Back Up To Fall River
by Robert Moulthrop
followed by Q&A
A One-Act Play for One Actress
Cast:Emily, age Late Teens—Early 20s
Setting: A stage in a hall in rural Northern California. The people in the audience are the people in the audience.
EMILY enters, running from the back of the hall up on to the stage. She is wearing jeans, shirt, jacket, dark glasses, backward baseball cap. She has a knapsack on her back. She has been running for some time and is a little out of breath. She acknowledges the audience with a look, and, holding up her hand, silently asks them to wait.
Wait. Please. Really. Really. Just a minute. Please. Just let me, uh . . .
She stops, shakes the knapsack off her back, catches it with one hand, swings it slightly, puts it gently on the ground. These movements are quite familiar—this is the way she always takes off her knapsack.
She stands for a moment, then, in one fluid motion, reaches behind her head, moves the bill of the cap to the front, removes the hat and quickly, as if it were a magic trick, folds the cap down and makes it disappear into her pocket. She acknowledges the silent cheers of an imaginary crowd, lifting her hands and bowing.
But then she stops and is quite silent, finally taking off her dark glasses without a flourish. She appears tired and wary.
Really. You're in the right place. I mean, this is Fall River Mills, right? You all got the, uh, notice? Right. Well, I'm sorry. I hope I didn't keep you waiting or anything. I didn't plan for that car to break down. George, I mean, he has his license and all, it's just that he's not too good with cars, and he, uh, forgets. He'll be along, I think. I mean, he's going to take me, uh, home. So you can see him then.
She moves and stands behind the knapsack and, so that we can see, unpacks it, taking out, first, a children's yellow shovel, then a shoe box sealed up with a single piece of masking tape around its middle, finally, a coffee tin with a snap-on plastic lid.
These arranged in front of her, in front of the knapsack, she seems to regain her energy. She suddenly takes off her jacket, shakes it out, folds it in an intricate and special way, then puts it into the knapsack, quickly, as if it were an animal that might escape unless quickly cornered and captured.
Then everything is suddenly over, and, from a space somewhere off, she begins to speak.
You know, it's so hot. I didn't think it would be so hot here this time of year. How come is that?
This was hard getting here. I saw the town, you know, from off there on the highway, just, I thought, up through that meadow, but that was a long way. We don't get to climb too many hills down there in Fresno.
And those prickles got on my socks. I didn't mind. This, this is . . . this country here, this is . . . nice.
Oh, I should have said. I'm Emily. Emily Bonavida.
She takes a small folded piece of paper from her jeans' pocket. She opens it slowly, smoothing it out and rubbing her fingers over the words.
I was worried, at first, but I had the directions that Dr. Mahoney sent me. I wonder . . . Wait, wait, don't tell me. No, wait, Dr. Mahoney, don't get up, wait, wait.
She puts the directions in her mouth to leave her hands free, then picks up the shoe box and opens it, and takes out a snapshot. She looks at the picture, then out into the audience, then at the picture again. She smiles, looking out into the audience.
Yes. There you are. A little different. Hair and, what, something around the eyes.
She holds the picture up for everyone to see, but the picture is small and the image is difficult to make out. She gestures to a man in the audience.
Look upon this picture, and on this. The counterfeit presentment of two . . . That's not fair, though, really. It's a pretty good picture. All those years ago.
The other person in the picture there, that's Amanda, that's my Mom. What was that? A picnic or something? Dr. Mahoney, you look, she looks . . . Amanda. What a name, right? Rolls right around your mouth and off your tongue. Amanda Bonavida. Grandma said that it was Grandpa, he was the musical one, named her for the sound of her name.
Well, you probably all remember him, right? Guillermo, the butcher right over by the church, sang Verdi all the time? At least that was what Grandma said. He sang until, well, until, what Grandma said, the light went out from his life, when Mama, when we all, that is, moved away, at least that's what Grandma says.
Well, whatever. Those were pretty good directions. We got a little lost is all around Grass Valley and then again, coming through, what was it, Burney, I guess, we missed the turn. We saw the waterfall, though.
In order to put the picture back in the shoe box, she puts the directions in her mouth again.
Thanks, Doc. Couldn't have done it without you. That's what Grandma would say, help her up, help her sit, move her around or whatever.
EMILY adopts the tone of an older, probably senile woman, just enough of a suggestion to give us a sketch of the woman.
Thank you kindly, Emily. I couldn't have done it without you.
Well . . . Grandma. She was . . . old when she died. I don't know. Ninety-eight or something. She'd never tell. So, Grandma, I'd say, how old are you? And she'd say, flipping a pancake at the griddle, just turning it with a flip, you know, Oh, she'd say, I'm as old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.
I liked to think about that. Of course, by the time I knew her, she used to put her teeth in the glass of water by her bed. So those teeth . . . But she had a tongue, all right.
You get in here right now, clear up these dishes, or I'll make you go out in the back, pick a willow switch, and come in here and give it to me so I can switch you good, same as I did your mother.
She didn't mean anything by it, of course. She never did hit me. Not even once. And, of course, every time she would mention my mother, Grandma would just, you know, stop. I remember that time, I was in Fifth Grade, we'd just done this play, this Shakespeare, I got to play Ophelia, I wore white and said to the King, "Here's rue for you," and be crazy and everything, and Grandma, she was standing at the sink, looking out the window back at the hen house, and the water was running, and she just said, Your mother would have . . . and I said, My mother what? And then she just started to cry and I did, too.
I loved my grandma and she loved me and we both loved my Mom. Except I never knew her. My mom. She died when I was two.
I have her picture in here, somewhere. Not the one with Dr. . . . Another one, a real one.
