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Sunday Matinee – What We Were Thinking Of (4)

What We Were Thinking Of

A Play in Two Acts

by

A. Jay Adler

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Part Four

The Story So Far

David Rich, professor of literature, minor cultural celebrity, receives a mysterious letter from his childhood friend Bud Powell, who was alienated from his father, Charles, a CIA officer, over the politics of the Sixties and who has been missing for eleven years. The letter, apparently referring to the daughter, Hannah, who David adopted after Bud disappeared, reads, “Where is my daughter? Who are my sons?” David shows the letter to his graduate student lover, Kate Colman, who argues with him when she realizes everything he has not shared with her. David then recalls his college days, when he, Bud, and Sara Flannery were friends. In the present, he visits Charles in Virginia to tell him about the letter, acknowledging that the two share a secret and arguing with Charles about what to do. David then meets with Sara, now his ex-wife, to express his concern to her. Back in the Sixties, David argues with Bud, a leading campus activist, over the extent of David’s political commitment. In the present, David hires Salt Lake City private investigator Robert Smith to find Bud for him. Smith stuns David with news that Bud is publishing  a newspaper memoir of his radical past. In it Bud claims to have had accomplices in the deadly bombing of a research laboratory, for which he went to prison.

Now part 4:

David’s colleague Kurtis Brown advises David about the suspicion that has now fallen on him. At a campus party, as Kate makes emotional demands on him, David begins to feel the strain. The FBI pays a call.

———–

(Smith stands and heads off. David remains seated as Kurtis enters. He walks to David and looks for him to get up from his chair. David rises and walks around to sit on the other side.)

KURTIS

Of course everyone’s seen it. Our students may not read, Brother Rich, but the faculty does. And they’re giving the piece an uncommonly close reading. You’re worried, I take it.

DAVID

Of course I’m worried. I know what everyone’s thinking.

KURTIS

Many of us knew, of course, but some people were surprised to learn you have a history here at your alma mater.

DAVID

And now people are rightly interested, I suppose — for all the wrong reasons.

KURTIS

Well, right or wrong, as I say, you have a history here — at an interesting time, amidst, shall we say, interesting events. So, yes, I think you could say they’re interested, for reasons right and wrong.

(Kurtis sits, crossing his legs with a flourish, seeming to preside from the chair.)

KURTIS

(continuing)

My own youthful radical indiscretions are buried in the somewhat more secretive lore of Howard University. I uncover them personally and selectively as needed when it helps to sell my books. And I stopped somewhat short, though I was sorely tempted — I make my Baptist testimony — righteously indignant spawn of the hypocrite South that I was — of bombing buildings. You, on the other hand, have someone excavating in your behalf.

DAVID

But the fact is that all it reveals so far is my friendship with Bud Powell and my work with USM. That’s hardly news to anyone who knows me.

KURTIS

Ah, well, everyone doesn’t know you. And the operative words are “so far.” And now your story is being read — in installments no less — by some of the best readers in the country. The interpretive spades are digging through the dirt — attempting to dig up dirt — in a frenzy.

(George Gray passes.)

GEORGE

Lurking in plain view, David? Not exactly a clandestine return. Very brave.

(noticing Kurtis)

Oh, that you, Kurtis?

KURTIS

No. I’m a ghost. It’s a haunting.

(George gives a breathy snort and moves on.)

KURTIS

(continuing)

You should know. He’s already asked for the ethics committee to meet. He wants an investigation.

DAVID

Of what? What are they going to investigate? Are they going to find Bud? Ask him what happened?

KURTIS

I understand that’s what you’ve been trying to do.

DAVID

So?

KURTIS

So?

DAVID

Oh, now that looks bad?

KURTIS

Well, you argue for a surface reading of events if you like. But you were best friends with the man. You worked together politically. He suggests there were accomplices. And now here you are trying to find him.

(beat)

George wants you gone. So do the rest of the old and rear guard. You’re going to have to stand up.

DAVID

Let them put me on trial? On what grounds? I won’t cooperate.

KURTIS

(standing)

David. Why do you think they’re going after you? The article? Yes, it’s given them opportunity. But they could go after me. Would rather, too. They know I’d fight them. They know I’m a force. You, Brother Rich — forgive me — they see you as a careerist. You talk the talk — your book burned their sorry asses pretty bad — but no one here has ever really seen you do the walk. You seem an easy target. And the war, as someone was good enough to recently remind us, is still being waged — on all fronts.

DAVID

So I have to defend myself, when no defense should be necessary?

KURTIS

Have you read your own book, my brother? Well, now, the war has come to David Rich. Just keep in mind that you have friends here. Good friends. Don’t run away from your past.

(Kurtis heads for the door. He turns back.)

