Spring 2006

Volume 1, Issue 1



Thin Words


You’re standing in front of the stove stirring the spaghetti you’re boiling when you look down at your feet, one on top of the other, and notice the Flamingo Pink Passion Eterna-GLO nail polish Dorene made you rush down to her beauty parlor to buy has already chipped and it’s only been three days. Then you look past your feet at the turquoise vinyl flooring pressed into three-inch squares like tiles and you notice the bubbled up part around the stove has started to crack. You see a green pea down in one of the bubbles and wonder how long it’s been there. You can’t remember when you last cooked peas but it was probably a week ago Sunday. You look back at your spaghetti and give it another little stir. Then you hear it, low like thunder but from underground. Then you feel it, a vibration ever so slight. Your heart blows up like a black balloon, pops, and collapses into your stomach. Your spaghetti’s not done but you turn off the stove, put a colander in the sink, and strain your noodles. The phone rings. You already know who it is. You pick up the receiver. She says, “I’m on my way.” You say, “I know.”

You open the back door to call Billy jr. and Sue Ann in from playing on the tire swing, but they’re already rushing past you. “He okay?” Billy jr. asks. Sue Ann just looks terrified. Eyes wide like the moon. “We’ll know soon enough,” you say as you pull the coats out of the hall closet. You hear a beep outside and put your purse on your shoulder. “She’s here,” you say and walk out the door.

Billy jr.’s old enough to do it himself, but Sue Ann still struggles with her seatbelt. You ask her brother to help her while you get into the front seat. Your mother doesn’t say anything. Neither do you. You ride along in deadly silence. Your heart’s back up from your stomach now. A jackhammer in your ears.

Trucks and beaters like the one you’re in compete for the last few parking spaces. You lose. You have to park down the hill and hike back. The kids fall behind. You stop and let them catch up. For once in their short lives, they don’t complain. Sue Ann’s shivering. You take her hand. Billy jr. follows your cue and takes the other one. Your mother charges on. You follow her, three musketeers.

As you walk up to the front door of the church, you hear the chatter of voices talking all at once. Your mother walks in first. You push the kids in ahead of you. You walk in last. When they see you, they stop talking and stare. The silence burns your face like stove air in August. The wives, you remember. They always get quiet for the wives.

Pastor Mark finally swims out of the sea of faces toward you. His mouth opening and closing slow like the orange fish in Dr. Turner's tank. “This time it’s you, Paige, and Shayna.” As he says this, he kind of nods his head to the two in the back pew turning to look at you. They’re huddled together with mascara rivers. You nod to them and push the kids to the casserole table as the voices start back up. “This’ll be your dinner tonight,” you say, knowing they won't get any spaghetti. Your mother heads straight for the coffee. You watch her fill her white styrofoam cup and you realize how stark and white your church is. Just another poor Baptist church. White slats, stripped bare. No money for stained glass, gold altars, murals, or fancy carved Jesus on a cross.

Your mother turns to look at you. Styrofoam cup to her lips. The first time your eyes have met. She blinks and looks away. You can’t believe how many lines spray out around her lips. Like spiderwebs. And when did she get so faded? Like a black and white movie actor in a color world. The purple marks under her eyes, near her nose, make you think of red wine stains. Impossible to get out.

Then two men walk in. Tiptoe-y and soft. They don’t stop to talk to anybody. They just kinda shuffle their way to the altar. Everyone hushes down and takes a seat. You hear one more rushing in. You turn and look. It’s Dorene. She spots you. You slide over. She squeezes in.

The one on the left, the company lawyer, looks like last week’s daisy in a jam jar on the kitchen windowsill. Colorless. Neck broken over the lip. You notice his skin and hair the same color as his jacket and pants. All khaki. He steps forward and clears his throat. It sounds like a piece of paper crumpled up and thrown away. “We don’t have any information yet,” he says staring over everybody’s heads at the clock on the back wall. “But Ted wanted to talk to you.” He steps back and the one on the right steps forward.

Poor Teddy Jackson. In no way was he ready to take over the Jackson Mine. Daddy dead of a heart attack. Now here he is, barely thirty, looking scared half to death. “I just want you to know,” he starts, staring down at the carpet, “we’re doing everything we can.” He looks up at the same clock his brown curls circling his face like the cherub picture you have hanging in the bathroom. You’re mad as hornets, but he looks so helpless standing there you actually feel sorry for him. His face dingy white and sunken like a soiled t-shirt on the bedroom floor.

