Friday, May 16, 2014

Stand-Up by M. E. McMullen

Comedian Robert Cambelli shows his betrothed sister a cluster of dead ladybugs, which she becomes convinced is a bad omen for her upcoming undercover wedding, in M. E. McMullen's surreal story.

I used to hang out with my sister, Inez.

Inez might be a little gawky, but she's an ace, believe me. When I use her stuff in a "bit", like the other night at Chuck's Chuckle Palace, I pay her a buck. Inez is all I got. We lost our parents in an avalanche.

My name is Robert Cambelli, but everybody calls me "Wade", except Inez, who calls me Tyrone, after her all time crush, the old movie star, Tyrone Power, who came from our town. When one of his films comes on TV, Inez is in rapture. Inez was supposed to be Tyrone Power's soul mate for eternity, but there was a glitch. Tyrone Power moved to California, became a movie star, married Lana Darnell or somebody and died young; all before Inez was born, pretty much dooming the romance.

At Laff Urassov's in Boston, I did a routine about sixteen ladybugs found dead in a perfume ring, and how I showed them to Inez, who spread them on a counter like rows of peppercorn kernels, going into a blue funk afterward and babbling about a curse. All true, if embellished for comedic purposes. At the museum, I mentally walked into several mural sized daguerreotypes at her suggestion, looking in the past for a fix on the curse. Least I could do, considering I was the damn fool who showed her the ladybugs. You can stare at daguerreotype murals all you want but they remain Flatland on the reality circuit. Guys in dark coats and stiff collars, ladies in white gowns draped on their arms, enjoying the riotous reds and pinks of long ago Chester Gardens hold the key, according to Inez, for understanding the ladybug curse.

Pretty silly shit for my money.

Walking by the tall stone columns guarding the gates to the place where cobbled Chester Square once was, one senses that in those days, the times demanded some pretty intense ranting. I close my eyes and hear voices on the winds of my twisted stand-up imagination: do-gooder reformers, high-minded citizens, rabble-rousers, anarchists, cranks, religious zealots, a dozen varieties of political crackpot and social pariah, all heaping scorn on the world's solemn injustices. One voice, the ghost of a Shoshoni tribesman, complains about the government stealing water rights. As with everything else in my life, this tidbit will find its way into a bit because it's all about the bits; my life. Get it? Life's a bit, Jack. Face up to it. Not a very funny one either.



Inez's beau is Jonas Alabaster Manley.

In his Sports Book Combine days, Jonas busted every grifter who ever tried to run a game on him. He's old outside, young inside, with a slightly sideways walk, making him a good fit for my sister. Inez thinks Jonas is good-looking, but she has bad eyes. Watching in twilight as they slip down a shadowy lane, you might need a minute to figure out how many there were and which direction they were headed. Inez is all bony hips and elbows. Jonas gimps along beside, a sidecar with wobbly wheels. Somewhere, my Aunt Martha is pissed about my ragging on my own sister for the casual amusement of strangers. Aunt Martha always said the Duggans were a closed-mouthed lot as a rule. Uncle Jack said he'd never met that side. Most of the ones he'd run across had their yaps in high gear all day long.

Walking in the cemetery where Chester Square once stood, we pass a field of poppies and rolling, well-trimmed lawns. Inez and Jonas walk slightly ahead as we meander through a secluded, woody area. Inez is going on about Jonas's new name, "Laughing Sky", spiritual warrior who fought three wolves for her life. No sooner has the story begun when she stops to show how Sky bowed his head in humility before the gods, while from nowhere, three scurvy-looking dudes come slithering out of the dark, drunk and high on crank and gasoline fumes, blocking our path. Their leader is tall, with a Death's Head tattoo on his arm. He has acne scars and cold, dead eyes. He says something about the circus being in town, and Jonas eases forward, meanwhile, asking casually if there's a problem.

"Your old lady's face makes me puke is the problem," the guy says, advancing toward Jonas, who, very swiftly and without ceremony dropkicks the guy's balls into the balcony, sending him to a three point knees-and-face landing on the pavement. Within seconds, the other two have run off, leaving their colleague behind. As Inez points out in her bit on the experience, the guy did end up puking just as he himself had predicted.



