The Character of a Comedy
My first job out of college was as a desk clerk at a large but downscale hotel off the 10 Freeway. It was the kind of place where a hypodermic needle might roll out when the maids changed the sheets or a beat-up hooker would be found wandering the hallways at two or three in the morning. Those were the exceptions, though. Most of the guests were budget-minded businessmen and in-laws whose kids didn’t want them sleeping over. My boyfriend Joel said that the Day’s Inn was the symbol of civilization’s fall from grace and told me to quit. He said that my delicacy was in danger if I continued working there. He was always saying things like that, flattering things that made no real sense.
Joel was two years older than me, a bohemian with a chest-length beard and forward-jutting jaw. He had been a philosophy major at an all male school in the desert and could speak convincingly and at great length about pataphysics and the theory of encumbrance—topics about which I knew nothing. I loved him more than I’d loved any other boyfriend so far, not only for his mind, but for some quality in him I thought of as panache. He had a reedy voice and wore knit caps far back on his head and sang off-key in a fearless baritone. To make money, he worked in stand-up, appearing late at night in little clubs all around LA.
He said maybe I should think about doing stand-up too—it was not that much work, and it didn’t matter if I wasn’t funny because he wasn’t either, and the money was already starting to roll in. There was even an interview with him in the most recent issue of LA Weekly.
I took his advice and did an open mic at some little place called the Rancheria in Fontana. I didn’t tell anybody beforehand—I just signed up and stood in the back waiting my turn, then went onstage and tanked. Afterward I went outside and threw up in the bushes, where some other comic, or maybe a vagrant, had hidden a broken ventriloquist’s dummy and an empty bottle of Xanax.
Joel heard about it from somebody and called to insist we meet immediately. “It happens to everybody. I think I can give you a couple of tips,” he said.
I was actually kind of interested to see what he was going to say, especially since he was starting to get some better gigs. He drove out, and we met at the Coffee Hopper in Riverside, where I found him waiting for me in a corner booth, tapping a spoon on the table and chewing happily on a toothpick. I sat down and a waiter appeared, a guy of about twenty with a tattoo of a daisy on each one of his knuckles. The waiter took our orders and then hung around looking at me with a kind of worried grin on his face.
“What?” I asked finally.
“I don’t know. I feel like I know you.”
“No, no, no,” I said, hunching a little so that he wouldn’t notice the Ozzfest logo emblazoned on my t-shirt. “I have only now arrived from Nice.”
The waiter studied me, trying to figure out if I was on the level. There was a half-smile on his face.
He hurried away and returned a few minutes later with our coffee and a croissant on a paper doily. Somehow he had managed to scrounge up three perfect orange blossoms, which he had put on a napkin beside a penciled heart. “Pain au chocolat,” he said, setting the croissant in front of me with a flourish. “A little gift for you.”
“Refuse it,” Joel said. “He’s offering you crack.”
I thought for a minute before I pushed it away. “Non, merci,” I said.
“Trina,” Joel said after the waiter left. “You’ve got to stop trading on your dimples. It’s stunting you. It’s fucking you up.”
I shrugged “I’m lucky. So what? I can’t help it.” Behind the menu, I pulled my lips together into a bloodless circle that I thought looked like a sphincter, then moved the menu aside to show him. “Do you prefer this look?”
“You miss my point.” Joel looked annoyed.
“Your point is that you’re jealous. I get it. Let me hear your helpful tips already.”
He fanned through his notebook, then found the place and laid it on the table to smooth the pages. “This helped me when I was starting out,” he said, “I’m not trying to be pretentious, but it’s from Schopenhauer.”
His voice deepened: “‘The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, and surveyed only in light of its general points, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy.’”
I knew who Schopenhauer was, and I didn’t think he was going to do much for my punch lines. In fact, I didn’t quite see how that quote could be applied to Joel’s act either, since it basically consisted of him staring at the audience until they got uncomfortable and then making some off-topic observations about rodeos or pickles.
“Does he have any recommendations about the set-up?”
Joel sighed. “No. It’s about approach.”
