My main duties as the Production Assistant on The Iraq Show are to 1. translate the Daily Data into plain English and 2. get the coffee. I’ve only been on the job a few weeks so, for the most part, my job has been to 2. get the coffee. But today is different. Today, the Daily Data arrives early from Iraq. It reads:
281553Z 31009KT 10SM CLR. 101st Airborne Division, US MLRS fired 18 ATACMS against suspected air defense sites in Al Hillah with a 100% kill rate. USAF F-16CG deployed for low-level strafing run in vicinity to account for statistical anomalies.
First, I hand out the Starbucks. Some of the “Iraqis” invariably want what they call “Iraqi coffee” so that they can stay in character. Every day, they ask for Yemeni beans, pulverized with ginger root and cardamom and brewed in a copper kettle. Every day, I bring them Frappuccinos.
Then I translate the Daily Data into a more user-friendly format. It’s the first time I’ve been allowed to translate the Daily Data, so I want to do well. Show my dad that I’m not a goof-off. I try out a few things, and finally settle on:
It’s a clear day, September 28, 2007, with 10 statute miles of visibility. At 6:53PM local time, there’s a wind from the northwest at 9 knots. The army fired 18 missiles at a small Iraqi town today, killing everybody. A fighter jet flew over the town afterwards, killing anyone who was not already killed.
Simple, but effective, I think. I bring the translated proof of the Daily Data to the Senior Production Manager, Martin, for approval. Martin is a fat, bald man with beady eyes like two raisins on a cream pie. He wears the same sky-blue tie and white short-sleeved shirt every day. The AC in his trailer is on full-blast but he sweats like a pig. He reads my proof.
“Looks good,” he says. “There are just a few small things I would change.”
“The thing is—and I’m going to be totally honest with you here since you seem like a smart guy—you have to poetry it up a bit for the writers.”
“Poetry it up for the writers?”
“That’s right. They’re different than you and me. You have to give it to them in such a way that speaks to their sort of bohemian sensibility. We need to make them understand what they need to write about. This is a tv show, not math. When writers see all these numbers and raw data, they get all afraid like a bunch of little gay elves.”
“Is there an echo in here? I said like gay elves. That’s called a simile. They’re not actually gay elves, and please don’t tell anyone in HR that I said they were.”
Martin sits back in his reclining desk-chair and folds his hands behind his head.
“Here’s what I would suggest,” he says.
The hot sun is like a giant red orb, pulsating at dusk above the hot Iraqi desert. The northwestern wind blows, at about 9 knots. Later, Sergeant Michelson and his bunkmates huddle after a particularly harrowing day, in which 4 of their fellow soldiers were killed. They huddle like football players huddled in a very important football game, perhaps the 2005 AFC divisional playoff game, Colts versus Steelers. He tells them stories, about his beautiful wife, Kelly, a gorgeous cheerleader in her day, with wonderful tits like two coconuts that are extremely soft and smooth and not hard or hairy like most coconuts. Also, he tells them about his little son, John, who is sick with pneumonia after receiving an Anthrax-filled letter from a terrorist in the mail. The soldiers reminisce about their own beautiful wives back home. It turns out, one soldier’s wife is a pulmonologist, and this gives Sergeant Michelson hope for his son’s future. That’s what’s on his mind. That, and the United States Armed Forces, and how the Commander in Chief of those Armed Forces, the President of the United States does his best to pursue the ideals of excellence and democracy purported by his forefathers the Pilgrims, sometimes with the gentle reassurance and tough love of eighteen missiles or F-16CG fighter jets, but minimizing, as always, collateral damages to the Iraqi people who, with God’s blessing, will one day dry their wings of the morning dew and fly free of our swathing like butterflies flying from the chrysalis, to govern themselves independently and rightly, with no ill-will toward our men, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice, for all those who deserve it.
He pauses and takes a deep breath and looks at the ceiling.
“So,” he says. “Do you see what I mean by poetry it up?”
“I guess,” I say.
“And do you see the difference between mine and yours?”
“I definitely see that.”
“What I did was, I made it pretty. I made it interesting. I brought in outside knowledge about an interest of mine, the National Football League. That’s just an example of one way you can speak the language of the American people.”
“So it’s good to bring in football analogies?”
“It’s just an example of one good thing you can do. As time goes on, you’ll develop your own style. You might want to try baseball.”
