Amber Burke lives and writes on a small horse ranch in Coyote, New Mexico. Her stories and essays have been published in the The Sun, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Raleigh Review, Essays and Fictions, Devilfish Review, Escapeintolife, Apt, Spelk, and The Pinch, among others. A yoga teacher since 2006, she regularly contributes to Yoga International. She is a graduate of Yale and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA program, and was for a time an actress in New York and L.A.
Shooting Day #1
She’s on the brink of something, she can feel it; her life is once again about to change and become a new life. A half-hour ago, at her calltime of 5:15 a.m., Tessa, who hadn’t been near a set until today, had been wandering around the dark Upper East Side street that was closed to traffic, bustling with crew, trying to divine which of the white trailers she belonged in, when a big red-headed man wearing a silver jacket and carrying a clipboard—“the second-second,” as he introduced himself— intercepted her and sent her here, to hair and makeup, where she was soon joined under the bright lights by Marcia Buckfinch.
The lead actress had introduced herself to Tessa warmly, as if Tessa, as if anyone with a TV, didn’t know her name already, and Marcia is now—thrillingly-- sitting in the next chair over, talking about her newborn to the hairstylist, a tidily pretty woman who’s already directed a few alarmed glances at Tessa’s shadowy scraggle of hair.
Tessa is wondering if she should talk to the man doing her makeup, but he seems intent upon covering her blemishes, and she doesn’t know what to talk about. In truth, she doesn’t want to say anything, wants simply to hear the husky tones of Marcia Buckfinch’s voice in her ears and feel the soft blush brush against her cheeks and the warmth of the lights rimming the mirror while the makeup artist transforms her face--egg-shaped, sweet-looking but harrowed, something rough about her skin, like she’s been short a vitamin her whole young life—into a face that the world will see. She wants nothing more than to have people look at her one day the way she keeps looking over at Marcia, sneaking glances. It’s hard not to stare, like taking little bites of a candy bar when you’re hungry.
“Sweetie, close your eyes,” the makeup artist says with a hint of impatience.
Tessa is the happiest she can remember being. She’s been in New York less than a year--she’s not even nineteen yet--and already she has her first part, and it’s not something stupid; she’s not in a student film; not in commercial for tampons; not playing a prostitute for cable TV. She has a week of work as a guest star on a prime-time crime drama, playing a kidnapped high schooler, a part that, as her agent had put it, would really let her spread her wings. The usual pleasures of acting-- being someone else, knowing exactly what’s coming next--are in this moment trumped by the feeling that with this role she’s showing everyone. She’s showing the acting teacher who said she wasn’t ready. She’s showing the manager at the restaurant on St. Mark’s who treated her like dirt. She’s showing all those people in North Dakota who regarded her with smirks when she’d said, as a little girl, that she was going to go to New York to be an actress when she grew up. Most of all, she’s showing her stepfather, who didn’t think she was worth shit: she hopes he gets to watch TV in the prison she’s never visited, never will.
And Tessa is happy because of how the universe is showing itself to be governed. Though everything that happened the year before last was terrible beyond expression, maybe she wouldn’t be here if things had happened otherwise. Maybe what she went through earned her this moment, had been some vast price she’d had to pay for the opening of this door. In a very real way, the tragedy she’d endured had made her life in New York possible; she wouldn’t have had the insurance money otherwise. “Tessa Vogelmeier. Vogelmeier, why does that name sound familiar?” the teller at the bank had asked, the teller who obviously had not lived in Jamestown long. Tessa had flushed. “I don’t know,” she’d said, putting the thousands in cash she’d withdrawn into her duffel bag, robber-quick. It had been enough to get her the first-floor studio in Hell’s Kitchen she’d found listed on her second week in New York. Not knowing anyone, not knowing better, she’d been hemorrhaging money staying in a hotel, and that was the first apartment in her price range that wasn’t a shithole. She’d run past everyone in the long line, past all those people who evidently didn’t know what they wanted, or didn’t want it that badly, shouldered her way in through the just-opening door, and dropped the duffel bag full of cash at the landlord’s feet. “A year’s rent,” she’d said. He’d given the place to her, sent everyone else away, and Tessa had flushed with pride at what her daring had yielded. While she looked for a job waiting tables, she didn’t mind eating ramen, sleeping like a cat on a pile of her clothes on the floor, moving a single lightbulb from room to room, didn’t mind the mice running rings around the stovetop burners; it was all part of a story she would tell on a late-night show someday. (The apartment was still stark, not even curtains to cover the bars on the windows. Why bother? Once she got her break, she’d move somewhere better.)
