The comedy club was an easy sight to miss. Small and dilapidated, tucked away between two buildings of much higher stature, it was a place that even the loneliest of vagabonds found difficult to discover. The inside was worse, if anything — dim and gloomy, perpetually filled with the lingering smells of cigarette smoke and cheap booze. Pictures clung desperately to the walls, and footprints lay immortalized on floors no one bothered to sweep. And yet, in the evenings, the room became a haven of sorts — a place where joy reigned superior and everyday worries were briefly forgotten, where rascals and rogues could share a laugh with kings and forget the distance between them.
This was the comedian’s kingdom, and the stage was his throne.
When Josiah Middleton took his place on the low platform of sagging wood, barely above the floor, he was a king. All eyes were drawn to him; all ears were held in rapt attention. On the nights he performed, on those nights only, people listened to him. They cared what he had to say. One by one, they fell under the spell of the club, ensnared by inexplicable allure — of late-night drinking, the musky sweet scent of cigars, the lull of his voice spinning comedy out of thin air — and they were his.
One night, he had just finished telling a particularly riveting tale involving a hammer, a lizard, and his high school girlfriend, and the audience was roaring its appreciation. The men slapped their hands against the table and the women wiped their eyes. The spirit in the club was like champagne bubbles, fizzy and light, and Josiah was smiling in a way he so rarely did anymore.
He took a sweeping, elaborate bow, ornamented with much twirling of his hands. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, lords and ladies, keepers and wanderers, seekers of the light, thank you very much.”
He glanced up toward the clock in the corner. Most people would be asleep by now, tucked up in various corners of the city with their dust and their broken dreams, but for Josiah, the night was just winding down.
Pausing to take a sip of water, he sighed. Several strands of dark hair had come free of the carefully gelled style he had forced into shape earlier and now hung, lank and greasy, in front of his face; he smoothed them back with a trembling hand and turned his attention once more to his audience.
He always gave advice after every show — after the mirth had died down, the comedy finished. He was familiar with that mysterious quality of laughter that draws people together, friends and strangers alike, and by the end of the night, he always felt closer to his audience than before. Several of them were regulars, and he had memorized their faces; they brought him comfort on the nights when he felt that there was no point to what he was doing, that everyone was only there for cheap entertainment, that it wasn’t about him. Others came for help, he could tell, for a laugh when nothing else could comfort them. He knew their faces, too, crowding the edges and corners of the room: the downcast eyes, the occasional slight upturn of the lips, and it was at these lonely hearts that his advice was primarily directed.
“Don’t get lost out there,” he’d say sometimes, as his audience gathered gloves and bags and coats soaked through with cigarette smoke and prepared to step out into the chilly darkness of 1 a.m., a darkness harsh as steel and studded with hard, glittering stars. “Enjoy the rest of your night — or morning, that is. Don’t stay up too late.”
That night, he spoke of something he had been thinking about for some time. Several weeks prior, a man with the build of a bulldog and a face to match had approached Josiah after his show and crossed his arms, sneering slightly. “Could you, maybe, tell something good next time?”
“Excuse me?” Josiah had asked, blinking. Surprise and hurt accompany each other like lightning and thunder, and indignation hadn’t yet struck him.
The other man shrugged, lifting his hands as if in resignation. “Look, I’m just telling it from my perspective. I used to come to every one of your shows; didja know that?” He paused to take in Josiah’s expression: eyebrows drawn tight and confused, mouth hanging half-open in speechless shock. “You used to be good; I’ll give you that. And now, you’re just. . . kind of sad. Pathetic, really.”
“I’m very sorry you didn’t enjoy the performance,” Josiah said, grinding his teeth to dust. “I’m going through a bit of trouble right now. Kind of hard to stay on top of things, but I’m trying.”
The other man’s expression didn’t flicker. “I didn’t pay to hear your problems.”
His eyes slithered down Josiah’s person and back up again. He turned on his heel and strode toward the exit. “Better shape up, or you’ll find yourself with an empty club,” he barked over his shoulder. “Remember — you’re a comedian. So start acting like one.”
Weeks later, remembering these words, Josiah still felt his chest ache. His breath drained from him in a weary sigh. Had he changed; had he truly deteriorated that much?
Before him, the audience waited. He gripped the microphone and began to speak.
“Reality’s a slippery thing,” he began. “So easy to forget. Like right now — we’re all happy here together. But sooner or later, we’ll have to go back out there. We’ll have to walk the streets alone.” He paused, swallowed. “Because we’re all alone, every one of us — one way or another, yeah? It’s a great, big world out there, and sometimes, it feels like no one’s there to help you out of the maze. When that happens, you’ve got to help yourself. Slow down. Breathe a little. Take some time to laugh. Remember, humor is your light. Keep laughing and you’ll never get lost.”
“Hear, hear,” someone said from the audience, and Josiah felt his spirits rise. He straightened his spine and kept going.
