WELL, THAT’S SHOW BIZ! by Milton Knight
Chapter One: SETTING THE STAGE
A light glared above. The two men squinted away from it.
One of them was what one would have been, in the popular colloquial of the time, labeled a “runt”. Thickset, perspiring, he was no match for the tall, rawboned man who clutched his collar, nearly lifting him from the floor.
The thin one pushed his face into the fat one’s, his facial features beet red, convulsing.
He drew back his palm. He threw it into the small one’s face for a smack that rang through the premises. He shook the little one by the collar, and hurled him down to the floor. The runt’s straw hat spun on the floor, as its owner wallowed in a foolish heap, arms and legs impotently thrashing about.
The tall one plunged his hand into the inside of his jacket for the object naturally in it; a pig’s bladder. He advanced to assail the small one with it, delivering slap after hollow slap. The smaller man started to skedaddle away, turned back, recovered his hat, put it back on, and raised his hands to protect it against further damage as the pair stampeded out of sight.
The pit band lunged into a hokey, helter skelter finale; the pianist bashing his fists through the keyboard; the drummer assaulting the woodblocks, and a saxophone fiercely hooting the melody, creating a din so appropriately fast and crazed and spirited, one couldn’t help but grin, wince, or laugh out loud. The comedic duo, perspiring, panting, glowing with elation, trotted back onto the stage. Graciously, they doffed their hats to the audience and bowed. They bowed to each other, grinning generously and pantomiming shooting gestures with their fingers, as if both were saying “Good going pal, I couldn’t have done it without you”. As he bowed, the little guy thrust one foot in the air behind him, staying balanced on the other, striking a fleeting pose that was simultaneously clownish and oddly elegant. The partners continued with fast bows, nods, hat wavings and silent mouthings of thanks to the crowd, and winsomely trotted offstage. Back they came for second bows, and exited for the last time. The tall man returned to the stage to introduce the last act. The small man waited.
The tall man came back behind the curtain, applause still echoing from out front. The small one kept pace with his partner. Their pace slowed into a trudge as they were enveloped in the backstage dimness. The tall one, Paul St. Clair, lost his smile. Wheezy Gibson, the small one, very deliberately inspecting his straw hat, shot him a glare that almost pierced the darkness. The small man remarked, “I’d watch it with that bladder if I were you.”
Paul did not turn to look at his partner. He kept walking, and faster. “What did I do this time?” he said.
Wheezy followed him: “Don’t you kid yourself, St. Clair; don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing. On purpose, that is. You delivered three extra blows this time. I was counting. You think you’re being cute. You think you’re getting your own back on your boss, don’t you?”
The pair had slowed to a halt, facing each other. Paul was aghast. Wheezy had been counting his blows? One simply wouldn’t know what complaint he was going to have next. The comedian was unpredictable!
Paul St. Clair remembered the valuable rings, watch chains and tie clips Wheezy had given him when he was in an effusive mood. And then Paul thought of Wheezy’s alternate bursts of cruelty. Wheezy’s instability could be simply frightening.
Paul gazed to the ceiling’s peaceful pitch blackness, where he wished he could be himself. His eyes, looking older and wearier than his forty-eight years, were dreading, pleading, but resigned. “Wheezy, please…the audience ate it up…and every time I ease up, you say I’m losing them..”
“Oh, they ate it up,” Wheezy snapped. “We did just fine, but don’t you forget. That slapping business is out there on that stage. I’m the show here.” Paul periodically tried to break in, but Wheezy always drowned him out. At this, he was expert. The pitch of his voice turned higher, almost into a whine. “I’m the boss of this team. You cannot withstand the power of my fists! Back here, I can throw one special delivery and knock you into next Monday. And you wouldn’t dare do a thing about it. NOT A THING.”
Now Wheezy shoved his little face as high and close to the tall man’s as he could. He was trying to goad Paul into indignation. Playing with him, seeing if he could spur Paul into self defense. Then, brother, would the house erupt. Wheezy was hoping, striving to bring the confrontation to its zenith, giving him the excuse to pop like a cork.
