yep. What is that, a, uh … (She narrows her eyes and cocks her head: She doesn’t understand.) Uh …
JOLENE: I don’t…
HANK: What … kind … is it?
JOLENE: Oh. Uh, I got it at Target? (But she smiles, bless her wonderful heart, as if HANK’s brain shutting down right there where everyone can see is somehow not uncomfortable and off-putting but endearing. She’s a saint. HANK is unspeakably grateful.)
HANK: Target. That’s cool. You hear about them getting fruit now? Not all of them, but here in town I mean? And other things. Food … things? I guess it’s like a Super Target now or something?
(Why is everything a question all of a sudden? Get a hold of yourself.)
JOLENE: I did hear about that. What a time to be alive, right?
HANK: Ha. Yes. Exactly.
JOLENE: We may not have ray guns or fancy robots but by God some of our Targets have fruit now. Suck it, Isaac Asimov.
HANK: Yes. Seriously. Screw that guy. What a … turd.
JOLENE: Totally a turd. Foundation? More like … uh … shoot. I’ve got nothing.
HANK: More like Foun-gay-tion. (Horrified, he turns the exact color of a pomegranate.) Not that I’m a homophobe, I swear I’m not. It just rhymed, that’s all. It just slipped out. Actually, I’m gay. (What are you doing?) No I’m not. My sister’s gay, though. (She isn’t.) I went to art school. (What an ass, this guy.)
JOLENE: Oof … that was some kind of meltdown you just had there. (But somehow, for some reason, she’s still smiling, still giving him the benefit of the of the doubt. HANK is beyond grateful. He may be a little bit in love.)
HANK: Sorry. I’m … It’s been … I don’t know. Never mind. I’m Hank, by the way.
JOLENE: Jolene. (Pause. She cranes her neck, looking for the bartender.) You heard me order a gin and tonic, right? I didn’t imagine that?
HANK: Yeah, no. That was real.
JOLENE: Just making sure.
(A moment of quiet now, which is unfortunate for HANK; his mental machinery, already damaged from earlier exertions, nonetheless attempts to find a higher gear. Say anything. Anything at all. Talk. Talktalktalktalktalk.)
HANK: I knew a dog named Jolene once. I mean I didn’t know her. Can you know a dog? We didn’t have conversations or anything. She was a dog.
HANK: Not to compare you to a dog.
JOLENE: Of course.
HANK: You just have the same name. (What is his problem?)
JOLENE: Yeah, I think I follow. Was it a good dog at least? Like, Lassie, or something? (This is the nicest girl alive. Why is she still having this conversation?)
HANK: Not really. Just a normal dog. (Don’t you dare say what you’re about to say.) She’s dead now, though. (Shut up.) They think it was a bear. (What a good and appropriate story that was. He lays his head gently on the bar, more gently than he deserves.)
HANK: (Head still down) Sorry. I’m really sorry. I don’t know what my problem is. I’m having an off night.
JOLENE: That can happen.
HANK: I’m gonna go. (He stands, starts to leave, turns back) I just … (What are you doing?) I don’t suppose I could get your phone number? Or something…
JOLENE: Oh. I’m really sorry. I actually—
HANK: It’s okay.
JOLENE: I’m waiting for my boyfriend.
HANK: It’s okay. Have a good night.
(He turns to leave. The stage goes dark. We hear JOLENE say, “you too,” wincing audibly, and the music fades out. It’s replaced, a few moments later, by dusty, old country tunes, not to be confused with dusty, old-country tunes. HANK has entered a new establishment.)
He orders: “Bourbon, please. Whatever’s a good value.” The lights come up, and he’s sitting on a different stool behind a different bar, drinking his bourbon and quite clearly trying to forget about the last half hour.)
HANK: Clown-dation. (Shakes his head. So full of rue.)
(A WOMAN walks in. She looks around, takes the stool next to his. His heart lifts. The night and his self-respect can still be salvaged. The universe is giving him a second chance. It’s a new game. Zero-zero. A fresh start. Relax. Be calm. Forget about charming—just shoot for normal.)
(She nods politely. That’s fine. Baby steps. Keep it simple. Try not to say anything a serial killer would say.)
HANK: Does anybody know you’re here?
(Jesus. Lower the curtain already.)
Hank Henry is the one who’s a turd. If it weren’t a violation of the First Law, I’d punch his goddamn nose. Send him a harshly worded email at [email protected].