ISSUE #60 GUEST CURATOR Michael Barron previously appeared in Storychord as a fiction contributor (Issue #50) as well as a musician (Issue #23). In addition to working as an Associate Editor at New Directions, Michael plays in the band Megafortress and helps curate the performance series Diamond Mouth Surprise. Follow him on Twitter.
by Kelsey Ford
By the time I turned nineteen, I’d already defaulted on life. I left my dorm room and stained microwave behind for a man ten years my senior who quickly left me in a hotel room he hadn’t paid for. I rode a Greyhound bus ten hours across the state, back to the town where I'd grown up, back to my parents' basement. They made me promise to stay quiet during their dinner parties. That month I smelled like potpourri and cigarette smoke, woke up with cotton mouth from the cheap whiskey I kept in my nightstand drawer. It wasn’t what I wanted. I felt like versions of my life were getting stuck at the back of couch cushions. I emailed friends, all away at college, and begged for any leads. Only one wrote back, gave me her boyfriend’s brother's number. He was putting together a crew for a film shooting three hours south.When I called, he asked how tall I was, how I liked my coffee, and when I could start. I told him, 5'7”, black, and tomorrow. He said fine and hung up without saying goodbye. The next morning, I wrote a note on a post-it, stuck it to the refrigerator between a grocery list and a baby photo of me in a bonnet, and hopped into his Volvo.
Issue #60 soundtrack: Single Ben "Hope"
The brother, Skylar, had forgotten his sleeve of CDs, so we listened to a Proclaimers cassette all along the highway––the only tape in the car, still in the deck. We were too afraid to remove it, scared we’d unravel the tape’s ribbons. As soon as we turned onto the exit, Skylar clicked the dial over to the radio. The local station played country songs I'd never heard. I didn't understand most of the lyrics, or the DJ's weakly rolled ‘r’s through the static, but there was this warmth in me, like I was hearing something I would become. Maybe this was it, I thought, or at least something close. I stayed silent as Skylar navigated the craggy side roads and, finally, parked alongside a driveway. Vans and trailers leaned forty-five degrees into roadside ditches. A mailbox with a sunflower decal stood crooked at the top of the driveway and a knee-high picket fence lined both sides of the gravel path. The two-story house was set near the back of the property, surrounded by a lawn thick with weeds. Trees reached over its roof like arms.
Skylar led me out back, where a handful were already sitting around a picnic table talking. A short man with a goatee and unbuttoned flannel top stood up. Skylar introduced him as Aidan, the director and writer. Aidan turned and motioned at the rest. In the car, Skylar had told me there'd only be eight of us on the crew, but that first day it felt like I met dozens of new faces and heard names I hadn't known existed. Sissie. Sloane. Olaf. Everyone had long hair and clasped their fingers around my wrist when we shook hands. That night over a Get-To-Know-All-of-Us Bonfire, Skylar sat next to me and pointed his finger at each. Olaf, the film's D.P. and, during the year, a nighttime D.J. for a small town off of I-5; Sean, the gaffer, who would double as the rowdy best friend in the film because he had a childishly chubby face that could pass as fifteen or forty-five; Aidan's high-school-aged sister, Sissie, who'd be working as the stand-in for Henrietta, the lead actress. Henrietta wouldn't be there until the next morning.
Aidan had written the script, Skylar explained, scrapped together money from rich friends and a semi-lucrative injury settlement, and here we were, living in his family's home for the summer while they were away on vacation.
Skylar reached for the whiskey, tipped the bottle into my red cup.
And I'll be the set designer slash act the part of the brother on-screen, he said. They talked me into it. I only took an acting class in high school, so I don't know anything except how to breathe with my gut. But we've all got to do two or three things, or else we'll be here 'til the next millenia.
All grumpy and old, I said. Skylar nodded.
Sloane leaned over Skylar’s knees and said: Aidan wrote the script on his breaks, when he was working at that bank in town. He said he hated it, but he got a lot of free lollipops.
I'd forgotten about that place, Skylar said. Aidan was convinced he was getting skin cancer from the fluorescent lights.
Sloane nodded. He got fired when he made a pass at his boss, she said.
I looked across the fire at Aidan, motioning his hands through a conversation with Sean and Olaf. The three looked woozy with whiskey and smoke.
