Stop trembling, hand, she thinks as she reaches into the pocket of her oversized camel-colored houndstooth blazer. She adjusts her tie, which is also too big and printed with brown and red paisley. A single muffled chuckle escapes. From where, she’s unsure. She ventures a look into the bright black void, her skin prickly under the stiff hot lights, and squints to demystify the hazy crowd of shadow heads scrutinizing her every move. Cigarette smoke and itchy anticipation fill the room and her lungs. She pulls the tape recorder from her pocket, presses record, places it on the stool to her right side, and exhales slowly.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she says, too softly, into the mic. Louder now and as casually as possible: “It’s part of the job.”
She clears her throat, pulls a notepad out of her other jacket pocket, and retrieves a pencil from somewhere in that frizzy triangle bob on her head. “So,” she says, turning to the stool. “Tell me in your own words what it’s like to be a stool.” To the audience now, she shrugs and says, “The life of a furniture journalist is never easy.”
Silence so quiet she can hear someone in the back unsuction their pint glass from a sticky wet table—one of the two drinks they were forced to purchase to see this show.
“I kid. The tape recorder’s for me.”
The words keep coming, but inside she’s freefalling. At the end of her set, when the flashing red light stabs at her over and over, she folds into a meek bow and backs off stage as the emcee barrels up to recover the mic and the evening’s dignity in one deft move.
“Fran Lefkowitz, everyone,” he says, excruciatingly deadpan. “And now, put your hands together for one of our favorites here at the HaHa Lounge and soon to be one of yours as well…Dave Meyerson!”
In the green room, which is really just the hallway between the stage entrance and the kitchen, Fran slumps onto a cracked faux leather couch and unconsciously pulls white fuzz from a hole probably dug out of another comic’s frustration. She twirls each fuzzy tuft between her fingers, ties a knot in the center, and drops it to the ground. In the background, muffled Dave Meyerson sets one up, Wah wah wah, wah wah wah. Wah wah, wah wah wah, and kills it with a punchline, Wah wah wah wah wah! He pauses for laughter, real and crackly and maddening. Fran smacks her hand on the couch in a burst of frustration, just as Ernie James waddles over, barely hanging onto a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, wispy gray hairs wilding from his speckled balding head. Ernie’s a fixture at the HaHa Lounge, like an old dusty lightbulb you haven’t had time to change.
“Little lady, that sounded rough,” he spits through yellowed teeth. “Try wearing a tight dress or something. And, you know, telling jokes.” Two streams of smoke billow from his nostrils, dragon-like. Fran simultaneously waves him and the smoke out of her face. He ambles on unconcerned. But then she takes out her notepad and in dark, pressured pencil, writes, “TELL JOKES!!”
Two nights later, Fran slinks into the wings to watch the show. Marla brings her a seltzer and lime from the kitchen, and she sips and absorbs the rhythm of the room. You could set your watch to Dave Meyerson’s jokes. A question to draw them in: “You know what really gets my goat?” A specific observation that they can picture in their minds: “When the man at the shawarma place asks for my name.” And then the innocuous punchline, just unexpected enough to elicit a fleeting chuckle: “It’s like, Amir, I’m your brother-in-law.” He skips from club to club skimming these perfunctory laughs off the surface of the crowd like dead flies from a pool. They like him all right, and they’ll say they had a nice night. But will they remember him in the morning? Laugh again in the shower, remembering the shawarma guy bit? Fran looks around. They’re dipping mozzarella sticks and sucking chicken wings. She doesn’t think they will.
Ernie James appears at her side, a whiskey-coke sloshing in his hand. “That’s how you do it. That’s how you rack up those laughs,” he says, pointing a crooked finger at the stage. “He’s gonna be big time.”
“You think so?”
“I’ve seen a lot of comics in my day. He’s got the look. You, on the other hand?” His eyes travel too slowly down her body.
Fran rolls her eyes. “But does he have the act?”
“He has an act. And it’s good enough.”
“Good enough,” Fran repeats, nodding.