“Okay, I’ll make a note of that.”
“Also, I added some facts about this Sergeant Michelson and his life and his son, John. They call that backstory in literature and it’s very important to have. And then I added some bits about our president and the U.S. of A, taking into account the first people in America, the Pilgrims, ergo Plymouth Rock. I added texture that helps to portray the data vis-à-vis this country’s people, both past and present. Do you see what I mean?”
“I think I can catch on,” I say.
“Good. Any questions?”
“Who’s Sergeant Michelson?”
“That’s a great question. The answer is, I have no idea. I just made him up. That’s another thing you can do with the Daily Data. There are so many soldiers in Iraq at this point that we can’t be expected to filter out each great story. That would be like finding a needle in a haystack, or a sand dune, in this case. So what I did was, I made up a very plausible sergeant with problems very similar to those problems of all the other soldiers. And then I added what?”
“Exactly, backstory. It was the backstory that made you think that Sergeant Michelson is a real person, with a real wife and real tits and maybe a dog, named Otto. See, you can do that too. I just made up his dog’s name on the spot. It doesn’t really matter.”
“So I could call him Frodo?”
“Sure! Now you’re getting the hang of it! It doesn’t matter at all! Now get this Daily Data over to Richard before he flips out.”
I leave Martin’s trailer and instantly begin to sweat in the heat.
The “Iraqis” are gathered together, chatting in the shade between Martin’s trailer and Richard’s trailer, so I have to walk right by them. Most of the Iraqis are Mexicans that one of the PAs picks up every morning from the parking lot of the 7-Eleven. They get paid under the table, and they don’t have speaking parts since most of them don’t speak English. Mainly they just mill about in the background and pretend to sell dates to one another while the English-speaking actors play the lead Iraqi roles. In between shots they chug Frappuccinos like you wouldn’t believe. The ones that seem to like the job have even grown moustaches so that they’re the first to be picked in the morning. It beats yard work, I guess.
I like the Mexican Iraqis. For the most part they’re good, hardworking guys with two jobs. I took Spanish in high school, so it’s fun to practice with them. They teach me swears. They use tú instead of usted. This one guy, Juan, has a family back in Mexico, and he sends all his wages back to them. Juan hardly even saves enough for food which is why he’s so gung ho about Frappuccinos. There are more calories in a Frappuccino than in about a dozen tacos.
I only understand about half of what he says, but from what I understand, I’m his best friend in America. He even gave me a picture of his daughter.
“¡Hola, maricóns!” I say as I walk past.
This gets a big laugh from the Mexicans.
“¡Hola!” says Juan with a grin. Juan’s always grinning, even though he hasn’t seen his family in almost a year. “Muchas gracias por los Frappuccinos.”
“You are muy bienvenido,” I say.
He smiles some more. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t understand.
“¿Qué pasa?” I ask. “¿Qué pasa with your family?”
“Nada,” he says. “They are very, very good. I am very, very good. Muy bueno.”
Just then, Mark, one of the American Iraqis sees me. I put my head down and make a beeline for Richard’s trailer.
“Hi, Mark,” I say. Mark’s an Irish Catholic from Dorchester, in Boston. He has an accent, which he tries to hide, and pale, freckled skin. He auditioned to be an American, but Casting told him, You’re going to be an Iraqi, or hit the road. He was pissed because he was once this hot shot dramatic actor and even toured in France. Or so he says.
Mark wears a long white dishdasha and a kaffiyeh both made from tablecloths due to severe budget cuts earlier in the year. Mark can’t grow a moustache so he wears a fake, which means you’ve got this tall, lanky, freckled guy draped in a tablecloth with another tablecloth on his head, a jet-black glue-on moustache and a slight Boston accent. Personally, I think it looks more ridiculous than the Mexicans, but I’m not in Casting or Makeup or Costumes, so what do I know?
“What is this?” he asks, pointing to his Starbucks.
“Frappuccino,” I say. “They’re delicious.”
“How many times have I told you, I don’t want Frappuccinos. Are there Starbucks in Iraq?”
“Well, that’s beside the point. The point is, I need to stay in character. My mind needs to be sharp.”
“But you have a script.”
“Don’t be wise with me. I heard about you. I heard that your dad got you this job. Well, not me. I worked my butt off to get where I am, and no one’s going to take that away from me, got it? And I don’t have a script, I have an outline. Everything you hear coming out of my mouth is pure improv. I need to have Iraqi coffee,” he says. “It fuels the magic.”
