“That bit you did about being cut from your high school gymnastics team because your testicles weren’t big enough was something son,” Howie told Barry. “Is it true?”
“No,” Barry said. He felt a warm glow for the compliment, and he considered the backstory almost as funny. “I-”
“Shht, don’t tell me the story behind it,” Howie said, cutting Barry off. “Let me live the line.”
Was that a compliment? Barry wondered, as he sat on a windowsill next to Howie, waiting for another comedian to join them. If it was, what an odd, backhanded compliment Barry thought. Let me live the line. Barry didn’t receive too many compliments, so he soaked it in for a moment.
Barry returned the compliment by reciting some of Howie’s best lines, and Howie was somewhat receptive but mostly dismissive, saying, “I’ve been doing this a long time son.” The man called Barry son from the moment the two of them met backstage when Barry was all but fawning over the man, but the manner in which he addressed Barry didn’t feel old world. As Howie continued to do it, it began to feel more and more familiar. Let me live the line might’ve meant that Howie wanted to digest it to use it in his own act, Barry supposed, as he told Howie what he was doing, going around the country, and if that’s the case then it might be the ultimate compliment. Barry flirted with the notion of coming back to Chesapeake Bay for Howie’s the next second Tuesday of the month just to see if the man lived the line well enough to develop material around it.
Howard Mills performed in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland every second Thursday of the month. Barry caught the man’s act in the brutal cold month of February. Howard Mills wasn’t hilarious, but Barry considered the man’s act original. He wanted to know more about Howard, so he sought him out after the show. Barry rarely sought out other comedians after a show. He was the newbie so he felt awkward crossing that boundary with a more veteran comedian. He often let it happen in a more organic fashion. Barry was always one of the first acts, and he would watch every one who followed him, and wait for those who gathered after the show. After the show, the performers often gathered to eat good, inexpensive food that one of them knew.
In just about every hamlet, town, and city, the comedians and other performers, loved “after the show” conversations. Most comedians romanticized comedians like Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, and Dennis Miller, and anytime those comedians gathered, they always talked about the after show conversations they had in previous eras. They would usually find some local dive someone said served something delicious. When Barry sought Howie out after the show, Barry expected the man to drop pearls of wisdom on Barry, but in that regard he was disappointed. As with most funny people Barry met, Howie was relatively quiet and somber off the stage.
“I’ve done a number of shows now,” Barry added, as if to change the subject in his own mind while concluding the subject of their conversation, “and I’ve never seen an unsung comedian as funny as you are Mr. Mills.”
“It’s Howie, son. It’s just Howie,” he said, “and thank you. I really enjoy doing this. Preparing material for these little show keeps me on the straight and narrow.”
“What’s the straight and narrow?” Barry said. “I don’t know, but it’s better than the curvy and wide. Trust me. Been there. Done that.”
“No,” Howie said. “I appreciate the effort, but no.”
When Angela, the other comedian Howie invited to join them, exited the bar, Howie and Barry stood up to join her at the local coffee and eggs diner. They introduced themselves, and they all complimented one another on their act, as they walked across the street to the little diner.
“If we go in there,” Howie said after Barry reached for the door for the diner, and before he could touch it. “Let’s just get coffee. I have farm fresh eggs and bacon at my house, and you’re both welcome to it.”
Angela and Barry looked at one another. Angela pumped an eyebrow at Barry, and they both looked back at Howie.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong the eggs and bacon here,” Howie said, “but they’re not farm fresh. I can’t eat anything else now.”
“I don’t need coffee,” Angela said.
“Me neither,” Barry said.
The three of them talked about their favorite bits and routines through the years, as they worked their way through the grid of Chesapeake Bay to find the paid parking lot where Howie parked his car every second Tuesday of the month. This long walk annoyed Barry, because he was freezing. It was the middle of February, and they were on an endless trek for a car. Barry decided he made a huge mistake not going to that first diner, where it was all warm and toasty.
Howie mentioned the comedy album he cherished when he was younger. “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” he said. “I listened to that album so many times that I memorized it. I know the jokes so well that I even have the tones and pauses down. It’s the reason I do this,” he said. Howie then listed off other old-world comedians Angela and Barry knew who, he said, laid the groundwork for the comedians we all know and love. “He doesn’t get the credit nowadays, but there was a day when Newhart was the king of comedy.” He listed off other comedians who didn’t receive the credit they deserve, but Howie mostly spoke of unknown comedians who never made a dime outside Chesapeake Bay.
“Sam Kuhnz was my favorite,” Angela said, “but he wasn’t a local. He was from Chicago.”
“Oh, that’s right. I knew that.”
“Sam Kuhnz strolled through our town and just ripped it apart,” she added. “That guy was so good that everyone who saw him saw it. Sam saw it too. He had a timeline all mapped out in his head. He thought an appearance on Letterman or Leno was just around the corner for him. He worked his routine out every night, kind of like you Barry, going to strange, small places around the country. He did that stream of consciousness style riffing, like you. He told us about how he just laid audiences out in Vegas, got a request for a return to NYC, and he just got done ripping Chicago apart. Then, he hit a delay in his timeline, a holding pattern. I don’t know what happened, and either did Sam. He rewrote all his best stuff over one hundred times, and he did a greatest hits package of his best routines. He took the bits and pieces that all worked, and he put some quality minutes together, but it just didn’t pan out over the course of two years. He got impatient and really depressed about it, and then Sam Kuhnz took his own life. I think about him almost every day. Still the saddest thing I’ve seen in comedy.”
