“The Book of Mark” by Elle Park

Lady_K

Characters

JOHN
Twenties, has three years left in his sentence.

MARK
Early twenties, has twenty-five years left in his sentence.

ALEX
Fifties, has three weeks left in his sentence.

The Book of Mark

Lights up over the prison cafeteria. A single table. Blank walls. We can’t tell, but it’s spring outside. A lifeless bouquet of fake flowers sits in the middle of the table.

(Two prisoners—MARK and ALEX—sit with their trays. They wear standard prison attire, though it is clear Mark has something hidden away in his pants pocket.)

(Another prisoner, JOHN, walks on over and sits down violently, tray and food in hand.)

JOHN

You know what? I got a bone to pick with whoever runs this place. Me—I got a new cellmate. Small guy. Fucking beerbelly father type. You know what he’s in for? A fucking DUI. Man went to a bar, got drunk, then drove in the goddamn rain! Like—a—fucking—genius.

MARK

No, no, no, can’t be just that. Did he kill someone?

JOHN

Don’t assume that.

MARK

What—isn’t that what most people do? I mean—

JOHN

Nah, he just fucking squashed a woman’s legs into some truck. Got six months for that. Gory stuff. Fucking almost got away with it too, little shit.

ALEX

That’s still horrible.

JOHN

Course you’d say that. It’s nothing. You should hear some of the stuff that some people have done around here—God—I want a cigarette. Hey, Mark—d’ya have one on you?

MARK

No—sorry. Just about ran out.

JOHN

That’s too bad. Anyways, that guy. Total asshole. He told me he’s biding his time and hoping for parole ’cause he’s got, like, a million kids. Fucking prolific.

MARK

But that’s not fair, is it? Only six months? Fuck that, when I have twenty-five years left. Sometimes I even forget what time of the year it is. Could be December for all I know.

JOHN

Maybe if you took the time to go outside—

ALEX

It’s May.

MARK

Nah, it’s fucking cold. And I don’t have the time. You know why? I’m writing a book.

JOHN

You’re shitting me.

MARK

No, I’m serious. I’m completely serious.

JOHN

You, an intellectual?

MARK

Fuck off.

JOHN

You son of a bitch. You. An intellectual. Fucking Plato reincarnate.

MARK

Okay, maybe more of a short story. But it’s still a story, you know? Kinda like a book. A story is a story is a story and all that shit.

JOHN

You trying to become Shakespeare, huh?

MARK

No, I said it’s more like a short story. Anyways, it just passes the time. I mean, I like it.

JOHN

There are so many better ways to pass the time. Like when you’re alone and nobody’s watching and you get that…that feeling—they don’t have any good magazines here at all, but—I have a really good memory, the kind where you can see those pictures in your head—

ALEX

John!

JOHN

Come on, the little joys, right? Give me a break—

MARK

You’re disgusting.

JOHN

But it’s been so long.

MARK

Yeah, well—I feel like I’ve been here for ages, too. I’ve been losing the plots to some of the books I read during my undergrad.

JOHN

God forbid that happens.

MARK

Last night, I almost forgot the plot to Hamlet, which is—

JOHN

Just think about The Lion King or some shit. Or check out the book from the library.

MARK

—ridiculous and so embarrassing. So much for an English lit degree. Never even got to finish because of this mess, and now I’m forgetting everything…

JOHN (between laughter)

You’re kidding. English? You hate reading.

MARK

I hate reading what you write. You know, where the stupid characters always end up shafting each other with spoons or knives. I like the real stuff. The literary stuff.

JOHN

The fucking pretentious stuff. They say write what you know, don’t they?

MARK

Don’t let them hear you say that. I swear—they’ll keep you in here for even longer.

JOHN

I used to write Annie poems. She loved them before she (beat) can’t blame her for that. Anyways, I send some to Darlene now.

MARK

She sorta had to like them, cause she loved you. It’s a contract. Can’t ever show anyone your work. They turn into goddamn liars the second they find out it’s yours. Everyone’s a fucking snake. They’re all worthless pieces of shit. Then you’re dealt a shit hand, and—

JOHN

Jesus, fuck. You know—I only started saying that stuff after my second stint here.

ALEX

Yeah, you’ve got it bad, Mark. But we’re getting better. That’s why we’re here.

JOHN

No, it’s not. Search up the fucking prison industrial complex. I’d have thought you’d know that, since you’re ancient or whatever. You’re making me feel like a nerd or something.

