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Ron Dionne
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downbellycutway.jpg

Down Bellycut Way

 

by

 

Ron Dionne

 

 

"You're going where?" someone asked. It didn't matter who.

 

The mere mention of the place had stopped the conversation completely. The eyes of all his fellow stand-up comics, gathered together for drinks after the open mic session, were on Stu Nicholson, awaiting his answer.

 

Stu repeated it: "Bellycut."

 

Now, sure they'd heard him right, the party commenced to murmur, to each other, and not to Stu, and only low, so Stu himself could not hear what they were saying.  The murmurs extended across the tavern. To drinkers deep in their liquor at the bar. To Moe the bartender shaking his head as he wrung beer steins dry and hung them on hooks overhead. To bikers shooting pool with sunglasses on, staring through clouds of cigarette smoke.

 

"What?" Stu said. "Somebody tell me. I've faced tough crowds before."

 

Instead, someone—it doesn't matter who—changed the subject to the low quality of the club's stage microphone and how the lot of them should take up a collection to buy a new one. Maybe one with a laugh track.

 

Stu took his drink to the end of the bar and sat by himself. Even among his own kind, ever on the outside looking in.

 

After a little while, a small yet intense presence climbed atop the empty stool beside him. It was little Jerry Snatch. Jerry was an unusually small person, the kind it's easy to overlook, unless you happen to notice the ethereal hairs like wisps of smoke wafting from under the Toledo Mud Hen baseball cap he wore day in, day out, every day. And the bulging, thyroidal eyes, and the twitching ferret mustache.

 

Jerry Snatch raised a finger in the air. "A contest, did you say?" At Jerry's nod, Moe served up a club soda with a wedge of lime.

 

"I got the flyer right here," Stu said. "None of you saw it? It was on the lamppost right across the street." He pulled it from his pocket and handed it over. It didn't look so very ominous, he thought, apart from the bilious yellow color.

 

At the top it read in big screaming letters:

 

“THE GREAT BELLYCUT RIB TICKLER LAUGH OFF”

 

And below, in quieter type:

 

“Laugh your ass off in Bellycut, a town like no other

Come one, come all, including strangers—that means YOU.”

 

 

"I am greatly surprised they require entertainment down that way," Jerry said, handing it back.

 

Stu folded the flyer and slipped it back into his pocket. "Everybody enjoys a laugh, I guess."

 

"Don't go," Jerry said.

 

"That's what all of them said." Stu gestured toward the others. " 'Cept they didn't actually say it."

 

"True," Jerry said. "Heed the warning."

 

Stu snorted. "Give me a good reason."

 

"Scary hecklers," Jerry said.

 

"What, you think I ain't handled hecklers before?" But Jerry's smile made Stu turn his beer on its napkin. The heavy bottom of the glass made sodden ruins of the paper. "Give me another reason."

 

"Know a guy went there once," Jerry said.

 

Stu waited. "And?"

 

"Never the same."

 

"How so?"

 

Jerry blinked and the big whites of his eyes flashed like distant lighthouses through thick fog until he said, "Don't go."

 

"You want to protect me, come with me, then," Stu said. "Friday night. We can make a weekend of it. Pick up some choice Bellycut tail, maybe."

 

Jerry squeezed his lime wedge and twirled it in his drink.

 

"It's just a gig, isn't it?" Stu said. "We're comics, aren't we? Aren't we supposed to do any and every gig that comes our way? Even cornball contests in the middle of nowhere?"

 

Jerry looked around at the panorama of the nearly empty comedy club. Most of the patrons were comics themselves, come to practice their wares at the open mic. But from the way his eyes moved, Stu understood that his gaze took in the near miracle of the club's very existence. It was the only building within blocks showing any sign of life after 5 P.M. in what was the worse than has been—actually never was—downtown of this nowhere town they called home.

 

Jerry held his finger aloft again, and mimed ghost words to match his ghost hair: "Don't go."

 

"Tell me this, then," Stu said. "How come I know nothing about this infamous place, but everybody else does?"

 

"That's how they get you," Jerry said.

 

"You gotta realize, with this buildup I'm absolutely going to go there for sure."

 

"Be different, then. For once."

 

"Ouch. But don't you see? I am being different. By going."

 

Jerry blinked, for a moment thwarted. Then he said, "I know."

 

"What?"

 

"Don't go."

 

They looked at each other for another long moment, then laughed. It was a sick-making laugh and after Jerry had rejoined the others, leaving him alone again at the end of the bar, Stu felt uneasy.

 

But he'd show them.