And, because of what Tessa had gone through, she had reserves from which to draw the blackest despair. Her teacher at the Actors’ Studio in Chelsea had advised people to imagine something from their past when they needed to cry--think of the shirt button you stared at in a moment of crisis, use that for a “trigger.” She’d scoffed. Let everyone else diligently fill the pockets of their imagination with buttons; let them work and work to squeeze out a tear or two. She had oceans of tears, just waiting for the right audition; oceans of material from which to draw them. She’d quit after just a few classes. Her teacher had told her to be careful, told her she had no technique. “Some material’s too hot to use,” he said, and she’d regretted telling him as much as a she had.
“All I have to do, whenever I need to be happy from now on, is just imagine how I felt when they first put her in my arms,” Marcia is saying to the hairstylist.
“You’re done,” the makeup artist tells Tessa, who opens her eyes and is surprised to find that with all this makeup on, she looks younger, smoother. She’s a child again.
The door opens with a whoosh of pre-dawn fall air. It’s the director, a short man with a protective beard. He welcomes Marcia back from her maternity leave, congratulates her, promises to get her the day out of days chart for the week, then shifts his attention to Tessa.
“Glad you could be with us today. As I told your agent, your performance at the audition made every other seem ridiculous, a sham! But today’s easy. No weeping and pleading with your kidnapper in a cave. That’s tomorrow! Today, just some shots of you in the classroom. Then you’ll be outside with your friend, smiling. You’ll turn your head, as if you sense someone watching you,” he says, turning his own head by way of example. He looks at the hairstylist, who’s still working on Marcia. “Let’s get Tessa’s hair up. Something neat. And she’ll get increasingly” --here he flickers his hands like birds around his head--“as we go along.”
The hairstylist looks at Tessa’s hair warily and says she needs another fifteen minutes for Marcia.
“It’s my fault! I keep making her look at pictures,” says Marcia, with the smile that made her famous and softens the edges of her masculine beauty.
“No problem,” the director says, then asks Tessa, “You get something to eat yet?”
“No,” Tessa says. She’s confused. She was supposed to have eaten? Where?
The director, looking amused, walks Tessa out, holding the trailer door open for her with a theatrical flourish. Outside the sky is still gray; the morning, chill. He shows her to a foodtruck parked in front of the school.
“I don’t have any cash,” Tessa says. The director laughs. She blushes, but soon gets over her embarrassment, because the director seems to like explaining things.
“It’s free. Acting is a strange and wonderful job; we feed you and clothe you and do your hair,” the director is saying. “It’s like being a kid.”
He leaves her to wait in line by herself. Tessa hopes she can get onto set every day of her life, and be so cared for, but this is nothing, nothing like being a kid was. No one ever made her breakfast. Her mom was usually in bed, high. Sometimes lunch was a swiped candy bar. Sometimes dinner. Her stepdad, a truck driver, would come home every few weeks, yelling and trying to shake her mom out of her stupor. Things were better for Nancy and Jules, her half-siblings; they always got breakfast, even if Tessa had to make it.
Tessa, overhearing the order of the blond girl in front of her, follows suit: egg-white omelet, avocado, hashbrowns. She takes the paper-plated meal she’s handed through the truck window. Free! She remembers the time just after the funerals--she was still living in that trailer, with her aunt Sharon, rusty red patches staining the carpeting—when everyone had given her everything for free at any restaurant in town. Once, at the local movie theater, “Don’t make her pay. Let her in,” one of the two boys in the window had said. “Lucky you,” said the other, handing her a ticket. The first boy thumped him on the head: “Idiot.”
Tessa isn’t sure where to take her food.
“Over here.” The blond girl, who looks about her age, signals her to one of the picnic tables set up under a tent. They sit opposite each other.
“You playing Lydia?” the girl asks.
“Yeah,” Tessa says.
“I auditioned for that. I’m playing Wanda. Your best friend. What else have you worked on?” the girl asks.
“Some plays,” Tessa says.
“You must have done some on-camera classes?”
“No.” Tessa suddenly wonders if she should have.
The girl shakes her head. “You might not need to. I got cut out of a show once, though, because I was talking and walking. I didn’t know I had to hit my mark, then talk. After that, I took a class. Learned how to stand on the tape without looking down at it…”
Tessa has no idea what the girl playing her friend is talking about, but she would be horrified if she got cut out of this show; she’s already told everyone about it, already triumphantly quit her restaurant job. As the girl talks about how vigilantly she’s practiced not blinking and holding her head still, something is fluttering inside Tessa—like all her confidence, getting ready to leave her. A thought flits into her mind from somewhere: How can I be a mistake if I’m really here? It takes her a moment to identify the reassuring line as one of hers from Agnes of God, a daring piece for the community theater in Jamestown. Agnes had been the last part Tessa had been cast in and the one she’d most loved.