At home, in the reflective 1 a.m. quiet, Fran takes off the blazer and throws it aside. A whiff of musky sour flies across her nostrils, and in that split second she’s a little girl again, on her dad’s lap. Together they singsong Steve Martin’s nonsense words, which spin out from the turntable before them—“May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?”—and double over giggling. She was too young to know why it was funny, but she wasn’t too young to recognize silly sounds and unbridled joy.
She empties an In-N-Out bag—burger, fries, ketchup packets—onto the coffee table, uncaps a chocolate milkshake, dips a fry in it, and inserts the VHS. She Scotch-taped over “AK HBO ‘77” long ago. She rubs the label with her thumb. Five wild, chicken-scratched letters, a rogue apostrophe, and two loopy sevens on a VHS label are the only remaining extensions she has of his enormous exuberance. She presses play.
The staticky lines on the TV give way to a blinking, wide-eyed Andy Kaufman scanning the audience in front of him, looking devastated. “I don’t understand one thing,” he says in his boyish voice. “No seriously, why everyone is going, ‘Boooo!’ on, like, the joke when I tell some of the jokes, and then when I don’t want you to laugh, you’re laughing, like right now. I don’t understand.” The audience loves it. He continues, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you. I think…It’s not working, so I think, thank you very much and I’m sorry. There’s other acts, so I really shouldn’t have done this.” When he storms off stage to roaring laughter, the milky French fry still dangles from Fran’s mouth. She picks up the remote, hits rewind, and chews on the soggy strip of potato, counting to the right spot before pressing play again. And again and again, her salty lips mouthing the words.
After corralling the fast food wrappers into the garbage can, she takes out her notepad. “TELL JOKES!!” stares back at her. But so does her father’s blazer, which holds his thunderous laugh, his limitless generosity, the words he said every single time that special ended: “Andy was never anybody but himself. Don’t you ever be anybody but yourself.”
When she rips out the page, the impression of “TELL JOKES!!” persists.
Three days later, the “TELL JOKES!!” dent has been folded, scribbled over, and torn ten times over. Fran shuffles through the back door of the club, lugging her heavy tote, which she gingerly sets on the floor next to the cracked couch. She paces the hallway, mumbling to herself and dodging other comics doing the same. Waitresses hurry by, delivering drinks and making change. She checks her watch, her tote, her notepad, her watch, her tote, her notepad, watch, tote, notepad. Then, she’s next.
“Our next comedian is…certainly one of a kind. Let’s hear it for Fran Lefkowitz, everybody.”
Fran shuffles onstage with her heavy tote digging into her shoulder. She drags the stool so it sits right next to the mic stand and groans when she finally sets down the tote. A few involuntarily guffaws escape from the crowd and fizzle quickly in the stale air. Fran holds up the straps of the bag. Her lips graze the cold cage of the mic. A throat clears to her left. Fran’s heartbeat is the loudest thing in the room.
“Good evening,” she says quietly, with a nod of the head. “Thank you for coming to the show. I know you came to see me tell jokes, but I’m not much in the mood for jokes at the moment.”
The hand that’s not holding onto the bag clenches into a fist then opens wide. She tugs the blazer, adjusts her tie, and continues. “You see, I’ve been having relationship troubles lately, and well, you all seem like nice people, so I thought you could maybe help me talk this over with my boyfriend.” At that, she drops the straps to reveal a giant green watermelon. An audience member up front whispers, “Watermelon,” too loud and sneery laughter ripples out.