JOHN(to MARK)

So, you’re gonna be one of those fancy writers?

MARK

Yeah. Well. You could say I’m gonna be like Van Gogh.

(A pause. John stifles a laugh.)

JOHN

Well, fuck me. You’re serious. In here? How are you gonna win the Nobel Prize like that, huh? Van Gogh—you think it sounds so fancy—even I know who Van Gogh is…

MARK

He didn’t win the fucking Nobel. And what, you think I’m joking?

JOHN

No, I know that. You couldn’t draw a straight line if you tried. Van Gogh isn’t a writer. He’s the painter guy. Fucking starry night or some shit.

(Mark turns to Alex, who’s been eating quietly.)

MARK

Hey, what about you, old man? You got what—three more weeks in here?

ALEX(mildly)

Something like that.

JOHN

Aw, don’t lie, you’ve been keeping track, haven’t you? Been etching it into your walls with your fork or whatever. Like you’re in fucking Alcatraz. Or, what the fuck, ADX or whatever.

JOHN(in a mocking voice)

Five more days. I haven’t heard from society in weeks—might go insane—I miss lovely Elizabeth oh so dearly—then you scratch scary drawings with your fucking contraband fork.

ALEX

Ah, you know me too well.

JOHN

Can’t lie to anyone here. It’s a whole different ball game. Know all, see all. Prophets—all of us. Could fucking baptize a guy with your spit.

MARK

Hey, I call dibs on David. He’s a Jesus person, isn’t he?

JOHN

You think I ever went to church?

MARK

You seem to think you’re so holy.

JOHN

Nah. Besides, you’re the one who’s been stealing clothes from laundry to make an extra blanket, haven’t you? I remember. You almost got caught that one time. So—which prophet was such a good, good Samaritan to everyone around him…

MARK

Shut up, I need the clothes for the blanket. And that’s Robin Hood. He’s not a prophet.

JOHN

We’re all fucking prophets.

ALEX(interrupting)

Well, as I was saying—what can I say? This place—it’s hard on old bones, and keeping track of time helps. I can barely even remember what I did wrong, and that’s saying something. Brain’s turning to mush. But Darlene said she and the kids would wait for me.

(John starts humming “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree.”)

ALEX

Quiet. You’re making me nostalgic.

MARK

For the Middle Ages?

JOHN

Come on, this is our anthem! My parents fucking loved that song.

MARK

No, that’s “Sweet Caroline.” Bum bum bum! And the entire fucking stadium goes wild.

ALEX

That song, you know—it reminds me of—good times. When I was younger.

JOHN

Yeah, right, you probably reenacted this for fun. Like when they make shows about criminals and bombers and suddenly there’s this huge increase in crime. Making a martyr of yourself. What’d you do, audition for the fucking theater or something? Hey, Mark, what’s that in your pocket? You got a yellow ribbon for Alex to take home? Finish his play?

(Mark touches his bulging pocket apprehensively.)

MARK

I’m pretty sure it’s the other way around.

JOHN

I never did very well in school.

MARK

C student, huh?

JOHN

Nah. Shit. You think too highly of me, man. The thing is, the teachers could never afford to have that much faith in me, or any at all. So—F’s all the way.

MARK

That’s too bad.

ALEX

I’m sure you have plenty of potential.

JOHN

Aw, sure. I’ll yellow ribbon your neck if you don’t shut up about it. You’re one of the good ones. I’ve been jail-hopping since I was thirteen years old. Gives you a nice place to stay, no rent, free food, running water—all the perks. Fucking five stars all around.

MARK

I’ve been to nicer hotels. Disneyland, they have good resorts.

ALEX

I did a very bad thing. You know that.

MARK

Hey—at least you don’t have twenty-five years left, like me.

JOHN

True! You’ll have to tell Darlene hi for him. Me, well. I plan to go see her in a few years. Maybe I’ll seduce the pants right off her. You better hide her.

ALEX

I doubt that. But I’ll say hi to her for you, Mark. Though—she might be suspicious. You never did tell us what you did to get in here.

MARK

Aren’t you not supposed to ask people that?

JOHN

Where’d you read that—Wikipedia?

MARK

More reliable than fucking Facebook or something.

ALEX

You know, I thought the same thing myself—that you weren’t supposed to talk about it. Turns out telling someone else makes it easier. What’s it called—being cathartic? Trust me. And you got time. You don’t want to carry that with you for decades.

