A short play from the LabLit fiction series

Thomas Pierce 3 October 2010

I spent my life becoming one of the world’s experts on rocks whirling through our solar system. Rocks that no one can see. That don’t make any difference to anyone. Until now.


David: University English professor, mid-fifties

Helen: University astronomy professor, early fifties

Time and place:

The kitchen of David’s home, the present

A kitchen of a middle-class home. The usual appliances. A small table and two chairs. At stage left is a door to the dining room. At stage right a door to the outdoors. A formal dinner party is in progress and the evidence of much labo, by a very messy and inexperienced cook, is strewn about the kitchen counters and the table – dirty pots and pans, opened cans, bottles and boxes of various ingredients, open wine bottles.

At rise, dinner party sounds from off stage. These sounds rise and fall throughout the play. David enters from the dining room stage left carrying a wine carafe.)

David: (begins searching through the open bottles of wine) I know I’ve got some Cab left. (Shouts to guests in dining room) Be right out! (Finds two bottles of obviously different red wine; shrugs and pours both into the carafe.) (softly to himself) Ben, you drunken sot, you won’t know the difference.

(David exits to dining room)

(pause; Helen enters from outside door stage right; she inspects the kitchen chaos with amusement, takes off her coat and hangs it on a chair.)

(David enters with a stack of dirty dishes; he doesn’t see Helen at first; when he does he nearly drops the dishes.)

David: Jesus!

Helen: Hello, David.

David: Helen. What are you doing here?

Helen: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.

David: What are you doing here?

Helen: You’re busy. Finishing dinner, I see.

David: What are you doing here?

Helen: I lived here for almost 25 years.

David: We are divorced.

Helen: I know that.

David: So what are you doing?

Helen: (points to the dining room; moves to the door.) The English Department, right? All of them? I can hear Ben. He must be well into the second bottle by now.

David: (nervous about Helen moving to the door)

As a matter of fact we are interviewing. What are you doing here?

Helen: You’re having a dinner for a prospect?

David: Yes. An important prospect. What are you doing here?

Helen: Oh, I can hear Sarah, too. That penetrating twitter of hers. It cuts through everything.

David: Helen –

Helen: (attempts to put her ear near the door) Is she still –

David: (barricades door; speaks in a rough whisper) Goddamn it, Helen!

Helen: I wanted to talk.

David: (Begins gathering things to make coffee; finds everything but filters.) We haven’t talked since the divorce.

Helen: I know, but things have come up.

David: The divorce is final. We settled everything. Is this about the house?

Helen: No. Nothing to do with the divorce. I’m quite happy with that. You are an excellent ex-husband.

David: Then I think we have talked enough.

Helen: Actually, we haven’t really talked for 23 years.

David: I thought you were in Chile, at the observatory.

Helen: I was. I got back two weeks ago.

David: Damn. (Throws up hands in frustration at not finding filters)

Helen: What are you looking for?

David: Coffee filters.

Helen: Cupboard to the left of the sink. They’ve always been there.

David: (finds filters, continues to prepare coffee) I go out for coffee.

Helen: I’ll make the coffee. You go talk to your guests. (Takes over the coffee preparation)

David: I need to make dessert.

(David begins to gather and assemble dessert plates for eight; the dessert will be cake topped with strawberries, blueberries and whipped cream; the cake pieces will be cut from a pan, arranged on plates and trimmed with the fruit and whipped cream while David and Helen talk; this should not appear effortless; it is important that the preparation should be frustrating, messy and occasionally distracting.)

Helen: I got some very important results. It was good work.

(Someone calls “David!” from the dining room.)

David: Excuse me.

(David exits; Helen finishes the coffee or helps with the dessert; David enters with water pitcher.)

David: They need to be watered. (Fills pitcher.)

Helen: I can take it out.

David: No! No. That’s all right.

Helen: (Reaches for the pitcher) I don’t mind. I like them – some of them.

David: (not relinquishing the pitcher) You’re supposed to be in Chile.

Helen: (Pauses.) Oh. There’s someone you don’t want me to meet.

David: Something like that. Yes.

(David exits with water pitcher and enters again.)

Helen: What is the point in our having secrets now?

David: Helen, I have a new life now. You’re not a part of that.

Helen: You are dating – is that the word? – you are dating someone who is here tonight.

David: Yes.

Helen: Someone I know?

David: Yes.

Helen: (Sudden realization dawning.) No! Not – yes. The twittering being!

David: It’s not a twitter. It’s a...trill.

Helen: Really, David. She’s what, thirty?

David: Thirty-four.

Helen: And you’re –

David: Fifty-three. I know. Too old.

