(toying with ideas and tones and such)
Gary Baker, November 2015
It started with "Blank, this is the wrong format." It was a script I had written for a play we were to produce in the high school theater later that year. Mrs Waters was waving the pad in the air, the longest thing I had ever put my mind to, and here she was telling me it was done wrong.
Not for direction of content, by the way. Not even for the flow. It wasn't about bad characters, nor about bad timing, nor sequencing, nor thematics. If there was one thing Mrs Waters wanted more from me, a sickly tenth-grade prodigy (or so I told myself, then), it was to reformat the six-hundred page play. And why? Let me use her own words to express this wonder of my young writing career:
Her dyed tar-black hair was falling out of the bungee tie at the nape of her neck, her lips poised with graceful not-quite crimson, her old-school fifties era dress wisping slightly in the classroom's air-conditioning as she held the script in front of me. I was laying on the floor at the time, doodling or some shit in my seventh notebook that year. I always scribbling thoughts, dreams, dialogue. Shit like that. Most kids back then thought I was a bit eccentric, but who could blame them? I kinda was, if you blurred the meaning a bit.
Anyways there she was, standing over me with my greatest achievement in hand, speaking in a tone that made the whole class shush without making it obvious they had shushed. They kept up just enough clamor so Waters wouldn't notice the change. I did. I always did. I guess that's how I got most of my work done, by noticing these changes in flow around me and then jotting them down. "Blank," Waters repeated, "we just got through the unit on script-writing, and yet you turn this in to me with," she looked away for a second, finding the words I guess, "with nonstandard formatting."
Back then if there was one thing that drove me batty, it was being told I was wrong. My friend laying beside me on the classroom carpet with Chomsky open on one side and Shakespeare on the other, shifted and shyed away a foot or two. He knew me. He knew I hated being condemned in front of a crowd. What's more is that he knew damn well that I didn't take kindly to being wrong when it came to my writing, especially over things as small as formatting.
I was stunned, trying to regain my composure. "Excuse me?"
"This script? Reformat it or I will find someone else to write the play."
"What's wrong with the format?" I asked, knowing quite well how I had worked my piece such that the character names were tabbed to the far left with all lines starting on the next line down.
She dropped the pile of bound papers onto the floor in front of me, almost on my hand. "You need to put the character names in the center, not the left. It makes it impossible to read when you have to constantly search for the name of the person speaking the lines."
"Says who?" I challenged. Again, my friend moved, but this time he stood from the floor and moved back onto a seat. It was on. "You?"
I should not have said that last part, I know, but like I said: I was a tenth-grader with medical problems. Of course I would build up an attitude.
"Yes," Mrs Waters ended. "Because scripts are not formatted to the left, and you cannot just change things like that. Is this going to be an issue? Because I can get someone else to write the play."
Here's the part about being sickly in high school that no one really tells you about: beyond the medical exams and the tests and the machines and the hospital boarding and all that jazz, you start to get accumulated to tight, small environments. It's like the opposite of claustrophobia, but not as bad. I mean, I wasn't afraid of open spaces per se, but more that I preferred places like the library and the nooks I built in my room for the purposes of reading at any waking hour that I wasn't using to write something. Point is that I read, a lot. I read practically all the time. I had finished the major works of Shakespeare even before we had exams on Romeo and Juliet back in freshman year, let alone all the other names I followed in the writing world.
So being told my way of formatting wasn't done simply wouldn't fly.
I threw myself into a cross-leg seated position and drug over the theater textbook my friend had been perusing. I flipped to a random page: Henrick Ibsen's 'Peer Gynt' and held it up for Waters to see that Ibsen used the same format I preferred. "Ibsen," I stated, "used left-hand margins for names." I flipped to another random page and landed on Tennessee Williams, found "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and held it up again. "Williams used left margins." I flipped back to the Shakespeare chapters my friend had been reading and paged my way to 'Julius Caesar' and once more stated my point.
