The retarded man upstairs, he’s overrunning the bathtub again. The fourth or fifth time this week. The ceiling is caving in. Paint and plaster dripping like old moss. I could go up there and talk to him again, but I hate to. When I first moved in here—it was my first apartment after my father’s death and the departure of my beloved—I would sit on the couch, eating sausage and chips, with the channel changer in my hand, just clicking through. I was miserable, but it was a miserable of my own choosing until the retarded man upstairs started to play The Barn Dance. The WGN Barn Dance—squawking fiddles and hokey Buck Owens jokes. He played it loud, night after night, and finally I couldn’t take it so I went up there and I knocked on the door. The retarded man, rolling out of his overalls, had a big head and nubs of brown teeth. I said something about the music and he smiled and pointed behind him to where there were reels and reels, rows and rows of them, all the Barn Dances ordered on the shelf. He invited me to sit down and he offered me cookies and cake. I didn’t want his cookies and cake, I wanted my sausage and chips, but I sat down. And I remembered how when I was a kid, the neighbour, Mr. Painter, how he would sit at this big table in the living room with these old, old boxes of cookies and cake, and he’d watch us playing in the yard. Mr. Painter would invite us in once a year, say at Christmas or Halloween, and he’d offer us a treat. I’d always take one of those half-moon cookies with powdered sugar, and he’d tell us a story. I wouldn’t really listen, I’d just stare at all his stuff in the corners and the pictures of his dead wife on the wall. Those were days. And I’m thinking about that and I miss what the retarded man is saying, so I say to him, “Bill,”—he looks like a Bill—“Bill, the music, it’s too loud.” And this time he gets it and he starts weeping, his face flushed, his head pulled down, his shoulders hunched, weeping into himself and, and I tell him it’ll be all right. Then I pat him on the shoulder, and go back to my own misery. He stops playing The Barn Dance.
This apartment isn’t much. Just a place to stack the boxes I’ll never open, and the couch and the channel changer. It’s got a porch. And I sit out on the porch most nights. Look at the sky and watch the moon. And this is where my friend Kathleen Quigley comes to see me, after the bar is closed. Late at night is when she is wound up, ready to talk. She knows that she will find me there and that I will want to hear it, late at night, the two of us leaning into each other. Kathleen Quigley was a poet once and she could be again if there was anything to write about. Kathleen is supposed to get married in her lover’s grandmother’s wedding dress. Her lover is a man named Rip—it could be Buzz or anything sporty, but it’s Rip. His grandmother’s a large woman with large shoulders and a back like furniture. Kathleen will never fit that wedding dress. Kathleen is small with childish hips. She daydreams Emily Dickinson and talks to herself. But she loves her lover’s grandmother. The way that woman storms around her apartment, hating the world and shouting at the cat, strangling the dirty dishes in the sink. Kathleen understands the significance of the gift of the wedding dress, given to her by her lover’s grandmother on the fourth or fifth visit. It’s a huge dress, old European silk and lace with a six-foot train. The grandmother gives it to her in a shopping bag. Kathleen takes the shopping bag home and she shoves it into the closet, but it bulges the closet door so much that it bangs into Kathleen’s knee every time she walks by it.
Kathleen is thirty-eight and she’s been married before, to a man who was so bland that when he moved into Kathleen’s apartment the paint on the walls complained. This muttering sound that followed that whole marriage. Kathleen drives an expensive car, something low and sleek. She wears fitted suits and tight black skirts. She works for the American Medical Association where she takes men apart in board meetings daily. And she has no feelings about any of this. But when she comes home, it’s to the neighbourhood—Western Avenue—where Kathleen lives in a cheap apartment above an abandoned storefront piled high with somebody else’s furniture. The floorboards are warping and going in every different direction, and the windows don’t really fit the sills. It’s always cold in there. Kathleen has these two old dogs, dogs that love her. They can’t really make the park anymore, but the apartment has a yard, so that’s good.
