Johnny Goodbye

(The dark stage)

Light piano music can be heard in the background as the face of ARTIE CLINE is revealed. A large man with dark black hair and a few days growth of beard, Cline looks straight down, seemingly lost in thought.

And as the lights come up further, we can see that he is clad in a trainman’s uniform, complete with a ticket taker’s cap, a change belt and a ticket puncher. His left shirt pocket is filled with train schedules, and directly in front of him is a makeshift card table. He’s playing solitaire. He seems so overly-focused on the game, we’re startled a bit, as he speaks without even looking up.

Artie Cline

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “Now what could this surly looking SOB have to say to me?” Well, I promise you one thing; if I have anything important to say, you’ll definitely hear about it.

(He takes a beat, and he refocuses on his solitaire game. Suddenly, though, he appears a little fidgety, suddenly looking right at us – part aggravation, perhaps more likely, simple loneliness.)

(Now looking down at the cards in front of him.)

‘Ya know the one thing they don’t ‘eva tell ‘ya about a good game of solitaire??…It’s about as exciting as a fucking junior high school spelling bee.

(He throws the cards off the makeshift table in semi-disgust.)

Sorry about the language. (Grinning and as a quick aside) ‘Ya ‘gotta admit it’s a lot less funny if I don’t use the “F” word.

(He manages a half-smile, and then he stands up for the first time. *A rather imposing figure, to be sure, he attempts to soften the audience’s potential apprehension over his largess.) *PLEASE NOTE: Text can be adjusted to allow for a performer of any body type or size; performer does not need to be physically imposing to make the story work.)

(As he gets to his feet.) Oh hey, don’t worry. Even if I were sort of an angry, tough dude, my knees are so completely shot to pieces, I don’t think you’d have too much trouble running away from me.

(Somehow, his “fake tough guy” act belies him a bit; clearly, this is a gregarious, even
charming, man.)

So, what’s your story, huh? Ride the train often?? (A beat) No? Okay, then my guess‘d be that you’re not in any kind of a rush. Or maybe the thought of a train guy doing anything but taking tickets throws you off some. Hey, I get it.

(Suppressing a smile, he holds up this hat and his ticket puncher, so we can see it. And then he changes his voice some, ala an attempt at a Southern drawl.)

Now you just don’t pay it no never mind. But in case you’re curious I don’t hardly ‘never take any of this stuff (re: his hat and ticket puncher) into the crapper with me.

(He laughs at his own joke, perhaps seeing if he can foster a reaction. Still faux talking like a southerner, though, he is very clearly a New Yorker.)

Like I said, just in case you were curious.

(He fusses with some of the items on his card table, and then he suddenly looks apologetic, even embarrassed.)

Jesus, I’m sorry…I spend so much time alone on this job, well…my “social graces” aren’t exactly geared for frequent trips to, let’s say, the Rainbow Room if ‘ya know what I mean.

(To augment his point, he leans into the audience, as with a secret.)

Yeah, even I know the Rainbow Room closed a ‘buncha years ago.

(Seemingly quite pleased with himself, he smiles. And then adds…)

Hey, wouldn’t want you to think my head’s totally up my ass.

(He smiles again and then realizes that the statement is anything by polished.)

Sorry about that; too much “alone time,” I guess.

(Now up on his feet and walking around.)

Anyway, my name’s Artie, Artie Cline. And I’m thinking you’ve already guessed that I ‘aint no ‘fer real southern boy. Guess I got “NYC” written all over me, huh?

(He tentatively laughs at himself a little, the way a person does when what he’s/she’s saying just
isn’t that funny.)

Yeah, New York boy here, through and through.

(A beat, as he picks up his trainman’s hat from the table.)

Well, I did spend the first few years of my life freezing my ass off in Utica, NY. Yeah stayed up there for a while, or at least until my dad decided that he’d had enough. We moved down here, and this is where I’ve been ever since.

(He looks out into the audience, as if to speak to someone in the back of the theater.)

What’s that, man?…Say again??…Oh, where from exactly? Queens, Jackson Heights, Queens…

(He pauses a moment, and then he repeats what he just said – softly to himself – as if he is suddenly off somewhere by himself.)

Jackson Heights, Queens. Yeah, Jackson Heights. Jackson…Jackson Conroy…

(He laughs quietly to himself.)

Yep, just another Queens boy, trying to make good, I guess.

(Again, he puts his hand up to his ear, as if he’s trying to hear someone in the back of the hall.)

