On the third day as the freezer filled with
Frozen Weight Watcher pizzas begins to
stink like something from another century,
I try to remember my great grandmothers
who survived without a beloved microwave,
or an upright vacuum, as hard
as that is for
me to comprehend.
One lived in a tent in Sutters Mill, CA
in a mining camp.
She washed her clothes in the river
and cooked her meals on an open fire.
I think of her as I pout over my Maytag set
sitting quiet as dinosaur bones in my washroom.
The other lived in County Cork in the Irish Famine,
and wouldnâ€™t have to worry even if she did
have a freezer that hadnâ€™t been invented yet,
because she didnâ€™t have any food left to rot anyway.
As I beg my spoiled little dogs to eat their
dinners that I canâ€™t heat without any power
and they walk away miffed
I take a sip of my warm Diet Pepsi,
and tell them to remember the dingoes
and wild wolves who forge for
food nowhere near as good their
cold chopped chicken and rice plates,
and that we are a disgrace to our ancestors
and we should be ashamed,
even if we canâ€™t warm up without the heater
and they are wearing little hand knitted sweaters
and sit on the thick throw rugs waiting for me
to fix their food the way they like it.
We have become soft, my dogs and I.
We need this 21st century to help us along.
I even cut my hand doing dishes in the sink
in the dark and burned my hair on a candle.
I donâ€™t do this pioneer thing very well,
and the dogs are prissy the way I like them.
Suddenly the power comes on
and we run around the house,
giving thanks and barking,
each to her own nature,
and we go to sleep under our electric blanket.
this woman with a dog on each side,
and delight to the heartwarming sound
of the ice maker tossing perfectly formed
little cubes in the waiting bin.
I want to write something wonderful
but every time I try
I remember my ancestors
who couldn’t write or read at all.
I remember how they crossed this country
on foot all the way.
New immigrants in search of anything,
of gold in the mines or land on the hills,
unable to even speak the new language.
And the other ones, deep inside a ship,
destined for a new world,
stored away in steerage
with promises of a wealth
they would never find.
But they would clean fancy houses
owned by other people
or work the docks to unload goods
they could never buy.
And they searched till they died.
They fell like trees on their landlord’s hills
or they dropped like baggage on the waterfront
in the midst of all the cargo
which was bound for someone else.
Every time I try to spin some words,
tell some tale,
I think of them, their illiteracy,
their legacy and poverty,
their lack of education,
and I wonder who it is I think I am?
This is what I bring to my art,
not inspiration, not joy, not pleasure,
but some kind of courage,
some sort of passion for that next mountain
to try anyway,
like those ancestors
their faces pointed towards gold,
their feet bloody,
their backs nearly broken
as they cross the final desert,
their magnificent doubt
as the piers of Ellis Island
appear on the horizon.
Every time I try to write
I remember them.
Every time I remember,
I try to become them.
(A cremation comedy)
Ashes is a play with two characters: Joseph and Annie, adult brother and sister. The play takes place in the living room of their deceased father, Timothy O’Malley. They have just returned from their father’s memorial service. Although they have suffered a terrible childhood, they have learned to cope between themselves even though they appear to have not learned to communicate with each other. Joseph is the quieter of the two and the peacemaker. Annie is more animated and although she appears to be more outward, depends greatly on Joseph. They have a great love for each other and during the play reenact the ways in which they did as children to solve issues and settle problems. This is a game they play. This is how they cope. This is how they love each.
Living room. Couch. Side table with bottles of liquor. Chair.
Time: Present. Evening.
JOSEPH (ANNIEâ€™S BROTHER)
(Joseph enters sadly, stands for minute, thinks quietly. He walks to the mantle, picks up a photo of an older man who looks like him, and almost breaks down.)
God, Daddy … I’m sure going to miss you. I really never thought I’d feel this way, but I do.
(From outside, we hear ANNIE stomping her feet and yelling.)
Oh shit! Bull shit! Cow shit!
(ANNIE stands at the doorway, wiping her feet.)
Well, this is just perfect. I return from our father’s memorial service and walk right into a pile of fresh cow shit. How appropriate! That really stinks, literally and figuratively. Why didn’t he ever keep those damn cows fenced in? They’re always wandering around the place like they’re some damn dignitaries in search of a bathroom. Daddy paid about as much attention to his animals as he did to us Joseph. (Loud) I said there’s cow shit on the front walk Joseph!
(ANNIE comes in and slams the door.)
