Nominated for a Pushcart Prize, this story first appeared in Passages North
I’m used to the dim hour of five AM: Used to stumbling out of bed in the dark, snaking my legs into jeans, holding the doorknob turned so the latch doesn’t pop. Back when we were together, I carelessly kissed my wife goodbye, her wrapped up in the warm smell of sleep. I waited until the garage to pull on my metal-toed work boots. I had stopped waking my son. I was an intrusion; his life glided along, secretly, without me.
Now, recently wifeless and childless, I clomp around my small apartment at that hour because I can. I drive away in the pink morning. My truck engine goes off in the quiet neighborhood, the exhaust heat shimmering behind.
Today I head to the studios: the big sound stages on the outskirts of Jersey City. The other grips swing into the parking lot. We pile out of our trucks, feet stomping, throats clearing. We haven’t used them to speak yet. Hey, Chappy. How’s it hanging, Lopez? Fitz, you look like a sorry piece of shit. By now the sky has turned a brilliant blue; the ridge of buildings nearby looks backlit. The air smells clean, one of those September days when something good might happen.
Rick stands next to the entrance, a garage-like door, talking to his cameraman. Look at him, Ricky, a fucking director now. He leans against the cement wall, pinching a cigarette, smoke streaming from his nostrils. He nods to us as we walk by. “Dudes,” he says, inhaling the word like a toke.
“Dude yourself!” I reach over to cuff the back of his head. Rick ducks and grins, his teeth still clenched on the butt.
“A little respect here, Fitz!” He laughs. His spiky black hair needs a good trim. We all like Rick. Even though he bursts out with ideas before weighing them and his foot jiggles when he listens.
Four years ago, just sprung from some Big Name college, he didn’t know a barn door from a silk. “Get me an apple!” Chappy had growled and Rick grabbed a fruit from the snack table instead of a box from the grip truck, holding the apple out like an offering. We still laugh about it. After gigs he bought me drinks and pumped me on lighting. I didn’t mind. Once I pulled every fixture from my truck and set each one up in an empty studio for him. I think of the lights as my children: Fresnels with their smart-ass slap of brightness, show-off Halogens, and Chimeras, my beauties, cupping a face with softness. I taught Rick everything I know about color and shaping
We all tried to toughen him up, but Rick headed to LA to build himself a demo reel. Everyone leaves, eventually. Now Rick’s come back East to direct his first hamburger commercial. A hell of a big break. Of course he called us in, his old buddies, to crew for him. Plus he just got engaged which, as we know, is when the proverbial shit hits the wind machine. So we’re pulling for him.
Chappy hangs back from the rest of us and taps his lips with his fingers, hoping to bum a smoke. “Big time, eh?” he asks Rick.
Rick flicks his cigarette into the air with a practiced arc. “If the world wants another burger spot, I aim to please,” he says, watching the sparks skitter as they hit the pavement. He follows us inside, into the cavernous sound stage laced with grid work, pulling his notes out of his back jeans pocket.
I wonder what miracle we’ll be asked to engineer this time. We’ve made people leap from 40-story buildings to sell tennis balls and built cathedrals out of plywood for dish detergent. We’ve demolished skyscrapers and raised mountains. We’ve helped make people fly, age, inflate, shrink, spin, turn into giant lizards, sweat iridescent colors and glow. We piece our lives around the long days and late nights and endless hours of making make-believe. We adjust lights so this woman has never looked tastier, or this bran muffin more seductive.
Rick crouches down on the floor, which means we must bend down too, and me on bad cartilage.
“What we’ve got here,” he says, tapping the floor with a Sharpie, “is ground-breaking creative. It revolves around these numbers—see, they’re all jockeying to upstage the hero hamburger. Which is a real hamburger. Sort of a meta humor thing going on.
“Anyway, I want to build this post-modern world around them. Eye-popping colors, no straight lines . . .” Rick goes on, his face aglow with his words. For Christ’s sake, he’s stuffing six actors into giant foam rubber numbers. Just tell us wattage and filters and angles.
