“Where the Heart Is” by R/B Mertz

Sliver, Andrew Reilly


MOM: an upper middle class American woman, most likely white but not necessarily, in her late
fifties or early sixties. Well-groomed and good looking, but not hip. Feminine. A constant smoker
of menthol lights.

JO: her child, a nonbinary AFAB person in their mid-thirties. Funky looking—tattoos, pink or blue
hair, etc.

JAKE: her son, 20, athletic and open-faced.


This play is written to be performed on zoom, with MOM and JAKE on the same screen and JO on a separate screen. The play could also be performed on a conventional stage with two sides of the stage separated by a simple set to indicate that the characters are talking to each other on zoom.

Where the Heart Is

JO waits in a zoom box, in which the name reads “Prof. Miller (they/them).” MOM’s audio-only Zoom screen appears and reads ‘JAKE 4 LYFE.’’

MOM: Sorry I missed your call last night! I was already zonked out in front of Bones. Can you see me? Are we zooming? Zoom, zoom!

JO: Click on the video camera, Mom.

MOM: Oh! (She appears on the video screen, smiling ear to ear): I seeeee! Get it, Joey?

JO: Yes, I get it, I get it.

MOM: “I see said the blind man, as he picked up his hammer and saw.” (A loud beep from a microwave)

JO: I only got that joke, like, a year ago.

MOM: And you tested gifted and talented—!

JO: I did?

MOM: Well, except for math. (Another loud beep)

JO: Oh.

MOM: But math’s not important.

JO: Right.

MOM: I mean, not for you—(Another loud beep)

JO: It kind of is—What is that beeping?

MOM: I mean, I guess you have to count your students and manage your grades—Oh, that’s my coffee, shit, I left it in the microwave.

JO: And like, there’s money—

MOM: But you don’t need money to write a poem! (Another loud beep) Oh my God, the microwave acts like it’s going to explode if you don’t get it right away. (She stands, goes off camera) Unlike the pipe that burst in the old house after we moved out—leaking and leaking, silently flooding the basement, not letting anyone know, destroying everything—

JO: Yeah… that was gross.

MOM (Returning with coffee): You obviously need money for economics. (Takes a sip) Ugh, it’s cold.

JO: Right.

MOM: Yes. You don’t really need poetry for economics—

JO: No—

MOM: Or like, anything—

JO: Well, you know, to distract from death, I think, is the main thing—

MOM: I’m going to reheat this. (Stands, talks from off camera) And to distract from death, I’m not going to go to a poem. Sorry/not sorry….

JO: Yeah, I get it—

MOM: I’m going to go for like, a bourbon—

JO: Uh oh—

MOM: Not anymore. But a cigarette. Or a candy bar. But then you get fat—how can this country drive everyone to alcoholism, which is, let’s face it, the better option versus opioids or meth or what-have-you, with like, the stress of everything, and then, like get you addicted to sugar and meat and bread and then they judge you for getting fat on top of everything? Thanks a lot, Hollywood, thanks, Michelle Obama! Thanks, Susan Sarandon!

JO: What’d Susan Sarandon do?

MOM: OH, she’s always in on it. How’s Canada? (A loud beep; she stands immediately to go get the coffee.)

JO: Uh—

MOM (Returning with hot coffee): Did you have any border trouble? It was all fine? Did they make you take your mask down? (Takes a sip) Oh, good, good. (Lights a cigarette)

JO: No, actually, they didn’t—they just looked at our marriage license, and our passports, and asked us if we’d had any symptoms. It was just one guy in a little booth, down in Buffalo, and we were the only car—I mean, I guess it was New Year’s Day, but still—poor guy, guarding the border all by himself.

MOM: Well, it’s just Canada.

JO: People want to come here, too, Mom.

MOM: Well, yes. But nobody’s mad at them.

JO: Yeah, true.

MOM: And all that socialism.

JO: Well, yeah, I mean, I just uh… I mean, I wanted to tell you, I found out they’re gonna pay for my surgery—

MOM: What? What surgery? Are you sick?

JO: No, my top surgery, Mom.

MOM (lower register, change of tone): What?

JO: I told you this—

MOM: You did not.

JO: I did.

