The Mouse's Petition
When I was both extremely heartbroken and unemployed, I
took up acting.
Not the Shakespearean kind, or even the kind that required any sort of
convincing performance, but extra work. There was a production studio just
outside of Austin that was in the middle of filming the second season of a
teen drama, on their way to being canceled, but they didn't know that. Did
I was twenty-four at the time and I responded to a Craigslist ad looking for
extras to stock the hallways of the fictional EastLake High. I thought, I
can do high school. I can play sixteen. I can play awkward and filled with
endless longing. I said, I can do doleful and friend-zoned and ghosted with
the best of them, and the woman in charge of wardrobe handed me a purple
V-neck sweater and said, "That's fine. Just as long as you can do it
quietly. Extras don't talk."
After Esther and I had broken up, I'd moved into a studio apartment in
Austin's Southside. I was fired two weeks after that from Tango Systems for
mostly innocent chatting with a cam-girl on a company computer. When I
didn't have to go to the grocery store, I could spend an entire day without
saying anything to anyone. Without so much as hearing the sound of my own
voice. For a $75 flat fee, there was no person more capable of suffering in
silence than me, so the production company was getting a great deal.
There wasn't a lot to be done as an extra. There were no meetings or
quarterly reports or agonizing emails to send. There was just a lot of
waiting in the wings for a production assistant to tap the small of your
back and tell you which route to walk. Go to those lockers. Go there to the
water fountain and then to the left. I wondered how, in my history of
thousands upon thousands of hours of television consumption, I had never
noticed how the extras in the background simply went nowhere. When I asked
the director about this during lunch, which was catered by Orozco's, a
Mexican place in north Austin where Esther and I had gone to happy hour on
many occasions, he just said, "We're on a set. If you walk too far, then
you'll end up in a different show."
I wasn't sure if he was trying to relay some more important message to me,
perhaps about life and lemons and love, so I just nodded and piled my plate
high with orange rice.
Toward the end of the day, I was given the assignment of talking to another
fictional student who reminded me a lot of Esther with her wild brown curls
that frizzed atop her head. According to the PA who came around dabbing oil
from our foreheads, our motivation for the scene was "putting books into our
lockers before class started."
When the director yelled action, it was important to not do two things: 1.
Look directly into the camera as it passed and 2. Make any noise. I didn't
know the name of the girl I was acting with, but she was really good at
pretending. She flipped through the pages of an anthology of English
Literature as if it were more than just a prop, as if it really belonged to
her, as if she were actually interested in something so obviously cumbersome
and so clearly tedious.
We had to reshoot that locker scene over and over and over again. The lead
actors kept fudging their lines, but I didn't mind. I just kept saying
nothing to this girl who wasn't Esther. She went through the motions of
opening the locker and closing the locker and opening the book and flipping
through the pages while I simply smiled along, but on what must have been
the fifth or sixth take, I started moving my lips too.
I told her that I missed her. I asked why she hadn't texted me back. I said
that I had things that I desperately needed to tell her. I asked if we could
meet up at Orozco's for margaritas and talk things over. She smiled
enthusiastically and touched my wrist and pointed to a line from a poem that
I had never heard of called "The Mouse's Petition," and the scene repeated
itself with only minor variations, almost in perpetuity, that is, until it
came to an end.
Matt Jones is a graduate of the University of Alabama MFA program in Creative
Writing. He's got work in or coming from Post Road, The Atlantic, Slice
Magazine and others.
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