short story #53
“Listen,” the bar manager said. “Listen. Hey, are you sweating? You are. You’re sweating. Christ! You’re nervous, aren’t you? Kid, listen. I’m sorry but this clearly isn’t for you. I mean just look at yourself! You’re a mess! Let’s call it off while we still can. Jerry! Jerry! Get over here. We’re cancelling the first act.”
“Wait, stop,” she said. “Stop, sir. Please. You promised. One more chance, you said.”
“Well, I’ve changed my mind.”
“You can’t just do that, sir.”
“Kid, look, I can’t afford to take any more risks. You’ve bombed all nights since I hired you. No one’s laughing. No one finds you funny. The silence … and seeing you just sweating there … it’s excruciating, for crying out loud! You’re making me lose customers.”
“Not this time, sir. I have a new act I’ve been practicing for a week now. Modelling balloons. Look!”
“Balloons? Balloons? Christ. Jerry! Jerry, where are you? Get over here. The show starts in less than five minutes. You’re up.”
“Please, sir. I’ve been staying up all night practicing. I promise I’ll get them this time. Please.”
“Look. I’m sorry but you’re just not funny, kid. Maybe you could try something else. A young girl like you… You’ll figure something out. I heard they’re hiring a waitress in the canteen down the street.”
“No. Sir. Just give me this one chance. Please. I have nothing left. I’m no good at anything else. I’ll give a good one this time. I swear.”
“Sir, I’m begging you.”
“…Aw, alright! Alright! But just five minutes, got it?”
“And if you bomb … don’t even think about showing your face here again, you hear me?”
“Alright. Jerry, hold up. We’ll give this kid a shot. You, get up there. Will someone get her a towel! Wipe that sweat off of you.”
“Thank you! Thank you, sir! You won’t regret it.”
“God help her,” the manager whispered to himself as she climbed up the stage.
The initial applause stopped as she got onto centerstage, right in front of the mic. All was a silence. A lone cough, a throat clearing. A dry remark, scarcely heard: “Oh no it’s that fat girl again”. The spotlight shining on the stage was very white and bright and hot and she couldn’t see the audience. Nonetheless, she felt the prickle of their stares, the tenseness of that dull yet hostile hush, the needlelike tingling of droplets of sweat forming on her scalp, her neck.
She extended her head towards the microphone, her hands unsteady, unsure where to settle.
“Hello everyone,” she said.
Some shrill feedback from the mic, followed by silence.
“Um… yes, it’s me again,” she said. “Uh…”
“I can’t look,” said the manager from backstage, slapping palm to forehead. “Oh God, what was I thinking?”
“So I have a new act I’ve been practicing,” she said, taking out something tucked in the back pocket of her trousers. It was a manual balloon pump. She held it out to the audience. “Ta-dah,” she said.
“What is it, a douche?” someone shouted from the audience.
Light sniggering followed.
She gulped. She brought out from her pocket some long unblown balloons, of different bright and fun colors, and held them dangling elastically between her thumb and forefinger. “Balloon modelling!” she proudly proclaimed.
“You’re NOT funny!” said another anonymous voice.
She could feel some lines of sweat sliding down the back of her neck. She felt her hair start to stick to her skin. She took one balloon and stretched the opening out to the nozzle of the pump and she pulled and pressed, pulled and pressed. But no air was coming out.
She pulled and pressed again. Nothing.
She glanced at the direction of the audience. She forced a brief smile. “Hold on there,” she said. She fumbled with the pump, tried to find what was wrong with it so she could try to fix it. She figured she must have broken it with all her hours practicing. Her fingers were trembling. Her head bumped the mic and it shook noisily and there was some more feedback.
“Get her off the stage!” said an audience member.
“Next!” said another.
She tried to blow into the balloon with her own mouth instead. But it would not inflate, for they were newly bought balloons. She inhaled then exhaled with all her might — her torso thrown forward, her cheeks painfully bloated — but the balloon would not expand and she was getting light-headed. She could hear, she could feel the troubled buzz of the crowd, the stray heckles coming from all sides, all unseen and anonymous and fierce like ghoulish voices from a dark abyss. Soon she could no longer distinguish the rapid, panicking voice in her head from those surrounding her.
Backstage, the manager was getting ready to cut her off. It was getting ugly. She was scared stiff like a cat and soaked through with sweat and breathing rapidly. “Jerry,” he whimpered. “Get up there. Save her. Oh God, she’s hopeless.”
Suddenly she screeched into the mic: “It’s a snake!”
Her eyes wide with manic fright, her hair clumped into wet locks, her face gleaming with sweat, she stretched out the strip of balloon between her two hands. “A flying snake!” she said. She let go of it like a slingshot and the rubber flew into the crowd. “Watch out! Look at it go!” she said. Everyone was so stunned.
She took out some more unblown balloons from her pocket. She took two and started to twist and tie them together in a flurry of fingers and she held out the balloons, now clumped in dangling knots, limp, long, rubbery. “A pretzel,” she said. She quickly untied the balloons and reconfigured their shape. She finished another sculpture of inert rubber. “The Loch Ness Monster,” she said.
There were some chuckles now from the audience.
“Now?” said Jerry from backstage, putting a foot up the stage.
The manager held him back. “Shh. Wait. Let’s wait and see how this will turn out.”
“Mmmmmphmmphmmphtttt,” she was saying on the mic, her lips pursed and her cheeks bubbling as she flaunted and bounced her bizarre creation through the air as though it were sailing through a lake, the loose limbs springing up and down. The audience was laughing now; the manager peeked through the curtains and he could see members bending forward on their seats, shaking uncontrollably, holding their stomachs, slapping their thighs.
She continued making more airless balloon sculptures, tossing each one away as the audience cracked up.
“A DNA molecule!”
“The Sydney Opera House!”
“Ariana Grande, on another diet!”
She inserted a forefinger into one of the balloons and wiggled it around. “A puppet!”
“Pleased to meet you all,” said the rubber finger puppet in a high-pitched voice.
The laughter of the audience was renewed each time with louder and louder bursts of hilarity. Some of them were wiping their eyes.
She placed her hand in her pockets and she pulled them out and they were empty. “No more balloons,” she said.
“Aw,” said the audience collectively.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “I forgot. I still have one more here.”
She took a full step away from the mic as the spotlight followed her. In a snap she puffed herself up, expanding her cheeks, her stomach, screwing up her face, holding her arms and legs akimbo. It looked like she had doubled in size like a puffer fish. The crowd exploded at the absurdity of it.
“But seriously,” she said…
And she proceeded with the rest of her spiel… Everyone in the crowd was having a good time.
“Thank you,” she said when she finished. She raised her hand to them. “Thank you. Good night.” She bowed to them. The audience applauded and they started getting on their feet to give a standing ovation.
“Wow,” said Jerry, clapping too, watching from backstage. “She killed it.”
“She did, didn’t she?” the manager said, chuckling. “I’ve never seen that one before.”
“How is anyone supposed to go on after that?” Jerry said.
The audience was still on their feet, applauding, whistling, as she beamed and basked in the new and never-felt thrill of triumph.
Thanks for reading. I got the idea for this story from one of my favorite stand-up acts of Steve Martin. He does it best.