Say again?…What??…Oh, who’s Jackson Conroy? Hey, sorry. Not even sure why I even mentioned him; I haven’t thought about that guy in years.

(He pauses for a long moment, an anxious – almost pained – look on his face.)

Well, that’s bullshit.

(He sits back down, takes a long pause and then makes a week attempt to switch the conversation back to a lighter tone. He forces a smile.)

Truth is I spend too much damn time thinking about that kid.

(Again, employing his best southern accent.)

Yep, Jackson Conroy from Apalachicola, FLA. Now there was a real southern boy if ever did I see one!

(Artie tries to smile, albeit weakly, an odd melancholy expression on his face.)

Not exactly the perfect credentials for a New York copy, huh?

(He pauses a moment.)

I told ‘ya I don’t move so well anymore, but I wasn’t always like that.

(A long pause and then suddenly very serious.)

Let’s just say the best thing about punching train tickets isn’t that the hours are better.

(Clearly, Artie is revisiting some not-so-pleasant memories from his past, but he tries to hang in there with the audience. Standing up now and more animated, he attempts to imitate several voices now – including his own – both heavy New York and southern accents, respectively.)

“’Yo, cadet. Yeah, you! What the hell are you doing ‘ova there?!”

(Now back to a southern drawl)

“Just cheering them other ‘fellers on, sir.”

(And then back to a New York accent)

“Them ‘otha fellers, huh?”

(Artie gestures as if he talking to someone right next to him, and he begins chuckling; think of a guy with a heavy New York accent, trying to mock someone with a southern drawl.)

(And now, Artie as himself, in this past moment, imitating the southern voice)

“Now which ‘otha ‘fellers are we talking about there, Hoss? The only ‘feller I see here is you, cadet. So, tell me how it is that you’re up here cheering on all these ‘fellers right about now? Did you pull up lame or something, son?”

(And then back to his southern voice)

“No, ‘suh, Sarge. I ‘dun finished already, suh.”

(Artie sits back down again, now grinning. And then he speaks in his own voice.)

“I ‘dun finished already, ‘suh. (A beat) Jesus, that kid made Gomer Pyle sound like a law professor or something.

(He pauses again, now laughing at himself.)

And the thing was, well, he really had already finished. Hell, by the time I came wandering up that day, it seems that he’s already burned through a two-mile obstacle course like it was nothing. He was so far ahead of all the other guys, it was like he’d ridden a motorcycle up to the finish line.

(Artie, as if talking with the kid again)

“Jesus, kid. What ‘ya got, rockets on ‘ya feet?”

(Now imitating the southern kid again, Jackson Conroy.)

“No, suh, Sergeant. Just pretty good at running, I reckon.”

(And back to Artie as himself)

“Well, it certainly looks like it.”

(He pauses again, another wide grin beginning to form, as Artie uses his regular voice.)

“I think I need to see this for my own self, son. Why don’t you run up yonder to that there wall and back, and show me what ‘ya got?”

(Now, Artie as Conroy)

“Right now, suh?”

(Back to Artie, pretending to be angry)

“That’s damn right, RIGHT NOW, ‘ya cracker son of a bitch! Get ‘movin, boy!”

(Back to Artie, who has begun to drink a beer that he has hidden beneath the card table.)

(To the audience)

Hey, it’s just one beer, OK?? It gets hot as hell down here.

(And then Artie is right back in character, as Conroy)

“OK, ‘suh. Can you give me an ‘on yer mark’ or something like it, ‘suh?”

(Back to Artie in his own voice)

I did all I could not to laugh right at him, but I just couldn’t help it.

(Artie laughs heartily to himself, as he simulates the start of a race, dropping his arm down to simulate the start.)

On your mark, get set and run like hell, son!

(As he drops his arm, we begin to hear a few bars from “Dueling Banjos,” following along with Artie who looks dumfounded. How could this kid – how could anyone – be that fast??)

(As the music abruptly ends, the stage goes completely black for an instant…As the lights come back up, Artie is seated very upright in his chair – yet another wide smile on his face.)

Let me tell ‘ya something; I never did know why some kid from the Florida ‘sticks had any interest in the NYPD, but after that day, I just ‘sorta stopped thinking about it.

(He deliberately pauses again, another somewhat pained look on this face.)

No, I didn’t think about it at all really; I just made sure that when he graduated from the academy that he was assigned to me. Any kid who could run like that was ‘gonna be hell on wheels on foot patrol. So, I used the little influence I had to make sure that he was the only real choice.

