Paradise 03

Paradise
Part Two

by Howard Rosenberg

A stand-up comedian reviews his painful adolescence and the person who caused it. 3,308 words. Part One. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.


Kansas City – 2016

His name is advertised in white lights on a marquee out front, under the heading, COMEDY COLOSSUS. Mainstream sexy is what they want on this circuit. A lot of it, and he delivers. It’s been a nice run so far, the kind of good crowds and boisterous laughs that promise a return gig. But he knows that won’t happen.

He hasn’t been to Kansas City for two years, not since the funeral. And this is his first gig at Chez Vegas. It’s a booking he sought, inexplicably drawn back to Kansas City like a criminal to the scene of his crime, while hoping this would compel him to take care of unfinished business he’d put off far too long. He hadn’t known the unfinished business would devastate him.

He knows the Chez Vegas terrain by heart, could chart and navigate it blindfolded. The pattern for these smallish clubs and their flashy decors rarely changes, whether the curtain he stands behind is red, green or polka-dot.

The smug superior stiff-upper-lips will drink and laugh the least. But he can count on a spillover of loud boozy conventioneers up front along with screaming Hadassah ladies and their husbands who always hang on his words. The closer they are the better, so he can absorb their energy. He knows a few will push hard to meet him afterwards. They’ll want to buy him drinks and, thinking they’re hip, bore him with their own favorite dumb jokes and bleed out their life stories like hemophiliacs. Yeah, sure, Kansas City hip; last month Toledo hip, and before that Louisville.

Hurling insults from the back of the room will be the hecklers: gutless, talentless and mindless with bull’s eyes on their foreheads. They sicken him, but are easy to top and humiliate when they get out of line. Which is why he always hopes they do. He pictures pulling a trigger and blowing them away, all of them, the entire fucking room, thirty seconds of euphoric release.

Everything eats at him, anger and hostility crescendoing like a drum roll before a public execution. He can’t escape these feelings, chaotic dark thoughts that pinball as he changes from a gray sweats to his signature black jeans and black crew-neck pullover. Black, he thinks to himself, the very color of hostility. In movies and TV, don’t assassins wear black?

Suddenly, he has second thoughts. He doesn’t want to do this. He’s not ready, not ready at all. He’s as conflicted and full of doubt as he used to be with Belle, no longer able to separate the performance from the personal.

Kansas City – 1998

Friday night, just after seven o’clock, and this is when it happens.

The movie is Murmur Of The Heart. It’s French with English subtitles. Belle has rented it from a video store and insisted he watch it with her on the VCR.

“Fuck no!”

“David!”

“No way. Why can’t you watch it alone?”

“Daveeee!” She pours his name like syrup from a bottle.

She’s in her short satin robe, seated cross-legged on the well-worn slip-covered sofa in the living room, a bowl of freshly made popcorn on the coffee table in front her. Something is up; he can sense it.

Belle loves foreign movies. “They bring out the exotic, the romance, in me,” she had said. “France — that’s where I’d like to go someday. Paris, the works. Maybe together, huh?”

Davey doesn’t want to go to France — with anybody, especially her. Never, never her. She doesn’t know he daydreams about freeing himself, holding a pillow over her head as she sleeps, pushing hard until she’s dead. He keeps the thought for a moment, but doubts he could do it.

He does like movies, American ones, and has seen several on TV since school let out for the summer. Best of these by far was one capturing Richard Pryor’s stand-up comedy in New Orleans. It unlocked a door to a hidden room of possibilities. Get-the-fuck-away-from-Belle possibilities for Davey, a congenital jokester at school who cracks up classmates with behavior that belies his unhappy situation at home. He laughed hard and found himself awed by Pryor’s kick-ass bravado, the way he faced strangers, including asshole hecklers, and gave no quarter, using crude and bawdy humor to flush out his anger. Could I do that?

He hates foreign movies; they’re nothing he understands or cares about. So he wants no part of this fancy Frenchie with its damned English subtitles. He’s sure watching it will be a drag, pure torture. But Belle knows how to play everything to her advantage, and lassoes him in.

