Monday, November 17, 2008

Road Kill

A true story by David Phillips

I pull in to the travel center at the south end of Pueblo for gas and dinner. Dinner in this case consists of two Starbucks Double-Shots and an ice-cream sandwich. The cashier smiles as he rings me up.

“This should keep you up for a while.”

“I certainly hope so.”

I sign the credit card receipt and collect my provisions. Outside, the last remnants of daylight wash across the evening sky. I walk back to the pump and climb into the car. I got a late start, and it’s going to be a long night. I pop one of the beverages and start the engine. I have more than enough gas to get me to Albuquerque. Hopefully I’ll make it before midnight.

I wheel the car south onto the entrance ramp. I-25 stretches across the prairie, black ribbons of asphalt vanishing into darkness, punctuated now and again by lonely dots of red and white light. To the west, the Rocky Mountains rise in silhouette against the darkening sky. In the east, the moon is low on the horizon.

Hours later, dinner long since gone, I listen to music on the car stereo. The car has a great sound system, and although it’s only around nine o’clock, I have the sound pumping to help keep me awake.

Suddenly I sense the engine laboring unusually hard. I kill the music and see the tach somewhere above three thousand and rising. Then I hear it, the wump-wump-wump of a tire going flat at high speed. I tap the brakes and the car slows quickly. I ease the crippled vehicle onto the shoulder, cursing it as I check the mirrors to make sure I’m not about to cut anyone off. I needn’t have worried - there’s no one out here but me.

The car crawls to a stop. I shove it into park and let it idle, seething in my seat as I take in the situation. It’s below freezing outside, so I pull on my heavy winter parka, hat and gloves. Don’t want to mess around with mother nature. Hypothermia is not on my list of things to try before I die. I reach back and rifle through my laptop bag, pull out my flashlight and hang it around my neck by its lanyard. I heave a sigh and open the door.

The air is crisp and clear, my breath illuminated by the headlights and the rhythmic blinking of the hazards. The engine purrs as the car idles. I look around. A thin veil of cloud shrouds the moon, which lights up the surrounding landscape in an erie glow. For a moment I wonder if there are animals out here in the darkness. Cattle are common in these parts, and once I saw a herd of buffalo along the endless stretch of barbed wire fence. Could have been anywhere. I wonder if it was here.

I squint into the darkness by the road. Nothing.

I grasp the flashlight at my chest, the lanyard still around my neck. I circle the car, checking tires as I go. Left side okay; rear right fine. Front right - flat.


“Are the tires going to make it?”

“O, I’m sure they’re fine.”

My wife had asked me days before if the aging tires would survive the trip from Denver to Phoenix. The tires do need to be replaced, but we’re trying to sell this car, and I don’t want to put any more money into it than I have to. I wonder what she and our 4-year-old son are doing right now.

I pop the hatch. The back of the wagon is full of stuff. Bins full of papers, suitcases full of clothing, the remains of a visit over too soon. My little family returned to Phoenix a week ago, and took all they could with them on the airplane. It would cost too much to send it all UPS, so we decided I’d drive it south myself. Now, however, the prospect of unloading all this stuff so I can access the spare is a little overwhelming, especially in the dark. I stare at the stroller, the skateboard, the miscellaneous scraps of clothing, all hurriedly stuffed into the car late last night.

I remember the last time I had a flat tire on this car. I was on my way to work and tried to change the tire myself. I must have spent half an hour trying to get the lugs off that wheel. When the tire store rotates the wheels, they use that air gun to put the lugs back on, and they’re so tight I couldn’t get them off by hand.

Eventually, I gave in and called a tow truck.

This time, I think I’ll skip the part where I try to change the wheel myself. I slowly close the hatch.

“Are you okay?!” Her voice is scared, desperate. She gets this way when she thinks I’m in trouble and there’s nothing she can do about it. I roll my eyes.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Listen, does our insurance have a towing benefit? Or our Amex?”