 

He'd go to Bellycut, scary hecklers or no.

 

He'd kill them down in Bellycut. Slay them. They'd die. They'd never seen or heard a comic like Stu Nicholson. He could stand with the best of them.

 

Anytime. Anywhere. Well maybe not L.A. or New York—yet—but hey, a gig's a gig.

 

#

 

Friday morning, the GPS lady on the dashboard of his trusty ten-year-old Corolla hadn't heard of Bellycut, so after Googling the place he punched in a nearby small town down by the state line that she did know and was on his way.

 

Nothing like an easy straightaway to give you time alone with your thoughts. Stu conducted imaginary conversations with Angela, his ex.

 

"It's because you don't really pay attention to people," he imagined Angela saying, like she always had. "That's why you always feel like you're on the outside looking in."

 

He pictured her looking pretty good there in the passenger seat, with wind blowing her dark hair. Wearing jeans, maybe, and a tank top. The woman knew how to wear a tank top.

 

"You must be right, darling," he said. He gave her the look, the look that said no matter how violent and polluted had been the waters that flowed under the irreparably torched and destroyed bridge of their relationship, she was still desirable. Women always want to be desirable, Stu knew, even when they hate you. Like audiences.

 

Daggers from the eyes at his mock sweetness. "Glad you finally admit it. Stop looking at me that way."

 

"Except you're full of shit," he said, yanking the rug of his desire out from under her. "I'm no different than anybody else. I know plenty guys know their asses from their elbows way less well than I do. It's just luck, bad luck. And the meanness of people."

 

And she'd stare out the window, lovely and unconvinced and a little offended he'd made fun of her getting off on him still digging her.

 

An eighteen-wheeler roared past, its displaced air buffeting the Toyota a few feet to the right.

 

Stu wondered if other folks were as sick and sad as he was, daydreaming being lectured about their own faults by the loved ones those faults had driven away.

 

Not that that kind of alienation wasn't useful in stand-up. Stu was often his own straight man, casting the audience in the prime role of judge and arbiter of what was and what wasn't funny. That was the smart position to put your audience in, anyway. Flattery, with audiences as with women, always worked. He'd tell his stories about not knowing what was what and the audience, from its safe and superior position, would laugh at poor simple Stu's befuddlement.

 

That at times he himself did not, in truth, fully understand what it was he was describing, hurt and perplexed him. Some part of his brain enabled him to concoct comic situations in which he played the dunce and the audience got to see the real score and excrete their superiority upon him. Even in his own mind he was an outsider. Yes, it hurt.

 

But the laughs . . . Delicious. Worth it.

 

The turn-off for the last town known to the GPS lady was a dirt road. By his estimate, he should be in Bellycut in twenty minutes.

 

Twenty-five minutes later, he pulled into a little neighborhood of small homes arranged in a loose grid between bare, brown hills.  He pulled up across the street from an ice cream truck, blaring its signature tune through static-ravaged speakers, and waited on line behind two boys ordering ice creams shaped like SpongeBob. The kids were seven, maybe eight, big, blond, scabby-elbowed.

 

One of them didn't have money.

 

"Well, then, how you gonna pay?" the man in the truck said. He was tall and muscular, with a buzz cut. He had a swastika tattooed on his forehead.

 

"I got this," the boy said, and thrust a live horned toad up toward the counter.

 

The man in the truck held his head back like he was nearsighted but had forgotten to wear his glasses. "That's a good one," he said. "All right."

 

He took the lizard, tossed it behind him in the truck somewhere and gave the boy his ice cream. The boys sat down on the curb and unwrapped their SpongeBobs.

 

"What can I do you for?" the man in the truck said to Stu.

 

Stu said he needed directions to Bellycut.

 

The man fixed him with a surprised look, and the two little boys stopped licking their ice cream to blink at him, and then at each other. The man gave Stu precise directions, describing exactly what rock to turn by, onto a road easily mistaken for a ditch.

 

"Tough crowd out thataway," the man with the swastika said.

 

Stu thanked him and bought a Creamsicle.

 

#

 

The stage of the Great Bellycut Rib Tickler Laugh Off was in the parish hall of what Stu took to be a church, though there were no obvious religious symbols in plain sight. The church building seemed older, its scale grander than the other buildings that seemed to putter about almost at random along the road that led down the hill away from it. Or rather, up to it, Stu reasoned, for the church sat on a promontory in the rolling nondescript landscape. The parish hall itself was simple and modest, made of cinder blocks, with a slate roof.

