Plunket in Wonderland

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About Alan

On leveling a rise from the dead

from Chapter One: "The Cubicle: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust"  

Day after day, week after week, year after year, like crusting dust caking up in a darkened corner, Plunket settled in his cubicle, waiting to be scraped up by a knife.  His cubicle at Capital Pictures—the number one “Little Studio” in Hollywood, but always lurking in the shadows of the “majors”—was exquisite for dust, breeding the most select variety on the coast.  There was, of course, the dust of the first order, the everyday dust, the dust accumulated on the permanent fixtures in his cubicle—an old, windowless, converted storage closet, strangely angled on six sides to resemble a large coffin.  There was the light-fixture dust, bookcase dust, and, of course, chair and desktop dust.  But Plunket’s two absolute favorites were the antique, down-filled, Rudolph Valentino love seat (which had not been cleaned since its appearance in the finale of one of his classics) and the gaudy, narrow-necked, tin urn that was painted to resemble Roman Empire pottery for Secret Loves of Caligula.

Since the bottom of the urn had already been scattered with ashes, he had no reason to assume—on that fateful day upon his arrival in the cubicle as a script reader nine years ago—that it was not an ashtray.  He had started then flicking ashes from his once-a-day, faux-mogul, afternoon panatela into it and had habitually continued doing so ever since.  It was only later, however, after the gravity of the job was given time to fully sink in, that Plunket realized he had made a mistake in judgment, and that the ashes scattered on the bottom of the urn prior to his arrival in the cubicle were most probably the remains of his predecessor, the fabled Chipper McSweep, who in the late ‘90s made a sizable chunk of change traveling from studio to studio, plowing through the archives of forgotten, unproduced screenplays with the no-lose, money-back guarantee to each studio that their libraries of dust-covered, forgotten works could be sorted into two divisions—the enormous pile of desiccated kindle to be once and for all incinerated in a massive studio bonfire, and the minuscule stack of dead but salvageable script parts that with the right Dr. Frankenstein might one day be sparked back to life. “LIVE!!”

With the diminished need for hard copy the computer age brought, studios all over town were looking for ways to clear their shelves of the old and bring in the new.  McSweep made a mint in overtime as he traveled like a happy bard from studio to studio, cleaning house for the new owners to make room for their new possessions.  Capital was of course last on Chipper’s list, but by no means least, for it was the studio that did him in.  After years of covering decades-old material, Chipper was weary by the time he arrived at Capital.  Given the cubicle as his home, Chipper McSweep started sifting and sorting as he did in any other studio, but the Capital stockpile evidently was something for which he was not prepared.  After several weeks into the job, Chipper simply self-combusted, vanishing, never to be heard from again.  He punched in as he did all other days on the Capital clock, but just never punched out, presumably still piling up an eternity of overtime.  All that was rumored to have remained was a pile of ashes on the love seat where he loved to sit and work, evidently the remains of his final cigar that the maintenance crew unceremoniously swept into the urn next to it.

As loveable as the love seat and urn were on their own, it was the magical way they teamed up to announce the arrival of a visitor that was truly awe-inspiring: PING-THUMP-WHOOSH-POOF.  Situated behind the door, the tin urn rested snugly abreast the right armrest of the love seat, which, in turn, fit snugly against the wall; and whenever a visitor opened the door, it would inevitably clang into the tin Secret Loves of Caligula urn—PING—which would shove into the right armrest of the Rudolph Valentino love seat—THUMP—and the irresistible force would emit a gentle whisper of ash from the urn—WHOOSH—and a delicate puff of dust from the love seat—POOF.  PING-THUMP-WHOOSH-POOF:  “You have a visitor, sir,” the ghost of Chipper McSweep would formally announce every time a weary traveler would stumble past Plunket’s throne.  Just where the ashes and dust went once they rose from the props, Plunket hadn’t the foggiest notion, but the dingy air inside his tiny, windowless cubicle was getting thicker every day, every week, every year.

In addition to the dust of the first order that continued to cake up on the permanent fixtures of his cubicle mustered the dust of the second order, the dust that mounted on the objects intended at some point in the future to escape the cubicle’s confinement, never to return again.  The dust dwelled all around him: on each of the piles of scripts that were stacked in neat columns, spaced along each of he six coffin-shaped walls that surrounded his desk. 

Technically speaking, some of this dust was, in fact, dust of the first order, since many of the stacks of scripts were more or less permanent, in that they were duplicate copies of screenplays read and forgotten long ago.  Now, years later, they were the tomes of the unknown writers: buried tombs, typed time capsules, a rich compost of decayed topics once fertile enough to go on “overnight reads,” now forever stilled in a deep, cold, forlorn grave.  Here lies the culture on which the dust of the second order was bred.

The dust amassed on all the screenplays that were supposed to be read each week.  All too frequently, however, the week’s pile was too great, and as the reading staff shrank from four to just one, Plunket was demanded to perform by himself a job once reserved for four union readers.  It was a herculean task, and all the while—day after day, week after week—the scripts relentlessly kept up their attack.  As Plunket read, the scripts kept multiplying, and with each offspring came another generation of dust.

