Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for August: (8/3) Dianne Freeman (8/10) Daryl Wood Gerber (8/17) E. B. Davis's Review of Granite Oath, James M. Jackson's new novel (8/24) Rose Kerr (8/31) V. M. Burns.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An Unexpected Christmas Gift (Screenplay)

by Paula Gail Benson
[This week features three variations of a story -- narrative, screenplay, and first person. If you post a comment or holiday greeting during the week (December 22-28, 2013), your name will be entered into a random drawing for a copy of the recently released anthology MYSTERY TIMES TEN 2013 (Buddhapuss Ink). Hope this makes your holidays happier!]


HAM enters, navigating straight to a familiar booth near the front and sits facing away from the register and counter where a ROOKIE works.

HAM (Internal Narration or Voice Over V.O.):
            I have a habit of viewing life as a screenplay. I can’t help it. That’s what happens when you teach film studies to university undergrads for twelve years. You realize most experiences are just fodder to be incorporated into a script.

            Take tonight, for example. A week before Christmas.

            Here I am at the Study Break Cafe, a local, hole-in-the-wall, fast food hangout on the outskirts of campus that caters to students and the surrounding community. A place where I’ve spent many significant moments of my life. It has lots of memories for lots of people. First jobs. Study dates. Surprise proposals.

            Oops. Let’s not explore that back-story.

            Who am I?  My full name and title is Associate Professor of English Hambly Harrison Richards, III. I’ve been called Ham all my life because Dad took Harry and Grandpa was Double H.

            Blessedly, I have only a daughter, so the moniker can rest in peace with me. I’m here tonight to meet my daughter, the light of my life, my Jessica.
ROOKIE, a pimply geek-type, pushing back at large black rimmed glasses, comes from behind the register to take HAM’S order.

            What can I get for you, sir?

            Just coffee, please. Black.

            Oh, gee, I just broke down the machine. Didn’t think we’d get any more coffee drinkers tonight.

From the office behind the counter, MR. KRESSLEY, the proprietor, hurries over after shutting his office door.

            Then, it’s good I’m still here to keep the Professor entertained while you set it back up and brew a new pot.

            Yes, Mr. Kressley.

MR. KRESSLEY shakes his head as he watches the ROOKIE amble behind the counter.

            The ones who work here now are nothing like your generation. You were always here early for your shift and ready to stay late to clean up.

HAM (shrugs):
            We didn’t have iPad games and the Internet beckoning us.

            You’re telling me. Even those Jessie’s age had more gumption to them.

Inwardly, HAM cringes, but shows no sign of irritation to MR. KRESSLEY. HAM always calls his daughter JESSICA, after the Shakespearian character for whom she is named. But, no one ever corrects MR. KRESSLEY. Anyone who has worked at the restaurant knows to accept anything the boss says without question. HAM looks at his watch.

            Hum. She should be here shortly.

            Ah, such a lovely girl. Always a professional worker. Spitting image of her mother.

HAM (nods and smiles at MR. KRESSLEY; HAM’S thoughts are heard in V.O.):
            Yes. “Spitting” is an appropriate tribute to Jessica’s mother.

            She and her young man relived a little of your history here a few nights ago, you know.

HAM (arching a brow):
            I didn’t.

            Gordo gave her THE ring. (MR. KRESSLEY points to the spot.) Right in the booth where you proposed to her mom.

HAM (expressionless; V.O.):
            I thought history would have taught them what a mistake that was.

At the sound of a mechanical sputter, MR. KRESSLEY glances back toward the counter and shakes his head.

            Let me go check on the rookie. He may never get the coffee maker back together.  

Sitting back in his seat, HAM listens vaguely to the sounds at the counter behind him.


HAM and YOUNG JESSICA, wearing a pink tulle gown and rhinestone crown, are sitting in the booth eating ice cream sundaes and laughing.

HAM (V.O.):
            When my baby was a little girl, I brought her here so her mother could grade papers without distractions. We called it our daddy-daughter date nights. I let her wear the pink Cinderella outfit she wore every Halloween until she outgrew it and stopped trick-or-treating.

SCENE SHIFT. HAM becomes serious. YOUNG JESSICA listens intently. She drops her ice cream filled spoon, and it falls making a sloppy thud on the table.


HAM (V.O.):
            Actually, Halloween wasn’t the last time she wore the costume. She wore it here for a very special daddy-daughter date night. Our last. When I told her that Momma and I were divorcing.

