Ginny knew her harness was way too thick. Maybe if she were wearing a winter sweater it wouldn’t show, but she was in a paisley linen blouse whose top two buttons were open because Howard wanted cleavage for this scene. The camera couldn’t help but pick up the edges of the harness that was now chafing the underside of her breasts. “Howard, I think we need a different harness.”
Howard, chatting with Gus, the DP, paid Ginny no mind.
“Ginny, I’ve told you before I’m not used to being shouted at,” Howard said. “What do you need, honey?”
Honey? God, you’re an ass, Howard. The only reason I’ll let you get away with it is that it’s 7:30 in the morning and it’s already 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit out here and the sooner we start the sooner we’re done. “This harness isn’t going to work.”
Howard turned to Gus, “What do you think, Gus?”
“Now that she mentions it…”
“I think it’ll be fine.” Howard said.
In Ginny’s imagination, Gus’s handlebar mustache straightened at both ends. “Howard, I was about to say…”
“No. It looks fine. It’ll work. Let’s get onto something important. We’ll call places in about half an hour, okay?”
“Fine, Howard.” Ginny said. “Whatever you say.” Ginny returned to the folding chair her purse was hanging on and sat. Normally, at moments like this, she’d bury herself in the script, but there was no reason to that. She had one line, and they’d be dubbing that in post. All she had to do was scream and mouth her line when she saw HighMar holding the ray gun on her. The stagehand would yank her backward, she’d fall into a pit, and that was it. Just the sort of thing she had to spend two years training at the The Actor’s Studio to learn how to do. She picked up her Thermos, detached the cup, and poured some coffee. She had stronger stuff in her bag, but coffee would do for starters.
After leaping from his makeup chair in a single bound, Frankie jaunted over, wearing that stupid red and silver v-neck Martian uniform costume that made him look like he sang falsetto with The Lettermen From Outer Space. “Get a load of my ray gun.” He held up this bright red plastic toy.
“I’ve seen those at JJ Newberry’s.” Ginny said.
“Yeah. They sanded the label off.”
“So that’s the instrument of my death, is it?”
“That it be.”
“I’ve been shot 19 times in my career. That’s the silliest looking thing I’ve ever been shot with.”
“Any tips on making it look less dumb?”
“Hold it as if it weighs something. If it looks like you believe it’s solid and lethal, the audience might go with it.”
“Hold it like it weighs something. Got it. Cool. Thanks. I’ve never really acted before, you know.”
“Don’t start. It’s a very disreputable occupation. That’s what my mother says, anyway. What do you do normally?”
“I’ve got a band. It’s called ‘Head’.”
“Like the Monkees movie?”
“The Monkees made a movie?”
“Oh. Anyway, that’s not the name of our band for this movie. We’re called Frankie DeWolf and the Sensations.”
“Why the change?”
“We’re a psychedelic band, and the message of this movie doesn’t fit our image, so we made something else up when Howard’s check cleared.”
“Smart. Listen, you’re in a psychedelic band. You have some experience with LSD, right?”
“I dropped acid a couple of times, but I’m not that into it. Too unpredictable. Why?”
Ginny reached into her purse and, keeping her body between it any prying eyes, pulled out a small bag of mushrooms. “These are a gift from my daughter Judy.”
“Your daughter gave you peyote?”
Ginny whispered, “I don’t have enough for the crew. Cool it.”
Frank whispered, “Your daughter gave you peyote? Seriously?”
“We have an unusual relationship.”
“Yeah. I guess you do. I have a daughter. She’s seven. I can’t imagine…”
“How old’s your daughter? Fourteen? Fifteen?”
“Wow. I’m not trying to be fresh or anything, but you don’t seem old enough…”
“Math is not the subject I need your advice on, Frank. I’m experienced with grass, but peyote is new for me. And I figured since one of the few advantages of being in this stupid movie is coming up here where the view is nice, maybe I could drop some after we finish killing me. Since I need someone to keep an eye on me through the trip, I was wondering if you would, you know, keep an eye on me.”
