The stuntman punches his alarm clock and hurls himself downstairs. He smashes through breakfast and showers on a plank above a live electric eel. He jogs in place while watching a YouTube compilation of his greatest hits, old clips from the days when he still had a means to prove all the things that he needed to prove. He watches himself plunge headlong. He watches himself explode. That six-car pileup: real-life broken arm, real-life broken ribs, his friends and relations aghast. As if they expected safety. As if you could choreograph or elbow-pad your way out of danger. Jumping from airplanes. Falling off cliffs. It's not like you don't get hurt sometimes.
These days, of course, everything's digital. No one has to risk their life anymore. You never have to get dragged beneath a moving truck anymore. You never have to fall 220 feet off a Hyatt Regency Hotel anymore. These young kids these days have no idea. The stuntman shakes his weary head and leaps from his third-floor window onto the street.
Passersby look eyeless behind virtual goggles. Who knows what they're watching. Back in the good old days, you had TV, and you had movies. Of course there was also the theater and the opera, but nobody went to those, at least nobody the stuntman knew. No—there was TV, and then there was movies. Really, there was only movies. No one took TV seriously, except kids, who took it very seriously. Things have changed since the good old days. TV is high art now, and kids—well, who the hell knows what these kids are watching through these damn goggles of theirs. Themselves, they're watching themselves. Them-selfies.
The stuntman cartwheels between plodding passersby, in and out of self-driving traffic. No one notices his heart-pounding close calls—the people are all too enthralled behind their goggles. He checks his watch. Yes, he still wears one. Call him old-fashioned, but the stuntman doesn't want the time beamed into his head over highspeed wireless quantum brain rays. It only takes one damn second to look at your own damn wrist. What's the big hurry? No one has the time to look at their own damn wrist these days? Jiminy crickets, what's become of us?
The stuntman's sister has set him up on a date. In the old days he couldn't keep the ladies off. They'd practically line up outside his dressing room trailer. Of course the only one for him was Zeralda Binks—God bless that frizzy-haired little firecracker. And he was always faithful, despite the practical lineups outside his trailer. He can still recall the moment he first saw her stride on set in her cowboy boots and Stetson. The year was 1986. The movie was an implausible Western about a female vigilante—Annie Oakley meets Dirty Harry!—and Zeralda's job that day was to ride a horse into a packed saloon, backflip out of the saddle, and shoot the sheriff and several boozing deputies off their feet. The stuntman was playing the sheriff. His job was to get shot off his feet and land on his back on a breakaway table. But as the crew prepared the scene, he caught Zeralda's flashing eye. Up on her horse, coolly awaiting the signal to ride, she looked like a bandit-masked monument to all the stuntman's earthly desires. His heart pounded under the squib taped to his chest, and he felt so discombobulated that he feared he might not manage to get convincingly shot off his feet. His knees were weak, which had never happened to the stuntman before. You don't become a stuntman if you're prone to weak knees.
The director yelled action and Zeralda kicked her spurs, and the furious black stallion crashed through the big fake saloon window. In an arc of feline self-assurance, Zeralda slid through the air. Time slowed in the reels behind the stuntman's eyes as Zeralda, her fists now sprouting six-shooters, poured like liquid denim through the flying sugar glass and balsa wood shrapnel, alighted on a table, and staring green-eyed down her barrel shot him in the heart. The squib blew out a marmalade sneeze that tore his vest wide open. Stage gore showered down his front and he found himself launched backwards, head over heels, propelled less by the hidden springboard under his feet than by the sight of her. The director scolded him afterwards for the dumb smile plastered on his face as he cracked the breakaway table in half, but the shot was too expensive to redo, so to this very day you can watch a YouTube clip of the stuntman in a ten gallon hat and fluttering bolo tie, clutching at a vermillion bloom the very instant molten love swallows him whole.
In the catering tent he asked her in a shaky voice if she'd like to go for Italian sometime. She gave him a look that nearly cracked him in half like a breakaway table—a sidelong smirk with that arched russet eyebrow of which the merest twitch could set him bawling or prostrating or vibrating over the ever-lovin' moon—and said simply, "Sure."
Sure. They hit it off. Did they ever. The love of his life. And then in 1989 Zeralda drowned in a botched Sea-Doo explosion. The producers kept the scene in the movie. To this very day you can watch the very moment on YouTube. Sometimes he gets drunk on Wild Turkey and does just that, over and over—and next morning wishes he had a stuntman of his own.
Zeralda, sweet Zeralda. If only she were here with him now. The two of them could smash fake chairs across each other's backs and share a life of calculated risk, outside the safe delimitations of these computer generations. Where things are real: blunt trauma, gravity, true love.
Last week his sister called to tell him about a woman she works with who just might be his type. A sassy, brassy, big-hearted gal with big hair and big eyes—"Isn't that your type?" she'd said. The stuntman's sister doesn't know him too well (who does, now that Zeralda's gone?), and he wonders what insight she could possibly have into his "type." Well, she did meet the prototype after all, at the wedding and two subsequent Christmases, and was likely left with the same indelible impression Zeralda left on anyone she met, a kind of dumbstruck worshipful wooziness like an angel just brained you with its harp. But whose laugh cough match Zeralda's? He'd seen her wide-mouthed cackle loosen buzzards out of trees. And who could dance like Zeralda? Who could flash like sultry lightning and roll and rumble like the thunder? And who was fearless as she? He'll never forget her swan dive from the honeymoon suite balcony or dancing a two-step with her atop a moving train. Then that damn Sea-Doo exploded wrong with her on top. They kept the scene. It's all part of the biz. Sometimes you get hurt, sometimes you die. Just like life itself.
The stuntman climbs the fire escape and swings into the Italian place through an open window. He straightens his tie. There's his date at a tidy round table, waving her hand over the menu. She must have one of those newfangled sensors installed in her palm: a database beams customer reviews straight to your amygdala. She looks a bit older than in the pictures his sister emailed him. Well, we're all a bit older these days.
He strides to the table and says her name. She looks up, says his name, and gives him a smile that sends his knees into his heels. Been a long time since a smile made him liquefy. He plunges headlong into the empty chair across from her.
"So nice to finally meet you," she says. "I've heard so much about you. I watched your clips. You must be very brave."
We all must be very brave to hurl ourselves into the day. The woman across the table from him bears a striking resemblance. Her emerald eyes, the great stacks of auburn hair. His heart blooms like a triggered squib. Could it happen again? Does lightning strike twice?
"I can't wait to get to know you," she says, and she suctions a pair of virtual goggles over her eyes.
Her smile fades. She taps her finger on her lips, then reaches into the air to grasp for icons that he cannot see.
"Hm," she says. "Aren't you in the system? All I see is an error message. Where are you? Where are you?"
"Right here, damn it!"
The stuntman smashes his plate with his forehead. He leaps backwards and accidentally impales himself on a brutal sculptural element. With the final flickering acts of his dying brain he contemplates a long history of courage. His own, and that of others.
It's not like you don't get hurt sometimes.