Helen: Does she have tenure yet?

David: No. Next year. If all goes well.

Helen: And you the department chair.

David: No one knows.

Helen: Oh, my. I go to the Southern Hemisphere and look what you get up to.

David: We are divorced. I have every right –

Helen: Of course you do.

David: I am a divorced man, Sarah is a single, adult woman, somewhat younger, but it is no one’s –

Helen: Of course it isn’t.

David: You shouldn’t even be questioning –

Helen: I know I shouldn’t. And I’m sorry.

David: (Pauses.) It’s nearly over anyway.

Helen: I’m sorry.

David: I can sense it coming. She can, too. There’ve been hints. I’m sure we’ll have The Conversation any day now.

Helen: I’m sorry.

David: It really isn’t very important. These things don’t affect me the way they once did. They certainly don’t seem to affect Sarah. Salmon is drooling all over her and she is delighted.

Helen: Sounds like you are affected.

David: Not in the least. (Pauses.) Why are you here?

Helen: We make a pretty good team on these desserts, don’t you think?

David:Yes. Why are you here?

Helen: You could say thank you.

David: Thank you. Why are you here? You’ve been in Chile staring through a telescope for six months –

Helen: Astronomers don’t actually look through telescopes anymore. I’ve told you that many times. We look at photographs. Digital photographs now. Amazing technology.

David: And suddenly you appear in my kitchen –

Helen: “My” kitchen…

David: It is not “our” kitchen. It is now my kitchen. That was part of the deal. The house is mine. I bought you out.

Helen: Your kitchen in which you can’t find the coffee filters. (Pauses.) I know it’s your kitchen. I’m not trying to change anything.

David: You wanted to divorce as much as I did.

Helen: I suppose I did.

David: More in fact.

Helen: I didn’t come here to argue that.

David: And Sarah didn’t have anything to do with it.

Helen: I know. It was pre-Sarah. Pre-twitter.

David: So once again: Why are you here?

Helen: Let’s get these desserts done.

David: I want to know now. You sneak into the house like a thief –

Helen: I did not sneak.

David: You used the back door.

Helen: I always use the back door. I parked in the back.

David: How did you get in? I always keep that door locked.

Helen: I still have a key. (Pauses.) I’m sorry.

David: Did you keep that deliberately?

Helen:No. (Pauses.) I don’t think so. (Hands over key.) Shouldn’t you go back in the dining room?

David: They won’t miss me. They’re listening to Stanley Salmon blather on about Milton and Derrida for Christ’s sake.

Helen: Salmon’s the prospect?

David: Yes.

Helen: You’ve talked about him. He would be a big catch, right? (Giggles.) A big fish?

David: Very funny. You are avoiding the important question.

Helen: Shouldn’t you listen to Salmon? As department head?

David: All the more reason not to. Now...

Helen: (Pauses) OK. (Hesitates again.) There is no good way to introduce this, so I will say it straight out. In six months, actually six months and eleven days plus or minus a day, an asteroid will very likely hit the earth. It’s a rather large one. The exact effects will depend upon whether it hits on land or in the ocean, but wherever it lands a fireball will expand out to 50, maybe 100 kilometers. All living things within 1000 kilometers will be killed instantly. The impact will raise a debris cloud that will encircle the earth, blotting out the sun for years. Almost all life will die. Anaerobic bacteria in the deepest ocean trenches will survive. Not much else. We will be dead within two years at most. Not just us, everyone. (Pauses.) Of course it might miss us. I’m a scientist, not God.

David: (Pauses; looks at Helen for a long moment) You’re laughing at me, aren’t you? You laughed at Sarah, you joked about Stanley Salmon. This is a joke, isn’t it? It is a joke. Although I don’t really get it. What am I missing?

Helen: I apologize. I shouldn’t have poked fun.

David: So it is a joke.

Helen: No, it isn’t.

David: So now I must shift gears. We’ve had a few laughs about my professional and personal life but now we must get serious. “Dear, I thought I’d tell you the sky is falling. We’ll all be dead in” – what?

Helen: Six months. If it happens.

David: “We’ll all be dead in six months.”

Helen: I didn’t mean to...when I’m nervous I joke. Bad taste, I know, but... (Pauses.) As it happens I have discovered that the world might very well end in six months.

David: You’re seriously claiming the world will end.

Helen: Yes.

David: (quietly) I see.

Helen: The data are quite convincing.

David: Really.

Helen:You don’t believe me.

