“Amahl and the Night Rider,” by Jenny Piersol

May 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Prose

When people ask me where I live, I tell them that I’m a professional nomad.   It’s not so far from the truth.   Such is the life of a non-equity actress, hopping from actors’ housing in Clarksville, TN to rented beach houses in Ocean City, NJ, for the sake of the stage.   I’ve never minded the frequent moving; in fact, I think the change in location is a thrill.   That is, when you have a clear idea as to where you’re going and perhaps more importantly, why you’re going there.

In my more idealistic days, I found myself on a plane to Oklahoma City with little more than high hopes for a contract for a theater I had never seen.   Most people fly in the other direction, toward the great metropolis of the Big Apple, but I thought that reversing the philosophy of Peggy Sawyer and Millie Dillmount might offer better casting odds.  This particular theater’s season was chock-full of shows that begged for actors and voice types like me.   And in my innocence, I thought that it was worth traversing multiple state lines for this one audition.   How much I had to learn €¦

*

I shivered outside in the frigid Oklahoma City air, mildly embittered by the fact that my dream of a perpetually sunny and warm “People-will-say-we’re-in-love” Oklahoma had not materialized.   I was waiting outside the airport for the hotel’s courtesy shuttle, though the increasingly long wait lent itself to the notion that perhaps the shuttle was becoming more of a hassle than a courtesy.   Nonetheless, I was thrilled when distant headlights appeared on the “Waiting Area” horizon.

The shuttle, by which I mean a ’98 Mercury Villager masquerading as a taxi, halted in front of me, and like something out of Star Trek, slid open its side door to reveal its contents.   I examined closely. Functional seatbelts?   Check.   Relatively clean interior?   Check. Persian taxi driver who would doubtless give me enough comedy material to jumpstart a career in stand-up?

Check.

Amahl, as I came to call him  €“ for I could neither discern nor pronounce his real name  €“ leaned back in the driver’s seat and exclaimed in a warm Persian accent, ” ‘ello, babe!   ‘ow are you?”

His Persian-tinted English joyfully hearkened me back to the era of Jon Lovitz’s “Frenchie” skits on SNL, and there I was, a modern day glossy-eyed Ingrid Bergman of sorts, immersed in taxi-driver love. Truth be told, anything beyond the airport’s stone bench waiting to drain the warmth from my butt would have produced a near equivalent to adoration by that point, but what better recipient of my nervous laughter than ‘Amahl’.

Given his abundance of general enthusiasm and my knack for forming unusual acquaintances, I thought we hit it off quite nicely.   As I explained my rationale for coming to Oklahoma  €“ to audition  €“ he regaled me with praise: “Oh, you are going to be so great!   You have a beautiful smile and a lovely laugh!”   We shared small anecdotes and personal philosophies as the Mercury Villager sped down the highway, and he dropped me off at the hotel with a parting of “We should be praying for you tonight, eh?   Good luck tomorrow!”

I waltzed into the hotel lobby and sauntered up to the front desk, ready to reserve a taxi for the next morning’s audition.   I felt sufficiently surrounded by Midwestern hospitality, as even the nearby cleaning lady took an interest in my imminent future, and I fell asleep that night convinced that despite its deceptively difficult temperatures, Oklahoma was a cozy substitution for home sweet home.

The next morning arrived, and I awoke to nervous knots in my stomach and the absence of a complimentary continental breakfast.   As I entered the hotel lobby, I searched for signs of nourishment.   When all attempts at locating my morning’s sustenance failed, I focused my gaze on the front entrance in expectation of a taxi.

Enter the Villager.

My excitement at the possibility of familiarity suppressed the growling in my stomach, and as I walked outside, Amahl exclaimed, “‘ello, babe!   It’s you!”   He enthusiastically affirmed my audition-ready appearance as he strode into the hotel for coffee.   I took a few deep breaths as I settled myself into the van and mentally reviewed my audition materials.   Amahl strolled back out to the van, travel mug and pastry in hand, at which point I decided he was either “in” with a secret sect of the continental breakfast club or involved in the danish mafia.