I watched him messing around with his spoon.
“You’re relying on luck too, aren’t you?” I said.
Joel didn’t look up. “If that’s what you want to call it. I think of it as my je ne sais quoi.
I skimmed some foam off my latte with my tongue and called the waiter over to ask if I might have that croissant after all. When it came, I shoved half of it in my mouth and gave the remainder to Joel.
“Oh yeah,” he said as he chewed it open-mouthed. “One more tip. Don’t do any more open mics at the Rancheria. Nobody in the audience speaks English.”
We said goodbye in the parking lot, the two of us leaning up against the side of my Pinto, kissing one last time with the door handle digging into the small of my back.
“Go over me in detail,” I said when I felt his hand slip up beneath my shirt. He laughed and gave my breast an affectionate squeeze before he turned and headed toward his own car.
“Not a clear reference,” he called over his shoulder. “Try setting it up better next time.”
My shift at the hotel didn’t start until six, so I drove home the long way, through the desert north of Banning. It was a landscape I liked, a vast dirt floor with a gas station every ten miles or so, one or two liquor stores with trucks in the parking lots. I kept thinking about what Joel had said. Set-up and Schopenhauer, all that stuff. I wondered how he came up with that. On the hills off in the distance were the tracks of dirt bikes crisscrossing each other in patterns that stood out from the scrub like scars from some crazy knife fight. Some kids were probably up there now, sliding sideways, having the time of their lives while I sang along to an old cassette of Francoise Hardy. I interrupted the romantic songs now and then to laugh, remembering how jealous Joel had been of the daisy-handed waiter.
When I woke up after the crash, I was face down on a mattress that smelled like something had died in it. I gagged and rolled over onto my back and passed out again. When I woke the second time, the sky was looming over me, transparent and bluer than I’d ever seen it.
A CHP officer came to the hospital and told me I was a walking miracle. “We found your shoes a hundred yards down the road,” he chuckled. “You weren’t wearing a seatbelt, and you landed on a mattress.” He shook his head incredulously. “What are you, part of some Roadrunner cartoon?”
I tried to smile at him, but it only made my head hurt worse. He handed me a CHP report that described “a head-on collision with no obvious cause.” It said that the driver of the mini-van was unhurt, that I’d been ejected from the window, that I had not been wearing a seat belt. No fault was ascribed because I had been unconscious and the driver of the mini-van refused to talk or answer questions. Both drivers, it said, were uninsured motorists.
The CHP officer seemed like a nice man, but I hated him for his cavalier attitude. A walking miracle? A Roadrunner cartoon? To me a miracle would have been if the other driver and I had driven past each other in an inconsequential whoosh of air. As it was, I had a chipped elbow, internal bleeding, a concussion, and a long zigzag laceration along my left side from exposed mattress springs. Any deity who performed his miracles that clumsily should be looking for a different line of work. I didn’t say any of that to the officer, but I did ask him if he’d brought my shoes, which unfortunately he hadn’t.
“You were saved by a mattress?” my friends laughed. “Wow.” My mom rushed into my room, laughing and crying at the same time and said she was surprised I hadn’t seen stars and ampersands. Even the doctors seemed bemused. One, a neurologist who came into my room to talk about the concussion, lingered a long time over my chart.
“Now, what was the cause of your injuries?” he asked. I explained, for the sixth time that day that I had been ejected from the car window.
“I see.” He frowned and pulled at the lobe of his ear. At last his face brightened. “Oh—defenestration!” he said. “Out the window!” He kept repeating the phrase and smiling to himself as he wrote notes on my chart and wagged a penlight into my pupils. After a while he started pronouncing it in the French way—défénestration. I watched him stone faced, then clutched my head and cried out, “Putain, Docteur, je vais vormir,” which seemed to take him aback.
Only Joel refused to laugh about it. He arrived every day after lunch and stood in the corner of the room waiting for the other visitors to leave. When we were alone he would pull a chair up to my bed and read to me out of some book whose academic arguments I couldn’t have followed even without the pain medication. Other times he just sat there looking at me out of wounded eyes, and I would be forced to flash a grin just to cheer him up.
