Salinger & Caulfield (a one-act play)
Updated: a day ago
by Kevin O’Keefe
Location: The sidewalk steps of the Windsor, VT Post Office, a small bench is off center right. It is a gray day in November, 2008.
A man enters, stage left, late fifties, youthful, dressed preppy, but sloppily. Waits.
Then coming down the steps of the Post Office is J.D. Salinger, 80ish, the reclusive,“famous” writer. Under a large wool overcoat he wears pajamas and Sorel boots, and a red-plaid woodchuck hat puled down low. He carries a pile of mail.
MAN: Mr. Salinger? Mr. Salinger? Mr. Salinger, please?
(Salinger stops and turns around slowly.)
MAN: It’s me, sir.
JDS: Of course it is. How are you today?
MAN: OK, sort of, thanks for asking sir.
JDS: What can I do for you, son?
MAN: Oh, well, that’s sure swell of you, I guess…I was sure it wouldn’t be this easy, so I never considered what I would say after getting through the hard part.
JDS: The hard part?
MAN: You know, just getting you to stop and talk to me. Your, ah reputation precedes you.
JDS: Well, here we are. What do you want?
MAN: Listen, can we talk?
JDS: What do you call this?
MAN: I mean, somewhere private?
JDS: No. (He turns to leave)
MAN: OK, well you see sir, it’s sort of personal. It’s just this: I need you to let me go.
JDS: OK, poof, you’re gone. (He turns to leave)
MAN: No, I mean, not like that, I mean, you know, publish the sequel.
JDS: No idea, what you’re talking about.
MAN: The sequel to Catcher in the Rye, sir. You don’t have to pretend, not with me.
JDS: Okay. You’ve had your fun.
MAN: Believe me. This is not fun. If I could be anywhere else this morning I would be. But Mr. Salinger, please, that’s my life you’re writing about.
JDS: (beat) That’s my book you’re talking about. (beat) You’re right. Why didn't I think of this sooner? I guess I was just waiting to run into you. Thanks. I’ll go right home and call my lawyer and tell him to release it. (Turns other way to leave and Man confronts him again)
MAN: Wait, please I’ve been waiting my entire life to tell you this.
JDS: And I’ve been waiting the whole morning to say this to you: Fuck off or I’ll call the authorities.
MAN: I know about the sequel. I know why you haven’t published it and I can help you.
JDS: And I can help you. HELP! Somebody help me. Call the cops!
MAN: Dammit, wait a minute ole man. It really is me. Holden, Holden Caulfield.
JDS: Oh boy.
MAN: I know it’s been a long time but look closely, ask me anything. Ask me about any of the schools I was kicked out of before Pencey. Ask me about our apartment building in New York or one of the doormen, anything. (He pulls out his driver’s license and shows it to him). It’s me Holden. I’m your…creation.
JDS: You’re nuts, kid. Get some help. This is the part of the story where I blow you off.
MAN: Don’t call me nuts. That’s not fair to either of us. you are the only one who can help me.
JDS: Do you have a cellular telephone?
MAN: Sure, yeah good idea. (He takes it out and takes a selfie, then gives phone to Salinger who dials. He waits. )
JDS: It’s not ringing. How can they not pick up at 911?
MAN: You have to press send. (Shows him where and Salinger presses send).
JDS: Thank you.
JDS: (beat) It’s ringing.
MAN: Sure, tell the authorities that you are JD Salinger, the famous reclusive author and that you’ve been speaking to a character from your book, Holden Caulfield. That he won’t leave you alone. Tell them, “He’s holding me against my will, torturing me.” See which one of us ends the night in the looney bin.
JDS: Shit. (hangs up the phone) Why didn’t I think of that. (pause)
MAN: We all need a hand sometime.
JDS: Is it really you?
MAN: Want to see my scar from where they took out my appendix?
JDS: Good god, no. I saw enough of that kind of thing in the war.
MAN: Ah, yes. WW2, The Big One, The Greatest Generation…
JDS: You sassing me boy? (beat) Alright, it’s GO time. I did it years ago and I still can do it now. Let’s settle this once and for all. (He takes off his coat and rolls up his sleeve.)
MAN: What? Here? Now?
JDS: Mano-a-mano. Think you’re too old to be taken out to the wood shed?
MAN: You can not be serious?
JDS: What’s the matter? Afraid?
MAN: Sort of. I’m afraid I might hurt you.
JDS: (pokes him in the chest) Try me.
MAN: OK, then.
(They arm wrestle on the bench. It’s very close but Holden eventually wins.)
