A Short Play
(Open stage except for mid-stage chair and a top, the kind with a push-down handle, resting downstage left. Terri enters, sits in the chair. Her eyes settle on the top.)
Terri: You must see little kids here too; you’ve got those toys. Do you mind if I…? (She crosses down to the top, sits down on the floor and pushes on its handle several times. She watches it spin until it stops.) I like tops. I don’t know. They’re simple. You push on them like this one, or you wind the string around them, or you twirl them with your fingers, and...off they go. No offense, but the action on that one is not great. Takes too much work. (She goes back to the chair, sits heavily.) Yeah, I guess so--they are like people. If you figure out the mechanism, you can wind up just about anybody. In some cases, to be honest, it’s too easy. My mother, for instance. (Mother enters.) Mom, do you ever have these times when you just don’t feel like eating? Like it’s just, why bother?
Terri: See, right there, I know I got her. She called me Theresa, with that tone, right? The little lift of the “uh” at the end (demonstrating): TheresUH. I’m Terri, but the second she’s wound up, it’s TheresUH.
Mother: Theresa, you have been eating, haven’t you? Because you know how vulnerable we women are to the false messages out there surrounding us, telling us these terrible lies about what our bodies are supposed to be. You like your body, don’t you? Because there is an epidemic out there, an epidemic, of young women with eating disorders. What do you mean when you say you don’t feel like eating? How long has this been going on?
Terri: See, that doesn’t even take talent. I mean, when the woman is made of buttons, it doesn’t take skill to push one. Mom, do you think teen pregnancy is really such a bad thing?
Terri: TheresUH. See, this isn’t even fair. (Mother exits. Father enters.) Now, my father, on the other hand, he tends to be more of a steady guy. In fact, he prides himself on it.
Father: I’m a fairly steady guy.
Terri: Or at least he claims to be.
Father: Nothing much sets me off. I’m what you might call even-keeled. Your mother and I complement each other in that way, you see. While she tends to be a bit...excitable, I am more the calm type.
Terri: Which is generally true. Generally. But, if you want to wind up my father, if you want to push his particular button, I’ve got just the topic: money.
Father: And just how much is this little field trip going to cost, Terri?
Terri: I don’t know, not too much. What difference does it make?
Father: What difference does it make?
Terri: Right there. That’s the wind-‘em-up question.
Father: What difference does the money make? Terri, we need to talk.
Terri: And so he talks.
Father: Like it or not, money pretty much makes the world go ‘round. Now, I realize that at this particular point in your life…
Terri: Mom is kind of like that top you have over there. A few quick pushes to get her started, and she’s off, but she doesn’t go for long. She exhausts her energy pretty quickly. Dad, on the other hand…
Father: No, no, no—I think we need to revisit this topic. In fact, after supper, we’re going to sit down and take a look at the monthly expenses needed to run our household.
Terri: He’s like one of those precision tops, the stainless-steel ones. You give them a spin and they go on and on and on.
Father: Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about the job prospects for someone your age. Surprisingly enough…
Terri: Yeah, so, if you wind up my father, you’d better be ready for a long haul. (Father exits.) Yes, I know why I’m here. Do you know why you’re here? Did you ever think about that, what sin you committed early in life that you might be paying for now? Or maybe you committed it in a previous life. Karma. Maybe you were a pig, and you broke out of your pen. Bad piggie. So now you’re paying for it by having to sit in this little office and ask people like me questions and listen to people like me talk about what I’m talking about. Bad, bad piggie. Right, back to me. I am here because…I was naughty. (pause) You know, you remind me of somebody.
(Brief blackout to indicate time passing between sessions. When the lights come back on, Terri is animated, walking around.)
Terri: My teachers, my friends, my relatives—except my grandmother. She gets all weepy. I leave her alone. But I could do it; she’s as easy as my mother. My neighbors, my dog. Oh, yeah, my dog! Nobody’s easier than my dog. All I have to do is grab this raggedy piece of sweater we have for him, and he’s off! He’s practically bouncing off the walls! My brother—piece of cake. Just have to insult Tom Brady or something. (any sports figure can be substituted). Anybody! Anybody and everybody! You can wind ‘em all up! You just have to find their…their…mechanism! The thing that gets ‘em going, right? Me? No, I don’t get wound up. Do you know what’s funny? I like words, right? And I didn’t even think about it until just a couple days ago, but “wound” (rhymes with “sound”) and “wound” (rhymes with “swooned”) are the same word—same spelling, different pronunciation. I get a kick out of that. Do I seem wound up to you? I’m not. To get wound up, see, somebody else has to be pulling the strings. That’s the key. The other day, right, I’m home alone (sound of phone ringing) and this guy calls on the house phone. We still have a landline, you believe that? Hello?
