Written by Elaine J. Laberge
Abstract: Intergenerational poverty. Single mothers. Welfare dependence. These are ugly stories and uglier realities. These are stories of social class and class-based inequality society does not want to attend to. But, young Emelia, Gretchen’s daughter, is desperate to escape her dying, rotting existence. Emelia seeks solace with her imaginary mother, Lousia, and through reading and writing—all of which will result in tragic consequences. Poverty, compounded by other problematic factors, have left Gretchen broken, bitter, and fearful of both change and Welfare, the ultimate gatekeepers of food, shelter—and self-worth. On this desolate, broken-down landscape, Emelia and Gretchen play out a tragic dance of flight and fight, escape and survival.
Keywords: Class-based inequality; Education; Intergenerational poverty; Shame; Welfare
Gretchen A rough looking thirty-five year old woman. She appears angry; every trace of femininity has been erased from her appearance and demeanor.
Louisa Pollyanna-type representation of a mother figure.
Emelia A young teenage girl (14 or 15) of slight build.
PROLOGUE OR EPILOGUE
[To be performed in a Brechtian theatrical-style. Potentially an “audience” representing society performs this part, challenging the performance’s patrons to become explicitly part of this story and its tragic outcomes.]
Our souls are laden as we trudge through the day /
“Squandering our riches,” you do say. /
Our concave bellies belie the nation’s song /
You will never see us blossom in the rising sun
Our shadows parch the dewy greens
The maple leaf shrivels under our burden
We taint the spring’s early thaw
Our dust and grit mars you virgin snow /
Ease your furrows! /
Our stains effortlessly wash away… /
Caste in stone with palms raised out
Nothing we do or say holds any sway
Infantile creatures from the Other way
Rejected by Her and His side /
“Your Discounted race holds no trace of worth,” you always say. /
Compressed in a box where spirits flow freely everyday /
Scurrying to and fro—I pester you and say, “I’m sorry”
You try to glimpse what creature spoke—
But you can only envision: /
We are the dandelions destined to blow away
To wreck havoc on another world some new day.
It is an early Friday night in a living room that shows signs of poverty, neglect, and abuse. There has been a party in the room the night before. There are bottles on the battered coffee table, a blanket, and pillow on the sofa as if someone had slept there the night before. There is a corn broom in a corner. Throughout this play, GRETCHEN will drink continuously until she is incredibly inebriated. The audience should not be aware of the setting because a type of soft lighting focuses on the EMELIA as she enters the room and takes in her surroundings.
EMELIA Mmmm. Smells so warm. Cookies and fresh laundry. Mom, I’m home.
LOUISA Oh, there you are, darling. I’ve been looking forward to seeing your report card. Amazing I’ve no doubt.
EMELIA Treat first?
LOUISA Ahh, not until you show me!
EMELIA I don’t know, Mom. Maybe we should wait…have a snack first?
LOUISA Rascal! You know how excited I get…
EMELIA And I love to tease you…
LOUISA I know you do! Now quit torturing me…hand it over…At once missy!!
EMELIA Nice try, Mom. You are horrible at being mad and…all stern-like.
LOUISA That’s because you know I have no will power where you are concerned. Now…?
EMELIA Okay. I’ll take pity. Hope it makes you happy…
LOUISA Oh. My. Potential. Joy to teach. Creative…
LOUISA And straight A’s!!! That’s my girl.
EMELIA My teacher said I could be anything I want to.
LOUISA You can. You will.
[The sound of mice overhead. LOUISA disappears.]
God. They’re always scurrying up there in the attic. Chewing through the ceiling. Probably dying and rotting. Like the cat that drowned in the cistern. Full of filthy river water. Everything dies here. Upstairs. Downstairs. Doesn’t matter. Stinks like…like a thrift store. Like the clothes people give us. Like dying mice.
[EMELIA absently picks up a bottle and sits in the chair. She opens the bottle and smells it.]
The stink never goes away.
[EMELIA smells her arm and clothes.]
This place reeks. Like trash. Like me.
[EMELIA sits back in the chair and still holding the bottle closes her eyes.]
LOUISA I read your story.
LOUISA You’re very talented.
EMELIA You didn’t think it was, well…
LOUISA Sad? Angry? Well, yes. But it’s not easy.
EMELIA I want /
LOUISA A fairy tale?
EMELIA I don’t know. I just want to leave.
LOUISA And go where?
LOUISA Far, far away…?
EMELIA Sure. I guess. Are you laughing at me?
EMELIA Do you think I’m stupid?
LOUISA I don’t know. You could do what you’re told? Get this place cleaned up?