“English, Ricky boy,” says Chappy, who stands, short and thick-legged, fists pushed into the pockets of his canvas shorts. He wears them year round.
Rick runs his hand over his head, his hair springs back. “OK. Yeah.” Then he picks through words like he’s rehearsed them. “Fitz and Big Tom, we’re gonna need the Fresnels. Maybe one Chimera. Lopez, get me a load of gels—lot of opal. Chappy, you and the guys, camera here.”
Everyone else rises and sets to work, but I stoop over Rick. “You might want to rethink the Fresnels,” I say, squinting at Rick’s drawings, “they throw a mean shadow.”
Rick folds up the boards. “All set, Fitz,” he says, impatience creeping into his voice, “give Big Tom a hand.” I shrug and move off. I’m dying for a taste of vodka. A small, neat mouthful to jump-start the day. It’s been my little ritual since Mary Anne asked me to move out and give her space to think. Which didn’t make sense, since she was always complaining that I was never around.
Rick calls over, “It’s the look these days, Fitz.”
But I turn to Big Tom. “Just give her a nudge, would you?” The Chimera springs open: a giant, luminous umbrella. “Now there’s a light,” I say. “You pass by one of these, you can’t help but get better-looking. Even Chappy looks tolerable.”
Chappy puckers up like he’s about to land a big wet one on me and wags his considerable ass. “Could use me one of these in the bedroom.” He grins. His belt pulls down with the weight of his grip tools: a wide roll of gaffer’s tape, a thin strip of black electrical, retractable cutting blades, a coil of rope, and hammer. Anything can be propped, taped, clipped, jimmied, or nailed into place long enough to fool the camera. Five clothespins are clipped to his back pocket, ready to secure sheets of translucent colors to the lights, or to hold silks in place. Whatever I ask for. We’re a good team.
Lopez and Little Tom (he stands an inch shy of Big Tom) link together the tracks. Four of us hoist the dolly over and lower it until the wheels roll along the metal.
It’s not like we dreamed of doing this, growing up. Most of us attended tech school or community college and hoped to break into construction or mechanics. Me, I wanted to learn electrical. Then someone had a cousin or friend who knew someone in the business. Except Chappy, whose dad ran the big supply company; his nickname comes from Chapman Studio Equipment. He wears the name like a uniform.
We make a good living, a comfortable living, working sixteen-hour days. Some of us, like Tom, salt our money away in real estate along the Jersey Shore and others, like Chappy, are peeling it off at the blackjack tables in Atlantic City. I’ve been watching my money leak away into this small private school my son goes too. Would you believe the kid started reading at three years old? Why does he need special schooling, I asked my wife, if he’s so smart? But she made our son her little project, and stopped asking my opinion.
The rest of the crew trickles in. The sound guy pushes his cart into the studio. A pile of headphones clatters against the metal frame. The food stylist sets up a table in the rear and starts gluing sesame seeds onto the hamburger bun. The makeup artist arrives, lugging her equipment in black nylon bags and yellow tool kits. Lopez gives a long whistle from the scaffolding. “Mirabella! Sweetheart! I’m still waiting!” We love to flirt with make-up artists; they jiggle into the studios with their kits and brushes, a cloud of nice smells. Mirabella reaches up to wave hi and I see the white band of her stomach under her black lacy top. I wonder what it would feel like, to put my hand on her warm belly. She leaves her sunglasses on. Lopez smiles back, pulling on his goatee and gives her a shy wave. Chappy brushes by Mirabella, then leans over and whispers something. She turns and pushes him away, but friendly.
Right behind Mirabella come the actors, a mixed-nuts variety of black, female, male, Hispanic and white. They play the back-up numbers. The star, already late, will play the prima donna number one who can’t stand being upstaged by the hamburger. Least, that’s how Rick explained it. The actors climb into their large foam rubber outfits and wobble around the studio in giant, brightly colored shapes. They tell bad jokes “Why is 6 afraid of 7?” and complain that they can’t bend over.
