by Geoff Schutt
Eleanor wanted to do good but every time she tried to do good, something happened and it ended up she was like screaming for attention or help or who knows what. But she screamed inside where nobody could hear her. Oh she tried to do good, yes she tried. Like when school resumed after Christmas break. In an instant, this turned into a bad year for the school. It suddenly would be remembered as the year the popular kids were killed in the car crash. It happened on the way to a New Year’s Eve party. Everybody was in shock. These weren’t kids nobody talked to. They were the most popular kids in school.
Eleanor’s new best friend after Christmas break was H.P. H.P.’s real name was Helen (her middle name was Penelope). She wore black jeans, black socks and black high tops. She wore a blood red sweatshirt along with a red beaded necklace and red boomerang earrings. Her fingernails were painted red and her lips black. This was how H.P. looked every day. This was her look, and Eleanor thought H.P.’s look was beautiful. She thought H.P. was beautiful.
Eleanor and H.P. were in filmmaking together. This was one of the few classes that mixed the social groups. Eleanor was a phase four (the highest phase) student in the honors classes, on track for college, while H.P. was phase three, which meant she might go to college or she might not, and nobody cared much either way, sort of the same way people feel about a middle child. That’s what H.P. told Eleanor, at least.
H.P. said it was dangerous for her to be friends with Eleanor. This was crossing the barriers. You have to be careful to not cross the lines, H.P. said. But they were friends in spite of their differences. Eleanor wasn’t sure exactly why H.P. liked her, but she knew why she liked H.P. She liked H.P. because H.P. was a rebel and she actually did and said what she felt. It had become more and more difficult for Eleanor to do and say what she felt, especially the more she tried to do good. When she was little, she was more daring. Maybe her psychiatrist was right. Maybe she was just going to explode one day. Maybe he was right about this one thing.
Their assignment was to make a short film that they would show at the end of the quarter. There was a tradition at Great Falls High School. The filmmaking class was so popular and students got into making their movies so much that at the end of the quarter, there was Premiere Night for parents to come watch the creations projected on the big screen in the auditorium. It was usually a popular event among students not in the class as well, because a lot of them ended up starring in the movies.
Everybody wants to be famous, H.P. said. H.P. said why not make a movie about the popular kids rising up to heaven. On the way to heaven, they would offer last messages to their friends and families. H.P. had actually been friends with one of the popular kids, Theresa Depinet. They double-dated once the year before. H.P. said she didn’t wear as much black then. They went out with college boys. They went up to the lake. One of the boys had sex with Theresa, but afterwards nobody was the wiser and when Theresa died, she had this kind of angelic aura about her. H.P. said Theresa would have liked it that everybody thought she was a virgin when she died.
Mr. Selby, the filmmaking teacher, told the students about irony, and how to build dramatic tension, and how the filmmaker could really play with the audience’s mind if he or she was good enough.
Cool! said H.P.
Cool! Eleanor agreed. (She though H.P. was one of the best friends she’d ever had.)
H.P. asked Mr. Selby, What about violence? How do you explain all the violence in movies?
Mr. Selby seemed taken aback by the question. He smiled and blinked his eyes and Eleanor could see he was absorbing H.P.’s words and trying to figure out her motivation in asking the question. For example, was she being sarcastic or was it a serious scholarly question. Eleanor watched his jaw and began to count inside her head. It was only seconds but already seemed like a terribly long time, since Mr. Selby was quite the talker when he taught. And sure enough, he moved his lower jaw from one side to the next and Eleanor was thinking, this is it, this is when he talks, when H.P. spoke again. Mr. Selby simply watched her in amazement.
Playing with people’s heads makes the violence necessary, doesn’t it? H.P. said.
H.P. squeezed Eleanor’s arm on the way out of class. Eleanor glanced at Mr. Selby, who was leaned over his desk, tapping his fingers and staring back with such intensity it made Eleanor turn away. She knew it wasn’t her he was staring at but H.P. The two of them did not get along. It only made Eleanor like H.P. even better. H.P. didn’t care what Mr. Selby thought, and that was so wonderful, and H.P. liked Eleanor, which was also wonderful.
The other three popular kids who died were Jeff Nealy, the football star, Judy Minus, the cheerleader, and Whitney Colman, the soccer player. H.P. already had the parts cast. Rodney Crandall, the druggie, would play Jeff Nealy. The Thai twins, who had proper Thai names but everybody called them JoJo and Sandy, would play Judy and Whitney, and H.P. herself would play Theresa. It was all against type. Which was sort of like irony, H.P. said. Just like Mr. Selby said.
