It’s always late afternoon when we visit her. The sun’s journey is almost complete. The evening sky is orange and there are long shadows on the ground. The last rays of the fading sun reflect off my wife’s auburn hair as a passing breeze sends it into a muss. We approach from the south on a two-lane road that once served as a highway. I assume that was before Eisenhower’s interstate system made the scenic route less desirable. One of the highways that Eisenhower commissioned is less than a mile to my left. I can hear the cars whizzing by behind a small arborous area containing a white water tower emblazoned in purple with the words, “Portland Panthers, 2001 3-A State Football Champions”. As we approach, there is a cemetery on the right that only contains grave markers, no tombstones. At the far end of the cemetery is a mausoleum with a white granite statue of Jesus standing in front, his arms outstretched and welcoming. Behind Jesus and his mausoleum is a hedge.
Just behind the hedge, sitting slightly off the road in a well-manicured lawn next to a long pavement driveway is a white sign trimmed in blue, with a blue arrow pointing down the drive that reads, “Star Wars IV: A New Hope – PG/The Wizard of Oz – G”. The drive is filled with cars of all makes and models. The cars curve out of the driveway and onto the roadside curb where the line continues. Even though we are an hour early, we still have to take our place in the already packed line. Across the street from the entrance sign is a small black and white house with a sign in the yard reading, “Cat Daddy’s Pay Lake”. Behind the house is a small, man-made pond with water erupting from a fountain in its center. The water flies up in the air, folds away from itself and cascades back into the pond.
There is a line of cars on the other side of the road as well. With no curb to pull onto, the vehicle’s drivers turn their blinkers on and wait. The travelers who aren’t going to the drive-in theater pull around them while trying their best not to veer off the road. We wait in the drumming heat of a late July afternoon with our windows down. There is no point in turning on the air conditioner yet. There will be plenty of time for that later if the night remains hot. We are submissive to the summer’s thermostat. While we are waiting, we listen to our radios a little too loud. A passerby can hear music from all genres represented. The excitement is intoxicating and the waiting will soon be done.
When the gates open, we slowly start to inch forward. Turning into the driveway, there are two lines formed. Each of them are full of cars heading towards a small white box office with blue trim. To the right of the driveway is the hedge where Jesus stands welcoming on the other side. To the left is an 8 foot white fence. Over the fence is a parking lot that is starting to fill with all vehicles facing a large, outdoor movie screen. We pull up to the box office and pay the $15 admission. On the front of the box office a sign reads, “Please turn your car radio to 91.5 FM”. The attendant hands us a black trash back to throw our concessions waste away and a paid ticket stub, the kind you would get in a raffle.
As we pull into the parking lot, we can hear the crackle of gravel under the tires of our car. The road is paved, but it’s paving happened in 1969, so a lot of the parking lot is covered with macadam now. Throughout the parking lot, there are white poles marking which sections of asphalt are for parking and which are for driving. When I was young, these poles housed speakers that would hang on each car’s driver side window so that the passengers could hear the movie. That changed years ago. Like the sign on the box office said, we listen to 91.5 FM now.
We pull into a parking space, backing up and pulling forward only to back up again until we are in just the right spot to see the movie screen. Then we shut the car off and get out. We stretch. Our bones pop and our muscles ache because of the long wait. We have procured our very own piece of movie watching land. The summer heat continues to beat down on us as we walk to the concession stand. I’ve waited all week to veg out and watch movies. The concession stand is filled with greasy, fatty foods. Juicy burgers covered in melting cheese. Starchy, crisp potato wedges. Cold, frothy soft drinks.
We go into the white, wooden concession building and take our place in line. Along the walls are posters for movies that will be shown later in the summer. Waist high stanchions lined with metal chains establish a line for the patrons. We wait in line and it moves quickly. Most people know exactly what they are here for. Waiting is a pleasant experience. The concession stand has two wall unit air conditioners pointing towards the serving area at all times. The cool kiss of the frigid air sends a shiver down my spine and goose pimples down my arms. The cold is a wonderful contrast to the heat and humidity of southern summers. We grab a cardboard product box and fill it with our edible treasures before surrendering again to nature’s blistering wrath.
