Stand-up And Be Counted

by

Lenny Levine

When you first walk into the Guffaw Garage on Manhattan’s West Side, you might think you were in a neighborhood bar, not a comedy club. No stage, no mike, no spotlight. Just people, milling about noisily, drinking and talking, while TV sets tuned to ESPN hang suspended from the ceiling.

Then you notice the sound of an amplified voice coming from behind the far wall. You can’t quite make out the words, but it’s followed by a loud burst of laughter, then applause.

Or it isn’t.

Most of the time you have to wait for the next break in the show before you’re allowed any farther. The inner room only holds about 150 people, and it fills up fast. This works well for the ownership, who can sell you drinks at the bar before hitting you with the cover charge and two-drink minimum inside.

No one complains. Not when luminaries of Comedy Central are apt to drop in at any time and do a set. You might even get lucky and see bigger names. Jerry Seinfeld, for instance, when he abandoned his old material and built another stand-up act from scratch, was there nearly every night for a month. You pay your money, and you take your chances.

While you’re killing time at the bar, waiting to go in, you might try to spot celebrities, comedians about to go on or just coming off, or maybe a famous actress who’s dating a comedian. If you happened to be there on one Saturday night a couple of years ago, your eye might have been drawn to a stocky, curly haired man in his thirties, wearing jeans and a tank top, sitting at the far end of the bar. As you observed him staring ahead, his index finger idly tracing the rim of his glass of Cutty Sark, you’d recall seeing him somewhere. It was a few years ago, on Leno or Letterman, wasn’t it? Yeah, that’s right, but who is he?

You wrack your brain, and then it comes to you. Steve Zorch, from the comedy team Zeller and Zorch. God, where has he been?

You know, of course, where his ex-partner has been. Everyone does, because Mike Zeller went on to become a featured cast member of Sunday Night Special and then the star of several blockbuster movies. You wonder if he’s going to be here tonight. Boy, that would be something, wouldn’t it?

Steve Zorch, had he been privy to your enthusiasm, would not have shared it. In fact, at the moment he wasn’t thinking about Mike Zeller at all. He’d done enough of that after the breakup to require three years of therapy. No, the person he was thinking about was Fred Finkel, his manager, who was, as usual, late.

He resisted the urge to down the drink. It was the only one he was allowing himself, and he had to nurse it. Tonight he’d be doing the most important set of his life, at least according to Fred Finkel. Where was that asshole, anyway?

His eyebrows knitted together as he frowned, combining with his swarthiness and five o’clock shadow to give him the look of a tough guy. It was a demeanor he played to good effect in the act with Mike. His hard-ass mafioso worked beautifully against Mike’s tall, handsome, breezy Midwesterner, and the results were often hilarious.

“Hey, who’s that over there, the Zorchmeister?”

He looked up to see Morty Rivers making his way toward him. Morty bore a vague resemblance to the young Jerry Lewis, and his vocal cadence always gave the impression he was saying something funny. Steve thought of Morty’s voice as a “comedy sample,” like a synthesizer or drum machine sound that needed a musician to turn it into anything. If a good comic could hook up Morty Rivers’ voice to a keyboard and play it, he might be funny. Morty generally wasn’t.

“Man, it’s death in there,” he complained. “I saw one table full of people drinking embalming fluid.”

Steve smiled at the line, which wasn’t half bad. Whenever Steve Zorch smiled, the mob guy character disappeared. His face lost its jowliness, the look in his eyes softened, and there was a warmth and affability about him that was downright engaging.

“Hey, I could do a whole act about dead audiences,” Morty said, his eyes lighting up with inspiration. “What do you think?”

“Who better than you?” said Steve, with solemn respect.

“Yo!” Morty said to the bartender passing by, as he held up his empty glass. “Why did you let it get like this? I warned you, no tipsy, no tip.”

The bartender, a young, athletic-looking guy with a buzz cut, briefly acknowledged him with an arched eyebrow and took the glass without breaking stride.

