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Fred Balsac, Jay

Writing Contest home

Fred Balsac, Jay NY
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers 2004
Runner-up in Category: One Act Plays, Age 21+

Who’s Buried With Lou Gehrig’s Disease?
(Or, John Wayne Walks This Way)

Listen to audio adaptation (21:45)

Time: the late 1980s/early 1990s.

(Fred Astaire SINGING “A Fine Romance” is heard over the stage, which is dark but for the light emanating from a TV set placed downstage right but facing upstage. The song soon gives way to the nonstop BABBLE of voices on the television. Mostly from the talk and tabloid shows, the voices become audible at different moments throughout the play as the TV is set on automatic channel-change and volume control.

(As the stage lights come up, two men in their late 20s, early 30s-LOU and BUD-sit at a table playing cards in a room of indeterminate character. Both have mustaches and close-cropped hair, military style, and both wear a kind of uniform that smacks of a cross among military dress, surgical garb, and something one might be forced to wear in a highly contaminated area.)

LOU: No, I’m not Queen Victoria.

(Bud studies Lou’s face, then looks hard at his own hand. He picks up a card from the face-down deck.)

BUD: Did you die of Carrion’s disease?

(Lou doesn’t blink. Bud throws down a card. Lou looks at it, then picks from the deck.)

LOU: No, I’m not Pancho Villa.

(He throws down a card. Bud looks at it and then back at Lou. Bud draws a card, but before looking at it he glances at the TV.)

BUD: Lovely outfit.

(He looks at the card and adds it to his hand, shuffling all the cards around.)

Did you die of oreximania?

(Lou breaks his blank expression for the first time, giving Bud a funny look. Bud throws down, triumphant. Lou picks up.)

LOU: No, I’m not Vivien Vance.

BUD: You’re bluffing!

(Lou lays down his cards.)

LOU: Three queens and a pair of sixes. Full house.

(Bud looks them over, shaking his head. He lays down his own cards.)

BUD: Your house is fuller than mine. Three jacks high.

LOU: (adding up the points on Bud’s hand.) Nine plus four. Thirteen, plus 100 points. That puts you way in the hole.

(Bud gathers all the cards to reshuffle them. Lou stands and picks up a glass and dish from the table.)

Want another sandwich?

(Bud’s attention is drawn to the TV.)

BUD: No, but I will take one of those!

LOU: Sure you will. In your next life.

(He goes to a bar upstage, pours himself another drink, and fixes another sandwich. Bud gazes back at the table, where he fixes on the spot from which Lou removed the dish.)

Sure you don’t want another? There’s plenty here.

(Bud reaches out to the spot and touches his forefinger to it. Rubbing the finger against his thumb, he makes a disgusted face, then remembers Lou’s query.)

BUD: Uh, no thanks…

LOU: More for moi.

(He returns to the table with his drink and a “Dagwood” special-coldcuts, fixin’s, and bread, all stacked inches high.)

BUD: How can you keep eating at a…

(He stops speaking to watch Lou set his glass on the spot under scrutiny.)

LOU: At a time like this?

(Lou takes a big bite of the sandwich, then speaks with his mouth full.)

I’ve got to keep my strength up. We all do. Your deal.

(Bud shuffles the cards dutifully and deals. Over this are heard in succession the familiar VOICES of Phil, Oprah, Sally Jesse, and Geraldo emanating from the TV. The card players each organize their hands.)

BUD: Person. “M.”

(Lou nods and draws from the deck. He tries the new card in three different places in his hand.)

LOU: Did you die of dementia?

(He throws down and Bud picks the card up. They play through this next interchange, with Bud picking up everything Lou throws down.)

BUD: No, I’m not Guy du Maupaussant.

LOU: Did you die of internal hemorrhage-

BUD: No, I’m not…

(Bud hesitates, realizing that he jumped in too fast.)

LOU: …from a knife wound to the heart…

BUD: No, I’m not--is there more? Go on…

LOU: …after suffering from dermatitis seborrheica accompanied by severe pruritis… probably resulting from excessive scratching… brought on by neurasthenia gravis.

BUD: Oh, why didn’t you say so from the beginning?… No, I’m not Jean Paul Marat.

LOU: Did you die in a car crash?

BUD: Car crash? No, I’m not General MacArthur. What are we playing with--softballs?

LOU: He died in a car crash? I thought that was General Patton.

(Bud does not respond and just keeps playing. Lou shrugs.)

Are you a woman who died in a car crash?

BUD: Getting particular now, are we? No, I’m not…uhh… Grandma Moses!

