Fiction

Working Clean

I had to get drunk enough to tell that story

Illustration by Pascal Blanchet

Illustration by Pascal Blanchet

Igot my break and found my wife on the same day. The wife part happened by coincidence, but the break—getting in with Jeev—that was a coincidence I made happen.

Before any of us had actually talked to him, we all hated Jeev for being famous, and respected him because he never went ethnic. Besides his funny, of course, which was all that anyone laughing in the dark noticed.

It was Richie Hagen who started calling audiences “the Dark,” even though most of the shitty rooms we played were lit about equally onstage and out there. The name stuck, though: it was optimistic, looking forward to the time when some of us would make it to real clubs and theatres, but it also nailed the sullen unresponsive zero that we got and deserved from crowds in response to most of our material.

The summer he was in town, Jeev showed up to do sets—not as a miracle or favour, but because he was trying to perfect a clean set for The Tonight Show and needed small, uncaring audiences to test himself against.

“Jeev,” Richie said. “Pathetic showbiz I’m-maybe-white name. It’d work better for a magician. Or a puppet. Guy should be the dummy in his own ventriloquist act.” Richie and I hung out because we’d known each other forever and had started going up together, and because we were the best drinkers out of all the young comics. Some of them were sober, some couldn’t hold their booze, some talked about drinking way too much. We just did it, steadily and at a reasonable pace.

“So was it your college friends who started calling you Richie? Is that it? I remember in high school it was Rick, sometimes Richard, but this Richie thing is brand new since you moved back. Who called you it first? ”

Rich swirled the ice in his glass and looked down. Thinking, fatally.

“Exactly. You did. You’re a faker and no one likes you. Especially me. So have some respect for a man who’s actually accomplished something.”

All this was to Jeev’s back. He was a couple of tables in front of us, his shoulder blades moving in and out like he was working muscles around his lungs. Close enough to hear us, close enough for me to know that Rich’s fake-bold call-out had been meant to be overheard. I’d only come back so hard at the guy out of a hope that Jeev would hear.

He went up before the host could get to the end of a fumbling skip-through of Jeev’s enormous CV. The audience—weekday boozers and Internet dates, mostly—didn’t know who he was. He killed anyway, from the first joke.

Richie came up with the angle. “Drinking, man. He never touches anything when he’s out. Almost crosses himself when he gets offered any.” Richie knew this because he’d extended a tiny, trembling glass of Maker’s Mark to Jeev post-set at the Dock and Blues and had been shot down with a presidential smile and wave. I’d taken in the orphaned shot.

We were in Richie’s apartment about two o’clock the next afternoon, breakfast time for us. We’d both been let go from a fireplace-install company after being late consistently for two weeks because of radio CHUX’s Least-Worst Comic tournament. The boss clued in when he heard clips of us on his Tuesday drive in from Scarborough, stuck in 401 traffic while I talked about my dad’s addiction to octopus at Greek restaurants and my confusion about tentacle porn. He was pulling into work halfway through Richie’s bit about why guys in their twenties can’t be nannies, and heard our fake sick call-ins on his voice mail when he sat down in his office. Being pals with Richie’s father, and a deep Pryor fan, he said he’d lay us off as a favour, scoring us a few months of unemployment cheques so that we could fake our way into being real comics.

Richie was playing with his girlfriend’s flatiron, heating it up and chomping down on bits of the cowlick havoc oozing out of his scalp.

“He must go to meetings, Ed. His specials, right from that first HBO half-hour, he’s been one of those bottle-onstage dudes. You still see the discomfort in his left hand. Doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s right at the start of the real-life part of sobering up. Dries out at some detox, bounces to a rehab facility, then instead of going back home to sink into shitty old habits with shitty old friends, he comes north for a few weeks.”

“Probably shooting a movie.”

“That’s exactly what he’s telling all his friends, and the business too. In fact, if he has a good manager, he probably did book a couple-day walk-on in some shitty Telefilm-funded crash-and-burn VOD frat comedy. That’d minimize questions for him.” Richie felt around beneath the cushion he was sitting on and pulled out a miniature Raptors basketball, then started bouncing it off the wall behind the TV. He usually looked for something stupid to do after he said something smart.

The next day, I googled 12-step meetings around the downtown core, figuring Jeev would want to stick close to his hotel. There were twenty-two spread around town, but only four likely downtown spots. The website said newcomers weren’t pressured to talk, which separated these meetings from the ones I’d seen in movies. If Jeev was as freshly quit as Richie thought, he’d be going to at least one meeting a day, maybe two.