Paul was forced to look down into Wheezy’s bovine face. He was dressed like a little clown in his checkered shirt, red bowtie, violet suspenders, outsized green trousers and sunflower in his lapel, and he was breathing fire into the cleft of Paul’s chin. Paul wished the whole ugly, one sided argument could be shrugged off; just called on account of rain. Damn it, he knew his job. If he pulled his punches, Paul wasn’t doing his job. Deal three extraneous whacks, and he’d be verbally abused and physically threatened.
Off to the side, among the lamps and ladders, stood the nightclub’s two stagehands. As “working men”, union men, proudly standing “a world apart”, they observed the goings-on through half lidded eyes, chewed their gum, and waited for the fuse to go off.
“Oh, Wheezy, why don’t we just forget it?” he wailed, gripping Wheezy’s hand and petulantly throwing the small man’s arm aside.
Wheezy deflated like a child’s balloon, his head sinking behind the bow tie on his wide collar. Once again, his partner had called the game to a close, just by remaining calm. Fidgeting, Wheezy struggled to renew his aggression, but the house manager called out to delay the storm.
Exchanging looks between the two men, she mocked, “Break it up, children.” To the straight man, she poorly affected the cluck of a weary Chinese mother: “Show over, Paul. You go home.” Relieved, Paul took not another glance in Wheezy’s direction. He simply retreated to the team’s dressing room.
Turning her attention to the “funny man”, Mona said disdainfully, her eyes over the rims of her glasses, “Wheezy Gibson, I want to see you in my office.” Wheezy gladly trailed after the manager, studying her round, pleasing rump with his connoisseur’s eye. He felt he could read womens’ butts like others could read palms.
The stagehands, disgusted by the termination of the spectacle, exchanged looks as if they had been cheated, and resumed their duties. It was 1:30 am. The show onstage was coming to its end, and they could gladly close up the club.
The dressing room the comics shared was just large enough for two men to apply their stage makeup without bruising each other. As in most of the other backstage rooms, the walls were whitewashed brick, the floor plain, pebbled concrete. Remains of old posters were plastered on the walls, irremovable. Lighted mirrors were fixed to opposite walls, and the team shared the bench in the middle. They also shared a bulletin board for stage notes and pinups.
Paul entered and turned to stare in the mirror. He furrowed his brows as he gazed at his long face, sharp nose, his moustache and his thin, slick sheet of black hair. Paul held his chin, and pivoted his face in a few directions to inspect the ravages of age. The lines he saw did not please him. He pulled at the bags under his eyes, and checked his teeth, which just didn’t look as white as they once had been. Perhaps it was the cut-rate, yellowish lighting they used in this place.
He had played the roles of house singer and straight man at The Candl Club since 1946; for over ten years. His engagement had spanned the years of three successive owners. He had been partnered with a succession of comics. They were of varying quality, never outstanding. They’d arrive; get itchy feet or a better offer and bid farewell. Paul always stayed behind, convinced that he lacked the fortitude it took to survive outside the walls of the little downtown club, and terrified by the prospect of maneuvering in a crueler, more competitive arena. In the club, he felt, were people he had known for years, where he had built up a record good enough to call it home no matter what. There was no sign of disapproval from management. He was a fixture here. Part of the family. The customers had come to know him. Here he was and here he’d stay. As long as possible.
The straight man had been always considered a man of equal talent to the comic’s. The straight man was admired for his expert timing, providing an earthly contrast to the buffoon’s flights of fancy.
Traditionally, the straight men were the managers of the teams. Employers went to the straight men with their wants and needs, not the clowns. Whenever possible, management avoided having to deal with the unpredictable “funny men”. Clowns were irresponsible, self destructive, demented children who needed the guidance of a sober adult. Personalities onstage and off were thus melded.
Comedians came, comedians went away. It didn’t make a hell of a lot of difference. But when Wheezy Gibson had been hired to fill the spot, Paul was aware that here was someone special. Not only did St. Clair and Gibson click, they brought out the best in each other. Paul had been doing just alright before. Now Gibson was the one that kept the audience coming back and loving them both, raising the pair above and apart from the declining standards of burlesque comedy.