MOM: Well, I have seven children! I can’t remember everything everyone tells me and every letter of the alphabet that applies to everybody. That’s a lot of letters at this point, honey.

JO: I told you in the kitchen in the last house when I was there that time Dad snuck out the window—

MOM: You expect me to remember confidences from two in the morning that-weekend-my-husband-climbed-out-the-window-of-his-nursing-home?

JO: Well, it wasn’t like I planned it—That was funny, though. He was like, “I saw the window open, and I thought to myself, ‘Fuck it, I’m leaving! And I climbed right out!’”

MOM: Yeah. And they found him by the highway.

JO: Yeah.

MOM: Picking flowers.

JO: Yeah.

MOM: He crossed that highway.

JO: Jesus.

MOM: Yes. He said the cars whizzed by, but he thought he could see flowers in the median strip. “Red, red, white, red, black, blue, red, white, white,” he said, “All the cars whizzing by so fast, but I could see flowers, still, between the blurs.” “Secret Garden,” he said.

JO: I can’t believe they let him get that far.

MOM: You’re going to cut off your…

JO: Yes! And I don’t really wanna talk about it.

MOM: You never told me that. I would’ve remembered that.

JO: Mom.

MOM: I’m sure I would’ve remembered that…

JO: I said I had no idea how I’d ever pay for it so I’d probably never be able to.

MOM: Oh.

JO: Yeah.

MOM: That’s how.

JO: Yeah.

MOM: It seemed impossible.

JO: Yeahhhh. (Affecting a Russian accent) Not here. Here in new world, I can be new man.

MOM: Are you becoming a man?

JO: No, Mom.

MOM: Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

JO: I’m just getting top surgery.

MOM: Okay, okay. But—are you changing your name? Are you going on hormones? I thought you were going to have a baby!

JO: I am! Jenny’s gonna breastfeed the baby.

MOM: Oh, my God.

JO: It’s called “induced lactation.” Lots of people do it. Men can even do it.

MOM: That’ll be the day.

JO: No, I mean, men can breastfeed, they just can’t supply as much milk.

MOM: Sounds about right. But surgery—to take off your—

JO: Don’t say it—


JO: Mom!

MOM: Well—it’s just funny, you know, to think of the people that have to get them cut off that don’t want it, and—I guess it’s kind of like leaving America, you know, when so many people are trying to get in.

JO: I’m still in North America.

MOM: You know what I mean. At church today, you know it’s Epiphany, when the wise men bring the gifts—

JO: I know what Epiphany is, Mom.

MOM: Well, I can’t keep track of what the fuck everyone knows. Anyway, the priest said we should all focus on gratitude. Even though everything sucks right now. But why is it called ‘Epiphany’ if it’s when they bring the gifts? Which, I mean, is how he got to gratitude, but I thought an epiphany was like, a big idea. I don’t think the point is gratitude.

JO: It’s a revelation. An epiphany. An insight. So it’s like, when Jesus is revealed. And when the wise men realize he’s the king or the messiah or whatever—

MOM: Oh yeah, that makes sense. They have epiphanies.

JO: Yeah.

MOM: And they bring presents.

JO: Yeah. Because he’s a king—

MOM: Right. And it was just his birthday. (Looks off screen, distracted)

JO: But they aren’t really presents, they’re like, metaphors for everything that’s going to happen to him—like, the myrrh is for cleaning dead bodies, that’s not a thing you give to a lady with a new baby.

(MOM still looks distracted) What’s up?

MOM: Oh, I’m just waiting for the mail…I’m still waiting for all the paperwork about Daddy. I keep thinking it’ll be over soon and it’s never over. Now I’m waiting for the life insurance company to mail me this big packet of paperwork.

JO: Did they count him as dying from Alzheimer’s or Covid?

MOM: Alzheimer’s.

JO: Wow.

MOM: What?

JO: I just wonder how many other people died of Covid and had it written down as something else.

MOM: I know, I don’t have the energy to fight about it.

JO (generously): Sure, sure, Mom. You shouldn’t have to fight with anyone about it, it’s some ass-hole along the line who made that call.

MOM (Looks away, concerned): Yeah.

JO: Are you watching T.V.?

