Paradise 01

Paradise
Part One

by Howard Rosenberg

A stand-up comedian is booked into his hometown club which stirs up memories. 2,380 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.


Kansas City – 2016

It’s hot, as July nights always are in his hometown. Hot and sticky, the air stagnant and wet, as if he is bathing with his clothes on. It reminds Davey of his childhood, age six or seven perhaps. They would flee their sweltering second-floor flat and join neighbors on the grassy slope of Gilliam Park, reclining on a blanket under the stars with a thermos of iced tea while hoping to catch a breeze. Their rumbling window air-conditioner cooled erratically even when working, and a new one wasn’t in the budget. Not that Davey cared. Drifting off in the park was his air-conditioning as a young boy.

“Thanks,” Davey tells the driver named Pete who wears a Kansas City Royals cap backwards, a retard look for middle-aged white guys. Davey peels off a ten, and Pete accepts the tip with eyes forward, right palm up; he never says much, and his shoulders slump. Davey doesn’t care about him at all, but wonders if anyone could be content driving a town car for a living at age what, forty or forty-five? He decides Pete is dead man driving. Reality check: Pete’s passenger is dead, too.

He puts the driver out of his mind, slings his vinyl wardrobe bag over his shoulder and approaches the rear door of Chez Vegas, a popular nightspot in the sprawling upscale mid-town district known as County Club Plaza. It’s been dark for hours, yet the heavy hair presses against his unshaven face as he jabs a red button, enunciates his name clearly into a small rusted speaker and is buzzed inside where the plunge in temperature brings immediate relief.

Stranded in the middle-earth of show business, he’s been at it for 10 years, so he knows the drill. His drill: slip in and disappear into a dressing room, this one next door to a kitchen whose pungent smells of nachos and spicy fried foods escape through the vent and almost make him gag. As always, he’ll avoid contact and be invisible. Then wait behind the green curtain with his opening joke on the tip of his tongue until he hears his name announced followed by applause.

He nods at the gnarled geezer who buzzed him in but is relieved no one else notices as he makes his way down a long hallway toward the dressing room as silent as a monk in a monastery. Unseen by Harry fucking Shoemaker, the cheapskate bastard who runs Chez Vegas for a pair of thick-browed square-shouldered lugs — no shit, straight out of The Godfather. Not seen either by Willie, the cloying backstage manager with lethal halitosis. Nor by Archie, the lighting man, a dwarf with a chip on his shoulder. Nor by wazhisname (Davey can never recall), the slightly effeminate bar boss whose pulverizing handshake gives him away. Nor by…

Oh shit, here she is, closing so fast he can’t escape.

“Marilyn… hey,” he greets the club’s tall blonde-permed smartly-dressed hostess who is dying to get laid. When he robos out his high-wattage smile, showcasing teeth that cost a fortune, her wide eyes soften, and she coos, “Hi, sweetie.” Then the smoochy kiss and Jack Daniels breath as he draws her near and feels her fleshy back under the black silk dress. As if he gives a damn. As if she and her body don’t disgust him. The embrace is empty, the kiss push-button — no hunger, not a flicker of emotion behind it. He feels nothing, wants nothing from her except that she leave him alone.

“I’ve got some time now,” she says, almost pleading. Then she reads his not now look and adds, “Maybe later, huh?”

He knows the type, knows how it is when they start to panic. She is pushing forty and terrified of it. He’s an actor, so he acts. He squeezes her shoulder with faux affection and a paste-on grin. “After my last standing ovation, when we all sing kumbaya and they carry me out on their shoulders,” he says, “we’ll have a drink and celebrate.”

She has to know he doesn’t mean it. She’s been around and can read the tarot cards. She must know a brush-off when she hears it. Like he should care what she thinks. Like he needs this crap. Like he needs any of this.

And celebrate? Celebrate what? That Shoemaker is lowballing him for three nights when — screw the economy — he’s worth at least double? Celebrate that he’s miserable and full of self-hate, seeing only blackness and gloom, and his miserable life as a shrinking plume of light?