The normal sixty-forty salary contrast remained in place. However, through subtle aggression, Gibson had appointed himself the ‘boss’ of the team. He introduced knockabout comedy into the act. The severest and most boisterous kind, offering simultaneous laughter and shock. Wheezy deeply admired the daring acrobatics of the silent film comedians, just loved this school of comedy. The team was among the last to practice it. Wheezy had educated himself until he had become an expert practitioner of the craft. He could propel himself into dazzling cartwheels and somersaults, and send himself thudding on the concrete floor. It was painless to himself, but disturbing to spectators. Paul was dazzled, afraid and even guilty for slapping Wheezy and triggering what seemed to him a suicidal self punishment, would naturally ease up, and get “Come on stupid! I want you to lay it on! Just give it to me! Don’t worry about hurting me! You just aren’t that strong. Next thing you know, the slobs won’t laugh. Then what could happen?”
The team could fail, thought Paul. Destroy this partnership so successful? Another threat to Paul’s livelihood. He had many fears, but the loss of his livelihood was the greatest. Paul needed to maintain a sense of security to protect himself from the world around him, where anything might happen.
Glum, Paul removed his snappy suit and carefully, slowly, trembling, hung it in the closet. The outfit had improved his build considerably. In his underwear, Paul stood, lanky and sallow, with a hollow chest and a weak belly.
He shrugged, changed suits, threw on his knee length tweed coat and left by the back alley exit.
Mona Fago, the stage manager, opened the windowed door of her business office, and kept walking until behind her desk. Wheezy, still in his ludicrous costume, followed her in and closed the door, happily anticipating more than the gin Miss Fago noisily fumbled for in one of the drawers.
A single, yellowed bulb inside a rusted tin cone hung above the desk. Only the nearest edges of the office paraphernalia could be discerned in the greenish light. The olive blotter on the desk. The blue grays of file cabinets. The washed out whites of the piles of papers and contracts, the muddy melange of photos and posters hanging on the walls. However, a spray of moonlight was thrown upon a cot at the opposite end of the office reserved for Mona’s off duty “siestas”.
Wheezy reached for the wall switch for further illumination. “Don’t do that”, Mona blurted.
It was possible she didn’t want to break the mood. It was also possible she wanted her face to remain unseen. She must have been over forty, but she still had what it took as far as Wheezy was concerned. Her face was in shadows, but the dull bulb highlighted her pointy breasts and the bottle of gin.
“Drink with me”, she said without expression or pleasure as she poured two glasses. The sound of the liquid was clear and delicious. Wheezy picked up his glass, sat across from her in the rickety swivel chair and sipped.
After a pause to savor the taste, Mona said gently, “Stop picking on Paul.” It sounded like a gesture of obligation, not concern.
Wheezy snorted. “Pick on him? On him…did you see us out there tonight? He could have killed me!”
“Oh, stop being a crybaby, Wheezy. A few extra smacks with a pig’s bladder. A balloon! Is it or is it not you who tells him to keep it violent? You’re strong. You can take it with the best of them. That’s why you’re a winner. And you know Paul can’t take your outbursts, loser that he is.”
Wheezy turned his drinking glass from side to side, studying its reflections, and chuckled to himself. He liked Mona, and not just as a nice piece of tail, as he felt about most decent looking females. She had a good sense of humor. And a capacity for frankness. You didn’t have to choose delicate words with her. Sure, she acted like a stick. But one had to be tough to stay in her business. Her po-faced demeanor made it clear that she wouldn’t court any nonsense. Her jaded expression, the hair worn in a tight bun, her cat’s eye glasses, her tailored suits and the clipped rhythm of her clacking heels conveyed that well enough. But the turtleneck sweater she was wearing close to her, and the banana breasts peeking out from under the jacket, warmly suggested a good time could be had. And, oh, the two of them had enjoyed some good times. But off of that cot, it was all business and only business. Sex partners received no favors.
For her part, Mona felt no cause to give Wheezy any favors. He was breezy, agreeable enough to dally with, but he was no friend. He was an unpleasant little mental case, she felt. At his best, abrasive. At his worst, an egoist son of a bitch. In his clown suit, he was a repellant sight. Out of the suit…well, he had an alright body and an impressive member.
“You wanna talk to me about somethin’, Mona?”
“We’ve talked. I WANT…a siesta.”
