The Horrible Not Knowing

by John Bensink

A writer’s lost script is found decades later by people born after his last produced credit. 2,492 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.

This all started back before electronic submissions. Wilkerson had knocked out a beautiful script in three days that was a beautiful script. Wilkerson knew it was the best work he’d ever done. So did his wife Alice, who was unerringly right. She had shouted “Yes, perfect!” over and over while reading it with Wilkerson hovering, unable to sit, always desperate for her approval which he always had anyway.

He subsequently made ten copies at Kinkos on Vine, using pale-cream bond pages finished with snappy manila covers. He gave the counter guys old brass script brads he’d found at the Rose Bowl Flea Market, fearing the more flimsy ones might splay and spill his precious tale. But these sturdy warriors would never surrender.

But when he put the screenplay copies on his agent Helena’s desk, she recoiled. Because she’d already read his hand-delivered original and pronounced it dead on arrival and dropped it showily into her massive metal wastebasket.

“So what’s wrong with it?” Wilkerson had challenged his agent in his first yet fatal clash with the woman who had done so much for him. Slapping her was like slapping his beloved Alice.

Helena glared. Then something flickered in her eyes like the dismissive blink of a falcon at full altitude. Helena knew people would despise the script because it was neither fish nor fowl. But she said simply, “It’s a wanted poster for unproducible.”

Yet he pushed on recklessly. “Agents only tell their writer that when they don’t get something but won’t admit it.”

They didn’t talk for three weeks.

Now here he was back in Helena’s office with his script’s brothers and sisters, all dressed up as if expecting to go somewhere. He pointed palm up to the copies. “I’ll messenger them wherever you think they should go.”

I make the calls,” she said wickedly,

Wilkerson winced as if stepping into a hard wind flaring from around a building. But then he leaned into it, unblinking. They both knew a certain line had been crossed in that first blowup, and a full break up was closer than they knew. He could see into their future. He wouldn’t call, nor she; he would deliver active assignments timely but with big inert stretches in the writing; she would stop putting his name out there. Eventually, he would lose his diminishing interest in the biz fully and move back to Pittsburgh with Alice, pointing the U-Haul east and not using the mirrors to look back for a thousand miles. All finish-up business would be taken care of by Helena’s assistant with no life, Josie.

Wilkerson recognized that his demanding desperation was unbecoming in a 36-year-old man, and that agents liked to amplify their set-the-record-straights to maximum humiliation.

But for now Helena slow-directed him to “Take a chair.” He sat, and so then she stood. “It’s the kind of screenplay Josie would bring in all hopped-up and I’d read it and say, ‘No. It’s not the work of a nominated writer with produced credits and active deals at two networks.’ You misfired. Put it away.”

Helena locked him down with the remorseless gaze of a warden but used the concerned tone of a parole officer. “There’s a pilot at ABC which I can get you with a phone call.”

“So make the call. And I will write the fucking shit out of that goddamned pilot. But I also want you to send out this script.”

Yes, he had punched his speech with expletives — Helena loved tough talk — but she called him an ungrateful sonofabitch, twice. Because Wilkerson could tell she had already committed him to the ABC thing.

Helena had one last objection. “Worst title I ever heard. Could you—?”

No.” Wilkerson stated, seeing white. The last thing Alice had said to him as she steeled him for this meeting was: “Do not let anyone change your title. It’s great.”

“Well,” Helena said, snottily, “writer knows best.”

That’s when Wilkerson realized it would be a faint launch for his script with no real sell behind it. Absent a miracle, it would die dusty. He had won and lost in the space of a short minute.

“Get ready, here comes” — Helena grimaced and gulped at the same time, a talent she was born with — ‘INVISERY’.”

Thirty-one years later, Joshua — not Josh, as he reminded people a lot — held the only extant copy of ‘INVISERY’ in his hand as if it were some long-lost talisman. Serendipity had brought it to him when he had gone into the production company’s tiny breakroom to unpack lunch for himself and his colleague, Lola, and fumbled her smoothie. The lid popped and green stuff plopped over the backsplash. The 25-year-old assistant knew he couldn’t just walk away so he pulled out the Formica kitchen unit from the wall, revealing a truly old-school script wedged there and furry with dust. It tipped onto the floor.