Mobile coverage is sketchy out here, and we have a hard time carrying on an intelligible conversation, her voice drifting in and out as the gentle wind plays with the delicate radio waves connecting me to the rest of the world.

“I don’t know. I’ll call and find out. Where are you?”

I look around. Besides the endless highway stretching into the darkness, there are no other landmarks. Desolate.

We hang up. I contact information and track down a towing company.

“I think I’m about sixty or seventy miles north of town.”

Las Vegas, New Mexico is probably my best bet. I can’t imagine a reputable tire store in any of the small towns behind me, and I certainly don't want to backtrack. I’m trying to make it in time for lunch tomorrow.

The lady at the other end of the line asks if there are any other landmarks. Nothing, I tell her. She collects details about the car - make, model, color, plate - and tells me someone is on the way.

I hang up. Nothing to do now but wait. Shouldn’t be more than an hour. Two at the most.

A car speeds past, then another, neither of them slowing for the car on the shoulder. I watch their tail lights recede toward the horizon. I can see now that we’re on a gentle grade, and by the glow of their headlamps, I make out the crest of the hill about half a mile up the road. The first car is about to disappear over the hill when something flickers on the shoulder. Something green.

I stare. As the second car approaches the same point, the thing lights up once more. A mile marker shimmers in the beam of light and disappears. The tail lights vanish over the horizon.

I think for a moment. Should I risk it?

What could happen?

I kill the engine. The headlamps automatically shut off, leaving nothing but the hazards to compete with the moonlight in the inky murk of the darkness.

Mine is a sedentary life, and I’m not in any shape to jog the distance, so I set off at a brisk stride, wanting to spend no more time than necessary away from the sanctuary of my vehicle. As I move forward, the rhythmic, blinking glow of the hazard lights dims until eventually it’s just me in the moonlight. I look over my shoulder. The car is surprisingly far away already. Beyond it, a solitary pair of headlights punctuate the darkness across the broad, shallow valley. Miles away.

I turn and walk.

The open road is my friend, and I am comfortable traveling alone by car. I grew up in western Canada, and my dad and I went on road trips with some degree of regularity. Everything in western Canada is spread apart by unimaginable distance - unimaginable unless you grew up in the Territories or Alaska. I remember one trip in particular, we were traveling at night along the Trans-Canada Highway, headed west across the open plains of Saskatchewan toward Calgary. I remember the moonlight that night, unusually bright, lighting up the landscape so you could see forever. Then, as the miles clicked by, a thick fog gradually enveloped us, so that after a while, you couldn’t see more than a hundred yards up the road. Dad and I squinted through the haze in front of us, wary of the possibility of danger. Then, all at once, the fog ended, as if a curtain had been torn away, and the night sky was crystal clear once more, the highway stretching off for miles to the horizon. I looked back out the rear window and saw what looked like a luminous cliff, a thousand feet high, stretching north and south as far as could be seen, receding quickly as we sped west across the prairie. I’ve never seen anything like it since.

I am snapped back to my present surroundings in an instant when something tugs at the right leg of my Levi’s. From behind. As if I had caught them on a tree branch. But the road is clear. The shoulder is fully twelve feet wide and, except for the occasional smattering of gravel, clear of debris. I circle round as something bounds in from my periphery. It makes no noise, but looks like a dog, frenetic, bounding, moving constantly, its grey coat glowing silver in the moonlight.

I’m stunned, my defenses piqued, and at first I don’t move. It circles around in front of me, prancing like a prize fighter assessing an adversary. For a moment I wonder if someone abandoned their mutt along the highway, and this thing wants to make friends. As it moves in hyperactive frenzy, it almost looks like its tail is wagging.

Then it lunges.

I spring up and backward, instinctively evading what my subconscious has now determined to be a threat.

“Hey!” I shout.

Still it makes no noise - no growling, no barking - but it lunges again. And again. I spring back and forth on the shoulder, a prize fighter myself, now doing whatever I can to keep from getting knocked out. Instinct has taken over and I am no longer headed for the mile marker. Instead, my motions begin to carry me back toward the car. But how far away am I now? I don’t dare take my eyes of the animal as it circles and lunges again.

