The Ballad of Jack and Rose

Rebecca Miller

Faber and Faber, Inc.

Balllad of Jack and Rose
On the screen, three consecutive cards read:
 
AN ISLAND OFF THE EAST COAST OF THE UNITED STATES 1986
Chapter one
EXT. COMMUNE. DAY.
 
 
Credit sequence: We are so far inside a dark pink flower that we see each pistil, tipped with yellow pollen. A bee clings to the stamen, drinking. The camera pulls out gradually, in a circular shot, and reveals a wild yet carefully maintained garden, exploding with wildflowers, roses, irises.
 
A series of moving shots reveals: a circle of earth houses with rounded, turf-covered, sloping roofs, their fronts covered in weather-beaten shingles, stands at the edge of the sea. A few of the structures have collapsed and are overgrown with long grass and wildflowers. Others are abandoned but still standing. A screen door hangs open forlornly, beaten to and fro by the breeze. The buildings look strangely futuristic and yet were clearly built long ago. As we peruse the commune, and try to figure out where we are, we hear two voices--one, a man's; one, a young woman's:
JACK
 
I see a rabbit.
 
 
ROSE
 
Where?
 
 
JACK
Right there. It's got big, droopy ears. That's a shoe. Now it's a shoe.
 
 
ROSE
 
It's more of a boot.
JACK
It's a boot ...
 
 
ROSE
 
Like your boot ...
But we still don't see them.
 
 
At the far end of this ruined courtyard, on a small hill, is a large geodesic dome, balanced atop a long, columnar staircase. Four aluminum
windmills, their long, elegant blades glinting in the sun as they turn, stand sentinel around the compound.
 
 
A rusting Volkswagen bus is tilted to one side and has no wheels. Several chickens come hopping out of it. The only sound here is the sea. Waves lap at the shore with a gentle rhythm.
ROSE
 
Now what is it?
The camera swoops up the face of a house to reveal two figures--one, a man; the other, a young girl. They are lying on the grassy back of the house, which slopes down toward the sea like the back of a great whale.
 
 
 
EXT. ROOF. DAY.
 
 
We see them from above: ROSE is sixteen. Her long, raven black hair is spread out on the grass around her head like a crown of dark flames.
 
 
JACK, forty-five, has a weathered face and wild, light, deep-set eyes surrounded by dark, reddish circles. He is clearly unwell.
 
 
JACK is wearing work pants and a T-shirt. ROSE is in a Victorian dress and blue jeans, bare feet. They both look up at the shifting clouds.
EXT. SKY. DAY.
 
 
Up in the sky, see the clouds moving in fast motion; they seem to be boiling--
 
 
Back to:
 
 
 
EXT. COMMUNE. DAY.
 
 
ROSE and JACK lie still. He turns and looks at her. ROSE's beauty is so clear and fine at this moment in her life that it is almost unbearable to look at. She has come to physical womanhood late; the aura of the child still clings to her smooth cheeks and the tiny curls along her hairline. She looks impossible, like an angel. She turns to him and smiles--a smile of humor, complicity, and total trust.
 
 
Far away, deep in the forest, a bulldozer starts up. JACK sits up and looks toward the sound, his gaze sharpening, the muscles in his face going taut.
 
 
JACK gets up, hurries down the sloped roof and through the cellar doors.
 
 
 
INT. HOUSE. DAY.
 
 
We follow him as he passes through the kitchen, the living room, and into his study, where he takes an old shotgun down from the wall.
 
 
 
EXT. COMMUNE. DAY.
 
 
ROSE walks to the truck in the front of the house. JACK hurries out of the house, the shotgun in his hand. ROSE is waiting for him. JACK gets into the driver's seat.
EXT. JACK'S TRUCK. DAY.
 
 
JACK and ROSE drive to the commune. He is intent, angry. She seems to be dreamy, looking up at the trees.
 
 
 
EXT. DEVELOPMENT. DAY.
 
 
At the edge of the woods, ROSE and JACK get out of the truck. Through the trees we see a cluster of identical houses, some finished, some half built.
 
 
A work crew is beginning the day's labor on this housing development on the edge of JACK's property. The houses are already lined in pink insulation and strike a powerful contrast to the wild nature that surrounds them.
 
 
JACK aims his shotgun and shoots at a couple of trees, just to the left of the workers. Terrified, the men scatter and run to their vehicles, driving away.
 
