Ritual Cleansing

By Paul K. Smith


  • THIEF: Any age, any gender, any heritage. Projects menace.
  • CLERK: Any age, any gender, any heritage. Registers threat.
    Plaintive and Conciliatory for the first five minutes.

Place:  A convenience store in an American city.

Time:   Just before midnight

Night.  A convenience store.  Empty.  Except for the CLERK.
A big clock with a clock face – the hands show it is ten minutes to 12.   

At Rise: The CLERK is behind the counter, ritualistically wiping cans in a display, using a long feather duster.  Wiping clean  and counting familiar places in his circuit.

(Outside, a THIEF walks back & forth, fighting a temptation to go in, rob the store. Finally he goes to the unlocked door – but sees a CLOSED sign.

(The THIEF enters the store. Lots of pockets in what he wears.)

(CLERK continues to dust cans.  Watches for the big clock to release him.)

(CLERK counts out each can he dusts.) 

(THIEF watches him until the menace of his presence registers. . .)

CLERK: Forty-nine. . .

THIEF: (Menacingly:) Would be no problem to blow the back of your head off, would it?

CLERK: (Matter-of-factly:) Did you find what you need?

THIEF: Anybody could come in here…

CLERK: Fifty.   We’re closing.

THIEF: …And what’s to stop him from pulling out a gun — and blowing your head off?

CLERK: Fifty-one. . .  What do you need?

THIEF: I need you to get me a beer.

CLERK: Beer’s over in the cooler.

THIEF: Don’t need a whole six-pack.  Just one beer.

CLERK: . . . Hell, I’ll get it.  Fifty-two.  Bud?  Coors?   Which?

THIEF: Whichever is free.

I don’t have any money.

CLERK: What?
(So stunned, he stops counting.)

THIEF: Bet you have a wife.  And two kids.  Don’t you?

CLERK: No.— I don’t.  –Fifty-three.

THIEF: So no one would miss you?

If a man were to- walk in here and blow the back of your head off?

CLERK: Time for you to be on your way!


THIEF: . . . You didn’t get me my beer.

CLERK: You do not come in here — and have no money — and be mouthing off to me!

THIEF: I do have this:
(Pulls out a big revolver.)

CLERK: You put that away!

THIEF: You like this one–  better?
(Pulls out a second gun.)

CLERK: I’m just –

THIEF: Don’t try!   No. You go for that button, you are dead.
(Grabs the Clerk’s feather-duster, wraps a paw around the stick-handle, snaps it in two.)  

CLERK: (Plaintively.) I have to clean the stock.  I have to clean seventy cans before that clock shows twelve or I won’t get out of here and I need to.  Put your guns down— there’s cash in the register.  Let me clean two more? —and we’ll open the till and get you what you want.  All right?

THIEF: Don’t touch that!

CLERK: (Attempts to scotch-tape the handle back together.) 
You broke it.  I can’t leave these things like this.

(The CLERK winds white adhesive tape around the broken handle.)

(The CLERK tries to dust with it – but it won’t work.)

CLERK: Why don’t you leave?!
(The CLERK looks like he’s going to cry.)
If you stay, something bad is going to happen.  I feel it.

(Now he winds black, electrical tape around the break– 

(Three’s the charm:  this binds the ends.)  

(CLERK dusts the next can in the display: dusts in a circular motion, meticulously rubs the tip of the duster into the rim-line crevices of a can.)

CLERK: Fifty-five.

(-With audible relief that he can resume his count.  But:  )

THIEF: Terminating a man is the easiest thing in the world.  Open the register.

CLERK: Can’t open the till unless you’re making a purchase.   Fifty-six.
(THIEF glowers at him; Clerk opens the till.)

You want money, take it, it’s filth, I don’t want to have more than I absolutely need. Fifty-seven.

(Watches THIEF stash the money in pocket after pocket.)

Do you really need all of it?

Then take it all.   Whoa- don’t take the money, yet—Now listen: sell me– you sell me your guns.

THIEF: Think I’m stupid?

CLERK: I’m willing.  Fifty-eight.  Just to get them off  the streets.  That one a thirty-eight?

THIEF: Three fifty-seven magnum, blow the back of your head off.

CLERK: I don’t know if we need even one in this store, or not. . .  Fifty-nine. . . .

Take the shells out.  Take this money.  Leave the guns here, go home, I have to get back to work.

THIEF: You putting me on.

CLERK: Sixty cans.

Isn’t that money enough for you? For what are they worth?  Together?

THIEF: ’bout that.

CLERK: Deal?

(THIEF sells Clerk his guns — that is, the Thief grabs the currency. Pops out the shells, pockets them.  And then sets down his pistols. Turns to leave. Clerk is watching that clock. THIEF turns back to him.)

THIEF: My name is “Karl”. —

CLERK: You need to go. We are closing.  Sixty-one.
Go, now.

THIEF: I didn’t get my beer!

CLERK: Sixty-two.  It’s too late.  Leave.

THIEF: Is it?

(He strolls over to the beer cooler, plucks out a tall can. Clerk watches the Clock, opens a new box of cartridges. Loads the fresh, shiny cartridges in the .357 revolver he just acquired.)

(The THIEF  returns to the CLERK.)

One Dollar. . . . and change.

(THIEF scoops the change from the counter tray.  Pays.  Starts to leave.)

THIEF: No hard feelings?
(Heads out – reaches door —  then stops:  )

Something else I need.  Pork rinds:  Barbecue Pork Rinds.

(Turns to go hunt for them.)                                                                      

(In desperation, CLERK mashes down a button.)

CLERK: Sixty-three.

SOUND:  big door-latch locks in place.      

THIEF: What was that?

(THIEF rushes to the door, tries to open it:  – Locked.)

THIEF: What is going on?

