I was a high school freshman. My English teacher Mrs. Martin made us write an essay on what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wanted to do standup comedy, so I wrote that down. Students stood at the front of the class one at a time. Most boys wanted to fight fires, while most girls wanted to nurse people.
“Mr. Talisman,” she said, “please come up.”
As I read mine, the students began to giggle. They probably thought I was joking about being a standup comic. They probably thought Paul Talisman was trying to rile Mrs. Martin up. I was the same kid who’d snuck a dildo into class.
“This is a serious assignment, Paul,” she said.
“But I am serious.”
“If you say so.”
“Can I sit down now?” I asked.
“The question is ‘May I sit down,’ not ‘Can I sit down.’ After all, you’re able to sit. And yes, you may.”
After school, I rode my bike to a bookstore to read erotica books. The employees would read, sit on bean bags, stand around, and talk about films, literature, and music. They would mention other countries they’d visited. I pretended to read a book but actually listened to them. They seemed cool, wearing their own clothes, which I liked most about them: their individuality.
This one dude wore a Doors t-shirt. It hung over his thin body. It was like his shoulders were a coat hanger. I wanted to dress that way for school, with brown corduroys and white Converses. But I had to lose weight to pull it off like him.
I went to school dressed that way anyway. The girls ignored it, but my friends complimented my shoes. I wore a Ramones T-shirt too because I’d heard about the band.
The dude at the bookstore noticed it one day. “Hey, I love the Ramones,” he said. “What’s your favorite album?”
My favorite album? I looked around the bookstore. It could fit a basketball court. Most employees hung around an information desk in the middle. And there was a cafe serving coffee and pastries.
“I mean, they all rock,” I said. “How can I pick just one?”
“I hear you,” he said.
“Who’s your favorite writer?” I asked.
He tapped his finger against his lips, staring at the ceiling. “If I could pick one, I would go with Vonnegut.”
Vonnegut? Who the hell was Vonnegut? “Ah, what’s your favorite book?”
“Definitely Breakfast of Champions, for sure.”
“And your favorite album by The Doors?” I asked.
“Hmm, their first album.”
I wanted to work in that bookstore to keep chatting with Jesse. I could’ve always stocked shelves there instead of telling jokes.
After class the next day, I went up to Mrs. Martin. She left the curtains open to let the sun shine through the windows. Her classroom was bright. It made me squint. She sat at her desk with green olives in Tupperware.
“I thought about what you said. And I’ve decided what I want to do. I want to work at a bookstore.”
She wore the same long white dress with brown feathers and Birkenstocks. She’d definitely gone to Woodstock. That was all I knew about her: what she wore. She kept her business private. The students knew she was married. That was about it.
“What for?” she said. “Don’t you have any bigger ambitions than that? Give me a break. Come back to me with a better idea.”
A better idea? I thought about my parents. “Well, I don’t want to sit in a cubicle for the rest of my life.”
She stopped eating and looked at me with eyes as wide as those olives. “Very good,” she said.
One day, Jesse was missing from his usual shift on Wednesdays. He would work from ten in the morning to six at night. A cold draft in the store told me he was gone forever. The guy in his place wore a collared shirt with the store’s logo. It said Tim on his nametag. His style annoyed me.
“Where’s Jesse? Is he sick?”
A fluorescent light shined over his head. His big nose shadowed the rest of his face. His shirt was tucked tightly in his khakis. “Jesse doesn’t work here anymore.”
I knew it. How tragic. The best ones always leave. The store had changed without him there. The books lost their colors. Everything turned black and white. Tim added nothing more to the conversation. He kept his eyes on the computer and a cart of books beside him.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Jesse is studying literature at Berkeley,” he said.
It would’ve taken five hours from the San Joaquin Valley if I could drive.
“All the way up to Berkeley?”
“No, at Berkeley,” he said.
Prepositions gave me headaches.
“At UC Berkeley?”