[EMELIA jerks out of the chair. LOUISA disappears.]
EMELIA It’s so bloody cold in here. Oh God. Look at this mess. I can’t…I just can’t keep cleaning this. She’ll be home soon. Bloody hell to pay. Clean it up…or else. Always or else.
[Kicks the broom and stands over it.]
You, you traitor! You’re my best friend when I have to clean up this…this, filth. I hold you gently. Never sweep to hard. Push you too much. Be mean to you. Then what’d you do? Go against me. Ridicule me. Taunt me. Threaten me. Hurt me. Just standing in the corner. All the time. Staring. Never know if you will be my friend. Or enemy. I should smash you! Smash you into pieces. Throw you out. Just throw you away. No one would miss you but her. She thinks you’re useful.
[Picks up the broom and places it in the corner.]
But I’d feel bad. You can’t help it. If I didn’t break you…maybe I could give you away. Find you a new home. Somewhere nice. Where it smells warm. Like cookies and fresh laundry. Where it doesn’t stink. And nothing dies.
I could kick the cat but the cat’s dead. Dead down there. Or dead somewhere. She threw it out.
[EMELIA stands in the middle of the room lost in thought.]
LOUISA You wouldn’t hurt anyone.
EMELIA I could…
EMELIA Well, I don’t wanna smell.
LOUISA Smell like what?
LOUISA What does bad smell like?
EMELIA Poor. Dirty. Hungry.
LOUISA Nonsense. You smell smart. Like an artist.
EMELIA I’m ashamed. Afraid. Always afraid.
LOUISA I’m here. Always here.
EMELIA But my stomach hurts. All the time. I think bad things.
EMELIA I want the food kids at school have. Real food. Not a lie.
LOUISA You mean an empty lunch bag?
EMELIA Ya. Have to always pretend I’m not hungry. But there’s lots of this stuff. For her.
[Points to the alcohol bottles.]
That’s all there is. All there will ever be.
LOUISA It won’t always be like this…One day…soon…You’ll be on your own. You’re a smart kid.
EMELIA If I was adopted I could leave.
LOUISA Are you?
EMELIA I must be. Tell me.
EMELIA What do you think she’ll do if I ask?
LOUISA Use the broom.
EMELIA On me.
LOUISA Yes, of course.
[The sound of mice in the attic. LOUISA disappears. EMELIA grabs the broom and bangs on the ceiling.]
EMELIA For fuck sake! Shut up! Shut the fuck up! Stop. Just stop it.
[EMELIA starts to haphazardly pick up bottles and shove them under the couch.]
Everything’s trapped in here. Hide. Hide. Hide.
[A sound is heard at the door. EMELIA starts and frantically begins picking up the debris off the coffee table. GRETCHEN enters carrying her purse.]
You’re home…I’m not finished…
[GRETCHEN is silent as she walks over to her chair. She picks up the bottle EMELIA left in the chair.]
GRETCHEN What’s this doing here? Were you in my chair? This is my chair! Are you stupid?
[GRETCHEN picks up the bottle, bangs it on the end table, and sits down.]
Is nothing in this goddamn house sacred?
EMELIA I’m sorry…
GRETCHEN Sorry. You’re always sorry. Think you’re some queen. Look at this mess! Goddamn books everywhere.
GRETCHEN Smart. Always think you’re smart. Better. Scrawny little nothing. Useless.
EMELIA I’m sorry…
[EMELIA goes over and tries to kiss GRETCHEN on the cheek. GRETCHEN turns her head away. EMELIA stands in shock.]
LOUISA What love?
EMELIA She doesn’t love me.
LOUISA She’s your mother.
EMELIA It’s not fair.
LOUISA You are loved.
EMELIA No! She said she loved the cat. But she threw it away. It’s probably rotting in the dump.
[GRETCHEN slams her fist on the end table. LOUISA disappears.]
GRETCHEN What are you staring at?
EMELIA Just. Nothing. Was just thinking.
GRETCHEN [Distracted.] What the hell have you been doing? These glasses are all filthy.
EMELIA I’ve only been home. /
GRETCHEN Daydreaming again? /
EMELIA From school. /
GRETCHEN Waste of time. /
EMELIA A little while. /
GRETCHEN Straight back from school! /
EMELIA I did. I mean, I do. Sorry.
GRETCHEN Say that once more and I swear…
EMELIA Ssss…I’ll be right back. Fresh glass.
[EMELIA leaves to get a glass. GRETCHEN keeps talking when EMELIA is out of the room.]
GRETCHEN [To herself.] Little bitch. She’s gonna pay.
