As a movie, you’d be seeing this from high above. Think God’s-eye view.
It is dawn. The knockout blonde down there in the red and white poke-a-dot dress is pounding
the front bumper of a green pickup with a ten-pound sledge. Taking her time, but really
whacking that bumper. Even from way up here you’re already hoping that she’ll appear naked in
your movie. Her name is Chloe, and she’s everything you ever dreamed of having or being. But
you’re wondering why she’s doing a number on the green truck parked in the middle of an
isolated lot in what you will come to learn is an old part of Memphis.
You can’t take your eyes off her. You’re hoping you’ll get a close-up, because when the glamour
girl in the red and white poke-a-dots takes the hammer back there’s poetic harmony in movement
and form; and there’s something about that snapshot instant before the hammer moves forward
as her perfect figure is frozen in your imagination. But exceeding your visceral, erotic response
is the old intellect, which wants to know who the poke-a-dot avenger is and why she is attacking
the truck’s bumper.
The male lead, Pete Hump, wakes. Pete sits hunkered over in the driver’s seat of the pickup, a
green plumbing truck. His head and his hands are duct taped to the steering wheel. Waking is a
painful thing, and Pete isn’t thinking clearly. Then he passes out again.
We enter Pete’s dream: Pete and Chloe in their sinful little love nest bed in Charleston, South
Carolina. In the dream, he wakes at Chloe’s touch. Soon the two are entwined in a kind of
horizontal slow dance, eyes closed, half asleep. She coos in a hot, bourbon-flavored voice: “Pete
Hump’s Heat Pumps.” And they go at it. This in part satisfies our longing to see Chloe’s
delicious flesh while giving us a context for the opening shots.
Then we’re back with duct-taped Pete at the wheel.
There is no voice at Pete’s ear, only the distant white noise of a 70’s rock song. And had there
been a voice, Pete couldn’t have heard it. Because one ear is pressed against the airbag’s thin
leather and the other ear is covered in duct tape. If his hands had been equipped with ears, they
wouldn’t have heard anything either. In fact, he doesn’t so much hear Chloe’s heavy hammer
probing the bumper of his truck for the sensor--the one that will release the airbag and splatter
his brains--as he feels the hammer’s vibration, like a ball-peen on an anvil. Each stroke lands in
perfect time to Lynard Skynard’s “Free Bird.”
Next, in a flashback we get a little more back story on Pete Hump.
Extreme close-up: Pete’s bloody face looks like somebody dunked his head into a blender. It
takes us a second to realize that it is Pete Hump, that’s how bloody the man’s face is. The
camera slowly pulls back to reveal:
Night in a wide, empty field. Pete teeters on his knees, his hands tied behind him. Hanging far
away in the black sky is a lighted billboard for his plumbing company. Pete Humps’ Heat Pumps,
the sign says.
A giant of a man looms over the kneeling Pete Hump. The man with the block head (meant to
suggest through visual association Frankenstein and thus evoke fear and pity in us) is, we will
soon learn, Chloe’s husband, Russ Watts.
“This is the last time I’m asking, Pete,” Russ says. “Where is she?” Russ has beaten Pete into a
near-death experience. And now we know why.
Russ, the cuckold, attaches one end of the heavy jumper cables to the battery terminals of Pete
Humps Truck #2. We wince and want to look away when he slowly and painfully clamps the first
cable to Pete’s right ear. Pete squenches shut his eyes. When the copper jaws of the second
cable shut down on his other ear, we all wait in perverse and collective wonder for the geyser
effect from the top of Pete’s head.
Russ’s heavy brogan presses the accelerator to the floorboard. The green truck’s headlights
quiver, which ends the flashback.
Chloe, Russ’ wife, is doing a Barry Bonds’ number on Pete’s bumper in search of the magic
connection that will send poor Pete’s brains against the back glass of Pete Humps Truck #1.
Pete, who looks a lot like Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona, pleads, “Chloe!”
The banging stops. Pete takes a deep breath. The hammering resumes. We really want
another look at Chloe, but we don’t get it. This, we know, is a tease.
