John Martin, 2/24/2014

Current Occupation: Technical Writer
Former Occupation: Creative Services Manager
Contact Information: John Martin has been working as a writer and editor for the past 30+ years, writing everything from technical instruction manuals to poetry.  He is currently employed at a large worldwide company as a technical writer, but also takes on editing work as his schedule allows.  In his spare time, he writes short stories and poetry while pursuing passionate interests in psychology, gourmet cooking, and bird watching. His work has previously appeared in Per Contra, Bias Onus Quarterly, Black Lantern Publishing, The Externalist, and most recently in the November 2013 issue of Curbside Splendor.
 

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Second Cadaver

    “If you could maybe just give me a chance,” Trudy Durand repeated her plea, hoping that this last show of desperation might prompt the director to pull his eyes away from her file.  If you can’t at least get them to look you straight in the eye, to see that you’re human, you’re lost.  You’ve got nothing.

    “Believe me,  I’d like to be able to offer you more, but the budget’s already set, the speaking parts have all been cast,” the director explained without sympathy, still avoiding her gaze.  He clearly preferred ogling over the stills in her file because he had not looked at her once.  “Do you want it or not?  It’s still good paying work.”

    Trudy flashed a brave smile.  “A girl’s got to live, right?”

    “Don’t we all?” the director said wearily, handing her back her file.  “It’s a fickle business—you never know when things could take a turn in your favor.  Talent?  Pshaw.”  The director uncurled the fingers of his right hand, making an explosion.  “We’ve got talent out the wazoo.  It’s that little something extra—that’s what we’re all looking for.  Magic.  The holy grail of the movie business.  Keep at it honey.  Looks aren’t the problem.  You’ve got plenty of looks.”

 

    Thanking the director for his time (never let them think for even a minute you’re not grateful, even when they’ve just handed you shit), Trudy returned to the waiting room to check in with the receptionist.  “Do we have all your contact information?”

    “I’m in the system.”

    “Shooting starts on the twentieth.  We’ll be in touch with specifics.”

 

    Trudy was in tears by the time she arrived home.

     “Didn’t get the part?” Nathan asked as she burst into the apartment.  Trudy slammed her purse down and fell with a “hrump” onto the sofa.

    “No, I got the part.”  Trudy sniffed.  “You know—I was just hoping for something better.”

    “Did they ask you to read?  Or did they just look over your file?”  Trudy and Nathan had been living with each other for the past two and a half years, and Nathan had learned in that time all the right questions to ask, and the right ways to react to the unavoidable vicissitudes of the movie business.  It was so much more capricious than his own line of work—computer sales.       

    “The director said that all of the speaking parts had already been cast.”

    “So why did they even need you to come in?  So he could look at your tits?”  Now Nathan was angry.  Passing over his question (these discussions always went better when she kept the conversation focused on the immediate event, instead of his feelings about it), she told him she would be making more money than she had on her last picture.  “At least that’s some kind of progress.”

    “What’s this one called?” Nathan asked, meaning the name of the character she would be playing.

    “Second cadaver.”

    “Second?” Nathan scoffed.  “Who are they getting to play the first?  Julia Roberts?”

    Trudy felt something go tight in her throat.  “It’s not important,” she assured him, wondering if in fact this were true.  A possible inscription for her tombstone flashed before her eyes:

Much the same in death, as she was in life 

     Seeing the effect this question had had on her confidence, Nathan quickly shifted to damage-control. “You’re too good an actress to play these kinds of bit parts your whole life.  Hey, the office is looking for a new receptionist.  Interested?  We just gave the latest girl a promotion.”

    “Funny.”  She hoped he wasn’t serious.  Nathan went to the refrigerator and pulled out two beers.   “No one wants you to succeed more than I do,” he assured her, though she could tell he was determined not to let go the matter go just yet.  “It just seems to me that in a profession like yours, you have to decide when the time has come to call it quits, you know?  It’s not, like, well, computer sales—where just showing up is almost enough.  I may have a good year, I may have a bad one, but at least they don’t turn their backs on me at the first sign of trouble.”

