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08.06.03

 
the last cardinal bird
in tennessee
 
by Neal Barrett, Jr.
 
 
 

Howard
Howard

The Baby
The Baby

Louise Ann
Louise Ann


Carla

 

the cast

Howard
is played by
Howard Waldrop

Louise Ann
is played by
Leslie What

Carla
is played by
Nisi Shawl

The Baby
is played by
Itself

 

The Time: The near future.

The Set: The set is a shabby, dimly-lit kitchen, the reflection of a run-down, high-tech world where everything is broken, and nothing gets fixed. This is tomorrow held together by a string.

A weak beam of sunlight slants through a narrow window. The light captures dust motes in the air. The sun itself is seen occasionally through a choking industrial haze; it tells us all we need to know about the scarcities, turmoil, and ecological problems of the world outside.

Howard is a character in the play, but he is also a part of the set. He sits in a life-support wheelchair to stage left, apart from the area of action. His chair is a patched-up array of plastic and copper tubing, wires, and makeshift braces and supports. Fluids pump sluggishly through the system -- and through Howard himself. He is totally confined within this torturous maze; only his head is wholly visible.

The Baby is in a bottle on the kitchen shelf. Light seems to emerge from the bottle. As the play opens, the bottle is shrouded by a bird cage cover.

THE CHARACTERS: Louise Ann is an overage Southern belle. She retains her dignity by living in the past. Carla is Puerto Rican and streetwise. She no longer remembers — or cares — which of her many "adventures" are true. It is possible that Louise Ann and Carla are thirty and look forty. Or maybe they are forty and look fifty. They look like bag ladies in their very best clothes. Times are hard.

(Kitchen door opens on Stage Right. Louise Ann enters first, carrying a patched cloth sack of groceries. A shotgun on a frayed string is hung over one shoulder. She wears an air-filter apparatus over her nose and mouth. She removes the apparatus as she enters, Carla comes in behind Louise Ann. She carries an assault rifle and two sacks of groceries.)

 

 

Carla

CarlaThese guy, wha's he think? You hear these guy, you hear wha he is sayin to me? Like I am a love toy or somethin? I'm what, the flavor of the week? (Carla pushes her filter up on her head.)

 

 

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Louise Ann

Louise Ann(Rolls her eyes to the ceiling as she sets her sack on a work table.) He asked you where the navy beans were, Carla.

 

Carla

Oh, sure. You see the guy's eyes? A man he tell you wha he is thinkin with his eyes. He is sayin navy bean with his mouth, but he is thinking big banana with his eyes, huh? Do I know this? Do I know wha I am sayin? I know wha I am sayin.

 

Louise Ann

(Mouths silently along with her:) Do I know what I am saying? I know what I am saying… (These two have known one another a long time. They know each other's lines.)

 

Carla

(Points to sack.) This is yours, that little one is mine. I don buy out the whole store.

 

HowardLouise Ann

Right there's fine. (Glances at Howard.) Hi, honey, you doin all right? Ever'thing just fine?

 

Carla

(Waves, but makes no effort to look at Howard.) Hey, Howar', Merry Christmas… Feliz Navidad…

 

Louise Ann

Loiuse Ann(Pulls out pitiful twig about eight inches long, with tarnished ornaments and star.) I got the tree, Howard. Isn't that nice? It's got a star and a ornament and ever'thin. I'll just put it right here. (Walks toward Howard and sticks "tree" on one of his tubes.) You can see it real good, okay? You need anything? That's fine…

 

(All this is rhetorical. She doesn't look at Howard, though he makes an effort to get her attention.)

(Carla busies herself making tea, moving about.)

 

Carla

I don' think I am goin to do a tree. Is a lot of trouble, you know? Is just me, I don need a tree.

 

Louise Ann

Now you ought to get a tree. It just brightens things up so much.

 

Carla

You got a family on the way. (Kisses Louise Ann's cheek) Tha's a differen thing. Christmas with a little child in the house, huh?

 

Louise Ann

Howard and I are so happy. Aren't we, hon? (Takes Carla's hand, turns to kitchen shelf)

 

Carla

Hey, now don' wake him or nothin for me, don't do that…

 

Louise Ann

Why, it is perfectly all right. Hi, baby? Here's your Aunt Carla come to see you.

 

The BabyThe BabyThe Baby

Carla

Hello

 

Louise Ann

Hello, baby…

 

Carla

Hello

 

Louise Ann

Hello

 

(Carla and Louise Ann act "baby silly," alternately bobbing their heads toward The Baby)

 

Louise Ann

Baby, you want to see the kitty? You want to see the little kitty? (Picks up limp dead kitty on the end of a stick, waves it at baby) Huh? Do you? Meow-meow. He just loves that ol' kitty. We couldn't keep pets at that other place.

