One-Act Play by J. Lewis Fleming
• RUFUS HIGHWATER, aging, eccentric former gold miner
• EDWINA HIGHWATER, young, gorgeous second wife of Rufus
• JERROD RUBY, handsome, desperate young man in search of employment
The play takes place in a ramshackle basement room of the Hotel Barbary.
(A basement room of the Hotel Barbary. It is not long after the famous gold rush of 1849. The men who struck it rich, like RUFUS HIGHWATER, have been living the high life, and the men who didn’t — men like JERROD RUBY — have been scrabbling in the dirt just to get by. The time of day is impossible to tell, owing to the fact that this room has no windows. Rufus is propped on an old wooden chair left center stage, facing down right center. The chair is nestled up to a battered, old wooden table. Another chair waits on the opposite side of the table. Rufus scratches furiously at a piece of paper with the small nub of a pencil. EDWINA HIGHWATER sits just down left of Rufus, facing roughly the same direction. She is in an elegant high-backed chair with a pad of paper balanced on her crossed legs. Edwina holds a ridiculous feather quill pen in her hand, poised above the paper and ready to write. She gazes wistfully out at the audience. A clawfoot tub lingers up right center.)
(For several long moments, Rufus is writing, and Edwina is staring.)
RUFUS: (Voice gruff, even when not angry, he slams down pencil stub, growling in frustration.) Argh!
EDWINA: (Still staring into the audience, wistful, but hopeful.) What it is, Roo?
RUFUS: (Rubbing his temples and staring down at the paper in front of him.) It’s this damn list, Ed. (Pausing, he turns to look at Edwina, who continues staring into the audience.) You sure about all this? Look at the list of no-account hooligans who’ve been through here already.
EDWINA: Rufus, darling, we’ve talked this thing through from beginning to end. I offered up several other ideas, each of which you poo-pooed, and this was the only option left. And you agreed. Remember?
RUFUS: (Begins to grumble but is cut short.) Err …
EDWINA: And just because we haven’t found the right man yet. … Well, did you give up the first time a gold prospect came up empty? Or the second? Or the third?
RUFUS: Well, ’course not, but …
EDWINA: Do you love me?
RUFUS: Aw, Ed.
EDWINA: Do you?
RUFUS: (Softly but intensely.) Hellfire, Ed, ’course I do.
EDWINA: (Looks at Rufus, smiling adoringly.) Okay, then. (She points with a gentle sort of reproach at the paper in front of Rufus.)
RUFUS: (Turns back to the table. Picking up the nub of a pencil, he begins chewing the end while studying the paper in front of him.) Fine, fine. You’re right. Next one’ll be here any minute now. (Reading from sheet in front of him.) Jerrod Ruby.
EDWINA: What’s that, Roo?
RUFUS: The next fella. Name of Jerrod Ruby.
EDWINA: I like that name. Very … (Pause.) Pleasant.
RUFUS: (Grunts softly and shrugs his shoulders.) Humph. (There is a knock at the door offstage right.) Speak of the devil. (Hollering.) GET IN HERE!
JERROD: (Entering timidly, hat in hand, playing nervously with the wide brim.) Uh … hello. I’m … uh … here about the … uh … job, advertisement, posting, thing. (Snaps his mouth shut, as though the words are coming out against his will.)
RUFUS: (Gruff, but not unkind.) Sit, my boy. No need to be nervous. (Glances quickly at Edwina, who smiles briefly in response.) You must be Jerrod Ruby.
JERROD: (Reaches to doff his hat, not realizing it is already in his hand, and smacks himself in the mouth with the wide brim.) Uh … yes … yes, sir, I am he … sir.
RUFUS: (Gesturing toward the empty chair.) Have a seat, my boy.
JERROD: (Glances nervously toward the door where he entered, then at the seat, then at Rufus’ extended hand, then at the door, then at Edwina, then at the seat. Finally seems to muster a small amount of nerve and moves forward, only to see the bathtub for the first time and to stop in his tracks. He gathers himself and rushes to the chair, knocking it to the floor. Attempting to right the chair, he falls over it, landing near Edwina’s feet. He looks up into her face, seeing an angelic smile, and a preternatural calm suddenly comes over him. He rights himself, then the chair, all while gazing at Edwina.) Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. (He begins to sit.)
RUFUS: Actually, you best get in the tub first.
JERROD: Uh … the tub …sir?
RUFUS: (Pointing.) The tub.
EDWINA: We have to see if you fit, dear.
EDWINA: In the tub. That’s right.
JERROD: (Moving slowly toward the tub.) You … need to see if I … fit … in the tub?
EDWINA: (Nodding and smiling.) That’s right.
