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Almost an Evening

by Ethan Coen

Paperback, 78 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $13 |


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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Almost An Evening

A drab waiting room.
Mr. Nelson, in a suit, sits waiting.
A high counter separates him from a receptionist who sits with her back to us. She types.
And types.
Mr. Nelson clears his throat.
He glances at his watch.
He looks around, reaches into his jacket.
Without looking up from her typing (nor will she ever):
Receptionist: No smoking.
Nelson's hand freezes, then slowly emerges from his jacket, empty.
He looks around.
He looks at his watch.
He glances down at the side table next to him, picks up the two magazines displayed there, looks from one to the other.
Nelson: Are there any other magazines?
Receptionist: No.
He looks at the first magazine.
Nelson: Highlights for Children.
The receptionist continues typing.
He looks at the second magazine.
Nelson: U.S. News & World Report.
The receptionist continues typing.
He squints at the second magazine.
Nelson: Last April.
The receptionist yanks the sheet out of her typewriter. She briefly proofs it against a laminated reference sheet before inserting a new piece of paper and resuming typing.
Mr. Nelson puts down the magazines.
He looks around.
He rises and heads for a small pebbled glass window downstage.
Receptionist: It's sealed.
He freezes.
He slowly turns and goes back to his chair.
He drums his fingers.
He looks around. This time, however, as he faces the fourth wall, something dawns on him.
He stares.
Alarmed, he looks all around.
He looks suspiciously at the receptionist.
Nelson: There's something funny about this room, isn't there?
Receptionist: Yes.
He waits for her to continue.
She only types.
He elaborates:
Nelson: There's no door.
Receptionist: No.
He nods.
Nelson: So—how did...
He thinks.
Again, something dawns. He smiles and, nodding comprehension, bounces a pointing finger at the receptionist.
Nelson: I'm dead, aren't I?
Receptionist: Yes.
He nods, pleased to have figured it out.
He looks at the room again with new appreciation.
Nelson: So this is hell.
Receptionist: No.
Taken aback, he picks up the two magazines and looks from one to the other.
Nelson: Heaven?
Receptionist: No.
He puts down the magazines, puzzled.
Nelson:'s a sort of...purgatory.
Receptionist: Sort of.
Nelson:'s not eternal.
Receptionist: No. Damn!
She stops typing, rolls the paper up a couple of lines, shakes some Wite-Out, paints it onto the paper, blows on it.
Nelson: long do I spend in here?
Receptionist: Eight hundred and twenty-two years.
She rolls the paper down and resumes typing.
Again Mr. Nelson looks around, trying to imagine it.
Nelson: And only you to talk to.
Receptionist: I don't talk.
He chuckles.
Nelson: But that's a...what do you call it? When it contradicts itself?
Receptionist: I can answer questions for six more minutes. After the first ten minutes, I only type.
He laughs.
Nelson: Oh come on! I've been here more than four minutes!
She types.
His smile evaporates.
He looks at his watch.
He looks around.
He looks at the receptionist.
Nelson: Eight hundred and how many y—
Receptionist: Twenty-two.
He nods. He shakes his head. He sucks a tooth, thinking.
Nelson: What if I have to make pee-pee?
Receptionist: You won't.
He nods thoughtfully.
He looks down at the side table.
Nelson: Do they ever change the magazines?
The receptionist gives a short humorless hoot.
Mr. Nelson nods. He looks around.
Nelson: Well eventually—I mean, once I've served my time—how...
He nods at the fourth wall.
Nelson: How do I get out?
Receptionist: After seven hundred and fifty years, they put a door in.
He stares at the fourth wall, trying to picture it.
He stares for quite a while.
The receptionist types on.
* * *
A plain office. A man sits behind a desk, writing.
He writes for a while.
There is a knock.
Man: Yes?
The door opens hesitantly.
Man: Yes, come in.
Mr. Nelson enters, still wearing the same suit, clutching a piece of paper.
The writing man rises and extends his hand.
Man: Mr. Nelson? I'm Mr. Sebatacheck.
Nelson beams.
Nelson: Hello.
Sebatacheck: Have a seat.
Nelson: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Sebatacheck.
Sebatacheck: The typist, where you were waiting, when you left did she give you a...
