I was third, as usual, and pumped. Jack, of course, wasn’t there. And I tried not to feel guilty about getting the opening spot at his expense. Would Roger really have put me up in another month? Was he just throwing me a bone for all of my begging? It didn’t matter. The fact was if he didn’t think I was ready he wouldn’t have given me the spot.
My ten minutes that night went fine. Three-and-a-half stars, maybe three-and-three-quarters, even. I was excited for Saturday, and playing to Roger as much as anyone else. My bits were tight and I was full of energy. He wanted my A-game, and here was ten pure minutes of it. And, of course, all of the New York bits were in there: CETA, DC-10, Make Me a Sandwich, and Plrknib. Now, I needed to be as tight and strong as possible. Ethical or not, it was no time to back off of bits that worked.
Roger introduced me as Saturday’s opener. No one booed or yelled what about Jack? Mike and Drew were happy for me. Even Challis and Riggi seemed pleased to see another comic stepping up.
Saturday’s headliner – my headliner – was also there: a comedy-magician from Toronto. He did 15 minutes, giving a taste of what he would do on Saturday. He wasn’t Durst, wasn’t even Tony Williams from Xenia, Ohio. But he was fine. His act was tight, and he’d definitely be able to hold a crowd for an hour or so. I didn’t know how many people would fill a club to see me and some no-name Canadian magician. But it didn’t matter. It was my weekend. I was thrilled.
I left a little after midnight, anxious for Saturday. As I left, Roger, pressed a firm, confident hand on my shoulder.
“Get some rest,” he said.
I left the eye and came out into the cool Clifton spring air. I was graduating, leaving high school behind, and opening the eye on Saturday. Life was good.
“Alex – hey – hey – wait up a sec.”
It was my headliner, the magician from Canada.
“You’re opening tomorrow night?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I saw your act. Good stuff. Tomorrow should be great.”
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he said, soberly.
“Excuse me?” I said, taken aback.
“I know Steve Mittleman,” he said.
And with that my world unraveled.
For the first time ever someone knew. This guy who I’d never seen, never met before, who I knew nothing about up until a couple hours earlier, brought my life to a halt with just four words.
I know Steve Mittleman.
“You do?” I said, stupidly.
“And that bit – Scrabble – that’s his bit, right? Am I right?” he said, staring at me, no-bullshit serious.
“I – ”
“And maybe a couple other bits? Right?”
“You – what you mean – ”
“Everyone knows Mittleman. He’s great. What are you – fuckin’ crazy? C’mon – ”
“Uhm – ”
“No one’s said anything? No one’s caught on?”
“I – “
“Maybe they’re being polite?”
“Uhm – uh – ”
“Mittleman, Schiff, Sayh. All friends of mine. I’m not sure exactly what else you got – you’ve got some Schiff, right? It’s all from New York?”
My heart was beating like a triphammer. I stammered. But it was useless. This was inevitable. Of course. Of course! It was only a matter of time. For months now, I’d almost wanted someone to say this to me – just so I could stop. I didn’t want to use the jokes. I didn’t. It was almost a relief – but – God, the fucking timing!
I stared at him. He was right. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t out and out lie. Not any longer. I was too tired. I had to get out of this hole.
“I went there with my father,” I admitted. “We were looking at colleges.”
“And you went where – to Catch?”
“And the Improv.”
“Mm-hm. Is any of it yours?”
“Yes!” I said. “Absolutely. Most of it. Like 80-plus percent! Okay – a lot of what I did tonight – maybe three or four bits were from New York. But everything else was mine.”
“Smoke alarm? That seemed familiar – ”
“That’s totally mine! My mom burned the chicken once and – ”
He held up his hands.
“You know you’re not doing those jokes anymore. Right? You undestand that? That’s over, now.”
“I’ve been trying to cut them out,” I said. “Honestly! I mean – it’s just – I was failing chemistry – and – and – ”
“No one ever said anything?”
“I’ve only used them since December.”
“You were fuckin’ lucky. If Mittleman had come by – you’d be fucked.”
