Online Exclusive

Players, Tawkers, Spawts
Listen, I’m not saying you don’t have a movie. Two girls and a guy and the Mars Rover, that’s a movie. Come tomorrow morning, you pitch that right, you won’t be riding this shuttle home empty-handed. You’ll be riding a green light. I mean, if I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned to spot a viable pitch. The high concept, the balls and alacrity, the miracle no matter the demographic. 

      Still, the Flexxies—that’s one strange demographic. 

      Yeah, strange, tomorrow. Pitching the Flexxies. So, tonight, listen. Listen to what happened with my project. There’s time, a trip like this, and I think there’s something to think about. 

      Anyway, don’t they let you sleep in, out there? Come morning, anyway, you know you’ll be wired. Try one of these, Botox and rye, and listen. 

      Now, my project, I realize that some of this won’t be news. I realize you’re flying the same charter I am. And my project, wasn’t it blog fodder, majorly? The gossip caromed from screen to satellite and back, again and again, ramifying. Of course that was before all the excitement about the Flexxies. But, we had a sports movie, right? Right. Sports movie, natural narrative—tawkin spawts. We had a natural-born winner about a team that never won. 

      That was key, the real world, that model. We had it set up so that an actual waking-life team would always be out there living the nightmare. Right from the storyboards this project was all about some genuine losing franchise, a bunch of bottom-dwellers, couldn’t catch a break. Living the nightmare, I mean, natural narrative. Myself, you know, as soon as I flashed on the verisimilitude? I closed my eyes and I saw the green light. 

      No, I can’t remember who they were, the team we started with. The Cubs, yeah, that’d be the natural. But for all I know it was a hockey team out of Mexico City. That’s not my end of things. That’s the research and, I mean, I’m the creative. If somebody wants to get into just which ball club it was, and just how bad their stats were, my eyes glaze over. What gets me going is those first swoops and oblongs on the storyboard. I’m seeing it, the players and the people who stay with them, the heartbreak year after year. And this in real life! It’s classic narrative, stages of grief, totally. 

      See, the setup was, at first the players and the people who love them are all the nicest folks you could ever want to meet. It’s a pigsty to you, but to them—Paradise. Then one day Satan walks into the locker room and offers to help. 

      Telling you too much? I’m telling you too much? Hey, isn’t that nice of you, getting worried about a brother’s intellectual property rights. Thanks. Serious. 

      But what that tells me is—you don’t know the whole story, the craziness on this project. 

      Listen. So some evil dude, “Satan” is a euphemism, he comes to our loser team and offers to help. Never mind what his wicked plan is, can’t tell you that, but it works. The guys escape the cellar. The team begins to contend, big time—but. It’s not the same. It’s all hate now. The players and fans both tumble downhill in one big pigsty-shitball of hate. Finally our Best Actress in a Leading Role—and I mean, that’s the kind of talent we got, I mean bankable, and she was a big help after the trouble started—anyway our Number-One Honey has to make a big speech in her low-rise jeans and tube top. An Oscar moment, majorly, and with that the whole community can straighten up and fly right. They can rid themselves of the Devil, drop back deep into the second division, and be the born losers that God intended. Both down on the field and up in the stands everyone works through the stages, the frank assessments et cetera, right up to Acceptance, kiss, chorus, purple mountains majesty. 

      Classic. Stawwy I was bawwn to tell. Haw. 

      But, serious—we didn’t have to pitch the thing more than once. Plus I told you about the kind of talent we got. And halfway into production we’re beautiful, we’re bankable, when all of a sudden the team we’re working from, our model out in reality, the Mudville Life Sucks or whoever—that team takes the pennant. They won the pennant and the statuette. All of a sudden they’re Clutch Cargo, it’s craziness, right through the seventh game. Our long national nightmare is over. 

      Or theirs was over. Then there was ours, though—just beginning. We got the full colonoscopy. 