Nelson: Yes!
Nelson holds up the piece of paper.
Sebatacheck: May I?
Nelson: Yes, yes!
He hands it across.
Sebatacheck: Great.
Sebatacheck keeps up a line of banter as he carefully checks Nelson's paper against a plastic-laminated reference sheet. His speech is directed down at his desk as he busily refers between Nelson's paper and his master sheet.
Sebatacheck: Well, I'll bet you've had enough of that place.
Still beaming, Nelson shakes his head.
Nelson: Boy! Phooph!
Sebatacheck: Ready for heaven then?
Nelson: Boy! I've been ready for...
He shakes his head.
Sebatacheck: Ready for quite a number of years, I would think.
Nelson: Boy!
Sebatacheck: Some folks say the first few years are the toughest. Although I don't suppose it ever really...
Nelson: Mm-mm. No sir.
Sebatacheck: But then, you'll like heaven. Everybody does—well, listen to me!
He chuckles at himself, still checking the paperwork.
Sebatacheck: Talk about stating the obvious!
Nelson laughs along with him.
Sebatacheck: Okay, let me just...what?—no!
He squints at Nelson's paper, his smile gone.
Sebatacheck: No!
He shakes his head, then laughs with disbelief.
Alarmed, Nelson looks from the paper to Sebatacheck.
Sebatacheck sits back in his chair, laughing and shaking his head.
Sebatacheck: No no no no no! Achh.
Still smiling and shaking his head, he makes a helpless gesture at the paper. He enunciates carefully at Nelson:
Sebatacheck: Eight thousand and twenty-two years.
* * *
The waiting room again.
The receptionist types.
Nelson sits in his chair, bitterly jabbing a finger toward her.
Nelson: Eight hundred and twenty-two years. You sat RIGHT there. That's right, lady. I'm talking to you. You sat RIGHT there and you said Eight hundred and twenty-two years. I asked you to REPEAT it. You said it TWICE. Eight hundred and twenty-two years. I'm talking to you, lady. YOU. Miss busy-screwing-up-somebody-else's-inforMAtion. You think I don't remember? You think just because it was a few thousand years ago I don't remember? What did I, confuse it with something else you said in the last six thousand five hundred years? You think maybe I got CONFUSED with all the amusing chitter-chatter SPEWING out of your mouth? And let me tell you something else, lady. You think I'm not gonna tell them about you? About how YOU screwed up? About how you gave me WRONG information?...That's right, lady. You type. You type while they LET you type. A position of TRUST. A position of AUTHORITY. Important DOCUMENTS. And you. YOU. Mental MIDGET. Sure. You type. Enjoy it while you can, lady...Heeyeah!
* * *
The office again.
A different man, McMartin, sits behind the desk.
On the desk are two sheets of paper, Nelson's report and the laminated reference page.
Nelson sits in front of the desk but is sprawled forward, elbows resting on the desktop, one hand holding a business card up toward McMartin.
Nelson is sobbing.
He sobs for some time, motionless, displaying the card.
McMartin helplessly shakes his head. Finally he turns two palms up.
McMartin: I don't even know why they brought you here.
Nelson brings the words out between hacking sobs:
Nelson: Because...I've waited...eight thousand...and twenty-two...years!
McMartin: I understand.
Nelson: Eight thousand...and twenty-two...years!
McMartin: Yes. I understand. But, Mr. Nelson—your term is twenty-eight thousand and twenty-two years.
Nelson: That's not...what Mr....Sebatacheck said!
McMartin: I don't understand how he could possibly—
Nelson: He checked it! He triple checked it! I begged him to, because I didn't think it could be that long! He guaranteed me it was right!
McMartin: I don't understand how he could—
Nelson: He said he'd be here when I came back! Or if he wasn't, he said he could be reached! Mr. Sebatacheck! He swore to me! He gave me his card!
McMartin: There's no way he could've—
Nelson: Please take it! Please take it! Mr. Sebatacheck!
McMartin sighs. He leans forward and takes the card.
Nelson: Mr. Sebatacheck!
McMartin looks at the card. Dubiously shaking his head, he drags the phone across his desk.
It is a rotary phone. Referring to the card, McMartin
After a beat he dials...four...more...digits.