“I’ll tell you something. If I’d heard you in there doing my material – “ he looked at me, squarely. “I’d’ve fuckin’ killed you!”
I swallowed, tightly. And the thought came into my head to say: That’s no problem. I don’t do magic. But I repressed it.
“I understand,” I said.
“Same with Schiff, Sayh – all of them.”
Sayh? Who was Sayh? Did I see a comic named Sayh? Christ. I’d lost complete track of all my miserable bullshit. I’d have to go back and check my notes.
“Listen,” he said. “This community is small. Smaller than you think.”
“But if the rest of that act is really yours – ”
“What are you – 15?”
“Stick with it – four or five years – you’ll probably really be opening.”
“Years?” I said. “Years?”
“That’s about how long it takes to get a solid ten minutes. Four to five years – playing everywhere – not just shit holes like this. You’ve got some rhythm. But you better look past those high school bits. They won’t last forever.”
He started back inside, then turned to me, coldly.
“You want me to tell Roger you can’t open tomorrow?”
“No!” I said. “I can open!”
“Not with those bits you can’t.”
“I know that,” I said. “ I can open. Even without those bits. I can. I can open.”
We stared at each other, grimly. He took a long breath, then turned, and disappeared back into the eye.
And I went next door and threw up in the back of Zantigo’s parking lot.
And then I was up all night, panicking and sweating.
On a night when I would’ve been anxious anyway I was now shivering with fear and self-doubt. Should I cancel? Let Mike jump in? Sure, sure, it was the obvious thing to do. No. No. Stolen jokes or not – I earned this. Paid my dues. But 30 minutes?! I could barely do 20 with the stolen bits. No – okay – maybe it’d be a little unpolished – but I had the material. I just had to pace it out – pace out the good bits – with – what? My A-game? What effin’ A-game?! Plrknib, DC-10, Make me a sandwich – they were my A-game! No. No, I told myself – it wasn’t about the material. It was about me – me – who I was. And I was – a thief!
No – I should just call Mike and Roger and tell them the truth – I’ve got a fever. A fever. Except I’d performed sick before! I performed with the flu! Fuck. Fuck. No – they were counting on me. This was my shot. I probably wasn’t going to see another Saturday night for who knows how long. Someone else’s star would go up, and mine would sink, sink, sink.
C’mon! Everyone said my material was solid. Well, here was the acid test. I didn’t need Plrknib. I never needed Plrknib. I fought back at this club – week after week – proving I could keep up for six months now! I wasn’t going to bail ‘cause I couldn’t do 30 minutes without telling those jokes! Bullshit! I could do 30 of my own minutes. I could.
All through the night my mind raced. Five years! I didn’t have five years! And if he knew – who else knew? Mittleman? Schiff? Did he really know those guys? Maybe he just caught their acts once? He doesn’t look or act New York at all! He’s completely Canadian! Challis, Riggi, Roger, Don, Mike, Jack. Maybe they all knew? No. No – Mike would have said something. Still – maybe that’s why I’d never gotten a Saturday spot. But then why tell me to bring my A-game?! Roger knew Plrknib was as A as I got! And what would he say if I didn’t do Plrknib? Jesus!
No. Fuck this guy! Who the hell was he? I didn’t even know him. I should just do the jokes and that’d be it. I’d never ever ever do them again. I’d retire them all. But shit – he warned me! He specifically told me not to. Don’t do those jokes. Don’t. Shit!
And why tonight? Why this Saturday? Why couldn’t he be next week’s headliner? It was God punishing me again. That’s what it was! Again! Why?! For what? Ten years of bad grades? Stealing from camp? Not washing my hair? Greasy! Greasejob! Reethe Cupth! Couldn’t he just let me get through my one fucking opening night?!
No. No. It wasn’t God. It was my fault. I should’ve gotten rid of the jokes weeks ago. Weeks ago. There was no God, here. I had made my own choices from the beginning. It was the exact course I’d laid out for myself. This was inevitable.