Frankie scratched his ear with the barrel of his ray gun. Ginny caught a whiff of Howard’s rotting-funeral-wreath-soaked-in-jet-fuel scented cologne, which meant he was coming over to tell them to come to places. Frankie said, “On two conditions.”
“That’s a given. And second?”
“Don’t do it until we’ve played the joke on Howard.”
“What joke on Howard?”
“I’ll tell you later. If it works it’s going to be really funny.”
“Okay. I’ll hold off until after.”
Ginny stashed her baggie and sipped the last of her cup of coffee. She reminded herself that she’d been in good movies and TV shows—well, pretty good movies and TV shows—and set out in search of her mark. She figured it was on the south edge of the pit they’d dug on the top of this mesa, but when she got there she didn’t see anything except dust at the pit’s lip. As a stagehand pulled the back of her blouse up to attach the cable to her harness, Ginny yelled at Gus, “Where’s my mark?”
“It’s not there?”
“If it were there, I’d be looking at it right now.”
Bounding out from behind the camera, Gus looked down at the lip of the pit, frowning in a professional-looking manner before saying, “I guess we didn’t leave one. Could you stand there? We’ve got to do the lighting test over again.”
“Sure, why not. It’s just another hour of my life I won’t get back.” Ginny said.
“There’s no need to say unkind things.”
A flurry of comebacks flashed through Ginny’s head, but she lent none of them voice, mainly because a fight would just mean a longer delay. So she stood there for an hour and a half while they fiddled around with reflectors and camera angles until they finally had the look they thought they wanted. By the time they’d finished, Ginny had sweated out her makeup, so it was time for a new cleanse and coat. Another half hour gone. Then another re-harnessing and another stand at the lip of the pit. The coffee buzz was wearing off, and the time was creeping toward noon and the lunch break, not that Howard ever paid attention to lunch breaks. Ginny would make him pay attention. Little did Howard know that, last year, shortly after she wrapped her role as Carol the Pornographer in Howard’s The Baleful Yen, she’d been elected a SAG shop steward.
Finally, at little after 11am, Take One. Frankie took his position. Ginny summoned the emotional recall of begging her mother not to set her stuffed animals on fire for flunking 7th grade math, the same punishment dear old Mom would visit on Judy sixteen years later. Goddamn it, now Ginny was pissed instead of scared.
“Dope Dealers From Outer Space, Scene 46, Take One.”
Ginny bent her knees in supplication and screamed, “Please, no. HighMar! Please no!”
“Die, Earth whore!”
With a mighty yank, the stagehand pulled Ginny backwards and off her feet. Into the pit she fell. On impact with the mat, pain rocketed through her back. “Motherfucker!” In seconds, concerned faces were looking down on her from the surface world. Ginny groaned and rolled over. Lifting up the mat, she found a pointy rock underneath. “Look at this! Nobody saw this? What the fuck is this?”
Frankie jumped in, “Are you all right?”
Ginny got up, rubbing her lower back. “I guess so. I’ll have a bruise the size of Texas, but I think I’m okay. This stupid harness is probably why I still have a kidney. Fuck!”
Howard looked accusingly at the crew, “Which one of you screwed this up? Which one of you useless assholes screwed this up?”
No one replied.
“You pieces of shit,” Howard went on, face the color of the Krypton sun, “You could have killed her. I could have been sued. I—“
“Blow it out your ass, Howard!” Ginny said. “You could’ve checked, but you didn’t. You never check on anything. You just make sure that someone else has to clean it up when you blow it. Now somebody help me out of this pit.”
One of the stagehands, with one pull of his beefy arm, raised Ginny back to the Earth’s surface. “Now,” Ginny said, “Pull up the mats, remove the stones. rake the area down, maybe pour some of the sand back in that you took out to dig this pit, then lay the mats back down and let’s start again. Okay?”