“I’m sad tonight, Davey. I don’t want to be alone, so c’mon.” She smiles, a thin Madonna smile like the painting he studied in art class, and pats the space on the sofa next to her, tilting her head. “Huh? Please?”

They’re mutually transparent: he can read her, and she him. They both know he’ll relent. He hates her dominance, how she pushes his levers, yet feels helpless to resist her hypnotic presence and… those feelings.

It’s midsummer but unseasonably cool outside and comfortable in the flat. Even so, Davey’s body temperature rises. His breath shortens. His body stiffens, and he’s ashamed that he’s aroused. As if in a trance, though, he hitches up his Bermuda shorts and joins Belle on the sofa, not beside her but safely at the end, somehow at once willing and wary.

“It’s from the ‘70s, and I read a review,” she says. “It’s a movie you’ll like and relate to. It’s about a boy, near your age, and how he gets along with his mother who, ahem, just happens to be beautiful.” She faces him and spreads her arms. “Ta-da!

As he has often, Davey wonders what his real parents look like, if his real mother is as Ta-da! as Belle.

The movie is queued, so when she clicks the remote it starts immediately. She turns off a lamp, darkening the room. “Just like in a movie theater,” she says, “and sort of romantic… like we’re on a date.”

Davey is still resistant as he watches the movie. He’s initially detached, but then, to his surprise, drawn in by the story and captivated: fourteen-year-old Laurent worships and is attracted to his mother, Clara, a flamboyantly immodest free-spirit who reminds Davey of Belle. Now he gets it, now he knows why Belle wants him here.

When Laurent and Clara are both rejected by prospective lovers, they come together and have sex, a fleeting spontaneous encounter near the end of the movie, treated not as something shameful but as a secret tender moment they know can never be repeated.

As the credits roll, Davey hears a soft whimpering he has never heard before.

Belle is crying.

He looks away, embarrassed and confused. He knows this woman who is not his mother — knows her act, knows this could be a performance and as much a lie as their thirteen years together. Then he feels her sharp nails on his inner thigh.

Paradise 02

Kansas City – 2016

He lets out a pre-act snort — the running start he gives himself — and his mood shifts. His body prickles like some kind of electromagnetic field buzzing with high-voltage circuitry, currents so dangerously hot that if he sticks his finger up his ass he’d probably electrocute himself. His brain is bouncing, and he’s all nerve endings as he drums his fingers on his leg. He’s wired, not in a joyful or creative way, but wired mad.

He looks into the mirror and beams his bullshit smile with all the teeth, then glances at his faux Rolex. Time to go.

The colossus is out there now, the packed room revved, house lights full blast, and — rage on hold — so is he.

So I think I’m having a heart attack and so desperate that I call 911 again and say: remember me? I’m the guy who called yesterday about the boner that wouldn’t go away after six hours.

Ten minutes into his act, everyone is with him, his monologue making it clear that residing in a strange and a distant galaxy known as L.A. has not made him a UFO; he’s one of them, a local boy come home.

As the laughter fades, he surveys the crowd with his eyes, then starts to pace right, then left. He has them rapt. They can see something is on his mind, something blistering his ass, something he has to tell them before he implodes — and they’re ready for it. Suddenly he halts and faces the room.

Computers! When I was a kid… we didn’t have computers.

The bobble heads nearest him nod knowingly, Luddites showing recognition and approval in the symbiotic way audiences and performers inform each other, sometimes wordlessly: they’re with him and want more.

Thirty-five minutes later, he’s still delivering, and they’re responding like a sitcom laugh track.

Everyone’s tweeting. Twenty-four/seven tweeting. Tweeting while we’re eating. Tweeting while we’re shitting. Tweeting, ladies and gentlemen… while we’re God-damned screwing. She climaxes and I get a tweet: it was good for me, how about you?