Eleanor was going to direct and handle the camera. She had an old camcorder at home. She wanted to film this on videotape. She didn’t want it to be all glossy and polished like it might be if they used the school’s fancy equipment. Glossy and polished was the last thing this particular story needed. Mr. Selby told Eleanor this would be fine, as long as the project itself was completed. He actually seemed pleased that Eleanor wanted to try something different, even if it was using outdated technology.
H.P. said it was going to be fucking incredible, this movie, and when Rodney Crandall died of a drug overdose someday, HBO would snap up the rights and H.P. and Eleanor would be rich. On top of getting a guaranteed “A” in the class, of course.
They began filming at an abandoned house on the edge of town. The house had been empty for almost two years, but lots of kids partied there, H.P. included. H.P. kept trying to get Eleanor to go with her and party at the house but Eleanor was anxious about who else might be there. But now that they were making a movie, it didn’t matter. Eleanor had an excuse. When she had a reason to be somewhere, she felt herself come alive. She wasn’t so introverted.
They were in the attic. Eleanor sat Indian-style, her elbows holding up the camera. H.P. remarked that Eleanor was becoming quite the filmmaker.
Eleanor told JoJo to begin whenever she was ready, to just improvise something, anything. Just remember you’re Judy the cheerleader and you’re dead and you’re on your way to heaven. But when JoJo started, she pretended she was going into convulsions like an epileptic, and Eleanor had to stop filming.
What are you doing? she asked JoJo. JoJo said she didn’t know how a cheerleader was supposed to act on the way to heaven, except maybe give a cheer. Except if she was dead, she couldn’t give a normal cheer, right?
H.P. came over all disgusted like. This isn’t working, Eleanor, she said.
It will work just fine, Eleanor said.
Well, let me be Theresa. Film my scene now, okay? H.P. said. She glared at JoJo, who merely shrugged her shoulders.
Rodney was in the corner of the attic smoking a joint with Sandy. The smoke was drifting toward the camera.
Like clouds! Rodney exclaimed. On the way to heaven!
Sandy couldn’t stop giggling.
Eleanor zoomed in on H.P.’s face.
My name is Theresa, H.P. said. Everyone in my family thought I would grow up to be someone perfect. They said I would have a good job and a good husband and a couple of good kids, who would also grow up to be perfect. Perfection runs in my family.
She said, I had sex and I liked it and I would have had sex again and I would have gotten pregnant and I would have gotten an abortion, maybe two abortions by the time I finished high school. And after all of this I wouldn’t be able to have children anymore and I would not be able to attract a good husband and I would have to work at whatever I could get just to keep on living.
H.P. smiled: It’s the goddamned awful fucking truth! I swear it on a stack of Bibles!
Eleanor lowered the camera. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She couldn’t even speak, she was so in shock.
H.P. was yelling at her. I’m not finished! H.P. was saying. Keep shooting, Eleanor! she was yelling.
So Eleanor put the camcorder on her shoulder and refocused on H.P. She would’ve probably done anything H.P. asked her to right now.
H.P. lifted off her top and said plainly, Look at me now, look at what I’ve become.
Then she stood up. It was over.
Rodney was clapping his hands. He was telling H.P. she looked just like Ellen Barkin in that really ancient Dennis Quaid movie, the one about New Orleans, The Big Easy, he said. Rodney’s older brother had a copy of that movie and he just lusted and lusted over Ellen Barkin, except that by now, she was probably like 90 years old or something and all wrinkled. Rodney said this to his older brother and his older brother gave him a black eye.
The next day, H.P. began dressing differently and nobody but Eleanor seemed to notice. H.P. started acting differently too. She was dressing and acting like Theresa Depinet. And suddenly she and Eleanor were not talking like they used to. There was this gap between them.
Mr. Selby asked for progress reports. He wanted to see some of the rough video. Doesn’t matter how much you’ve shot or edited, he said, just matters that you’ve got something.
Eleanor handed in a video of the cast at the beach. It was cold and there was snow on the ground. They had driven up to Lake Erie. Eleanor filmed for about ten minutes. She had them get into their swimsuits and splash around. She had JoJo and Sandy act as if they were drowning. All this to prove to Mr. Selby that they were working on something. Eleanor didn’t want anyone to know about the real movie.
The more H.P. was becoming Theresa Depinet, the more Eleanor was taking control. As Theresa Depinet, H.P. was hanging around Rodney. She liked dangerous, stupid boys. They were becoming quite the item.