Paul St. Clair walked down the alley from the rear exit. The globe of light beside the door set the pebbled, moist brick walls glistening. The alley was intimidating, but the crew, even the dancers, had grown used to passing through it to the street. There had never been a problem, except for an occasional wino…
“What do you say, Skipper? Gotten good right Friends with God Jesus?”
It was Beautiful Joe, a vaguely nautical regular at the club, who came and watched the show every evening he could afford to, and tried to proselytize the cast after it ended. He wore a dark seaman’s jacket, a striped t-shirt, and rough jeans, hard with crust from lack of a wash. From under his cap, his gray hair and beard flew out of his head in every direction, giving him the appearance of a wounded yet noble porcupine. One of the Lord’s own oddballs.
“Jeez, Joe, you scared the hell outa me.”
“Just what I want to do, son. Well, how about it. Joined the denizens of Jesus Christ, our Lord of America??” Joe insisted on walking at Paul’s side as he continued up the alley.
Paul felt some empathy for this well-meaning eccentric, but was irritated by his pressuring. Paul was simply not interested. Looking pained, he said, “Look, Joe”, he said, “You know I’m a believer, but I can’t dedicate my soul to it. I’ve got too many questions.”
“Ask the Lord, and he shall forgive them, Pappy. All you need is some spiritual food, and that’s free; anywhere, anytime. Let me tickle your tastebuds.”
Joe was getting poised for one of what he considered his “masterful” diatribes. Paul nipped that in the bud. “He shall forgive me, you say. Why is having a question an error on my part? Isn’t the Lord all-knowing enough to recognize that so many things about the world He created are going unexplained? That His world to us makes no sense whatsoever? That it hurts just to be here?”
“As you say, Paul-o, He made the Earth. And so there are no questions. Come; let me take you on the merry-go-round that is Our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
Merry-Go-Round was right. There was nowhere to go with this clod. Paul was losing his patience. He fumbled in his pocket, and laid a coin on the old man’s palm.
“Thanks, Paul-o, bless you. I shall pray for you. I shall use this money to lead others even less enlightened than you on the Path to Glory. Hallelujah, Brother! And then some…” His words faded into the distance as Paul walked out of the alley.
As he approached the stairs of the subway, Paul couldn’t help but consider that the fifty cents he had just “contributed” would simply be used to finance another grape soda at The Candl Club.
Back in the alley, Beautiful Joe slipped the fifty cents into the pocket of his jacket, then thrust his palm upward, as if he was carrying a tray, letting the other arm dangle like a doll’s, and, moving around in a circle, exploded into an eccentric shuffling dance step. “Well, Hallelujah! Well, yes, yes! Well awereet!! Yas, yas!!!”
The two stagehands, walking out of the nightclub, stopped behind Joe and exchanged truculent sneers. “Alright, clear the way, Beautiful”, muttered one.
Snorting derisively, the other one stupidly repeated, “Beautiful.”
The old man turned violently on the pair, thrusting a wizened finger. “And you, my friends, are the most sinful of all! Using God’s light to illuminate the Devil’s work!! Why not Henry V?? Why not Twelfth Night?? Yes, the pair of you! Repent!! Repent your wicked ways and make way for the true light, the Phosphorescence of Heaven!!”
Unimpressed, the two men pushed past him, one on either side, squeezing the old man in the middle. The stagehands linked arms as they left the scene, proud of this improvised, perfectly synchronized expression of contempt.
For that instant, Joe had been thrown off balance. He had to hop on one foot, but he gracefully regained his balance and barked after them, finger in the sky, “Yes! Yes, you, too, will see! Thou shalt learn the Wisdom! You will cognize the Magic of Paralysis! Repent, you juveniles! Repent and…I LOVE YOU!! I LOVE YOU!!” he shouted with vitriol.
The stage door clicked shut once again. Beautiful Joe’s face puckered into a smile. He turned. Yes, it was dark, but, Glory, her loveliness shone as would a lantern! Even draped in an overcoat, she could raise an erection. If God had ever sent an angel forth to do Satan’s work, it was her. Beautiful Joe was overwhelmed by a wave of pity for the poor, sinning girl. His heart ran over with pity. Again raising his finger, he said to her:
“Slut!! And you are the most sinful of all! A whore leading men astray! Flaunting your flesh, dredging up a man’s basest instincts!! The face of an angel…and the soul of a demon!! You sin!! You SIN!!” Beneath his whiskers, Joe’s face had gone florid.
