As a movie, you’d be seeing this from high above. Think God’s-eye view.
It is dawn. The knockout blonde down there in the red and white poke-a-dot dress is pounding the front bumper of a green pickup with a ten-pound sledge. Taking her time, but really whacking that bumper. Even from way up here you’re already hoping that she’ll appear naked in your movie. Her name is Chloe, and she’s everything you ever dreamed of having or being. But you’re wondering why she’s doing a number on the green truck parked in the middle of an isolated lot in what you will come to learn is an old part of Memphis.
You can’t take your eyes off her. You’re hoping you’ll get a close-up, because when the glamor girl in the red and white poke-a-dots takes the hammer back there’s poetic harmony in movement and form; and there’s something about that snapshot instant before the hammer moves forward as her perfect figure is frozen in your imagination. But exceeding your visceral, erotic response is the old intellect, which wants to know who the poke-a-dot avenger is and why she is attacking the truck’s bumper.
The male lead, Pete Hump, wakes. Pete sits hunkered over in the driver’s seat of the pickup, a green plumbing truck. His head and his hands are duct taped to the steering wheel. Waking is a painful thing, and Pete isn’t thinking clearly. Then he passes out again.
We enter Pete’s dream: Pete and Chloe in their sinful little love nest bed in Charleston, South Carolina. In the dream, he wakes at Chloe’s touch. Soon the two are entwined in a kind of horizontal slow dance, eyes closed, half asleep. She coos in a hot, bourbon-flavored voice: “Pete Hump’s Heat Pumps.” And they go at it. This in part satisfies our longing to see Chloe’s delicious flesh while giving us a context for the opening shots.
Then we’re back with duct-taped Pete at the wheel.
There is no voice at Pete’s ear, only the distant white noise of a 70’s rock song. And had there been a voice, Pete couldn’t have heard it. Because one ear is pressed against the airbag’s thin leather and the other ear is covered in duct tape. If his hands had been equipped with ears, they wouldn’t have heard anything either. In fact, he doesn’t so much hear Chloe’s heavy hammer probing the bumper of his truck for the sensor–the one that will release the airbag and splatter his brains–as he feels the hammer’s vibration, like a ball-peen on an anvil. Each stroke lands in perfect time to Lynard Skynard’s “Free Bird.”
Next, in a flashback we get a little more back story on Pete Hump.
Extreme close-up: Pete’s bloody face looks like somebody dunked his head into a blender. It takes us a second to realize that it is Pete Hump, that’s how bloody the man’s face is. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal:
Night in a wide, empty field. Pete teeters on his knees, his hands tied behind him. Hanging far away in the black sky is a lighted billboard for his plumbing company. Pete Humps’ Heat Pumps, the sign says.
A giant of a man looms over the kneeling Pete Hump. The man with the block head (meant to suggest through visual association Frankenstein and thus evoke fear and pity in us) is, we will soon learn, Chloe’s husband, Russ Watts.
“This is the last time I’m asking, Pete,” Russ says. “Where is she?” Russ has beaten Pete into a near-death experience. And now we know why.
Russ, the cuckold, attaches one end of the heavy jumper cables to the battery terminals of Pete Humps Truck #2. We wince and want to look away when he slowly and painfully clamps the first cable to Pete’s right ear. Pete squenches shut his eyes. When the copper jaws of the second cable shut down on his other ear, we all wait in perverse and collective wonder for the geyser effect from the top of Pete’s head.
Russ’s heavy brogan presses the accelerator to the floorboard. The green truck’s headlights quiver, which ends the flashback.
Chloe, Russ’ wife, is doing a Barry Bonds’ number on Pete’s bumper in search of the magic connection that will send poor Pete’s brains against the back glass of Pete Humps Truck #1. Pete, who looks a lot like Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona, pleads, “Chloe!”
The banging stops. Pete takes a deep breath. The hammering resumes. We really want
another look at Chloe, but we don’t get it. This, we know, is a tease.
Pete wiggles in his seat, attempting to free his duct-taped hands by squirming from side to side, reminiscent of someone dancing The Charleston. Again the hammering stops. Pete opens his eyes and slowly rolls them way, way up in that Nick Cage way.