            I decided to repeat our date night ritual tonight out of desperation, despite its potential ramifications. Surely, the bad can’t outweigh all the good we’ve shared here. And, I have to confront her someplace about the decision I’m sure will ruin her life.

            How could Jessica go live with Gordo after her mother left me for the adjunct gigolo?

            Oh, sure. Mr. Kressley says she got a ring. But, I’ve seen it. It’s no diamond. And, I’ve heard no talk of marriage.

            I always told Jessica she was my princess, and to settle for no man who would treat her as less. So how did that bozo Gordo breach the perimeter?

Despite HAM’S English teacher facility with words, he doesn’t like what he’s thinking. HAM looks again at his watch.

HAM (V.O.):
            She’s late. No doubt Gordo’s influence. I remember when he took my class. Never turned any assignment in on time.

HAM takes a look around the place.

MOVING SHOT shows DERELICT in a dirty, wrinkled trench coat, talking to himself, slumped in the back corner booth. Maybe just taking advantage of being inside out of the cold.

MR. KRESSLEY (returning with HAM’S coffee):
            You and Jessie were all I could have asked for in employees. Nothing like the kid I’ve got behind the register now. But, it’s Christmas, and he has expenses like everyone else. So I give him a chance, despite my misgivings. I’m even going to leave for a few hours to spend time with my family. I told him I’d be back to help him close. (MR. KRESSLEY looks back toward the ROOKIE.) You think I’m making a mistake?

HAM (sipping the coffee, which is surprisingly good):
            No, no. He’ll be fine. Everyone’s a little rough around the edges in the beginning. He’ll get the hang of it.

            Do you mind to keep an eye on him for me, while I’m gone, Ham?

HAM (thinking he would rather not):
            Sure, sure.

MR. KRESSLEY (looking back at the ROOKIE):
            He should have no trouble. (MR. KRESSLEY doesn’t sound as certain as his words.) And, if there is something serious, we’ve installed a buzzer just under the counter that sends a silent alarm to the police sub-station. You’ll have to ask Jessica about the night she hit it by mistake and all hell broke loose.

HAM (figuring any subject is better than Gordo):
            I’ll do that.

As MR. KRESSLEY leaves, JESSICA dashes in. She gives MR. KRESSLEY a kiss and greeting, then comes directly to HAM’S booth and scoots in across from him.

            I can’t stay long. I’m meeting Gordo at a party. Don`t try to talk me out of it because we accepted weeks ago and people are expecting us. And while we’re at it, don’t waste time trying to talk me out of living with Gordo. My decision’s final. I’ve already given notice at my apartment. I’ve got no place else to go.
            You can stay with me. I’ll give you your space.

            Dad, you barely have your own space in that apartment. You don’t need another occupant.

            I want one. I want you.

JESSICA (sighing):
            I love you, Dad. But, I’m living with Gordo, so get used to it.

HAM, struggling over how to convince her, sips his coffee, now cold.

HAM (V.O.):
            What could I say to prevent the travesty? My divorce left her rootless. I blamed myself for that. But how could she think that Gordo, the lackluster student and party boy, could give her security? What had attracted my only beloved daughter to such an unworthy male?

JESSICA (cautious):
            Dad, don’t move.


            That guy who was sitting behind me in the back booth?

HAM nods, looking around JESSICA to the back booth. The DERELICT is gone.

            Don’t turn around. He’s at the register. I think he has a gun in his pocket.

            Oh, my God. We’ve got to call the police.

            Just stay still. There’s a silent alarm beneath the counter. (JESSICA frowns.) Mr. Kressley gave each employee training about it. I hope that kid at the register doesn’t just freeze and forget to press it.

HAM (waiting a moment before asking):
            What’s happening?

JESSICA (shakes head slightly):
            Damn. The kid just keeps shaking his head. He won’t open the register. I think the guy’s  getting nervous. Maybe I can call the police. Move in front of me to keep him from turning around and seeing me use my cell.

HAM can’t stand it if something happens to Jessica. He shifts uncomfortably on his bench, wishing he could be a larger shield.

JESSICA pulls out her phone. An old flip style model.

HAM gives her a look that says, “Surely you could have upgraded. You know it will make a noise when you turn it on.” Of course, the phone sounds a few notes when it’s activated.

CUT TO the DERELICT, who whips around at the sound of the phone. His hand is in his pocket, which has a noticeable bulge.

DERELICT (skittish):
            What’s that noise?