      No, no, don’t tell me we should’ve changed the story. Don’t tell me we should’ve retooled and come up with a happy ending. Are you forgetting I’m the creative? The miracle, I mean, that’s my job. Anyway, don’t you think we tried, my people and I? We went straight to the mattresses and put up the storyboards. Wasn’t long before someone sketched out your basic happy-ending rom-com, either, like that Red Sox movie a few years back. They had a similar situation, that project, a team that went from outhouse to penthouse. And the way they handled it was, put the big comeback on the screen and have your stars run out onto the field, screaming for joy. Go Sowx. But! Our thing was different, it was the natural thing, real life. The one about the Red Sox, they were just looking for good times, everybody goes home and gets laid. Our thing was all about going deeper, further, the narrative without limit. No matter the demographic, we had to make it work, another layer in the mash-up. 

      Brotherman, come to think—something else. Check the mirror behind the bar. Check it, yeah, see that? See how the Botox is working already? Haw! 

      Tomorrow, you want every edge you can get, with those freaks. 

      Now, so, my project. Things were looking ugly but we still had one significant piece of leverage. We had our Top Babe, I mean, there’s a few things I can tell you about her without telling you too much. She was on the Madonna-to-J.Lo continuum. She hooked us into three or four demographics at once. I mean music plus fashion, plus our thing of course, and on top of all that she had sports. So when the trouble started she was solid. She’s right there about the narrative, thumbs-down on winners, all about the true-to-life and the tragic. None of that Hallmark Afterschool for her. She signed on because she wanted some edge. And then comes one meeting, she’s there in War Room with us and she’d giving her thumbs-down, and you couldn’t help but notice the woman’s shoulders and pecs. Her fashion line featured a lot of chest that season. We couldn’t help but notice, everyone in on the creative—the fix was staring us in the face. We’d’ve been blind if we didn’t bring it up. And I don’t mind saying, it was me, I’m the one who mentioned chick sports. 

      Chick sports, I mean, staring us in the face. Our buff-a-licious miss had competed herself, the Rollerblade Triathalon or something, back in high school. And she could see it too, right there in the War Room, and with that we had our fresh angle. 

      A simple fix, actually, as these things go. Actually just a matter of finding something else actual. I mean, losers in waking life—the project would never work without one of those. That was sine qua non, and I figure, by now you don’t need a translation. Anyway we got research on it and they found us a team in women’s college basketball. Some small college out in the Gunrack Hills. The girls there hadn’t won since the days when they wore skirts on court. 

      The school? I mean, they were only too happy, once Production started handing out checks. They loved our hottie too. They set her up with the coach, full access, and our babe did her homework. She got her stretch, she walked the talk, all the way out to the edge. 

      What? What, older—no no no. She didn’t want to play older. The woman knows our thing better than that. She wanted to play lesbian. That could be the career, right there, the Lesbian in a Leading Role. Especially when, this time, the Satan who strolls into the locker room has to be a girl herself. 

      I mean, once again, we’ve got the pieces in place. We’ve got the scene on the shower-room floor, the coach in her practice shorts and sports bra, the final smackdown with the lady Satan. We’ve got the turnaround money. And then there was the ensemble. Unknowns, those girls, naturals. There were these two in particular, recruited from gymnastics, here on student visas. Out of, what was it, Burkina Faso? I know we called them the Rubber Band and the Square Knot. And girls like that, they gave us a strong secondary arc, see. They gave us fresh black faces in Wonder Bread country. You see that arc? We got Rubber Band married to the local minister at the Church of the Eternal Good News, I mean, talk about a strong second line. We got this superathletic missionary housewife in her spandex spraying stain remover on a piece of laundry and shouting, “Begone, Demon! I command thee!” 

      So. We’ve got ignition, we’ve got liftoff—but. Suddenly out there in Bullet Hole, Oklahoma, where the story of the last winning season had long since passed into legend—you see where I’m going with this, don’t you? See it all in hideous slow motion. An eleven-game winning streak, and then the playoffs, five more. Our little band of hicks, they sweep to the district title, the division championship. All of a sudden we’re not the only camera crew on campus. All of a sudden it’s another story entirely, it’s Cinderella, and meantime we’re back to the proctologist. Worse, while we’re facedown with our butt in the air, everyone else is high on a happy ending. Everyone in town has got a smile for us, a smile and a cheerful word: “Can’t wait for the movie!” 