We’ll have to sell the cows now Annie.
What’s this WE business? What do you expect me to do? Put a cow in my car with my kids and drive it home to the city? Take it up in the elevator to my apartment? Take it on walks through the city with a For-Sale sign around its neck? Where I live Joseph, people don’t buy cows, at least not with the fur still on them.
Don’t get so dramatic. And stop acting childish. We’ve got to put up an ad at the Farmer’s Co-op, make a few phone calls to some of Daddy’s friends, that’s all. Simple. And it’s hide not fur.
(ANNIE takes off some of her clothes)
Hide, leather, fur. No difference. I don ‘t eat them. I don’t sell them. Jesus! It’s hot in here.
Barbara kept it warm. He was always cold….at the end, the last few months.
Oh….I didn’t know that. (Awkward) So….I’m probably having a fucking hot flash. I bet I’m starting menopause. Isn’t that bitch? You always did get the breaks, no periods, no childbirth. All you got were pimples and you still turn out gorgeous. Where is that damn thermostat?
(ANNIE finds thermostat, turns it down. Throws things in a pile on a chair.)
(JOSEPH picks up a few of ANNIEâ€™S things)
You’re dressed like a nun again! Every time you want to escape something you dress like a nun. Even down to the beads. It’s all right Annie. Everything’s going to be all right.
I know that. And I am not dressed like a nun! I just couldn’t decide which things to wear, so I wore everything black I owned.
You are too dressed like a nun. Sometimes I really think you should have become one. There was a time when you wanted to. THAT would have been interesting!
Oh right! We’ve got enough guilt in our lives from 12 years of Catholic school, thanks. Anyway I haven’t been to Church in years….until today at least. Isn’t that something…he lived such a hell raising life and then everyone has to go to Church to say good bye to him. I knew he was really dead then, because if he wasn’t he would have died laughing looking at all of us acting so pious.
Speak for yourself. I take my family to church every Sunday.
I know you do Joseph. You were always better than I.
(ANNIE Looks out the window)
Where the hell is everybody?
They took Aunt Katherine home. I told them to take their time, that we had to have a chance to talk. I thought you and I should discuss the arrangements alone.
Arrangements! What arrangements? The only thing left to do is to go home and arrange to never come back and that’s exactly what I intend to do. The sooner the better.
His ashes Annie.
His ashes. We have to decide what to do with his ashes.
What do you mean, DO with them?
How to dispose of his ashes.
I thought they did that.
The people…at the Crematorium.
They give the ashes to the family. One of us has to pick them up Wednesday morning.
We can’t ask Barbara to do that. It’s not right. They were only married for 9 months.
Since when did this family ever care what’s right or not right. He left every damn cent to her didn’t he? Not that I care, not that he ever gave either of us anything but grief. Let her hire someone to pick up the ashes, as if I give a damn.
Annie, I know you are capable of talking without swearing.
(Under her breath) Shit. Shit. Shit.
Listen, this is just as hard on me as it is on you. That’s why I wanted a chance to talk to you alone. I’ll pick them up….you want me to pick them up. I’ll do it if that’s what you want. Just say so.
I can’t do it. That’s all I know. If you want to, fine…then you do it.
(A little irritated) There is no WANT to. One of us has to do it. But you’ve got to help me decide how to dispose of them. It’s our responsibility, both of ours.
Oh God Joseph. What do they come in…the ashes…what are they going to hand you?
A box I think.
We could have them put into an urn. I mean, if we want to keep them. What do you think?
Are you crazy? An urn for Chrissake! This is our father Joseph, who came home drunk every night and beat the shit out of our mother, the father we used to hide from under the covers. Why don’t we just build an god damned altar to him and petition the Pope to make him a saint?
I should have known better than to think you’d be any help on this.
Well, how do we know they’re his ashes? They could be anybody’s…they could be sweepings from somebody’s fireplace.
You’re over reacting again. And you keep changing the subject. Are you going to help me with this or not? (No answer) Listen Annie, I know you don’t want to deal with this. You think I want to? I know what you’re doing. You think if you can just act out, just (frustrated) act like you can’t handle it, then I’ll have to do it. You always do that. Every since you were a little kid you’ve done that.
Well maybe it’s not acting. Maybe I can’t handle it.
Well maybe I can’t either, but I just get stuck with it because I’m the man. Is this some kind of revenge because you think you’re going through the change of life?