“Yes,” he said.
I would miss him. But what a storybook life he lived: from a bookstore to a prestigious university.
I loved the erotica section at the bookstore. It was next to the fantasy section. I closed my eyes and pulled a book from the shelf called Whose Muffins Are These? I opened it to a random page. The scene took place at a bakery. One of the employees burned a dozen Boston cream pies. She had to bang the baker to keep her job. He mounted her against the freezer. The writer used culinary metaphors: kneading, rolling, tossing, sprinkling, squeezing, basting….He shot his baker’s dozen into her sticky fritter. Stuff like that.
“You have an ID?” someone said.
I turned around. Tim, the supervisor, stared at me from the end of the section. I hid the book behind my back.
“Give me that book,” he said.
I held it out. He swiped the book from my hands and flipped through it.
“You have to leave the store,” he said.
And so I began straight for the doors. It felt like every person was staring at me. I was the pervert who got busted in the erotica section. Customers in line, workers behind registers, and even girls in the café with fritters behind the glass looked at me. A deviant like me should’ve been kept away from anyone’s daughter. Those glares followed me back to the parking lot. The bookstore itself glared, too. The storefront resembled a face. I couldn’t show mine in there again.
Little did I know I would work there eight years later. They must’ve forgotten me. But when I stepped inside to apply, they looked the same. Tim still worked there. He interviewed me with his thin glasses. But Tim smiled delicately and told me about his retriever. He told me about his favorite video games and his parents in Oxnard. I’d taken him wrong when I was fifteen. As an adult, I learned the meaning of a company man.
I ran into Les on the first day I worked there. He was a friend from comedy school. “What have you been doing?” he asked me.
Committing worse perversions than reading bakery porn. That was for sure. “Just been working,” I said. “What about you?”
“Went to trade school,” he said. “To become an electrician. It made more money than waiting for standup. What’re you doing working here?”
Les made me feel shitty with that question. “Got to pay the bills somehow.”
“How did the rest of comedy school go?” he asked.
“I don’t want to do standup anymore. My real passion is British comedy.”
“British comedy?” he said. I guess he had to think about that for a second. “But you’re not even British.”
“Who says you have to be British to do British comedy?”
He had to think about that also. “Well, it’s great to see you again, man.”
We hugged, but Tim was watching me. I had to get back to my shift.
The bookstore had lost its cool. It disappointed me. Some of the employees worked full-time. We made minimum wage. Those who worked part-time held second jobs and still went to school.
I approached my first customer. She looked twice my age but could fill her miniskirt perfectly.
“Excuse me, miss, do you need help?”
She looked at me with eyes of venom. “Do I look like I need help?”
She was in the self-help section.
One morning, Tim approached me with a cart of books. “Can you arrange these books in the erotica section?”
My hands went cold. I could move and stuff them in my pockets, yet they were numb.
“Paul? You listening?”
“Can you arrange these books in the erotica section?”
“Unless you’re busy.”
“I quit,” I said.
“I said I’m quitting, or I might. I might not quit.”
He got up close to me. “Does this make you nervous? If so, I totally understand. I can have someone else do it.”
The memory came back to me as if I was reliving it. The words he spoke. Him standing at the end of the section. Me handing him the book. Me leaving the store. Yuck. Horrible.
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
The erotica section made me prickly. Someone had left a diaper there. Other than that, the section looked the cleanest in the store. I guess because no one ever went there. The religion section, on the other hand, needed a deeper cleaning than the children section.
Any moron could’ve done that job. I would straighten the shelves. Tim would roll the cart with more books for me. I began to hunker down. My eyes tried to avoid them, but I found the old one like it had never left: Whose Muffins Are These?
The writer, Lance Chance, had written dozens of erotica books with his picture missing from the jacket sleeve. What mother with that last name would call her son Lance?