Pete wiggles in his seat, attempting to free his duct-taped hands by squirming from side to side,
reminiscent of someone dancing The Charleston. Again the hammering stops. Pete opens his
eyes and slowly rolls them way, way up in that Nick Cage way.
Chloe stands at the driver’s-side window. She’s worked up a sweat, and her blonde hair falls in
ringlets over one cheek. Her face is moist and flush. Male or female, you feel a stirring down
there. And so even under the circumstances, Pete’s whanger does a summersault. She is the
most beautiful woman Pete has ever seen. Her perfect lips move, but he can’t read them; he
doesn’t want to read them. He just wants to look at them move. She tilts her head to the side,
and though he can’t see the motion, we are grateful that we can: she crosses her arms over the
most perfect breasts in the South. Then she steps out of the frame.
Pete waits for the pounding to resume, knowing, as we do, that with every blow the law of
averages turns a little more against him, that when Chloe finally strikes the sensor she is
searching for he will see the big light that Russ Watts saw when he was struck by lightening, only
Pete won’t come back from that tunnel. We’ve seen enough Quentin Tarentino to expect the
reverse-angle moment when his brains splatter against the glass. And we sort of can’t wait.
Through the magic of surround-sound and a gazillion speakers, we hear his own breathing inside
A bright light nearly blinds us.
In that suspended moment, subliminal edits remind us of the jumper cables attached to Pete’s
ears, Russ’s heavy foot on the gas, and we experience the titillating anticipation of the geyser
effect. We feel a thrill.
Pete’s eyes fly open.
The morning sun at her back, Chloe stands at the pickup’s open door in breathtaking, hourglass
silhouette—holding up a dagger of a nail file. Tears fill her eyes. The ghastly look on Pete’s
face in this shot becomes the focal point of the poster outside the theater entrance. Her dagger-
loaded fist goes up and up, Hitchcock-like, and every hair at the base of our collective, exposed
neck stands and looks around for cover.
Chloe’s fingers cover his eyes.
“Chloe, please,” he whispers in that Nick Cage voice.
You see this as a digitized, slow motion blur: The tip of the nail file explodes through the duct
tape and enters the ear canal, David Lynch-like.
Chloe’s fingers ease away from Pete’s wide, wild eyes. No pain there. His hearing suddenly
returns, as if he has surfaced from deep water. The white noise he’d heard is Lynard Skynard
singing “Free Bird” on the two-way radio.
“This is your last chance, Pete,” Chloe says. “Say you’ll let me go.”
If he could say it, he would. She just looks at him.
“Bye,” she says.
Then she slams the door to Pete Humps #1 and walks out of his life.
All of this happens in three minutes. The hope is that you’ll remain completely under the story’s
spell for ten minutes. If you’re not in the movie by then, it’s a good bet this one will lose money.
Chloe doesn’t look back though she hears Pete’s pleading voice echoing inside the cab of his
plumbing truck, the Van Zant boys wailing in the background. We track along beside her, the
pain on her face telling us that her heart falls a notch each time he calls her name, like it did
when her husband, Russ, pleaded for her to stay. The way it has when every man who ever
called her his watched her walk away. Still, she takes a deep, determined breath, raises her
beautiful suffering face toward the morning sun. She’s not turning back. Because now it is her
heart that she is trying to save. Somewhere, somehow, there is something better waiting for her,
a stronger, truer voice calling—a voice that has been speaking to her all her life. A voice she
has resisted until now. A movie voice. And we are tracking along beside her, another comrade
in arms. Before the show is over, we’ll learn how that voice summoned her to Dollywood and cried
out to her at Graceland. But for now all we know is that there is no turning back.
We oooh and ahhh at the heavy symbolism of the screen-filled brilliant orange sun rising behind
her. Chloe grips her purse, heaves her small suitcase, and at a snappy, snappy Dolly Parton
pace, puts as much distance as she can between herself and Pete’s sad begging. There’s more
in that walk than any acting school can teach. “Once you know a thing,” she says to us, “you can’
t not know it. It’s better to be a one-hit wonder than to spend your whole life wondering.” And
we all nod in agreement.