    Should she bring up the fact that he’d been laid off twice in the last four years?  Somehow, she knew it was still different. “I know.  But what else I would do?  Acting is all I know.  I’ve invested my whole life in it.  Shouldn’t that count for something?”

    “I don’t know, babe.  I think maybe you’re asking the wrong person.  I agree, it should count—it is experience, after all.  But it doesn’t seem to work in quite the same way, at least not in this line of work.”  Popping the tops off the two beers, Nathan came and sat down beside her.  “Maybe that is the problem.  You’re expecting it to work in exactly the same way as it does everywhere else.  You’re expecting it to be fair.  Clearly, it’s not—not by a long shot.”

    Trudy still remembered the first time she’d been asked by a director if she had had any experience playing cadavers.  Dismissing his question perhaps a little too readily (back in those days, she hadn’t yet realized that whenever a director asked you a question, no matter how ridiculous, you always answer respectfully—that is, if you are serious about getting the part), he’d proceeded to give her pointers—how to breathe without moving, when it was all right to blink, and when not.  Most difficult of all was learning how to be handled and probed without registering a reaction—particularly when the film called for the ME (medical examiner) to examine her breasts, or probe the hollow areas of her abdomen.  The first time they’d touched her, she’d giggled—how could she help it? But eventually, once she’d experienced the heat of the director’s impatience, been given “the talk,” she’d learned quickly enough that even to play dead in a film was serious business.

    She’d become an expert of sorts, at least when it came to playing cadavers.  Which meant that directors expected a certain professionalism from her, that she was someone who could be counted on to play the part without a lot of direction.  It may not have been fame, but at least it represented some measure of professional recognition…however small that might be.

    “So my agent, he calls me and tells these people are interested in meeting me.  That’s all he says.  I don’t know why I didn’t ask for more details.  No, I know exactly why I didn’t.  Because I needed the work.  And, hearing that someone was interested in me—it doesn’t happen all that often, you know?

    Trudy braced herself for the punch line.  After so many years of meeting together, even the way everyone in the group finished a story followed a predictable pattern.

    “So what happened?”

    “To make a long story short—turned out to be one of those toilet paper commercials.  You know, the real uew kind of ones, where they talk about that really clean feeling!”

    “Uew!” everyone repeated, in unison.  “You took the part, right?”

    “Are you kidding? Of course I took it.”

    Hearty laughter all around.

    “I did one of those gigs once.  The strangest thing of all was how, when the executive types all dropped on to the set, this kind of hush fell over the room.  You might have thought we were doing a public service announcement for literacy instead of a commercial for toilet paper.”

    “So, what else is going on?” Ronnie, the acknowledged leader and organizer of the group, asked the rest of the members.  “Any leads?  Success stories?”

    Trudy hesitated.  Should she tell them about her next gig?  She didn’t know if she could bear to see the expressions of sympathy that would no doubt come onto their faces—really?  Another cadaver?

    “Trudy.  I heard through the grapevine that you might have landed something.  Did I hear right?”

    “Shooting starts on the twentieth.”  Polite applause.  “It’s another cadaver, but hey, it’s still work, right?”

    “If they gave out awards, you’d take the statue, for sure.”

    Later, as Trudy stood waiting in line at the counter for a fresh teabag, Kevin Marx, an actor who’d been getting a lot of buzz around town for the part he’d just landed as one of the leads in a new detective drama on NBC, came into the shop to order a latte.  “Kevin Marx, right?  I’ve seen you in here before.  Congrats on that great part you just landed.  Must be a relief—steady work and all.”

    “It must be,” he noted disdainfully, turning away from her to put in his order.

    “Maybe you’d like to sit in with our group,” she persisted, deciding to be generous and give him the benefit of the doubt.  “We’re just a bunch of actors, like you, trying to make a go of it.  It helps to get over those rough patches, you know, when you start to question this crazy business we’re in,” she noted, batting her eyes at him.  “It sure would be nice if you could share a few insider tips with us.”

    “I can’t really stay,” he told her in a tone of voice just as conceited as before.  Noting her disappointment, he visibly softened, saying, “Are you working anywhere now?  I’ll keep an eye out for you.”

