Yash Seyedbagheri’s character dreams of the stage, but settles for selling popcorn at an outdoor production of The Sound of Music, dressed as a Nazi.
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You sell popcorn, Skittles, and Cokes at the Stardust Valley Outdoor Theater, dressed as a Nazi. The sad truth is you couldn’t make the cut as a thespian. Too much hamming, not enough pathos, the director, Fricker Gumby, says. But he admires how hard you tried in auditions for the Sound of Music, even though you first auditioned for Captain Von Trapp and then for Stock Nazi Number 3 during the Anschluss scene. A role without lines, just a lot of striding in heavy boots.
You even offered to go method, like Daniel Day-Lewis or Marlon Brando.
But here you are. And at least you get to dress up like the actual cast, the cast that manages to seamlessly fuse song and dance into geometric beauty. This is a small good thing. Plus, the cast likes you enough, and they share stories of their methods. You get to interact with the audience, moving from the outside entrance into the trapezoidal-shaped rows of seats. They thank you for your vending services, at least sometimes.
Although, to be honest, selling popcorn and Cokes in Nazi attire is a little awkward. You feel a kind of weight and yet a kind of nakedness in that midnight-colored uniform with the swastika armband, those boots, and that cap. It’s especially weird because your older sister’s at every performance, and she does the salute and everything.
“Coke uber alles, mein bruder,” she’ll say, laughing, while offering a wink, a gentle smile that says she loves you, that it’s her duty to make you feel like an asshole. It’s the natural order of things, but other people stare. Even if they laugh or make jokes to put you at ease, you feel naked.
You can’t wait until the theater moves onto Fiddler on the Roof. Let’s just hope you don’t end up dressed as one of the Cossacks from the pogrom scene.
But at least you’re being seen. And you’re making $8 an hour; menial, yes, but something in this small community with more bars than anything else. Every cent can help you become someone grander. A true actor, with lines and pathos and hopes, in a city with whirl and energy. Maybe someday, you’ll be a stock Nazi, but one with a few words to speak. And then something better, Captain Von Trapp, Tevye, someone. Or at least Hitler, if you can’t be a hero. He has quite a few lines.
Late July. A clear evening. It’s a Friday night and the show’s about to start. Here you are, moving about the rows, while the cast hustles and bustles on the stage. As usual, most of the crowd’s come down here from the city. Flaccid men in Bermuda shorts and polo shirts and raven and flaxen-haired women in jeans and godawful yoga pants scroll through their phones with desperation. They need their last communion with their Facebook pages, their friends, their hidden porn, perhaps. A few little kids shriek, while their parents lead them outside the turd-colored walls of the theater enclosure. A couple of gray-haired women waddle in, smiling with an endearing ease.
The enclosure reeks of popcorn and hints of manure from the fields across the river, an odd, pleasant scent. There’s something unpretentious in this combination.
“Sleek uniform,” says a bald man whose mustache reminds you of the author Tobias Wolff. “Don’t tell me they actually got that from an antique shop.”
“No sir,” you say and laugh, a little goose-like laugh. “They whipped it up. They’re good at that.”
“You an actor too?” he says. He’s wearing khakis and a neat navy-blue dress shirt, and in his hazel eyes, you see a man who knows things, who makes judgments with uncanny swiftness.
“He’s a wonderful actor,” your sister says, striding down the aisle. “But they don’t recognize his genius.”
“Is that so?” He arches an eyebrow. You give your sister a little glare, and she gives you one back, a look that says, you know I’m right.
“It’s all good,” you say, laughing again. “I gave it a shot, and they thought I’d be better suited here. It’s about making the most of it.”
“Great attitude,” the man says, and you hate the paternalistic way he says it. “That’s how you move forward in life. You make the most of what you have and think about how you can advance yourself.”
You want to tell him to go fuck himself, but it’s $8 an hour. And maybe, just maybe you can help your sister too. She taught you how to work hard, how to be kind, and more than a few dirty jokes, even if they involve cripples at KFC and lepers at hockey games.
“Yes, sir,” you say instead, doffing your Nazi cap for some stupid reason. “Hope you enjoy the show.”
“Get some balls,” your sister says, squeezing your hand, as you keep moving up and down the rows with cold efficiency. “You’re a Nazi, after all. And my little brother. I’ll be happy to be your assistant Nazi, if you need a hand.”
“I love you,” is all you can say, a reminder that you shouldn’t be a self-pitying prick. You have your sister, thirty-eight, witty, and kind (when she’s not poking fun at your unfortunate uniform).
Your sister smiles and reiterates she could be a good assistant stock Nazi. But you laugh and keep moving.
An older blonde woman on the second row from the top asks why they can’t hurry things up. She points to the program and schedule, the part where it mentions the sponsors and introduction.
“Son, in my day, they just got to it,” she says. “No need for fancy empty talk before the show. People have lives to lead, you know.”
“I wish I could tell you more, ma’am,” you say. She just shakes her head at you, assessing your uniform, but seemingly so much else. You feel like she’s judging your lankiness, the purple rings beneath your eyes, your deflated smile. She sees someone who cannot answer the simplest questions, about musicals, about protocols before shows, about anything.