At home I was confined to my bed, entrusted to the care of Felix, who was thirteen and the only other sibling besides me who still lived at home. I had considered him too young for notice before, but now, at about three every afternoon, I found myself getting impatient for him to come home. I’d hear the door creaking and the sound of him talking on the phone to someone, the refrigerator door unsticking and the sound of him pulling stuff out. Every now and then, there would be a muffled burst of profanity, which meant he had accidentally kicked the cat’s water dish or dropped a knife. Finally he’d bring me some food, usually an orange and a mayonnaise and salami sandwich on white bread.
At first, he would just dart in and leave the food on a chair, even if I said something to let him know I was awake. I got the sense he was a little afraid of me. Maybe it was the bandages or how dazed I probably looked. Eventually he got used to me and started to hang around in the doorway asking ridiculous questions, such as whether I’d I been airborne or if my guts had fallen out.
I tried ignoring him, but after a while I relented and decided to take him into my confidence. “Look,” I said, moving my pajama top to show him the more harmless end of my scar. “The mattress didn’t exactly welcome me.” I told him about how there were dozens of discarded mattresses along that stretch of road. Why shouldn’t I have landed on one? Me being airborne was neither here nor there—anybody ejected from a car was bound to travel some distance before landing. It was physics.
“I guess,” he said.
When I could walk again without major assistance, I decided to go back to work. I called my manager, Barry, who was an old white guy with thinning hair and a closet full of short-sleeved white shirts. He had a reputation for being an asshole, but I’d stopped joining in the gossip ever since the time I’d noticed a hole in the sole of his leather shoes when he was in the lobby kneeling to set out some ant traps. For some reason, that hole always made me feel he was doing the best he could.
“Trina!” he said, when he heard my voice. “I’ve been meaning to call you.” He asked me a lot of questions, and then broke it to me that my position had been filled by somebody else. Nothing personal, he said, they would all really miss me. I had been an asset. Blah, blah. He said he knew the guests always felt at ease with me because of my excellent customer service skills. If they ever needed someone, I’d be the first one they called.
Before he hung up, I asked if, by any chance, he was still in the habit of discarding old mattresses in the desert to avoid paying recycling fees at the dump. It was common knowledge that he’d been doing that, but I said it as if I’d only just thought of it. He laughed one of his high-pitched little laughs and said again he hoped I’d be feeling better soon. Then he mentioned that all the maids and even one of the groundskeepers had signed a card for me. Oh, and he was giving me a little severance bonus as a token of his appreciation.
Barry was more afraid of lawsuits than he was of health inspectors, but I wasn’t really serious about suing him. I just wanted him to sweat a little, the way I was being made to sweat. For a few days I lay in bed imagining him repenting of his sins, regretting that he had wrestled those saggy, tea-colored mattresses off the back of a pickup. It gave me a certain satisfaction to think of his fingers digging into fabric that might still be damp from somebody else’s body fluids.
At the end of six weeks, I got my cast off. I waited in a little room while a doctor cut it away with some kind of underpowered skill saw. I saw that my arm had shriveled, and there were loose pieces of skin stuck like moths to my forearm. The doctor rubbed them away and moved my elbow back and forth a couple of times.
“Your pitching career is over,” he said.
“Ha-ha,” I said. “I think there’s something wrong with my head.”
“I noticed that earlier. Probably damage to the facial nerve.”
“It’s weird,” I said. “People don’t warm to me anymore.”
He studied me for a minute, like he was searching for the one thing that held my face together, the unidentifiable thing that made me pretty. “If you get hit again, that would be bad. I can’t predict what will happen.” He let my arm drop to my side. “Don’t count on things going back to how they were.”
I looked at him in terror. I had not considered the possibility that I might not look like myself again. Sure, at first I had a scar that had run over my body like a bloody railroad, but that had faded now into a bubbly pink worm descending suggestively into the top of my underwear. It was unsightly, but it gave me a sense of—I don’t know. Reality, I guess. Now that he was saying I might be losing the power of my face, it seemed like a curtain had fallen between me and the rest of the world.
