Uncle Harlow is Dead: Part 2

A continuation of the short film. Part 1 here.

INT: Crammed attic. Day.

PALMIRA and AMANDA dig through boxes of old junk. They’re both sweating.

AMANDA

You said it’s in the striped box, right?

PALMIRA

I can’t believe this. This is pointless.

AMANDA

This is the last thing Uncle Harlow ever put on this earth.

PALMIRA

You know Harlow nearly ate your dad’s savings clean through, right? Just through hardcore couch surfing.

AMANDA

So?

PALMIRA

So? He was a useless hunk of meat! He never did anything! I could just as easily sleep or watch cartoons instead of helping you. Would you like that?

AMANDA

I like cartoons.

PALMIRA

Not what I meant.

AMANDA

Do you like cartoons?

PALMIRA

Keep it on the down low, all right? It’s embarrassing for my age. I’m not even sure why I like them, it’s just the same formula over and over again. Anyways, that’s the point. I may not like this, but it’s what family members should do. Uncle Harlow never got that. He probably wouldn’t even do his own scavenger hunt.

AMANDA

I think this is it!

AMANDA pulls out an intricate moon mobile out of a striped box. She also finds a note at the bottom.

AMANDA

“This was one of the many projects I made to communicate with other astronauts, like Buzz Aldrin. It was an attempted antenna. Neil told me very useful things, such as how to create this device and how to meditate and how to understand death.” Are you ok?

PALMIRA

I’m fine. Really.

AMANDA

Do you think Neil Armstrong really was talking to Uncle Harlow?

PALMIRA

How old are you again?

AMANDA

Ok. “But as I got older, I noticed that Neil wasn’t very good at telling me facts or predicting the future. He wouldn’t tell me why. So at 18, I ran away to ask him in person.”

PALMIRA

Because teenage runaways always make the best astronaut candidates.

AMANDA

I’m going to read the next riddle. I can solve it myself, ok? I don’t need your help, even if it’s hard.

PALMIRA

If you say so.

AMANDA

All right, here we go.

“My spaceship wants to land here.

What starts with ‘r’ and rhymes with ‘giver’?”

Dangit!

EXT: Calm River. Day.

AMANDA and PALMIRA dig up stones by the river.

AMANDA

So what do you do when you’re not studying?

PALMIRA

When you’re older, you really don’t get any free time. But you do fewer things to waste your time too.

AMANDA

Really?

PALMIRA

Well, I suppose I could make time. But that’d be wrong of me. If I can work, I should. “Curious that we spend more time congratulating people who have succeeded than encouraging people who have not.”

AMANDA

Who said that?

PALMIRA

Have you ever heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson?

AMANDA

No.

PALMIRA

(suddenly energized)

He’s this really cool astrophysicist. Now that I’m grown, I can study the stars, just like him.

AMANDA

You want to go into space? Like Harlow?

PALMIRA

Not exactly. But I have a better chance than he did. Did you know that Neil wanted to be an astrophysicist since he was 11? After living in the Bronx for most of his life, he was amazed to finally see the full night sky in Pennsylvania…

PALMIRA keeps talking as the sun lowers across the sky. By the time we look back, AMANDA is dead tired on the ground and PALMIRA is still talking.

PALMIRA

… and now he’s going to do a YouTube adaptation of StarTalk. Times are good for him. Pretty cool, huh?

AMANDA

I guess.

PALMIRA

You listening?

AMANDA

Yeah, yeah.

PALMIRA

So you see why I want to be him so much. He’s like another family member to me. I don’t know anyone else who has taught me more.

AMANDA

Would Tyson help us out with the scavenger hunt?

PALMIRA

Of course. Tyson’s main two goals are to know more than he did yesterday and to lessen the suffering of others. Why else would I do this?

Do you think it’s under the river?

AMANDA

One time I got angry at my dad, so I threw his iPad into the river and we found it a really really long time later.

PALMIRA

Your point?

AMANDA

It’d get washed away, silly.