Inez and Jonas decided on a New York wedding.

Jonas and I flew up together, slipped into the city in a black limo, forsaking the mid-town hotels for a stay at the fabulous Merchant Seaman's on Canal, little more low key, there being folks in the greater New York area who would have gone to some lengths to see Jonas dead, or, at least, maimed, had they known he had the gall to surface in town. Inez would fly in with Ms. Lana Gail (LG) Duper and Ms. Robin Banks, her metaphysical counselors for the wedding. They often accompany my sister on her mystical journeys to the Heart of Truth. LG lives in LA, but she's originally from Georgia. She and Inez met at the Georgia College for Macon Women.

That Macon women line, by the way, was stolen from a comic in Atlanta, Joey Lance. Joey died in an accident. She didn't need the line, so, I borrowed it. I don't actually know how Inez met her spacey friends. I suggested to her up front that maybe she should rethink marrying somebody living in the witness protection program, but she didn't want to hear it. LG and Robin think it's romantic.



Jonas and I hustled over to St. Marks in a cold drizzle to meet our Andalusian curse consultants, the Cavettis. Given Inez's spooked state of mind, Jonas was to consult with Carlos, their leader, about curses, lest the whole wedding be called off. Standing under the overhang, we shivered silently, blowing droplets of water from the tips of our noses to keep from going itchy mad. Carlos was not available, so Jonas went into a state of meditation, mentally scaling the steep sides of a mountainous Zen mindset involving Inez's adoption of a native Japanese art form as a model for their nuptials, knowing it to be the kind of offbeat stuff she picks up from her space cadet friends. Inez has always loved these post-war giant mutant films. She has a Godzilla versus Mothra poster hanging in the foyer, right next to Tyrone Power in his Zorro outfit, which is about as high as it gets in her universe of fanzine friends.

So, where do we draw the line on these indulgences?

Funny bits occur less and less. Hints of madness lurk in the voices that haunt my head. I used to do impressions, and I'll tell you this. The world can be a dark and lonely place when you realize that a little part of your own identity is submerged every time you do an impression of somebody else.

Our curse consultant, the elder Cavetti brother, Carlos, appeared at the basement window, a Tyrone Power type, actually, bit swarthier maybe, with dark, brooding good looks that cast him for the tormented Andalusian soul in a mind's eye potboiler. His family is huddled inside an overhang. They're on the street, a pack of ragbags. Proud Carlos has seized their basement apartment, ordered them outside into the rain and called Live at Five's Gloria Duncan, troubleshooter supreme.

Grand Dame Cavetti bends to Jonas, pointing to Carlos in the window, twirling her finger at her temple. People drift by on the sidewalk; skaters, joggers, tourists. These are firm girls and dashing spandex men, somber bottom line types, stiff and upright, running popsicles, ignoring the drizzle, sharing a complete and total disregard as well for homeless foreigners. These jogger folks are what Inez calls the dead-eye guys, zombies from a spiritual nether land, off on their stiff and silent pilgrimage to the zombie jamboree downtown, oblivious to the world around them.

"My bride is caught in the spell of charlatans," Jonas laments to the Cavetti family, biting his knuckle. "This is Wade, her brother, whose outward calm hides a troubled spirit. It was Wade -" he paused to be sure they were following "- who discovered the curse."

"Curse?" A shudder rippled through them.

"A cluster of dead ladybugs."

The Grand Dame's eyes grew large. She crossed her hands, exchanging glances with other family elders. A younger woman spoke.

"Ladybugs?"

"That's right."

"How many?"

"Sixteen."

They blessed themselves in unison and lowered their eyes, all but the old one, whose gaze held fast. "Problem," she said.



Carlos Cavetti had barricaded himself in his St. Marks Place basement apartment to demonstrate that the half sister of an Andalusian Grandee was living in squalor on the streets of America. "The landlords should be liquidated to unmarked graves," he said. "This wouldn't have happened under Franco, I'll tell you that."

The old woman caught my eye, "Sooner or later, he has to sleep," she said. "We'll slip the latch and rush him."