JERROD: (Still moving slowly toward tub. Looking first at Edwina, then at Rufus, then at the tub, finally at Rufus again.) Is this? Is this part of the job or …
RUFUS: Yep. Pretty damn important part, truth be told.
JERROD: (Putting first one foot and then the other in the tub, he slowly lowers himself to a sitting position, stopping and starting all the while as though he’s never been in a bathtub before.) Like this?
EDWINA: (Rises and glides over to the tub. She walks around until she is behind Jerrod. She puts her hands gently on his shoulders and pushes down.) Actually, dear, if you could lie all the way down. That’s right, very good. (Speaking now to Rufus.) Perfect, right, my love?
RUFUS: Good enough, I suppose. Okay, boy, you can come sit in this here chair now.
JERROD: (Nodding, rising from the tub and slinking over to the chair. He sits. Edwina returns to her chair at the same time.) I don’t … think I really understand all this. The ad said something about a life-changing experience and … well … I guess I never imagined that it would involve a bathtub. (Edwina and Rufus both laugh. His is somewhat rueful and loud. Hers is equally loud but full of genuine mirth.) Did … did I say something funny? I’m afraid I feel more than a bit off the rails. Like I’ve wandered into someone else’s dream.
EDWINA: (Smiling, her hands clasped together.) Oh, he’s just precious. (Looking at Rufus.) Can we keep him, my love?
RUFUS: (Scratching his chin, thinking, and eyeballing the young man, but speaking to himself as though ticking off a list.) Well dressed. Well spoken. Bit nervous. Handsome enough, I s’pose. Fits in the tub. (Addressing Jerrod.) You ain’t got any weird marks or deformities, do ya?
JERROD: (More nervous now than ever.) Weird … deformities? (Trying to sound offended but failing and sounding frightened instead.) What … what do you mean?
RUFUS: You know, like a tail or six toes on your left foot? Somethin’ like that?
JERROD: (Glancing quickly at Edwina, then back to Rufus.) What? I … no. Most assuredly not.
RUFUS: Well, that’s a relief. We had this one guy in here, you would not believe. (Gesturing suggestively with his hands.) His johnson was so …
EDWINA: (Calmly, patiently interrupting.) Now, now, my love. The young man doesn’t need to hear that story.
RUFUS: (Examining Jerrod.) I suppose not.
JERROD: (After a long moment of silence, nervously begins speaking.) This is a job interview, isn’t it?
RUFUS: (Nodding matter-of-factly.) ’Course.
JERROD: Could you tell me a bit more about the job … or, really, anything? I don’t believe you’ve given me a single detail of the work. And this thing with the clawfoot …
RUFUS: Well, this here’s a sensitive subject, Jerrod. You’ve passed the eyeball test, you’ve passed the manners test, you seem like a bright fella, and, most important, you’ve passed the tub test. You got the right kind of, what’s the word, Ed?
EDWINA: (Smiling at Jerrod, speaking in perfect French and gesticulating gracefully.) Je ne sais quoi.
RUFUS: (Smiling at Edwina.) Yeah. That’s the one. (Turning back to Jerrod and whispering.) I love when she talks French. (Clearing his throat and speaking again in a normal tone.) So … I guess we can move on. To put it in simple terms: you’ve passed the test, Jerrod, and we’re prepared to offer you the job. (Looking at Edwina.) That about right, dear?
EDWINA: (Nodding happily and gazing hungrily at Jerrod.) Oh, yes. He’s certainly passed. Passed with excellent marks. Very handsome.
RUFUS: All right, son. Here’s how it is: me and the wife … (Gesturing and smiling at Edwina.) Well, we been trying for years, you see, but we can’t exactly … you know … we haven’t been able to …
EDWINA: (Blurting, but with a quiet dignity.) I want a baby.
RUFUS: Yeah, but here’s the thing. It hasn’t happened yet, and Lord knows we’ve been trying our hardest.
EDWINA: Yes. Trying and trying and trying.
RUFUS: Right. So that’s where you come in, son.
EDWINA: So to speak.
JERROD: (Looking at Edwina in complete confusion. Turning toward Rufus with dawning understanding.) You … want … me to … (Looking at Edwina again.)
EDWINA: (Smiling and nodding.) Mmmm.
JERROD: Ah … (Searching for just the right word.) … Help?
RUFUS: (Smiling, impressed.) Damn, boy, that was well said. You got you some book learning, I bet.
JERROD: (Looking stunned.) Yes, sir. Some. I …
EDWINA: It’s very simple, Jerrod. You lay with me and help me get the baby boy I want, the heir for our family that my husband … that we could not get ourselves.
JERROD: (Looking and sounding dismayed, but attempting to remain polite and understanding at all costs.) That’s the job?
