When he entered the bar and approached the owner the owner sat on a stool with his back turned to him and bent, brooding over the counter and elbows resting on the varnished wooden surface like some devout monk at prayer on a pew. Even by a bar’s standards it was late now and all the customers had gone home and it was quiet except for the clinking of glasses as the bartender performed his final cleaning and arranging before calling it a day. He sat down beside the owner and clasped his hands on the counter in a schoolboy style and then separated them nervously over the surface and at last placed them on his lap. The owner noted this from the corner of his eye.
“Can I get you a drink?” he said.
“I’m all good.”
“I insist. On the house.”
The owner signaled to the bartender and pointed to his seatmate. The bartender nodded and faded into that ubiquitous and elusive background behind the bar that always escapes the customer’s consciousness and perception and then came back with a glass for him and filled it. He took the glass and cradled it in his two hands like some hallowed chalice. The owner watched him. He put the glass to his lips and took a small tokenistic sip and as if in a sort of pavlovian response the owner took his own sip and set the glass on the table and turned to him and said, “How’d you been liking the gigs here?”
“Your first time, you said?”
“Were they how you expected them to be?”
“How are your folks doing?”
“They’re doing fine.”
“You got any girl back home?”
“Listen. Sorry sir. But did you call me here so late to schedule an interview?”
The owner sighed and took another sip from the glass. He grimaced as he swallowed and then exhaled.
“Sorry kid,” he said. “I’ve been thinking all night about how to say this but I realize there’s no suave way to go about it. So here it is. I’m thinking to cancel your act.”
“Cancel it. Change it for another act. Someone else’s.”
“You’re firing me aren’t you.”
“The thing is. Well.”
“I always come on time. I’m never late or anything.”
“I know it.”
“I don’t get into fights with anyone.”
“I know I know.
“I don’t — “
“Look.” The owner put his glass on the bar with a dull thud like some judge calling order with his gavel. “The thing is you’re just not funny. You know?”
“But the people laugh don’t they?”
“They’re being polite. They’re supposed to laugh. The real test is what they say about you after the show. When the comedian is gone and they’re talking among themselves. They don’t find you funny. You don’t have the razzmatazz.”
“The delivery. The showiness. Listen, being a comedian’s not just about reading out jokes. If that were the case just buy everyone in the crowd a joke book why don’t you. You got to make it come alive. You have to have human presence.”
“I guess I could add a little more gestures.”
The owner grimaced and shook his head. “It’s not just that, kid. I mean you’re up there on stage and you’re shaking all over like you’re at the point of some epileptic seizure or something and it’s a pity to watch. Like we got to call an ambulance just in case or something.”
The comedian’s face darkened. He turned away from the owner and looked toward his own glass and he stirred it absentmindedly in his hand.
“Look I’m sorry,” said the owner. “This is a business more than anything. We got to give the customers what they pay for.”
“This is the only thing I know how to do.”
“Can’t you give me another chance?”
“Kid, listen. I want to. I mean it. And if we lived in some fantasy land I would give you another chance. But there are a whole lot of other acts that want to come and replace yours. Up and coming comics such as yourself. We have to give them a shot too. And we can only keep the ones that the customers like. That’s the name of the game. I hope you understand me.”
The comedian turned away and stared into his glass. Then he pushed himself away from the counter and stood up from his stool and the owner jerked back because he thought the comedian was going to strike at him. The comedian didn’t notice this. He stood up and pushed his chest out like a caricatural effigy and with exaggerated and unnatural hand gestures started to declaim some frantic spiel that started with, “So the other day I was walking…”
The owner shook his head and put his hand up and waved at him to stop. The comedian didn’t pay heed and just kept going. He was working to the climax now and in between the words his breathing became rapid and frantic and wheezy like some asthmatic introvert forced to recite in front of a lecture hall.
“Stop stop stop please,” said the owner.
“Just wait for the punchline.”
“This is the best one I’ve written yet.”
The comedian went at it again picking up from where he left off. He sounded like he was about to cry. The owner tried to keep a straight face for there was a sad hilarity in all of this.
“Stop,” the owner shouted. “Just stop.”
“I need this job sir.”
“I can’t give it to you. You’re not funny.”
The comedian’s lower lip trembled for a moment. He took the glass of whiskey and then threw it on the ground. It shattered on the floor in a thousand shards sliding with a scratchdrag noise. Glimmering in the spilled liquor they looked like pieces of melting ice. The owner turned his hands up with a shrug in a helpless gesture of exasperation. The bartender stood behind the counter wiping a glass dry with a towel. He had an expression that could mean anywhere from indifference to bemusement to restrained laughter to stoically controlled anger at the added work. Or perhaps a combination of all.
The comedian rushed out of the bar with heavy thudding steps and his torso leaning forward like some thug charging into a fight and then slammed the door behind him. The owner watched and shook his head and then turned back to the counter and downed what remained of his drink. The bartender took a dustpan then flipped up the part of the counter that served as the door and walked to the mess and bent down and started to collect the broken wet shards with his hands. He took out a rag and started to wipe the liquor. The warm wood smell of whiskey filled the bar.
“This is a thankless job,” said the owner.
The owner looked down at the bartender. The rag was so saturated with the liquor that he was merely pushing the puddle around into different shapes. The owner reached out and grabbed some napkins from across the counter and bent down to put them onto the puddle. They clotted into a translucent and soggy alcoholic mash.
“Thank you, sir,” said the bartender.
The owner waved this away with his hand. “Don’t mention it.”
The owner collected the mash in his hands and put it in the dustpan. Splotch. It looked like the beginnings of an avantgarde papiermache sculpture created by some artist stimulated by spirits both mystical and alcoholic. The bartender took out a handbroom and started to collect the small shards into the dustpan. The owner stopped him.
“Let me do it,” he said. “You go and finish cleaning up.”
“No need sir.”
“Alright. Thank you, sir.”
When the owner had gathered all the remaining broken glass bits and thrown them into the garbage bin the bartender had finished cleaning as well and was making to get his rucksack and go home. It was past midnight now.
“I did the right thing didn’t I?” said the owner.
“You didn’t have another choice. Did you?”
“No. I guess not.”
“You have a good night, sir.”
The owner sighed. “You too.”
The bartender smiled and nodded at him and left the bar and the owner stood by the door and contemplated his empty bar and then sighed and turned off the lights.
This story had three false starts. I wanted to write something about a comedian who thinks he’s funny but actually not. And something with a bar scene. And I really like bar scenes. Like the opening scene of Cities of the Plain and also Hemingway’s The Killers. And I really like this painting of Edward Hopper.
I couldn’t think of any way to end the story though. I ended up with this one. It has a curt, chekhovian inconclusiveness to it. I quite like it.