Coda by Romulus Linney

BOMB 85 Fall 2003
085 Fall 2003 1024X1024

After life. A great many people stand in a white mist. Four of them stand apart.

It’s closer. / A lot. / What do you think it is? / Gas, what else? / Oh dear. / Yes, it’s Bigger. / It must be … . / Yes …

Two women and two men. They are waiting.

I think I once had a baby kitten. It would fall asleep on its feet. / Kind, color, name? / I can’t remember. / Of course not. We hardly ever can. / Who were we? I can’t think about it. / I was some kind of musician that and sex with faceless men is as close as I get. I’m idiotic now, but at least I can say so. / I remember making love. It was very good. But I don’t know how it happened. Or why. / Well, isn’t that better? / Than what? / Bad sex happening all the time, and remembering it perfectly. / Perhaps sex and love are what I turned something else into. Maybe that’s it! / I hope I was some kind of mother. But who were my children? I don’t remember. / I was young. I remember that, never being old. / Maybe you were my son. / You think? / That would be very strange. / I doubt that too.

A light around them gets brighter.

It’s getting closer. / And warmer. / You know, I think I did come here from a dream.

There were places I created in my mind. They were made of Frankenstein houses and towns with the same landscapes but pieced together in different ways. / I did that, too. / We remember Frankenstein landscapes but not who we are? / Not who we were? Ha, ha, really? Kaleidoscope scenes recurring in sleep? Over and over? / Well, yes. I thought I might die there in one of them, myself. The parts I knew and went back to again and again. A beach and a road and some motels and a small house. Pieces of many places where I was in summer. / Asleep. Dreaming. Then dying? So, maybe you did. / Good way to go, I say. / Unless it was a nightmare. Ugh! / I don’t think it was horrible. If it was, I didn’t know it. Or if I knew it, I was too busy dreaming it to care. Or something. / You see, we can’t remember anything. / So, in a dream, in some place in your mind, not a real place at all, there you are and you have your stroke, or get hit by a car, dreaming it or whatever, and that’s it? / Yes. I think so. Yes./ My children. Did I have any? I couldn’t have. I would remember them. But then I can’t remember my mother and father either, can I? / But something out of the ordinary happened to us. / Because some of us want to be alone? Like three? / Or four, us? / Some are in couples. / Not many. / Most of the others, all of them, over there, they live in hordes. / We are alone by choice. Why? / Like that star, whatever it is, getting bigger.

The light gets brighter.

It’s close. / And hot. / It’s burning through the mist. / I can see it plainly now. It bubbles. / I think we were once all together somehow. Do you know what I mean? / No, I don’t. / Well, I mean, mother, father, sister, brother? / Let’s hope not. / Or wife, if I had one. Did I? Wait. What I do, I do remember, oh, is talking! Yes! I talked to people a great deal. I think I was good at it, like a salesman or a preacher or a professor. Eloquent even. I can see faces listening and drinking while I talked. Drinking. Oh, yes. British gin. Russian vodka. Kentucky bourbon. French red wine. Did you know brandy is fried wine? I can taste it all. But I can’t remember anything else, except talking and drinking. Then oh, having sex with faceless women, or even men. I don’t think it mattered. I thought I drank to have sex. But no I had sex so I could drink. Was I just that? Just a drunk? / Music! Music! Not a piano. Something else. A violin maybe. Did I play something? I can’t remember that. I do remember listening to a great violinist. My God, how he played. Softly, no bravura, but what taste and beauty. I listened to him knowing I would never be able to do that. / In my dreams, there was blue sky, and always gentle, refreshing winds. The sun, somewhere close to an ocean. What else? Nothing. Oh, there was an army. Yes, a huge army. A whole division, with weekly parades. Artillery, jeeps, tanks, troops and me. What was I doing there? A soldier, yes, but something else. / I hope I was good to my children. Even if I can’t remember I had any. They are like people say arms are, cut off. We still feel our hands. Wiggle, wiggle. My children, if I had any, / Dum diddy dum diddy dum dum dum. It must have been my mother, or my father, or my husband or all of them. That’s why you sing or play the violin. It’s for them. Prodigies do it for them. Was I that? Playing music at three or four or something, like little prodigies with the violin, making it sing for Momma? That’s what that violinist said. He came to a conservatory. I was there. He played the violin because he was a roughneck beating some little kid whose mother told his mother: Make him stop. So his mother told him: Stop that. Do something worthwhile. Play the violin. So for his momma, that’s what he did. He was a great artist. But what was I? / General Lemuel Dowell. I remember now. Three stars. Not West Point. He came up from the ranks. Been in two wars. A stringy old man, about to retire, walking with other generals and colonels and majors, early on a bright morning. They were going somewhere fast. It was very important. You could tell whatever it was, was all so terribly important. They had to get where they were going fast. I was just a private, going the other way. So I held my salute since they’d never see me anyway, just to get past such important big bugs without being noticed. But then General Dowell, he stopped. He plain stopped, dead in his tracks. He broke off his vitally important whatever it was. He wheeled around, old General Dowell did. He returned my salute. “Good morning, private,” he said. “Good morning, sir.” I said, and I was so happy. / The No Name Bar. I showed up there a lot. Two, three in the morning, where the whiskey was worse than the drunks. This awful place. Talking and listening and drinking. Hours and hours I spent there. Night after night. This awful, dangerous, ghastly, hideous, rotgut dive, where I was happy, and at home. The No Name Bar. Was that me? Me, in that place? / Do you see? / What? / As it gets closer, we remember more and more.

