TREAD

A Drama in Two Acts

By Michael C. Stepowany

Characters   Total 8 - 4 men, 4 women

YA WA STI: 25 to 35 a Cherokee male.

HELEN SHEPHERD:  Female, 16 years old. Married with a daughter.  Just seeing the world for the first time.

EDWARD SHEPHERD: Husband to HELEN. 20 year old Navy Pilot. Partially blinded by an airplane explosion.

MOMMA: HELEN’s Mother.  28, Petite and demure.  MOMMA is hearing and speech impaired. N.B.: MOMMA: is a speaking role. Some words and phrases will be in sign language. If a hearing impaired actor plays MOMMA, her dialogue should be accompanied by a live voice over.

MR. WASHINGTON:  An African American male. Chauffer

JR:  Big, gregarious, Hollywood producer and cattle rancher. 40’s to 50’s male.

BETTY:  Beautiful, shapely, mid 20’s female, Hollywood starlet wannabe.

MILLIE:  African American female.  50’s, Feisty and independent.

 

 

TREAD

Setting: Spring of 1927 in Oklahoma on a new section of paved highway (i.e. The future Route 66.)  The action takes place in one night.  It is sunset.  An expanse of freshly paved highway. The blacktop ends directly downstage center.  At the edge of the blacktop the dirt has been cleared for the next day’s work. Looking upstage we see the new road under construction.  There are an assortment of crates, tools, and barrels lining the road stage right, stage left, and upstage.  Three poles have been erected, and a temporary string of work lights hang from the poles. Oil derricks are visible in the distance. Upstage right sits an old 1920’s surplus truck that has a wooden shell with a window and a door on the downstage side.  It is a house-truck. The sunset is beaming a bright orange glow from stage right. There is a small cart center stage with a gramophone, complete with an ornate brass cone.  The cart has a large drawer pulled out which holds a newborn baby at times.  Under the cart is a rack with a handful of 78 albums.

 

At Rise.

There is a young woman, MOMMA, standing near the gramophone cart.  Just leaving the gramophone cart is a young female, HELEN.  HELEN is wearing a sundress, which buttons near the bodice with a modest collar.  She is holding the arm of her husband, EDWARD.  EDWARD has a bandage around his head, which covers one of his eyes and a portion of his face.  They are making their way towards one of the construction crates. Sitting under one of the light poles STAGE RIGHT is a male, YA WA STI.  He is Cherokee.  He wears a work shirt and jeans.  He has a leather pouch that hangs to his side. YA WA STI is playing a small wooden flute. YA WA STI plays a measure of slow music imitating the flight of a bird, then a flurry of echoing, shrill, almost haunting birdcall sounds.  He then stops playing and places the flute in his leather pouch. YA WA STI picks up a newspaper and reads it.

 

 

ACT I

Scene 1

 

HELEN

Hello Chief. (Cherokee for ’hello’ ) Oh-see-yo...how are you?  Anything new?  What’s your Indian newspaper say?

YA WA STI

Oh-see-yo. Cherokee newspaper. The road…still hot tonight.

                                  (YA WA STI puts the paper down.)

HELEN

Just look at that sunset.  We have seen so many beautiful sunsets since we got to Oklahoma.  (To EDWARD.)  Careful.

YA WA STI

Mister Edward is seeing better tonight?

EDWARD

Seeing very little.  No thanks to the Navy, thank you.

HELEN

He’s doing much better.  Aren’t you darling?   The sunlight still bothers his good eye.  The eye doctor keeps talkin’ bout depth seption or some nonsense.  (Looking into the baby drawer.) Here Momma ... let me have a look at her.  (Looking into the baby drawer. To the baby.) There, there. (To YA WA STI.)  It is dry as old bones tonight.  We could sure use some rain.  I bet you and your men have to keep workin’ the road no matter how hot it gets.   How many men you got under your charge?  Hundred?

EDWARD (Aside to HELEN.)

Hundred?  Thousands, right?  Chief here is the headman in charge of a small army of poor slobs.  Hell, them roughneck’s been hauling this sticky, stinkin’, black shit all the way from Chicago.  Heading to the west coast, right Chiefy?  Blessed road running across this god-forsaken patch of tumbleweed and dirt.  Not fit for man, or beast, or injun’. Look at him over there.  Boss man has a whole circus full of freaks working with him.  Dozens of miserable souls … building this marvel of modern engineering.  (EDWARD points towards STAGE RIGHT.) All them suckers over there, right?  Camping over there.  I can almost see ‘em.  Way over there. 

HELEN

You can’t see five feet in front of you Edward.  Now behave, and put on a record.