 

Stu signed in at folding table manned by a blue-haired lady with granny glasses. She gave him a number on a lanyard: 534. Stu glanced over his shoulder at the crowd milling about behind him. There couldn't be more than a hundred people in the room, tops. But Stu smiled and hung the number around his neck.

 

He sat in one of the folding chairs set up in rows facing the stage. There was nothing remotely scary or threatening about the place. Stu began to think the fellows back home had played a trick on him, though why they would do that, he had no idea. The stage was one step up from the floor. A severed tree stump seemed to serve as the podium, and in the corner stood three tractor tires bound together by heavy gauge chain. A bucktoothed boy with black hair like bristles perched on the tires and muttered to himself.

 

The contest itself was no contest. The contestants were the rubiest of rubes. They were uncles and grandfathers and housewives and hardware store clerks and what looked to Stu like a town alderman—whatever an alderman was—and a person Stu pegged, from his bearing and the way people seemed to defer to him, as the parish priest himself.

 

One contestant after another mounted the stage and opened with, "Did you hear the one about . . . ?" Or, "Isn't it funny that . . ."  Even, "A string walked into a bar . . ."

 

The contestants did as much laughing as the audience. There was not the least glimmer of stagecraft, not even of the sort that revealed that TV-watching had taken place. 

 

Stu figured he'd have to soft-pedal it. No need to show up a whole room full of people this clueless.

 

But then, for once, he was the one in the know on something, and everybody else was oblivious.

 

The realization brought a tear to his eye.

 

Stu slipped the flyer out of his pocket and smoothed out the wrinkles on his thigh. This he would have to keep. And treasure. A fat man in a short-sleeved plaid shirt sitting beside him asked him where he'd gotten it. Stu told him and the fat man shrugged. "Didn't know we'd leaked that far," he said.

 

Number 16 was on the stage now, an awkward adolescent girl with broad features too big for her face. She did knock-knock jokes in funny voices. Big laughs.

 

She was followed by number 79. Could these people even count? Number 79, an elderly man in a wheelchair hefted onstage by two burly men in Bellycut Fire Department tee shirts, told dirty limericks.

 

The barker in the back of the room called the number of the next contestant. Stu waited. There was this hot girl in short shorts a couple rows over. Hot female comics are rare. Maybe he could get lucky. The number was barked again. Silence. Then, with a start, Stu realized a few Bellycuttians were staring at him, and that the number being called was his own. He hurried onto the stage.

 

Tough crowd, he'd been told.

 

Please.

 

Stu smacked himself mentally. It was fatal to judge any audience harshly. All people like to laugh and therefore it is incumbent upon any person aspiring to the title of comic to respect that desire and do his or her best to satisfy it.

 

On the other hand, when one was sufficiently an outsider, as he was now, it was nearly as fatal to flatter too obviously. Sometimes, in situations such as this, insults worked. If done right.

 

"Hi, everybody, thanks for having me. It's great to be here in Bellycut, the world-renowned home of the industrial strength toenail clipper. There will be a showing of well-groomed pigglies later, at the reception."

 

Blank faces.

 

"You know, doing the work necessary to even find a place like Bellycut—'You want to go where?' was said to me more than once—was an experience in and of itself. It taught me the valuable life lesson, that nowhere wasn't where I lived already."

 

The hot girl comic crossed her long short-shorted legs. And stared. Nothing else.

 

Come on, honey. Howsabout a smile? Just a little one?

 

"And as a bonus, now I know: There is a place after all where depraved lawn dwarf molesters can live in peace with their ornaments. I was pretty worried."

 

Blank faces all around. Staring straight. No talking, no smiling. No blinking, even. Just straight, steady stares, as if all in attendance had been arrested by a single shared, hostile thought.

 

Uh-oh. City slicker wise guy wasn't working. Maybe not mention the worried look on the face of the Nazi ice cream vendor.

 

Stu shifted gears. "Speaking of lawn dwarfs and molesting, my love life hasn't been too good lately . . ."

 

It was then the heckling started.

 

A low, almost subliminal humming of a major scale. Up eight notes, and back down the same eight notes.

 

It was coming from somewhere in the back. Somewhere in the back, a Bellycut native was humming this obnoxious musical scale up and down, through his nostrils it must be, because all the white wide faces looking up at him were grim-mouthed and lip-pressed, none of them moving at all.

 

And soon it was in stereo. Someone in the left middle joined in. And on the right side, close to the stage. Perhaps a woman.

 

"Who's doing that?" Stu said.

 

No one answered.

 

"Is this the Bellycut version of the old vaudeville hook?"