The light around them gets brighter.

I had someone like a son, I think, but I can’t see him. Instead, I see lots of just nobody faces. Were they students and I was their teacher? I hope so. I hope I was good to them, but the faces are all blurred and they don’t seem happy. They seem sad. Who were they? Who was I? / The violin, the piano, they became something else. Something easier. My God, a typewriter. My music became words. I was some sort of—no it was still music—but in words. Is that it? Did I make music into words? How can you? / It was bright sunlight every Saturday morning near that ocean. We got ready to march every week, past the reviewing stand, to show General Dowell his army. His soldiers. Their gear. His tanks, field cannons, white-gloved honor guards going past him under the flag always above him. Gigantic American colors, blown about, snapping in the wind. Only once did it rain. It poured. No marching soldier, no plain enlisted man could break open the pack on his back for his poncho, to use it as a raincoat. That would undo the gear of the perfect parade-ground soldiers. It would make the whole parade a slovenly mess. So we stood shivering, cold, wet in the rain, waiting for the general. But the lieutenants, captains, majors and colonels who weren’t marching, they all put on their ponchos while we got drenched. Then an open jeep showed up. In it was skinny old General Dowell. One look and he tore off his poncho. He threw it on the ground. He jumped out of that jeep, and stood cold and wet in rain on that reviewing stand, just like his privates, like me. His soldiers, his men, his corporals, and his sergeants, oh Jesus, you should have been there. You should have seen those colonels, majors, et cetera, getting rid of those raincoats, so they would get wet too. God, I loved that old man then. I was standing there crying. My sergeant said, “What’s wrong with you? What are you crying about?” / What was it I wrote that was like music but wasn’t? If the writing was as important as the music, why can’t I remember it? / Faces of children, students, whatever, pushing themselves at me while others sulked and stared. I wanted to love them, but I couldn’t. I had a job to do. And I often wanted them to go away. Because I liked the job, but not them? There were so many. I don’t remember what one of them looked like.

It gets brighter.

