A COMEDY IN ONE ACT
by Matthew Di Paoli
I find myself suddenly and deeply involved in the comedy world. It started with my ex-girlfriend, who is a comedian. She was one of those comics who did jokes that involved her body. I liked the way she moved on stage, like she wasn’t afraid of people staring. She had this one bit where she did this sort of booty shake. Kind of like a “twerk,” but more side-to-side, not up and down. It made me think about asses in a whole new way that I liked.
I’ve never been an ass guy. I believe in my heart that you can tell a whole lot about a person from her legs. Or his legs. I don’t discriminate when looking at people’s legs, necessarily. You can tell how much weight they’ve put on themselves, in like a deep way, not just physical weight, more like the intangible weight of a lifetime or something. It usually sounds better in my head.
In any case, I’m at a show right now, and one of my buddies is performing. He’s got legs like an ox. His jeans can hardly hide his girthy calves. The sheer mass of them holds power over the audience. He does a lot of frat boy jokes. Like stuff about bars and women and women in bars. He’s a self-deprecator, as most comedians are. Some people say it’s to hide their real emotions. I think anyone who wants that kind of abuse probably thinks he really is a piece of shit. They all drink and smoke before they go on stage. It’s a badge of honor. They either joke about how they’re alcoholics or how they used to be, but now they’re taking it easy and only smoking crack.
“How’s everybody doing tonight?” he says.
It’s a light crowd. They’re all a little drunk and wishing they weren’t at a comedy show that someone on Forty-Fourth Street told them to go to. They call them barkers. That’s what my buddy on stage does when he’s not doing sets. They’re the same guys who were club promoters in college, and drug dealers in high school, and mistakes at birth.
“You ever notice how when a guy sits in a bar he’s always got his dick pointed in the direction of the hottest girl?” he says. The audience chuckles, a low rumble. Ice clinks side to side in their glasses. “A guy’s penis is like a compass, and it’s always pointing due hot.”
It’s a bit of an older crowd. Tourists, mid-forties, shirts that say New York on them or still have the tags. The exact kind of mindless shitwads who are walking through Times Square with their heads in the sky and their wallets open, renting bikes and eating at Bubba Gump Shrimp because it’s a name they recognize.
“Like if Magellan was lost, and he found one of these guys he could just look at his cock and say, well there’s a hot girl that way, it must be California.”
The crowd seems to like that one. A couple of women in the first row cackle and drunkenly poke each other mouthing the word: C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A, as if they’re part of something. As if this comedian has made a connection with them by naming their state. It’s a cheap trick. He probably heard them talking about it before the show. Not that I blame him. It’s a tough thing to get people to laugh with you.
The air in the comedy club smells like spilled beer and tampons. I think about how my ex would sometimes look at me when she was up on stage because she knew I liked it, and I would make her keep on her dress when we fucked because it felt more like a performance that way.
I make a little circle with my index finger to the waitress. Another round of whisky before the show is over.
I’m watching my friend’s lips move on stage, but I’m thinking of Alaska. Alaska has these long blue stretches of ice where you think the world might just about end. The ex and I went on a cruise over there on a Danish ship with a bunch of retirees. We mostly drank and had sex and waited for the few hours when they’d let us off the boat like some kind of experiment.
She wasn’t that tall, but she had these long legs. She’d always shine them up before dinner like she was going on a talk show, and then I’d sit across from her and look her in the eyes, but the only thing I could think about was what was under the white tablecloth.
“What’d you think?” my friend comes up to me after the show, massaging my shoulders awkwardly from behind.
“I think you landed a few. The crowd was a real Floyd Mayweather.”
“Yeah, it was kind of a B set, but you gotta just keep pluggin’.” He curls his large body in front of me, motioning that we should go to another bar. There’s nothing comics like less than waiting around to hear other comics. I roll the rest of the whisky down my throat, stopping the ice with my front teeth. I have very sensitive teeth, people always say to me.
We move to the next bar. An Irish pub where the comedians like to hang out because the drinks are cheap and sometimes the owner blows them in her office if she’s had enough coke. She’s a frumpy, tall woman with teeth that don’t match her head. The place does all right, mostly because no one wants to pick a new spot. The Wild Boar, it’s called.
Comedians travel in very dude-heavy crowds. It’s rare to find them with more than a couple women, usually comedians as well, and they’re all trying to fuck the same two girls.