His name is pasted on the door in large block letters that will be stripped off when the next headliner moves in, a constant cavalcade of transients. He locks it on the inside and hibernates his cell, then hangs his wardrobe bag in the empty closet. He takes a bottle of water from a small fridge and sits on the can, sipping occasionally while staring at the bare wall and hoping no one knocks.

He thinks of B as his scarlet letter, bitter that he’s made no one’s A-list of stand-ups except at mid-market comedy clubs like this one. All these years and not one national TV gig to send him over the moon. Every time he hears of another comic getting an HBO special, he wants to puke. And the only Vegas in his life is fucking Chez Vegas.

Kansas City – 1998

“David. Are you listening?”

Davey is David when she’s displeased.

He is thirteen, Belle thirty-five. He adores her; he loathes her. It’s complicated. He loathes her because he adores her. Very complicated. Her presence fills him, smothers him, taunts him, excites him. He is acutely aware of her, as any adolescent boy with a healthy libido would respond to a sexy redhead in a knee-length blue kimono loosely tied with a sash. My God, it’s his mother, and he has a boner.

She turns sideways in front of a tall mirror attached to her bedroom door, left hand on hip, right hand pressed against her flat stomach as if preparing to strut down a runway to applause.

“Well?”

“What?

She pivots sharply. “David, don’t be difficult.”

He shrugs. “I dunno.”

“You don’t know? It’s a simple question. Am I getting—?”

“Fat, I heard you.”

“So am I?”

“I guess not.”

Hands on both hips now, she tilts her head slightly, purses her crimson lips as if to deliver a kiss and waits. Her long nails are squared off and painted bright pink, her skin so flawless it looks airbrushed. She’s almost in his face, so close he can smell her Shalimar perfume and taste her breath.

“No, you’re not fat, all right?”

“Belle of the ball?”

“Sure.” He adds, “A barbell.”

“David!”

Belle is a force — a manipulating wheedler or bully, whichever is needed. She never lets up and always gets her way or else. Davey figures that’s why his father isn’t around anymore. One reason, anyway. Charlie Parsegian walked out on Belle — on them — when Davey was five. He recalls raised voices, but no bruising conflicts, no blowup, no packing of bags, no signal, no hint Charlie was planning to go AWOL, and no goodbyes. If they fought, Davey has no memory of it. But he knows she must have been a terror, a tiny fist up the poor guy’s ass. One morning Charlie left for his job as office manager at a plumbing supply company and didn’t return; as if he’d snapped his fingers and made himself vanish.

“I’ll have him up for desertion,” Belle had vowed. But nothing ever came of it, and she seemed more serene, even happier, without Charlie. A day or two later, she sat Davey down and said, “It’s just you and me now.” By then, a framed photo of smiling newlyweds Belle and Charlie had disappeared from atop the bedroom dresser, replaced by a small vase with plastic flowers. Davey knew there was a divorce — Belle began using her maiden name — and that’s all he knew.

When he turned thirteen, instead of baking him a cake or throwing him a party Belle broke the crushing news that he was adopted. It yanked the rug out, compounding the insecurity he was already feeling as an angst-ridden adolescent unsure about his place in the world.

He didn’t believe her at first. “You’re lying! Damn you, you’re lying!”

Then disbelief turned to fury. Why had she hidden the truth and waited so long to tell him?

“You were too young to understand. Or I don’t know, maybe I waited because I didn’t want you to be hurt, wanted to spare you. I didn’t… I couldn’t… All right, I should have said something sooner. I know that now, and I’m sorry… Sorry that you’re so hurt. But nothing’s changed between us.”

“Everything’s changed.”

“You’re still my boy, Davey, and I love you.”

“Stop it. I’m not your boy. I’m someone else’s boy. You just said so. Whose?”

“What?”

“Whose? Who are my real parents?”

Belle couldn’t tell him. She said she’d lost the names.

“Lost? Bullshit! How could you lose—?”

“I don’t know. On purpose, maybe?” Belle, teary now and trembling. “I couldn’t have my own children. You were a newborn, and l had my baby, this little bundle, and didn’t want to ruin it — ever — and I was young then, and foolish, and Charlie and me — we were happy then and maybe… Maybe I wanted to wish the adoption — the details of it, I mean — all away. You know, wipe that memory from my life. It was wrong, the wrong thing to do, but I did it out of love. Can’t you forgive me?” She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, for once having nothing more to say.