How'd you get here? Sloane asked me, her elbows propped against Skylar.
I looked over at her and shrugged. By accident, I said. Sloane made a face, like this made more sense than she'd admit.
I'd been brought on as the Production Assistant, which meant I did what they told me to. I made them all coffee in the house kitchen, printed out the dailies while Aidan kicked everyone awake, held the boom while Sean ran into the house to go to the bathroom. Skylar quietly guided me. If I looked his way and he shook his head, I shifted whatever I was doing until he nodded that it was right.
I only lasted two days at that job. The third day on set, I walked through the snake-like wires to bring Aidan a cup of coffee. He was sitting behind a monitor, watching as Sissie stood in front of the cameras. She was all knees and elbows, her hips hinged unnaturally to the side. Olaf kneeled next to her, fiddling with the light meter. I tiptoed through the lights to Aidan’s seat. Right when I reached him, Aidan yelled out at Olaf and pointed at something next to Sissie. He hit his elbow against the mug. Coffee splashed across my clavicle. He didn't apologize. He grabbed the mug, mumbled something, then glanced up and stopped. The way he looked at me, straight in the eyes like he could see something behind them, made my face flush. I took two steps back. He stood, put his hand on my shoulder, and reached the other up to tug at my ponytail.
“Yes,” he said. He touched my elbow, bent his head to the side, and smiled. “ You've got those eyes.”
They made me the stand-in, a bump up that came with no extra dollars, but more breaks between takes, later hours, and a near twin. Sissie took my original job. I didn't understand the shift until they explained it to me: she had brown eyes and I had blue, the color of a chlorinated pool. Same as the lead actress. Getting the lighting right on the irises was impossible without that match. It's all about the eyes and skin and hair, Skylar explained that night. My skin was paler and my hair a duskier blond, but they didn't seem to care. It was close enough.
When Aidan introduced me to Henrietta, she told me to call her Henry, looked me up and down, and said, It’s like my mirror-image after a shower. Then she walked away. She’s great, he said into my ear, before looking back down at the script open on his lap.
Those first few days, I cataloged our differences: I saw my eyes in hers, but my hair was nearly a foot shorter and my face was like a pencil sketch next to her sharp cheekbones and carefully lined lips. She always wore a simple black cotton dress that cinched at the waist and hit below her knees. I rotated between two crusty t-shirts. She kept her hair pulled over one shoulder. I kept mine back in an uneven, linty ponytail.
I was sure Aidan would change his mind the first time I stood there and the crew members flitted around, adjusting the settings, lighting, positioning. I had calluses built around my knuckles and knots in my hair from too many days of throwing it back without brushing. But he didn't say anything. He looked at the monitors with his eyes scrunched, his long pointer finger scratching at his temple. The crew handled my hinges like a mannequin's. After an hour, they pushed me off and pulled her on.
The days developed their own rhythm. Wake early. Eat the semi-stale semi-thawed croissants pushed toward us on paper plates. Stand or sit or lay in front of the camera, my head tilted just so, then hours before my next call-time. Dinner. Whispers of conversation over the makeshift campfire Sloane put together. Yawns. Sleep.
During lunch, when everyone ate at the table in the backyard, I wandered around inside, looking at the trinkets and photos and wall decorations. It was like thumbing through someone's journal left open on a bed. I padded through the rooms in my worn socks. Whenever I stood in front of the camera, lights turning on and off and dimming and brightening around me, I'd think about those framed photos. I thought: This moment, right now, I’ll mount on the wall of my future home, or This, or This. I thought about how I'd give tours to friends I didn't know yet, how I'd point at the photos as proof that I used to be someone else, someone I wasn't anymore.
When I exhausted the house's hallways, after memorizing each mundane photograph and painting, I began to explore the paths that crisscrossed through the woods out back. They were crooked and mostly grown over. The landscape never seemed the same two days in a row, like somehow overnight the trees would skitter around and replant themselves in new formations. I'd come back after hours away with scratched shins and a sheen of sweat across my chest. I'd come back feeling callow, open, bruised.
At night, we slept in trundle beds set up in the house's hallways. Disembodied voices floated down the stairs as we fell into uneven sleep. It was never completely dark. Moonlight coated the shelves and walls and Aidan insisted we keep the bathroom lights on, so thin triangles of orange light would grow and shrink across the floors whenever someone got up to relieve themselves.
