JAMES McTIGUE – (Ages 20 – 82), gruff, unapologetic, temperamental, a bit irrational, a bit racist, and has a Brooklyn accent mixed with a hint of Irish.
SAMUEL WEISS – (Ages 20 – 82), well-spoken, thoughtful, tries to avoid conflict (verbal and physical), he a bit too agreeable, and has a hoarse Yiddish and Brooklyn mixed accent.
RALPH TURNER – Age 22, leader archetype, acts courageous even when scared, speaks bluntly, and has a southern accent.
SARAH KIRSCHMAN – Age 26, she is attractive and intelligent, values commitment, is more outspoken than most women of her time, and has an old-timey Brooklyn accent.
Present day: An ordinary afternoon in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.
Center: A public chess table with checkers pieces on it, and two metal park chairs on either side, where elderly James and Sam sit for the duration of the play.
Left and Right: Flashbacks take place in these spaces, so the sets are interchanged as the play goes on.
. . .
(Lights come up on center stage where James is sitting in the metal park chair, turned so it faces the audience. The other chair is empty, and no checkers pieces are set up on the table.)
JAMES: Late again, he is. Don’t matter none to me though. He’ll show up, he always does. I’m talkin’ about my good buddy Sammy, by the way. Nah, he’s more than just my buddy. We’re brothers, Sam ‘n me. We’ve been through hell and back, spent our whole lives together. See, I used to have brothers by blood. I think there were… (Pauses, thinking.) …four. Yeah, that sounds about right. O’course, they all died when I was real young. Dillon, Thomas Jr. and Liam got themselves shot in World War 2 by some Japs. Then Sean got ripped apart by a Nazi mortar.
My folks probably would’ve made more of us little Irish fuckers if my Mum hadn’t passed just after that war. Each time she got the news that another of her sons had died, well, I think it took away a part of her, until she only had me left, and I guess that just wasn’t good enough. I think I still have a scar from when my Pa beat me stupid after her funeral. When my Mum passed, seems all he ever did was get drunk and beat me. I guess I should’ve left that place sooner, but I had nowhere to go, and truth be told, I was pretty damn scared of the old man.
Then when I was probably…sixteen, my Pop got mixed in with some bad folks, probably from his gambling debts or whatsoever. One night he just shows up at our apartment door, hollerin’ that he’s lost his key. I open it, and he’s really messed up. I’m talkin’ bleeding from just about everywhere you can bleed. Two black eyes, hair pulled out, bruises up’n’down, his clothes all ripped. I swear I will never forget that sight as long as I live. Least I could do was help him in, lay him down on his bed. He begged me, half-conscious, to not call the cops, or the hospital, that he’d be fine come morning. Bein’ the fuckin’ stupid kid that I was, I listened. Next morning comes, the old man’s dead. And back in those days, no one gave two shits if a poor Irish drunkard died from gettin’ beaten bloody by other poor Irish drunkards.
The next two years were me workin’ my bloody arse off at some wharf in Queens until goin’ straight to enlist in the Army. I figured it’d be a good shot since there was no war goin’ on at the time, and seemed like my only way out of the pisshole that was New York City. Shit, was I wrong on all counts, but I don’t regret joining up. Korea came outta nowhere, but that’s where I met Sammy, so that’s worth a lot. He was a scared little kid fresh off the boat, shittin’ himself if a frog croaked in the trees. It was all I could do to take him under my wing, teach him to stay the fuck alive in that damned war. We stuck it out though, me ‘n Sammy, and made it back to Brooklyn in one piece, more’o’less. (Laughs.) Well shit, speakin’ of that fucker…
(James turns his attention to Sam, who enters the stage and sits in the empty metal chair.)
JAMES: (Sarcastically.) How kind of you to show up.
SAM: Yeah, yeah, you know I can’t walk as fast as I used to. (Groans.) Ugh, these chairs are the worst. Honestly, sitting here every day is destroying what little bone structure I have left at my age. (He shifts uncomfortably in his seat.)
JAMES: Quit stallin’ and set up. I’ve got that winner’s itch today.