“She’s a Karen,” your sister says, still following you around. You’ve told her you can do this just fine, but she says this is another sisterly prerogative. And you can’t argue. You at least have some small connection in this sea of people, people with better lives, people who live in townhouses or houses with beige walls, fake lawns, and starched smiles.
An older man grabs you by the arm and tells you it’s shocking. Shocking that they have vendors dressed as Nazis. He goes on and on, something about the bombing of Hamburg in 1943 and incendiaries and patriotism.
“Well, I appreciate you giving us a chance,” is all you can say, pulling back from his grip. “And thank you for bombing Hamburg so we could all be free.”
He frowns, and you can’t help but enjoy this. Small retorts truly do hold power, as your sister once said.
“And they actually pay you for this?” he says. “Get a real job. An American job. A job that involves working with your hands and sweating like an asshole in Arkansas.”
“This is a job, sir,” you say. “I serve people.”
What a hollow line.
“Well, no one cares beyond these walls,” he growls. “Accept that fact, son.”
A part of you fears he’s right. Perhaps once they disperse out into the vast grassy parking lot, they’ll leave you behind. Like a crumpled bag of popcorn. They’ll drive on, and when the night’s over you and your sister will go back to that shack with the corrugated roof, cranberry-colored ripped sofa, and Michelina’s TV dinners, Vienna sausages, and stale Pepsi.
“It’s a damned job,” you say again, and the man just shakes his head.
But it’s showtime and you move to the first-row seat they’ve assigned you. They have you there so you can get up and resume your sales during intermission. Your sister says she’ll see you later and moves to her place in the third row. You think of how beautiful she is with her flame-colored hair, lavender blouse, and black Capris.
Mr. Gumby brings out several cast members to praise the theater’s sponsors, including Channel 7 in the nearby city, along with Todd Terman, the real-estate mogul and philanthropist, who’s turning this rural community into McMansion central. And Buck Buckwald of Uncle Buck’s Tire Kingdom. Of course, Tessie Turner, Melissa Braddock, and Bina Bingham pay tribute in little song-and-dance numbers, replacing Cole Porter and Rogers and Hart lyrics with ditties like, “you’re the top. You’re a man on fire. You’re the top, we thank you for your support and tires.” You love how they swing their legs in their air, turn obsequiousness to the capitalist order into something with grace and verve.
Then comes the National Anthem, something which you won’t sing. It’s not just that right-wingers have appropriated it. It’s more. Once, you would have stood proudly, hand on heart. But you’ve worked job after job, cleaning shit in the market’s overflowing toilets. You’ve worked as a waiter at Three Rivers Restaurant serving Ahi tuna and prime-rib sandwiches to the weekend tourists, while nibbling on fries on your break. And yet, you can’t seem to buy you and your sister a better home or even move to one of the McMansion – or even imitation McMansion – communities. You’re a Nazi selling popcorn, Skittles, and Coke, and getting humiliation in change.
So you just sway and lip-sync.
Now comes the actual show. On the two screens that flank the main stage, they project stock photos of mountains set against cerulean sky. Once they used actual backdrops, pushing them among the charcoal-colored stage, but you can understand their need for efficiency. And actual images do seem more realistic than scrawled mountains on large boards.
The lights dim to pink and purple, bathing the seats, the little fortress-like enclosure in shadows. A light breeze tickles you. For a moment, you have to smile.
Cue Connie Bingley as Maria, whirling around on the stage. Just as she sings the opening notes of the title song, you notice the black-haired woman. She’s in the third row, next to your sister, on her left. She’s in her early fifties, you think, although she could be younger. She’s risen from her seat, and she’s twirling around too, or trying to, arms outstretched. But she looks more like a fish flopping. Not only that, but she’s singing the song too, her voice a shriek assaulting your ears, a discordance clashing with Connie’s gentle tones.
On stage, Connie just keeps singing, though, even though she seems to exchange a steely glare with this woman. You admire this, this ability to find the boundary between the real, rude world outside, and this world of bliss in the hills, which she reassumes so quickly.
People turn away. Some strain forward, as if they can somehow erase this woman. Others shake their head, as if a small gesture will stop this star in waiting.
In this woman, you see someone who always gets her way. Perhaps she’s just a lonely soul who needs attention, but you doubt it. You’ve been lonely before. No, there’s something confident, knowing in the way she screeches her words and keeps trying to twirl. Attention is an easy commodity for her, something to which she’s entitled. You can see this in the tilt of her head, the twinkle of her eyes. Maybe she lives in a McMansion and hosts the biggest garden parties or soirees, showing off herself and rich oak floors or fake marble. Maybe she has to have the best garden, the best kids, the best of everything, and nothing will stand in her way.
Gumby comes striding out on stage and he raises his arms, leaving everything in a kind of stasis. Connie is suspended, and nuns peek out from around the corners, taking in this scene. A squirrel chatters in the distance, annoyance all too clear and a truck roars up the Middle River Road.
