‘I shouldn’t joke,’ Andy says, ‘my doctor told me I’m dying. “I want a second opinion,” I said. “OK,” he says, “you’re ugly.”’ Andy presses a handkerchief to his face and shakes his head in despair. ‘My luck,’ he says, ‘Jesus. I was making love to this girl and she started crying. I say, “Should I stop?” She says, “You’ve started?”’ Andy talks, the audience laughs. Superstition dictates that he always begin with the exact same line; the act will collapse if he doesn’t. It’s not Kingdom’s funniest bit, but it’s his favourite: short, absurd, and drenched in sexual failure. ‘I was with this girl. She loved me so much. “You’re like nothing else, Johnny. You get me so hot, Johnny.” She was the girl of my dreams.’ A shrug. ‘But then I woke up.’ He clenches the tie. Rotates the shoulder. Hits them again.

The older crowd like the ‘I was so ugly’ stuff: ‘Talk about ugly. When I was born the doctor slapped my mother.’ The bachelor parties like wife jokes. His wife, Sylvia, hates the bachelor parties. ‘Kegs and strippers and all that . . . spurting testosterone,’ she says, wrinkling her nose and giving her head a slow, sad shake. ‘A hundred kinds of ugly.’ She takes his chin in a loose grip and fixes her eyes on his. ‘You keep your nose clean, buster.’

 

#

 

‘During sex my wife’s a screamer. Last night I had to go next door to complain.’ Andy is in front of around thirty people in Syracuse, New York, a four-hour drive from home. The joke, like all of Andy’s jokes, is Johnny Kingdom’s. So are his movements and mannerisms. ‘People treat me like dirt,’ he mutters, microphone held tight to his chest as he dabs a crushed handkerchief against his sodden face. His body is a perpetual shrug of anxiety: restless steps backwards and forwards, shoulder rolls, an obsessive-compulsive reaching for the tie knot. Kingdom’s stage persona was a train wreck: a horny, inept loser with a cheating wife, hateful kids and chronic bad luck. His jokes have always made Andy laugh, even the really stupid ones.

In a small backstage office smelling of old beer, Andy collects his money. ‘Glad to have you,’ the manager says. ‘Never thought I’d see Johnny Kingdom playing Jesters.’

‘You didn’t,’ Andy says.

 

#

 

Andy doesn’t like any of the names for what he does. He rejects ‘impersonator’, and resists ‘tribute act’, although he knows it comes closest. But the website he takes his bookings through, and the posters he puts up on bulletin boards at community centres, colleges and retirement homes, can’t afford to be coy: Johnny Kingdom Performs LIVE for YOU! Andy Tower IS Johnny Kingdom: A Fraction of the Talent at a Fraction of the Price!

Andy makes himself up to look like Kingdom, does his bits, and takes his laughs and his applause. To his continuing surprise, the bookings keep coming in. He doesn’t make nearly enough to cover the family expenses – they get by on what Sylvia makes – but at least this way he can contribute something. The Kingdom thing is supposed to be giving him time to work on his own material, but he’s stuck. Blocked. Sometimes, although less and less frequently these days, Sylvia asks him how it’s going, and he says, ‘Fine,’ and changes the subject. Kingdom was old before he made it. His career misfired and he spent a decade selling aluminium siding to support his wife and kids. He was nowhere, but he came back at age forty, Andy’s age, in the face of everyone telling him to give it up. Andy knows he’s stuck, but he still thinks – those times when he can face thinking about it at all – that something will come. Things will turn around. Then he’ll send Kingdom away for ever.

 

#

 

Andy is in the kitchen buttering toast. Sylvia walks in and asks him to drive her to the optometrist. She’s out of contacts, and doesn’t like driving in her glasses because they slide down her nose. One day when she’s pushing them back up, she says, she’ll crash the car and die, ‘and then where will you and the boys be?’

‘Barbados?’

She doesn’t laugh.

‘We used to laugh more,’ he says.

‘You were funny when we met,’ she deadpans, a little too well.

‘You were shitfaced when we met,’ he says, and now, to his relief, she does laugh.

He came to America for what he thought was a holiday. Back in London he started the way most people did: open mics in pub function rooms, or sweating basements, the rooms always too hot or too cold, and usually too empty. But his favourite comics had always been American: Allen, Wright, Hedberg, but before them all came Kingdom, ever since a friend gave him a taped copy of Deadbeat when he was fourteen years old. So when he came to the States it was as a kind of pilgrimage. Within a week he met Sylvia, at a tiny comedy club in Brooklyn, and started talking as soon as he saw her. Back then he was con dent and ambitious in a way he finds difficult to grasp now: it propelled him almost without his having to think about it. It wasn’t even that his material was so good; all that seemed to matter was his belief in it. Talking to Sylvia in that club had been the same: he wanted to do it, so he did it. Success was lying around him in chunks that he just had to reach down and pick up. When he thinks back, it feels more like something from a book or a film than part of his own life. It had never been so simple again. What scares him is that if today’s Andy were in that same club, sitting at that same sticky bar, he wouldn’t even be able to speak to Sylvia, and if he did, she would look right through him like he didn’t exist.

