Free Fiction: The Camera

Free Fiction: The Camera

For Marshall, a small-time movie studio chief, the stress of his job is overwhelming as he nears his latest deadline. When he receives an idol in the mail that claims to predict the success of any film project ahead of time, he must tread carefully to heed all of the instructions, lest he makes a terrible mistake…

    Some things happen fast, as one would expect. A car speeding down the road, spinning an empty Walmart sack into the air, or sending discarded pop cans clanking across the pavement.

      Or a dog bite. Dog bites happen quickly.

      Even things that take a long time can happen fast. One minute, a nurse in pink scrubs hands over a wriggling, wailing five-pound sack of flour to love and care for. The next minute, five years later, that flour sack walks into kindergarten, and it may or may not turn back to blow a kiss. Five years after that, in two blinks, two more flour sacks require food, shelter and love.

      Marshall straightened his tie and shook his head. Nostalgia wasn’t his style, so he wasn’t sure where it had come from. The only feeling he held hands with lately was exhaustion. He drove his editors nuts, prompting them to get his latest film completely spliced, timed to the score and credited, completely perfect and ready for the test screenings with the all-star cast and a few hundred of their closest friends. He couldn’t fail. Not this time.

      He whipped off the tie and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his blue collared shirt. Not today. He didn’t have the patience to be put together today.

      Downstairs, Tammy wrangled the kids around the table. Eggs in the baby’s hair. Eggs on the floor. Eggs in the Shih Tzu’s prissy black coat, the dog twirling and twisting trying to eat the scraps from its own back.

      “You joining us?”

      “No.” Marshall grabbed two pieces of dry toast and his thermos of coffee Tammy had ready for him. There was no time today. “I’ll see you later.” He kissed each of them and turned for a second, taking in the scene.

      Three flour sacks, a wife and a wheelbarrow’s worth of bills that would go unpaid if The Café flopped at the box office.

      It had certainly happened fast.

      Marshall pulled the front door shut behind him, then nearly tripped down the front steps over a box sitting on the butterfly welcome mat. His name stood out in red letters on the label, with no postage or return address. He tucked it under his arm, wondered briefly who’d left it for him before he tossed it in the passenger’s seat. He crammed both pieces of toast into his mouth and drove to the studio.

***

Mr. Osgood, there’s a problem with the music piece. Freddie says it’s copyrighted, but we had the original score—”

      Marshall snatched the file from the secretary’s hand. “I’ll look into it.”

      He opened the folder and three more people stood in his doorway, all with problems, all delivering stress to him in neat and tidy eight-by-eleven manila envelopes.

      “Get everyone in the foyer. Now!” They jumped and left him alone. The small corner studio wasn’t big-time, but it had produced some hits. The staff was talented. Some of them Marshall had hand-picked just for this project.

      But everything was falling flat. One more setback and the overtime would kill the budget.

       Marshall massaged the back of his neck and downed the rest of the coffee from the thermos. He joined his team in the foyer. Some of them stood cross-armed, others stared at their feet.

      He exploded on them. He wanted no more excuses. No more missed deadlines. Make it work. They had too much at stake.

      When he realized two of the ladies were stifling sobs, he lowered his voice and softened his tone.

      “Look, we’re in the home stretch. It’s almost ready to come together. Let’s see the fruit of this thing. Café is gonna be great, we just need to get it done.” He shooed them back to their posts.

      He took the secretary by her arm before she could leave. “I’m going out for a drive. I’ve gotta get calmed down.”

      “Sure, Mr. Osgood. I’ll forward your messages?”

      “No, just post them on my door. I won’t be gone long.”

      He sat in his car in the dimly lit parking garage until he could no longer feel the heartbeat in his throat. A few deep breaths, and he headed for the drive-through deli on Lexington and over to Cramer Park. He rolled down all the windows and let the humidity-free breeze blow off the residual anger.

      This morning he’d thought about the passing of time and how things happen fast. Today, at the studio, nothing happened fast. Everything was going in slow-motion and he felt every second all the way to his bones.

      He decided to check out the box from the porch. The white label with his name in red sat on the top. The rest of the ten-by-ten-inch box was black with green trim, much like those poison control stickers Tammy plastered all over everything so the kids would know not to drink the drain cleaner.

      He took a huge bite of his pastrami and popped the lid off the box to reveal an old-time movie camera model nestled in tissue paper. He wiped his hands on his pants and carefully removed the recorder. Two reels sat on the top for the film—like Mickey Mouse ears, his daughter had said when she’d seen the antique camera the studio used for lobby décor. He turned the tiny handle, and the reels and minuscule film moved in response. The detail was impeccable.

      He sat the camera in the seat and looked over the box. No return address. No sender indicated. A very cool piece. Maybe his wife had left it for him. She knew the stress he was under. But she shouldn’t have spent the money.

      He pulled out the white tissue paper and tossed it on the back floorboard along with half of his sandwich. A lined index card was taped in the bottom. He pulled it out and held it at arm’s length to read. Bifocals had to be on the to-do list soon.

      Someone had taken the time to write a gag. It had to be. In lime green ink the “directions” read:

      Ask the Camera about your next project and “Roll Film.” If you have a masterpiece idea, or an impending disaster, the Camera will let you know. Use with caution.

       He picked up the camera and tried to find the “Made in China” sticker, but didn’t see one. He shook his head and then considered playing along.

      He looked around the park. A grown man talking to a motion picture camera figurine in his car probably wouldn’t fare too well with passerby mothers. When he was satisfied no one was paying attention to him, he said, “What’s for dinner?” and turned the crank.