The sun’s cycle is almost complete as we head back to our car. We sit and talk as we enjoy our snacks. Children play under the movie screen. The boys are throwing footballs while the girls play with glo-sticks. Under the screen you can also see the 31-W traffic pass. Going to and from, they occasionally honk their horns. I don’t know when this tradition started, but I have witnessed it my entire life. The honking isn’t an insult. It’s a gesture, a way of saying, “I wish I was there with you.”
Our bellies are full as night settles in. There is a flickering of light on the movie screen then a commercial comes up telling us that, “This drive-in is radioactive!” The next advertisement is a dancing hotdog who invites us, “Let’s all go to the lobby to have ourselves a snack!” There is a cool breeze in the air circulating through our windows breaking up the monotony of the summer heat. The movie is about to begin.
Portland, Tennessee is set in its ways. The citizens of Portland go to church on Sundays and Wednesdays. Sunday and Wednesday are also the days the two Portland newspapers come out, The Portland Leader and Portland Progressive. This is very convenient for the God-fearing citizens of Portland as it enables them to gossip while they praise. In Portland, perception is reality. If one of the newspapers make an assertion about a citizen, then it must be true. If a person is in church every Sunday and Wednesday, they must be a, “good Christian”. The people of Portland never look beyond the obvious to arrive at any conclusion. The way things are is the way they have always been. Although the entrance sign marking Portland’s city limits says, “Proud, Progressive Portland”, Portland is anything but progressive and the citizens are only proud of their superstitions. Their head’s are always turned, looking back at the road they’ve traveled. They never face forward.
Being a youth in Portland is an exercise in boredom. Outside of the Friday night football games and the Franklin Drive-in during the summer, Portland offers very little in terms of entertainment for young adults. The majority of kids, many coming from poor families, begin working at local fast food restaurants so that they can have the money to drive to Madison or Bowling Green on their days off. Both Madison and Bowling Green offer a wealth of leisure activities aimed at young people. It was no surprise when I found myself working at Portland’s Burger King during the summer of 2000. I had just turned 16 and my grandparents had bought me my first car. My mom didn’t protest the car, but she did set two rules: I had to pay my own car insurance and I had to buy my own gas.
I already knew several people who worked at Burger King from school, so it was a no brainer to put in a BK application. I was familiar with two of the girls who worked at Burger King through various associations. The first girl, named Tiffany, was a very pretty young lady. Essentially every man who came into the BK would comment on her posterior when they thought she couldn’t hear them. I would laugh along, but I really wasn’t interested in Tiffany. The main reason for my lack of interest was because Tiffany was dating one of my longtime best friends, Edward. Edward had dropped out of school when he turned 16, got his GED and began working for a local air conditioner company installing and maintaining central air and heat units. Edward and Tiffany still lived with Edward’s dad, a delightful old curmudgeon everyone called, “Pops”, and Edward’s job paid very well, so they had quite a bit of disposable funds. As a result Edward and Tiffany were both driving brand new cars and always wearing very nice clothes. I enjoyed working with Tiffany because most of the nights that she worked; Edward would come in and shoot the shit if we weren’t busy.
Tiffany and I worked with another girl from school named Rita. Rita was the polar opposite of Tiffany. Her family was obviously near poverty level. She was dropped off for each shift by her father who drove a decrepit Ford van that had so many mix-matched paint patterns on it that it was anybody’s guess as to what it’s original color was. Rita would always volunteer to take extra shifts. If anyone wanted a day off and was scheduled on a day Rita wasn’t, there was no question she would take their shift. Rita was socially awkward. She didn’t have the best hygiene and sometimes the hair on her legs or under her arms was excessively long. The unsightly hair didn’t stop her from wearing short sleeves or dresses though. Rita was dating a guy that everyone called “Nasty” Nate. I have no idea how Nate received the nickname, “Nasty”, but I always assumed that it had to do with a character of the same name in the movie Half Baked which had came out only a year or so before.