    “Between jobs,” she replied, dipping her teabag into her cup. 

    “Corinne. Hi.  I’ll be doing your make-up today.  Know the drill?”

    “More or less,” Trudy assured her, her eyes darting about the set.  “Is it full body, or partial?”

    “Full body.”

    Trudy nodded.  Full body meant she had to strip down to just panties.   The producers might later decide to edit out the frames showing the sensitive parts, but they wanted to leave their options open.  “What’s the killer’s MO?”

    “Strangles ‘em.  With his bare hands.  You can change over there.  There are some gowns in the dressing room.”

    Bare hands meant a particular pattern of bruising about the throat.  “Anything else?  Signs of assault?  Defensive wounds?”

    “Nothing they’ve told me.  But I’ll check with the writers before we get started.”

    When Trudy was done in the dressing room, she returned to the make-up station and situated herself on the work table that Corinne had prepared for her.  “Listen, if it gets too cold, just let me know, and I can fetch you a blanket.”

    “Thanks.”

    “We’ll start with the throat and work our way down.  Turns out they want to add a little bruising around the thighs.  Possible rape.”

    “Nice.”

    “What a way to make a living, right?”

    For the next hour, Trudy lay stretched out on the table while Corinne transformed her into the “Hollywood Strangler’s” second victim.  Mentally, it was a weird place to go, visualizing those final frightened moments of the victim’s final minutes on earth, chased into an alley or assaulted on a dark street.  Sometimes the mental experience of projecting herself into such places gave her a weird, sick sort of feeling that lingered for hours—as if it had really happened to her.

    “Ladies.”  Trudy turned her head.  “This is Tyler Charles,” the director told her.  “He’ll be doing your exam.  I wanted him to get familiar with, with, the evidence.”

    “Trudy.”  Tyler offered his hand.

    “Nice to meet you.”

    “I hope this won’t be too awkward.  I just wanted to take myself through the script one time before we started shooting.”

    “No problem.”

    Tyler leaned over her now and examined her throat with intense concentration.  “Do you mind?” he asked, turning her chin toward the light.

    Trudy obliged him.

    “Nice work,” he said to Corinne.  “What’s this all about?” he asked, pointing at the eyes.

    “Tears.  Causes the eye-makeup to run. “

    “Of course.”

    She felt him move down to the end of the table, where he stood for a moment and examined, she guessed, her thighs.  It was in moments like these when she had to ask herself, what have I signed myself up for?  This is a job?  In which definition of that word does it imply that I agree to be treated like a thing, like an object?  And then she remembered.  It was in every definition of the word.  It had never been any different.  “Well, see you out on the set.  Nice meeting you.”

    And he was gone.  That’s when she realized she had been holding her breath. 

* * * * *

    Whenever the studio started asking for rewrites, it almost always meant that the heads of production had begun to question the film’s chances of recouping the studio’s initial investment.  For Trudy, what it usually meant was that her few minutes of fame were in serious danger of being cut from the film. 

     Word of this latest development had come to her not from any official spokesperson for the film, but from the guy who’d performed her autopsy, who’d heard it from one of guys in the crew who lived in his building.  He asked if she wouldn’t mind meeting for coffee, and because commiserating with a fellow actor in misery was better than sitting around worrying how to make the next month’s rent, she agreed.

    “I almost didn’t recognize you when you came in,” Tyler said to her once she’d sat down.

    “Probably never looked at my face,” she said, sarcastically referring to their initial meeting.

    “Touché.  Guess I walked right into that one.”

    “I couldn’t resist.”

    “I actually did think you were taller.”

    “Don’t you think you’d better leave it alone?”

    Tyler asked if she had any leads.  To be nice, she told him of a few open auditions she’d heard about, which he dutifully asked her to repeat so he could pretend to commit them to memory.  “How long you been at this?” he asked.

    “About ten years I guess—give or take.”

    “Wow, you’ve been at it awhile.”

    “You mean for someone with as little to show for it as I have?”

