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Stephen Graham Jones

Easy Money

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All we had to do was record the sound of a wooden bat on a human skull. The second assistant director was paying us two hundred cash. Our first real job since getting here.

So we went out, splatted a storebought cantaloupe all over my grandmother's driveway. Then we did it again, with the recorder on. The second assistant director cupped his hand over the earbud we passed him, held it close to his head, and kind of squinted in pre-apology, like trying to get this bad news just right for us. But he said he'd give us another shot. We were good kids. And, for four hundred this time; they really needed that sound. So we tried a coconut—it took out my grandmother's windshield, was pretty spectacular—but the recording sounded hollow. Like a coconut, not a head. We tried a decorative gourd we borrowed from a planter down the street, and a plastic mailbox, and a half-full pony keg, and a lamp that just ended up sounding like glass. Aluminum bats and rebar instead of a Louisville slugger. The single-car garage instead of the driveway, for reverb. Nothing worked.

We slunk back to the set, offered the second assistant director his four hundred back, minus one windshield, but he stepped back like the money was infected. What about a dog? he said. Whispered, really, his eyes doing a different squint thing now. We were way out range of the boom mic's furry tails, of course, and left with a crisp six hundred and fifty dollars, walked up and down the sloped concrete halls of the pound, then had to go immediately to the bar to recuperate.

Three beers past the four we'd agreed on, then, we had our big eureka moment: the recorder didn't care if the dog was alive or dead, did it? So we trolled the interstate for the rest of the afternoon, came back with a deer, because the skull was closer to the right size. And because the dogs had all been too splatty. And this time—in the garage now, because of neighbors—we made sure the red light of the recorder was on, and the bat was back to 'wood,' and we flipped a coin, closed our eyes, and took the first swing.

The thunk was so perfect that we did it again, and again, until we had to lock the garage, take showers.

The second assistant director listened twice, the same way people in a restaurant will swish wine in their mouths, then he cued it up an incredible third time, a more appreciative listen—we were really going to make it, all our dreams coming true—and he considered, considered, his teeth working at his lip the whole time, and then he offered us a cool thousand. Each.

For what? we asked, mostly with our eyes.

He looked around at the crew still straggling in, kind of shrugged, and said that, for the scene he'd been tasked with, he needed a very, very particular sound. If we knew what he meant. When we didn't, he palmed a snapshot our way, with an address written on back, with a hand-drawn map of how to get to that address, and a stack of times that had to be a schedule.

We each swallowed, did a mental kind of gulp, I guess, and we asked what kind of movie was this? This made the second assistant director smile, shrug, say in his quiet way that if we could, say, see our way to misplacing the recording of this bat-on-skull sound, he could maybe go twenty-five, total. Twenty-five hundred, with the implied promise of more soundwork down the road.

So we stationed ourself where the x's on the map said to, and, because we'd been practicing all week, we knew just how hard to make our first swing, and the second, the third and fourth and fifth, and though our second assistant director had been absolutely right about the peculiarity of that wood-bat-on-human-head sound, he hadn't told us anything about her eyes. How they were just like a deer's at the end, looking up to you, understanding not just that you needed the money, but that the sound, that moist, perfect thunk, you had accidentally recorded it anyway, were going to be hearing it for days, for years, forever, until, looking back, this would all feel like a movie, and you'd watch it in your head and kind of narrow your eyes in appreciation, because that really was what it sounded like when you caught somebody just at the base of the skull like that. The sound guys were really on that day, you might say.

Or you might not.

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