 

Carla

Meow-meow… Meow-meow…

 

(Louise Ann busies herself with sack; Carla puts teacups on the counter)

 

Louise Ann

Louise AnnShoot, couldn't do hardly anything there… and ever' thing all cramped up, nowhere to move around. Howard just hated it, didn't you, hon? (Turns on small TV that is sitting on work table) You start thinkin 'bout a chile, you got think 'bout betterin yourself as well. Your lifestyle simply cannot remain the same as it was.

 

Carla

(Pause… looks at Louise Ann) Louise Ann, what you think you going to see on that thing, huh?

 

Louise Ann

(Slightly irritated; this is a familiar routine between them) Now they might be callin out names. They just might…

 

Carla

Oh, right.

 

Louise Ann

Well they could, you don't know. It's Christmas time, Carla. They call out lots of names at Christmas. They could call out anybody's. They could call out yours, they could call out mine, they could call out someone you passed on the street…

 

Carla

(mouth silently) … They could call out someone you passed on the street…

 

Louise Ann

You 'member Miz Toshiyama up in three-oh-nine? She's Korean or Thai or somethin, I don't know which. All those California types look alike to me…

 

(As Louise Ann is speaking, she pulls a black roach three feet long from one of the sacks, and lays it on the work table)

 

Louise Ann

Anyway, she had this uncle, and they did his name right on the TV, and he doesn't live ten blocks away.

 

(As Louise Ann says ten, she whacks the head off the roach with a fierce stroke of the knife)

 

Louise Ann

Makes you think is what it does. Ten blocks away. (Glances at Carla and raises a brow) you want to try an' think about the good things in life, you know? Attitude is ever'thing, honey. (Finishes wrapping headless roach and puts it in the fridge) Plenty of trouble has come my way, and tried to intrude upon my life, and I have just said no, you will not come in, I simply will not allow it…

 

Carla

CarlaI know these Miz Toshiyama somethin, up in three-oh-nine. Her hosbon, maybe she don't know it, but he is into suggestive talk, I tell you that. He catch me in the hall, he has these little bow, you know? He say, hey, I am really attracted to you a lot. He say, I will try to be polite at all times. Let me know, I seem to make unusual demands. I tell him, hey — you a Jap or somethin, right? Maybe you doin' somethin dirty right now, how'm I goin to know? Tha's the thing, right? Focking men, they won't leave me alone, tha's the truth. I arouse some kinda savage need. I gotta live with this.

 

(Behind Carla's back, Louise Ann is mimicking her lines)

(The lights flicker, get dimmer and brighter. This is the first in a series of power failures…)

 

Carla

Oh, great, here we go, right? Merry Christmas from the city to you and me. Maybe the air go out tonight. Maybe we all wake up dead Christmas Day.

 

Howard(During Carla's speech, the power failure begins to affect Howard's life-support system. A pipe pings, and a couple of spurts of red pulse out. Howard looks alarmed, but neither Carla nor Louise Ann pay attention to the problem)

 

Louise Ann

(Peeling a wilted-looking vegetable) You do not need to go lookin for trouble, hon. Lord, when I think. If you knew what life had in store, I expect we'd spend all our time in prayer.

 

Carla

Me, I'm prayin all the time. I'm sayin, Jesus, don' help me, okay? Gimmie a break. Help somebody else this year. Help some jerk in France.

 

Louise Ann

Louise AnnYou can never guess your fate, I know that. Me an' Howard havin lunch just as nice as you please on a Saturday afternoon? Howard gets up and goes out, and walks right into those terrorists at Sears. I swear, you'd think even a bunch of Mideast loonies'd have some respect for an end-of-summer sale… Now him and me both out of work and me with child. 'Course we ought to be thankful, knock wood. (An absent nod in Howard's direction) There's a lot worse off than us, isn't there, hon?

 

(Howard tries to make some sort of gesture with his mouth, but nothing works)

 

Carla

I know these black guy, right? He is workin in the office next to mine? He say, listen, I had my eye on you a long time. Like this I don' know, right? He says, hey, les talk. He say, I gotta quart of Idaho gin, I been savin it for you. He say, I going to jump-start you battery, babe. I goin to give you sweet content. I say, stop it, okay? You fall inna toilet or what? The guy won't quit. He say, I ain't talkin no plastic love, babe. I am talkin penetration of you sweet an' private parts. I say, right, I am focking overcome with lust. I say, I wan' some terminal disease, I go sit in a crosstown bus, I don' gotta sit on you.

 

Louise Ann

Life has often dealt me roles of quiet distress. Even before I met Howard, my family had very little luck shoppin discount stores. I lost two brothers in retail accidents. Poor Bob went out to Ward's and was set upon by Mormons at a Fall Recliner Sale… they said God didn't like us leanin back… He was taken in a car somewhere, and beaten severely about the head. When they finally let him go, he was captured by nuns south of Reading, Pennsylvania, and forced to mow lawns for some time. Bob just wasn't right after that… My youngest brother Will went into the Western Auto Store and vanished out of sight. Mama thinks he might've got into an alternate style of life. The boy was keen on fashion magazines.

