I was listening to NPR in my car the other day.
Does anyone listen to NPR when they aren’t driving?
They did a story on a man who owns a company that cleans up after disasters.
Not earthquakes or tornadoes.
Murders, accidents, suicides.
Did it ever occur to you that somebody has to clean that up?
A company called Aftermath.
Very reasonably priced.
Sort of a noble calling, in a freaky way.
It keeps someone close to the deceased from having to confront the leftovers with a bottle of 409 and a sponge. I mean, if you’re going to check out, consider the people you’re going to affect when it all goes boom.
All though, if you’re legit, you probably don’t need the dramatic ending, do you?
You’ve made the decision.
Don’t go and screw it up.
Because this is not really a private act at all- someone is going to end up sharing the event with you- coming in to clean you up off the floor.
This story really hit me- I was living in Chicago at the time and once I heard that story on NPR, I was strangely obsessed with the subject. This was long before the film Sunshine Cleaning was released. I began to wonder what kind of person would be suited for a disaster cleaning service. What would that individual be like? So, I began a journey to create that character. What would he do, step by step? What would he observe about the deceased that others may simply miss? Does this kind of work give the worker a kind of intuition? Do they wonder why a person took this kind of action? Do they conjecture about that?
These musings became the basis for a play called Aftermath, in which a man who works for a disaster cleaning service comes to a site to do his job. As he works, he speaks to both the audience and the deceased, partly to keep himself company and partly to connect somehow with this now absent person. Then I began to wonder where he would be right about his guesses regarding the deceased and where he would be wrong. But how to know that? The deceased cannot tell him (or the audience) the truth. This lead me to writing a sister play to Aftermath titled Ugly. Ugly is the deceased woman’s story.
As I wrote over several months’ time, I had some odd experiences. I was on my way to a horrible day job and as I parked my car in the lot, I parked next to a van. A service van of some kind. I looked at it and it was emblazoned with a company logo: Aftermath Disaster Cleaning Services. It was an electric, visceral reaction. I had never seen anything like that van anywhere before. A few weeks later, on my way to pick up a friend at O’Hare airport, I spied a billboard for this same company. Both instances left me unsettled and excited that I must be seeing signs that I was on the right track.
Shortly after, I was struggling with why the man was called to the deceased’s home if, as I had written, she had chosen suicide.
My mother has told me that my father had just completed setting all our family affairs in order the week he was killed. Like he had had some feeling, you know?
Thirty- six years old and he was looking over his life. I decided that my deceased character felt, as I wrote earlier, that she didn’t want to burden anyone she knew with such a clean up task and so had called to make an appointment for Aftermath to come to her home. That she had everything planned out and her affairs put in order.
In its premiere showing, Ugly was presented as Act One and Aftermath as Act Two.
Subsequently, I switched the order to make the stories less obvious, less predictable to the audience, and finally ended up combining the two shows so that the deceased observes the man working and notes where he is right and wrong about his thoughts regarding her death and her life. The show had three different runs, two in Chicago and one in Florida.
As I continued to listen to NPR, the conversations and reports I heard inspired many of my works including Upon This Rock: The Magdalene Speaks, which was an answer to Colm Tobein’s novella The Testament of Mary and was richly informed by Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot: The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth. And yes, I heard an NPR interview with Aslan about that book.
I thank the universe for NPR.