“And don’t spit in it,” Morty called after him. “I’m watching you.” He turned back to Steve. “Did you hear? Mike got out of rehab.”

There was a pause, and then a shrug. “So?”

“C’mon, you telling me you don’t care?”

“About him getting out or getting in? This is the first I heard about either.”

Morty scoffed. “Bullshit, you knew about it. I bet you keep a scrapbook of his career, right next to the john.”

“Not since I found out a toilet brush works better.” Steve lifted his scotch and slowly took a sip. “Mike should live and be well; it’s got nothing to do with me.”

“Yeah, and Osama bin Laden was circumcised. Oh shit.” Morty looked over Steve’s shoulder toward the entrance. “I gotta get outta here. Take my advice, don’t go on tonight. Those people in there make rigor mortis look like euphoria.” With that, he disappeared into the crowd.

Steve turned to see what had caused the abrupt departure, and there was Fred Finkel. “Was that Morty Rivers’ ratty, little ass I just saw running away?” he said, insinuating himself into the space next to Steve. “The son of a bitch owes me two hundred bucks from the Pacquiao fight.”

Fred was a large, heavyset man of 47, nearly bald but with his remaining hair yanked back into a ponytail. Lately, he’d taken to wearing turtleneck sweaters, even in summer, to cover what looked depressingly in his mirror like chin wattles. “Is Shelly here yet?” he asked, his eyes roaming the room. Shelly Cooper was the executive producer of Sunday Night Special.

“He’s with that blonde over there,” Steve informed him. “You can’t see him because he’s standing under her dress.”

Fred shot him a nervous glance. “Don’t make jokes about his height when he gets here.”

“I was making a joke about the blonde.”

“I went through a lot of trouble to get him down here, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“He thinks you’re just a one-joke character. I had to really convince him.”

“All right, take it easy.”

“What good is all that work you put in if you’re gonna act like a shithead?” He was on a roll now.

“Will you relax?”

“Here I am, putting you in a position to make this fucking guy lose his bodily fluids when he sees your Honeymooners bit, and this is how you thank me?”

Fred Finkel could be more of a prima donna than his clients. It was a tactic he used to keep them off balance, and Steve was well aware of it.

“Save the hard-on for your wife, okay? Jesus!” He looked sourly at his drink and was again tempted to slug it down.

“I just don’t want you blaming Shelly Cooper for what happened five years ago,” Fred said in a more subdued tone.

Steve rolled his eyes heavenward. “How the hell could I blame him? He wasn’t the one Mike was shtupping.”

“And they didn’t pick Mike for the show because he was fucking the head writer, no matter what you think.”

“Can we talk about something else?”

“It was because he had range.”

“Yeah, and he saddled up Marcy Dawson and rode her all around it.”

“As you wish.” Fred pointed over to an empty table marked “Reserved.” “That’s ours over there, let’s go sit down. These new cordovans I got on are turning my feet into cheeseburgers.” He looked at Steve’s glass. “I’ll have what you’ve got. What are you drinking, Cutty Sark?”

“If you call it drinking.”

Fred made eye contact with the bartender, indicated the glass and then himself, and got the drink. As they were moving toward the table, he suddenly stopped and squinted in the direction of the curtains to the inner room. They’d just parted to the sound of applause trailing off, and there was a young, gaunt, anorexic-looking woman coming through them. “Glenda!” he yelled across to her. “Glenda!”

The naturally dyspeptic expression on Glenda Brookstone’s face turned a little more so at the recognition of his voice.

“Grab a drink,” Fred called out, “and tell him to put it on my tab. Come over and sit a minute.”

Glenda Brookstone regarded Fred as just another in the rogues’ gallery of sleazo managers she knew. Ordinarily, she would have declined the offer on whatever flimsy pretext she could think of, but she noticed he was with Steve Zorch, and there was something she wanted to find out from him. She nodded her head and then raised one skinny arm in the bartender’s direction.

“Glenda will be a good barometer of the crowd in there,” Fred explained.