Rita and “Nasty” Nate were sitting together during a pep rally in our freshmen year when a teacher abruptly jerked them up and demanded they leave the gym. The teacher, a known asshole, was not remotely subtle about calling out Rita and Nate. Naturally, the collective student body began rubbernecking. When Rita stood up, she used the back of her hand to wipe her mouth with the sleeve of her shirt. When Nate stood up, he zipped his pants. Everyone went crazy. Portland Senior High School’s social scene was abuzz with what we perceived to have been Rita giving Nate a blowjob during a pep rally. Rita and Nate were suspended for a short time and that confirmed the suspicions of the student body.
When Rita and Nate returned, they were both bombarded with questions. Even though both of them denied that a blowjob occurred, this was Portland and the public had already formed an opinion, so it stuck. Several months later, when Rita and I were working at the BK, I asked her about the blowjob incident. I told her what I saw from my seat across the gym and how it looked to me. She said that she understood how I could jump to that conclusion, but that she was only making out with Nate. The reason she wiped her mouth was because Nate, a bad kisser, had slobbered all over her mouth. She didn’t know why he zipped his pants, but agreed that it was poor timing. I believed her.
One night Tiffany, Rita and I were all working together. When it was time to close the restaurant, the manager said that we couldn’t leave. Apparently several hundred dollars was missing from Rita’s drawer at the drive thru. Rita counted and recounted her money before telling the manager. The manager then counted and recounted her money. Eventually the branch manager and Portland’s finest came stumbling in. The police had every employee who had worked that night take everything out of their pockets and patted us down. We were all underage, but that didn’t seem to matter. Rita’s dad showed up around the time we should have been leaving and walked in to see what was going on. The branch manager admonished the shift manager for not locking the door before locking it himself. I had been watching Rita for quite some time and could tell that she was having trouble holding in her emotions. When her dad walked in, she collapsed into his arms and started crying. Even though we had all been checked multiple times, the money was never found. The branch manager fired Rita on the spot in front of her dad. She left in tears and the rest of us were dismissed.
Several weeks after Rita was fired, Tiffany’s drawer count was short and she was fired as well. I wonder how many car payments Burger King had made by that time.
I went to the Chick-Fil-A
And wanted the Jesus
People to stop talking.
“Where did you get those shoes”,
Asked Christian number one.
“I bet you paid for those!”
Would she still have liked them
If Christian number two
Would have said, “The Goodwill”?
There is a homeless man
Under the stars and stripes
Looking to work for food.
Where will he sleep tonight?
“Not in our parking lot.
We accept no vagrants.”
I wonder if Christian
One or Christian two would
Go without shoes to help.
– Joshua A. Woodard
I didn’t invite you into my life.
When I was born, you were already there.
You lived in my Papa’s car stereo
And my Granny thought you were a hunk.
The scenic route through rural Tennessee
Seemed more beautiful, more peaceful somehow
When listening to you sing songs about,
“The ‘G’ men, ‘T’ men, revenuers, too”.
In my mind, the hills leading to Carthage
Were the Carolina hills where they were
Searhin’ for the place where you made your brew.
Every other weekend, you let me know,
“It’s finally Friday, I’m free again”
And I did feel free with my grandparents,
Free from a broken home, free from my life.
How miserable was I bouncing from place
To place never knowing where home would be?
I was a boy without a stable home,
My grandparents lived four houses apart.
I could walk from Nanny and Papa’s house
To Granny and Pa’s. You lived with them both.
There was a trampoline in both back yards.
Papa didn’t listen to loud music,
Except when he was listening to you.
Your cassette was our soundtrack riding to
The flea market, our excitement building.
I was hotter than a two dollar pistol
And certainly the fastest thing around.