KURTIS

(continuing)

I presume they play football in Chevy Chase. Just remember what makes a good defense. And let’s have dinner soon. I have some extraordinary new armagnac to ply you with.

(As he departs Kurtis sticks his hand by his rear to simulate a tail and wags it.)

(David lingers, worrying. He stands, notices his answering machine. He punches a button. Spotlight on Kate elsewhere on stage.)

KATE

You didn’t call. Are you back yet? If you are, let’s have dinner. Interesting reading in the Tribune.

(David sighs at this. Then the next message. Spot out on Kate, up on Larry Havermore, elsewhere again.)

HAVERMORE

Prof. Rich. Larry Havermore, Chicago Tribune. I’d like to talk to you about the Bud Powell series we’re running. I’m sure you’ve seen it. It raises some old, interesting questions. I’d like to get your side of the story. Give me a call at —

(Annoyed, David advances the tape to the next message. Spot out on Havermore, up on Sara, elsewhere.)

SARA

It’s Sara. Listen, Hannah’s been trying to reach you for days. I told her I thought you went to Salt Lake City. She’s got Christmas leave and wants you to join us for dinner. Who knows what’s coming next, you know?  You’re welcome to bring your friend, if you’re okay with that. I am. Anyway, I think Hannah is going to pay you a surprise visit, so be surprised. And show her how you feel. Call me when you can.

(Spot out on Sara. David pauses at this news, then goes to the next message. Bud appears in shadow upstage, his face not visible.)

BUD

Culture wars? Culture of war. How’d you miss that one, pal?

(A blast of alternative rock music from a Christmas party. Kate enters carrying two plastic cups of wine, hands David his as he joins her on the front porch of a student house.)

DAVID

I don’t know what he’s up to, Kate. I have no fucking idea.

KATE

Do you think the messages are connected to the series in the paper?

DAVID

They must be.

KATE

Is he trying to rattle you for some reason?

DAVID

Bud never needed a reason to try to rattle me. It was a matter of principle with him.

KATE

After all these years? What does he want you to do, bomb another building?

DAVID

What do you mean, “another”?

KATE

Well, he bombed one before. What did you think I …?

(They both get the confusion, let it drop.)

KATE

(continuing)

I have to say, I found the article very informative. I figured you did the usual 60s radical stuff. I didn’t realize you were such a leader in the movement.

DAVID

I wasn’t such a leader in the movement. It was just on this campus. Bud was the one with connections. That was his bag.

KATE

His “bag”?

(beat)

It gave me a sense of who you were — the kind of person you used to be. I know it’s a sore subject, but you haven’t told me a lot.

DAVID

It gets kind of old after awhile, you know. You tell the same stories about yourself over and over again. You get to a certain age —

KATE

Nearly 44?

DAVID

— you get tired of telling them. You get tired of yourself.

KATE

I thought you weren’t going to play the weary, wise older man to me.

DAVID

Well, I think I can keep my promise about the wise part.

(Kate is unhappy at this. She leaves the porch. David follows.)

DAVID

(continuing)

Kate …

KATE

Are you trying to tell me you don’t have the energy to be really, completely here for me? I’m just some sort of companion to your jaded middle age? I get to be with you, but I never get to know you?

DAVID

Is that what it means to know someone, to hear his tales of when he was ten and twenty and thirty?

KATE

Partly, yes. To know the things you wanted. Who you loved. Who loved you. The mistakes you made. I know the “great” professor and author — I want to know the person.

DAVID

That’s a lot of baggage, Kate — a lot more than comes with a younger man. You’re maybe just beginning to get an idea of that. And there may be more to come. Are you sure you want to carry that load?

KATE

(composing herself to speak)

When I first met you, I thought you would be one of those special experiences that only some people get to have in life — an “affair” with one of your professors. I thought it would last a few months. I would have this extraordinary experience to look back on. Maybe we’d even stay friends. It hasn’t turned out like that. You think your life will go a certain way — but there are always these surprises. And you’re never sure whether to cling to your plans — and maybe miss out on something unexpected and wonderful — or if you should embrace what’s come your way, let it lead you where it will. I know as hard as I try I’ll never quite be your equal. But I also know that as long as I live, I’ll never find anyone I could love as much as you.

(David is moved. He takes hold of her, strokes her face. She takes the hand and holds it.)

KATE

(continuing)

So I think to myself, I can take the accidents of my life, and I can choose them. I can make them mine. I can choose you, instead of letting you remain something that just happened to me.

(A kiss would be next, but Jarrod enters with a bottle of beer, from inside the house.)

JARROD

Well, now, there’s my two favorite party animals.

(stops)

Oops.

(beat)

You weren’t discussing Foucault, were you?

(David and Kate separate.)

JARROD

(continuing)

Should I –?