"Jack Ketch brought beads to all his hangings," Carlos said. "Sent his customers off to Hell wearing necklaces made of the amber beads, to hide the neck burns."



The stand-off wore on.

Still no word from Live at Five's Gloria Duncan. We stood gazing out on the neon signs and running lights of the constant stream of traffic. "Once you know what to look for," Jonas said, "you can spot one of these urban zombies a mile off,"

"The eyes," Carlos said from the window. "I worked Romano festivals. The dead eyes are the giveaway. That 'Dawn of the Dead' stuff, the stiff walk, the slavering, flesh eating menace, all Hollywood hype. Check the eyes."

"Eye contact on the streets can be dicey," I said. "Remember, every third person you see is a psycho off his meds."

No sooner was that said than my eyes met those of a slim Korean woman in a gray quilted jacket. She was carrying a shopping bag. Her expression froze into a horrific frown, and she came charging at me flailing the shopping bag as a truncheon aimed at my face. But for the actions of Jonas, who pulled me away, she might've gotten me good.

We reached the limo as the Live at Five sound truck was arriving. I could see the Korean woman bobbing in pedestrian traffic half a block away. A few seconds later, Carlos knocked on the window, and Jonas let in him. "Let them handle the media," he said, looking over his shoulder as we pulled away. Jonas was on his cell phone telling someone named Sally to see to the Cavetti family.



In minutes, we were across Houston Street, cruising through the dark lower Manhattan maze. Carlos was telling Jonas about seeing in the paper that a jamboree of freaks was going on downtown this weekend. The dead eyes would be all over.

"You're messing with me."

"Part of a zombie cycle; death by water."

"Will you guys stop with the zombie stuff?"

"Scoff if you want," Carlos said. "You saw that Korean woman. She was bound to kill you."

"Her eyes were clear."

Jonas and Carlos shook their heads. They weren't going to argue. They knew what they knew. These so-called zombies were making their silent migration to the tip of Manhattan Island, Whitehall Street, Battery Park, the museum and South Ferry. Apparently, zombies migrate to water when their zombie days are over.

"There's a place in Dubuque, Abdullah's Garden of Grins," Jonas was telling me, "where you can get laughs with a bad haircut. When I got out of the gaming business, I got back into stand-up. Abdullah's was the first room I worked. Hadn't laid down a punch line in years; not since I sold my interest in the sports book empire at the encouragement of the Nevada Gaming Commission and the Injustice Department."

"Quite a twist."

"Everybody should have to do a little stand-up in life," Jonas said. "Walk out there, make some strangers laugh. It ain't easy."



Jonas came into Inez's life one Sunday afternoon in the park. He introduced himself as Jonas Manley. He was a Yiddish speaking leprechaun who granted wishes. The three of us sat on the public bench. He asked Inez what she wanted most in the world. Inez said she didn't know. "You shall have it," he said.



Inez texted an address on Delancy to us, where we found the good Reverend Cal, who was doing the ceremony, a grizzled, stocky man whose easy grin and gravelly voice marked him as a person who knew the many sides of life. He set up double tequilas around, salt and lemon slices, offered a toast to marital bliss.

"Before I found Jesus, I was Calvin 'Wild Ride' Lopez," he says. "My deal was wild, fly hair and gaucho duds. I worked Guffaw's, Spud's Snicker Shack."

"You worked Spud's?"

"You, too?"

"I was booed off the stage."

"No shit. Small world."



While Live at Five's Gloria Duncan's Director, Sal, is positioning people, a moon-faced older woman and a slim, graying man appear, smiling pleasantly. "Nice to meetcha," the old man says, "I'm the - uh - Duke of Windsor, and this here is my old lady, the Duchess."

The Duchess did a little curtsey and swallowed her gum.

"Meet the Pettibons, Peter and Edna. Former Deadheads, lifelong show biz folk."

"Fifty two years," Peter says.

"He wanted to quit," Edna says.



"No orange peels or coconut shavings," says Live at Five's Gloria Duncan, recalling her own sunrise wedding on the rim of Mauna Loa, "but Jonas Manley, former gambling figure, has taken the name of a Shoshoni warrior, Laughing Sky, to please his bride, and that says something."