 

#

 

Before shows Andy takes a few moments alone in his dressing room, which is almost never a dressing room. Usually it’s an administrator’s cramped office with a family portrait on the desk and framed certificates on the wall, or a storage room, or, if it’s a bachelor party, a bedroom, or even just his car. The paint stick he uses is melanoma orange and takes days to come off entirely; towels come away from his body marked with faecal stains. ‘Turin shrouds,’ Sylvia calls them. She will appear in the doorway, a dirty towel stretched above her head, crying, ‘The Messiah! The Messiah!’ This was a joke between them once, but it has become something else. They have always had ups and downs, but lately Andy has detected a sourness that wasn’t there before. He knows they have a lot to talk about, but not talking about it is so much easier. Better to talk about what the kids are up to, or groceries, or to make a joke; or sometimes to just not talk at all.

Getting into costume is a ritual for Andy. He thinks of it as a gate in the wall that divides him from his onstage persona. Peering into his compact mirror, he silently runs through jokes he can tell backwards. Fate has given him a nose not as uncommonly broad as Kingdom’s, but large enough to work as homage. Everything else is wardrobe. He puts on his wig cap, its scratchy net making him feel like his forehead has a low current running through it. He uses spirit gum to fix a fake mole the size of a pencil eraser to his right cheek, near the nostril. He puts on a scarlet tie and black suit jacket. For a bachelor party or college booking he hams things up: a powder-blue shirt so frilled it looks like it once flurried along the ocean floor, and a plum-coloured velvet jacket he found at a Goodwill.

The Kingdom act had been intended as a one-off when he tried it eight years before. He had worked his most recent half hour till it was threadbare, and the lack of good new material was starting to feel like a drought. He enjoyed the feeling of laughs – laughs he was finding so difficult to win with his own lines – dropping into his hand like fruit from a tree. So he did it one more time, then another time after that. He started getting on the bottom of bills at serious venues on the east coast, places he hadn’t been close to cracking before: Comedy Connection in Boston; Gotham in New York; even Carolines one time, where Hedberg himself had done his last ever show. He hadn’t expected it, and he couldn’t explain it – Kingdom was dead, and about as unfashionable as you could get – but the rooms responded.

Not that the response was always positive, and it was rarely unanimous. People had trouble getting the act. Were they supposed to be laughing with Andy or at him? Was it tribute? Was it mockery? The uncertainty appealed to some bookers, but the real bottom line was that people came and they bought booze, which is the only thing that matters to a comedy club. And there was a kind of timelessness to the material, Andy thought. Kingdom’s arsenal of one-liners was infinitely adaptable, and he didn’t think it made a lot of difference if people thought a mother-in-law joke was being told straight or ironic, as long as they laughed.

There was only one thing other comics liked about the act: when you go on after someone strange, you get another angle to work. The audience will reward you just for not confusing them. It’s all part of the show. The MC would walk on as Andy walked off, and right after the handshake would throw the crowd a bamboozled look and point a thumb at Andy’s disappearing back as if to say, ‘What’s with that guy?’ The laugh that got, Andy felt, really belonged to him. The only one in the whole set that did.

Andy didn’t have any illusions about other comics’ opinions of what he was doing – he was ashamed of it himself – but he made himself stay and hang out after shows rather than sloping off like he wanted to. Face to face they often didn’t know how to take him, and when they found out he was English too, well, what the fuck was that about? He explained this was a temporary thing; that he was working on his own material; that none of this was planned. Sometimes there was aggression, and he could understand that. Sometimes he was asked, with genuine puzzlement, why he was doing someone else’s bits – a crime in comedy, but complicated in his case by the fact that he wasn’t trying to pass someone else’s line off as his own, he was openly performing someone’s entire act. Of course Kingdom had bought in jokes by the yard, lots of comics used writers, and why couldn’t you cover jokes like you can cover a song? But he never made the argument because he basically agreed with the objections. He was as uncomfortable with what he was doing as anyone else was.

Despite that, Andy couldn’t always stand there and take it if someone told him what he was doing was bullshit – which he knew every single one of them was thinking, whether they broadcast it or not. He tried to ignore it, but one night in Philadelphia he couldn’t hold back. He had opened for Marvin Butler, a skinny mock-hipster with bubble perm and outsized glasses whose set he watched and enjoyed. But backstage after the show, Butler called Andy a necrophiliac. ‘Yeah? Well you’d better watch out then, Marvin,’ Andy said in Kingdom’s voice, grabbing two hips of air and thrusting his groin furiously towards them, ‘because when I look at you I see a fucking dead man.’

As the act gathered momentum, Andy’s agent – when he still had an agent – urged him to prepare a plan B in case Kingdom’s estate took any notice and tried to shut him down. Or if people simply lost interest, as sooner or later they would, because sooner or later they always did. Andy assured him he had routines of his own ready to go, but that wasn’t true. Nothing would come. All he had were scraps. But as it turned out, scraps were all it took: he started trying to smuggle his lines in between Kingdom’s, and everything went wrong. The shifts in tone were bewildering; the change threw his delivery off; his own material just wasn’t funny enough. He lost count of the times he died, losing one room after another. He could only fight the silences with Kingdom’s help, the last person’s help he wanted. And even then, there was only so much Johnny could do.

