by Elizabeth Sims
©Elizabeth Sims 2008
I filled my lungs with the stale, coffee-smelling air of the dungeon and let out a ragged howl that ricocheted off the cold walls. I closed my eyes and screamed again as every cell in my body writhed in a futile attempt to deny the horror that was being inflicted on me by the guy in glasses holding a small cardboard box that said DEATH.
The guy, who had introduced himself as Ned, stood to the side and brandished the box in his freckled hands. I decided to scream once more, this one a sharp, convulsive type of cry.
"Okay," said the casting director, a thin black woman with expressive hands named Míkenge. "Okay, Rita, please do it again, only"—she cupped her hands as if to suppress a flower growing—"this time donít shrink down. Get all taut and tall, like youíre going to break out of your skin." Upward release of hands.
I did so. I stood at attention, remembering I was supposed to be tied to a pole, put my hands behind my back—behind my butt, actually, which looks more like natural bondage because your shoulders arenít all hiked up—and arched my neck like Joan of Arc at the stake. Ned shook the box at me and I screamed.
When you take a breath to do a scream, you donít just grab a gulp of air and let go. You need to take the time to load your lungs all the way to the bottom. You need to pull all the slack from your diaphragm like youíd pull a bowstring in archery, and then and only then do you unleash that scream to its target, which is the red beating heart of every human within four miles.
I screamed, and it felt good. I was screaming well today. I ululated in the middle of this one—nothing fancy, just another jolt of emotion, just another ripple in the violent fabric of my horror. Iíd warmed up carefully.
This was a job I wanted. A job I needed. This was Evan Granger Jacksonís new teensploitation movie, Fingershredder II, sequel to Fingershredder, the low-budget instant-cult terror film you doubtless heard about or saw. If youíre a male age 13-17, youíve seen it three times.
The role I was trying out for was Student Teacher Who Gets Her Fingers Shredded Halfway Through the Script by the Evil But Understandably So Because of Childhood Abuse Sadistic Killer. The fingershredder.
So I screamed. I screamed my ass off, discharging the screams through relaxed vocal cords but tight external throat muscles as Sam Wojczyk had taught me in his acting class at UCLA.
I was lucky to have Ned standing there holding the cardboard box, because at least he was human. In case youíve never auditioned for pictures like this in Hollywood, you often donít have anybody playing opposite you. Youíre just there all alone in front of the casting director, maybe possibly a producer, an assistant with the clipboard who might also be running the video camera, and the empty coffee cups and scone wrappers of the day.
The cardboard box was a stand-in for the fingershredder device audiences came to know and love so well in the original. See, the fingershredding guy figures out pretty early in his career that paper shredders donít work well on fingers: they jam quickly, even the heavy-duty, government models. Plus he likes to shred other body parts too, then eventually the victim bleeds to death in terrible pain. So he invents this gadget using parts from a vacuum cleaner, a Cuisinart, and a walkie-talkie. Works great on the screen. A fiendish device, of course youíve seen stills of it in People and Teen and such. Iím surprised they didnít license miniatures of it for inclusion in Happy Meals.
"Okay, stop," said Míkenge. I had not met Míkenge before todayís audition, but Iíd carefully learned her name because thatís what a professional actress does. I feel unusual names are more important to remember than ordinary names, because people with unusual names have a bigger burden in life than the rest of us, in a small but important to them way.
An unusual name practically invites you to forget it. Míkenge pronounced her name Em-ken-gay. On the page Míkenge looks as if it might be pronounced Ma-keng-ee, which would make it sound Scots, which her parents surely could not have intended.
So Míkenge said stop. I looked at her attentively. She blew a breath down at the tabletop, then ran two fingers along the side of her skull as if trying to unzip a headache and let it out. Her head was one of those beautiful short-cropped African heritage ones, large smooth cranium, narrow jaw. She did not bother to smile. She was looking at me with intensity and thrilling dissatisfaction. Thrilling because she clearly wanted to help me get it right.
I so wanted to get it right.
"Rita, can you do it again, this time full-face to me. I know in this scene youíre supposed to be watching your student Melissaís fingers getting shredded, and then her tongue and all that, but now Iíd like you to scream as if your fingers were getting shredded. You were given pages for that scene, so letís try it, just the screaming part." She clenched one hand on her stomach and reached skyward with the other. "Bring it up from your gut, but not totally from there. Give me some highness, I guess what Iím trying to say is can you make it more piercing?"
