by Jackson Thomas
A writer sat, patiently, while three Hollywood producers read the first draft of his newest script. He watched their eyes move across the page as they read…
THE TALE OF PENELOPE SOTO
INT. COURTROOM – AFTERNOON – FLORIDA
We’re in a Miami courtroom. “Penelope,” 18 years old, has a clean slate – no convictions whatsoever.
That is about to change. She waits in line wearing an orange jumpsuit. The woman behind her is wearing the same jumpsuit. They look terrible. Their hair is wild and they wear no make up. Both look guilty of SOMETHING … they’re wearing orange jumpsuits, for God’s sake!
On the other side of the room see a distinguished-looking judge sitting on a leather-clad chair, high above everyone else. He has white hair on his face and head and stares down at paperwork he shuffles through – Penelope’s dossier, or whatever. He looks up…
You’re being charged with posession of Xanax … uh …
He pauses for a moment and looks down at the papers, confused.
B. – A. – R. – S.? … I don’t know what that word is.
The judge makes a face. Soto can’t help but smile at the absurdity. She tries to help…
Bars. Xanax Bars.
That’s what she says out loud. In her head she says…
Bars, sir. Like the iron ones you’re about to lock me up behind because you’re clueless. But you really should try to keep up – you’re a judge, after all. Maybe do some research on what things ARE before you make a ruling (a beat) You know, because you’re a judge?
The judge sneers down at her from his high chair. An aide leans over and explains that Xanax is a drug. The aide does not mention, however, that these drugs are only illegal if you don’t have a prescription for them. They also don’t tell him that in order to get a prescription you have to go to a doctor, who you can only see if you have health insurance.
The judge frowns. Drugs are bad. He glares down at Penelope. He can see there’s no way in hell she has health insurance. She does looks GUILTY, though. She is wearing an orange jumpsuit. And she broke the law. That’s all that matters. After all, EVERYTHING is black and white.
Guilty. Five thousand dollar bail. Next.
He raps his gavel. Penelope blinks, hard; she’s in shock.
How can a man who doesn’t know anything about what he’s making a ruling on even make a ruling? And five thousand dollars? Really? If I had five thousand dollars I would have health insurance, right? And then I could pop as many of those pills as I could handle and there would be no problem.
Penelope smiles, ruefully, realizing that no one cares about people like her. The game isn’t the same. She’s an afterthought in their world. The one “normal” people pretend doesn’t exist. But she does exist. And she’s about to become very important. She has a chance to set the world on fire.
The producers turned the page and saw just two lines of text on empty white space…
The producers looked up at the same time. One leaned forward and smiled, smugly, at the writer. “No one would buy that. It’s an awful story. And the idea that a judge would be so terribly uninformed? That’s not realistic at all.”
“This really happened,” said the writer. “And it happened recently.”
The producers stared at him, dumbfounded. He explained…
“A woman flipped off a Miami judge and got 30 days in jail in return. Her name is Penelope Soto. She’s 18. No priors. She was arrested for illegal possession of Xanax – pills for stress. Not coke. Not meth. Xanax. When the judge told her he was issuing her a $10,000 bond instead of $5,000, she walked away and muttered ‘Fuck you,’ then she flipped him off. The judge held her in contempt of court and sentenced her to 30 days in jail. She had no record. And the judge was kind of a dick the whole time…”
The writer paused. “Unless that’s libel … in which case His Honor is an outstanding example of our parent’s generation and I would like to shake his hand for his professionalism and consistency.” He stopped to make a face, then passed them an article he had printed out earlier in the day…
“I don’t know Penelope Soto, but apparently she likes Xanax,” the first producer said.
“In that way she is exactly the same as everyone else on this planet, including everyone in this room,” the writer quipped.
“I don’t take Xanax,” the second producer screamed. “I call in high class whores to deal with my stress. Then I drink a single blend scotch with Glen in the title and throw cocaine everywhere. But Xanax? Jesus Christ! I should have you murdered for even suggesting that. I can do that, you know? I’m rich as fuck. I do whatever I want. Don’t ever forget that.”
The writer stared at him, unimpressed, then continued. “What I’m saying is she has a vice. Probably several. And so do I. And so do all of you.”
The producers scoffed. The third sneered at the writer and said: “What kind of vices?”
“Any kind,” the writer said. “Some people drink alcohol until they pass out on the floor of a bathroom. Some quaff copious quantities of coffee throughout the day and sleep four hours per night. Some smoke three packs of cigarettes per day. Others smoke enough weed to kill one rat per day, every single day, for 65 straight years.”
He paused for a moment, thinking about going to his car after this meeting and lighting a bowl of Mr. Nice. Then he continued, “Some people get on a bike and eat some Xanax, then crash and get hurt. These people get arrested and jailed to add insult to their injuries. Other people eat Xanax, then drive to cocktail parties or work, but that’s ok – those people have prescriptions. That makes it legal.”
“Nothing to see here,” grinned the third producer. “Besides, I don’t have any vices. I’m flawless, you fucking prick.”