Chloe stands at the driver’s-side window. She’s worked up a sweat, and her blonde hair falls in ringlets over one cheek. Her face is moist and flush. Male or female, you feel a stirring down there. And so even under the circumstances, Pete’s whanger does a summersault. She is the most beautiful woman Pete has ever seen. Her perfect lips move, but he can’t read them; he doesn’t want to read them. He just wants to look at them move. She tilts her head to the side, and though he can’t see the motion, we are grateful that we can: she crosses her arms over the most perfect breasts in the South. Then she steps out of the frame.
Pete waits for the pounding to resume, knowing, as we do, that with every blow the law of
averages turns a little more against him, that when Chloe finally strikes the sensor she is
searching for he will see the big light that Russ Watts saw when he was struck by lightening, only Pete won’t come back from that tunnel. We’ve seen enough Quentin Tarentino to expect the reverse-angle moment when his brains splatter against the glass. And we sort of can’t wait. Through the magic of surround-sound and a gazillion speakers, we hear his own breathing inside his head.
A bright light nearly blinds us.
In that suspended moment, subliminal edits remind us of the jumper cables attached to Pete’s ears, Russ’s heavy foot on the gas, and we experience the titillating anticipation of the geyser effect. We feel a thrill.
Pete’s eyes fly open.
The morning sun at her back, Chloe stands at the pickup’s open door in breathtaking, hourglass silhouette—holding up a dagger of a nail file. Tears fill her eyes. The ghastly look on Pete’s face in this shot becomes the focal point of the poster outside the theater entrance. Her dagger-loaded fist goes up and up, Hitchcock-like, and every hair at the base of our collective, exposed neck stands and looks around for cover.
Chloe’s fingers cover his eyes.
“Chloe, please,” he whispers in that Nick Cage voice.
You see this as a digitized, slow motion blur: The tip of the nail file explodes through the duct tape and enters the ear canal, David Lynch-like.
Chloe’s fingers ease away from Pete’s wide, wild eyes. No pain there. His hearing suddenly returns, as if he has surfaced from deep water. The white noise he’d heard is Lynard Skynard singing “Free Bird” on the two-way radio.
“This is your last chance, Pete,” Chloe says. “Say you’ll let me go.”
If he could say it, he would. She just looks at him.
“Bye,” she says.
Then she slams the door to Pete Humps #1 and walks out of his life.
All of this happens in three minutes. The hope is that you’ll remain completely under the story’s spell for ten minutes. If you’re not in the movie by then, it’s a good bet this one will lose money. Chloe doesn’t look back though she hears Pete’s pleading voice echoing inside the cab of his plumbing truck, the Van Zant boys wailing in the background. We track along beside her, the pain on her face telling us that her heart falls a notch each time he calls her name, like it did when her husband, Russ, pleaded for her to stay. The way it has when every man who ever called her his watched her walk away. Still, she takes a deep, determined breath, raises her beautiful suffering face toward the morning sun. She’s not turning back. Because now it is her heart that she is trying to save. Somewhere, somehow, there is something better waiting for her, a stronger, truer voice calling—a voice that has been speaking to her all her life. A voice she has resisted until now. A movie voice. And we are tracking along beside her, another comrade in arms. Before the show is over, we’ll learn how that voice summoned her to Dollywood and cried out to her at Graceland. But for now all we know is that there is no turning back.
We oooh and ahhh at the heavy symbolism of the screen-filled brilliant orange sun rising behind her. Chloe grips her purse, heaves her small suitcase, and at a snappy, snappy Dolly Parton pace, puts as much distance as she can between herself and Pete’s sad begging. There’s more in that walk than any acting school can teach. “Once you know a thing,” she says to us, “you can’t not know it. It’s better to be a one-hit wonder than to spend your whole life wondering.” And we all nod in agreement.
It’s not just the rush hour Memphis traffic that makes us nervous; it’s the cab driver’s eyes that won’t leave the rearview. Finally he says, “Ma’am, if I’m wrong, I hope you’ll forgive me, but are you a movie actress?”
“No, sir, I’m not,” Chloe says in a flat Dolly Parton voice, her eyes never leaving the landscape that once fell upon the eye of Elvis.