Steve grunted, resisting the urge to say she looked more like a thermometer than a barometer. He greatly respected Glenda, a talented writer and comedian who had a possibly life-threatening eating disorder. But cruel punch lines always popped into his mind unbidden. He tried to stifle them when they were about someone he liked.

“Ah, here we are.” Fred rose as she approached, carrying what looked like a gin gimlet. He pulled out a chair for her. “I’m sorry we missed your set; how did it go?”

“There’s a fucking high school class reunion in there. Thanks for the drink, Fred,” she said, giving him a quick glance and then turning to Steve. “Haven’t seen you for a while, tough guy; how was the Coast? Did you get L.A.ed often enough?”

“If you’re talking about Loser Auditions, then I fucked my brains out.”

The downturned corners of her mouth flickered upward in a smile. “I’ll bet that wouldn’t take too long. Hey, listen, I’m going out there next month, and I need a sublet. You still renting that place on Fountain?”

“Had to give it up.” He shrugged. “If you want my place on La Brea, you could make a lot of roaches happy.”

That was too bad. Glenda had only sat down there for the sublet possibility, and now she had to stay and shmooze with these two yutzes until she could gracefully extricate herself.

“Who’s managing you these days, Bobby Shields?” Fred asked her. “How’s he treating you?”

“Who’s managing you these days, Fred Finkel?” she asked Steve. “How’s he treating you?”

“He’s no Bobby Shields.”

Fred held up his hands in mock surrender. “It so happens I’m treating this schmuck here very well,” he said earnestly. “I got Shelly Cooper coming down tonight, and Steve’s new act is gonna fucking destroy him.”

“Shelly Cooper, ah, yes,” she said. “There’s one guy that’s glad to see your buddy Mike Zeller sprung from rehab. Now he can get his OxyContin again.”

Steve’s eyes narrowed. “Mike was getting him OxyContin?”

“Oh yeah, for years.”

“Hey, stick around, Glenda,” Fred interrupted, anxious to move the conversation away from where it was, “and catch Steve’s set. He isn’t just a goomba anymore, ya know; he’s a fucking teddy bear now. People love him. He does a Honeymooners bit and plays all the characters, even Alice and Trixie.”

“Really?” Glenda gave Steve a skeptical look. “How do you do that?”

“Estrogen.”

“He’s being modest. You should see it, it’s unbelievable. We’ve been working on it for over a year: Honeymooners, 21st Century. Ralph and Ed Norton are a gay couple living in one apartment, and Alice and Trixie are the lesbians upstairs.”

She thought about it. “Could be a funny premise,” she said, in the analytical tone of an oncologist telling a patient it could be malignant. “But a fucking teddy bear?” She reached over and punched Steve’s biceps. “Gimme a break!”

“You don’t think Steve could pull off being cuddly?” Fred asked her.

“If he was cuddly, he’d never have to pull off in the first place.”

“Dr. Ruth has been our guest tonight,” Steve interjected, “talking about her new book, ‘Don’t Take Me Clitorally.’”

“And besides,” Glenda went on, “who the fuck wants to be cuddly? Comedy isn’t about cuteness, it’s about hate.”

“Hate?” said Fred. “Making people laugh is hate?”

Glenda looked at him sternly. “You don’t know that? Comedy is war, man, every time you go on. And they’re the enemy. It’s them or you, and you either kill them or you fucking die up there.”

“Figuratively.”

“You think so? Let me tell you something…” Steve noticed for the first time how shiny her eyes were. He wondered what she was on, maybe Dexedrine.

“Starting next season, I’ve got a show coming out on Comedy Central that’s gonna be the new lead-in to Jon Fucking Stewart. And you know how that happened?”

“’Cause your manager is Bobby Shields?” Steve guessed.