 

No answer.

 

The Fire Department boys stood up. For a moment Stu thought of running like hell to his car and fleeing Bellycut as fast as he could before its denizens could . . . could . . .

 

Oh come on: Could what?

 

The parish priest stood up. The hot girl in the shorts. The blue-haired lady. Grandpa in his wheelchair.

 

All of them humming.

 

All of them approaching.

 

"We got a winner," someone called out.

 

Stu turned to run but there was nowhere to run to. All of them humming, all of them surrounding him. The parish priest upon him. Stu could hear him now.

 

"You're a little flat, I think," Stu said. He did not get a laugh.

 

The black-haired boy in the tire pile darted away with a high-pitched "gleek, gleek, gleek," and the parish priest laid a hand on Stu's arm.

 

The grip was harsh. But not as harsh as the humming. Or what happened next.

 

#

 

Word got around that Stu was back. Someone had seen his beat-up Corolla troll through town, going not more than half the speed limit, the driver hunched intently over the steering wheel as if threading his way through violent storms and fields of debris. This was just before noon on Sunday morning, when traffic was sparse, and the Indian summer sun angled sharp, clear light on quiet streets. People shook their heads and ordered another round of drinks and didn't bring up the subject again.

 

Jerry Snatch waited a few days, hoping. But when Stu didn't come back to the club, he knew. He knew, but he had to see.

 

Stu lived in a third-floor walkup by the highway off-ramp. His apartment was at the end of a long hallway, and Jerry heard normal sounds of television, children playing, conversation, coming from behind the other doors he passed.

 

From Stu's came silence. Jerry took a deep breath and knocked.

 

Slow, steady footsteps coming nearer. Pause. Slow, deliberate sliding of the deadbolt. Pause. Then the chain lock. Pause. Then fumbling at the lock in the doorknob. Pause.

 

Jerry almost turned and left. Did he really need to see this again? He'd never forget the last guy who came back from Bellycut, his eyes blazing with delight in his own idiocy. Not something he wanted to see, ever again—

 

But too late. The door eased open, and there it was staring out at him again. That same vacant, destroyed look.

 

Stu didn't say anything. He just stared.

 

"Heard you were back," Jerry said. "Guys at the club been asking after you."

 

Stu smiled, in a way. "Oh, yeah. The club." An odor of burnt toast wafted from the apartment. "Making English muffins." He hooked a thumb inward. "With jam. Want some?"

 

Jerry shook his head. "Told you not to go," he said.

 

Stu considered. "You did. But," he said, "I went."

 

Jerry pulled the bill of his cap down tight over his eyes. He couldn't look. "Told you, told you, told you . . ."

 

"It's all right," Stu said. "I understand, now."

 

Jerry peeked from under the bill of his cap.

 

Stu's delighted idiot eyes blazed.

 

"I wasn't funny to begin with, really," Stu said and leaned forward, as if to force Jerry to see how deep was the emptiness inside him. "It's better not wanting what you can't have."

 

Jerry fled.

 

 

 

stagefright.jpg

STAGE FRIGHT

 

by Ron Dionne

 

The Audience People are watching and it’s happening again: I’m dying.

All those eyes looking at me under the harsh glare of the spotlight. When you don’t go over, you die. Come on, you fucks, laugh. Give me a break. You bastards. I know there’s a sense of humor in them beady peepers somewhere. What is it? I’m too clean for you? Have you been destroyed by the time you live in? Does it disappoint you that I have no dick jokes? No cunt jokes? No jokes about fucking your mother your father your sister your llama? No fart jokes. No bigot jokes. You fucks. You miserable fucks. You give me death. Bimbos in the back there whispering: Who is this loser? No response deemed necessary, instead: hey, the waiter’s way cute. Let’s order another drink.

I’ll take a drink. Double Black Label. Make it neat and painful, barkeep, ’cause after death comes hell and I’ve earned it.

Ten minutes to fill. Tough dying right away and continuing to live through it. Can’t do the voices—the impressions just won’t come. The way I had them on the floor the other day at Tommy Quinn’s. Even Eddie Hughes. Busting guts. Real belly laughs. “Jesus, Deez,” Tommy was saying, “you gotta do that on stage. You do that, we’ll be having a party watching you on HBO.”

The voices. Any voices. All voices. Male, female, young, old. When the spotlight isn’t on, when no one in particular is looking, it comes in torrents. Funny. Ingenious. Devilish. Shocking.