SAM: (Chuckling.) Jimmy, you haven’t won a game of checkers in your life.
JAMES: Bah! We’ll see who’s laughin’ when I wipe the floor with yer shriveled old arse.
(Sam shakes his head, smiling and taking out a full set of red wooden checkers pieces from his pockets, placing them neatly on the board. James follows suit with his own set of black metal pieces and both of them lean in, eager to play.)
(An hour later, same stage, just a few checkers pieces are left on the board.)
SAM: Jimmy, just give up so we can play another game.
JAMES: You know me too well for that, Sammy. I’ll never admit defeat.
SAM: (Sighs.) You are just running from my kings with yours, prolonging this for no reason. Is that how an honorable soldier acts? Running from battle with his tail between his legs?
JAMES: (Angrily.) Don’t you spout that “honor” bullshit with me, Sammy. You ‘n I both know that the kind o’ honor in stories ‘n fairy tales are useless when it comes to real battle. In war, the only rule is to stay alive. You can call me a coward, a craven, and a lily-livered fraidy-cat. But those who stay and fight certain death are just fuckin’ morons.
SAM: All of those who stay and fight are morons, eh Jimmy? You really are turning senile if you don’t remember Ralph Turner anymore.
JAMES: (Growing very quiet.) Shit…
SAM: (Saying to audience.) Separated from our platoon one foggy night, well into enemy territory, surrounded on all sides… (Pause.) It would sound like the setting of a good film if it wasn’t all too real.
(Lights dim on Sam and James, and open up on stage right. There is a forest clearing, three men sitting huddled in the center, all with full soldier uniforms and gear. One is 20 year old Sam, naïve and terrified. The other is 20 year old James, who is just as gruff and racist even at this young age.)
SAM: (Shaking, talking in a hushed, frightened voice.) Jimmy, this fog is making me wanna puke. I can’t see past my own nose. I’m sick of sitting out here in the middle of nowhere. Nobody’s gonna find us and we’re gonna die.
JAMES: Sammy, get a hold o’ yourself. If we can just hold out till morning, I’m sure there’ll be a search party sent for us.
RALPH: Look, both o’ you sissies shut yer traps. Just ‘cuz we can’t see the enemy don’t mean the enemy ain’t nearby. No one’s comin’ to rescue us neither, so come morn’, I expect you boys to be ready to book it out o’ here on my signal.
JAMES: (Mumbling.) Yes, sir.
SAM: Yes sir. (Looking up suddenly.) D-did you hear that?
JAMES: Hear what?
SAM: I swear I just heard a voice. Maybe it’s our rescue… we-we’re saved!
RALPH: That’s damned impossible. We ain’t been out here nearly long enough fer anyone to come lookin’, let alone actually find us. Now are ya sure ya heard a voice, or is it just nerves gettin’ the best of ya?
SAM: I mean, I thought I did—
JAMES: Shit, I just heard it too. Sounded like gook-speak.
RALPH: Alright, keep your fuckin’ voices down. They ain’t gonna be able to see us through this fog, so stay low, and keep quiet.
(The sound of other voices becomes clear, reverberating from the back of the stage. James, Sam, and Ralph are whispering now.)
JAMES: They’re getting closer.
SAM: They’re gonna find us.
JAMES: Sounds like a lot of the bastards.
SAM: They’re gonna kill us.
RALPH: Y’all need to shut the hell up. I’m thinkin’, okay? Makin’ a plan. They ain’t gonna kill us.
(There is a rustling noise and the voices reach their loudest yet. Ralph stands suddenly, rifle in hand.)
RALPH: Okay. On my mark, you two get up off yer asses and run the hell back the way we came, and don’t you dare look back.
SAM: Wait, but what about you? Why—
JAMES: (Bowing his head.) Just listen to the man, Sammy. Don’t question him and this’ll work.
(Realization flashes across Sam’s face and he gets ready to protest, but before he can, Ralph turns from them, and walks towards the back of the stage, or towards the voices.)
RALPH: (Yelling.) Run! Now fer you, ya fuckin’ commie bastards!
