Jeremy Jax wanted to be funny, like his grandfather.
Jeremy’s grandfather was Robby Jax, the famous comedian. In his seventies—which also happened to be the 1970s—Robby Jax was still performing at Cherrywood’s Lounge, on 42nd Street, and Jeremy attended the shows with his parents.
Jeremy was ten, and when he sat on the couches in Cherrywood’s, he expected that someone might read aloud to him from The Chronicles of Narnia. Bookcases lined the room. There were studs on the walls on which men hung their hats. The smoke in the air had a blue glow, and the smoke seemed to remain in the room, day or night, even when no pipes were lighted. At Cherrywood’s, women drank coffee with amaretto, and men drank ale. When someone sank a shot at the pool table, the ball fell snugly into one of six leather pouches.
In one corner, between two bookcases, was a small, hardwood stage bearing an upholstered chair. In this chair, drinking century-old Scotch, was Robby Jax. He sat down around eight on a Saturday night, drank silently until nine, then began to speak. If you were new to Cherrywood’s, you wouldn’t even know at first that a performance was under way. It would dawn on you gradually that the woman whose eyes you meant to seduce was having none of you. She was staring at the old gentleman in the corner, the one with the furry eyebrows. Everyone was staring at the old gentleman and beginning to smile, and the lights in the lounge had dimmed.
“And so,” sighed Robby Jax, “I told Emma Jean Bryce of Vassar College that she reminded me of a stalk of celery. And Emma Jean Bryce of Vassar College looked at me quite seriously and said ‘Robert, I don’t know what that means. I honestly don’t.’” Robby Jax sipped his Scotch. He glanced slowly around at his audience. He adjusted his vest over his thick middle. “And I said to her . . . I said . . . ‘Emma Jean. A man can do many things to a stalk of celery. But one thing a man cannot do to a stalk of celery is make love to it, Emma Jean.’”
The audience laughed.
Robby Jax shook his head. “The women at Vassar College,” he said sadly, “are virginal stalks of celery.”
The audience kept laughing.
“I’m in my first year at Vassar,” a girl called out, “and I’m not a virgin.”
“Not yet you aren’t,” said Robby Jax.
The audience roared.
Jeremy didn’t understand how it happened. None of the things his grandfather said were actual jokes. They were just stories, little pieces of life that sounded true. For all Jeremy knew, his grandfather made them up as he talked. But, somehow, the Scotch and the smoke and his grandfather’s tweeds warmed people up, got them laughing.
“What’s the secret?” Jeremy demanded one night when he was twelve. His grandfather had just finished a set at Cherrywood’s. He was drinking Scotch at the bar and whispering to a young woman in black velvet. The woman had a Southern accent.
“Well?” said Jeremy.
“The secret to what?” said Robby Jax.
“How do you make people laugh?” Jeremy had his arms folded.
Robby Jax scowled. He loved Jeremy, but he was a widower and young women in velvet were rare occasions.
“What’s the secret?” persisted Jeremy.
Robby Jax bent to his grandson. “Relax, kid,” he whispered.
“What’s the secret?” Jeremy whispered back.
Robby winked. “I just told you. Relax.” Robby stood back up, held his palm open toward the woman. “And now, Jeremy, I’d like to introduce you to one of the finest creations our Lord ever set down on Earth. She is called a brunette.”
The young woman giggled. “Hush, Robby.”
Relax, thought Jeremy. Relax, relax.
He thought this all through high school. He thought it when he worked stage crew for the productions of Smile and Frown, his high school’s drama club. Jeremy would’ve auditioned himself, but his voice cracked into falsetto when he got nervous. Jeremy figured that once he was eighteen, officially a man, his voice would be strong. Plus, he’d be at college, away from Manhattan. He could relax and become a brilliant comic actor.
Jeremy’s chance came in October of his freshman year at Hobart College. He saw signs around campus advertising an annual student talent show called The Follies and he decided to audition. There were slots for student singers, musicians, and performance artists, but the most coveted position in The Follies was Master of Ceremonies. It was in this role that Jeremy planned to make his comic debut.
The auditions were held in The Hovel, the on-campus student pub, on a Thursday night. The Hovel was dark and crowded. On most nights, it was a pit where students sought drinks and laughs. Tonight, though, it was meant to be a charmed, bewitching cave, full of human art.
“Don’t suck,” said Patrick Rigg. Patrick was Jeremy’s roommate, along for moral support.
