R. W. Haynes is a Professor of English at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas. His poetry has been widely published, and his main academic interest is currently the late American playwright/screenwriter Horton Foote.
A Man of Few Words
Persons of the Drama:
Mrs. Johnson, the nurse
Annie June, the nurse’s aide
A hospital room, with two beds. The audience sees the room from a 45-degree angle, so that the room door is to the left and the bathroom door is to the right. The entire play occurs in the conversations held in this room.
Two men are lying in the beds, one old and one young, the young man on the side by the bathroom. The old man has a metal leg brace on his bedside table. The young man is wearing a new back brace, the top of which is visible across his chest. Both are asleep or half-asleep.
A nurse enters the room with a small tray containing medication cups.
MRS. JOHNSON: Mr. Carter! Time for your pills! Mr. Carter!
WALTER: (groggily) No! Hell! No! Shit! Yes!
MRS. JOHNSON: (pouring water into his cup) Time for your medication, Mr. Carter. This will make you feel a lot better.
WALTER: Hell, yes! (he sits up with difficulty, gripping the rails, and takes the medicine) Hell!
MRS. JOHNSON: Mr. Bonstead! Time to take your pain pill!
BILLY: OK. I’m not feelin’ any pain, though.
MRS. JOHNSON: That’s why you take this now. If you wait till it hurts to take the pill, then you’ll have to wait for it to work. Is that what you want?
BILLY: No, ma’am. (He takes the pill.)
MRS. JOHNSON: Good. Y’all are doin’ real good for me today. (She does various checks and makes notes on charts. ) See y’all after a while. (Exit.)
BILLY: (Looking over at his roommate) Well, they got us where they want us, I guess.
WALTER: Yes! Hell! (Shakes his head in frustration).
BILLY: That medicine has got me sick as a dog.
He fumbles with the rail on the bathroom side of his bed and finally gets it down. He then, with difficulty, rolls his brace-bound torso over, kicks his legs weakly till they hang off the bed, then pushes his body slowly off to achieve an upright stance, obviously feeling pain as his spine takes the weight. Walter watches with helpless sympathy. Billy staggers into the bathroom and closes the door. Walter shakes his head sadly.
Two minutes later, the room door is opened by a middle-aged man in a somewhat out-of -fashion suit. He looks quickly around the room as Walter dozes. The man has cold eyes and seems rather disappointed in Walter’s presence.
THE PREACHER: How you doin’ today?
Walter smiles at the man and nods his head, surprised by his arrival.
THE PREACHER: You in here all by yourself? Looks like somebody went to the bathroom.
WALTER: (nodding) Yes! Yes!
THE PREACHER: What’s the matter, you can’t talk? Sounds like you have trouble talkin’.
WALTER: (nodding and shrugging) Yes! (The bathroom door opens slowly, and Walter points in that direction) Yes!
Billy, off-balance and grimacing, emerges from the bathroom. He lowers himself face forward onto the bed, then rolls to one side, drawing his legs onto the bed. He wriggles painfully till he lies on his back, then he raises the rail and reaches down to pull the bedsheets into order. He sees the visitor.
THE PREACHER: Howdy do.
BILLY: I’d shake your hand, but right now I can’t move too good.
THE PREACHER: Your friend can’t either, can he? Can’t he say anything but “Yes!”?
BILLY: Well, right now his vocabulary is around five words. Two of ‘em are yes and no. The other three are shit, hell, and dammit. Dammit may actually be two words. What do you think, Walter?
WALTER: Hell yes!
BILLY: He’s had himself a little stroke. His mind is good, but his voice box ain’t synchronized with what he wants to say. We think they put us both in here because we’re both from Vitaville.
THE PREACHER: (angrily, with self-righteous superiority) I don’t know where y’all are from, but I can tell you where y’all are goin, and that’s to Hell. How dare y’all use that kind of language in a public hospital? I’m a man of God, and I came in to give y’all some gospel comfort, never thinking I’d walk into a nest of sinful vipers right here in Pineview General Hospital. (He looks at Walter.) Here I see this old sinner with one leg in the grave and the other on a roller skate, and cusswords coming forth from him like a busted fire hydrant. You old reprobate, repent and call on the mercy of Heaven before Almighty God strikes you dead for profanity.
BILLY: (raising his voice and struggling to lower the bed rail) Nobody’s getting’ struck dead around here, you old son of a bitch, before I get out of this fucking bed and whip your hypocritical ass for you. I’ll show you some divine punishment, by God.
WALTER: (very loudly) Yes! Hell, yes! Shit! Hell!
The Nurse runs through the door, accompanied by an aide.
MRS. JOHNSON: What on earth is goin’ on in here? Who are you? What are you doin’ in these men’s room? (She sees Billy, his face red with anger, rattling the rail.) You leave that rail just as it is, son. (She runs over to him and seizes his arms.) You calm down. I don’t want you paralyzed. What are y’all so mad about?