“No, you stupid prick, because of hate!” Her face was suddenly pinched in barely suppressed rage as she glared at him. “Every comic in the business has it up to his eyeballs, and you’re the last one I oughta be telling this to. We’d all be violent felons and murderers if we didn’t happen to be funny. Comedy is a weapon, and it’s the only one we’ve got. If I ever lost my hate, my career would be over, and I’d be nothing.” She lifted her gimlet. “Here’s to hate!” she said and swallowed the rest of it. She put her glass down with a resounding thunk and stood up. “Thanks for the drink, gentlemen, and now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some fancy dining and puking to do.”

She turned and started out through the crowd, smiling wanly at well-wishers as she made her way toward the door.

“She gets me so hot when she talks like that,” Steve sighed.

“Don’t listen to her,” Fred advised. “She’s a bitter, twisted hag. She’d give her left tit to have your likability.”

Flat-chested jokes vied with mastectomy references in Steve’s head, but before he could say anything, he was distracted by a commotion at the door. A diminutive man with disorderly tufts of red hair had just come in. He was nattily dressed in a three-piece suit and was saying hello to people near the entrance. But it was the guy with him who was causing all the hubbub.

“Oh, fuck!” Fred groaned.

“There they are, over there,” Mike Zeller said to Shelly Cooper, as he pointed them out with the pen he was using to sign a breathless woman’s cocktail napkin. Scrawling the rest of it, he said, “’Scuse me, hon,” then strode, smiling, toward them.

It felt like an out-of-body experience, as Steve numbly watched him approach. Mike was as tan and good-looking as ever, in a gray, open-collared Armani suit, blue eyes a-twinkle. It had been nearly five years since they’d been in the same room together, and nearly two since he’d stopped fantasizing about what that boyishly handsome face would look like with its nose splattered all over it and a few teeth missing.

“Fred, how’re ya doing?” Mike effused. “Long time, no shpritz!”

Fred didn’t answer. He was keeping his gaze on Steve, whose numbness had morphed, along with the three years of therapy, into a strong urge to get up and strangle the motherfucker.

“Steve, man,” Mike said softly, turning to him, his expression now dead serious. “I’ve got so much apologizing to do, I can’t even begin.”

“So skip the beginning, and just move on to the part where you get the fuck outta here.” Under the table, Steve’s fingernails were digging into his palms.

Mike nodded. “I know you’re pissed, and I deserve it. That and a whole lot more.”

Shelly Cooper had come up next to him, the top of his carrot-colored head almost chest level with Mike. “Sorry I’m late, fellas; this guy keeps drawing crowds.”

“Then he should open an art gallery.”

“Great to see ya, Shelly,” said Fred, half rising from the chair to greet him, keeping a wary eye on his seething client. “How come Mike’s with you?”

“Why don’t we sit down,” Shelly said, “and I’ll tell you about it? Is that okay with you, Steve?”

Steve glowered at Mike. Then, he gave a resigned grunt, lifted his glass, and slugged down the rest of the scotch.

“Thanks, man,” said Mike as he quickly moved to the opposite side of the table and slipped into the chair.

Shelly took the remaining seat. “Mike happened to be at my place this afternoon, on an unrelated matter…” Steve was tempted to ask if the matter had any substance to it. “…and I mentioned about the slot that’s opening up on S.N.S. this fall, and how I was going to be seeing you tonight. Fred’s been telling me how much more range you have now, to go along with your other stuff…”

“I think it’s great, man,” Mike put in.

“…and Mike just asked if he could tag along.”

“Can I interrupt here, Shelly?” said Mike. “Thanks.”

He leaned in toward Steve, his eyes filling with pain. “Listen, man, I know you hate my guts, and I don’t blame you. I never told you this back in the day, but you’ve got the best comedic mind I ever knew. You were the brains of our act, and all I did was use you to make connections. Then, I fucked you over. I know telling you this doesn’t undo it, but I gotta start somewhere.”

Steve shot him a skeptical glance. “So you picked Step Nine? That’s some twelve-step program you got goin’ there. Whatta you do, grab One to Eight on the retakes?”