MARK

I know. You don’t have to remind me. Two-point-five decades.

ALEX

And—I won’t judge you. We all make mistakes. Some of us do it once, and others do it dozens of times. Like—take John here.

JOHN(jokingly)

I’m a product of my environment.

MARK

I guess you’re right. I mean, you’d know if you read my story. Like I asked you to.

JOHN

That again? Listen, listen. That book of yours can’t be any fucking good. You’re not Van Gogh, or Shakespeare. You’re a nobody. Stop advertising like you wrote the Bible or something.

ALEX

What are you writing about anyways, Mark?

MARK

The plot?

JOHN

What else would he be asking about?

MARK

Okay. Shit. You know what, I don’t know. It’s complicated. Hard to explain in one go.

JOHN

I thought you said you’d written half already.

MARK

I got twenty-five fucking years to write it. Why do you give a fuck about whether or not I’ve finished the thing if you don’t want to read it? Alex, I asked you several times if you were interested yesterday, and you fucking turned me down.

JOHN

Calm down. You never ever asked me.

MARK

Not you—Alex!

ALEX

Yesterday? I think I was writing a letter to my kids.

MARK

See? If you don’t have time to read it, nobody does.

JOHN

He only has three weeks left, but I got three more years. I mean, I haven’t read a book—

MARK

No, no, it’s only short story length right now.

JOHN

Okay, fine. I haven’t read a short story in forever—or ever—but I’m sure I could finish one in three measly years if you let me.

MARK

My first reader isn’t gonna be a shitty karate kid.

(John stands up, suddenly defensive.)

JOHN

I was drunk when it happened! Sorta like the new guy. He’s fucking worse than me, almost. Did I mention he tells me her leg broke at four different places when he rammed into her with his car? Fucking almost killed her. At that point I would’ve held up a saw and told them to chop the thing off already, rather than—I don’t know—leave it hanging! Bam! Off with it! Fuck!

(John is breathing hard. He sits down.)

MARK

Jesus Christ. You’re going crazy. You’re actually going crazy.

JOHN

I could still kick the shit out of you. Fucking pussy.

MARK

Oh, yeah? How can you be in for a violent assault with a black belt in karate? Self-defense, my ass.

JOHN

I mean, of course I’d be in for assault if I knew how to fight. Anyway, it was self-defense. It just went too far. Fucking lawyer was just as useless as expected.

MARK

Don’t they teach you techniques to leave no evidence or something?

JOHN

I’m not a fucking ninja. You know it can cost up to five hundred bucks to test for a black belt? Rich people—they get away with their shit. People like me—we get their shit.

(Alex places his hand on Mark’s shoulder.)

ALEX

Like I said earlier—

MARK

What was it—you said I’d feel cathartic after telling people what I did? John doesn’t look that way. Does it feel cathartic to—what is it even called? Do you feel relieved, John?

ALEX

—I’d be more than happy to read your work.

(Mark violently pulls away from Alex’s grasp.)

MARK

Bullshit! I call bullshit! You weren’t so willing yesterday.

ALEX

I was writing to my children. This is hard on them.

MARK

What about Annie?

ALEX

That was long ago. I love Darlene and my kids, and—

MARK

‘Cause if I was your kid, rather than your best friend, you’d actually give a crap!

JOHN

Jesus Christ. It’s just a short story, not your ransom note.

ALEX

Don’t accuse me of that.

MARK

Then why didn’t you read it?

JOHN

I’d read it if you let me.

MARK

But I don’t want you to! You wouldn’t get it! You threw away your life a long time ago! Jail at thirteen. See, why can’t you understand that…you aren’t like me…

JOHN

The fuck? Vincent Van Gogh would’ve shown his friend his painting! We’re the same, you and I. If you’re still fucking convinced you’re some kind of fucking angel—

MARK

Van Gogh didn’t become famous till he died!

JOHN

Boohoo. You aren’t him. Get the fuck over it. And I’m sorry. I guess me being in jail many times makes me worse than you, even though I’m getting out faster than you.

MARK

I know what you’ve done—

JOHN

Sometimes I had no choice. That’s what you can’t understand. Probably never will, though you pretend you do. It seemed like there was only one open path. All the fucking roads
leading here, like fucking Rome. Like somebody had been planning it since I was a fucking kid.

MARK

I wanted Alex to read it. My story. He has his kids and all. He’d get it.