(Lou looks at him like it’s a ridiculous answer. Now Bud shrugs.)

LOU: Are you a woman who was decapitated in a car crash?

BUD: Now I think you’re getting desperate.

LOU: Try me.

(Bud looks at Lou, then back at his cards.)

BUD: I’m stumped!

LOU: Jayne Mansfield.

(For the first time, he picks up Bud’s discharge card.)

BUD: Her? She really lost her…?

LOU: It was gruesome. Are you a woman?

BUD: No.

LOU: Did you die of--let’s see… gangrene due to malnutrition stemming from diabetes mellitus?

BUD: (as Lou shakes his head after each try:) Ummm, Machiavelli… Mahatma Gandhi… the Marquis de Sade… I give up.

LOU: President William McKinley.

BUD: That’s impossible! He was assassinated. Surely the gunshot--

LOU: (shaking his head) He died 8 days after being shot. The first bullet bounced off one of his buttons. The second bullet didn’t kill him.

BUD: I don’t believe it!

LOU: Are you calling me on it?

BUD: I didn’t say that.

(Lou takes a swig of his drink and puts the glass right smack down on the sticky spot Bud noticed earlier.)

LOU: Well, what are you saying?

BUD: What is that sticky stuff?

(Lou lifts the glass, and he and Bud stare at the glob on the bottom of it. Suddenly, the VOICE of a third man, RALPH, is heard calling from offstage. The voice sounds as if it is coming from a person weakened by sickness, yet the CRY it produces is clear and strong:)

RALPH: (offstage) Lou!

(Neither player reacts immediately. Lou draws a card.)

LOU: It’s your turn.

RALPH: (o.s) Lou--the pillow!

BUD: He’s calling for you.

LOU: Yeah, but I went the last time.

BUD: Lou, his pillow needs fluffing. How can you deny him?

(Lou throws his cards face down.)

LOU: Alright. But that’s the last time I’m doing two in a row.

(Lou exits. Bud waits a few moments, then looks at Lou’s cards. Ambiguous CRIES of what sounds like pain, followed eventually by pleasure, are HEARD in Ralph’s voice offstage.

(Lou returns, sits down, and picks up his cards.)

LOU: Where were we?

BUD: Willam McKinley.

LOU: Oh, right…

(Lou discards. Bud picks from the deck, rearranges his hand, and discards. Lou lights up, pounces on the discard, and quickly throws down a card. He raps his knuckles on the deck.)

Marie Antoinette!

(Bud nods, looks at Lou, then at his own hand, then back at Lou.)

BUD: You’re bluffing!

(Bud lays down his hand face up. Lou throws down his cards in disgust.)

LOU: You looked at my cards!

BUD: I was just reading your face.

(He counts Lou’s hand.)

Ten, nineteen, twenty-seven… thirty-two! Plus a penalty of fifty. Let’s see… let’s see…

(He adds up the score.)

You’re still ahead, but don’t look back, pardner: someone’s gaining on you! Your deal…

(Like an automaton, Lou collects the cards, shuffles, and begins to deal.)

BUD: Everything alright in there?

LOU: (without emotion) His condition’s the same: it’s still worsening.

(Lou finishes dealing. They pick up their cards; but while Bud moves his around, Lou just stares.)

BUD: It’s your turn to think of somebody.

LOU: I can’t believe you looked at my cards.

(Bud pushes his chair back and stands up as it falls over. He speaks in a VOICE vaguely reminiscent of John Wayne:)

BUD: You better smile when you say that, pardner.

LOU: What do you think you’re doing?

BUD: (shaking his head) Rather, who?

LOU: I’d rather who what?

BUD: No, who do you think I’m doing? (He puts the voice on again:) “You better smile when you say that, pardner.”

LOU: George Bush? I have no idea.

BUD: Alright, listen to this... (Imitating:) Listen and listen tight… pilgrim!

LOU: If this is part of the game now, I give up.

BUD: Alright, I’ll do the walk. You have to get it with the walk.

(Bud moves across the stage putting one foot directly in front of the other, swinging his arms stiffly, and swiveling his hips wildly.)

Listen and listen tight… pilgrim!

(He stops.)

Well, who am I?

LOU: (shrugging) Pocahontas?

BUD: JOHN WAYNE! I’m John Wayne! This is how John Wayne walks.

(He does a little of the walk again. Lou shakes his head emphatically.)

LOU: No, no-that’s not it at all. Watch a pro.