CLERK: Sixty-four. You should have already left. Sixty-five. You should have never come in, Good night.

(CLERK gets out the loaded gun.)

THIEF: Hell that’s not even loaded.

(Shows bullets from his pocket, one gun’s shells in each hand.)

Aren’t you the fool?

(But now the THIEF looks down the barrel of the gun that the Clerk holds trained on him.  He can see a bullet in each chamber of the cylinder.  This gun is fully loaded – and the Clerk is pointing it at him.)

CLERK: Sixty-six.

THIEF: … I am sorry.

(The THIEF pulls from his pockets a wad or two of the money he’d helped himself to.)

CLERK: Sixty-seven.  (Smiling:) Second thoughts?

THIEF: Take your money back!

(The THIEF extracts wad after wad of cash from jacket, shirt, pants– .  Stuffs the bills back in the till. It overflows.  That puts the Clerk into shock.)

(The CLERK reacts to the messy, disrupted, unsorted, register drawer.

The hands of the clock draw closer to 12.   

(He cannot dust impurities from the cans while the cash register drawer is open – while all the money is:  exposed and looked at.)

(Begins to chamber a shell in the gun. . . )

CLERK: Sixty-eight.

THIEF: Oh, God.

(CLERK chambers the shell by cocking the hammer of the gun with his thumb.  Those big clock hands are coming up right against that “12”.)

CLERK:  (As if reciting an ad from a hunters’ magazine:)
“Light recoil, flat trajectory”:

(An internal chant he verbalizes:) 

Close the trigger and the world’s all right.    Close the trigger and the world’s all right.

(Then —  as if he has a time-bomb inside the Clerk fires & shoots THIEF dead.)

(Dusts his next can.)

CLERK: Sixty-nine. . . .

(CLERK pauses while he eyes that clock. . . 

And dusts, achieving total satisfaction. )

CLERK: Seventy. . . . Ah:

. . .. . . . . . . Quitting time.

(A big, broad smile. )

(The CLERK does a neck stretch, really wobbling that head around on his neck, good and thorough, a hunted creature delighted the head’s there, intact.)

(CLERK completes the moment – as he prepares himself to leave the store and take on the dark, uncertain city  – by putting on his gear – his tribal insignia —  a baseball cap: 

(It’s a red cap with big white letters that read:  )


(Everything slowly darkens around Clerk’s face, bright in the light, tranquil and happy. . .)

Slow blackout.

End of Play.

Production Considerations:

  1. If a woman is cast as THIEF: page 5, change “Karl”  to “Carla.”
  2. If a woman is cast as Clerk, add this to Thief’s first speech page 4: “Women die every day.”
  3. For the turning point, when the CLERK holds a gun on the THIEF:  Urban sound & light palettes could underscore the tone: the overwhelming flood of feeling at this moment is one of feeling Betrayal.
    – Subjectively, from the Thief’s point of view, as predator becomes prey: trust has been outrageously betrayed, a blasting of expectations & promise.
  4. Overall, in terms of pace, we have two races against time:
    (1) literally a race against the clock:  the CLERK’s race to finish before the CLOCK (which functions like a third character) shows midnight, &
    (II) the second race against time:  the CLERK’s internal compulsion— his/her nothing-stands-between-me-and-what-I-desire drive to reach seventy cans spotlessly dusted.
  5.  Until CLERK buys the guns (the halfway mark of the play) the audience should feel the threat is the Thief’s THIEF’s threat to kill her. Selling the guns transfers power, status, threat to the Clerk.

* But the mortal threat the CLERK feels must be sustained through the whole play, not just the first five minutes. It is as if she has a time-bomb inside.  Because the threat the CLERK feels is the threat she may not finish in the last few minutes remaining, before twelve,; and, that she may not reach “70” before midnight.  Ideally, either:

  1. The THIEF knocks down a bunch of cans so that the Clerk CLERK has a difficult time finding seventy to dust or wipe clean. OR, 
  2. The CLERK is ritualistically going around the store wiping clean or dusting 70 seventy familiar places in a circuit— [he may even have pet names for these “stations of his Cross.”].  Like a circuit of weight machines at the gym (arm machines, then leg machines, etc.). Also, like the sequential actions in the ritualistic behavior of a truly compulsive person emitting repetitive actions.  The very idea she may not finish touching, ritually cleansing each object or place in her “collection” of objects she wipes clean, and, that she may not finish before Midnight — This is what she registers to the audience as a threat of Death.  Anticipating that the THIEF is a threat to her completion, anticipating that she may fail to complete:   For the CLERK, looming failure at finishing her cleansing before 12 midnight feels like the approach of Death.  In performance, that is the experience — that is how it should feel: a maintained pace of continual threat. This is an enacted ceremony of menacing, ritual cleansing. With that threat to her survival, yes, the Clerk goes over the edge, reaches the breaking point.  Removes the threat, terminates the THIEF, maintains the integrity of her countdown, the building terror of her ritual cleansing, her transformation from prey to predator.  The Clerk becomes the predator. 

When Paul K Smith writes, his goal is create more than a play – it is to create theatre. A visceral theatre whose stage vocabulary of language and gesture comes from the environment around us, from the reality of people: our hungers and our lives.  More than plays of conflict: plays of desire. In his produced work, settings range from California to Camelot, from the 7th Century to the 21st. What do they have in common? In A Day of Promise, The Women of Paris, The Passions of Simone de Beauvoir, City Suite, Pablo’s Kisses, White Widow, City Hawks, You’ve Got to Put Them Out of Their Misery, Sarah’s Rapture, Sweetmeat & Rotgut  – and in this “torpedo of tension” – Ritual Cleansing,  Smith writes about our dreams, and our desires. He writes about the choices we make to survive predators. And to prevail over the nightmares and the monsters in our midst.