A tear was making its way down Mike’s cheek. “I just didn’t want to wait,” he said. “Look, I don’t mean to distract you; you’ve got an important show to do. I’m not even going in there to watch, ’cause I don’t want to take away any of the focus. This is your night, man. You deserve it, and I know you’re gonna kick ass. I just…I’m not even supposed to be in a place like this yet, but I came here to tell you…that I’m sorry. I’m truly, deeply sorry. And I hope that, someday, you’ll forgive me.”

He desperately tried to hold on to Steve’s implacable gaze, but couldn’t. Tearing his eyes away, choking back a sob, he stood up. “I shouldn’t have come here. This was a mistake. I…” He turned, and plunged blindly toward the door, as people parted for him in astonishment. He bolted out to the street.

The three of them sat there. Then, Shelly Cooper spoke. “I guess we just got a preview of tomorrow’s Page Six.”

“This really sucks,” Fred proclaimed. “We’re gonna have to reschedule. Steve can’t be expected to do a show after something like that.”

“Hey, absolutely,” agreed Shelly, nodding his head. “I feel responsible. Let’s figure out another night, and I’ll be glad to come back then. Whatta ya think, Steve?”

Steve didn’t know what to think. Part of him felt like he’d just witnessed another episode of Mike’s self-indulgent bullshit. But another part wanted to believe it was real. And that part, if he went with it, made him feel pretty damn good. In fact, it did more than that, it empowered him.

So why not go with it? He might feel different tomorrow, but tonight was what mattered. Tonight, it could put him at the top of his game.

“No,” he said, “I’m okay. Let’s fucking do it.”

* * *

Norton, this ain’t gonna work between us if you don’t stop bein’ so suspicious of me.

Oh yeah, Ralph? Well, I got good reason to. You don’t know this, but yesterday I snuck on to your bus.

You what?

And it’s a good thing I did. ’Cause I saw you flirtin’ with that hunk that got on at 42nd Street. “Good morning, sir. You wanna step to the rear?”

Oh, you’re a riot, Norton, a regular riot. Don’t think I didn’t notice at the Raccoon Club last night how you came on to that other sewer worker. Invitin’ him to inspect your manhole?

It was getting laughs, but not the big ones it usually got. A large table at the front kept talking. He’d spotted them the moment he hit the stage. It was the high school class reunion Glenda had mentioned, and it should have raised alarm bells.

Class reunions, as an audience, can be lethal. These people haven’t seen each other in umpteen years, and all they want to do is talk. The last place a class reunion should go is to watch a comedian.

Listen, Ralphie girl, you’re a fine example. Whenever we’re at the Raccoon Club, all you do is check out everyone’s tail.

All right, then let’s stay home; I’d rather do that, anyway. A man’s home is his castle, Norton. And I am the Queen of the Castle.

A voice from the front table. “Bullshit. When did you ever have Mr. Hanlon for biology?”

There were eight of them, four men and four women, several wearing large “East Cleveland High, Class of ’83” buttons, with the person’s name underneath. Steve had zoned in on them immediately, trying to establish a rapport so they’d shut up. He’d smiled amiably at them.

“So, you came all the way from Cleveland, and you figured the perfect place to relax and catch up on all those missing years was a comedy club?”

“Yeah,” one woman giggled self-consciously. “Crazy, huh?”

“No, no,” he assured her, “not crazy at all.” He paused and pretended to think about it. “Now, if you asked me if it was stupid…”

There was a nice burst of laughter and some applause. Even the class-reunion people chuckled at themselves, and for a while he had them. But now he was clearly fucked.

To deal with this he’d have to break character and blow the sketch. He couldn’t talk to them as Ralph or Norton, because he’d never done anything like that before and wasn’t sure how it would work. And he was getting to the crucial part, where he’d whip out a handkerchief, tie it around his head, and become Alice Kramden.

He’d studied tapes of Audrey Meadows for hours on end—her movements, the tilt of her jaw, her vocal inflections. He’d developed a low falsetto that wasn’t a perfect imitation, but was eerily close. It had surprised and astonished audiences, even getting him standing ovations.

Another voice at the front table, this time in a loud whisper. “Ruth, you’ll never guess where I am; I’m at a comedy club.”