    “Kind of touchy, aren’t you?” Tyler asked before turning thoughtful and softening his approach.  “You never really do know if you’ve arrived, do you?  It’s always, maybe the next one.  Or the one after that. We all keep pushing that rock up the hill and thinking it’s progress—never realizing that the rock will eventually roll back and crush us.”

    “Is that supposed to mean something to me?” Trudy asked, sensing a subtext.

    “Sisyphus, you know, the dude with the boulder?”  Trudy shrugged.  She might have wished she were more culturally literate, if ‘culturally literate’ had meant anything to her in the first place.  “I don’t know about that,” she said.  “All I know is that I can’t give up.  Because the moment I do, that’s when it’s over.”

    “Right,” Tyler agreed, rolling his eyes.  “Do you think people like Brad Pitt and George Clooney or, in your case I guess, Julia Roberts ever feel the same way—always just one film away from obscurity?”

    They both paused a moment to consider the likelihood of such an unimaginable circumstance.  “Probably not.  Because at least they have the work in the can.  That’s something no one can ever take away from them—even if they do stop making films.”

    “Having a legacy—that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?  A for effort—do you suppose that counts as well?”

    Trudy laughed.  Then, seeing the look of confusion on Tyler’s face, added, “Wait.  Were you serious?”

    Whenever Trudy found herself between gigs, she made it a point to check in with all the people she’d worked with over the years—either through Facebook or, if she’d given them a tip that had led to actual work, she might even call them, to see if they might be in a position to return the favor.

    As she scrolled through the numbers saved on her phone, she came across one she didn’t at first recognize—until she said the name softly aloud to herself, at which point she remembered with a shudder the circumstances under which she’d met this particular girl, a girl who, she later found out, had been working in porn up for most of her film career, but with the audition they’d both attended, had been given a chance to go “mainstream” and transition to studio work.

    The surprising thing was, she never would have imagined such a thing just to look at her.  As they’d sat in the waiting room that very first day for their turns with the director, they’d struck up a conversation, as people of similar age and profession are wont to do, which then led to lunch and an invitation back to the girl’s apartment.  Trudy had been impressed by the girl’s place, particularly the elegance of the few furnishings she’d allowed herself.  “I like your place.”

    “Thanks,” Lizzie replied, accepting the complement.  “I’m adding to it as I go.  I think it’s important—having a plan.”

    “I can see that.  You have excellent taste.”

    Lizzie looked around the room, as though she were seeing it for the very first time.  “I know what I like, that’s all.  It’s an indulgence I allow myself.  You have to do that for yourself, I think.  It makes up for all the other really shitty parts.”

    Trudy laughed.  “Quite a few shitty parts, are there?”

    “There’s enough.”  Lizzie had looked at her then as if she were trying to decide if Trudy could handle an especially bad piece of news.  “I should tell you—before you find out on your own, people always do, somehow—most of the work I’ve done up until now has been in porn.”  She waited a minute for the weight of this revelation to register before she continued.  “I don’t know what you’ve heard, about porn, but it’s probably not anything like you imagine.”

    “Better, or worse?” Trudy asked, grateful that she could manage to think of anything to say at all.  Instinctively, she glanced at the door to assure herself she could still get out.

    “A little of both, I guess.  The money’s pretty good.  The work, well, I imagine you’d probably prefer I not get into that.”  Lizzie gave her a knowing look.  “I’ll tell you one thing—once you’ve had sex in front of a camera, you can do anything in front of a camera.”

    “I’m sure you’re right about that,” Trudy admitted, remembering the pain of her own first few auditions, until she’d understood that what was probably the world’s most self-conscious profession required a masterful ability to stand in front of a camera without looking self-conscious.

    “You have to be careful, that’s all.  The people you meet in the business, most are good people—others, not so much.  This director,” she said, indicating their audition from that afternoon with a jerk of her head, “we go a ways back, and he’s a good guy.  No worries there.”

    “Really?  He’s worked in porn too?  I never would have guessed.”

    “You say ‘porn’ like it’s a box on an ethnicity questionnaire.”  Lizzie laughed.

    “Sorry.  Still getting used to the idea, I guess.”