His moustache halfway slips off in the heat.
“Starbucks doesn’t have Iraqi coffee.”
“And the grocery store doesn’t have kofta, but I find a way.”
“All right, Mark, I’ll see what I can do,” I say, though I won’t.
“And that’s another thing. When we’re on the set, address me by my Iraqi name. Mohammed Jassim Ali. Got it?”
“Got it, what?”
“Got it, Mohammed.”
“Got it, Mohammed Jassim Ali.”
And with that, Mark pours his Frappuccino onto the ground in dramatic fashion. Juan sees him pour it out and grimaces at all of those wasted calories. Mark holds the empty plastic cup in front of me and waits, I guess, for some sort of response. I shrug and walk away.
I walk the translated Daily Data over to Richard’s trailer. I knock on the door. Richard answers. Richard’s in his fifties, and he’s the angriest and shortest member of the writing team.
“How’s the Daily Data today? Anything we can work with?” says Richard.
I hand him Martin’s version of the Daily Data. He sits down in an old La-Z-Boy and reads. His lips twitch every so often, and about halfway through his right eyebrow arches skyward. Richard’s a bit of a loose cannon. Martin once told me that writers are emotional because they’re constantly dealing with intangibles. When he finishes, he puts the Daily Data down and looks at me.
“This is crap,” he says.
“Crap?” I say.
“Yes, crap. Have you ever heard of crap? Excrement, human or otherwise?”
“I’ve heard of it, but I didn’t even wri—”
“Did you smear yours all over this translation?”
He picks up the Daily Data again and reads out loud, “ ‘The hot sun is like a giant red orb, pulsating at dusk above the hot Iraqi desert.’ What does that even mean?”
“I’m not sure,” I say.
“Well, is it or is it not your job to translate the Daily Data from computerese into plain English so that my team is able to take a crack at it?”
“Is it your job to write about giant red orbs?”
“Do you consider giant red orbs plain English?”
“No. But I didn’t even wri—”
“I didn’t think so. Perhaps the next time you should let the writers do the writing,” he says. He takes a sip of his coffee. Richard is the only one on the staff who doesn’t drink Starbucks. Writers don’t drink Starbucks, he told me once. Writers are of the people, he said. The writer’s coffee is McDonald’s.
“Let me ask you,” he says. “What do you want out of this job?”
“I’m not sure,” I say.
“What do you want out of your life?”
“That’s a big question,” I say. Richard is always asking big, open-ended questions like this. Martin says it’s because he’s a writer that he has to ask the big questions. I think it’s because he’s incapable of specificity. “I’m not sure if I have one answer.”
“And do you think that’s a good way to go through life? Not being sure of anything? I mean, I can see you aren’t sure how to translate the Daily Data from computerese into plain English, but I would think you’d be sure of something.”
“I’m not sure if I want to work on a reality tv show writing scripts.”
“Amazing. How long have you been here?”
“Just a few weeks.”
“Then you should know this is not a reality tv show and we don’t write scripts. This is The Iraq Show. We write outlines based on what’s actually happening in Iraq, i.e., the Daily Data, as a basis or launching point for improvisational drama, which is why it’s so important to translate it well. It’s the bread and butter of this show.”
“Do you know? Do you really? Look. I’m a writer. One day, I’ll write a novel, and I’m sure that it will be a great novel. It will have moderate commercial success but the critics will love it. But until then, I write The Iraq Show and I do a damn good job. I know I want to be here, changing the world for the better. Are you sure you want to be here? I can’t keep someone on staff who’s not sure, do you understand?”
He looks to me for a response. I notice that his feet don’t even reach the ground. If he wants to get out of the La-Z-Boy he has to scoot forward a few times and then make the leap.
I consider quitting right then and there. Just walking out, and he can’t chase me on account of it takes him a while to scoot out of his chair. That’s something the old me would have done. But then I think about my dad and how he pulled a few strings with Martin to get me this job, and what would I tell him? That I’m moving back home because I quit The Iraq Show, just like I quit the other jobs? The thing is, I want to succeed. It’s not that I have no drive or that I like starting a new job every six months. I am perfectly capable of hard work, though perhaps my actions haven’t always been reflective of that fact.