EDWARD

My feet are burning up. (Shouting to YA WA STI.) Your feet burning boss man?  Damn tar sticks to everything.  Don’t know how you do it.  
 

                                (YA WA STI picks up the paper and shakes his head “yes”.  MOMMA walks to the downstage edge of the                                      blacktop and inspects the dirt at the edge of the new blacktop.)

 

HELEN

Momma, is it too hot tonight?  We can go back to the truck.

EDWARD

It ain’t too hot.  Try a face full of burning airplane. 

YA WA STI

New areo-planes very fast.

EDWARD

I’m sick of smelling asphalt.  How bout you Chief?  Don’t you get sick of the smell?

HELEN

I love the smell of new asphalt.  I could work with that smell all day.  Hey, you need any new workers Chief?  I can carry a shovel of this stuff.  Huh!

EDWARD 

I’d like to see you try.

HELEN

Oh really?  (HELEN goes to YA WA STI.)  Get me a shovel.  I can build this road as well as anybody.  Pick up a few extree sawbucks. Ye haw.  Us Chicago girls are tough!  I can do anything them road cowboys can do.  Twice as good.

                                  (YA WA STI shakes his head “no.  MOMMA shakes her head no and signs, “You do not need a job.”)

 

YA WA STI

Momma knows.

EDWARD

What?  What now? Can’t see, can’t hear. 

HELEN

Momma said her daughter don’t need a job. (To MOMMA.)  But Momma… I can work just as good as anybody.  Fair and true I can.  Just turn me a-loose on this road. I’ll have it to the Pacific Ocean in a week!  Ye haw.

EDWARD

Momma, what’s gotten into her? (MOMMA shakes her head “no.”  To HELEN.) Girly, you been sneaking a taste of my medicine?  (To YA WA STI.) Don’t pay her no mind.  Hey, got any that indjun’ medicine?  Maybe I could get to feeling less poorly.  Smoke me a peace pipe.  Whatdya’ think Helen?  We smoke whapum big teepee.  Make the pain go. Break out your pipe Chiefy.  I can use it.

HELEN

Edward behave.  The Chief is kind enough to let us prance on his brand spanking new highway ... You know how much it means to Momma.  (Humming the Charleston, beginning to dance.)

EDWARD

I’m tired of dancing. When the hell we going to get to the base?  My head hurts something awful.

HELEN

(HELEN feels EDWARD ’S forehead.)

I know honey…but we got a little time before you can get another dose.  Chin up.  It’s going to be a wonderful night…I can feel it.  (To YA WA STI  .) How many miles you get today?  

YA WA STI

Your mother is better?

(MOMMA shakes her head “yes”.  YA WA STI pulls out a small leather pouch.  He opens it and pours some leaves on a cube.)

YA WA STI (Continues.)

Seven blue holly, good for long journey west to the Darkening Land.

 

                           (A train is heard off in the distance.  YA WA STI pulls a pocket watch out of his pocket and looks at it.)

 

YA WA STI (Continues.)

The eight o’clock freight … late tonight.

 

                             (YA WA STI puts the watch and the leaves away.  HELEN looks into the baby drawer.)

 

HELEN

Yes, that train scared little Emily to nearly to death last night.  But she seems to be resting peacefully now.

                               (YA WA STI looks STAGE LEFT.)

  

YA WA STI

Are you expecting company?  (Waving his arms.)  This road is not finished.  

EDWARD

What is it baby girl?

HELEN

Headlights … coming this way.

 

                            (The sun has set.  The sky is a dark blue with a hint of stars.  The work site is illuminated by the light poles.      EDWARD stands and looks off STAGE LEFT as the headlights become brighter.  EDWARD holds his hand to shield his eye from the glare.)

 

EDWARD  (Angrily.)

Goddamn law!  They are going to make us get the hell outa’ here.  You tell them I served.  Tell them I got my rights.  Damnit’ all to hell.

 

            (MOMMA signs “What is it?”)

 

HELEN

What is it Momma?  I don’t know.  We got permission being here.  It’s just a bunch of asphalt for goodness sakes.

                                 (The headlights are visible from off STAGE LEFT.  Everybody stops and stares. The headlight beams turn                                       off.  The engine of the car is audible from STAGE LEFT.  MOMMA picks up the baby and begins to carry it                                     towards the truck.)

 

EDWARD

I can hear it.  Engine running tip top.

HELEN

Momma?

EDWARD  (Shouting towards off STAGE LEFT.)  

Hello?  We’re just up here inspectin’ the place.You’llsee.  We got every...

HELEN  (Cutting off EDWARD.)

Hush.  Who can they be?

EDWARD

Do you see ‘em?