He retrieved it just a few seconds before Lola entered. She was 26 and fairly fresh from UCLA Film School and had an ever-faint mesmerizing nod that made people think she was born to sync with them. “It looks exactly like a movie prop of a movie script from a Coen Brothers film,” Lola said, staring. Joshua scraped the grime off the cover with the edge of his hand, revealing “INVISERY By William Wilkerson” on a label. It was ancient, predating even eco-minded both-sides-printing.

The script no doubt was a left-behind by any of the sundry agencies and production companies which had inhabited their Sunset offices over the decades in a shabby building too small and ugly to tear down. Farm Table Productions had been in the space six months and might make it a year. Joshua and Lola were both thinking the same thing, even as it was wildly premature: could this screenplay save their jobs there?

Joshua quickly found out from IMDB that Wilkerson’s last produced credit was before anyone in their office was born and the writer had apparently left Hollywood in 1988. The Guild gave out an address and phone in Pittsburgh for Wilkerson who had no representation of record, not even a law firm. There also was no record of the script anywhere — not the Guild, not the internet, not any script databases. It didn’t exist, except at Farm Table.

When Joshua was done reading, he waved at Lola to come over. With some reverential awe, he was completely uncool, “This might.. I mean, really might… be something. It’s very simple but the way it gets into you…” His eyes were watering. He could say no more. He handed Lola the script. Affected by his display, she turned off her phone and delved. But not before Joshua said, “I wonder what happened to this guy?”

In Pittsburgh just then, exactly then, Wilkerson was thinking about his lost script. Even Foley, his pound hound, seemed aware of his preoccupation, worriedly looking up every step as they crisscrossed Frick Park. Foley whimpered and juked in front — a good move for an old dog that had sprinted when new, trotted when six, and now tried just to keep up. Wilkerson knelt to assure him all was good and they set out again. .

When Wilkerson had arrived in Pittsburgh and hung out his PR shingle for freelance gigs, they came easily. But, in a few years’ time, iconic corporations were dumping publicity departments. The calls came fewer, then rarely. He got by: a speech, a class, a white paper, a ghosted grant request. Alice kicked in big-time by tutoring algebra, trig, French to kids who hiked to their Regent Square purple-brick home going on thirty years now. It worked as long as life didn’t demand a financial cushion.

But Wllkerson often fantasized that he hadn’t asked Josie to sneak him the submissions list and hadn’t argued with everyone he could get on the phone with stupid rank-amateur demands and questions and pleadings about why they’d passed on his screenplay. Word soon got out and no reader or executive would talk to him ever again. He hadn’t burnt bridges, he’d nuked them.

Ten submissions on the list, ten copies sent out, but only nine companies had replied. The tenth, per Josie’s list, had an X. What if, despite Helena’s stark misgivings, that tenth name might have been more open to his screenplay? He had to know. Wilkerson thought enough time had gone by for even abasalt-hearted agent like Helena to take his call. Because that dangling unknown was horrible, something always in his periphery, an incomplete that craved complete.

He looked her up only to find that Helena had died years ago, her agency long dissolved. Alice scolded him when he joked that Helena had won her last negotiation — by tricking the Devil into taking her. But a day later Wilkerson caught his wife giggling: “That was a good one,” she’d conceded.

The next day in the park he saw a young man on a bench writing furiously in his Rhodia. Foley nudged his shin; he absently stroked the dog’s back and kept working. The last time Wilkerson was as far gone in it as this kid was when he’d knocked out his missing script in three days. Wilkerson pulled Foley away, thinking, “Save your work, friend. Someday you’ll wonder what happened to that story you wrote on fire and you’ll endure this dry gnawing.”

Lola’s eyes were watering as she finished “INVISERY”. She felt Joshua watching her; his eyes welled empathetic. She nodded strongly and affirmatively. Joshua, now validated, let his tears roll. “We’re telling Conner,” she said, meaning their boss.

No one ever used the landline in the kitchen but Wilkerson kept it because of his notion that “in a major event” it would be the only working communication with the outside world. It never rang, except for the last three days in a row. Alice didn’t bother with it, and Wilkerson was out with the dog. It took a second for her to place the anachronistic mechanical bell trilling up a note at the end. Third time, Alice waited till the wall phone stopped, then picked up to hear another quaintness: a dial tone.

“INVISERY” sat on Conner’s sleek glass desk, as incongruous as a church relic. “Find the writer?” he asked. It was the third day after Lola and Joshua had said the script might be something.

“We have a phone number, but no one’s answering,” Lola said.

“Address in Pittsburgh,” Joshua said. “We could send a letter.”

