The Stand-up

Short Story

Ignoring the ache of addiction while staring at himself in the mirror of what passed as a green room in the comedy club, Oscar Kinney contemplated how he arrived there. He was getting old; he made it to fifty and then some, surprising everyone around him and those who followed his career. But no one was more bemused than Oscar himself; he had lived hard and fast, finding success as a comedian at an early age, making appearances on the late night talk show circuit, and landing a few bit parts in movies, bringing him enough notoriety to tour the country. Oscar was a draw, and that meant he was earning piles of money to pay for the drugs and the booze and the women. It was fun for a time, but like most who push the limits of partying, Oscar found himself surrounded by friends and family imploring him to slow down. He shared another common trait with addicts in that he didn’t realize he was one until it was nearly too late.

It was hard for him to talk about when he hit rock bottom, not because it made him emotional, but because he had experienced it so many times. Oscar had survived two overdoses, two illegal possessions, a car wreck, numerous beatings, and three ex-wives, but in that musty room with the stained couch, he wondered if he was at an all-time low. He had enough control to stay mostly clean, and he was too old to be wild, but his soul was restless.

The green room door creaked open as Oscar’s handler entered. Freddy was only a kid compared to Oscar; he liked the idea of employing someone from his old neighborhood.

“How’s the crowd?” Oscar asked.

“About half full.”

“Christ. Get me a whiskey.”

“But you always get mad at me when I let you drink before a set.”

“I’m gonna get mad at you, either way, just bring me the drink and save the argument for later.”

Freddy was rather insipid, uninspiring, with no long-term goals in life. He was a dunce he could control. After years of fending off concerns for his health, Oscar was happy to hire a yes-man. Where managers of the past would force Oscar to stay clean, Freddy only needed a little badgering before he would acquiesce. If there was a young blonde in the crowd with a pocket full of drugs who wanted to go backstage after the show, Freddy would let her through. If Oscar got a craving and disappeared, Freddy would vouch for him. They had an unspoken understanding; Freddy would keep him honest enough to stay out of the gutter while Oscar still had some fun.

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“There,” Freddy set a glass of brown liquor on the dresser.

Oscar scooped it up and took a healthy sip, the alcohol burning his throat on its way to warm his belly.

“When do I go on?”

“The middle is up now. Pretty soon, I guess.”

“How do we get out of this gig?”

Freddy’s blank gaze was interrupted by the venue’s booker sticking his head in the room.

“Hey, Mr. Kinney, I wanted to wish you good luck and to thank you again for coming to our little club, here.”

“Thanks for having me,” Oscar replied, gruffly.

“You know, I saw you once… well, I’ve seen you a few times.”

The booker was stammering.

“I was in the audience for the Tabernacle show.”

“Not my finest hour,” Oscar said drily, adjusting his tie.

The notorious Tabernacle show occurred during a low point for Oscar. He was performing a long weekend of sold out shows, and as soon as he got off the plane in Atlanta, he started behaving as if the check had already cleared. His longtime manager, Billy Kaur, a respected figure in the industry, had repeatedly dragged Oscar out of casinos, rushing him to the theatre in time to toss him on stage in an alcoholic blackout. Oscar was used to performing drunk, however, and the audiences ate up his edgy comedy until the third day when no amount of practice could overcome such an exhaustive bender.

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Oscar abandoned the opener, who had to stretch his material. After running through a couple of sloppy bits, the opener shuffled off stage, leaving the hostile crowd to stare at the famous organ pipes. Billy Kaur was stumped, he had checked every rotten joint in town, but he could not find Oscar anywhere. The crowd was getting so rowdy Billy Kaur feared their reaction if they announced the show’s cancelation. Out of nowhere, Oscar walked in and lumbered directly onstage. He was so sloppy the audience tried to boo him off between his barely formed sentences. He managed to get out a few offensive phrases before falling on his face, his nose busted, bleeding like a faucet. Billy Kaur, along with some stagehands, hauled Oscar behind the curtain.

The booker was so furious he withheld a quarter of Oscar’s pay. That didn’t stop Billy Kaur from taking his ten percent of the original contract and dropping Oscar from his roster soon after.

In the end —after the gambling, the women, and the booze— Oscar lost money on his epic weekend. The whole ordeal was reported in the news and became a popular anecdote passed around between comedians.

Oscar finished the whiskey and slammed the glass.

“Go grab me another.”

“No way!” Freddy protested, “You can’t have another right before you go on.”

“Damnit, Freddy, I used to drink two bottles before I went on. You think I can’t handle two singles?”

Freddy climbed to his feet and sulked as he made for the bar. Oscar turned back to the mirror; he was wearing his usual black suit, black shirt, and black tie. The suit was freshly dry cleaned, and Oscar thought he looked pretty good for a worn-down alcoholic.

“They’re about to put the light up for the middle,” Freddy said, returning with the whiskey. “So, the host will call you up any minute now.”

“Thanks. I know how it works.”

“You’re in a mood today. What’s your problem?”

“My problem?”

Oscar hadn’t turned from the mirror. He kept watching the old road dog comedian staring back at him.

“My problem is, I’m still here.”

“In Cincinnati?” Freddy asked.

“No.”

Oscar sighed.

“You know, I did everything I could to die young,” he confessed. “I did a lot of living early, so I wouldn’t have to get old in rooms like this one. But they kept propping me up. They kept telling me to get better, to stay clean.”

“Who did?”

“That’s the worst part. Most of them are dead. All the self-righteous ones, who thought they had all the answers, ended up overdosing, or getting cancer, or dying in some accident. They all left me here, with bums like you.”

“That’s not a nice thing to say, Oscar.”

“Please.”

He downed the last of his drink.

“I don’t have any friends left. I’m alone. I should have gotten out when I had the chance.”

“I think you need to get off the road for a while,” Freddy suggested.

“Don’t you understand? The reason I keep playing lousy gigs at the Chuckle Trailer and the like is that I don’t have anything. There’s nothing to my name. I spent it as fast as it came in and I didn’t look back. I didn’t look because I never wanted to see what was there, the truth… until now.”

Freddy furrowed his brow and asked.

“So, what’s there? What’s the truth?”

Oscar laughed.

“You’re gonna have to find that out for yourself.”

There was a knock as the booker called from the hallway.

“You’re on, Oscar!”

Oscar strolled onstage, and the crowd cheered. He performed his set and got the laughs he wanted in the right places. The light in the back of the room flickered, signaling the end of his time. It was all a routine; he said the same things into a microphone each night until he saw the light in the distance. He glared at the light as he transitioned to his closer. Oscar bowed and said goodnight to the audience.

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