“I won’t,” said Jeremy.
Patrick and Jeremy sat in the corner. Jeremy wore his black suit, the one that matched the color of his hair. This suit, Jeremy believed, made his green eyes look jovial and menacing, as if he were a funny but dangerous man, like Lenny Bruce. It was this sinister edge, this tiny malevolence within himself, that Jeremy planned to exploit as a trademark of his performing style. Still, as a nod to his grandfather, the more traditional storyteller, Jeremy ordered Scotch at the bar.
“No Scotch,” said the bartender.
“Perhaps Crown Royal?” said Jeremy.
The bartender snorted. “Perhaps beer,” he said. “Perhaps Jägermeister.”
Jeremy ordered the Jägermeister, which was served in a plastic cup. He returned to his corner to watch the competition.
A quick-eyed juggler performed onstage. A dancer danced. Three frat boys in Marx Brothers garb jabbered and received applause. An awful singer named Freida forgot her lyrics and wept and ran away.
“Jeremy Jax,” said the judges. “Auditioning for MC”
Jeremy took the stage. He set himself down in a chair amid the footlights. He smiled wearily at the audience, the way his grandfather always did. He drank his Jägermeister. Directly before him was a table where three judges sat.
“Say something,” suggested a judge.
Jeremy nodded. He understood what was required of him. However, he hadn’t planned any material. He’d expected a perfect, spontaneous anecdote to rise within him, but it wasn’t happening. A minute passed. Jeremy gulped at his Jägermeister.
Relax, Jeremy told himself.
A judge wrote something down.
“Um,” said Jeremy.
His heart lurched. He saw Patrick frowning. People stirred in their seats, whispering. Jeremy stared at the drink in his hand.
“What’s the deal with malt liquor?” he stammered.
One of the kinder judges smiled. “We don’t know,” she called out. “What is the deal with malt liquor?”
Jeremy didn’t answer. He sat motionless in his chair. There was a riot in his stomach, in his mind. He tried to think of a story, any story.
“Jägermeister,” he said, “is German for Master Hunter.”
Someone in the audience sighed. Seconds passed.
“Women are celery,” blurted Jeremy.
The Hovel fell silent. Patrick Rigg left. People looked at the floor.
“Thank you,” said the judges.
Outside The Hovel, in the darkness, in a clearing of trees, Jeremy came to himself. His first instinct had been to run from the pub, to get out into the October air. He’d expected himself to throw up or cry or gnash his teeth. He was perhaps on the verge of doing these things when he made out another figure in the dark beside him. It was a girl kneeling on the ground, her face in her hands. It was Freida, the awful singer.
“Hey,” whispered Jeremy. “Hey there.”
Freida looked up. Her face was miserable, splotchy with eye shadow.
“Are you great?” she sniffled.
Freida pointed at The Hovel. “I— I meant, were you great. In there. Onstage. Were you great?”
“No,” said Jeremy. His voice was hard. “I sucked.”
As he said this, Jeremy felt a chill inside himself. It was a cold, new rage of some sort. It was painful, but somehow good. It made him feel capable of startling feats, like bludgeoning his grandfather.
“I’m Jeremy Jax,” said Jeremy. He was practically shaking. “I’m terrible.”
Freida shivered. She wiped her face, took the hand of the furious young man.
“I’m Freida,” she said. “Come on.”
They went to Freida’s dorm room. In what seemed an implicit, mutually understood gesture, Jeremy removed Freida’s clothes. He did so violently, as Freida expected. Then they lay down.
Jeremy stared deep into Freida’s eyes as they screwed. He wielded his body into hers, taking a certain vengeance on the night. Freida made awful noises that weren’t so different from the awful noises she’d made at The Hovel. When it was over, they lay there. Jeremy’s hands shook at his sides. Freida’s eyes were closed. Jeremy tried to think of something to say, but couldn’t. So he got up, dressed, and left.
When he was twenty-three, Jeremy Jax returned to Manhattan. He had, by that time, a degree in Russian literature, a head of graying hair, and an Upper West Side apartment. He also had a job as assistant to the director of the Lucas, a theater on 51st Street that he admired for its history.
The Lucas was a dying theater. It had ruled Broadway in the 1930s, staging the world premieres of several famous productions, including Hunter Frank’s Killing Me Lately and Dazzle MacIntyre’s Eight Boxes. These plays and the Lucas itself had been renowned for their raw, aggressive candor. Killing Me Lately, in fact, had been investigated by the New York City Police Department in 1938 because the character of the murder victim was played by a different actor every night, after which that actor vanished from the cast. The owner of the Lucas at the time, Sebastian Hye, claimed it was merely a gimmick to fascinate the bloodthirsty. New Yorkers, of course, took the bait and bought tickets in droves.
