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Play Pretend

Alex Sobel works in special education services. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post Online, Stoneslide Corrective, Foundling Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and High Desert Journal. He lives in Toledo, Ohio with his wife.
"Hands up or I'll vaporize all of you," Dan says. He doesn't intend to, but years of pretend play with his friends takes over and he puts up his right hand in a fake gun shape, thumb pointed upward, one finger out, the five remaining fingers curled into his palms.
"Can you try it again, but this time maybe... give us more?" says one of the three men behind the desk. Is he the casting director? They all look the same. "You hate this man, really sell it to us."
What he means is that he wants more accent. They don't want Dan to give them something real, they want a caricature of an evil Goolan invader. This isn't the first time. He tells himself that this is what acting is, that better roles will come, that he's paying his dues.
Dan slips his long tongue back toward his throat, thinks of his grandma, the way she used to yell at him for making a mess of his toys. She'd hate what he's about to do.
"Hands up or I'll vaporize you," he says again, throwing in an unnatural amount of Goolan clicks and coughs, replacing all of his Ps with Ks like they do on a home world he's never been to, one he'll never see.
This time, the man smiles. This is exactly what he's looking for.
Dan wants to write a rom-com about an Earth-born Goolan in love with an aristocratic, Goola-born woman. Or an action movie about a sympathetic Goolan assassin who only kills in order to pay for his daughter's medical care.
Sometimes he starts typing these ideas out, but never gets far. What's the point? It'll never get made. Plus, his fingers swell when he types, his joints growing brown with pain. There isn't an English language typing-keyboard that's made to accommodate stringy Goolan hands.
One more thing he wishes existed, but doesn't.
When Dan arrives on set for his first day, the guard at the entrance scrutinizes his ID. He pushes up his sunglasses until they sit above his forehead, looks at the picture on the card, then at Dan, then the card, then Dan again.
"You're good," the guard says after a few minutes.
He does the same routine the next day, like he's never seen Dan before in his life
During lunch, one of the human extras tells Dan that his grandpa was an actor and a second-generation German immigrant.
"He wanted to be, like, a super hero or something," he says, chewing craft service ham on wheat, "but with even that little bit of an accent? Guy was only ever a Nazi. He played a damn good Nazi, though, I swear."
Dan regrets telling his mom about the part.
"Just be grateful for the work," she says.
"Doesn't this stuff bother you?" Dan says.
His mom gently shakes her middle-most head. "Worrying about this kind of thing is a luxury. Your grandma had to worry about whether or not Congress was going to make murdering a Goolan illegal. I could have been killed as a baby without any legal repercussions. You get to play pretend for money and you're upset about the voice you have to do? Count your blessings, boob-ba."
Dan sighs. "I see what you mean, mooma-ma," he says. But he doesn't see, doesn't understand at all.
During the drive home, he screams fuck as loud as he can in his car. The woman driving next to him on the highway sees him. Her expression looks like someone on a crime show who just discovered a dead body. Her reaction makes Dan feel good, feel powerful. He grits all of his sets of teeth, puffs out his shoulder fins, puts on his Goolan accent as he yells again in her direction. The woman takes the next exit.
But it's just pretend, Dan thinks. Just pretend.
Dan's character is killed off after four days on set. That's four days of pay. Good pay. He focuses on that part.
"When you hear the bang, fall to the ground," the director says to Dan. "Don't move until I yell cut."
Someone off set says that in post they're going to make Dan's head explode, that the wall behind him will be blue with CGI Goolan blood.
Dan waits for the scene to start, feet planted, stomach braced like he's about to take a punch. When someone yells action, a handsome human actor takes a few steps toward Dan. "This is for Alicia," he says. Dan read the script, but he can't remember who Alicia is, why she matters. He can't remember why he has to die.
There's a bang, a cloud of dust. Dan leans back, slips on the gravel covering the set floor. He falls too fast and two of his heads hit the ground first instead of his shoulder. The impact makes him feel dizzy, nauseated. He struggles to keep his eyes closed, to keep still. There are footsteps, shouting around him, more bangs, the sounds of other Goolan actors hitting the floor, dying their fake deaths for reasons they may or may not understand.
How long is this scene? Dan thought it was short, but he feels like he's been on the ground for an hour. Lying here, he thinks about the screenplays he makes excuses not to write, the parts that'll never be available for him to play. He thinks of his grandma, scared for her life, scared for the life of her child. Dan knows that must have been an awful time for her, but why can't he want more?
He's angry again, but can't do anything about it now. He can't get up, can't risk ruining the take. He needs the work and playing evil Goolan invaders is better than no work at all.
So he waits to hear his cue. He waits for someone to yell cut. He waits to be released.
He waits.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 14th, 2018


This story came from two places. The first was catching an old WWII movie on TV and wondering what it must have been like for German-American actors to play Nazis when the war was so fresh. The other was watching an interview with a South Asian actor talking about having to put on a broad, Indian accent to get roles, because most modern Indian-American accents don't sound "ethnic" enough to American ears. At some point, these ideas got conflated with the idea of an alien actor, and out came "Play Pretend."

- Alex Sobel

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