Equity by Joanna Theiss

Ed had just been fired from his job at the country club for drinking with some of the members after they came off the green. He was nursing a Mexican beer at one of the few bars on the island reserved for the working class when the owner of the pizza shop sat down next to him and offered him a job.

Ed had never met the guy, an affable New Jersey transplant in his forties, but, being mostly local himself, Ed knew that the island’s workers were connected by invisible threads through which vital information traveled. Word traveled quickest when it was about unfair treatment by one of the island’s major employers, followed by speculation about who was sleeping with whom.

Ed was not excited about becoming a pizza delivery boy, but on the plus side, the shop was close to his grandmother’s house and the hours were flexible. As an actor, Ed had to be available to audition when the opportunity arose.

When Ed got to the shop on his first night, he found the boss lounging on a cracked plastic chair outside the back door. He was smoking a cigarette and drinking a yellow beer that was sweating in the heat. Wiping his beer hand on his greasy shorts, the boss shook Ed’s without getting up. Turned out he was about to leave, actually. It had been really slow. He told Ed to go home at nine if no deliveries came in.

“Anita can tell them to come get it if you’re gone,” he said, tossing his butt on the ground, “and if you have a beer, just put the money in the register.”

“Right-o, boss,” Ed agreed, patting him on his meaty shoulder and walking up the back steps.

After surveying the kitchen – big silver dishwashing station, giant cans of marinara – Ed pushed through the swinging doors into the front of the shop.

Anita – white polo shirt, little khaki shorts – leaned over the counter, scrolling through her phone. She had on those big rubbery shoes that looked like something out of clown prison. Behind the counter, it was neater than the kitchen, with stacks of plastic containers filled with either red chili flakes or parmesan cheese. Ed could see, next to Anita’s round little butt, that the glass door on the back of the deli case was open.

“Hey,” Ed said, walking up next to her to slide the door closed. “I’m Ed.”

Reluctantly, she put her phone down and looked at him. Sixteen, maybe. “Hi! I’m Anita.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” Ed said. He put on his actor face, squinting a little. “I’m your delivery boy.”

She giggled. “Seem a little old for that.”

Ed walked around the deli case and into the dining area, a dismal wood paneled square that was too hot, and brightened only by an outdated arcade game. He sat at one of the tables. A song from Ed’s adolescence was playing on the speakers, a whiny alternative number about waiting for a girl to get an abortion.

Anita continued to scroll.

“So. Anita.”

Thumb still working the screen, she said, “Yep.”

“What do you do around here for fun?”

Anita looked up. “Don’t you know? Weren’t you, like, born here?”

So Anita was also on the island’s information superhighway. Ed wondered what else she thought she knew about him. “No one was born here. I’m from New York.”

She brightened. “New York City?”

“White Plains. Close enough by train.”

He could tell that she had no idea, probably thought that most of the state was within Manhattan city limits.

Ed knew the city. The day after graduating from high school, he took a bus all the way to Manhattan and then, over the course of almost eight years, bounced from couch, to tiny bedroom, and back to couch in overcrowded apartments in every borough but Staten Island.

Though he was born, and lived, in White Plains until he was ten, he was not interested in going back there, not even for the day. He hadn’t been back since his mother died and his grandmother came and got him. She brought him to the same bungalow where he was temporarily living now, where he had lived while he went to middle and high school.

In the city, he’d auditioned – and been turned away from – some big-time plays. Eventually, he had gotten a few small roles in experimental theater productions. After five years of auditioning for commercials, he landed a role (Boyfriend Buying Engagement Ring) in a local ad for a jewelry store.

Ed told Anita about his agent, whom he was able to retain for only a few months, and how she thought he was good-looking enough for modeling. In his last months in New York, Ed got two modeling jobs, one at the grand opening of a major department store in Midtown, and one for an avant-garde photographer.

“Why would you come back here?” Anita said, curving her mouth into an unattractive sneer. Her lips were too thin.

He told her about his grandmother, embellishing her state of health to explain why he lived with her. But the truth was that he had been out of money anyway, and the last modeling job was just on the right side of pornography, even though it had been advertised as experimental art. He didn’t like to think of where those pictures might have ended up. His grandmother would be mortified.

Anita wanted to know all about the theater business, and Ed felt himself explaining that world with authority, as if he’d be back in it at any time. He told her about Actor’s Equity, the union for stage actors, and how it was difficult to become a member. But if you have your Equity card, he explained, you can only work in union performances. When Anita asked whether the theaters here were Equity, he had to admit that he didn’t know.

By this point, Anita had come out from behind the counter, leaving her phone and sitting down at Ed’s table. She was sipping on a giant Styrofoam cup of orange soda.

When Ed asked her if she’d like a beer instead, Anita said, “Oh no, I can’t drink. Cross country.”

Contrary to the boss’ assurances, there was a delivery that night, and it was too far to walk, out to the resort at the north end of the island. Anita offered him her car. Did she not notice that he’d drunk two beers while they were talking? Or did she just not mind?

Anita’s car was in the employee lot, carefully parked away from the boss’ break chair. Ed slid across the smooth leather of the driver’s seat and pushed the ignition button, a novelty he had not encountered before. Besides a yellow tube of lip balm rolling in the center console, the car was pristine.