I picked a 7 p.m. church-basement assembly off Bay Street, and an afternoon meeting in a little city-owned performance space that usually hosted avant-garde jazz nights. I made it to the afternoon venue a half-hour early, so I got a frozen yogourt and watched ex-drunks filter in from across the street. I didn’t see Jeev, and probably would have skipped going in if it weren’t so humid that day.

Eyes came up to my face and looked away when I walked into the air-conditioned silence. About eight men, six women. They were milling around a coffee pot, not chatting yet. Saving it until after the meeting, I guess. I took a seat in a back corner and watched them do their little pre-show rituals, the ones who were going to talk tapping out the beats of their speeches on their legs.

The first speaker lied. Lied the whole time. At first, I looked around to see if anyone was noticing, but her story got so good that I focused on her. It was two in the afternoon and she was wearing a high-waisted green skirt and an off-white blouse with a knotty and complicated rectangle of lace patterning on the front. It looked vintage and had probably been expensive once, before she collected it from the dead-senior-citizen section of a cottage-country thrift shop. She had a great face for lying: tiny, with one eyebrow slightly higher than the other, a small mouth, bangs that she could tilt and hide under sometimes.

“That’s Dara, like the Irish name, but spelled the white-trash way.” She got a giggle from that, after the formulaic intro they all had to use.

“This is my sixth month. Day 163. I haven’t been doing meetings as often as I should, and I got a scare last night, so here I am. My sponsor’s been on a camping trip, and he gave me numbers for a couple other people—good people, I’ve met them—but I just, at the moment I needed to, I just couldn’t bring myself to call a stranger.”

A few murmurs and head shakes in the crowd at this. The middle-aged head in front of me was on top of a neck as pink as the inside of a good steak. Proper alcoholic colouring. If he was being a good boy, he was letting down his complexion.

“I think the disease talks differently to women, you know? It gets in there with our societal training to be polite, not make a fuss. Don’t bother anyone, don’t take yourself seriously. Just skip dinner and have a vodka soda, you’ll feel much better.”

She got a little rippling laugh. A polite, public-radio laugh for her beautiful, measured timing.

“I dodged it, last night. But I did it wrong. Made my roommate lock me in. I’m in—I’m in sort of a dominance situation. I haven’t met any of you yet, and I don’t want to eat up time at your meeting with tons of background.”

The neck in front of me went a couple shades deeper. The rumble this time was encouraging, one older woman up front even saying “It’s what we’re here for” as the speaker continued.

“Okay. So it’s not a real sex situation. We don’t do that. But he does let me live rent-free if I exchange certain behaviours. Again, nothing that creepy. But there are deadbolts on the outside of my door, and he lets himself in to toss my room, but only when I’m around. Makes me stand in the corner to watch him do it. He goes through my drawers and takes stuff sometimes. But mostly—I need to stress this—he’s really nice, and he definitely doesn’t get me to do anything that I don’t want to. And he helps me out. This time, he checked the room for booze, for anything I could use to get high, then left for the night with me locked in. I had a sandwich and a bucket. Just got out an hour ago, showered, and came here.”

Dara went on with this incredible, Cinemax S&M monologue for about seven minutes, finding ways to get back to the weird sex stuff at crucial beats, implying that her drinking had always been dictated by a tortured desire she couldn’t quite talk about. She didn’t ever get close enough to detail this, but sculpted off bits of story so narrowly around it that a number of delicious guesses were possible. But Dara wasn’t Dara; she was a girl named Bridget, who’d had a blond wig on when I’d met her at Cadillac Lounge’s improv night a few months before. Bridget did elaborate, abstract, and awkward bits, with a short red-headed guy as her partner. Alt-comedy stuff that I found insufferable. But I’d bought her three vodka sodas that night, only the month before. Definitely less than 163 days ago. Her addict act was leagues beyond her duo work.

She knew me, too. She hadn’t looked at me during the whole story, but Bridget pushed the Dara mask off for a second when she was getting offstage and smiled at me. I got up and left, which was—again, according to the Internet—fairly typical behaviour for newcomers at these meetings.

I ate Thai food near the church where the seven o’clock meeting was happening, getting red curry sauce on my Sabbath T-shirt in a convenient spot where it blended with the design. I still had Bridget’s number from that improv night. I’d texted her once, a couple days after buying her those drinks, but she hadn’t replied. I’d made a crack about “improvising some dignity or talent” that I think blew it for me, just after I’d gotten her number, and I could see that she’d almost wanted to take it back. Well, she would definitely answer the next text I sent her, once I figured out how to word it.