 

#

 

On weekday mornings they eat breakfast very early, as a family, so Sylvia can see Tim and Marcus before her commute to the city. It is barely light outside and the spotlights above the table are on. Sylvia feeds Marcus while Tim quietly spoons cereal into his mouth. Tim is habitually withdrawn – Asperger’s was suspected at one point, but they had him tested and he isn’t on the spectrum. Apparently this is just the way he is. ‘I’m not surprised,’ Andy said at the time. ‘I was a lot like him when I was a kid.’

‘That’s not reassuring,’ Sylvia had said. ‘At all.’

‘So I have some news,’ Andy says, tapping a knife against his glass of orange juice. Sylvia looks at him expectantly. Marcus stares at the yoghurt in the spoon she’s holding. Tim’s rhythm of spoon to bowl to mouth continues unchanged. ‘This next bachelor party? The one in Florida? That is it. No more after that.’

Sylvia smiles. ‘Really?’ she says. ‘But why? I mean, don’t those things keep you on your toes?’

He’s told her that before, and it’s true, working those drunk, boisterous crowds does keep certain muscles strong, but he wants to do something for her. He feels like he hasn’t in so long. At the same time, he’s worried about her reaction if he tells her that, so he has planned what to say. ‘I’ve had a breakthrough, with my writing. I mean this could be really good, so I need more time to work on it.’

‘You’re writing again, Andy,’ is all she says, and for a moment he shares the simple joy of her statement before remembering there has been no breakthrough; that there is no writing.

He forces himself to shrug and smile. ‘We’ll see where it goes,’ he says.

‘It’s going to be great,’ Sylvia says, guiding a spoonful of yoghurt into Marcus’s mouth. ‘And you, little man,’ she says, the boy’s eyes widening as she addresses him, ‘should be doing this yourself. Right, Dad?’

Marcus squirms in his seat and looks at Andy.

‘You want to know what I think, Marcus?’ Andy says.

Marcus nods.

Andy mashes his spoon into his forehead and lumps of yoghurt and muesli fall down his face. Even Tim smiles.

‘My husband the comic genius,’ says Sylvia.

 

#

 

Andy has two gigs in Florida: the bachelor party that only he is calling his farewell show, and, the night before, one of his regular retirement village bookings. Suzzy, social co-ordinator at Sawgrass Meadow, is there to meet him at Tampa. ‘Suzzy like fuzzy!’ she told him when they first met, a few years ago. Suzzy is skinny, spry and tanned to the colour and texture of one of Andy’s longest-serving towels. He has never known anyone as enthusiastic as Suzzy. When she grins, which is often, she throws her entire upper body into it. As he comes through the gate, in a foul mood he sank into as his plane laboured into the dirty New Jersey sky, he sees her hopping on the spot and waving, holding aloft a handwritten sign like she always does and that he wishes she would not. It says johnny k.

‘How’s Sylvia?’ Suzzy asks once they’re on the freeway. Her little Toyota is so pungent with pine freshener Andy thinks he can feel his skin burning.

‘She’s good,’ Andy says. ‘Working too hard, but she’s good.’

‘And the little ones? Getting not-so-little now, I’ll bet.’

‘That’s right,’ Andy says. ‘Tim’s got gigantism, so we can’t even have him in the house any more. He sleeps in the woodshed.’

‘Is that a joke?’ Suzzy says, her smile faltering.

‘I never joke,’ Andy says, staring at the road with the sullenness of a teenager.

Suzzy is silent for a moment, then carries on with the catch-up as if nothing has happened. ‘Your youngest is Marcus, right? Is he four now?’

‘Marcus is four. You have an incredible memory, Suzzy,’ Andy says, impressed despite himself. He sees her just twice a year, but she seems to remember everything he has ever told her about his family.

‘Four!’ Suzzy says. ‘That’s a magical age.’

‘It is,’ Andy says, although he doesn’t agree. What Marcus mostly does is run at things until either he falls over or they do. Fun, but hardly magical. Although at least dealing with him is straightforward, unlike solemn Tim. Sometimes when Andy rehearses the act Tim stares at him like he’s reciting a list of war dead. Andy breaks off and asks him, ‘Any good?’

‘Very good,’ Tim says, like a put-upon butler. Andy has watched him play with his action figures, his soldiers and superheroes, which don’t yell at each other and fight, but sigh and walk away. He finds them in random corners of the house, manipulated into poses of lonely contemplation. Arriving at classmates’ birthday parties, Andy has seen him methodically shake everyone’s hand, like a funeral director offering condolences.

‘Speaking of four, Mr Kingdom,’ Suzzy says with mischief, ‘did you know it’s four years since you first came to Sawgrass?’

