Center Stage Excerpt

Excerpt

If he’d been glancing down at his phone for the umpteenth time that Saturday afternoon as he walked out of what was probably going to have to be his last acting class for a while unless he either landed a paying part soon or gave up eating, J.J. McKinney would have walked right by the bulletin board and missed seeing what was tacked up on it that particular day.

And he nearly did glance down at his phone, hoping for good news along the lines of a callback or maybe a personal invitation from someone with the last name of Spielberg or Bruckheimer waxing poetic about how his most recent community theater performance somehow made him just perfect for a part in an upcoming blockbuster. (Hey, if he was going to dream, he might as well dream big.) It was pure chance that had him looking up instead and, incidentally, directly at a large, handwritten notice whose words were spelled out in bright red ink.

Someone had stapled the thing smack dab in the middle of the community bulletin board on top of whatever usual weeks-old posts lay beneath it, askew and crinkled around the edges as if whoever had put it there had done so either in great haste or with great agitation. Maybe both; why quibble? And J.J. had been looking up and doing some very discouraging mental math regarding his meager checkbook balance and things like food and rent as he did more often than not these days.

And so the bulletin board and the paper right in its middle happened to fall into his line of vision, and while his first impression at seeing the huge block-printed HELP WANTED—QUICK CASH at the top beside today’s date was that wow, the messiness of the writing screamed “desperate” like little else could, his admittedly lethargic brain (hey, coffee was expensive) finally got around to pointing out to him that the words QUICK CASH ought to be of special importance to him just then, and duh, maybe he ought to consider taking a look at what was printed beneath them.

So he did.

HELP WANTED—QUICK CASH

Male actor needed, one evening only. Late twenties to early thirties ideal but not an absolute deal-breaker. Suit and tie required. Don’t have to be an Ivy League graduate or anything, but it would be great if you could fake it. Ability to think fast on your feet a must. Will pay cash—$200. Fee is negotiable, just please call 555-7258. Ask for Erika.

And below that, scribbled in letters almost as large as the ones at the top:

URGENT. JOB IS TONIGHT. PLEASE CALL RIGHT AWAY.

Well. That was an unusual ad, and an interesting one, too.

J.J.’s eyes flickered back up to the part about cash to the tune of two hundred dollars. That bit was especially interesting. Downright fascinating even. Sure, it wasn’t enough to erase a lifetime of money worries, but it would certainly go a long way in making his landlord happy come rent day. Not that the guy was a hard-nose, because he wasn’t; he’d actually been remarkably patient during those times when J.J.’s money ran out just a little bit before the month did and had even gone so far as to find J.J. occasional side work to fill in the gaps. As a clown at children’s parties, sure, but hey, J.J. was starting to get pretty good at those balloon animals. It was true that his first attempt to make a butterfly for one little birthday girl ended up looking more like a lower intestine with googly eyes and had sent said birthday girl running to her mother while shrieking, but he had improved leaps and bounds and felt that now he could quite confidently say that he no longer frightened small children.

But there were no birthday parties on the horizon, and a couple of hundred bucks could come in very handy right now. No question.

He reread the ad to make sure that he hadn’t been seeing things. Ability to think fast on your feet a must Improv, was it? Filling in for a player at some local club or theater maybe. Not his strongest suit, but there were worse problems to have. Like not paying one’s bills. Anyway, it was just one night. Any actor worth his salt could handle that.

So he ignored the little voice in his head that whispered reminders of the lousy reviews that the last play he’d been cast in had earned and dialed the number on the notice.

And then yanked that particular piece of paper off of the bulletin board to hide it from view as he heard the classroom door open behind him and the familiar voice of his—and probably most everyone else’s in the class—acting nemesis, Brad P. Cuthbert. Yes, middle initial included because that was how Brad insisted people address him although they tended to use a different term or two for him when he was out of earshot.

“Now to the amateur,” he was saying to the unfortunate brunette who happened to get stuck following him toward the exit, “such emotional identification with a part is no easy thing, which is why my method of getting into character is so superior. I’ll show you—”

Brad didn’t seem to notice that the brunette had put in earbuds. He might, however, notice J.J. and the paper in his hand if his gaze swiveled much more in this direction, and since Brad P. Cuthbert was also in his early thirties and, by his own definition, God’s gift to theater, he might be as intrigued by the ad as J.J. was. Especially if by pursuing it, he could screw over J.J., who— after hearing Brad’s unsolicited advice being crammed down the throat of a hapless fellow student one too many times—had finally snapped one day and pointed out quite bluntly that a single successful audition for a toothpaste commercial did not a Shakespearian thespian make.

So J.J. kept the notice hidden behind his back until Brad disappeared through the building’s exit, telling himself that he was really doing the writer of the ad a favor by knocking the toothpaste artiste out of the running, because—good grief. And it would be simple enough to just slap the notice back up again after the call if things didn’t work out, but in the meantime, what Brad P. Cuthbert didn’t know wouldn’t hurt h—

“Hello?”

The voice on the other end of the line, feminine and somewhat breathless, jolted J.J. from his train of thought. “Yeah, hi. Is this—” He rechecked the ad to be sure he got the name right. “—Erika?”

“It is, yes.” The voice turned even more breathless, or rather gave the impression of someone holding her breath.

Shifting his cell phone to his other ear, J.J. turned toward the bulletin board for more privacy and studied the paper he held in his hand. “I’m calling about the help wanted ad you posted on the—”

“Oh, thank God. You’re hired.”

“—bulletin board in—I’m sorry, what?” J.J. blinked, wondering if he’d heard right.

The voice dropped to barely above a whisper. “Do you own a suit?”

“I can scrounge one up if you want, sure.”

Her tone was still hushed, almost furtive. “Great. Wear it. Any tattoos? Body piercings? It’s nothing personal or anything, but they just wouldn’t go over very well tonight with certain people, you know what I mean?”

Not really, but unless the evening’s performance involved improvising an unexpected striptease, he couldn’t see how the cartoon rabbit he’d somehow gotten inked onto a, well, questionable part of his anatomy one night after indulging in too much beer and one very foolish bet on the outcome of a dart game could possibly hamper this woman’s plans. “Uh… understood.”

“Because what I need tonight is the kind of guy a girl can take home to Mom. Can you pull that off?”

Take home to Mom…? What kind of part was this? But he was hardly in a position to be choosy about roles, so he injected as much confidence as he could into his reply in spite of the fact that the last person who’d commented on his acting ability had suggested that he reexamine his options for working in retail. And that had been his mother. “No problem. I just—”

“No, I’m really very happy with my current phone service provider, thank you,” the voice on the other end cut him off abruptly, growing suddenly louder and breezier. “I don’t think I want to make any changes at this point.”

J.J. blinked again. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“And I’ve already got a great deal on minutes, so…” The voice trailed off as J.J. stared at his phone, then continued a moment later, hushed once again and urgent. “Tonight, five o-clock sharp. I’ll text you the address.”

“Fine, but as far as the part goes, is it—”

The whisper disappeared again, and its louder alter ego resurfaced. “I’ll certainly keep you guys in mind if I decide to switch providers later, okay? Thank you, and you have a great day.”

Click.

And J.J. was left staring at his phone.