[GRETCHEN picks up the bottle and realizes it’s empty. EMELIA returns to the room.]
GRETCHEN [Panicked.] Where is it?
GRETCHEN There was a full one.
EMELIA I don’t know.
GRETCHEN Hiding it?
EMELIA No. Maybe I accidentally /
GRETCHEN Think you’re smart?
EMELIA Moved it /
GRETCHEN Moving my stuff /
EMELIA When I was cleaning up.
[EMELIA retrieves a bottle of alcohol and hands it to GRETCHEN who pours a drink.]
GRETCHEN You and I are gonna have a little talk.
EMELIA I didn’t do anything.
EMELIA I swear.
[GRETCHEN slowly takes sips of her drink and stares at EMELIA with a smirk. EMELIA stands in fear.]
LOUISA What did you do?
EMELIA I don’t know.
LOUISA Must be bad.
LOUISA Look at her. It’s not going to be good for you.
[GRETCHEN leans forward, stares intently at EMELIA, and snaps her fingers to gain EMELIA’s attention. LOUISA disappears.]
GRETCHEN Had an interesting day. Wanna hear about it?
EMELIA [Hesitantly.] Okay.
GRETCHEN You don’t sound excited?
EMELIA I’m…I am.
GRETCHEN Doesn’t matter.
[GRETCHEN pours another drink. She toys with her glass.]
Oh, Emelia. You look worried? Been a bad girl?
GRETCHEN No lies.
EMELIA I’m not.
GRETCHEN Shhh. You want to be very quiet now.
EMELIA I /
GRETCHEN Ahhh. Quiet now.
[GRETCHEN takes a drink and leans back in her chair.]
Oh where to start. Ah yes. Woke up with a migraine. Again. But you already know that. You know how bad they are. Wouldn’t do anything to make them worse. Would you?
GRETCHEN Such a good little girl. Don’t seem too curious.
EMELIA I am.
GRETCHEN What did I say?
EMELIA [Mumbles quietly.] Sorry.
GRETCHEN I visited your teacher. Got a call from her.
EMELIA [Whispers.] Oh…
GRETCHEN Guess what I saw?
[EMELIA excitedly starts to ramble in relief.]
EMELIA You saw my report card!
[GRETCHEN sits back in her chair, drinks, and lets EMELIA ramble.]
Did you see? Straight As. Did my teacher tell you? She says cause I work hard I can grow up to be anything. Like a teacher. Or, something. I’m so happy you saw my report card!
GRETCHEN [Leans forward.] Oh, I saw more than that.
EMELIA [Nervous again.] What’d ya mean?
GRETCHEN Come on. Guess. You’re full of stories.
EMELIA I don’t know.
EMELIA Really. I don’t know.
GRETCHEN Can’t guess, huh? [Derisively.] Maybe not too smart after all?
EMELIA I don’t /
GRETCHEN Let’s go back to you being very quiet. Ok?
[EMELIA nods her head.]
[GRETCHEN leans close to EMELIA.]
I saw that bitch from social services!
[EMELIA shrinks back in fear.]
Her and that high and mighty teacher of yours.
[GRETCHEN pulls out some papers from her purse. Waves them in front of EMELIA.]
Waiting to ambush me with this! This crap you wrote—about me!
EMELIA I didn’t /
GRETCHEN Shut the fuck up! /
EMELIA No, I didn’t /
[GRETCHEN slaps EMELIA across the face.]
GRETCHEN Shut up! You stupid bitch. Just shut up. Listen!
[GRETCHEN reads from the paper she is holding.]
“Susan was always hungry. And afraid. Her mom was so angry all the time. She would hit her with the broom when she was mad. No one loved Susan.”
Oh, this part is even better:
“Her mom was always drunk.”
Want me to read more?
[EMELIA shakes her head no.]
No? Well, guess who your teacher and that welfare bitch thought this mom was? You know. You lyin, ungrateful, spiteful little bitch.
EMELIA [Panicking.] It’s not you! I made it up. It’s just a story. Please…
GRETCHEN Oh, don’t you worry. Told ‘em I would deal with you. You almost cost me my money. Because of your lyin. Tellin lies. Spreadin lies. Trying to hurt me?
[GRETCHEN stands up and towers of EMELIA.]
I swear it’s just a made up story. Please, don’t. Mommy don’t.
[GRETCHEN slaps EMELIA.]
GRETCHEN Do you think I don’t know what they call me?
GRETCHEN Trash. White Trash. Welfare Queen. Do you think you’re better? Because you write this crap?