 

(Louise Ann stops what she is doing, and leans into the TV)

 

Louise Ann

What's he sayin now? Turn that up, Carla, he might be doin names.

 

Carla

He is doin the news, okay? He is not doin names. You want to see the news? You want to see a current event? So go look out inna hall.

 

(Louise Ann reaches over and turns up the TV herself)

 

Louise Ann

He could be doin names. That is a part of the news like anything else…

 

Howard(The lights flicker again. Something serious begins to go wrong with Howard's life-support system. A pipe breaks; a wire snaps; a little more fluid gushes free. Howard looks alarmed)

 

Louise Ann

(Irritated with power failure) Oh, for Heaven's sake. I do not see why we have to put up with that. I saw last night, on the news? This man said a lady saw a whole flock of chickens. Rhode Island Reds, jus' running wild out on the road.

 

Carla

These lady think she see a chicken, she is smokin bad shit, okay? She don' see no flock of chicken somewhere, I tell you that.

 

Louise Ann

Now she might have… you don't know that, Carla. You see the bad side of ever'thing is what you do. You got to say, now I am puttin Mr. Negative behind me… I am lookin for Mr. Good…

 

Carla

(Silently mouths Louise Ann's words)

 

Louise Ann

Louise AnnThere was this ol' lady in two-oh-five? Miz Sweeny or somethin, you recall? She swore on Jesus her sister had the last cardinal bird in Tennessee. Kept it in a hamster cage long as she could stand it. Started dreamin' bout it and couldn't sleep. Got up in the middle of the night and stir-fried it in a wok.

 

Carla

(Shakes her head) That was not the ol' lady's sister had these bird. That was her aunt or somethin'. And it wasn' no cardinal it was a chay.

 

Louise Ann

Now I am near certain it was a cardinal. A jay, now, if she'd had a jay, I doubt very much she could've kept the thing quiet. They make a awful lot of noise.

 

Carla

Hey, Louise Ann. You see these bird you self? You don't see this, you don' know if it hoppen or not. You don' know somebody see a bird it's red or blue or what.

 

Louise Ann

Well ever'body don't lie. I mean I am sure there are those who do, Carla, but I sincerely hope they are not of my acquaintance.

 

Carla

CarlaI meet these guy, couple weeks ago? I'm workin late. What he's doin, he is keeping his eye on me. He says, listen, you ever eat a duck? I say, no I don' ever eat a duck. He say, I got a duck. He say, okay, I haven' got a duck, I got something tastes like a duck. I am lookin these guy in the eye, I see how he is lookin at me. I say, right, I wan' some of you duck that ain't a duck, I got to do what? He says, hey, you an' me, we going to get along fine. He say, go back to you office. Write somethin pretty nasty on the screen. I say, will you stop? I am real disappointed in your behavior, man. I say, you got no focking social grace, you know? He say fine, so do somethin else. I say what? He say, go back to you office. Sit on the Xerox, okay? Fax me you sweet little tootie, I gave you half a duck. I say, get outta here, I'm gonna what? Expose my lovely parts to harmful rays? He say, what do you know, maybe it's gonna feel kinda good. I say, hey, I'm so aroused I'm passin out.

 

(The power flickers again. Howard looks really concerned, as more pipes begin to break; more fluids begin to splatter from his device.)

 

Carla

(Irritated with power failure) Can you believe? What is this, huh?

 

Louise Ann

Louise AnnMr. Axtel in fifth grade, he taught shop and home ec? Tried to get me to sit on a baked potato once. He said not many girls'd do it. I said, well I am surely not surprised to hear that. I related this incident to Howard in later years. He said it smacked of deviant behavior to him. He said he couldn't be sure, unless he saw the actual event. (Raises an eyebrow in Howard's direction) Don't you try and deny it, Howard. That is exactly what you said. I distinctly remember your words. (Louise Ann shakes her head and sighs; she touches Carla's arm without looking up) I shouldn't complain, I know that. Howard and I have had our differences, but I'd say we've had a good life. I have found marriage to be a tolerable condition, in spite of the side effects. On our very first date, Howard took my maiden state against my will, and I can't forgive him that. However, I do not feel the sin's on my head, since I had no idea what he was doin at the time.

 

Carla

Hey, this is what a man is goin to do. He is goin to do whatever he can get away with, right? A guy says, hey, baby, I got these glandular needs, I am losin all control.

 

Louise Ann

Howard may have used some electrical device. I'm sure I couldn't say.