    And so it had gone, with the initial camaraderie between them evolving into a guarded sort of friendliness where they both understood that particular segments of Lizzie’s life were definitely off limits.  And although they remained friends for a while after working together on that one film, Trudy’s own take on the experience was that the work had not been as satisfying as she would have liked—or desired.  For while you couldn’t exactly have called it a porn film, it definitely met the criteria for exploitation, replete with gratuitous nudity, a threadbare plot, and enough unsavory characters on set and off that she’d come to understand what people meant when they said, “He made my skin crawl.”  It was a role that she still left off her resume.

    “Lizzie?  It’s Trudy.  Hi.  How are you doing?”

    “How? Or did you say ‘what’?”

    Trudy wished she’d ask what.  “How, of course.  It’s been awhile.”

    “No kidding.  Oh, it’s been fine. I’m doing all right, I guess.  How about you?  Hey—didn’t I see you on an episode of NCIS last month?”

    “That was me,” Trudy admitted.  “Very good.  Not many people could tell it was me.”

    “Guess I was paying attention.  Yay me. ”

    The ease with which they fell into conversation made Trudy remember why they’d hit it off so quickly with that first film, and why she was suddenly regretful and a little ashamed that she hadn’t kept in touch.  “Will you be part of my cheerleading squad?”

    “What’s it pay?”

    “Nothing, I’m afraid.  I’m between gigs again.”

    “Work’s a bitch, isn’t it?  Say, I don’t know if you’d be interested or not, but a producer friend of mine is getting ready to start shooting on a new film he’s making—I could give him your name, put in a good word for you if you want.”

“That would be great.”  The words were out of her mouth before she’d considered how best to respond to another of Lizzie’s offers to help.  Should she probe further?  Not unless she was ready to give up this contact.  Besides, she thought, I can take care of myself, can’t I?  Haven’t I been around long enough to know what kind of work to accept, and what to turn down?  “What’s the film about?” she asked, the safest and most legitimate question she could think of to ask.

“I’m not sure, really.  I think it’s an action picture, but other than that, I don’t know.”

“You said the producer’s a friend of yours?”

“Yeah, I did a couple of pictures with him.  The last one—maybe you saw it?—‘Heart of a Champion’?—anyway, I guess it did pretty well.  I hear he’s trying to get Nick Cage for this latest film.  Must be a lot better connected than he was when I worked with him.  He must be doing something right.”

“Nick Cage?”  The chance to appear in a film with a real box office draw would certainly give whatever part she was given a lot more traction.  “Sounds pretty choice.  Why aren’t you auditioning?”

“I’m shooting on location in Montana in a couple of weeks.  Otherwise, I would.”

“Do you have a number for this guy?”

Trudy was scheduled to meet with the producer the next afternoon, to talk over the parts that still remained to be cast and to go over his ideas for the film.  Trudy had never been invited to discuss anything about any of the films she’d ever appeared in.  Her job had always been just to show up, and do whatever they told her.  The fact that this producer, whose name was Todd Silverman, wanted to hear her ideas made her wonder (dare she wonder?) if maybe this would become the breakthrough role she’d been waiting for—the one to finally catapult her into the big time.

“Trudy, come on in, thanks for coming.”  Todd shook her hand.  “Have a seat,” he said, passing his hand over the chairs arranged in front of his desk.  “So you’re a friend of Lizzie’s, eh?”

“We did a picture together,” Trudy explained, openly allowing her gaze to take in the room and all the various posters and photographs that covered the walls.  She couldn’t make out all of the faces that she saw, but a few she did recognize.  One in particular she would have sworn was Mark Wahlberg.  “I actually hadn’t talked to her in a while, but when she told me about this picture, I just had to call.  It all sounds so exciting.”

“That’s cute,” Todd said, combing his fingers back through his hair.  Todd was a very large man whose physical presence was as imposing as the energy that exuded from him.  He was obviously used to making things happen—and respected those who could match his ambition.  “Well, let me tell you a little bit about this picture we’re making.”

It all sounded like standard action picture set ups—hit men, ties with the mob, police corruption—but in his hands, it all seemed vital and interesting again.  “Does that sound like the kind of picture you’d be interested in?”