“So, do you want me to try again with the Daily Data?” I say.
“No. We’re going to try to salvage it. We don’t have time to retranslate the whole thing.”
Later that day they’re shooting the first scene on Lot A. There’s a tent that looks more L.L. Bean than Fallujah and two Americans sitting in front of it. Product placement is an important part of The Iraq Show, so the Americans are drinking Coke and wearing clothing from the Gap. I’m sitting behind the director, making sure everyone has Starbucks and watching the actors.
“Action!” says the director.
“Her name’s Kelly,” says Phil, one of the Americans. “She’s gorgeous. Used to be a cheerleader, believe it or not.”
“I don’t believe it,” says Andy.
“Check it out,” says Phil, and hands him a picture from his wallet. “I had this dream I was going to be a tight end for the Steelers and she was going to be my cheerleader.”
“Speaking of tight ends,” says Andy, looking at the photo. “Hot. She’s hot. And great tits, too. Like coconuts.”
He takes a long swig from his Coke.
“Yeah, but surprisingly soft,” Phil says and smoothes the front of his breathable cotton pullover, as if to illustrate just how soft.
Martin walks up beside me. Outside his trailer he sweats about twice as much as he does with the AC on.
“How’s it going?” he whispers.
“Okay,” I say.
“Hey, listen,” says Martin. “Do you have any more Frappuccinos? It’s about a million degrees out here.”
On the set, Andy lights a fire. He makes a little tepee from twigs that Set Design had strewn about and lights it with his Marlboro Cigarettes Zippo.
“So do you think she’s being …” says Andy.
“What?” says Phil.
“Nothing. It’s just … We’re a long way away. People get lonely.”
“What? You think she’s getting a bit on the side? That’s Mrs. Sergeant Michelson you’re talking about there.”
“So you don’t get nervous that someone is taking her out? Taking her bowling or to the Outback Steakhouse for a Bloomin’ Onion?”
“She’s as faithful as our commander in chief.”
“I just want to get back to her A-sap, back in the U.S. of A., where we have a Constitution that makes day-to-day life so much simpler.”
“And before the next NFL season starts.”
I get Martin a Frappuccino and he slurps it down in about three gulps.
“I’ve got to be honest with you,” he whispers. “This is great stuff.”
“I’m glad you like it,” I say. “It’s just coffee and cream, I think.”
“Not the Frappuccino,” he says. “The writing.”
“I’m a bit surprised it came out like this.”
Just then, Mark a.k.a. Mohammed Jassim Ali runs onto the set, oversized dishdasha flowing behind him. He collapses in a heap next to Phil and Andy. They jump up and act startled, but not that startled.
“Do not worry,” shouts Mohammed Jassim Ali. “This is not a jihad.”
His Boston accent really shines through when he shouts. He pronounces it “gee-hawd.”
“Thank Gawd,” says Andy, which is awkward because Andy’s not even from Boston. He just makes fun of Mohammed’s accent so often off camera that it slips out without thinking.
“Cut!” shouts the director.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” shouts Mohammed.
“Wrong with me? Wrong with me?” shouts Andy.
Mohammed grabs Andy by the throat and they fall to the ground.
“Take a walk with me,” says Martin.
Back in the trailer, Martin cranks the AC until my skin ripples with gooseflesh.
“Now, tell me,” he says. “Why are you a bit surprised?”
“Well, when I brought the Daily Data to Richard, he didn’t seem too impressed.”
“In fact, he called it crap.”
“Yes. ‘Human or otherwise’ was the exact phrase he used.”
“Yes, he told me you didn’t do such a great job.”
“But I didn’t. I mean, you wro—.”
“The thing is—and I’m going to be honest with you here because I think that you deserve it—Richard’s under a lot of stress.”
“It seems that way. Even Mark got kind of pissed about his coffee this A.M.”
“Mohammed Jassim Ali.”
“Ah yes, Mohammed. What did he say?”
“Something about staying in character.”
“Well, that’s what I was getting to. Staying in character. Staying in a job. Everyone’s a bit stressed out on that front. I would suggest that you be a little stressed out on that front. To pun on the title of a well-known wartime book, all is not quiet on that front.”
“Let me put it this way. When you look around here what do see?”