(Gunfire is heard as Ralph exits the stage, and James and Sam follow. The lights dim on stage right, going back up on center stage and the checkers table with elderly James and Sam.)
JAMES: I’d never forget him, Sammy. That man saved our lives. He was the fuckin’ definition of a hero.
SAM: So do you take back what you said?
JAMES: (Looking pained to admit he was wrong.) Not… not all those who stay and fight are morons.
SAM: James McTigue admitting fault. I never thought I’d live to see the day.
JAMES: (Laughing.) Ya know: now I’m really convinced to not give up on this game!
SAM: (Sighing, smiling and shaking his head.) You meshugana old coot.
JAMES: I’m gonna beat you yet, you’ll see, Sammy!
(Sam turns towards the audience, talking at them while James deliberates his next move.)
SAM: Jimmy gets like this a lot. Stubborn as a mule, and maybe as dumb as one too. We’re opposites in just about every way, so some days I still can’t believe we’ve stuck together this long. I don’t regret the time spent, though. Not a bit. It’s nice having a friend like Jimmy, because as foolhardy as he can get, I know he’ll stick by me till the bitter end. We make interesting bedfellows, a Jew and an Irishman. (Laughs hoarsely, turning into a cough.) Boy, that would have really infuriated my father. He always did hate the Irish. Why, I remember him having an Irish foreman at one of the construction yards he worked at when I was a boy. He came home after the first day of work hollering about how he was gonna “push that potato headed schmuck off a scaffold.” (Chuckles.) That got Ma so steamed, she whacked the old man upside the head with his own shoe, yelling at him for using such vulgar language in front of his children. Ma believed cussing to be “ungodly.” She was a very religious woman, going to synagogue every Friday for Shabbat services and making sure me and my brothers got Bar Mitzvahs like good Jewish children. Ma believed intensely in Judaism, thinking it’s teachings to be the solution to every problem. Being Jewish was part of her identity to her core, more so than being a New Yorker, or even an American. All she seemed to talk about for years when I was young was of her children going to rabbinical school to become rabbis of their own congregations. My two younger brothers, Joshua and David, both fulfilled my mother’s wish. That never surprised me really; they always were the studious types.
Me, I just wasn’t cut out for that kind of thing. As a boy, I had no place in my mind for synagogue or Hebrew school. All I had time for was going to movies and hearing about the war. I remember watching those newsreels of Normandy and the Pacific like it was yesterday. I thought being a soldier fighting for my country was the absolute greatest thing a man could aspire to. What can I say though, I was a kid, and that propaganda worked pretty darn well on kids. My mother, however, was decidedly not Rosie the Riveter, and my father was never keen on the idea of the government forcing its citizens to fight. So you can imagine what it was like in the family household when I announced that instead of trying to get into college, I was going to enlist in the army. I still vividly remember the day I packed to leave for basic training in ’49. My folks, well, they wouldn’t even say goodbye to me when I left the apartment, suitcase in hand.
War, as they say, was hell. Only good thing to come out of Korea was me and Jimmy’s friendship. When we finally got back, we opened a grocery in Brooklyn together, just around the corner from here. Those were good days to be young and alive. After what we’d seen on the other side of the world, we just wanted to do the furthest thing from combat as humanly possible.
(Sam frowns, beginning to talk slower, looking pained to speak about the next part of his tale.)
When I came back from Korea, I moved into a place only a few miles from my old home, but I never could muster up the courage to go there. Kept telling myself I’d go “tomorrow,” drop by in a week when I had the time. A week turned into a month, and the months went by faster than I thought possible. I didn’t speak to my folks for over ten years. It was a funeral that ended the silence. My father’s funeral. When I showed up in our synagogue that day, there was a rush of silence I hadn’t heard since the calm before battle. The next week I decided to go home for the first time in a decade to sit Shiva with my family. The discomfort and hurt feelings never seemed to truly disappear, but my brothers, and even my mother accepted me for the whole week, and let me help accept mourners into our household.
(He stops frowning, looking brighter as he remembers more.)
