We invited the hip director over to let him down easy. His last couple projects hadn’t been in his signature style. The most recent video was basically a single take of a hundred people walking in and out of an apartment saying “hi” to each other. The director asked for a second chance. He said he could give us something that was a little bit of the old style mixed with some future shit.
“I don’t know,” I said.
The girls would probably show up soon. The hip director was supposed to be hurt enough that he pretty much left immediately, but not so hurt that we couldn’t rehire him if he miraculously made a comeback.
“It took like two hours to get all the way out here,” said the director. “At least let me explain.”
Damien rifled through the cabinet. I was already sitting at the kitchen table.
“Here,” said Damien. He handed the director a spice container with a flexi-straw in it.
“What’s this?” said the director.
“Smoked paprika,” said Damien.
“For the video,” said Damien.
“Didn’t you read the email?” I asked.
“Nah,” said the director. “I didn’t get around to it.”
Damien and I gave each other a look. The director wandered around the kitchen like he was searching for something he knew was supposed to be there. He was rubbing his palms together fast enough to start a fire.
“That was basically the concept,” I said, nodding to the smoked paprika.
“I’m not doing concepts these days,” said the director, now bent over and elbow deep in my refrigerator.
“You’re shooting style is more, like, fluid now,” said Damien as he performed a rude hand gesture over the open refrigerator door.
The director didn’t see the rude gesture. He pulled out a fizzy drink.
“You have an opener?”
“That’s my special soda,” I said.
“We get that shit imported directly from Peru,” said Damien, but he was already handing over the bottle opener. Damien was polite. Politeness was what he was made of. That was pretty much the reason I kept him around. Plus the family stuff. When politeness failed, the family stuff kicked in. You have to remember where you come from. Damien was my reminder.
“I don’t know,” said the director. He was making a squinty face about the taste of the soda. I wanted to kill him a little.
“Any soda can be sweet,” I said, “but I find myself craving that tartness.”
The director kept making the face. He handed the bottle opener back to Damien. Damien put it on the counter and picked up the smoked paprika again. That was Damien being insistent. It wasn’t very effective.
“Who else you working with now?” I said.
I knew the answer to a question like that required at least half lies.
“A.R. Buzzlenut,” he said. “Nasquach.” He left big pauses between the guys he was listing like their names were so big they took extra time to squeeze into our ears. Then he said a name that sounded like whistling and humming two different notes at the same time. That really was some future shit.
“They give you free reign?” I said.
“They didn’t even know we were shooting,” said the director.
I had to stop myself from looking around the room for hidden cameras, first because I didn’t want to let him make me paranoid, then because I didn’t want to look like a paranoid chump in my own video.
The director just up and left the kitchen. He headed into the den. There wasn’t anything to do but follow.
“You can leave it,” I told Damien.
Damien set the smoked paprika back on the counter and we followed this guy through my own damn house.
“We already paid you half,” I said.
“It isn’t about the money anymore,” said the director.
He was right. We’d done a lot of polling and research that said money was considered old-fashioned. Seeing it in videos was a turn off to young kids. They were more into not being into things these days. No one had really made a video truly capturing that sentiment yet. The amateur teenage YouTube stars had stopped posting videos altogether. They were somehow more popular than ever.
“We still need to see something for it.” My voice didn’t sound right. I wished it was doubled, maybe even tripled. I felt like my doubled studio voice was my real voice. This squawky thing that leapt out of me was needy and pathetic. When no one else was around, Damien and I communicated mostly through a series of taps on each other’s biceps. There wasn’t much conversation, but he could always figure out what I needed.
“You’re starting to sound like Siddhardtha,” said the director. “You remember him? Of course not.”
I did remember Siddhardtha. His single was huge when it dropped two weeks ago. Damien had loved it and watched the video over and over. I felt jealous at first. There was something about the way he blew all those geese off the pond with that giant leaf blower. But after those first 1.2 billion views, there’d been zero activity on his page for the last five days. I’d checked. Not even a deranged comment threatening to chop him up and sleep on a pillowcase stuffed with his fingernails and pubic hair.
“Siddhardtha,” mumbled Damien. He looked genuinely sad. I decided to wait a couple minutes more before asking him to grab me my own special soda.
“What it comes down to, obviously, is that we have to erase you from the picture entirely.”
I pointed at myself, then turned to Damien. Damien was close by. He reached out and gave my bicep three quick taps then one long one. Damien always had my back.
“Erase me?” I said.
“These questions are detrimental to the process,” said the director.
There was a quiet explosion in the yard. Probably one of the automated mowers exploding again.
The director pretended not to notice. “The fact is,” he said, “it’s all or nothing these days. Literally nothing. Literally literally, not the other one.” He looked to Damien for help but Damien was only there to help me. We were silent. The director looked flustered for the first time. “You know what I mean.”
We watched as he placed his drink on the giant redwood coffee table, slipped a vintage floppy disk coaster from the coaster rack and balanced it on top of the sweating soda. He was daring me to do something. I took a page from his book and did the opposite of what was expected. I sat still and carried on like I didn’t notice the beads of sweat collecting at the base of the glass bottle.
“Will you still use my voice?” I said. I felt a strange calmness taking over. Maybe the director’s complete lack of anything resembling sense or reason was what we were paying him for. Art was utter surprise. It made life dangerous. Maybe living and working like a lunatic was the only art left.
The director said nothing.
“Cuz my voice is kind of my thing,” I said, but I was starting to not really mean it. Maybe my voice wasn’t really my thing because a voice didn’t actually live inside of you. It was just some stuff rubbing together in your throat.
“And if I’m not in my own video,” I said, thinking harder, “and you don’t hear my voice, is it really me?”
Now I was starting to worry again, not that I would be completely erased from my own video, but that I was offending the one person who could put me back on top of this whole game.
“I mean, totally up to you, of course.” I was sweating. Damien had been looking at me with something like panic plastered to his sweet round face. “A soda?” I said.
Damien rushed back with an open soda. I drank half the bottle in one gulp while wiping at my forehead with my free hand. I was very aware of the carbonation as it prickled its way down my throat.
“All or nothing,” I said, raising my bottle to the director. “Even if it’s me.”
He was reading one of my interior decorating magazines and didn’t pick up his own soda to toast. I decided I was ready to overlook any amount of rudeness that occurred, as long as he didn’t stay too long after the girls got here.
He pinched his lips in disapproval of whatever he was looking at in the magazine. Using two fingers to lift the corner, he flung the offensive page toward the part of the magazine he’d already gone through.
“No promises,” he said, tossing the magazine back onto the coffee table. “These things all get decided in editing anyway.”
David Henson lives in Nebraska. He tweets @davidbhenson