“Rhetorical question. What you see is a well-oiled machine. What you see is the industry’s top professionals at the top of their respective games. If this show were a woman, it would be like a combination of Pamela Anderson, Farah Fawcett circa 1976, and Martha Stewart.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“I’m just saying that, just as a hypothetical amalgamation of those three women would be the ideal woman, a sort of ‘wonder woman,’ though slightly less muscular than Lynda Carter, our show is at a similar level of perfection. A ‘wonder show,’ if you will.”
“So Richard and Mohammed are stressed because the show’s so good?”
“That’s certainly part of it. But what they’re really stressed out about is the fact that with great power comes great responsibility. Spider-Man said that. And the problem here is—and like I said, I’m leveling with you—the stories coming out of Iraq aren’t that great anymore.”
“Can’t you just make them up?”
“We don’t”—he makes quotes marks in the air with his fingers—“make things up here on The Iraq Show. Take this morning. What I did was, I spit shined. To have a really top-notch show, you need something a little more—you need to go the extra mile is what I mean to say. And my skills as a wordsmith can only take us so far. When Richard compares the Daily Data to excrement, do you know what he’s really saying? He’s saying, Reality is excrement. Because if the Daily Data is what the name implies, i.e., data from that day, then it represents reality, and when Richard says that the Daily Data is crap he is, in essence, saying that reality is crap. So what do we need to do?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, let me answer my question with a question. Do we need to go to Iraq? Yes, we do. Do we need to drum up some business, as it were? Yes, we do. Now that brings me to my next question. What do you want to do with your life?”
At this point, I’m not really listening. I notice that on his desk, right next to the AC and next to various piles of papers, is a Frappuccino from this morning. It still looks frozen, so I pick it up and take a sip. Martin stares at me.
“Well?” he says.
“Oh, I thought that was a rhetorical question.”
“Well then, I’m not sure.”
“Do you enjoy working for The Iraq Show?”
“I guess,” I say.
“Of course you do. But here’s the thing. I love your dad. Your dad’s a great guy. Which is why I had no problem giving you this job as Production Assistant even though I had a stack of résumés about a mile high on my desk. But I’ve spoken to Richard, and we’re not sure if the job is one hundred percent right for you.”
“I don’t know if it is, either,” I say, but Martin’s not really listening. He’s on a roll.
“Which is why, I think, you should be our man in Iraq,” he says and does a curlicue flourish thing with his fat hands, as if he’s just pulled a rabbit from a hat.
“Go to Iraq?” I ask.
“That’s right. You’d have support staff with you, but you’d be the principal. It would be somewhat dangerous, yes, and there would be no raise in pay, of course, but the show would pick up most of your expenses.”
“So what would I be doing there?”
“Well, like I said, you’d be drumming up business. You’d be the Gene Krupa of business.”
“So what exactly did you have in mind?”
“Well, as Senior Iraqi Contrivance Coordinator, parentheses, that would be your new title and it comes complete with parking space, end parentheses, you’d have carte blanche to do whatever you need to do to create stories.”
“You mean discover stories?”
“Discovery takes so long. We’d prefer you create stories. Preferably, these stories should fit into one of the following categories: 1. tear-jerking, 2. heartwarming, 3. astonishing, 4. validating. Or some combination thereof.”
“So, for example …”
“For example. Just off the top of my head. A man, let’s call him Sergeant Michelson, gets his legs blown off by a land mine. He has a son at home, call him John, who he’ll never be able to bounce on his knees, on account of he has no knees. This is number one, tear-jerking. Then, we find out that there is this doctor who is willing to do experimental surgery to replace the guy’s legs, and he’s going to do it pro-bono because he has both two young daughters and fond memories of knee-bouncing. This is number two, heartwarming. Then we find out that he’s going to replace the legs with an unclaimed Iraqi corpse’s legs from the morgue. This is number three, astonishing. Later, after the surgery goes according to plan, we find out that Iraq has a sovereign government thanks, in part, to this soldier getting his legs blown off. This is number four, validating.”
“So how do I create stories like these?”
“Well, let’s just say that the show has a fairly large ordnance budget—but do not tell Costumes. They’re still peeved about the tablecloth dishdasha thing.”
“I’ll need to think about it,” I say.
“Think about it,” says Martin. “But don’t take too long.”
“How long do I have?”
“Well, to be honest with you, there are budget cuts being made. Sacrifices. I don’t know if the show needs a production assistant at this juncture, if you catch my drift. And I’m sure you do.”
