Fiction | March 01, 1985
The Object of Today's Lesson
A couple sit in a living room, drinking. The room is nicely furnished. There is art on the walls, books, etc. To the right rear of the stage there are French doors leading to a caged swimming pool. Only a small portion of the pool is visible. But one can see steps and the glitter of water. There is a bar set up in the corner. The woman sits on one end of a long couch, the man sits in a chair. Beneath the couch, on the other end, extending from beneath it and very visible is a dog’s tail. It is a large tail and completely motionless. In one corner of the room a small boy stands at an ironing table, ironing.
Betty: I never thought it would be this way.
Barry: You always wanted a dog. A dog, you’d say, every day for eight years. We need a dog. Our son was not yet a minute old. We didn’t even know if all his little parts were functioning yet, and you gasped, ‘We’ve got to get him a dog. Promise we can get a dog.’ You grabbed my hand and squeezed it. You practically broke my thumb. (Betty says nothing, sips her drink, looks at the tail.) The doctors stared at us. I remember it vividly, their eyes above the masks, staring.
Betty: I think he’s sick. He’s so listless.
Barry: $1,142 in veterinary bills. Not sick, never sick. Fine appetite, bright eye, firm stool, shining coat.
Betty: He lacks . . . devotion.
Barry: A little short on devotion. To say nothing of . . . a certain interest.
Betty: I don’t understand it.
Barry: How you longed for a dog. The times I’ve heard about those blessed dogs of your sacred childhood, Napoleon and Howdy and Whiskey and Don! My God!
Betty: I had a happy childhood. It’s in the past. You can’t touch it.
Barry: The past! (He laughs, looking delighted, even friendly) Why the past has brought us here tonight. I don’t suppose you ever reflect that this present, this life, if you prefer, is the ongoing conclusion to your precious past.
Betty: Life is one thing, Death is another.
Boy: Look, Mommy at this shirt. Perfect! Ten minutes.
Barry: It never occurred to me! Is that dog alive? He may not be alive.
Betty: He just ate.
Barry: (Sighing) Many an evening was ruined by talk about getting a dog. You dreamed about dogs. You smiled at dogs. Sitting in the car at a red light, if another car pulled alongside and that car had a dog in it you would smile at that dog.
Betty: I was a nice person. (Drinks)
Barry: Napoleon and Howdy and Whiskey and Don. It sounds like the Four Gospels. Jesus Christ never had a dog. I’m sure you’re aware of that.
Betty: Jesus Christ! (Pauses. Drinks.) I’m sure he had no earthly need of a dog.
Barry: I have no need of a dog either. The damn thing is depressing. He doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t even look at you. He has yet to achieve eye contact with a single member of this family.
Betty: Howdy put out a fire once.
Barry: So legend has it. What did he do? Step on an ash tray?
Betty: Whiskey saved me from drowning. He could also count.
Barry: Wasn’t he the dog who had the extra-terrestial experience? Didn’t he have peculiar white wafer-like marks on his tummy one evening after an episode of funny sounds and bright, moving lights? You were a teensy-tiny child, but you were not afraid because you had brave, good Whiskey in your room. (Betty nods) But . . . (Barry sighs) .. apparently it was not an extraterrestial experience, it was . . .
Betty: An alien invasion.
Barry: It was cancer.
Betty: Yes, cancer.
Barry: And your father had to shoot him.
Betty: It was love.
Barry: It was love because your father didn’t want anyone else to shoot him. He took the dog out and into a field behind your house and the dog ran around smelling the flowers and sniffing out rabbits and your father knelt and raised the gun to his shoulder and called Whiskey, Whiskey. . .
Betty: (Looking at the motionless tail extending from beneath the couch) Napoleon was part Rottweiler. One morning when I was in the fourth grade and waiting in the dark at the bus stop, a very suspicious looking man appeared. He had red hair and no shirt or shoes. Napoleon emitted a low growl and kept his body between me and it.
Barry: Him, not it.
Betty: Napoleon accompanied my father to church every Sunday morning and waited for him in the narthex.
Barry: Sing us a hymn, darling. (He shakes his head. Drinks. Betty is silent. Barry clears his throat and sings in a surprisingly good voice)
0 Lord my God When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed
(Looks at his glass)
Boy: Do you have anything you want ironed, Daddy?