“When the rescue teams report?” your mother shouts up at them. Teddy’s startled, looks at the lawyer. He steps forward, “Two hours,” he says. Order breaks down. Everybody starts talking all at once. You watch as the lawyer and little Teddy slither out the side door.

Pastor Mark walks up to you, “There’s a reporter outside. Paige and Shayna have gone out to talk to her.” You shake your head no. He walks away. Dorene asks, “Can I get you some coffee?” You nod. She goes. Then you see your mom standing in front of you. She holds Billy jr. in one hand. Sue Ann in the other. “No sense them seeing a blow by blow,” she says. You nod and hug them and look in each of their little eyes. “It’s gonna be okay,” you lie. They look at you and nod. Their little eyes hold more tears than yours. Your mom drags them down the aisle and out the back door.

Dorene comes back, hands you a styrofoam cup. “They’re out of cream,” she says. You take a sip. Bitter and cold. “Everything’s gonna be okay,” she says. But you know that lie already.

Dorene walks over to Pastor Mark. You slide down in the pew, close your eyes, and try to imagine what it’s like. You hear an explosion. Your mine shaft blocked. You’re three miles underground. Methane and carbon monoxide slowly eat your air. Do you sit down? Try to conserve your air by staying still? Do you dig? Do you write a note? You think about what Billy’s note will say to you.

Dear Barbara Jean,
It’s not a bad way to pass. You just go to sleep.
Please remember our first kiss.
Love, Billy

You do remember the first kiss even though you know Billy would never write a note like that. The kiss. Behind Bo’s Guns. Billy’s first part-time job. You were in tenth grade at Sago High School. He was on a smoke break. Now you’re sitting in a church white as winter, pews ice blue. You think about that face you kissed trapped in the shaft, a face smudged black like sin. He had a cold and wanted to stay home. “132 electric,” you said. “895 rent.”

Two hours pass, seems wrong to eat. You here all comfy, him trapped. Dorene brought you a blanket and pillow. You pushed them on the floor. Must be ten new casseroles on that back table. How much lasagna can one person eat? Paige walks over and sits by you. She’s so blonde, pale, like those see-through worms you read about. “What do you think they’re doing?” she asks. Suffocating, you think. “Waiting for help,” you say.

Three more hours. No news. “No sense taking him,” you argue with God. “Hadn’t you ever been in love?” you ask Him. “Kissed behind Bo’s Guns? Split a chocolate milkshake?” You watch your life quietly fall apart. Laundry in the washer. By now sour as lemons. Cold spaghetti drying in the sink. What else? Billy jr.’s new cleats. Sue Ann’s sleepover. Drop off video. What time is it? Late fee now. None of that matters no more, you think. Guilty as burnt turkey on Christmas.

Two more hours. Panic grabs you by the heart. Twisting it like a wet washcloth. The air can’t last this long. Their packs only have an extra hour. Would have to be a miracle…miracle…miracle…

“Thin word,” you whisper. "Thin like smoke."

Shayna wades through the folks in the aisle, kneels on the steps leading up to the altar. Everyone gets kind of quiet as she bows her head in prayer. She’s a massive, sturdy redhead. Hardy Irish peasant stock. All stubborn curls and freckles. If anyone can handle this, you think, Shayna can. But then her shoulders start to jiggle and you know she’s crying. Pastor Mark walks over to her and puts his hand on her shoulder. Maybe nobody can handle this, you think. Maybe this is what they mean when they say impossible situation.

The side door opens. The creak like thunder ripping across a quiet night sky. The lawyer and Teddy walk in. They don’t have to say a word. You can tell by their faces as gray as a week old ashtray. Everyone’s quiet again, but no one moves from where they were standing when they first heard the creak.

They’re on the altar now. Teddy’s shaking real bad. The lawyer coughs then says, “We found them. They’re okay.”

Wrong. You were wrong. Relief pours over you like warm syrup on a pancake. “Our crews are bringing them up right now and putting them in ambulances. Family members should meet them at the Upshur Counter Hospital Emergency Room.” People part to let Shayna and Paige get to you still camped out on your pew. You stand. The three of you hug. Dorene squeezes in. “I told you,” she says. “Everything’s gonna be okay.” You look at her, blinking through your tears. You notice she’s wearing false eyelashes. Now who would think to put on false eyelashes at a time like this, you ask yourself. She probably had them on when she heard the news about the accident, you hope. But her lipstick looks fresh and she smells like hairpspray. Good God, you wonder, was she using this as a dating opportunity? But you smile and say, “Yeah, I guess you were right.”

