Illustration by Niki Waters @kneesandkeysart
“You guys have been entirely adequate. Enjoy the rest of the show. Goodnight.”
It was her oldest joke. She stepped off the low stage with two minutes left in her set. The MC wasn’t finished his cigarette, so the mic stand and stool stood alone in the narrow spotlight for another minute while the small crowd went to the bar. In the dark corridor out of the searing stage light, her sweat went cold. Rather than refreshing cool, the sweat stuck on her bare arms like a clammy jacket. The MC bowled down the corridor toward the stage.
“You’re done?” he burbled, rushing into the spotlight. “Give it up for Gwyneth Jacobi!” A reprise of embarrassed claps arose again from the gloomy club.
She picked up the club soda and lime where she left it next to the soundboard, still sparkling, still icy. She sipped seriously on the straw. The soundman sat with his chins on his palm staring sleepily at the MC who was now shouting barbarisms at the increasingly disinterested crowd attempting to shock their attention back to the stage.
“Think I lost them?” she asked the sound man?
“Y’ finished early,” he said without turning his head.
“Yeah—I, I was sure I was over time already.”
“MC gives the signal when you’ve got one minute.”
“Right. Yeah—yeah, I know. I always just get this feeling like I’m eating into someone else’s time, like they’re going to shut off the mic, or drop an anvil on my head, and I just kill it mid-joke.”
“MC gives the one minute. That’s when you wrap,” insisted the soundman, as though he hadn’t been heard.
“Yeah, sorry, I know, I—I’m out of practice.”
Gwyneth came to this club once or twice a week since she arrived in London. Sometimes she did stand-up. The manager usually had blocks of fifteen that he gave her. Not because she slayed crowds, but because her erstwhile fame back in the States gave some kind of gravity to the otherwise ordinary comedy bar. She was coming to this place—a subterranean Camden comedy bar—to test out new jokes. California was staid and predictable. LA comedy was designed to get Netflix specials, HBO series, or to sell a screenplay. In LA, bawdy jokes were tame and cute, long narratives were confessional and dour and stupidly popular. In London dick and pussy jokes were supposed to be revolting.
London took some getting used to. She’d been to Edinburgh for Fringe back when her show was winning Emmys, but never to a European mega hellhole like London. Her flat, a two-bedroom in Zone 1, overlooked Regent Park. Car horns woke her every morning. Drunks kept her awake at night. One of these Sundays, she planned to sit on the benches next to the big fountain in the middle and watch the people walk by with umbrellas and nice hats. She’d been too busy boosting her social media activity to write new material and so hadn’t yet made it out to the park.
She kept the flat empty save for a moka pot, and a large wooden desk discarded by the former tenant. There was a folding chair next to the wide casement window where she kept her ashtray and laptop. This was where she’d try to write, and when she couldn’t write, it was where she’d eavesdrop on the inebriated in the street below.
She was sober in a city that was not.
The MC managed to harangue half the audience into staying for the headliner, a twenty-two year-old New Zealand YouTuber who ate bugs and reviewed new Lego sets. Gwyneth drained the club soda, bought a pack of B&H Menthols, and walked upstairs into the streetlights’ glow.
Four teenage gutter punks sat around a bag of tall cans on the edge of the canal. Back garden linden trees shielded them from the light of the nearby lane. An empty Grolsch repurposed into an ashtray stood between them. Gwyneth sat on a stone fence a few steps up the canal where the lights of Camden still lit the pavement. It was the time of night when everyone changed shifts on Camden Lock. The tourists who came for Banksy postcards headed to the West End, while London’s own transients and perverts awoke and took up the few dark places that remained in the city. At such an hour, it wasn’t easy to tell if these were upper-class fashion punks, or genuine crust punks for whom leather jackets repelled rain efficiently and dreadlocks were acquired through honest, hard-working neglect. At such a distance, it was impossible to detect any of the tell-tale smells: weed, stale beer, piss, pakoras.
Gwyneth sucked her cigarette back to the cotton and stood up. She was unsure that after so many years she’d still have a rapport with gutter punks. When she started out doing standup in LA, she went to warehouse punk shows, shaved her head, got stick and poke tattoos. She slept during the day, did sets at comedy dives at night, and hung out with the Circle Jerks after hours. Her material was just like everyone else’s. Jokes about her habits, her quirky friends, dating, and how annoying it was to find a cab. When Variety did a full page about her, she was alarmed to find that she had in fact been crafting the new genre of Heroin Comedy. The article included a picture of her wearing a torn GG Allin t-shirt and chains on her jeans. The photographer captured her neck lolling and eyes rolled back into her head, a droolish smile hanging off her chin. Even though her routines rarely mentioned heroin, the other comics interviewed in the piece played up her crusty background and characterized her as the “resident comedienne” of LA punk. Naturally, this mainstream exaltation drove her out of the punk scene entirely, and with the same momentum propelled her into a headlining slot at the Comedy Store almost that same week.
