Post Road Magazine #18

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Sumatra Mandheling Jakob Holder

Sumatra Mandheling received its world premiere on September 7, 2007, as part of Hunger Artists Theatre Company's Beyond Convention Festival, directed by Jeremy Gable. With deep thanks to Sheila Callaghan and Ranbir Sidhu.

Characters:

JOE: A man on his way to work.
CONDUCTOR: The voice of a subway conductor (fluid, soft, preferably that of a woman.)

Setting:

Chairs or a bench representing the inside of a subway car.
Time: Morning. A weekday.

(Lights up on a plastic chair or bench. A man, JOE, sitting, holding a brown paper bag, a newspaper, a briefcase, wearing a suit, combed hair. Sitting.)


CONDUCTOR:

Next stop, Lorimer Street.

(Time passing. The sound of doors shushing closed. Looking at the headlines of the folded paper. Sitting.)

Lorimer street.

(Sound of doors shushing open. JOE looking up, glancing at an advertisement. Sitting.)

Next stop, Bedford Avenue.

(Sounds of doors shushing closed. JOE looking back at his paper, the other folded half, shifting his brown paper bag, touching up his hair in the reflection across. Sitting.)

The time now is 8:23 A.M.

(JOE setting the paper in his lap, opening the bag, looking inside, looking pleased enough, reaching into the bag, pulling out a napkin.)

Bedford Avenue.

(Sound of doors shushing open. JOE placing the napkin on his knee, reaching into the bag, pulling out another napkin, placing it on his left knee.)

This will be the last stop....

(JOE looking up, obviously concerned.)

…in the borough of Brooklyn.

(JOE relieved, slight laugh to himself, looking into his bag. Sitting. Sound of doors closing. Sitting.) Next stop will be First Avenue, the first stop in the borough of Manhattan. (JOE pulling out a cup of coffee. Enjoying its heat, folding the bag. Sitting.) Sumatra, Indonesia.

(JOE pulling the tab back on the cup's lid. Steam rising. Sitting.)

Despite its wealth of natural resources, Sumatra is struggling with a failing economy. 184,706 square miles, population of forty million, Bahasa Melayu the native language, religions of Islam first, Christianity a distant second. The northern province of Aceh, one of the three prominent coffee-producing regions in the country, has been hit, time to time, by devastating earthquakes. Despite the return of relative political calm, national security remains unstable and the economic situation dire.

(JOE takes a sip of the coffee.)

That's right, relax. This might take awhile.

(Beat.)

If you are interested in traveling to Sumatra in the near future, you are advised to contact your embassy and get the latest update on the security situation.

(Pause.)

How does that taste? First sip of the morning. A bit like plastic, a bit further in like metal, a bit sharp, a bit bitter. Too hot to tell. Not enough milk. Too full? Too much pressure on the lid, a few droplets tipple off the lip of the cup, the threat of a stain, already, and you're not even there yet. Haven't even looked to see if your boss is in yet, two fingers to your right eyebrow in salute—the boy in the third cubicle from the front desk, with whom you share some unspoken, unverified, perhaps nonexistent joke, that comment to the girl in reception, you've been thinking about it half the morning, invented in the shower, concretized over the third and fourth application of hair gel, the accidental squeeze of the tube, the two droplets tippling off the cap and onto your pants, the threat of a stain, and you're not even there yet. You haven't even accidentally pushed the "close doors" button on the elevator, cutting off that beautiful woman from the third floor, one floor below your office, who you sometimes imagine staring up at her ceiling, waiting for you to uncross your legs so her eyes can find their way up the length of your trousers. You haven't tripped over the same iron shoe brush in the entryway, haven't tripped on the fifth step up from the platform, haven't tripped past the boy with headphones sitting on his skateboard, right over there in front of the door. His half empty bottle of soda, the lurch of the car as a cruel and well-timed joke by the conductor, the two droplets that tipple from its mouth and land on your left shoe, the third that lands on your summer-flax cotton sock. The threat of a stain. You're not even there yet. Here you are. Tongue extended, into the cup, a sudden recoil. You've just burned the tip of your tongue as an experiment to see how hot it is. Now you know.

(Pause. Train rocks slightly to a stop.)

Ladies and gentlemen. We apologize for this unavoidable delay. We hope to be moving shortly.

(Pause.)

