A Play in Three Acts

Act the First: our hero is abed long past any decent hour for proper folk to sleep when work was to be done.

“Will’am Tinker!” came a cry from outside the daub-and-wattle house standing on the dusty road snaking through Bixby’s Ford. The caller’s fist pounded a set of rustic shutters beneath a faded awning over the home’s only street-side window.

“This ain’t no Sabbath that thou should lagabout!” roared the voice, again, with more pounding on the wood. The shutters rattled in their frame.

Inside, the tinker was lying alone on a pallet on the straw-stuffed mattress where his entire family slept, holding a down-stuffed feed sack hard against his ears to muffle what seemed to him a clarion like Hephaestus’ hammer clanging that god’s infernal anvil ringing through the room.

His thick tongue felt as if the noble Duke of York hisself had marched his ten thousand infantry through miles of English mud before tromping heedless through Will Tinker’s gaping maw.

The rattling shutters had rattled poor William awake, if wakefulness is what it was. The fact the sparsely furnished room was not awash in darkness told him yon Sol was near his pinnacle, even if but little light squeezed around the edges of the boards or through the natural cracks in the wood that time and seasons’ dampness had enlarged. Outside someone—a voice he might have recognized were his brain not too dull with the dregs of last night’s draughts—had hollered for his attention. He pressed the sack still harder on his ears to stop the noise. The town of Bixby’s Ford had long since awakened and her citizens moved about with the bustle of cart to field and what passed for commerce among the score or so shops and buildings on the square. Not like London town, where tens of thousands of folk strode daily in the mucky streets around the horses and their droppings and creaking, slogging wagons and din of merchant and consumer who might at night comprise an audience for a right proper actor and his Company. Not meaning the townsfolk of Bixby’s Ford were not appreciative enough in their own, rustic ways.

Last night, he and his fellow Players had heard those townsfolk’s’ hoots and hollers of applause after debuting that new farce they had performed. The one called Ralph Roister Doister. The crew had celebrated late into the night.

Will Tinker next heard animated, muffled conversation outside the window. One voice was higher, feminine. He guessed it was Prudence, his long-suffering wife. The lower voice—he knew not who—made earnest petition. The high voice reassured. The low voice pled. The high voice sent him on his way. “I’ll send Will by, anon!”

Heridentitywas confirmed minutes later as she burst through the door, carrying their infant son, upon her hip. “Lord a’mercy, William!” she screeched at him. “Wotnot thou the devil takes the hindmost?

“I know not who thou dost think thou art—Lord William, high and mighty Earl of Bixby Ford or such—to lay so long abed when all the other husbands in the village are hours in the field or toiling at their trade to put bread on their children’s tables. But thou! Staying out all hours of the night like some filthy whoremonger or thief of the night to creep through unlatched windows to steal away shopkeeper’s silver!”

Prudence plopped the infant on the dirt floor. The babebegan caterwauling. Prudence stoppedthe front door open with a piece of firewood, then crossed to open the shutters. William pulled the sack pillow tighter on his ears.

“Goodwife Prudence! Good God, woman, could thou not leave me be another hour? ‘Zounds! Is that too much to ask?”

“An hour, Will Tinker? An hour and thou shall miss all the morning cool, is what I say!” returned his portly help-meet as she loosed the window latches and threw the shutters open, allowing a narrow sunbeam spot to flood the entire room with light.

Will Tinker was an itinerant mender of metals and sundry household goods, following his father’s trade, and his father’s before him, all the while dreaming of becoming an actor. He portrays sometimes Matthew Merrygreek—in the Roister Doister play, or Deacon Bedlam in Gammar Gurton—with a small company of local Players, supplementing his meager theatre earnings by his trade. Will and Prudence had two children: a bouncing baby boy called Fat Jack and Sally, a girl of about six who was the only of their children thus far to live past her third birthday.

Their house had a thatch roof on top and the family cow slept on the earthen floor of the main room. Will’s blurry eyes hadfocused enough to notice the cow was gone. He surmised Sally had taken her outside.

Will rose from his pallet and grabbed the chamber pot from a stool by the back window. He lifted his tunic, situating the vessel, and relieved himself. He tossed the contents out the window without a thought.

“Dad!” came a high-pitched, melodic timbre from outside. “Watch where you’re spillin’ yer water!”

“You know better than to sit outside that window, lass.”

“I’m tending to ‘Ropa,” she returned.

“Pah!”

