Curtain Call

Curtain Call

A Story by Maeve Andrea
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A truck driver turned improv comedian in a miserable troupe does his best to close the show, relying on the one person he stayed for

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“Alright, team,” Robby says, looking too serious for someone with lime green hair. Nope, still haven't got used to the people. I mean, the styling seems straight out of Star Trek, but I can deal with that. Just because I'm from Texas doesn't mean I ain't ever been to Austin. But for people who're trying to be so offbeat, they sure take it seriously. I don't think he's smiled once, and for the most part everyone else just has little cocky smirks on their face, which doesn't bode well for our class improv performance.


How in the hell did I get here?


While Robby tries to hype us up, I don't hear a single word he says. I'm staring at the clock, waiting for time. I try and look around the room and realize just how little I know anyone, so I return to the clock. Half-a-minute before showtime. The stars are out, and I kinda wish I was there under the starlight. I thought I was over the whole lonely soul business but the idea of a cigarette on the balcony is very sweet. Damn it, when did this become a chore?


I almost forget why I'm doing this until my eyes come across you. You're standing next to your man as he speaks, keeping an arm around his neck as if to remind everyone who wears the pants in the duo and who wears the kilt. You're rocking the just-rolled-out-of-bed look, black curls a mess behind your hijab... or is it just a scarf? I don't want to ask, the last thing I need is more people expecting cultural ignorance from me. You've got a black and white zigzag dress thrown on with little regard. It doesn't quite fit your form until you stretch at different angles, then you look like the belle of the ball. You catch my eye as I focus on you like a drowning man longing for a life raft. A face already dominated by sharp angles gets a few more as you grin at me, toothy, eager smile hungry for burst blood vessels. There we are, someone looks alive here.


Now I remember why I stayed.


Robby finishes his speech and the others put their hands in. We almost miss, since we're always offbeat. The chick with the lip piercing, short shorts, and the f**k-you eyebrows glares at me, and I push mine in. I meekly throw in the one-two-three chant, and stay behind as the Chuckle Brothel's trainees file out of the room. I'm told I'm one of them, but the only thing connecting me to them is you. I wait for you as everyone files out, Robby leading the crowd, you kicking the caboose with me.


“You ready, Turbo?” you ask me, the familiar hint of an accent on the edge of a Californian upspeak.


“Doing fine, Wasp,” I assure you, heart ready to leap out of my throat. You notice and clap me on the back. It's almost affectionate, and very encouraging.


“Just remember,” you remind me, crooked grin complimenting your sharp nose. “We're not whoring ourselves out for laughter because we're making money. We're doing it because we're s****y. So don't be ashamed.”


I grin, because that's as blunt as it gets. “I just don't wanna do a bad job.”


You shake your head. “Laughter by any means is still laughter.”


“And bad sex is still bad sex,” I retort as we hit the stage of the Chuckle Brothel, ready to strip ourselves bare of anything resembling boundaries or dignity. You giggle and slide next to me as the music plays and we make our intros.


The others go first- Robby plays air guitar, lip chick flips them off, a guy with a giant beard pretends he's lost, and you just go out and dance to the music. Uptown Funk never gets old, especially when you're the one moving to it. I don't know what to do, and the lights already feel hot on me, so I mime shooting myself in the head because any excuse for a sick day is a good one. All five of us line up on the side and let the audience applaud. I grin, even though I'm scared, because if I'm gonna be a laughter w***e, I'm hoping I can give them a show.


-----


I'm already tired and strangely vulnerable. It's just a class performance, it ain't Broadway, but it still felt unnatural putting myself out there and hoping people would find me shooting my mouth off funny. I haven't been here long. I barely get the culture, and I'm only here because one of my old trucker friends had a room I could rent here. The West Coast isn't Texas, and big built gray-haired truck drivers are more character than people anyways. And I guess that explains why they are still treating me like a background character.