David: I am concluding dinner with my colleagues. We are going to hire a scholar of some reputation who will round out our department’s offering in post-modern theory. As scholars and teachers this is what we have done for decades – teaching, writing, slowly, incrementally advancing knowledge and understanding. And beyond these walls, beyond even the university where you and I work, others are going about their lives, doing equally important things as humans have done for millennia. It is a quiet, cool night. The moon is nearly full. All is well. And you say all of this will end forever in six months.

Helen: The moon will still shine.

David: But we won’t be here to see it.

Helen: Right. Very likely.

David: “Very likely.” Can’t you be a bit more certain?

Helen: No, you know that’s not how science works.

David: Your friends in Chile agree with you.

Helen: My collaborators, yes. Diego at the Inter-American Observatory. And not just in Chile. Ted at the South African Astronomical Observatory, Hugh at the Anglo-Australian. We’ve double-checked and double- checked. We agree.

David: But you could be wrong.

Helen: Yes, we could. Of course.

David:This happened before, a long time ago. An asteroid killed the dinosaurs if I remember.

Helen: Very possibly.

David: But that was millions of years ago. It hasn’t happened in historical times.

Helen: In 1908 what was probably an asteroid exploded about 8 kilometers above Siberia. It flattened 2000 square kilometers of trees. It was a very small object.

David: Yours is bigger?

Helen: Much.

David: But nothing since.

Helen: No big hits. Ten years ago one passed 140,000 kilometers from Earth, well within the orbit of the moon. We didn’t see it until it passed. There may be 100,000 asteroids that cross the Earth’s orbit. If they gave off light they would fill the sky like a swarm of fireflies.

David: Can’t we send up a rocket or something? Blow it up?

Helen: We have no rockets that could break free of Earth’s gravity. The rockets that took us to the moon are gone. Even if we had the rockets and the time, we would only blow the asteroid to pieces. The pieces would still hit the earth. Really, this isn’t a problem we can solve.

David: Excuse me. (David exits and enters with more dirty dishes) I need to get on with dessert.

Helen: We have three chances in four of being right. You can’t ignore that.

David: Would you get the strawberries in the refrigerator?

Helen: (Helen gets the fruit) There’s blueberries in here, too.

David: Oh, I’d forgotten. Bring them, too.

(Helen and David begin carefully arranging strawberries and blueberries on the pieces of cake.)

Helen: You think I’m a fool, don’t you?

David: I’ve never thought you a fool.

Helen: But you don’t believe me.

David: My god, we’re bickering.

Helen: Yes, we are. We are good at that.

David: You said we didn’t talk.

Helen: Bickering isn’t talking.

David: Is that why you wanted a divorce?

Helen: You suggested we get divorced.

David: I did?

Helen: Yes. You said we had gone our separate ways.

David: We had. You were in South America most of the time.

Helen: Three months a year…

David: Three months isn’t significant?

Helen: You could have come, taken that university appointment they offered you.

David: To teach Hemingway. I don’t do Hemingway.

Helen: There was always something that kept us apart.

David: Helen, why are we talking about our past?

Helen: Because we may be dead soon. I want to understand my life – our life. I want to understand how we missed living.

David: I thought divorce put an end to our life.

Helen: I need to understand.

David: OK, understand what exactly?

Helen: Why did we get married?

David: Oh, please...

Helen:Bear with me.

David: We were in graduate school.

Helen: That’s how we met. That’s not a reason for getting married.

David: We loved each other.

Helen: I wonder.

David: What do you mean? Are you saying we didn’t?

Helen: I don’t know. I remember being so busy we didn’t take time for ourselves.

David: You’re saying we never loved each other?

Helen: I didn’t say that. I’m trying to remember what we felt. At the beginning. I can’t.

David: You were working on your dissertation. I was an assistant professor. I graded papers while you worked. Sometimes I read you wretched prose and you laughed.

Helen: I remember that.

David: Well, then.

Helen: But what did you feel? What did I feel?

David: How am I supposed to know how you felt?

Helen: What did you feel?

David: I was happy. Happy I could make you laugh.

Helen: Happy.

David: Yes. You laughed. You were happy, too.

Helen: I suppose I was. Do you believe I loved you?

David: Of course!

Helen: I don’t recall either of us ever saying so.

David: We did.(Pause.) I’m sure.

Helen: We never had children.

David: We decided not to.

Helen: We made a rational decision. Children and academic careers don’t mix. We thought.

David: Well, yes.

Helen: I spent my life becoming one of the world’s experts on rocks whirling through our solar system. Rocks that no one can see. That don’t make any difference to anyone. Until now. Is that all I have to show for my years on Earth?

David: You’ve had a good career.

Helen: Career? What does a career mean?

David: We’ve both been successful.