The next week, I was helping Ma out by bringing her groceries free of charge. The week after that, I was sitting down to Shabbat dinner with her and my brothers, a tradition which carried on for many years after that. I guess it truly took a death to bring our family close again. I even invited Jimmy to some of those dinners, but he always told gave me the same answer. (Attempting to talk like James, using a gruff tone.) “Sammy, I got no time for religion, ‘specially when there’s baseball to watch.”
I think he was just unsettled by all that family togetherness, but I never stopped trying to include him. I mean, I’m the only ‘family’ Jimmy has, and he’s always been more of a brother to me then my own kin. Maybe that’s why neither of us ever got married; too busy looking out for each other’s well-being to deal with the whole dynamic of women. (Beat.) Y’know, I was actually pretty close to settling down once many years ago, even before my father passed. Her name was Sarah.
(Lights dim on Sam and James, and open up on stage left, which is set as a New York sidewalk. A twenty-six year old Sam and a young woman, Sarah, enter holding hands.)
SARAH: (Smiling.) Thanks for taking me to the movies tonight, Sam. I had a swell time. That Marilyn Monroe sure is something.
SAM: She’s alright, but you, I bet you could put her out of a job if you went into acting, Sarah.
SARAH: (Chuckles.) Yeah right, loverboy. Sweet talk me all you want, but you know what Miss Monroe says: “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
SAM: Yikes, can’t your best friend be a little more affordable?
SARAH: (Laughs, but then grows a bit nervous.) Oh Sam, before I forget, well, my parents wanted me to invite you to dinner next Friday. There will be Shabbat prayers, but it’s nothing too religious, it’s just…they really want to meet the boy I’ve been telling them so much about.
SAM: (Not making eye contact with her.) That sounds terrific Sarah, but I think I have to ask Jimmy if it’s okay with him. See, you know that we listen to the Dodgers game every Friday in the store and it wouldn’t be fair to him if I just didn’t show up.
SARAH: (Frowning.) Sam, we’ve been seeing each other for almost six months now and you’ve blown me off every single time I asked you to do something that would interrupt you spending time with him.
SAM: (Apologetic.) I know, I know, it’s just, Jimmy and I are like family to each other and I mean, he needs me to be there so he doesn’t go off getting into trouble.
SARAH: (Still frowning.) James is an adult. You don’t need to watch over him like some mother hen.
SAM: No, see, you don’t understand. I do need to watch over him. Since Korea, he’s really had a bad time living a normal life. He’s really all alone except for me, since his whole family is, well, dead. That’s partly why we opened the grocery, to help ground him.
(Sarah sighs, clearly upset with the whole situation, pulling her hand away from Sam’s.)
SARAH: Look… my Mama gives me an earful every time I go home. (Changing to a shrill tone.) “You’re twenty six and the only one of my children not married. If we weren’t Jewish, I’d ship you off to a nunnery!” So frankly, if you can’t commit to us, Sam, then I think we should break it off. I don’t want to wake up one day as an old maid, full of regrets.
SAM: (Looks as though he’s been slapped in the face.) Wait, Sarah, I just, I never knew you felt that way. If you want to get engaged, we can get engaged. (Beat.) It’s just…
SARAH: Just what?
SAM: (Looking down, mumbling.) I still need to ask Jimmy about Friday. I owe him that much…
SARAH: (Grudgingly.) Fine, Sam. Please just walk me home now. Ring me no later than tomorrow with your response.
(Sam and Sarah exit the stage in silence, the lights going down on stage left and open on stage right, set as the inside of an old grocery after closing time. Sam enters as a twenty-six year old James is putting cans on a shelf. Sam joins him.)
JAMES: Sammy! Where ya been?
SAM: I took Sarah to see a film.
JAMES: (Snorting.) Pfffft, You’re still seein’ that broad?
SAM: Yes Jimmy, I’ve been seeing her for almost six months now.
JAMES: Shit, seriously? Can’t figure out how to dump her, eh? You always were a softie, Sammy.
SAM: I’m not planning on breaking up with her Jimmy; in fact, I think she might be “the one.”