“But don’t forget about the special people in your life, either. They’re not gonna be there forever, and neither are you. Hold on to your loved ones. . . hold on to them. Give ’em a kiss every once in a while. Maybe you don’t see them every day, or maybe you’ve screwed up so badly that — ” He stopped suddenly, chewing his lip. Every eye in the audience was fixed on him. When he spoke onstage, he almost never heard the sound of his own breathing or the slight whimper from the floorboards when he shifted his weight, but he heard them now, every sound.
He cleared his throat. The noise came crashing down in the silent room. He raised the microphone to his lips one final time and said, “They’re valuable, those people, more than you probably think. So tonight, tell them you love them, yeah? It’s all we have to give.”
He lowered the microphone, finished. A burst of applause startled him, followed by a chorus of “amens” and “you got it, mans.” One man stood and whistled, long and shrill, through his fingers.
Standing there, watching his audience, Josiah felt a slow sense of peace seep through him. He bowed once more, slowly, lingeringly. The show was over. His audience reached out for bags, for coats, for each other.
“Stay safe. See you. God bless,” he said over and over again as the audience began to leave. Some reached up to him before departing, and he clasped their hands briefly, drawing some small comfort from the feel of their fingers. He wondered what they saw in his eyes.
The last audience members walked out the door. Josiah stood for a moment longer, staring after their retreating backs. He felt hollow again, almost as if the audience had taken his joy with them.
He patted his pockets and found them empty. Releasing a growl of frustration, he shouted, “Javier!”
A hulking figure seeped in to fill the doorway: Javier, the club’s bouncer, a slightly heavyset young man just a stone’s throw above six feet with a head of spiky, dark hair and a thick Spanish accent. He leaned against the doorway, regarding Josiah with lifted eyebrows. “You called?” he asked mildly.
Almost unconsciously, Josiah took a step back. Javier was intimidating enough in the best of times, but standing that close to him, Josiah became even more aware of the five inches the bouncer had on him and the strength of his arms and build compared to his own soft, rather flabby frame. He felt a sudden rush of anger at himself, not only for being cowed so easily, but also for letting himself become so weak, deteriorate so much from what he used to be.
“Gimme a smoke, yeah?” he muttered, already ashamed of speaking so sharply.
Javier held out a half-empty package of neat, orange-tipped rolls. Josiah took two and shoved one behind his ear, putting the other in his mouth. “I’ll be outside,” he told the bouncer. “If I’m not back by sunup, by all means, come out and get me. I just might be dead.” He turned and left before Javier could reply. It was a weak attempt at humor, he knew, but he couldn’t seem to stop joking about his own death, as if doing so would make it seem less real — less like something that was constantly hunting him. This way, all the times it had almost conquered him were painted instead as foolish accidents — nothing more.
The first time, he’d tried to hang himself but ended up falling through the noose (he hadn’t tied it tightly enough, possibly on purpose). Afterwards, he hadn’t been able to muster the energy to get up off the floor, and so he had remained sprawled there instead, staring up at a ceiling that was as blank as he felt inside.
Another time (he’d lost count by this point), he had slipped out of the house into the cold, scathing hours of early morning to jump off a bridge. He’d been planning it for weeks, and it was the perfect time and place to die — few cars, even fewer people, nobody around to care. He slipped easily through the slats of the bridge and steadied himself on the narrow lip of metal jutting out over empty air, preparing for the fall.
Then he looked down at the water, wild and thrashing below him, and he was frozen. He stood there for hours, hanging off the side of the bridge, eyes stinging from the wind — or maybe it was tears. He memorized every angle of the bridge, every rivet, the feel of the steely metal biting into his palms and the way the water looked beneath it, churning and angry. He walked home at dawn, legs shaking, while the streetlights closed their eyes in shame and the fading stars laughed at him from above. He’d gone straight to bed and stayed there for a week, crippled with pneumonia, wishing that it would kill him, that the blankets would show him some small mercy and smother him in his sleep.
He nearly chuckled as he stepped out into the cool night and leaned against the back wall of the club, rummaging in his pockets for his lighter. The parking lot stretched wide and lonely in front of him, deserted. He stared out into space, not looking at anything in particular.
Then a streetlight, almost as if sensing his gaze, flickered and went out, and this time he did laugh. Can’t even kill myself right, he thought. Worthless coward.
His cigarette burst to life behind his cupped hand, a small flame tentatively tasting the darkness. He sagged back against the wall, sucked the sweet smoke deep into his lungs, and tilted back his head. Pale clouds rose from his open lips, curling and twisting in the night air. The bricks felt cool and rough through his shirt. He began to relax — spine curving forward, shoulders sloping down.
The elation he had felt during the show had all but evaporated, and now that he was alone, he could feel himself retreating, curling up and away, back to the dark space inside his head where he spent his nights trapped and alone. The bad place, he called it, and when he locked himself in, nobody could coax him out. His friends had tried, his children had done their best, and his wife had struggled more than any of them, endlessly coaxing and pleading and crying in turn, but nothing had helped.
