by Chris Buckley

I arrived on the set just as they started shooting the first scene, and Nicky was having trouble. He sat on the edge of the bed that props had brought in while Sheila knelt in front of him, wearing nothing but red high heels.

She was working away with no results and Nicky looked bored and scared. Vic West, the director, paced back and forth, five pounds of gold chains bobbing up and down on his neck. The boom operator and the technical director stood in front of the monitor talking about how crappy the catered food was. A few other actors and actresses sat around drinking luke-warm coffee and eating cold pizza and none of this was helping Nicky get it up.

"Waiting for wood" they call it in the business. Usually it means instant termination for the afflicted actor, but Nick Steele had been in the business longer than most and had been absolutely reliable until his wife had left him. That's when the wood problems started. For the last month or so he'd been distracted and unable to perform more times than not, and had acquired a bad reputation among the directors. Nicky knew Vic was giving him what might be his last chance. That pressure, combined with his marital woes, was the last thing he needed. He leaned back on his elbows with his head tilted to the ceiling and closed his eyes, no doubt trying to imagine himself anywhere else but on the crowded, cheap set of Vic West's down-and-dirty, shot-in-a-day porn videos.

Standing in the wings, I took all of this in until my stomach churned from worrying that it'd be me out there next time. I walked into the dressing room where Rod Rammer lounged in a torn and sweat-soiled bathrobe, reading the script and eating from a styrofoam rack of creme horns sitting on a rusted TV tray next to him.

The place reeked of body odor. Rod wasn't known for his hygiene and most of the actresses hated to work with him. They'd complain among themselves but never to directors or producers because Rod was considered the best in the business. He could be depended on to perform in almost any situation, he was exceptionally well-endowed, and just his name on a box cover meant thousands of extra dollars from the market.

"Hey, Rod. What's the batting order?" I tried to sound calm and cheerful.

"Pretty standard." He gave me a relaxed smile, a row of yellow, cream-smeared teeth appearing beneath his thick black mustache. "Missionary, doggie, wheelbarrow, doggie, Dutchman. Typical Vic West stuff."

He was a stump of a guy, fat and balding with a curly black fringe of hair that extended down his back and over his swaying, ponderous belly like mattress ticking. It had earned him the nickname of Taz, short for Tasmanian Devil. The new guys were all tanned and weight-room perfect, but they didn't have the years of experience or impressive resume that Rammer had.

I sat down across from him. "I wish we'd get going. This waiting makes me nervous."

"Nicky having wood problems again?"

"Yeah. Sheila's out there fluffing him now. Vic's pissed. I can't stand watching."

Rod closed the script on his index finger and recrossed his legs. Below the frayed and filthy hem of his robe, I got a glimpse of the legendary Rammer hardware. It was a moment steeped in awe and reverence.

He grabbed a pastry from the tray and bit into it. The filling squirted out of the end and he leaned forward quickly, eyes wide open, big clots of cream plopping down on the floor between his bare and hairy feet. He swallowed and said, "This could be it, you know. Vic's the last director who'll work with him. He doesn't come through today..." He let the thought hang. We both knew what would happen to Nick if someone had to step in for him.

He finished the creme horn in two quick bites, then licked his fingers clean. In the background Vic was screaming orders to the stage hands. Chairs scraped on the tile floor, followed by the rumble of rolling casters.

"I'm getting nervous sitting here listening to that," I said. "Hope I don't have trouble."

"Just relax. Here. Read a magazine." Rod grabbed a stack of skin mags and tossed them at my feet.

I kicked them aside. "Damn hard to relax with that going on. Poor Nicky."

"It's his own fault. Doesn't take care of himself, drinks too much... He owes everybody money. It's hard not to bring all that to work with you."

"He was good, though. In his day."

"Damn straight. I was there on the set that time he shot eight different scenes in four hours. No one else has even come close to breaking that record. Plus, he's been on more box covers than any guy in the business."

"And that's where the money is."

"Not anymore. Cable, soft-porn... That's where the money is now."

I thought about it and nodded in agreement. "It's changed a lot, hasn't it?"

Rod looked out the dressing room door before answering. "Some things have."

He went back to his script and I tried to calm my nerves by thinking about my family's sorghum farm back in Wisconsin. At least I was finished with that. I'd work in a fucking Burger King before I'd leave sunny California for mid-western farm life. There were worse jobs than mine. The want ads were full of them.