Voice (optional Indian accent): Hello, is this Jennifer Tate?
Terri: Immediately, I know what this is. The accent, the sound of other people in the background, the asking for my mother—it’s a scam. But I’m bored. So… Yes, this Jennifer. Who is this, please?
Voice: I am calling from Microsoft, and we are concerned that your security has been compromised.
Voice: Yes. This is a very serious matter.
Terri: It sounds like a serious matter. Can you help me?
Voice: Yes, of course. That is why I am calling, to provide you with the help you need to solve this serious problem.
Terri: Thank goodness. I’m always telling my husband that we need better security on our computer, gosh darn it.
Voice: Indeed. You are right to be concerned. Are you at your computer now?
Terri: Oh, just a second. I can be.
Voice: I will be able, from my remote location, to aid you in removing any malware that might be on your computer as well as providing added security.
Terri: That would be just terrific. (Out to counselor) So he’s all wound up now, thinking I’m going to give him the keys to my personal computer kingdom, and he’s probably going to get some sort of fat commission from whatever illegal gang he’s working for, but all the time he’s talking…
Voice: Now, I am going to instruct you to go to our website. On it, you will find a place to enter a few details…
Terri: I’m looking. I know it’s around here somewhere. Aha! Top shelf, my brother’s closet. (She reaches into the wings and pulls out an airhorn.) Bingo! (as if talking on the phone) Oh, yes, I see just where you mean. Are you sure it’s okay to enter my social security number here? Isn’t that dangerous?
Voice: You are right to be concerned, but since I am an official representative of Microsoft and you are on our official website, this will be perfectly all right.
Terri: If you say so. If I can’t trust you, who can I trust, after all?
Voice: Thank-you. That is correct.
Terri: Oh, just one other thing.
Voice: Yes, what is it?
Terri: Screw you! (Terri holds up the airphone and blasts it. The Voice yells in pain.) Yeah, so that was a satisfying wind-up session. No, that wasn’t very nice. But how nice was it for him to try to make me scared, to try to take advantage of me and break into my computer? He deserved it. You know, when you sit there like that, with your finger on your chin…who do you remind me of? It’s driving me crazy. It’ll come to me.
(Brief black out. When lights come up, Sarah is onstage.)
Terri: My friends—I can get them going. Sarah? She’s easy. (to Sarah). You know, I’m not completely sure we wouldn’t be better off going back to the way things used to be between men and women.
Sarah: What do you mean?
Terri (out): You see, she’s already there, already wound up. You can see in her face, her posture—she’s a prairie dog on alert, right? Frozen and tense. And her “What do you mean?” That’s her tell, right—just like my mother’s TheresUH. That’s not a question looking for information.
Sarah: What do you mean?
Terri: That’s a pretend question. It really means, “I dare you to keep going down that path.” And for fun, I keep going down that path. (to Sarah). Yeah, like, maybe men are just biologically designed to lead; women are biologically designed to be led.
Sarah: I cannot believe that any woman alive, not to mention a 21st century teenager, could even begin to think that what you just said is logical. Mean are biologically….? Do you realize that what you said is exactly the justification men have used to keep women barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen for centuries? Do you realize…?
Terri (out): Yes, I realize. But does she realize that my point is not to make a statement about women at all? That my whole aim is just to wind her up?
Sarah: Are the exact sorts of ideas that have caused countless women to waste their lives…
Terri: No, she doesn’t realize. (Sarah exits; Eric enters.) But that’s okay. I won. And then there’s Eric. What? What winds me up? I think we’ve already talked about this. Nothing winds me up. Well, yes, it’s possible, but it’s a matter of choice. You just say to yourself, “Nope, never again. Nobody’s going to do it to me.” You have to pay attention, of course, but it’s possible. Now, Eric, he doesn’t pay attention, so he’s highly susceptible. Just mention a girl and you’ve got him. (to Eric) Hey, do you know Bonnie Blake?