Every commercial is different, of course, but we can count on some things: inhaling diesel fuel from idling trucks and unloading equipment. Hauling lights and c-stands, sandbags, props, and metal boxes. Big Tom combing his straw hair over his bald spot and sneaking out back to call his girlfriend (as if the rest of us didn’t know; even Tom’s wife knows). Lopez covering for him. We can count on huddling over mud coffee and Doritos at the snack table. And resentment at home.
“Do you beg to work weekends?” Mary Anne’s voice had sounded flat and tired, as if yelling would take too much energy. She backed the van out of our driveway, on her way to some planned activity with our son. I could never keep track of which one. He sat in the seat behind her, his red head buried in a book. He wouldn’t look up at me. I wanted to reach in and shake his thin shoulders.
“It’s not my fault,” I said, walking alongside her window. Ever since our son was born, she seemed to hold it against me that I enjoyed my work. Especially once she took up her job pasting samples into catalogues. I understood, it was mind-numbing work. Then she became unexpectedly pregnant and miscarried. She seemed to blame me for that as well. Not with anger, but with a quiet, sinking resignation. Then she asked me to move out.
“We can try again,” I said, not wanting to mention the miscarriage in front of our son. She pushed her thick brown hair away from her face and shifted into drive. The van slid away, sunlight flashing off its silvery finish.
Oh yeah, and the clients. We can count on them stepping out of their black limousines from the car service, carrying their lattes with the brown corrugated sleeves around the cup, and talking into their cell phones, which appear to be part of their anatomy.
Rick walks over to greet the clients—cool, like a guy used to being pursued. The tall woman, the ringleader, shakes back her black hair and, without saying hello, tells him the script has changes. The shorter woman next to her—a dumpling in a gray suit—nods, pulling sheets of paper out of her briefcase. Rick leans back, acting offended at the changes, even though changes are as much a part of a shoot as the camera. He shrugs on arrogance like a well-fitting jacket. When did he learn that, I wonder. Still, I think better of Rick for showing it; good directors need some asshole in them.
We set up chairs and sofa and a large TV monitor in a corner of the studio, the client village, to make them comfortable and to keep them away from Rick when he’s working. Like he’s the king.
Chappy whistles low. “Fresnels are gonna kill this guy.”
I look up to see the star sauntering across the studio, speaking loudly to a woman with pushed-up tits and hair two colors of blond. We’ve seen him before in bad comedies and pay per view. His last three flicks bombed, so here he is—in our little world. Up close, his skin looks pockmarked. I nod at Chappy’s remark. Throw hard light at this guy and he’s going to spot like a domino.
The star beelines for the snack table. Rick follows him. We all watch, slowing down as we carry gear. Rick holds out his hand and thanks the star profusely for showing up. Like he wasn’t paid a big hunk of change. The star sets down his plate and takes Rick’s hand, with little eye contact.
Rick says, “Hey, loved those other spots you did.”
The star fishes through a box of donut holes, takes a sneaking glance at his watch. “Which ones?” he asks.
“The singing hemorrhoids?” Rick asks. I can hear Lopez snort in the background.
The star pulls out a chocolate donut, regards Rick sadly, and bites. “I prefer to forget those days,” he says, chewing. Then he turns to Miss Tits and asks where his dressing room is. Rick points it out and follows them, trying for conversation, pulling out one topic after another like outfits.
“I thought Ricky could kiss ass better than that,” Chappy says loudly to no one, as he drops sandbags against the light stands. “Didn’t we teach him anything?”
“Ha!” I give Chappy a laugh. If there’s one thing we all suck at, it’s sucking up. I feel relieved that Ricky doesn’t have a handle on everything, though.
