As he bit through what was left of a half-chewed apple salvaged from a dumpster, he saw an ad for a peon at the City Museum of Natural History lying face up in a pizza box, stuck to some rotting cheese on the lid. It was a sign from God. And he thought, why not? He had nothing to do till lunch. And however it turned out, he had nothing to lose either. Not even his dignity. Which had been the first to go anyways.
Besides, he could try out the dumpsters behind the restaurants on the artsy streets nearby. They were sure to turn out some delicious leftovers post lunch. Which would be a welcome change from the meager spoils of the suburbs. It was hard-going these days as a street-dweller (homeless was too negative a word). People weren’t as charitable with strangers – not with money, food, or time. And all this newfound eco-consciousness, this sorting of rubbish by type and recyclability, and the resulting drive to compost and grow their own heirloom tomatoes and herbs meant that fewer half-chewed apples came his way, less frequently than before. And filling breakfasts were a luxury.
And so, on a near-empty stomach, he walked all day, following signs, some government authorized, some “privately” sponsored, to get to the address in the paper now crushed and stuffed in his pant pocket with a hole. Sometimes, the signage was obscured by ads for flavored toothpastes and juicy burgers as big as skyscrapers. Sometimes, political parties took over and announced how “of the people and by the people and good for people” they were. If he asked a bystander or a passerby the way to the museum, he was met with scorns and fearful looks. He was thrown out of many a bus, where people themselves reeking of sweat, and it wasn’t even the start of their day, frowned down at him with pinched, upturned noses. Some people of a more refined nature even bought handkerchiefs to their delicate nostrils more accustomed to the scent of bottled fresh roses than the reek of an unwashed man. But not before he had covered another stretch of the route. Bus hoping like a college kid with a pass. Good old days, those.
It was well past one in the afternoon when he arrived before the gates of the museum in his unkempt state. His long, shoddy hair — so irreversibly tangled that only a clean shave could fix all knots – was a stark malnourished golden-brown, such a rage in the world of hair color and highlights. He didn’t quite understand why anyone would spend such an insane amount to look like him, but people with money had a history of having odd, expensive tastes. How else could you explain tattered jeans, torn t-shirts, and a three-story hair salon and spa behind which his troupe dwelled.
They should have come to him, he’d joke to his brethren while sharing a communal hand fan on warm nights or toasting his hands and feet around bonfires on cold ones, when there was little to keep them warm. He’d tell them how. For his unshaven face matched his hair in both the lack of vitality and that rich black lushness that had been in the past a sign of youth and good health. Blonde, they call it, he’d inform his fellow men. Who knew we were so hip and rich and on trend? And then they would all wonder how anyone could tell apart rich from poor nowadays, say in a girls’ school, dressed in the same uniform, all considerably shorter than knee length. With that hair, how could anyone tell if it was fashion or they’d grown out of their old skirts, hems stretched as far as possible, and couldn’t afford to get a new one instead?
His unblinking eyes set in hollow sockets gave him a zombie gaze. It could unnerve anyone not familiar with the look of one who had gone hungry for days. And a thick smell of rotting corpses cloaked his breath. Enough to snuff out a large, six feet, four inches man of considerable weight. Even more effective than chloroform.
But these were not the jobs he came to audition for today. And the guard, fortyish, towering over him in a blue cap and a faded blue uniform, which must have started off as starched and pressed in the morning, but now had a wilted collar and armpit stains, stopped him with the swish of his baton. Using it to keep him at an arm’s length. Understandably so.
“I’m here for the interview,” he said and was about to fish out the ad from his pocket, when the guard, alarmed, swung his baton, which came cracking down on his wrist. The man winced in pain, clutching his hand, the piece of paper flying off into the drain nearby. He looked at the guard, then at the paper, and then shook his head in dismay.
“What you looking at?” scowled the guard. “Want another?”
He would have succeeded at turning away this “prospective” employee, albeit a completely unsuitable candidate, had not the curator-cum-manager spotted him on his way out for lunch at a trendy bistro nearby and done a double take.
“Are you from the drama school?” he asked.
Moonish noted that the curator-cum-manager didn’t refer to the school, which was likely a college, by its name. Like it was the only one around. Or only one that mattered.
“What if I am?” he said, smirking under his heavy beard, still nursing his wrist.
Either the man couldn’t tell that he was joking — which was most likely the case, as he was to most onlookers all hair and a pair of eyes set below a primitive, wide forehead — or he had genuinely bought into his unintentional half-lie. It was the latter, for the man’s wrinkled forehead smoothed out like a lake after a storm had passed.
“Fantastic,” he said, slapping Moonish on his back, aggravating his gentle stoop. “I am Mr. Ghosh, curator, manager of the museum. By the way, love your commitment to the job. Showing up for the interview itself looking like a modern-day Neanderthal! So post modern. And pure genius.
“Isn’t this something?” he said to the guard, who grinned stupidly, revealing his pan-stained teeth.
“We were hoping to catch your kind. The artist, the performer, you know, preferably from the drama school,” Mr. Ghosh continued, wiping his flushed face with a handkerchief, still incredulous at the success of his plan. He was a short man, soft looking, though not fat. Well dressed, his curled mustache a work of art. “You found us through the poster at the bistro, yes?”
Moonish nodded along. The world of the elite had little use for proper nouns, he was learning fast.
“As you know, we are about to open a new installation … about life as a Neanderthal in the Paleolithic era. And we want it to be a bit different from the run-of-the-mill fare. More ‘interactive’, you see. To create a buzz. Make it easy for the PR folks. The pay is modest, but the exposure immense. Or will be once the media gets to know about it. It’s only for the summer though. 10 to 4. You can easily manage it over your summer break.”
Moonish shook his head. Like it was too much work or the terms weren’t to his liking and he’d rather leave.
“I can see that you are a method actor. And you like to stay in character. You know, many actors your age, amateur or not, wouldn’t go for a non-speaking part. Solo or not. Say what, I’ll give you 500 bucks a day. How’s that?”
Moonish shook his head some more, grunting, swatting at the air, beating his chest, like a caveman, his hair going everywhere.
“Oh, you’ll be marvelous,” said Mr. Ghosh. “700 bucks a day for each day you show up. That’s my final offer. I know actors can be a temperamental lot.” He spoke as if from experience, which was limited to the front seats of theaters and occasional conversations he overheard at the bistro and such.
But Moonish continued to flick and swat at the air, his ears, as if he hadn’t heard a word. Half crouching like an ape.
He’s auditioning, isn’t he? thought Mr. Ghosh. What marvelous commitment to the craft.
Then a thunderous clap snapped him out of his reverie and a wasp fell to the ground. Moonish looked at him triumphantly and stooped to pick up the winged creature and study it closely at length. And then, quite unexpectedly, he wiped it off his tattered shirt sleeve, not much clean itself, and put it in his mouth.
“Crunchy, and a bit chewy,” he said, his mouth steadily working away at it. His stance still that of a caveman, half stooping, half crouching, hands loosely dangling on the sides.
“Oh, and he hunts,” clapped the curator-cum-manager with delight and looked around to share his joy. The guard nodded his approval, smiled apologetically at Moonish, and looked away.
“Such immersive performance,” gushed Mr. Ghosh. “Mr. … sorry, didn’t ask your name …”
“Well, Mr. Moonish, I’ll give you 1000 bucks a day. Just tell me, when can you start?”