But not here. Jesus save me. The voice shrinks. The sweat sprouts. The manager’s sour stomach infects your own, even as he leaves the room because he can’t bear to watch. The other comics feel sorry for you but hey, they’re out to make ’em laugh just like you thought you could before you got on stage, so they don’t want to get too close. Don’t want to be associated with you. Don’t want your unfunny stink to cling.

 

#

 

The minutes tick by.

Larry says, “So you’re not talkative today.” For this sort of ingenious insight I pay eighty dollars per forty-five- minute hour.

“This is exactly the sort of time that you should force yourself to talk most,” Larry says. “When you feel this way.”

I give him my look, but unlike pretty girls in the front rows of comedy clubs, he doesn’t wither. I even use it on him, talking back to him in his own voice.

“We’re not in a night club now, Frank,” Larry says.

I repeat his words, his tone, his inflection, even his look. He’s not Audience People. He lapses into silence. The minutes tick by.

 

#

 

To pay the bills I tend bar in a crummy Italian restaurant on Route 112 just south of, that is on the wrong side of, the Port Jefferson train station. Tommy Quinn’s Ristorante. Tom thinks he’s done me a favor employing me, the unemployable would-be standup comic. I’m second fiddle to Eddie Hughes, the first bartender, because he’s one of them, low, dim, without a creative bone in his body. Stupid and self-confident, emblematic of the peculiar brand of vulgarity I call Long Island Ugly. It exists elsewhere of course, in the smug idiocy of certain parts of the deep South, the judgmental, laconic reserve of the Midwest and New England, the can-do, xenophobic patriotism of the far West. But here on Long Island it has the added dimension of a kind of physical ugliness and brutality. There are no great beauties, male or female, from Long Island, no great intellects. Let me tell you that, flat out. Perhaps it’s a result of military experimentation gone awry at Brookhaven National Laboratory, poisoning the shallow water table of this ugly little sand bar east of New York City. Maybe it’s strangulation by noxious fumes from the highways leading to escape via New York, gateway to the civilized world. Maybe it’s a devolutionary result of all the wrong kinds of people fleeing the city to mix in the cookie cutter suburbs, all the houses the same, all cheap, all shoddy, all split-level ranches like rectangular mushrooms. The concentrated result of white flight. Take all the assholes who don’t want to be around when blacks and spics start coming, themselves wops and Polacks and Irish who’ve forgotten that they are only a couple generations removed from similar disdain, mix them together and you have the American suburban nightmare. Got I hate it and them.

That’s what I think of Eddie Hughes, but until I get my big movie  contract or a writing gig on Letterman or my own Las Vegas act, I guess I’m stuck being second fiddle to Joey Buottafuco Jr.

“Frank, cut some limes and make some lemon twists.”

“Sure, Eddie.”

“Frank, we’re low on Scotch. Get a couple bottles from downstairs.”

“You got it, Eddie.”

“Frank, this drawer is an abortion. You’re off by about six bucks. Can’t you add?”

“I’ll tally it up again, Eddie. Sorry.”

 

#

 

I see my daughter Meg every other weekend. She grows so fast. It’s like a time lapse movie of a flower unfolding. It’s just like that because I have no more active a role than a spectator, really. I catch her looking at me now and then, her four-year-old face pensive. Probably thinking the same thing, only I’m not changing much. Just calcifying.

 

#

 

As you can see, I’m on low boil. The return of Nellie Burleson commences my last act.

Tom makes a big production. “

“Nellie! Nellie, how aaaaaaaahhhhh ya?!” Big big smooch, lifting little Nellie’s feet off the floor, as if she’s the Virgin Mary dropped by for a gin and tonic.

I add to the display, place a napkin on the bar before her, deadpan it: “Nellie. Good to see you. What’ll it be, the usual?”

She has a warm, wide smile with a touch of tears in it. She touches my hand, swallows hard, says, “The usual.”

It’s been two years plus since it happened. Her daughter Celia was Meg’s age at the time. Her husband, I think his name is Steve, was away. The pool guy had come to clean the pool, and, well, pool guys, like a lot of blue collar types having more in their handsome shoulders and between their legs than in their heads, wound up getting a certain private part of himself cleaned upstairs, out of sight of Celia and swimming pool. Half a dirty and blissful hour later, the pool guy, still buckling his shorts, returns to his strainer and his chlorine tablets to find something small, cute and irreplaceable floating face down in the pool. Some said charges should have been brought, negligent homicide, endangering a minor—something like that—but Nellie’s stint in the mental hospital seemed proof of her contrite heart. The pool guy’s driving a truck down south somewhere the last anyone heard. Nellie’s husband Steve endured somehow and still has the same job installing air conditioning systems in small industrial facilities, albeit his address is no longer the same as Nellie’s, and they don’t share bank accounts anymore.