RUFUS: That’s the job.
EDWINA: That’s the job.
JERROD: (Sounding a little sarcastic and showing cracks in his polite façade. Sounding more and more frantic, but remaining at a conversational tone. Staring down at his fidgeting hands.) That’s it. Just that little task. Lay with your wife. That’s the job. That’s it. That’s the job. Just that easy. Lay with another man’s wife. Give her a baby. That’s it. That’s all.
RUFUS: Well, there’s a bit more to it. This being such a sensitive thing, and times being what they are …
JERROD: (Looking at Rufus, regaining some of his calm demeanor.) You need me to be quiet about it.
EDWINA: (Softly, quietly.) Silent. Like the grave.
JERROD: Like the grave?
RUFUS & EDWINA: Like the grave.
(The whole company is silent, lost in their own thoughts. Jerrod is looking around furtively, as though planning his escape.)
RUFUS: Before we continue, would you like to discuss your renumeration?
JERROD: (Looking up at Rufus in confusion.) My what? (Pauses, thinking.) You mean remuneration?
EDWINA: That’s what he means, dear.
RUFUS: You know, payment. Your fee? Don’t you want to know what it’ll be?
JERROD: (Nodding distractedly.) I … I suppose. Though I’m not sure I feel completely comfortable with this.
RUFUS: Which part?
JERROD: Which … part?
RUFUS: The laying with my wife part?
JERROD: Yes, sir. I mean, we’re sitting here, very politely discussing my having intimate, carnal, and sinful affairs with your wife.
RUFUS: What’s the matter? You don’t want to?
JERROD: Well … I …
RUFUS: (An edge coming into his voice.) Something wrong with my wife, boy?
JERROD: God … no … she’s … she’s stunning.
RUFUS: (Edwina and Rufus looking pointedly at Jerrod’s crotch.) Something wrong with you?
JERROD: Absolutely not. It’s just, this is a sin, sir. And one in which you seem to be gladly taking part. If this were to get out … the stigma … your wife. This is your wife, sir.
RUFUS: (Growling.) Damn right, boy. My wife. Mine. And this won’t get out ’cause we ain’t gonna let it.
JERROD: No, no, of course. … It’s just … it’s just a bit overwhelming.
EDWINA: (Gliding over to Jerrod and placing her hands once again on his shoulders.) It is a difficult thing, Jerrod, but please understand that Rufus and I have been discussing this possibility for years. We are both of one mind about it. We accept that it is … unusual and are prepared to do anything to make sure that this union produces a son without rumor or suspicion. All parties will remain unblemished in the eyes of the citizenry of San Francisco and beyond.
JERROD: And if the child turns out to be a girl?
EDWINA: Well, that won’t be any of your concern. Rufus and I would merely move on.
JERROD: You’d find someone else, then?
JERROD: I … I need some time to think about this.
RUFUS: ’Fraid not. Need you to decide now.
JERROD: (Searching desperately for the right words, trying to buy himself time to think.) All right, so if I say ‘no,’ what happens? (Rufus says nothing, but points toward the exit door off stage right.)
EDWINA: And we would need your word that you would say nothing of this to anyone.
RUFUS: (Calm, but with a menacing undertone.) ’Cause if you did … well, things’d get real uncomfortable for you. And the wife and I’d just deny it, ’cause who are you anyway? Nobody. And nobody’d believe you.
JERROD: (Nodding.) Of course, of course. And if I say ‘yes’? When does this happen?
RUFUS: (Pointing over his shoulder to offstage left.) Right now. Got everything set behind that door, there.
JERROD: (To himself, sarcastically.) Right, right. Okay. Wonderful. Right now. Fantastic. That’s … (Looking up at Rufus and seeing the anger dawning in the man’s eyes.) So, payment, I guess? Although, frankly, at this point, I can’t honestly say that I’m really considering this …
EDWINA: Jerrod, we really need your help … want your help. We’ve had a dozen young men in here, and you are the only one who has lived up to our standards. You’ve exceeded them in a way that we could have only prayed for … we have prayed for. You are the answer to our prayers, and here you are. We need you. (Pause.) I need you. (Edwina returns to her chair.)
JERROD: (Sounding gentlemanly.) In that case, ma’am, I must at least listen to your offer. (Turning back to Rufus.) What is your offer, sir?
RUFUS: (With a wicked smile.) A fortune in gold.
JERROD: (Swallowing hard, trying to contain his surprise and excitement. This could be the break he was looking for, after all.) A fortune … in … gold?
JERROD: Just how much gold are we talking about?
RUFUS: (Handing Jerrod the pencil nub and a piece of paper.) You tell me.