“Are you on the stories? On TV?”
Chloe gently turns her head from side to side.
After the cab driver drops her off at the Memphis car rental, his mouth opens involuntarily, and he whispers reverently: “Them’s the finest fashion accessories I ever laid eyes on.” The driver is a quiet man and a good Christian by Memphis standards, and he considers himself a professional taxi driver. He respects people’s privacy as he respects his own. But this woman makes him break his own rules.
“The very finest,” the driver says again as she walks away. He can’t stop himself from looking into his mirror one last time as she disappears into the rental office.
At this point, about the five minute mark, we know that what we have here is a quest story, that Chloe is in search of something essential to her being; that this is among other things a journey of self-discovery, a chick flick.
She drives slowly across the rental lot, breathing deeply the new car smell. When she stops at the street, she doesn’t know which way to turn. Literally. She turns right, then we see a look on her face. She jerks the wheel abruptly. Horns blow, rubber smokes. There must be sixty edits.
The spin makes us dizzy.
Chloe completes the U-turn. “I’ve spent my whole life going with the flow,” she says, stepping on the gas, burning more rubber. And because that’s exactly what we’ve spent our life doing and because she is everything we ever dreamed of having or being, we do a silent little hell yeah and reach for the popcorn.
She drives I-40 with her window down and the radio on. We hear the beginning of what will
become Chloe’s theme song. Although we don’t think about it at the time because of her
stunning beauty and the deep mystery of her face, the director works in several shots of her
crossing bridges before we see a road sign telling us that Chloe’s destination is Nashville.
When a Skynard song, “Searching,” comes on the radio, Chloe quickly shuts it off. Still, the song serves as soundtrack for a series of flashbacks: She and a bruised Pete standing at the gates of Graceland, Chloe with her forbidding hand against his chest: “I have to do this thing alone,” she says. The look on Pete’s face tells us he’s already lost her.
When she returns to those gates at closing time, hangdog Pete is still waiting, but we know that he is a broken, desperate man.
Later at The Blue Suede Shoes Bar, the camera slowly circles the two. We can’t hear what Chloe is saying, but we know that she’s pouring out her heart to Pete, that saying these things is painful for her, that she is in a struggle for her being. “Sometimes,” she says in a crying voice, “love and freedom go to war with one another.” Pete lifts his bourbon and looks away. “My insides,” she says reaching for his hand, “they’re filled with those scars.”
Pete orders yet another round of drinks and feeds a twenty into the jukebox. Chloe goes on
trying to explain, trying to spare Pete Hump’s heart, while “Free Bird” and “You’ve Lost That
Loving Feeling” play back to back until the bar owner unplugs the music. Finally, Pete pushes his glass away and says, “Whatever makes you happy, Chloe.” And she hopes against hope, as do we, that it has been settled.
But as soon as they are inside Pete Hump’s #1, Pete fingers the truck key, pauses, looks down at the steering wheel–that unknown to him holds the power to blow his brains out–and says, “I can’t let you go.” Then he starts the engine and pulls out of The Blue Suede Shoes lot. Chloe tries to hold back her anger and her tears, but the bourbon has thinned her skin and exposed her heart. When Pete parks outside the abandoned trucking company in the heart of old Memphis, it is all Chloe can do to hold her emotions in check.
Recognizing that the end of their love is near, Pete reaches back for all that he has left. He
switches off the engine and fishes the bourbon bottle from under his seat. “We’re sitting right here,” he says, unscrewing the cap, “until we get this worked out.”
We see and feel the bombs going off inside Chloe, for Pete’s love is true and his devotion written in the bruises on his face. Pete plays his last card: “After all I’ve been through for you,” he says. We know he has to say it, and we don’t blame him; we’d say it too. But we’re at the ten-minute mark, and we know that Pete might as well be holding Chloe’s head under water. And we can’t stand that. So when Pete says he can never let her go, dangles his truck key over his open mouth like a goldfish, and then washes it down with bourbon, we gasp for Chloe, who reaches for the bottle and then brings it down on Pete Hump’s drunken head. When she holds up the roll of duct tape, we applaud.