The redhead stood calm before him.
“Did you like my dance tonight? I did it thinking of you.”
Beautiful Joe stood paralyzed, only his filmed eyes following her as she drifted toward him. His breathing was audible as he nobly toiled to resist this woman’s obscene charms.
“Jezebel…Queen of Sheba…”
The redhead draped her arms around Joe’s neck. It was like being wrapped in Heavenly Swaddling Clothes. But he was wise; yes, old Joe was cognizant of this trollop’s game!
“Mae West…” he croaked, shuddering.
The woman’s tongue slipped through his bristling whiskers to loll about in his mouth. Joe’s eyes danced. She sucked away at his lips. Joe’s eyelids fell. He was nearly in tears. The redhead’s bulges were held generously against his body; her hips ground deeply into his crotch.
The couple came out of it for air. Joe was panting helplessly. Her expression was almost a snarl. Her hands rubbed hard over his spine. “Does that feel good, Joe?”, her body still drilling against his.
Beautiful Joe’s eyes moved skyward. “Oh…oh, get thee behind me, Satan…”
“No, Joe. YOU get behind ME. We’ll have so much fun. Like this…”
With an adroit index finger, the woman goosed Joe through his heavy jeans, deep up his anus. He quivered and seemed to propel an inch or two off the pavement, smearing his manhood against the woman’s pubes. She laughed throatily. “Yes, Joe. You’ll do that to me someday.”
Joe whinnied and snorted as would a mad stallion. The woman strummed his enflamed crotch like a stringed instrument. Even her eyes were widened by the dimensions of his ripening bulge tonight. The gravel crunched under her knees as she lowered herself, planted her face in his crotch, and lovingly moved it back and forth. She hummed softly, musically. Joe melted.
“Oh…oh, Cleopatra…Lady Chatterley…” he inhaled.
The woman’s fingers kneaded his crotch with increasing speed. Beautiful Joe leaned backwards, balanced on his spine. He had surrendered. The woman unzipped his trousers in order to play more intimate games with his testicles; but one brush of her hand across the underside of Joe’s bare cock produced a fat, thick belch of semen.
Joe pitched backwards with a melodic exhale. The woman caught him in her arms, hooked her fingers under his armpits, carried him a few steps and gently sat him on the lid of a garbage can. From out behind the can, a cat hissed and scampered out of the alley.
The sweet purr of a luxury motor swelled in the street. The wicked woman’s heels lazily clicked away on the pavement. She still looked back at the old sailor. She blew him a kiss.
“Good night, Beautiful Joe.” Then she disappeared into the night.
A car door slammed. The auto’s hum faded in the distance. Bathed in the halo issued from the exit bulb, Joe sat slouched against the moist brick wall, his head dangling to the side like a puppet’s.
Oh, that blasphemous woman, with no labor dragging him to the gates of perdition! He must save her! Someday, he would succeed! “Every night, my child! Every night I can I will return and fight to rescue you from the Depths of Whoredom!!”
Joe felt rejuvenated, only half conscious of the recent events and the ooze trickling down his thigh. He had a sudden, final inspiration. He looked down to the club’s basement window. A yellowish light still glowed, and the clicking of a typewriter could be heard.
Inside the office, under the weak light, her back to Joe, Mona sat at her desk, nude, typing. Wheezy, also unclothed in the semi darkness, loitered on his back on the cot, blissfully gnawing one of his fat cigars. Suddenly, Joe’s head, goggle-eyed and hair blasting like Struwwelpeter’s, appeared outside the window:
“KNEEL AND PRAY, MY CHILDREN!! KNEEL AND PRAY!!”
For a moment, the couple was frozen, staring incredulously at the face in the window. Then Wheezy inhaled, “Son of a bitch”, and hurtled forward to the stairs leading to the door.
Beautiful Joe righteously stood his ground, doing his idiotic pseudo-Gospel dance step in place, feet skittering, hips shifting, until he heard the door click. Coming to the conclusion that the angry comic was not about to have a turn of conscience, Joe decided to give this sinner up as lost for the moment, and insanely scrambled down the alley into the street.