“It sounds amazing.  When do I start?”

“The part I have in mind for you—I should probably tell you about it, shouldn’t I?”  He laughed.  “The character who heads up the mob—the big boss, if you will—has a daughter.  I’m thinking, now that I’ve seen you, that you could play his daughter.  You’d actually be perfect for it.”

“So it’s a speaking part?” Trudy asked, bracing herself for the ‘yes’ she felt sure she would hear.

“Well,” he said, tilting his head in an apologetic way, “not exactly.  In the opening sequence, the daughter is gang raped by members of the rival family. So it’s critical, of course, because it puts the plot of the whole film into motion.  Without the rape, there’s no picture.”

Trudy felt a terrible raw sickness in the pit of her stomach.  “And how graphic?” she croaked.

“Oh, it needs to be graphic.  Otherwise, it doesn’t work.  I really need to deal the audience a jolt.  It sets the tone, you know what I mean?”  Todd paused to study the look on her face.  “Lizzie said you were a real pro.  I didn’t think this kind of thing would be a problem for you.  Is it a problem, Trudy?”

“It’s a problem.”

    As luck would have it, just about the time Trudy found herself down to her last box of macaroni and cheese, the people from the picture that had been in the throes of a major rewrite called her up to tell her that she was still in the picture, that she had been promoted to First Cadaver, and would she be able to come into the studio to shoot a new autopsy scene?

    So maybe things really do work out in the end she said to herself, happy to accept this bit of good fortune.  The feelings might not last past the end of the week, but for now, they were enough, and for that, she was grateful.

    “We’ll just start with the face, at least for now,” Corinne told her, applying the base to her skin.  “No bruises or cuts for now.  Don’t you feel fortunate?”

    “You have no idea,” Trudy confessed.  “I’m just so happy to be back here, on this set.  I really have a good feeling about this, I don’t know why.  God knows I shouldn’t.”

    Corinne addressed the reflection of her face in the mirror.  “No reason why you shouldn’t.  Everyone’s entitled once in a while.”

    As Corinne worked on her face, Trudy studied the workings of the crew as they moved about the set.  The director, noting her curiosity, came over and welcomed her back, saying in a half-joking way that no one he’d worked with could bring a cadaver to life the way she could.  Everyone was feeling pleased and relieved to be working again. When Tyler noticed her talking with the director, he came over as well, placing a warm hand on her shoulder and confessing his relief at seeing her back.

    “You really think they could find someone to play a cadaver the way I could? Talent like this, well, let’s just say it doesn’t come along every day.  I see you’re still doing the autopsy,” she said, noting the lab coat.

    “Not everyone knows their way around a dead body the way I do.  Our director here, the guy really knows a professional when he sees one.”

    Accepting the complement with a smirk, the director excused himself to talk to the cameraman. 

    “Seriously, though, it’s great to see you back.  Did you turn anything up since I last talked to you?”

    “I was chasing a lead for a while,” Trudy admitted, thinking back to that distasteful moment when the particulars of the part Todd Silverman had wanted her to play had become clear to her, and she had been forced, as on so many other occasions in her career, to choose personal safety over a paycheck.  “The guy just didn’t feel right to me, you know?   But then, it’s always a judgment call, isn’t it?  When you’re lying half naked out there for everyone to see, the integrity of the people you’re working with seems to matter a lot more than if you were, say, making burgers.  One guy tells you to take off your clothes, and you don’t even give it a thought.  And then someone else tells you the exact same thing, and alarms go off.  I don’t know.  Kind of a crazy way to make a living.”

    “What else have we got?  It’s not like we’re willing to do anything else. ”

    Trudy nodded approvingly.  Having given up on the idea of having any sort of conventional life a long time ago, she’d come to realize that unless the work that she did could have the potential to move another human being, then she would never be able to care about it.  The temptations of an orthodox, unremarkable life were simply not persuasive enough.

“First cadaver!  First cadaver on the set!”
“That’s my cue.” Handing the smock she’d been wearing back to Corinne, Trudy lifted herself out of the chair and walked out onto the set, naked as a baby, but proud as any women could be.  After all, this was her destiny. 

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