(We go dark again, with a spotlight now directly on Artie. And then quickly to black again. And an instant later, the lights come back up. Artie is now sitting on the edge of the stage, swinging his feet back and forth like a little kid.)

Well, as it turned out, none of us knew that Jackson Conroy was more than just a speedy runner…Would you believe that little hayseed was actually a one-time Olympic hopeful. Yep, that little water rat set the high school record for the mile when he was 16 years old. And as far as I know, no one has come close to it since.

(Artie pauses again, perhaps thinking of what to say next.)

Oh yeah, did I mention what good looking kid he was, too? I’m not just saying that either; we’d answer disturbance calls, and that kid would turn every woman’s head. He’d show up, and it was like they forgot they were being arrested! And the hookers?? They’d fawn all over Conroy like they should have been paying him! (A beat, as he adjusts back into an imitation of Conroy’s voice) And polite…it was always, “No, ‘suh, Sergeant” and “yes/no, ma’am.” (Laughing as he continues on as Conroy.) “Ma’am, we ‘got us a call that you ‘done heard shots next door. Is it OK if we
check ‘round back?

(Back to Artie as himself, as he slightly changes gears.)

Or my personal favorite…

(Again, Artie, imitating Conroy)

“It sure was nice meeting ‘ya all.” And then as polite and warm-hearted as any kindergarten teacher, he’d put together the paperwork to send the perps down to Central Booking, smiling through every second of it.

(Artie, getting to his feet again, addresses the audience more directly.)

And it wasn’t just that. Jesus, I don’t think any of us – not a one – could figure out how – or why – in the hell this kid was a cop. Somehow, Hollywood looks and a race horse’s speed just didn’t fit.

But while he didn’t look much like a cop, he sure as hell was a good one. He even got the hang of the paperwork pretty quick. And trust me…plenty ‘a good cops made a side career of fucking up
the paperwork.

(Now Artie, as if directly to Conroy)

He missed some other stuff, though…”Hey, pretty boy,” I’d say to him. “Don’t you ‘eva get tired of all those hookers cooing and fussing all over ‘ya?”

(Artie as Conroy)

“I reckon I don’t know what you mean, sir…”

(Back to Artie)

First of all, we you quit calling me “suh” for Christ’s sake?

(As Conroy)

“I’m sorry, suh. That’s just the way I was raised. I don’t mean ‘nothin by it, suh?…I mean “Sergeant.”

(Back to Artie as himself)

Look, kid. I’m not mad, OK? You just need to lighten up. And as long as we’re not in roll call or in front of the lieutenant or something like that, you don’t ‘gotta be so formal. You can just call
me “Artie.”
(Artie, now smiling again)

And here’s another thing I said to him…Hey you don’t like it much when some of the guys call you “pretty boy,” do ‘ya?

(A look at the expression on Artie’s face reveals that Conroy clearly didn’t like the name calling
at all.)

So, that’s about enough of this “pretty boy” crap, yeah? We ‘gotta make some changes around here.

(Back to Artie as Conroy)

“A change? How do ‘ya mean, ‘suh?”

(Back to Artie)

A name change, kid. You know…maybe we start calling you something different.”

(Back to Artie as Conroy)

“Well, ‘suh, I mean Sergeant, you ‘aint used my real name…Well, you ‘aint really used it ‘eva. Does it bother you or something, ‘suh? My name, I mean?…”

(Back to Artie as himself, imitating Conroy’s previous statement, in Conroy’s voice)

“Does my name bother you or something, ‘suh?”

(Artie, back to his own voice)

You know that was the only question that kid ‘eva asked me that had anything to do with himself – the only one. Most of the time, we just sent him out on patrol, keeping his eyes peeled for purse snatchers and young punks, trying to rip off newsstands and bodegas. He’d just show up with that handsome face of his. And man, did he ‘eva look young. I bet that kid hadn’t shaved more than four or five times in his whole life. The rest of us sorry-ass ‘blues had to do next to everything, just to keep things together. And that fresh-faced kid always looked like he stepped right out of a Ralph Lauren ad or something.

(Artie pauses again, clearly struggling keeping his thoughts together. (Still he presses on and returns to the matter of nicknames for the kid.)

So, once he figured out that I wanted to give him some kind of a nickname. (As an aside) Which he seemed pretty more than open to the idea, by the way…

(Pausing again)

Anyway, while I didn’t’ think the kid would care – or would even have anything to say about it – I told him that my dad, although he was known as “Jack,” was actually born “John Ernest Cline.” That’s about all I can really say about the old man; he never cared too much about what I did, and he ‘neva wanted me to be a cop.