Kathleen does her drinking at this bar around the corner. Good bar. No one watches television, good jukebox. Kathleen likes her vodka cold and that’s the way they serve it there. Kathleen and her first husband would sit in the window seat and Kathleen would draw these horrid little scenes from her childhood on bar napkins. One night Rip sits down next to her and he runs his finger up her thigh. She doesn’t notice. But when he follows her to the bathroom and hangs around waiting like he knows her, she takes him home. She forgets all about the first husband.
At first it was really good. Kathleen and Rip stay up all night telling each other stories, walking under the sky. Rip gets those two old dogs running like they’re puppies. Rip likes to shoot cocaine and Kathleen tries it. But she has migraines and it’s a bad mix. Their dates often end with Kathleen lying on the floor, overwhelmed with vertigo. And Rip is fuck-compulsive, a thing Kathleen hasn’t had a lot of—just going and going and going. Rip gets bored and starts twisting and turning her into positions she doesn’t like, fucking her up the ass, whether she wants it or not. He even tells Kathleen about the other women. Their names, their preferences. He lets her know that this will be part of their marriage.
Kathleen works on the wedding dress. Cutting, sewing. She puts it on at night and she stands in front of the mirror with the train draped over her arm. And she looks good.
One night Kathleen gets in the car and drives around the neighbourhood looking for Rip who hasn’t come home, and she finds him leaning against a dumpster with his pants down around his ankles. And she waits. She invites the prostitute to breakfast, offering to pay for her time. There’s not much to talk about. The prostitute is young, she has a cold. She’ll have the chicken soup, please. The weather is changing, men are bad and getting worse. Kathleen and Rip start to fight. Late at night. They don’t say much; just break the plates and the crockery. This frightens the dogs and they run up and down the hallway, pissing in the corners.
On the night before my friend Kathleen is to be married, Rip doesn’t come home again. Kathleen gets the grocery bag out of the closet and lays the dress out on the couch. In the morning, she puts on her sunglasses and her blue jeans. She shoves the dress back into the bag and shoves the bag back into the closet, and she walks over to the church. She doesn’t go in. She sits on the bus stop bench watching her friends arrive, Rip’s friends, her family, and finally her lover’s grandmother. That grandmother doesn’t go in either, she stands on the top step, looking at the sky. She knows her grandson, what a bad husband he’d be. And then that grandmother goes home.
Kathleen sells her car for a lot less than it’s worth. She gets a high school kid to take care of the dogs. She feels things crack around her, the sounds of things tearing as her world reshapes. She gets a room in a hotel in the Loop. She answers an ad for a carriage driver. She gets the job. She looks good in the uniform: top hat, tails, little whip. And she drives around, talking to the horses. After a few weeks, Kathleen forgets her name, where she lives. She senses something missing, like a tooth uprooted from the gum that left a twitching nerve hole. A hole she no longer wants to feel or remember. She had loved Rip but now, his face turning to mud in her memory, Kathleen wants none of him. She leans into the animal smell of the horse, the wind cold against her face.
The old dogs get lonely for her. They open the closet and pull the shopping bag out. They tear the dress to pieces. My friend Kathleen has seen crazy before; she knows that in most of us, crazy passes. She waits for this to happen and, when it does, she comes back home.
About the author:
Beau O’Reilly is a noted Chicago playwright, actor and director. He is co-founder of the Curious Theatre Branch, now in it’s 23rd year. Mr O’Reilly curates the Rhinocerous Theatre Festival, an annual festival of new work and is an adj.ass.professor at the School of the Art Institute Of Chicago, in the mfa writing program. In addition to having written over a hundred plays for the theater, Beau O’Reilly is a regular contributor to This American Life on National Public Radio. Mr O’Reilly sings and writes songs with the Crooked Mouth and led the seminal rock & roll cabaret band Maestro Subgum And The Whole during its twenty year run.