That evening, I head up to the Oil Rig Set on Lot B to think about Martin’s proposal. The Oil Rig Set on Lot B is where I always go to think. It turns out I’m not the only one. When I get there, Mohammed Jassim Ali is slumped against the rig. It looks like he’s been crying. The idea was to shoot on Lot B at around this time, but they had to re-shoot the whole campfire scene again, this time without Mohammed, who was canned due to his general irascibility and difficulty working with others. Also, his Boston accent.
He’s got a bottle of Jim Beam that he swigs from every now and again. He offers me a swallow, but I say no, thanks. He lights a cigarette and for a second I think what kind of idiot would light a cigarette on an oil rig, and then I remember it’s not an oil rig, it’s the Oil Rig Set on Lot B.
“First of all,” he says. “Call me Mark. No more of this Mohammed Jassim Ali bullcrap. Mohammed Jassim Ali is dead to me. Do you know who they got to replace me? Do you know?”
“Who?” I ask.
“Some guy from Mexico or South America or something. Juan something. Said his Latin complexion was more Middle-Eastern-looking than mine.”
“Those are the breaks,” I say.
“He doesn’t even speak English, but they’re giving him my salary and I don’t even care,” says Mark. “I don’t. Do you believe me?”
“Sure, I believe you,” I say to make him feel better.
“I’m more of a dramatic actor anyway. I’ve played Candide. The problem is, these TV show types, they don’t understand the artiste. Je suis artiste. That means I am the artist. In French. Did you know that?”
“I’ve played Candide. In French, damn it. In. French. But they don’t care about that here. You know, sometimes I think to myself, I’ve played Candide, I don’t need this. I’m better than this. And then sometimes I think, I’m an actor who has played Candide in Paris, I should be able to adapt to any role, and not be concerned about anything else, other than the role I am currently playing. What do you think?”
“I think that’s very lucid for a guy who’s had a quarter of a bottle of Jim Beam.”
“Do you want some?” he asks again.
Mark hands me the bottle and I take a long pull and cough. The only thing I’ve had to eat all day is Frappuccinos, so I can feel the Jim Beam in my stomach. Over by Lot A there’s a thin wisp of smoke from the campfire.
“Do you know what the critics say about The Iraq Show?” asks Mark.
“I memorized it. According to TV Guide, ‘The Iraq Show is the most popular improvisational political dramedy on television.’ According to the Nielsen statistics, basically everyone watches. According to Variety.com, we are ‘the nation’s foremost source of news from Iraq, with a twist.’ According to the New York Times, ‘the dramatic flair of The Iraq Show is exactly the spoonful of sugar America needs to help its medicine go down.’”
“Exactly. America loves this crap.” He pauses. “I mean, I was in Candide. Did you know that?”
I take another swig from the bottle of Jim Beam.
“Well,” I say. “What can you do? Interesting fact though, I guess the show’s in some trouble. No room in the budget for a Production Assistant, but Martin just offered to make me a Senior Iraqi Contrivance Coordinator.”
“Is that a promotion?”
“No idea,” I say. “I didn’t really do much to earn it.”
“You’re taking it,” snorts Mark.
“I think so,” I say. “The old me wouldn’t have taken it, but I need the job. I need to keep moving up. Want me to see if I can get you reinstated?”
“Me?” asks Mark even though it’s just the two of us there. “I’ve got other plans.”
“What are your plans?”
Mark doesn’t answer. It’s dark now, and the lights from the set reflect in his eyes. He stares intently at the last glowing embers of his cigarette. He drains the Jim Beam and tosses the empty bottle behind the oil rig. The crew is making their way towards the Oil Rig Set on Lot B and you can just make them out in the distance, advancing with cameras and lights and noise, like the townspeople marching on Frankenstein’s castle. I walk behind the oil rig, find the empty bottle, and throw it in the trash. When I get back, Mark is gone.
The next day, The Iraq Show is burning. I arrive early to take a crack at the Daily Data before Martin gets in, but I can’t even get to the office. The firemen have blocked off all entrances, and the sky is filled with an acrid black smoke. A fireman in full get-up with an oxygen tank on his back runs by me.
“Hey,” I shout. “What’s going on?”
“Too soon to tell,” he says. “Hey, are those Frappuccinos?”
“Yeah. They’re for the cast.”