Two hours into the shoot and already I smell overtime. Blessed overtime, we count on it. Chappy says he came home early from a shoot once and his wife was so annoyed that she refused to talk to him, just moved around the kitchen as if he weren’t there. The next time a shoot ended early he stopped at a bar and drank up the remaining time until he could go home late, as usual. Just keeping the marriage together, he says.
Finally, the staging is set. Rick holds up his fist. “Blast it here,” he says. We aim the Fresnels. Next we rehearse the camera move. Chappy lays down black tape on the floor so that every actor can find his place. The back-up numbers move in. Rick has us adjust the lights again. The Assistant Director calls for Number One. He arrives, embedded in a giant, red, foam rubber numeral one. Mirabella follows him with a powder puff and a brush, flirting, although I sense her efforts are wasted. The star tries to stands on his mark, but he’s unable to bend and see his feet. Rick climbs down from his camera and guides him over.
“Am I playing a Number One who’s psychotic, or just an egoist?” the star asks Rick.
“A psychotic with a learning curve,” says Ricky, nodding.
The food stylist carries out the hero hamburger, the bun perfectly studded with sesame seeds, and hands it to the star. He holds the glistening sandwich and regards it with what can only be described as distaste.
“Action!” yells Rick.
The star sighs heavily, as if the spot will be a heavy burden to shoulder, then inflates into full voice and broad, funny movements.
“Aha!” he exclaims, “I am Numero Uno!” We almost believe him.
But as soon as Rick shouts “Cut!” the star deflates. Rick lifts his head from the camera. “Make-up! Number Five has a shiny forehead!” Rick turns and snaps his fingers. “And pull in more Chimeras.” He winks back at me. I don’t know whether to punch him or slap him on the back for coming to his senses.
We’re about to roll the second take when Big Tom slams opens the door to the studio. He had snuck out to call his girlfriend. Rick’s face flushes in anger; the recording light was on, an inexcusable breach.
“Turn on the TV!” Big Tom shouts.
Chappy stops pushing the dolly.
“Turn on the TV.” Tom staggers across the set. His yellow hair, sweaty, clings to the side of his head and his glasses, which usually make him look thoughtful, have slid down his long nose. “We’ve been hit!”
We don’t understand what he means, but a charge passes through the room. All of us crowd around the clients in front of the large television. Lopez rigs it up to get a signal. The picture jumps into horizontal lines, but we can make out the airplane and the crash. One minute the side of a building, the next, a gaping mouth. We hear no sound; just see the accordion of floors, folding in. I lean forward and jiggle the audio wire; the newsman’s voice jumps in: fragmented pieces, shattering words: “tragic” “devastation” “loss.” Thunderclouds of smoke muscle out. We see the firemen with their blackened faces.
A surge of exhilaration seizes us. Something big has happened, too enormous to grasp. We watch the dark rivers of people flow out of the buildings. We didn’t think of those tall towers as teetering. Of course they would implode. Any grip could see that now. We’re struck by the awesome, shuddering beauty of it. The best demolition man in the business couldn’t duplicate it.
“I was just there,” says Chappy, crouching down closer to the television. “I took the kids Saturday.”
We have clustered together so tightly that we can smell the stale coffee on each other’s breath. The clients sit wedged like children on the sofa. Rick pitches forward near the TV, finally sits cross-legged on the concrete floor. The actors, their costumes too stiff to bend, arrange themselves behind the clients, tilting in odd angles as they lean against the back of the sofa. The rest of us push in as close to the TV as we can. The star tries to slide in front but we yell at him to move, his costume blocks the screen. He sulks off to the back, with the other numbers. We are a bizarre family, huddled there in this mock living room in the corner of a vast, hollow space.
I pat my pockets for the phone. Mary Anne’ll be watching this in our small, brown family room. The phone has barely rung when she picks up. I hear nothing but the intake of a long, shuddering breath.
“Mary Anne?” I say, keeping my voice gentle.