I hear the voices of my memory now, telling me everything I’ve ever heard about fending off an attacking animal. Make yourself big. Make big noises. I undo my jacket and hold it open as I jump up and down, flap my arms and scream like a crazy person.

The animal pauses, regroups and lunges again, apparently unfazed by my pretense of aggression.

The moonlight casts just enough light for me to be able to focus on this thing. I lunge forward, then back, side to side, using the whole width of the shoulder as I move myself backward, toward the car, unable to take my eyes of the animal, hoping that the rhythmic blink of the hazard lights will start to penetrate the darkness soon.

Then I steal a glance back at the car. It’s at least a football field away.

I remember the flashlight dangling around my neck. I fumble for it, grasp it in my fist, take aim and flash the thing in the eyes. It’s designed as a tactical flashlight, very bright, with a button on the butt to facilitate just this kind of action. I flash it over and over. It regroups again, taking a moment to reassess its adversary. As it pauses, I put as much distance between us as I can without actually turning around or taking my eyes off of it.

Then it charges, lunges again and again, seemingly unaffected by the glare that must surely be causing it to lose its vision, at least momentarily. The thing must be rabid. I jump and scream, partially in an effort to maintain what I hope is a ferocious presence, but partially out of naked fear. It’s going for my legs, and each time it advances, I try to leap out of the way.

Synapses fire off a thousand thoughts in my panicked imagination, constantly evaluating and reevaluating the situation and any possible means of escape. This thing is close enough to step on, but something tells me it would be imprudent to try to kick it. I wonder if I should take the flashlight from around my neck and use the lanyard to take a swing at the animal with it, but this idea too is discarded in milliseconds. My instincts tell me that waving an unprotected appendage at the animal may end with my hand or foot lodged in its mouth.

There was a woman in Arizona not long ago who encountered a rabid fox on a hike. At first the thing displayed no aggression, but ended up pursuing her, eventually locking onto her arm. She hiked for a mile back to her car with this thing clamped onto her arm before she could dislodge it, and only then by slamming its head in the trunk of the car.

I feel it make contact. The left shin, just below the knee. It knocks me back a step, but doesn’t attain a solid bite. Rather, it glances off my leg, circles around and faces me again. I can feel the sting on my skin, and wonder if I’m bleeding.

I glance back at the car. Still at least fifty yards away. Too far to run for it. If I turn and run now, it’ll overtake me in a second. Then what?

It lunges again, and again I leap out of the way. Suddenly the road is illuminated as the car I saw mere minutes ago approaches at full speed. The intensity of the light increases rapidly as the car approaches, lighting up the animal. Just as it occurs to me that I must be appearing in silhouette to the animal, I realize what it is.

It’s a coyote.

Panic, as adrenaline floods my system. My breathing suddenly becomes shallow and my step has a renewed spring as I dance and weave my way back and forth across the shoulder of the highway.

The car passes without slowing and I wonder what the driver thought of the person dancing on the side of the road, his jacket hanging open, arms waving. Too late. Tail lights recede quickly over the crest of the hill, and just as it disappears from view, I see the mile marker light up in the beam of the headlamps for a second. Then it’s gone.

I can feel my chest starting to tighten as I gasp lungs full of night air. My wheezing hampers my ability to scream at the coyote, my voice slowly going hoarse, almost like an anaphylactic reaction. Certainly my body is not used to sustained output, but this is a decidedly inconvenient time to find out just what the limits of my physical fitness might be. I begin to wonder if I’ll actually make it to the car.

The animal lunges, turns, regroups and lunges again. I am a dervish of constant motion, arms waving, voice rasping, bouncing, prancing, always moving backward. It attacks again and again I jump out of the way, somehow evading contact. But it’s getting closer. The car still seems so far away. How long can I keep going?