Conner scowled at the script. He wouldn’t read it at gunpoint—he didn’t even read one-pagers. “Sell me again.”

Lola sphinxed, Joshua froze. They had prepped each other, but now they quailed.

“I thought you two were hot-mad for it,” Conner scolded.

“We love the feel of it,” Lola said. Then she just stopped cold.

Conner gestured with his hands. “And…? Tell me what it’s like, then tell me what it’s not like.”

This was the first time either Lola or Joshua had heard that, but it had the ring of something they were about to hear a lot.

Then Conner asked, “Are these characters we’ve seen before?”

Lola started her slow nod. Soon it synced up with Conner’s. And soon after that, Joshua found himself nodding, too, even as his heart crazed and dribbled. “But it’s different,” Lola said, then added, “In a good way. But is it a resurrection story, a redemption story, a savior story—?”

“What if it’s all of those!” Joshua said, far too excitedly.

Lola shook her head at him the way you do to a child, but Conner didn’t see it because he was left-handing his cell, thumbing. He said dismissively, “There’s something really similar at Fox.” But Lola and Joshua knew the Fox project wasn’t remotely similar. So they moved on to a high school redemption story about a former cheerleader who comes back to school after dying in a car wreck.

Is it all there, waiting? Most of it, likely, buried deep, never to be gotten back. But Wilkerson is walking distractedly through the park in November when a dark-haired young woman walking on a parallel path strikes at a particular piece of memory, gone decades till now. She must be Italian because he has seen the same Italian girl before. Thirty years ago.

She was at the Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles. He met there daily to complain in a bitchfest with two other scriptwriters, it was usually a three-way tie. The young woman working the counter at The Gumbo Pot was girlish and friendly, flashing eyes, smile just for you — the magnetically engaging village girl in an Italian movie. His thought, stepping away: this woman would make a great mother for my children.

Wilkerson instantly felt so guilty he struggled to tamp it down and forgive himself. The day before, Alice had been told she could never get pregnant — not what their plans had been. They got drunk, they cried, they got to “It doesn’t matter.” But his had been a betrayal that had to be paid for. So he’d blasted out the screenplay, and didn’t really know why he had come up with it until much time and distance had gone by. Until today.


The Horrible Not Knowing 02

At Farm Table, it fell to Joshua to shred it. He hesitated. His script app said he’d processed 1,394 scripts since starting; this was the only one that had brought smiles, wrung tears, got him laughing out loud, then cheering at outcomes. As he disassembled it, a weapons-grade script brad slashed his fingertip. Deep red bubbled from the cut, and he knew what it meant: next time, asshole, fight for something.

Alice was reading in their enclosed porch, The Lovely Bones again, her frayed copy, and weeping over it just as she did every time. Something tickled at her and she looked out the window: Wilkerson and Foley, ahead of schedule, their fast shadows swimming through webs of tree-finger shadows. Poor Foley barely keeping up. Wilkerson had something to tell her.

She met them at the door and Wilkerson told her urgently about a story he’d written, as much as he could remember. “It’s about us. I didn’t put it all together till just now. It’s not that I’ve been holding back, or lying—“

Alice laughed, but then felt concern. What could it be? She decided to discount whatever hurt was lined up. This was why they were still in love, still married, still in love.

He got past the Italian girl part and then detailed the script that came out of it. Alice glommed right onto it. “Oh yes, oh yes, I loved that story,” she said. It all came back, a flood, he couldn’t stop it. Right after he got to the ending, he told Alice that it was lost until today so that he could share it with her alone, and no one else, ever.

About The Author:
John Bensink
John Bensink has written network movies-of-the-week and pilots. His teleplay A Whisper Kills was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award Best Television Feature. His produced titles include Moment Of Truth, My Very Best Friend, Every Mother's Worst Fear, A Mother's Revenge, Nightmare in Columbia County, Naked Lie. He is now working on a short story collection: Other People's Lives Are Easy.

About John Bensink

John Bensink has written network movies-of-the-week and pilots. His teleplay A Whisper Kills was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award Best Television Feature. His produced titles include Moment Of Truth, My Very Best Friend, Every Mother's Worst Fear, A Mother's Revenge, Nightmare in Columbia County, Naked Lie. He is now working on a short story collection: Other People's Lives Are Easy.

  One comment on “The Horrible Not Knowing

  1. Excellent piece by Mr. Bensink. He builds the one in a million story to fever pitch and flattens it like a watery pancake. Excellent writing.

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