Barry: (Gazes at him for a long moment) Put away the ironing board, son. Get out your trucks. Get out that Lost in the Wilderness survival game. Let me ask you a question. Suppose you’re in the wilderness and you’re lost. Lost and alone. And you have no compass. (The boy unplugs the iron and winds up the cord) Would you know how to make a compass? (The boy shakes his head) You take a needle and a piece of silk .. .
Boy: Why would I have a needle, Daddy?
Barry: For Godssakes, you make a needle!
Barry: Now, you stroke the needle in one direction with any piece of silk. Then you rub the needle with oil collected by passing your thumb and forefinger over your forehead. Then you sus-pend the needle by two thin bits of grass formed into loops and you lo-wer it carefully into any body of still water. Care-fully (he is demonstrating this in pantomine over his empty glass) remove the support. The needle, floated by surface tension, will turn until it is aligned with the north and south magnetic poles. (He pauses, looks at the boy who is not looking at him) I learned that when I was your age, son, and do you know what?
Boy: (Somewhat nervously) What?
Barry: I never became lost in such a way that that knowledge was of the slightest use to me.
Boy: I’m going to take a bath now, Daddy. Good-night. Good-night, Mommy. (Kisses her)
Barry: Take a shower, son. (To his wife) Do you want another belt? (Boy exits)
Betty: I beg your pardon.
Barry: Another belt! It’s almost eight o’clock. Let’s get cracking here.
Betty: Is it eight o’clock? (She extends her glass to him) You used to call them dividends. You’d say, ‘Look I have a little dividend here’ or ‘Let’s not forget the dividend!’
Barry: (Going to the bar in the corner of the room and filling their glasses) Why does our son iron, please? I send my shirts out. You send your cocktail attire to the dry cleaners. (Betty spills some of her fresh drink on her jeans) Woops! There you go! What does the kid iron, really? There hasn’t been anything to iron in this family for years.
Betty: (Brushing at the spill with her hand) Some aprons I found of my mothers. Handkerchiefs. Bits and pieces.
Barry: And he irons them.
Betty: They’re nothing, all messy, and he makes them … right. (Abruptly) It’s a phase, don’t worry about it.
Barry: (Stares at her) I don’t like that school he goes to. They teach him silence, are you aware of that? He learned silence today in school.
Betty: That’s nice.
Barry: The teacher is instilling in them a desire to attain immobility, do you realize that? That was the object of today’s lesson. It’s my feeling that one achieves immobility soon enough, one doesn’t have to learn it in the first grade.
Betty: Just be quiet for a minute. Just don’t say anything for a minute, ok? (They look at each other silently) Do you hear something?
Barry: No. (There is a faint, slow, beating sound. Barry is immobile, holding his drink aloft with false enthusiasm) Why, this is wonderful! This is what it’s all about! Life is gradually disappearing. The room, little by little, is becoming empty. There is silence and then there is this! We are transcending the ordinary run of things. We are accomplishing something new. Our souls rejoice.
Betty: You just can’t do it, can you.
Barry: I do hear something.
Barry: The drip from the suspended oar.
Betty: (Sagging a little) No.
Barry: Who said that? Tell me and I’ll give you a kiss. (She is trying to listen. She bends her head, presses her hands together fiercely as though in prayer) You’re not going to guess, are you? Afraid you’ll stumble on the answer by some dreadful mischance. (They are silentt)
Barry: (Looking at the tail) The dog?
Betty: It’s the sound of his heart beating.
Barry: (Listening) My God, he’s managed to slow his heart beat. He’ll live forever at that rate. (Pauses) In this house. (Pauses) You must look at this in the most hopeful way you can, dear. All your other dogs died, but this one is going to live forever. (Betty puts her hands over her eyes) Does he ever do anything? Frolic, beg, kiss, weep? Gambol, fetch, growl? When he was a puppy he would regard us at least, upon occasion. That is, if we insisted. (Pauses) Does he swim? Does he cannon-ball? Does he retrieve coins in his teeth? Does he pee in the pool, tear the crotch from your panties, vomit on the Persians?
Barry: This is a nice house! That is a lovely pool.