      Nothing happened.

      “Well, will Tammy’s dinner be a masterpiece or a disaster?” Another turn of the handle, and still nothing happened.

      One more time. This time he decided to follow the directions and actually ask about a project—his pet project for the past three years. “Will The Café be a masterpiece or a disaster?”

      He turned the crank.

      The reels turned and the film cycled around each, disappearing into the camera.

      The piece buzzed in his hand like his beard trimmers. He nearly threw the thing on the floorboard, but recovered before he dropped it. A one-by-two-inch piece of black paper ejected from the back of the camera. He carefully pulled it, and it fell into his hand. It looked like film, black with tiny perforations along the top and bottom edges. As he held it in his palm, red lettering glistened in the middle.

      Disaster.

      He put the camera back in its box and threw the paper on the floor. Then he burst out laughing, which got the attention of a couple of overweight joggers through the open windows. He recovered and massaged his brows.

      The stress of the project, the blow-up at the office, and the weight of family turmoil. And here he was, a grown man losing it, talking to a novelty gag gift and nearly wetting his pants in the process.

      He reached for the paper. It wasn’t the same size as the tiny film strips attached to the reels. He examined the camera, but couldn’t find a place to reload the strips. He’d love to share this around the office, but if he couldn’t refill it, he’d just keep it for himself.

      His cell phone vibrated in his pocket. A quick check revealed five missed calls in the last hour.

      Time to stop playing games and face the music.

***

He showed the camera to Tammy that evening, and she denied leaving it. He tried to demonstrate it for her, but it wouldn’t work. When he showed her the little black notecard, she denied being able to see the “Disaster” printed in red.

      He chided her for teasing him, but Lydia, the first-grader, couldn’t see it either. They were all in on it.

      The rest of the day at the studio had gone poorly. One disaster after another. The Café was firmly in the red.

      After everyone had gone to bed, Marshall sat on the couch with the camera. He ran his finger over the reels and the slot where the paper came out. Then he whispered, “Will The Café be a masterpiece or a disaster?” He turned the handle.

      The camera hummed and the reels spun. Out popped a black card.

      Asked and Answered.

      His eyes widened, and he set the camera on the couch and took the stairs two at a time. He woke Tammy up and shoved the card in her face. “See it? Can you read this one?”

      “Marshall, it’s late.” She rubbed her eyes and tried to focus on the card. “See what? It’s the same black card you showed us earlier. There’s no writing on it.” She flopped to the pillow.

      He couldn’t believe it. He stomped downstairs.

       He spent the rest of the night asking about The Café and turning the handle. At least fifty black cards, all with variations of Disaster, Give It Up, and Asked and Answered.

      It had to be getting low on paper. Not too much more could fit in the back compartment, which he also tried to pry open, to no avail.

      He heard his alarm clock go off from the upstairs bedroom and realized daylight was peeking through the curtains.

      When Tammy saw him sitting in the middle of the floor, little black cards all around him, she shook her head with that look of disappointment when he would tell her he had to work late. She went to the kitchen, where she banged pots and pans much louder than was necessary.

      He realized what a pathetic mess he must seem to her. He rose and brushed the cards off his lap. He showered, shaved and downed four ibuprofens before heading to the kitchen. He sat at the table as the kids trickled down the stairs one at a time.

      “Tammy. Café’s gonna fail.”

      She stopped stirring the pancake batter and looked him square in the eyes. “Because the camera told you so, or because it was gonna fail anyway?”

      “Both. Anyway. I don’t know. I just know it’s not going to work and we’re going to be in trouble.”

      She poured the batter on the griddle with a sizzle. He helped situate the girls and passed out their plates.

      “Well, maybe you should cancel it before it sucks any more money out of the studio.”

      “Maybe.” He glanced toward the couch and the camera laughed back at him.

      “And not because the camera said so.” She pointed the dripping spatula at him. “Because you’re a responsible man and you know when to cut your losses.”

      He kissed her on the cheek, ate breakfast with his kids, snuck the camera into his briefcase, then went to the studio to lay off the crew.

***

The office was empty. Hollowness reigned where hustle and bustle had filled the place just hours before. He’d cut everyone their last checks and sent them home.

      He sat alone at his desk and pulled the green and black box from his case. He’d been careful before he’d left not to let Tammy see him take the camera. “Will The Café be a masterpiece or a disaster?”

      The black card told him he “Made the Right Decision.”

      He sat back in the chair and stared at the device. He had to be imagining things.

      He pulled a file from the bottom pile on his desk—his “Great Idea” folder in which he’d write down bits and pieces of plot, storyline and characters. Several ideas were simply titles with no story attached yet.

      One after the other, he asked the camera about his ideas. Each time, the camera buzzed, spun and gave him a black card with red lettering.

      Every idea was a disaster.

      He paced back and forth, asking and turning, brainstorming.

      Every time, the camera spat out a negative card.

      He dug out the index card with the handwritten directions. He’d followed the directions. All except the “use with caution” part. He’d asked the camera questions with reckless abandon for a day now.

      Then it struck him.

      He’d just laid off dozens of people and canceled a production that was nearly finished based on a few rough days and the advice of a gizmo.

      One more question. One more try. “Would a movie about a stressed-out schmuck that listens to a fortune-telling camera and ruins his life be a masterpiece or a disaster?” He slowly turned the handle. The camera vibrated. Out popped a card with green lettering.

      Blockbuster!