Slipping on his leggings, Will prepared to pull his handcartaround the farmhouses outside the village gates, to fix pots and pans for farm wives there. He had a dream, Will Tinker did. He had a dream to become an actor down in London town, to strut the stage with comic lines to bring down the House. He dreamed of his little company of Players entertaining lords and ladies in the Great Rooms of their mansions—perhaps even giving a command performance to His Majesty the King. It had happened before. Why could it not happen for him?

But such a dream required him to leave the drudgery of day to day, of fixing copper kettles, or mending Bossie’s milk pail for a couple ha’pence or a draught of ale. That ate up too much time. “Fit Europa with a harness, and have her pull the cart,” Goodwife Prudence, suggested again, hoping her husband would leave behind his stage light will-o’-wisp for that steady trade he performed so well, tapping out the tin work housewives needed in the mending of their household accouterments.

Will Tinker had a small chest he loaded in a bin on the back of the handcart. Inside the chest was a small bolt of fabric and another of leather he used to make patches, several needles, spools of thread, a knife & whetstone, two pair of pliers, some nippers and hand snips for cutting, and a glue pot with brushes. He had a small steel anvil mounted in the bed of the cart—he had other curved and straight anvils that stayed at the house for more complicated work—and he loaded a box of hammers aboard. Inside were a planishing hammer, a chasing hammer, a ball peen hammer, a creasing hammer, a setting down hammer and two wooden mallets—one larger than the other. Another box held a tin ingot, a covered fire-pot, and several soldering irons: copper-tipped iron shanks mounted on wooden handles.

Will walked a circuit with his cart, rotating between the north, east, south, and westward byways to pass each farm within five miles at least once a week, although sometimes a flooded ford forced him to make his western circuit out of order.

He plotted his route to be home in time for the Players’ evening performance on a makeshift stage outside the village public house, a tidy little establishment called The Cock & Bull, operated by one Bosley.

As Will passed the village gates he overtook another traveler, walking the same way.

“Tom Hastings! What brings thee to the Oak Ridge road?”

“Traveling to market, Will,” his friend said. Tom was a short, pear-shaped fellow with curly, white hair and wire spectacles he wore low on his bulbous nose. His eyes have dimmed from a lifetime of close needlework. Tom was a tailor by trade. He sewed the short cambric tunic Will Tinker wore. He has sewn the tunics worn by most of the men in Bixby’s Ford, as well as their wives’ blouses and shifts and skirts and the occasional robe or dress. Tom is a fellow amateur actor, playing the role of Dame Custance in their current play. “I see you’re out tinkering about.”

“Ha! Didst thou write that thyself?”

“I stole it from Udall,” he replied, meaning the playwright who had wrought the farce they played together. “S’blood! We had a fine reception last night, did we not?”

“That we did, Tom. That we did. I think we should speak further of taking our show on the road.”

“On the road? You mean further than surrounding villages? Art thou mad? I have a wife and houseful of children to feed. The traveling player is no life for a married man.”

“Pah.”

“Pah, thyself, Will Tinker. Who would ply thy trade? Thou hast no son of an age to take up thy hammer. Thou would leave thy children to starve.”

“Prudence would support my decision.”

“Think thee so? Did a new Prudence appear I wot not? For last I saw her that was furthest from her mind.”

“Pah.

“In truth, the last I heard, she was rehearsing all the reasons rather you should quit the stage. It is a sinner’s life, you know. Fit only for strumpets and ne’er-do-wells,” he laughed.

“Pah.”

“It was different in our fathers’ time—when every guild in town had their own troupe and played a story from the gospel on the square. When the moral of the story was a means of church instruction to keep the serfs and peasants in their place, pleased enough to toil away for Master in exchange for admittance to the Pearly Gates.

“Not so, now.

“Now the world is full of philosophers and humanists who pen their scripts to tempt each social climbing shopkeeper to set his sights higher than his station.”

They parted at the Market Road with well wishing and promises to meet later behind the stage.

Their evening show was even more successful than the last. Townsfolk threw many copper coins into a kettle set up to receive them, and a traveling merchant spoke with the Players about bringing the play to his town across the river. He said he had the ear of his local lord and would tell his Lordship of their play.

Flush with triumph and with hope—and being so close to the pub—the players filed inside to slake their thirsts. It was a long night.

Will Tinker’s feet were later fit unsteady on the sodden, muddy path that passed through town. Old Bosley had cut him off at six, or seven, draughts of bitter stout he paid for with a handful of coppers tossed on the bar and a silver half-crown that rolled behind the cask.

“G’night, Love,” William had rasped to Bosley’s buxom granddaughter as he lurched his way out the door into the street.

