The Headliner

By James Gianetti

Editor's Note: Due to the formatting of this work, it is best viewed on a desktop browser.



Julian placed his water glass on the floor dirtied with the bottom shoe grime of the many comedians who’ve come and gone. From behind the black curtain, he heard the crowd softly burble to one another about cycling classes, happy hour, and heart attacks.


The warm-up comic took the stage and fed the audience a haphazard display of enthusiasm as he leaned on the mic stand like a cane. Nonetheless, the crowd clapped, cheered, and whistled as they always do. Crowds were as predictable as the “you look well” phrase when running into an ex. Julian hoped the opener wouldn’t go over his allotted time.


*


The opener went over his allotted time, rambling about how vegans are compromising the Jewish heritage because they think they’re the new Kosher. In a desperate attempt to save the joke and not come off as insulting, he stated that he was Jewish. He failed. Julian got the cue.

“So, are you guys ready for your headliner?”

Noise

Clapping

Cheering

“Well, here he is, Mr. Julian Bell, ladies and gentlemen!”


The warm-up comedian walked past him with a pat on the shoulder and an eye roll, insinuating that the crowd was immune to any form of quality comedy or improvisation


Julian always had poise laced with a splash of nerves when he walked out. He sported a navy-blue button down that wasn’t tucked into his navy-blue jeans. He stood a slim six-foot one inch before the microphone, wondering what it would taste like if he put his mouth around it. One of his few quirky coping mechanisms. Julian provided a panoramic gaze at the horde of New-Yorkers who sat contently on their flimsy chairs while their high tops and Chelsea boots fastened to the stickiness of the timber flooring. Behind Julian was a brick wall that complimented the club’s surrounding walls made of the same brick. He inhaled and exhaled a fictitious sense of stress.

“Don’t you just fucking hate grocery shopping?”

Julian paced the stage that felt like a first-place pedestal. He squinted at the crowd against the blinding light that he referred to as the “Bat Signal” due to its excessive beam. Maybe he just felt like a comedic caped crusader when he worked a crowd.

“I mean seriously. It totally sucks right?”

“I find it therapeutic”, whispered a man in the front row.

Julian looked down at him sternly.

“You find grocery shopping therapeutic?”

“Yes”, said the man with a chuckle.

“Was that in the blurb on your Match.com profile?”

Noise

Laughter

“Is that your wife next to you? Can I insinuate that now without being crucified?”

Noise

Laughter

“Yes…” said the chuckling man.

“So, is that what turns you on? Gets your gears shifting. His infatuation with food shopping? Is that what women are into nowadays?”

Noise

Laughter

“Not good looks and lots of money. But men’s ability to find good produce and free-range eggs.”

Noise

Laughter

“My dad hated food shopping when I was a kid. That’s probably why he and my mom split up, I guess. I always thought it was the cheating and the drinking.”

Noise

Chuckles

“My dad’s a good guy. He was one of those Union workers. There wasn’t a labor job he couldn’t do. He was a good dad. It’s important to have a good Dad am I right? Make some noise if your dad would have slapped you halfway to hell if you talked back to him!”

Noise

Clapping

Loud applause

“Okay we don’t want to cheer TOO loud for child abuse.”

Noise

Laughing

“I talked back to my dad one day…”

Julian paused before he leaned toward the crowd and pointed to a spot on his forehead.

“You see that scar right there?”

Noise

Laughter

“Yeah, my dad was all right. Taught me all the things dads are supposed to teach their sons. Taught me how to ride a bike, catch a fish. Taught me how to throw a baseball. Not so much how to catch one though.”

Julian leaned toward the crowd and pointed to the other side of his forehead.

“You see that scar right there?”

Noise

Laughter

“He taught me how to be tough. How to be a man. A man’s man”, he said with deepness in his voice. “When I was younger, he’d always tell me…when I was your age, I was already working a paper route, fighting in the war, and dating your mother!”