You push through dozens of congratulaters, Dorene guiding you to her car. A reporter sticks a microphone in your face. “I’m real happy,” is all you can say.

As Dorene drives, she chatters on about Pastor Mark this and Pastor Mark that and you know you were right. You want to tell her her too blonde hair is too teased, too sprayed. Her too much makeup unfit for any corner of West Virginia. Her too big hoop earrings now showing silver through the gold. I can see the gold rubbing off, you want to say. Why do you think we can’t see it? But instead you think about Billy.

After Sue Ann was born, you lost a lot of blood and almost died. Billy came over after his shift at the mine and sat with you every night. You were in no mood for chit-chat. Lying there. Almost dying. Somehow Billy just knew that. He knew you. He’d walk in that hospital with the sports page tucked under his elbow. He’d come kiss your forehead. Then he’d settle down and read about his Steelers. Never saying a word. Never worrying you over Billy across the street at your mother’s. Never asking where the spray starch was. Never asking after the checkbook. How to make grilled cheese. None of that. When the time came, he stood, kissed your forehead again, and left. Whatever happens, you thought. I’ll always love him for that. Just sitting. Quiet. With you while you fought for life.

Dorene drops you by your house so you can get your kids. When you pull up, they run out. Your mother stands on the front porch, smoking and smiling. You can see they’ve heard the good news. “Can we go to the hospital?” Billy asks. “Why do you think I’m here?” you say. Sue Ann just hugs your leg.

Dorene waits in the car. You walk inside to brush your teeth. The TV news announces your good fortune. “Thank God,” you whisper. You walk in the bathroom and close the door. You look at the cherub. Then you look in the mirror. “What would we do without him?” you ask your reflection. “I never had a job in my life, never even finished high school. 132 electric. 895 rent.” You turn on the cold water and pick up your toothbrush when you hear it.

Now you know what blood curdling means.

“No,” you hear Dorene scream. You open the bathroom door to see her stumbling through your front door. “It’s not true,” she pants. You turn your head to the TV. Your mother sits on the couch. Billy jr. on one side. Sue Ann on the other. They’re all crying now. It’s true, the reporter tells you, the miners were all three found. Unconscious, the rescuers thought. But the paramedics in the ambulance were unable to revive them. They’ve all been pronounced dead on arrival. Your knees buckle and Dorene rushes over to catch you. She ushers you to the couch where you sit and watch your life end on TV.

You’re numb now. You dig your fingernails into your fingertips, but you can’t feel anything. You stand. Counting on instinct to balance you.

Everyone watches as you walk to the kitchen. You look around. Laundry sour as lemons. Cold spaghetti drying in the sink. You notice the pea down in that turquoise crack. You pick up a broom and try to sweep it out. The bristles can’t get a hold of it. Keeps bouncing back. You bend down and pick it up. You hold it between your index finger and your thumb twisting it to study all the peaks and valleys in that withered green world. Then you put the pea in your mouth and chew it.

Tastes dry, you think.

Dry, like dust.



Broken Pickles


This play premiered at the Helen Lindhurst Theatre in Malibu, California, on April 24th, 2006, and was directed by the author.


JAYLEAN JOHNSON Charlotte Botsford


DR. ROBERTA STANFORD 35, a brisk, efficient emergency room doctor
JAYLEAN JOHNSON 35, homeless, thick southern accent, perhaps drunk, high, insane or all three


DR. ROBERTA STANFORD wears a doctor’s lab coat, a stethoscope, and a small, simple ring on her right hand. She carries a clipboard with a pen attached.
JAYLEAN JOHNSON wears dirty, baggy clothing signaling the fact that she is homeless. An oversized windbreaker covers her hands.


A chair.
A clipboard with a pen.
A pocket pen light.
A ring.
A stethoscope.
A table.
No other props are necessary. Actions requiring other items can be pantomimed.


A crowded emergency room in Atlanta, Georgia. New Year’s Eve.


(From offstage, we hear crowd noises, revelry, shouts of “Hotlanta” and “Happy New Year.” One chair stands SR. A table nearby. Harried, exhausted, overwhelmed, DR. ROBERTA STANFORD ENTERS SL carrying a clipboard with a pen attached. She has found a quiet corner to take a break. She pulls a curtain closed and collapses in the chair.)