      Still, we’re catching the games, like everyone else. I mean, if we’re out in the roadhouse, we’re not there for the Possum Tortilla. We’re there for strong rye and satellite reception. I mean, how else could we ever hope to catch a break, a fresh something or other? I mean, isn’t it about faith, my brother? Faith, that’s always got to be a part of this business, even when the ball starts taking those funny bounces. 

      Tomorrow, you know, I’m going to walk in there and pitch this project again. I watched all the games, I saw all the funny bounces, and tomorrow I’m going to walk that talk again. I just wonder how I didn’t pick up on what was happening when I saw it on the wide-screen. One of us should’ve picked up on it, somewhere during that craziness—how we were getting messed with. 

      But. Along about the Final Four, what we began to pick up, it was another vibe. It was the excitement every time those twin forwards out of Rwanda or somewhere came on-screen. You don’t need me to tell you. You’ve developed the same nervous system. What we picked up was the rumble of a big narrative on the move—this could work—and we called L.A. We called New York. Coast to coast, they were all saying the same, namely that those two girls ate the screen. They covered the court and ate the screen. Two fine young sistahs, their unis drenched with sweat and their hair gone nappy, and they were already under contract with Production. Then on our side, the creative, we knew what we had to do. We had to get out of town. Way out of town and over to Africa. 

      Our project, I’m saying, it was too real to die. Every time we moved, I mean, weren’t we that much closer? All we needed was the least little bit of traction

      Of course this was all before we learned we were getting messed with. But, I’m saying—we thought America was the problem. America, land of damn opportunity, the goddamn national anthem itself all about a spangled show in the dark. That’s America, every time’s the ball’s in play, it’s got to be a fresh fairy tale. And if the laws of probability are out the window, how can anyone make a movie? Your audience needs to recognize the Lord of Darkness at the first glimpse of smoke. They need to recognize winning or losing as it takes shape out beyond the second plot twist. After that they look forward to a comforting ascent, or a descent if you can find someone to bankroll a downer—anyway they count on it as soon as they see it coming on. The stages of grief or dying or lying or marriage or man or whatever. How else can you ever bring a bunch of strangers together in the dark? 

      The dark, like right there out the window, the dark. Right there’s your Cineplex. Haw, a little irony, brother. Out there, if you set up those good probabilities, you’d have a story that’d fill even those seats. 

      So. Our project, this is how we came to see it—our project needed another country. A place where the wretched stay wretched. At the same time, though, we had to keep our talent in place. I’m talking about the leading lady, here, the woman we referred to privately as our Check Magnet. Along about the Final Four, you can imagine, she’d been ready to bail. She’d been thinking, same as the rest of us, this’ll never happen in America. But as soon as she heard the new mantra, location location location, she was back on board. She’s, I can tell you this much—she’s white. And she wants that edge, that stretch, right? So what could be better than Sistahs Without Bawdahs, plus some international pro bono? And I do mean Bono. 

      Capital B, haw, yeah. A little irony. It’s just, that guy, he’s always over in Africa, isn’t he, and so the photo ops, they couldn’t’ve been easier. 

      In the meantime, in the movie, our babe switched over to the superathletic missionary wife. The role she was born to play. The scene where she condemns genital mutilation and then shows the African girls how to masturbate—that was genius, pure physical acting. That’s going to show up on her cable bio some day. 

      But. But. Do I even need to say it? Out between the white lines there was never anything but craziness and funny bounces. We started out with basketball, maybe in Benin, maybe in Togo. But it was an Olympic year. And you know what the doctor says, while he’s snapping on the gloves—just try and relax. The Benin Eleven, or was it the Togo Twelve, they took home the gold and we snuck out of town. We moved over to Burundi and field hockey. I mean in Burundi, forget about hockey, they don’t even have fields. But, next thing you know, those girls are running around screaming after the last match for the World Cup. They’re wrapping themselves in a Burundian flag three and four at a time and tumbling together to the ground. Made a great shot, these wriggling parti-color squealing happy choruses of many-headed human striving—but it wasn’t a movie. Then next we thought we’d finally got it with Sudanese water polo, but I know you’ve heard about that one. Bono arranges to have a competition-size pool put in (Bono, yeah, he always had the wrong end of the stick on our project), and after that, there’s no story bigger than “the girls from Kurdufan.” 