Dust of the first order and dust of the second order were distressing enough, but what was most painful for Plunket was dust of the third order, the highest order of all—brain dust.  Dust that can be seen is irksome, but that which swells under the carpet, left so long unattended to lump and clump, is downright dangerous.  Mounds of it bulged in every conceivable cerebral lobe, scattered like concealed land mines waiting patiently to be tripped off.  The dust accumulated, attacking from plain view, ambushing from beneath hidden surfaces, corroding from within.

Having weathered the studio’s pink slip explosion, the executive shuffling and musical chairs the studio had gone through—his running gag at the time, “if my boss calls, get a name”—Plunket had become over the years as much a fixture in his cubicle as anything else on which dust would settle.   He was a living dust-catcher and would remain so until he could get thoroughly dusted, cleansed, and re-charged.

Re-birth, however, was one thing that would not come easily from indefatigably reading scripts.  When the other readers became the victims of unending cutbacks and started dropping like flies all around him, and the studio started dropping scripts on his desk—fifteen, eighteen, twenty a week—Plunket had little choice but to jam it into overdrive and coast.

The writer in him, the person in him felt guilty, but the exploited, overworked reader in him knew he was but a pawn in the game, a victim of the sink-or-swim system in which he was presently plunged.  Like war, it was a matter of self-survival—a self-contained, isolated morality that was only understood by those who participated.

Speed was paramount, and the more scripts he plowed through, the more Capital loved him, for who else could give them such an articulate diatribe fifteen, eighteen, twenty times a week, pinpointing precisely why the huge corporation on the fringes of bankruptcy should not bother to spend several hundred thousand dollars as just the beginning of a multi-million dollar investment toward turning any given screenplay into a film.  Even in Hollywood, a penny saved is a penny earned; and with each and every script he rejected, Plunket earned his wage by saving Capital a bundle.

Capital didn’t want to buy screenplays.  Capital didn’t even want to make movies.  Capital just wanted to make money.  Since they were in the business of making movies, however, they would have to venture out a few times a year, roll the dice, and pray they turned up a natural.   Their crapshoot prayers, however, were never answered, forcing the studio to follow the late-seventies trend to sell off part of its back lot for real estate development—condos and an exclusive shopping mall that kept the studio barely afloat for a few additional years before, like all other studios with any sort of film library, it was inevitably swallowed up by yet another giant conglomerate.

Heads were ordered to roll, which meant extensive pruning, but pruning in Hollywood is always done from the bottom up.  For every new executive brought in on top from his/her last failure in his/her previous position at another studio, four low-lifes had already been hacked off from the bottom.  From maintenance to general office staff and script readers, the past six years at Capital had seen a bumper crop of pink slips: from Roland (the perpetual motion/grinning maintenance man who never stopped prancing or smiling, right up to his final day at Capital when, after 29 years of service with a smile, he was shuffled out the door, losing his health care after being diagnosed with cancer and two months prior to his qualifying for his pension) to three of Plunket’s reading associates in the story department.

For dodging a pink slip Plunket was rewarded with dust.  His creativity comatose, Plunket feared his brain dust might have already calcified; and rather than a simple flossing, it might now require a thorough, professional picking in order to chip away at the creative plaque that had been hardening over its many years of careless neglect.

And thus it was with unbridled delirium when, somewhere two-thirds down page 92 of script number 7213 in hour 19,127 of his term at Capital Pictures, a gentle rumbling within the dust-splayed, slumbering brain of Plunket strained its way through his cerebral shell, and hatched a strange but welcomed visitor.  Plunket was well-aware that it might be a mirage, but he nonetheless stretched back into the furthest corners of his subconscious, and for one fleeting moment thought he recognized the embryo of what might—given enough time—develop into a single, creative idea.  The inner gears of his creative mind miraculously began to spin for the first time in years--spitting out dust and rust, sparking and self-cleaning with every astounding revolution.  And the dust thrown off, he deliriously imagined, suddenly, neatly parted down the middle of his cubicle, like a rusty Red Sea, clearing an unencumbered and enticing path through which his imagination might freely romp.  Something inside him was twitching and he grew feverish, dreaming if perhaps this was indeed the very moment for the dust to finally clear, when the great knife in the sky would sweep down on his tiny corner of the universe, the cubicle, and scrape up all vestiges of grit, no matter how caked-up, crusty, or hidden in darkened corners they may be, to unclothe a germ of naked truth.  Behold the creative idea!  Let my imagination go! 

Plunket sat back in the Rudolph Valentino love seat and waited, hungrily anticipating whatever creative thought might come.  He could practically taste its sweetness.  And all at once the blessed knife swept down to scrape him up and liberate him from his drudgery; but it came not in the form of anything creative, but rather, the sweet-toned ding of the “new-mail” window on his computer screen, slicing through his sacred silence, clipping the wings of his creative re-awakening, leveling his rise from the dead.

It was the reply that he’d been waiting for, but the words in the subject space (“This sounds like a complaint more than a suggestion”) were not quite what he had anticipated.  He scrolled to re-read the original e-mail #22, the mission statement of the new president of worldwide production, Buddy Trampelton, which had initially prompted his response that in turn prompted the present reply.  He was confused.  Had he not simply done exactly what e-mail #22 had asked of its employees?  Had he not . . .

RING!!!!  Plunket shifted his attention from the computer screen to the receiver.

“Yeah?” the reader expired.

“Plunket?  Trampelton.  Drop everything and get the hell up to my office!!  NOW!!!!”

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