Which I could understand at first because I'm getting a hang of the ropes, but it was how they did it. I hate being the rent-a-moron, rent-a-country-bumpkin. They don't give the probie much of a leash, but I still find my way in. Aggressive doesn't work when everyone else is already aggressive. I rebel, just in a passive way. Beardo asks me if I know where to find some chickens in a co-op since I look like I might know about farm stuff, I tell him “Yeah, cut that rag off your face and maybe you'll get a few to nest in it.”


Gets a big laugh, no one expects it except you, and you're nearly falling onto the stage laughing, your eyes lighting up with spiteful glee. And it makes sense. Watching everyone else from out of the light I see the situations they're in and have a line in my head I thought was good, but then they'd say something that more people laugh at than I thought would. Maybe that was my fault that the only time they need me was to shove a Camel in my mouth and call me Billy Bob Jimmy Joe Yeehaw Jackson.


Two others are performing for a bit, and lip piercing is chewing on a cigarette she can't light up. She asks for my lighter, and I tell her I'll toss it to her during halftime. You're on your tiptoes, always waiting for a cue, waiting for a sign, waiting for your moment in the limelight.


I try and make conversation as you wrap the scarf tighter around your hair. Of course, I don't word it right, because I just like to know things. If I had more tact what I ask wouldn't have been “Wasp, just curious... do you practice?”


“Witchcraft?” you blurt, but then you notice I'm looking at your headdress. “Oh, whoops,” you say. “Nah, I'm not a practicing Muslim. This is just me trying to get people to stop catcalling me.”


I choke out “clever” despite being utterly humiliated.


“Nice one, Texinugget,” Lippy snaps at me.


I apologize, glaring holes into my feet.


“Nah, it's all good, Turbo,” you say. “My mother practices. She's still waiting for me to go on my pilgrimage. She doesn't know that I'm currently-”


“A w***e?” Lippy replies again.


Feeling awkward, I chime in “A laughter w***e.”


“Saving myself for the stage, Becky,” you correct, in the process reminding me of her name.


“Just don't tell her the prayer mat's the last place you're on your knees at,” she bites back. I don't respond, eyes closed, wishing I was anywhere but here. You chuckle, swallowing the joke and keeping quiet, but you're heating up next to me with some intense stifled anger, hot enough for Becky to light her cig with.


“Isn't that a playback scarf anyway?” Becky points out, trying to put out her own fire.


“Yeah!” you reply slowly, pushing off the wall as if you'd forgotten. “We oughta do a playback.”


“I don't think I've learned that,” I admit.


“Oh! It's easy.” Before I can respond, you run through it. “Playback's like the epitome of improv. It hits the root, that all of our improv quirks come from who we are and what we know. Pretty much someone comes up and tells a story, everyone grabs a scarf and we play some sort of scene game. It can be played straight, it can be made funny, whatever the storyteller wants.”


“Glad someone read the homework,” is Becky's only contribution.


I smile. “That sounds fun. I'm down.”


“We can talk it over at halftime,” you reply, knuckles already cracked. That's where the conversation ends. You're back on the prowl, waiting for a time to bust in and throw a few jokes out, not knowing that your wit can't be contained. I keep my eyes out, waiting for you to jump in, to see what you do. That's how our relationship works. I wait for your reaction to any situation, and you deliver. I try and take what I can to improve as a performer, but instead all I get is stuck. Stuck in something bigger than us.


------


I get a shot of whiskey since I'm already living up to stereotypes come halftime. Figure maybe the alcohol will help me be funnier and ballsier. Hell, I don't mind any provocation to shove Robby out of the way and speak my own lines as my own character. Whatever it is. The whole “yes, and” thing is overrated. But as I'm ordering it I see everyone else is getting their drinks or getting on their phones and lord knows I'd rather not be around them, so I sit in the audience. A few people tell me I'm funny, but I know I'm not, so I don't reply. I'm waiting for halftime to end when I see you're still up there. The house DJ's playing some pop song I vaguely recognize, and you're up there dancing. Not in a choreographed way. Not in a provocative way. In a way that's just you dancing.