Amazingly, a big doofus in a madras sports jacket was on a cell phone. Steve willed himself to stay in character, despite the kernel of rage forming in the pit of his stomach. He rapped on the microphone to simulate a knock on the door, maybe a bit harder than he usually did it.

Norton! he bellowed. If that’s Alice or Trixie from upstairs, I’m not talkin’ to either’a those two lesbos. And we’re never goin’ bowling with ’em again!

Aw, come on Ralph. Just ’cause they were braggin’ that their balls were bigger than ours…

“…Yeah, a comedy club. And you’re never gonna believe who’s paying for it.”

Steve could handle hecklers. Most of them were idiots who misguidedly thought comedians actually liked it. He’d do riffs off them, get the audience back on track, and roll on. Hecklers were nothing. There was only one thing in this business he couldn’t deal with, and that was people ignoring him.

From his earliest memories, from the first time he ever made Mommy laugh, to realizing that his comedic ability got him respect from other kids, the one thing he could never take was being ignored. It made him feel useless and unimportant. It rendered him nonexistent, a dead man, watching helplessly as the world goes blithely on and doesn’t give a shit.

He turned upstage, as Norton, preparing to open the invisible apartment door, reaching into his back pocket for the handkerchief.

“…Mike Zeller, isn’t that wild? The Mike Zeller! He came up to us in front of the hotel. He said he’d comp us all if we went around the corner to this club.”

* * *

If you asked Steve Zorch what happened next, he couldn’t tell you exactly. He vaguely recalls imagining Mike on his way to meet Shelly Cooper, spotting these clowns, and deciding to screw him one more time, calling the club from his cell to set it up. And how he must have laughed and laughed when he hit the street, after that phony mea culpa-thon back there. Steve saw it all in a nanosecond, before it dissolved into a red haze of primal fury.

It had to be released somewhere, or his head would explode. And since Mike Zeller wasn’t around to receive it, all that rage instead got focused on the front table; those callous, insensitive jerks who, for the moment, represented every son of a bitch that had ever ignored him.

He turned, and strode angrily to the front of the stage, ripping the microphone from its stand as he went by. It made a sound like a gunshot, followed by the squeal of feedback. A woman gasped.

He stood looming over the people at the table, whose faces were at knee height. They’d stopped talking and were gaping up at him.

In a voice that was ominously calm, he said to the madras jacket guy, “Is that your wife on the phone? Ruth?”

The guy nodded, the phone still to his ear, his expression that of a kid whose teacher just caught him with a stroke book in his lap. Somebody laughed tentatively, and then stifled it. The club was deadly silent.

“Bill Reynolds.” Steve intoned the name on the guy’s button. “And his lovely wife Ruth. Is she lovely, Bill?”

Uncertainty in his eyes, the guy nodded again, bringing the phone away from his ear. Steve suddenly reached down and snatched it from him.

“Mind if I talk to her?”

“Hey!” Bill Reynolds lunged, but Steve had already moved away from him.

“Hi, Ruth, how’re ya doin’?”

There was a pause on the other end. Then, “Who is this, please?”

Only Steve could hear her. She had a chipper, birdlike voice that he instantly disliked. “It’s the comedian your husband is watching. You know why he’s watching me?”

“No, I don’t.” She was starting to giggle, expecting a punch line.

“Because I stole his cell phone. Sometimes you gotta do things to people before they pay attention. You wanna know what every comedian’s fantasy is?”

“Um…okay.” She’d stopped laughing.

“It’s to find out where everyone in the audience works, go down there, and heckle them at their jobs. But that’s way too limited, not nearly enough in the revenge department, don’t you think?”

“Uh…can I please speak to my husband?”

“You mean Bill Reynolds, East Cleveland High, class of ’83, the guy that talks on a cell phone during a show?” He flashed a smirk at the front table, who seemed to be transfixed. “No, I think a real comedian’s fantasy would be finding out where a particularly assholic member of the audience lives. Like maybe from Classmates dot com…”

“What are you…who is this?”

