It is June of 2004 in Topeka, Kansas. Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers has not yet hit theaters. Depictions of the creature Gollum in popular culture are scarce. This is what it’s like to be one of them.
You are a fifteen-year-old girl. Your dad picks you from basketball camp on his lunch hour. On the way to the theater, you listen to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Woodstock.’ He turns it up to a volume over which it is impossible to speak.
“Dad!” you yell. “Dad.”
He looks over as the car comes to a rolling stop at Huntoon and Oakley.
“Did you know that Graham Nash stole this song from Joni Mitchell?”
“Who says that?” asks your dad.
“That’s not true,” your dad yells. But it is true.
He tells you to be done in time for basketball practice.
You enter the theater wearing a cotton t-shirt that reads “Topeka Vipers” and silky pants with snaps on the sides that can be easily ripped off. You attempt to get a drink from the fountain in the lobby and a strong spray of water hits you in the face.
You wipe yourself as you enter the black box, which is what they call the performance area. It is an air-conditioned, dark, cubed place that is completely empty except for twenty or thirty kids your age wearing makeup, scattered in pale clumps, adopting all sorts of poses. You are reminded of a Precious Moments display case.
No one told you that you were supposed to bring a song to sing along to the piano.
The accompanist is an enormous blonde woman wearing African robes who asks you to call her ‘Hink.’
“Hink,” you say, “I didn’t know I was supposed to bring a song.”
This was not what you had imagined. The only music in The Hobbit happened when the dwarves arrived at Bilbo’s house, drinking, for the Unexpected Party.
“This is a musical version, Lora,” Hink replies. “Sing Happy Birthday!”
You sing, “Happy Birthday dear Hi-ink,” and wait for your turn to read.
You read for Bilbo first. You couldn’t decide whether or not to do a British accent so you hover between them; a good choice, but next they make you read for the dragon Smaug. You speak in your best burnt, raspy tone.
The directors begin muttering out of the side of their mouths to each other.
“Thank you,” they say. “You can sit down.”
They resume muttering and shuffling papers. You enter the sitting area of the black box and find a spot next to a Precious Moment, a round-faced girl with braces and a girl of mixed race who wears a pink hoodie, huddling near each other.
“I can’t believe Patton is here,” the pink hoodie says.
“You guys have such a weird history,” braces replies.
You look at “Patton,” who is brushing long hair out of his face and making hand gestures as he reads. You pretend to go to the bathroom to get a closer look at him. It is true, he must have had a history with girls who wear pink hoodies. He has large blue eyes and lips like a woman. You go back to the black box after you have washed your armpits with paper towels and hand soap.
“Hey, they were looking for you,” someone calls to you.
“Lora,” says a lady who had smoked many cigarettes. “We want you to read for the part of Gollum. Dan will take you outside, tell you a little bit about what we’re looking for.”
You go outside and wait under a maroon awning.
“Hey. Hi there, Lara.”
“Let’s go, uh, let’s go sit over there.”
The two of you move into the sun, on a bench. He opens his notebook.
“I’m glad you’re trying out.”
“Yeah, I probably won’t make it, but it’s fun.”
“Okay, so…we’re looking for you to use your body as much as possible. We haven’t seen that from you a lot yet, but, you know, I’m sure you can do it. Gollum, as you probably—well, whatever—is a creature…”
Dan is seventeen. You and Dan had stopped watching Woody Allen movies and holding hands in his basement a few months earlier, which happened, coincidentally, a week after you broke out into stress-induced shingles from your first year at Catholic high school. It was just a coincidence, you tell yourself. Bad timing.
The break-up was an email. To the message, Dan attached a short story of his version of the creation of the Earth, as well as an invitation to try out for The Hobbit because he remembered that you had been in plays when you were younger and he knew how much you liked the series.
“You got it?” he asks.
“Yeah, sounds good.”
“Don’t be scared.”
He walks like a maniac back inside. Fucking maniac. You met him shortly after he dyed his black hair as red in order to model himself off of Woody Allen. It has since grown out, but he still has the horn-rimmed glasses. Your shingles have cleared up, too.
You watch the auditions. Everyone inside is a crazy person and you feel you must fit in. You think about the other portrayals of Gollum. Too reserved, not evil enough, voices too much like a human being.
So they liked the dragon voice, you think. You like the dragon voice, huh? you telepathically communicate to Dan as he sits chewing a pen across the room, crossing his bone legs in corduroy pants too warm for the weather.
Your name is called.