“Thanks a lot for coming in tonight—you are a wonderful crowd. Now get out of here!” Hugh’s trademark comedic snark teeters between sincerity and sarcasm. The audience does not know how to take his tone, so they laugh even harder, cheering and whistling at the close of his set.
But Hugh is already off stage, walking through the venue’s hectic kitchen and out into the dark alley before the waitresses drop checks on the comedy club’s sticky tables.
The alley is empty and cold.
Hugh puts his head against the rough brick of the building, breathes in slowly through his nose and out through his mouth—just the way his therapist has prescribed. His exhalations make small, misty clouds. He repeats the breathing pattern, over and over, until his claustrophobic tunnel vision widens.
Rivulets of sweat stream from his armpits and down his back, steaming in the frigid, dry air. I am Cloud Man, he thinks, wondering how to write that into his act. Cloud Man: the worst superhero ever—one who just reflects heat and makes shade? There is a joke there. He’d work on it.
He tries to meditate. Can’t. He attempts to slow his breathing. Can’t. His heart continues jackhammering against his chest. He’s not entirely sure why—he’s been sober for weeks.
He remembers his high school English teacher from decades prior. Hugh, please hand me the note. She had been strict, but fair. Dutifully, Hugh handed it over to her. She read it to herself while the class sat in silence. Please see me after class, she had said in her self-assured way, looking at him over her glasses. He’d conjured up a dozen different excuses, embarrassed at what he’d written. After the bell, she simply said that his being clever and witty were signs of above average intelligence, but there was a time and a place for his humor.
No one had ever called Hugh smart before—he’d been called a smartass, yes. But smart? No. This new information had given him pause, as he was so used to being a disappointment to everyone.
Hugh paces in the alley. He has forty-five minutes before the second show—the late crowd invariably louder and drunker, replete with would-be hecklers he would need to skewer.
He mentally finetunes his setlist. Although he takes little pleasure in this, it is a necessary evil. The unexamined setlist is not worth dying.
He recalls the first narrative’s arc working well in the opening. The middle sags a bit when he talks about his childhood pets. He’ll tighten it up—make it more concise, artfully leading the audience to think he’s going in one direction before he switches it up. Irony—the reversal of expectations—causes the audience to laugh, so he will swap the story of his first job at a Mexican restaurant with his first divorce. That will flow better, Hugh thinks. But he doesn’t really know what works until he’s on stage and can gauge the audience. He can tell the same joke fifteen different times and get fifteen different reactions. Towards the end of his set, though, his jab lines build enough comic tension that the final punchline kills. He leaves the audience wanting more, which is why he gets booked 45 weekends out of the year.
His heartbeat now within the normal range, Hugh decides he wants a hot dog, so he jams his hands in his pockets, rounds the corner to the main street, hopes to see Sabrett’s blue and yellow umbrella over a steaming pushcart and a vendor warming his hands over the hot water pans in the November chill.
Hugh arrives at the cart simultaneously alongside another customer. Having been in the city too long, he shoulders the other person out of the way and places his order.
“Two dogs, ketchup only.”
“I appreciate your ordering for me, but I prefer sauerkraut and relish on mine,” a woman’s voice says icily.
“Oh, I didn’t see you there,” Hugh replies flippantly, ignoring her.
“I get it. You were too busy ordering your hot dogs like a 3rd grader. Seriously, ketchup? On a Sabretts? It figures. Usually people with no class have no taste as well.”
Hugh turns around, his hot dogs in hand, ready to give the woman a piece of his mind—but she is lovely. And angry.
Her eyebrows arched, she crosses her arms and stares balefully at him.
“Two dogs, no ketchup, sauerkraut and relish,” Hugh tells the vendor, handing him a ten dollar bill.
“I normally eat just one,” she says.
“Oh, these are for me. Usually people with class have great taste. I need to see what I’m missing.” He pretends to take a bite of her hot dogs, and she shoves him.
“Give me my hot dogs. And I’m going to eat them both, just to spite you.”
“Just to spite Hugh, Hugh-ever Hugh are.”
“You keep eating two hot dogs, you’ll be Hugh.”
“Does body shaming usually work when you are picking up women?”
“You keep eating two hot dogs, and you’ll be hard to pick up.”
She shoves him again.
“Goodbye, and no thank Hugh,” she nods at him, a smile playing at the edges of her full mouth. She strides away.
“Wait,” Hugh calls after her.
She turns, annoyed. “What?”
“You have something on the side of your face,” he says, taking one of the napkins from the pushcart. He trots after her, coming close, dabbing the corners of her mouth.
“You relished doing that, didn’t you?” she replies.
“Well, you were in a pickle.”
She doesn’t want to, but she laughs.
“Where are you going tonight?” Hugh asks her.
“I’m going home.”
Hugh points at the comedy club’s entrance. “I’m performing here until 11:00. You wanna come in? See the show? Warm up a little? Eat a few more hot dogs?”
“You’re a comedian,” she says resignedly. “It figures.”
“You don’t like comedians?”
“Hugh, I prefer people who work out their childhood traumas the old-fashioned way—living with simmering resentment and paralyzing discontent and emotional attachment disorders.”
“Well, you have hit the trifecta with me. I’ll throw in two ex-wives, a daughter I hardly know, and estranged parents to boot.”
“You certainly know how to sweet talk a girl.”
“What do you say? You’ll have a front row seat . . . or maybe a stool at the bar if we’re sold out.”
“It gets better and better. How about if I just go home, wait for you not to call, and feel relieved that I dodged a bullet? You’re a little complicated for me. I don’t like complicated.”
“Complicated?” Hugh feigns indignation. “Honey, I’m a complete disaster. If you knew what was good for you, you’d drop those hot dogs and run to the closest subway stop.”
“Challenge accepted. What time does the show start?” she asks, as they walk toward the comedy club’s front door.
“9:30,” Hugh replies. “And afterwards, we’ll go somewhere nice. Like a falafel truck or a pretzel stand.”
“Do you eat ketchup on your pretzels, too?”
“MUSTARD. What kind of barbarian do you think I am?”
“Hopefully the funny kind,” she grins. Hugh returns her smile, opening the door, the warm air of the club enveloping them.
“After you, my hot doginatrix” he says breezily, but catches her eye, loses his bravado.
He’s bold enough to take her hand.
“Thanks a lot for coming in tonight,” he says quietly, sincerely. He squeezes her hand. She squeezes it right back.
“Thank me? No, thank Hugh.”