JDS: Well, that didn’t turn out how I thought it would.
MAN: Not for you.
JDS: Two out of three?
MAN: Sorry, old man.
JDS: (beat) Have you actually read it?
MAN: Read it? No. I don’t have to read it. I’ve lived it. Or I’m still waiting to live it.
JDS: This is getting weird…er.
MAN: You have to publish it.
MAN: So I can get on with my life. I know why you’ve waited this long. You think anything you wrote could never live up to Catcher, after all these years. You don’t want to be judged. I had a teacher once at Pencey, Mr. Scupper, who called it the sophomore slump. But I’m telling you for my sake, for all our sakes, you’ve got to publish it.
JDS: As the last fifty years have made abundantly clear: No I don't.
MAN: That’s a cop out, and you know it. You’ve kept me on a shelf for the past fifty years. I’m fixed and frozen. You can’t just abandon your baby, like that.
JDS: Oh, grow up.
MAN: I’m trying. I’ve been trying. Now I need help. Your help.
JDS: I’ve had it with you people, always coming up here, always wanting something from me. Something I can’t give you.
MAN: What do you mean “you people”?
JDS: Oh, don’t start that with me. (beat) You. You characters. Always trying to take over my life. Wedging yourself into every corner of my life where you don’t belong. Blossoming in some back water of my mind. I’ve had it. You’ve got to get a life, your own life, not the one you think I handed you.
MAN: You think if you publish you’ll be thrust back into the spotlight. Somehow, you will be exposed. Your secret will come out.
JDS: Is that so? And just what is that young man?
MAN: You are stuck on me as much as I am with you. You can’t let me go.
JDS: That’s your story.
MAN: Yes, and you are sticking to it.
JDS: You have no idea what you’re talking about or who you are.
MAN: You phony. You’re the biggest phony there ever was. Fraud, phony. Find any word you like, but the shoe fits.
JDS: If that was true, why wouldn’t I just leave instructions to my lawyer to publish it after I’m gone.
MAN: Maybe you have but you’d still miss the best part.
JDS: Which is?
MAN: A view of immortality.
JDS: Immortality’s overrated, kid.
MAN: Listen, if you don’t publish I’ll continue to live in the shadow of me at seventeen. And I’ll have lived my whole life at Pencey Prep or in the smoking car of the commuter train or wandering around Central Park looking for the ducks. Or stuck in some goddamn looney bin in California - that’s where I’ve been all these years.
JDS: Makes sense to me.
MAN: You’re worried that I might over shadow you. Your time has passed and you worry that I’ll surpass you, that it will be me they remember and not you.
JDS: You think a lot of yourself don’t you? Just remember where you came from. I own you boy.
MAN: You’ve got to let me go Mr. Salinger. You’ve got to let me live, grow up, grow old, move on. Look at me, I’m trapped. Oh, sure I look like I’m in my fifties but in here I’m still that unreliable, confused, teen-age know-it-all. Except now I know that I don’t know anything. I don’t have anything, except you.
JDS: You are entitled to…nothing. Not a thing, do you hear me? I gave you everything I had when I could. I breathed life into you and gave you the greatest gift a man can give another - a story. And what did you do with it?
MAN: I haven’t grown in all this time because I was not equipped. You left something out of me, some seed of change.
JDS: “What have you done with the garden entrusted to you?”
MAN: “I have no roses; all the flowers in my garden are dead.”
JDS: Well, at least you were paying attention in one of your classes.
MAN: When the subject interested me, and the teacher wasn’t a phony.
JDS: You’re fifty-something. You can’t keep blaming teachers, parents, adults, fate, destiny, God or the gods.
MAN: Seems to work for you.
JDS: I wrote you because I didn’t want to live with you inside my head anymore. I thought if I got you out of mind and onto the page you would do less damage to me, but I was wrong. I thought writing was a form of control. A way to rewrite my life. But you brought me nothing but trouble. That goddamn book destroyed my life. That goddamn book mutated when I published it. Turns out the man who thought he had the ultimate control had none. The book I wrote is not the book they read. It mixed with the mind of the reader and wormed it’s way into the soul. People saw all kinds of dark things, secrets, about themselves, that they assumed would never come to light. They hated the part of themselves and turned that hatred against me. Kill the messenger. Then the goddamn media got a hold of it, flushed it out into the glare of the public eye and created a virus of fame is the worse than the plague I tell you. The whole goddamn enterprise is a curse. Whatever kind of life I had planned for myself veered off the road and into a ditch. And you, you little punk, you are partly responsible for that.
MAN: I haven’t been able to change. I may be wrong but I blame you for some of that.