PALMIRA

Question is, was Uncle Harlow that silly? It is a slow river.

PALMIRA puts her hands into the river, starts feeling around.

AMANDA

You think it might be deeper?

PALMIRA

Why should he start trying now? I got something.

PALMIRA pulls out a grimy Tupperware container filled with water. She opens it, pulls out a wet piece of folded paper and a round rock.

PALMIRA

Half of this is gone. “I found Neil at… astronomy club convention… went up to him… why don’t you recognize me… bodyguards smell sweaty close up… jail… never be an astronaut now… realization?” I think? The riddle looks ok.

“Fish answer to men whether they’re good or bad.

We put my only friend here; he was sad.”

The best he could do was rhyming ‘bad’ and ‘sad’? What the hell’s wrong with him? It’s like a swan song where the swan’s honking off-key.

AMANDA

He called everybody his ‘only friend.’

PALMIRA

And no one else in the family went to jail. It must be Finny’s old water tank. Which we sold. Can I go back to homework now?

AMANDA

You promised!

PALMIRA

To take you to the end. We can go there now.

AMANDA

No! We’ll just skip a clue!

PALMIRA

That’s not what Harlow wanted, I think.

AMANDA

When did you care? I don’t know what else to do. We can’t stop, we’re too far.

PALMIRA

We’d have to strip the house. You’re not serious.

You are serious.

AMANDA

WWTD.

PALMIRA

Huh?

AMANDA

What would Tyson do.

PALMIRA

Screw you. Wait, that’s probably not what he’d do.

INT: Various rooms of the converted farmhouse. Day.

Montage of house-searching set to “The Truth,” by Foster the People. Four hours later, AMANDA finds an old diary and begins reading through it. PALMIRA sees her.

PALMIRA

I though I had lost that forever.

AMANDA

Wow.

PALMIRA

Put that down.

AMANDA

Hey, what’s with this ‘mantra’ your book keeps-

PALMIRA

Give me that!

AMANDA

Wouldn’t Mr. Tyson tell me?

PALMIRA

Tyson wouldn’t’ve been stupid enough to come up with a mantra.

AMANDA

I’m sorry.

PALMIRA

Fine, it’s past.

AMANDA

So what is the mantra? What is a mantra?

PALMIRA

You promise not to laugh? Ok. You know how your mom and dad tell you when you’re young that you can do anything and be anything? I took that literally. I tried to make a mantra, a repeated phrase, that would let me walk through walls. At home, in class, at recess, I’d keep repeating nonsense words and walking my way into hospitals. My head smelled a lot like plaster those days. I didn’t see how stupid I was acting until about your age. I tried to change my name, I was so embarrassed. And then I started bullying to cover up for what a target I was, and that’s something we’re not getting into. I guess the point is that our family must be a little crazy. Or in my case, was.

AMANDA

When I was real little, my mom tells me I kept shaking my piggy bank even when all the money was out of it.

PALMIRA

Thanks.

AMANDA

You’re really smart. My dad keeps saying you’re so smart.

PALMIRA

Not naturally. That’s the thing.

AMANDA

Uncle Harlow was naturally-

PALMIRA

He was naturally awful. Because he got what he wanted in the end. They teach at the Buddhist group I’m attending that desire leads to suffering. But he didn’t suffer for his desire. We did.

AMANDA

What is wrong with you?

PALMIRA

What?

AMANDA

You’re no better! You want to get out of this, and it’s hurting me! What did Harlow ever do to you?

PALMIRA

I told you. I know the end of this.

AMANDA

But the search isn’t over yet.

PALMIRA

“It ends in death. Death is best.”

AMANDA

What?

PALMIRA

That’s it. That’s his last nugget of wisdom. Ow!

AMANDA

You’re lying!

PALMIRA

Would I?

PALMIRA descends the nearby stairs.

INT: Drab basement. Day.

PALMIRA pulls out a slip of paper from behind the TV.