MOM: It’s just muted, there’s just—a lot of people protesting the election, I guess. I don’t know if I can drop this surgery thing, Joanna.

JO: Mom.

MOM: Well—

JO: Mom, you were going to get a boob job—

MOM: Well—

JO: What’s the difference?

MOM: That was, sort of, to restore what was already there—it just seems so destructive, so violent. To just—cut them off—

JO: I know—I don’t really want to talk about it—but you know, I’ve wanted it for a long time.

MOM: But, Jo, I mean…You can’t just cut off a part of yourself because you don’t like it!

JO: It’s not that simple, it’s not about liking it or not—

MOM: It’s so final.

JO: I’m not gouging out my eyes or cutting off my hands or something—

MOM: Oh, Jo—

JO: Which, by the way, Jesus said was okay—

MOM: Jo!

JO: He said that! We should cut out our eyes or cut off our hands or legs or whatever, if they cause us to sin—right? Didn’t he say that?

MOM: He didn’t mean to get plastic surgery.

JO: It’s not plastic.

MOM: Well, what is it?

JO: It’s—to be myself. I don’t want to talk about it.

MOM: How is this undoing of your body to be yourself?

JO: Nice phrase, “undoing of my body”—

MOM: You are yourself and now you’re changing yourself.

JO: Would you be changing yourself if you got a boob job?

MOM: Of course not! I’d just have better boobs!

JO: Well?

MOM: How is that the same?

JO: You’d be making yourself look more like your gender, more like yourself.

MOM: But I thought you weren’t becoming a man—

JO: I’m not. I’m not going to take T, I’m not changing my pronouns or my name or anything. I’m just getting top surgery, Mom. It’s just… it’s just a change.

MOM: I just don’t understand—it seems so violent, so unnatural. And everything about you is so

JO: Maybe it’s like those warrior women from Herodotus. Who cut one breast off. Except I’m doing two. For war.

MOM: What war?

JO: The culture war. The word war. The war about whether or not I’m male or female or real or which bathroom I should use—

MOM: Oh, Joanna, it’s not a war.

JO: Mom—

MOM: It’s not the same as a war.

JO: It’s a metaphor. Anyway, it’s not unnatural, it’s just—it’s like, if I had been able to transition when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have grown breasts. I wouldn’t need to cut anything off.

MOM: Oh, so it’s my fault.

JO: Mom, it’s not your fault, it’s not bad, there’s no fault–

MOM: “…But, like, shut up, Mom, because if you had done better, I wouldn’t need to get this violent, elective surgery…”

JO: Why do you keep saying it’s violent?

MOM: “…Which is what Jesus would do?!”

JO: It was just an example, like, I guess he wasn’t opposed to cutting off body parts?

MOM: It’s a metaphor!

JO: Well, who says that one’s a metaphor and the one about eating his body isn’t? Are they all or none of them or all of them?

MOM: I don’t know! Are you cutting off your breasts because they’re causing you to sin?

JO: Maybe. Maybe not being who you are and blending in because it’s easier is the sin. Maybe telling the truth is the only good we can do—revealing ourselves. Making epiphanies.

MOM: Oh. My. God.

JO (answering in a “God” voice): Yes!

MOM (frustrated): You can make anything about Jesus, Joanna!

JO: I learned from the best!

JAKE enters MOM’s screen. He is breathless and a little sweaty, having just come in from the gym, headphones around his neck, smiling. He’s carrying a fat envelope.

JAKE: Hi, Jo!

MOM: Ohhh, is that the mail? (She takes the package, and is immediately disappointed)

JO: Hi, Buddy!

JAKE: How’s Canada?

MOM: Jake, this is for the neighbors. You’re going to need to take it next door.

JO: Good, good, smoking a lot of legal weed.

JAKE: Alright, alright, alright! (to MOM who impatiently hands him the envelope) Alright, alright, alright, Mom!

JO: How’s things there, Buddy?

JAKE: Pretty good! We taught the puppy how to stand on his hind legs! It’s super cute. When are you coming home?

JO: Well, we just got back, Buddy, so—

JAKE: Oh, yeah.