EMELIA But my report card…
GRETCHEN Means nothing. Nothing. Says nothing. Stupid piece of paper. Waste. Like all this crap you’re always doing. Scribbling. Reading. Dreamin. Dreams. We don’t get to have dreams. It’s all a nightmare. Everyday. All day. All night.
[GRETCHEN grabs EMELIA by the hair and pulls her up.]
EMELIA I’m sorry. Please. Please don’t.
[GRETCHEN, oblivious to EMELIA’s pleas, drags EMELIA to the door.]
GRETCHEN You forgot your knapsack on the porch! Get it! Now!
[EMELIA goes outside and brings in the bag.]
[EMELIA opens the bag and stands crying. GRETCHEN raises her arm.]
Quit your bawlin or I will give you something to cry about!
EMELIA I’m sorry.
GRETCHEN Shut up! Empty it.
[EMELIA reluctantly starts taking out the items from the bag. As she takes out each item GRETCHEN grabs them and tosses them onto the floor.]
Clothes. Books. The fuckin scribbler you are always writin in. And your precious stuffed bear. [Sinisterly.] Goin somewhere?
EMELIA [Defeated.] No. I just…
GRETCHEN You’re really one stupid brat. Remember what happened last time?
GRETCHEN Couldn’t sit down for a good long while. Could you? Can’t learn your lesson. Guess you need another one.
EMELIA [In sheer panic.] I want out!
EMELIA If I was adopted /
GRETCHEN What the hell are you talkin about?
EMELIA I’m not. I mean…your real daughter.
GRETCHEN Cause you like your goddamn books? Cause you think you’re so special?
EMELIA It makes sense. I don’t belong here. You hate me. Just tell me. I’m adopted. I can leave.
GRETCHEN You’re the whore child of a bastard. Adopted? Think I would’ve intentionally done this to myself?
EMELIA I must be adopted. It has to be true. If not, then…I’m like you…
GRETCHEN Oh, you’re just like me. Your father left cause he thinks you’re not his. No idea who my father is. Was tossed out to foster “care.” You’re not goin anywhere.
EMELIA Just tell me, please…
GRETCHEN Don’t you get it! You’re spineless. Think you can just leave? No one cares. Not your goddamn relatives. No one.
EMELIA Why won’t you tell me?
EMELIA I’m adopted!
GRETCHEN Bitch! The only one adopted. Me. Was me. Never me. No…not adopted. Gave me away. Like trash. You’re not goin anywhere.
EMELIA My stuff would be gone.
GRETCHEN Like this report card?
[GRETCHEN tears up the report card.]
It’s trash. Like me. Like you.
[There is a loud noise outside which startles GRETCHEN and EMELIA.]
Jesus Christ! Go see what the hell that was.
[EMELIA goes to the door, looks out, and brings in a black garbage bag.]
Where the hell did that come from?
EMELIA I don’t know. Just dropped off I guess.
[GRETCHEN goes over to the bag, starts tearing at it, and pulling out the contents.]
GRETCHEN It’s all for you. Every last goddamn thing is for you. It’s never for me. Nothin for me. You selfish little bitch.
[GRETCHEN grabs the broom and hits EMELIA, knocking her to the ground.]
Government says. Have to be sixteen. Not going nowhere. Headache. Goddamn migraine. Charity my ass. Cast-offs. Think they’re better.
[GRETCHEN, drunk, staggers over to the couch with the broom still clenched in her hand, and slumps down on the verge of passing out. EMELIA stands up and wipes the blood from her mouth.]
Pills. Get ‘em.
EMELIA Of course. I’ll get your pills. And something to drink. Just lay down.
[EMELIA fills the glass with alcohol and methodically empties all the capsules from several pill bottles into the glass. EMELIA gently stirs the contents.]
GRETCHEN Not adopted. Not goin anywhere. Never. Ever.
[GRETCHEN consumes the drink and slumps over. EMELIA lays GRETCHEN on the couch and covers her up.]
[Eerily calm.] Well, Mother. If I’m not adopted…an orphan will do.
[EMELIA picks up her the pieces of her torn report card and goes and sits in GRETCHEN’s chair.]
EMELIA You were right.
LOUISA How so Emelia?
EMELIA I’m creative.
EMELIA I’m smart.
EMELIA I’m on my own.
LOUISA Told you it wouldn’t be long.
EMELIA Ya. The story was about her.
LOUISA Of course.
[EMELIA looks at the pieces of her report card and starts piecing it back together.]
EMELIA Wanna hear another story? While I put the pieces back together?
LOUISA Sure. What’s it about?
EMELIA [Pauses.] A dandelion.