The church-basement meeting was much grimmer. The coffee pot, rumbling like hunger pangs, still had the place of honour. About twenty people when I got in, about three minutes before start time. I almost had to text Richie right there: Jeev was sitting in the back row, wearing a ball cap.

This meeting was exactly as boring as I’d prepared myself for the first one to be. Endless repetitions of the same dramas. Some showing off from the guys—stories of how messed up they used to get, couched in deep regrets. From the women who spoke, pure sincerity, but no real incidents: just a habit that got out of hand, some vague references to what could have been lost. They all looked liked television chefs, except the last two guys, who’d both done serious time on the streets and came out of those years with faces like extras in a western. One of them started off by talking about what had happened to him in foster care, then about sending his own kid to drug stores, years later, to steal Listerine. Now that kid was a foster, and so on. I had to tune out and put a fake reverent look on my face, flicking a peripheral at Jeev whenever I could.

He didn’t talk, but he did look at me a few times. I concentrated on not looking back, and it was him who approached me afterwards.

“You’re a comic. I caught the end of your set.”

“Yeah. Ed Brooks. Last weekend, that Not My Dog gig with five people there.”

“You had that kid-sex bit.”

“Right.” We’d faded back from the coffee pot, the shoptalk leading us away from the group, who were flirting in a complicated way that spoke to many years of overlapping affairs, sexual and otherwise, that we had no part in.

“What was it again? Don’t do it, but what was it about? ”

“It’s, ‘I wonder if there are hetero pedophiles who are disgusted by gay ones. What are their rallies like,’ et cetera.”

“Right, yeah. I really laughed at that set-up.” Jeev hadn’t laughed; I would have remembered, and lorded it over Richie. He might have done the mental “that’s funny” thing that I did when I watched good comics.

“But the rest of the joke flopped.”

“It never quite gets there. That’s why you didn’t get the audience in. If you’re going to have a shocker opening like that, you have to make it cute somewhere in the middle, or go somewhere with it that isn’t just deeper into the disturbing part. You have to make them feel okay about laughing in the first place, or else lead up to the horror.”

“Yeah. That makes sense.”

We’d walked about a block, and Jeev pointed across the street to his hotel. One of the boutique ones, not the Trump or the Ritz, like I’d expected. We were sitting in the lounge a few minutes later, me with a Diet Coke that I was paying full attention to as I waited for Jeev to dictate the next part of the conversation. He’d taken the ball cap off and picked one of the ice cubes out of his soda to rub on his bald head. He stood abruptly.

“How long you been sober? ” Jeev put a twenty on the table and gestured me up. “I still feel bad making people serve me on such tiny bills. I don’t know how you’re supposed to date, either, unless you’re completely alright with just screwing people from group.” He started walking toward the elevator bank, and I followed him.

“I guess only a couple days,” I said, on the off chance that Jeev remembered me with a beer in my hand at the show. I never took booze up with me onstage, but we had been sitting pretty close. “I’d been slowly cutting back, but I just really decided that it’s time, you know? Just, time.”

“You were getting bad? ”

“Honestly, not so much. But I think I was going to get out of hand eventually. Late for work, blowing off stage time to drink instead, that kind of stuff.” I almost, but of course not actually, felt bad for making fun of improv comics after that awful, boring fumble, cut wholesale from some of the vaguer stories at the meeting we’d just been at.

Jeev punched the seven button in the elevator and eyed me while we rose.

“That’s your rock bottom? Missing out on stage time at an open mic? You’re perfect for this. Gift from the heavens.”

We got into his room and walked for longer than I thought you could walk in a hotel room. I could see a conference table in the distance, down a hallway that was painted to look like a couple of cheerier Rothko paintings facing each other. One of the two king-size beds in the main room had been slept in, but the other was made and had a ritualistic spread of liquor bottles on it. They looked to have been laid out in order, with wine at the start, a higher-end cognac than I’d ever tasted in the middle, and bourbon at the end. Enough booze for a full evening with five people, or a committed evening with two.

“So. You didn’t bottom out, ever. Personally, I think if you’re not going to do that, you at least need to have some sort of commemorative send-off to the stuff, right? It’s not in the book, but a lot of successful recovered guys have told me they did it. Had a night where they said goodbye.” Jeev gestured at the bottles.

“Doesn’t that seem kind of fucked up? I could just get this stuff out of here for you instead.”

“You can stay, with the booze, or you can get out. Either way, the bottles are staying.”

We started in silence, making our way through the two bottles of wine, drinking out of toothbrush glasses from the bathroom. It was very good.