JOHN

Listen, you’re being childish.

MARK

You don’t get to tell me what I am!

ALEX

Quiet! You’re going to attract a guard’s attention. Eat. I want to head out before it gets crowded.

(Silence falls. Mark and John both eat the rest of their food, before giving up and stacking their plates.)

JOHN

Tastes like shit—like cardboard.

ALEX

So—what do you all plan to do when you get out of here?

JOHN

Well, uh. Get outta Boston. Find a proper job. I have a cousin in the Valley. Maybe I’ll try to find some work down there. Do something honest. Can’t do much without a degree or a high school diploma though. I’ve never done anything honest before. I’ll bet it feels nice.

ALEX

Go back to school?

JOHN

Fuck. Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. I’d never really thought about it before.

(Alex stands up. John does, too.)

ALEX

Good, good. All of that, that’s good. I’m sure someone would be willing to help you turn your life around. Come on. If you’re done eating, let’s walk and talk. It’s warm outside.

JOHN

Sure. Gimme a sec.

ALEX

Mark? Are you coming?

MARK

Nah, I’m gonna go. You guys go ahead.

JOHN

Aw, don’t you wanna walk with us? Tell us about your book? Or short story? You could educate us, radicalize us. Make us into fucking communists or some shit.

MARK

No, no—I just realized something. Gotta write it down. Actually, I’ll leave it on my bed so you can read it later.

JOHN

Whatcha gonna add? Cause I’d really appreciate it if you, uh, let me read it. Nobody’s ever given me a chance before. You know, to do that. There’s a kind of trust. You get me?

MARK

Oh, sure. Later. It’s a surprise.

(He stands up. His hand goes to his pocket. John perks up, noticing.)

JOHN

Hey, what’s that? Is that, fuck me—cigarettes? You told me you didn’t have any.

MARK

No. It’s nothing.

JOHN

Yeah, right! It’s been ages since I had one of those. I’ve been itching for one. Were you gonna sneak it out somewhere? Alex, look. Fuck, he’s just as bad as the rest of us.

MARK

I told you, it’s nothing. I was gonna go spend some time alone. Write, maybe.

JOHN

So you do have a cigarette? Come on, man, we had a deal! When you get some, you give some to me too. That means something!

(John lunges forward and tackles Mark. The two wrestle before John pulls out a rope, made out of ripped clothing, from Mark’s pocket. He stands up, suddenly confused.)

MARK

For Christ’s sake—

JOHN

What’s this? Bunch of ripped clothes. Are the cigarettes in here, or—okay. Okay, looks like you wanted to make a blanket with stolen clothing, but this feels like a rope or—

MARK

See? It’s not a cigarette. I don’t have any. Give it back, won’t you?

JOHN

Wait. Hold up, hold up.

MARK

Give it back.

JOHN

You made this into a fucking rope?

MARK

It’s nothing.

JOHN

This stuff isn’t allowed, you know.

MARK

It’s nothing. I’m not doing anything!

(Terror dawns on John. He drops the rope. Then, without warning, he stomps all over it. Mark cries out.)

MARK

God! Don’t overthink it and snitch! I said—

(Mark pulls John back in a half-embrace in a meek attempt to retrieve his rope. It’s unsuccessful. Mark stumbles back,disoriented.)

JOHN

Fuck! You were gonna kill yourself, weren’t you? That’s what you were doing whenever Alex and I went outside. You were making this! You were writing your long ass suicide note—your fucking book—and making this thing so you could kill yourself! Was that why you wouldn’t let me see it? Cause I wouldn’t get it…like you’re the only one who’s ever felt that way…You and your fucking self-pity! Well, fuck that! Fuck all of that!

MARK

Stop yelling! John, stop yelling. Shut up, shut up—

JOHN

You know, I’d always wonder why you wouldn’t come with us on our walks. Were you gonna cut your ear off, too? Like Van Gogh? Famous after death? None of this makes you a hero!

ALEX

Hey! That’s enough!

(John sits down, defeated.)

JOHN

I didn’t—

MARK

Shut up! Just—

(A beat.)

ALEX

Is it—true?

MARK

I don’t know.

JOHN

Hey, fuck you. Fuck you.

ALEX

Mark. John.

MARK

You know what? It’s not my fault I didn’t want to talk about it. Nobody in here ever talks about it. You’re supposed to be, you know—

JOHN

You little shit. Being a “hardened criminal.” That’s what you read about on Wikipedia, right? Doesn’t mean you can’t—I don’t know, have some common fucking sense! It doesn’t mean you’ve lost every single bit of potential to, I don’t know, do something!