It's the most natural thing I've seen all night. You dance like a moron, but that's a compliment, because I know you know it. You got two left feet and you're just running around and moving to the music like there's no one here. When you start lip-synching I realize it's Mariah Carey. I hadn't heard her voice in a long time, but even I love it. She can blow out windows with that voice of hers but she also sounds like she's happy to see them shatter. And you're up there like a drama queen throwing yourself into every word. You kind of sell it even though you're absolutely goofy.


The other three look annoyed. I look back because I can feel their eyes creating a heat wave over me towards you. It's like none of them know improv. Becky shouts “Yo ’Tima, just cause we're the Chuckle Brothel doesn't mean you need to be an attention w***e!”


“This is fun!” you respond.


“Just because we're the Chuckle Brothel doesn't mean you need to dress like a skank either,” Robby bites back, and I wince.


“Whatever,” Becky responds, and I'm comforted by Beardo looking like he'd rather be anywhere else. “Your girl's being a f*****g dumbass. I call it like I see it.”


“It is ridiculous,” Robby admits. Way to have some balls, bucko. I simmer into my whiskey. I don't recall hearing in the description that this class would be so spiteful and mean-spirited. People on the road used to tell me I was a funnyman, that I always knew just what to say, and that's why I'm trying my hand. It's hard to make others laugh when no one seems to be having any fun.


But I'm buying into it is the s****y thing. I wanna turn back and say yes, she is absolutely ridiculous, but you just got out of a routine where you tried to sell a dead pig to me, so shut the hell up would you? It's funny how quick the chipper “yes and” goes out the window after curtain call. You seem to notice Robby looking derisive and interrupt your lip-synching to protest “oh come on, Robby, it's Mariah Carey! She's a goddess!”


“I know when to quit,” he responds dismissively.


I guess the mention of a musician more famous than a band poster stapled to a telephone pole seals the deal, and they turn away from you. I'll never understand how the woman best at improv is the social pariah in an improv class. You roll your eyes and continue the dance, but it's a little more restrained. The audience doesn't seem to mind- they're not paying attention but those who are seem vaguely amused and endeared.


Then there's me, and I can't take my eyes off of you. I think watching you dance just sinks me deeper into something. You swing your head side to side, eyes closed, sly grin on your face as you snap your fingers that seems to say that you already know something they don't about improv. And yet I do. Wasp, I get you. I get that you know that the point of humor is to have fun. To believe it. Whether you're dry and bitter, or you're full of energy brighter than the sun, however you wanna bring a laugh, you gotta make yourself smile too. And even though everyone else in the class is reacting like you showed your a*s to get attention, I don't think I've ever seen anything more innocent in my life.


You notice that I'm up front, big dopey grin on my face, dreamy look in my eye. “Come on up!” you insist. That's how you got my feet to the fire. I think for a second but I know I can't. I shake my head, but insist “keep going.” I know I can't dance, but even more, I don't think I could dance like you. I don't have the magic in me. And I don't know if I should. I don't know how I could do it. Because the more you dance, I don't wanna just dance with you, I wanna dance with you.


You smile sadly, out of disappointment or pity I can't tell, but you still let the song play out. You're a little more restrained, and as the music fades out, so do you. I finish my whiskey, but I already feel a different kind of buzz, and I hope you can't read it. Sometimes I feel like I've got the smokescreen of a clear sky and the subtlety of a stampede, and you have a way of puncturing even that. But I think even I can read you a bit, and you seem tired. Deeply tired. Like you're coming down from a high. And I feel like I've let you down, but it's too late to say anything. I see the other students coming back to the stage and I know it's time. Time to pretend.


I stand next to you and apologize. You clap my leg and say “these things take time, baby doll.” I nod, but I'm not sure I agree, because something about this class feels finite, and something about you feels like a dream that's about to end.


-----


You actually get through to Robby enough to launch some Playback. I take a seat with the other four actors and prepare to watch you lead it. The three others are anxious that we went off course, but Robby insists “She's got it, man. She's got it.” He thinks for a moment and says “S**t, she better.”