After she got out of the hospital she spent some time as a recluse. The former low-brow socialite who knew everything about everyone stayed at home, out of the glare of the public’s gossiping eye. She used to be a regular at Tommy Quinn’s, there just about every night, sometimes joined by quiet Steve and other times not, but always with little Celia at her side, who’d kneel on a bar stool and nosh on French fries dipped in ketchup. Cute little girl. Real cute.

I can talk just like her. Little Celia that is. Used to get a laugh out of her. She’d cover my mouth with her little finger and squeal, “Nooooooo!” She was like a preview of my own little Meg, two years fast forward.

 

#

 

 “You’re smart. You say Eddie’s stupid.”

 “He is. But he’s also a kind of smart. A kind that I’m not.”

“What kind?”

“Street smart. He knows people. How they work, how they think, how to get them to like him.”

“You’ve called him a manipulative operator.”

“He is. A successful one.”

“I think you build him up in your mind,” Larry said. “Make him bigger and better than he is. So you can belittle yourself.”

“Nah.”

“I think so.”

“I don’t need no belittling. I’m just telling it like it is.”

“How’s Jane? You haven’t spoken of her today.”

Tick tick tick go the minutes.

 

#

 

 “Jane, it’s me.”

“Oh.”

“Can I see you?” The pause says it all, but then she adds words. “I don’t know, Frank.” It is so over. “What happened? What went wrong?” A sigh. I can picture her chest rising and falling. Once upon a time my head often lay against that breast, in gentler times, in balmier climes, my hand upon her belly— Listen to me.

“You’re too intense, Frank,” she says. “Too sensitive.” I knew it hadn’t been a good idea to cry.

“You scare me,” she says.

 

#

 

Some weekends when I have Meg I need to work at Tommy Quinn’s. I hire this hot young Spanish girl, Carla, to babysit. She has an incredible body and a wild wardrobe that shows it off and a flirtatious manner and I wind up thinking all kinds of things I shouldn’t when she’s around, and especially after she leaves and  Meg’s asleep. One time her boyfriend was around, to do “homework,” and after they left I found the tiniest, reddest, laciest and dampest little pair of panties crushed down between the cushions of the sofa. Sally Hand got quite a workout that night.

That’s what happens when you’re not getting any, you start dreaming of nubility. The old dynamic of haves and have-nots, crotch level.

 

#

 

Nellie’s usual again. Vodka martini with four olives. She mouths a cursory thank you and goes on chatting with Eddie Hughes.

 

#

 

 “Man,” Orry Snyder says. He is a Fat Comic, tells Fat Jokes. Gets medium laughs. “Ouch.” He pokes my arm. “You stiff yet?”

“Been doing a lot of dying lately,” I say, trying to sound game.

“You sure have. Man, you died so thoroughly no one had the heart to heckle you.”

“Bernie’s not going to want me to come here any more.” It was meant as a joke. Bernie was known near and far on the stand-up circuit as a friend to comics, a club manager who would let you ride out your rough spots until you got your head out of your ass and found the audience’s funny bone once again. But I really was on a roll. Downward. The hill was steep. The bottom not yet in sight, but the darkness in its direction was thick and uninviting.

Maybe five minutes go by and I feel a tap on my shoulder. So gentle.

“Frank,” Bernie says. “Sorry, man, but I gotta ask you to go work somewhere else for a while. Lot of the regulars are complaining. I wish I didn’t have to tell you this...”

 

#

 

Believe it or not I stole Jane from another man. She’d been dating him since college and he was serious, although she was less certain. He was a high school history teacher. Nice guy, square, clean-cut, harmless. I kind of liked him. They used to come to Tommy Quinn’s together. He had a distinctive way of speaking. I think he was originally from Pennsylvania or Ohio. His vowels were rounded and short and his speech was somewhat breathless, even if all he was saying was “Pass the pretzels, please.” His name was Andrew.

The phone rang three times before she picked up.

“Jane?”

“Yes? Who is this?”

“Can’t you guess?” That slight hesitation that means, oh shit. I stifle a chuckle. “Oh, oh, it’s you!” she says. “Andrew. How are you?”

“I’m more interested in how you are.”

“I’m just fine, really.”

“And how’s Frank Deezel?”

“Well, Frank... He’s, well, gone.”

My turn to allow a pregnant pause. I say, “Really.”