He had not yet begun to consider how imprudent his Prudence would consider him, drinking away every farthing he earned that day. Perhaps he could persuade her it was research into his character, the hapless Merrygreek being not much better than a drunkard.

He staggered back home, stumbling into the door. It crashed open. In bed beside his mother and sister, little Fat Jack woke and began an ungodly shrieking.

Cut to the master bedroom of a contemporary, middle-class American home:

The sleeping Bill Tinker starts awake at the discordant clanging of an old-fashioned wind-up alarm clock sitting on his dresser across the room, where he placed it to force himself to climb out of bed, walk over, and silence it. The clock was a rude awakening, especially as the nights grew colder and the sun lingered later in its rising in the waning autumn. He glanced at the bundles of blankets that draped the still-sleeping corporeal essence of his wife, Delores, like a sweeping Duccio cloak. Delores—the wife of his youth—a woman who had grown up with him, grown old with him, grown … more substantial with him, though when he saw her in certain morning light he still saw the fresh-faced sylph he had married, lo, so many years ago, with cream & peaches glowing in her cheeks beneath flowing cornsilk locks and those cupid-bow lips that shot the quill to pierce his heart with lovesickness unto death. A chubby arm fell off the bed, Delores’s mouth fell open, and a long, feral snort escaped, dispelling his illusion but making him smile, nonetheless, as he donned his terrycloth robe and went to fetch them each a cup of coffee before he woke her for the day. Wispy images of Tudor England still clung to his brain—no doubt the product of a bit of last night’s dinner, reminding him to pop an acid reflux pill, and he might as well retrieve his and Delores’s daily regimen of medicine while he was at it. It seemed so real. The must have wandered into his unconscious from the English Class he taught at Center Valley Preparatory, at which fine institution he had been exposing young charges to a truncated history of Theater, from Greek to Guild to the Globe, with all the good parts cut out to cover what they’d need to know when filling in the achievement test circles with Number 2 pencils.

It was a goddamn shame. All the best parts of a subject he loved so much and had devoted four years at University to master.

Back then he had dreams of scripting a Period Drama, or maybe writing a novel set after the Wars of the Roses. That period was an obsession he inherited from his mother, and he loved the birth pang theater of that Time, with rough and tumble Players wrestling a language that changed and adapted to its users’ needs with tongue-twisting speed, when vowels were shifting and consonants keeping silent. He loved those rustic players breaking away from guilds playing Passion for the Mother Church to entertaining their fellow commoners with tales both secular and profane.

Today he was just a middle-aged man teaching middle school students Middle Ages drama. He smirked.

The miracles of modern day which let us set our schedules to a clock, calibrated to a common meridian of longitude, and adjusted by degree and minute around the globe, perpetuates the illusion of Time as an Objective measurement that flows just one direction into the far flung future when everything but energy ceases to exist, provides the same technology to dials and diodes and switches and transistors letting a man at 8 o’clock—his time, in the evening—measure out water and coarse ground, French Roast coffee into filters to wait until the sun rose on the horizon to align wires to send electricity corralled on paths of aluminum and copper from the power plant where it was captured to the percolator on his cabinet.

Will caught the aromatic whiff drifting up from the kitchen. The smell of beans picked by campesino fingers from the slopes of Andes foothills, and shipped in burlap sacks to a far distant dock, and thence to factories that ground and packaged them for mass market in his corner grocery.

“Rise and shine,” he said.

“Mrumph,” grunted the figure in the bed, and rolled over, pulling a pillow over her head.

Will laughed. “C’mon. Get up. The kids will be here, soon.”

They breakfasted together—Will and Delores—on light fare, as they always did: a cup of strong coffee, half a grapefruit each, and a bran muffin on which Will allowed himself a fat slice of Irish butter and a tablespoon of fresh local honey. Delores passed on the honey.

After breakfast Will loaded a pair of suitcases, and a large cooler holding the food they planned for the weekend, into the back of their car. As predicted both of their children arrived within the hour.

Percy was, in Will’s admittedly biased opinion, a fine young man with a world of Promise ahead of him. He was a handsome devil, who had always set the girls a’tittering whenever he would bound backstage after the shows to congratulate his father on his latest success. Will noticed that. He also noticed the boy seemed painfully shy around girls. He didn’t know what to attribute that bashfulness to. Percy never had a steady girlfriend. Something held him back. Will ascribed it to the boy’s laser focus on his academic studies, his obsession with the Matter of Britain, and his devotion to the Society of Creative Anachronism. That hobby took up way too much time for romance to tempt him. Oh, there were girls through the semesters—the majorette who squeezed herself into a corset and tagged beside Sir Percy, sauntering in homemade mail through the Renaissance Fair, or the band flutist who showed up at the house every other Saturday during their sophomore year to play a half-orc rogue in Percy’s D&D campaign—but no special damsel whose kerchief he tucked in his sleeve.

