Funnyman – A Short Story

Early in his comedy career, Billy Rodgers heard a joke that always stuck with him.

A man goes to see the doctor. “Doc,” he says, “You gotta help me. I’m so depressed I just can’t stand it. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. Some days I just can’t stop crying. There’s not a single thing in the world that makes me happy. What should I do?”

“I can fix that, easy,” says the doctor. “The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. He’s the funniest man in the world. He can bring a smile to anyone’s face. Go and see his show, it’ll make you laugh so hard you forget all your problems.”

Instead of being relieved, the man bursts into tears. “But Doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”

Something about that punchline. It always brought Billy right back to that day at the hospital, to the first time he figured out how to be funny. He was just a kid then, trying to make his mom laugh. He didn’t remember now what he’d said or done- just that he wanted her to stop thinking about depression and alcoholism and mental illness, about that bullet lodged in her husband’s head.

And it worked. Eileen Rodgers laughed until she cried, and afterwards she hugged her son and said, “I don’t know what I’d do without you here to cheer me up.”

Of course she didn’t. Billy Rodgers was the only person who knew what it was like to live in a world where you didn’t have Billy Rodgers to make you laugh.

“But Doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”

He’d think of it at the strangest times. Sitting alone in a dingy hotel room, scribbling notes about his latest set onto a pad of paper. Standing in the corner of the green room, waiting to see which one of the young guys was brave enough to come ask for an autograph. Hanging up after telling Molly a bedtime story over the phone, while her mother and stepfather tucked her in a thousand miles away.

Every memory was part of the joke. Even the sad ones. Hell, especially the sad ones. Didn’t somebody say once that comedy and tragedy were the oldest brothers?

Billy shrugged, almost smiling to himself. That was probably the whiskey talking. Or the barbiturates. But maybe there was something there. It was a shame he didn’t have time to figure out how to work it into the act. Might get a laugh. Maybe he’d try anyway- it was worth the gamble, if it got a laugh. There was nothing quite like making people laugh.

The only thing better would’ve been being able to laugh with them. And that was the biggest joke of them all. The comedian who gives away all of his happiness, leaving none for himself.

Billy checked his watch. Five minutes until curtain.

He checked his pocket. Only four more of those little white pills left now.

The words to a stupid old rhyme popped into Billy’s head when he dropped one of the tablets into his glass of Jameson, watching it fizz down to the bottom.

One for the money. Had it ever really been about the money? Billy was proud to say it hadn’t. All the money in the world- it didn’t matter. “But Doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”

Next pill- two for the show. The place was packed tonight. A full house, all waiting to see Billy Rodgers’ farewell performance. Not that any of them knew that. They’d be laughing the whole time. Laughing, not worrying that anything was wrong. What could be wrong when you were watching the great clown?

“But Doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”

Next pill- three to get ready. Billy checked his watch again. Time already? The booze and the pills were making his head swim. Good thing he’d done this set a hundred times before. It was good, solid stuff, at least he didn’t have to worry about that. It would bring a smile to anyone’s face.

“But Doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”

Last pill- four to go. Billy stood up and finished the rest of his drink in one gulp, just as they turned down the house lights.

“Showtime,” he said aloud. And in that moment everything melted away. Because when Billy stepped out onto a stage and put on his mask, the mask of the great clown, the man behind it disappeared.

And this time he would stay gone. No more tears, no more pain. Never another word about depression, alcoholism, or mental illness. Just laughter.

Billy Rodgers couldn’t see much of the audience under those bright lights, but he could hear them laughing. Sometimes muted, sometimes deafening, but always laughing. The sounds swam together. A giggle, a guffaw, a big bellylaugh, a snort- a cacophony of mirth.

It was his mother laughing at him in the hospital waiting room, it was the audience who had laughed at his first show on amatuer night, it was Molly laughing at the silly voices he used to do during playtime. It was the culmination of all those times that Billy had wanted to laugh himself and couldn’t manage anything besides a hiccupping sob.

When Billy Rodgers collapsed, it was in the middle of a joke that he’d never told onstage before. He threw it in, knowing somewhere in the back of his foggy, slipping mind that he’d never have the chance to make it to the punchline.

It was a shame. Billy had always thought that there was just something about that punchline.

“But Doctor,” he says, “I am Pagliacci.”

It’s his last thought as he collapses upon the stage, laughter still ringing in his ears.

Bright & Beautiful – An Excerpt from the Novel

It’s the Roaring Twenties, and Oliver Montcrieff is living the American Dream. He’s one of the wealthy elite, a world where rules are written to be ignored, your place in society is measured by how much your friends envy you, and money can buy happiness. So what if his sister is a shameless flirt, his best friend an incorrigible troublemaker, and the love of his life married to another man? With a pedigree in one hand and a stack of cash in the other, you can do whatever you feel and have whatever you want. Why worry about how long it will last?

***

Prologue

We were jaded and it was wonderful.