Everyone watched everyone else’s rough videos. Mr. Selby said no one could copyright an idea, so they were welcome to steal from each other if they saw a particular camera angle they liked. With such a small amount of film, they shouldn’t be able to get the complete plot anyway. But it was obvious that Bryan and Ed were making a cops and robbers movie and Greg and Nanette, who were going together, were filming a love story. They even wrote a song for it. The song was so sappy, it was kind of good, Eleanor thought.
Eleanor sneaked into the gym after school. She thought they probably had fifteen minutes if they were lucky enough before some custodian kicked them out. It was JoJo’s second try at being Judy Minus. Eleanor had the idea to have Sandy as Whitney Colman the soccer star kick the ball so it hit Judy on the sidelines as she was doing a cheer. The ball would symbolize death, which was coming for her. As JoJo fell to the ground, she would say something profound. But when the soccer ball hit JoJo in the legs and she fell she screamed to Eleanor that this was real, turn off the camera!
Eleanor was not to be dissuaded. She zoomed in and got the perfect anguished, pained expression on JoJo’s face as she sat on the ground holding her leg and rocking.
Sandy came from nowhere and put her hand over the lens. Please, Eleanor, she said.
Fine, Eleanor said. She was so pissed. She was supposed to be the director and yell “Cut,” not one of the actors.
JoJo was crying.
Eleanor was telling H.P. her ideas about their movie. She started getting really excited, talking about freedom of expression and non-censorship and pushing the limits, but H.P, was oddly quiet.
Finally, H.P. said, You’re not from Great Falls, are you Eleanor?
Eleanor didn’t know what this had to do with anything. No, she said. We moved from Toledo after my mother left.
Well, H.P. said, if you were from Great Falls, if you were really from here, I mean, you’d know what it comes down to.
What does it come down to? Eleanor said. I don’t understand.
We know we probably will never leave, H.P. said. It’s part of who we are. It’s in our blood or something. If we go away to college and don’t come back, we never come back. If we stay, we stay. It’s like all or none. It’s about limits. There are limits on everything, even us.
Eleanor was shaking her head. No, she said.
I think I’m staying, H.P. said. She was avoiding Eleanor’s eyes. She was looking off into the distance. I think I love Rodney. I think Rodney loves me.
H.P. – Eleanor said.
Wait, H.P. said, let me finish. This movie was a stupid idea to begin with. I mean, it’s not like I’m going to college and never coming back, you know? I’m staying, Eleanor, or else I’m coming back to stay.
It’s just a movie, Eleanor said.
No, H.P. said. No it’s not. It’s not just a movie.
So what are you saying? Eleanor said.
She had no idea why H.P. was turning into somebody else. She wasn’t even being Theresa Depinet now. She was somebody else Eleanor didn’t recognize.
Eleanor, you’re not even listening to me, H.P. said, and she got up and walked away. But she stopped, and they looked at each other. H.P. said, Eleanor, finish the movie if you want, but count me out. Count Rodney out too. Okay?
No, Eleanor was saying, like over and over, like No no no no no no. After H.P. was gone she was still saying it. It didn’t make a difference how much she was saying it. It was those stupid popular kids. It was this place. It was Great Falls. And it was like she wanted to do something good again and she found herself screaming inside instead.
Well, she would do it without them. Without any of them. She didn’t need them.
There were two weeks to Premiere Night. Eleanor talked with Jeff Nealy’s parents on the telephone. She lied and said she was on the yearbook staff. They were planning a special page to honor Jeff and the others, she said. What they need was a good picture of Jeff. What they wanted to use was not a school picture but something informal, candid, something that showed Jeff being natural. Jeff’s mother said it wouldn’t be a problem. She thanked Eleanor and said she appreciated everything Jeff’s fellow students were doing. She said she knew how much Jeff liked everybody, and she was glad so many kids liked Jeff, too.
Eleanor called Judy Minus’ parents, and Whitney Colman’s parents, and Theresa Depinet’s parents. All of them said basically the same thing. Yes, they’d be happy to help. Eleanor rode her bike to their houses to pick up the pictures. But before she left their houses, the parents invited her inside and told her stories. Mostly, the stories were about small things – those kinds of memories that happen quite by accident but the memories that end up meaning the most. These weren’t memories about who was Homecoming King or who was the best cheerleader or who had the most friends and was most likely to succeed based entirely on that. There were random acts of kindness nobody would have thought of from one of the popular kids. There were hopes and dreams. There were even insecurities. Some of the insecurities were so familiar, Eleanor found herself wiping a tear from her face.