‘Is that right?’ says Andy. He knows it is. A gloomy anniversary mocked by an immaculate Tampa sky. He wants to punch the glove compartment. Suzzy is talking but he doesn’t listen to her. He remembers how difficult things were between him and Sylvia the first time he came down here. She had been enormous, two weeks from her due date, and when the booking came in he said he wasn’t taking it. He expected her to be happy, but she said they couldn’t afford to turn down the money. When he said screw the money she told him the truth was she could do with the time alone. She went into labour when he was flying back – he picked up a voicemail when he landed – and by the time he got to the hospital Marcus was there, tiny and all-powerful. Sylvia’s sister had been her birth partner instead of him, and ever since he had pretended he was OK with that.

‘. . . and we always sell a mountain of tickets as soon as your poster goes up,’ Suzzy is saying. ‘You’re a bona de Sawgrass favourite.’

Andy’s gigs down here are almost always sold out, and while he tells himself this is because of the audience’s lack of alternatives at places like this – ‘twilight facilities,’ Sylvia calls them, and my god does he love her mind – he has to allow that, on this sclerotic circuit at least, he really is a hit.

Suzzy drops Andy off at the same guest bungalow he is always given. He thinks it is, anyway: everything looks the same here. The bungalow’s slat boards are brilliantly white, its compact interior pristine. All down the silent street the identical white houses glow like phosphor in the sun.

‘Pick you up at six,’ Suzzy calls from the open window, pulling away from a verge so vividly green it looks like it’s moving. Later on she will drive him to the administrators’ cafeteria for dinner and take him to his dressing room, which is her office. He will admire photographs of her grandchildren, whose names he never even tries to remember: ‘This one looks well’; ‘What a lovely smile she has’; ‘That one really gets around!’ He will perform in the function room of the Sawgrass Country Club, a venue whose name evokes dark wood and polished brass, but the reality of which is beige walls and stain-obscuring patterned carpets.

After the show Suzzy will drive him back to his bungalow, where he’ll watch TV until he falls asleep. His first time here, his post-show adrenaline blended with anger at and concern for Sylvia, he tried walking back in an effort to tire himself out. Eventually, though, hopelessly lost, he had to call Suzzy to rescue him from the labyrinth of marshmallow houses that ran on and on in every direction. Even the shrubs in their soil borders were uniform. She arrived in a lemon-yellow dressing gown and Birkenstocks, her face covered in a thick, green cream. She was radiating energy. Andy wondered if she really slept, or just wore different clothes at night to reassure people.

As soon as he starts his set, he knows it will be one of those rare ones where everything glides frictionlessly into place. His timing is as good as it has ever been, his intonation flawless. He resists the temptation he feels, when a show is going well, to slip in some of his own bits. And if he ignores the fact that this material is the last thing he wants to be doing, if he views the gig as a purely technical exercise, as opposed to a creative one, then it really is close to perfect. ‘Boy, what a hotel that was,’ he says, mopping his face with his handkerchief, ‘that bedsheet could’ve been exhibit A in a homicide and two paternity suits.’ He waits, and just as the laughter begins to recede says, ‘But Christ, I was an ugly kid’ – and already there is laughter, anticipatory, because they trust him now. ‘So ugly,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘Anytime I got lost my parents just followed the screams.’

It sweeps up and rushes over him again, all the barks and croaks and smokers’ rasps. A wave of joy. Most of these people have probably seen him before, he thinks. How many times have they heard these jokes? Here, on TV, on records. And how many times has he told them? He feels powerful and miserable, and like laughing himself.

‘What a crowd, what a crowd,’ he mumbles. He steps forwards, backwards. He waggles his tie like a key in a stiff lock. ‘And pimples? Oh boy. When a blind guy touched my face he said, “Braille!” You know what he told me it said? “Don’t look!”’

The laughter has taken on its own momentum. It has grown so strong and then helpless that all he needs to do for the next few moments is prod it with a look or a shrug, or a double take at some imagined offstage misbehaviour. ‘Yeah,’ he says absently, staring into the space above the audience as he straightens his tie and stretches his neck. He jerks onto tiptoes and looks behind him, as if goosed by an invisible hand. He does all this without thinking about it, kneading the laughter like dough. He can hear people hiccoughing, crying, sucking in air like they’re suffocating. Women hand each other Kleenexes. Men blow their noses into handkerchiefs big as sails pulled from blazer pockets. Nothing’s sadder than a roomful of laughing people. Andy can’t remember whose that is. Maybe it’s his.

After that kind of show, even at a place like Sawgrass Meadow, the adrenaline kick is hefty, and Andy knows he won’t be sleeping for a few hours. Declining Suzzy’s offer of a lift but armed with directions, he leaves the venue and is enfolded by the humid Tampa night. Suzzy’s spidery handwriting tells him he needs to turn left onto Vivien Leigh, then look for Larry Hagman a couple of blocks up on the right. The naming convention has changed since he was here last because, Suzzy explained, it wasn’t just Andy ‘that one time you slipped my leash’ who had trouble finding the way home. Streets that had formerly been vanilla forgettable – Mimosa Drive, Magnolia Way – now bore the names of era-appropriate actors, ‘because even when someone doesn’t recognise their own husband, they still remember Cary Grant. Oh, and before you ask,’ she added, powering up that devastating grin, ‘there’s no Johnny Kingdom. Yet.’