We have some whiskeys. The bartender knows us and buys us a shot of anti-freeze. I can taste the cinnamon in my dreams. I’m listening. Everyone is trying to be the planet, and I’m like Saturn’s rings. The booze makes them aggressive like chimpanzees who’ve been berated for months and then let loose.
After a while, my friend motions that he wants a cigarette, and I follow him out because it’s loud, and I can use some air.
“So how’s tricks?” I ask, as he lights his cigarette.
He takes a very long drag, releases it into the air in a thick trail. “I’ve been thinking about killing myself.”
“Pills or bathtub?”
“I don’t buy into the whole razor thing. Give me a bottle of Jameson and some downers, and let me enjoy the last ride.”
“I think I’d like to be shot out of a cannon onto city hall and splattered into some kind of political statement.”
He takes another drag. The cherry burns bright orange and then dulls. “You always were more of an activist.”
I think about Alaska and how the trees and the sky and the ice all became a singular thing. I think about what it would be like to live and fuck and die in a wild land. There is something about the smell of smoke and stale beer that makes me think back to a time when I was happier.
“Ready, Freddy?” he asks, tossing the last bit of his cigarette burning to the curb.
We head back in. He runs into someone. I continue to the bar.
“Look at this guy.” It’s a voice I recognize. I squint and see it’s my ex. She’s surrounded by men, and she’s drinking whiskey. I like that she’s drinking the same drink I left her with. It’s like a calling card. I recall the deep blue of the Alaskan ocean and how if you died out there nobody would know. One time at six a.m. she woke me up and told me we should look for whales, and we did, and I never knew how important that was until this moment.
“How are you?” I say.
She looks around, and her expression is pointless. She’s miserable. I can tell, but she’s trying to give the impression she’s lived a blessed life.
“Livin’ the dream,” she says.
I’m feeling the whisky, and seeing her again gives me a funny feeling like a cold hand on my belly. “Miss me?”
“Not a bit.”
It doesn’t matter that she’s lying. We lied our way through two years, so it feels like history. One day they’ll study us in textbooks and doodle in our margins. I think about the time we picked out glass on an Alaskan beach and saved it and brought it home. It was smooth and dark and felt like something that had existed a very long time ago.
The whiskey burns in my stomach. I forgot to eat. Or maybe I didn’t forget. “I’ve been thinking about you.”
“What for?” she says, trying to get another drink from the bartender. She leans her cleavage over the wet bar.
“You know, procreation, brick-laying…pointless shit.”
“We were smart to get divorced,” she says. “We never really had a chance.”
My buddy comes over. He’s surprised to see my ex. “How’s tricks?” he says.
“What, are you two married?” she says.
“How come you always show up when we’re about to have fun?” says my friend.
“I’m always here, your huge floppy tits are just blocking your view.”
The bartender places a drink at her pink fingertips. It’s clear with a lime.
“I should probably go,” I say delicately.
“Oh, fuck you. You don’t even know what you want,” she says, gulping her drink. “You’re like if I put a high schooler in a time capsule and just let him loose in New York City in 1962. That’s what you’re like.”
“That’s not even an insult,” says my friend. “High schoolers fuck like six times a day.”
“Yeah, so does the pope,” she says.
My friend motions to me that he wants to smoke again. He smokes the way they did in old fifties films. He shuffles his large thighs, and I follow him outside. The cool air hits my sweaty forehead. It feels good.
He takes a prolonged drag. He exhales. He looks out at the cars on the street. There’s a little bit of rain making that soft whooshing sound. “I realized about a week ago—all this shit you think you’ll forget or get over, it’s all forever.”
I take a breath, breathing in the smoke. I welcome it. “You’re my hero, man.”
He inhales. The smoke drifts around us like chalky clouds. I wonder if this is what heaven looks like, dim, the sweet sound of water on tar, hardly visible.
Matthew Di Paoli received his BA at Boston College, where he won the Dever Fellowship and the Cardinal Cushing Award for Creative Writing. He has also been nominated for the 2015 and 2016 Pushcart Prize and won the Prism Review Short Story Contest. Matthew earned his MFA in Fiction at Columbia University. He has been published in Post Road, Qu, The Great American Literary Magazine, Neon, The Soundings Review, and Gigantic, among others. He is the author of a novel, Killstanbul, from El Balazo Press and teaches writing and literature at Monroe College.
Image credit: Douglas Pimentel on Flickr