In all his bellicose nudity, Wheezy lunged out of the door, flooding the alley with light. He lifted a large stone from the pavement and heaved it at the back of Joe’s head. The stone sharply ricocheted off a wall and clattered into the street. Wheezy screamed. “Go back to your Coney Island whores, you creep!”
Clutching a thin house coat to her throat, Mona came out behind Wheezy and grabbed his shoulder, whipping him around. “For God’s sake, Wheezy, you might have killed him! Do you want to go to prison??!” Wheezy pushed past her back into the office: “Fraud! Faker! That old pervert’s no more an evangelist than I am!!”
Chapter Two: THE STRAIGHT MAN
Once again, the subway had cost Paul two hours getting home. It was five in the morning now. Plodding up the staircase from the subway, the pale bronze sky was turning yellow, making him squint; irritating him no end. Paul St. Clair was no “day person”. The slight frost rendered his street, an unchanging line of brownstones, duller and even more colorless than usual. Paul entered his building, and traveled up the three flights of slippery marble stairs, carefully clutching the banister. His mother was already very much awake in the living room, jogging rapidly in a very small circle. “Beep! Beep!” Then, in a lukewarm tone betraying her disapproval of her son’s strange schedule, she called, “So at last you’re back, Paul?”
“Yes, Mama”, he responded, feeling her schedule was just as odd. Who’d get up before five a.m. if they didn’t have to?
“Eggs and bacon in the fridge, son. Beep! Beep!” She bounced out the door and down the slippery marble stairs for a jog through the park; her personal passion.
Paul fried up the cold meal and ate at the kitchen table. Unlike Mama, Paul just didn’t feel filled on just vegetables and fruits. Like the rest of his life, he yearned for total comfort, and that meant frequent steaks and chops.
As he peppered his eggs, he grimaced as he ruminated. His mother was an utter health nut, to the world at large a peculiar thing for an old lady to be; it was like practicing Yoga, which she also did. Yes, Mama was an eccentric.
Mama, in turn, thought her son would benefit from a proper schedule, but he was in show biz, providing food and rent for the both of them, and that was that.
Paul was frustrated by the long trip home, and too keyed up to go right to sleep. He drifted into the living room. It was an old lady’s home. Dark brown dominated, with its heavy, antiquated wooden cabinets and tables, its faded, striped wallpaper, its dust colored floral cushions and doilies. Aged and unchanged since Paul’s parents took the apartment as newlyweds.
Paul’s joints trembled slightly as he slowly sank into one of the easy chairs. The family cat leapt from nowhere into his lap. Paul smiled and cuddled the pet, scratching her head. He carried her into the kitchen and poured her a bowl of milk. The cat lapped away. Paul squatted over her, stroking her fur. He thought of his mom doing her calisthenics there moments before.
“To see her behave, you wouldn’t think I was taking care of HER, would you?” he affectionately said to the cat. In truth, after his father had passed away, Mama didn’t need much taking care of at all. Paul loved his mother very much. But he had assumed the heroic role of in-house guardian so that he could stay put.
Paul stood up to return to the living room. He was forty-eight years young; eighteen years Wheezy Gibson’s senior. Glumness shot through his body. Paul felt so much older than he actually was.
Did Paul dislike Wheezy? Paul shook his head. He was resentful. Even jealous. Paul was jealous of the man, with his bald nerve and cocksmanship. Wheezy had all the balls Paul lacked. The comic personified the orgiastic youth that Paul himself had avoided and regretted having missed. Paul dreaded the inevitable day Wheezy would be swept off to Hollywood, leaving the straight man to the mercy of fate and lesser comics. But the mature are past such petty foibles as hate. The experienced man understands and has risen above the follies of youth.
Even though Paul had always been in show business, the word for his life would have been ‘prudent’. Increased wealth had been by no means the goal in any of his endeavors. Maintaining the status quo, keeping his life content was his obsession. Safety. To keep the four walls around him; to be able to sink into this upholstered chair, the cat in his lap, and to be able to think, to dwell on the fact that there were no threats on the horizon, no problems to solve; these were, he felt, the only things he needed to be truly happy. To be able to remain on salary at the club.