He walks past the identical bungalows. Already, precise memories of tonight’s show are fading, his sense of achievement dwindling. His triumph degrades into an edgy energy. Walking along Richard Chamberlain, his thoughts skitter between bits of his routine, concern for Tim – always there somewhere, like a radio playing in another room – and anger with himself for that stupid lie he told Sylvia about writing again. He cycles through the projects he has abandoned over the last few years, something he has done with decreasing regularity since the last time he actually began something new. Turning onto James Stewart he decides none of them are salvageable. It’s time to trash them all and start fresh. Or maybe just do the first part, and find some other way to fill his time. He sees a dim shape – a possum? – shambling across a lawn. He yawns. Barbra Streisand, Burt Reynolds, Jason Robards, home.

Inside his bungalow he puts on water for coffee, and as it heats he fetches a notebook and pencil from his suitcase. He could try and sleep, but he has an idea that he can make the disgust he feels about lying to Sylvia work for him: he’s going to write. But it won’t really be writing, he thinks, cautious as a hunter stalking deer. I’ll just bullet-point some ideas. It has been so long since he has written anything that the simple act of opening the notebook – old but unmarked, always to hand in case this moment should arrive – is exciting.

Seated at the small kitchen table, steam curling from his coffee, the white page before him feels not like a barren waste, as he feared, but a field of possibility. What starts here as pencil marks, he thinks, has the potential to become rooms of laughter like the one he left a couple of hours ago. All he needs to do is begin. Just begin.

He cannot do it. As if pencil and page are magnets with the same polarity, they refuse to meet. In desperation, Andy thinks of the advice an older comic once gave him, that when he had trouble coming up with new bits he would write out his old stuff first until, sooner or later, new material started to ow. But amnesia has taken hold. He can’t remember a single bit. He tries visualising old shows, when he was a real comic with his own material; he can see a room from his vantage on the stage: a dented microphone head, mildewed brickwork, a neon sign above the bar at the back of the room – he always looked for something like that to centre himself on as he turned his gaze to different parts of what was, beyond a few rows of upturned faces, virtual blackness. From out of this blackness he tries to force something. Anything.

He cannot do it.

There is a tapping. Andy stands up, walks through to the living room and hits the porch light switch beside the front door – big as an iPad, for old and shaking hands. He cracks the door and sees a thin old man in a dressing gown. The light catches a few laments of hair that arc from his bald scalp. He is statue-still, squinting in the sudden light. His mouth begins moving but Andy cannot hear words, only strained breath. The old man’s hands shake at his sides.

‘Hello,’ says Andy, opening the door wider. The old man is alone. ‘Can I help you?’

‘I’m back, Joe,’ the man says. His eyes are rheumy and searching. He takes a step backwards, then forwards.

Andy sighs. Now this interruption has come he feels certain that he was on the verge of a major breakthrough.

‘Can I help you?’ he says. ‘I’m actually in the middle of something, so . . .’

The man waves his hand as if to say, ‘Go right ahead,’ but stays standing on the threshold. Andy suspects if he closed the door in his face he would find him there, still muttering, when he opened it again in the morning.

Andy sighs more loudly, with resignation this time. ‘You want to sit down? You want a drink or something? Cup of tea?’

‘It’s all bullshit,’ the man says conversationally, then turns and sits in one of the wicker porch chairs that face each other beside the front door. He crosses his legs, letting a long, towelling-slippered foot dangle.

Andy looks up and down the street. The bungalows stand silver in the moonlight. The humidity feels like a large hand being held just in front of his face. The old man hums to himself. Something stirring. Maybe Beethoven.

‘Glass of water?’ Andy says.

The man leans his head on a skinny fist and smiles. Andy goes inside and massages his closed eyes, wondering what to do. He puffs his cheeks and presses air through his lips. He pours a glass of water from a jug in the refrigerator and takes it out to the man, who politely accepts it but then leans forward and looks around worriedly. He motions for Andy to sit down. As soon as he does the old man grabs his wrist with unexpected force.

‘The tent’s a broken river,’ he says, shifting forward in his chair. His dressing gown aps open and Andy can see his naked body deep inside it, further back, surely, than it should be: a thin white root supporting a tiny, creased pot belly. ‘Understand?’ the man says. ‘Joe!’ He looks more angry than confused. His grip on Andy’s wrist tightens. He starts humming again, a surprisingly resonant sound coming from the back of his throat. His breath is sour. It smells like clubs before they open. As he hums, tears fill the old man’s eyes.