He let the crowd digest the context.

“It’s always funny because he said all those things within like a ten-year span of my childhood…from like 6 of 12. So, it turns out my dad was delivering papers, in Vietnam, AND bangin my mom between like second and fourth grade.”

Noise

Laughter

“Soft he said the other day, while he drank straight whiskey. No ice. Because apparently ice is for pussies. Too soft your generation! There are no real men in this day and age. No one’s got hair on their balls or chest anymore!”

He made his entire face squint as the crowd’s laughter picked up with each passing second.

“I shouted THAT’S NOT TRUE!”

His pause like bait on a hook. The crowd the overstocked trout pond.

“It didn’t help that I was wearing a deep pink V-neck when he said that fresh off a chest wax from European Wax Center…that was also running a discount promo on male Brazilians that day…”

Julian grazed his crotch area.

Noise

Laughter

“While sipping a venti chai green tea.”

Noise

Laughter

“Lots of ice…”

Noise

Laughter

“So, the other day, I’m in the grocery store with my boyfriend. And if you had to guess, doesn’t actually exist yet. And if you had to guess, I was actually helping my mother pick up food for her house. And if you had to guess, all lot of the groceries were for my apartment. And if you had to guess, she didn’t let me buy candy at the checkout register. And if you had to guess, she didn’t let me pay for the groceries. And if you had to guess, I never actually offered. And if you had to guess, I forgot my wallet in the car. And if you had to guess, I did that on purpose.”

Noise

Laughter

Applause

Suddenly, the horde of New-Yorkers, drinking their watered-down vodka something’s forgot all about their cycling classes, happy hours, and heart attacks.


*


Julian’s knees trembled from behind the white curtain. He heard the nurses softly burble to one another about cycling classes, happy hour, and heart attacks. Finally, they admitted him into the room and offered him a flavorless smirk, insinuating the patient’s current mood and disposition. His nervousness blocked out the noise of the vents and the dozens of machines running their courses. He walked up beside the medical bed and grazed the sheets with his fingers. His navy-blue button down tucked neatly behind his navy-blue jeans. He wondered what it must have felt like to be in his position.

“Hey”, said Julian lightly.

His father nodded upwardly.

“How you doing?” Julian asked.

“I’m dying”, said his father.

Julian pursed his lips and dragged a chair beside the bed.

Quiet

“It was a good crowd tonight”, said Julian.

His father looked up at the ceiling, without mustering enough strength or interest to look halfway towards his son.

“What was a good crowd tonight?” Asked his father more annoyed than curious.

“At the 'Crack-Up'. I did an act.”

“Oh”, said his father.

Quiet

Julian looked down at the floor, spotless from the clean shoes of the many nurses that have come and gone.

“Want to hear some of my material?”

“Not really.”

“What would you like to do?”

“I’d like to rest.”

“Did you eat?”

“They brought over some crap on a tray.”

“Did you eat?”

“I ate.”

Quiet

“Pete says I’ll be able to start doing Fridays now”, said Julian optimistically.

“Who’s Pete?”

“The manager. My boss.”

“Mhm”, murmured his father.

Julian leaned back in his chair and looked around, hoping a nurse would show up. Even as a guy who improvises and thinks on his feet for a living, he found extracting even the smallest degree of animation from his father less achievable than jumping off the Empire State Building and landing in a shot glass.

“Mom’s doing good. She said she’d try and stop in sometime tomorrow.”

His father sighed. It appeared he was recollecting on something. Presumably times that once were.

“It never could have worked”, said his father. “You’re mother and me. It just couldn’t.”

“I know. She said she’s going to try and come tomorrow.”

“She still seeing that state worker? What is he? He does what?”

“He is a retired police officer”, said Julian.

“Good money in that now”, said his father. “Not too late for you, Julian.”

“Okay.”

Quiet

“I’ve been dating”, said Julian.

