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Klass, Madeleine, A Ballad for the Piano Man

KLASS, MADELEINE

Madeleine Klass
Age: 17, Grade: 11

School Name: Columbia Grammar & Prep School, New York, NY
Educator: Eric Conrad

Category: Dramatic Script

A Ballad for the Piano Man

CHARACTERS:
ELLA: A fifteen year old girl. Her eyes are so tired and worried, however, that she could pass for twenty-two. 
HENRY: Ella’s fifty-four year old father. His white, long hair stands straight up from the frigid wind blowing it to and fro. He wears a thin, rugged, pea-green coat that has survived many winter nights. The stubble on his chin makes it seem like he hasn’t shaved or looked in a mirror in days, which is likely because appearances are not his highest priority. 
 

SCENE: HENRY and ELLA’s cramped NYC apartment. It is littered with loose papers and stacks of books hide the walls. There aren’t defined rooms in the apartment, but a few objects in each area that could convince a person of a “living space” and “kitchen.” In one corner of the room is the sink and stove. Then moving left into the middle of the apartment, a couch and a scuffed-up coffee table. Finally, at the opposite end is the heavy, metal front door. The one window shows the dark New York City night sky.
 
AT RISE: Ella is washing dishes in the kitchen side of the room. Each scrub is done with a hard stroke and hell-bent focus. It is hard to know whether it is because she wants to get the job done quickly or because she is angry.
Suddenly, Henry walks in. He places his keyboard and hat with his daily earnings on the table and falls on the couch. The room is silent. He just stares at the ceiling motionless.
 
ELLA
So how much did you make today?
 
HENRY
Some.
 
ELLA
How much is some?
 
HENRY
Fifteen dollars I think.
 
ELLA
Fifteen? 
 
HENRY 
(picking his head up) Well, it would’ve been more, but that damn deli guy– 
 
ELLA
Again with the deli guy. If you keep pissing him off, eventually he’s gonna call the police.
 
HENRY
He won’t call the police.
 
ELLA
This is the fourth time this month that he’s threatened to. What makes you think he won’t?
 
HENRY
He won’t because I’ve done nothing wrong. Am I hurting anyone? No. Am I stealing from him? No. If the police come and ask me to move, I’ll just come back the next day.
 
ELLA
Can’t you play some place else?
 
HENRY
I could, but why should I? 
 
ELLA
Because you wouldn’t get jail threats?
 
(silence)
 
(Ella rolls her eyes in irritation. She brings over a paper plate with a grilled cheese sandwich on top.)
 
I just don’t see why you can’t move around a bit. I mean, I’m sure everyone on that corner has heard your songs enough. If they were gonna give you money, they would’ve done it by now.
 
HENRY
Please, can we stop discussing this? I’ve had a long day in the cold and I just want to sit and eat in peace. God, I don’t see how people can keep saying the climate is getting warmer when it’s fucking Antarctica outside.
 
ELLA
Here. (Ella drops the paper plate in front of him) Bon appétit.
 
HENRY
Grilled cheese?
 
ELLA
Yeah. Your observational skills are really improving.
 
(Henry stares at the sandwich. He picks it up and inspects it solemnly as if it were a puzzle.)
 
I didn’t poison it if that’s what you’re worried about. 
 
HENRY
Poison, no. (cautiously) There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of it.
 
ELLA
Oh well, next time I’ll buy the prime rib and lobster. 
 
HENRY
Ugh… Forget it. (mumbling) When did you start getting so… so sensitive.
 
ELLA
About the same time that you started losing your mind. When was that? Was that three years ago? Maybe four?
 
(Henry doesn’t respond. He just sits there in silence staring at the grilled cheese. Ella walks back to the sink and starts to clean up.)
 
Anyway, enjoy the food and heat while you can because we’re gonna lose both in a couple of days.
 
HENRY
Won’t that be fun.
 
