By Terrance Wedin
They kept us in the locker room before shooting. All thirty of us dressed in shoulder pads and football pants. One of the PAs came around with a box of jerseys. Our colors were maroon and gold that week. We were out near the airport, at an old football stadium that had been abandoned by one of the local high schools and turned into a fictional high school’s stadium, complete with decals and banners and paper signs covering the chain link fences enclosing the field. One side of the stands were filled, ready for action. The other side, empty. The backgrounds in the stadium were dressed in ponchos and holding umbrellas even though it was eighty degrees, clear skies. The rain machines craned their apparatus above the field. You made an extra dollar for a rain game, another four dollars if the shoot went past two in the morning. I needed the shoot to go late. I stuffed the pink sheet, the one the PAs signed before we left, in the waistband of my underwear. Lose it and you didn’t get paid.
We waited on wood benches for the AD with the headset to come grab us. Inspirational quotes and fake game clippings were posted on a corkboard. It was almost like real life. In big, blue letters above the door leading out to the field, it said: clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. Only a few people looked like they actually belonged in high school, let alone like they belonged anywhere near a football field. Back in Virginia, I’d played varsity in high school. Gunner, long snapper, wedge. Special teams. If I’d hit my growth spurt earlier, I probably could have played D-III, but I quit my junior year when I found Cassavettes and Truffaut and Stanislavski. A few of the reasons I’d ended up in Austin. I thought maybe I had something to say, too.
Some of the background knew each other from other shoots around Texas, from the previous seasons of the show. None of us had on cleats. We all had on dark tennis shoes like they told us to wear on the call sheet. But with our jerseys on we almost looked like a real football team.
“You see that call for the vampire thing in San Antonio?” one guy said.
“They’re looking for young,” another guy said.
“I heard they don’t pay like they do here.”
“The writer’s strike fucked all of us,” someone else said.
A few weeks before getting the background gig, I’d been driving a bobtail truck up and down I-35 delivering insulation to construction sites. They’d let me sleep outside the warehouse in my truck until I found a cheap room to rent. The economy was quietly collapsing, apparently. The word everywhere was ‘recession.’ But when I got hired to be background—based only on a photo someone had taken of me at a college party–I quit driving the next day. I thought if I went all in on the film thing it might work out. Most days it was seven dollars an hour, though. The days they needed me I spent sitting around a tent, reading and waiting and hoping someone noticed me. But most days they didn’t need me. I was too old to play a teenager in close ups. I spent those days searching for PA jobs on job boards and auditioning for student films. I told myself I was paying my dues, putting in the work. I made the final round of interviews to be a gopher for an Academy Award winning director, only to be the last one to get cut. My money was running out. The women at the boarding house I lived in was accusing me of stealing her conditioner. My diet switched to ramen, mac and cheese, spaghetti. Dollar burgers bought with dimes became a dietary staple. I called mom hoping she might help me make rent while I waited for a check, but all she could manage was to mail me a twenty-dollar bill. I gave plasma for the first time. I answered Craigslist ads I shouldn’t have answered. I questioned how far I would go to make ends meet, what I was capable of to keep surviving—there was nothing to go back to in Virginia.
The Assistant Director burst into the locker room like a real coach trying to hype us up, yelling, “It’s game day! It’s game day, boys!” The walkie-talkie clipped to his pants looked like it might fall off as he threw his arms up in the air. The background guys around me shot off the benches, yelling back.
“High energy boys! Real high energy! Conference finals, motherfuckers!” the AD shouted.
We weren’t the players taking the field. Those parts went to ex-Longhorns or arena football leaguers. We were back-ups. The players on the sidelines watching, filling the shot. And we weren’t even the background for the home team everybody watching the show wanted to win. Those guys were the A background, we were the B. “I got to dress for the Panthers in season one,” one of those guys on my bench had said. “Season two they moved me to the away team because I looked too old.”
“Bring it in, bring it in,” The AD said, waving us over to him. He had on a headset, a polo shirt like he was playing one of the coaches tonight.
The AD launched into his pre-game speech. Intensity, energy, emotion. Spit hung from his lip as he slapped a couple of the guys on the sides of their helmets. The helmet they gave me didn’t fit, so I held it by the facemask while I listened. The faces of the young men beside me were rapt, focused. They were young men who had gotten their shifts at work covered just to be there, young men who were waiting for someone to notice them, young men who all probably thought they had what it took to make it on television. Looking at all of them hang on the PA’s every word, I knew I didn’t have what it took to keep that hope alive, to keep that drive going, to wait for my break. I was hungry and scared and thousands of miles from home and home wasn’t a place I could go back to now that I was gone. I couldn’t fake it anymore. I didn’t want to live my life waiting for something that might never happen, though I didn’t know what else I would do.
They stormed the sideline, but I stayed behind. I stripped down in the locker room alone. Outside, the rain machine whirred, stormed. As I headed through the parking lot back to my truck, fans were still filing into the stands, pink pay stubs clutched in their hands. I drove back to the boarding house where I had a room paid up for another week.
A week after walking off the set, I ended up at the gate of an apartment building downtown. Another summer night, but I had my hoodie turned up so nobody could see my face, even though I didn’t know anybody in the city. I followed the instructions given to me in the email, pushed the button I’d been told to push to get inside. I didn’t bring my wallet. If they found me dead, I’d be hard to identify. But I told myself I could do it. Close my eyes and let it happen.
“Here,” I said.
The gate buzzed open.
A group of people stood around a swimming pool in the middle of the complex, smoking cigarettes and drinking. A man on an inflatable donut tilted his beer toward me as I passed. “Thirsty?” he asked. I didn’t respond, just kept walking the route described in the last email. Up two flights of stairs, down a hallway, then to the door number. I walked past it once, then twice. Sober, my heart spun. If something went wrong, I could defend myself. But I couldn’t shake the thought of my mother getting a strange call from a police officer about her oldest son, states away, mutilated. The ad, the guy, seemed legit, real. Legitimized more by the downtown apartment. The money on the counter would be the real test.
I knocked on the door, then opened it as instructed. The apartment was dark, the only light coming from the streets below. There were two sets of bills fanned on the counter, but I only took one of them. I pulled my shorts down, as instructed. Techno music played lightly from a stereo somewhere. I heard him, a scuffling of feet on the concrete floor. Then his figure appeared out of one of the rooms, small and thin and naked. His skin looked grey in the room dark. His face was obscured, dark. Like the outline of a person, instead of a person. He walked slowly toward me. He had a ski mask pulled over a pair of sunglasses, only a hole for his mouth to be exposed. His teeth were straight and bleach white. He stopped in front of me, breathing heavily, examining me. Without saying a word, he kneeled.
When we finished, he got up and went to one of the rooms. A light popped on, then off. A faucet ran. I pulled my shorts up and took the second set of bills off the counter, as instructed. I opened the door and went back into the hallway.
Two hundred dollars.
I fanned the bills out on my desk that night. I told myself it was a one-time thing. I was living in a new city where nobody knew me.
A few weeks later, I delivered magazines out of the back of my truck. I worked at an after-school program for a few weeks before it got shut down. I donated more plasma. I got a job washing dishes at a vegetarian restaurant. I kept going back to the apartment, again and then again. Every time I told myself it would be the last. I did what I had to keep eating, keep surviving. The dream of acting that I’d moved to Austin with became a sketchy memory, and before long it became so blurry I couldn’t see it anymore, couldn’t remember why I’d wanted it or what it was in the first place. And for a long time after that all I wanted to do was survive.
Terrance Wedin is a bartender and an adjunct instructor at Columbus College of Art and Design. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, Hobart, Washington Square Review, and other publications.