The Bookworm is dead. So I unearthed the 900-word play that I wrote there one afternoon in 2009. It features a hit man, a gerbil, a guy writing a novel about being an English teacher in Beijing (shocker!) and one of those high chairs being dragged across the floor with molar-rattling intensity. This was in 2009, when that table was dominated by optimistic scribes and you could smoke to your lung’s content. Here’s the play.
As The Worm Turns
The Eternal Sleep of an Aspiring Mind
By J Boyce
X, a patron
SMITH, an English teacher and aspiring novelist
MEIMEI, his girlfriend
PING, a patron who mindlessly and sporadically taps his pencil on the table and listens to an iPod turned just loud enough so everyone hears an annoying bass line.
TOMMY: an entrepreneur who makes loud phone calls and says things like “Show me the money!” “Oh, baby!” and “Come to Papa!”
FELICIA PHLEGMINGTON-BUTTCLENCH, a woman of unknown profession who makes knowing laughs at her laptop, dramatically blows smoke rings, and hopes someone notices.
PATRONS, two dozen, doing their best to ignore Ping, Tommy and Felicia.
The set is a replica of The Bookworm’s front room, circa 2009. At the high table, Ping taps his pencil, Tommy shouts into his phone, Felicia laughs and smokes, and Smith stares into the distance. This continues for ten minutes. X enters the room, sits beside Smith, and opens his laptop.
SMITH: [Watches X work for a few minutes] Nice laptop.
X: [Looks over] Excuse me? Oh, the laptop. Yes, it’s quite good for writing.
SMITH: [Nods appreciatively] Writing, you say. What are you working on?
X: I’m writing a screenplay [Smith smiles]… and a novel [Smith gulps]. I find it easier to do both at once, although Buddha knows it is taking me almost a month to finish. You know how publishers are with deadlines.
SMITH: [Blushes] Oh, sure… publishers… deadlines… of course. Would you excuse me? [Leaves]
The men’s bathroom. Smith is in a stall and breathing into a paper bag. When he is somewhat calm, he calls Meimei. We hear her voice from offstage.
MEIMEI: I’m glad you called, I wanted to remind you to…
SMITH: You won’t believe this! I just met someone who is writing a novel! Already has a publisher! Writing it and a screenplay in a month!
SMITH: [Exasperated] So!? What if the novel is also about an English teacher in Beijing? Who’s going to want mine!?
MEIMEI: I’m sure it’s about something else.
SMITH: What makes you say that?
MEIMEI: [Hesitates] I don’t know. [Quickly] Why don’t you just ask him?
SMITH: Good idea.
MEIMEI: And don’t forget to pick up hamster food on your way home.
SMITH: For the hundredth time, it’s not a hamster, it’s a gerbil.
The high table. Ping switches from pencil tapping to nose picking. Tommy sleeps. Felicia blows smoke rings. Smith returns.
SMITH: [Smiling nervously] Sorry about that–must have had too much mala tang last night, ha ha. Uh, I kind of had a question. I was wondering what your novel is about. I mean, if it’s not a secret or something.
X: No secret at all. My novel is about a hitman in China during the economic crisis. He isn’t getting enough business but needs to keep in practice so he starts knocking off English teachers in cafes and whatnot.
SMITH: English teachers?
X: Well, not always. Sometimes he gets a journalist or tourist by mistake. I included those to mix things up and provide comic relief.
SMITH: I see. I’m sorry, I need to excuse myself again. [Leaves table]
The men’s bathroom. Smith calls Meimei.
MEIMEI: So, his play isn’t about an English teacher, is it?
SMITH: It’s about an assassin who kills them! No publisher will want my novel!
MEIMEI: What are you talking about? Your book doesn’t have assassins, or even any death, and who wants to read a plot like that anyway. Sounds far-fetched to me.
SMITH: [Thinks for a moment] Yes, it is a bit silly, isn’t it?
MEIMEI: Of course. And I bet he doesn’t have a scene like the one you wrote about the teacher and the third conditional. The way you turned a simple question like “If you were a fruit, what would you be?” into a national debate about whether the tomato is a vegetable or not, well, that’s priceless.
SMITH: It is pretty good, isn’t it?
MEIMEI: Yes. Now, don’t forget the hamster food.
SMITH: Gerbil. It’s a gerbil.
With a spring, Smith returns to the table and takes a swig of coffee. He sees Ping, Felicia, and Tommy with their heads down and giggles at everyone napping today. He slides his chair closer to X and–like in the real Bookworm–it makes a molar-rattling shudder as steel frame skips across tiled floor.
SMITH: [Smiles apologetically] Well, I think the last of that mala tang is gone, ha ha. By the way, I am also a novelist.
X: [Looking intently] Oh, really?
SMITH: Yes, I’m writing about an English teacher in Beijing. No assassins, mind you, but it’s pretty good. [Sips coffee]
X: [Still looking intently] Well, assassination isn’t for everyone.
SMITH: [A little cocky] That’s right. My novel is more philosophical. I have this one scene where a teacher asks “If you were a fruit, what would you be?” and it turns into a big tomato thing. It’s been described as “priceless”. It’s kind of… hmmm… this coffee tastes kind of weird.
X: [Opens hand to reveal four empty vials] It could be this special sugar I added, although your three friends [points at Ping, Tommy, and Felicia] didn’t seem to mind. As I said, the economy isn’t good and I need practice. Also, ever since I saw your girlfriend pole dance at Treasure Island, I’ve been infatuated and you’re in the way. [Tommy starts to slide into unconsciousness] Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to meet my accomplice in crime. Right after I find a pet store…
* Hemingway doesn’t appear in the play, but in The World Beyond he laments being unable to visit The Bookworm and try the blueberry cheesecake dessert named after him. He also prepares seats at the High Table in Heaven for Ping, Tommy, Felicia, and Smith.
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