I remember stories from my childhood, told to me by Sunday-school teachers and people at church, of individuals who have rebuked animals in the name of Jesus. I’ve always professed to have a faith in God, in Jesus Christ, but I always wondered if these stories were true. How could they be? How could an animal be affected by the utterance of a name when screaming and the threat of physical injury will not stave it off? But I’m desperate and somehow, when all other possibilities of defense have been exhausted or deemed too dangerous to attempt, this idea suddenly seems plausible.

I scream it out as loud as I can-

“In Jesus name-”

That’s all I can get out.

And the animal stops in its tracks.

I am not making this up.

I immediately sense a measure of success and, uncertain how long it will last, determine to move backward toward the car as quickly as I can, jogging in reverse. The animal takes one step forward, then another, as I skip back along the shoulder, never taking my eyes off of it.

It looks up and down the road, and saunters across the highway to the median that separates the northbound lanes from those of us heading south. I face it still, now skipping sideways like a schoolboy on a playground, playing ring-around-the-rosie. I shine my flashlight across the road. Two eyes glow back as the animal continues its course parallel to mine.

I check the car. 30 yards. I skip faster.

The animal matches my pace, but does not stray back onto the roadway, despite the absence of cars.

At last the orange glow of the hazards cuts the darkness, and the ground lights up orange in rhythmic sequence. I’m close.

Then, I’m at the bumper of the car. I set my hand on the hood, as if to make sure it’s real. One last look across the roadway, where the animal has stopped and returns my gaze. I sense now that it knows I got away. Or that it let me get away. Not one to gloat before victory is assured, I unlock the car door and hastily climb inside, pull the door closed behind me. I look back across the roadway.

It’s gone.

* * *

“I never heard of nothin’ like that before” says the police officer.

That seems to be the standard sentiment as I repeat the story again and again, to the tow truck operator, who pulled the car south; to the triage nurse, who admitted me at the e.r.; to the night shift doctor, who cleaned me up; to the state trooper, who peppered me with questions; and finally to the police officer, who drove me from the hospital to the Super 8. Tomorrow I’ll sort out the car and the tire and continue the journey south. For now I need sleep. It’s 3:30 a.m.

I drop my bags on the bed, kick my shoes off. I bend over to undo my jeans and notice the gaping tear in the denim where the animal made its mark. I watch the hole for a moment, as if it might do something. I step out of the jeans and notice for the first time the tear in the back of the other leg, where it tried to grab me from behind. I wonder for a moment what may have happened if I’d tried to change the wheel myself, crouched down next to the car with my back to the wild, unaware of the approaching menace… a shiver crawls up my spine. This could have gone so much worse.

The police officer’s voice rings in my ears. “S’probably rabid. Them things don’t usually come out like that 'less there’s something wrong with ‘em.” He shakes his head. “Coyote, huh? Jesus Christ.”

Jesus Christ indeed.

I peel back the covers, crawl in and shut off the lamp. A trace of moonlight seeps through the heavy curtains that separate me from the night. Weariness overtakes me at last as I close my eyes. In the darkness I can just make out two pin pricks of light, two eyes staring from across the highway.

My eyes snap open. There’s nobody here but me.

I close my eyes once more as slowly, gently, the sobs wrack my body as I cry myself to sleep.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mystery Box

Inspiring stuff from J.J.Abrams, creator of Alias, Lost, Felicity & Fringe.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


I went to see the Will Smith tent-pole flick Hancock this evening. And it was just about everything I expected from what I saw in the preview. But as I was watching the film, something caught me by surprise. No, not the Charlize Theron super-woman twist half way through. It was something else.

Something missing.

Before I go any further (and because this is my first real post), I have to admit that as an aspiring screenwriter, I'm a big fan of Blake Snyder and his Save The Cat sensibility. If you're a screenwriter (or anyone else in the business of understanding or producing feature films) and you're curious about film structure for major motion pictures, start with STC.

What I especially like about Blake's take on screenwriting is his understanding of movie story structure. There are particular beats in most major motion pictures that are, dare I say, nearly universal. And when they're missing, somehow the story just doesn't sit right. Visit Blake at the link above for more.