Worse than soiled bedpans. Worse than worms in your eyes. No. Wait. Worse than projectile vomiting. I swear . . .one more firecracker burn on the lips. . . one more champagne cork stuck up a . . .


(JAYLEAN JOHNSON ENTERS SR. She’s homeless, perhaps drunk, high, insane or all three. She wears an oversized windbreaker. The sleeves hang down over her hands. She walks backwards, shouts offstage – )



All right. All right. I’m goin’. In here? You know. Maybe a boyfriend you wouldn’t be such a frump-a-grump.


(Startled, Roberta stands up quickly. Jaylean crashes into her. Turns. Sees Roberta for the first time.)



Whasssuuup? Happy New Year!



Have a seat. I'll be with you in a minute.


(Roberta turns away quickly, busies herself writing on her clipboard, paces back and forth, organizes supplies, straightens items on shelves.)

(Jaylean sits, looks around, starts singing to herself, dancing in her seat.)


Hey, lady.

(Roberta ignores her, rushes SR.)



(Roberta rushes SR to SL.)


Hey . . .

(Roberta rushes OFFSTAGE.)

JAYLEAN (to herself)

Looks like we got ourselves another frump-a-grump.

(Roberta rushes ONSTAGE SL to CS. She stops with her back to Jaylean, flips through her clipboard.)


Don’t suppose you have a boyfriend either.

(Roberta ignores her.)



(Roberta turns and glares at Jaylean.)


No. Didn’t think so. Hey...

(Roberta turns her back to Jaylean, writes on her clipboard.)


I said I'd be with you in a minute.

(Roberta rushes OFFSTAGE SL.)

(Jaylean looks around, starts humming, dances in her chair, gets into it, waves her arms.)

( Roberta rushes ONSTAGE SL to SR.)


Hey. What did zero say to eight?

(But Roberta’s gone SR.)

JAYLEAN (shouting to SR)

Nice belt.

(From SR, Roberta rushes to the table, sets down her clipboard, puts two fingers on Jaylean’s neck. The doctor looks at her watch, taking her patient’s pulse.)


They got your blood pressure.


So two cows are talkin’ out in the middle of a field.

(Roberta puts a stethoscope in her ears, listens to Jaylean’s heart.)


Girl cow says to the old lady cow...





As a matter of fact, that is not what the cow said...



(Roberta moves the stethoscope to listen to the lungs.)


Breathe in.


(Jaylean exhales with force.)

(Roberta glares at her.)


Breathe in.

(Jaylean giggles.)





(Jaylean inhales.)



(Jaylean exhales.)



(Jaylean inhales.)






(Jaylean hops up, singing and dancing around Roberta.)


Only when we conga. Only when we conga. Happy Happy New Year. Happy Happy New Year.

(Jaylean kicks Roberta in the behind.)

(Disgusted, Roberta turns to her clipboard on the table and writes.)

(Jaylean continues to dance as she tells her joke.)


So the girl cow says to the old lady cow, “What do you think about this mad cow disease?” The old lady cow says, “What do I care? I’m a corkscrew.”

(Jaylean stomps a foot down and throws her arms out as if to signal “ta-da.”
Roberta doesn’t laugh. Instead, she shakes her head and sighs.)


You’re free to go.

(Disheartened, suddenly more somber, more sober, Jaylean plops down on the chair.)


But you hadn’t asked me what’s wrong.

(For the first time, Roberta looks Jaylean square in the face for an extended period.)


Nothing's wrong. You’re just another homeless drunk looking for a free place to crash on New Year’s Eve.

(Jaylean leans toward Roberta’s face. She moves left and right examining every inch.)

(Roberta grows impatient, turns away, arranges supplies on the table.)

(Jaylean stands up and walks around examining Roberta’s face.)

JAYLEAN (slowly)

Holy guacamole.

(Roberta moves around trying to avoid Jaylean’s prying eyes.)



(For a moment, Roberta looks startled, but she quickly regains her composure.)


My name is Dr. Roberta Stanford.


Bobby. It’s me. Jaylean Johnson. Lee-Loo. Remember Flamingo Resort Trailer Park? Eighth grade? You disappeared that year. Poof. What happened? All the kids used to ask me, “What ever happened to Slobby Bobby?”


You are completely insane.

(Stunned, Jaylean staggers back into the chair.)