 
The housing development is empty now. JACK and ROSE walk into the deserted courtyard. It feels eerie, as if the life-size dollhouses were staring into each other's blank windows, unblinking. He walks up to one of the houses.
 
 
JACK enters the house.
 
 
 
INT. DEVELOPMENT HOUSE. DAY.
 
 
JACK walks into the unfinished house, followed by ROSE. He hands the shotgun to ROSE.
 
 
As he talks, he takes a can of red spray paint out of his jacket and writes "WETLAND" on the plywood subfloor in large letters. ROSE watches and listens.
JACK
They're all moving into these houses, you know. A whole nation--a whole fucking world of plastic houses. It's like a rash, it's eating up this island like a case of bad acne. In thirty years there won't be anything left that isn't suburbia--or the ghettos. Because they all want to live in places with people exactly like themselves. They're going to have their own police forces, some of them, to keep their greedy little children safe. And they have the vanity to call this place a community.
He examines a plastic window brace leaning against the wall; it flexes under his hand.
JACK
Look at this crap. That's not a house; it's a thing to keep the TV dry.
 
 
ROSE
I wish we had a TV ...
JACK
No you don't.
JACK walks up the staircase and looks around.
JACK
I swear, I solemnly believe that humanity is now officially descending the ladder of evolution. In a thousand years, human beings will be the size of gerbils. And they'll have one thought a year. In December. They'll think about what they want for Christmas.
He walks a couple steps down and sits; he is level with ROSE now. She is listening. We see them each in enormous close-up.
JACK
Decline and rot, my angel, that's the way of the world. Except for you. You are exempt. Remember that.
EXT. WOODS. DAY.
 
 
They drive back to the commune.
 
 
 
INT. KITCHEN. DAY.
 
 
JACK walks into the kitchen, follows the phone cord, tracks down the phone, which is in a cabinet under some magazines, and dials a number that he finds on a slip of paper. Tacked up on the wall behind him are several engineering drawings of windmills and other machines. ROSE follows him in, takes a smoking loaf of bread out of the oven, then takes a bunch of carrots out of a bin beneath the sink and washes them off. Tacked up on the wall behind the sink, clustered around the window, creeping up almost to the ceiling, are hundreds of postcards.
JACK
Jack Slavin for Marty Rance. Marty, hi. Me again ... That's government land you're eating into ... Fifty yards of nature preserve. That is a wetland, as I'm sure you know.
ROSE looks at JACK and smiles, then goes back to her washing.
JACK
You can call the cops if you want to. I'll call them right back ... Right. I'm looking forward to seeing the outcome.
JACK hangs up.
 
 
 
INT. KITCHEN. DAY.
 
 
JACK and ROSE sit at the dinner table. ROSE takes two pills out of a container, puts them in JACK's palm. He swallows them.
 
 
JACK looks at the burnt loaf of bread she puts before him, hits it with the bread knife, producing a hollow sound.
JACK
Well, we needed a doorstop.
 
 
JACK winks mischievously at her with a little clicking noise.
JACK
What are you thinking about?
 
 
ROSE
I'm going to plant the bellflowers in front of the house today.
JACK
At least leave me someplace to walk.
JACK eats for a moment, looking at her as she absentmindedly balls up a piece of bread between her fingers.
JACK
... You're getting freckles.
 
 
ROSE
I always had those.
MONTAGE SEQUENCE OF ROSE AND JACK WORKING ON THE COMMUNE.
 
 
EXT. GARDEN. DAY.
 
 
The camera seems to float in this sequence, giving us a feeling of ease, harmony, lightness.
 
 
JACK uses a large blade and cuts down overgrown plants, while ROSE harvests string beans in the foreground.
 
 
ROSE feeds the chickens, as JACK gathers eggs.
 
 
Together, the two gather berries.
 
 
 
EXT. COMMUNE. DAY.
 
 
JACK climbs one of the windmills to make repairs.
 
 
 
INT. JACK'S STUDY. DAY.
 
 
JACK works on a design for a windmill.
 
 
 
EXT. BEACH. DAY.
 
 
ROSE gathers seaweed from the beach, while JACK sits on shore repairing the motor of a small boat. The wind whips her dark hair in wild strands.
 
 
 
EXT. GARDEN. DAY.
 
 
ROSE places seaweed on her garden.
EXT. COMMUNE. DAY.
 