How's the coffee? Joe. How's your coffee, Joe? That's all right. Don't bother answering. You're a busy man, Joe. You need some time. To yourself. To dream. You're dreaming right now. About blood. A cup of it. Young, warm blood. You can't wait. Your mind begins to grow a tongue, Joe, a tongue that begins to salivate. Two drops tipple off the tip of your mind's new tongue, Joe, at the thought of drinking a cup of young blood, from a young boy, a boy you'll never meet, not too hot, you'd burn the tip of your tongue as an experiment to see how hot it is. You can burn your mind's tongue, Joe, did you know that? Without feeling pain, Joe. Did you know that? Now you know.

(Pause. The train lurches forward.)

We apologize again for the unavoidable delay. Next stop will be First Avenue.

(Pause.)

The name of this boy is Yono. The name of this boy does not matter. If he tried to tell you his name you wouldn't understand a single word he said, might not even be able to tell how many words were in the sentence: "Nama saya Yono." You smile. You would think he was quite a character, this little nameless boy. You would like to ask him for some coffee. Go ahead, Joe: "Saya hendak minum kopi." He smiles. You notice there is an empty cup already in your hand, he motions with his head for you to hold it out. He cuts his wrist with a dirty pruning knife, still smiling, his blood pouring into your paper cup, extended. You're no longer smiling. Your mind's tongue dries up, it can't remember what it just asked for. Saya hendak minum…blank. No one told you traveling could be so dangerous. You forgot to contact your embassy for details. Your phrase book was stolen in the airport before you even left. Someone else, thousands of miles away, happily says "Terimah kasi" to a thirty-six-year-old woman from New Jersey after she hands him a cup of coffee, enjoying a moment of free education, provided by your fifteen dollars and trip to the book shop. You stand speechless, burning your mind's tongue with every second while this little boy's blood fills your cup. It approaches the brim. Etiquette: "When in Malaysia, using the left hand to give or receive anything should be avoided as locals think it unclean. Pointing with your forefinger is considered very rude. It is considered aggressive to put your hands on your hips, or to cross your arms in front of you when speaking with someone." You lock up. You realize your cup is in your left hand. Nervous now, your forefinger rockets forward, pointing from the boy's wrist to your cup to your left hand. The blood stops coming. You pull the cup away, careful not to tip it, imagine the drops, two bricklets of blood tippling over the lip of the cup, the threat of a stain. You set the cup down, put your hands on your hips, realize, cross them over your chest, realize, put them back on your hips, realize, drop them. The boy stares at you. His smile is gone. You are being terribly rude. You are being terribly aggressive. Couldn't even say "Terimah kasi" to a young boy whose blood fills your cup.

(Pause.)

Where are you now, Joe? Don't bother answering, you're a busy man. A dreamer who needs his time, his fifteen, twenty, how many minutes in the morning do you need to yourself, Joe? To be alone. You are being terribly rude. What are you going to say to the girl in reception this morning? She used to laugh at the things you said. Now she just smiles. How long until she stops? You used to talk to her for up to a minute at a time, then it fell. Forty-five seconds. Fell again. Thirty. One hand on her desk, the other describing shapes around you. That was when you held her for a minute. Then, later, one hand free, the other in your pocket. Forty-five seconds. Then both in your pockets, one squeezing your keys, the other digging a hangnail from your bleeding thumb. Thirty. Now what? Hands at your hips? Crossed over your chest? Will you point at her with your left forefinger extended? Will she ever smile again? Can you remember what you wanted to tell her? What clever thing filled your mind in the shower? Can you remember how to say good morning?

(Pause.)

The little boy still stares at you. A phrase pours into your mind. You were paying attention, after all. "Siapa nama kamu?" you ask. He frowns. It's the first time you've ever seen him do that. He frowns because he already told you the answer. Were you paying attention? "Yono," he answers, simply and without any extra words, thank goodness. Yono. You'll forget that. Call him "Johnny-or-something" when referring to him in the future. You smile at little Johnny-or-something and then he smiles. "Siapa nama kamu?" he asks. You haven't stopped smiling. You have no idea what he's just asked you. It sounds so different when he says it. You haven't stopped smiling. He has. He reaches down and lifts the cup. Extends it to you. With his right hand. You reach out with your left. You haven't been paying attention, Joe. He frowns. That's the second time. You frown now,

too. He indicates your other hand. But he doesn't point at it with his forefinger. He has been paying attention. He nods to your right hand. You understand and shift. You take the cup. He smiles again. You understand. You try to smile but you can't. You close your eyes. You don't want to look into the cup, afraid of the color. You bring it up to your lips. Extend your tongue, vaguely wondering whether you're being rude again. You're not. The Aceh people have no rule against tongue-extending. You almost touch the tip of your tongue to the stuff inside. An experiment, to see how hot it is. You back out at the last second. You feel like you might throw up.

