We are in a large, high-ceilinged bedroom in the middle of a moonlit night. It is summer and shear draperies and the round crocheted pulls for roll-up window shades pulse delicately in the breeze. A chorus of crickets emphasizes the absence of human sound. Colors are the pale blue-grays of strong moonlight, with deep shadows. The wallpaper has a pattern of large floral figures. The furnishings are heavy and good, made of dark wood and polished marble. The dresser mirror has a beveled margin, and hangs on an axle from two carved columns. In it we first glimpse the sleeper. Besides the dresser and the bed, there are a rocker, table with a copy of Spoon River Anthology, wardrobe, kerosene lamps, lace doilies, china pitcher and basin, and a rug braided from worn-out clothing. The sleeper is under a single sheet, and there is a complicated quilt folded at the foot of the bed.
The effect would be of late nineteenth century comfort, except for two paintings on the walls: Thomas Hart Benton’s July Hay, and a large spatter painting that could be by Jackson Pollock.
We hear a diesel locomotive’s air horn in the distance, and see that the sleeper’s eyes are open. He is a young man, bearded without mustache, and with long hair. He throws back the sheet and rises. He is naked, and will remain unremarkedly so.
He goes to the window and looks out, over the roof of the front porch. Nearby houses are large, well-made, and plain. One is brick, the rest frame. There are dwarf fruit trees in the front yards. We look at the moon overhead. There is no one on the brick sidewalks or street, and no vehicles, moving or parked. An ostrich walks slowly down the middle of the street.
We move outside. The camera examines the house’s porch. It covers the width of the house, supported by brick columns. There are two large windows, symmetrically flanking the front door, which contains a full-length light. There are a hanging porch glider, sanseveria in brass pots, a wicker display with more house plants, and a low table, covered by a mosaic picture of a lion. A live cat hops onto the mosaic and cleans its whiskers. A cigarette burns in an ashtray on the brick parapet. There is no one in the scene.
The front door opens and the sleeper emerges. He descends the porch steps, and walks to the street. We hear the clicking of a reel mower, then the pealing of a church bell. The sleeper takes a piece of fruit from one of the trees, and tastes it. He looks up and down the street. The camera looks too. It remains empty. The shadows are stark.
The sleeper steps into the street. The curb is a slab of sandstone, on edge and almost as high as his knees. He turns and walks. We see owls, raccoons, bats.
The sleeper wanders through a small-town business district. It is apparent that the shops are vacant. There is an ornate brass bed on the sidewalk, broken and tilted. A mattress droops from the bed onto the sidewalk. Another cat rests on the mattress. The sleeper scratches the cat’s ears. Windows are broken, signs askew. Debris litters the pavement. There is a modest, but handsome courthouse. A possum scuttles along the bottom of a wall. The sleeper puts his face to a window, shielding his eyes to try to see inside. The camera pulls back far enough to let us see the reflection of a Conestoga wagon, pulled through the moonlight by oxen.
Woman’s Voice: Dill!
The sleeper turns. Cut to an approaching female couple. They have their arms around each other’s waists. One has long blond hair, high cheekbones, wide mouth, etc., and a wispy goatee. She wears fringed buckskin and a distressed cowboy hat. The other is darker, petite, heartbreakingly pretty. She is dressed in a tight tailored jacket, very short cutoff jeans, and cowboy boots.
Sleeper/Dill: Well, Jem, Scout. It is a pleasure.
The three embrace.
Scout (the shorter woman): We were at the party, but we had to leave.
Jem: There’s going to be a seppuku.
Scout: It’s horrible. I don’t see how people can watch.
Dill: People have suffered -- died -- because of people like that. Look at all the ruined businesses.
Scout: I understand that. I just don’t want anybody to suffer.
Jem: It’s your cousin Charlie, Dill.
Dill: I thought my cousin was Jack.
Jem: You should stop it, Dill.
Dill walks toward a brightly lit park. It occupies a city block and is strung with lanterns. We see crowds of people, but still from a distance. The Conestoga wagon is tethered to a parking meter. There are other eccentric vehicles: wagons, saddle horses, a sailboat on wheels, various kinds of bicycle, a Rolls Royce chopped to serve as a pickup, a tiller-steered antique with photovoltaics and batteries, a university-built solar racer, etc.
This is a small-town memorial park, with cannon, playground, GAR statue, and bandstand. There are popcorn and lemonade vendors. The crowd includes babes-in-arms, children, young folk, parents, grandparents, gay couples, men and women in drag. There is an old man in a wicker wheelchair, pushed by a giant in a turban and silk. Costumes are anachronistic: pioneer, military, white-tie formal. There are facial tattoos, a deep-sea diving outfit, first-communion dresses, floral headdresses, top hats. People dance to a hoe-down band that features a Fender Stratocaster. Children dance in rings and play snap-the-whip. We see the moon again, filling the screen, and looking very three-dimensional. A cloud passes before it, and the music changes to a minor key.
A European man in a beautiful kimono solemnly mounts the bandstand steps. The music stops, but the band remains, standing respectfully. The kimonoed man kneels, facing the crowd, at the top of the steps. Four witnesses file up the stairs, two on either side of the kneeling man. They are dressed in late nineteenth century funeral clothes. One of the musicians steps out of rank, and hands something to the kneeler. The kneeler nods, gravely.
He unfolds a sheet of rice paper to reveal a Japanese dagger. We see a close up of the blade, on which there is a vague landscape pattern. The kneeler places the knife carefully on the floor before him.
The Kneeler: This town has been devastated because of me and others like me. Lives have been ruined, and people have starved because of my selfishness. My greed and ostentation, my craving for comfort and sensation, my fear of deprivation, all led me to horde wealth that should have flowed freely. My wealth meant impoverishment for my brothers and sisters. Further, I used it to put my competitors out of business, then move production elsewhere, so that we lacked the means to take care of ourselves when crisis came. I polluted air water and soil, used fuel as though it were endless, and persuaded my fellows to copy my improvidence, then enforced their improvidence by making it requisite to their remaining here. I accept the blame for all that has happened, and to atone, to demonstrate my belated recognition of the commonweal, I will disembowel myself.
The Kneeler removes his arms from the kimono sleeves, and tucks the sleeves under his knees. He lifts the dagger and gazes at it sorrowfully, but with an almost hypnotized resolve. He prepares to stab himself.
We see the faces of the crowd. All are fearful, horrified, wishing that this could stop.
The crowd’s faces are confused, hopeful. The Kneeler rouses a little from his trance. The witnesses exchange glances, not hostile or even suspicious, but confused, unsure of what they should do.
Dill: This offends me. Your destruction of commerce offends me, but this demonstration is no less destructive. You tried to make a separate deal with existence, and now you plan to end your existence. There’s no difference. It’s all destruction. Are you brave enough to live on the same terms as the rest of us?
There is doubt in the Kneeler’s face. An eight-year old boy in a too-short, patched suit climbs the steps and takes the dagger, awe on his face. Two witnesses pull the Kneeler to his feet. The crowd disperses, relieved. There are handshakes and pats on the back, quiet words of affection exchanged in a murmur of peace. It isn’t a moment of jubilation, more like the mood of Presbyterians leaving church.
There is a pale smear of red at the end of the street as the motley vehicles pull away.