Eric: Oh, sure, yeah. Yeah, I know Bonnie. Why?
Terri: She’s pretty cute, huh?
Eric: Bonnie? Oh, yeah, well, like, yeah. She’s definitely, I mean…
Terri: She seems like your type.
Eric: What? My…? I mean, that would be cool, but…
Terri: I think she might think you’re pretty cute, too.
Eric: She…what? How did you, I mean, what?
Eric: Yeah, right, Bonnie. I mean, did she say something to you?
Terri: She says things to me every day.
Eric: About me?
Terri: Could be.
Eric: Do you mean she…? I mean, like, I don’t…. I mean, I never thought that….
Terri (out): Isn’t this great? He’s like popcorn on a hot griddle.
Eric: She’s…she did? Bonnie? She is cute. I mean, she’s definitely, like, even more than that. But she…she said stuff about me? Wow. Do you think I should…? I mean, I don’t want to…. I mean, Bonnie? Wow. Wow!
Terri: And he’s off to fantasy-land. (Eric exits; Jana enters.) And then there’s Jana. Do we have a test in Bio today?
Jana: Wait, what? A test? I didn’t hear about that. What do you mean, you think there’s going to be a test? What’s it going to be about? I didn’t hear about a test. Did you? Where did you hear about it? When did she tell us? She can’t just give us a test without giving us a reminder. Are you kidding? You’re kidding. You are kidding, right? I always write down when we’re going to have a test, and I don’t have anything written down for today, so there’s definitely not going to be a test. Is there? Because if there is, I am absolutely going to complain, because giving a test without warning is so against the rules. I can’t believe this. I just cannot believe this.
Terri (out): Out of time already? That was quick. Sometimes, time just zips by like, like a zipper, you know? Other times, it’s… That’s my homework, huh, the last time I can remember being wound up? Fair enough.
(Black out. When the lights come back up, Terri is sitting cross-legged, fiddling with the top.)
Terri: My Uncle Harvey, he collects tops. Or he used to, anyway. I haven’t seen him in a long time. He had hundreds of them, all kinds, from all over the world. I remember this one time, I was about seven years old, he took out a bunch of his tops.
Uncle Harvey (carrying a box): How many of these do you think I can get going at once?
Terri (as a seven-year-old): Um…four!
Uncle Harvey: Four? Only four?
(Uncle Harvey pantomimes taking tops out of the box and laying them out on the stage.)
Uncle Harvey: I don’t know, Theresa; you don’t have much faith in me.
Terri: I like to be called Terri now, Uncle Harvey.
Uncle Harvey: And I like to be called Sir Harvey, King Top-Spinner of the Universe.
Terri: That’s kind of long.
Uncle Harvey: And Terri is kind of short, but I shall try to remember, from this day forward, that you are Terri and not Theresa.
Terri: Thank-you, Sir Harvey, King Top-Spinner of the World.
Uncle Harvey: Actually, it’s universe, but let’s just stick to Uncle Harvey anyway. All righty, kiddo, have you been keeping track? How many have I put out here?
Terri: Um…10, 11…12! You can’t do 12 at once, Uncle Harvey.
Uncle Harvey: Is that so, Miss Terri? Is that absolutely, positively so, Miss Terri-Theresa-Terri-essa?
Terri: You can’t do twelve, Mr. Uncle Harvey-Smarvey of the Universe.
Uncle Harvey: Well, you’d better give me a ready-set-go because I am about to show you something amazing, Miss Terri!
Uncle Harvey: Oh, yeah.
Uncle Harvey: Gimme the go; gimme the go!
Terri: Go! (Uncle Harvey pantomimes running from top to top, getting them spinning.) And then, he did it—he ran from top to top, spinning and pushing and twirling just as fast as he could. It was crazy. It was hilarious!
(Uncle Harvey ad libs huffing and puffing and yelling how he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it, while Terri ad libs no you’re not, no you’re not, that one’s falling, you’re never going to make it, etc. After several seconds, Terri ends up laughing uncontrollably and Uncle Harvey splays out on the floor, pretending to be exhausted.)
Uncle Harvey: Did you see that? I did it! I had them all going! A dozen simultaneously spinning tops, Theresa, Terri, whoever you are!