The sun is rising now, bright in her eyes; she’s getting restless under the impress of the conversation, starting to feel warm in her coat. A little sick. She should have pecked at the decadent breakfast, like the blond girl, instead of downing the whole thing. She’s glad when the second-second comes back to get her, glad too that the girl gets to see her being escorted away. She follows the second-second, his silver jacket glinting in the sunlight like a signal mirror, to a trailer door with the name “Lydia” markered on a dry-erase board, then instructs her to head back to hair and makeup once she’s changed into wardrobe.
In her small, overheated room, she dresses in clothes she tried on in a fitting earlier in the week, clothes not so different from her own. Her outfit—hoodie, jeans, sneakers-- feels disappointingly unlike a costume.
Her Agnes costume, that big white sack, had helped her create the role; it had made her feel like an angel, but also like she was drowning. Not that she’d needed much help. Agnes had been easy because of the way her family was then. Her mom was better than she used to be, but her stepfather still got mad sometimes when he came home late at night, even though what was there left to get mad over? It was as if part of him were still in the past, responding to a former reality in which her mom was still high all the time. If her mom stuck up for herself, or if Tessa tried to, he used more than words. But, in the morning, her stepfather would be jovial, her mother and the twins would be laughing, as if nothing she’d witnessed the night before had actually happened. Whatever her father had broken the night before would be swept up, his belt back around his waist, the kitchen knives excised from the hallway walls. And Tessa would go along with it, so great was her relief that the whole thing was over, at least for now. So she understood how it was that Agnes could cover what she wanted to forget with doves.
Tessa walked back to the hair and makeup trailer, sun slanting its way around the high rises that surrounded the school, getting caught in the red leaves of a few slim trees along the sidewalk, isolated specimens of fall.
Tessa had felt disoriented after the last show of Agnes, a matinee. That it was still day, still the same day, was a surprise after the dark play that spanned weeks. The late-afternoon sun swooped in through the glass doors of the community theater lobby, where she stood shaking hands. She felt elevated, chosen—the way she assumed Agnes had felt in her ecstasies--as she accepted the praise of admiring audience members.
“What are you going to do now?” two white-haired women had asked her, having seen in the program that Tessa’s high school graduation was near. “Do you think you’re gonna be an actress?”
“No,” she told them. “Going to study business at JJC.” She did not say that community college was only something she was doing until she figured out how to get herself to New York. The old women nodded at her approvingly, as she’d known they would. Where she was from, you were supposed to give up childish hopes; it was a virtue, a mark of maturity to adapt to the limitations of reality.
It was only later that she would think she’d already seen the lights outside flashing blue red, blue red.
Tessa takes a seat under the hairstylist’s brush.
“When’s the last time you had this cut?”
“A while ago,” Tessa says. A year and a half, she supposed. Her mother, the only one who had ever cut Tessa’s hair, had been a hairstylist. Sometimes she saw customers in the family’s trailer, washed their hair in the kitchen sink. Old ladies mostly. Sometimes the whole place smelled like a perm. Her mother always did Tessa’s hair for her plays—for Agnes, she’d braided it in a tight circle—though she’d never been much interested in the performances themselves. She didn’t come to Tessa’s shows, always said she had to take care of Nancy and Jules, but Tessa had wanted her to see Agnes, and the twins were old enough to come, weren’t they? Six then. Her mother had said she would make it to the last performance. But as the small—largely elderly— crowd drained from the theater after that final matinee, it became clear to Tessa that her mother hadn’t come. Tessa told herself that it was fine, that she wasn’t upset. Her mother would probably have been harried, Nancy, who was a little bit slow, wouldn’t have understood what was going on, would have worried for her, and Jules might have shouted something off-color in the middle of the play, and then weirded everyone out later; whenever her little brother talked, he always seemed to be looking at someone that no one else could see, someone he didn’t much trust, hovering just above your head.
The sound of closing doors, and Tessa had turned to look toward the entrance to the theater just in time to see several police officers emerging from their cars—sirens off, lights on—which she then registered had been there for some time, minutes, or hours, or years; retroactive lights were already flashing in all of her memories as if they’d been waiting outside of every window, her whole life.
When the police walked in, they were backlit at first. As they came closer, pulling their way through some honeyed haze around her, she saw the sobriety of their faces, the way their eyes were clamped on her, and understood only that her life was about to change and become a new life.
