By Joel Allyn
In a world of only remakes two writers from different generations discuss their craft over games of chess.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
– Ernest Hemingway
“So essentially it’s King Lear with a cast of talking dogs, British dogs,” said Rob. Just give them what they want.
He felt sick as the words left his mouth and then shame as the man at the head of the table nodded approvingly and spoke aloud to the rest of the writers gathered around the table.
“See that’s how we do it. We’ll just film some dogs, edit it and throw some well known voices over it speaking the Barb’s words.” Bard, thought Rob, a headache had bloomed behind his eyes. “We’ll make back ten times what it’ll cost to produce.” Mr. Bay said. He smiled at Rob. “Great job as always Rob, the rest of you could certainly learn from Townsend here. Alright I’ve heard enough from you guys today. Let’s get back to work, come up with something to take to the backers.”
Rob slunk back to his desk, doing his best to avoid both the supportive comments and the scornful looks. Half his co-workers wanted to write like him and were always asking what his secret was, where his ideas came from. He often wanted to say they weren’t even worthy of the term ‘ideas’, that they were bottom of the barrel mindless jokes. Instead, he just nodded with an obligatory empty smile. The rest of the office wanted him gone, minimal if any effort was made on their part to conceal this fact. They were sick of looking bad, and if it wasn’t enough that they despised him for that they also blamed him for contributing to the degradation of storytelling in general. As far as most of the older – and in their own opinions wiser – scribes were concerned Rob Townsend was not a real writer at all. If they only knew…
There was only one real writer left though, and Rob had managed to find him. Their meetings were his secret and his salvation, and the thing that kept him writing. Hell, by this point it was the thing keeping him alive. Over games of chess in the park they’d talk for hours, and the old scribe known as Lovey Rigg would beg Rob to share the ‘ideas’ that had been pitched recently. Eventually Rob would give in and once he’d heard the proposals Lovey would just laugh and laugh, but behind the laughter in his eyes the younger writer would catch a glimpse of sadness, and perhaps fear. As Lovey’s hands had started to shake worse and worse and he had grown gaunter Rob had become worried but knew better than to intrude into his personal affairs, he had learned that lesson early and easily. Mostly Rob would just listen, absorbing everything – he could always sift through it all later.
He loved hearing Lovey speak of the days before NOSTALGIA even existed, when writers would come up with original story ideas instead of just altering remake after remake. It sounded like some fairy tale land to Rob. For as long as he could remember it was just a steady stream of the same safe films disguised behind the mask of scarcely altered characters or approaches, but Lovey Rigg remembered a world before the one devoid of originality that Rob knew.
History books can be altered, but to hear Lovey tell it these original great movies –classics, he fondly referred to them – held some sacred truth, some sort of magic. The way he put it was that it was about finding the truth within the lies. Then over time parts of remakes started showing up in the newer films, cloaked under the guise of an ‘homage’. Lovey said he himself was guilty of this but hadn’t been too concerned at first. Eventually however he’d had enough and founded and led a campaign against the rising tide of mediocrity, and was daring to call these ‘homages’ plagiarism.
His groups platform was based around the feeling expressed best in the Times editorial Lovey Rigg authored where he wrote, ‘If one does a near shot for shot remake of an already existing film, or even a portion of it, how is that any different than rewriting a classic book line for line, changing the characters to dogs and calling it your own work? And furthermore, why is one any more acceptable than the other?’ Due to the man’s renown the article was widely read and many people felt Rigg had indeed made an excellent point: If people could get away copying films why not slightly altered books as well? He had handed his enemy their best idea to date.
Three months later a classic work of fiction was reprinted and released with one noteworthy change – they’d added zombies. Lovey said he’d laughed that butchery off, as he had the awful vampire stories involving day-walking vamps that sparkled like glitter; until both books skyrocketed up the bestsellers list in the very same publication his editorial had been run. Several adaptations, sequels and knockoffs followed, and people couldn’t get enough.