‘Hey, calm down,’ Andy says, but the humming only grows louder. Andy looks around the porch and out onto the dark street, willing help to appear, but they are alone. The old man’s face darkens with blood as he hums more forcefully. His grip tightens again. Tears streak his face and Andy, beginning to panic, pulls his hand away more violently than he intends to. The man falls forward onto the porch and kneels there, sobbing. His slippers have fallen off and lie arrowed behind him. Andy bends over and lifts him up, moving him back to the chair. For a few moments the man’s scalp rests against Andy’s cheek. It smells of talc and, beneath that, a repellent mustiness. He weighs very little. Cradling him makes Andy think of holding Marcus, and Tim before him, of rocking them to sleep or soothing away an injury. The old man begins to softly snore as Andy leans him back in the chair, the wicker creaking.

 

#

 

Andy collects a hire car and drives to the bachelor party. He has no idea how these people heard of him, he has never played one outside New York or New Jersey before. He has overdone the paint stick, and works his mouth and eyes to see what kind of movement he can get. His face feels as if it’s going to crack open like an egg. From the rear-view mirror a singed, startled man stares back.

‘You have reached your destination,’ the satnav states. He is on a dark country road. His appearance is supposed to be a surprise, so he stays beside the car and calls Todd, the best man, to tell him he’s here. The house is old, a Spanish revival mansion screened from the road by banyans, their trunks smothered by Virginia creeper.

Todd is tall, muscular, about thirty years old. He is wearing a polo shirt and khakis. His stride is so assertive that he is either extremely poised or extremely wasted. The latter, Andy decides.

‘Nice place,’ he says, holding out his hand.

‘It’s not mine,’ Todd says. He sounds agitated. He is smoking a cigarette with quick, urgent drags. He flicks it away into the dark half-finished and pulls a pack from his pocket. He points it at Andy like he’s changing channels.

‘No thanks,’ Andy says, retracting his unshaken hand. ‘I quit.’

Todd laughs loudly, a sound like a child mimicking a machine gun.

‘Just wait till I start telling jokes!’ Andy says, but Todd doesn’t seem to hear. He pinches a cigarette from the pack and flicks his lighter. He sucks furiously, the lighter’s flame several inches below the cigarette’s tip. One eye screwed tightly shut, he stares at Andy with the other.

‘Things all good here, Todd?’ says Andy, beginning to dread an entire room of Todds. Todd has taken the cigarette out of his mouth and is holding it in the lighter flame. He ignores Andy as he stares at the jerking cone of re. He is concentrating so hard Andy almost expects the metal of the lighter to bend, or the cigarette to erupt into a bouquet.

‘Dude!’ Todd says as if waking from a trance. He pockets the lighter and tosses the charred cigarette onto the lawn. ‘Let’s get inside. Mike’ll freak when he sees you. He fucking loves Johnny Kingdom.’

‘Good to hear,’ Andy says.

Todd pauses. ‘What’s that accent?’

‘English.’

‘Weird,’ says Todd. He stares down the darkened road for a few seconds, stares hard as if he might see Europe at the end of it, then gives Andy a broad, insincere smile. ‘Come on inside.’

Todd leads the way to the house. He lights another cigarette, the smoke shredding itself in the porch light. He pushes the door open and waves Andy into a large, terracotta-tiled hallway.

‘Is it the strippers?’ asks the man, as tall and solid as Todd, who emerges from a door on the right. Beyond it Andy hears loud dance music and shouting voices, all male.

‘How many people are here?’ Andy says.

Todd looks at him, bewildered. He draws on his cigarette and says, ‘Twenty? Twenty. No, it’s not the strippers. It’s Johnny.’

‘Oh,’ says the other man. His cap reads ‘Marlins’ in black edged with turquoise. Beneath its curved bill his bloodshot eyes stay fixed on Andy as he lifts a red plastic cup to his mouth.

Todd looks at nothing for a moment, his eyes empty, then he comes back to them. ‘Brian,’ he says, ‘take Johnny upstairs. You need to get dressed, right?’

Andy nods.

‘How long you need?’

‘Twenty minutes?’

‘Great, perfect,’ Todd says. ‘Put him in the games room and give him whatever he needs.’ He taps his nose with his finger and smirks at Brian. Brian shrugs. They go up a broad tile staircase and down a hallway that runs the length of the house. Up here it is quiet. Only the muffled thump of music carries from below.

‘Good party?’ Andy asks Brian’s back.

Brian shrugs. ‘S’OK,’ he says. He is round-shouldered, his muscle slackening into fat. He moves reluctantly, as if carrying out the last chore of a long day. He takes Andy all the way down the hall and through a door into a large bedroom with a king-size double bed, and a dressing table in front of a tall window. Andy can see a balcony through a pair of narrow glass doors. On the dressing table stands a lump of cocaine the size of a tennis ball. Around it lie little scars of powder, sharply outlined against the dark brown wood.

Brian crosses the room. ‘Want to hit this?’ he says, bending down and herding smaller lines into something the length of a microphone.

‘That’s a lot of cocaine,’ Andy says.

Brian considers the lump. ‘You should have seen it before,’ he says. He looks at Andy. His eyes slowly cross and uncross. He offers a rolled-up bill and Andy is tempted, in spite of what it does to him. The last time, at a party on Long Island before the kids were on the scene, he wrestled an old college friend of Sylvia’s and woke up under a bush.

‘Not when I’m working, thanks.’