(Pause. The train lurches to a stop.)

Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize once again for this unavoidable delay. We hope to be moving shortly.

(Pause.)

Your boss is out of town today. You smile. You wish him a good morning every day. Selamat pagi. A good night at the day's end. Selamat malam. He mutters something under his breath. The heat travels up your back, trapped by the starch of your collar, forming a tight band of heat. Your mind's tongue dries up. Find your seat. Today will be different. You might make it to tomorrow.

(Pause. The train lurches forward.)

Next stop is First Avenue.

(Pause.)

Johnny-or-something begins to talk. He knows he is babbling, that you can't understand a thing he is saying. But he's so happy to share himself with you. His words boil over: "Last week my sister was standing on the horizon, quite near the water's many legs, and soon I was left dreaming about the other place to go, to be gone, if only we could cut enough—" He stops at the barrier between his tongue and your own. Some things don't translate well. He doesn't want to say anymore because he's scared to bore you. He wants you only to know how important it is that you like the taste of his coffee. It means so much to him. He wants to tell you these things but he stops himself. He sees you are displeased. At first he thinks it is because of the language. Then he realizes you want milk in your coffee. You can't enjoy it without milk. He apologizes. "Maafkan saya, maafkan saya, maafkan saya…" He starts to cry. You feel so bad for him. You realize you are the cause. You look into the cup, hoping to see coffee: brown, thin, hot. You tremble. The cup tips. A couple of drops…well, you know. The threat of a stain. You close your eyes as you draw the cup to your lips. You catch a glimpse of his smile before the blackness. You don't extend your tongue this time. No need to test it. You know it isn't hot.

(Pause.)

Your heart lurches forward, then stops. Then goes back to normal. "Selamat pagi," you want to say. Catch her off guard. Maybe she'll ask.

Then you can tell her. "It means 'Good Morning' in Bahasa Melayu. She'll frown, out of curiosity. You've got her attention. One hand reaches out and holds onto the edge of her desk. The other one, aloft, describing shapes around you. You'll tell her all about your trip. Bit by bit. She hadn't noticed you were gone, swore she saw you just the other day. You'll tell her about the people—so many of them—the strange customs, how you made constant, but forgivable and charming mistakes. You'll tell her about the boy you met, "Johnny-or-something," who offered you a cup of coffee. You might teach her a word or two. Selamat pagi. Good morning. Selamat malam. Good night. She'll laugh. Tell you to slow down. That she hasn't had her coffee yet. You'll have her for a minute and a half this time. You'll walk to the elevator while she's still smiling. The woman from the

3rd floor will be there, holding the door for you. She'll be smiling, too. "Terimah kasi," you'll say. "What?" she'll ask, frowning out of curiosity. "It means, 'thank you.'" She'll go to her office, sit in her chair, and look up at her ceiling, waiting for you to uncross your legs. Upstairs you'll enjoy a boss-less day, ignore the boy in the third cubicle from the front desk, focus, drift, wait. The girl at reception will wish you good night. "Selamat malam," you'll reply. She'll remember, she'll laugh. By tomorrow you'll have a spoken, verified, existent joke between you. You just might make it to tomorrow.

(Pause. JOE stands abruptly. His newspaper and bag and anything else he carries is in immediate disarray. His cup, however, hovers importantly, carefully, above it all.) No room to breathe, Joe. Nothing to hold onto. Where will you go? Work? Gone. Home? Washed away, Joe. Sumatra? Indonesia, Joe? You don't even know where it is. You can't even point it out on a map. You don't know the customs. You can't speak the language. Keep your balance, Joe. Keep your balance. Don't want to trip. Don't want to tip your cup. You've fought too hard for that cup, Joe. It's all in the timing. Get down there before anyone else, before the rest of them come charging in. They all want the same kind. Sumatra Mandheling. From somewhere in Indonesia. Java, they think. Where the word comes from, right? Such a rich taste, such flavor. Sumatra Mandheling. That's what everyone wants. You're always right on time. You fill your cup just below the brim. A splash of milk, just to cut the heat. It's yours now. You've fought for it. You've won. You might make it to tomorrow. Fight the crowds. Forty million people. A dollar a cup. Itu sangat mahal: "it's too expensive." You buy it anyway.

(Pause. The train stops.)

This is First Avenue.

(Pause. The sound of doors shushing open. JOE collects himself, walks out of the train. There is a garbage can. Full. About to burst. JOE takes a sip of his coffee. Places the cup on top of the pile of trash. He exits. Stillness. Blackout.)





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