2010 Short-Story Contest: 3rd place
Published: January 7, 2011
the early show
by Gregg Cusick
We’d been to that comedy club down on Water St. the night before, so Sunday morning we covered our throbbing heads in ball caps and walked the five blocks to a bar in the Point for Bloody Marys. The smooth-worn brick street dead-ends at the water a hundred yards on, at a loading dock pier no longer used but with no guardrail. It’s a place people dump cars and then claim they were stolen to collect insurance. A guy I know tried to get his car dragged out of there—another story, how it got there, why he wanted it back—and they pulled up three others that weren’t his before they gave up.
So the four of us head to this place where we know the barkeep. The girls sit down at a rickety round table near the dark fireplace, in old wood chairs that have been leaned back on far too much. Ed and I go to the bar and order four Bloodies and two beer chasers for us. There’s not but about ten other people in the place, a few locals with Sunday papers, a few nursing hangovers like us, a few more look to be tourists a little off the beaten track or who’ve heard about Nick’s chili and burgers.
We join Elise and Janey with the drinks, and we all sit there then in silence. Maybe we’ve all got the same uncomfortable feeling, the residue of last night. Not just from the drinking, but that comic on stage, the early show, and how he had to lick his wounds and somehow get back up there and do it again. After a few minutes Ed asks Janey if she wants food, and goes back to the bar to order them cheeseburgers.
I look over at my girlfriend, Elise, her light brown hair shooting every which way out of a kind of knot held together by a pair of what look like chopsticks. She looks good in the mornings, especially after a late night, and I think this even when I wish I didn’t. We fought on the drive home last night, about money or drinking too much, I don’t even recall. Seems like we’re always saying things meant to cut the other these days, trying to draw blood; or to score points in a game that may be, now, in overtime. I think we’re about to break up but we’re both too scared to do it. Maybe just scared of being alone. Even last night, seems I remember asking her should I pack a bag, both of us knowing not much was riding on her answer; I wasn’t going to do it. But still we take note of the sharp or mean things the other has said and use the words later to cut deeper.
Either I’d have to leave or she’d have to throw me out, since I moved into her place over a year ago, after we’d been seeing each other six months and decided to save my rent. I look over at Elise now and see in her pale face that the anger has mostly washed off.
I look over at Ed and Janey, now slowly munching burgers, totally unselfconscious and withdrawn, almost placid. When they’re up they’re a riot, full of stories and antics, mostly scams and illegal stuff we suspect they hear about but don’t actually take part in. It was Ed who told me about all the cars sunk in the bay. Almost every Sunday for a year probably, he’s been saying he’s going to dump Janey’s Toyota off the pier.
She just says don’t tell me but I wish you’d just goddamn do it. We could use the eight hundred bucks.
I’d claim at least fifteen, he says. State Farm don’t know about the brakes and the clutch, either.
Janey laughs, probably knowing the Toyota will sit where it is, and they’ll just rent movies and get high. And tomorrow morning she’ll limp her car up to the hospital in second gear, work her shift, and roll it most of the way home, downhill.
Slugging a fresh beer now, Ed’s really going to dump the Toyota tonight. I almost believe him. He buys the Buds like he’s got the insurance check already. But we know he and Janey have to walk past the video store on the way home. I say the thing probably won’t even sink—they used to advertise that VW Beetles floated, I know; plus with all those others piled up in the water, Janey’s Corolla might sit on top, not even wet above the wheels. I’m joking but Ed is thinking seriously about it, saying he’ll roll it in on the far side, which I’m sure some others must’ve thought of, too.
I do body and fender work myself, got a good job, steady, and I’ve been at it seven years since I dropped out of college. I do nice work on some pretty high-end stuff, imports, some Mercedes and Jaguars. Some of the owners of these cars are eighteen or twenty and pay me in cash or gold jewelry or blow sometimes. Elise works up at the hospital in the administration, “clerical” she calls it, but she reads a book a night it seems and is bound for “better things,” she says. And I do and I don’t know what she means.
Ed and Janey finish their burgers, and Ed’s pumped about dumping the car. They shoot the last half of their beers and say they’ll catch up with us later. Stop by, Ed says, we’ll get some movies. Then he laughs to Janey that maybe he’ll get her to film the Corolla’s drowning with the camcorder to watch later. I remind him that it’s not even noon. Twelve hours ago we were sitting at a table like this, except sturdier, near the stage of the comedy club.
The early show starts at ten, the late at midnight. And about halfway through this guy comes out, youngish maybe our age, upper twenties, white, dressed a little like he’s trying to look working class but he’s not. He gets a few chuckles before he starts to bomb in earnest.
Basically he tells a few borderline off-color jokes about D.C., where he’s from. He gets a little worse, some ethnic and racial stuff, maybe trying to tap into some anti-D.C. or anti- any-group sentiment out there. He’s trying to walk that fence and at some point, sooner for some than others, he falls off on the wrong side. And the more he bombs the more desperate and meaner he gets. A couple of hecklers start shouting out barbs, using his own material on him. And we sit there not sure just what we’re witnessing.
He’s out there, laid bare, wide open. And I was remembering--it’s high school and grade school and bullies, and he’s naked, defenseless. His eyes dart about but he’s lost, too; if you asked what day of the week it is or his shoe size I know he’d be stumped. But at some point the emcee appears to lead him from the stage. And leaving the club, we’re thinking that the guy’s got to return for the late show crowd in less than an hour. The audience that’s filing in already as we file out. They’re drunker, maybe, and more raucous, more dangerous, but maybe more ready to laugh.
I sit in Nick’s bar thinking of the raw fear on his face, and the sheer guts it would take to climb back on that stage an hour later. How much bourbon, maybe.
And I look over at Elise, see the vestiges of anger and hurt and, too, the fear that she’s trying to hide most times except Sunday mornings. We’re sitting there just the two of us then with half our melted Bloody Marys and another half of beers, silent. She’s staring off toward the fireplace I wish they had burning and a Lite-beer poster of some airbrushed beach models.
I lift my hands from my lap and move one toward hers, not too close, but the movement makes Elise look toward me, blank. Remember that guy last night, I say to her. And I think somehow a lot’s riding on her answer.
Gregg Cusick lives in Durham, N.C.