If this were a movie, we would be at the end of the opening hook. But this is not a movie; this is real. If this really were a chick flick, we might cut to an establishing shot or two of Nashville, then to Chloe standing outside the Grand Ole Opry. She would find her way inside, up on the dark stage, and there she would lay bare her soul in a rendition of the Dolly Parton composition, “I Will Always Love You,” which is her way of saying goodbye to her past, to Pete and Russ. We see her tears and choke back our own. And we’re not the only ones. The old custodian who has swept those sacred floors since the days of Hank Williams senior watches too with bubbly tears in his eyes.
The security guards who take Chloe away are more the hard-hearted type.
The thread that holds this plot together is Chloe’s attempt to break into country music. In the movie, she has the talent but can’t get the breaks, which is the way we all feel about ourselves. From now until the end of the third act, things will go from worse to worse for Chloe, and if the movie is a success, those things will be even worse than we can imagine they might be. She will find and lose the love of her life, a man very much like Clint Black; and if that isn’t enough, she’ll have a miscarriage after their love falls apart; and if that doesn’t do it, the young mentally challenged girl who makes Chloe her hero and upon whom Chloe turns her back because she simply can’t carry another ounce of emotional baggage will get run down by a bus owned by a country music star. At the end of act three, after it becomes known throughout Nashville that Chloe is responsible for the death of the mentally challenged girl who adores her and that the bus accident is likely to ruin the career of someone who holds a striking resemblance to Clint Black, we know that she’ll never get work in this town. Chloe feels low.
But deep down something tells us that we’re closing in on act four, and though we can’t figure out how the hell she’s gonna bring it off, we know that this is a chick flick and that it’s going to end well, that we’ll leave the theater crying happy tears and boohooing to folks waiting in line for the nine o’clock show that they’ll love it.
And of course we won’t be disappointed.
Because there is that old custodian who drank with Hank and had a thing for Minnie Pearl, and who happens to be like a father to—you guessed it—Dolly Parton.
Or if the producers don’t think the country music-NASCAR target will buy tickets, they might have the script re-worked. Before it’s over, the script may be rewritten until the Chloe character becomes a martial arts diva or a Dalmatian. As for now, Chloe, the knockout in the red and white poke-a-dots, still goes to Nashville. But when she gets to The Grand Ole Opry and stands outside waiting for a sign from God, she gets none. In the next scene, she finds herself inside the Nashville airport looking at the lighted destinations, feeling lost and alone. Maybe she spends the night there, or even a couple of days there, until someone whom we suspect is on a mission from God, some guy in a turtleneck, says to her: “You belong in Hollywood.”
Act three retains much of what was written in the original script, except Chloe is a gifted, struggling actress who repeats most of the mistakes she made as a struggling singer. Finally, at the point at which she’s devastated by guilt following the death of the mentally challenged girl who idolized her, Chloe is offered a spot in a television commercial in which she is obviously cast as her idol, Dolly Parton. The commercial is a smash hit. It’s everywhere. Chloe’s big break comes when she’s invited to appear on a late night show that we all know is David Letterman. But things go badly; Dave wants to pick fun at and mock Dolly, and Chloe loses her shit—not Dolly’s but her own. Brought to tears by the rich and arrogant host, she calls the Letterman impersonator a pencil dick, dumps coffee on his Armani suit, and storms off stage in a display that makes couples having bad
sex all over America stop and stare slack jawed at the screen.
Chloe goes lower, then even lower, then gutter low. When it appears that her only option is
returning to either Russ Watts or Pete Hump, both of whom still love her, she thinks seriously of putting out the Big Light when—you guessed it—Dolly appears.
And of course we are not disappointed.
But this is not a movie. This is real, and disappointment is for most of us our appointed destiny. And so Chloe drives to Nashville. She even makes her way to the Grand Ole Opry where she stands outside thinking about Dolly and Elvis, about need and desire, about love and emptiness. But standing there also reminds her of who she really is–a small-town Southern woman, like Ava Gardner, born to freak beauty, one who has spent most of her life feeling that she is living in a movie. But life, she knows, is not a movie. She is like us, with these exceptions: her ravishing beauty is a curse and her meager talent an unending thirst, enough only to fuel the need that drives every artist. And worst of all, she has the brains to know that the greatest stroke of luck—all that might be sucked up in her universe and brought to a single moment—would be required for one instant of legitimate, though third-rate, artistic validation. Her one hit. Unlike Willie Lowman, Chloe knows she’s a dime a dozen.