DAVID

Come on out.

JARROD

How was your trip to Chicago and parts unknown?

DAVID

Very retrospective.

JARROD

They say that happens in middle age.

DAVID

(to Kate)

I used to like him.

JARROD

Can we reschedule your look at my outline?

DAVID

Sure. Let me check my calendar.

KATE

My first chapter comes first.

JARROD

But of course.

(to David)

Listen, some of us are organizing against the war preparations in the Gulf. You interested in lending a little esteemed faculty support? Professor Brown has already offered to speak.

DAVID

Yes, well, my good friend Kurtis has never met a spotlight he didn’t flower under.

(beat)

Let me think about it. We’ll talk.

JARROD

What’s to think about? You’re the man who’s just cleaned the Right’s clock. You’d make the perfect — forgive the word — elder statesman.

DAVID

Actually, if you read closely, the book is more analysis than polemic. But don’t you think these things require thought?

JARROD

I’d have thought you’d already — unless you’re worried. Because of that newspaper series? I heard about the ethics committee. You’re not worried about antagonizing them, are you?

KATE

You think that’s something not to worry about?

JARROD

No. But —

(to David)

No one else is worried about what you may have done back in ’71.

DAVID

Oh, really? And is that because “no one else” thinks I did it? Or because the possibility that I may have once bombed a government research laboratory anoints me with a certain cheap radical Èclat?

KATE

(a hand, to calm him)

David…

DAVID

(pause)

I’m sorry. We’ll talk about it. I promise.

(Jarrod nods, sorry for the conflict. He starts to leave.)

JARROD

I’m heading out back.

(He points to David’s wine, then tokes an imaginary joint.)

JARROD

(continuing)

Care to mix a little pleasure with your pleasure?

DAVID

I’m middle-aged, remember?

(Jarrod smiles and moves on. A doorbell rings. Lights out on Kate as David walks across stage. The bell rings again as David picks up his briefcase and answers the door to Agent Strait.)

AGENT STRAIT

Prof. Rich? Prof. David Rich?

DAVID

Yes? Listen I was just leaving for work.

AGENT STRAIT

(holding out his ID)

Agent Strait, Federal Bureau of Investigation. I’d like to talk with you if I may. May I come in?

(David pauses, soberly backs away to let Strait in.)

AGENT STRAIT

(continuing)

I’m here —

DAVID

I can guess why you’re here.

AGENT STRAIT

Good. Then I don’t have to bore you with a long explanation.

DAVID

Is the FBI reopening the case?

AGENT STRAIT

The case was never officially closed. There were, as you know, accomplices —

DAVID

No. Wait. See, I’m presuming you’re here to find out what I know. You, on the other hand, are already assuming —

AGENT STRAIT

I’m not assuming anything, Professor. And there’s no need to start off hostile.

DAVID

No nee — Listen, Agent Strait — That was a joke, right?

AGENT STRAIT

What was a —

DAVID

Never mind.

AGENT STRAIT

I don’t joke.

DAVID

No, I’m sure you don’t.

AGENT STRAIT

This is not a joking matter.

DAVID

Really? I wasn’t sure. Thanks for the heads up.

AGENT STRAIT

(beat)

Let’s start again…

DAVID

You’ve obviously been brought up to speed on the case. Then I presume you’re aware I was questioned at the time. I was as cooperative as —

AGENT STRAIT

We’re aware of your cooperation thirteen months after the fact. People cooperate for many different reasons.

DAVID

There was nothing in that article to implicate me.

(On the screen above: David liked to think he was so American — in the original, radical sense. He liked to quote Tom Paine: “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence.”)

AGENT STRAIT

No. Not directly, so far. But it raised questions.

DAVID

In your boss’s mind, whoever he is. You’re too young to have a bug up your ass about the sixties.

AGENT STRAIT

The only thing I have a bug up my ass about, Prof. Rich, is murder, now or twenty years ago. But since you mention it, it does seem I have to hear about the “sixties” all the time. The sixties and the boomers. Considering how much you all seemed to fuck everything up, it’s a wonder everyone pays you so much attention.

DAVID

Yeah, well, maybe your generation will be the one that gets it all right.

AGENT STRAIT

(pause)

Well, now. We’ve got that out of the way. Now I’d like to ask you some questions.

(David leads Agent Strait to the door.)

DAVID

You may find this hard to believe, Agent, but I have nothing against the FBI. Not in principle, anyway. Call and give me some notice — so I can have my attorney with me — and I’ll be happy to talk with you.

(David points the way out.)

AGENT STRAIT

If you’d like to play it that way.

DAVID

Oh, I think I’d like to play it that way.

(Agent Strait leaves. David turns with a sigh, hangs his head from the weight of it all.)

AJA

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