My last four girlfriends all taught me the same lesson: true dedication cannot help but breed contempt. Each one had known my goals, purpose, given me confirmation that I’d been not only heard, but understood. Then time passed, neither name changed but the dynamic did and I found myself alone, like I started and am destined to be.
I couldn’t help but bring up Michelangelo, a legend who’s defining work was done in solitude; had his wife been next to him during the painting of the Sistine Chapel her vision would have been ruined for no reason at all. I doubt the man even entertained the idea of volunteering for such a constant distraction.
Art capable of enduring centuries with influence, and beauty, intact requires sacrifice. It is rendering a part of oneself to a canvas, stage, piece of paper or the side of a building; the expression of a message too complex and honest for the deceptive standards that govern standard human to human interaction.
I never thought it impossible to simultaneously produce work worth loving and love another, just highly improbable. We humans are glasses under a faucet dripping emotion, filled once born, then sentenced to overflow at random intervals. Affection and art, two drains of the many located in the sink that is our society, were constructed to handle the spills; the singular supply of the viscous, unpredictable essence of emotion just made it difficult to justify using two drains at once.
It is a concept that makes sense on paper, but is nothing but warbles when spoken; art in itself.
Going without the hope of being understood, humanity’s intrinsic need to impress others, had allowed me to truly focus on my craft; not only act like the characters I auditioned to be, but submerge myself in them. The trillion volts of energy that coursed through my nervous system knew nothing but the effort to be another.
All this went through my head as I sat, in a bar with beer in hand, reprising my most recent role. Years had passed since the last performance, some days I’d wake up and be unable to remember the name of the play my drama teacher said brought out the true talent in me, yet I remained as convincing, and in character as I’d ever been.
There was nothing I didn’t know about who I was supposed to be. My character held his family, home, and job in equal disdain. Every hopeful face he encountered on the street sent his mind into a fantasy in which he’d scream about the inevitable horrors of life until there was no doubt that he, himself, was one of them. His favorite form of matter was liquid, especially the cheap and nourishing kind that came in cans like soup and beer. The electoral college made him hate the American concept of voting but if someone ever held a gun to his head he would choose Republican.
I threw back the tasteless foam and dregs of my drink then set the empty aluminum in line with the others I’d finished. He also liked to drink, a lot, even though inebriation made his motor skills’ and mindset regress to the level of a toddler.
If he were real he would’ve approved the spot I picked; the corner my table occupied was dark, lacking in room to move, but had the corner advantage; no one, or thing short of a runaway car from the road, had a chance of taking me by surprise. I hadn’t missed a night in the spot since its discovery, perfect as it was for my persona and career.
Every stool in the place was filled by an actor, or someone in the business, watching their phones like normal people; their occupation was betrayed by the show of tension in their bone white knuckles. Their hands were never idle, if there wasn’t a bottle being pressed to their lips then it was being held, label out, for the sake of a picture to validate their lives through social media; if not that then they stared at the screen, silent, waiting for a callback that a sinking feeling inside insisted was never going to come.
I’d seen some of them in infomercials, but none were the leaders of the late-night workout groups, or loud-mouthed salesman selling a renamed product; they were the people in the back, the simpletons who mess up a technique that’d been screamed about for an hour or fail to properly stack their massive amounts of Tupperware that, for some reason, signified the need to buy a space-occupying organizer rather than a simple, and free, trip to the recycling bin.
A waitress swooped by and switched out all the empties for a full. I didn’t recognize her specifically, but had seen her pretty face a million times before; it was one of many where people came to be beautiful for a living. I’d put money on her having inherited the job from another good-looking individual who’d mistakenly abandoned the post in hopes of finding the next big break.
I’d made sure to do all I could to retain the custodial position I’d been lucky enough to fall into upon my arrival; the nights I worked gave me time to perfect the art of imitation. My impersonations had echoed through the halls of countless skyscrapers, motion-detecting lights never failed to provide me with their clicks of applause as I waxed floors until they shined, and I could see whoever I was meant to be staring back at me. Our current contract holder was a production company; I knew eventually I’d be accepted by those who worked there during the day.