HELEN

Yes …

                               (MR. WASHINGTON enters.  He is an African American male.  He is wearing a dark jacket, riding pants,                                         boots, and he is carrying a chauffeurs hat.)

 

WASHINGTON

Evening folks.  Washington’s the name.  Everything all right?

 

                                (MOMMA stops. She has opened the door to the truck.)

EDWARD

Howdy George!

HELEN

He’s not George.  Don’t be silly.  Hello mister Washington, sir.  Everything is just swell thank you.

YA WA STI

This pavement is not ready for driving.  You need to go back.

WASHINGTON

It’s ok, just checking out the new road.  Boss man wanted me to see how things are afore he gets out the car.

EDWARD

Boss man?

WASHINGTON

Yes sir.  (To EDWARD.)  Gracious, what happened to you?

HELEN

Accident.

WASHINGTON

You don’t say?  Yep.  I’m on a little cross county trip, and the boss thought we should stop and see what all the commotion’s about.

EDWARD

So it ain’t your car running over there?

WASHINGTON

No sir. I am in the employ of one mister J R Winters.

HELEN

That’s nice.  (Shouting to MOMMA.)   Momma, you can come on back.  They don’t mean any harm.

WASHINGTON

No harm … no ma’am.  Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.

YA WA STI

Be best if you turn on around.

WASHINGTON

Was passing over there…and saw your ... what is that?  Goodness.  Is that a truck?  We saw that vehicle over yonder and figgered’ this section of road was open.

EDWARD

You an Okey? (Oklahoman.)

WASHINGTON

Naw.  We’re just passing through.  Boss man… uh Mr. JR  … he owns a cattle ranch back over in California. 

YA WA STI

Long way to California.

HELEN

What brings you way out here?

WASHINGTON

Boss wanted to pick out a prize bull hiself.  So he flew over here to Tulsa. I drive all the way over.  Drive all the way back.

HELEN

I’m confused.

EDWARD

They come out here to get a bull, Honey.  You know?  Livestock?  For a ranch?

WASHINGTON

Yes sir-ree.  I got a trailer hooked up out there with a fine specimen in it.  Driving him back to the west coast.

EDWARD

Seems like a lot of drivin’.

WASHINGTON

You ain’t got to tell me.  Wish this here road was finished.  

EDWARD

So do I. 

YA WA STI

You need to back on away.

HELEN

Oh, come on now.  Let em’ stay.  Haven’t had any company for weeks.  (To WASHINGTON. Pointing to YA WA STI)  This here is the man in charge of the road crew. Whatever he says goes.

                                 (MOMMA slowly walks towards everybody, still holding the baby.)

 

YA WA STI

You are welcome…to visit.  No driving.

HELEN

Yippee!  See?  I told you this was going to be a wonderful evening.  We got visitors Momma!  (To WASHINGTON.) Make yer’self at home.

WASHINGTON

Much obliged.  So, this is the new highway to Los Angeles?  Tarnation.  Chicago to LA on one big ribbon of tar. What will they come up with next?

EDWARD

Drive right over the dessert and there ya’ go...

HELEN

I love to drive.

EDWARD

Good thing she does ... or we’d be walkin’ to San Diego.   Even Momma gets behind the wheel sometimes. They haven’t let me drive… Yet.

 

                          (JR enters. He is a male in his mid 50’s. He is wearing a cowboy shirt,jeans, and cowboy boots. He is drinking                            whisky from a small glass.  He is accompanied by a shapely young woman, BETTY, who is wearing a flapper                                  dress and a huge ten-gallon hat. BETTY smokes a cigarette in long cigarette holder. BETTY is drinking                                          whisky from a small glass.MOMMA sees them enter, and freezes.)

 

JR

Everything ok out here?

WASHINGTON

Just a little get-together Boss.

JR

Saw the bandages and thought maybe we had ourselves a little situation.

HELEN

We’re just fine, thank you.

WASHINGTON

The road is still hot JR.

YA WA STI

The pavement is still curing… not ready for …

JR   (Cutting off YA WA STI.)

Fresh pavement. That’s progress. (To HELEN.) Why hello young one. (JR holds his hand out to shake HELEN’s hand.)  Winters’ the name.  JR Winters.

HELEN

Hello.  I’m Helen.  Helen Shepherd. (To MOMMA ) It’s ok Momma.

 

                        (MOMMA begins to slowly walk towards the gramophone cart.)

 

JR

Pleased to meet you.  I see you’ve met my driver.  Best goddamn driver in northern California.

WASHINGTON

Howdy ya’all.  Quite a gathering we got us here.

YA WA STI

This road is not open to traffic.  Best if you go back.