Still our need is to think of her as a sexy, liberated woman who exercises the full range of
contemporary feminine prerogatives—from innocent victim to atomic estrogen; we want that for ourselves; we’re not thinking of her, a breathing suffering human being who will suffer more for her beauty by watching it fade. Not as a woman who has been blessed with physical perfection and cursed with her single drop of talent when no drop at all could have meant a happier life—someone who knows that she will amount to nothing.
Chloe pumps her own gas and then heads east on I-40, but she is not running to; she is running from, like most of us; and like us, she doesn’t know when it’s time to hold on and when it’s time to move on; and what she really says aloud is, “If you can’t learn to live with who you are, how, dear God, can you learn to live with who you ain’t?” Which we really don’t want to think about.
When she sees the sign for the Great Smoky Mountains, she reflects upon Graceland, Dollywood, Pete Hump and Russ Watts, and what she feels is bottomless regret and immeasurable worthlessness.
As the horizon flattens, Chloe stares at the interstate ahead and enters a sort of exhausted trance, a period of mindless absence, when a few hours and several hundred miles fold into a place that is no place and a time that is no time. It is not peace that she feels, only the cold comfort of nothingness.
Since this is true of the human condition and therefore violates what we’ve come to expect from most movies, it might be convenient and academically satisfying to think of Chloe as a victim of advertising and commerce or in terms of a history that has been unkind to women. This might work as battleground for gender or culture wars. But I doubt it.
We’re talking about the human heart here. And for Chloe, no abstraction illuminates what she feels in her heart. All she knows is that she can’t go back and that the big green sign she just passed says she’s two hundred miles from Wilmington, North Carolina and the end of the road—the Atlantic Ocean. What occupies her mind is only whether or not at the end of the interstate she takes her foot off the gas.
When the weight of darkness visible becomes too much for us, our internal conversations take the form of metaphors, and the simplest thing can bring us to tears. We see a dead doe on the side of I-40 near Winston-Salem and that William Stafford doe becomes us, everybody we’ve ever lost, and the fate of human experience. The deeply embedded connotations of the word and the dead doe’s image reflect a topographical map of our shattered soul.
Chloe stands at a gas pump and sees a mentally challenged young girl reach for her mother’s hand as the unknowing mother turns her back. Chloe is overcome with self-loathing for having spent one minute of her life feeling sorry for herself. She just wants it to stop, for it to go away, to get outside of her own head. But she can’t.
Chloe has to reverse this falling effect. Her metaphors are anchors, and she can hardly hold open her eyes. She reaches for some small, manageable act, some first step in an effort to turn those metaphors into something smaller than what they represent.
She begins reading road signs aloud and discovers that the right combination of sound and image soothes her spirit. “Chapel Hill,” she says. She pictures the two, the church upon the hill. Then says it again, like music, allowing the connotations of “chapel” and the soft vowels and breathy consonants to do their work. “Cary,” she whispers, and thinks of her burdens, her obligation to carry on. And later, when she voices, “Fuquay-Varina, Fuquay-Varina, Fuquay-Varina,” she is reminded of “sugarplum fairy,” and a little smile appears on her lips.
Then she feels a panic like electricity.
She has come to the intersection of I-40, which runs from Barstow to Wilmington, and I-95, which runs from New Brunswick to Miami. She can’t go forward and she can’t turn back. I-95 south takes her to Darlington, South Carolina, where she started, where she’s lived her life, where she married a man she never loved and had an affair with his boss, his childhood friend.
The exit says North, Rocky Mount. In spite of the sign’s implications, she takes the exit.
Soon she sees a sign for Smithfield. And she thinks that’s where the Smiths of the world are produced, that Smithfield will inevitably have a Main Street, and that on that street live the most common of the common–that she is one of them.