I called Joel, and he said he would come right away. He had to take the bus since he had sold his last car and his new Lexus wasn’t ready yet. I forgot for a minute about the fate of my Pinto and offered to come and pick him up. “You can’t,” he said. “Besides, riding the bus is safer and more fun.”
“Are you saying ‘can’t’ because I ruined my car?” I asked, “or because you think I can’t be trusted behind the wheel?”
“Not everything is about you, Trina. I just think the bus is cool.”
He got there about eleven, sweating from the climb up the hill from the bus stop. It was a hazy, hot day, but he was wearing a loose army surplus jacket and a little skullcap embroidered with edelweiss flowers.
“Are you okay?” he asked, drawing a beer from the pocket of his jacket. “You look weird.”
“You mean injured, or permanently weird?” I had my head wrapped in a scarf and was supporting myself with a cane my mother had pinched from the senior center where she taught calisthenics.
Joel popped the lid off his beer and pensively adjusted himself on the sofa to make room for my mom’s cat, Pincushion. The end of the beer disappeared, briefly, into his beard.
“I guess permanently. Your dimples are firing on half power.”
Outside, some guys from the city were standing around a white truck while one of them jackhammered the sidewalk. He was wearing a fluorescent vest and heavy boots, his arms tensed on the handle and jerking violently as they took the brunt of the jackhammer’s work.
“That’s me,” I said. “I’m the sidewalk.”
Joel reached back and scratched Pincushion’s head. “What about France?”
“No, I’m off all that.” I’d been a French major in college, and for a while I had actually been talking about spending some time in Paris, but I never had the money. Now I didn’t know what I would do even if I went. The longer I waited, the more remote the possibility began to seem. These days Perris, California was beginning to seem more like my kind of place.
“Too bad. I thought maybe you would have blossomed there.”
We sat for a while without speaking.
“The minivan driver is suing me,” I said. “Can you believe it? Just because I was uninsured.”
Joel finished off his beer and burped softly. “Want to hear about the bus ride here?” he said.
“No. I don’t.”
“Okay, so a woman got on in Rialto.” He made a face to illustrate ugly, which on him registered as slightly discontent. “She had a bag with all her stuff in it, like a duffel bag, and it was falling apart. All her clothes and everything were spilling out—she had to hold onto it with both arms and some stuff was still falling on the floor. The first thing she does, when she gets on the bus, is ask if anybody has a bag she can put her stuff in. She’s just asking anybody who’s on the bus, like they brought along an extra bag just for her.”
“Is this a joke? Don’t tell me any jokes.”
“No, this is of moral consequence. Somebody gave her a bag, and she started putting all her stuff in it. She threw the old one into the aisle.” He tipped the beer to his lips again then sat for a moment looking thoughtful.
“That’s it. Then a guy got on with a wheelchair and ran over her foot. It was already swollen the size of Pincushion here. You should have seen her face.” He was petting Pincushion too fast, leaving little streaks of sweat in her fur with the palm of his hand. The cat glanced at him irascibly and leapt to the floor.
“Just trying to help,” Joel said. We watched together as the cat settled herself in a little pool of sunlight at my feet. The jackhammer started again out of the sidewalk and her ears, cocked forward with their little whiskers alert, vibrated ever so slightly in response.
“What’s the moral? I should be thankful I’m not a penniless blind earthworm with a double set of hemorrhoids?”
“Well, you’re alive aren’t you?” he said. “You know by any law of physics, you shouldn’t be.”
I looked at Joel’s concerned face, then past him to the workers in the street. There were four guys standing around watching one guy with the jackhammer, whose whole body was shuddering as he worked. A sixth worker stood in the street looking bored, twirling his stop/slow sign around like a whirligig.
“Do you want to fuck for a while?” I said.
Joel polished the end of his beer bottle on his beard and looked around him.
