can deafen you
show must go on
Morris Jr. and James Willig
hen the laughter dies down and you get offstage, Jimmy Slade
thought distantly, a lotta comics don't know what the hell to
do next. That silence, man. It can deafen you.
He looked at his stubby glass of good Scots single-malt over ice,
the whisky twinkling amber in the light of his dressing room. It
tasted like slightly melted heaven, and he swished every sip to
take in the full flavor.
Jimmy knew what to do with the silence. His cure was always Nat
King Cole on the CD player, that great man who knew how to laugh
with tears rolling down his face, and who had died so young, delivering
"Mona Lisa" with the panache of a lifetime spent bleeding
into the very stage.
Jimmy tuned out on the world with the tune, looking like a well-preserved
college professor in cufflinks and skinny tie; 55th birthday party
at Leno's place in Palm Springs the other month and not a scratch
on the paint job yet.
His Armani jacket was off and hung neatly on the door of the shoebox
closet in the back of that amber-lit space. He'd dimmed the bulbs
on the mirror down to almost nothing, and there was no other source
He would be flying out of SFO the next morning, playing the Troc
in Vegas at seven sharp that night. All these years and he still
couldn't get used to having his own jet. He was almost fumblingly
deferential when woken up on the plane, and his assistant, Morty,
forever busted his stones about the first time, when he'd looked
around and quavered out, "Oh, shit, my bags! We got a layover
in St. Louis!" Jimmy had written that into a bit, but not until
club had been strictly a milk run. He'd owed the owner a favor from
the headless chicken days on the road. Ralph was a good guy, had
never called in any tab that Jimmy'd ever run up at his place.
"You paid already," the big, grizzled old polar bear
always announced from the register at the end of the long bar after
the last Visibly Intoxicated Patron had finished a glass of water
and been escorted out.
Jimmy owed a lot of people favors. He paid them back when he could.
It was just so hard to keep up. His shrink always admonished him
not to try to be perfect, not to blow a gasket ... but his shrink
hadn't heard it all.
Jimmy'd only taken on the shrink after his bankbook went over eight
figures, after he had turned down Conan but not Leno. Jimmy's screenplays
could not get optioned quickly enough, nor his voluminous files
of jokes written to be sold. He never used those.
He'd gone to total improv after his old partner took him to court
in a two-bit intellectual property suit over parts of their old
act. Jimmy could not look at Gabe throughout the initial meetings,
the opening arguments, any of it. He let the lawyers do all the
Gabe Mitchell had gone home to his little TriBeCa flat after the
judge threw the case out, and spent the next five years dying of
cirrhosis. It would have almost been easier if he'd blown his brains
Gabe had been a putz. When they were on the road, Jimmy had been
the Chong to Gabe's Cheech, working most of the material out while
Gabe got his head-shots up on all the walls.
Gabe never wanted to rehearse, only to try to outdo Sam Kinison
in the Raising Hell department, claiming it gave him authenticity.
Jimmy didn't know about that. If "authenticity" meant
coming on stage with a hangover and mumbling through all the bits,
then absolutely. But goddam was Gabe funny when sober. Jimmy had
bitterly envied him.
All the stuff Gabe wrote, he never had to work to pull off. And
no matter what the son of a bitch said in court, the material might
have been similar, but it was Jimmy's own extrapolations.
had gotten the idea to go to total improv from a kid named Eddie
Izzard, whom he'd seen at the Apollo Odeon in London. Izzard had
presided over the after-party like a shy young prince coming round
with gin-and-tonics for everyone. Jimmy knew that night that this
faygeleh was the future of comedy. He lacked Izzard's candor and
freshness, but Jimmy had workshopped with Milton Berle, ferchrissakes,
and there were ways around that.
Improv stilled Gabe's pale shade that came to visit in the mornings.
It kept Jimmy sharp ... but it also made him a prisoner in Las Vegas.
This trip to San Francisco was a fluke. No more.
No one wanted to touch him now in all the clubs he really wanted
to play. He'd gotten too notorious. He could have the Hollywood
Bowl SRO any time he wanted, he knew, and no one had really pulled
that off since Python. The last time he'd played The Comedy Store,
it had been a veritable Who concert. The fans had gate-crashed the
floor seating, and several ticketholders had thereby received a
visit from the Multiple Fracture Fairy.