ALEX

Hey, give him some space.

JOHN

What is it?

MARK

Nevermind. It’s nothing. I just—

ALEX

You know, later this spring when I get out, I’m gonna bring my kids to the amusement park. They love it there. Lots of walking. I’m going to walk around outside to prepare myself.

JOHN

What the hell? You’re finally going senile. Fucking called it. Perfect timing, too.

(Mark’s eyes are watery. He is shaking.)

MARK

Goddammit. I can’t deal with this right now.

(John picks up the rope from the ground and shakes it.)

JOHN

Hey, don’t even think about it, okay? Burn that stupid book of yours. I don’t care what Picasso or Van Gogh or whoever the fuck you want to be like ever did in his life. He’s dead. It doesn’t matter. No fucking paintings make up for the fact that he’s dead.

MARK

I thought you hated me. What would you care?

JOHN

Hate you? We’re like brothers. I might tease you or make fun, but it’s because we’re brothers. Don’t you care? Fuck, don’t you care about yourself?

MARK

I don’t know. I’m gonna go. I have to go.

JOHN

Promise me you’ll burn it, that rope. Fucking burn the thing. I swear to God if I see it later, I’ll bash your head in so hard. Fucking get rid of it.

MARK

You don’t understand—

JOHN

I mean—shit, if you don’t want to talk about it, maybe I could read it.

MARK

I told you, I’m not gonna let you! I wanted Alex to read it, and he fucking turned me down. He writes dozens of letters to his kids every week, and he couldn’t take a minute to read it.

ALEX

You know what, Mark? Walk with us.

MARK

No, I can’t, I can’t, I—

ALEX

Yes, you can. You have time.

MARK

I’m busy—

ALEX

It’s spring.

MARK

I don’t fucking care!

ALEX

It’s warm outside.

MARK

Fuck, no it’s not! It’s fucking May in fucking New England! It’s not fucking California, it’s still cold! I can’t go outside. No, I gotta go write! Don’t you get it? I’m young. I was supposed to get my degree and a job I loved, and I threw it all away for twenty-five years—of this!

(He cries.)

JOHN

I know. We all know. We all made mistakes. I mean, unless it was premeditated—

ALEX

John—

JOHN

Yeah, okay. Right. Sorry. Not the time or place.

MARK

The worst thing is I can’t even do anything about it. I’m stuck here.

ALEX
Mark, if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that it’s never too late. The book can wait. Get rid of the short story. Everything can wait. Start over.

MARK

But I’m gonna wait! I’m gonna wait twenty-five years!

ALEX

Look. The weather’s beautiful. You gotta go outside, get some air. Darlene and I used to bring the kids to the gardens. I think she’d like you.

MARK

I’m not your fucking kid! I’m twenty-three! My life ended when I was kicked out of college! For Christ’s sake! Stop talking to me like that!

ALEX

You’re still just a child.

MARK

No! I don’t know, I don’t know—

ALEX

Come outside with us for a little bit.

(Alex pokes the fake bouquet at the center of the table.)

MARK

What is it? What are you doing? Are you really going senile?

ALEX

Look at these. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a real one.

JOHN

Oh, come on, in a prison yard? I don’t—

ALEX

Shh—John.

JOHN

Oh. Yeah. Right. Come on, you can trust me.

MARK

Fuck. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for everything I said. John, I didn’t mean to—I’m so, so, so sorry. I just don’t know if I can…even now…

ALEX

Don’t be. Come on. Let’s take a walk.

JOHN

Yeah, come on, man. It’s okay.

(Mark gathers his composure and nods slowly.)

MARK

Okay. Okay. Yeah, just gimme a sec—

JOHN

Hey, when you write a real book, not some stupid short story, I’m gonna be the first reader, okay? You better fucking swear on it. I’ll hold you to it.

MARK

Yeah. Yeah, okay—okay, I promise.

ALEX

Now, when we get out, you’ll see how nice and warm the sun is now that it’s May. Springtime. It’s like everything’s suddenly come to life…

(The prisoners get up from their table. Almost hesitantly, but with trembling promise, they walk off the stage and into the light.)

Curtain.

✶✶✶✶

Elle Park is from Southern California. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in the Indianapolis Review, *82 Review, and Rising Phoenix Review, among others.