Fiction by Miriam Sagan
Gloria had been retired for over thirty years—if you consider running a
motel in the desert retired. But like all gypsies, she is never really retired—and
so when Mel calls and says he has a part for her as an extra, right in her neck of
the woods, she can’t help but say yes. It means business, too; he’ll put up the
tech crew at the motel where they’ll enjoy the hot spring in the center courtyard,
the little cabins shaded by tamarisks.
She and Mel go way back—fifty years—to the Arts Student League and
Brooklyn and then Hollywood. They’ve been friends, and lovers, and were even
married at one point—but that is a long story. Gloria’s pretty petite looks have
been ravaged by sun tanning before sunscreen, age, a mediocre face lift,
cigarettes, and at times a bad attitude. But the motel has been a lifesaver. She
bought it when the only clients were old folks with arthritis. But then came the
New Age—and she added massage and salt scrubs and reflexology to the menu,
and crystals and books on healing at the front desk, while Native American flute
It’s a weird gig. Mel has tried to explain—it’s for the army, but not the
army exactly—it’s done through a subcontract. It’s for training. They set up a
typical desert village and there are actors who have parts—innocent civilian,
terrorist with bomb, lady with baby, etc. Then the soldiers in training come into
the village and sort of practice . . . and here Mel gets a little vague. “Destroying
the village in order to save it?” Gloria asks helpfully. Mel’s laugh gets cut off—
reception can be weak out in the Mohave.
Of course it is winter, or nobody would be practicing anything but dying
of heat prostration. Gloria shuts up for the summer, and goes to the Catskills.
But it’s a mild December day, the morning sky a pale blue that will brighten to
turquoise by noon. So she packs up and drives a short distance to the site,
taking her bottled water, sun visor, paperback, a deck of cards. A lot of life is
just waiting around—the theater, war, aging, running a motel, even baseball—
and it is good to be prepared.
At first look, the set is like any other. It’s just a ramshackle arrangement
of buildings—the kind that get burned down or blown up. There are trailers and
camera men and, Gloria is pleased to note, a catering van offering coffee and
Danish at this hour, with the promise of lunch. The whole thing feels cut-rate
though, flimsy, and when she looks for Mel she is told he isn’t coming in until
the second day, which is also the last day—tomorrow. She finds the others—
actors? extras? civilians?—sacked out in the shade of a big Joshua tree
gossiping, napping, reading, and playing a deceptively casual hand of poker.
There are about a dozen of them, an odd-looking crew, foreign somehow, not
really Asian, not really Middle Eastern, but mostly dark. She feels as if she has
stumbled into some kind of odd restaurant, the kind L.A. strip malls are full of,
and despite herself is about to eat something Mongolian or Bosnian or with a lot
of couscous. But a young man offers her a beach chair propped firmly in the
shade, people say hello, someone passes a bottled iced tea, and everyone is
speaking a perfect uninflected English, the English of southern California.
“Look, here comes the army.” Someone points. And two camouflaged
trucks roll in with a cloud of dust and discharge another dozen or so young
soldiers who also look cut-rate and flimsy—like bad actors playing soldiers. The
two groups barely glance at each other, even if they are opposing teams. Gloria
notes that while the actors can relax, the soldiers have to pretend to look alert.
She has always hated that kind of job and lasted only two days once, years and
years ago, at Macy’s.
Then the sub-director—unshaven and with an air of pretension that
seems absurdly optimistic in this setting—comes over and starts assigning parts.
The buildings are labeled A, B, C, etc. The parts seem equally generic. Gloria
is “woman.” At least she has been spared “old.” One of the young women in the
group is “girl.” They are in building F, a barracks-type structure that makes an
L-shape with another. Their activity is “cooking.” Their designation, “harmless
Now there is more waiting around. They are in a low shady room that
appears to have been built of adobe bricks. In terms of “cooking,” there is
indeed a kind of hearth and a large frying pan, but obviously no wood or fire or
anything real. Gloria and the girl—who despite her exotic dark looks is named
Amanda—get to chatting. Amanda, Gloria is relieved to hear, isn’t really an
actress. She did this on a lark with a friend—they sometimes work as extras.
Amanda is actually a sensible person who works in small business development
and is engaged to be engaged to an appropriate-sounding boyfriend.
But what if it were real? What if Gloria were the aging mother, looking
at the bare hearth, worried and frantic? What if soldiers roamed the alleys
outside, ready to hurt or kill? What if insurgents were hidden out in back? She
is worried more for Amanda than for herself. What if Amanda gets attacked
and then no one will marry her? Do they have men, husbands, or are they a
widowed mother and her daughter? Or two widows, and Amanda pregnant
with Gloria’s dead son’s only child. And soldiers. . . .
Amanda has fallen quiet. There is a noise outside. The women look at
each other nervously. Amanda seems to shrink back into the shadows. Gloria
picks up the frying pan, an iron skillet really, heavy in her hands.
Through the door bursts a soldier, immense, blocking out the light. He
seems to have a gun in his hand, pointing it wildly. Gloria takes the iron pan and
swings it with full force across his face, breaking his nose in two places. The
private recoils, blood gushing, trying not to scream. He moans. He’s just a kid
out of Cleveland, a good track runner but not quite good enough for one of the
big scholarships. So he joined the Reserves, glad to serve, like his dad and
uncles. There is blood everywhere. Amanda is shrieking and Gloria seems to
be yelling as well, but not from fear—a high-pitched banshee war cry.
Later, she’ll feel terrible. She’ll want to send the private flowers and call
his mother to apologize, but no one will let her. Mel’s lawyer will work it out
for her and nothing will happen, although she and Mel will fall out for a while.
“What the hell were you doing, excuse me for asking, what in the name
of hell was an old lady like you doing smashing someone across the face with a
frying pan?” Mel asks.
And all she can say is: “I thought it was war.”
Miriam Sagan is primarily a poet and non-fiction writer and has published
approximately twenty books. She wrote a novel more than twenty years ago
(Coastal Lives, Center Press) but then gave up on fiction, only to find herself
writing short stories last summer when she was a resident at Mary Anderson
Center for the Arts.
The idea for the story came from a piece in the NY Times my husband
Rich pulled for me—about actors hired for Iraq war simulation. The main
character just came to me—although I think I stayed at her Hot Springs
motel! I love the Mohave, and think of the desert as a transformative
place. Of course war is transformative too—although in a tragic way—
and I guess I had a flash about how human nature responds to the threat
of violence. In a way this is about the temporary madness induced by
violence, even in an unlikely person.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 2, Number 2
Copyright © 2007
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to material
published in the Apple
Valley Review are retained
by the individual authors