PALMIRA

“The Last Words of Uncle Harlow: It ends in death. Death is best.” Feeling queasy, huh? I never looked up to Harlow, but I didn’t think he was this shit. That’s what he wanted us to find out. That life can be ruined so easily that you should just wait for death on a couch. The stars are up there and you’re born down here, and there’s nothing you can do since death takes us all. That’s his final gift to you, kid. What a swell guy.

AMANDA, crying, runs back up the stairs. PALMIRA sighs, sits down, and returns to studying. Fade to black.

When the lights fade back up, we see PALMIRA holding her head in hand. The words of her book seem to run together.

PALMIRA

What would Neil do?

She sees the book that AMANDA brought in at the start of all this. She picks it up. It’s called How We Made It To The Moon.

UNCLE HARLOW

(V.O.)

“Congratulations, my ‘only friends’! This is the beginning of my posthumous scavenger hunt. As Bilbo would say, ‘If you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.’ They say beginnings are important because that’s where things begin.”

PALMIRA smiles, then realizes something.

INT: Disorganized study. Sunset.

AMANDA surfs through the bulky desktop computer, chin in hand, not really looking at anything. PALMIRA runs in.

PALMIRA

There’s more to the message.

AMANDA

Go away.

PALMIRA

I’m sorry about what I did to you.

AMANDA

That’s just what Tyson would say.

PALMIRA

There’s more to his final words. He put so much emphasis on beginnings in the intro letter. The beginning word of each riddle provides a clue. “This” “Is” “My” “Answer.” We don’t have the rest of the riddles, but we won’t need them.

AMANDA

So what?

PALMIRA

So his last words aren’t advice, they’re an admission. It was his realization in jail: that there aren’t any right or wrong answers in life. Not entirely true according to my Buddhist class, but he’s on to something. An easygoing message for an easygoing man. He didn’t need to become an astronaut or please his parents to become happy. For him, losing himself in sloth worked. He wants us to choose our own expectations for happiness.

AMANDA

It doesn’t add up.

PALMIRA

No, I mean-

AMANDA

Look at these. The fourth one doesn’t begin with “Answer,” it begins with “Fish.” “This” “Is” “My” “Fish.”

Silence. Then, PALMIRA and AMANDA share a long laugh.

AMANDA

Did you think of that all by yourself?

PALMIRA

Yeah.

AMANDA

You’re pretty smart.

PALMIRA

I guess so.

AMANDA

I like your answer better. Uncle Harlow was a dummy.

PALMIRA

Or maybe we just didn’t understand him.

AMANDA

Understand what?

PALMIRA

That’s the question. So now what?

AMANDA

What?

PALMIRA

Should we finish this? I mean, Harlow was a deadbeat, but he must’ve been severely depressed. Either way, I want him to stop sucking my energy. If we finish the hunt, we can bury him.

AMANDA

Because he wanted us to?

PALMIRA

This is my fish, remember? No, it’s because I want to. I’ve finally learned something from him.

AMANDA

This may be a bad thing to say, but I don’t think this is so important anymore.

PALMIRA

Of course it isn’t, he’s dead. The hunt’s for us. Let’s make it about us.

AMANDA

What’d you have in mind?

PALMIRA

Let’s take it slow, like he would. If we find another clue, so be it. But now, seems like taking a break to watch cartoons together would most befit his memory.

AMANDA

Yay!

PALMIRA

Only for a little bit, though. I’ve still got things to do.

As PALMIRA and AMANDA exit, we see that another note is half-underneath the computer.

UNCLE HARLOW

(V.O.)

“After leaving my cult, I knew my final lesson had to be lived and shared. So why put it in riddles and maps rather than telling you? My life was ruined too long ago to be an adventure. You still have a full life ahead. This hunt was a platform for your own adventure, your own unique way of discovering my wisdom. I hope you understand it. My last words are where I enjoyed my last few years.

If the beats of this journey come from you and your friends,

Where does your life begin and my story end?”

CREDITS

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One thought on “Uncle Harlow is Dead: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Uncle Harlow is Dead: Part 1 | Word Salad Spinner

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