“That,” he said, “was the beginning of the end. Within a few years more and more remakes popped up and kept selling well so the studio heads and publishers took fewer unnecessary chances and focused their backing solely on apparently failsafe, well-worn favorites. They began to refuse paying talent what it deserved and opted instead to hire amateurs who would do the job happily for little more than a pat on the head. Television shows from decades prior were suddenly exhumed and put on the air with new casts, some were even turned into films, yet people still just kept eating it up. It’s not any one person or group’s fault though; things were getting rougher for everybody and as the entire global economy was melting down people were just looking for an easy laugh or a quick simple murder mystery, and I get that. What few clever writers remained were so scared of not working that they simply towed the line in silence. A few years more and it was so bad that they resorted to actually turning board games into films, and people paid for the privilege.” Rob had laughed at that, but the sour look upon Lovey’s face made him cease at once.
“You cannot imagine what it was like to see so many great writers’ ideas go unrecognized and fade into obscurity while the three thousandth redo of Romeo and Juliet (this time with gnomes) made a fortune. Every time somebody watched one of these atrocities, I swear a book killed itself.”
Somewhere out of that rising cesspool of mediocrity came one pioneering company – NOSTALGIA – which arrived seemingly fully formed and with the dominance of Cthulu. The company’s founders were at the helm of all of it, recognizing the lasting worth of rehash after rehash long before the rest of the industry fully caught on.
“They’ve poisoned that word.” Lovey had said more than once, and Rob couldn’t argue. After all, the company’s job was to trick people into buying the same product over and over based on nothing more than the feeling itself, so the name was quite apropos but no less poisonous. When asked what had ever become of his league of like-minded scribes – The Scribblers, they’d called themselves – Lovey would say simply, “All dead now.” Adding, “We managed to hang in there for a bit though, still writing original stories as they came to us, if only to read for each other around a fire. But I’m the last Scribbler now, and any day I’ll be reading my own epilogue.”
He let out a slight chuckle at that, Rob did not.
“So why bother to write at all then if nobody-”
“Reads it?” Lovey cut in.
“Well, yeah. I mean, I’ve had a few ‘great’ ideas but never bothered putting any of them to paper because I know they’d never go farther than that.”
“Then I suppose NOSTALGIA has won, boy. Your ideas, at least the ones you’ve shared with me, are great but if you need somebody to tell you that then you’ll always have a place at NOSTALGIA, where they’ll praise you for those stories you’re ashamed to speak of.”
“Well Lovey, we can’t all be Scribblers.”
Lovey peered across the chessboard into his eyes. “Maybe not son, but you could be.”
That had flattered Rob to no end and he’d done his best to hide the red flush that he felt creeping up his neck and spreading warmth into his cheeks and ears.
He walked his normal route after work, looking forward to seeing Lovey, and holding out hope of maybe even winning a game this time. His whole life he’d written, and since he picked up a pen he’d heard the name Lovey Rigg whispered everywhere with words like legend attached, though all his books and films had been wiped out with the rest before Rob’s time. Whenever he inquired to the whisperers he’d always be told that the great writer had become an introvert and passed away years ago, but when he couldn’t find a burial site he started looking among the living, and was shocked at how easily he’d found the man.
“Most folks don’t bug dead men,” he said once, “not like you.”
To Rob’s surprise it hadn’t taken much convincing to get Lovey to talk with him. In an odd sort of way it seemed he’d been sitting there waiting for someone, not Rob surely, but somebody. Rob had brought a chessboard to help break the ice and Lovey’s eyes lit up when he spied the board clutched under the boy’s arm. Rob had managed to come across a quote from one of Lovey’s old fellow Scribblers that stated, ‘If Rigg didn’t have a smoke or a drink, a pen or a woman in his hand he had a chess piece to be sure.’ So Rob had dug out his board at once. The set they’d played with since was hand carved by Lovey himself and put Rob’s flimsy set to shame, as did the legend’s uncanny ability to end a game in under a half dozen moves.
Each time he got to the table in the park Lovey would be sitting there, waiting and smiling with the board set up. Once, Rob showed up over thirty minutes early only to find his friend waiting with folded hands, a smile upon his face. He turned the corner and there was their table, chessboard setup and Lovey smiling at him.
“One of these days I am going to beat you, at least to the damn park.”
“Good luck grasshopper. Not likely however with all that, ahem, work you do.” Lovey’s smile widened.
“Hey, somebody has to ensure the remakes aren’t completely terrible. I do my best just in hopes of making them tolerable.”
“Part of the solution-”
“Or part of the problem. I know, I know.” He cut in. “Too bad being part of the problem pays so much better.”