But conditions in his business were changing. The male entertainers were becoming quaint holdovers from a grand tradition; “old tyme” burlesque; nostalgic Americana. Comedy had been devalued. New talent was not encouraged. The established comics were growing older and wearier; for Paul, being around them was like being stranded in the Bowery on a bad night. In the glorious past, the strippers had been the grand finale; they were fast becoming the whole show. Society was ‘growing up’, proprieties had loosened and the nightclubs had little need to act as if they were offering “programmes”. Coming were full evenings of masturbatory delights. In this uncertain atmosphere, Paul feared his little niche was a fraud not yet revealed. If he clung on tight, didn’t rock the boat, perhaps he could play it for the remainder of his working life. And the longer his partner stayed with him, the more assured that would be.
Paul raised his eyebrows in a kind of facial shrug, then lifted his shoulders in a full one. The future he could not predict or deal with, and that bothered him a lot.
It was his nerves that got him, his goddamn nerves. Paul walked into his bedroom. He sat on the bed. He pulled a bottle of rye from the night stand. Paul was past the point of enjoying liquor. But just the assurance that there was a nip or two at hand gave him something of that warm, quieting sense of stability. Every thought became a profundity. He could get through life by himself. Bittersweet surrender was at hand.
An hour later, Mama found her son stretched across the bed, with one foot on the floor, his mouth hanging wide open, not snoring at all, but drooling noticeably. She took off his shoes, put his leg on the bed and covered him with a blanket. But she drew the line at removing his pants. That he could do himself.
Chapter Three: THE CLOWN
Wallace C. “Wheezy” Gibson prided himself as being the antithesis of his clodhopping stage persona.
Giving the driver an ostentatious tip, the comic shambled out of his taxi and up the path to his apartment building. Wheezy could barely afford the rent on the midtown suite, but felt it was necessary to keep up appearances. He nodded to the doorman and took the elevator to the sixth floor.
Wheezy had come from a family which had never cared about art in the least; a home shabby and completely without decoration. The most artistic thing to enter the home was the Sunday supplement. It was a stubbornly functional working class home. There was a suspicion of art of all its forms, because ornament of any kind was thought to represent values alien to Americans who had to work for a living. Art was an indulgence of the privileged, the decadent and depraved.
The home with the beige paint chipping off the walls and its bleary eyed occupants depressed the child greatly. When the sun started to set, he dreaded having to return to it. His life was not enough. He was only a child, but gnawed by a tragic feeling that he was missing out. And he was obstinate about resolving it.
After school, three times a week, Wheezy dragged himself to the borough library to pore over the art books. It was all at his self prompting. He had no desire to be a painter, but he thrilled to the mystique of the cultured mind. He yearned to be walking through Leonardo’s cavernous, luxurious studio, witnessing all that genius applied in so many directions. So different from his own feebleminded surroundings. But the library would close and Wheezy would have to walk home.
Wheezy’s childhood interests were “uncommon”, and his neighborhood was tough. It was the sort of area where a child never knew when he would be cornered by six others. He grew up having to defend himself, and did so rather well. He had broken a few bullies’ bones, the only achievement his parents were really proud of.
Because of this hard-won approval, and the awe it elicited in others, Wheezy attained a natural interest in physical development and even in the violent. For a little guy, he was strong, and he soon became a bit of a bully himself. But his was an extreme malice. The people around him sensed that he was developing a fearful taste for the sadistic; a lust to hurt more than the average schoolyard bully; a passion for assault just short of murder. When he’d walk home from the library, classmates were obsequious vassals or tried to avoid him. And if Wheezy detected that, the kids could end up the victim of a savage beating ending with blood on the sidewalk. When Wheezy felt like coming home late, his father dared not think about whipping him.
Girls were easy to get. Wheezy was an outlaw, dangerous, and dreadfully thrilling. There was the threat of a bruise with every kiss. He gravitated toward girls with low self esteem; ones begging for his approval. Each dreamed they were capable of being “the one” to fill the gap in his tormented soul. Wheezy developed a contempt for them.
Wheezy walked alone a lot of the time. His alienation was nurtured like a hothouse plant.