“You’re not the director of this film, Ginny.” Howard snapped. “You back off.”
“I’m taking lunch now. Back in an hour. Frankie, want to come with?”
“Right with you.” Frankie clambered up and started following Ginny back to the craft services cooler, where Howard kept the bologna sandwiches. As they walked away, Ginny heard Howard shout, “Pull up the mats and get those stones out of there, and someone bring in some of that sand to pad the floor of this pit. Right now!”
Ginny and Frankie choked down their bologna sandwiches and RC colas. As they waited for the lunch meat and sugar burps to subside, Frankie asked how Ginny ended up in Howard’s films.
“Howard got a crush on me in ’57. I was the love interest in this western, Death Rides To Laredo or something, for Universal, which Howard saw 34 times, or so he claims. And when he sold his half of his family’s heavy harvester business to his brother and got into making movies, someone told him that he could get good actors for bit parts if he found ones who had a only few days left on their contracts at the end of the year. A lot of actors do. Three days, four days, sometimes a week or two left over from the year’s allotment. So anyway, he checked through the player’s directory until he found out I’d moved from Universal to Paramount, and whenever he was making a picture he made sure to do it before the fiscal year was up so he could claim my days. He buys up my scrap days, Paramount makes its money, and I kill myself falling into pits.”
“How do you know he has a crush on you?”
“Because the first time he cast me, in The Caveman Watusi, he tried to make the leap from crush to couch. I brushed him off and told him to go back to his wife. I don’t know why I said that last bit. I don’t hate his wife. So, to change the subject, tell me about this joke you guys are—”
When Frank opened his mouth to reply, Howard called them back to work. As Ginny passed near Howard, Howard grabbed her arm, “You and me are going to talk.”
Pulling Ginny back toward the coolers, Howard leaned in close and said, “You don’t make me look bad in front of the crew.”
“Get your damned hand off me, Howard.”
It took a moment, but Howard gave Ginny her arm back.
Ginny rubbed her bicep. “You look bad on the set without me, Howard. Besides, what are you going to do? Fire me?”
“Paramount would be upset.”
“Oh, do not try to pull the ‘you’ll never work in this town again’ shit. When Paramount tells me I have to go work for you, they’re always apologetic. If you tried to mess me up with them, it’d backfire. They like me. They think you’re a zero. Now I’m here to act for you because my contract says I have to. So let’s punch in and do our jobs, shall we?”
“Paramount Pictures Incorporated, A Gulf and Western Company thinks I’m a zero? Are you sick in the head or something? I make huge films. My films make huge money. Just the other day a major paper compared me to Orson Welles. What do you think of that?”
Ginny wasn’t sure what to make of it. Sarcasm? The reporter fell down and hit his head on something hard? The stringer for the Redlands High School Picayune was hard up for a metaphor? Howard made it up just now? The list of possible interpretations was endless. “I don’t make anything out of it.”
Howard sniffed a couple of times and puffed his chest out. “Well, you should. Because I don’t do anything better than I do this, believe me.”
“I believe you.”
“I mean, you’re not bad looking, but you’re dumb, Ginny. Really dumb.”
Ginny’s shoulders bunched up. Hatred set her veins and arteries on fire, and she shuddered as if she were primed to unleash great forces upon Howard. But she counted to ten and let it abate. “Let’s go to work, Howard.”
Ginny found the grip and had him help her don her harness. “Am I going to break my back next take?”
“No. We saw to it. You’ll be okay. We swear.”
“All right. I’m not puncturing a lung for this picture.”
“You won’t, honest injun.”
That’s great, Hopalong Cassidy. What are you? Twelve? “Fine.” Ginny took her mark. She felt the line tense behind her. Frankie took his mark. Howard farted around for a minute or two, then called for places. Take 2. “Action.” The cord yanked Ginny into the pit. She hit the mat, let out a little puff. But it was all right. Ginny rolled forward, got to her feet, and peeked over the edge of the pit. “Did we get it?”