Driving the curving roads of the island, unlit by streetlights so as not to confuse the turtles, he opened the windows and let the warm October air intermingle with the air-conditioned freshness of Anita’s car.

Anita’s bulky keys included a miniature stuffed animal with disproportionate, glittering eyeballs. After the delivery, he dropped them into her palm, being sure to brush her skin with his thumb.

That night was the start. It turned out that the boss hated being at the shop and often bailed right before his shift, so Ed and Anita were able to conduct their flirtations across the breadth of the shop. Ed would play soulful 90s R&B over the shop’s speakers as a joke, and they both thought it hilarious when customers came in and went about ordering their pizzas while Boyz II Men crooned about making love to them.

He didn’t consider himself to be a jealous person, but he did not like that Anita had some kind of half-boyfriend at school, a pussy on the cross-country team. He hated when she’d drop him into conversation when she thought Ed was moving too fast. After Ed got genuinely pissed about this one night and stormed out of the shop, she texted that she’d ended it, whatever it was.

Unless she had early morning practice, Anita would usually agree to have a beer or two, though she was quick to conceal it when anyone walked in. She was years under the legal age and looked it.

After Ed worked on her for a couple of months, Anita let him take her out to the same beach that he used to party at when he was in high school. It became their regular spot, preferable to the back of her car or, one unromantic time after they’d closed up, the bathroom at the pizza shop.

As a surprise a few days after her birthday – the real day was spent with her parents – Ed rented a hotel room for the two of them, where they went after they closed up. That night, drinking wine on the queen size bed, they laughed about how rude Anita had been to a couple of customers that made the mistake of trying to order a pizza five minutes before closing time. But he understood. He wanted to get out of there as badly as she did.

In February, Ed got a big role in a community theater production of “The Mousetrap.” It was at the best theater on the island, but the director was a bit of an amateur. When Ed asked her if it mattered that he didn’t have his Equity card, she looked confused.

The boss had been really cool about letting Ed pick up afternoon shifts so that he could go to rehearsals. Because there were not that many deliveries during the day, Ed learned how to prep and make the pizzas, but he wasn’t seeing Anita as much at work.

Maybe that was for the best. The tension between them was unbearable. When she was around, the air became so charged that it turned colors, a bright pink, shining energy that coursed between their bodies. Surely anyone who paid attention could see it.

After he got the part in the play, Anita helped him run lines. She put on the most ridiculous accents. Once, she tried to give him advice on how to deliver a particular line. She was not an actress, had never even done high school theater, and he told her so. He was probably too harsh with her, but she had to see that she’d been overstepping.

He let her come see the play on opening night. They agreed to meet in the lobby after the show, once he removed as much of the cakey stage makeup as possible.

Ed saw Anita before Anita saw Ed. She was crouching against the wall by the entrance door, like she’d been waiting for so long that she couldn’t stand to be upright anymore. Her hands were tucked between her knees. Her eyes were unfocused, but her narrow lips, which he had come to love, were pressed into a dour line, like a woman who was decades older.

“Hey,” he said, when he was already standing right in front of her. He nudged her foot with his.

She had to crane her neck to get a look at his face. “Are you wearing make up?” she asked.

There was that sneer again.

He swears he looked around and didn’t recognize anyone in the theater lobby except Anita. But thinking back now, he may not have noticed an unobtrusive local who saw how Ed and Anita were together, even when they were bickering.

***

If Ed weren’t so sad, he’d be humiliated. The afternoon after his successful opening night – even if it received somewhat mixed reviews from Anita, who, again, doesn’t know theater – Ed walked up as usual towards the back entrance through the employee lot.

Anita was not on the schedule that day. He was thinking about how he could see her that night, when he realized that the boss actually got his lazy ass out of his chair and blocked the back door. Ed tried to play stupid, but he was caught out too fast to remember the lines of someone who was not fucking an underage girl at work. The boss nearly spit in his face when Ed tried to stutter out some denial. Ed backed down the steps and walked fast out of the lot.

Ed would love to know who told, and how word got out so quickly. Could some tourist have mentioned it to the boss? Did one of Ed’s co-stars find out and try to sabotage him?

Funny, the illegality part wasn’t stressing him out until he finally made contact with Anita, who had not been answering his texts or calls, in fact hadn’t said a word to him since opening night. After his twentieth or so call – it was late, and he’d drunk a whole fifth by himself – she answered and right away started yelling into the phone about the police.

Ed hung up. With shaking fingers, he deleted her phone number and all of their texts.

He regrets that now.

He applied to the bike rental place near the bridge, but he hasn’t heard back. Going by the boss’ reaction, he thinks that he’ll be blocked from the doorways of more than just the pizza shop. He has no way of getting all the way down there without a car anyway.

“The Mousetrap” closes in a week. Now might be as good a time as any to try LA.

Maybe Equity isn’t a thing out there.


Joanna lives in Washington, DC. Before becoming a freelance author, she worked as a public defender, a government attorney, and a health researcher. Her non fiction writing has appeared in academic journals and popular magazines. More of her writings and reviews can be found on her website here. She tweets here.

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