HE ME ART
This short play was originally written at the very start of 2020. It was published in my alma mater's literary magazine shortly after, but never really gained any traction as a result of the pandemic delaying publication for, like...a year. I think it's a great piece that speaks to our collective outlook at that point in time, and I'd like to share the final draft. I really hope you enjoy it in all of its wild, stream-of-consciousness glory!
Content Warning: Frank discussions of death, swearing.
SPEAKING CHARACTERS THE WOMAN - 45, otherworldly, angry
NON-SPEAKING CHARACTERS 5 CHECKOUT CLERKS - Teens to 50’s, robotic, nervous. 5 BAGGERS - Teens to 30’s, robotic, nervous. MOTHER - 30, attentive. DAUGHTER - 3, curious, talkative. BUSINESSMAN - 35, busy, annoyed. GIRL - 21, tired. CLERK (part of the 5 CHECKOUT CLERKS) - 42, doing her best. NEW PERSON - 27, very, very sick. OTHER CUSTOMER - 48, uncaring. ANOTHER CUSTOMER - 39, not ready for this.
PLACE INT. A GROCERY STORE.
NOTES There is a lot of movement in this piece and minimal dialogue. Even in a staged reading format, there should be some coordination of movement amongst the performers. _________________________________________________________________________________
Black. A neon sign flickers on upstage. HERMES MART.
LIGHTS UP on a grocery store interior. There are five checkout lines, and each one is five CUSTOMERS deep. Every single cart has toilet paper as well as whatever other groceries they need. With a disconcerting level of precision and coordination, the CHECKOUT CLERKS scan each item at the same time, swipe it across the counter and pass it to the waiting bagger, who all bag the items simultaneously. The beeps from the cash registers and scanners form a symphony, and the customers all react in various ways. One MOTHER shushes her young DAUGHTER, who is whining from their grocery trolley. One BUSINESSMAN talks loudly on the phone, though he doesn’t say anything in particular. Another GIRL struggles to pull out coins from her wallet. The BUSINESSMAN behind her grumbles noisily. As soon as the first row of customers leaves, another person joins each line. This goes on for some time, and the dance continues. One of the customers, the GIRL struggling with her wallet, receives a phone call. She answers it, and freezes. She listens. The CLERK reaches a hand out for the GIRL’S money, but the GIRL is frozen. She is shaking, crying. The CLERK, unsure of how to incorporate this into the dance, tries once more. The GIRL wails. It drowns out everything. The dance stops. All the customers freeze and stare at her. The GIRL runs out, leaving behind her groceries. There is a hole that cannot be filled now. The CLERK looks around helplessly. LIGHTS DOWN.
The neon sign turns off. A moment of silence. The neon sign flickers back on upstage. HERMES MART. But some of the letters are now punched out, leaving it saying HE ME ART. LIGHTS UP on the same grocery store interior from before. It is now abandoned. The checkout shelves are bare. Magazines hang haphazardly from their shelves, and some of the computers are smashed. Scanners, torn from their receptacles, are scattered across the space. Carts are abandoned. Food is abandoned and rotting. Everyone grabbed their toilet paper though. After a long moment-- A WOMAN enters, limping but relaxed. It’s one of the clerks from before. She wears her grocery store uniform, though it is now dirty and torn, and a name tag that reads YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE. She looks out into the audience and smiles affably. She walks out and reaches to shake someone’s hand. If they accept, she will cough into her hand and then shake theirs, followed by pulling out a bottle of hand sanitizer and using it liberally on her own hands before turning and walking away. If they refuse to shake her hand, she will make a big show of using the hand sanitizer (twenty seconds of rubbing at least) before offering her hand again. If they agree, she will reach to shake their hand before doing the Fonz pull-away. If they refuse again, she will pump the hand sanitizer into her mouth and swallow before grotesquely grinning at the hopefully horrified audience member. Following this bit, the WOMAN will pull out a measuring tape and begin asking audience members to sit at least six feet apart from each other. If they do not comply, she will squirt her hand sanitizer in their general direction and make a big show of avoiding touching them. Post-audience measuring, the WOMAN will perform a quick head count. If the audience is above fifty people, she will appear chagrined and ask patrons to leave one by one until the room is back to under fifty. If they are under fifty, she will appear annoyed and ask why this show is so unpopular. After alienating her audience, the WOMAN will walk back onto the set and walk to her old station. She will begin the dance again, alone this time, but still trying. She will scan the rotten food, throw it to the nonexistent bagger, and move on until she is out of items. After a long moment:
THE WOMAN I know a lot of people worry they got into the wrong careers, but I am one hundred percent confident this is the right one for me. We been out of business for six months and I still know this job like the back of my hand. Probably better, truth be told. I don’t know shit about hands, but I know how to do this dance--how to check folks out. Shame we had to close up shop. A real shame. A crying shame, ya know. But I think people forget how rough it was even before it got worse. I think maybe we needed a reminder that it can always get worse. Joke's on us, huh? It did.
She considers this thought before continuing the dance. Slower this time, but it’s gaining speed. Faster and faster, until she is throwing the food at full speed when she is done with it, barely scanning it, and she is breathing heavily.
THE WOMAN The only thing that has kept me going is the knowledge that at least I still have a shot of outliving those fuckers up high in their cute little bunkers. And I’m riding that until my dying breath.
She coughs. Wheezes. Recovers.
THE WOMAN Still got it, motherfucker.