“No.” Howard said. “There was a problem with the camera. It didn’t start off right. Let’s go again.”
The stagehands helped Ginny out. Back on her mark. “Places everyone”. Speed. Take 3. “Action.” Yank. Oof. Up.
“Aw, shit. What now?” Howard said. “Sorry. We need to go again. These cheap cameras. Why doesn’t the studio send us better equipment?”
Because you don’t pay for it, you putz. Ginny clambers out again. The costumer comes over with a brush and starts dusting her off. “Howard, this isn’t a tracking shot with a thousand extras. Can we get this done?”
“I’m doing the best I can.” Howard said. “Please be patient.”
Oh, Good. You’re doing the best you can. Why can’t you aspire instead to do the worst that a competent person can do? It’d be better by a factor of ten. Okay, Ginny, hold on. How many more of these can there possibly be?
Take four. Oof. Take five. Oof. Take six. Oof. Take seven. Cable broke. No spares, so the stagehand had to run into town to get a new one. On the stagehand’s way down, Frankie gave the him a dime and phone number to call to tell the bass player of Frankie DeWolf and the Sensations that he won’t be able to rehearse tonight. Short break. Coffee. Stares into the middle distance alternate with long looks at the bag of mushrooms. Oh, great. He’s back. Take eight. Howard: “Maybe this is the wrong angle. Let’s move over this way.” More lighting tests. Fresh makeup. More brushing of clothes. Getting hungry. Take nine. Oof. Take ten. Oof. Take eleven. Tarantula! Right by Ginny’s face, looking right at her! Jesus Fucking Christ!
Ginny scrambled out of the pit. The skin over her ribs felt like frying hamburger. Her back ached. Her costume was now wearing a mask of sand. “Get the fucking spider out of there. As long as it’s in. I’m fucking out.”
Howard bounded over, smiling, “You should know things are going great.”
Ginny got up on one knee, looked up at Howard, and saw in his smug expression all the evidence she needed that none of these takes had been necessary. He was just fucking with her now, showing her just how far he could push her contractual obligation. A day meant a day. 24 little hours of as many takes as he wanted. By the time he got the angle and lighting and take, Howard would turn Ginny into a bruise with legs. “Howard, how many more?”
“I need to make sure we have what we need, Ginny. It’s what professional filmmakers do. You want to work with a professional, don’t you, Ginny?”
Excuse me, Howard. I’m going to the State Legislature to lobby for the repeal of the laws against murdering your boss because I think those laws are wrong. “That spider needs to be out of there.”
“Sure. Get some water and get brushed off. We’ll handle it.”
Limping slightly because in the scramble she must have pulled something, Ginny grabbed a glass of water from the catering table, sat in her chair, and put the glass to what were now chapped lips. She didn’t like to think of herself as suffering. Surely, there were victims of floods and famines and brutal tyrants who would gladly trade places with her, for at least six takes. Were any of them available? She’d split her per diem.
Some man by the pit screamed, “Get it off me! Get it off!” Ginny guessed they got the spider. Though it could have been something else. Maybe a roc was dragging him off to its nest to feed its children. Why couldn’t that be me?
Ginny stretched her neck, got a few satisfying pops for her trouble, then looked down at her bag.
She’d known actors who’d gone on drunk or high. They’d always say they’d done great, but that was mostly because their fellow cast members had done a great job of covering their fuck-ups. Still, what was there to fuck up on this job? Look scared, beg a little, cable gets pulled, the end. It doesn’t take extraordinary powers of memory to handle that. Besides, if Howard could mess with her, she could mess with him. Fair was fair. Was Ginny right, or was Ginny right? Ginny reached into her bag, pulled out the baggie of shrooms, and chewed as many as her daughter’d recommended.