I flipped to another random chapter. A customer needed more money to pay for a wedding cake. The baker had spent all weekend preparing it. No matter what, people seemed to let the baker down, which led to more sexual coercion. He banged her in his office. Man, that bakery crawled with sex.
“Are you on break?” I heard.
I turned around. His Christian face looked as red as eight years ago.
“I am,” I said.
He pulled a book from the top shelf. It was a fantasy/erotica book called Pusseidon. It involved mythological heroes and mythological creatures getting it on. Challenging territory for me.
“Did you swipe your card?” he asked.
“Then try this one.” He handed me Pusseidon.
So I’d misjudged Tim all along. Sure, he micromanaged, and he loved God too much, but he could also let loose.
After that moment in the erotica section, he and I would hang out at the information desk. During a long period of downtime, we debated Christianity versus Atheism.
“I must be agnostic,” I told him, “because I think God is made up, but if I was trapped in an elevator, I would pray to him.”
“You see his power? If a man kills himself, he goes straight to hell. No ifs, ands, or buts about it,” he said.
“I think the people who drove him to suicide should go to hell,” I said.
I loved to argue with Tim, especially on the subject of religion. It fired him up. He majored in Theology at Ventura College. He defended himself with biblical facts. I knew next to nothing about religion. I just believed what I believed. He pulled out a book about the Mennonites. The book didn’t involve sex, so I didn’t read it. But the name Mennonites sounded cool. Mennonites should be the name of a football team.
Anyway, the store gave its employees a ten-percent discount on all books. They let us use it only once a week. I judged the books by their covers. Most of them put me to sleep—the actual books. They fooled me too often.
The longer I worked there, the more awful books I read. After two years, the bookstore bored me into inertia.
I needed a holy spirit to bail me out. It arrived in the form of a film producer. We met in the parking lot of the bookstore on my lunch break. He wore a black suit on a hot July afternoon in Sherman Oaks.
“You look a certain way,” he said.
He must’ve been referring to the bandage on my nose. I wore it publicly to hide my burn marks.
“Are you interested in acting?” he asked.
Interested? Of course. “Yes,” I said. “But what’s it about?”
“It’s a British comedy,” he said. “Can you speak with a British accent?”
Could I? I practiced all the time. Maybe God did exist, blessing me with that producer of British comedy. I spoke in that accent for the rest of the conversation.
“Why, sir, if you don’t mind, please do send the script.”
“Well done,” he said. “And I love the bandage look. It suits the comedy. But we’re shooting in New Orleans. Do you mind traveling?”
“Why yes, I travel quite a bit, sir. Call me a wayfarer, if you will.”
“Good. But you’ll have to arrange your plane ticket,” he said. “We’re running on a low budget, so we must watch our expenses.”
After we agreed to do this, I fell into a manic episode and quit the bookstore. I thought it was the start of something special.
I drove in my Volkswagen Bug to the east coast rather than fly. Paul Talisman hates flying. My parents had died in a plane crash.
Most of my family lived in New Jersey. I called them for their addresses to visit them, to tell them their relative was acting in a movie.
I escaped a cyclone in Iowa. Father Time may have killed me slowly, but Mother Nature could’ve wiped me out instantly. Somehow, I dodged the tornado, and my family dodged me.
The producers needed me to pay for my lodging, so I paid for a week at the Lucky 9 Motel in the French Quarter.
One night, I found shelter in the motel from a heavy downpour.
A young guy at the front desk stood behind thick glass.
“We should hide in a bunker,” I said.
“Yeah, I just walked through a damn hurricane.”
One of us could think straight.
The hurricane followed me into a nightmare. The waterline rose past the motel window. Fish bones and human skeletons drifted by. A tidal wave pushed through the door and flooded the room. I woke up before the nightmare could drown me to death.
By sunrise, the hurricane was still attacking. I could’ve died. So I skipped a shower and fled the town. The mouths of the sewers swallowed too much water for alligators. Their bellies scraped along the curbs. My life had somehow turned biblical as if I was Noah. I swore never to return to Louisiana again—or anywhere on the east coast for that matter.