“Oh, Fitz! It’s all falling apart! Everything’s . . . falling . . . apart!” She can barely say the words and then she breaks down into sobbing. A helpless and utter release that feels, somehow, deeper and sadder than when she miscarried. Perhaps, I think, loss multiplies.
I sit, holding the phone, letting her cry and feeling powerless to help her. I imagine leaving and driving to my son’s school, running through the empty hallways and finding him. Pulling him against me, his body rigid with awkwardness, the earthy boy sweat in his hair. When I hold him, he cannot be harmed. This is the lie I tell myself.
Get the boy. Bring him home. I can do this for her.
“Is he at school?”
“I thought,” she struggles to control her voice. “It just seems like he’s better off staying there. They’ll know how to handle it. I didn’t want to scare him, being like this.”
“Maybe he should be home,” I say. What’s wrong with him seeing you like this?
“What would you know about that?” she says. The harshness in her voice stings me. I had not expected the familiar anger, in the midst of all this.
“That’s not . . .” I start. And then we are cut off. All around me I hear faint busy signals. So I sit and watch the screen like everyone else, numb. The scene runs over and over. The buildings unbuckle and stand again. Impossibly, we believe they still exist. We, who understand that illusion works best when the audience wants to believe it.
“Will you look at that?” Big Tom shakes his head. “They’re doing headers out the windows.” I look closer at the specs that had appeared like arcs of debris. I imagine them, closer, as bodies, falling in slow motion against the sky. I think of times we’ve made people appear to fall great distances and I find myself wondering about the angle of their fall, how their arms and legs would splay out. What in hell is wrong with me?
Mirabella leans back against Chappy, heavy with sadness. His arms link around her. People pull out their cell phones, but we barely move, as if movement would make us vulnerable. Breakable.
Lopez sits on an apple box, curled around his cell phone. He watches the TV and counts the floors softly to himself. “Oh, Mother of Jesus,” he says. His face wrinkles into concern. His daughter married a guy on Wall Street. He punches in numbers, frantically, but a busy signal replays on his cell phone.
A phone finally rings, this one for Rick. “No!” he says in a whisper. His fiancée’s voice filters through a high, long stream of exclamations. “No shit.” He shakes his head and keeps repeating it. Finally, “Thanks. Love you.” He hangs up and turns to the dark-haired client. He tells her about the agency team that was on the flight heading to LA. “I was up for that job,” he says, shaking his head in wonder. “That plane could have been me.” This will become his story now, the one he retells when he’s with his Big College friends.
Chappy leans forward, Mirabella still pressed against him, and puts his hand on the small of Lopez’s back. “He’s fine. Probably miles away when it happened.”
“I saw smoke,” Big Tom is saying to himself. “I saw smoke so I turned the truck radio on. I had no idea.”
It has not occurred to us that the world outside our studio has also changed and we are suddenly hungry to go outside. Some of us rise, wobbly-kneed from sitting so long, and stumble out the door. Lopez, Chappy, me. We step onto the lot and see the eastern half of the sky blotted out with thick, mud smoke. It crawls across the sky, lifeless. Sirens scream in the distance, but we can see nothing but the black ridge of nearby buildings and the sky split into bright blue and dark gray. We hurry back in to watch the television, which feels more real.
The images play over and over and over. Is it an hour? Two? I close my eyes and see the buildings inside out, the dark and light sky and purple and white striping of the tower sides, crumbling into each other.
“Well,” says the dark-haired client, straightening up as if we have all been watching a movie. “We do still have a shoot today.”
“Right,” says Rick, running his hand over his head. He stands up and brushes the white dust from the floor off his jeans. “Chappy, give us a reset.”
Mirabella offers her hand to Chappy so he can stand too. He stays resolutely on the floor, his legs splayed out. “C’mon, Ricky Boy. We call this an act of God. Or the devil. Regardless, there’ll be no more work today.”