Terri: No, you didn’t!
Uncle Harvey: I didn’t, huh? Well, I’m gonna spin you, you little Terri-top!
(Uncle Harvey runs over and tickles Terri. She screams and laughs some more. After a few seconds, Uncle Harvey leaves, taking the box. Terri watches him exit.) Yeah, that was a great memory. I should go see him again sometime, Uncle Harvey. He really did get a dozen of them going at once. I wonder if he still has all those tops. I wonder…. (She trails off.) Oh, nothing. I just wonder why he did that, why he took the time to entertain me, to make me laugh like that. I mean, it’s not like I was even his daughter—he had three of his own, my cousins. What was in it for him?
Terri: Oh, yeah, the homework. We never got to it last time. Yeah, I’ve thought about it. Of course I’ve been wound up; it happens to everyone. But that was back before I paid attention. Even you have been, I bet. I mean, granted, you’re pretty—there’s a good word for what you are—unflappable! You’re pretty unflappable, but I bet even you get wound up. What gets you going? Oh, right--we’re not here for that. Let’s see, the last time I was…. (She pauses, gets distant, tears up slightly.) What? Oh, just now, what was happening for me? (adopting a pseudo-intellectual tone, perhaps with a British accent); Well, I was deeply focused on your question, you see, and found myself contemplating a time a few months in the past, when, much to the surprise of both myself and my traveling companions, we encountered...really? You don’t like that shtick? I thought it was decent shtick. It was a bit of selfie shtick. That was good! Selfie shtick is a decent pun, you have to admit. When was I last wound up? It’s been a while. I have been in the winding position, shall we say, for quite some time now. That’s why I’m here, right? Because I’ve been making trouble, making waves. Because I used to be a good little soldier, all march here and march there and yes sir and yes ma’am and hop to it and finish this and finish that and on to the next required task. I was very good at being very good, very predictable, very people-pleasing, grade-grubbing, very lovely and staid and set-the-table proper, don’t you know? Salad fork there, dessert spoon there, goblet placed just so. I was like that, like a nice place setting at the table, and when people needed to reach for me, I was there. Easily found, easily wound. Easily… (The following word should rhyme with “pounded.”)…wounded.
(Blackout. When the lights come up, four teachers are onstage.)
Terri: Teachers! Now, they are a generally a very easy bunch to get going. Here’s a string that works for just about all of them: Why do we have to know this, anyway? What good is it going to do in the real world? Oh, yeah, that’ll get them going all right.
Teacher 1: If you don’t know how to write…
Teacher 2: How to calculate…
Teacher 3: How to appreciate…
Teacher 4: How to research…
All Four Teachers: How to think!
Terri: There it is. That’s what they all come back to, isn’t it? They are doing me the grand and wonderful favor of teaching me how to think. Then I get just a tad disrespectful and I say, I think I already know how to think, thank-you very much. (All four teachers look shocked, then take a deep breath.) And they’re off! (All four of the teachers speak sternly and simultaneously, ad-libbing a lecture about how school teaches students how to think. As Terri mentions other characters, they enter and add their voices, all ad-libbing points they’re trying to make to Terri.) They’re all off, spouting, spinning, spitting, shouting! Mom: Eat! Dad: Earn! Sarah: Girl Power! Eric: Gimme Girls! Jana: What Test? And more—more, more, more, more of them! The principal, the cop, the priest, the guidance counselor; my boss, my coach, my aunt, my next-door neighbor, my team-mates—look at them all! Listen to them all! Woo! (The noise of the characters continues for a while. Terri smiles, enjoying the spectacle. Suddenly, the lights change. Everyone freezes and goes silent.) What? Why? Why do I do it? Oh, of course—the million-dollar question. (Everyone onstage breaks from the freeze and resumes speaking simultaneously, but we can barely hear them.) Do you know what I do when they get going? I put on this face--very calm, as if they’re servers, telling me about the menu specials at a restaurant, you know? Today’s soup is broccoli cheddar. You also might like the fish and chips. Just this calm, unbothered face. It drives them crazy. They get louder, redder in the face. They usually get to this point when they demand some sort of reaction.
The Priest: Is this making sense to you?
Father: I certainly hope you’re listening.