Will’s heart swelled with pride now, seeing his son standing in their foyer, beaming with his own pride while waiting to tell them about his new job, as a photojournalist for a monthly news journal.

Their daughter, Elaine, was the apple of Will’s eye. He recalled with a catch in his chest how he first saw her face, covered with the pinkish slime of her journey into the world.

This morning Elaine seemed anxious, and Will knew she had wanted her fiance to accompany them on this long weekend, but Delores had pleaded in that way she had that this weekend was going to be the last chance just the four of them would ever have together as a family before Elaine was married and Percy off in far-flung foreign job assignments. She stopped just short of begging it to be. She could have demanded, but that wasn’t her style.

The young man who would be his son-in-law and the father of his grandchildren had sweetly encouraged Elaine to go ahead—there’d be plenty of times for him to visit the cabin and he was uncomfortable interfering with a weekend marking the end of an era in the Tinkers’ lives. “Their nest is going to be empty soon enough,” he said, “I don’t want to feel like some magpie stealing their eggs.”

The United States is full of time-share weekend getaway spots from Sea to Shining—but this wasn’t one of them.

This was an honest-to-god wooden cabin, not far from a tree-lined lake on a piece of property once owned by his grandfather, but now held by his uncle, that might pass someday to his cousin, though that would probably be the end of an era and his Uncle Jack was not long for this world. The hand was worth more to a developer than to the cousin—a kid he’d never really known, though he wasn’t so much a kid anymore, being about Will’s age so must be nearing retirement. Grant was out in Denver, and last Will heard the company Grant worked for bankrupted their pension fund, so the story goes. The price he could get for the property would be a nice nest egg. Will couldn’t blame him. He’d make an offer to buy it, himself, but the bank would never go for that. Not with his mortgage.

The cabin was Spartan: two rooms—a large single room with rustic kitchen facilities at one end, a couple bunk beds, a round dining table that could comfortably seat four—and a second room just large enough for a double bed and dresser. There was an outhouse behind the cabin.

After bringing all the suitcases inside, the four without a hint of irony, fell into stereotyped culturally defined roles of campsite preparation. Will and Percy built the fire. The scoured the ground for suitable kindling in irregular, concentric circles fanning outward from the cabin. Delores and Elaine headed inside to cook the porterhouse and bake potatoes.

Percy and Will built a tower of twigs and small branches, like Lincoln logs or pick-up stix. It was something one of them remembered from Boy Scouts. Or some cable show. Or a magazine article. Or something.

The fire blazed skyward and Percy kept wandering out and around to find some more wood.

Delores and Elaine brought the boys’ plates out to a makeshift campfire circle. They shared a bottle of wine over dinner.

After sunset, Will lingered beside the fire, from time to time poking the coals with a stick. Dinner was over. Dishes were washed. Delores and Elaine and Percy were unrolling sleeping bags, and settling in for the night. Will sat in a wooden rocking chair in front of the cabin, listening to tree frogs and cicadas and crickets, staring into a fire pit.

There’s something primal in fire. Something mystic. The light and Dark sections in the flames flow together making pictures as they have done from Ages Past—long before the kinetoscope—since the caverns of Lascaux where torchlight made the shamans and their magic images dance. Will sees the strange and wonderful. He sees the torches of Olympus flare as Thespis steps out with the voice of Dionysus. O for a ring of fire! to burn away the curtain concealing catacombs and Passion plays and medieval guilds acting out the Fall of Man or Godspell parables. He sees olde English crews of rustic patches performing the farce of Gammar Gurton’s Needle or reciting the Bard’s bawdier puns for the glee of gathered groundlings.

It was no wonder, he thought, Zeus should chain Prometheus to a rock in punishment for giving fire to humans. Genesis has no gift of fire myth: just Abel slaughtering the first-born of his flock and cooking it to feed his god. The tongues of flame lick the logs and branches Will has built into a pyre like they licked that baby lamb Abel roasted east of Eden. Meanwhile, Cain had burned a bunch of vegetables. It made an awful stench. Jah was not pleased. Or, at least, their parents weren’t: ruddy Adam, man of earth, and the wife who had no name.