(Artie, reflective now, stares off into nothingness for a moment, perhaps thinking about the distance he feels from his own father)

So I told him, No more “pretty boy” or “sugar” or any ‘a those ‘otha bullshit nick names. From now on, your name is “Johnny.”

(Artie, initially as himself and then back to an imitation of Conroy)

The kid was always so eager to please everyone; I guess he figured he should make the best of it: “Well, that sounds pretty OK to me, Sergeant…So, you mean ‘Johnny,” like ‘Johnny Be Good,” right? Like in that song by Chuck Barry?”

(Back to Artie as himself)

I ‘neva bothered asking him how the hell he even knew who Chuck Barry was. I just didn’t even think to ask him.

(Artie, now sitting back in chair)

So, a few more months passed, and our man, “Johnny,” had racked up quite a record. For all his good looks, good speed and overly polite demeanor, the kid turned out to be a pretty damn good cop. And when they assigned me to an anti-crime unit out in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, I made sure to take the kid along with me…Once we had made the move ‘ova, they put another guy on our team, Sam Stillman. He’d been on the force close to 10 years back then, but it was really the first time he’d ‘eva been away from his desk. Not much of a talker for sure, and a pretty smart guy. (A beat) One night, things were real slow, and the kid went to pick up some food a few blocks away from the station house.

(Artie, now as Conroy)

“Suh, I’m ‘kinda hungry for some barbecue. You all want a ‘coupla sandwiches or something?”

(Back to Artie’s normal voice)

I as polite as I could told him “no,” explaining that I had some paperwork to do. And then he and Stillman called in the food order, then quickly head out to pick it up.

(Artie, fidgeting now, seeming to struggle with his words again)

I was just sitting at my desk, finishing up that work, when Stillman called me on my cell phone.

(Artie, now as Stillman)

“Artie! Jesus, Artie!!”

(Back to Artie as himself)

“Slow down, Sam. Slow down, man…What the hell happened?!”

(Artie, again as Sam, panicked)

“They shot the kid! Jesus, they shot him!! We just went to pick up the food and the place got hit. You know the kid; he just took off…He chased after ‘em on foot. I tried to stop him; I swear I did…”

(Artie as himself)

Well, where in the hell is he, Sam?! Did you leave him out there?!!

(Artie as Sam, yelling now)

“I left him at a grocery near the restaurant; that’s where they shot him. The kid from the store is with ‘em now. Please, Artie, ‘ya ‘gotta come down here; the kid’s hurt real bad.”

(Artie the audience, seemingly panicked.)

I couldn’t figure out why Sam didn’t call for an ambulance. I mean what the hell was he thinking??”

(Artie back to the audience, now blankly staring out into nowhere, as he continues talking.)

When I got to the store, the kid who worked there was trying to stop the bleeding. He said he’d tried calling 911, but he couldn’t get through. And Sam had gone on foot to try to find some help.

And for the first time ever, the kid looked scared.

(Artie, now as Conroy)

“I’m so sorry, suh…I ‘shoulda just let him go. I didn’t think; I sure am sorry.”

(Artie as himself)

Quit apologizing, will ‘ya? You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re ‘gonna be OK.

(Artie, again as Conroy)

“I can’t feel my body, ‘suh. I can’t feel ‘nothin.”

(Artie, suddenly close to tears)

That’s the last thing he said to me before he started screaming. (A beat) It happens like that sometimes. First, you can feel anything, and you’d do just about anything to stop feeling at all.  We kept trying to comfort him, but it didn’t do any good. His screams kept getting louder. Especially when he noticed that most of the right side of his body was missing.

(He sits back down again.)

By the time an ambulance finally did start making its way down there, Sam said he didn’t look so good. And I’m not sure, but I think he realized that he was dying.

(Artie as Conroy)

“Please, ‘suh, ‘ya gotta do it.”

(Artie to Conroy)

We got an ambulance coming, kid; and Sam and I are ‘gonna ride along with ‘ya. ‘Ya got nothing to worry about. Tell me that you understand me…

(A beat as he switches over to Conroy’s voice)

“No, ‘suh…You ‘gotta shoot me, suh…Please, suh…”

(Artie, back to his own voice)

Don’t talk crazy, Johnny, I said; I’ll get you out of this. You trust me, right? You trust
me, right? Johnny??!!