Some fool sets up a rather distracting rant at this point. Even Live at Five's Gloria Duncan stands mute for once, saucer eyed and visibly shaken. The best man's ticking time bomb side has gone off unexpectedly. Checking around, I notice it's my arms that are waving frantically, my voice that is screaming. Live at Five's Gloria Duncan does, indeed, have reason to be disturbed. An obscenity-laced, psychotic diatribe is going out over the air, detracting quite a lot from what had been, until then, a mellow moment. Stepping over the cables, pushing through the fringes of the crowd, I'm soon out of the courtyard, into the street and at large in the dark city. In my wake, a spike in the TV numbers, as viewers, used to the jejune tripe of an ordinary TV evening, are treated to an outbreak of genuine insanity.



A new TV persona is born: "the run away best man".

Soon, my wild-eyed image is beaming over every bar TV in lower Manhattan. Watching my own fifteen minutes of fame through plate glass, clouds of smoke and the glare of a Molson Ale neon sign, I proclaim to the wind. "I'm the guy on TV, the famous 'runaway best man'. Draw me one. We'll square it later, when my book deal comes through." Thus occupied, I fail to notice the Korean woman until she lunges at me from behind a parked car, startling the holy, living bejesus out of me. Meanwhile, the look of horror on Live at Five's Gloria Duncan during my now famous psycho power vent is shown one more time, straight out of a "crowd fleeing Godzilla" scene, alarming the dudes in the control booth to the extent that they come tumbling out of the trailer like the big fella himself was about to crunch them.

There is indeed a curse on Inez's wedding, Live at Five's Gloria Duncan concludes on TV. It's the definitely unbalanced, stand-up comic brother, Wade, whose rant has captured the attention of a whole unbalanced city out there. Jonas's curse consultant, Carlos, meanwhile, suggests to Live at Five's Gloria Duncan that it was Wade who found the ladybugs, Wade who made the mistake of showing them to an overwrought bride to be, and that actions to remove the curse should begin with Wade.



"I did show her the dead ladybugs."

The Korean woman, whose face floats among the reflections and TV images in the plate glass window, shrugs. "We wander lost in a maze of darkness and disorder," she says. It's true enough. The trail from Reverend Cal's courtyard has led through darkened, car-choked side streets to a metal cyclone fence where two silent strangers stare out over a stretch of black water. Approaching me with extreme caution, she displays open palms. My shirt is soaked. My legs are cramped. It's been a long, dark walk. "Self-delusion," she says, "allows us to maintain the foolish notion that the horror of daily existence is a nightmare from which we'll soon awaken."

"Why are you stalking me?"

"You are the son of a bitch bastard who took my eyeglasses."

Exhausted, I can only shake my head and hope she doesn't attack.

"I am Kim Wok Soon, daughter of a farmer," she said. "When I was twenty, I fled North Korea with the clothes on my back. I got my first break two months later at the Grinning Puffer in Yokohama."

"Your first break?"

"Far East stand-up circuit," she said. "After nine years on the road, I ended up here in New York, checked into the Bonkers Hilton."

I gave her a little wink. "Jonas hired you to have me on, didn't he?"

"No," she said, winking back.



A chartered bus rumbles into the parking lot and hisses to a stop. The sign in front says ZOMBIE JAMBOREE. The doors open, and Inez steps out, a radiant, sweet bride, happier than I've ever seen her. My eyes well with tears, and I am ashamed for having cast such a shadow on my sister's big day. My clothes are wet and oily. My eyes are salty red. My mental garden is being slowly overrun by the weeds of madness. "Look at the best man," is Live at Five's Gloria Duncan's lead, "you see the eyes of a zombie; and you thought they were only in bad movies."

"Firefighters fished two people from the waters off Battery Point," she continues, having interrupted regularly scheduled programming for a BREAKING NEWS segment. "If a mob of zombies made the pilgrimage to the bottom of the Hudson River, only two seem to have survived. Let's ask Carlos Cavetti. This watery grave business, Carlos, what's that all about?"