JO: How’re your applications—

JAKE: Okay, I gotta go shower—Love you, Jo!

JO: Love you, Buddy, talk to you later—

MOM (checking that JAKE is out of ear shot): Your brother is driving me crazy.

JO: Yeah?

MOM: He’s waiting to hear from two different police departments about his applications—

JO (Obviously uneasy about this issue): When will he hear back?

MOM: Don’t act like you support it—

JO: I support him. I just don’t understand why he wants to do this. Why he insists—

MOM: He doesn’t get into your business—

JO: I’m not joining an organization he’s been protesting his whole adult life—as far as I know. I mean, I’d even understand it more if he wanted to a be a priest—but a cop?

MOM: Don’t start in with me about priests.

JO: I’m not. I’m just saying, at least that I would understand, you know, culturally, for him. But we don’t know any cops, why does he want to be a cop?

MOM: I refuse to engage in this conversation…

JO: Does he know any cops?

MOM: No. I mean, yes, he’s met them, obviously, as he’s been applying. It’s something about
masculinity. He needs masculinity.

JO: Does he need that kind of masculinity?

MOM: UGH! Why is everyone falling on their swords for the police all of the sudden? Or against the police? This is what ruined Thanksgiving!

JO: I wasn’t even there.

MOM: No, your sister and your sister-in-law were there, and they got into it with your other sister and suddenly one half of the family isn’t talking to the other half and your brother left early with the babies and no one had a good time.

JO: Sounds like an appropriate way to celebrate colonization and imperialism.

MOM: What does that have to do with—why am I deprived of a dinner with my family because we all disagree about something? For what? Because we have to fight about the police? What does it matter what any of us thinks?

JO: Well, it matters now that my brother wants to be one.

MOM: And you think that makes him racist.

JO: No, Mom—it’s not—it’s not that simple. And honestly, with him, I’m more afraid of his heart—he’s sweet, and kind, and I can’t imagine him being in these positions—and I don’t want anything to happen to him, either!

MOM: Neither do I!

JO: Well, why aren’t you upset about that violence?

MOM: I am upset about it! What am I supposed to do about bad cops, Joanna? March up and down the street with a sign? We’re the only white family in the neighborhood, I’m pretty sure everybody’s already gotten that memo.

JO: So you admit that policing is racist–?

MOM: I am not getting into this with you! Some cops are racist, of course. And there’s a problem with racial profiling. And racism, in general, of course—

JO: And you think Jake will go in there and fix it? And come out unscathed?

MOM: Of course not, but it’s his life—why do you care what I think about his life but not yours?

JO: Mom, of course I care what you think about my life.

MOM: Just not your body—

JO: Well…

MOM: You care what Jake does with his body, don’t you?

JO: I care if he hurts other people, or himself.

MOM: I care if you hurt yourself, too.

JO: These two things aren’t comparable. I want him to get what he wants… I just don’t know why this is what he wants…

MOM: He wants to do good things.

JO: Then why doesn’t he join the peace corps?

MOM: Joanna, not everyone is like you.

JO: What does that mean?

MOM: Well, he’s just different than you, that’s all.

JO: He likes to pick flowers, too.

MOM: Yes.

JO: And write poems.

MOM: Yes. What’s your point?

JO: Nothing—just—it’s not like he’s some big aggressive guy—

MOM: Not all cops are these big bad guys, Jo—

JO: How many cops do you know, Mom?

MOM: How many do you know? No! Don’t tell me! I’m not fighting with you about this.

JO: Well, okay. (Trying to think of what to say) Well, why didn’t he get into the last place?

MOM (reluctantly): Because he “showed bad judgement in not ending friendships with people who smoked marijuana.”

JO: What?

MOM: Yes—

JO: Is that me? Did they mean me?

MOM: No, his friends. He told them you lived in another state and had a prescription. Which was true, as far as he knew.

JO: Mom, did you tell him that?

MOM: Lying is okay sometimes. If it’s for the greater good. (Looks off screen again)

JO: I see. But he’s supposed to, like, abandon his friends if they do something he doesn’t like? And they can let in people who were in the KKK, but not people who are friends with stoners?

MOM: I guess so. He’s supposed to cancel them.

JO: Mom.

