THE FOLEY ARTIST
A kiss on the cheek meant more on Tchaikovsky nights. His work asked much but promised more, leaving us spent but still hungry. I was late getting to the bar. They’d already started pairing off. The principal second violin was on her third beer, edging closer to the French horn. The cellist and the timpanist advanced and feinted, their voices in self-conscious staccato though we all knew their final movement. There’s an unspoken code—anything goes; no one gets attached. It sounds perverse, and it’s not what I’d wanted by this age. But if nothing else, it tightens our playing. When you know the motions of the body beside you, syncing up is natural as knowing when to breathe.
Which means that when someone brings in an outsider, the hairs on your arms stand up. I noticed him after I’d sat down and ordered a glass of white wine. He had a pile of peanuts in front of him and was cracking them into two heaps, one of meat and one of shell, explaining how they could replicate the sound of breaking bones. My eyes were drawn to his teeth, suspiciously white despite his grey beard. When you’re past the age where things start decaying, such overt signs of vitality can look like you’ve made some sort of pact. He was sitting next to Vida. The youngest of us at forty-five, she had waist-length black hair that caught in the oboe’s keys. She was the only one who’d been with the conductor and would tell you how, just like in rehearsal, he’d wanted everyone to finish at the same time. She caught my eye from across the table.
“This is Andrew,” she said as he paused for breath. “Andrew, this is Negin.” “I play the—”
“Guess,” Vida said. “You’re, what, four for five?”
“Two for three,” he said, and I liked him for our common instinct to check her.
“He’s lowballing,” she said, touching his arm. “I told him how many he gets right is how many drinks he buys me.” One of her hooks: to talk about you like you weren’t there, as though you eavesdropped on privileged communication. Her theory was that each person has the same amount of attraction to exert on others. Where she was easy for anyone to like, I was “someone you got obsessed with,” meaning it was only ever a few people, my limit depleted in short bursts.
“You look like a tuba player,” Andrew said.
Vida crowed in delight, but I was annoyed. I tucked my hands into my lap, conscious of their prominent veins. My wine arrived and I wished I’d ordered red.
“And how did you two meet?” I asked.
“At my studio,” he said. “I needed a little figure played by an oboist.”
“And voila,” Vida said, flipping up both palms. “A little figure.”
“What do you do?” I said.
“Foley, for film and TV. You think you’re hearing the explosion onscreen, but it’s really
me.” He resumed his demonstration with the peanuts, adding a guttural grunt with each crack. “See? Breaking bones.”
“Fascinating,” I said, to cut him off. People were staring.
Vida’s head flicked towards me. “A passionate word from our even-keeled Negin. You should be flattered.” He glanced at his watch.
“I was actually hoping to get back to the studio. You’re both welcome to join me.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose,” I said. I was thinking of the missed drinks Vida had promised herself on Andrew’s tab. I knew she was, too.
“We’d love to,” she said. “Seeing how it’s so fascinating.”
The studio was high ceilinged, its walls upholstered in dark blue. At one end was a screen where the footage was paused—a close-up of a man’s face, broken and bloodied, a fist poised inches away. The floor was a grid of materials, about five by five feet each—hardwood, cement, carpet, even a shallow gravel pit. A dented car door and fender were parked in the corner.
“It looks like a decorator’s last screw-you before he quit,” Vida called, testing her shoes on the different surfaces.
I dipped a toe into the gravel, the stones parting with a percussive hiss. “It’s wonderful.”
Andrew came up beside me. “Were you offended,” he said, his voice low, “when I said you looked like a tuba player?”
I pushed my foot in up to the ankle. “Could I infer anything good from that?”
“I was watching you during the concerto.”
I peered at the stones. After a certain age, you had to be careful with advances. With the
wrong follow-through you became what they’d suspected you of being all along—the animal trying to sink in her claws, in a last-ditch attempt at capture.
“It’s good you’re here,” Andrew said as Vida’s heels clicked towards us. “I need a couple extra bodies to help with this fight scene.”
“You brought us here to beat us up?” I said, and Vida laughed.
Andrew crossed to a fridge and withdrew a frozen lettuce head. We crowded onto the carpet, where several mics stood at chest height. He held the lettuce out to Vida. “Punch it.”
“Oh god, I can’t. My hands are my business.”
“It’s lettuce,” he said. “Not brick.”
She backed away. “I break a finger, my career’s over.”
Andrew turned to me. Condensation dripped from the leaves, forming a dark spot at his feet. I shrugged off the sting of being second choice. “Sure.”
“I need you in the control room, then,” he said to Vida. She wore a smirk, no doubt at my keenness, but it shrunk as she followed him out. I watched them through the glass, marveling at how easily it could have been me.
Andrew returned, cradling the lettuce. He glanced at the screen. “As soon as you see the actor throw his fist, you go for it.”
“Rolling,” Vida said, her voice from the speakers making me jump.
I focused on the lettuce he held at chest level, but kept the screen in my periphery. When the actor’s arm straightened, I pummeled my fist into the iceberg. Leaves collapsed around my fingers with shocking coldness, releasing a wet crunch. It joined the onscreen visual in bloody harmony, making me gasp and ruin the take.
“Negin,” Andrew said, laughing. His teeth were like the tips of piano keys. “You should have warned me you were a retired pro.”
I laughed and shook out my fingers, flecked with translucent green, and tried not to be bothered by “retired.”
“Are you alright? We don’t have to do it again.”
“No, I’d like to,” I said.
We did the take six times. Andrew tossed the flattened lettuce onto the table and pressed
my freezing hand between two of his own. “You were fantastic.”
“It’s quite cathartic.” My voice held a pathetic tremor.
Vida’s voice boomed like God’s. “I bet why you actually lured us here was this scene.”
The film had cut to a bedroom, where a couple kissed in a silent, suffocating mash of mouths. I felt my face heat and was glad Vida and her menopause jokes were twenty feet away.
Andrew tensed but didn’t release my hand. “Those scenes are far less exciting from a foley perspective,” he said. “Kissing our own hands usually does it.”
“That’s a waste of two lovely sets of lips,” Vida said. “Kiss him, Negin.”
I laughed, a quick choked half-dead thing. “I’m not so quick with my affections.” “Aren’t you? It’s not so different from what you usually do.”
My face was a hot, stiff mask. It was common understanding that we didn’t talk about
that. “She’s being ridiculous,” I said, wondering if there was a plug I could pull.
“I’m not denying it’s ridiculous. It’s just what we do. Long days in rehearsal, long nights
in performance, no time to unwind …”
Andrew’s eyes were wide. “Are you saying you two …” In his voice still lingered a note
of forced cheer, the urge to understand.
“Us two, them two, violinist and trombonist two. Depends on the day.”
“So your orchestra’s like some kind of—”
“Oh yeah. Not just classical, but also … swing.” I could tell she’d winked.
I withdrew my hand, warmer but still damp. “Thanks for a lovely evening,” I said, staring
at the carpet. “You seem very dedicated to what you do.” “You don’t have to—”
“Goodnight,” I said, and marched out.
“We missed you,” she said the next night, cupping my cheek. “You’re not mad, right?” “Mozart’s tricky.” My voice was cold, but I didn’t move. “I need to run a few phrases.”