I had finished my act and was in the back playing Missile Command. (I couldn’t touch Mike’s high score – but could beat just about anyone else’s.) Roger had introduced Jack as the weekend’s opener. But now the room was quiet – like when Durst had the audience entranced – but different. I could hear murmurs, an angry shout followed by broken, awkward laughs. Drew, near the bar, waved me over. Jack, on stage, was shouting at the audience.
What were we talking about? Shit – I forgot the – forgot the punchline – oh yeah – C’mon, everybody! C’mon – heard the fucker so many times – you could do the joke better’n me! C’mon! What do y’want? New shit? New shit? Buy me a fuckin’ jokebook, motherfucker. Was that rude? Fuck. Excuse me.
The comics looked on, eyes wide. Jack was loaded, as drunk as I’d ever seen him.
Hey – I’m so fat, when I sit around the house – well, I’m not that fat. You’re a great crowd and hey, I’m a great crowd, too.
He darted a glance at Mike, at a table in the back.
These jokes don’t work so good for me, Mike!
“Shit,” murmured Mike.
Roger, in the back, glared, his brows tense. He had already gotten the red light on, but Jack could not have cared less.
There it is! There it is!
He pointed everyone towards the stop light.
See – you all miss the light show! It’s wild! Wild! Red light. Red light. Hey! Hey – Chinese restaurants! What – there’s like 30,000 of them?
“Don’t do it,” muttered Drew through gritted teeth. “Don’t fuckin’ do it – ”
’Zat right, Drew? the Cheshire Cat grinned.
“That’s right, Jack. 30,000.”
I love that. Love it! I don’t even remember the fuckin’ joke! I just love that there’s 30,000 Chinese restaurants! Is that just Cincinnati? Or the whole fuckin’ country?
“Where the fuck would we fit 30,000 Chinese restaurants in Cincinnati, Jack?” called Drew.
Uhm – up your mother’s asshole?
“Oh Christ,” said Mike looking at Drew. Drew, shaky, clenched and unclenched a fist, while coffee spurted out of the cup in his other hand. Roger flicked the red light on and off, frantically. And now Don had come out of his office and was throwing panicky looks at everyone.
Red light, Green light, Stop!! Red light, Green light, Stop!!
Jack pranced onstage.
Roger – yer getting’ me car sick up here! I gotta close! I gotta finish!
“Finish up, Jack,” said Roger, calmly.
How many acts have I ruined up here? Anyone keeping count?
“All of ‘em!” yelled Mike.
Who didn’t I hit yet? I get you in, Hollifield?
“Right at the beginning,” called Bill.
Hey! Hey! I got it – I was playin’ scrabble the other day with Bernstein’s ugly sister? Boy, is she fuckin’ ugly?!
Jack shaded his eyes from the spotlight and found me.
All eyes turned to me in the back. Jailbait! got a minor, tense laugh.
That’s my pal, Jailbait, over there!
“Shit,” I mumbled.
Little Fun Fact: He can’t drink, but he can buy drinks! Put that in yer freakin’ Rolodex! So – where were I? Oh yeah – ! Scrabble –
“Oh man,” said Mike looking at me.
Hey! Hey! Let’s see if I do it better!? Boy, is she ugly! Ugly, ugly, ugly! So, I looked up the word in the dictionary! And there it is – ! There’s the word – whatever the fuck it is! What is it?
“Plrknib,” I said.
Whatever – in purple crayon! Purple fuckin’ crayon! Yeah! That the end of it?
“You missed the middle part – but basically, yeah.”
Oh! said Jack, eyes wide. Oh! Oh!
Jack was having an epiphany. Roger and Don had given up on the lights and positioned themselves near the stage, ready to physically pull him off.
The line! The line! I got it! C’mon! Everybody! One – two – three – !
The Bible! The Bible! Oh shit!
And Jack stumbled, dropped the mic, and fell off the stage onto Don, who, calmly but aggressively ushered him to the back. Roger, smiling and perspiring, brought up a shell-shocked Bob Lambert, who looked unsure what to do next. But it didn’t matter. The audience was relieved just to have anyone else onstage.
“Well,” said Bob, “I’m not sure I’ve got any jokes left.”
From a side table, Mike and I watched as Don and Roger tore into Jack at the back of the bar. Neither cared that he had mesmerized the crowd, and that it may have been the best theatre the eye had ever seen. All they knew was that they trusted him and he had completely screwed up.
“I thought he was doing better?” I said.
“He was,” said Mike. “He was.”
Jack, like a shamed five-year-old, swayed back and forth, nodded apologetically and tried desperately not to burst out laughing. Suddenly off-balance, he grabbed at Don for support, pulling them both over. Roger tried to help. But Don threw them off, waving his hands, cursing, and repeatedly pointing Jack to the door.
In tableau, Don and Jack looked like one of those old Daffy Duck cartoons where Porky kicks Daffy out in the middle of frozen winter. Out! Out!
Jack, head hung low, glanced at Mike and me, grinned, and left. And I realized, six months ago, that was me. I wondered if Jack would stand on the street, kicking parking meters, perplexed as to how he could have fucked things up so badly. I wondered if he’d curse God, howling what the hell had happened to him? What led to all of this? I wondered if he’d bang on the door and beg Don to let him back in. He’s sorry. He’s sorry. He promises he’ll be good, really. He’ll never drink again!
“C’mon,” said Mike, getting up to go after Jack.
But Roger stopped me at the bar.
“That was messed up,” I said. “Poor Jack.”
“Yeah,” said Roger. “Poor fuckin’ Jack. He’s good for a few days and then – pfft! So what about Saturday?”
“Saturday? This Saturday?”
“In two days? You want me to – to – ”
“I – sure! Absolutely! Absolutely!”
“You think you can handle 30 minutes? Because – ”
“Okay. Okay. Great. And let’s see your best stuff, okay? Your A-game.”
“You got it.”
“Great. And thanks for being available last minute.”
Mike came back in.
“He’s gone,” he said.
“Dunno. To get even more shit-faced.”
“And you didn’t – ”
“He told me to leave him alone, so I left him alone. What can I do? I’m not his mother. He knows he can’t do this. He’s been good for weeks now. All he had to do was go another two days. And he pisses it away. What a load of horse shit.”
“Mike,” I said. “I got the spot.”
“Well, good! Good for you! Congratulations! You deserve it! You really do.”
“Thanks. Now, I’ve actually gotta do it.”
“You’ll be great.”
“Absolutely. Just don’t fuck it up.”
“Listen – if you’re worried – y’know – I mean – if you think you’re not ready – ”
“I mean I’ve done it before – ”
“I know. Thank you.”
“You’ll be great. You are ready. It’s your time!”