Near exit 95 on Interstate 95, Chloe looks up. She has never seen the arrestingly beautiful woman on the billboard. The words under the picture say The Ava Gardner Museum, Smithfield. Chloe thinks the place is much too small to be called a museum. It is no Graceland. But its intimacy comforts her, and the progression of photographs, from sharecropper’s daughter to international movie star fill her eyes with real tears. The Lost Angel, My Forbidden Past, The Angel Wore Red, The Blue Bird, This Time For Keeps: She reads the titles of forgotten movies.
She studies Ava’s wedding photos, one to a short man with a goofy smile, one to a man who played clarinet, and one to a man Chloe recognizes but can’t name, Frank Sinatra. In another photograph Ava is in the arms of Rhet Butler, and the caption of another says that the man beside her is the richest man in the world. She stands in the company of bullfighters and a man named Hemingway.
The museum hostess touches her nametag. “I know it looks like ‘Deidre’,” she says with a pleasant smile, “but I pronounce it ‘Dead-ra’.” She invites Chloe into a small theater, as quiet and softly lit as a funeral home. When Chloe enters, a large painting, the poster model for the film The Barefoot Contessa, makes her want to flee: Ava stands at the edge of some great precipice, her arm extended, one slipper about to fall from her fingers. Behind her stands a man, his face buried in her shoulder, his arms around her, clinging, holding her in a kind of death grip as Ava looks down in sad resignation.
The actress’s life is reduced to twelve minutes of video that Chloe watches alone. The woman on the screen, the fetching sex queen on the billboard, was not the real Ava Gardner, the barefoot country girl from Grabtown whose freak beauty drove the world’s most famous, talented, and wealthy men to madness. In the video, Ava is so stunningly beautiful that Chloe hardly hears the narrator’s voice until he says, “She was always searching for the love that was always out of reach.”
When Chloe senses that the short video story is closing in on act four, she walks away because childless Ava is living in another country, alone, and Chloe senses that she is going to die there, alone.
The museum hostess looks up from her newspaper and smiles.
“Where is she now?” Chloe asks.
“What?” smiling Deidra says as she folds the paper.
Chloe looks up at the photo reproduced on the billboard.
As Deidra reaches for a small brochure, Chloe recognizes the woman’s look. It asks, Are you a movie actress? Are you in the stories?
“How long have you been an Ava fan?” she says in her lyrical eastern North Carolina accent, sounding a little like Ava, a little like Chloe.
“All my life,” Chloe says. “All my life.”
A summer storm is waiting when Chloe steps out of the museum; she can smell it. It reminds her of home.
She stops at a liquor store and buys two pints of bourbon.
Sunset Memorial Park is on Highway 70, Smithfield. There are strip malls close by, a damaged furniture warehouse outlet, and tobacco fields within view.
She parks near the cemetery gate, stuffs the bourbon into her purse. The clouds are the color of slate and as thick as cotton bolls. She takes off her shoes. A cool, cool breeze lifts the hem of Chloe’s thin red and white poke-a-dot dress, and the shade soothes her eyes as she searches the landscape of headstones.
Chloe believes that the living can communicate with the dead, and she feels in no hurry to rush out to whatever life awaits her. Together, they’ll remember what it was like to walk the soft furrows barefoot when they were little girls. She’ll have a drink and pour one for Ava and ask her about true love and maybe about how to go on living without it. Then she will wait and she will listen. And if the rain comes, she will wait and she will listen.
But she has to commence to begin, as the old people used to say. She must take a first step.
There are no identifying signs, no clear directions, no promises. Still, Ava is out there. It is the one thing Chloe knows, the one certainty, the one sure thing. She will look and listen. Await a sign.
Chloe stands at the gate, the heavy summer clouds behind her a dark bruised Technicolor, the cool breeze lifting her blond hair, sculpting the red and white poke-a-dots to her woman’s body. She imagines a path through the dead, a line that will form a giant A.
She takes the first step. If this course doesn’t lead to Ava, she will take another. She will walk the alphabet A to Z until the letters spell out the words that give her a reason to be, a direction, a destination.
“Ava?” she whispers. She stops. She listens. “It’s me.”
Phillip Gardner lives in Darlington, South Carolina where he writes stories and screenplays. His work has appeared in The North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Potomac Review, and other fine journals. He is the author of Someone To Crawl Back To, a collection of short stories.