On the other end of the spectrum, Wheezy chose to join the high school’s drama group. He reveled in it. His frightening side dissolved. His fellow performers saw another side of him: alive with positive energy, amusing, and gifted with a devilish sense of humor. From the beginning, he was playing Falstaff and Puck, any character with an imp’s spirit.
His parents couldn’t have cared less; they didn’t bother to show up at the presentations. Instead of disapproving of his interests, they ignored them entirely.
The extremes of his personality confused and threatened teachers; he was an adolescent personable and excellent in his English, drama and art classes, but could otherwise be deemed a brute.
Wheezy was certain of where his interests lay. Aware that he wouldn’t rate as a leading man with his pugnacious looks, he confined himself to playing for laughs. Low brow guffaws. He entered every amateur night he could. He picked up work in local presentations. He played hooky; he stayed out late. His family did not ask questions. They had given up actively raising him.
One year before graduating high school, without sentiment or ceremony, Wheezy left home. Unable to find an automobile he could afford on his meager savings, he got convenient hold of a battered motor scooter, and began a trek as a “hobo comedian”. He did spots at cheap clubs and resorts. He followed carnivals, playing the clown or athlete. He even bridged into doing trapeze and tightrope. He begged, he stole. His toughness helped. If any wise ass along the road even began to give him grief, he easily put a finish to the affair. When an employer deliberated over payment, he’d collect blood money. It was heavenly. Not only was such force necessary, Wheezy got a big kick using it.
Through skill, a string of lucky breaks and the boldness of youth, Wheezy got a foothold in vaudeville and was gaining a good reputation as a performer.
Now thirty, Wheezy prided himself as being a self-made man of the world. And, in his own slovenly way, he was correct.
He turned his key in the lock of his apartment. A snap of the switch revealed its interior. He hung his coat and hat on the rack standing beside the door.
Wheezy’s suite was spacious and sloppy. As a contrast to his drab home of origin, his anteroom was crammed with art awaiting him, helter skelter. Not an inch was empty. Oriental rugs lay in relative filth. A motley assortment of gaudily framed Renaissance and Restoration prints hung arbitrarily and often crookedly on the walls, and cheap reproductions of classical statuary stood everywhere, often inconveniently. Many of them had been manufactured as lawn decorations. All of them were of opulent nudes. The avant garde crap wasn’t even worth consideration. The female torso was true beauty, and Wheezy considered himself a connoisseur. His lip curled; he slid his palm across a pearly buttock of “The Fall of Eve” as he passed it. He was remembering his session with Mona, and her own round, ripe ass. He was proud to be fucking her.
Now, in delightful solitude, Wheezy strode into the bathroom, took down his pants, and enjoyed a most satisfying diherrea. A man had to keep his bowels moving regularly and often, he felt. And it had to be done in solitude. Here, away from the club, with no knocks at the door from Paul to destroy his sensual pleasure. He took the act very seriously.
He wallowed in a bath that was nearly boiling, soaking the pains he had sustained in the evening’s performance. The three extra whacks Paul had snuck in floated through his thoughts, but they would not disturb this night. Wheezy was relaxed and pleased; king of all things clever.
It had come late and not easily, but by now people were assuring him he was going places. He was at last a “rising comic”. Call him baggy pants, whatever. He had the gift. Eventually, Broadway, Hollywood…who knew? After taking his very sweet time, he lifted himself from the tub. Glowing with satisfaction, Wheezy slipped into pyjamas (fuck “pajamas”) striped violet and light gray, almost purring with pleasure as the silky material slipped over his skin.
He sauntered through the hallway, admiring the reproductions that lined it, and marveled. This is mine, he thought. It’s really all mine.
Wheezy turned off the hallway’s last light, entered the bedroom, and lowered himself into bed. But gingerly. He mustn’t wake Wifey. Oh, never EVER wake Wifey. She couldn’t take it. If that happened, she’d be up all night, and wouldn’t be happy unless she made him stay awake with her. Oh, mustn’t ever, ever wake Wifey.
Wheezy’s mood shifted suddenly. Was this what it all came down to, he asked himself? Working ‘til dawn and waking up to a dreary tub of a wife?
COPYRIGHT 2017 BY MILTON KNIGHT