NOW, IT could be said that Josiah Erickson was an actor of the highest caliber. Granted, there were only two people who’d said this in his lifetime, but he believed them completely. They had no reason to lie.

First, his fourth-grade music teacher, the incomparable Mr. Stefan Alabaster IV, who, on the first day of auditions at Cornerbrooke Elementary School in Wooster, Ohio, told his breathless students that he had come from Akron to mold them into the Next Big Thing. He was going to be ruthless, he said, and his critique would be sharp. “There is no time for tears in theater,” he said, straightening his ascot. “Unless, of course, the script calls for it. In that case, there is always time for tears.”

Josiah was enthralled.

And when he won the coveted role as a block of American cheese in a production on the importance of the four food groups, he couldn’t have been more excited. “You must be the cheese,” Mr. Stefan Alabaster IV told him. “There can never be anyone more cheese than you in this entire world. Do you understand me?”

Josiah did. He’d never understood anything more.

His costume had been a particularly violent orange, one that would have been offensive had it been seen outside of a fourth-grade production of health food in a small Ohio town. It was made of Styrofoam and smelled of paint and glue. The fumes made Josiah dizzy, and he usually spent the rest of his day after rehearsal with a headache. It was near impossible to move in, and he ended up falling more than he stood. Mr. Stefan Alabaster IV, as any good theater director should, solved this dilemma by shoving a broom up the back of the costume and telling Josiah he was absolutely not to move. “Sometimes,” his director said, “we must suffer for our craft.”

In his acting debut, Josiah Erickson had one line and delivered it with the grace of a wheel of gorgonzola: “It’s not cheesy to want to be healthy.”

At least seven people in the audience of dozens chuckled.

It was a monumental moment for young Josiah. He understood, then, his destiny.

He would be a movie star.

After he booked his first commercial in La La Land in 2011 (a one-day local production where Josiah told the undoubtedly rapturous viewers who were awake at two in the morning that no one sold mattresses like the Mattress Dictator: “Because he will take all your decisions away so that you have no choice but to do what he says and get a good night’s rest!”), Josiah returned to Cornerbrooke Elementary with a copy on a VHS tape, sure that Mr. Stefan Alabaster IV would want to see what his mentee had achieved in such a short amount of time.

The problem was that Mr. Stefan Alabaster IV was no longer the music teacher/theater director at Cornerbrooke Elementary. He had found himself starring in what was perhaps his greatest role, that of a resident of the Federal Correctional Institution in Elkton after embezzling almost fifty thousand dollars from the Wooster City School District. If he were lucky, he would get time off for good behavior and be released in eight years to supervised probation.

But Josiah thought Mr. Stefan Alabaster IV could take comfort from the fact that he was listed under the Notable People section on Wooster’s Wikipedia page, regardless of his crimes. Josiah himself had been on it for sixteen hours before someone had gone in and taken his entry off.

It might have been the greatest sixteen hours of his life up until that point.

 

 

THE SECOND person who told Josiah that he was an actor of the highest caliber was his agent, the indomitable Starla Worthington. It had been rather like fate, their meeting, as if the stars had aligned in the heavens above because they knew Josiah was fated to become something more.

It occurred in the La Brea Coin-Op Laundry.

He stood in his underwear and a white undershirt, trying to figure out why the washing machine kept rejecting his quarters (he would find later he was trying to use pesos), when a rather colorful curse came from the line of machines opposite him. He looked up in time to see a small black woman with a lit cigarette clenched between her teeth pull out a healthy selection of undergarments, all of which had been turned pink.

“What the bitch is this?” the woman growled.

“That’s the pink machine,” Josiah told her. “It always turns everything pink.”

She looked over her shoulder, eyes narrowing. “Don’t try it, you fuck.”

And because Josiah was a fan of the classics, he knew what the next line was. He was pleased to meet another cinephile. He squared his shoulders and twisted his lips in a snarl. His flip-flops slid a little on the dirty floor. “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking—” He glanced back over his shoulder before looking back at the woman. “He… you talking to me?” He pointed at himself. “Well, I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to? Oh yeah? Okay.”

The woman stared at him.

Josiah broke character and grinned at her.

“One moment,” the woman said, and she turned toward an oversize purse sitting in a laundry basket.

Josiah waited.

To say he was surprised when he received a face full of Mace a moment later would be an understatement. He was not proud of the way he screamed as he ran out of the La Brea Coin-Op Laundry.