JDS: Does anyone in your generation take responsibility for anything?
MAN: Nothing has turned out the way I thought it would when I was sixteen. Back then teachers would say to me, “The world’s your oyster Holden, and it’s being handed to you on a silver platter.” It didn’t work out that way.
JDS: What ever does? I’m just a goddamn writer for God’s sake. An intelligent monkey could do what I do.
MAN: Look, we may have gotten off on the wrong foot. I didn’t come all the way here to ask you for something. I came here to give you something. It’s just this. (He presents his open palms)
JDS: That’s it? (looks) What am I supposed to do with that? Give you five man… on the flip side?
MAN: No, this is just… love, sort of. Love in the open palm. Look closely. Nothing up my sleeve or hidden behind my back. No trap doors. No magic tricks. There are no weapons. No knives. No judgements, exposes, or resentments. No pencils or pens. Just forgiveness in the open hand.
JDS: I’ve had it with publishing. I just want my privacy. I want to be left alone.
MAN: Listen, Great Garbo it’s not that simple. You can’t create us, give us a life, and just stop our story. (beat) We, you and I, all of us are stuck. We have to keep moving, growing.
JDS: Like sharks, eh?
MAN: I don’t know, sort of. You’re the writer.
JDS: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless,” character.
MAN: But look at us. Look at us with that unvarnished eye you had when you first wrote me. Now look at us today, you and I are the same somehow, both stuck and alone. You in your broken down farmhouse, me in my own skin.
JDS: When I calculate the risk versus reward of publishing the sequel I see that I’ve got a losing hand.
MAN: Despite all the time that’s passed, the silence, all the unspoken rage, all the absence of the past years we still need something from each other.
JDS: Maybe, but…
MAN: I know now that I need to move on. Say goodbye to that kid. Forgive that boy. And so do you. You’ve held onto to him (me) too long. If you let go of me by publishing the sequel I can get on with my life and so can you.
JDS: None of us wants to admit that our best moments may be behind us. Or to look at the terror that’s in front of us. In here I’m still thirty-seven. In here I‘ve got the wisdom of Chekov, the liver of Cheever and the balls of Mailer.
MAN: Sure, you’re complete. You can be any age you want. But me? What about me?
JDS: I’m just a writer.
MAN: So write. Complete the circle and publish. Stand on your own two feet. Let it go. Stand up and be a man. Prove it. Prove it me, to them, to yourself. You know the only way you can, right?
JDS: They’ll attack with me with all the ferocity of the Nazis. And Goddamnit I don’t think I can stand another frontal assault. They’ll blitz me from inside and out.
MAN: You can take it. You can stand it and you won’t be doing it alone. I’ll be right beside you the whole time. Fuck’em all right? We got this.
JDS: I hate this machine that worships personality.
MAN: Oh, me too. It’s so phony.
JDS: “Why do you write? What does this really mean? Why was I created?” Everybody wants me to give them some fucking answer, some fucking meaning. Well, what if it doesn’t mean anything? Nothing. Nothing means anything. Write that. Turns out I’m tired of writing. It just so happens that I prefer to be here, now in this moment and not standing off to the side making it mean something to someone else. Fuck them. The end is coming and there is nothing to be done about it. I’m just a fucking writer. Why is not important. I’m not important.
MAN: You are to me. Without you, I’m nothing.
JDS: I’m sorry kid. Maybe I was never much of a writer for you. You’d have been better off with somebody like Updike as your writer.
MAN: Hearing you say that makes me feel so sad. Excuse me for saying so but what am I supposed to do with that admission? You think that might actually help me? I didn’t come here for some kind of validation. Or to hear you take credit for me as some kind of chip off the old block. I came here with forgiveness and in search of my future, not some rehash of what a great past I had or the start you gave me. You thought you could just let me on my way, give me a pat on the butt and say, “Go get’em tiger.” Like all I ever needed was your name and some stamp of your approval. Sometimes I am embarrassed to even be associated with you.
JDS: Sorry. Really.
MAN: You’re the only author I‘ve ever known. You’re the only author I‘ve ever had.You’re the only one I ever wanted. I just can’t stay this way. It’s not right. It’s not fair. (He turns to leave, beat) Mr. Salinger? Can I have my phone back?
JDS: Sure, sorry. (gives it to him, turns to go, beat) I’m proud of you kid. I’m proud of all my kids. (pause) You’re the best thing I ever wrote.
MAN: Thanks, I guess.
JDS: And Holden? (pause) Call me Jerry?
MAN: Sure thing, can do Mr. Salinger.