 

Carla

CarlaA man got somethin he wanta do, he says, hey, that ain't perverted, everybody doin that. Whatever it is, this is what it's okay to do. I got this cousin back in Puerto Rico when I'm a kid? He tended to piss in ladies' shoes from time to time. You step in you Sunday school pump, you gonna get a big surprise.

 

(The power flickers once again — nothing real bad, just a little teaser this time)

 

Louise Ann

I only went out with one boy before Howard. His name was Alvin Simms. His family was from western Illinois. First generation up from trash is what they was. I wouldn't let him touch me, of course, but I'm afraid I allowed sexual liberties over the phone. I deeply regret doin that. Alvin's fantasies ran to outdoor life. Badgers were on his mind a lot. (Shakes her head, remembering) When I come to think about it, the women in my family got no sense at all when it comes to men. My great-grandmother worked directly with the man who invented the volleyball net they use all over the world in tournament play. 'Course she never got the credit she deserved. My family has rubbed elbows with greatness more than once, but you couldn't tell it from lookin at us now. You know I try to hold Christian thoughts in my head, Carla. But sometimes, I must admit I do not feel God is close by.

 

Carla

No shit. When is that?

 

Louise Ann

You can laugh if you like. I assure you, I am quite serious about God. Carla, now turn that up. I think they're doin names…

 

Carla

He is not doin names. He's sellin somethin, okay?

 

Louise Ann

I thought he just might be doin names. Last year they did a good many names during Christmas. Not just Christmas Eve, but Christmas Day as well, and on through the entire holiday season as I recall.

 

Carla

(Speaks in a sympathetic tone. She knows when to put her cynical armor aside, and offer her friend a kind word) They probably goin to do it real soon, right? I think that's what they going to do.

 

Louise Ann

You might be in the bathroom or somethin, you know? I was thinkin 'bout that. You got the water on, you went out to the store? They could do it, you wouldn't even hear, you wouldn't know…

 

Carla

(Stands, gives Louise Ann a rough hug) Hey, they not about to do that. I know this for sure.

 

Louise Ann

You don't have to go. I'm pleased to have you here, you know that. I could make some more tea.

 

Carla

I got to go put up my stuff. You lock up good. I call you in the mornin, okay? (Carla picks up her assault rifle and grocery sack) Hey, Merry Christmas, Howar'. You lookin good, man.

 

(Carla exits. Louise Ann pauses a moment to watch her go. Going back to her work, she sees something that bothers her on the TV)

 

Louise Ann

Oh, my Lord… (She washes her hands quickly at the sink; keeps her eyes on the TV) There are a lot of things of a disturbin nature on the television, Howard, the situation bein what it is and all? (Wipes hands on a towel) Which is not to say one cannot be more selective, and find somethin more suitable for family viewin.

 

(Louise Ann reaches up and takes the cover off the bottle containing her baby)

 

Louise Ann

The BabyCome on, honey. There you are. (Takes bottle off of the shelf, and cuddles it to her breast) I see you. I see you, hon… (Speaks as she walks to a rocker with the bottle) … Which is somethin I feel we should discuss in depth, Howard. The TV and all. I mean, we are a family now.

 

(Louise Ann loosens her blouse and bares one breast. Her breast is partially covered by a circle of metal and pink plastic. A clear plastic tube is attached to the center of the circle. As she talks, Louise Ann inserts the free end of the tube in the top of the bottle containing The Baby)

Louise Ann

…And that means certain added responsibilities for us both. You might want to think on that, Howard, seein as how you appear to have the time…

 

(Louise Ann leans in and turns up the TV. Tinny Christmas music can be heard from the speaker. The power in the room flickers again. Louise Ann's face is illuminated in the light from the TV screen)

 

Louise Ann

See the man, baby? See the nice man on TV? The man might do names. You watch, he just might… (Louise Ann rocks, and teases The Baby with the "pet cat" on a stick) He might do mama's name… he might do daddy's name… why, he might do your name, too. Yes sir, you don't know, he just might… that's what he might do…

 

(Everything is going wrong with Howard. A very sorry sight indeed)

Tinny Christmas Music Up And Fade…

Curtain

 


Neal Barrett, Jr., entered the science-fiction field in 1960, with four stories published that single year. "Being a reasonable person," he says, "I knew from these successes that I had landed on Easy Street." His 42 years of soft living in the fiction-writing business have produced about four dozen stories and over fifty novels, both under his own name and under a variety of pseudonyms, some more famous than God.

"The Last Cardinal Bird in Tennessee" is reprinted with permission from Neal's collection Slightly Off-Center (Swan Press. 1992). Neal's short-story collection Perpetuity Blues (Golden Gryphon, 2000) is already a classic and a collector's item, and it should be read by everyone who aspires to being funny and meaningful at the same time. His most recent novel is Piggs, and The Prince of Christler-Coke is forthcoming. You can buy these books directly from Neal.

 

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