“Okay.”

“Some of them are nice.”

“Right.”

“They’re not like Mom though ya know?”

“They can’t be like your mom. They’re men.”

“Yeah…they are.”

Quiet

“You need to settle down, Julian. Start something real. Get away from that basement and microphone. Do man’s work. Find a woman.”

Quiet

Julian quickly looked outside the window of the room out of pity for himself, hoping the Bat Signal from the comedy club would light up the city’s dark sky. Waiting for its comedic caped crusader to save them.


*


Friday nights weren’t any different than Thursdays. The only things that were different were the drink specials. The warmup comic was different only in appearance. His demeanor and presence were as offending and obsolete as his material. The Bat Signal engulfed his entire body as he looked at the microphone again, wondering what it tasted like.

“So, I am in the grocery store with my mother. My mom always gets anxious and nervous before she goes into the food store. And when she gets nervous her whole body begins to shake like this…”

Julian mimicked his mother’s nervous body shaking; probably over-blowing the actual gesture.

Noise

Laughter

“So, I go to pick out a cart and I have one of those cart omens where anyone I pick always has one of those deformed wobbly wheels.”

Noise

Claps

Mumbles

Loud chuckles

“Everyone else is zipping by in their carts and I’m veering off to the right into one of those beer pong displays in the aisle with tomato sauce and spices.”

Julian veered his body off to the right in an elaborate demonstration.

Noise

Laughter

“So, I have a great mom but she’s not aging well. She’s one of those coupon cutters at the register. Like she cuts the coupons AT the register. She reaches into her purse and starts pulling out chewing gum from two years ago, two different types of prescription glasses, three different prescription pills with side effects she feels the need to tell the cashier about and yanks out a stack of coupons thicker than most law school textbooks all held together by a microscopic paper clip. I thought coupons went extinct with vinyl, VHS, and the dinosaurs. And I feel awful for this poor cashier as she starts cutting, she goes this is my son, he’s a comedian. Julian! Make him laugh he’s cute. Are you single and gay sir? You’re too cute to be straight.”

Noise

Laughter

Julian clenched his whole face and squinted to express confusion.

Noise

Laughter

“Clearly my mom thinks I’m so desperate that I’ll just start telling jokes or some of my material to a random stranger at a cash register just because he’s cute like seriously?”

Noise

Chuckles

He counted in his head.

One

Two

three

four

“So, he didn’t really laugh at much of my material.”

Noise

Laughter

“He wasn’t really into the photos of my rock crystal collection either.”

Noise

Chuckles

“Definitely wasn’t into the photo of my junk decorated like a blue lightsaber that he accidentally saw as I scrolled to a photo of me at Star Wars Land with my niece.”

Noise

Whistling

Laughter

“He also wasn’t gay. So that kinda made things difficult.”

Noise

Laughter

“When I took my phone away from him, he was making this weird face.”

Julian mimicked his face by opening his mouth wide and clenching his eyebrows.

Noise

Laughter

“He was probably impressed by one of my rarer rock crystals.”

Noise

Laughter

“Or was super fucking jealous I was at Star Wars Land next to the Millennium Falcon.”

Noise

Laughter

“My mom and I get in the car and she starts adjusting everything. She’s like one of those guys at the car wash. This ever happen to you? Last time I was at a car wash the guy ran my car through the machines and everything. Within that span of three minutes, he returned the car to me with my seat so close to the wheel my knees were at my chest like this.”

Julian demonstrated the proximity of the wheel to his body.

Noise

Chuckles

“The rearview mirror and air vents were adjusted, the AC was blasting, two pieces of my gum were missing, it smelled like a fart, and the radio station went from alternate rock to Russian Trance.”

Noise

Laughter

“There was this big pick-up truck in front of me a couple days ago at the car wash. One of those where when the person hits the gas it sounds like a loud and choppy fart.”