Ginny passed by Frankie on her way back to her mark, “Keep an eye on me.” She said. “I may get a little weird.” She found her spot and watched the sand at her feet. These little swirls started, well, swirling, in shapes that made the desert floor look like the carpet her friend Susan had put in, so many little squares, but with rounded corners, turning and turning like parts of some great machine. A warm wave washed over Ginny just as the stagehand attached the cable to her back. A cool, prickly feeling danced across her goose pimpled skin as the world poured the words “Take Twelve” into her ear. And she laughed and said, “Take twelve what?”
And Ginny looked up at Frankie. She saw he was aiming a gun at her, but out of it were coming these blue and white swirls, like See’s peppermint sticks. So she kept laughing, pointing at Frankie until finally the stagehand yanked her. Ground streaked into sky which streaked into Earth, from which they make loam which would eventually stop up a beer barrel. When she hit the mats, the sound of her breath forced from her body seemed to echo from someplace deeper than the center of the Earth. All this was one, wasn’t it? Sky, sand, cable, Ginny, Frankie, even Howard. Well, that last one was a pity, but still…
Frankie came. Reluctantly, Ginny took his hand and let him launch her from the pit.
Howard was standing there, also looking like he was made out of Susan’s swirling carpet. Judy you are the best. You get that from me. Howard said, “That was an interesting choice, laughing like that.”
“I thought so.” Ginny said.
“Let’s stick with that. It makes you look extra-crazy. I think it might be good.”
“I think it is.” Ginny said.
“Let’s go again.”
By the time the next take was set up, Ginny saw little wizards dancing around Frankie, which made laughing really easy. They were all dressed like Mickey in Fantasia, all grinning and pirouetting and briséing all over the place. Ginny’s ribs hurt from the tickling this gave her, and when she got yanked back, she cackled all the way down. More takes followed. Ginny lost count of how many there were. But when they stopped, and she was lying on her back in the pit, she looked up and saw this great, pulsating light. The Great Atom, come to visit, hovered in the sky over her, blue and red, with tendrils of parti-colored light radiating from it in all directions. It seemed like the key to everything in the universe, the thing that really ruled over all she saw and heard and touched. And yet it didn’t judge. It didn’t tell her she should feel guilty, or bad, or ashamed of her life or career. It just was. Above her, as she was below.
She closed her eyes, then opened them. It was there.
She closed and opened her eyes again. It was still there.
She closed and opened her eyes yet again. And it was gone. Above her were stars. So many millions of stars. Ginny never saw these in the city. From not too far away, she heard a familiar voice shouting, “What the what? WHAT?”
Ginny sat up. She couldn’t see the walls of the pit she was in, but she felt dirt and dust and smelled grass pollen. She got out of the pit and saw they’d struck all the equipment, except the mat she’d been lying on, which she now supposed she’d have to strike. The voice was coming from below somewhere. It was Howard’s voice. Ginny ran to the edge of the bluff and looked down, but she couldn’t see anything except a few lanterns. One of the lanterns looked like it was bouncing fast along the desert floor. “IT’S THE GHOST!” Howard shouted “IT’S THE GHOST!”
Goddamn it. I missed the joke. They’re making Howard look like the idiot he is, and I’m missing it. Now somebody will have to explain the gag, and I’ll think it’s a little funny, but I’m missing the best part, the “if you could’ve seen the look on your face” part. And what other joys can I have on this worthless job?
The Great Atom whispered in Ginny’s ear, “Am I nothing?”
Ginny got a good laugh out of that. No, she thought as she walked back to the pit to retrieve the pad, you’re not nothing.
JIM SNOWDEN has placed fiction in Pulphouse, Mind In Motion, The Seattle Review, The King’s English, and MAKE. Dismantle the Sun and Summer of Long Knives, his first two novels, were published by Booktrope in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Jim’s novella, Escape Velocities, was named a notable story by the editors of StorySouth. His one-act play, Dr. Kritzinger’s 12 O’Clock won the Bill and Peggy Hunt Playwright’s Festival in 2015.
Image via Pixabay