July 3rd, 2007


Dream Fragment: Off Script

I was tired and stopped at a diner for a drink and a bite. I had another four hours to go before I hit Fargo, and I didn't want to drift off. The waitress wore a neat shift with her name stenciled over her pocket; she wore too much lipstick. She looked at me expectantly with her pad and pencil poised.

"Tea," I said. "Hot tea."

The waitress blinked, then forced a smile. "I'm sorry, sir; did you say you wanted coffee?" I could hear Neil Diamond's voice coming from somewhere back in the kitchen.

"No, tea. And a little lemon, please."

Her smile became nervous and her eyes darted around. "Ah... yes. Hot coffee coming up." She scuttled away before I could say anything.

I turned to watch the strange lady. She hustled back to the counter and leaned over it to whisper with the manager. His tie draped over the cash register as he checked me out, then looked away as he noticed me watching. His quiet conversation with the waitress continued and become more urgent.

One of the other patrons was giving me the eyeball. He was a leathery trucker with a quilted jacket, and he was ignoring a plate of hash and eggs. His hands were on the table, and one of his fingers twitched as he caught my eye. He deliberately pointed at his coffee cup. "Coffee," he mouthed, directing his eyes to his mug, then back at me meaningfully. He then noticed the waitress returning and made a show of working on his food.

"Here's your coffee," she said brightly, bending to pour, "and also your cherry pie." She set a plate down in front of me, then smiled and looked at me expectantly.

"Dammit, I don't want coffee," I replied, my confusion rapidly turning to annoyance. "I don't know if you're having hearing troubles, but I asked for hot tea. And I didn't order any pie; it wrecks my stomach. Take this back and bring me a menu."

The waitress recoiled as if she had been slapped. Her mouth worked, and then she looked over to the manager for guidance. His eyes were bugged out, and he licked his lips nervously. The smallest of shrugs appeared.

The waitress turned back to me. Her smile was still there, but her eyes were hard and shiny.

"I can bring you some ice cream with that pie," she offered, choosing a leading tone of voice. "Everybody loves pie and ice cream. I know you would like that." She nodded encouragingly.

"I'd hate it; it'd make me sick," I insisted. "Why can't you just bring me a menu?" I looked towards my fellow patron for support, but he just studied his food.

The waitress threw down her pad. Her face was livid and all traces of pleasantness were gone. "I can't work like this!" she declared, stomping back down the aisle. Suddenly every light in the place turned ten times as bright and I couldn't see a thing.

"Break, everybody!" called an amplified voice, as the din of many voices and footsteps sounded all around me. "Take fifteen!" To my immense surprise, the plate glass windows and drab walls all around me slowly floated into the air, revealing a noisy and wire-strewn sound stage crowded with technicians and crew.

I sat stunned in my bench. The other customer got up from his seat and favored me with a look of disgust before drifting out of sight. Two women approached: one small and fussy with a clipboard; the other gangly and wearing enormous earphones. Neither seemed happy.

"Hello? did you even *read* the script?" demanded the smaller one, waving her clipboard in my face. "Coffee and pie, pie and coffee. You order it, you eat it, done. How hard can that be?"

"I don't like coffee," I said faintly. Both women rolled their eyes, and the taller one turned around to pace the floor.

"Who cares what you like?!" screeched the other. "It's a role; you play it. You don't deviate from the script, EVER -- it's in your contract. No ad libbing!"

"I wasn't ad libbing," I protested. "And I don't have a contract." I looked all around me; several workmen were trundling a cage containing a leopard behind me, and two electricians were arguing over a spool of cable. "Where the hell am I?"

"You...what?" The women looked at each other, then leaned over and squinted at me. Simultaneously their eyes widened.

"You're not with the union," accused Clipboard.

"My God," said Headphones in shock. "He's an extra."

"That's impossible," replied Clipboard.

"It *should* be impossible," clarified Headphones.

A balding man bustled up; he seemed to be dealing with a lot of stress, and sweat stained his shirt around his neck and armpits. "Ladies, ladies!" he implored. "We have an extremely tight schedule today; what's the holdup?"

Clipboard pointed at me. "This one's off script," she accused. "He's an *extra*," Headphones whispered in his ear, her eyes never leaving mine.

Sweaty said nothing, but his lips pursed. With an angry flourish he pulled a cellphone from his belt and tapped in a number, then rolled his eyes skyward while examining his fingernails and waiting for somebody to pick up.

"Hello? where's Gene?" Sweaty demanded, looking at me and then at the sky again. "I need Gene pronto. Im EE DEE ate ly!" Clipboard and Headphones winced and seemed to attempt to make themselves smaller.

"Gene!" barked Sweaty. "I have an extra here. He's off script. How can he be off script, Gene?! how is that even fucking possible?!" Sweaty's eyes bulged out as he listened. I couldn't hear was Gene was saying, but the pitch of the squawk coming out of the cellphone suggested that Gene wasn't any calmer than Sweaty was. Sweaty listened for a long time.

"That....that's crazy, Gene," declared Sweaty finally. He swallowed. "I don't know how anybody can expect us to continue the production if.....yes. Well, I can see that." His eyed darted about, then closed. Clipboard and Headphones became agitated as well.

"Well, I....I guess we'll figure something out," sighed Sweaty and hung up. He looked at the other two, ignoring me completely.

"Writer's strike," he mourned. Headphone's mouth fell open.

"You mean....none of the extras have...?" Sweaty shook his head.

"None of them received any of their sleepcycle programming," he replied. "They're all just like this one. They don't know where they're supposed to go or what they're supposed to do. They're just...doing whatever comes to mind."

Face contorted in revulsion, Clipboard shook her head disbelievingly. "That's chaos," she wondered. "How will anything happen? How can any of it make sense?" The three of them just stared at each other.

I cleared my throat. "Does any of it *have* to make sense?" I asked.

All of them glared at me. "Don't tell us how to do our jobs," spat Clipboard.

"You're just an extra; you don't know a thing about art, or reality!" added Sweaty.

"Or the art of reality!" amended Headphones.

"Okay." Sweaty took a deep breath. "We're going to salvage this thing." The other two nodded encouragingly at this ray of hope. Sweaty clapped his hands together, and the crew sprang into action.

"Places, everybody!" he demanded. "We're having a few script difficulties, so we're all going to just have to adapt like the professionals we are. Places please!" People bustled; the scenery drifted back into place, and all stray noises died away; only Sweaty's amplified voice remained.

"Okay, here's what we're going to do," the voice announced to the diner, now quiet again except for Neil Diamond's singing. "Today there's nothing available in the diner, nothing at all, *except* coffee and pie. Everything else is sold out. Have you all got that? Okay...ACTION!"

The waitress drifted back to my table. "Work with me?" she asked in a tiny voice, then gestured with her coffee pot.

I closed my eyes. "Oh, what the hell," I said, turning my mug over.

Grateful, the waitress poured.