Setting the Scene

This friend of mine was working on a novel, but he was having some trouble with it. Someone had looked at one of his earlier drafts and told him that the finished book would come in at about one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty pages, which would be ideal for optioning movie rights and adapting into a screenplay. Since then, my friend had gotten it into his head that he was writing a movie rather than a book, and this had come to color and corrupt every scene and line of dialogue. He just couldn’t seem to get the project back on track.

So he turned to me for help. We took a look at one of his scenes. We actually saw it play out in front of us like a scene from a movie. The story involved a kidnapping plot, and the scene took place in a parking garage where there was a handoff between the kidnappers and the kidnapped person’s family, an exchange of ransom money for the victim. There was a bombastic score thumping against the background of the scene, stinging every dramatic moment. The characters in the scene behaved as though their movements were choreographed to go along with the score. The kidnappers piled out of their sleek black car, wearing sleek black suits, and whipping off their sleek black sunglasses in ice cold slow motion. The kidnapped victim was tucked in the backseat, hair matted, eyes bulging, mumbling and struggling against the duct tape over her mouth. The kidnapped victim’s mother met them dressed in a smart pants suit, with her arms folded, staring them down smugly and complacently.

When the scene was done, I had the set laid out before me like a miniature model of the parking garage. I could approach it and study it. I could reposition and rearrange the players. In a small storage closet in the corner of the parking garage, I saw that there was a tiny reel to reel tape recorder set up on a stool and hooked into the garage’s speaker system. This was where the score was coming from. I reached down and clicked it off with the edge of my fingernail. I scratched my chin and peered in close at the tiny figures gathered on the second level of the model. With the music gone, I told my friend that he needed to slow the scene down, pace it out. He needed to think about how something like this would play out in actual life. I told him that that was always a good place to start from. Not because it would make the scene more real, but because it would enable him to find something fresh and visceral in the scene, to locate those four crucial pinpricks that would hold the scene to the wall and keep people looking at it.

My friend crouched down at looked in on the second level. He nodded and twisted his chin as he stood up again, and I reached over and clicked off the switch that worked all of the tiny florescent light fixtures in the model. The shadows deepened around the pedestals of all the little figures. I placed the cardboard cover back over the model, taking care not to bump against the corners of the parking garage and knock any of the figures over or nudge them out of place, and then we left the room and turned out the lights and closed the door behind us.

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Part of the Family

I was watching a gangster movie on TV. It opened on a residential street lined with matching bungalows painted in a variety of bright pastels, their yards enclosed with picket fences and landscaped with flower bushes blossoming in colors that complimented the houses. A paper boy flung a paper into one of the yards, and then rode out of frame ringing his bell. All the telltale signs of a nice suburban neighborhood. The movie then cut to an interior shot of a man sleeping in his upstairs bedroom beside his wife, the sounds of birds and the occasional passing car drifting in through the open window.

The man woke up groggy eyed and smacking his lips, and then he jolted awake when he noticed the mob boss standing at the foot of his bed. He went to reach for his glasses on the bedside table, but two of the mob boss’s goons grabbed him by the ankles. The wife woke up then and started screaming, and the man was shouting and reaching for her as he got dragged past the foot of the bed. The mob boss and his goons got the man on the floor, and they were kicking at him and spitting at him and yelling. And all the quiet of the morning was shattered in the commotion.

More goons appeared at the window, staring into the room and grinning. The goons in the bedroom hoisted the man up and fed him through the window to the goons outside on the balcony, and they took him out over the railing of the balcony and down into the front yard. All the while, the man and his wife were urgently yelling things at each other, final goodbyes, last minute details of their lives that they needed to relay to one another, since they both knew he wouldn’t be coming back. The goons just kept kicking at the man, telling them both to shut their mouths as they carried the man away.

The goons got the man out onto the front walk and even as they carried him off down the street, he was still shouting things back up to his wife where she had poked her head out from the upstairs window. The mob boss came strolling out of the house behind his men with a big satisfied grin on his face. He stopped under a tree in the front yard to light the stub of a cigar that he pulled from his pocket. He looked up and down the street and nodded, as though he were contemplating buying a house in the neighborhood.