“My cucumbers!” she cried, fully knowing Cain had grown them. “My garlic and chickpeas! How in hell can I make hummus with that burnt mess?”

And sullen Adam laid his hand upon his eldest’s shoulder, saying, “I know you were only trying to help, son. Next time, ask.” Then they four sat down to a delicious loin of lamb, garnished with the mint Mom had salvaged from the flames, and everyone praised Abel who stuck his tongue out at his frere and wrinkled up his nose with unspoken gloating glee. Cain mouthed, “I’m gonna kill you, you son of a bitch.”

Then orange and yellow stained-glass flames flashed blue of a sudden burned that scene away and Will saw then his sweet Delores crossing the community college campus on her way to class, looking like the first time he had seen her, her curly hair a halo around her head like a Byzantine icon come to life. And his heart skipped a beat or two in contented triumph having won her from a bevy of other suitors for her hand. He remembered how old-fashioned it had felt to ask her father’s permission to court her. Very old school. She insisted. Which is ironic when he considers it, turning the corners of his lips up and sparking a twinkle in his eye that’s more than just a flame.

The flames licks another log and a burnt branch collapses, sending sparks into the sky to die out on the ground. They spark another tangent, though, the what-ifs his life had made different entrances and exits.

Staring into the dying embers, Will felt all his disappointments press on him with the weight of all the sins of all mankind—the dreams of all he could have been had it been just a little bit different—if he had gone to college closer to New York or Los Angeles—if he hadn’t got Delores pregnant their senior year—if they hadn’t got married—if he had accepted that internship—if he had hustled to sell his script rather than taking the first available job to pay OB/GYN bills—if he had only packed Delores and Percy into the Toyota hatchback and driven into the sunset to the perfect Hollywood ending instead of signing on the dotted line to sweat great drops of blood on lesson plans to force-feed teenagers words of English literature and rules of grammar they could hardly care less about. If only he had spent his summers pounding the Underwood keyboard with the ideas he had for plays and novels and film scripts instead of changing diapers and taking part-time work flipping burgers just to make ends meet. Maybe he could have made something of himself instead of living and dying in the obscurity of all mankind—that teeming mass of human flesh that rose and fell through history in anonymity. It could have been different. If only.

G-L-O-R-I-A. My sins they only belong to me.

He sighed.

His life wasn’t so bad. So what he didn’t have a contract for a novel with film options. So what he never got to stand onstage at the Oscars and lift his idol high. He had a home. A comfortable home. He had a wife who loved him and two bright and beautiful children who had grown to maturity and looked as if they’d be fine, upstanding memebers of society and raise up another generation of children of their own.

He slowly slipped down the slumbering shores of Lethe, waves of oblivion embracing him, fading with his fire’s last embers. All in all, he’s satisfied he’s lived the best he could. As he drowns in sleep he feels a woman’s hand on his shoulder and a soft voice calling his name.

Our scene cutsto a brisk autumn morning along a paved walkway, wending through dew-covered grass, a handful of orange and yellow leaves still clinging to otherwise gnarly tree branches.

A bedraggled old man lies supine on the walk, clinging to dissipating wisps of dream as a delicate hand on his shoulder rocks him gently. “Billy!” he hears, and recognizes the syllables as his own name, the name his mother used to call him deep at the bottom of a well of memory dug into his consciousness though it seems a long, long time ago. The voice is soft and melodic like the voice his mother used to sing him lullabies, though it couldn’t be hers. Her voice was stilled, inside the velvet lining of a mahogany box, never to be heard again.

“C’mon, Billy, time to get up!”

Bill opened one eye to see a short black woman in a blue uniform bending over him. K-C-P-D Badge number 4-5-something or other. He sat up on the pavement in front of a bench and pulled his blankets around his shoulders. The bench had a metal bar welded diagonally from back to seat splitting it in half to prevent people like him from reclining on it. “What the hell?”

“Calm down. Calm down. Why did you sleep here last night, Billy?”

He rubbed his face, running his fingers through tangled gray strands of hair. “Nowhere else to go.”

“You could’ve gone to the shelter.”

“I hate that place.”

“I know you do. Go on. Get up. Here’s a cup of coffee. Roll up your bed. Collect your stuff and at least get off the ground and sit on the bench. You’re going to get us both in trouble.”

About Mark Matzeder

By education a filmmaker, by trade an electrician, by avocation a writer and sometime scholar. Occasionally I wring an essay out of some observation I have made or experience I've had and share them here. Sometimes I'll share short fiction. Sometimes a poem. But mostly it's just my spin on this strange trip.
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