We drifted through life like the achenes of dead dandelions, afraid to die and afraid that we would live forever.

We were ensnared by our own enchantments. We loved ourselves for all of the things we pretended to be, and we hated ourselves for all of the things that we feared others thought we were.

Days ran together and the nights never ended. We took slow drags from our cigarettes—orange embers drifted lazily to the ground, flickered for a moment, and faded away into the darkness.

When we slept, our dreams blazed so brilliantly that they threatened to incinerate even the myriad of stars that twinkled above our heads.

If you cut us open we would bleed gin and jazz.

We were bright and beautiful, but we could be terribly ugly sometimes.

Tigers on Parade – A Short Story

Once, when I was small, my father took me to the zoo to see the tigers. They were a new and temporary exhibit, just in from southern Asia. We only had a few days to go and look at them before they departed for a bigger zoo in the city.

Mother had not wanted to come with us. She said that she didn’t like cats, and that if she changed her mind she could always go see them sometime when she was in the city. I asked her if she would take me with her, if she went to see the tigers. She laughed and patted me on the head. “You’ll have seen them already,” she said.

Father and I left the house for breakfast. We went to a diner with a black and white checkered floor and a bar with bright red stools to sit on. “You can order anything you want,” Father said. I chose a stack of waffles with ice cream on top. Mother, had she been there, would never have allowed such a thing. But on this magic day— the day of the tigers— anything was possible.

We walked to the zoo. It was farther than I’d ever walked before, and I grew so tired that Father practically dragged me along behind him while I clung feebly to his hand. Twice he asked me if I wanted to go to the zoo another day. I shook my head stubbornly and willed myself to take one more step, and then another. I was determined to see the tigers. Waiting another day meant one less chance before they were packed up in their truck and shipped away.

It took an age to get to the zoo. When we finally passed through its iron gates, a crowd had already gathered before the tiger pen. We weaved our way to the front. Father carried his chin high, looking ahead, looking for openings to squeeze through. I looked at the people. I remember the faces of almost everyone we passed. An old man with white whiskers. A little girl with a red balloon on a string. A cotton candy vendor in a striped apron. Please do not feed the animals, his sign read. I held Father’s hand as he led me up to the enclosure.

The tigers were restless. They paced before us, snarling, orange and black behemoths. I wanted to know what they thought about as they stalked across their pen. Did they miss the jungle, the feel of cool, wet grass against their fur after a rainfall? Had they lain out in the sun and flicked their tails at the flies? Were they happy then? Were they happier now? What was it to be a tiger? Was it better to be a tiger in a zoo, well-fed and never worried, or a tiger in the jungle, with all its danger and uncertainty and wild, unfettered freedom? I locked eyes with one of them— its eyes were as shockingly green as a glass bottle, and they had that same dull shine. I could read nothing in them.

Father and I stood watching the tigers. We stayed longer than anyone else. We were still there watching when the old man scratched his whiskers and turned to his granddaughter, telling her it was time to leave. She cried and fussed so hard that she let go of her red balloon. It floated off into the sky as her grandfather pulled her away. We were still there watching when the cotton candy vendor sold out. All he had left was a tiny bit of pink fluff, too small to charge for. He let me have it. I stood watching the tigers and sucking on my sticky fingers, crunching the sugar crystals between my teeth, thinking that this was the most magnificent moment of my young life.

“I hope Mother changes her mind,” I said.

Father dropped my hand in surprise, staring down at me.

“About the tigers,” I explained.

My father sighed and rubbed his face with one hand. “You know your mother,” he said. “She never changes her mind about anything.”

He took my hand again and we watched the tigers more. The one I had befriended kept turning its head to look at me as it passed back and forth behind the bars.

The keeper came by and threw slabs of raw, thick steak into the tiger cage. They pounced on the meat, devouring it in a haze of blood and teeth, snarling at their meal and at one another.

“It’s almost dinnertime for us, too,” Father said quietly, squeezing my hand. I was surprised. I hadn’t realized how long we had stayed in front of their pen.

I tried to say goodbye to my favorite tiger, but he was too busy to look at me. In his hunger, it was as though he’d forgotten all about me. I promised that I’d see him in the city someday.

We started the walk back home, and I was even more exhausted than I had been on the way to the zoo. My father picked me up and put me over his shoulder, and I tried to nap. But only my body was tired. My mind was racing with a thousand tiny, wonderful things I had seen at the zoo, and I needed to remember each and every one of them so that Mother would know what she had missed.

I didn’t get the chance to tell her that evening. When Father and I arrived home, the house was empty. Mother wasn’t back by dinnertime, or by bathtime, or by bedtime.

I asked my father where she was.

He asked, “Did you like the tigers?”

I nodded. He tucked me into bed without answering my question, and I didn’t ask again.

That night, I dreamed that Mother and I were sitting in a cage while a parade of tigers strolled by and watched us.