LIGHTS DOWN. The neon sign flickers on upstage. HERMES MART. LIGHTS UP. The CUSTOMERS, CLERKS, and BAGGERS from before are back and doing their dance again. Food is more scarce, so the carts are emptier. Everyone looks tired and anxious, but still healthy. A few wear face masks. There is now a six foot buffer between each person, aside from the CLERKS and BAGGERS, who maintain their spacing from before. A NEW PERSON enters. Different from the others. They shuffle drowsily to the toilet paper display, now with a sign saying: PLEASE LIMIT TO 1 PER PERSON, grab one dozen-pack, and get in line. They are too close to the person in front of them, though, and it makes the OTHER CUSTOMER uncomfortable. The NEW PERSON hunches over as though they’ve been punched. They are coughing, but trying to hide it. The OTHER CUSTOMER in front of them panics, stumbling backward into ANOTHER CUSTOMER, who realizes what has happened and shoves the OTHER CUSTOMER off uncaringly. This causes a chain reaction of other CUSTOMERS, CLERKS, and BAGGERS noticing this miniature wave, and how it was all caused by the NEW PERSON, who is now coughing, sniffling, and wheezing as though they are dying. The crowd sees this and panics, creating a ripple effect of gasping, then screaming, then pushing, then running. It is hysteria in the Hermes Mart. In a horrible way, this becomes the new dance. They move in a terrible unison, and it is beautiful. One of the clerks, the WOMAN, is knocked over and trampled. Her leg is stepped on multiple times. The DAUGHTER is separated from their MOTHER, but is quickly picked up by a stranger and given back to her. The BUSINESSMAN grumbling at the top shields ANOTHER CUSTOMER from the onslaught of bodies. After a long, long time (though in reality, it is only a minute or so) the crowd disperses and only the WOMAN and the NEW PERSON who caused all of this is left. The NEW PERSON is lying on the ground, still. The WOMAN sees this and is silent. She begins laughing. LIGHTS DOWN.
LIGHTS UP. The neon sign turns off. A moment of silence. The neon sign flickers back on upstage. HERMES MART. But some of the letters are now punched out, leaving it saying HE ME ART. The WOMAN enters, riding one of those motorized scooters they have at the front of the grocery store. She either executes a donut or shudders pathetically to a stop depending on how awesome the scooter is. When she dismounts, she drags her now almost-entirely-useless leg behind her and leans against the scooter. She is breathing heavily.
THE WOMAN Shit’s getting harder now, but I just found out I outlived the goddamned governor, so I’ve got that going for me.
She wheezes a laugh. Coughs. Takes out her hand sanitizer, unscrews the top, and dumps the rest on her head. Tosses the empty bottle on the ground.
THE WOMAN Better safe than sorry, huh?
THE WOMAN My husband died last week. He was fucking cool as a cucumber in the end, though. Funny, he was more nervous on our wedding day. Can you imagine that? A man being less nervous in the face of Death than marrying the love of his life? Makes you wonder, if you know what I mean. I’m gonna miss that fucker. Always listened to me. Or at least, he made me think he was. And at this point, what’s the fucking difference? He laughed at my jokes too. He thought I was funny.
She starts to get choked up. Stops herself.
THE WOMAN There’s been a garden growing in the employee parking lot for the last month. We had a patch of dirt and someone dropped a bunch of seeds from the gardening department, is my guess. Anyway, we had some rain, and shit started to sprout. Started to bloom. It’s gorgeous. It’s probably the prettiest thing I saw in a long time. Y’all ever go without seeing something really pretty for a long time, and then you see something that just…
She mimes something taking her breath away, and then begins to actually cough. She laughs a little.
THE WOMAN Can’t pretend to be shocked anymore, I guess. Have y’all seen the garden?
She waits for someone to say no. After receiving an answer, she hauls herself up to stand.
THE WOMAN That’s a...a travesty, is what that is. I’m gonna...gimme a sec, I will fix this. You all wait here. Now, my scooter can’t fit through the back door, which is an OSHA violation, but you try getting through to one of their employees now—fucking nightmare is what that is. So give me a minute.
She starts to exit, still dragging her leg behind her. She pauses and turns back around.
THE WOMAN Y’all aren’t gonna leave, right? Play a trick on me? I’ll be right back. Swear. Swear you’ll still be here.
THE WOMAN Please.
No one does. She exits. She’s gone for a long time. She re-enters, obviously afraid everyone will have left. When she sees everyone is still there, she smiles. Genuinely.
THE WOMAN I brought y’all a gift. A little something.
She shyly shows the audience what she has. Like they may hate it. A flower. She has brought us a flower from the back.
THE WOMAN She’s a real beauty, isn’t she?
She holds the flower out to an audience member. Hopefully they accept it. If they do, the WOMAN continues. If not, the WOMAN will keep looking for someone to take the flower until someone does.
THE WOMAN I always loved flowers since I was a girl.
THE WOMAN The funny thing about flowers. As soon as you pick them—the moment you pick one, the very second even, that you take one away from where it bloomed...it starts to die.
She contemplates this. She looks regretful.
THE WOMAN I’m sorry I picked this one, but sometimes you have to hurt something to heal something else. I don’t know about y’all, but I feel healed.
She sits on the scooter and inhales. Exhales. She’s breathing heavier. Slower. She smiles.
THE WOMAN Looks like y’all have me beat, but don’t forget that I outlived the governor, okay?
She chuckles to herself. Silence. Stillness. The neon sign turns off. END OF PLAY