BILLY: This old bastard come in here buckin’ and snortin’ cause Walter can’t say nothin’ but cuss words. Let me at the son of a bitch. I’ll teach him some fuckin’ manners.
MRS. JOHNSON: Don’t use that kind of language in front of me. You ain’t had no stroke yet. I’ll call your daddy if I have to. (She turns to the man in the suit, whose eyes are popping with outrage.) Sir, I don’t know you, but you can’t be in here disturbin’ my patients. If you want to preach to the wicked, we got aplenty of ‘em all over Valdosta, but you can’t come in this hospital and rile up a bunch of sick people. Especially not on my floor. You need to leave, right now.
THE PREACHER: I want to speak to a white supervisor, right now.
MRS. JOHNSON: I’m sorry, but Frosty the Snowman went back to the North Pole some time ago. Annie June, could you call Albert to come here right now? Albert cut logs for a livin’ before he hired on here, and he’ll be glad to do some heavy liftin’ for us. (The aide smiles and runs from the room.)
If you don’t remove yourself from this room right now, I’ll have Albert hold you for the police, one of whom is Mr. Walter’s nephew.
THE PREACHER: You haven’t heard the last of this, Nurse. (The man stalks out the door.)
MRS. JOHNSON: Are you all right, Mr. Walter? (She goes to him and checks his pulse.)
MRS. JOHNSON: You Vitaville folks are something else. They put y’all in here together ‘cause y’all come from Vitaville. I figured that was a good idea, but now I don’t know. Dr. Baxter said we’d be lucky if y’all didn’t set up a liquor still or somethin’, but I thought he was jokin’.
BILLY: I’m sorry, ma’am. Especially for the cussin’. I just wish I could have caught that old fool before you got here.
MRS. JOHNSON: Don’t talk that way about a man of the cloth.
BILLY: That’s the kind of preacher that gives religion a bad name. A whited sepulcher, full of dead men’s bones.
MRS. JOHNSON: I knew you was raised up in the Scripture. Well, y’all just get well and don’t worry about him any more. He better not show his face on my floor again, and I won’t need no Albert to make him leave, neither.
WALTER: Hell yes!
MRS. JOHNSON: Now Mr. Walter, I know you have to use the words available to you, but that one wasn’t really timed to please. (Walter, grinning happily, nods in admiration). In fact, I consider that kind of remark pretty close to cussin’. And I heard enough foul language for one day already.
Curtain falls and remains down for thirty seconds.
Four days later. Same room. Billy, sitting on the side of his bed, is telling Walter a story about a neighbor.
BILLY: So the water moccasin is hidin’ in a pile of brush. Old Tommy pokes the shotgun right under the snake’s nose so the muzzle is about an inch on the far side of that snake’s head, and he yanks the damn trigger. Ka-boom! Well, what’s the snake gonna do? Damn muzzle blast like to busted his eardrums, so he’s gonna get out of there quick as he can in the opposite direction, which is right toward old Tommy. That dumb son of a bitch never saw the snake till he come a-boilin out of that brush pile right at him. He was all bent over holding the gun, and by God his eyes like to popped out of his head when he saw that big cottonmouth chargin’ him right in the face. He dropped the shotgun in the brush pile, which was itself standing over a puddle of swamp water, and tried to turn and run, but there was his daddy right behind him who hadn’t seen the snake, and Tommy tried to run over him, but you know how strong-built and stout old George T. is, and I’ll be damned if they didn’t fall in a tangled up heap on the floor, with Tommy floundering on top of his daddy, and that old snake, one of the biggest cottonmouth water moccasins I have ever personally laid eyes on, crawled up Tommy’s back and went right over his shoulder right at George T.’s face. You talk about a look of shock. If he didn’t fall dead as hell right there of a heart attack, that man is liable to live forever. He turned white as a God-damn sheet, and he let out a screech a wounded elephant would have been proud of. That water moccasin opened his mouth real wide right in George T.’s face, and I guess old George felt like his hour had come there for a second, but that snake wasn’t waitin’ around for another shell to go off, and he slithered right across old George like he had some place to be. Them two was layin’ there for a second like they was froze, and then George hollered, “Gimme the gun!” Tommy, you know, ain’t one of the smartest people in Cypress County, and he hollered “What?” George jumped up and backhanded Tommy out of the way and thrashed over to the shotgun and grabbed it. He went to runnin’ toward where the snake had disappeared through that tall swamp grass, a-jumpin’ in the air ever’ few feet so he could see further, or maybe so he wouldn’t step on that big poisonous son of a bitch, but he soon figured out, number one, that the snake had escaped and, number two, that him and Tommy had just had a real close brush with getting snake-bit in the face by a very old, very mean, and very poisonous cottonmouth water moccasin. Old George T.’s face turned from white to red, and he drew back his right hand and gave old Tommy a slap across the jaws that would have cracked a brick wall. Course you can’t hurt that family much by hittin’ ‘em in the head. Any of ‘em.”