(Lou moves by putting one foot not quite in front of the other, lifting and swinging his elbows and arms more fluidly, and swiveling his hips just a little.)

LOU: John Wayne walks this way. “Listen and listen tight, pilgrim… Smile when you say that, friend”… See?

(Lou halts. Bud looks unimpressed.)

BUD: I don’t think you quite have it. You need to do a little something more with the hips, like this…

(He modifies Lou’s walk, enhancing the hip movement.)

“Smile when you…”… no, maybe it’s more like this…

(While Bud modifies his own new version, Lou starts up again.)

LOU: I'll show you exactly how it’s done…

(They both move around the stage trying different walks and REPEATING the same two lines over and over. Finally, they both end up at opposite sides of the card table, where they stop and say simultaneously:)

BUD & LOU: “Listen and listen tight, “Smile when you say that, pilgrim.” friend.”

(They look up at each other pensively and hold their arms down along their hips.)

LOU: I’ll draw you for who looks in on him next.

BUD: OK. Draw.

(Lou looks Bud in the eye, then reaches across the table and draws a card from the deck. He looks at it and, without realizing it, places it face down on the sticky spot.

(Bud looks Lou in the eye for some sign of the card’s value, then draws. He looks at the card, smiles, and shows it.)

BUD: King of hearts.

(He reaches for the score pad, but Lou stays Bud’s hand.)

LOU: Not so fast, friend. Last time I looked, king of hearts didn’t beat…

(He turns the card over and holds it up.)

…Ace of spades.

(Bud looks at it for a moment quizzically and then points.)

BUD: What is that sticky stuff?

(Lou looks at the card and tries wiping the stuff off the edge of the table. Suddenly, Ralph’s VOICE is heard again. Although weaker than before, it is still commanding.)

RALPH: (o.s.) Lou!

(They both just stand there, staring at each other. Lou proffers his card.)

LOU: I won the draw, remember?

RALPH: (o.s.) Lou--the pillow!

BUD: I’d go, but he obviously wants you.

LOU: I’m not going in there again-I don’t care what either of you says!

(The next sound emanating from Ralph is a low, pleading GROAN:)

RALPH: (o.s.) Looooooou… please, the pill-ooooooooow…

BUD: He’s begging now. How can you ignore his plea? I’d go, really. But he prefers the way you… fluff his pillow.

(He senses Lou softening.)

It may be the last time he asks anything of anybody.

LOU: Dammit, I’ll do it!

(He throws the ace down on the table.)

But it’s the last time I’m going in there, period. I mean it.

(Bud nods as Lou exits, shuffles the deck, and deals each of them a hand. Again, after waiting a bit, he looks at Lou’s cards, only this time he takes a few of them. Turning over and spreading out his own hand as well as the deck, Bud rearranges both his hand and Lou’s to his advantage.

(Over this, the same CRIES of pain followed by pleasure that were heard before are sounded again by Ralph. Bud quickly puts the cards back in order just as Lou reenters. He sits down and picks up his cards.)

LOU: Where were we?

BUD: My deal. Your turn.

(Lou looks at his hand suspiciously and then at Bud, but his opponent’s poker face conveys nothing. Lou picks a card from the deck and appears to be pleased with it. They resume playing wordlessly for a while. Bud bides his time, throwing down every card he picks up only after moving it around in his hand.)

I’ve got one. Cause of death… “A.”

LOU: “A,” huh? Let’s see…

(Lou reaches for Bud’s throwaway card.)

BUD: You’ll never get this.

(Lou nods and then picks up from the deck instead.)

It’s too easy.

(Lou does a doubletake, as they continue play.)

LOU: Are you what killed Frederick the Great?

BUD: No, I didn’t have asthma. Come, come, you can do better than that.

LOU: Are you Edgar Allan Poe’s cause of death?

BUD: No, I didn’t suffer from alcoholism or die from alcohol-driven cerebral edema. Elementary, my dear “What’s-on?”

(He throws down a card.)

He was a manic-depressive, you know.

LOU: Are you what Catherine the Great had?

BUD: Let me see now… Catherine the Great… Catherine the Great… No, I didn’t have arteriosclerosis associated with high blood pressure-and that didn’t even kill her. It was a cerebral hemorrhage!… Give up?

LOU: I’ll get it if you just give me a little time.

BUD: Give up?

LOU: I’m having trouble coming up with diseases beginning with “A.”

BUD: Try amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

LOU: No thanks, you try it!

(Bud groans.)

Okay, that’s an “A.” Can you tell me who died of it?

BUD: That’s what I’m asking you! That’s my cause of death!