Noise

Chuckles

“The back of the truck had big bumper stickers on it. One was a confederate flag sticker another said BAN IDIOTS NOT GUNS and the other was a pokeball with the phrase…gotta catch em all.”

Noise

Chuckles

He slowly cranked his head in both directions while shifting his lips to his left side.

Noise

Laughter

“So, I see this guy and he’s got the look. The buzz cut, the mesh shorts all year round, and the tattoos of former girlfriends He winds up cutting a couple on the line. One of the guys goes hey you just cut us. The goon turns around and looks at the two men and says yeah? What are you going to do about it?”


Julian swallowed and pulled up the waist area of his pants.

“So now I step in.”

Noise

Chuckles


“I know how to get him off the line. So, I walk up to him. Slowly like one of those sheriffs in the old west movies. Hands around my belt and all.”

Noise

Chuckles

“The guys wearing a Star Wars shirt with the sleeves sloppily cut off. I say…hey. You like Star Wars? He looks at me and goes YEAH. So, I say…cool.”

Noise

Chuckles

Julian chuckled with the crowd, struggling to get the punch lines out.

“I say…me too bro. And I take my phone out.”

He chuckled again.

“I start scrolling and said, 'you’re going to…'”

Julian laughed out loud. The audience joined him.

“I said, 'you’re going to love this photo of a blue lightsaber I decorated.'”

Noise

Laughter

Applause

“Off he ran!”

Applause


“Thanks for coming out tonight I’m Julian Bell.”


*


The bed sheets were warm. His father lay sound asleep as Julian sat beside him, looking over his scribbled notes potential material. He thought about the things he said about his father. Thinking of the man his father used to be became a habit during his frequent visits. He liked that version. He loved that version. The version who had a sense of humor. The version who laughed at his jokes. Even the ones that weren’t so great. Then Julian remembered who he became after he told him. After his mother was sure he’d understand. That he’d accept him no matter what. After the divorce. After he moved out. After the heavy drinking. After he became a stranger. Julian started jotting down new jokes and ideas. He whispered them to himself and looked up at his father.

Quiet

Julian wondered if his mom ever came to visit him like she said she would. He wondered why she ever would. The idea of parking spaces crashed into his head after he told his mom to park in the rear because it was too overcrowded in the front. Julian underlined parking spaces on his notepad. He became giddy as he wrote. He looked up at his father and whispered.

“You’re going to love this one.”

Julian stood up and practiced his act in front of him as he slept. He paced back and forth. He even paused at parts where he thought the audience would laugh. When his dad used to laugh. His father coughed himself awake. Julian rushed to his side.

“Hey. How you feeling?”

Quiet

“I wrote some new material. It’s good. I think you might like it. You want to hear it?”

“Not tonight. Let me rest.”

“Can I get you something?”

“You can get me quiet. That’s what I want.”

“Want me to turn the T.V. on for you? Want to watch something?”

His father mumbled something Julian couldn’t comprehend. Julian looked down at his notepad and smirked.

“Just let me tell you this one…”

“Julian…”

“You’ll enjoy it. It’s about...”

“Julian!”

Julian’s excitement came to a halt.

“Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine.”

His father coughed piercingly and repeatedly.

“I’m fucking fine.”

He grabbed a handkerchief and hacked into it. It was painful. For both of them.

“You’re okay?”

His father did not answer as he examined the blood-stained cloth. Julian froze.

Quiet

“I’ll find a nurse.”

A nurse rushed in and examined his father. She informed Julian that visiting hours were over.


*


Julian got the cue and took the stage.

“Guys love several things: beer, sports, barbeque, and finding parking spaces. If you ask a guy about his time at the mall, he won’t tell you about what stores he went to, he will tell you about how close or how far he parked from the entrance.”

Noise

Laughter

“For guys, parking spaces are like approaching women at a bar and getting a phone number. Think about it like this. You’re a guy and you pull into the lot. You make your presence known by driving slowly, but not TOO slowly, so you can survey and get a look around. Most of the time, you’ll have a friend beside you and one or two behind you. They too, are looking around the area.”