"They climb the rail," Carlos said, "leap off, one after another. Faint splashes. Tiny, luminescent bubbles and shadows disappearing under the waves, never to be heard from again".

"You've seen this?"

"Sensed it would be more accurate."

"Sensed it."



I've always loved lady stand-ups.

Joey Lance and I actually had a little thing going for a while, but Joey was a bad luck girl. They loved her in Atlanta. Some asshole drunk in a pick-up truck ran a light, creamed her and another girl. Couple hundred came to the services. I met Joey's family briefly. I could see Joey in their faces. That was a long drive home.

Kim Wok Soon wants to go back to work, maybe start with some open mike nights. She's tabled the plan to smash my face with a shopping bag. From what I can gather, she feels alone and unloved in a savage, irrational world. She can't go home. Going back into stand-up, the very monster that stole her mind, was not without risks, of course. My own risk was at hand as well.

No going back. I'd come too far.



The plunge is cold and unforgiving.

Marooned in the moment, I claw my way to the surface choking and spitting, weighed down by waterlogged clothes. "This was a bad idea," I call out, not sure if Kim Wok Soon can even hear me. I bob in the water while hoards of invisible hollow-eyed zombies, imitating the wind, make soft splashes all around. These are ghastly, pitiful creatures with putrid, slimy green skin, swollen and scaly as spoiled fruit. Invisible in the world of light, I'm told, they choose to reveal themselves to non-believers during their water rituals, as being less likely to be distracted by intrusions from the dark nether world just beyond the senses.

Following the tiny strings of bubbles as they twirl and recede, I struggle to keep breathing this new air. Looking up, I see wild eyes, the old gaucho himself, Reverend Cal, peering down through the metal cyclone fence. His eyes burn with Pentecostal fervor. "You got a monkey by the tail," he says. "We'll do a few stand-up reverse curses, no charge. May killer bees make a nest in your scrotum, monkey. May a herd of large hogs sublet your veranda. May your fiancé be featured on America's Most Wanted."



Once, lying on a stranger's coarse-woven sofa, chilled and stiff as a shrimp, sunburned beyond recognition, fresh out of hope and down to wishing somebody would break into my dusty, fly-ridden nightmare of a life and put me out of my misery, I felt a hint of what Hell must be like. Gasping for breath in the dirty waters off Battery Park, with all the sulfurous, foul-smelling filth frothing up around my lips, I felt that same ghastly emptiness again, remembering a bon mot Inez once dropped on me. "Saying you hear voices, Wade, is like telling people that your parents were killed in an avalanche. There's no good way to say it."



Sitting on the rail, looking out across the water, I converse with one of my voices, the one pretending to be Inez. "Lay off it, Tyrone. Our mother was a whore and a drug addict, a charity case. Our father was gone. There was no avalanche."

"Says who?"

"Says a discreet investigation firm."

"You're lying."

"Ask Jonas."

"What about it, Jonas?"

"What about what?"

Is that Jonas over there in the water, a few yards away?

Sure looks like his pixie face bobbing out there between the shafts of white light that scatter off the water like dancing fairies. I'm exhausted. A hellish rip tide's about to pull me under. I am lost and alone, ready to drown. "Did you have Inez investigated?"

"Investigated?"

"Did you?"

"Who told you that?"

"A voice."

"It's a lie."

"That comforts me in my dying hour, Jonas."

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm drowning in my own snot."

It's true. Death pulls me backwards into the black. Water rushes into my mouth while hands struggle to pull me flat on the water. Jonas is pulling me from Death's hold but Death remembers the curse and tightens his grip.

I crave assurance, meanwhile, that I am not mad.

Inez appears, happy and radiant in her bridal gown, wearing a button that says: I send back limp toast. "Welcome back from the dead, Tyrone," she says, after they've gotten me semi-presentable. "They say you nearly drowned swimming over from Jersey. It's a nice gesture, but you shouldn't have. You could've been swept out to sea."

When Live at Five's Gloria Duncan catches up with Jonas meanwhile, he has on a Lone Ranger mask.