“Then I suppose I’d be better off giving this to someone who would make better use of it.” He tapped a lengthy black finger on a small wooden box resting beside the board. “Who am I kidding you’re all terrible nowadays, ha.”
“What’s in it Lovey?”
“Later. You ready for a lashing boy?”
“Maybe, but Maybe I got some new tricks I’ve learned.” Rob had grown weary of the embarrassment of having his ass handed to him every time they played, and had since read through several strategy books as well as losing sleep practicing against the computer. So heading into this match he felt cautiously optimistic.
The first game Lovey took in six moves, the second on the other hand was an improvement, it took him only four. Rob’s frustration was poorly concealed.
“You think and think and think,” He smacked his palm hard against the stone table and Rob jumped, “but you never do. You’re always reacting, always on the defensive. It is past time you went on the attack, boy.”
Rob was on the losing end of a half dozen more games before they took a break to eat. The well known favorite sandwich of Lovey Rigg was a simple BLT with mustard instead of mayo, so Rob had made a habit of packing a couple every time they met. The last couple times however he’d barely touched his food, and when Rob mentioned it Lovey’s answer was an ominous one. “Eh, a lot of things I used to love I don’t even like anymore.” Confused Rob had asked if the sandwich was bad but had only gotten, “It’s fine, thank you boy.”
They resumed their game but Lovey seemed distracted, and after a few matches that took Lovey over a dozen moves to win, Rob actually managed to land Lovey in check, which was a first. When it happened Rob looked up expecting either praise or admonishment but Lovey didn’t even notice, he was too caught up staring down Condor Avenue, home of downtown’s cinema district.
He was looking in the direction of the marquee over the Crossroads Theatre, which displayed the films ‘Trading Places…Again’, ‘Good Cop, Rad Cop’, ‘Parody Movie’, ‘Jack and Phil’, ‘Princess and the Pizza’, ‘Super Monkey Space Adventure 9000’ and one Rob was shamefully responsible for, ‘Piglet’ which was naturally ‘Hamlet’ on a farm. There were more but they all followed what had become the same basic formula for success: Find something familiar. Tweak it slightly. Reheat and serve.
“What next?” Lovey murmured
K-9 Lear Rob almost said to try and make him smile, but didn’t. He instead asked if Lovey wanted to play one more match.
“No… No, I think I’m done Rob.”
He never calls me Rob.
He helped Lovey pack up the pieces the elder writer had shaped from birch and maple. Wordlessly Lovey placed the small wooden box in front of Rob.
“What’s in the mystery box?”
“A writer never tells son, he shows.” Rob clicked the box open and stared wordlessly at its contents as Lovey continued. “Just something I want you to have. You’ve got a gift boy; you just need to have the balls to use it.”
“Lovey it’s beautiful, but…I…I can’t…I mean” He still just stared at it, then miraculously broke the spell and looked up to meet the frail man’s gaze.
Lovey Rigg had tears streaming down his dark face.
“I knew you’d appreciate it boy, you see its worth, I knew you would, but it’s worthless without a hand to wield it…” he trailed off. His voice was a weak croak when he went on. “I can’t write anymore, Rob.”
That admittance, what Rob had suspected since the beginning – since he’d seen the blank page in the typewriter with dust on it – broke him, and he felt a lump rise in his throat as his vision blurred. Lovey picked up his bag and Rob got on his feet to thank the man properly. Lovey hated hugs, Rob knew, so he tried to hand the box back as they went to shake hands but Lovey shook his head, said, “I’m out of ink, Rob.” He said, and that was that.
They parted with small talk and a big handshake, but Rob felt something off in the ritual. Then Lovey flashed that infectious smile and Rob couldn’t help but reciprocate. Every time they parted Rob dreaded it might be the last time he’d ever see him and searched to find the words to convey all he’d learned from the man, how he’d been inspired to be first a better writer, then a real writer, all due to Lovey. Yet each time he came up short, and there’s no worse torment for a writer than being at a loss for the perfect words. So the younger scribe said all he could seem to muster up at that moment.
“Thank you, Lovey.”
“Thank you, Rob.”