He sipped his Scotch, letting it cool down the old anxiety and
tunnel vision that came when he was by himself. The lights were
low enough that his eyes didn't hurt anymore, having relaxed from
the stage where every pace and gesture had been blocked out with
gaffer's tape. They could CGI that out of the video.
Jimmy Slade was a household word. He was, to use the parlance of
his bodyguards, a made guy. There was nothing he could not have.
There was so much more he wanted to do, so much more he wanted to
try ... but could not now. In his estimation, he had painted himself
into a corner. He was a prisoner of his own success and he had absolutely
no idea where to go from there.
He lit a cigarette, dragged deeply ... and then the decision was
made for him.
His soft, trembling right hand snubbed the cigarette out in the
ashtray with one hard push. Little tendrils of smoke still skirled
up from the shattered coal. The ashtray went to the floor but did
not spill one iota. The glass of Scotch went hell to breakfast,
but the ashtray only rolled around like an air-hockey puck with
a little PONK! sound that bespoke the hard floor beneath the lush
The Nat King Cole CD wound down and out, leaving only the silence
after a lifetime of laughs.
Jimmy's left hand did not seem to work. He felt like he had been
taken full in the chest with a load of double-ought buckshot, stray
pellets hissing hot up and down his left arm. He tried to sob or
curse, but nothing at all would leave his throat.
This beat the time he'd fallen down the stairs on the front stoop
when he was six and had the wind knocked out of him for the first
time, though that was one of the few memories he allowed himself
from those lean, hellish years in the Bronx when his name had been
This beat his first night playing in the South, when a pickup-load
of good ole' boys had been laying for him outside the stage door
(years after, he'd hired his own pickup-load of big goombah trolls
in gold chains to prevent such lamentable lapses).
beat all. There were footsteps down the cement stairs to the back
hall behind the door, quick clicking footsteps like dress shoes.
The pain was so great he could not even turn around as the figure
created its own wind, rushing in.
"Hymie Schulman." The cold, laconic voice had an unplaceable
accent. Pale hands clutched his shoulders and pulled him upright.
The pain began to subside, and Jimmy gasped out loud as the guy
slid around in front of him, looking into his eyes.
The Stranger's voice and eyes were as precise and distant as an
intern at a free clinic. And haven't I seen a few of those, on
the road, Jimmy thought. Begging for a blood-test the morning
after, soon as I got a good look at whatever it was I brought home
the night before ... It was all a real hoot. As soon as he could
talk again, he'd break out his little minidisc recorder to save
that one for future use ...
Nowadays, I use the Dangerfield Escort Service, where the girls
accept Cash, Charge and Your Sense of Pride. It's unreal, folks.
If only my legion of ex-wives knew where the alimony payments really
went, before I got signed. The fleet of Lexii in the garage of my
house in Malibu ought to have been a dead giveaway ...
Jimmy managed a deep, gasping breath and made a stab at trying
to talk .
"Halloween ... was ... about a month ago, Doc. How the hell
did you know to come down here so qu"
The blond guy in surgeon's whites snorted, raised his left hand
with the fingers splayed out ... and the door swung shut from across
It was all Jimmy could do to keep control of his bowels. But after
a few seconds, he did all right, and the involuntary fear-response
faded into a long, echoing flatulence that sounded like a studio
The guy wasn't really blond, Jimmy noticed. The straight, unruly
haystack of his hair was no color at all, and what he had first
taken for a latex appliance was the real face of what appeared to
be an albino whose plastic surgeon had messed up bad after a car
wreck, a knife fight ... or worse.
veins pulsed and beat at his temples, winding smaller into thinner
ones through the alabaster cheeks. Jimmy realized with a gulp that
he could see the guy's capillaries, man ... and the shape of the
skull beneath his translucent flesh was all right there. The guy's
eyes were pink, the whites of them as blue as a baby's.
There were twin puckered scars in his broad, smooth forehead, the
one on the right mostly hidden by a sheaf of bangs from his Flock
of Seagulls haircut. Around his full white lips were what appeared
to be suture scars, glowing pinkly in the gloom.