Brian shrugs and inhales the line in two wetly rippling snorts. He straightens and lets out a wolf howl, a thick vein in his neck pulsing. Andy lays his suit bag and holdall on the bed and starts unpacking.

Brian leaves. Todd walks in with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a cigarette in the other, trailing a thin, reptilian boy behind him. Todd points at the boy and looks at Andy. ‘Martin,’ he says, ‘the groom’s little brother.’ Martin, who is perhaps eighteen, looks hunted, and sniffs powerfully as he approaches the dresser. Todd is shaving the lump with a credit card.

‘Bathroom?’ Andy asks, his outfit draped over his arm.

‘On the left,’ says Todd, his face low over the table as he dices the coke. As Andy crosses to the door, Martin looks at him with a strange intensity and slowly shakes his head.

In the bathroom Andy changes his clothes, puts on his wig and concentrates on moving through the gateway between himself and Kingdom. Outside the door he hears people come and go, laughter, another of Brian’s wolf howls. He is sticking on his mole, inhaling the sweet sherry odour of the spirit gum, when someone bangs on the door. ‘Just a minute,’ Andy calls. Another powerful series of blows shakes the latch. He checks himself in the mirror: Johnny’s here. He opens the door. There is no one there. ‘Hello?’ he says, in Johnny’s voice. There is no reply. He walks into the bedroom and looks around. He looks at the coke, scarred and pitted like a meteor. A credit card and a rolled-up note lie beside it. The end of the note is flecked with blood. Two small lines sit at a slight angle to each other. He sees the old man’s slippers on the porch, their towelling worn at the toe and heel. He feels like curling up on the bed and sleeping, hiding from everything, but that’s Andy. Johnny wants to get down there and make those fuckers laugh. And Johnny would never let free blow go unsnorted. He touches his tie knot and stretches his neck. He takes a note from his wallet, rolls it and sniffs the powder, half up the left nostril and half up the right. He steps backwards and flops down on the bed. He stares at the ceiling and works his lips. They feel carbonated. A chill lump gathers at the top of his nostrils. His face goes numb, sweat springs from his fingertips, the bed sheet feels coarse and staticky against them. A fraction of the talent, the words chatter through his head, at a fraction of the price. He repeats the sentence to himself in a rhythm like the movement of a train. An old Mitch Hedberg line comes back to him: I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too. He died, of course. Of a drug overdose. ‘Motherfucker,’ Andy says aloud. His vocal cords pop. Speaking feels unusual, but good.

Todd reappears and moves straight to the dresser. He leans down and, a moment later, rears up. ‘Time to go,’ he says, pressing his nostrils shut and blinking back tears. They walk along the hallway and back down the stairs. A big band fanfare struts from the stereo as Andy comes into the large, long living room. The furthest wall is open to the night, and it is so dark outside the house might be suspended in space. There are cheers and shouts, and a man so drunk that he moves like a marionette is pushed in front of Andy. ‘Mike?’ says Todd, beaming and clapping Andy on the shoulder. ‘Meet Johnny.’ Mike has a slash of cherry-red lipstick running from the midpoint of his lips to his left ear. Bruise-purple eye shadow has been smeared around his eyes, giving him a look of end-stage disease. The eyes themselves are almost entirely pupil. He is dressed in the same khakis and polo shirt outfit as nearly everyone else, which makes the make-up seem more obscene than fun. His lips are pulled back from his teeth in what might be an expression of happiness or horror.

‘Mike!’ says Andy, as Johnny, ‘it is an honour to perform for you tonight. Great crowd you got here. You look in their eyes, they could almost be human.’

Todd sniggers but Mike says nothing, only bobs his head.

‘Anyway,’ Andy says, patting his shoulder, ‘let’s get this show on the road.’

He stays at the top of the room while his audience gathers around the couches and armchairs that have been rearranged to face him. Martin, the reptile, is sitting next to Mike on a large couch, speaking urgently into his ear. Mike’s head lolls like his neck has been snapped. Standing behind the couch Andy sees an older pair who must be the fathers, scarlet with alcohol, one bald and the other with cropped silver hair. Everyone is sniffing energetically and smoking with intent, some cigarettes but mostly cigars. The clouded air smells burnt. Bottles and plastic cups crowd every surface.

‘I was with this girl,’ Andy says, shouting to quiet the room. ‘She loved me so much. “You’re like nothing else, Johnny, you get me so fuckin’ hot, Johnny.” She was the girl of my dreams this girl.’ He shrugs and shakes his head. ‘But then I woke up.’ They roar, all except Mike and Martin, who are both speaking now, their heads bent towards one another. Andy’s eyes keep flicking back to them. In any audience he has learned to tell where the pockets of resistance are. ‘My wife, she treats me like dirt,’ he says, working his way into the rhythm. ‘The other day I come home from work and some guy’s outside my house stark naked. I say, “Where’s your clothes?” He says, “Where’s your work ethic? You’re two hours early.”’