"Hey, Rod, you ever think of doing something else? For a living, I mean. You know, a real job or something?"

"You crazy? What could be better 'n this? We do something most guys only dream about and get paid for it. No way I'd work for a living. No way."

"I don't know. Sometimes it doesn't seem so good to me. I mean, look at Nick out there. Christ, that could be me. There's a lot of pressure."

Rod eyed the last creme horn thoughtfully, pushed it aside. He threw the script down on the TV tray before leaning back in his chair. He stared off into space as if conjuring up all the wisdom he had gathered in his many years in the industry,

"Roto Rooter man. Now that's an awful job. Or bomb squad. Christ, you could get killed doin' that. You could just end up in some stinkin' factory doin' the same boring thing day after day. Believe me, there's a lot of guys out there who would be glad to trade places with you. In a minute."

He was right, of course. All I had to do was perform in front of a camera and I'd get a nice fat paycheck. It was something I had always done for free in the past and considered myself lucky just for getting a little. I was starting to relax when Vic yelled something from the other room about taking a break and I got all worked up again. "Hey, Rod. I hear Stoker's making big money in gay porn. You ever done any of that?"

"My wife and I have an agreement. She won't kiss anyone on camera and I won't do any gay stuff."

I thought about Rod's wife, a quiet, mousey woman with a round head who not only managed Rod's business affairs but also acted in the occasional low-grade porn flick, usually as an extra in a Roman orgy scene.

We heard the click of high heels, and Sheila stormed into the room all flushed and sweaty. Her lipstick was worn off and she was still naked, except for the shoes. Rod and I hardly noticed things like that anymore.

"How's it going out there?" Rod asked.

"I can't do a thing with him," she snapped. "He's a mess." She dug her hairbrush and some lipstick out of her bag and faced the mirror. "If fuckin' Vic's going to hire guys like him, he should get some real fluffers. Chrissakes, Rod! When's the last time you took a shower?"

"I was thinking of taking one tonight, Sheila." He gave a broad grin and went for the last creme horn while she painted her lips and furiously ran the brush through her hair. We sat quietly and waited for her to leave. She threw her stuff back in her bag and stormed out.

"Whew," said Rod. "How'd you like her helping you with your wood problems?"

"I know. Poor Nicky. You ever had trouble getting it up on camera?"

"Not really. I've had maybe three or four bad days in my entire career. Maybe 150 feature lengths. But it's all different now. You new guys care too much. You all want to be stars. Guys from my generation just wanted some easy money."

I was thinking about this when Nick Steele padded in. His naked, muscular body appeared soft and strangely deflated. He was tight-lipped and red-eyed. He looked at Rod. "Vic wants you out there."

Rod got up from his chair and headed for the next room without a word while Nick walked to a pile of clothing on the floor and started dressing. I felt awful. I was both disappointed and relieved that Vic hadn't called for me. But mostly I felt bad for Nicky. I wanted to say something comforting, to let him know that I understood. "Hey, sorry Nicky, you know?"

Nick said nothing, just continued dressing with his back to me. Then we heard Vic in the other room. "Everybody back on the set," he yelled. "We got wood here."

"That Rod's amazing," I said. "How do some guys do it?"

Nick's shoulders slumped and his head dropped. I had hoped to make him see that I was scared, too. That both of us were regular guys and Rod was an exception. That there must be easier ways to make money. But Nicky just grabbed the rest of his stuff and walked out and never looked at me. I felt empty and sick and left the dressing room wondering what he would end up doing.

Out on the set, Rod was going at it with Sheila. He was actually laughing, and I could feel the relief in the air. It came from the stage hands, the technicians, and the actresses. It was everywhere. Even Vic was smiling. "Okay, Rammer. Let's wrap it up."

Rod got down to business and wrapped it up like a pro. He was beautiful. Triumphant. While Sheila rushed to the shower, Rod hopped off the bed and headed for the food table in search of leftovers. He had understandably worked up an appetite. Vic patted him on the hairy, sweaty back as he passed by.

Then Vic turned to me. "Okay. Yer up. And let's get a move on. I gotta be at my daughter's dance recital at 6:30."

The cameras rolled into position on the other set. An elaborate jungle scene, complete with plastic plants and a couple of live parrots. A new, hot actress named Smokey St. Cyr sat cross-legged on a new mat. She wore a skimpy leopard suit and looked about 18. She was casually working on her nails. I headed on over. I felt calm and confident. I was ready to work.

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