From there, the press softened Heroin Comedy to Droll Punk and eventually lumped it into the confused farrago that people called Alt Comedy in the early 90s. Every attempt to package that west coast freak show ultimately left Gwyneth more confused about what she was doing. Yes, she performed material about eating Chef Boyardee over a fire in the dried-up drainage canal, but to her it was no different than comics who talked about restaurant etiquette and the difference between how men and women eat. They just had different friends.
“Can I put this in there?” she said, gesturing toward the ash can with her cig butt.
“What?” said one of the girl punks, looking up from beneath a knotted green mohawk.
Gwyneth began to choke.
“My butt. In your can. I want to put it in there,” she explained without smiling.
Two of the now confirmed fashion punks started to laugh. The fourth nodded and lifted the can up to her. She nodded at his outstretched hand, tatted to his fingernails, ascertained the stick and poke method, and classified him a living crust punk. He shifted sideways, opening the circle up to her. She nodded again, said “thanks,” and sat among them. The mohawked girl snorted and turned her face toward the black of the canal.
The other two androgynous in heavy eye makeup grinned and stared at her. “J’wanta a beer?” one asked, gesturing at the beer bag with his blackbooted foot.
“I’ve been sober for almost exactly four years,” she replied. “Coincidentally, I’ve been boring and not funny for four years too—all of my anniversaries fall around the same time.”
The irony was of course that she never got fucked up with punks. She was dead sober all those years of Heroin Comedy. In all of her nights under bridges and literally lying in gutters, she never touched the stuff. It wasn’t until the TV producer Geoff Birnbaum came by the Comedy Store pitching the show that things had changed. A fat monster in a black suit, he sat in the back of the room drinking whisky sours by himself. “I’m like everybody else,” he said, “who thinks you’re enormously funny, original and just—captivating. But I also think that your work is important. This is the 90s and people are pretending that the world hasn’t changed, that—” He leaned back and looked off, shaking his head, “that we’re not in a fucking crisis. What I saw tonight is someone who understands that we’re in a crisis. We need you.” He leaned forward on his corpulence. “Now, I’m not one of these bullshitters who’s going to bullshit you about how powerful me and my company are, about my hit shows and all that, but I can tell you some facts.” Sweat creeped into the greyish stubble along his chin line. “I have the means to present important art to a large number of people. That’s all I can do. Fakes and bullshitters will make you promises, and I will never promise you what the audience will do. One thing I can promise you is that I am enormously intuitive about what people want— and maybe even more importantly, I am enormously intuitive about what people need—and you are what people want and need.”
Mohawk stood, rolled her eyes and nodded toward Camden Lock. The androgynous sidekicks rose, still grinning, said “nice to meet you” and vanished.
“Ah, shit, sorry man,” Gwyneth groaned.
“No problem,” he said, still cross-legged and opening a bag of tobacco between his feet. “I hate those people. My name’s James,”
“My name’s Gwen.”
“I know,” he said twisting tobacco into his paper, “we got your show over here.”
“Ah shit. Fuck. I—I’m doing standup. Trying out some new material, getting a feel for London crowds.”
“Sure,” he said rolling with one hand.
James’ looked good in the shadow of the linden trees. His head was shaved maybe a week ago, and the odd blotch of light made ruddy canyons in his skull and cheeks.
“Who were they? Your friends?”
“They’re the children of children of rubber barons and indigo barons. Slumming it here.”
“Can I have a beer?” she asked.
James and Gwyneth treaded the Regent Canal side-by-side, stopping twice to replenish their beer at neighborhood off-sales. Twice James relieved himself. Once at one of those stalls that rise up out of the sidewalk after the pubs close, and again directly into the canal. Gwyneth held her bladder.
“How did you end up with the Circle Jerks?” James asked, “I’ve seen you in pictures with them, with Black Flag, Minor Threat.” He attempted eye contact for the first time.
“Jesus. Those guys. Well. It was in LA, but I grew up in a small town in New Jersey. Every American town is exactly the same. There is—or was— a mill, a Hank’s Hardware, and people who have dreams and then abandon their dreams. I went home once after I moved to California, and then couldn’t go back anymore. It was just nauseating how the town looked like cliché America. And I don’t mean in the good way—like, the good old days, malt shops, and Joe Main Street—it was the cliché of the myth of the American Dream. Like everyone who lived there knew they were living in the Last Picture Show. Everyday, they woke up and said I’m not—like, living my dreams.
“Anyway, once a summer for a few years, my parents would drive us up to the Adirondacks to visit my aunt. She was married to a guy who was the last child in a family of real estate developers. Last child, as in, there weren’t any more jobs for him in the company, and he was happy because he didn’t have to work and could live in one of those modern cottages—like the giant cottages—designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. They had this massive property with brooks and rivers and a tree house with plumbing. It was a real grown-up dreamland because they had modernist furniture, and fancy friends, and endless liquor.