Finally, he’s out, riding applause all the way to the dressing room for a piss, towel-off and change back to his hoodie. Then blessed sanctuary again inside the town car with Mr. Charisma. Houdini would applaud Davey’s disappearing act: smiling broadly, he has crossed unscathed through the minefield of glad-handers and autograph junkies. An accomplished faker, he has blown kisses and bolted before they could get at him. He has evaded Marilyn Whiskey Lips and grinning Harry in his vintage white tux with a silk foulard handkerchief flopping from the breast pocket.

What he can’t escape are the rage and depression that dog him endlessly. His comedy — once an outlet and way to expunge his anger and dark thoughts — now produces but a fleeting high, followed by a sinkhole of bleakness. No longer does he experience the post-act euphoria that he was able to prolong with a little send-off snort. Inside the town car cruising toward his hotel, he’s lost in thought about his shit-pile life and freefall into hopelessness, deep melancholia and despair. The car is his hearse, a crypt on wheels.

He’s dropped a bundle on chin-stroking Freudians and other shrinks preaching psychobabble bullshit covering unnatural and destructive fixations. All of it useless brain baggage. Nor do antidepressants erase his flickering memories of Belle. Embedded like microchips are painful encores of her traumatizing him, each raking the open wound that is his life. Still, he willed himself to visit her his week.

Annabelle Rogers

1963-2014

Belle of the Ball

“For whom the Belle tolls,” he should have put on her gravestone.

Tolls endlessly.

As for unfinished business, he’d waited two years, long after the cancer took her, to tackle her safe deposit box at the bank and sift through the scraps of her life. But he couldn’t face it, half fearing when he raised the lid of the gray metal box she’d reach out with both arms, a chalky ghost from the past, and pull him in with her. In a way, that happened.

Inside the Spartan bank room, about the size of a walk-in closet, he’d wept after reading the handwritten note that morning. Then a wire tripped, generating a geyser of fury: he wanted to scream, to strike out and pound the walls until his fists were raw. He’d always known her death wouldn’t free him, that loose ends would linger forever. But this… this… “Not fair!” he erupted. “Not fair, damn you!”

Then, wrung out, he’d hung his head, knowing he’d reached the end.

Kansas City – 2014

Like her, the quirky laptop and undependable printer are well past their primes, beyond fixing and nearly out of time. Not that she ever felt in control and comfortable on the fluttery-screened computer, a few of whose keys no longer have letters.

So from a desk drawer she removes a pen and yellow legal pad, pausing to gather her thoughts before writing with an unsteady but urgent hand. Her robe is pink flannel, her gray hair sparse and askew. It’s not yet nine o’clock, for heaven’s sake, and already she’s exhausted.

Dear Davey,

There is something I must tell you. I should have long ago, but I just couldn’t make myself do it. No guts, I guess. Not face to face anyway.

I’m putting this confession in my safe deposit box (hope I can find the energy) where you will read it and learn the truth. The optimist in me hopes you won’t judge me too harshly for what I’m about to tell you, but who am I kidding, huh?

I kept it from you because I knew if you knew it would push you further away. I mean we’ve had our differences, and big ones, I know, but this would be it for us, the end or close to it. I couldn’t handle that. And that was selfish of me. What, Belle selfish? Ha. I can see you laughing now and making it one of your jokes.

I don’t do any praying, but I do still believe in God. For what I’ve done, what I’m certain others who don’t understand would see as sinful, God will judge me, I know. And his judgement is getting nearer and nearer, which is why I am writing this now while I still can. Maybe God will read this himself and cut me a break. See, I can make jokes, too.

I admit this has been weighing on me. But I don’t regret what I’ve done (especially what we did together). Isn’t that something? But I really don’t.

This is hard for me to put into words, and I’m getting very tired. But here goes.

I felt an “attraction” to you pretty early on. You did for me, too, right? I think so. I could tell. A woman can always tell. And who knows why we feel these things. Like life, it’s all a mystery why some of us are born the way we are with likes and dislikes and such.

Anyway, who makes these rules we’re supposed to live by? As you know, I never was much for following rules. That’s why our “togetherness” and our age difference didn’t really matter to me? I wanted us to be so close “in the flesh” that we were inside each other like one person. No separation, you know?