"You're pretty collected for a guy with contracts out on him from all five New York families," she says, "and about to be married, no less."

He shrugs. Jonas is a duck on water. Calm on the surface, paddling like a son of a bitch underneath.

Now, a hush falls on the gathering.

Inez and I join and advance, step for step. The time has come for me to give my sister away. My tongue is itchy. My eyes are damp with tears. Dread pushes my finger nails into my palms. Inez and I stroll very slowly down a makeshift grass aisle edged with confetti and blossoms. The groom waits calmly beside a sober Reverend Cal. There is no turning back. Steady as she goes. The Deadhead Pettibons are among the well wishers; Carlos and his family, of course. The Grand Dame, regal in old lace, occupies a seat of honor in the first row.

Kim Wok Soon is in back, clutching her shopping bag. We'd chatted. Mostly me chatting, her nodding. I'd apologized about the glasses, promising her a new pair. The ceremony is soon over. Reverend Cal pronounces them man and wife. Jonas, now "Sky", kisses his bride, who looks very sweet.

"What a genius," Inez said, gazing on her dapper groom in the reception line. Live at Five's Gloria Duncan was there with her crew, filming for a special she'd be doing on funky weddings. "You've saved the best man from drowning, beaten the ladybug curse, found the Cavetti family quarters in the Waldorf Astoria. You're a genius."

"A much abused word," Laughing Sky said.

"Hero, then," Inez said.

"Hero's fair."



I was taught by my Uncle Jack that the art of equivocation ranks among mankind's greatest skills. "No politician or salesman, no lawyer or doctor worth his salt could function," Jack would pronounce confidently, "but for an ability to talk from both sides of his mouth."

Through some brazen equivocating, I was able to reach a plateau with Kim Wok Soon, who was finally realizing, I think, that attacking my face with a shopping bag was not the solution to her lost glasses problem. I extended my stay at the Seaman's Hotel in order to get to know her better. I proved to her, over several days, that the eyeglasses I was wearing did not fit her, and that when she did manage to look through them, the world became a fuzzy, unfocused place. It was a major breakthrough. Kim Wok Soon remains delusional, but this can be a charming quality in some people.

Even though Inez is Sadie Married Lady now, traveling in the world of protected witnesses, our royalty deal stands. I intend to try to rejuvenate my act and try to capitalize on the fact that my life is a series of stand-up bits. My sister and her friends meanwhile are enjoying their new TV notoriety. When I thanked my new brother in law, Sky, for saving my life, he said, "Don't mention it".

I mention it anyway.



The newlyweds intend to write a best seller about Sky's past life as a Shoshoni warrior, and how the experience influenced his rise in the rackets and his final emergence as Laughing Sky of the Witness Protection Program, married to emerging performance artist, Inez Cambelli. Carlos Cavetti and his family, LG Duper, Robin Banks and Sky, have all become newly emerging media personalities, and will appear in an upcoming 'Kinky Weddings' reality special from Live at Five's Gloria Duncan. Sky's voice and face will be altered for the show.

Since the newlyweds left for their honeymoon on Guam, Kim Wok Soon and I have been hanging out together around New York, mostly riding ferry boats. She's seized on the wedding as an important event, and rehashed it from a dozen different angles. "Your sister and bizarre performance art will soon be on the map," she says. "This Japanese monster film connection was quite a clever turn of hers, tapping into an undercurrent of post-war angst over lingering genetic fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The undercurrents of unrepentant Japanese militarism have caused a new generation of Asians to take notice."



I'm going home tomorrow.

I told Kim Wok Soon how to look me up if she ever gets out my way. Far as I know, she intends to keep riding the ferries for a while. She sees riding ferries as one of the last great American experiences. She thinks she may very well have a look at Tyrone Power's home town, as a kind of pilgrimage, to visit where Inez was raised. I got off the ferry in Manhattan, waved goodbye. She got back on. I wouldn't want to set her off. She still carries that shopping bag. I probably won't ever see her again, and that may be just as well. She does stand-up. So do I. Not a good combo. If she does show, I'll be nice, but I probably won't turn my back on her.

Not for a while anyway.

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