"I see what you are trying to say," Mrs Waters sighed, still visibly irked, "but that just isn't how it is done anymore: these days we use centered margins for character names and cues."
I scowled. "So you wont even read it? Just because you aren't used to the formatting?"
"No, I will not." That was that, it seemed, and so she passed along the honor to a classmate of mine, who took the role of writer for the spring play eagerly, though with a bit of apologetic sorrow in my direction.
It was at that point that I drew inward with myself and gave up on writing plays. For the next ten years, even after having finished high school and moved on to college where I majored in philosophy and creative writing, I never pushed back into scriptwork. I published works of essays for various journals and periodicals, curated stories for a network editor, and by the time I graduated I was given a position for a publishing company in the big city. It never occurred to me I would go back to plays. Not even under such extravagant circumstances.
It was a jazz club in north Manhattan, snow was falling like volcanic ash just outside, the windows fogged and frosty with tones of satin gray. I sat at a round table just paces from the brick fireplace built in a by-gone era, cigar roasting away, lipless and depressed, on the ashtray beside a glistening pint of ale. I had a pen in hand and a pad lain like a carcass on the table beneath my nose.
I was fighting for the words, striving to hit that fresh chord of blues on my version of a cello while the musicians hummed and snapped away their demons on the stage across the lounge behind me. My pen clicked incessantly to their tune, nervous habits, I guess. And that was when she walked in: Lana Lucy, herself, in the skintight flesh.
She strode in out of the cold with a waist-long p-coat over a slim black dress that reached mid-calf, breaking away to reveal nude stockings and heels that could kill a man. Her hair was done up in the style of the twenties, all woven with lace and beads with a broad-rimmed sunhat of silk-like material. In with the latest fashion, she wore elbow-length black gloves, and had two points where it was obvious she wore her rings under them. It struck me that she might be married. Struck me in such a way that I almost felt my heart problems return, despite the pace-maker wires residing in very valves of the muscle itself.
I must have dropped my pen, because she suddenly looked my way and smiled that devilish grin that entranced me so much in my youth. "By god, Blank," she almost groaned. She didn't sound pleased to see me, but her Cheshire gesture said otherwise. She made her way over to my table and pulled the seat closest to the fire. Even the way she set herself down made my skin crawl. I thought I had gotten over her ages ago, but I was suddenly finding out I was wrong. "What the devil have you been doing all these years?" She asked while pulling out an e-cig with a long stick-like stalk that fit the twenties theme.
I always loved reading about the roaring twenties, but one-hundred years later the styles had returned to mainstream and it was a love-hate relationship I had with it. Most people ruined the theme by trying too hard: you wouldn't see flappers in the numbers of millions back then, let alone see them everywhere you looked. Men had it easier, as long as you wore a nice suit or tux you were fine, but it was the fedoras that made me want the world to burn. And then there was the sudden proliferation of jazz lounges and speakeasies and the like, where I often holed away to droll out more words and end the lives of more pints and witch-hunt all the cigars I could get my hands on.
It was when people like Lana Lucy came into my life that my fetish really struck a nerve. Just sitting across from her was enough to boil the alcohol right off and make me want to take her somewhere.
"I, uh," I scratched my cheek awkwardly and glanced away. "I've been good. Publishing other people's work," I shrugged and looked at her again, to see she was checking her makeup in a pocket mirror, half-listening, "you know how it is: everyone wants a piece of them out where we all can see."
Lana ho-hummed and set her hands back on the table between us. "That's not what I asked, not really at least."
"Oh you meant 'literally what have I been up to'?" I glanced at the electronic pad with a few lines jotted by the touchscreen pen laying halfway over it. With a quick swipe I cut to the home screen and slapped the 'screen off' key. "Well after graduating from State, I hired myself out as an editor, started publishing bits here and there, got my name out there, and eventually started my own magazine for struggling writers."
She motioned to the pad with a sharp chin. "That what you were just doing? Editing?"
I sighed. "No, I was, ah, trying to get back into my own flow again. I may have hit a roadblock up here," I tapped my right temple with my pen hand.