MOM: Sorry—

JO: The Catholic Church invented canceling—It’s excommunication, it’s “We don’t like you, so you have to go away—if you don’t like it here, why don’t you leave? Burning books, exiling people from Rome—these motherfuckers should be grateful they get their Twitter shut down and not their whole life’s work burned or worse. You know who Origen is? No. That’s cancelling. These are market forces, motherfucker—! People don’t like you based on who you are, don’t want to do business with you when they find out what you think? Welcome to my world. They’d make you sit in the back of the church, or off to the side, somewhere no one could see you—ex-communicado—out of communion, out of communication—

MOM (who has been growing increasingly distracted by something offscreen): Hold on, honey, I want to turn the news up real quick—

JO: Why? Did something happen?

MOM: This protest looks intense—they’re like, shit, they’re, like, pushing the line of police back…

(JAKE appears behind MOM, just showered, towel around his neck, drying his hair, etc. He’s looking intently at the screen off-screen, where MOM is also staring intently.)

JAKE: What is this?

JO: Mom, what’s going on?

MOM: They’re…

JO: What?

MOM: People are… they’re, like…

JAKE: They’re fucking storming the castle!

MOM: Jake, it’s not funny—

JAKE (face more serious): I didn’t say it was… Holy shit—they’re breaking windows—look—they’re fighting the cops, but I thought—

JO (looks at their phone, wide-eyed): Jesus—they shot somebody—

MOM: Who shot somebody?

JO: The police shot one of the protesters. They’re getting inside the building.

JAKE: What the hell?

JO: They’re waving confederate flags.

MOM: I only see one.

JO: There’s a fucking confederate flag being waved from the Capitol right now–

MOM: Well, it’s not like they all have confederate flags…

JAKE: Those people are crazy!

JO: Crazy for who?

MOM: Oh, enough, enough! There are crazy people on both sides!

JO: Only one side is waving the confederate flag, though—

JAKE: No politics, please!

JO: This is politics.

MOM: You only listen to one side of things, Joanna!

JO: I’m only allowed on one side.

JAKE: God, it doesn’t always have to be one thing or another!

JO: I know, I know, I don’t even believe in sides! It’s a circle.

MOM: God created Eve out of Adam’s side.

JAKE: What?

MOM: I’m just saying. That side was important.

JAKE: What are you two even talking about? Stop fighting, you guys! Come on! Look! They’re fighting, there, look, and there–! They’re—they’re beating up a cop. (Shocked, moved) Jesus. I thought—I thought that Trump people were for cops. Shit, they’re just, like, running people over—(He tears up, tries to look like he is unaffected) Mom, what are they doing?

JO (Waits for their mother to answer; she doesn’t): They’re trying to stop the election from being
certified. Because their guy lost.

JAKE: Jesus Christ. Everyone needs to calm down.

MOM: Yes. My God, what are they doing?! What’s happening?

JO: They’re REVEALING themselves. Things are being revealed.

JAKE: What does that mean?

JO: They’re showing you who they are!

MOM: Enough, Enough! It’s too much!

JO: Okay, okay, I’ll be quiet. Can you just set the phone up on the shelf so I can see the TV too?

MOM: Don’t you have a TV?

JO: No! We’re dirty hippies!

MOM: Okay, okay—

MOM sets her phone up so that we see the back of her head and JAKE’s head, and the TV in the distance, playing news footage. For a moment we can see JO’s face cringe as if repulsed/moving quickly away from what they’re seeing.



R/B Mertz (thee/thou) is a trans/non-binary butch poet and artist. They wrote the memoir Burning Butch (Unnamed Press, 2022)the essay, “How Whiteness Kills God & Sprinkles Crack on the Body,” the foreword for John J. McNeill’s Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey for Gays, Lesbians, and Everyone Else, and many poems published throughout the Internet. Mertz taught writing in Pittsburgh for eleven years and was honored to be a finalist for City of Asylum’s 2020-21 Emerging Poet Laureate of Pittsburgh. On January 1, 2021, Mertz left the US for love, and they now reside in Toronto, Ontario, traditionally the territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples.

Andrew Reilly has published many photos in Another Chicago Magazine.

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