Helen: But what does it mean now? What will it mean when everything is gone? Don’t you see?

David: Scholarship has been my life.

Helen: Is it enough?

David: It fills my days. I haven’t time for anything else. (Pauses.) I have a new book coming out next fall.

Helen: Next fall. Two months after the asteroid.

David: Helen, did you come here to tell me I wasted my life?

Helen: No, I didn’t.

David: You’re saying I’ve written a book no one will ever read. Isn’t that a waste?

Helen: Did you only write it so others could read it?

David: It’s an anthology. For freshmen lit classes.

Helen: Oh. (Pauses.) You see, that is what troubles me. Almost everything we do depends on life for its meaning – not our individual lives – but human life itself going on indefinitely into the future. Meaning should come from people who love each other just being together. But it’s never that way. It always has to come from external accomplishments, from what we do, what we leave behind.

David: There’s no meaning for you? You’ve eliminated meaning?

Helen: I’ve eliminated – ?

David: I mean the asteroid. Everything will be gone. No future. No past. Just an empty dead planet. Meaningless. That’s it? (Pauses.) I can’t believe we are having this conversation. We are making dessert and talking about the end of the world.

Helen: When I was ten I remember thinking for the first time that someday I would die. The thought came out of the blue. I was watching Gene Autry. I didn’t really like Westerns but I told my parents I loved Gene Autry so I could stay up until eight o’clock on Sunday night. Gene was shooting at the bad guys and I suddenly realized that death doesn’t only happen to others. Someday it would happen to me. I was quite surprised by that thought. It seemed so unfair. So unnecessary. I was haunted by that for several days. Then it passed. The thought creeps back every now and then, mostly when I go in for a physical or when I get a twinge somewhere near where I think my heart is. The strange thing is, I’m not having that awful awareness of mortality right now, even as we talk about it. Isn’t that curious?

David: You never told me that story before.

Helen: I’ve never told anyone.

David: Really?

Helen: I wanted to tell my mother, but she would say, “Yes, dear, everyone dies, but you will live for a very long time.” That wasn’t good enough. I wanted to be the exception. I would never die.

David: I’m surprised your mother didn’t offer the promise of heaven for good little girls.

Helen: My parents were militant atheists. Mother once told the school board to drop the Pledge of Allegiance because of the “under God” business.

David: No kidding!

Helen: You didn’t know that? I thought I’d told you that story.

David: No, I don’t think so.

Helen: What would your parents have said about this, about the end?

David: They were very relaxed Episcopalians. Religion intruded only at Christmas and Easter. Dad would have been more worried about the asteroid ruining his favorite golf course.

Helen: We know so little about each other. We lived together nearly a quarter century. We know so little.

David: Will there be a time when we will know for sure what will happen?

Helen: Do you believe me now?

David: I believe that you believe. And you’ve always been very careful about what you believe. Maybe that’s as close as I’ll get.

Helen: Two, maybe three weeks before we should know one way or the other.

David: Will we see it coming? I mean hurtling down from the sky.

Helen: Probably not. It will be very sudden.

David: We won’t feel anything?

Helen: People near the impact won’t feel anything. Others won’t be so lucky. (Pauses.) I’ll go if you like.

(A shriek issues from the dining room.)

David:Now what! (He exits hurriedly and returns.) Ben spilled a glass of red wine on the white table cloth. (He looks around for something to mop it up.)

Helen: Use salt.

David: Salt?

Helen: Pour a layer of salt on the wine and leave it. The salt will keep the stain from setting. (She goes right to the cupboard with the salt and hands it to him. David exits with salt and returns.)

David: Do you realize we just tried to save a tablecloth? How absurd is that?

Helen: (Laughs.) We’re programmed to think of the future. Even when there isn’t one. (Pauses.) Shall I leave?

David:No, no.

Helen: What are you feeling right now?

David: Bewildered? Incredulous? Stunned?

Helen: That’s why I came here, to find out how this would affect you.

David: Why? Why do you want to know? How can that matter now?

Helen: Tell me how you feel first.

David: Assuming you are right –

Helen: Please.

David: All rright. I believe you. (Pauses.) How do I feel. Really, not much. It is beyond imagining. I should feel fear.

Helen: But you don’t.

David: No. I don’t think so. Not yet.

Helen: Is that because it might not happen?

David: Maybe. Not entirely.

Helen: Death doesn’t frighten you?

David: Oh, yes. Well, no, not being dead. The manner of dying. That frightens me.

Helen: Prolonged, painful dying.

David: Of course.

Helen: OK, set that aside.

David: Set it aside?