JERROD: (Taking the pencil in a shaking hand, thinking for a moment, and then, writing in a mad dash.) Here. (He pushes the pencil and paper back to Rufus.)
RUFUS: (Reading the paper and then extending his right hand.) Deal.
JERROD: (Leaping to his feet.) What?!
JERROD: You would actually pay me that amount to lay with your wife.
EDWINA: (Leaning forward to read the paper.) Oh yes, dear, that sum and more.
RUFUS: (Still holding out his right hand.) Deal?
JERROD: (Looking unbelievingly at Rufus and Edwina and seeing nothing but sincerity, Jerrod pauses then speaks wistfully.) I … I … I don’t see how I can refuse that kind of money. (Seizing Rufus’ hand in his own, pumping it furiously, a dam breaks and his emotions flood out.) Oh, God, you have no idea what this will do for us.
EDWINA: (Sounding a little concerned.) Us, dear?
JERROD: (Turning to Edwina, full of enthusiasm.) My niece and twin nephews, my mother. They’ve been living with me for about a year now. I’m the only family they have left. I’m ashamed to say we’ve been nearly starving because I haven’t had steady work in all that time, and the twins have taken ill. Frankly, I had just about given up hope, when I saw your advertisement. I figured it was a sham, too good to be true, you understand, but I’ve been so desperate I decided to answer it anyway. (Is overcome, sits down, and falls silent. After a long pause, breathing deeply, and continuing much more slowly.) My God, I cannot wait to see the looks on their faces when I show them such a fortune. We’re … we’re saved. (Turning to Rufus.) I will do it, sir. I will do it.
RUFUS: (Looking to Edwina, who nods slowly, knowingly, in return.) Well, now, me and the wife are surely glad to hear that. Yes, indeed, that gladdens the heart.
(All three fall silent, filled with their own thoughts. They are each happy in their own way.)
JERROD: (Has stopped weeping and dabs at his eyes with a handkerchief.) Just out of curiosity, why did you need me to sit in the tub?
RUFUS: Well, we can’t have you makin’ a mess all over the floor down here.
RUFUS: Sure. Bound to be messy. These things usually are.
JERROD: (Looking more uncomfortable than he has the entire time on stage.) Uh … pardon me, sir, but my understanding was that … uh … your wife and I … whose name I just realized I never got … that … we were to … you know … lay together in that room back there. (Points. Then looks from Rufus to Edwina.)
JERROD: Um … sorry?
RUFUS: (Motioning toward Edwina.) Edwina. My wife. I call her Ed, but only I call her Ed. Got that?
JERROD: (Nodding, still confused.) Yes, sir, but … (Clearing his throat and pointing at the bathtub.) Do you intend us to lay together in the clawfoot, sir?
EDWINA: (Shocked in a humorous way.) Dear me, no. That would truly be the devil on my back! The bathtub is for after. (Jerrod still looks confused.) For the suicide, dear.
JERROD: Su … did … uh … did you say ‘suicide’?
EDWINA: (Very pleasantly, as though this conversation were perfectly normal.) Well, of course. We can’t very well have you leaving here alive and sharing our secret with your friends or your family. (Pauses.) Or your pastor. (Pauses, sizing Jerrod up.) Or your bartender.
JERROD: (Looking wildly at Rufus.) You …? You expect me to …? You actually think I’d …?
EDWINA: Of course, dear. Why do you think we’re prepared to reward you so handsomely for your efforts? Pity? Kindness? Not hardly. We are asking you to perform a difficult task, and we are prepared to pay your survivors very handsomely for that service. No offense intended, but can you imagine me paying to lay with someone like yourself?
RUFUS: (Snorting in laughter, but not unkindly, pointing at Edwina.) My wife … (Pointing to Jerrod.) Payin’ you … (Pointing offstage.) For that? (Continues to laugh as Edwina joins in with a soft, friendly titter of her own.)
JERROD: (Slowly looking back and forth from Edwina to Rufus as their laughter fades to gentle smiles. He is clearly parsing out if this is some kind of demented joke and seeing in their faces that it is not. He is silent for a time, then finds his resolve.) Can … can I see that number … one more time? (Rufus picks up the slip of paper that Jerrod has written his fee on. He glances at it briefly and hands it to Jerrod. Jerrod takes the paper in his hand, staring at it for a long moment.)
J. Lewis Fleming is a writer, poet, once and future editor, and father. All of these cause him more than a little frustration, and enough joy that he occasionally is overwhelmed by it all. He has been fortunate enough to have two titles of poetry, The Bones of Saints Under Glass and Shades of Green, published by Alternating Current.
Originally published on Go Read Your Lunch on 7/11/2013.