Back home, Eleanor went to the garage. She turned on the light, which was just a light bulb hanging from a wire. She placed the pictures on the ground. Each set of parents had given her several photographs to choose from.
Eleanor pushed the light bulb so it was swinging in wide arcs back and forth. She was standing on a stepstool and pointing the camera from above at the pictures under the slicing spotlight. Here was Theresa standing beside a horse at summer camp. Here was Jeff in his football uniform after a game, his face all sweaty and dirty, but with a huge smile. Here was Whitney in shorts and a t-shirt, soccer ball at her feet. Here was Judy, next to her brother. Judy’s brother’s name was Tim. He was a senior. The thing about Tim was, he could make people laugh when they didn’t feel like laughing. He was always going around telling jokes, even to strangers in the hall. He told a joke once to Eleanor. In the picture, Tim’s arm was around Judy’s waist. They looked like anybody’s brother or sister during the good times. It was a tender photograph, and just looking at it made Eleanor sad.
Monday and Tuesday, other kids were bugging her about the movie. Everyone wanted to hear it from her – what was her movie really about? What was she trying to prove, anyway? People were getting the idea that Eleanor was really going to slam the popular kids, was going to slander their names, was going to try to present them as frauds somehow. You can’t be popular and show weakness, after all, and Eleanor was going straight for the jugular. She was going to make the popular kids bleed to death, right there on the screen, so they’d die all over again in a bloody mess that everyone would have to witness.
Eleanor didn’t know why everybody was saying these things, of course. Nobody knew what was in her movie. It was probably H.P. Now in class, H.P. sat with Rodney. They didn’t talk to Eleanor, or else Eleanor didn’t talk to them. Same difference. She was hurt and they didn’t seem to be hurt. It wasn’t fair.
She skipped school Wednesday and Thursday. Premiere Night was Friday.
The principal, Mr. Gladdis, called Eleanor’s house on Thursday and left a long message on the machine. He wanted to see the movie before Premiere Night. Otherwise, he said, she wouldn’t be allowed to show it. He sounded all patronizing when he said he knew Eleanor would show good judgment and he was sure everything was fine. But she should let him see the film ahead of time. He was quite adamant on this. Mr. Gladdis called back two more times, but Eleanor just let him speak to the machine. Then she erased the messages.
Eleanor decided she would have to skip school Friday as well. She couldn’t take any chances. She was trying to be brave about the whole thing. And yes, it was true that in the beginning she wanted to be daring and bold and maybe even shocking. It was different after she talked with the popular kids’ parents. She would have never cared so much if they had lived, and that was the truth. Eleanor also knew enough that their parents had probably been all cocky when their children were alive, but now that they were gone, they just missed them so much.
The door to the auditorium was unlocked at six. Great Falls High School was the only public high school in the county. (There was also a much smaller Catholic high school.) Great Falls High School had fifteen hundred students. The auditorium had eight hundred seats and every one of those seats was filled by six-ten. There was an overflow crowd outside. The screening didn’t start until seven, and Eleanor showed up shortly before seven. She watched the crowd of people gathered outside the auditorium from a safe distance, from the baseball field across the street.
At seven-fifteen, she decided to make her way inside, even though she would still have to get through the people hanging around the door. She tried to be nonchalant about her entrance and she walked with her eyes toward the ground and her video held snugly against her body. But somebody recognized her. Somebody said her name and then they were all looking at her. She didn’t want to look back at them. She kept her eyes down and tried to push through them to the door. They wouldn’t let her. They were crowding around her and then she lost her balance and the video went flying. She was on her hands and knees trying to get it back but the people were stepping on it. They were crushing it!
Eleanor looked at them. She wanted to get a good, good look at these people. But their faces all seemed blank to her. The most popular kids in school were never coming home – but just the same, and this was a fact of life that Eleanor was just learning, they were never, ever going to leave home, either. The most popular kids in school were even more popular now. Someday, there would be a monument built in their honor. Someday, somebody might even make another movie about their lives. Eleanor had grown to like the popular kids – as human beings, not for being popular. She had really grown to like them, after talking to their parents, after feeling the grief up close. But now she hated them all over again. Now she screamed out loud – for the first time, she was screaming out loud, and this felt so good! She screamed until everybody gave her breathing room, until they gave her space. And then she kept on screaming until she wept.
(excerpt from a novel in progress)
Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others. He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area. His novel-length work is represented by James McGinniss of McGinniss Associates Literary Agency, New York City. More about Geoff Schutt is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com
Art by Sheila Lanham