CUT TO HAM, who pulls out of the booth so he can face the DERELICT. HAM’S eyes go to the hand in the pocket. He sees the DERELICT’S fingers curled around a gun handle. The ROOKIE, behind the DERELICT, at the counter, fiercely shakes his head at HAM.

HAM (carefully positioning himself between the DERELICT and JESSICA):
            I can’t believe it either. I ask my daughter out for a night of quiet conversation and what’s the first thing she does but whip out her cell?

DERELICT (talking to JESSICA and trying to see her behind HAM):
            Put it up.

HAM (blocking the DERELICT’S view):
            Maybe she’ll listen to you. I’m sure my pleas will have no effect. I’m just her father who’s worried sick about her throwing away her future on a worthless bum.

The DERELICT starts to shake and pulls his gun further out of his pocket. HAM ignores it and concentrates on the DERELICT’S face, being sure to maintain eye contact.

            She’s just like her mother. I thought my daughter was stable and secure, but no. Her head’s turned by the first male bee to BUZZ HER. (HAM emphasizes the last two words, glancing at the ROOKIE, who continues to shake his head.) BUZZ ‘ER. BUZZ ‘ER. BUZZ ‘ER.

HAM is frustrated not to see the ROOKIE reaching for the alarm. The DERELICT is focused on HAM’S conversation.

 DERELICT (correcting HAM):
            You mean, “buzz around her.”

HAM (focusing back on the DERELICT):
            Exactly. BUZZ ‘ER.

HAM approaches the DERELICT and wraps his arm loosely around the DERELICT’S shoulder. He tries to lead the  DERELICT a few steps toward the door, but the DERELICT is firmly planted.

            She’s my one little girl. I’ve always told her to settle for nothing less than someone who adores her, but what does she wind up with?

            Somebody like me?

HAM (relieved he has the DERELICT’S attention):
            Not half your caliber. A wing nut. Like the low life who ran off with her mother. (Suddenly, HAM gets another idea.) Can you believe it, that scum who stole my wife went on a game show, knew all the answers, and got so excited he called them out before he HIT THE BUZZER. (HAM glances at the ROOKIE who still shakes his head.) Pitiful. (HAM isn’t even sure who his last comment is describing.)

CUT TO JESSICA, who jumps up from her seat and approaches HAM.

            How dare you insult my mother and step-father.

CUT TO HAM, who wonders what JESSICA is doing. He wants to keep her safe.

HAM (watching JESSICA, but clutching the DERELICT,
hoping that squeezing him will immobilize his trigger hand):
            How dare you inflict our family’s trauma on this good man who has simply come in to seek shelter from the cold. You should be ashamed to act this way so close to Christmas.

JESSICA (coming closer):
            Why? Because I’ll get on Santa’s naughty list and receive no toys? I’m not a little girl anymore, Dad.

            More’s the pity. The way you’re acting now, I should paddle you across my knee.

            The shame’s on you, Dad, for not being able to realize how deeply Gordo loves me. I don’t care what you say, I’ll shout it from the mountain top.

JESSICA passes by HAM and the DERELICT and heads behind the counter. HAM swings around with arm still tight around the DERELICT, watching her.

            Boost me up.

JESSICA grips underneath the counter where the buzzer is located.  In one swift move, aided by the ROOKIE, JESSICA is standing on top of the counter, looking down on HAM and the DERELICT, both of whom gaze up at her.

            Gordo loves me and I love him. And we’re going to live together so just get used to it.

HAM (his arm still tight around the DERELICT):
            Stop making a spectacle of yourself.

            You started it.

HAM (looking back at the DERELICT):
            I really have to apologize for my daughter’s behavior.

            Let me go, mister.

            She isn’t usually so dramatic.

            I just want outta here.

HAM (finally loosening his grip on the DERELICT):
            Certainly. I’ll be glad to take care of your bill for the trouble we’ve caused you.

The DERELICT, free from HAM’S grasp, pulls out his gun and swings it wildly, pointing at HAM, then at JESSICA and the ROOKIE.

            I thought I was in bad shape, but you people take the cake.

            Dad, be careful!

 HAM (holding up his hands and speaking to DERELICT):
            I’ll do anything you want, just don’t hurt my little girl.

DERELICT (pointing his gun at HAM):
            Keep away from me, mister. You are one crazy bastard.

The ROOKIE rushes forward and grabs the DERELICT’S hand holding the gun. They struggle. CLOSE UP on HAM’S face. HAM’S eyes bulge. CLOSE UP on the gun. It fires.