By the early 1990s, when Jeremy Jax started work there, the Lucas had fallen from the grace of its early decades. The physical plant was in disrepair. The black plush seats needed reupholstering and the ceiling was full of echoes. Also, Michael Hye, the current owner and director of the Lucas, no longer wanted to produce sensationalist, frightening plays.
“Satire, fine,” said Michael. “Irony, great. But no existentialism. No amorality. No ennui.”
Michael was in his office, speaking on the phone to the playwright of the Lucas’ latest show. Jeremy Jax sat in his cubicle outside Michael’s office, eavesdropping.
“Now then,” said Michael, “there are flaws in Of Mice and Mice.”
Jeremy sighed. Of Mice and Mice, the Lucas’ new show, was scheduled to open in one month. It was a departure from traditional Lucas fare. It was a play in which all of the actors were dressed as giant mice.
“Act one is fine,” said Michael. “It’s act two. What’s driving the mice in act two?”
Jeremy sighed again. Since its birth, the Lucas had been owned by the Hyes, a famous Manhattan theater family. The Hyes had always served as the producers and directors of the shows, and sometimes even as the editors of the playwrights. It was an unusual relationship, but Lucas Hye, who founded the theater in 1890, had been unusually wealthy and could afford to be overbearing. The contemporary Hyes could afford it, too.
“Fine,” said Michael Hye into the phone. “I want the revised script by tomorrow.” The phone clicked.
Jeremy sighed one final time.
“I heard that,” called Michael. “What’s your problem?”
“Nothing,” muttered Jeremy.
Michael appeared in the doorway. He was six feet tall, like Jeremy, but pudgier and fifty years old. He had muttonchops and halitosis.
“Let’s hear it, Jax,” said Michael.
Jeremy had no love for Michael. However, Michael gave Jeremy good money, and decent hours, and when Jeremy sat in on rehearsals, Michael often asked him what he thought.
“It just sounds,” said Jeremy, “like you’re trying to make Of Mice and Mice funny, and it’s not supposed to be funny.”
“Question,” said Michael. “Is Jeremy Jax the expert on funny?”
“No,” said Jeremy.
“Question,” said Michael. “Was Ionesco’s Rhinoceros funny?”
“Well,” began Jeremy.
“No,” insisted Michael. “I saw it in London in seventy-nine. There were twenty people on that stage dressed as rhinoceroses and there wasn’t a chuckle in the house.” Michael put his hands to his hips. “The mice aren’t funny. The mice are dire.”
“Whatever,” said Jeremy. “Forget I mentioned it.”
In college, after his disastrous audition, Jeremy had turned his back on comedy. He found a home in Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Russian writers, Jeremy felt, understood melancholy. They could be wry, but they believed in the Devil, and you didn’t have to like black clothes or coffee to get their darkness. In what he considered a kindred Russian spirit, Jeremy had embraced the darkness he’d discovered in himself during that night years ago, his one night with Freida.
They’d never had a relationship, Jeremy and Freida. They’d come together once, as failures, and fucked each other as failures, and avoided each other thereafter. Jeremy remembered Freida as a ragged, tragic figure, like a doomed Karamazov or a Faust. He thought of her sometimes after work when he walked down Broadway to Cherrywood’s Lounge, his late grandfather’s haunt.
Jeremy drank Cutty Sark at Cherrywood’s, sitting at the bar, glaring at the stand-up comedians who tried to take Robby Jax’s place on the stage. The comedians were male, in their mid-thirties, with thinning hair and decent suits. They rolled their eyes and quibbled about women.
“Comedians aren’t men,” said Jeremy Jax. He was speaking to his old Hobart roommate, Patrick Rigg. Patrick was on Wall Street now. He was famous for his handsome bones, and he carried a gun.
“Russians are men,” said Jeremy.
“Look at this guy.” Jeremy nodded toward the stage, where the comedian was making baby sounds in the microphone.
“He’s doing a bit about dating,” explained Patrick.
Jeremy sucked ice and Scotch. He sucked till the cold hurt his teeth.
“He’s mocking idyllic romance,” said Patrick.
Russians, thought Jeremy, do not do bits.
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