      Our Actress in a Leading Role, I’ll tell you, I think it broke her. Our Project of the Living Dead, staggering from turnaround to turnaround, I think it sent her permanently back to music. Then again, this new CD of hers, it could be that she felt she owed it to the musicians. She’d brought some studio rats in on the project, pasty white L.A. creatures. It could be she felt she owed them, after all the time they lost working out first the school songs, then the National Anthems. No sooner did they get one down than they had to learn another. 

      Last call? Why, where’s my head, that I didn’t notice it was last call? 

      Brotherman, listen, here’s the thing. I’m saying, your project, I love it, it’s action and character and one money shot after another, and if I were King of the Freeway, this’d be an automatic green light. That’s how the story should end. That’s one player to another. But. When you’re in there making your pitch, if you need an extra wrinkle, you might take a look at that Mars Rover. You might want to see if you’ve got some stretch there, in the arc of the Rover—considering who’s running the bank. This time we’re pitching an alien culture. Alien bank. 

      I mean, Galaxy M31, that’s a long way for a Flexxie to travel. Even when he’s got his “gravitational influence” working, it’s a long way to come. But our ET, on first contact—he broke into the Industry. What’s that about? He can manipulate the laws of gravity and the first thing he tries, what—it’s our thing? One of those bus tours, the Hollywood Hills, “Map of the Stars?” 

      That’s what you ought to think about. 

      I know you know the same as we all know about this. About the Flexxies, I mean, and how they’ve got to have drama. Drama, for them, it’s a craving. It’s their nutrition, it’s their addiction, and I know you know that’s not just the Industry talking. That’s NASA. That’s research, what was it—eight months? Nothing but very serious people in smocks. But what I’m telling you is, you’re not going to need a smock, not after tonight. 

      Tomorrow you’re going in there knowing the Flexxies better than anyone. You’re going in knowing my project. The project, and what really happened with it—the way they were messing with us. 

      See, it’s all about this Flexxies “influence,” gravitational influence. It’s all about what that meant they could mess with down on Earth. They had the influence, and they needed the drama—and so they created it. They stirred up what little they could. Mini-quotidian drama. They gave the ball some funny bounces. 

      Think about it. What they did on my project, a spin here and a bobble there, budging the ball a fraction of a fraction of an inch. But then, brotherman—then think about what you and I can do. 

      I mean, this influence they’ve got, couldn’t you or I have developed the same? We could’ve done it easy. But we came equipped with better, with hands and feet, plus a tongue. These poor strange animules, way out here in the dark, you might say they’re all tongue. Myself, I like to think they’re all wand, one long wand. Invertebrate—flexible, mos def. Still, for a wand, they’re short on magic. They’re a one-trick Flexxie, manipulating gravity, and that only just enough to put the wrong team in the winner’s circle. Sometimes. Not even the smocks can say how long they were at it, contenting themselves with that kind of kidstuff, before they managed to poke out a few words on a keyboard. 

      Sentient beings. Contenting themselves with kidstuff. 

      You think about that, tomorrow, what you and I can do. The funkified narrative. The jeopardy and surprise. The slow burn, spin and rinse, startle and moil and vivify. Listen, that sports movie, my project? These days, one player to another, I’ve got no hard feelings. Naw. That’s the job, it’s supposed to get serendipitous on you, it’s supposed to every once in a while put all of echoing creation through the spin and rinse. I mean, the Flexxies, they’re amateurs. They came to us—you know, the Americans. They knew what it took to get our attention too. A trip like tonight, I’ll tell you, I’d never do it without some very serious seed money. 

      And it’s all according to Guild regulations. Travel, meals, and entertainment. 

John Domini has published three novels, two of which are set in Naples, a city that has often been the subject of his nonfiction. That work has appeared in the New York TimesVirginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Also a book critic, he reviews for the Washington Post and Brooklyn Rail, among other publications. He is the author of three books of short stories, most recently Movieola! (Dzanc). His next novel, The Color Inside a Melon, is forthcoming from Dzanc in June 2019.