When you were 13, I told you that you were adopted, that Charlie and I were not your biological parents. That upset you and for a long time you were really angry at me. But that passed and you seemed to sort of roll with it later. And when you asked who your real parents were, I sort of panicked and told you I didn’t know. That I lost the names. Remember that? I’m sure you do.

Here’s what you don’t know. I wasn’t truthful. I lied about it all. The adoption, the whole thing.

I did it because I wanted to make it easier for you to accept the way I felt about you and the way you felt about me. Easier, I mean, if you thought I was not really your mother. Easier for you if what we did was not — all right, I’ll say it — “incest.” God how I hate that word, because people who say it don’t understand the way it is when there’s no force and two people who care for each other want to be together in the closest way. That’s how it was with us. I know because you definitely enjoyed all the times we did it, even though you sometimes seemed downcast afterwards. A couple of times you even cursed me out, which bothered me more than a little, but we never stopped, did we? So I say what happened between us was not dirty. It was beautiful, sort of like that French movie we watched. Remember that night?

I have lots more to say, but I’m too tired. So I’ll end with this, which is the truth so help me, and I remember it like yesterday.

On April 27, 1985, after being in labor hell for what seemed like a lifetime, I gave birth in St. Joseph Medical Center to a baby who was (I never forgot) 21 inches long and weighed 6 pounds and 11 ounces. That baby, who I loved (maybe too much?) from the moment he came out of me all pink and gooey, was a boy. And that boy, my beloved Davey, was you.

So you see, I am (and always have been) your mother.

Belle

Kansas City – 2016

A few minutes past midnight, he inserts the key card and on the second attempt opens the door to his suite on the fourteenth floor of La Bamba Residential Inn. It sits on a leafy plateau overlooking the blaze of lights illuminating the Country Club Plaza’s two-mile sprawl of low-slung residential and commercial buildings. He pulls back the heavy drape and spends several minutes viewing the sights, a sparkling panorama of tiny diamonds and rubies that conflicts with his feelings of ugliness and guilt.

He wanted this last hurrah at Chez Vegas because comedy is what he does, and surprising audiences with misdirection is one way stand-ups get laughs. Everyone loves a twist ending; at last — after a long, anguished journey — he’s arrived at his.

He undresses slowly and picks up a hotel copy of Kansas City Tonight! Inside is a glossy half-page ad featuring Davey, all smiles, under a Comedy Colossus banner. He’s read the earlier rave reviews in the Kansas City Star (“Hilarious Homecoming”), Town Tattler (“Welcome Home, Davey!”) and Country Club News (“Davey Dazzles”).

He knows what the new headlines about him will say.

In the closet hang a pair of generic monogrammed white terry cloth bathrobes of the kind that higher-end hotels provide guests. Davey puts one on, and with an eye for color inherited from Belle, he pictures red on white as a vibrant palette she would approve.

He removes a Heineken from the minibar and pops the cap. He sips twice while thinking back to high school and “Richard Cory,” the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem he read for English Lit about a much-admired man who appeared to have everything and benefitted from wealth and privilege while others suffered from terrible economic plight.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

He sets the bottle on the desk by his iPad. He draws from his suitcase a small object wrapped in a face towel. He unfolds the towel gently and grasps the loaded snub-nose Rossi .38 Special that he bought that morning from a private seller he found online. Feeling the weight in his hand, he eyes it for several minutes as if it holds answers.

Next he flips a wall switch to turn off the lights, sits at the desk and powers on the iPad. He finds a video he was told Chez Vegas had posted to YouTube two nights ago. Then tears sting his eyes as he spends his last seconds of life glowering at the sick perverted sonofabitch who deserves to die.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, a headliner from coast to coast, and Chez Vegas is pleased to have him, Kansas City’s very own… Daveeeeeeee Paradise!

Part One

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.

  One comment on “Paradise
Part Two

  1. Comedians. The only people for whom the line "What are you, a comedian?" is a raging insult. Like the two-parters, ps.

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