And that's what happened tonight - by the time the story was over, it was clear something was missing. And I'm pretty sure what was missing was- the third act.

What? No third act? How can that work?

Well, it doesn't, technically. Which may explain why it's getting slaughtered at Rotten Tomatoes and other review sites. But as near as I can remember, here's what I saw on the screen. For this little exercise, I'll be referencing the ubiquitous story points of the Blake Snyder beat sheet (why haven't you clicked that link up there already?)


Opening Image: Action! Pursuit underway, and Hancock must be awakened from a drunken slumber to go do his superhero thing. Within minutes, we know what this movie is about!

Hancock saves the day but gets in trouble with the public, hiding out in a seedy bar. Meet Ray, Mr. P.R. He has a miserable pitch and on the way home, is saved by Hancock. Hancock delivers Ray to his home, where we meet Ray's lovely wife Mary. Dinner, getting to know you, meet the geeky son, etc. Juxtaposing opposites - how could Ray and Hancock be more different?

Ray gives Hancock his card, tells him he can help. Mary, however, warns Ray that she knows guys like Hancock - and they're nothing but trouble.

What will Hancock do? Will he take Ray up on his offer? He decides to go for it - and turns himself in for incarceration. Ray's public relations recovery program begins. Hancock learns to share his feelings.

Break into 2:
Hancock gets a call from the chief of police, calling him back into duty.

Fun & Games:
Hancock in his "tight" suit, upsetting a major bank robbery, saving the day and affirming the LAPD. Good job. Followed by dinner and backstory with Ray and Mary. Hancock tucks Ray into bed, and goes downstairs for the unavoidable romantic tension moment.

Midpoint: Mary throws Hancock out the front of the house. Big reveal - she's super too!

Bad Guys Close In:
Back in jail, bad guys that Hancock has put away conspire against him, resolving to break out and hunt him down. Hancock and Mary "talk" - and destroy half of L.A. in the process, at the end of which they end up on top of each other in the street - right in front of Ray. Back at the house, Ray (and Hancock) want an explanation from Mary. More backstory. She ducks out the back, and Hancock finds a liquor store, where he prevents a robbery - and ends up getting shot. How did that happen!?

All is Lost:
Hancock is taken to the hospital, where he gets the standard ER treatment, even though it's a safe bet he's uninsured. He can't understand what's going on - hey, that needle hurts!

Dark Night of the Soul:
Enter Mary, who explains why this is all happening. Enter Ray and son, who must have driven separately. And enter all the bad guys from the prison yard conspiracy, but not before Ray & son see Mary with Hancock. Bad guys shoot up the hospital while Hancock dispatches them one at a time. But it's all too much, and Hancock and Mary are killed - whiff of death!

Then, without explanation - even though Mary's already told Hancock (and us) that it is in fact possible for them to die - Hancock resurrects himself, jumps out of the building and leaves, allowing Mary to become similarly restored.

Break into Three:
[ACT 3 MISSING - oops]

Closing Image:
Ray and Mary together again on the Santa Monica Pier - happy place - while Hancock is helping the NYPD do some good.

So, what happened?

Traditionally, Act 3 is the finale, the place in the story where the hero (Hancock in this case) pulls himself up by the bootstraps and defeats the bad guys. The problem here is that by the time we get to Act 3, there are no bad guys left to defeat - they were all taken care of by the end of Act 2. No arch-super-villain, no threat to life as we know it. So much time was spent showing Hancock getting over his social ineptitude and finding out who he really is - developing the myth behind the story - that the "present day crisis" of the story never got any deeper than a would-be bank robber with a propensity for losing his hands.

All of this probably accounts for the relatively short run time - 92 minutes. Compare that to the 126 minutes you spent watching Ironman. It also explains the dismal reviews I've read online, even though no one explained it quite as eloquently and succinctly as I have here.

All that said, I loved the concept - "alcoholic superhero" - and was laughing from beginning to end. Will Smith is still the man, even when there are no bad guys to catch.