“Have a little faith,” I insist. “She seems to know a lot about this.”


Robby rolls his stupid vacant eyes, nearly splashing me with inch-thick eyeliner. “I know she's got this, bro,” he responds. “You don't need to tell me twice.”


I turn away before I can snap about how someone needs to take his girlfriend seriously if he ain't gonna do it. I watch you run through the premise with the audience, guiding them with as much effortless aplomb as you did with me. You've got them interested enough, and I scan to see who could be the volunteer. There's enough people here and no two look alike. They actually seem to be enjoying themselves, too. I'm trying to scan to find a good volunteer and give them a reassuring smile in case they get picked when I hear my name.


“Our man Turbo here hasn't seen a Playback yet,” you explain. “Ain't that a shame?”


Oh boy. I mumble a quick prayer and perform the sign of the cross over my chest. Robby looks at Becky and asks “who the f**k is Turbo?”


“Well, before we throw any of you into this, I'm gonna have my favorite piece of Texan dad-bod volunteer as our tribute,” you explain. I look as horrified as I feel, but you reach for my hand. “Come on, Turbo!” you insist, an eager kid trying to lead their unwitting parent to the Hot Wheels section. I shake out of it as the others start to chant my stage name that apparently no one knew about. I take a seat on a stool across from you and prepare for public inspection.


“Turbo!” You finish the chant. “Glad to have you up here. Scaredy cat.”


I close my eyes and swallow. Gotta get on my game. The first idea that comes to my head, I take. “First off, ma'am, I have to say I resent the dad-body comment. That's a depressing fad that I hope goes the way of the corset. And for the record,” I add, and I briefly yank my shirt up, exposing a decent enough row of abs that have forty years of manual labor in them. The crowd whoops, and I can almost feel Becky's face fall off her head as she gasps, annoyed. “I rest my case.”


You look a second too long before throwing a line back at me. “That's a shame, I hear that's how you get all the b*****s nowadays.” I laugh as you talk to the audience again. “Pardon him, he's our little baby bird here at the Brothel. That's as much as we've gotten to see of him. Anyway, Turbo. Regale us with a story.”


I smile cordially to the audience, trying to think. “Does it have to be of anything?”


“It can be of anything,” you correct. “It just has to be real.”


No guarantees, ma'am. I think for a second, looking around the room. It's not until I feel three sets of peer eyes peering on me that I blurt “How about I tell the story of how I got the name Turbo?”


Your warm grin suddenly snaps shut into a sneaky tight-lipped smirk. Amused, interested, worried. “That would be perfect,” you lie.


“I wanna hear it!” Robby blurts, his masculinity dripping from his voice.


“Okay,” I reply. “So... guess we'll go for it.” I turn to you, and you're still wearing that perfect smirk of concern that you don't really care about anyways. The kind of smile that says you can't wait to watch everything burn. The smile that says that you want to see the glasses shatter, and you want it to be your voice that broke them.


I begin to ramble.


“So years before I ever got here on the West Coast,” I explain. “I used to drive trucks. Not the smartest traveling agency to use, but whatever, it was a living. And the most integral part of the job is that you're rarely in the same place as your coworkers at the same time. I was cross country, so was everyone else. But there's still a sense of community. People working hard jobs no one else wants to do to keep little bits of the country running. I ain't saying I'm a soldier, but I'm saying I'm actually kinda proud of myself.”


The audience seems interested.


“And so everyone has a nickname, just a code name to make us feel bigger than what we are, a larger community than one truck on a highway would communicate. We had Luna for this forty-something woman from Florida who had two missing teeth and four kids. She had the voice of a smoker and the charm of a bottle of whiskey. She didn't sleep worth a damn on her runs so she was Luna. Spiky was the new blood who already had the swearing part down and always had a different way to describe our mothers every time we started mouthing off. But he couldn't grow peach fuzz off that noggin of his and he knew it, so we called him Spiky. Like a chihuahua. A cute pet.