A few houses down he noticed an old lady standing on her front walk, clutching her white robe closed at her chest and staring off down the street in the direction that the goons had taken her neighbor. She turned to the mob boss as he strolled over to her, and she lifted a shaking finger at him to ask what was going on. But before she could say anything, he pulled a wad of money from the pocket of his shirt. He laid the money in her bewildered hands, telling her, “Get yourself a new pair of slippers. Alright, sweetheart?” The woman just looked at the money and then down at her bare feet, and then she turned and went back into her house, shaking her head.

The mob boss’s son was actually there on the couch next to me, watching the movie along with me. I jolted when I looked over and noticed him there. I told him that he was in the movie too, and I pointed out a scene that he was in. He was just a boy then, and there was a shot of him sitting at a table by himself at a garden party outdoors. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the boy was dressed in his suit that he had worn to church. People were slow dancing on the stone patio and mingling among the rose bushes, and the boy just looked around from person to person, blinking his eyes.

Now that he saw himself in the movie, the mob boss’s son perked up and took a renewed interest in it. He even moved closer to the edge of his seat. This was like lost footage of his family’s life that had been edited out of his childhood. He never knew about any of this. He saw his father brutally torturing and disfiguring a man, and then he saw him literally come walking into the next room with the kindest smile in the world on his face. And in the son’s memory there was only his father walking into that room smiling as the boy had looked up with his birthday hat on just as he was about to blow out the candles on his cake. These missing pieces were an unsettling revelation.

I saw that the movie had piqued the son’s interest, and I started to enthusiastically tell him how and why I liked the movie so much. I talked about how it engendered this constant, unnerving feeling that something bad was just about to happen. But I was still just thinking of it all as a movie and evaluating its merits on those grounds alone. He was looking at it differently. He just responded to what I was telling him with a few distracted nods. His whole mind, his ego and his identity, were recalibrating around this new information. The rapid shifting of his eyes and a few sharp twitches of his jaws betrayed all the cogs and wheels that were cranking away inside.

Fan Contract

The first day of class, the teacher had us all sign a paper saying that we waived our right to complain about the fan. The contract was one page, with the terms of the agreement printed in a few brief lines at the top and more than enough lines for all of us to sign underneath. None of us knew exactly what “the fan” was, but we all signed nevertheless. We were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to take the class otherwise. Once he had all of our signatures, the teacher taped this paper to the side of a portable box fan, reminding us of our agreement.

He kept the fan on his desk, facing out towards the class. He would turn it at various angles from time to time, so that at one time or another, everyone had the experience of having this fan blowing at them. Needless to say, it was irritating. It would dry out our eyes and blow dust into our faces, and it would blow our pencils and papers off our desks. Sometimes the teacher would carry the fan by the handle, and he would walk around the class with it as he gave his lecture. He would stop to make some point or another, and he would stand there with the fan propped up on the top of someone’s desk, blowing directly at them, and he would look around at the class and go on talking, not acknowledging the fan at all, pretending like he didn’t notice that he was holding it right in someone’s face.

There were two girls who sat right in front of his desk that really got the worst of it. Nearly every class, one of them would finally break and throw her pencil down and ask, “Do you have to have that fan blowing on us all the time? Can you please just turn it off!?” And he would reply, “No, you signed the contract. Anyone else have any questions?” He always said it that way, the sentence already half crumpled up and thrown in the waste basket before immediately moving on to other things. Maybe this was supposed to be a lesson to us to be careful what we signed. Maybe he liked getting on our nerves. Maybe he just really liked his fan. He never did say.

The Other Lane

I was up along the lake front of Lake Erie, driving around a sleepy small town there with its shady yards and closely packed colonial houses and its patchwork streets of brick and asphalt and stone. I was cutting down a particularly narrow side street, and there was a garbage truck sitting along the curb on the other side of the street, and the garbage men had jumped down and they were collecting the bags and cans that had been left out on the curb for them. As I approached the spot where the garbage truck was sitting, an old red pickup truck came growling out from behind the garbage truck, and it was running straight at me in my lane. I had to swerve off the road and run aground on someone’s front lawn to avoid the collision.