She was gone now, his wife. She’d had enough. “I’m married to a madman,” she’d said, right before she had packed a suitcase, taken the kids by the hand, and simply walked out of the house and away from the meager living they had scraped together. He hadn’t seen her since.
Josiah reached up and dabbed at the corners of his eyes. His fingers came away wet.
He realized, with a sudden fresh wave of pain, that only his oldest would remember him; to the younger ones, he would be a stranger. He tried to console himself, telling himself that he likely wouldn’t remember them either, but his heart only twisted again.
Then he saw the man, and the cigarette fell out of his mouth.
He had been appearing after every show for at least a month, crouched in the dark space between two streetlights on the opposite side of the parking lot, leering from the shadows. Never any closer. Sometimes, he’d have a cigarette, visible only by the dusty-red tip that burned, fiery and glowing, against a mess of congealed darkness, releasing blooms of smoke that rose and drifted away like dandelion seeds, like hope.
That night, his hands were empty, resting on his knees. Josiah could see the dark smear of unshaven scruff on the man’s chin; the frayed strands of dirty hair framing a face alive with malice; and below that, a tattered coat of dark tweed, patched and stained. A homeless man, an asylum patient, a prison escapee — he could have been any of them.
He stared at Josiah, who stared defiantly back. Neither looked away.
“Scram,” Josiah tried.
The man didn’t move. He was calm — relaxed, even, while Josiah clenched tighter and tighter, almost shaking from the strain.
“Fine,” he said. “Stare all you want. You’re not getting anything.”
He turned his back to the man and lit his second cigarette, trying not to think of the silent figure crouched behind him across the parking lot, still waiting — for what? Then a horrible thought occurred to him, and he fumbled with the lighter, nearly scorching himself.
My God, Josiah thought, is that what I’ll look like in five, ten, fifteen years? Shabby and broken, rotting half to death? Me?
The thought chilled him, and he shivered, though there was no breeze. He realized that if he kept living the way he did, dejected and alone, he may end up exactly like the man behind him: destitute, directionless, sitting in parking lots at two in the morning, preying on the hopes and successes of younger men that he could never hope to relive.
He tried to picture his family, their faces. Come back, he wanted to say. I’ve changed. But deep inside, he knew that he hadn’t. He was still the same.
He knew, also, that she wouldn’t come back. Not to him. There was nothing left for him except this, here, now, the tears shed in silence and the whimpers of pain muffled by the dark, and he felt himself turning once more to gaze at what he was sure would be his future.
The man sat with his head leaned against one hand, fingers spread across his temple. As Josiah watched, the hand began to move, slowly, slowly, two fingers pulling back, thumb angling forward until his hand formed a gun, digging into the pale skin at the base of his forehead. The man raised his eyebrows.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Josiah said.
The man’s teeth flashed white in the gloom. He was grinning, Josiah realized, an eerie, horrible grin that peeled his lips back from his teeth and stretched them thin over his sunken face. It was a look of pure insanity — one that truly scared Josiah for the first time that night, one that he could never imagine himself wearing.
The man lifted two fingers to his forehead in mock salute, and Josiah looked away in disgust. I will never be like you, he thought, hands clenched into white-knuckled fists, eyes blazing like dying stars, hot against the unfeeling night that sneered and laughed and nodded, sure, sure. “Never!” he said loudly, trying to believe it himself.
When he next glanced up, the space between the streetlights was empty. Relief crept silently through him, yet somehow, he felt even lonelier than before.
He stood motionless for several moments, staring at the space where the man had been. Then he whirled around and kicked the wall as hard as he could. His foot throbbed almost as painfully as his heart did; he gritted his teeth and ignored them both. He knew it — had known it all along — he must be mad.
Look at me, he thought. Thirty-nine years old, and what do I have to show for it?
The truth, he realized in one bitter wave of understanding, was that he had nothing. No family, no friends. No calling or direction. No talents except for telling jokes to people in the dark, and what use was humor when no one was listening?
He had been lying to everyone; he knew that now. He was simply a madman pretending to be a fool, and in the end, that was all he was.
“Look at me!” he shouted to the now-empty parking lot. “This is what I am after the show is over, yeah?” His voice cracked, and a laugh bubbled out, so wild and deranged that it scared him even as it continued to pour from his mouth. He began to strut back and forth as if in front of an imaginary audience. “This is the real me! You still laughing?”
He slid down the wall, chuckling silently. Tears ran from his eyes. The night was so dark.
What was that I said? He thought. Keep laughing and you’ll never get lost? It seemed an eternity ago that he had said those words, safe in a cocoon of warmth, light, and laughter that was now long gone.
I really am lost, he told himself. I’m so lost that I can’t tell what’s three feet in front of me, but I will keep laughing, by God, even if it kills me!
He threw back his head and let out a great peal of laughter. It radiated outward around him, a wall of heat and fire, and for a moment, the darkness was beaten back. He laughed until his throat ran dry.
All right, he thought, enough of this. Time to face the night.
He dropped his cigarette and ground it into the dust with his heel. Crossing the parking lot in several quick strides, he ducked into his car and started the engine.