She gets the shoe box and takes out a picture.
Here, she looked like this . . .
She holds a small picture, one she clearly treasures, out for the audience to see. At the same time she assumes a pose, a woman at the beach, pretending to be a bathing beauty, squinting at the camera.
But then, I forgot, you knew her. All of you. Dr. Mahoney, Everybody.
She puts the picture away.
Nice of you to come. Really. All of you. See, what Grandma said, what she wrote . . .
She digs through the shoe box and finds a letter.
Here, what she said was . . . "It's a small town, and they'll all fit in at the school. Get them all together so you can tell them.". . . Now, here's the . . . well, the . . . I have to . . .
Well, Grandma told me to do it this way, I mean, she wrote, well, I'm sorry, but there isn't any money . . . She didn't . . . I mean, well. I'm sorry, here's what she wrote, I'm just . . .
"They'll come there for you if you tell them that I've left a lot of money to the town and that you're bringing a check. Just write to Dr. Mahoney . . ." So I did.
Grandma thought you'd be interested in the money. She was right. Funny to think that you were the one who wrote her those poems. She saved them, did you know that? I have them, here. Don't worry, I'm not going to . . . But they were great.
So, and here's everyone together.
See, what the deal is, I know that since Mom and Grandma left, all those years ago, Grandma made it sound like things were great and there was all that money from the crops and all. But it wasn't like that. And there isn't any check. There isn't any money for anything. Just for me to get up here.
But what it is is that, well, what else Grandma's letter says is, here, let me read it to you: ". . . You need to tell them all the truth. They need to . . ."
Don't leave. Please don't go. You need to, just let me, I'm almost finished here. Really. Here, she says . . .
"They need to know what happened. Tell them how after your Mama went to Dr. Mahoney so he could do the abortion, how she came back home and bled to death and died."
Did you know that? That part about the blood? My grandma never told me about the blood part. I just read it when I read the letter, right after Grandma died. I just knew about my Mama, just about, you know, that she had died when I was two. So, see, it was like having three deaths, first my Grandma, then the baby—my sister—then my mother's blood.
I . . . miss . . . my . . . Mom. Dr. Mahoney. I miss her so much. So. Grandma. Well. My Grandma and I, we thank you for coming.
She looks at the back of the hall.
Just a minute, George. I'll be right there. Is the car running now all right? No, you all please stay, stay. I'm, we're almost finished. I just wanted to say . . .
She holds up the coffee tin.
This is Mama. I mean, her ashes. Grandma kept it all these years. Grandma wanted her to be buried here, at home, where she grew up. Grandma, she wanted to be put in—planted she called it—down in Fresno. But she thought Mama should be back up here. That was the other reason I . . . And why I brought the shovel—that was Grandma's idea.
My shovel. She kept it. From one time over in Santa Cruz. And Grandma said, in that way she had, "You dig a nice little hole with this here shovel you used that time at the beach you don't remember but your mother bought you that shovel when you could barely walk and she would take it well you use it to open up the ground to take her in up there in Fall River." Something like that.
At first I wasn't going to. I was just, I don't know, going to, what, hand Mama's ashes to you, to Dr. Mahoney, make you . . . hold them until . . .
But I don't want to do that now. You remember about the prickles? in my socks? Well, that was that meadow, down the hill back there, where the yellow grass runs right up to those big evergreens? I stopped and sat there while I was fixing my socks. I looked down the hill, and I could hear Mama's voice saying, "Here, Emily; just right here in among the grass and trees; where I can see the hawks and feel the wind on my face." Did she . . . Dr. Mahoney, did she go down there? To that meadow?
So, anyway, that's where I'm going now.
She hunkers down and packs up her knapsack, one item at a time, except for the yellow shovel and the coffee tin.
Down to the meadow with my Mama.
She looks out over the people assembled . . .
Thank you all for coming.
. . . and walks, deliberately, from the stage and out through the audience.
Robert Moulthrop is a prize-winning author and playwright who lives and works in New York City. His work has appeared in such journals as Berkeley Fiction Review, Confrontation, Eclipse, Harpur Palate, Haven, The MacGuffin, Portland Review, Sou’Wester, River Oak Review, and Willard & Maple. In 2011 he was a winner in the Cartaret Writers Contest, and was awarded e-Chapbook publication of seven short stories (Grace) by Wordrunner. In 2010 he won first prize in the Literal Latte fiction contest; he has also received a grant from the New Jersey Council on the Arts. In 2005 he was awarded the New York International Fringe Festival's Outstanding Playwriting Award for his original full-length drama, Half Life. Two other plays were notable successes in the 2006 and 2008 Fringe Festivals. Favorite quote: “Your work is to discover your work and then, with all your heart, to give yourself to it.” The Buddha.
Q: What was the genesis of this story?
A: I wrote “Back Down to Fall River” as a gift, an audition piece for a young actress who has since become a professor of French literature. Fall River, Massachusetts, has, of course, a place in American history; this “Fall River” is, however, closer to Fall River Mills, California, where I was born.
Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?
A: A piano. Harmonic structure, range of music, both accompaniment and solo.
Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences?
A: Harold Pinter, Herman Melville.
Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?
A: Wherever you are when the impulse strikes is pretty good. I like regular, old fashioned coffee shops in New York City (used to be Greek, now primarily Russian-owned). When I travel, anything like a café or bistro or restaurant where I can linger with my notebook over coffee. Cliché, but true for me. I like the white noise. When I’m editing my own work, I prefer the New York City writing space Paragraph, where I’m a member: Third floor of a building on West 14th Street with cubbies, a kitchen, a bathroom, a small library, and internet access. Writer heaven.