I still remember the heat of summer
As we looked around for second-hand loot.
Me with my blue raspberry Slush Puppy
And Papa eating his Polish sausage.
Nanny bought a sign. “Two old crows live here.”
The kiss of the air conditioner was
a welcome relief, and you were waiting.
You sang me to sleep and I napped back home.
My Granny had two stories about you.
The only song of yours she didn’t like
was your biggest hit. “When that song came out,”
She would say,
“Your dad had just broke up with his first love.
Every time I heard it, I thought of him.”
I think that she was right about my dad,
But his high school sweetheart wasn’t the girl.
My parents got divorced when I was three.
My father pined for my mother until
the day she died. And he still longs for her.
He said, “I will love her until I die.”
The years have went slowly by and she still
Preys upon his mind.
My Granny met you.
It became her favorite story to tell.
She stopped off at the Quick Sack for some gas
And cigarettes when she saw your tour bus.
She followed your name to Cracker Barrel
where you stopped for some sausage, I suppose.
Your crew got off the bus. You weren’t with them.
Pa was ready to go, Granny was not.
She knocked on the bus door, and you were there.
“Step right up. Come on in, if you’d like to
take the grand tour.” Welcome to the fan club.
You gave Granny an autographed picture
And shook her hand. When she would tell this story,
She’d say, “I’ll never wash this hand again.”
Time has passed.
Her hand is filled with formaldehyde now
And my Pa isn’t driving anywhere.
Granny and Pa never made it back to
Carthage. They both bought the farm in Portland.
Nanny had both her legs taken from her.
Now only one old crow lives in her house.
Papa sits. He is unable to walk.
The flea market left with his memory.
There are no trampolines in either yard.
My childhood is dead. It’s pillars are gone.
Memories of you are my memories.
You are my grandparents Now you’ve all left.
I’m a boy with a broken home again.
Who will stop this dissolution? Who is
Gonna fill their shoes? Who’s gonna stand that
With this 10 minute play, I examined the hypocrisy of the modern conservative party, specifically their insistence on using the Christian religion to justify greed. Almost all of the dialogue spoken by Mr. Upton, Mrs. Uptown and Ronald Uptown are paraphrased quotes from Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann and Newt Gingrich.
MR. UPTOWN, the family patriarch
MRS. UPTOWN, the family matriarch
RONALD UPTOWN, the older sibling
KARL UPTOWN, the younger sibling
BOY 1, a teen laborer of the family
BOY 2, a teen laborer of the family
The dining room of an opulent mansion. There is a black table in the middle of the stage with unlit candles on each end. Four chairs are positioned around the table. There is a chandler hanging over the middle of the table. Directly below the chandler, an American flag is sitting on the table. There are two doors on stage left and one door stage right. Stage right between the table and door is a pedestal table with a Ming Dynasty vase. Stage left of the chandler is Vasily Troika’s “Apprentice Workmen Carrying Water”. Stage right of the chandler is a portrait of Ronald Reagan.
As the curtain opens, MR. UPTOWN speedily walks through the door stage right to the stage front-left door. MR. UPTOWN is wearing an expensive suit and loafers. Following him shortly are two malnourished boys in their middle to late teens. The boys each are holding the leg of a dead body, dragging the corpse behind them. The corpse is an older man with white hair in a suit. MR. UPTOWN crosses the stage and unlocks the stage front-left door, then turns.
MR. UPTOWN: I would appreciate you taking a little more care in carrying Mr. Roosevelt. If you stain the carpet, then Mrs. Uptown will be forced to restrict your rations for the next two years to pay for the square footage that you ruin.
[MR. UPTOWN opens the door front-left, then turns a walks through the door back-left. The teenboys continue to drag the corpse through the dining room. They are very weak and the task takes tremendous effort]
BOY 1: T’ain’t right what we’re doin’ to Mr. Roosevelt. He never did nothin’ but try an help folks.
