The playwright Martin Simon is sitting outside an Indian restaurant with a laptop and beer when James, the director, walks up. Martin continues typing — he’s on a roll, finally making sense of the scene he’s been struggling with all week.
I don’t care what you say, we’re not doing the lights, he says without looking up.
No, no, that’s not it. Can I sit?
Go ahead but be quick. I’m on a roll here.
James sits. The Y’s still out, he says, pointing at the Liberty Theater marquee across the street. All letters lit save for the last. L-I-B-E-R-T-Y.
Get a beer, Martin says, gesturing to the waiter without taking his eyes off the screen. You want food? I’m not getting food.
James leans forward and rubs a hand across his face.
Stop typing for a second, will you?
Just fucking stop. Did anyone tell you about Catherine?
Martin stops and looks up. The beer arrives. James has his fingers in the corners of his eyes.
What is it?
She went in for a sonogram today.
Oh you’ve got to be kidding me. He sits back.
They don’t look at each other. Both take drinks of their beers.
They stare at their beers.
Why does this happen to her?
I don’t know, man. She just called and said she doesn’t know when she’ll be back in the office. They have to do surgery to get them out. I’ve been over there crying my eyes out.
It was weird, James continues, she seemed, I don’t know, okay with it. She told me to be sure we send out the newsletter while she’s out.
They both just sit there. A group of laughing college girls in glittery going-out dress walk past on the sidewalk, rubbing their arms against an unexpectedly chilled breeze. There’s spring in the wind still, blowing through the sidewalk trees’ leaves, fluttering green and lush with the beginning of summer. A cab honks as its brake lights go a brilliant red against the yellow paint, making a sort of red-orange-yellow rainbow reflection in the puddle Martin is staring at. A man yells in the distance and a woman screams back. The theater marquee buzzes across the street. Smokers outside a bar laugh at a joke Martin can’t hear. A few minutes of just the city’s noise.
I had this girlfriend named Catherine in college, Martin says suddenly. Our Catherine reminded me of her when I first met her. Real nice, wholesome, clean, you know. The girlfriend was a born-again Christian. That’s what broke us up. Her believing, me not believing. That whole thing. I remember I told her this one time about a friend of mine in high school. Not my best friend, but you know, one of the core group. Shot himself in the head. Twice, he did it. I remember telling her that. My buddy, he’d been shaking so hard, that’s what the cops said. He’d been shaking so hard he missed the first time, grazed his cheek or something. I remember thinking he was so courageous. To really know what he wanted, you know? To do that twice. Martin shook his head.
James nods and says nothing. Elbow in hand, drinking.
Anyway. I told her that and I remember what she said. “‘God’s will,’ she said. That’s what she called it. Said it was God’s will to take people or not take people. We got in this big argument. How I thought, by her beliefs you know, my buddy’d be in Hell, right? And she said she didn’t believe that. And so we’re arguing and we start talking about abortion and how she says that that’s not God’s will, that that’s humans thinking they know better than God, that they know better who deserves to die, and she starts talking about Eden and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and blah fucking blah. And so I said, then, what was my friend? What was he doing? Wasn’t he saying he knew better than God? And she says yes, that when she said it was God’s will he died she was just trying to comfort me, and that my friend probably is in Hell. And that was pretty much the end of it.
Martin picks up his beer to take a drink and it’s empty. He starts to pick at the label. James is quiet still, spinning his empty Amstel Light in his hand.
So what I want to think when I hear that Cath’s babies are dead, Martin goes on, tossing pieces of the red label onto the tablecloth, is that it’s God’s will, right? It’s comforting to think, right? That God decided these babies were just too good for this world. But then I think, that all this horrible shit happens to total innocents like Catherine, and that my friend Kyle shoots himself at sixteen fucking years old, and that somewhere in all of this is supposed to be a God who wills things to happen, and I just think that God has about as little fucking clue as to what’s going on as we do.
They sit quietly a while longer, listening to traffic and muffled conversations going on around them. After a few more beers without talking, the waiter brings them a check.
Do you want to talk about the lights? James finally asks.
The lights. For the murder scene. Let’s talk about something. Get our minds off this.
Martin looks across the street at the theater. We should fix that marquee before we start using a bunch of unnecessary lights in a play set at nighttime.
James looks over at the theater. The L-I-B-E-R-T-Y sign buzzes, the Y unlit and ugly.
A recent Pacific Northwest defector, Joseph Riippi was born and raised in Seattle but currently lives at 91st and 2nd in Manhattan. He is a staff writer at several magazines and newspapers, and the Arts & Opinions Editor at Beyond Race Magazine in New York. In 2007, he won the 2nd Annual Farmhouse Magazine Prize in Fiction.