Noise

Laughter

“Music will be playing, but no one is truly listening to it. As you progress, your friend in the back will tap you on the shoulder and say that he sees a possible opening on the other side. You nod and proceed forward to do your lap.”

Julian put his arm out gripping an imaginary steering wheel while jerking his shoulders.

Noise

Chuckles

“As you get closer to the potential opening, your other friend in the back will tell you and the crew he thinks he sees a spot he got two weeks ago. None of you believe he could have gotten such a good spot, and you all continue forward disregarding his comment.”

Noise

Laughter

Julian started his pace of the stage with hand still gripped on the imaginary wheel.

“You get closer. And now your hearts beating faster and you’re getting nervous. Nervous that other cars are going to get to the spot first. So, you pick up the pace.”

Noise

Laughter

“There’s always another car that nearly bumps into you because of not looking ahead, texting, or borderline intoxication. You hit the brakes and the beverage that was in your cup holder spills on your leg. You get pissed and stare the other person down while your friends tell you it’s not worth fighting or arguing over.”

Noise

Laughter

“Finally! You reach the spot and you’re within twenty feet of it. You inhale and start your turn.”

Julian started turning the imaginary wheel for effect.

Noise

Chuckles

“You hope to display your 'A-Game' and park perfectly with little effort. Your friends reassure you they are there for assistance, but you tell them to be quiet and that you got this. You park the car in the spot. Mission accomplished. High fives all around. You start walking toward the actual destination, victorious and bragging. You tell your friends that the spot was looking at you the minute you came in. Your friend reminds you they helped set it up. You tell your friends you almost parked in another spot nearby, but it looked a little too uptight and would require too much work getting in.”

Noise

Laughter


*


The next visit was different than the others. The only thing that was different were the bed sheets. The nurses were different, only in appearance. One of them provided a discouraging look at Julian, indicating the critical state his father was in. Julian stood beside the bed and wondered what it must have felt like to be in his position. Feebly, Julian’s father looked in his general direction.

“Hey”, Julian said softly.

Quiet

Medical tubes and chords decorated his body. He was close. Both knew. They knew this would be the last visit. His father appeared defeated. Julian reached for his father’s hand and grazed the spaces between the veins with two fingers. His father slid his hand away.

“Was mom able to make it?”

His father clenched his lips.

“She made it.”

Quiet

Julian felt an urge to say something. Anything.

Quiet

“Dad, I…”

“I fucked up, Julian. Everything. I fucked it up a long time ago. It was my fault. I told your mother when she came too.”

Julian clenched his cheeks and swallowed his words like a giant pill.

“It’s fine.”

“I want what’s right for you, Julian. You’re better than that comedy basement.”

Quiet

“I know you love it. But I fucked up. I tried to do the best that I could to steer you in the right direction. I’m sorry I never came to any of your shows. I’m a shitty father for it. But I think you’re better than it.”

Quiet

“Hey, Dad.”

Quiet

“Dad.”

Quiet

“Dad, please.”

His father looked at him.

“What happened after the last supper?”

Julian prayed for a response.

“I don’t know. The betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus?”

Julian smiled at him. His throat closed with melancholy, as he struggled to get the punch line out.

“A holy shit.”

His father offered him an impartial expression. He let out a thunderous cough. Then the cough turned into a chuckle. Then the chuckle turned into laughter. Julian laughed with him. Then his laugh became a cry as his dad passed.


Quiet




 


James Gianetti is a writer from New Jersey. His short fiction and work have been published or is forthcoming in Mayberry Review, Collective Unrest, Hobart, and Cold Creek Review.


His debut novel, The Town of Jasper, was released in 2017. Beyond writing, James teaches middle school special education in New Jersey.


You can find him on Twitter or online.