He leans back for a long listening wait.
McMartin: Mr. Sebatacheck, please...Mr. McMartin, in admissions...I see...I see...I see.
He hangs up.
He looks thoughtfully at Nelson.
He draws a deep breath.
McMartin: Since Mr. Sebatacheck cannot be reached, I'm afraid I have no choice but to—
Nelson: Why?! Why can't he be reached?
McMartin: —I'm afraid you'll have to serve out the balance of your term.
Nelson: Mr. Sebatacheck!
McMartin: Your term is twenty-eight thousand and twenty-two years. I—
Nelson: He said eight thousand! Why can't he be reached?
McMartin draws another deep breath.
McMartin: Mr. Sebatacheck has passed away.
Nelson stares, stunned.
Nelson: Puh—
He laughs, incredulously.
Nelson: Passed away?! That's could...Passed away?!
He rises, laughing hysterically.
He slams the back of one hand into the palm of the other to further stress the two stressed syllables:
Nelson: That's absurd!
* * *
The waiting room.
Nelson sits waiting in the same chair. He stares straight ahead.
The receptionist types.
The tableau holds for some time.
* * *
The office again.
Nelson hovers anxiously over the shoulder of a new man, Polhemus, who refers back and forth between Nelson's report and the laminated plastic reference sheet.
Nelson agitatedly waves another paper.
Nelson: And this is a notarized affidavit I had McMartin sign, guaranteeing that I could leave after twenty-eight thousand and twenty-two years. And I had him specify there, you'll notice I had him specify—
Polhemus: Yeah.
Nelson: —I had him specify it was not just on his own authority but by authority of, and binding upon, management, its agents, its nominees and assigns—
Polhemus: Yeah yeah.
Nelson: —in perpetuity, so that—
Polhemus: Acchhh.
He disgustedly flips down his pencil and leans back.
Nelson: —so that...what?
Polhemus shakes his head.
Nelson: What?
Polhemus grimaces.
Polhemus: McMartin really screwed this up.
For a moment Nelson is afraid to speak.
Nelson: . . . What do you mean? What're you trying to say? What're you—
He hops up and down, waving the paper.
Nelson: This guarantees that I—
Polhemus: Yes yes, you're getting out.
Nelson stares.
Polhemus: You should have gotten out a long time ago.
Nelson stares.
Polhemus: You were right. You were supposed to serve eight thousand and _twenty-two years.
Nelson stares.
Nelson: I...You...
Polhemus: I don't know what McMartin was looking at.
Nelson: He...You mean I...spent twenty thousand extra—
Polhemus: I'm sorry.
Nelson: I spent the last twenty thousand years—
Polhemus: I'm very sorry. He'll catch hell for this, you can be sure of that.
Shaking his head at the paper, Polhemus grimaces and hisses:
Polhemus: Nitwit.
Nelson is staring vaguely off.
He looks at Polhemus.
Nelson: But now I'm free to go.
Polhemus shrugs a why-not:
Polhemus: Sure.
Nelson hesitates.
Nelson: To heaven.
Polhemus: Yeah. As a matter of fact...
He consults his watch.
Polhemus: Jesus. You better hurry.
Nelson: Huh?
Polhemus: The shuttle. It leaves in two minutes.
Nelson: Right. Okay. Is Mr. McMartin nearby—if I could have just a moment with him—
Polhemus: For God's sake let it go man, you've only got two minutes! Let it go! The shuttle only leaves once every ten years!
Nelson: Every ten—WHERE DO I GO?
Polhemus drags the phone over and starts dialing as Nelson skips frantically toward the door.
Polhemus: To your left, down the hall—you'll see signs—
As Nelson exits Polhemus calls out, over the painfully slow click-click-click-click-click of the rotary phone:
Polhemus: —I'll try to reach 'em, get 'em to wait—
* * *
The waiting room.
The receptionist types.
Nelson sits staring glassily into space.
He drones:
Nelson: I-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ffffffff...
A suspense beat through which Nelson stares at nothing.
Then he launches into song:
Nelson: . . . one of those bottles should happen to fall...
He hesitates. He squints at a point in space, trying to remember his place in the song.
* * *
The office.
