I had a faux-romanticized idea of what my date with Ann would be like: dinner, dancing, a movie, charming repartee and, if I was lucky, a light peck on the cheek at the end – a sign of better things to come. I continued to have Ann pegged as a nice, normal, high school girl because up until then that was my experience of high school girls. So I was not at all prepared for our first evening.
We went to Zino’s, the upscale pizza joint on Little Vine, with the intention of going to a movie afterwards. But half an hour later we were in the back parking lot literally steaming up the windows.
The steam, in and of itself, impressed me. Outside the car it was the middle of freezing winter. But inside, even with the engine turned off, we were a living biochemistry experiment, generating actual heat. Hey, condensation happens! Here was this beautiful girl all over me and I was marveling at the science of it. But then I let go and was in nirvana. A rock star. In just a few months I had transformed from dweeb loser to übermensch and the living proof was pressed up right next to me.
Whatever movie we intended was forgotten. All plans were tossed. And as it got late we left the parking lot and drove aimlessly through dark, empty Cincinnati. After awhile we realized that we were completely lost. But it didn’t matter. We were quiet and pleasant and cozy. We had each other with no one waiting for us. We drove through suburb after suburb – the only light from the occasional nursing home or apartment complex popping out of the darkness like some luminescent, all-night carnival. Steadily, steadily, we headed somewhere. Sooner or later we’d get there.
Math lab. Monday morning.
Bob, Dave, Bucky and I lounged. Doug Borges and Charlie Martins, nerds, came in.
“Al – !” said Doug. “What’s that joke!? The good one!?”
“Naw – not that one – the good one – ”
Doug and Charlie hovered over our table. Bob threw annoyed looks at Bucky.
“Guys,” I said. “We’re trying to work here – ”
“Yeah! Do the Scrabble bit!”
“It’s not the same unless I’m at the – ”
“C’mon! Do the joke!”
“He gets five bucks at the bar,” said Bucky.
Doug reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet.
“Five,” he said, thrusting a bill at me.
The Pistols looked at me, amazed, a little pissed. I sighed and stood up.
I was playing Scrabble the other day with my identical twin sister. Boy, is she ugly…
Doug and Charlie guffawed. Bob slammed his books on the table.
“It’s not his joke.”
“Let it go, Bob,” said Dave.
“It’s funny. It’s too funny. It can’t be his. Who’s is it? Woody’s?”
“Please,” I said. “I’d never steal from an album.”
Doug and Charlie elbowed each other, thrilled. That line wasn’t bad either –
“Don’t bullshit me!” yelled Bob. “There’s no way you wrote that!! No way!”
“Who the fuck cares, Bob?!” said Dave. “Who cares?!”
“Then let him answer!” said Bob. “Let him answer?! Did you steal the bit?”
“Bob!” yelled Dave. “Who the fuck are you? The SS?! Why should he answer to you?”
Doug and Charlie stared, speechless. Nice show for five bucks.
“And why are you defending him all the time?!” Bob barked at Dave.
“Al, do you steal all your bits?” asked Bucky, faciously.
“Not all of them,” I said.
“See?” said Bucky. “He just stole yours, Bob.”
The math boys turned to Bob, impressed.
“Did you write Scrabble?” Charlie asked Bob.
“No! No!” yelled Bob, beet red, ready to hit me, someone, anyone.
“Different joke,” said Bucky.
Doug and Charlie were confused.
“Will you do the joke for five bucks?” Doug asked Bob.
“I’ll do it for two bucks,” said Bucky.
“Bob – !” I said. “I used your bit once. Once! I admitted it! I said I was sorry! I am sorry!”
“Bullshit!” said Bob.
“And y’know what, Bob. It doesn’t even matter. It doesn’t matter, because you’ll never let me forget it!”
“And why should I?!”
“I only used it – ”
“Stole it – Yes! I stole it! I stole it! Once! And y’know why?! Because it was a great fuckin’ piece, Bob! And you did nothing with it! Nothing! Whose fault is that, huh?! Christ – you think you’d be fuckin’ flattered – you should’ve thanked me when I used the Navy – ”
“– instead of being such a perpetual asshole about it!”
“You’re the asshole!”
“Yeah? If I asked you, would you have ever let me use it?!”
“He would’ve,” said Bucky.
“Al would’ve never asked,” said Dave.
“Fuck you all!” said Bob. “You all side with him! All the time!”
And he stormed out of the math lab.
Hallway. A few minutes later with Dave.
“Dave,” I started.
“Forget it,” he said. “He’s jealous. If he wants to do stand-up, he should do it, instead of taking it out on you.”
“I’d help him.” I said. “Honestly, I would. Any time he wants to come down – ”
“I know you would. Forget about it.”
“Dave,” I said. I looked at him, seriously. “That joke – Scrabble – ”
He held up his hands.
“I don’t wanna know.”
“I – ”
“It’s your thing. Your business. I know you know what you’re doing. Okay?”