Walter shakes weakly with laughter. He reaches over and slaps Billy’s shoulder.
WALTER: No! Hell, no!
BILLY: Now, you know Tommy couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle, but old George T. wasn’t that bad of a shot. And far and away the best shot in the family was Tommy’s mama. One time…
The door opens quickly, and there stands Mrs. Johnson, a slight smile on her face. She looks at the two men and shakes her head in mock sadness.
MRS. JOHNSON: Well, I declare. Y’all are havin’ too much fun to be in the hospital. I’m thinkin’ it’s just about time for two gentlemen I know to head back to Cypress County.
BILLY: If we are, it’s ‘cause we had the best nursin’ care in the state of Georgia, right, Walter?
WALTER: Yes! Yes! (he nods energetically) Yes!
MRS. JOHNSON: Y’all are mighty kind to say so. But before we smother each other to death with compliments, I got a little piece of news y’all might be interested in. Y’all remember that preacher that came in and got y’all so mad?
BILLY: I sure do. He was a real…turkey.
MRS. JOHNSON: Well, guess what? He came back yesterday and started visitin’ again, and we come to find out what he was doin’. He had a stethoscope in his coat pocket, and he would wait till he figured nobody would catch him, and then he’d put that stethoscope around his neck and walk in rooms and start checkin’ women like he was a doctor, you know, examining their bosoms and so forth.
BILLY: That preacher?
MRS. JOHNSON: Well, he wasn’t really a preacher, either, they say, no more than he was a doctor. Anyhow, there was a lady on the fifth floor who was kind of nice-lookin’ and real quiet and private-like, and this old rascal went in the room where she was asleep and put on his stethoscope and started pulling her gown down. I guess he figured that’s what doctors do. Anyway, turns out he picked on the wrong patient, ‘cause she woke up, saw what he was doin’, slapped him silly, and commenced to scratchin’ his face with both hands as hard as she could. He tried to get away, but she got him by the head and started screamin’ as loud as she could. I’m surprised y’all didn’t hear her down here. She was pullin’ his hair out and clawin’ at his eyes and hollerin’ nobody was gonna do that to her but her husband, and, by the time they got to the guy to hold him for the cops, he was bleedin’ like a hog and beggin’ for mercy. Anyhow, they had to take him down to the emergency room before he could go to jail, and it took ‘em an hour and a half to get him stitched up and bandaged. They say it was a wonder he didn’t lose an eye, and he may need plastic surgery on his nose, and he may have to wear a wig, too, after gettin’ all that hair pulled out.
BILLY: Is that lady still up there? I’d like to shake her hand.
MRS. JOHNSON: I don’t think anybody better shake anything she’s got unless he’s her husband. You know, I feel like I should have known that old devil was up to no good. You and Mr. Walter ain’t exactly angels, but both of y’all reacted to him at least, and I wish some of the rest of us had done the same.
BILLY: You’re not the police, Mrs. Johnson. Who would have guessed we’d have somebody impersonating a doctor around here? ‘Course he may have known more about medicine than some of these quackeroos we have …”
MRS. JOHNSON: I didn’t hear that, Billy.
BILLY: And nobody’s going to disrespect somebody who calls himself a preacher, unless he comes in and starts attacking innocent patients like Walter and myself.
MRS. JOHNSON: Come on, men. No one would expect to walk into a little bit of Cypress County here on my floor. He probably came in here thinking he was among normal folks.
BILLY: Well, if either one of us had been able to stand up and go after him, he might have been less aggressive.
MRS. JOHNSON: Speakin’ of being able to stand up, I know you’re goin’ home after a while. Now I don’t want to hear of you fallin’ off any more buildings, drunk. As the Apostle Paul says, young man, a little wine for the stomach’s sake. Sit down and watch the football game with the family and enjoy a glass or two, but don’t risk your life and limb out goin’ hog wild. You see Mr. Walter over there, he can’t hardly get around with that bad leg, and you need to think how close you came to endin’ up in a wheelchair. If you’re gonna drink, at least don’t climb. If you’re gonna climb, don’t drink. I’ll tell you, young man, I ain’t perfect, and there’s many a night I sit down at the end of the day and pour three fingers of gin in a glass (she holds up three fingers with considerable space between them) just so’s I can have a restful night. But the only place I go is to my bed, and I don’t go out carousin’ to the honkytonks or climbin’ around on the tops of buildings. I say my prayers, and that’s it.
BILLY: Mrs. Johnson, would you remember me and Walter next time you say your prayers?
MRS. JOHNSON: I will, son, and you, too, Walter, even if you do cuss like a stevedore.
WALTER: Yes! No!
MRS. JOHNSON: Yes!
*All work is the rightful property of the author and is distributed with their permission.