Across my desk the guy is struggling, he’s too large for the client chair, sweat beading on his top lip as he tries to wedge himself in. So engrossed, he doesn’t acknowledge I’m speaking to him.
“Look, uh, why don’t you sit on the couch, both of us, we can sit there and discuss the role, how’s that?” I say.
With a final grunt he fits himself in between the chair arms. It can’t be very comfortable. “This is OK, Mr. Frankel.”
I scratch my chin. “As long as you’re sure. And, call me Solly.”
The agency had been instructed to send over Oliver Hardy types. Girl on the phone so green, she didn’t have a clue. “Like from the old Laurel and Hardy films,” I went on to explain.
In a valley-girl voice she said, “I’ll research that for you Mr. Frankel.”
Christ almighty. I’ve been tight with this agency thirty years. “Where’s Sam?” I asked the girl. Another blank, then something about him on vacation. “Where’s Lily? His secretary.”
Pregnancy leave. This game has changed dramatically over the past decade.
The first round she sent over were all wrong: thin Stan Laurel types rather than the five-chin Hardy I’m looking for. I phoned her back, keeping my cool.
“Avril,” I told her, “time is money.”
I could’ve ranted and raved but something stopped me. I don’t know. I must be getting soft in my old age. In a calculated voice I suggested she stream a Laurel and Hardy episode. “Utopia,” I said. “There’s a good one.”
She phoned back in under five minutes, at least having the decency to apologize.
After that, all the portly guys started flowing in. So far nobody fit (the role not the chair). I’m staring at this guy wedged in. He’s got a quality. He doesn’t give a crap about his five chins. A lot of the others looked self-conscious, like maybe they showed up for a Kevin Costner role by mistake. Jesus. This business can be cruel. In the end it’s just a business like any other. Bottom line. Who gets the part, who sleeps with who on the way up. Ice cold; but so are textiles. Ask any garmento working in this city, they’ll have a few sordid tales to tell.
This guy has a pretty good resume. A few Broadway shows, a lot Off Broadway, regional, some fringe. There’s a quality – innocence, maybe? I don’t know. Something I can’t quite put my finger on.
“Can I get you a coffee, water, juice?”
“Nice view,” he says, the big round liquid eyes darting. “Chrysler Building. Whew! Rent’s gotta be steep over there. What kind of juice?”
“Apple. Orange. We might have cranberry.”
“No apple. God forbid. Orange with a little ice. If you have it.”
I buzz Melinda. “Please bring in two orange juices with ice.”
“Boss, you want them in glasses?” comes over the speaker.
“If you can figure out how to get ice into the containers that would be fine.”
A pause, then I hear, “Righto,” and she clicks off.
Across my desk I’m still taking him in. “So I see you’ve been touring a lot. Fiddler on the Roof. How’d that go?”
“Not bad. Push to shove I’d rather work in the city.” He lets out a short huff.
“Yeah, well, the city, everyone would.”
He nods, the multiple chins jiggling.
Scanning the rest of his resume, I look up. “You’ve got some serious work under your belt.” The moment it comes out I feel a little stupid. The guy must wear a size 50+ belt. I say, “Shakespeare, hmm… very nice.” Trying to redeem myself. He doesn’t look fazed.
“Yup. The Bard. King Lear. Taming. Hamlet. I’m classically trained. RADA. People see a big man like me and automatically type me comedy. I’m actually quite well rounded.”
Is he making a joke? To counteract my comment about his belt? He doesn’t seem to be. He doesn’t seem the jokey type on the surface. “As I’m sure the agency told you this play is a comedy. You knew that before you came here right?” What’s going on? Did he walk in expecting to read for Othello?
“Yeah, sure, I know it’s comedy. I like comedy, don’t get me wrong.”
“OK, well, good then.”
The door pushes open and he tries to stand but it’s hopeless. Melinda’s in before he can squeeze out of the chair. Holding a tray with the orange juices in cut crystal glasses she extends it toward him. He smiles and takes a cocktail napkin, almost daintily, then one of the stem glasses, giving her a wink. She grins making a little dip.
“And here’s your juice, Solly.” Her manner less friendly. It’s that raise she’s been pushing for.
I wait until she’s out the door before speaking again. “Anyway…”
“Refreshing,” he says. Drinking in gulps. “It’s a hot summer.”
“I’m glad you’re enjoying the juice.”
“I grew up on a sort of farm, we had a small orchard of apple trees, a few cows. You have no idea how mean cows can be. People think they’re cuddly and friendly but when the apples hit the ground they make a dash for them. I had to go up a tree more than one time to save my life.”