Mr. Sebatacheck, the first admissions man, sits behind the desk. He is relaxed, leaning back, feet up, reading a magazine, occasionally plucking a grape from a bunch that rests on a paper towel on his desk.
There is a soft, slow knock.
In an absent sing-song, his eyes still on the magazine:
Sebatacheck: Ye-es.
The door slowly opens.
Nelson, clutching a sheet of paper, takes a shuffling step in, turns, closes the door behind him, turns again, and shuffles into the office. He is an abject, beaten man, his voice hollow, his manner pathetic:
Nelson: Okay. Can I go now?
Sebatacheck: Excuse me?
Sebatacheck's eyes slide lazily off the magazine and, resting on Nelson, grow puzzled.
Nelson is slowly raising his report.
Nelson: Can I go to heaven now? Here's my re—
Nelson's eyes widen. He gasps.
Nelson: Mr...Sebatacheck!
Sebatacheck is still puzzled.
Sebatacheck: Yes?
Nelson: They said..._they told me you were dead!
Sebatacheck: I was dead? That's absurd.
Nelson nods.
Nelson: That's what I said.
Sebatacheck: What do you have there?
Zombielike, Nelson extends the paper.
Nelson: My paperwork.
Still puzzled, and a little irritated, Sebatacheck takes the paper and looks between it and Nelson throughout Nelson's forlorn narrative:
Nelson: I don't think there should be any problem now. Last time, after I missed the shuttle, I lost my—
Sebatacheck: The shuttle?
Nelson: To heaven. I lost my temper because it meant spending an extra ten years in the waiting room, so they—
Sebatacheck: Extra ten years?
Nelson: Ten more years, til the next shuttle. But I'd already waited the first eight hundred and twenty-two years; and then seven thousand two hundred more when it turned out I was supposed to serve eight thousand and twenty-two years—that's when I met you, Mr. Sebatacheck—and then an extra twenty thousand years just because of a stupid mistake that Mr. McMartin made, so the extra ten years made me lose my temper. And then they told me I wasn't allowed to lose my temper and I'd have to serve an extra ninety-nine thousand years for cursing. So, yes, I cursed some more but then I stopped, and I haven't cursed once in ninety-eight thousand four hundred and forty-nine years.
Sebatacheck gazes at him for a beat.
Sebatacheck: I bet that's a record.
Nelson: So now I've been in purgatory for a hundred and twenty-seven thousand and thirty-two years—
Sebatacheck: Purga—
Something hits Sebatacheck and forces out a laugh.
Nelson: . . . and I'm awfully tired of it so if there aren't any other problems, can I go to heaven now?
Sebatacheck: Purgatory...
He is lost in reminiscence. Nelson prods:
Nelson: I don't mind if I have to sit at a tram stop for a year or two.
Sebatacheck: I'm sorry. I just realized—you're from before Disclosure.
Nelson: Huh?
Sebatacheck wears a smile of nostalgia.
Sebatacheck: Jesus. I'd forgotten how we used to...
Nelson: Disclosure?
Sebatacheck: Yeah, they decided to stop kidding people. We tell them up front now.
Nelson: Tell them?
Sebatacheck: That they're in hell.
Nelson can't quite take this in.
Nelson: Who is.
Sebatacheck: You are. You people.
Nelson solemnly shakes his head.
Nelson: No, I've been in purgatory. I've been waiting to go to heaven. In the waiting room.
Sebatacheck shakes his head. His speech is patient, a little too loud, and meticulously enunciated, as if Nelson were a dull child.
Sebatacheck: We were pulling your leg. We were teasing. You stay here.
Nelson: . . . Teasing?
Sebatacheck: Yes. False hope. But we've stopped doing that. We stopped a long time ago.
Nelson: So...When am I going to heaven?
Sebatacheck: You're not going to heaven. We were just pretending. But now we're telling people. They've decided that despair is more effective, so now we tell people. You're in hell. It's eternal.
Nelson: So...I'm staying.
Sebatacheck: That's right. Forever. We tell people now—less fun for us; more effective for you people.
Nelson: I see.
Sebatacheck: It's more effective that way.
Nelson: I see.
Sebatacheck: After Disclosure they cut us back. Couldn't string people along if we wanted to. Don't have the manpower.