“I stopped driving trucks years ago, so I don't really keep in touch with them as much. I remember the day I stopped, I had just driven through the Columbia Gorge up here. And I was like, s**t, this is pretty. I got a few thousand dollars on my card. I've been doing this same job for fifteen years. And I know a friend lives up here. So ya know what...”


I snap my fingers.


“F**k it.”


“You just left?” you prod, as if you don't know. “Like that?”


“Boss wasn't happy either,” I explain. “He was like 'M**********r, I need this goddamn truck back here in Wichita or I'll take your lucky dice and castrate you with them!' Which is Trucker-speak for 'I need you back at base in twenty-four hours.' I think my exact response was 'Go f**k yourself, brother. Widget's here, he can do it. Give him my pay.' Which is Trucker-speak for 'Sorry, sir, I have prior arrangements.'”


The audience laughs. The three others try and restrain themselves but I hear a few chuckles.


“But here's the twist,” I say. “He tells me 'If you don't turbo your a*s back over here I'm gonna run a thirty-wheel train on it if I ever see you again!' Which means exactly what it sounds like. I didn't care. I was getting a life again. So I stayed in Portland and got things set up. But here's the twist.”


“Twist?” You can't restrain your smile, Wasp. It's the same wicked smirk as earlier, and it's as radiant as a house fire.


“Yeah. My trucker name wasn't Turbo. I was always Eastwood. Nice Western Texas dude who seemed like a cowboy. Ain't that a past life. I think whoever had that nickname had a crush on me, because I am absolutely not Clint Eastwood.”


“Well, you got sunshine in a bag,” you correct me. I don't get it, but it's sweet, so I smile.


“But I remember when I started here, everyone was asked how they got to this team. This term's class. So I told them the story of how I quit. And I talked about how I like giving people nicknames if I wanna get to know them. So after class this lovely lady here says 'You're off to a good start, Turbo.' And I was like, well thank you Wasp. She asked why I called her Wasp, and I got stuck because I didn't know why it came to mind. But then I blurted out it was because she was full of zingers. And she seemed to get it, so it stuck.”


“If anyone can connect zingers and wasps together, call me,” you tell the audience, but look at me. “We can get drunk and play some Donkey Kong Country. It'll be the experience of a lifetime.”


I smile the same way you are, waiting to see how this blows over. “And that's how I became Turbo.”


You smile back, the same way. “Great-a*s story, Turbo. Ready for a game?”


None of the other three are, and Robby looks like he's gonna burst a blood vessel now that he has an inkling that I have more of a relationship with his trophy girl than even I do. What can I say? I'm a giver.


I look homeboy in the eyes. “Come on up, Joker.”


Let it burn.


-----


“Boy, I swear,” you whisper, eyes wide as a saucer, as energetic as ever. “You're getting the hang of it.”


“Your boy's gonna b***h-slap me when we get done with this,” I reply, foot pressed against the wall. Talking s**t about the others is to us what smoking is to Lippy and what f*****g is to Robby. Purely cathartic and secretly shameful.


“It'll be worth it,” you insist.


“Hey, I’m the one getting slapped,” I crack. After we both laugh, I add “Nah, it’ll be worth it.”


“Hate you cause they ain’t you,” she says singsong-like. “I already saw you throw Gary off his game with that beard comment. That was beautiful.”


“So that's what his name was,” I reply, crossing my legs.


“And you say you don't have any Eastwood in you.”


I beam at the compliment like a schoolgirl getting praise from her crush. “I definitely prefer Man With No Name Turbo to Penis Truck Turbo,” I finally respond.


“Me too,” you respond. “You should do it more often.”


“If I can,” I whisper.


“You always can,” you correct. “It's improv. You can do anything. You seem to forget that a lot.”


“I've forgotten a lot,” I admit, and it makes sense. My best moments are moments of rebellion from the roles that have been set for me.


We're quiet for a few seconds, and it feels awkward. For once, you're not dying to get into the scene, just relaxed back here with me. I don't mind the silence. I just take it in.