Don’t be ridiculous. It has nothing to do with anything. You just seem to care and I don’t. Isn’t that fairly clear? You just seem to want everything to appear normal. Our father dies and we settle arrangements. Just like in a real family. Except we aren’t a real family. How old were you before your nightmares stopped Joseph? I was 32 years old and I still woke up screaming.
(No answer. JOSEPH is very tense.)
Oh God! You still have them don’t you? Oh this is really shit! Don’t you see. This is not fair. I’ll just tell Barbara to give me a million dollars and I’ll carry his God damned ashes around in my purse for the rest of my life.
I thought you said you didn’t care about the money.
Well, I’ve got three sons to raise don’t I? It’s not like I’d buy a Mercedes with it. I’m a single mother and I’m a secretary. Not that I expected anything from him anyway. Listen Joseph, don’t bother with the ashes. You shouldn’t have to do that. Just go home and let them keep them.
We have to go there on Wednesday morning and pick them up. Barbara asked us to, to tend to the final arrangements.
Just don’t show up.
I can’t do that. It isn’t right.
Oh well now for the first time in history the Timothy O’Malley family is interested in what’s right. Now that he’s dead, we can all just start pretending we’re just like everyone else. And for starters we will sit rationally and discuss what to do with his burnt corpse.
(JOSPEH make a visible effort to stay composed)
We should have them strewn at sea. That’s what he wanted. We have a choice…the crematorium provides a boat or a plane. We can take either. They do a nice service and let the ashes out at sea.
I don’t believe this.
Well, what do you want a plane or a boat? We can arrange for either on Wednesday. We should both go.
Go? What do you mean go? We’re supposed to be there? We’re supposed to dump the ashes? Forget it. I can’t do it.
You can. You just don’t want to.
You got that right.. And you’re not fooling me. You don’t want to either. He was a monster to you Joseph. Anyway, I’m terrified of planes and you know that. That leaves the boat. That’s disgusting, what with the wind blowing and everything and ashes flying all over, all over our faces and into our hair….
(JOSEPH is at the end of his rope)
They stop the God damned boat Annie. There is no God damned wind. They say a little prayer and you simply pour the ashes into the fucking sea.
Sort of like garbage night at sea huh?
(JOSEPH is very agitated. Goes to the cabinet. Pours himself a large whiskey.)
What do you want from me Annie. Just what the hell do you want?
I’ll have a whiskey thanks.
(JOSEPH pours drinks. Brings one to ANNIE)
That’s not what I meant, and you know it.
(ANNIE studies her drink)
Daddy was drunk out of his mind every day of their lives almost until the day he died. He broke our mother’s heart with his other women. She died an early death, unhappy and miserable. The only time I ever remember laughing as a kid, I remember laughing with you. And as an adult, when I see your face I remember the pain we suffered. That’s the worse thing they did to us. I can’t look into your eyes without remembering pain.
We’ve got to start letting go of the pain Annie. I think he loved us in his own way.
I want the ashes.
I’ll pick them up on Wednesday. I don’t want you to have to deal with this.
Why don’t I believe you? I appreciate the gesture Annie, but I know you better than that. You’d just dump them some place.
So what’s the matter with that? When I die Joseph, I want you to promise you will throw away my ashes.
Annie, please, I’m exhausted. Please discuss this with me. Like an adult, if that’s possible.
Will you promise me that?
In the garbage.
OK. If I’m still alive and that’s what you want. I promise I will dump your ashes in the garbage.
In a bag.
Paper, not plastic.
There’s no law against that is there?
Annie, if there is a law against it, I wouldn’t care. If you want to go to your maker in a paper bag, then by the grace of God, that’s the way you’ll go. A promise is a promise.
Thanks Joey. Now can I have Daddy’s?
I wouldn’t trust you for a minute with them.
Fuck it then. Do it yourself, if that’s the way you want it.
Fine. I will.
Well that’s settled then. I knew you’d see it my way.
(ANNIE Walks to the window, looks out)
Well the hell is everybody? I’m starving. I made your favorite pork chop casserole because I knew today would be tough on you.
(Sarcastic) Gee Annie. you’re so thoughtful I just don’t know what to say.
I love you too Joey.
(ANNIE looks directly at him – serious)
More than anything or anyone. Always have, always will.
Ashes was a winning script in the blind judging of over 450 plays for the Santa Cruz Ten Minute Play Festival at Actors Theatre in Santa Cruz, where it was first produced. It went on to be published by Smith and Kraus, and is regularly produced in theaters across the country.