“It was on Luke Baumgaertner’s last trip out, after he got the cancer news,” Jeev said, about halfway through the first bottle. “His Dying Alone tour. Couldn’t fucking believe he picked me to be his opener, and neither could any of his friends. Three packed theatre shows in New York, then a night in LA and one in San Francisco before he admitted he was too sick to be up there another second. Made me. Completely made me. Luke was definitely more dead at the end of the tour than he was at the start, but he still had it right up through the last gig. Then he went off to die. But I know exactly why he picked me.”

“Yeah? ”

“Yeah.” The cognac was open, and Jeev used melted ice to swab out our glasses. He dried them with a corner of the bedsheet and poured the amber liquid in. It tasted like booze from a fantasy novel. “We had this one throwaway conversation about family, upstairs at the Comedy Cellar. And I told him my dad was terminal. Brutal autoimmune thing, he was shutting down fast. It was actually part of us slamming each other—he started asking me how an old Sikh guy gets AIDS, I got his sister into it, you know how it works. Like you and your shitty comic friends, except actually funny.”

“Yeah.”

“It was true. Dad was going down fast, and I had him in private care, a place just a few miles from my house, far enough to forget about him when I wanted to, close enough for obligation visits. Luke remembered this when he was diagnosed, I guess, so when he took on that last tour, he wanted someone out there who was used to ignoring dying people.”

Jeev sank the rest of his glass then filled it to the top again, taking two delicate sips before going back to the gulps.

“Dad wasn’t mentally there for most of the last five months. We had to keep the dope dosage high to make his pain tolerable. This was well after the tour, which I’d tried to tell him about, but none of it registered. I might as well still have been middling in Ohio, for all he knew. And on my last visit there, I got so wasted talking to him, watching his eyes move around and his grin when he tried to understand. I got dead drunk and threw up on him. Then laughed, right away. It’s when I knew I was quitting, right? Because I can’t think of or engineer a lower moment than vomiting on your terminal dad and then lying to the nurse of that terminal dad, saying that he was the one who threw up. I even put some of it in his beard to make it look real. I was too far gone to think that she’d probably notice that the throw-up stank of this.” Jeev tilted his glass and looked through it.

“And of course I couldn’t get myself back there for weeks, and then Dad did me the favour of dying so I didn’t have to.” Jeev swirled the last of the cognac around in his mouth, then downed it and made a hissing, deflating noise.

“That’s it.” He got up and put all the bottles—the empty wine ones, the cognac, the ones full of bourbon—in a canvas shopping bag, then made the walk down the long hallway to the hotel-room door and deposited the bag outside.

“I couldn’t get that out at the meetings. When I was sober. And I’m gonna be sober again, now, I am. But I had to get drunk enough to tell that story. To tell someone that. Do you get it? ”

I almost did, so I nodded.

And that was it. He asked me if I had a half-hour, I lied and said yes, and a few weeks later I was booked as the opener on his next West Coast tour. I was hated for that boost, but I compensated by killing, every night except Portland. I just couldn’t get that town to like me, and I don’t think I ever will.

I was dating Bridget by then. She’d stopped polishing her one-man show, Confess, at the meetings, and had moved on to a web series and little theatre shows. We got engaged after Christmas, when she was in talks to develop her Dara character into the TV show she ended up doing last year. I managed to get my first half-hour of good material for the Jeev tour by begging Richie to give me his best ten, which he did after making me swear that I’d let him open for me as soon as it made sense to, and that we’d write a script together in the meantime. After I didn’t completely fuck up the dates out West and we got a solid second draft done, Richie and I gave the screenplay for Rehab to Jeev and his agent, who told us last week that they liked it, quite a bit. I drink once a month, with Richie, at one of our apartments, with no one else around. Even Bridget thinks I’m sober.

Last time Jeev was in town, I was away, doing a show in Montreal. He did his hotel-room confession drink bit with Bridget, making her promise not to tell me, but I’m pretty sure he knew she would. He didn’t make a move on her, just told a similar story. In this one it was his mother, and Alzheimer’s, and a small fire in the room, instead of vomit. It still felt true, Bridget said, when we were comparing the two scenes. The parent, the booze, the incident.

“There’s something there,” Bridget said. “If he tells it enough times, I think he’ll get to it.”

This appeared in the July/August 2015 issue.

Naben Ruthnum (@NabenRuthnum) is a Journey Prize-winning author and a former books columnist for the National Post.

Pascal Blanchet (pascalblanchet.com) has drawn for Penguin Books and The New Yorker, among others.

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