“Yes. I can definitely say he’s gone.”

“Mutual?”

“No, I have to admit I ended it.”

“Better watch out, it’ll become a habit.”

“You’re right. And I’ll be forty sitting alone at the bar wondering why I can’t get a date.”

I let that sit there for a while. You’ve got to let truth be when you find it. Then I say, “So with Frank gone, are you seeing anyone in particular?”.

“Andrew, I don’t think I’m up to it right now. I just need some time to myself.”

“Right now. When right now is up, then maybe...?”

“Andrew—” A sigh. She has such pretty sighs. Not to mention thighs, and bright blue eyes... “How’s your family?” That’s right. I’d forgotten, it had made me so ill: She’d gotten along famously with Andrew’s family, better than with her own, not to mention mine, who even I didn’t see much, out of mutual and grateful consent.

“Oh,” I say, “my father is dead.”

“What?”

“Suddenly, last spring. Car accident. My sister’s recovering, though.”

“Oh my God. Oh God. Andrew, I didn’t know.”

“How could you have?”

“Oh Andrew.”

Oh, Andrew. “Hey, listen, I was just calling on a whim.”

A loss for words. I can picture her lips working, trying to find the right thing to say. “Yeah, I know,” is all that comes out. Loveable, and sexy too, but no poet.

“One must take chances in life,” I say.

“I’m so sorry.”

That covers a lot of ground. We say goodbye and I chuckle for a while, sipping my whiskey, picturing the puzzled look on Andrew’s face when he gets her sympathy card.

 

#

 

Tommy’s face is red with anger. He says, “I said ‘two Amstels, a whisky sour, a martini and two Stolis on the rocks.’”

“I thought you said two vodka cranberries.”

“I’m docking you.”

Give Nellie only three olives instead of her usual four. She notices but doesn’t say anything after looking up into my face. I can look quite surly.

 

#

 

 “Let me tell you that you look extremely angry,” Larry said.

 “I suppose I am.”

“I think I would avoid walking near you on the street, seeing you look that way.”

“That might be wise.”

“What does that feel like?”

“Angry.”

“Frank.”

Tick fucking tick.

 

#

 

 “Doctor’s office,”

“I have to cancel my appointment.”

“Which doctor?”

“Larry Stowe.”

“What time...?”

 

#

 

Jane lives in Stony Brook in a house full of graduate students. She drives an old blue Saturn. The light in her room is on, the car is in the driveway. Been there all evening, every time I drive by.

 

#

 

Meg is sitting on my lap. I found a box of her old toys in the closet.

“This one is for babies,” she says. It’s a floppy stuffed clown, too many colors for its own good.

I say, “This one is for babies.”

She looks up at me. “Daddy, don’t.”

“Daddy, don’t.”

“Daddy!”

I bite my lip and kiss her forehead. She’s still watching me, making sure. I pick up a grungy little bear. “How about this bear? Do you remember it?”

Cautiously, still watching, she says, “Burly bear.”

She looks relieved when I say in my own Daddy voice, “That’s right. Burly bear.”

 

#

 

Nellie’s giving a man her phone number. I play discrete servant present but below the social radar, listening up all the while. He is nothing to write home about, but then again neither is Nellie, not since it happened. I can hear the lust in her voice. She’ll do him hard, send him home happy. For a good time call...

After closing time, I wait. I close out the cash register drawer, check all the figures twice with Mr. Eddie Hughes in mind, straighten the bar. Sit in the dark sipping Glenmorangie neat. It’s then that I get the idea. It revolts even me. If only she hadn’t come back to Tommy Quinn’s. It’s a beautiful, hideous, evil, ingenious idea. I dial the phone behind the cash register, in the shadows from the streetlights illuminating the empty parking lot.

The other end of the line picks up. Nellie’s voice: “Hello?”

I breathe. Short, small halting breaths.

“Who’s there?”

“M-mommy?”

A sound like a wretch, then something muttered. Maybe ohmygod. “Who is this?”

“Mommy? Why did you leave me in the pool?”

“Who is this? Jesus God, please, who is this?”

Over an orgasm of panicked weeping, I go on, hardly believing it myself: “It’s Celia, Mommy. Celia. I bumped my head Mommy, and I couldn’t get my face out of the water.” I cry a little. I remember the kid having a strange little cry. Nasal and halting. Easy as pie to do. Nellie screams.

 

#

 

Grim faces at Tommy Quinn’s. The moment I step inside, it’s like walking into a funeral parlor. Tommy and Eddie have their heads together at the cash register. Tommy looks like he’s been crying.