LOU: I’m sorry to hear that-you’ve never looked better!

BUD: You have no idea, do you…

LOU: No idea of what?

BUD: Who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

LOU: I have no idea, but I bet they died before they could finish pronouncing it!

BUD: I’ll give you a hint, but you’ve got to get it in ten seconds. If you do, I’ll take care of you know who for the rest of night. Deal?

LOU: (nodding) Shoot.

BUD: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Ten, nine...

(Lou bobs from side to side, as if he’s thinking.)

LOU: “Also known as Lou Gehrig’s…”-Is this a trick question?

(Bud imitates a game show BUZZER:)

BUD: Aaaaaaaaaaa! Time’s up.

LOU: Tell me.

BUD: Lou Gehrig, stupid! Lou Gehrig died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. I knew you wouldn’t get it.

(He throws his cards down and gets up and goes to the buffet table.)

LOU: I thought he discovered it. They usually name the disease after the guy who discovers it.

(More to himself:)

Although, in this case, I’ll admit it would be pretty unusual for a bbb-

(Bud makes himself a sandwich and drink.)

BUD: Well, Lou Gehrig was no scientist, I can tell you that much.

(Lou reacts suspiciously. Bud returns to the table and starts eating while Lou studies the cards in his hand.)

LOU: Well, it was just as well you won that hand, considering the cards I had.

BUD: I know.

(Lou throws his cards down face up.)

LOU: How would you know?

BUD: I mean, I know what you mean. You should’ve seen the cards I had.

(He reaches for his own hand of cards to throw on the deck, but Lou puts his anatomical hand on Bud’s.)

LOU: I'd like to.

BUD: You know the rules. Winner’s bluff can’t be called.

LOU: How do I know you’re really the winner unless I see your cards?

BUD: You lost the game.

LOU: Did I? How about you answer a question for me…

BUD: For the game?

LOU: (nodding) Bud-who’s Lou Gehrig?

BUD: A Swiss futurist painter of the ‘20s and ‘30s?

LOU: I don’t think so.

BUD: A postwar industrialist who emigrated from Argentina with a phony Spanish surname but a German accent who gave him away?

LOU: Try again.

BUD: Let me see… Lou Gehrig… Lou Gehrig…

(Lou gets up.)

LOU: I’ll give you a hint…

(He takes a left-handed batting stance and mimes swinging a bat.)

BUD: I’ve got it! A second-generation American golfer who won the British Open on his first try.

(Lou shakes his head while still swinging in place.)

No? A first-generation British gopher who won the American Academy Award on his second try? I don’t know…

(Lou holds up three middle fingers and will react accordingly to each of Bud’s responses throughout the following game:)

Three. Three… words?.. Oh, good-a clue.

(Lou gives the “charades” sign for a short word.)

Little word… “a”… “an”… “the”-

(Lou nods.)

“The”!… “The something something”…

(Lou holds up three fingers again.)

BUD (cont’d) Third word?… Third word.

(Lou mimes a horse walking.)

You’re doing something with your feet… You’re tap dancing… You’re doing soft-shoe… Soft-shoe! “The Soft-shoe Crab!”… No, wrong word…

(Lou moves his head like a horse would.)

You’re moving your head… You have a stiff neck!… You’re sneezing… You have a stiff neck ‘cause you’re sneezing a lot!… I’m not following.

(Now Lou moves around the stage like a horse trotting.)

Now I don’t know what you’re doing, but if you were a horse I’d shoot you!

(Lou nods and points emphatically.)

I got it… You’re a horse?… A horse! I got it!… “The something horse”!… The brown horse?… The black horse?… The white horse?… The palomino horse?… Help me out here… Wait--the Charley horse! A jockey--Lou Gehrig was a jockey!

(Lou shakes his head violently. He holds up two fingers.)

Second word… (Lou makes a muscle.)

Muscle! “The Muscle Horse”?…

(Lou holds a finger up as if to say “wait.” He mimes lifting barbells.)

Weights… Weightlifting… “The weightlifter who could lift a horse”? “The horse who could wait on a weightlifter?”… Sorry…

(Lou points to the imaginary barbells as he “pumps” them with one arm.)

Heavy… Heavy weights… “The Heavyweight Horse”!… No…

(Lou stops and thinks. He proceeds to imitate a moving locomotive, his arms pumping faster and faster as he circulates the stage.)

You’re a locomotive, yes?… You’re building up steam… You’re pumping harder and harder!… You’re moving faster and faster!… You’re thrusting ahead…

(Lou moves more furiously, nodding his head.)