An alarm went off on my phone and, with my other hand, I finished the little beer that remained. My tab wasn’t due until the next day so I left the bar and went straight to where my company kept the vans.
My shift started with the waxer jumping out of my hands and running into the wall. Either that’d broken it, or the machine was older than me because it was starting to show its age; after a thorough pass I could usually see my reflection looking back at me, but this time scuff marks and dirt remained, as did I, on the first floor.
As always I had until dawn to finish the entire building; an hour passed without the problem solving itself and I began to worry. I went and got the mop and bucket from inside the van, another hour passed but I was only half done with the first level.
I found it hard to focus without the constant whirr of the machine muting my thoughts; frames on the wall, filled with faces familiar to me from primetime entertainment hours, incurred memories in my mind’s eye that turned them into silver screens.
I’d read every celebrity biography I could get my hands on and, with a little luck, could match each persona to ghost-writer. I found the entertainment from the flashbacks, memorable one-liners, signature slapstick comedic moments, as unsatisfying as good stories with terrible endings. The company kept the frames on the wall for as long as the featured individuals were publicly renowned, there was always space for a new one; my face on the wall, like my acceptance, was only a matter of time.
I hit something with my mop and the object slid across the floor; I picked up a small black earpiece with an intense blue light shining out of it. It wasn’t wet so I put it into my ear; silence.
The exclamation sounded as if it’d come from under a nearby door, followed by the whoosh of a massive amount of paper and miscellaneous objects being swept from a surface. I set down the tools of my trade in favor of the device that I knew to cost more than half of a paycheck of mine then knocked lightly on the door.
“Who the fuck is that?”
“Fuck you, me. Fa so la tee doe. You gonna finish the scales or actually tell me who you are?”
“Uh…” I opened the door and stepped into the office. “I have your thing here.” The blue light flickered on, right in my eye; I dropped it out of surprise.
“Give it here.”
“I hope I didn’t break it.” I apologized and handed it back.
“It’s a P.O.S. anyways; piece of shit.” I didn’t need the clarification. “You don’t work here.” His eyes went up, then down my dirty jumpsuit. “Cleanin’ service or something? I haven’t heard any machines.” He finished suspiciously.
I laughed and he gave me a weird look. “My machine is more expensive than yours and it broke the same; but you’re the mad one?” Another laugh from me, another look from him.
He glanced at the clock. “Don’t you guys start at ten? You aren’t very good at your job.”
“You’re telling me? I been here two years and haven’t moved up a floor, just down this godforsaken hallway.” He tried to reinsert the earpiece only to have it immediately fall. “We’re at different places in our lives but GOD FUCKING DAMMIT DO I BET I FEEL THE SAME FRUSTRATION.”
The outburst startled me. “What makes you think I’m frustrated?” I asked meekly.
He started babbling apologetically, “I just meant cause you’re a janitor-“ I realized, then, that the person he was would love to be interrupted before given the chance to admit a wrong, that he’d provided me with an opportunity to interrupt, impress.
“Don’t worry about it, you’re just mad because you bought a Blue-loose.” I laughed at my own joke.
The wrinkles of remorse on his face smoothed themselves out. “Do that again.”
It was my turn to babble. “Oh, well, the best puns arise from natural circumstances, given time I’m sure I could think-“
“Nonono. The laugh.” I coughed out a chuckle. “Make it longer. Shorter. Containing yourself, but having a hard time doing so.” I emulated each specification he provided flawlessly; when I finished he was silent, with a smile on his face. “I think you’d be perfect for this project I’m working on.”
I was impressed. “You were able to tell I’m an actor?”
“Oh you…” He paused, “Intuition.”
The man’s office was sparse, besides his desk there was his chair, standard leather and wheel combination from an office supplier, and a wooden seat with no arms that I then plopped into. “I’m in; see, now, that was another joke I’m really quick-“
“No doubt.” He smiled and I squinted in appreciation of the unnatural luminosity of his teeth. “Look I’m gonna call a friend I have in legal, have her draw up a simple contract, perfect entry thing for an unknown to get their foot in the door.”