JAMES: The hell are you talking about? Which one?
SAM: (Wistfully.) You know, that special someone to spend the rest of my life with.
JAMES: Aww, and what am I, chopped liver?
SAM: (Laughing.) Jimmy, I’m just stopping by to let you that she invited me to dinner at her parents’ house.
JAMES: So, what are ya tellin’ me for?
SAM: Well, see, it’s next Friday, so I wouldn’t be able to come here and listen to the Dodgers game with you.
JAMES: (Shrugging.) So tell ‘em to have you over on a different night.
SAM: No, Jimmy, it’s not that simple. It’s Shabbat dinner, and Sarah really, really wants me to be there.
JAMES: What, so you’re gonna ditch me for some dame, Sammy?
SAM: (Frowning.) Jimmy, she’s not just “some dame.” This is the girl I’m going to ask to marry me.
JAMES: (Angrily.) You’re fuckin’ kidding me. I bet you think that’s your own idea, right? Yer gonna be her fuckin’ Prince Charming and sweep her off her feet with a ring and some damned vows. Sammy, who mentioned a wedding first, you or her? That’s all I’m askin’.
SAM: (Looking unsure.) Well, I mean, she brought it up tonight. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t thought of the idea myself—
JAMES: (Interrupting.) Yeah, that’s what I thought. Sammy, I’m just trying to look out for you here. These broads today, all they care about is gettin’ married. It’s everything to them, right? I’m just lookin’ out for my best pal. I don’t want this “Sarah” to push you into anything. Gettin’ hitched, Sammy, that’s a huge thing. You can’t just quit if you don’t like it.
SAM: Yes, I know that, but—
JAMES: And what about our store? I need you here, Sammy. We barely got any money as it is, and you think we could afford to hire folks to work here while you go off and try to raise a family?
SAM: It would definitely not be easy—
JAMES: But shit, it’s not like you can trust me, the fella who saved your life far more’n once in Korea.
SAM: (Upset.) Jimmy, you’re being unfair. It’s just one dinner.
JAMES: Oh sure, first it’s just one night you can’t come in, then a few more, and before long, I’m gonna be alone again just like after my Pop died. I’ll probably end up dead myself, in an alley somewhere, and you wouldn’t give a shit, off with your new family.
(Angered, Sam gives James a shove, knocking some cans to the ground, catching James off guard.)
SAM: Jimmy, you’re talking bullshit, so shut up and listen. I’d never abandon you, no matter what. You know that without me having to spell it out. We’re brothers, damn you, ‘till the end. That will never change.
JAMES: (Genuinely.) I…I know, Sammy. I’m just scared is all. I’ve lost so much, and everyone I’ve ever known has left me, usually in a coffin. I just keep expectin’ you to leave next, one way or another. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that maybe all my brothers aren’t gone. (James looks at Sam with gratitude, and even a bit of respect.) And about Friday... I guess I see us listenin’ to the dodgers as more’n just hanging out. It’s a tradition to me, and breakin’ a tradition, well, that scares me.
JAMES: (Smiling now.) Wait, wait, let me finish. If you really think goin’ to yer girl’s parents place for dinner is that important, then I’m not gonna stop you.
SAM: No Jimmy, I was going to say, if that’s really how you feel, then I’ll ask Sarah if I can come a different day. I don’t think it should be too big of an issue. It’s like I even just said, it’s only one dinner, right?
JAMES: If she doesn’t understand, then shit, she isn’t good enough for you anyway, Sammy! Now would ya help me pick these damn cans up ‘fore they roll out the front door?
(Sam laughs and gets helps James pick up the cans that dropped, then he gets ready to leave. Both look as though they might embrace, but instead simply nod at each other. Sam exits and the lights go down, opening back up on elderly Sam and James in center stage.)
SAM: (Still speaking towards the audience.) Sarah didn’t understand, of course. She had every right not to, as she told me she wanted to get engaged, and I blew it. I chose my obligation to James over my love for her, and paid the price. I don’t regret my decision though. I’m too old for regrets anyway, too old to be wishing what could have been and not what was. If I got married to Sarah back then and ended up having to close the grocery, there’s no way Jimmy and I would as well off as we are now. Speaking of which…
(Sam turns back towards James, finally addressing him again, moving a checkers piece one space.)