“Frank,” Tommy says. “You hear?”

I wait.

“Nellie killed herself.”

I back up, like getting hit in the stomach. I stumble onto a stool.

“Stuck her head in the oven. She finally cracked. Told some guy she met that her dead daughter called her on the phone.”

“The phone company can trace any calls she got,” I say. They don’t notice my startling lucidity. Instead, Tommy gives me a look that tells me I’m utterly hopeless and this close to getting fired, thinking practically at a time like this, as if the obvious hallucination could have been real. But I’m looking at the phone hanging on the wall behind his head.

 

#

 

Word’s gotten around. The only gigs I can get are amateur hours at clubs in Nowherevilles on the Island. I have to fucking pay twenty-five bucks to get a three-minute spot. Get a couple laughs, but never win.

 

#

 

 

Message on my answering machine is Larry being a good shrink, trying to talk me into returning. I feel a tug but nevertheless delete the message before it’s over.

 

#

 

 “You the stand-up comic?” It’s Steve, Nellie’s husband. Known to be on a crusade for the crank caller who drove Nellie to suicide.

“Used to be,” I say, keeping my hand on the bar so it doesn’t shake. The cops never contacted me. Never an investigation of any kind. Open and shut suicide. A picture of Celia ran in the paper. No further answers required.  

“Used to be?”

“Gotta own up to failure sooner or later.”

“You’re a young man.”

“Thirty-five.”

“Like I said, young. Why you give up so easy?” He’s drinking Meyer’s dark. On his third one. Doesn’t seem to affect him.

“Don’t like dying out there in the spotlight, I guess.” Eddie Hughes cruises by. “He ain’t funny,” he says and keeps on going.

“That’s it!” I say, raising a finger in the air as if the light at last has dawned. Steve is staring into my eyes.

“Don’t you do impressions?” he says.

“Impressions?”

A look of impatience passes over his face. “Voices of people,” he says.

“Y-yeah, I’ve done that.”

“All kinds of people?”

“Th-that’s right.”

“I remember you one time, when I was in here with Nellie and Celia, you doing Celia’s voice. It was amazing.”

He has a strong square face, clear eyes. Needs a shave, but there’s something honorable about him. Sad but not self-pitying. My face, it’s a riot of angles and soft spots, pinched and narrow and hard to derive pleasure. I know. He’s looking at it, seeing it.

“But you’re a failure,” he says.

“At comedy.”

“At comedy. Right. It’s frustrating, I bet.” I wipe a wet spot off the bar with my rag. Frustration.

“Must hurt a lot,” he says. “To have dreams but no ability to realize them.”

I look up and down the bar for another customer to rescue me, but they’re all watching the Knicks try to out-turnover themselves.

“Frank, isn’t it?” Steve says.

“That’s right.”

“What time you close, Frank?”

I look around the bar, which now seems to be something soft and warm and worthy of fondness. “This crowd?” I say. “Maybe eleven-thirty, midnight at the latest.”

He throws a five for a tip on the bar. “I’ll be back.” And leaves.

 

#

 

I’m done cleaning and prepping and sipping my goddamn whiskey and thinking about running away and deciding against it and all I’ve got left to do is wait. It doesn’t take long. The phone behind the cash register rings.

“You’re still there,” Steve says.

“Yeah.” 

A few moments and a world of thoughts pass by. When he speaks, he’s choked up: “Why?”

“Because I could.”

The phone goes dead. A moment later a car door chunks shut in the parking lot. A lone shadow cleaves the field of soft white light, coming toward the restaurant. I’ve left the door unlocked. The long thin thing in his hand I figure for a shotgun. He comes closer, enters Tommy Quinn’s. I’m right about the shotgun. First and only time I’ve ever seen one. It’s the failures meeting the successes, at eye level. Hey, if we’d been opposite sexes, Steve and I could have been an item.

If there were time for one further regret, between the pulling of the trigger and the impact, it would be that the pain doesn’t last long enough.

The gun makes a huge flash, like a big vindictive spotlight, and like always I die.

 "Stage Fright" first appeared in of Blue Murder, Issue # 8, May 1999. 

 

 

Ron Dionne is the author of SAD JINGO <http://www.amazon.com/Sad-Jingo-ebook/dp/B0089ENNR6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1339065124&sr=8-1>, an ebook original from Delabarre Publishing, and his short stories have appeared in Thrillers, Killers 'n' Chillers, Title Goes Here: Web Edition, Blue Murder Magazine, Palace Corbie, Underground Voices, and other small genre presses.

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