Teammate 1: What’s your problem, Terri?
Sarah: You’re driving me crazy, you know that?
Eric: Are you yanking my chain, Terri?
Cop: Is this going to be a problem?
Teammate 2: Terri!
All: Are you even listening?
(All stare straight ahead, angry, waiting for a reply.) But you don’t break. You never break. Calmly, totally calmly, with your face totally in control, you say something like, “I have mixed feelings.” Or, “I’m not clear on your point yet. Could you go on?” Or, “How do you want me to respond?” And then, sometimes, you’ll hear these sounds. It’s like listening for the calls of wild animals in the forest. Not words—just noises. (Various characters make the sounds Terri mentions.) Some are very subtle. Clicks of the tongue. Sighs. Snorts, even an occasional growl. But you have to be ready. If sufficiently wound up and frustrated, some of these beasts can even come out with an ungodly howl! (Several of the characters yell in frustration.) Impressive, right? And then, sometimes—often, actually—you’ll get the silent stare down. They just look at you. I love this tactic because I never lose. I can just stare and stare and stare with a slight smile on my face. I can do it for hours. Well, I don’t have to tell you. No one has ever outlasted me. Two things generally happen in this case. Either they give up--an exhausted top, twirling out of the room, or they just get more and more wound up--it can happen even silently!--until they start spouting off again. (All of the characters start speaking again, at full volume, many of them shouting. After several seconds, the volume again drops to nearly inaudible.) Here’s the thing. As they’re going off, winding up—you’re in full control. It takes some practice, but you can go in your mind wherever you want, whenever you want! It’s great. You have them, but they don’t have you, you know? They can’t touch you, not at all.
(Blackout. When the lights come back up, all of the characters are still onstage, silent and facing front. Uncle Harvey circulates amongst them, handing them wind-up tops.)
Terri: You’re still on that question, huh? That big old “why.” I suppose it’s a logical question, especially concerning the wind-up of all wind-ups, the one I perpetrated on the whole town. I have to admit, looking back, that wasn’t all that smart on my part. I wouldn’t do it again. But why did I do it in the first place? I asked Uncle Harvey one time, hey, why do you collect all these tops, anyway? Are they worth a lot of money?
Uncle Harvey: I have no idea. Some of them are pricey, but that’s not why I do it.
Terri: Why, then?
Uncle Harvey: Well, Terri-Theresa, somethings you do just because they’re fun.
(Uncle Harvey exits. As Terri speaks the following monologue, the characters onstage, each carrying a top, walk until they form a rough semi-circle around her.)
Terri: Could it be that simple? I posted that stuff on-line and made those calls and put that graffiti on the bathroom wall so everybody would think some psycho was going to come and shoot up the school—I did all that just for fun? Yeah. Yeah, it was kind of fun, watching the whole town get wound up. (The characters onstage kneel down and wind up the tops, get them all spinning simultaneously, then exit. Terri watches the tops spin until the last one topples.) You never stop, do you, with your questions? No, no, you’re right. Fun isn’t the right word. It was just…it was just that I made it all happen. I did it. Instead of having it done to me. Instead of having it….
I figured it out. Who you remind me of. You’re not going to like it. You’re a woman, but you remind me of a man. There was this night in November, not this past one, the year before. I was getting a ride home from volleyball practice with my brother. His car died about a mile from the house, and he was all, “I’m gonna call Petey--he’ll come help me fix it,” but Petey wasn’t answering his phone and my brother wouldn’t call my parents, so I decided to walk. I didn’t get very far when a neighbor of ours stopped and asked me if I wanted a ride. It was cold, so I said sure. You remind me of him, my neighbor. He was unflappable, too, although I don’t like that word for him because it’s kind of light, kind of comic. He was focused, my neighbor, the way he took a strange sidestreet before we got to my house, the way he just kept looking straight ahead as he drove down this street that turned to dirt and then just petered out in a field. Nothing I did or said would get to him. He just stayed very calm the whole time, very business-like the whole time, and then afterward, as he was driving me home, he was still so...clear and clean and focused, how he explained to me that the whole thing should just be our business and nobody else’s. You remind me of him, which is crazy, isn’t it? (She takes one of the tops, winds it up, lets it spin until it dies.) I think I need some help.
(Lights go down to end the play.).