“Ma’am,” he says. “Look, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I’m going to need to ask you to stop, so that we can let the actors go on.”
“But I’m a singer,” she says. “I’m not trying to insult your talented cast. I just love to sing. It brings me joy.”
“I sing in the shower but that doesn’t make me Julie fucking Andrews,” your sister snaps.
“Please stop,” another theatergoer says.
“The Sound of Music is my very, very favorite,” the woman says, trying to twirl again, only to bump into my sister. “I grew up on it, you know.”
“Please just sit down,” Gumby says. Connie’s still suspended on stage, a real actor, someone you’ve admired, someone who knows how to make breaking into song so natural. And you feel sad for her, for all that time. You wonder if this is what you would face as a real actor, even just as a stock Nazi.
“I have a right to sing,” the woman says. “It’s my constitutional prerogative.”
Gumby shakes his head and sighs. So pathetic. The woman stares at him, a small smile forming. A smile of contempt. And in that contempt, so much else breaks open. The people who laugh at you like some novelty. The man who proclaimed the gospel of accepting your lot. And that war vet who told you to get a real job. Gumby is someone with power, knowledge, things you envy, but right now, you can imagine him feeling smaller than a rock. Someone has to act, and yet no one wants to make a scene, play by the rules.
“Shut the fuck up,” you say, rising, and turning toward the woman. “Just shut the fuck up and let the show go on.”
“What did you say?”
“Son,” Gumby says, waving his hands like a conductor. “Let’s just let her sit down…”
“No Mr. Gumby,” you say. “Because she’s going to do this again. And again.”
“Son, stop it…”
Right now, you could go on a rampage, that word in your ear. Stop, stop, a pathetic little word.
You stride up the stairs, past the second row and onto the third. You shove past seas of people, past your sister, and then you’re in front of that woman. She smells like onions and cigarettes, and she’s smiling.
“Are you going to leave?” you bark, feeling the audience’s eyes upon you, hundreds of eyes, beady, wide, cold, everything in between. “Or am I going to have to arrest you?”
“Oh, arrest me?” she laughs. She grabs at the sleeve of your uniform. You recoil.
“That’s right,” you growl. “I might be a Nazi selling popcorn and candy. You might think it’s a sideshow, and that I’m a freak. That’s your affair. But you will not disrupt this show. You will fucking respect it, or I will throw your ass out of here faster than you can say ‘so long, farewell.'”
The words may seem like rehearsed lines, but they feel true and real in the moment. They hold power. Weight. The kind of lines you’d speak if you’d gotten a role.
“I just want to enjoy this show,” she says. And there’s an earnestness to it, something that almost arrests you, until she adds, “and I’m going to enjoy it.”
“You’re going to come with me. Now, fraulein asshole.”
She grabs at the uniform again, and this time, there’s a rip, a tear. The sound echoes, practically bouncing across the rows, the walls. It’s not just that your uniform has been messed up, that there’s an old ratty T-shirt underneath. People have seen you wearing worse. It’s that she’s taken something from you. Taken another thing.
You grab her by the left arm and ask your sister to take her by the right. She grabs her without question, and a part of you thanks her for this.
Gumby’s just protesting on stage, the audience is watching the fracas, and Connie’s still suspended in the hills, waiting to sing. The woman keeps struggling and flailing, but she’ll be fine. She’ll leave tonight and make up a story or another about being assaulted by a Nazi. She’ll try to get you fired. There’s nothing left to lose, really, except for that $8 an hour. And even that doesn’t seem so bad in this moment.
“Stop, stop,” she shrieks, as you both march her down the row. Up on stage, Gumby’s going on about how you should forgive her, forgive her. The audience comments, a sea of voices forming a rumbling symphony.
“What is this shit, Gumby?”
“Doesn’t anyone have any control?”
“Kick her ass!”
And you hate and pity the man right now, but he’s not in charge, even though he should be. After all, he’s directed, adapted this, helped get the copyright issues dealt with.
“I’ll sue you,” the woman squawks. “All four of my children are judges. Judges, you know. Who are you?”
“I’m the Nazi who’s getting your ass out of here.”
“And he’s a damn good Nazi,” your sister says.
You cannot help but smile, grateful in this moment. Oddly, you do feel good. You are good at something, even if being a Nazi isn’t what you want. There’s a certain thrill at this confrontation, at this difference in tonight’s sequence of events.
“She’s my assistant Nazi,” you tell the woman.
You both reach the first row, turn the woman to the left, and march her out the entrance, and out into the dirt and grass-filled expanse, where minivans, black and white trucks, Toyotas, and even a lone BMW are parked, and where the butter-colored streetlamps are just coming on. The voices still rumble from within the theater, but this is all yours. Yours and your sister’s.
She still struggles, her breath horrid, rasping, but between you and your sister, a strong, wonderful person, there is no resistance. The sky is deepening, and purple and gold clouds hang in the air, full of possibility, full of something wide and beautiful. The woman tries to tear your uniform once last time, but this time, you grip her hand, stare into her eyes, and growl, “you never, ever, fuck with a pair of stock Nazis.”