“I hate to do this,” Fran continues, louder now, “but he is a terrible communicator!” She faces the oversized fruit and says to it, “Tell them what you told me before.” She extracts the mic from the stand and holds it up to the watermelon. Silence. Frustrated, she takes back the mic and says, “Go on, tell them what you dared to say to me just as we were about to leave to attend the opera the other night.” She sticks the mic toward the watermelon, urging it to speak. Nothing. She shakes her head, moves the mic to the other hand, and checks her watch. A drunk couple in front chuckles. Fran sighs, rolls her eyes, and taps her foot. She shifts the microphone back to her other hand and puts her hand on her hip. “They’re all waiting for you to say something,” she says to the giant fruit on the stool next to her. More laughter escapes from the crowd, each outburst emboldening her. Fran sighs even louder and shoves the microphone at the watermelon. It makes a dunph sound when it hits and the watermelon rocks back and forth. The audience dam breaks. A true wave of laughter washes up to Fran’s feet. Mocking boredom now, she spins around, wrapping herself in the mic cord as she waits for her watermelon boyfriend to respond to her very simple question. She spins the other way, unraveling herself, and keeps spinning when the watermelon once again says nothing. Another wave of laughter tickles her knees. She’s spinning and tapping and sighing. An exaggerated, mock-frustrated dance. Her arms fly out and her elbows puncture the air, which now froths with laughter. Shoulders shrug and relax, knees buckle and straighten, she’s concave, then convex, floppy, rigid, upside down, then right side up. They’re laughing fiercely now, and she’s floating. They’re with her; she’s wrapped them up. The entire room is one breathing, joyous being, and she doesn’t want it to end.
Her breath catches when she feels them finally start to tug away, then she exhales deeply and pauses. Fran looks to her people, then back to the watermelon. Slowly, as their faces and bellies recover, she brings the microphone up to her mouth. “Oh my god, you guys. Oh no, this is embarrassing. I just realized why he won’t say anything,” she says, sucking air through her teeth. Leaning forward, emphasizing each word, she looks to either side of her conspiratorially before admitting, “He doesn’t have a mouth.” Howls. “I just realized that, and we’ve been together for three years.” Shrieks. She shakes her head in mock embarrassment. “This is totally my bad. How embarrassing. I’m so sorry about this. Wow. What a waste of time!” Applause now. Inside, she leaps. The flashing red light is back, this time clapping in time with the room. She turns to the watermelon and says, “Come on, let’s get out of here.” Then, to the audience: “What am I doing? He doesn’t have ears either!” One last roar. She lifts up the watermelon and backs off stage, bowing and gesturing to the melon in her bag, her silent scene partner, to do the same.
Backstage, Fran beams. She falls onto the cracked couch, buzzing with energy, eyes darting around, ready. For what, she doesn’t know. Unconsciously, she pulls wisps of white fuzz from the hole in the couch and tosses them away. They float down softly and settle around her corduroy culottes like tiny clouds. Waitresses whiz by, but one stops, and Fran looks up, poised to celebrate.
“Did you get your drinks?” she says, unaffected, tired, holding out two soggy red raffle tickets.
“Oh, I’m OK,” Fran hears herself say.
The waitress approaches another comic and repeats her question. Fran scans the hallway. She can’t sit any longer. She’s losing it, the feeling. Got to keep moving. She grabs her tote and pushes out the back door into the cool midnight air. Her car sits alone in the lighted corner of the dark parking lot. She takes a deep breath in and holds it while she marches past the stinking dumpster, filled with chicken bones and worse nights.
Fran squeezes the steering wheel as she drives, trying with all her might to hold on to the adrenaline. By the time she reaches the drive-thru, slight panic sets in. Instead of succumbing to the terrible fright that she’s losing this wondrous feeling, she shakes the fear away and orders a basket of tacos and a large Diet Coke. At home, she settles onto the couch, laser-focused on recovering every single detail of what just happened.
With each messy bite, Fran scrambles to recreate the set in her mind, to reignite each thrilling spark. But it’s falling away with every second that passes. It’s like those baffling moments after just waking up from a dream. The details fly out of her brain before she can grab them, run them through her fingers, examine and understand them. When did she realize the audience was on board? What inflection did she use when she talked to the watermelon? What if next time, the melon won’t balance on the stool? Crumbly beef tumbles out of the sides of her taco. Lettuce abandons ship in both directions, and not one diced onion makes it into her mouth as the shell breaks to pieces in her hand. It’s hopeless. She gives up, throws the broken taco down, and wipes her hands with a napkin. It’s gone. She sits back, takes a long drag of Diet Coke, and lets the middle-of-the-nightness wash over her. Fran shrinks into the sleeves of her father’s blazer, then brings them up to her face. One deep breath in. Another. Outside, a flashing red light. A construction crew at work. Building something.