Later, after LA’s finest had come and gone and the world was slightly less blurry, the woman said, “Travis Bickle. You were doing the scene from Taxi Driver.”

Josiah sighed. “You shouldn’t say lines from movies unless you’re planning on acting out the entire scene. It’s the law. Okay, it’s not actually the law, but it should be.”

“You an actor?”

Josiah puffed out his chest. Yes, his eyes were leaking and his skin was swollen and red, and he was pretty sure there were snot bubbles hanging from his mustache, but dammit, he was an actor. “Absolutely. You ever hear of the Mattress Dictator?”

The woman coughed out a puff of blue smoke. “Kiddo, everyone’s heard of the Mattress Dictator.”

“Well, I was in one of his commercials. The Dictator himself cast me after seeing me working at the car wash. Said that I had a certain appeal that would be sure to get people onto mattresses.” Josiah frowned. “I don’t know why I had to take off my pants for the audition at his house and jump on a trampoline in a Speedo while he smoked a cigar, but it all worked out in the end. It was my big break. Well, sort of. It’s the start of my big break. I’m still waiting for it to actually break. It’s more cracked right now.”

“A trampoline in a Speedo,” the woman repeated. “And you don’t know why he asked you to do that.”

Josiah shrugged. “I expect it was because he wanted to test my endurance. It’s not the weirdest thing I’ve had to do for an audition. This one time, I had to pretend to eat a parrot while wearing a skirt. I think it was for almond milk or Toyota or something.”

The woman looked toward the sky. She took a deep breath. “Oh my sweet, sweet summer child.”

“I was born in January,” Josiah told her, because even though she had maced him for his Robert De Niro impression, he didn’t want her to think he was something he wasn’t.

She stuck out her hand. “Starla Worthington. Agent.”

It took him a second to find her hand because everything was still blurry. “Josiah Erickson. Actor. Waiter. Car washer. Dog walker. Sometimes. I don’t do well with picking up poop. I always gag and—” He paused. He frowned. And then his eyes widened, which was not the best move given that he was still in quite a bit of pain. “Ow. Did you say you were—motherfucking ow. It burns! Holy god, it burns.” He sneezed. It felt wet. He wiped his nose with his arm. “Did you say what I think you said? You’re an agent?”

“That’s what I said, kid.”

“This is—oh my god, I need to—hold on. Don’t move. Stay right here.”

He spun on his heels to head back inside. He misjudged the distance to the door and walked into it. The glass rattled. “This is the best day ever,” he breathed, even though there was a good chance his nose was bleeding. He managed to get inside the coin-op without further injury and grabbed his backpack. It hadn’t been stolen, which was lucky. He shouldn’t have left it in here, but he hadn’t had much choice when he’d run screaming after getting maced. He went back outside, heart beating rapidly in his chest.

Starla hadn’t moved. He opened his backpack and pulled out the portfolio that had cost him three months of his food budget, but it’d been worth it. Yes, it could be said that surviving on crackers and hot dogs and sneaking bites off near-finished plates at the restaurant was unbecoming of an actor who had once been a block of American cheese in Ohio, but he was one of thousands who had big dreams and a small amount of cash. You couldn’t walk very far in Los Angeles without tripping over someone who had a script that just needed to be produced or had stood in line for seven hours for an audition that was cast before they’d made it in front of the firing squad.

But here he was, in his underwear and flip-flops, face on fire and most likely bleeding, and he had managed to stumble upon an agent. He would be foolish to let this moment pass him by.

And besides. She had actually helped him by causing him great amounts of pain. He wasn’t hungry at all now. In fact, he felt slightly nauseous. He wouldn’t need to eat tonight, no sir!

It was finally happening. It was all finally happening.

“My portfolio,” he said, thrusting the folder at her. “As you’ll soon see, I have a wide range. I can be happy.” He grinned. It hurt. He wondered if his nose was broken. “I can cry on cue! But… you can’t tell that right now because I’m already sort of crying because I was temporarily blinded and might have fractured my nose. I can be menacing.” He growled at her. “I can play a teenager. ‘Like, totes mcgoats!’ I could be a scientist.” He brought his hand to his beard and rubbed it scientifically. It was coated with snot and blood. “‘The earth will be destroyed by a meteor unless we avert this crisis by changing the polarity of the axis and using the ozone to cause a gravitational reaction that will expel the meteor back into space where it belongs.’ I can be a villain.” He twirled the ends of his mustache. There was definitely snot and blood. “You’ll never get to the girl in time, Agent Magnum von Saviorface. She’s trapped on top of the volcano laser, which will certainly mean her doom.” He cackled maniacally.