 
Behind the main house, we swoop down on ROSE and JACK together folding a big white sheet in the wind.
 
 
 
INT. KITCHEN. DAY.
 
 
ROSE covers a pie with a layer of dough at the table, while JACK plays the mandolin.
 
 
 
EXT. PORCH. DAY.
 
 
The day is coming to an end. ROSE and JACK are reading, heads on opposite ends of a long couch. ROSE is reading a book. JACK is reading a handwritten document, filled with drawings and writing, making notes with a red pen. He lays the paper down on his chest; she looks up expectantly.
JACK
It's a nice-looking bridge. (a pause) I wouldn't want to drive over it.
 
 
ROSE
 
 
Well, seeing as we never go anywhere ...
 
 
JACK
You still don't understand weight-stress ratios.
 
 
ROSE
I understand them enough.
 
 
JACK
Enough for what?
ROSE
For my everyday needs.
 
 
JACK
The Latin name for buttercup will only get you so far.
 
 
ROSE
(sighing, taking the paper)
Let me write that part again.
 
 
JACK
One more time, with feeling. (beat) What is the Latin name for buttercup?
 
 
ROSE
Ranunculus bulbosis.
JACK laughs, picks up a book. They both read. JACK peers over his book at ROSE. Something is clearly bothering him. She returns his look.
ROSE
What?
 
 
JACK
I'm glad I got to know you for such a long time.
Tears spring to ROSE's eyes, and she is angry.
ROSE
Don't say stuff like that!
 
 
JACK
You have to face it.
ROSE puts her hands over her ears.
ROSE
Shut up, okay?!
 
 
JACK
Do you not think we should get somebody in here to help?
 
 
ROSE
Who? A maid?
 
 
JACK
Don't go off, Rosie.
JACK watches her run out of the house.
 
 
 
INT. TREE HOUSE. DAY.
 
 
ROSE is crying; she is racked by deep sobs, a pain far inside. JACK enters, wheezing. He is surprised and embarrassed by the strength of her emotion.
ROSE
Go away.
 
 
JACK
What is it?
 
 
ROSE
You're gonna leave me soon ...
 
 
JACK
You're the one that's gonna leave soon. You're getting too big for me. Look how big this hand is.
He takes her hand in his, comparing them.
ROSE
No. You're going to die.
 
 
JACK
That's just the way it is. (tapping his chest) This thing may be pumping away for a while to come.
 
 
ROSE
When you die, I'm gonna die ...
 
 
JACK
What on earth are you talking about?
 
 
ROSE
I am.
 
 
JACK
What are you going to die of?
 
 
ROSE
(shrugs, whispering)
When you go, I'm going.
 
 
JACK
If you die, there's no point to my life.
 
 
ROSE
Tough luck.
He takes her face in his hands.
JACK
Don't you ever say that again. You hear me? You will never say that again.
ROSE looks up at him, not convinced, but comforted for the moment, safe.
ROSE
Tell me a story.
 
 
JACK
Come on ...
JACK takes her in his arms, and they lie down. She rests her head on his chest.
JACK
Once there was a girl. She ... lived in a little tiny house. And one day this ox came by. And the girl was so polite. She said, "Ox, won't you join me for tea?" And the ox, who wasn't used to being spoken to, was flattered and said, "Thank you, yes!" And he proceeded to put his nose through the door. His nose had a big ring in it. The girl pulled on the ring as hard as she could, trying to get the ox through the door. And the ox pushed and pushed, and the girl pulled and pulled.
Cracks started to appear in all the walls--and finally the ox gave one great, almighty push, and the whole house just collapsed around them.
And so the girl climbed up on the ox's back, and they rode away together. And over the course of time they were married.
 
 
Let me look at you.
He looks at her. Her face is very close. She is so beautiful he almost can't believe it. Extreme close-up of ROSE's eye with a single perfect teardrop perched in its lashes.
ROSE
I'm never gonna leave you, you know.
He touches her lower lip. It seems like he's going to kiss her. Then he pulls himself away. His voice sounds husky, muted, resigned.
JACK
I have to go to town tonight, Rosie ... There's some stuff I need to do there. I may not be back till morning. Will you be all right? I'll see you later, Rosie.
Without looking at her, JACK goes swiftly out the door. ROSE watches him go, somewhat perplexed, and touches the place on her lip where JACK caressed it.
 
 
 
EXT. WOODS. DAY.
 