Waking up became a daily process of piecing myself back together. Me in a cot with new bones on a set an hour from anywhere, sure I must be happier than I'd been. My muscles turned into taut ropes inside my legs. My skin stretched raw and burnt. I could feel my body becoming something it hadn't been, and I relished the new sensations.
Those weeks of filming, we began to piece together the story of a brother and sister, left alone in their parents' house after a terrible car accident. Henry's character was equal parts buoyant and sullen. Skylar's character seemed to weave in and out, sometimes disappearing into the woods, other times reappearing to say he intended to sell the house, the car, to go into a convent. Aidan never seemed satisfied. He yelled at them to go again, and then again. The scenes quilted together, impatiently and jumbled. I couldn't imagine them as a whole, even though I had the whole of the script tucked into the bag I kept in my small cubby upstairs.
One night I sat near the back, watching a scene between Henry and Skylar. Aidan had timed it as best he could for the magic hour––those sixty minutes before sunset––but the backyard being what it was, only small slivers of gold escaped the branches. The scene was small. There were only eight lines total between them, but Aidan did nearly a dozen takes. Each time through, while Skylar played his part the same, Henry gave something different. A glimmer of anger or true curiosity behind the question she shot at Skylar. A look of relief at his answer in one take, a small roll of the eyes in another. She wasn't a great actress, but I could see where she was trying, and how hard it was for her to run it all together.
Around the fifth take, Sloane came and elbowed my side so I'd slide over to give her room on the picnic bench. We watched Aidan pace between Skylar and Henry, who were standing a few feet apart, not looking at each other.
So glad I'm on this side of things, Sloane whispered over at me. It takes an odd ego to want to be over there.
Is she? I asked.
Is she what? Sloane looked over at me. From that close, I could see where she'd penciled in her eyebrows, nearly worn down that late in the afternoon.
Does she have an odd ego, I mean.
Sloane nodded and shrugged. She seems a little like a hyena to me, she said. You know, how they might look like a coyote from far away?
I didn't know what she meant. I stayed silent, but slipped it into the building catalog. As much as I could, I'd been listening to what others had to say about her. There wasn't much. She was like a quiet ghost, slipping between us, only lighting up when Aidan called action. They said she was a teller he'd worked with in town, or maybe an ex-girlfriend from college. That he had found her in a J.C. Penney catalog, or maybe he'd put an ad in the newspaper and she'd been the only one to reply. That she wanted to act on stage or become a state senator. That she'd had an affair with a professor. That she was still a virgin. That she was going through a divorce, or saving up her money to get married. That she was a Mormon, a Protestant, an atheist.
The truths were like blackberry brambles, but it was clear she wasn't known among the group of friends. Like me: a stranger.
One afternoon between takes, I slipped into my sandals and walked out to the creek, where I liked to sit on a particular flat rock and dip my toes into the cool eddy that gathered beneath its lip. Branches scratched my sunburned skin as I pushed through the path. When I got to the small clearing that led down to the water, I saw Henry already there, almost like I’d anticipated myself. She was facing away from me and standing in the creek with water up to her mid-shins. She clutched the skirt of her cotton dress against her thigh. It was the first time I’d seen her with her hair up––bunched at her neck, like a nest of coarse golden straw. She hadn’t heard me. She stood flamingo-like, one foot on an ankle. I was careful not to make a sound, but couldn’t force myself to turn and leave. I stepped back so a fraction of me hid behind a tree.
There was a mottling across the backs of her knees and base of her thighs that, at first, looked like uneven shadows splattering across her skin. But the light was angled sharper, away from her body. From that distance, I could just make out that they were scars, normally hidden by the black cotton dress. Purple and stretched. A healed burn. I recognized the particular iridescent and bruised casing only because I'd seen something close across the backs of my high school English teacher's hands a few years before. Henry's scars were much worse, nearly the size of two handprints pressed into her legs. I tried to imagine the fire that would wound like that, so harsh and full, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t put Henry near that kind of ripping shredding heat. I couldn’t imagine her bones buckling beneath the pressure. But, with the ease of a child’s daydream, there I was: in the arms of a fireman, cradling me as he descended a ladder propped against an open window; pushed beneath the table, clutching at its legs as the flames got closer and the smoke clogged my throat. The backs of my knees tingled.