“But I would just hang out in this TV room in the basement. They had a really primitive VCR—the first one I’d ever seen, and for years the only one that I knew actually existed. They had a tape of Monty Python and The Holy Grail. I would watch it over and over. I mean all day. I’d eat breakfast in there, play solitaire, sleep on the couch in that room, and all day as soon as the tape ended, I’d rewind it to the beginning and press play. I can recite every word, but I also remember all the Latin subtitles from the beginning. I learned the exact pacing, the beats and pauses between lines, the scores, the part where the main theme played out the whole way. I learned how to act—I learned French, cockney, and Cornish accents. My dad would scowl at me because I would spend the whole week in there.”
“That’s amazing,” James said. “I loved that movie when I was a kid, too.”
“Everything I knew about sex came from the Castle Anthrax,” said Gwyneth without stopping. “I knew why they all went nuts when they were going to be spanked. It made sense to me, and I thought I was urbane not just because I got the most grownup joke in the movie, but because I understood a super weird British joke. But, you know, later, that scene feels fucking gross. Once you see how the sausages are made, you can imagine these guys casting-couching all the women in the castle. Michael Palin seemed like the nice one, but, like, you know, it was just some weird freaky fantasy. Those women got up, ate breakfast, got on the train and went to work that day to act out that guy’s gross fantasy.”
“There’s a part in the old English poem Sir Gawain,” James said, “that actually reads a lot like the Castle Anthrax. I think they were probably satirizing the more ribald bits of what is sometimes perceived as stuffy old literature.”
“And then I turn the TV on here,” she went on, “and see these guys, an old John Cleese talking about how he’s said everything that he wants to say and is ready to die. Who the hell says stuff like this? Why do men get to say that? You’d never hear Helen Mirren say I’ve seen and done everything I want, and now I just want to die. The audacity of these fucking guys to have gone to Oxford, or Oxbridge, or whatever, sneered at becoming lawyers and scientists which were options they had to choose from, only to walk dick first into television series, movie deals, books, lifetime achievement awards, and the best table in the fanciest restaurants in the great cities of the world until they die—which they’re now wishing for because they can’t trade it all in for one more erection.”
“I kind of went on a rant there, didn’t I? I do have a few rants in me—” she emptied her beer in one long pull.
“No, no, not at all,” James waved away her embarrassment. “I totally agree. They’ve been well-loved for so many years. They don’t have the right to be so morose just because they get old.”
“But—but they do. They definitely fuckin deserve to! It sucks. I—they, they, whoever could live another thirty years after becoming irrelevant. The world moves on, and you just watch your younger self growing more distant—becoming less friendly,” she opened another can, “not returning your calls because she’s too busy changing history.”
They walked on. They were nearly to Regent’s Park.
“Anyway, when I turned 19 I moved to LA. Went to some shows. I was funny. I guess. That’s it.”
By the Triton Fountain in Regent’s Park, they succumbed on the wooden bench knotted in each other’s arms and legs. Her head filling the crook between his chin and chest. The pink sky drew an outline of the BT Tower—its satellite dishes jumping out like fungus. All night millions of voices heaved over the park, beyond the towns, the fens, the ocean—each one emitting in a stream, an endless and empty catharsis. Beer cans lay on the ground beneath them like roses beneath a bier. The morning lit his face differently. Youngish, smooth. His chin rough and his chest hard.
“I haven’t been anxious for hours,” she said. “It’s a weird feeling to be without. The horror of nothing.”
“Fearing the unknown?”
“No. Not the unknown. The abyss. Not white men walking into the Amazon in the 1920s, not the bottom of the ocean. No, not adventure. My adventure is that everything is made of a drug that I imbibe every moment I’m aware of it. My high is the withdrawal, and the dread.”
The clock tower stung the momentary silence. James disentangled his arms and pulled out his iPhone. His body tightened at the time. “I have to leave. It was nice meeting you.”
She screwed up her face, a lump in her throat. “Fuck man. Shit, okay. Do you need to crash somewhere?”
“No,” he said standing. “I have a flight. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
In days that followed she’d notice his face in NME, SPIN and on Channel Four. His flight was to New York to appear on one of the late night shows in anticipation of his new record. As he walked she thought James: the bullshit artist. James who is very tall and beautiful and walks very fast. James who was entirely adequate. She didn’t take his phone number or ask his surname.
Donald Calabrese is a writer, musician and illustrator from Cape Breton Island. He is working on a graphic novel about Moses Coady and the modern cooperative movement. This would be his first fiction publication. I was encouraged to read that my previous submission “Pianola” had made it to the last stage of your editorial selection process.