 
JACK walks fast through the woods, then stops at a tree, breathless. We see him from below; the sky is speeding by above him, his face a mask of fear. He stands still, thinking to himself, trying to fight tears and his own thoughts.
 
 
 
EXT. SEA. DAY.
 
 
The rusted old ferryboat is crossing the water, away from the island. JACK stands looking at the water.
 
 
JACK sits on the deck. He smokes a cigarette.
 
 
 
EXT. KATHLEEN'S SISTER'S PLACE. DAY.
 
 
A ramshackle house. JACK drives up. Walks up the stairs and knocks. A worn, overweight woman opens the door.
JACK
Is she here?
 
 
WOMAN
She's downstairs.
INT. BASEMENT APT. DAY.
 
 
He walks down the stairs and looks around the basement. KATHLEEN, late thirties, comes out of the bathroom in a T-shirt, drying her hair. A younger, wirier version of the woman who answered the door. Her face is like a road map of a rough existence. Yet she's attractive; she looks like she was the first runner-up for a few beauty pageants, but she always looked a little too tough. JACK looks at her, then away. Her voice is husky.
KATHLEEN
You got thinner.
JACK looks at the table, opaque. She walks up to him. He puts his arms around her, kisses her. There is desperation in it, absolute hunger, like he's trying to expunge a demon. They end up on the couch, fucking.
 
 
 
INT. KITCHEN. DAY--LATER.
 
 
They both sit at the kitchen table. Coffee has been made. KATHLEEN is dressed. They sip in silence.
KATHLEEN
Hi, by the way.
 
 
JACK
I was thinking maybe you could come live with me.
KATHLEEN has been blindsided.
KATHLEEN
 
What?
 
 
JACK
You heard me.
 
 
KATHLEEN
 
You've never even invited me out there.
 
 
JACK
I am now.
 
 
KATHLEEN
 
You like me that much, huh?
 
 
JACK
Yup.
 
 
KATHLEEN
 
What about my kids?
 
 
JACK
Well, that goes without saying.
 
 
KATHLEEN
 
What about Rose?
A long pause. She looks at him.
KATHLEEN
Have you thought this through?
JACK
Through? I've thought about it a lot. But ... I'm not clairvoyant.
 
 
KATHLEEN
You know what I mean.
 
 
JACK
Come live with me. Quit your job. Quit your jobs.
KATHLEEN looks out the window.
JACK
I can make life easier for you. Just to prove that I'm in earnest ...
He takes out his checkbook, writes a check.
JACK
Call it an early retirement package.
She looks at the check lying on the table, then up at him. He's on the spot.
JACK
It's not coming out right, is it?
She shakes her head.
JACK
I'm sorry. Look, come live with me. Give it a try. I'll take care of you, or you'll take care of me, whatever. My kid needs a woman around the place, and so do I. I need you. How's that?
In her eyes, a flicker of emotion, the desire to trust.
JACK
What are you thinking?
 
 
KATHLEEN
I'm wondering if you're crazy or not.
 
 
JACK
That's a waste of time, honey.
EXT. SEA. DUSK.
 
 
ROSE stands at the shore. Sounds of a powerful storm. The sea is crazy. The wind blows her long hair.
 
 
 
EXT. GARDEN. DUSK. DREAM.
 
 
In the garden, an eerie, bluish light is cast on the white trunk of a tree. As we move closer, we see it's bleeding.
 
The moon glistens through leaves and branches as the wind blows.
 
 
Flowers rustle about an old bed frame.
 
 
 
EXT. TREE HOUSE. MORNING.
 
 
High shot. ROSE and JACK are surveying the wrecked tree house at the edge of the pond. The atmosphere is tense. The camera descends on them in a spiral like some malevolent bird.
ROSE
My poor tree house.
JACK
We could rebuild--that's not a problem. But ... do you really use it anymore?
 
 
ROSE
It's my house!
JACK looks like he wants to say something important.
JACK
Rose ...
 
 
ROSE
Yeah?
 
 
JACK
There are some people coming here. I invited ... guests.
 
 
ROSE
(half laughing at the thought)
Guests!?
 
 
JACK
People ... just come to stay for a while. It's an experiment, okay?
He turns and walks toward the house. After a moment, ROSE follows him. JACK talks under his breath, as if steeling himself.
JACK
New chapter.
Copyright © 2005 by Rebecca Miller All rights reserved