“That’s what you need Barry. You need to ‘greatest hits’ your routine,” Howie said to Barry. “I love the riff thing. You’re trying to keep it fresh, I get it, but you need to keep notes on what works best and put together a greatest hits bit.”
“I have notes on what works and what doesn’t. I have just about every minute of every routine I’ve done written down,” Barry said.
“There you go.”
When they finally arrived at Howie’s modified Charger, they found out why he paid to have his car parked. “It’s worth it to avoid some idiot door dinging it, keying it, or worse,” he said when Barry asked him about it. The Charger was immaculate, and Howie drove it faster than any senior citizen Barry ever met. The three of them attempted to speak, or Barry did anyway, but Angela and Howie couldn’t hear him over the sound of the Charger, and they found his attempts to speak over it hilarious.
The farm fresh eggs and bacon, and the fresh squeezed orange juice Howie didn’t mention were as advertised. “Maybe I was hungrier than I thought, but these were about the best eggs and bacon I’ve ever had. Thanks Howie!”
“You’re welcome son,” he said. “That must be Nebraska to be that grateful.”
“I’ve heard that.”
After they finished the meal, Howie said, “I’ll let you two clean up. I’m beat.” He then retired to his bedroom.
Barry laughed a little watching the man walk down the hallway.
“This is his home?” he whispered to Angela. “We don’t even know this guy, and he doesn’t know us. Isn’t he afraid we’ll steal something?”
“What’s he got to steal?” Angela said. “He’s a lonely old man.”
“All right, but you have to admit this is odd.”
“Should I go remind him that he drove us over here?” Barry said. “Should we call a cab? What do we do here?” he asked with a bit of confused laughter.
“We clean up,” Angela said. She stood, walked over to the oven, and untied the apron off the handle and put it on her waist. She removed her plate and Howie’s and put them in the sink. She then moved to Barry’s plate, but he stood before she could. He grabbed the other apron on the oven handle, and he helped her wash them.
“You do good work Barry Becker,” Angela said after he placed the final dish in the retainer to dry. When he turned to reply, she was in his comfort zone. He didn’t see that coming. He instinctually backed up a step and kicked his back heel against the oven’s aluminum bottom drawer. The hallow, aluminum clang could be heard throughout the house, Barry was quite sure. Angela didn’t laugh, and her smile was a warm one that proceeded an investigatory, small peck on Barry’s lips. Was that gratitude, Barry wondered, was that payment for a job well done? Before he could arrive at an answer, she was on him, kissing him.
The next morning, they had the more farm fresh eggs and bacon and fresh squeezed orange juice. This time Angela prepared them for Howie and Barry. They ate it on TV trays in the living room, silently watching a gymnast perform on the still rings.
“Look at the testicles on that one son,” Howie said, speaking through a mouthful of bacon.
Son? Barry thought, Why is he still calling me son?
“That’s some huge ratings right there,” Howie said. “If you had a unit like that, you probably would’ve made the Olympic Team. Yours couldn’t even make the high school team.”
“Dad!” Barry said impulsively. The tone he used suggested he was embarrassed before Angela by his father’s comment. He figured this was some sort of improvisational act Howie was playing, and Barry didn’t mind playing along. After saying it, however, he looked over at Angela in the din of uncomfortable silence that followed. He measured her reaction, then Howie’s.
“I tried to tell you to pursue augmentation,” Howie answered, “but you had to stay natural. You think those are natural son?” he asked pointing at the gymnast on the tube.
“Barry is well-equipped to handle most situations Mr. Mills,” Angela chimed in.
“I tried to tell you to pursue the career as a jockey,” Howie said. “It’s a career more suited for a man of your … limitations, but you don’t listen to your old man. You never listen.” Howie added looked over at Barry after saying those last three words. His eyes were steely, loaded with condemnation.
Barry laughed at that, but Angela and Howie weren’t laughing. Howie wasn’t even smiling, but Angela was. She smiled at him proudly, but offered nothing else. Howie turned back to the gymnastics broadcast, forking eggs into his mouth. Angela put a hand on Barry’s back, and she patted his back to console him, while looking at Howie with some unspoken grievance.
What is going on here, he thought, weird doesn’t even cover it. It’s an act. This whole thing is an improvisational act. Barry thought of calling this whole production out, but he didn’t know how extensive it was. He assumed Angela was the butt of the joke at first, but the climate of the room switched to the point that he thought he might be. If there is a butt, Barry thought. Is there a butt? Is this an improvised joke? Do you guys know each other? What’s going on here? Then it struck him. “Let me live the line,” Howie said back when they were sitting on the windowsill waiting for Angela. Are we living that line, the line? Am I living the line right now? I don’t get it.
“What doesn’t make sense in this life, might in another,” he thought, remembering the quote from his fellow comedian, Shell Cieslik. Whether he was ever able to make sense of this situation, he decided it would always be unreasonable. The question Barry asked himself, based on the George Bernard Shaw quote was, should I adapt myself to their unreasonable world, or should I force them to adapt to my more reasonable one, if … if all progress, as Shaw said, depends on the unreasonable man? Does the reasonable man travel around the country doing nightclubs and festivals? Is that why I was attracted to Howie? Is that why they’re attracted to me?
He thought of talking about it with them and investigating it based on the Shaw quote, when he looked at his phone.
“Holy crap! I gotta go,” he said downing the remnants of the fresh squeezed orange juice. “I’m sorry to cut this short, and thank you both for the delicious meals, but you gotta give me a ride back to my car.” As was often the case with Barry Becker, further analysis would have to wait. It was Friday, and he had to return to his hotel room, his laptop, and his job as a fraud analyst.