At the end of each line, another convulsion. That simple, supple transaction Andy loves: words, then laughter. Time it right and the laughter starts generating its own energy, and it’s that you want to tap, the pure stuff. The lines are just the tools you need to get to it. He sniffs, and shudders as the taste of ammonia floods his mouth. He hears laughter, but doesn’t know what he just said. ‘I told my wife,’ he says, hoping he isn’t repeating himself, ‘I told her, “I’m seeing a psychiatrist. He says we should break up.” She said, “I’m seeing a truck driver. He says the same thing.”’ Andy leans on the laughter for a moment, taking the chance to regroup, and it’s then that the answer comes, like one of those perfect ad-libs that sometimes arrive as if beamed into him: the way out of Kingdom is through Kingdom. All this, the bachelor parties and retirement homes, Suzzy and Todd and the stink of clubs in the afternoon and dressing rooms stacked with cleaning supplies and being forty and other comics hating you, and Johnny looming over it all: this is the show Andy will write. He even knows the title: Leaving the Kingdom. He has no idea if it will be funny, but it will be his. His absorption in the idea is so complete that it takes him a few seconds to make sense of Mike launching himself from the couch and staggering towards him. He jabs his finger at Andy. ‘Whoa, fella!’ Andy says. ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’ He leans around Mike’s shoulder and mugs at the crowd, trying to keep the room on side.

‘You come here . . . come here,’ Mike is repeating, grinding the words out through his clenched jaw. His hand makes a staccato chopping motion.

‘Mike,’ says Andy quietly, speaking in his own voice as Mike sways in front of him, ‘buddy. Don’t be a prick.’ As he speaks, Andy feels Mike’s foot against his own. He can smell the booze on the younger man’s breath, and trace each vein in his bloodshot eyes. Surprising himself, he lifts his foot and brings his heel down hard on Mike’s toes.

Mike howls and shoves his fist into the thick frills on Andy’s shirt. It isn’t a punch, more a heavy placing. Andy puts his hands up on Mike’s shoulders. People are around them, shouting. Mike launches his head towards Andy but his aim is off, his forehead only grazes Andy’s cheek. Andy falls backwards and clears a side table with his arm. He is on the floor and someone is asking if he’s OK. He lifts his hand to his face. ‘Fine,’ he nods, ‘I’m fine.’ Then Martin kicks him in the stomach, and as he curls up something slams hard into his head.

Andy drifts away from the noise and motion. He can hear a whine, like a neighbour’s drill. He looks up. Todd has his arms around Mike. Brian is shoving Martin and pointing down at Andy. The fathers are standing above him. Andy can see powder at the edge of their nostrils, frost ringing a chain of black ponds. He looks at Mike in Todd’s arms, placid now, almost asleep. He sees his mole pressed into Mike’s forehead. Everything moves very slowly. Then Martin squirms past Brian and kicks Andy in the face and again in the stomach. Andy curls up. He feels dislocated from everything around him. He sees Martin fall to the floor, and then he feels himself being lifted and carried into the hallway. He is put in a chair and someone leans over him and says something. The door to the living room slams closed and he is alone.

His vision spins; a terracotta whirlpool. Images of the last few minutes warp and scatter. He stands up slowly. The upstairs hallway seems longer and narrower than before. He goes into the bedroom and picks up his clothes, stuffing them into his holdall. He walks back down the hallway, faster now. He listens for someone coming upstairs but hears nothing except a buzzing that he thinks is in his head. He wipes his hand across his face and it comes away bloody. He walks downstairs, needing to lean on the wall. The living-room door is still closed; from beyond it he hears angry voices. He sees a pack of cigarettes on the hall table and snatches it on his way past. He walks out of the front door, down the driveway and back onto the dark road to his car. He starts the engine and speeds away. After a few miles he finds himself driving on a long, straight road with fields on either side. He pulls over into the yellow-white glare of a streetlight, the only light he can see. He grips the wheel tightly and tries to slow his breathing. A cry comes out of him but he swallows it. He gulps air like he has been pulled from the ocean. He presses the dashboard lighter. His face is hot. His body shivers. His stomach is cramping. His left eye is swelling shut.

His stomach flips, and he fumbles with the door handle and throws himself to his knees in the tall roadside grass. When he has finished throwing up, all he can hear is his ragged breath and, all around him, the loud, pulsing static of cicadas. The earth holds the day’s warmth. Grass tips press lightly against his face. He tears a hank of grass and wipes his mouth with it. He fights the urge to curl up and sleep. Instead he stands, pulls off his wig and throws it into the black field. Next is the jacket, its dark shape swallowed by the emptiness beyond the glare of the streetlight. He levers off his shoes and tosses them, overarm, in arcs down the road, then drops his trousers and stamps on the cuffs as he pulls out each leg. He gathers them into a ball and pulls his arm back to throw, pain gripping his stomach, when he feels his phone in the pocket. He takes it out and drops the trousers to the ground. He wants to tell Sylvia what has happened. He wants to tell her his idea. He wants to tell her everything. In shirt, underpants and socks, in the middle of the spotlit road, he calls home.

 

‘Johnny Kingdom’ is included in Chris Power’s collection Mothers, available from Faber & Faber.

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