Betty: It is a lovely pool.
Barry: Not used enough. Nothing used enough.
Betty: (Looking at the pool through the glass) I think I’ll take a swim.
Barry: A swim before bedtime. That sounds nice. I’ll come along with you. (Rises)
Betty: Can’t you leave me alone for a minute! (Barry sits back, startled) In Europe . . . when we went to Europe, you never let me alone. You’d say, ‘What did we come here to see, anyway …’
Barry: (Smiling) Why, I was joking.
Betty: You’d say, ‘I never wanted to be a tourist.’
Barry: Never. Never wanted to be a tourist. Wanted to be a traveller. (Pauses) I remember your body, so slim, so cool, in all those rooms. The light, the way it fell on your body in all those different rooms.
Betty: The lighting in the pool is very nice.
Barry: (Looking through the glass) Yeah, that worked out well, didn’t it. Betty: You always wanted a pool.
Barry: Sign of the good life. (Pauses, bends forward a little) Look, let’s Betty: It doesn’t matter.
Barry: It .. .
Betty: A minor disappointment or two. We’re in love.
Barry: Yes! (More quietly) These are ironies, merely.
Betty: An ironic life, inherited from my father perhaps, along with his blue eyes.
Barry: You have blue eyes?
Betty: You don’t want to talk about my father?
Barry: Well, we have before. We have at some length actually, spoken about your father, the irony inherent in his situation.
Betty: A minister, all those years, and now a guard, protecting nuclear submarines from vandalism and sabotage.
Barry: He says they’re quite beautiful. He wants to arrange a tour on one of them for our son.
Betty: I will not allow him to arrange that ever. Barry: Oh come on, the kid will be thrilled.
Betty: My father had faith,now he has nothing. He protects death from defamation.
Barry: It’s just a job.
Betty: What faith he had! But he was very strict. As a child I was not allowed to paint my nails or keep a diary. I was not allowed to read the funny papers on Sunday. I felt set apart, destined for something important. (Pauses) Say what you say when I mention the funny papers.Barry: I thought we were getting to be friends. Have I miscalculated? It has been five drinks, hasn’t it?
Betty: Oh, do say it.
Barry: Lack has always appealed to you.
Betty: Yes. (Pauses) I feel I must point out that you haven’t mentioned Don again. Howdy and Whiskey and Napoleon, always, but not poor, drowned Don.
Barry: I have mentioned Don.
Betty: But only in passing! As a rule we do not dwell on Don. Don, Don, Don, the sailing dog. My mother’s most faithful companion. An anchor rope was found around his leg as well.
Betty: The end of my childhood. My mother was an excellent sailor. There wasn’t anything she liked more than to sail beyond the sight of land with a dog. She taught me a few knots but I never had the knack. My mother was so capable. Being with my mother on the sea was as safe as sitting in a living room .. .
Barry: Let’s put dogs right out of our minds. We’ll get rid of this dog and buy a plant, something that will give off a little oxygen. Let’s forget dogs forever. Let’s take a swim, it will reduce the risk of hangover. Let’s kiss, it might lead to love.
Betty: (Puts down her glass, rises) Just give me a few minutes. I want to put up my hair.
Barry: I love it when you put up your hair.
Betty: (Walking over to him) The drip from the suspended oar. (She bends down) Wordsworth. (He kisses her. She walks through the doors leading to the pool.)
Barry: (Sits, looking at the tail. The slow beating we heard is audible. He gets up and goes over to the bar, starts to make another drink, then doesn’t. He puts out the light over the bar and one or two other lights in the room. There only remains the light coming from the pool area and the light by the sofa which illuminates the motionless tail. He sits down in the chair, studies the tail.) This is our life. You’re giving the wrong impression. You’re casting a poor reflection. (Pauses) A choice was made after all this time and you were acquitted … received . . . acknowledged. (Pause) It wasn’t my idea. I like to have a good time. (Pause) Dammit! (Gives the tail a kick. The tail disappears beneath the sofa. He looks at the spot where it was. Sighs, stands up, unbuttons his shirt, calls toward the pool) Betty? (There is no answer) Darling, I’m waiting. (He turns out the light by the sofa and walks toward the door leading to the pool.)
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