“It’s really hot in there. The whole place is on fire. I’m just saying.”
I hand him a Frappuccino. Not like it matters.
“Thanks, kid,” he says and runs off towards the fire.
Martin shows up a little bit later. He’s already sweating when he gets out of the car, and the heat from the fires doesn’t help. The first thing he does is grab two Frappuccinos, one for each hand.
“This does not bode well,” he says with a small frown.
“You don’t seem so upset,” I say.
“Well, what can you do? Sometimes, things just happen and there’s nothing you can do about them. It’s called Calvinism.”
He takes a sip from the left Frappuccino.
“But you don’t care at all? This was your job. This was my job.”
“There’s a little thing called insurance, perhaps you’ve heard of it? We’ll just rebuild the set.”
He takes a sip from the right Frappuccino.
We both see Richard at the same time. He’s got soot on his forehead and he looks angry. He’s yelling at one of the firemen, but the fireman doesn’t seem to be listening. The fire is still burning out of control, and the fireman seems intent. Eventually, Richard gives up and walks over to us.
“This is unbelievable. Can you believe this?” he asks.
“I can believe it,” says Martin. “Fires happen. We have insurance.”
“Forget the insurance,” says Richard. “This is just the fodder I need for my book.”
“Fodder?” I say.
“Yes, fodder. Cummings, Papa, Remarque, they had WWI, Orwell had the Spanish Civil War, and basically everyone was in WWII: Waugh, Mailer, Vidal, Heller, Vonnegut. Do you know how hard it is to write a good book without a war?”
“I didn’t know you were working on a book,” says Martin.
“I’m a writer; it’s inevitable. I hadn’t started yet because: no war.”
“You write outlines,” I say.
“You’re on thin ice, bub, so don’t tell me what writing is. Writing is writing, whether it’s novels or outlines.”
“Well, what about the war in Iraq?” I ask.
“It’s very far away.”
“You could volunteer for the Army,” I say.
“The thing about the Army is, it’s extremely dangerous.”
“So how is this fodder?”
“This is a show about a war, and now it’s a war zone.”
“It’s just on fire. I’m not sure this is what war is like.”
“Are you kidding?” says Richard. “This is what war is like. Fires. People running around screaming.”
“It’s like meta-war,” says Martin. Then, to me, “Speaking of Iraq, have you thought about the job?”
Just then, the fireman who took the Frappuccino comes stumbling out of one of the buildings on Lot A. The Frappuccino is gone, but slumped over his shoulders is a body. The body is small and wearing the tatters of a long white garment, smudged with soot. The fireman barely notices the weight. He has the body in, for lack of a better word, a fireman’s carry and the body is lightly smoking, but not moving at all. The fireman walks to an ambulance and drops the body.
“Were there people in there?” I ask.
“Not to my knowledge,” says Martin. “The place is closed and locked after shooting’s done for the night.”
“So who is that?” I ask.
“Well, I’m going to be honest with you here, but you didn’t hear it from me—sometimes the Mexicans crash in the storage area on Lot A. They’re not supposed to, but it gets to be such a pain picking them up at the 7-Eleven every morning, we figured if they wanted to stay there, and if they didn’t touch anything, what was the harm? It was win/win.”
“Fodder,” Richard murmurs, then looks at us. “Of course, I would have preferred that there were no casualties, but now that there are, and, I mean, we don’t have a time machine, so I can be a bit thankful, right?”
I walk over to the body. The way the fireman dropped him was haphazard, and he’s just there, on the ground, uncovered and dead. Most of his clothes were burned away in the fire, but I can still make out the remains of a tablecloth dishdasha. His body is burned black and his hair is gone. Martin walks up behind me.
“It’s Juan,” I say.
“That does not bode well,” says Martin. “He was our new Mohammed Jassim Ali.”
“I think I’m going to pass on the job, Martin,” I say.
Martin shrugs. He finishes his Frappuccinos and goes looking for another. I walk to the ambulance and take a blanket from the back seat and walk back to Juan. Suddenly there’s an explosion on Lot B and a phalanx of firemen run that way. The firemen have been pouring water on The Iraq Show all morning, but the fires show no signs of letting up. I kneel next to Juan. I realize that even though I’m his best friend in America, I really don’t know Juan at all, and I’m not even sure I’ll miss him. I unfold the blanket and spread it over Juan, or what’s left of him.