It’s not just the rush hour Memphis traffic that makes us nervous; it’s the cab driver’s eyes that
won’t leave the rearview. Finally he says, “Ma’am, if I’m wrong, I hope you’ll forgive me, but are
you a movie actress?”
“No, sir, I’m not,” Chloe says in a flat Dolly Parton voice, her eyes never leaving the landscape
that once fell upon the eye of Elvis.
“Are you on the stories? On TV?”
Chloe gently turns her head from side to side.
After the cab driver drops her off at the Memphis car rental, his mouth opens involuntarily, and
he whispers reverently: “Them’s the finest fashion accessories I ever laid eyes on.” The driver is
a quiet man and a good Christian by Memphis standards, and he considers himself a
professional taxi driver. He respects people’s privacy as he respects his own. But this woman
makes him break his own rules.
“The very finest,” the driver says again as she walks away. He can’t stop himself from looking
into his mirror one last time as she disappears into the rental office.
At this point, about the five minute mark, we know that what we have here is a quest story, that
Chloe is in search of something essential to her being; that this is among other things a journey
of self-discovery, a chick flick.
She drives slowly across the rental lot, breathing deeply the new car smell. When she stops at
the street, she doesn’t know which way to turn. Literally. She turns right, then we see a look on
her face. She jerks the wheel abruptly. Horns blow, rubber smokes. There must be sixty edits.
The spin makes us dizzy.
Chloe completes the U-turn. “I’ve spent my whole life going with the flow,” she says, stepping on
the gas, burning more rubber. And because that’s exactly what we’ve spent our life doing and
because she is everything we ever dreamed of having or being, we do a silent little hell yeah and
reach for the popcorn.
She drives I-40 with her window down and the radio on. We hear the beginning of what will
become Chloe’s theme song. Although we don’t think about it at the time because of her
stunning beauty and the deep mystery of her face, the director works in several shots of her
crossing bridges before we see a road sign telling us that Chloe’s destination is Nashville.
When a Skynard song, “Searching,” comes on the radio, Chloe quickly shuts it off. Still, the song
serves as soundtrack for a series of flashbacks: She and a bruised Pete standing at the gates of
Graceland, Chloe with her forbidding hand against his chest: “I have to do this thing alone,” she
says. The look on Pete’s face tells us he’s already lost her.
When she returns to those gates at closing time, hangdog Pete is still waiting, but we know that
he is a broken, desperate man.
Later at The Blue Suede Shoes Bar, the camera slowly circles the two. We can’t hear what
Chloe is saying, but we know that she’s pouring out her heart to Pete, that saying these things is
painful for her, that she is in a struggle for her being. “Sometimes,” she says in a crying voice,
“love and freedom go to war with one another.” Pete lifts his bourbon and looks away. “My
insides,” she says reaching for his hand, “they’re filled with those scars.”
Pete orders yet another round of drinks and feeds a twenty into the jukebox. Chloe goes on
trying to explain, trying to spare Pete Hump’s heart, while “Free Bird” and “You’ve Lost That
Loving Feeling” play back to back until the bar owner unplugs the music. Finally, Pete pushes
his glass away and says, “Whatever makes you happy, Chloe.” And she hopes against hope, as
do we, that it has been settled.
But as soon as they are inside Pete Hump’s #1, Pete fingers the truck key, pauses, looks down at
the steering wheel--that unknown to him holds the power to blow his brains out--and says, “I can’t
let you go.” Then he starts the engine and pulls out of The Blue Suede Shoes lot. Chloe tries to
hold back her anger and her tears, but the bourbon has thinned her skin and exposed her
heart. When Pete parks outside the abandoned trucking company in the heart of old Memphis, it
is all Chloe can do to hold her emotions in check.
Recognizing that the end of their love is near, Pete reaches back for all that he has left. He
switches off the engine and fishes the bourbon bottle from under his seat. “We’re sitting right
here,” he says, unscrewing the cap, “until we get this worked out.”