He watched Lovey Rigg make his way down Condor Avenue, until he vanished around the corner, and Rob had not failed to note the shake of the head as he passed by the marquee sign. Grumpy old bastard. One of Lovey’s tales had been how at twenty-one he’d gone to that very theater to see his first book’s theatrical adaptation. He’d said that he was anxious to see it and how at first it was magic seeing his tale breathing off the page, but that after that initial awe wore off he was simply bored because he said he knew what was coming. Now they’re playing the abominations I help create, but no more. Done. Time to get started. When Rob got home he placed the wooden box over the hearth, and then sat on the couch staring at it until sleep overtook him.
“I…I don’t get it Townsend,” Mr. Bay said. “What story is this based on again?” His words had been the first to break the silence that followed Rob’s pitch.
Careful now. “It’s um; it’s based partly on ancient Greek mythology. You know how well fairy tales and myths sell sir; it’s like that, just modernized.
“I mean it’s a great idea Rob really, as always, but it just doesn’t feel familiar enough, you know? I mean if I didn’t see the source material clearly in it, the backers certainly won’t. We just need it to be more recognizable, and more than just an old man and young man playing chess. Where’s the familiarity, the classic catch phrase, or the romantic interest? Where’s the nostalgia?”
Think Rob, come on. “Yes sir, but it’s actually inspired by the very famous scene in The Seventh Seal, where death is the chess opponent. It’s been used several times before to great success, and was actually one of the original homages.”
“Oh okay I get it. Yeah, I can see that…” He clearly couldn’t. “But even then, in your story you said death keeps winning?”
Death usually wins, last time I checked. “Yes sir, but only until the twist ending.”
This was always Rob’s de facto weapon when he was cornered trying to sneak in anything even remotely unique. The backers at NOSTALGIA were always excited to market a twist on the ending of a classic, even if it was cheap or nonsensical.
“Well, we’ll have to see what the backers say. I mean I get it Rob, but you know how the money can be sometimes. Probably best to get going on something else in the meantime.”
After the meeting the looks and compliments came from the opposite groups as before but he was still equally indifferent. He knew this story would go nowhere, and it was the first of his since being hired that wouldn’t, but he wasn’t upset. Perhaps the next story would do better, or the next, or the one after that. He just needed more practice; he found creating ideas from scratch was so much harder than simply altering someone else’s. It was no wonder storytelling was in such a dire state. What had been in the box Lovey gave him had helped his writing tremendously. He couldn’t wait to tell Lovey, ever since he’d left him the week before he had been bursting with ideas and wanted to pour them out not only on a page, but to Lovey as well. He felt as though he’d finally tapped into some eternal well of tales all worth telling.
He took the usual route to the park, and was running ten minutes late. Who knows how long he’s been waiting there. But when he turned the corner – fully expecting to see that infectious smile pulling tight the deep lines carved there – their table was empty. He felt no joy at finally arriving first and waited another hour before leaving, heading to the house nearby where he’d found the old writer the first time.
He rang the bell several times with no answer, so he opened the screen to knock. As he pulled the creaky door open an envelope dropped at his feet. When he looked down he saw the chessboard there as well, and his heart sank. He bent down and retrieved the letter; he saw his full name printed across the front. After a moment’s hesitation he took a deep breath and tore the envelope open quickly, then pulled the dusty piece of paper out slowly, not wanting to read its contents; he knew how it was going to end. He unfolded the paper, saw the message had been composed on an old typewriter, and read.
You were a friend to this old misanthrope when I needed one most, the precise moment I’d concluded I no longer needed one. I am more grateful than I can say, and a simple thank you falls far short of what I’d like to convey. You’ll have to forgive me though, this is after all the first thing I’ve written in a great while.
No need to come inside son, just call the clean-up crew when you get home. I hope you know you restored what little faith I had in any future for writers. Take care of yourself. I’ll leave you with wiser words than my own.
“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.
P.S. Find yourself a young writer to play chess with, you could use the practice.
He got home, somehow. His eyes were still sore and red and he had trouble getting the door unlocked. Once inside he went to straight to the hearth, took down the small wooden box and set it down on his desk. He sat down and pulled out a white blank page, then opened the box, took out Lovey Rigg’s fountain pen, and wrote at the top of the page: The Scribblers.
Maybe nobody would ever read the story, but that’s not why he wrote. Not anymore