“Really?” I picture him scampering up a tree with that bulk. Of course he was younger, a kid, and probably considerably lighter.
“I bet you thought cows are friendly, right?”
“To be honest, I never really…”
He nods staring into his glass, shaking it, making the ice clink. “We had Cortland apples on the farm. It was nice.”
Strangeola, I’m thinking. But then he’s an actor, it goes with the breed. I’m wondering if cows differ according to breed. Show me a Mister Normal for an actor and you can pretty much forget about it. “So…”
“What’s this play all about?” he says.
“Didn’t the agent brief you? Give you the script.”
What the fuck. I knew that Avril was useless. Wait until Sam gets back from whatever island he’s screwing his latest bimbo. I stand to stare out the window. The view is good – downtown spiked with sunshine. I’m thinking this business gets worse every year. Send over an actor cold? Christ. Melinda’s a pain in the ass in her own surly way but I never have to sweat this sort of thing. Who wants to hear an actor read cold? Nobody I know.
I turn around then sit back down. “OK, well you’re here so let’s do it. The part is a trucker called Ned who’s been away from home so long he can’t remember the route back. His wife is Molly. It all takes place in Texas. More or less.”
I don’t bother explaining that Ned is in Texas while Molly is in Oklahoma. What’s the point? Either he’s right for the part or he isn’t; Oklahoma notwithstanding. I thumb to the section where Ned has a short monologue standing next to his rig.
“Here.” I push the script across the desk. “Take ten or so to look it over. No rush. I’ll be outside. Open the door whenever you feel ready.”
“That’s OK.” He barely acknowledges the script like I offered a tissue.
“You don’t want to prep?”
“Nah. I did Improv. Second City. Here I’ll show you. Throw a word at me. Any word.”
When I just sit there he says louder, “C’mon! Any word.”
“Carrot.” I shrug.
The guy manages to get out of the chair, kneeling on the carpet. “Where did I put them,” he’s saying. “Molly have you seen them? It’s a fresh bunch.” He’s crawling around on all fours, looking under my desk, under the odd chairs. He crawls toward the couch sniffing loudly. “I’ll betcha Harvey ate them. That jerk thinks he’s a rabbit.”
Just watching this guy crawling all over my office intent on finding fucking fake carrots sets me off. I don’t know what it is. I can’t stop laughing.
A tap on the door and Melinda pops her head in. She’s holding the ice bucket, sees him down on the floor and a look crosses her face. “I thought… you might want…”
The guy sits back on his butt. “I’m looking for the carrots, Molly.”
She widens her eyes tossing me a wow glance.
Crawling toward Melinda he begins nibbling at her ankle. “You just tore my pantyhose!” She’s giggling in spite of herself.
The guy looks up at me. “I’m hired?”
My hard-wiring kicks in. “You’re not right for the part. I’m sorry.”
He leans on the coffee table struggling to get on his feet. “Wha… whaddaya mean not right?” He gives Melinda a piercing look, saying, “She didn’t send over the script. It wasn’t the agency, it was her.”
Her chin juts out. “Did you check your spam?”
“I like it best mixed with raw egg.” The guy grins showing a wide space between his front teeth.
“Raw egg? You can get salmonella poisoning.”
Not a bad comeback. Melinda have some hidden talent? I push that aside. I’m waiting for his next line. The guy is patting down his sports jacket. He reaches inside like to scratch. Tearing open his shirt. Buttons popping, flying everywhere. I hear Melinda gasp. This big beefy guy, hairless tattooed chest. A guy his size you expect bushels of it.
“Are you trying to make a point?” I say. Standing straighter. Suddenly uncomfortable in my own space. My own office.
“Solly, baby, there’s still time. To adjust your thinking.” His voice gone soft; the round eyes on me like a sad buffoon.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him again.
“Boss,” says Melinda.
We’re both staring at the blue tattoo running nipple to nipple: Love Can Set You Free.
Susan Tepper is a twenty-year writer and the author of six published books of fiction and poetry. Her seventh book, a novella, will be published by Rain Mountain Press later this year. Tepper took 7th Place in the Zoetrope Novel Contest (2006), was 2nd Place Winner at Story South Million Writers Award in 2014, and has been nominated for NPR’s Selected Shorts Series, multiple Pushcarts, and a Pulitzer Nomination for her novel ‘What May Have Been’ in 2010. She writes author/book interviews at the Boston Small Press & Poetry Scene, and is founder/host of FIZZ a reading series at KGB Bar, NYC, sporadically ongoing these past nine years. www.susantepper.com
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