BOY 2: It ain’t none of my concern and you best not make it your ‘ens neither. Mr. Uptown pays
the bills. You’d be best to ‘member that if you wanna keep your job.
BOY 1: It just ain’t right is all I’m sayin’. After all he did for us down trodden.
[The boys exit stage through the door front-left, dragging the body behind them. They leave the door open. MR. UPTOWN comes out of the door back-left. He is now wearing a butcher’s coat and carrying a small black bag. He walks into the dining room, looks back, walks to a spot stage-left, kneels down and runs his finger across the carpet.]
MR. UPTOWN: Goddamn it.
[MR. UPTOWN gets up, walks through the door stage front-left and slams the door behind him.]
The candles on the dining room table are now lit and the table is now set.
MRS. UPTOWN: [Off stage] Boys! Dinner’s ready!
[Mr. UPTOWN, RONALD and KARL enter the dining room through the door stage right. MR. UPTOWN is again wearing his expensive suit and loafers. RONALD is wearing a prep school uniform that is perfectly pressed. His hair is neatly coiffed. His jacket is buttoned. Karl is wearing the same outfit, but is more disheveled. His jacket is unbuttoned as well as his dress shirt revealing a dingy undershirt. His hair is long, poorly groomed and buried under a backwards baseball hat. The family walks to the table and take their seats. MRS. UPTOWN enters the dining room from stage door front right. She is dressed immaculately. Her hair and makeup are perfect. She is wearing 6 inch heels and carrying a platter full of medium rare meat.]
MRS. UPTOWN: Dinner is served boys!
[She sits the platter in the middle of the table.]
MRS. UPTOWN: [Sitting down] Ronald, would you like to say grace?
[The family bows their heads to pray except for Karl, who is looking around the dining room in silent defiance.]
RONALD: Thank you, Lord, for the meal we are about to receive. Thank you for the blessings that you have given this family. You tell us in your word, ‘Poverty and shame shall be to him that refuseth instruction: but he that regardeth reproof shall be honored.’ And we are honored, Lord, by all that you have given us. I ask, Lord, that you continue to bless us as we will continue to regard the lessons that you have for us. In your precious and holy name we pray, Amen.”
MR. and MRS. UPTOWN: Amen!
MRS. UPTOWN: [Taking a piece of meat and passing the platter to MR. UPTOWN] You did a great job butchering the meat, honey.
MR. UPTOWN: [Taking a piece of meat] Do you think? I feel there is still some meat that I could pull off his bones. I really don’t want any part of the old bastard to remain.
[He passes the platter to RONALD, who takes a piece of meat then passes the platter to KARL.]
KARL: No, thank you.
MR. UPTOWN: Is there a problem, son?
KARL: No [beat] It’s just that….[trails off muttering under his breath.]
MRS. UPTOWN: Don’t be disrespectful, Karl. Your father….
[MR. UPTOWN holds his hand up to cut his wife off.]
MR. UPTOWN: It’s just what, son?
KARL: [sighs] It’s just I don’t think it’s right to eat Mr. Roosevelt like this. He seemed like such a good guy. He helped a lot of people. Remember the time that people in the Valley were starving and he helped them by opening a new water plant? Or how about the time the elderly people at Social Gardens couldn’t afford their medicine so he set up a fund for them? It seems like all he did was try to help the less fortunate.
MR. UPTOWN: Karl, there has always been inequality in this town. The citizenry has always been unequal and I hope it continues to be. Why? Because people achieve their level of success based on what they have contributed to society and the marketplace. That’s how it should be. The last thing we need is a man like Mr. Roosevelt giving in to those who envy our wealth and creating class warfare. The poor should celebrate the wealthy. They should build statues and monuments for the affluent. They should name buildings after them. Why? Because in their greatness and innovation, they created wealth and that’s a good thing, not something to be condemned.
KARL: But Dad, it doesn’t seem right not to help people. People are starving!