We drove along the highway, bantering back and forth about his previous evening’s riders, and finally we reached the theater’s parking lot.     “Here we are, babe!”   Amahl exclaimed.   “I would get out and escort you to the door, but they’ll think I’m gay.”

He handed me a neon pink business card with his number emblazoned in bold and instructed me to call when I was ready to be picked up.

I sang for the director and got asked to stay and dance, but that was the extent of my success.   I called Amahl and fought the urge to mope over the fact that it would be half an hour before he arrived.   When Amahl’s bright yellow van finally drifted into view, joy surged through my heart.   I darted across the pavement and hopped into the Villager.   He asked how the audition had gone, and I briefly explained that frequent rejection is something actors must learn to accept.   He immediately affirmed my words, saying, “You know, that is so great. You are so young, and you know so much!”

Then his tone shifted.

“When I was young, I came to the States for an education,” he mused, and I eagerly soaked up the beginning of what I imagined would be a very inspirational tidbit of advice.   He paused to reflect upon his next choice of words, and I thought, Oh, this is gonna be good.

He continued, “But my father died back in Iran.   So I went back to Iran and built up my own business on the internet.”   I nodded vigorously, affirming his resilience and work ethic.   His pounding emphasis intensified as he recounted, “I made lots and lots of money, but then I lost thousands of dollars.”   He exclaimed, “I was thousands of dollars in debt!”   He paused for dramatic effect, and I eagerly leaned forward.   He bellowed, “And I said to myself, ‘If you f-ck it up, you f-ck it up, and you dig yourself a grave and throw the dust on top of you!!’”

I see.

This wasn’t quite the pep talk I had envisioned, but he wasn’t finished yet.   He continued to discuss more of his personal feelings toward the world, including, “And then I had an arranged marriage, you know?   An arranged marriage, in Iran, that’s what we do.   And you know, my wife, she couldn’t handle me, I was so experienced.”

My only acquaintance in Oklahoma had suddenly become a prime candidate for couples’ therapy, and I had no idea whether I should recommend a professional or offer my own thoroughly unsubstantial advice.   I decided that silence was the best response, coupled with sudden but intense interest in the intricate patterns of crabgrass lining the highway.

“But,” he began again, “you know what got me through?”

Oedipus himself would be at a loss, Amahl.

He pointed to the cross dangling from the rearview mirror and said with conviction, “I love Jesus.”

I slid my oversized sunglasses down the bridge of my nose.   The last time I checked, ‘Thou shalt love thy f-ckin’ neighbor’ had narrowly missed the mark of amendments to the Ten Commandments once again this year, but barring a possible misinterpretation on my end, I awaited elaboration.

There was none.   That was it.   Amahl had spoken his piece, and he settled into the driver’s seat with a renewed sense of vigor.

Back at home in Pennsylvania, I tried to make sense of my trip to Oklahoma.   I had felt so strongly about going to this audition  something about it just felt right and having come back empty-handed, I expected some alternative semblance of life-altering meaning to emerge from the whole experience.

Two weeks later after the audition, I attended a writing workshop conducted by Laurie Stone, whose opening exercise was to write about the most interesting interaction we had endured in the past month. Before she had even begun to clarify her instructions, my pen was scribbling furiously.

Here is our story.

————-

Jenny Piersol graduated from a small liberal arts college having earned a title even more prestigious than the coveted Homecoming Queen crown: that of  Grammar Goddess.   Her latest creative pursuits range from the publication of an analytic piece in a small academic journal to the realm of medical illustration for the American Physical Therapy Association, where one can only hope her depictions of the ischiofemoral ligament are changing lives.   Jenny formally refers to herself as an actress but spends most of her time honing her skills as an expert velociraptor impressionist.

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