Who’d have guessed it? Slobby Bobby, a doctor. Hey, what happened to your drawl? You used to be more hick’n me.

(Roberta takes out a pocket pen light, shines it in Jaylean’s eyes.)


Maybe I should send you to psych.


Show me your hands.




Your hands are your life. Everythin’ that happened. Let me see your hands.

(Irritated, Roberta holds her right hand out, palm side down.)


Your mom left six months before you did. You’re still wearin' her ring.

(Roberta holds her hand up, looks at the ring.)


A lot of people have rings like this.


Lemme see your palms.

(Roberta holds her hand out, palm side up.)


I can’t imagine why I’m humoring you.

(Jaylean leans over and examines the palm closely. She nods toward the hand.)


I was with you when you got that scar. We stole a jar of sweet pickles from Betty Jo’s Convenience. We couldn’t open it, so you broke it on the curb behind Hank’s Taxidermy. A little sliver of glass got you right there.

(Roberta holds her palm up, examines the scar.)


Everyone’s got a scar somewhere.

(She turns to her clipboard, scribbles something.)


Anyway, enough of this nonsense. I’m releasing you.


But you still hadn’t asked me what’s wrong. Weird thing is it doesn’t really even hurt.

(Exasperated, Roberta sighs, puts a hand on her hip, turns to Jaylean.)


All right. I’ll bite. What’s wrong?

(Jaylean draws her arms up close to her body, hugging her chest.)



I just couldn’t stop puttin' it in my mouth, Bo-Bo. Up and in. Up and in. All day. All night. Pass out. Then start all over again. I thought if I set ‘em on fire I could stop it. So I poured vodka all over ‘em and lit a match.


Poured vodka all over what, Jaylean? Set what on fire?

(Slowly, Jaylean extends her arms, and for the first time we see her hands. They are badly burned.)

(Shocked, Roberta kneels in front of Jaylean, holds her wrists, and looks at her hands.)


Oh no, Lee-Loo, what have you done with your hands?

(Lights down as we hear crowd noises, revelry, shouts of “Hotlanta” and “Happy New Year.”)



gumbo ya-ya


sure i’ll show ya my secret come on in this here
kitchen you gonna need bout four five big pieces of
chicken salt n peppa then dust em with a little
flour just like this mmhmmm course i do who
wouldn’t love it coffee and chicory on sunday

morning red beans and rice on monday dribble a
little oil in the cast iron skillet that’s right you’re
doin real good course i had their beignets who
hadn’t piled high with powder sugar mmhmmm now
take that there chicken out no ma’am don’t you clean

that skillet gotta make you roux just get you some
flour there’s more in that tin you gonna need
you a wooden spoon it’s right here hon i know
your kitchen better n you do okay now
sprinkle that flour and stir til it looks like hot

chocolate course not that carriage too rich for
my blood but i did think it seemed real nice
sittin under a blanket clop-clop on cobblestone
like a fairy tale scuse me lemme dice this
here onion and while I’m at it the chicken too no

never had a portrait done jackson square’s
for tourists cept the bums that sleep in the
storefronts at night guess they’re locals okay
now stir in this onion watch it don’t burn
yourself. fema? please child don’t bother me

with that nonsense now the celery and bell
peppers we gotta let that simmer for a minute or
two soften up why a hurricane’s just light and dark
rum grenadine orange juice some folks maybe drip a
little passion fruit in there or some simple syrup but

you absatively have to garnish it with an orange
slice and a cherry wouldn’t be the same without
it. the most? i probably miss the crawfish the jazz
“body and soul” definitely my favorite the magnolias
in full bloom the black curls of a wrought iron

balcony sure i will we’ll do jambalaya on sunday
and ettouffe sometime next week now we gottta
sprinkle in some garlic cayenne oregano good now
this here basil thyme bay leaves I sewanee here
taste mmhmmm that’s gonna be a mighty fine batch maybe

a little more salt n peppa stir in that broth mmhmmm
that looks real nice can you hand me that i diced up
some sausage this afternoon stir that in and the chicken
too no can’t say i do last time i was on bourbon street
some college kid vomited on my alligator pumps no

sirree didn’t like that one bit not yet you gotta
sprinkle in this here fil powder now you’re done just
gotta let it simmer for hours or thereabouts i done
told ya didn’t have a car if they’re gonna order you
out they gotta come getcha yeah houston’s okay

but no matter how far i go just can’t get it out of my
head me on the rooftop and floatin past that big body
all bloated and blue





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