The Stranger knelt before Jimmy, grinning with a crooked white
overbite. His hands were as delicate as a woman's, but squiggled
across the backs with the serpentine Sanskrit traceries of more
blue veins as he pointed his index finger at Jimmy's face.
Everything Jimmy had ever forgotten in Synagogue bowled through
his mind like a Maglev train.
The pain crept back by inches, holding at a certain point. Jimmy
saw the Stranger's long-nailed pinky finger dancing like a seismograph
"I ... this ... I ..." He sighed and tried to get near
a sentence. "I don't want this, man. Not now. I was just getting
warmed up." It took a long time to swallow the lump in his
throat, and his chest hurt with the effort.
He gazed into the Stranger's eyes and saw nothing there but an
inestimable patience. This guy had all the time in the world.
"Can't we work something out? I ... "
The Stranger sighed wearily, looking at the floor.
"God, I'm sick of this routine," he said. Jimmy goggled
at the break in character. "Every single time
it's one of your lot. You always take the easier, softer way. Although
..." A faint grin airbrushed its
way across his ghastly features. "Dean Martin was so tired
he just asked me to walk him to the bar."
knew we could talk business." With an effort, Jimmy sat up
and leaned forward. "How's about it? Hell, if I could cut contracts
with NBC ..." He sighed. "I wanna be immortal. That's
what I always wanted."
The Stranger lowered his pinky, pacing around the room. Jimmy took
in the circles under his eyes, the way those spindly hands shook.
"I hate this job," he said, almost to himself, looking
back at Jimmy and shaking his finger at him again. "Do you
realize, I mean, do you have any conception ..."
He took a deep breath, and counted to 10 in a language that sounded
Middle Eastern. "... of what you ask?"
Another deep breath. A red tear spilled down his cheek, but when
his eyes met Jimmy's again, he was glaring.
"I took Belushi Across, man. He kept lookin' back at himself
layin' there on the floor of that apartment. Chris Farley, same
deal." His voice was breaking. Jimmy suddenly felt like a very
small turd in a very big litterbox.
"I took Gilda Radner Across, and then I had to come right
back round and take Madeline Kahn. Those two broke my fuckin' heart
so bad I almost quit the biz. You ... oh, you selfish, selfish child.
Don't you get it?"
Jimmy could not speak, but the Stranger wasn't done.
"Even drugs never put a dent in what they were," he croaked.
The tears flowed more freely now. "You bunch of shaved apes
take your geniuses for granted. And comedians ..." He sighed.
"We never had those. Before, I mean. We ..."
He sobbed and got his voice back after a second. "We had to
learn it from the ones we end up taking. The ones who have to work
so hard in this world that it kills them in the end."
He folded his hands as if in prayer, pontificating where he stood.
"And now you want to bargain with me, little Hymie. You want
to cut deals." His pink eyes burned. "Know this: Whatever
deal we cut tonight ... they paid the price." He cocked an
eyebrow. "Even Gabe."
Jimmy thought about that for a long, long time.
"I wish my agent was here," he muttered, looking up at
the Stranger. "You couldn't have taken Chevy Chase?"
The Stranger's laughter shook the walls ... and for just a moment,
the unimaginable fatigue left his face.
"There was no more room in the van." He looked startled
... then thoughtful.
"We might be able to work something out," the Stranger
said finally. "Do you know how long it's been since anyone
made me laugh?"
The darkened dressing room wheeled around Jimmy's head.
"What about ... " He gulped. "I'm thinking a trade
might be the best deal here, and ..."
He did not speak for very long. The Stranger's smile shifted and
"We're proud of you," he whispered.
And the contract was signed.
the silence of that reconciliation, the only sound was the skipping
beat of Jimmy's scarred and aching heart ... as he chose, took a
bow, and said goodnight.
A moment later, a fat guy in a loud suit hesitantly knocked ...
and then crept through the door.
"Oh, my God." Gabe Mitchell stroked the stubble on his
cheeks, standing over Jimmy's body where it lay slumped in the chair.
He looked as if he were having trouble remembering where he was.
Without another moment's thought, Gabe ran through the door and
back upstairs to call 9-1-1.