JAMES: Well shit, you took so long to make a move, I thought you’d gone and had a stroke on me. I woulda been pissed, Sammy!
SAM: (Ignoring him.) Hey Jimmy, do you ever regret selling the store?
JAMES: Damn, that came outta left field. Lemme think about it… Hell no. I don’t regret it one bit. I got more money than I know how to spend it now, Sammy. What kinda dumb question is that?
SAM: I was just curious. I mean, we raised that grocery from nothing into quite the thriving business, so I was just wondering if you thought it getting demolished after all those years bothered you in any way.
JAMES: Well sure, it was no fun to see half a life of memories bulldozed by some fancy “land developer,” but did you really still wanna be working there? We came outta that deal with two million big ones each, Sammy. I’d say that was well worth the years we put into that old place. How ‘bout yourself then, do you regret makin’ that deal with those rich bastards?
SAM: (Shakes his head.) Jimmy, I tend agree with you on this one. We did the right thing, hopefully for the right reasons. And I definitely don’t miss the sore tuckus I got from sitting behind the checkout counter all day.
JAMES: Or dealin’ with some of those loonies that came in just before closin’ time. Hell, I swear some o’ them came straight outta those old horror movies you used to make me go see.
SAM: (Laughing.) How about the summers? I still remember schvitzing up a storm because we couldn’t afford cooling for anywhere but the freezer.
JAMES: Sure I remember, Sammy, but what’s this talk about regrets all of the sudden? You better not tell me yer dyin’ or anything.
SAM: I’ve just had a spell of nostalgia lately, Jimmy, and I always end up with that same thought: If I could change anything, would I?
(Sam and James go silent, focusing on their still unfinished checkers game.)
JAMES: So fuckin’ spit it out, would ya?
SAM: Well…no, actually. I used to think all the time about the things I’d change. What if I had never enlisted? What if I had married Sarah? What if we had kept the store?
JAMES: We’re too old for “what ifs,” Sammy. If ya spend all yer time with yer head stuck in the past, then what’s the point of bein’ alive now?
SAM: Exactly, Jimmy. You said that same thing to me a few years ago—
JAMES: I did?
SAM: Yes, you senile old putz, you gave me that exact speech, and it really stuck with me. As much as I think of what could have been, I’m pretty darn content with how things turned out for me, for us.
JAMES: Yer gettin’ pretty sappy right about now, Sammy. Shit, if you don’t let up, I might have to start bawlin’. Just remember what I also told ya: if you don’t get busy livin’, then you better get busy dyin’.
SAM: It was Morgan Freeman who said that in The Shawshank Redemption, Jimmy.
JAMES: (Snorts.) Pfft, then he stole it from me.
SAM: (Chuckling.) Jimmy, you’re no Morgan Freeman, that’s for sure.
(James laughs, and their checkers game goes on in silence again.)
SAM: (Confidently.) Well, that’s that.
JAMES: (Looking at the board in dismay.) Shit, now how did I let that happen…
(Sam finishes the game, jumping the remainder of James’ pieces in one move. He draws out his move, flourishing each jump, winking at James as he wins.)
JAMES: Fuckin’ shit, Sammy, and I had that winner’s itch and everythin’ today. (beat) Bah, well there’s always next time.
SAM: (Depositing the rest of his checkers pieces into his pocket, then standing slowly.) Jimmy, you’ve never beat me, and you never will.
JAMES: Why can’t we play a different game, whaddabout… chess?
SAM: (Bursts into hoarse laughter.) James McTigue playing chess! Now that I would pay to see.
JAMES: Yeah, yeah, well you can shove it. I’ll win tomorrow, you just wait.
SAM: With baited breath.
(James stands as well, and the old friends shake hands.)
JAMES: Tomorrow then.
SAM: See you then, Jimmy.
(Sam and James turn and exit, leaving the opposite way from the other. The lights dim on center stage.)