We stood like that for minutes. Neither moved. I hooked my right heel over my left ankle bone and waited. Then, as if waking from sleep, her limbs clicked back and she turned around, walked back up the small rise, toward where I was standing. There wasn’t time to react, or hide, so I stayed there. As she walked, she looked down and began to unbunch the bottom hem of her dress. She didn’t glance up until she was right there, next to me. When she did, her gaze caught on my shoulder and stayed there. My breath caught between my ribs and spine. She seemed surprised, almost, and then said something, whispered words that barely escaped her teeth. I couldn't decipher the syllables. Like a moment caught on fishline, then lost. She shook her head and walked back along the path toward the house.
A week out from the end of our time there, Aidan had Sissie come find me, to ask if I could fill in for Henry. She'd done one take and had gotten sick or lightheaded or unhappy––Sissie didn’t fully explain––but they really needed some insurance they had the scene. It would only be a few shots from a distance and I’d be facing away from the camera. I said fine, so Sissie took me out to the woods behind the backyard and I saw why they had to get the shot that afternoon: the dead deer. I hadn’t checked the dailies, hadn’t realized they were filming this scene. It was the climactic finale, when Henry's character sobbed over a dead deer her brother had killed. It was meant to be the culminating coming of age, Skylar explained while he positioned me between the deer's splayed legs. They could only have the deer for so many hours and for only this day. If they didn’t get this one, they’d be stuck on set another week, maybe, before they could figure out another deal with the hunter they’d bought this from, and that would be too much money and time and technicalities.
Besides, he said, just look at it. It’s a beauty.
I didn’t look.
Aidan waved Skylar off and walked me through my part. I wouldn't have to sob, just make the motions and cover my face so that from behind it would look convincing. I'd become used to the way everything orbited around me, silent in the center. Aidan made sure my posture was slouched and bunched enough, cupped his palm around my shoulder, tilted me to the side so the angle of the camera would hit my neck and hair just right.
Skylar came back. His deft fingers worked with the deer's limbs, its head, and then moved onto its open, bloody stomach. This time I forgot what I'd been trying not to do. I looked when I shouldn't have and saw the twisted purple organs tucked beneath a flap of skin. The smell that pushed out was warm and soupy. I nearly puked. Aidan made some sound and Skylar stopped. He sat down beside me and began to trace his hand up and down my spine. Here, he said. I'll count your ridges. With his pointer finger, he started up my thoracic vertebrae, south to north. One, he said. Two. Three. I wasn't any better when he reached the top, so he went back down. Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen.
I can't remember when he stopped, when they got the shot they needed and dismantled the cameras, when I forced my way through them and into the woods, toward the creek somewhere further on around some corner of trees, but somehow I went from the flank of the deer to the bank of the water. My knees dug into sharp rocks. I dry-heaved until I couldn’t anymore. I lay back in the mud and panted. I didn't feel the dirt I pressed my palms into. I didn't count leaves as I stared up through the branches. I didn't listen. I lay there wishing I could scoop my veins clean.
Sometimes now, late at night when I can't sleep, I push the tape into the VCR and queue it to that final scene. I’m still not sure if they were able to use anything from that aborted afternoon. Pale blue light flickers over my blank walls. Through the crack in the window, I smell something burning and hear a couple fighting downstairs, the cough of someone walking past. It’s the quiet noise of the way others fill their lives. I kick my pantyhose off. I pull my dress over my shoulders, wrap the blanket tighter around my bare chest, and lay lengthwise across the couch without taking my eyes off the screen.
I rewind it and watch again, and then again, looking for some clue that might tell me which girl is sitting there, bare shins scratched and knees caked with leaves.
Kelsey Ford works at New Directions Publishing and lives in Brooklyn. She loves whales. Follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.
Jocelyn Spaar draws, writes, paints, translates, and walks a lot. One time she won a hamburger eating contest. Follow her as "jaspaar" on Instagram.
Single Ben is the musical project of John McElwee. He originally hails from North Carolina and now calls Greenpoint, Brooklyn his home. He steals all of his lyrics. Follow him on Twitter.