Lana finally seemed to take the rest of my clutter in, and stared at the still-burning, though still unused cigar. "You still burn. Interesting." She gave me a thoughtful glance from the corner of her mascara'd eyes. "Didn't that trend fade out when e's hit the market?"
Even after all these years I didn't like to admit when I was wrong. My temper was just more controlled and the stuff in my head more sophisticated for backing up my thesis statements. "No, not at all." I argued. "There are still swarms of us Burner's scattered all over the place."
The snap-response I expected didn't come. Instead she shrugged and began peeling off her gloves after she'd hung her coat over the back of her chair. The band continued to play behind me, breaking into further Sinatra-esque tunes, sometimes even hitting modern songs redone with the early era twist. At one point a young woman in uniform walked by and handed Lana a menu, then went on her way again.
Finally I leaned forward and took the cigar to my lips for real, taking in the last few puffs before it could die. "So, Lana," I asked as I dashed the ashes between drags, "what brings you here?"
It had been several minutes of silence before I'd spoken up, and so she looked up from her phone with a curious yet otherwise-indecipherable look on her face. "What the devil do you mean, Blank?"
I scowled. Not this again. I bit my lip and counted to five, then exhaled. "What do you want, Lana?" Even holding back my temper, I still felt I said that too rough.
A grin almost creeped it's way onto her cheeks. A glimmer of possibility then gone. "Me? Want something?"
I pointed with my glowing cigar stub and took the last drag and stabbed it out. "Don't play with me, babe, I know your type. You waltzed in here knowing damn well you'd find me, you didn't even ask me if you could sit." I steepled my fingers to rest against my nose. "Now cut the smooth-talk and explain."
"You're too smart, you know." The way she said it, I swore it was an mocking insult. Not meant to hurt, but to deceive me. With a bit of flair for making the gesture as unnoticed as possible, she rolled her e-cig across the table where it silently clinked against my pad. "There's a note for you on the feed. Read it and overwrite it." She huffed an annoyed sigh and stood up to pull on her coat. "And here I thought I would get to enjoy a bit of R&R."
I was still watching her with a bewildered confusion on my brow, when she finished donning her gloves and turned toward the door. She nodded to the cig from over her shoulder. "You've been warned and you're welcome." At that she made her way to the door and slipped out during the height of applause for the band.
I'm not proud of how long it took for me to regain myself, but when I did look to the machine in my hand, I rolled it over until the thin screen faced me. There were two buttons to either side of it and a tiny hole where a charging port or memory cable could be inserted. I pressed the first one, on the right side and the screen lit up with a flashing cursor line.
Lana's secrecy had me intrigued, so I followed her lead and made sure to turn on my pad to obscure what exactly I was reading from. Something had me on edge suddenly. My heart was weak, even after all the surgeries and shit, but this was something different. Hitting the right key again brought up the message four characters at a time longways down the cig. It was like reading on an old calculator.
....job for you. play to write. stay local. keep low profile. -Est.
I knew who Est. was right away: Esteban was an old tag name I used back in the day, back when I used to practically haunt the librarians for a living. It had been our way of secretly indicating where to find each other in the multi-story building. My best friend and I would sign in for the day on the sheet at the sign in counter that was used for tourists who wanted to lay claim to proof they were there. You could go back decades in that hand-written log, if you asked the librarians to pull out the logs. But it was the names we chose that told were we would be.
I don't even remember who came up with the idea, him or me, but it worked perfectly. Boromir meant we were among the fantasy shelves, Jeremiah indicated the religion shelves, C. Sagan was science, and the list went like that for every section. The use of Esteban was obvious: this was something I needed to do alone, and without making waves in any way.
What had me on edge most was the secrecy of it all. What could possibly summon the need to bring up old haunts and methods that hadn't been used since high school? And why a damn play? I hadn't written one of those in over ten years.
I leaned back and tucked away the cig into my breast pocket with a long sigh. "Shit."