"Yes," I said, my heart singing because she didnít say Thank you, next! If they ask you to do it different ways, they think you might be able to deliver exactly what they want.
"Make the hair on the back of my neck stand up."
I thought of the most horrifying thing in the world to me right then, which was getting my credit card declined again at the grocery store, which would mean I would have to sell Gramma Gladysís diamond brooch to buy cereal and juice boxes for Petey, and to prevent the landlord from evicting us.
So I imagined walking into Adilís Pawn America with that diamond-and-sapphire brooch, and all that it meant, and I felt not only frightened but angry, and I set my heels into the carpet of the soundproof audition room which was doubling today as a bloody dungeon, and I screamed and screamed again.
Plus usually for a film role youíre doing it in somebodyís office, not a casting studio, which are the cattle chutes between the herd of actors out there and the yearned-for slaughterhouse of TV commercials. The company that made the Fingershredder movies, Half Fast Pictures, however, rented studio space for these auditions because everybody in the offices would have gone insane listening to people screaming for days on end. Evan Granger Jackson liked to have lots of first audition tapes to look at.
We had already done an earlier scene with dialogue in it, not that there was lots in those movies. Which is what makes horror movies so much like pornos. Thereís not that much difference between "Please donít! Stop!" and "Please donít stop!" The scripts are interchangeable, itís only the action thatís different. Really, just listen sometime.
"Thank you," said Míkenge with finality in her voice, and I could tell she was disappointed. She crunched up one cheek wistfully. To me, an acting professional, it was the worst kind of disappointment, that tone that says, Man, this one just missed. Missed by that much. Next!
Of course they rarely say anything at the moment, they leave that for your agent. But I was experienced enough to know that tone; Iíd heard it so often.
Was my lifeís ambition to play supporting roles in teen horror flicks? No. But give me credit for not having stooped to doing porn, not that I have the body porn requires anyway—the Macyís parade tits, the lionís mane hair. Iíd had breast augmentation, but only one cup size, up to C from my God-given B, which I felt was necessary for the movies, but no way could I ever compete in porn.
I was a serious actress, and Iíd long known acting was the best path in life for me. But time had become my enemy: at this point I was 29 and grimly fighting the concept of 30. Thirty is what you never want to turn in Hollywood, let alone forty or worse. Time, frankly, was running out. My agent was getting me lots of auditions, because she still believed in me. But if you could convert auditions into car payments what a butt-sassy world Los Angeles would be.
I thanked Ned, I thanked Míkenge, I thanked Ellen the coffee-stained assistant. Thank you, thank you, they thanked me back and Ellen flipped my head shot to the bottom of the stack. I caught a glimpse of my face, spritely and wholesome above the collar of my crisp white blouse, then—flip—there was the next actressís face, spritely and wholesome, possibly just what they were looking for.
I passed her on the way out. Her head was high, shoulders back, confident smile ready. We exchanged friendly glances, because you never know who you might be asking for a job someday.
That night Petey and I ate the last can of Campbellís tomato soup and the last of the rice which came to three-fourths of a cup before cooking. I mixed it all together, put salt and pepper on it, and called it Spider-Manís Momís Special. God bless my boy, he was so hungry he ate it.
Petey was a Spider-Man maniac. He was four now. When he was three he was a Curious George maniac. When he was two he was a hit-the-rainbow-xylophone-until-Mommyís-ears-pour-blood maniac. I watched him eat and wondered what five would bring.
Precious boy. I saw his fatherís face in his miniature one: there were Jeffís gorgeous marine-blue eyes, Jeffís touchingly dimpled cheeks, Jeffís contemptuous upper lip. Would he take after his dad? Marry the cute girl next door, move to California for a dull job and start drinking a fifth a day and slapping her around?
I asked Petey that question with my eyes. He looked at me, swallowed a mouthful of the disgusting dinner I had prepared, and answered, "Noah at school? He pooped on the piano."
I hugged him. It was a quiet night.
FIRST CHAPTERS AND EXCERPTS:
The Rita Farmer Mysteries
The Lillian Byrd Crime Series