MRS. UPTOWN: Oh goodness gracious! Will you listen to yourself? This town needs to stop doing for people what they can and should do for themselves! Self-reliance means if anyone will not work, then they should not eat. End of discussion.
KARL: But I don’t think that’s right! I think that we should help those in need. There are more empty homes in this town than there are homeless people. It’s not right! They’re dying in the streets from preventable diseases. All they need is a place to work and some help getting on their feet. It seems to me that with all we have, it’s the least we can do. Instead, we spend all of our time trying to stop the people who are helping. Look at what you guys are doing to old man Sanders and Mayor Hussien. Anything they propose you guys fight.
RONALD: [biting into a piece of meat] Can you turn off the commie crap tonight? Is that too much to ask? A person doesn’t have the right to a house. They don’t have the right to a job. They don’t have the right to medical care. For every bite you give away, I have to do without.”
KARL: Like you couldn’t stand to go without a couple of bites? I just don’t get it. People can’t find work and if they can, Dad and his buddies don’t want to pay them a living wage.
MR. UPTOWN: I don’t care about the unemployed. That doesn’t matter to me. My business doesn’t hinge on the unemployment rate. I do just fine when unemployment is high. The more people in this town there are looking for jobs, the less I have to pay the employees I have. I would pay less than the minimum rate of pay if I could. There simply aren’t that many jobs in town. If an employee has a problem with the way I run my business, then there are 10 other people waiting to take their job.
MRS. UPTOWN: Listen, that crap that Mayor Hussien is trying to pull, trying to make us pay the working class more, is a crock. If you’re so worried about the unemployed, then completely take away the minimum wage. We could potentially wipe unemployment out completely.
KARL: How? By paying people as little as possible? That would be tragic!
RONALD: It would help the poor people who need jobs. If we abolished the minimum wage, it would be very beneficial.
MR. UPTOWN: Tragic? It’s tragic what this town does in our poorest neighborhoods. The city council has entrapped children with child labor laws. That is truly stupid. What we need to do is get rid of the unionized janitors the schools are using, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of their own school.
KARL: What? Why not just help their parents so that they won’t have to live in poverty?
MRS UPTOWN: And how do you propose we do that?
KARL: What about through our taxes? The city already has a property tax in place; why not just increase it by a percent or two?
MR. UPTOWN: To be honest, the wealthy don’t necessarily have to pay taxes if we don’t want to. I can move my money to another country, a tax haven. I can hide my money in investments. The city council can do nothing to stop investing. If I really wanted to, I could quit working. I don’t need to work, I’m already rich. So your proposition would essentially be the poor subsidizing the poor. And to be honest, I don’t care about the very poor. Do you realize 47 percent of the people in this town are dependent upon the government? They, like you, believe they are victims. They believe it is the city’s responsibility to take care of them. They want free health care, free housing, you name it. I’m not worried about those people. No one will ever be able to convince them to take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
KARL: But Dad, these are people too. They have feelings. They have hopes and dreams just like us.
MRS. UPTOWN: Oh here we go with this now! I disagree with the idea that the government doesn’t have the right to limit individuals’ wants and passions. I absolutely think we should limit these people. There are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire, you know?
KARL: Really, Mom? What are your consequences? You get everything you want and you just said that there are consequences. I’ll tell you who is suffering through your consequences; it’s the people who have to do without so that you can have more. People are suffering out there!
MR. UPTOWN: Well, I’ll tell you this, Karl, and it will be the end of this conversation. This is a Christian town and if you’re a Christian, suffering is a part of life. It’s not a bad thing. It’s an essential in life. There are different ways to suffer. One way is from lack of food or shelter and there’s another way to suffer. This is through a lack of dignity. And these people, that you support, they have no dignity or they wouldn’t be begging for handouts. There are all sorts of ways that people suffer and it’s not just tangible. It’s also intangible and we have to consider both.
[MR. UPTOWN takes a bite of his meat, and then uses his fork to point at the platter.]
MR. UPTOWN [to Karl]: Now eat your meat.