HELEN

Now, now. They just got here Chief.  (To JR.)  Your man here tells us you come all the way over here to get a cow.

JR

Don’t be taking old Ramses manhood away from him.  Hell yeah.  All the way over here, to beautiful, oil gushing, Texas tea spitting, Oklahoma.  Oh forgive me.  I’d like you all to meet Betty.  Say hello Betty.

                          (BETTY smirks and lifts her glass.)

And take that hat off.

                          (JR removes the hat from BETTY and puts it on a crate)

 

YA WA STI

Ramses?  Your livestock?

WASHINGTON

Gigantic slab of bull out there. Meaner than a hornless rhino.  Mr. Winters needed to personally inspect his investment.

JR

Yep… don’t like dropping that much money on a piece of meat lessen’ I spy it with my own eyes. 

BETTY

Don’t I know it.

JR

Not the kind of thing I feel comfortable with ... just over correspondence.

 

                          (JR crosses to YA WA STI.  JR extends his hand to shake YA WA STI’s hand.)

JR (Continues.)

Hello Chief.  JR here.  Pleased to know you.

YA WA STI  (Angrily.)

I am not Chief! I am Yaw-wah-stee.

JR

Yaw wah …Stee?  Nice to meet you.  What’s that mean in Yankee?

EDWARD   (To JR.)

Means running wolf.  Can you figure that? 

WASHINGTON

Running wolf?  I like it.  Sounds like you area a man of action like me.

EDWARD

So you are in cattle?

BETTY

Cows  (BETTY groans.)  God.

JR

Got me a thousand head.  Mister Washington here gonna’ drive Ramses there all the way back to California.  Me and Miss Betty are gonna’ fly back to LA. 

HELEN

Oh I can’t wait to see LA.

EDWARD

We’re heading west to get these bandages off.  

JR

Goodness.  Can you see at all?

EDWARD

I can make my way round…

HELEN

Barely.  Any glare and it hurts his good eye.  His bad eye… well…

JR

Bad.

EDWARD

I’m doing better.  Nice to meet ya’ JR.  I’m Ed ... Ed Shepherd. 

HELEN

That’s Lieutenant Shepherd… pilot … thank you very much.

JR

So you’re a pilot?

EDWARD

Was.

BETTY

A pilot?  Oh …Fly me fly boy …

WASHINGTON

Now, now Miss Betty … 

BETTY

Leave me alone, you tinhorn driver.  My dogs are killing me.  I have been in these duds for one too many dances, and I need a bath!

JR

Easy going there … my future silver screen sensation.  Studio lights are hotter than hell, and …(To HELEN.)  My, you are a young thing.

HELEN

I am old enough.

BETTY

Old enough for what? 

EDWARD

Don’t you all be fussin’ over my little cupcake.  Us an’ and her momma are doing just fine.  There…(Pointing) Over there is my mother in law.  And the bundle of joy is our daughter, Emily. 

JR

Why young man you’ve been busy.  Imagine the bunch of ya’ traveling out here in the middle of nowhere.  

BETTY (To EDWARD.)

Can you say Hotel?  Oh, how I miss room service.  Turn-down service.  Little chocolates left upon your down-filled pillow.  Does any of this …sound a familiar note? I think not.  Creepy out here.  You and the redskins.  Christ.  Can we get a move on JR?

YA WA STI

Yes…you are not welcome.

HELEN

They are our guests Chief.  You said.  We are just getting acquainted.

WASHINGTON

The phantom is a little hot…could use a little cool down.  Hauling that hunk of meat all this way. Take a breather boss?

JR

Hell yeah.  Looks like you all have the portable orchestra over there. We can make a party of it.

YA WA STI

No parties.  Work site only.

WASHINGTON  (to YA WAH STI.)

You let them and that broken down jalopy up here. We don’t mean no harm mister Ya Sti.  Anyway…ifin’ anything gets broke…old JR here will buy you double.  Right boss?

JR

Naturally.  No worries there Running Wolf.

HELEN

Pretty please? 

YA WA STI

No harm. I suppose it will be ok.

HELEN

There…it’s settled.  Me and Emily and Momma…we can use a little company.

JR  (To HELEN.)

Quite the fine family I see.  Where’s yer daddy?

HELEN (Softly.)

My daddy is dead.

WASHINGTON

Sorry to hear it.  Left you all on yer’ own.  How’d that happen momma?

(MOMMA Turns away.)

YA WA STI

Winds changing. 

                          (YA WA STI lifts some small green leaves and lets them fall to the ground.)

 

BETTY   (To YA WA STI.)

Dropped something.  God it stinks. (To JR.) Give me a light would ya?