That was seven months ago, and no way could he ever forgive her, though his sharp anger gradually softened into a deep ache of discontent and resignation.

These days Davey thinks of vanishing like Charlie, traveling to another space and leaving behind his confused and conflicted feelings about Belle and all of this… debris.

With her cup of tea, Belle joins Davey at a tan Formica-top dinette in a corner of the living room just outside the cubbyhole kitchen. She works at Harzfeld’s, a high-end department store in a shopping mall, and this is her half day in cosmetics.

“David.” She stirs, then sips, leaving lipstick on the cup. “You know you’re being difficult.”

He pushes away the French toast she made him from frozen and wipes his mouth with a paper napkin. “Difficult? How in the fuck— ”

“Watch your tongue.”

“Just how am I being difficult?”

She brushes a curl from her forehead, sighs — a sigh he recognizes as tactical — and gives him a look. That look. He feels hot and cold all over, unsteady, faint. Her silky kimono covers the minimum, and he notices the fullness of her breasts. Her fragrance is everywhere, her large brown eyes on him like crosshairs. He’s done with breakfast but doesn’t leave the table, fearing she’ll see the bulge in his jeans. Even though he senses she already knows.

Her mood lightens. “I have to dress,” she says, reaching over and playfully mussing his hair.

“Don’t do that.”

“Why?” she teases. “I can’t touch you? Since when? I’m your mother.”

“Not my real mother.”

Belle. He adores her; he loathes her.

—                                                            —

Kansas City – 2016

Davey doesn’t like Chez Vegas much. He doesn’t like any place much. The dressing room is standard: a generic gray couch and a mirrored wall opposite a smaller mirror above a makeup table with two woeful director chairs that sag. He sees them as a metaphor for his life. Mirrors everywhere — he can’t avoid himself. The face he studies is a face with no future and overnight stubble and dark eyes set deep like pits beneath thick black hair. Davey thinks he’s a fraud; after all, he long ago dropped Parsegian for the artifice of a flamboyant stage name.

He locates his razor and shaves before taking out his makeup kit to begin the metamorphosis, all the while trying to focus on his act. Nothing blogger-generated, nothing ghostwritten, nothing pilfered. He writes every line, and always gets his share of laughs. He expects that tonight, followed later by a big bold exclamation mark, something no one will forget.

Nothing is assured in this business, though, and Davey is no dreamer. He’s nothing if not a realist — his own God-damned reality show. On the road again… again and again and again, on the road with nothing to look forward to and no relief on the horizon. And some joke that is: what horizon? There is none, no light at the end of a tunnel. Hell, he can’t even locate the tunnel. He’s made a decent living. But his nomadic life is a blur of airports, hotels and excruciating brushes with faceless groupies he tried fucking, but didn’t have it in him to go the distance. The biggest joke: his act has more sex than a house of hookers, but it’s all fantasy, a recurring wet dream without benefit of orgasms.

The ladies queue up for him wherever he goes because he’s got that celebrity swagger they like, and he talks the talk. But it’s only talk.

Belle’s fault; her legacy is his secret shame. He’s thirty-one and has slept with no one else. She ruined him, turned him into a God-damned eunuch by playing with not just his dick but also his mind, at once fucking him and fucking him up. And he collaborated in his fucked-up-ness.

Part Two

About The Author:
Howard Rosenberg
Howard Rosenberg was a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years. He now teaches critical writing and a TV symposium at USC's School of Cinema and Media Studies and formerly taught news ethics in the Annenberg School for Communication. He authored a satirical mystery novel Up Yours! and two non-fiction books: Not So Prime Time and No Time to Think (with Charles S. Feldman). He writes the blog Rosenbeast.

About Howard Rosenberg

Howard Rosenberg was a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years. He now teaches critical writing and a TV symposium at USC's School of Cinema and Media Studies and formerly taught news ethics in the Annenberg School for Communication. He authored a satirical mystery novel Up Yours! and two non-fiction books: Not So Prime Time and No Time to Think (with Charles S. Feldman). He writes the blog Rosenbeast.

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