“Wow,” Starla said, obviously impressed by his range. “That’s… something.”

He nodded furiously. “And if you’ll just….” He helped her open the portfolio. “Okay, so this is from the series I call The Many Faces of Josiah Erickson. Here is me being pensive in black and white. Here is me being pensive in color.” He flipped the page. “Oooh, and this one is me pretending I’m getting chased by a killer with a large knife who just murdered all of my friends using a combination of drills, hammers, and a table saw. And this one is me at the beach letting the water cascade down my chest and stomach. And yes, I do have ab muscles, thank you for noticing. The only reason I do is a combination of not enough money for food and a gym membership I won in radio trivia for knowing the answer to the question of, on average, adults do this about seventy times per day. The answer was complain. I’m really good at radio trivia. Now, as you can see, I have hair on my chest and stomach, but I have no problem in getting that waxed should the situation call for it. And this one is me with the face I would make if I were in a period piece and the love of my life just suffered a horrible death from the plague. Obviously, it’s a mixture of anguish, horror, and disgust because the love of my life is most likely leaking pus out his and/or her eyes and mouth. And this one is me—”

Starla snapped the portfolio closed. “You fuck around?”

Josiah blinked. “Like, a love scene? Because I have no problem with nudity if that’s what you’re asking. Every morning I practice flexing my butt muscles in the mirror in case I have to—”

“You ever screw someone for a job?”

Josiah was aghast. “Never! That’s—that’s terrible. Why would you—”

“So if a big-name director came to you and said you can have this role that will most likely open big doors for you, but you have to fuck these three studio execs, what do you say?”

“Um. No?”

She snorted. “Really.”

“Well, I mean, I don’t—I wouldn’t enjoy it. I’m not—I’m demisexual.”

She stared at him.

“It means that I don’t experience sexual attraction until I—”

“I know what that means. I have a Tumblr account. And it was a trick question. If a big-name director came to you and said you can have this role but you need to screw studio execs, you tell him to fuck off because the patriarchy is bullshit and you don’t have time for that crap. Take it from me. Men can be disgusting, but men in power? Ain’t nobody got time for that.”

“Ha!” Josiah said. “References. I got that one. I saw it on… and now you’re glaring at me.”

“Do you have any tattoos?”

“No? I mean, almost everyone I know does, but needles scare me, so I don’t have any. I mean, why would you want to sit in a chair and get repeatedly stabbed—”

“You do drugs?”

“No? Wait. I smoke weed, but—”

“Kid, everybody smokes weed. I smoke weed. It’s for my arthritis that I will probably get at some point when I’m older. You shove shit up your nose?”

Josiah frowned. “A marble once. But I was fifteen, and it was a dare. It got stuck until I sneezed so hard it shot out and cracked a window.”

“Jesus,” she muttered. Then, “Your beard. And that mustache.”

“What about them?”

“Why do they exist?”

“Oh. Well, I mean, I suppose I can get rid of them if I need to—”

“Don’t. Keep them. It makes you look like you’d spend seven hundred dollars on a framed Washington State license plate from the seventies.”

“Wow,” Josiah said. “They sell those? That would look so awesome next to my—”

“The haircut.”

He frowned. “What’s wrong with it?” It was long on the top and shaved on the sides. He’d done it himself. He thought it looked pretty good, especially since he only had one mirror.

“You look like every white guy on the Internet ever.”

“Oh. Thank you?”

“Is that your natural color?”

“Um. Yes? It’s brown, so. Does it not… look natural?”

She ignored him. “Are you wearing contacts, or is that your natural eye color? I can’t tell, given how swollen your face is.”

“Natural. They’re blue like ice, or so this random stranger told me at a bar once. He was really drunk and trying to put his mouth on me—”

She reached into her purse and pulled out a case. Inside was a card she shoved into his hand. He squinted down at it, trying to make out the wording.

Above an address and a phone number, it said:

Worthington Talent Agency

We see what you’re Worth!

Starla Worthington

“Once your face clears up, you call me,” she said. “I’ll have you come in, sign your life over to me, and we’ll see what we see.”

This was it.

This was going to change everything.

This was the moment he’d look back on when he stood in a tuxedo on a stage and spouted the bullshit that first and foremost, he wanted to thank god, because with him all things are possible and—

“Are you crying?” Starla demanded.

“No,” Josiah said in a choked voice. “It’s just the Mace.”