“Really? You mean right here?” We’d never done it in my mother’s house before—just at his place and in unoccupied rooms at the Day’s Inn when I was supposed to be working.
“Where else?” I said.
Felix came home while we were in the midst of it. We heard him on the front walk, and Joel leapt up and rushed from the room while I pulled my clothes on in a hurry and pretended to be straightening the sofa cushions. It was just as well. Joel had made love like he was afraid my scar would rip open or something. It was such a lackluster performance that I began to wonder why I’d even suggested it in the first place. I kept my eyes closed through most of it, but at one point I looked up and saw Pinny gazing at me over Joel’s shoulder, her green eyes fixed on mine as if she were mocking me.
Felix came in and stood for a moment with the door open. “What are you two imbeciles doing?” he said, noticing Joel’s crumpled jacket on the floor beside my underwear.
I shoved the underwear under the couch with my foot. “If you’re really interested, we were discussing Schopenhauer.”
For a whole week, I lay around uselessly on my mom’s couch, thinking about what my next move should be. Joel had gone off to the east coast to play some clubs in South Jersey. I wasn’t hearing from him, and all my calls went straight to voice mail. On Thursday, he called from Atlantic City saying he’d had an allergic reaction to something. His face had puffed up like Miss Piggy’s. “I’m hideous,” he said. “A hairy pink throw pillow.”
“I’m coming,” I said. “Right now.”
“No,” he said. “You’d be bored staying in all these generic hotels. They’re sensory deprivation chambers.”
“I’m familiar with hotels,” I said.
He sounded tired. “It would just be awkward if you came. I’ll see you on the seventeenth.”
“Wait,” I said, “I just want to ask you one more thing.”
He sighed. “What?”
I knew it was stupid, but I had to say it. “Do you think that maybe someone, somewhere, is sticking pins in a stuffed animal version of Pincushion? She’s acting a little crazy, right? And her name is Pincushion. That can’t be just happenstance. Do you know anybody who’s into voodoo?”
“You sound crazy,” he said.
I buried my head in my pillow. “I’m just looking for an explanation. It’s what humans do.”
Joel was quiet for a while, and then he said he had to go. After he said goodbye, I could still hear him, his breathing and the little beeping sound that meant his alarm was set.
On Friday, a threatening letter came from the minivan driver’s lawyer. I read it all the way through this time and learned that the driver of the blue minivan was an Albert K. Mercier, he was fifty-nine years old, and he was suing me for damages in the amount of $67,000, plus court costs. The letter gave his home address.
“Don’t make my lunch,” I wrote in the letter I left for Felix. “I’m off to seek my fortune. Ha-ha. Really just going to see the guy who hit me. Tell mom not to worry. Oh, and sorry I took all the money out of your drawer—it’s not personal. Love, Trina.”
The bus left me off downtown in front of a VFW bar. An old guy in a baseball cap came out and saw me standing there turning my map around and offered a ride. He was older than my grandfather, grizzled and a bit unsteady on his feet. I remembered all the things my mom had told me about accepting rides from truckers and let him help me into the cab.
It was hot and windy, and little bits of hay kept drifting off the truck and flickering away into the desert. The man turned the radio to a country station and squinted at me from under his ball cap. He didn’t say much—only that I’d have burned the soles off my feet if I’d kept walking all that way over the “gol durned sand” and that he hadn’t had an accident in fifty-two years of driving. As he let me out, he tipped the bill of his cap.
“Good luck, miss,” he said.
Mercier’s place was not too far from where we’d had the accident. It was a little stucco house set way back on a huge barren lot, its emptiness emphasized by long stretches of chain link fencing. There was some old farm equipment in the front and a burned-out garage out back, a hand-painted wooden sign by the driveway that said “Frenchy’s—the Freshest Christmas trees in America.”
I approached the gate and a Doberman started barking and pulling at its chain, leaping toward me and being yanked straight back by the constraint. A man came out and shouted ferme ta gueule and the dog stopped abruptly and turned toward him, whimpering and licking his hands.
“What do you want?” he shouted at me. “This property is private.” He pronounced it “privet.”