“…and then pay him a little surprise visit sometime. Meet the lovely wife and family, up close and personal.”

“Hey, are you being funny or trying to scare me?” The chirpy, singsong quality had gone.

“A private show for a captive audience, Ruth. You like that idea?”

“I want to talk to Bill. Put Bill on.” An edge of concern was creeping in.

“Audience participation. That would, of course, be mandatory. In fact, it would be the juiciest part. Nothing like family entertainment, right, Ruth?”

“You’re not funny.” There was definite fear now in her tone. “Stop it.”

“And it doesn’t need to happen right away.” He moved farther upstage. The front table had found their voices now, particularly Bill Reynolds. Some of them were getting to their feet.

“He could take his time, scope it out, wait for just the right opportunity. Maybe late one night, huh? They’d never know what hit ’em.”

“Stop it!”

“Sounds like a plan to me, Ruth. How about you?”

She was crying now. He took the phone away from his ear and put it against the microphone, as her sobs resounded through the club.

He left it there for a second or two, then pulled the mike away and brought it back to his mouth.

“And that, my friends,” he said, flinging the phone contemptuously in the direction of Bill Reynolds, “is show biz.”

He dropped the mike onto the floor, where it hit with an ugly, amplified thud, and walked off the stage.

He pounded his way up the aisle through the audience, some shouting obscenities at him, others just gawking. Fred was standing in the back, Shelly Cooper nowhere in evidence.

“You stupid fuck!” Fred berated him, as he followed Steve through the curtains and into the bar area. “I don’t even wanna talk to you, you moron! You can call me tomorrow. Or better yet, don’t.” He kept going, through the door and out.

Steve found himself standing at the bar in a daze. The realization of what he’d done was slowly dawning on him. He’d  just terrorized an innocent woman in public. Who would do that? Only a twisted, depraved sadist. Is that what he was?

Guilt and shame overwhelmed him. The bartender happened by, asking if he wanted a Cutty. He ordered a double, his voice shaking. He was about to slug it down, when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

He turned, expecting Bill Reynolds and his retribution, but it was a tall, lanky man with a mane of steel-gray hair. The man looked vaguely familiar.

“Sorry to bother you, Steve,” he said, “but could I have a word? My name is Richard Comstock.”

* * *

It’s two years later. In the residents’ lounge of the Sunrise Recovery Center for Substance Abuse, in Palm Springs, the TV is tuned to the CinemAssociation Awards, the biggest awards show of the year. A dozen residents or so, in armchairs and on couches, are watching as last year’s Best Actor winner starts to tear open the final envelope of the night.

“And the Ozzie for Best Picture goes to…Fiend in Need!”

Cheers erupt as he reads on. “Producer, Richard Comstock, director…” The rest is inaudible, drowned out by more cheers and thunderous applause.

The reaction at the rehab center isn’t quite as tumultuous, with only the people who’d picked Fiend in Need celebrating their acumen. A veteran soap opera actor, in his third stay there, turns to his companion. “Screwy business, huh?”

Mike Zeller merely grunts.

On the screen, Richard Comstock is holding the statuette aloft as a group of joyous people celebrate around him.

“None of it would’ve been possible,” he says breathlessly, “without this guy behind me, Steve Zorch.” The audience breaks into renewed applause as Steve, smiling modestly, shyly acknowledges it. “This man’s incredible performance,” Comstock continues, “created one of the most compellingly evil characters in movie history.”

“Son of a bitch,” Mike Zeller mutters.

“Your pal just got lucky,” says the actor, getting up and stretching. He’s a middle-aged man with craggy good looks and wisdom in his eyes, an effect he’s worked hard to cultivate. “He got the chance to put his demons to good use. That’s all we can ask for in this business.”

Mike stands up, as well, and starts to move his chair back in place, as they require you to. “Bullshit, Al. All I ever asked for was to be funny.”

“Right,” says the actor. “It’s the saddest thing you could ever do.”

THE END

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