The writer shook his head. “Nonsense. Shopping. Eating. Books. Church. Sex. Fighting. Television. Football. Movies. Music. Chewing ice cubes. The Internet. Bob Dylan albums. Mountain Dew. Ibuprofen. Cinnamon Rolls. Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari routines. Oreo cookies. Tatum Channing or Channing Tatum – whatever his name is. His ridiculous abs are as much a vice for horny women as Kim WishYou’dGoAwayagain’s ass is for horny men. Etc. Etc. Etc. All of these are things people use to get by from day to day, because all of us have to deal with our shitty realities in our own personal way.“
“So what is Soto’s reality the rest of the script?” The first producer asked.
“It’s shitty, actually. She becomes a victim of the system because a judge decided to ‘teach her a lesson’ rather than attempting to understand the situation. But what lesson was taught? That the system he represents doesn’t care about people. That fallible men can pass judgment on another human being regarding issues they don’t even care to understand. Great lesson. The rest of the script hasn’t been written yet, though.”
“I want to move to Miami just to vote for the judge,” the second producer said. “She shouldn’t have broken the law or back-talked. He’s a judge, after all.”
“He’s a man,” the writer said. “And men have faults, do they not?”
“Oh what do you know? asked the first producer. “You’re just a writer. Not a lawyer. Or even a real person. You might as well not even exist.”
The writer nodded, in agreement. “I don’t know much about the law, but here is what I do know: There are criminals and there are people like Penelope Soto – one of those will see jail over and over again. The other catches an unlucky break or two in life then things snowball. But people like that don’t need a judge to throw them in jail to ‘teach them a lesson.’ They need someone to take the time to listen. To care. To help someone who may need it. Hell, they just need someone to see them as a human being instead of a number on a court docket.”
The producers looked at him, confused. The third one remarked, “But who would be that person? Who would be in the position to see someone like Penelope Soto and take a moment to understand what’s going on and make an effort?”
The writer paused for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t know … a judge?”
One of the producers wiped a bit of drool from the corner of his mouth. “Wait, wait … just think about what’s going to happen to that girl on the inside. 30 days is a long time for someone with no record. She’s going to be different when she comes out.”
The third producer grinned, evilly: “You’re right. She’s going to HATE.”
The second producer nodded, like a bobblehead. “We could write it so she gets out and goes on a Charles Bronson-like rampage. Or at least Michael Douglas in Falling Down. That would be entertaining, right? Let’s make it … now.”
The writer stared at them in horror for a moment. “Are you insane?” he asked. “This is a movie about responsibility.”
“How so?” the third producer scoffed.
“Knowing what things are and why they’re illegal is one of a judge’s responsibilities, is it not? I didn’t know what a Xanax bar was either, to tell the truth. Then again, I’m not a judge. It’s not my concern. Still, I was curious, so I looked it up. Took me one minute to find out a Xanax Bar is a 2 MG pill shaped like … are you ready?”
The silent anticipation was deafening. They had no clue.
The producers reacted like they should have known.
The writer continued, “This ‘bar’ consists of four sections, each containing .5 MG of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious or whatever the hell the pharmaceutical companies are calling their poison these days.”
The second producer leaned forward. “I’m in. Who plays the judge?”
“Max Von Sydow,” the first producer replied.
“No,” the writer said. ”I love him, but he looks like he fought in the crusades.”
Everyone looked at the writer, confused. The writer, realizing he’d made a terrible joke that maybe seventeen people in the world (one of whom is actually Max Von Sydow) might get, shook his head and tried to recover.
“No, I mean it! That’s totally not a Seventh Seal joke. It looks like Max Von Sydow actually may have fought in the crusades. He looks like he’s a thousand years old. Guys … Max Von Sydow may actually be Highlander. THERE CAN BE ONLY – ”
The third producer interrupted him. “What about George Clooney? Now that guy can be an asshole.”
The writer shook his head, emphatically. “Clooney can do anything he wants. He’s brilliant. But he’s not right for this.”
They nodded, silently. The first producer mused aloud, “We need someone who looks like an older version of that guy from Blade Runner with the fingernails. The sleazy guy.”
Everyone sat silently for a long moment. “What about Edward James Olmos?” sighed the writer.
“Isn’t he dead?” asked the third producer.
The writer shook his head, angrily.
“What about Morgan Freeman?” asked the first producer.
“No,” everyone said at once.
The writer shifted in his seat, uncomfortably, and said, “Hey, uh … there’s more.”
“What else could there possibly be?” asked the second producer.
The writer inhaled, deeply. “I thought maybe we could touch on the new Florida laws where having something like three prescription pills without a prescription will land you in jail.”
“What would be the point of that?” the first producer asked.
“We could have Soto get out of jail and instead of going on a rampage she uses her mind to connect the dots between pharmaceutical and health insurance companies and the justice system. I mean, there’s really no other reason for the laws on prescription meds to be so stringent, right? She can show everyone how they’re being manipulated by people who are supposed to be protecting and helping -”
“I think you’re reaching,” interrupted the first producer. “And I think you need to stop. No one wants to watch that movie.”
The writer nodded, and sat back in his chair, silently. After a moment the second producer leaned forward.
“I’ve got it,” he said. “We’ll have this Soto woman get out of jail and jump a motorcycle through the nose of a plane into the judge’s house while wearing a bikini … and a snake around her neck. Oh! Can we get Beyonce?”
The writer sighed in frustration, then stood up and left the room. He was no longer needed.