You’re about to explode!… I’m not sure where you’re leading me, but I’ll take a stab at it… “The Trojan Horse”?…

(Lou halts, dumfounded.)

BUD (cont’d) Don’t tell me Gehrig was one of your Ancient Greeks?

LOU: (panting heavily) He was a New York Yankee!… A baseball player… He was known as “The Iron Horse.” He was called that because, until he retired, he never missed a game.

BUD: Oh.

LOU: Didn’t you ever see Pride of the Yankees? I thought every boy did. I remember the first time my father took me to Yankee Stadium. I was around nine at the time, and I couldn’t believe how big it was-I mean, compared to on TV. Well, I must have seen the movie half a dozen times because all I could do was to imagine myself down there on the field giving that famous farewell speech to the sell-out crowd. Illness had knocked Lou out of the box, ending his record-setting streak for consecutive games played, and now it was forcing his retirement from the game he loved.

(He imagines himself at the stadium microphone making the speech, complete with ECHO:)

“Today-today-today-today… I consider myself-self-self-self… the luckiest man-man-man-man… on the face of this earth-earth-earth-earth…”

It was the bravest thing a man could say because, unknown to everyone in the crowd except Lou, there stood another figure who didn’t have to pay admission that day. Death lurked in the shadows, waiting for Lou, and Lou knew it. And on that day that I first saw Yankee Stadium, I knew who I wanted to be…

(Bud nods.)

…Gary Cooper!

(Bud does a doubletake as Lou transforms himself into a Western hero, á la Marshall Will Kane of High Noon, and imitates Coop’s clipped, staccato style:)

Amy, it’s no use denying it… We’ve got to face facts… If we run, they’ll follow… And we’ll always be looking behind us… No, I’ve got to stay… And face them… Don’t you see?

(Bud looks amused, but his amusement turns to concern as Lou morphs into yet another character -the drunken Col. John Marlowe as played by John Wayne in the movie, The Horse Soldiers-and picks up a glass from the bar, yelling:)

The bar is OPEN!

(Lou hurls the glass offstage, and the sound of glass SMASHING is heard. Bud rises, unsure of what is happening or what do about it.)

I’ve had my fill of surgeons… doctors… healers… Trust us, they said… Sure, I said… I trusted them… I let them cut her open… And they couldn’t find a thing!… Sorry, they said… They were sorry… They had themselves another--… experiment… and my wife was dead…

(Lou picks up another glass, only this time Bud reaches for it too. They struggle, and Lou has a kind of fit, during which Bud braces him. As Lou comes out of it, Bud’s hold turns into an embrace. Breaking away from him, Lou ends up sticking his hand in the sticky stuff on the card table.)

BUD: What is that sticky stuff?

(Both men freeze and wait for Ralph’s cry, but none comes. Bud looks at Lou, who shakes his head.)

Is he--?

(Lou nods.)

What should we do?

LOU: What can we do? Keep on keeping on.

(Bud waits for Lou to sit, then follows his lead. They resume playing their card game.)

BUD: Guess or give clues?

LOU: I don’t want to play this game any more.

BUD: Oh, alright. (Pause.) Too bad, too. I was gonna stump you for sure.

(Lou doesn’t react, but simply draws a card.)

It’s a person. “H.”

(They go a round or two without saying anything.)

LOU: Did you die of cirrhosis of the liver?

(Bud smiles as he studies his hand.)

BUD: No, I’m not-

(Before he can finish, the faint voice of Ralph-its weakest yet--CRIES out offstage:)

RALPH: (o.s.) Lou!

BUD: I’m not him either!

(Lou does not react.)

BUD: I guess it’s time I took my turn...

(Bud gets up to go, but Lou rises and steps in front of him-like he didn’t see Bud. Lou speaks as if he was in a trance.)

LOU: It’s OK. I’ll go.

(Bud smiles as he studies his hand.)

BUD: You sure? I don’t mind.

RALPH: (o.s.) Lou… the pillow!

LOU: You see? He’s calling me.

(Lou EXITS, trance-like. Bud sits and listens. This time, there are no audible screams of pain and/or ecstasy. Bud reaches for Lou’s cards, but thinks better of it and does not cheat this time.

(Lou RE-ENTERS and sits down, still entranced, and then picks up his cards.)

BUD: I thought he was--

LOU: Asleep?

(Bud thinks for a moment, then nods with understanding.)

BUD: And now?

LOU: He’s on his way.

(Bud looks at him, as if waiting for more.)

He’s on his way.


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