I look over at you, and you turn to me. I don't really have anything to say. I just like being back here with a kindred spirit. You lean your head onto my arm, reminding me just how much taller I am than you. I feel like the hero of the story for a moment, but at the same time I'm just completely reverent of you, completely thankful that you were here, because I don't think I'd have broken the chain had you not already skipped rope with it ever since I met you. You look at the scene, waiting for a moment. I look at you, never wanting this moment to end.


So I speak again if it means keeping you here.


“Can I be honest? I was just thinking about it.”


“Shoot.”


I think, not sure if I should admit this, but I'm already feeling free enough, so I may as well.


“You're gonna get mad at me for this,” I admit.


“I'll probably laugh, smack your teeth out, and be over it.”


I smirk. “Well, I just remembered why I called you Wasp. I think I retconned it in my memory. But, now that I remember it...” I try not to look at your face without looking you in the eye, but you’ve figured me out.


“Oh, it's the nose, isn't it?” you blurt, snorting and kicking my leg something sharp while trying to cover your nose at the same time. “I knew it. It's always the nose, too.”


“It's a lovely nose,” I defend. “I like it.”


“My nose is average at best,” you respond, arms crossed. “Robby joked that he should buy a sander for my birthday. Anything to clean me up, I guess.”


I try and imagine you without all of the traits that make you Wasp. The sharp teeth and angular face. The pure olive skin and the scarf that ties your past and present together. The colorful, bold clothing that shows just enough to drive me crazy. The stunning, toothy olive skin refined by a childhood in Middle Eastern deserts you only talk about with me. I imagine all of those cleaned up and I am disgusted.


“Well, he can wipe his a*s with sandpaper,” I retort, nearly spitting. “Because you've got the best face out of anyone in this room.”


You smirk. “You're a sweetums,” you remark. “Am I your favorite w***e in the brothel?”


I shake my head. “Naw, I wouldn't call you that,” I blurt before I can take it as humor. “That just seems too impersonal. Too embarrassing. Not quite...”


She gasps. She tries to hold it back but can’t.


“So you’ve thought of this.”


The way your eyes burn on me tells me I've said too much. I slowly turn to you, trying to hide my embarrassment, even though I look like Spiky after Luna responds to his comments with descriptions of what she did with his mother. You've got the look on your face of someone who's figured it out. Your eyes are wide, you've got a grin on your face, and you're both shocked, amused, and thrilled.


“You've got the emotional predictability of a Nicholas Sparks novel,” you chide me, but you lean closer. We both look at Robby, and at the clock. Obviously he isn't aware of the two of us, and the show's almost over.


“Say it,” you command.


“Why?”


She clenches her fist so hard I can feel it. It’s like she’s holding onto something she’s afraid will slip away.  “So I know it’s real.”


I think, and I can’t respond, because I can’t let myself believe it’s real. All I can say is “I owe you a dance.”


“He won't be here,” you respond immediately, turning away from the performers. “I can promise you that.”


“The others?”


“Gary's got kids, and I guarantee you that if Robby's gone, Becky's gone.”


I close my eyes, imagining a prayer. I know I've got some explaining to do to God. Maybe it's the sinful flesh of man talking, maybe I'm the one on the right track.


I nod, not as fearful of the repercussions as I am of letting this opportunity slip by.


“You got yourself a date, Fatima.”


“I look forward to it, Jesse.”


I just nod, glad I finally fucked around with this scene. Not just the scene of the moment, but the scene of the game. Of the art form. Breaking out of my shell and finally establishing my character on many different levels. I don't think I've ever loved improv more, and I don't think I've ever wanted to be a part of it less. I'm never gonna get higher than this.


Far as I'm concerned, the curtain's already fallen.  


© 2017 Maeve Andrea


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Added on December 14, 2017
Last Updated on December 14, 2017
Tags: theater, improv, truck driver, truck, turbo, wasp, curtain call, curtain, call, rebellion, fire, troupe, hipster, portland, texas, middle easst

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Maeve Andrea
Maeve Andrea

Delhi, Delhi, India



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