There was a terrible drunk at the No Name Bar. One night he got so bad, he got thrown out. To get yourself thrown out of the No Name Bar, you had to be rock bottom. He was Russian or Swedish or something. He kept telling everybody, at the top of his voice, “Life is God! To love life is to love God!” Drinking himself blind, staggering about. He begged to finish anybody’s drink. He begged for their leftover ice. I remember him now, reeling about screaming that loving life is loving God, because life is God, to love life is to love God so give me a drink, anybody, anything, and I thought yes. Me too. That’s right, he’s right, me, too, but what God did I love to make me drink like he did? / It’s getting closer. / It’s so big. / It’s so hot. Whew. / Look over there. All the others. Do you see smoke or something like it, over there? / I played words. I stopped playing the violin or the piano or the tuba or whatever it was, and I wrote words so they would be my music. But that’s impossible. It can’t be done. So what did I do instead? / They weren’t students. They weren’t even children. Oh! They were animals. My God, I can see them now. They were monkeys! What was I doing with monkeys, feeding them in a zoo? / In the war, General Dowell’s soldiers died. They got torn open, exploding bones flying about. They were sacks of blood, collapsing in my dreams. Bones and blood, trying to salute General Dowell with the general saluting them but crying, just as I had on the peaceful parade ground. I was later a corporal, then sergeant, then Sergeant Major of a division. I never saw a battlefield. / I can’t remember what it was made me drink like that. It wasn’t God. I wasn’t religious. I didn’t drink to love. I loved in order to drink. But there was something else behind it. What? / Hair on all their faces. Monkeys, chimpanzees. They were so intelligent and eager to please. Each one a different character. They’d jump on you, hug you, or sit wondering about you, smiling. Was it a zoo? No. I wore a snow white coat, starched every day. It wasn’t a zoo. It was a laboratory. I wasn’t feeding chimpanzees, I was killing them. / I didn’t play music with instruments. I articulated music with words. At first I hated the words and loved the music, but soon I came to love the words and hate the music. / I was a cheerful and gentle drunk. I never hated anyone. Did I ever have a home? I must have. Some kind, even if an orphanage. Some kind of mother, father, wife, children. Maybe I drank to forget them, or I forgot them so I could drink. Either way, I drank to get away from what I loved, not what I hated. / I was a funeral director of music, burying reputations. I liked nothing written after I was born. One hash I settled for good was a famous composer, proud of his chamber music. It was some of it good, but some of it was not. I made people forget what was good and remember what was bad. He was furious. He could write music but not words, and he seemed ridiculous. That diminished him, and his serious reputation, because I was disappointed with myself. I turned music I couldn’t make into judgment I could. It was only judgment of myself. Otherwise, I was very amiable and got along well with everyone. I was very successful. / I spent the war requisitioning arms, not firing them. I traded influences with other sergeants major. I got PX luxuries cheap for officers and their wives. I learned how to send other men to die in my place. I ran perfect parades. General Dowell was a soldier who loved his men. I was a coward who loved my parades. / My monkeys sat alone, chained in cages. I planted metal coils behind their eyes. I cemented steel plates and electrodes into their skulls. To collect their semen I shot electricity into their genitals. I watched monkeys arch their backs and ejaculate in agony. I killed them all, then took home my paycheck. I lived very well. / My God, what were we then? / I was a drunk. / I was a pedant. / I was a fake. / I was a sadist. / We’ve remembered that much, anyway.

It gets brighter.

Oh! / Oh! / Oh! / Oh! / It will be here soon. I’m not sorry, Let’s get it over with. / Is this why we stayed apart from all the others? Because we’re so awful? / Are the good people over there? Good doctors and teachers and priests? / Or can we remember, and they can’t?

It gets brighter.

What now? Do we just burn up? / Maybe fireproof tubes come out of this thing. Like in factory tunnels, aimed at our coffins. Momma, Daddy, you or me in there, whoosh! Red fire spurts out, burns us to cinders and grit, to get put inside nice boxes. / It’s a coda. / A what? / The end magnified. That’s what our memories are.

It gets bright.

Look, smoke. / Fire. They’ll burn up. / As we will. Everything, memories and all. / What were the memories for, I wonder? / So we were good, so we were bad. So what? What were they for? / To remind us. / Remind us of what? / That we were free. / What? / Free. / You think?/ To do what? / What we did. / Be what we were? / Such as we were / Oh, that’s a coda? / A sort of one. / They’re in flames. / Arms up in the air. / As if glad. / They were free, too. / We all were. / It’s here.


—Romulus Linney is the author of over 30 plays, many stories, and three novels. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which gave him its Award in Literature and its Award of Merit Medal for Drama.

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Originally published in

BOMB 85, Fall 2003

Featuring interviews with Sol Lewitt, Vera Lutter and Peter Wollen, Rikki Ducornet and Laura Mullen, Edward St. Aubyn and Patrick McGrath & Maria Aitken, Jon Robin Baitz and Stephen Gaghan, Gina Gershon and Dave Stewart, EL-P and Matthew Shipp, and Suzanne Farrell.

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