Helen: Imagine it will be instant. The fireball. You won’t even have a moment to recognize what is happening. The light of consciousness will simply go out.

David: I could be standing in class lecturing on Beowulf to bored undergraduates and poof! Oblivion. Is that what you mean?

Helen: Yes, exactly that.

David: Then there is nothing to fear.

Helen: All right, what about regrets?

David: Regrets over what?

Helen: Things left incomplete. Opportunities missed.

David:If no one survives –

Helen: Yes?

David: It doesn’t matter. No one will be left to tote up your life’s failures. No one to give that final grade.

Helen: Exactly!

David: (Clearly getting excited) No one left behind to mourn or curse you.

Helen: Yes.

David: No one to re-interpret your life. No one to mock, distort or trivialize your work. No one to steal your legacy. No legacy.

Helen: David, you are such an academic.

David: You haven’t had the same thoughts?

Helen: Yes, yes. Now: what do you feel?

David: (Pauses.) Relief. A sense that I’m off the hook. I can relax. God, that’s horrible.

Helen: Yes! I felt it, too. My God, I thought, there’s a part of me that is looking forward to this. Six billion dead. I’m a monster.

David: Six billion including us. We’re being very democratic about this.

Helen: That saves us from being monsters?

David: What I mean is, we don’t want people to die.

Helen: Of course not.

David: We aren’t killing anyone. We aren’t going to survive and benefit.

Helen: No.

David: We’re just not as sorry about it…

Helen: We should be?

David: As we would like to be.

Helen: All right.

David: I mean, this is unprecedented. No one’s ever faced this before. There’s no one to turn to. No one to instruct us on how to feel. Even Shakespeare didn’t think of this one.

Helen: Oh, David, I am so...I can’t tell you how happy I am!

David: Happy?

(She hugs him.)

Helen: We felt something, the same thing. Together!

(Someone shouts “David!” from the dining room.)

David: They want their dessert and coffee. (shouts) Coming!

(David and Helen scramble to finish the dessert, squirting on the whipped cream, perhaps topping with a strawberry; She helps him arrange the dishes on a tray; She places the coffee pot on the tray; He lifts the tray uncertainly.)

Helen: Careful!

(David exits; we hear him being greeted enthusiastically; Helen takes out an airline ticket and cell phone from her coat and dials.)

Helen: Yes, I’d like to confirm my flight. Helen Jenkins. (She looks at the ticket.) Ticket number 00378496. Yes, I’ll wait. (Pauses.) Yes. That’s right, Atlanta and then Santiago. It’s on time? Good. Thank you.

(Helen puts away cell phone and ticket and is putting on her coat just as David enters, carrying more dirty dishes and wine bottles. He puts them on the counter, not noticing yet that she is preparing to leave.)

David: Ben, the bastard, noticed the whipped cream came from a can. “David, all that time in the kitchen, I’d have thought you were whipping cream by hand in a copper bowl.” That got Salmon going on the phallic properties of the aerosol can and how that –

(He finally notices that Helen has her coat on.)

David: Are you leaving?

Helen: Yes.

David: We just started talking. Stay until the others have gone.

Helen: I’m catching a red-eye to Atlanta.

David: Atlanta! What’s in Atlanta?

Helen: A connecting flight to Santiago.

David: You’re going back to Chile.

Helen: It’s where I’d like to be. When it happens. If it happens.

David: I see. (Someone calls for brandy.) Jesus! (He rummages in a liquor cabinet and finds brandy; he exits. Helen stands for a moment looking at the dining room door; thenshe pulls airline tickets from her coat and looks at them.)

(David enters) Six months. We have six months for certain, right?

Helen: Yes.

David: These could be the freest six months of our lives, of anyone’s lives ever. Nothing to plan for, no long term responsibilities. Just live. That’s all we would need to do. Live to the fullest. Whatever that means. Do you know what that means?

Helen: I haven’t the faintest.

David: I’ve always wanted to know what that means. (Pauses.) Stay. Stay here with me.

Helen: I really can’t. My flight leaves in three hours.

David: Skip the flight. You said we never talked. Now we can talk.

Helen: (She holds up the airline tickets) I bought two tickets.

David: What?

Helen: Two tickets to Chile. All you need is your passport.

David: I...I’ve never been to Chile. I’ve never been to South America.

Helen: I invited you many times.

David: I know, I...

Helen: Your passport. We can buy everything else.

David: (He looks towards the dining room, then back to Helen.) I’m department chair...I...they’re counting...

Helen: The freest six months anyone has ever had. You put it so well.

David: (He looks again at the dining room and then back to Helen.) Six months.

(Fade to black.)

Other articles by Thomas Pierce