The rest of us look over at Rick. His foot jiggles. “Man, I know. It was terrible. But it can’t stop us from working. Besides,” Rick nods toward the star, who stands in his giant red costume, behind the sofa, “he’s only available today.”
Chappy leans his weight forward onto his arm, propping himself into standing. “In fact,” he grunts slightly as he pushes off the floor, “in fact, I’m taking my friend Lopez here into the city.”
Lopez leans forward, kneading the palm of his hand with his thumb. He doesn’t look up. “Won’t help. Don’t even know where they are.”
“C’mon, man,” Chappy says, “can’t sit on our asses.” And we all feel it, that sudden restless need to move, push, hit something, hit someone. Do something. It’s an urge as strong as sex.
“I’m sorry. But we’re just flat up against the schedule,” announces the dark-haired woman, looking from Rick to Chappy. “If we can’t finish today, we’ll have to call it off.” She has shifted to the top of the sofa armrest. Her hand twirls the end of her hair.
“Besides, they can’t do anything,” she says to Rick. “It’s crazy to go into the city right now. That’s what they’re saying on TV.” She turns and scans the crew, settles on me as if I am a reasonable person. “What do you think?”
Her eyes are hopeful. The rest of them, they’re all waiting to hear what will come out of my mouth. Not judgmental, just curious. Chappy and Lopez have already made up their minds, that’s clear. Rick has stuffed his hands into his front pockets and rocks back and forth slightly on his heels and I think of my son standing on the front stoop, the porch light already turned on, creating a soft, backlit wreath of his hair. Pots clanging inside; Mary Anne cleaning up loudly so I know that dinner has been put away.
“I don’t know,” I say. The client’s shoulders relax and Rick comes over to stand next to her. She rests her hand on his forearm, her long red nails pressing lightly against his skin. Some of the actors have taken off their costumes. The star has wandered over to the snack table and leans against it, the top half of the costume pulled back, revealing his head. It looks like the foam rubber is giving birth to him.
“So, what, we go back to lighting the hamburger’s good side?” I ask.
Rick expression shifts as though he’s trying to find the right face to wear. He settles into a pout. “C’mon, Fitz, everyone’s OK. Let’s just do it.”
The client holds onto Rick’s arm firmly and looks around the studio. Most of the crew has scattered. Mirabella goes over to the snack table and leans next to the star. They sit together, quietly. Chappy slings his arm around Lopez’s sloped shoulders and heads to the door. Big Tom and Little Tom follow them.
Rick gently pries his arm away and walks over to me. “Fitz.” He says this so quietly I can barely make out his words. He grips my upper arm, his hand almost hot, and he leans in. “C’mon, Dude. You know what this means to me.” Up close, his face looks younger and more uncertain. I feel embarrassed for him. I cannot wait to leave this room with actors dressed like gaudy toys and people hovering around a broiled, glued hamburger prop.
I shake my head. “Maybe tomorrow,” I say. “But not today, Ricky.”
I cross the studio, past the light stands and scaffolding, and catch up with the other grips. Chappy grins over Lopez’s head at me. It feels good to be headed somewhere.
I suppose we could all go home to our wives and children and girlfriends and exes. But I know that, for the moment, my wife is safe in our cul-de-sac, behind the front yard cluttered with dented kick balls and scooters that I used to trip over at night. Mary Anne will call the neighbors for comfort. Her anger with me will pass into something else.
Yes, we could head home. But they hardly count on us anymore. Somewhere else, though, people will need generators or lights or someone to lift something. It’s not like we know who or where to go. But the need pulls on us.
We step out into the parking lot. The soundproof door closes behind us, snuffing out the voices and hum of equipment. We walk in silence, our weighted boots landing on the pavement. A heavy gray stretches across the entire sky. A pale disk of sun hangs behind it. The buildings, the parking lot, everything feels shrouded.
We climb into our trucks. The engines rumble to life. We will do something. Not sure what. But we head toward the city, a convoy.