 

                            (BETTY holds up her glass, which is now empty.)

BETTY (Continues.)

And I am a little low JR.

JR

We’ll get ya’ a refill.  Any of you needin’ a taste?

HELEN

What you got there?

BETTY

Tea.

HELEN

Ice tea?

JR

Yea.  Canadian Ice tea.  Been brewing for twelve years.  Finest north of the border. (Lifts glass.) Progress.

                                 (BETTY holds up her cigarette.) 

BETTY  

It stinks and my feet are burning up.

WASHINGTON

I got it.  My pleasure ma’am.

 

                                 (WASHINGTON goes to BETTY and lights her cigarette.)

 

JR

Yes, yes, yes, Betty.  Let’s be a little sociable huh sugar?  Think of this as your first Movie mogul get together. Won’t be long till we turn you out amongst all those sweet talking vultures in Hollywoodland.

HELEN

Hollywood.  I can’t wait to see Hollywood.

YA WA STI

That is liquor?  Liquor not allowed … on the job site.

BETTY

It ain’t on the job site.  It’s in the damn car.

HELEN

Liquor in the car?  It’s prohibition. 

YA WA STI  (To HELEN.)

No drinking here Miss Helen.  Now you promise young miss … you do your dance … then move ahead.  We’ll make ten miles tomorrow. (To JR. )  And no liquor. (To HELEN.)  I’ve got to get back to camp to check up on things. Just one dance.  Like you promised.

HELEN

Okeydokey Chief.  Thank you. 

YA WA STI

If you need anything.  Just over the ridge.  

WASHINGTON

Right over there?  Got it.  You’ all come back now hear?

YA WA STI

One dance. De-da-da-go-hv-yi (Cherokee for ‘Until we meet again.’)

 

                            (YA WA STI exits STAGE RIGHT.)

 

HELEN

De-da-da-go …Hivv?  You said it chiefy sir.  We got it.  One dance. See you soon.

(HELEN waves to YA WA STI as he exits.)  He’s a genuine Cherokee Indian.  The unofficial caretaker of this construction site.

JR

Running Wolf?  A real chief huh?

EDWARD

He’s not a chief.  He’s just a plain ‘ol Indian.  No proper chief gonna’ be caught dead out here workin’ this road. 

WASHINGTON

You can say that again.  Much rather spend the days in the tent huh?  Chief got hiself a teepee you think?

HELEN

We’ve always called the chief ... um ...

EDWARD

Chief

HELEN  (To JR almost apologetically.)

I know he doesn’t like it … but I think it’s kinda’ cute.

 

                                    (MOMMA picks up the baby and begins to take her to the truck.)

 

HELEN

Thank you Momma, Em is ready for her sleep.

  

                                   (MOMMA signs “Hot.” Then continues to the truck and enters it with the baby.)

 

Momma says it’s hot.

WASHINGTON

Looky there, sign language. 

HELEN

My Momma is deaf.  She’s been deaf all her life.

WASHINGTON

I had an aunt who was deaf and dumb and she made all those funny signs with her fingers like.  We used to tease her something awful.  But Momma looks sharp.  She knows what JR and us been saying?

EDWARD

She can read lips.  Gotta’ be a little careful round Momma.  Can’t say a damn thing that she can’t understand it.

BETTY

I am going to melt.  JR I need a drink.  Be an angel and get Betty-wetty another teensy weensy whisky please.

EDWARD

Whisky?  Get me one while yer ‘at it.

HELEN

You will not!  Besides, the Chief says no drinking on the job.

BETTY

We’re just drinking a little tea.   Don’t they serve tea where you all are from?

HELEN

We are from Chicago.

JR

Lots of tea in Chicago.  I happen to know of several establishments. 

WASHINGTON

The car was made in England.  No pesky drinking amendments with the Crown you understand.  You folks are certainly taking the scenic route to the coast. Taking your time huh?

HELEN

Edward had his accident.  The Navy is paying our way.  My Momma won’t go anywhere near airplanes or trains.  So we are driving.  Following the construction.  Momma likes to come up here in the cool still air… and well...

BETTY

You all are just plum crazy if you ask me.

EDWARD

We cut a rug… every night.

JR

Yea, what’s the chief talking about ‘one dance’ and all?

HELEN

Well, we have this old gramophone.  Edward gives it a good crank, and Momma and me and Edward, and the baby ... we all dance on the new highway.  It’s like we christen it.  We want to be the first ones on the new road.  Momma likes it

WASHINGTON

Don’t that beat all?  Now I’ve heard everything.  Won’t catch me waddling up here on this damn road.

BETTY

Come on JR lets dance.