ELLA
(smirks) Jokes are fun. I love a good joke. But a job, now that would be a fun new addition to our lives. 
 
HENRY
I have a job!
 
ELLA
Playing piano on the street does not count as a job. 
 
HENRY
You just don’t understand Ella. You’re too young to realize that a job is not a paycheck.
 
ELLA
Are you kidding me! Do you see the people… I’m sorry your “co-workers”? The ones who stand next to you begging for money?  They are homeless. That isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle that we’ll have soon if you don’t wake up.
 
HENRY
Wake up? (Throwing the grilled cheese back on the plate) You sound just like your mother.
 
ELLA
Well thank God because ever since she left, you’ve been falling down a goddamn rabbit hole into lunacy. 
 
HENRY
Don’t talk to me like that! You may think I’ve gone insane, but I am still your father and you will listen and respect me.
 
ELLA
Oh are you? I can’t tell because I’m the one making dinner, worrying about our expenses, cleaning the house, and taking care of you.
 
HENRY
I’m not a child. I don’t need you to take care of me.
 
ELLA
Okay fine. Great. I don’t want to take care of you. I’m fifteen. I’m supposed to be doing homework and freaking out about guys and friends and tests. I don’t want to worry about whether we paid our gas bill, so please be an adult and wake up!
 
HENRY
I am awake, Ella. I’ve been awake for years! Ever since I quit that job at the law firm I’ve been wide awake!
 
ELLA
You’re not awake! If you were, you would see that we are drowning. Look around you. There are no life vests or boats here to save us. We don’t know how to swim and the water is rising. We are dying here. We have no more money for you to pretend anymore that everything is fine. 
 
HENRY
I’m not pretending. Playing on that street brings me… I can’t describe it. It’s more powerful than anything else I have ever felt in my life. It feels like I was meant to be there. As if God created that corner just for me. It’s almost like… if I wasn’t there, I would be disobeying him and my duty.
 
ELLA
Oh my God, it’s worse than I imagined. You’ve lost it. You’ve truly lost it. It’s been four years of playing that damn piano and you’ve finally lost your mind.
 
HENRY
Just because I believe in something doesn’t mean I’ve lost my mind.
 
ELLA
It does when you let it consume your life and make it worse. I can only say this so many times. (in a slow and mocking tone) We have no money.
 
HENRY
We do. 
 
ELLA
What? (she walks over and picks put his hat) Oh, sorry right. We have these fifteen dollars. How could I possibly forget. 
 
(Ella stares at him in silence, but he says nothing.)
 
Well then, how do you think we should divide this up, Dad? Maybe five dollars for rent, four for gas, three for water, and three for food?
 
HENRY
Don’t mock me.
 
ELLA
You said we have money. I don’t see any other wads of cash lying around. 
 
HENRY
(growing in intensity) Don’t mock me.
 
ELLA
Maybe three dollars for food is a little much. How about we lower that to two and create a savings account?
 
HENRY
(becoming even louder) Don’t mock me.
 
ELLA
To hell with it! I say we just burn it all and make a house in the woods where nobody can find us. We’ll just eat berries and you can play your damn piano all day long!

HENRY
(gets up angrily and is panting like a rabid dog) You think I’m an idiot? I promise you something sweetheart, I have been alive a lot longer than you have and I know a thing or two about life that you don’t! I know that I would rather catch the flu every year playing that damn piano in the snow and rain than working at that lifeless job writing meaningless words about some other person’s mistakes until my hands bleed!
 
ELLA
You can’t even play the piano! It’d be one thing if you were good, but you just bang on the keys with the back-track playing! You would think that after four years of practicing, you would get better, but somehow you’ve just gotten worse. I don’t know if that’s because my expectations are higher, but honestly, I’m just shocked that you think people will pay you for that.
 
(Ella is met with silence. Henry begins pacing around the room opening and closing doors in anger.)
 