I started pounding on the horn with my fist and flipping the man off, waving my hand out the window and high in the air like a declaration of war. The truck slammed to an abrupt stop as it came alongside where I had wiped out in the yard. A man with a grizzly white beard shoved his face out the window and started screaming at me. He told me that he was a house painter for something and sons company or whatever, as if that excused his actions, as if to say that he was someone important in this town and he could drive in whatever lane he wanted and whichever direction he wanted. I yelled back that he had almost hit me, that he had made me wreck my car. I pointed to the double yellow line that ran down the center of the street, clearly indicating that passing wasn’t allowed. None of this made the slightest difference to the man. He just huffed and gripped his steering wheel like he was going to tear it off the dashboard and hurl it at me.

People all around began to appear, in doorways, up on balconies, from around the back of their garages. They all stared at me with the same hostility as the old painter in the truck, and I saw that they were all with him. I guess he actually was considered someone important in the town. They all began to gather on the scene. But I wasn’t worried. I could just put the car back into drive, hit the gas, and be clear of the situation in a matter of seconds, spraying mud and grass from the turfed up yard in my wake.

But just as I went to do exactly that, I found that my hand reaching for the gear shift was grabbing at nothing but air. The car had disappeared out from under me. Now I was on foot. Now I was in trouble. All the angry town’s people were closing on me. Even the garbage men had left their cans laying all over the yard and were coming down the street towards me. I faked this way and then that, and then I sprinted towards an opening where I saw sunlight down at the end of a shady boulevard of trees. Everyone fell in behind me, chasing me as a group, sweeping more people into their mob as they went along by the sheer gravity of their anger and their energy.

I came to a busier section of town and I ducked into a cramped little town store that sold cigarettes and lottery tickets and beer. The man behind the counter was alarmed at the way that I rushed in, and he started yelling something, but I was already out another door on the other side of the store before he managed to get out much more than an couple of loud grunts and angry noises. The other door let out onto a park of some sort where there was a sloping field with a grove of trees, and past that, running for it with all my strength, I could see the beach and the waves and the boats riding the thin blue line where the lake met the sky.

Clock Workers

I woke up and there was a crew of workers in my bedroom, cleaning and fixing and dismantling everything. One of them had taken the light bulb out of the bedside lamp. He was wearing black gloves, and he held the light bulb by the base in one hand while he used a feather duster to lightly dust it with the other. He held it up, contemplating its inner filament as though the bulb contained a miniature world of industry waiting to be illuminated. Another man had taken the back off of the alarm clock, and he was studying the gears inside with an eyepiece and poking at its inner mechanisms with a set of picks and tweezers designed for small, delicate work.

Across the room, by the window, there were two other men. One of them sat on the edge of the bed in front of a cart with a carousel slide projector on it, holding the trigger that advanced the slides, and the other stared out the window at the view, scratching his chin and thinking. Every time the man working the slide projector clicked the trigger, the scene outside the window would change. Summer, spring, fall. Mountains and pastures and rainy city streets. And the man at the window took his time considering each one. The thing he seemed to find the most important was how thoughtful the light cast back through the window from each scene made him look. He would draw himself up in various poses and attitudes, and when these failed to satisfy him, he would gesture to the man at the projector to advance to the next slide.

None of them had noticed yet that I had woken up, and when I yelled, “Hey!” they all stopped and looked at me. “You don’t need to do any of this. It’s fine,” I told them. They all looked at one another, knowing smirks spreading across their faces. They kept nodding to each other and repeating what I had said, “You don’t need to do any of this. It’s fine,” as though this were a source of sly amusement that I couldn’t comprehend. Finally another worker came forward, one that I hadn’t noticed before in the room. He swapped out the pillows that lay behind me against the headboard and replaced them with fresh ones. Then he placed his hand on my shoulder and eased me back down onto the bed, shushing me as I drifted back. This had the intended effect, and I got very tired, and I faded back off to sleep before I even felt my head come to rest against the pillows.