I shouted my name back at him, and he stared at me a minute, then went and shut the dog up in a little pen under the yard’s one tree, which was not a tree at all but some kind of modified cactus.
He motioned for me to follow him into the house.
The house was stuffed to capacity with old furniture and taxidermied animals, huge antique photographs behind curved glass, vintage jukeboxes, and unusual bric-a-brac in varying states of decay. The living room had a small Spartan space cleared in one corner, which was occupied by only a recliner and a television. Mercier went to the kitchen, took some papers off a rickety chair by the stove, and told me to sit.
“You will drink a café’, no?” Without waiting for an answer, he went into the kitchen and put some water in a saucepan.
“Je n’en crois pas mes yeux!” I said, indicating all his possessions. “Impressionant, Msr. Mercier!”
He scowled. “Let us speak English, eh? I prefer this with Americans.”
“Okay.” I took the mug of Nescafé he offered and waved away the sugar bowl.
“You must know the accident was your fault,” he said suddenly, raising both hands in agitation. “I must sue because you drove into my lane. You have deprived me of my only car.”
“No,” I tried smiling up at him. “It was an accident. The report said it was nobody’s fault.”
He put his elbows on the table and stared at me with a rude directness.
“You think this? Was the report there when it happen?”
So, I thought, Mercier wasn’t a charming Frenchman after all. He was a desert hermit living in exile from humanity, piling up possessions and nursing a long roster of resentments against his fellow humans. He was never going to be open to my wiles. I wasn’t making any more of an impression on him than I had on the patrons of the Rancheria. I had lost whatever I had that was worthwhile.
“Fine,” I said. “Go ahead. Sue me however much you want. I’m broke. Le rien, le zéro, néant.” I put my cup back in its saucer and stood up to leave. As I was putting my purse over my shoulder, he slammed his hand on the table.
“It was your fault. You were putting on lipstick. Like this.” He puffed his lips out and mimicked a woman applying lipstick, “In the back view mirror, no? A pretty little thing.” His eyebrows were raised almost to his hairline as he pretended to draw the lipstick across his mouth. “Paying attention to nothing.” He slammed the table again. “Nothing!”
I glanced down into the remains of my coffee, the thick black liquid reflecting the corner of my mouth and the light over the table. For some reason, I felt like crying.
“Sorry,” I said after a few minutes.
Mercier looked at me sadly. “Nothing is ever easy for people like us, eh? We are not the fortunates.”
When we had finished our coffee, Mercier gave me a tour of his property.
He showed me where he kept the Christmas trees in the winter and a picture of his garage as it had looked before the fire. It was full of so much crap I couldn’t tell what all he had in there.
“Is there a car under there?” I asked. He pulled the tarp away far enough to show me the hood of a 1979 Chevy Colt. It was the same approximate vintage as my Pinto, only it was green and in much better condition.
“Ah,” he said, patting its hood. “She doesn’t run, but I keep her for the sentimental reasons.”
“Is that right?” I said. “What’s she done for you lately?”
He shrugged. “Nothing lately.” He seemed to be mulling something over, trying to decide. After a moment he turned to me, his eyes clear in a weather-beaten face. “You know the Duffy Incident?”
Of course I knew the Duffy Incident. It was when a train went out of control coming over the Cajon Pass and derailed on an elevated curve. It had kept going without slowing down, went right onto Duffy Street and flattened seven houses in about twenty seconds. Every house in smithereens, every tree and blade of grass. Mercier pointed to himself and laughed a little ruefully. “I lived on Duffy. This little thing I parked in back. My lucky car, not even touched.”
“What about you?”
He laughed. “Good thing I was not home, eh?”
He showed me a bunch more things in a shed behind that one. There was an old buggy and a big metal sign with Bugs Bunny on it, a chandelier made from stuffed bear paws, a coke machine painted black, some empty beer cans from the fifties—all of it interesting in a dreary, used-up kind of way. I looked hard, trying to memorize the details so that I could describe them to Joel if I ever heard from him again.