THE ROLE PLAYER - COPPER SMITH
I’ll admit it: ’09 was a slow year; I got a few callbacks that went nowhere, a non-speaking bit part in a local feature and an in-store mascot gig that barely paid September’s phone bill. Other than that everything was drying up fast. Until I got a job in December that changed everything by bringing a few things into my life: Nina and murder. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It started when I got a call from my agent, Joyce. She told me about a new market opening up called Drama-Therapy Roleplaying. The idea is this: therapy patients – usually those who’ve just lost a loved one – often need help during the grieving process, can only get so much mileage out of couch talk, need a real person to hold, to hug, to beg forgiveness from. My job was to be that person, sometimes with a mustache or a New England accent.
The job didn't pay much and good luck putting it on a reel (apparently it is ‘inappropriate’ to have sessions videotaped) but it was a steady check and didn’t demand much time or rehearsal. Mostly patients just wanted another hour or two with Dad or Uncle Max or their late husbands, one last chat stolen from them by cancer or that car wreck. It was sad and draining and uncomfortable, but it was work.
And sometimes it was a wild ride.
One lady, let’s call her ‘Marie’ (real names being another ‘no-no’) wanted her late husband’s help with one last dinner – linguini and clam sauce, if I recall. I chopped the onions and kept the clam sauce at a boil, while she took care of the linguini and updated me on what those weirdos across the hall were probably up to. I guess that was their 'ritual.’
‘Amelia’ told me a cute story about little Zachary’s first game of the season then kicked me in the stomach and told me that she found "the magazines.’
‘Inga’, a willowy Scandinavian with empty eyes, just wanted to be held. I’ve had worse jobs.
And then in crept Nina. Clad in a blur of black, hair obscuring her eyes, chin seemingly stuck to her chest, Nina was bad news waiting to unfold. She swept her hair away and revealed two sullen eyes, already moist.
“I'm ready,” she announced.
But I wasn’t.
What followed was a two-hour upchucking of every angry demon that clawed away at her insides. She spoke of her abortion at 26 or 27 (well, somewhere during the Prozac to Zoloft transition years); the men who had betrayed her; the childhood she had surrendered; the inner peace she never found.
And she brought this nightmare to a pitch by bellowing herself hoarse with a refrain aimed at the heart of her dead husband:
“I am so sorry!”
“I am so sorry!”
“I am so, so sorry, my love!”
My role here was mostly reactive, pretend to understand what she was so sorry about and absorb her verbal blows like I deserved them. I tried to hold her, comfort her, but she pushed me back with a scowl that sent my eyes to the carpet. Then she screamed more with what little voice she had left.
Post-session sightings of patients in the parking lot were always awkward, so I learned to step to my car quickly when taking off for home. No eye contact, no chit-chat. Even a wave goodbye promised weirdness. But there she was, as if poised to cut off the b-line to my ’81 Ford Taurus. Just standing there, the dangling cigarette in her mouth almost all ash. She glared at the setting sun as if it had just touched her inappropriately. But still...
“Hello there, actor man,” she croaked.
“Yes, hello,” I answered, the jangling keys in my hand kind of a hint.
“You were very good.”
“Thanks, appreciate it, see you around sometime...”
“You want to go for a ride?”
But still. She was kind of cute. So...
Upon further inspection, she was kind of cute in the same way a tidal wave is kind of moist. She was stunning. With her face now framed – not half-hidden – by those dark wavy locks, and her dry eyes free to shine into mine, she had become a goddess, a star with an adoring audience of one.
We didn’t talk; we drove and smoked as the streak of L.A.’s nighttime lights littered the landscape. And then she pulled up to the crest of a hill that towered over expensive homes below and stopped.
“Do you like those houses, actor man?”
“Um... it’s Kyle.”
She turned, her gaze heating my neck.
“Yes, I like them.”
“So do I. That’s mine. Ours, I mean,” she said without pointing. “The Victorian stone.”
“Very nice,” I lied. Well, maybe it was, but from this distance it was a dollhouse.
“Two baths on the first floor, one on the second, marble floors, high ceiling.”
“Very nice,” I repeated, thinking, She brought me here for real estate talk?
And then thirty, maybe forty seconds of silence that felt like a rash. So I swiped away at it:
“Must be pretty pricey, this neighborhood.”
“It is. But money is not a problem for him.” Then correcting herself, “For us.”
Another rash. Her turn to swipe away:
“That’s why I married him. The money. I thought I was kind of in love, but not really.”
“Divorce sucks. But it happens.”
“Not to him.”
“But if it’s really not working out –”
“Not to him,” she repeated, this time through clenched teeth. “He would never let me get away.”
The picture was growing less murky now. But stupid me, I had to probe on:
“So... um, the dead husband..?”
“No. Not yet.”
She turned to me, a bird pecking at its cage, scared, desperate, flailing.
Maybe she then whispered, “Please…” or maybe I just imagined it. But I’m pretty sure the kiss was real, that lunge at my insides, her hands on my face, pulling me into her, then ripping away at my clothes, my apprehensions. She was on her third pack by then but she somehow tasted like everything except nicotine. She tasted like the softest, sweetest mistake I would ever make.
We pulled ourselves apart, dizzy and frightened of this mess we’d made, but still ready to race on. Still ready to take that dangerous next step. So we then talked about things without really talking about things – mainly through ‘what ifs.’
What if someone relieved her of the burden of this husband?
What if we could be together, free to finish what we started in the car?
What if something happened, an accident or a robbery while she was away? Something she knew nothing about.
Within minutes, the fog had lifted and the only question remaining was: where can I get a gun?
Three days later, Nina, frantic and without breath, called the police to report a robbery and a shooting. The assailant shot her husband twice in the chest and once in the face, grabbed what he could from his wallet and scrambled out into the night with Nina conveniently having her nails done across town. The plan was that she would meet me at one A.M. in the parking lot of that donut shop on Reynolds. I stayed until they swept up, checked my cell every thirty seconds, then got in my car and smoked for a while, trying to blot out that scream from a few hours earlier. The guy’s scream, as his eyes bulged and his chest curled upward, reaching for something, maybe for me, maybe for one last breath. He was a bad guy, I told myself, a selfish, violent husband who didn’t deserve another day alive. But goddamn that scream...
I waited another two hours.
I never saw her again.
I suppose you could say that what I did for Nina was either the stupidest or the noblest thing I’ve ever done; I either liberated her from a life of torture while sparing her the burden of a murderer’s guilt or I stamped her ticket to a place she was already headed anyway. Maybe I was special or maybe I just happened to be the dupe she selected. Who knows.
And other times when I think of Nina, not through the eyes of a victim or a co-conspirator, but as an actor, as a lover of the craft, I remember that scattered, breathy voice, those wounded, sunken eyes wordlessly screeching for help and I think to myself: Now that was a performance.
BIO: Copper Smith is a writer of crime fiction who lives in Minneapolis where he refers to himself in the third person and plays the mandolin like that makes him badass or something. Like everyone else in the world, he has a blog. Check out Uppercut Avenue.
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