The hairbrush gets stuck in a knot. Tessa’s hair is a rat’s nest. Always was. Didn’t mind, didn’t try to tame it: the worse it was, the longer her mother had to spend, picking her way through it, sighing at the hand her daughter had been dealt. She’d left her hair in its haloey Agnes braid for how long? Weeks. Saving the evidence of last time her mother would ever touch her head.
Tears are leaping into Tessa’s eyes.
“Sorry,” the stylist grumbles.
“What happened?” Marcia is back in the trailer, leaning over Tessa, who has begun to sob, and is making a flapping gesture with her hands as if she’s trying to pat something invisible back into a box.
“Lydia to set,” the walkie-talkie on the counter by the hairbrushes commands.
Marcia picks it up. “We need few minutes,” she says in a voice that Tessa recognizes as her brusque detective voice.
“I was just brushing--”
“It’s okay,” Marcia says to the stylist, then turns to Tessa. “I remember when I first started acting, I was so nervous.”
“That’s not it,” Tessa manages to say. It hurts her how little the detective knows, how little she can do, less even than the real police, who don’t protect you, who come only after something terrible has already happened. She thinks to herself, “Grow up, Tessa”: what her stepfather used to tell her. “Get it together,” he’d say, after whatever he did that made her fall apart.
“We’re going to need some touching up here,” Marcia says to the makeup artist who’s coming in the door accompanied by the smell of cigarette smoke.
Tessa looks at herself in the mirror, and the sight makes her more upset.
From the walkie-talkie: “What’s the hold-up?”
“Sweetie, pull yourself together,” the makeup artist says. He pats her face with a tissue. “Don’t you want to work? Don’t ruin this for yourself. This industry is a small town in a big city, trust me. It takes no time to get a reputation. For someone to call the agent and the casting director and say, ‘Your girl lost it on set--’”
But Tessa is fleeing just as the director walks in.
“Tessa?” he asks. “Shit,” she hears him say, but she’s out the door, striding past trailer after trailer. There are police everywhere, or maybe they’re actors playing police. There are people trying to stop her. But she’s fast; she’s sure she’s going to get away. Then hands land firmly on her shoulders from behind.
“Hold up. You can’t go in there,” a policeman had said, one of many. They had formed a ring around her family’s trailer in Jamestown. Barricades. Police cars. There were other people, too; so many people. Neighbors, she supposed, though she didn’t look closely; they could have been anyone; they could have been extras, paid to gather and gawk. The sun had just gone down and the trailer had been lit up from the inside, like some sort of set, bright as a thousand lightbulbs. “You shouldn’t be here,” the policeman had said. She knew exactly where she should be, exactly where she belonged, inside, with her mother and her sister and brother; it was a mistake that she was outside and not in there with them. She heard someone say, low, behind her, “How could he shoot his whole family?” and she was crying too hard, hands to her head, fingers digging into her scalp, to say that he didn’t shoot his whole family.
The second-second has turned her to face him, his not-ungentle hands still on her shoulders. She does not understand why this man in a jacket that could be made of some metal is not letting her go. She has to look so far up to see his eyes that she feels like a small child. “It’s just that you’re in wardrobe,” he’s saying. “You need to change.”
It takes a moment for Tessa to understand his words. Once she does, the thought of turning around, going back where she came from, to the trailer where her things are, is unbearable to her. It’s all expendable, she decides. Screw the thrift-store clothes, her purse, her wallet and everything in it, her phone, her keys. She’d rather figure it all out later than have to turn around now.
The second-second, as he looks down at the frantic girl now taking off her shoes right there in the street, remembers something he’d forgotten until this moment; a bird trying to get out of the little house he grew up in, in Queens. The pigeon had been slamming itself against the windows when the front door was wide open. When he’d been trying to shoo it toward the door! It hurt itself badly, flailed on the floor with one white wing out. “It’s not gonna make it,” his father had said, raising his boot. He remembered the boot’s thick sole, its rounded black toe, the bird’s black eye shining up at him wildly. He feels again inside his chest the terrible crush of having done nothing for the wounded thing, but what could be done?
Later, everyone in the crowded subway car steals glances at the girl a few of them had seen jump the turnstile like a girl in a movie. She’s facing away from the direction of movement, curled up by a window. Her feet (shoeless, in filthy socks) are on the seat, and she’s done her best to tent her bare, skinny legs in the too-big tinfoil-silver jacket she’s wearing. She keeps her mottled, streaked face turned toward the dark glass, ignoring stop after stop, the way people do when they’re not getting off anytime soon.