Jack fumbled through his act. I was conscious, suddenly, that he was getting sloppier onstage. Being loose was always part of his charm But now, more often than not, he was dropping lines, forgetting his place – maybe not even caring where exactly he was supposed to be. Sometimes he’d just stare, grinning at the people in the audience with that glazed, glassy look. And folks tolerated it, thinking maybe it’s just part of his act? Maybe he’s actually building to something.
It’s was almost frightening when Jack dropped material. He looked naked onstage, hovering, waiting for – what? Roger to pull him off? Hecklers to throw things? His toxicity to render him unconscious?
The high from standing in front of people, hearing their laughter, engagement, approval – was stunning. Pure love washing over you – even from drunk frat boys. Intense. Emotional. And a bad performance was incredibly depressing. The only way to protect yourself was to stay reserved, wear a two-inch thick emotional raincoat. Everyone died, but if you could balance the bad with the good – keep some small objectivity – then surviving less-than-stellar performances wasn’t so awful.
For some, the comedy high was so intense that they never wanted to come down. They’d bring their shtick with them, everywhere, wearing it like a new bomber jacket. No matter how obnoxious or inappropriate their behavior might seem. Keep it going, keep it going, just a little bit more. Everyone was an audience. The guy in the elevator. The cab driver. The cashier. The female cashier. The cute, female cashier. Without a ring. There’s the perfect audience. Holes were filled onstage but the yearning to keep them filled could be consuming.
“Roger,” I said. “I’m free this weekend! If you need an opener – ”
“Not yet,” said Roger. “Not ready. Keep working.”
“Durst is back next week,” Mike whispered to me. “Gotta see him! He’s unbelievable!”
Ann and I spent what felt like hours – but was more likely 45 minutes or so – parked in an empty lot behind Xavier University. Another movie we’d never made it to. Another concert or party we’d missed.
She kept a flask in her purse and took sips and offered it to me. She never asked about my act, never even mentioned it. Although she talked a lot about how much her mother enjoyed the eye.
And in the parking lot I realized that I had reached the ceiling of my experience with girls. And I had no reference for whatever I – or she – was supposed to do next. In only a couple dates I’d gotten further with Ann than anyone ever before, and was completely out of clues. Here was this very great, intense thing happening. I hadn’t read enough magazines – enough of the right ones, anyway. And I didn’t want to screw it up. So I slowed and she slowed. And seemingly, hours passed.
And I thought to myself: y’know, she probably wouldn’t even care about the stolen jokes. With Ann it might actually be a positive.
You stole jokes? Cool.
Sunday. The eye with Jack and Mike. I nursed a Coke.
“We don’t talk that much,” I said.
“That’s a good thing! The best thing! Something you may never have again in your lifetime! Trust me!” said Jack.
“Yeah – but still – ”
“What?! What could you possibly have to complain about?!”
“Well, y’know – she likes me – because – ”
“You do stand-up?”
“So, she’s a groupie.”
“Well, yes and no. She’s – ”
“Don’t say it – ”
“She’s never seen my act.”
“So, it feels – I dunno – disingenuous. Like I’m lying or something.”
“So who cares?! She doesn’t care! Why should you?! Look – listen to me,” said Jack. “You have this perfect, perfect thing, here! Don’t ruin it by getting all honest! Jesus! That’s the worst!”
“Well – what if she saw me and – ”
“Did she say, I want to see your act?”
“Has she ever even mentioned it?!”
“So, who cares?!”
“Well – ”
“God gives you this gift – which is what this is, okay? – let’s call it what it is: a gift from God. You don’t get a gift from the Great One every day. I certainly don’t get that! But you got it! So, don’t ask questions! Take this gift – and run – run with it! Don’t look back!”
“You’re right. You’re right.”
“Course I’m right!”
“But – ”
“I feel like I’m cheating!”
“It’s not me she likes. It’s this romanticized, idealized me that her mom told her about! That I’m some – some – I don’t know – ”
“Who cares?! Who the fuck cares?!”
“ – great comic!”
“You are a great comic,” said Mike.
“I’m not. I’m not. It just doesn’t feel real.”
“You are completely crazy. Y’know? Yer a crazy, crazy, crazy motherfucker.”
“You actually want her to see your act?”
“I dunno. Maybe.”
“Of course not! If she sees you on a bad night – you are completely fucked.”
“I’m tellin’ you, man. Leave it alone. Leave it a-lone.”
“For whatever reason – she likes you. She’s into you. Y’gotta think about that. And we’re living through you, Jailbait.”
“Absolutely,” said Mike.
“So, don’t fuck this up!”
“I won’t,” I said.
Jack looked at Mike.
“He’s gonna fuck it up.”
“Absolutely,” Mike nodded and they downed their beers.
They were right, but still – if Ann came to the club and I killed – if I was on and the audience was with me – what would a night be like after that? But if I tanked – God, I didn’t even want to think about it. No, no. It was too much of a risk. Even on a good night, the idea of me performing was probably much cooler than anything I was actually doing onstage. And besides, it was impossible, right? Ann was 16 and I had made my promise to Don. She was too young to get into the club – even though she could probably drink half the crowd under the table.
Mike and Jack were right. As much as it frustrated me, they made sense.
And I resolved never to let Ann see me perform.