Before the laughter stopped Jeffrey Shannon had been a man of moderate fame and success. On the odd occasion he’d get noticed in the street, and on about every third night he’d have a drink bought for him in a bar. Although, such attention had grown fleeting in recent years. He’d grown old and his crass sense of humour had aged even worse, and soon he was just a relic from the era of the Andrew Dice Clay-types, and while he was still just in his fifties, he wore every year and every drink on his face.
Time had not treated him well, and neither had the bottle. Marriages had come and gone, as things were want to do in his life, and soon he found himself playing the darkest of rooms. He’d hit a rural casino here, a dive bar there. Always four gigs a week, still. It just had to be that way. And he never strayed far from home. He needed to come home every night. He owed it to someone.
His hair had gone grey with a peppering of colour, and his eyes of brown had grown darker over the years. Black, even. His doctor had never seen anything like it. Stress, he said, was the likeliest factor. Jeff thought otherwise. In his heart, he believed he’d just adapted to the dark of the half-empty rooms.
On this night, he’d driven from his home in Buffalo to a small native-owned casino across the border in Ontario. The place was even sleepier than he’d imagined, and as he made his way through the near-derelict rows of slot machines to the cocktail lounge, he thought of the man again, and the light from the hole.
His set had been going as they normally go: A few muffled laughs, a heckler or two – a few dry coughs from the back of the room to underscore his failings. No surprises. And no great surprises for the dozen or so in attendance either. The smoke-filled rooms of rural casinos have long been showbiz purgatory. Rare is the act on the up and up; rarer still is the act at rock bottom. Their cocktail lounges always had a way of finding that unhappy medium; that quiet, tree-lined road between success and failure.
Another joke died on the wind. Something about male hygiene, that started with that most horrible of set ups: Guys, the thing about women is. He was bombing, to be sure. But he wasn’t flat. And as he turned and drank from the glass of rye he’d laid on his stool, something clicked. What came next was genuine surprise.
“I stopped being funny years ago,” he mumbled out into the dark. “No big surprise.
“But it’s hard. It’s real hard.” And the room grew deathly quiet.
“You guys want to hear something actually funny? I wasn’t the comedian in my family. I was a quiet kid. My dad, he was a clown. No, he was an actual clown.”
An over served woman in the first row chuckled.
“What are you chuckling about? I’m serious. That’s not the funny part. He was an actual clown. What’s funny is how I don’t belong up here. Never have. He did.” And Jeff trailed off for a moment before focusing anew.
“He was a great man, my father. Like, really great. He did all the old gags: the balloons, the squirting flower, juggling. Had a tiny car too. He could tell jokes, though. He really could. One time I got beat up at school and I come walking through the door, my head down, nose all bloody. He comes over, he’s just finished work too, some kid’s party or some shit. Half the makeup is still on his face. Gives me a big hug, didn’t worry about getting blood on his costume or nothing. I cry, because I was a little bitch, and that’s what little bitches do. And he grabbed me by the shoulders, and held me out, in front of his face, studied me for a while. Then all I remember is a twinkle in his eye, and all he says is, ‘and I thought I had it rough.’”
He paced the stage, unfazed by the continued silence.
“Sweet guy, funny guy; always with a smile. Would give me piggyback rides to bed, always. Even in our little two-bedroom bungalow. Hell, my room was practically two steps from the couch. Mom hated that. She’d get on him about how I’d be expecting one every night until I was twelve, conditioned like some Pavlovian dog. She was wrong though. They went ‘til I was fourteen.”
“Don’t lie, that sounds great. Come on now.” And the over served woman nodded.
“See there we go! There’s life in the darkness after all. So where was I?”
To which a man in the shadows replied, “You were about to start your set!” And the comment was met with a smattering of laughter, even from Jeff himself.
“Right, right. Thank you sir. Hey, we have one laugh at least. I know I’m not funny anymore. Believe me. But indulge me, please.” And the aging comic returned to his story.
“So my dad, he’d throw me on his shoulders and gallop around and send me off to bed, and he’d tuck me in, kiss me on the cheek, all that good father stuff, then he’d turn off my light. His one mistake though, I’d always be too excited, it was the best part of every day for me. Sitting in the back of the class and getting my ass kicked was what awaited me in the cold light of day, but at night, for those few hours between the front door closing and the TV shutting off, I was a prince to him. It was a price I gladly paid every day. It was worth it, just to get back home. He was always smiling, my father. Always smiling when I got home.”
The crowd began to stir.
“I’ll do a dick joke after, I promise. Just give me this.” And the restlessness slowed.
“So I’d be in bed. But I was always too excited. So I’d tiptoe up to my door. And it was a lousy old place we lived in, to the point where the old lock on my door had just plain fell out. I didn’t even know that was possible. But my parents always saw the place as temporary – they were saving money for a better place, and for college for myself, so we never replaced the hole in the door. I’d sneak up to the light leaking in through the hole and I’d stand there for hours at a time some nights. And what I saw was a different man. His smile was gone; his face would sink. He’d sit on the couch with a game on in the background, and he’d place his day’s earnings in a shoebox; small bills, sometimes only a few. Were they tens or twenties? I don’t know. But they weren’t hundreds.
He’d light a smoke and look at the open box sitting there on the coffee table. And eventually that smoke would be down to the nub, that leftover ash hanging in its wake. He’d just sit there in silence. Nothing on his face but time itself. Looking so tired he couldn’t even sleep.
You know that feeling, don’t you? When you’re so tired you can’t sleep? Every night that’s what I saw.
And there I was, peering quietly through my little hole in the world. A secret passageway that led me right to him, and the brave face he put on, and all the sacrifices and sadness he endured for me.
I’m not funny anymore. I know that. We got a guy in the back of the room that just got a bigger laugh than me. But that’s why I’m still here. I saw what he did. I looked into that light. That’s why I’m here. I got a girl, pretty little one back home. Eight. Can you believe it? Even an old guy like me can have a beautiful little girl. I owe him this effort. I owe her.”
And Jeffrey Shannon, the man who was no longer funny, and the man who wore his failures in the lines on his face, stood there under the light in the darkness of a room he just sucked the oxygen from.
“It’s a beautiful world, man. It’s a beautiful world. So, about that dick joke!”
And a bolt of raucous laughter filled the dark. And in his head he was still watching his father through the hole in the door. Only this time, the man was smiling.