(Back to Artie as Conroy, trying to hang in there)

“There is no ‘outta this, suh. I’m just too bad off. And, suh…please use my real name. That was my daddy’s name, and he’d be real hurt if he ‘knowed I wasn’t using it no more…”

(Artie, back to the audience)

His screams just kept ‘gettin louder. But still no ambulance. The white T-shirt he was wearing was completely soaked through with blood. Then more screams…I kept waiting to hear the sirens, but they just never came. I thought maybe someone in the neighborhood ‘would come out – even if it was just to see who the hell was screaming. But jesus (holding back tears), no one did. Not a single goddamn person. It was just the three of us and that poor kid who was on the register at that hole-in-the-wall grocery store.

And still no one came. Jackson Conroy of Apalachicola, Florida was bleeding to death.

(Artie, walking to the very top of the stage, closest to the audience)

I knew what I had to do. (A beat) I took my 9 ‘mil out of my shoulder holster, and I took the safety off. Even after all these years, I still hear the sound of that slide coming back on the weapon. The kid in the store just sat there, just ‘sorta hugging himself.

(Artie stares blankly forward, as he simulates raising his weapon.)

He never took his eyes off me. All those years I was a cop, all the crime scenes I’d been at…All the times I’d see some perp all shot to hell by over-eager rookie cops, looking for promotions. I’d never seen anyone in that much pain. I took aim…

(Artie, now shaking)

Right as I was getting ready to pull the trigger, Sam Stillman showed back up. And Stillman who ‘neva really said much of anything just yelled out. “No, Artie! Not in the head!!”

It was like destroying a rare painting or something like that. Sort of like smashing a priceless diamond into a few million pieces…

(Artie walks back to the middle of the stage, now awash with spinning red lights plus a low whine of an ambulance siren. Artie stands there, backlit amidst the glow of the lights.)

(Artie, still eerily backlit)

In the end, we decided that it was just best to destroy my service revolver. I watched Stillman smash it, and he quietly said he would figure out a way to get rid of it. I’d worked a tour in I.A.D., so I knew how to get around a few things. (A beat) Sam lasted about a month or so after that, and then he resigned. With not even two years left before he was due for his pension. Still, as far as I could tell, he never told anyone anything. I don’t know how the man did it, but he never talked. That poor kid from the store register wasn’t so lucky. About six months after Conroy died, he killed himself. (Pauses and walks around some.) A bunch of time passed, and I eventually found out a few things about that night. It seems that Conroy left his weapon back in the station house before he and Stillman went to pick up their dinner. When he caught up to the guys who’d robbed the place, he reached into his jacket and found that it was missing. (Artie deliberately pauses.) They shot him without thinking about it…Sam knew what had happened, but he must have decided that he could never tell anyone that Conroy had forgotten his weapon that night. Jesus, that was probably the one and only time the kid had a chance to be a cop and not just our mascot; that was his one chance to prove that he could do more than just run fast. (Pausing again, moving upstage) I found out that he’d left his home in the Florida Panhandle when he was 17 years old. He’d gotten a chance to run in an invitational mile race out at the old armory in Queens, but he turned an ankle in the final and finished sixth. Any chance of a scholarship went down the tubes after that, and he didn’t have anywhere to go.

He knocked around at some odd jobs for a while, waiting on his ankle to fully heal. Once he was back at full strength, he decided to stay around New York. And that’s when a guy from the 27th Precinct saw him running in the park, and he asked him if he’d ‘eva played any football.

Desperate to avoid the shame of having to return home to Florida so soon, Conroy lied that he had played in high school. So, the guy pulled some strings to try to get Conroy into the academy. Just so he could play on the precinct football team. I guess the guy figured Conroy might have made a ‘helluva weapon on kick-offs and punt returns. If I’d pushed him a little harder, I ‘coulda found all that out on my own. But I was too busy – and too lazy – to check it out. (A long pause) I ‘gotta live with that. So, that’s why I keep riding back and forth on trains; yeah, the same trains that never take me any place but right back here.

(Contemplating the ridiculousness of it all, Artie laughs quietly to himself.)

Jackson Conroy from Apalachicola, Florida…If he could only see me now, huh?

(Artie hangs his head down for a moment and quietly walks off stage. We begin to hear a series of train announcements – which train is going where, etc. – that’s very quiet at first. Quickly, though, the announcements begin to get louder, as the stage is now completely black. We hear the sound of a train rolling into the station, coming to a hissing stop. And then…a single gunshot.)


Copyright © 2012 by John L. Fischer




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