The gratification provided by the justification of a life’s passion cannot, rightly, be transcribed; suffice to say I nodded. “I’m really thankful for this opportunity I’ve been working so hard, waiting so long for something like-“
His eyes were on his phone. “Come to this office at noon tomorrow. I’ll take you to your first session. Sound good?”
He’d already dialed a number; I got the message and left his office. The mop and bucket were waiting where I’d left them but I turned the other way, exited the building thinking of the not so formal letter of resignation my boss would shortly receive through text message.
I woke up at seven feeling like a new person, and by the time I arrived at the building I was ready to be one. I walked through the same hallway as the night before with a saunter that said I belong, that turned the wooden frames filled with my idols into a colossal brown blur.
He was waiting at the end of the streak with a smile on his face and a piece of paper in his hand. I offered mine in greeting and brought it back with a pen he’d slipped into my grip. “Sign here.” He slapped the white against the wall then pointed to a dotted line.
I wrote my name in my beautiful, well-practiced cursive that he couldn’t have noticed due to the speed at which he stuffed the document into a folder that he’d pulled from nowhere. He slid it under the door to his office then went down the hallway too fast for me to keep up.
I was practically jogging behind when I said, “Before we start I have some motivation questions to be sure I can accurately portray-“
“Look,” He began without sparing me a glance or break in speed, “Don’t worry about that right now. You’ll understand once we get there.” He ducked into a room and I followed; a soundboard, engineer, and open door to a padded room with a microphone were waiting. “This is our guy.”
The sound engineer nodded at me. “Didn’t expect you to be mute.” Again, I was the only one to laugh at my joke.
“He’s funny; everything ready to go?” Another nod from the engineer. “You- in there. Shut the door.”
I did what he instructed; besides me the only things in the recording room were a stool, foam-covered mic, and a gigantic pair of headphones. He motioned for me to put them on. “Alright,” Through the glass I saw them fiddling with the knobs of the soundboard, “remember what we discussed last night?”
“I still have some questions so I can be sure to deliver a quality-“
“All we need are laughs.” I ha-ha’d into the cylinder, repeating the same variations from hours prior then countless more. It seemed like forever until they both stuck their thumbs up; I looked at my phone and saw that only fifteen minutes had passed.
I exited the booth. “What was that for?”
“You just got me to the next floor.”
“I’ve had enough of your fucking questions,” He took a fifty from his wallet filled with hundreds and credit-cards blacker than his soul, crumpled it into a ball then tossed it at me. “You, and them, are done here.”
“But my character-“
“You don’t have a character.” The man shut me up; sound guy leaned back into his chair. “We needed a new laugh-track; someone upstairs decided it was weird that our sitcoms use one from the fifties. Something about how the people being dead was too morbid for comedy, blah fucking blah I hardly read the memo.
Name stuck out to me though; make him happy and my dreams of the second floor turn to the tenth.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You weren’t paid to.”
I’d forgotten about the wad of green at my feet. “Won’t I have to come in again-“
“We have computers to fill in anything we don’t have. Watch next season’s lineup and you’ll hear what sounds like fifty slightly different versions of you having the time of their life. I’m jealous, in a way.”
“So my name will be on the credits-“
“Oh god no.” He nudged the sound guy, they shared a laugh then both turned to the soundboard, “Seriously though, go now. We have work to do.” I didn’t move, but he didn’t look back. “I could grab the security tapes and erase any proof that you were here. You signed a one-page contract that I could keep, but now you pissed me off so it’s going in the shredder.
Consider yourself lucky with what you have and leave before I call someone who’ll make you.”
I finally understood the character.
I left laughing, filled my car with chuckles on the way home, ha-ha’d up the stairs, giggled my lock open then chortled into my bedroom. With tears running down my face I pulled metal from drawer put it to my temple pulled the trigger and painted a replica of the Sistine Chapel with grey-matter.