CLOSE UP on HAM’S face. He’s lying on the floor, his eyes closed. JESSICA leans over him.

            Dad, can you hear me?

CLOSE UP on HAM. He blinks his eyes. He begins to hear sounds around him.

DISSOLVE TO the scene in the CAFE. The POLICE have entered and handcuffed the DERELICT, leading him away. MR. KRESSLEY is yelling. The ROOKIE brings a wet towel and hands it to JESSICA.

            This may help his head.

JESSICA (taking the towel from the ROOKIE):
            Thanks. For everything.

JESSICA gently holds the towel to HAM’S forehead.

            What happened?

            Walter, that’s Mr. Kressley’s employee, rushed the gunman when he tried to shoot you. Walter turned the gun toward the wall before it fired, but the impact of the blast propelled Walter and the gunman into you. You fell back and hit your head pretty hard against the floor. We couldn’t get you to wake up. Walter had pushed the silent alarm when he first noticed the man coming to the register, so the police came in and subdued the gunman. Walter just called for the medics. They should be here soon.

            Help me up. Let me sit at our booth.

JESSICA helps HAM to the booth. HAM sits down, leaning his elbows on the table and holding the towel to his aching forehead. Behind them, MR. KRESSLEY is yelling.

            I tell you, the boy’s a hero. A genuine hero. Walter, I’m giving you a raise!

            Thanks, Mr. Kressley.

JESSICA sits on the bench across from HAM and watches him for a minute before taking out her cell phone.

JESSICA (flipping open the phone and making a call):
            Gordo? No, I’m not going to make it to the party. I’m okay. Really. I don’t need you to come get me. Don’t worry. I’ll explain everything when I see you at home. Love you. Bye.

JESSICA flips the phone closed. HAM groans, more at what she’s said to Gordo than at his pain.

            You really hate Gordo that much?

HAM (sighing):
            I guess not. It just irks me that he only wants to live with you and not commit to marriage. (HAM takes the towel away from his forehead to earnestly look into JESSICA’S eyes and take her hands.) Maybe what happened to your mother and me makes you wary about the institution, but Jessica, baby, a marriage is about promise and trust. Living together is just about convenience. I mean, even though your mother left me, she found real happiness with your step-father, and they committed to each other. I want you planning a future with someone, not just hoping it works out.

JESSICA (gives HAM’S hands a squeeze, then speaks):
            Okay. I get it. Now, I have something to give to you. (JESSICA reaches into her purse and takes out an envelope she hands to HAM.) You were supposed to get this Christmas morning.

HAM opens the seal on the envelope and takes out a card from inside.

CLOSE UP on the card. CAMERA follows the lines: Jessica Richards and Gordon Humphreys request the honor of your presence at their marriage on the thirty-first of December at nine o'clock in the evening. University Chapel. Reception following at the Faculty Club.

HAM looks up from reading the card. JESSICA smiles at him.

            Think you could take time out of your busy schedule to give me away?

HAM (playing grumpy):
            How do you know I’ll be in town?

            Because New Year’s Eve is the one holiday you and I always spend together. Now, we’ll just have Gordo along.

HAM (V.O.):
            Oh, joy.

            But, I swear to you that Gordo will never put our child through what you just did to me.

HAM (leaning back, V.O.):
            I braced myself, wondering if another unexpected gift was about to come my way.



Clamo88 said...

Interesting idea, writing the story from three variations. I'm eager to see the first person version on Friday.

Have a wonderful holiday, Paula, and happy new year.

Georgia Ruth said...

Paula, I went to a presentation to a writers' group in Boone. This college professor had an earlier career in screenplays in Hollywood. He said that a screenplay is a good outline for a novel. But it is closest to a short story. You have given an excellent example. Look forward to next comparison.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Interesting variation, but I have one question....repeated voice overs or would you break the fourth wall?

Paula Gail Benson said...

Claire, Georgia, and Debra, so glad you could visit.

Claire, best wishes to you for a wonderful holiday!

Georgia, thanks for sharing your professor's perspective. I did find that I learned more about the story structure from writing it as a screenplay.

Debra, what an interesting thought! Like House of Cards. I may need to write another version!

Hope you are all having a wonderful holiday!

Anonymous said...

What an interesting project! I just went back and read the first installment, and I'm looking forward to the third.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thanks, KM. Hope you're having a wonderful holiday!