Don’t you see them? Don’t you see how the people stare at you when you play? They look confused and annoyed, but they also pity you. 
 
(Henry continues opening and shutting cabinet doors.)
 
I can’t sit in the cafeteria at school anymore because everyone thinks that I’m the girl with the crazy dad. They come up to me and say things like, “What’s wrong with your dad?”  and, “Is your whole family weird or is it just your dad?” Teachers have even started asking if I need a place to stay because they don’t think that you’re safe to be around. You have ruined the one place that I’m allowed to be away from you. You’re everywhere I go and I can’t escape.
 
(Henry opens one final cabinet and sees what he is looking for. He reaches in with determination and pulls out a jar full of money. He looks at Ella and hands it to her.)
 
HENRY
Here is your money. Is this what you want? Here is every dime that I have and hopefully this pays off all your services. Now there are no stray threads keeping you here. You can go. I have done all that I can to make this a good home for you, but obviously I am a failure. You should just go on with your mother and leave me. 
 
(silence)
 
I’m serious. Go on and call her because I don’t know how I am supposed to be any clearer than I already am. Playing piano on the street, that’s my purpose. That’s what I’m supposed to do. If you can’t respect that then please take this and just go.
 
ELLA
Where… When did you… What is that?
 
HENRY
It’s my savings account.
 
ELLA
Your savings account?
 
HENRY
Each day for the last four years, I’ve taken out one dollar from my stash and put it in this jar.
 
(Ella stares at him stupified.)
 
I was saving this for an emergency, but obviously you’re not happy here. (handing the jar to her) This is your hammer; now break a hole in the wall and escape.
 
ELLA
But, I don’t want to go.
 
HENRY
Well Ella, you don’t want to stay here.
 
ELLA
Why can’t you just be normal for one second! I’m not asking you to change your whole life. I’m just asking you to get a job. Even a part-time job.
 
HENRY
But don’t you see? By asking me to do that, you’re asking me to give up my life. I can’t do that.
 
ELLA
You can’t or you won’t?
 
HENRY
I can’t. Not for anyone. Not even for your mother or for you.
 
(silence)
 
(HENRY walks over to the piano and starts to set up its stand.)
 
ELLA
I guess… I guess I’ll go.
 
(Henry continues to work on the piano stand. He pays absolutely no attention to Ella.)
 
I don’t really know what to say.
 
(silence)
 
Mom said she had an extra room if I ever needed it, so I guess I’ll buy a bus ticket tomorrow.
 
(Henry is silent. He is intent on building his piano stand. Ella begins walking around and stuffing clothes into a bag. When she finishes, she puts the bag on the table next to the jar filled with cash.)
 
ELLA
I don’t know when I’ll be back again to pick up the rest of my stuff.
 
(silence)
 
I’m sorry for… I… I hope that happiness is worth as much as you say it is. I’ll be at Emily’s tonight if you decide to come back down to Earth. 
 
(The room is silent again. Henry tightens the final screw in his stand and sits down on the couch. Then, he digs through his bag and pulls out a few sheets of paper with eligible scribbles covering them. He places them on the piano and calmly reads them. )
 
(Ella, seeing that her father is now in his own world, looks around the house one last time. She is almost on the verge of crying. Suddenly, she comes across the jar. At first, there is a slight hesitation, but then she pounces on it. Ella stuffs four handfuls of bills into her bag. She immediately looks at her father to see if he’s noticed her breaking into his savings, but Henry is absolutely focused on his music. )
 
(After a moment, Ella comes to. She walks to the door grabbing her coat and bag on the way. Before she opens the door, she looks back at the man by the piano, but he seems different. He is unrecognizable to her. Ella gives a strong tug at the door and it opens sending in a wave of frigid, winter air. Without a second thought, she steps out and shuts it behind her. The moment it closes, Henry lifts his hands and bangs them on the piano letting out the most wretched and incoherent noise one could possibly imagine.)

BLACK OUT