The film became a documentary about the making of it during a hurricane. It won awards at film festivals. The actors who played themselves as actors moved on to lead parts in TV shows and small parts in movies. If only I’d stayed in New Orleans….I had to crawl like those alligators back to the bookstore. I would work there for the next ten years.
One afternoon, Les met me in the cafe on my break. It had been many years since I’d last seen him. His hair had grown to his shoulders with mutton chops. He’d lost even more weight. He was practically a skeleton.
“I quit the electrician job long ago,” he said.
“Too dangerous. Plus, I got to do standup. It’s the whole reason I moved here. But now I’m thinking of quitting.”
“Why quit now?” I asked.
Les took a bite out of a blueberry scone. He wore torn clothes like an electrician. “Where’re the right people, man? It gets harder the older I get. I’m edging forty. I think about quitting, then I change my mind, think about quitting, then I change my mind. I did open mics at the Improv about a dozen times in those years, man. But nothing’s ever taken off.”
I wished I had the right advice to give him, any advice. But what was an employee who’d worked at the bookstore for ten years supposed to tell him?
“Let’s get a drink somewhere,” I said, “and catch up.”
“Oh, I quit drinking,” he said.
“I quit drugs. I quit holistic remedies, fried foods, and red meat. Gluten, too.”
So we could hang out only at the cafe.
“I’m driving back to Philly,” he said.
The idea sounded impulsive.
“Why do that?” I asked.
“Just visiting family.”
“You keep in contact?”
At least someone kept in contact.
“Good for you,” I said. “That makes me happy. Why’re you visiting?”
“Because my uncle fell under a city bus.”
“Jesus. I apologize.”
“I’m going to the funeral on Thursday. I can make it there in four days.”
“Just don’t drive through Iowa,” I said.
He stood to hug me. “I’ll see you when I get back.”
He did get back, a week later, on the phone. Les only texted. But that time, he called.
“I woke up,” he said.
“What do you mean you woke up?”
“At the funeral. It woke me up. I’m staying here.”
Staying in Philly? It sounded like the worst mistake. “Did you think it through?”
“I did. At our age, relatives start dying off. I need a wife. And how can I get one out there? They treat me like shit. I’m too washed up.”
“Don’t think that way. Just keep doing what you’re doing,” I said.
“And what am I doing?”
My guess was standup. But Les should’ve been thinking like an individual. He wanted his family to tell him what to do.
So once Les moved back to Philadelphia, my only friend was Dan Dupree. He’d gone with us to comedy school. I knew him only through Les. We would hang out whenever Les would hang out. The last I heard, Dan served drinks across the street from the comedy school.
Les called me again. Tim saw me on the phone.
“It’s an emergency,” I told him.
“It’s freezing over here,” Les said.
“Are you setting up any shows?” I asked.
“If I had time,” he said, “with debt and all. I’m parking cars like I did in LA, and I work every day of the week. It’s hard to make money parking cars here like you do out there, man.”
“I can bet,” I said.
“I wish I had the energy to write new material. I mean, they have open mics at a few places. Hold on,” he said.
His father hollered something in the background. I could only hear, “Take out the trash,” and “Help me get out this frickin’ chair.”
He got back on the phone. “Paul, I’m in love.”
“You’re in love?” I said. “In Philadelphia?”
“Yeah. I met this girl. Girls can treat you so nice. LA must’ve made me jaded.”
He met her at the funeral.
“Something about her glows,” he said. “Fate has touched us both. I think Uncle Marky’s death opened me up.”
So he stayed there for her.
“I also forgot that people still mow their own lawns out here. They’ll wave at you when you drive by. And people speak the truth to you. I mean, the people are uglier, sure. But I can afford to pay rent easily.”
Les was living with his parents. “Which makes sense,” I said.
“Yeah. I’m buying a house in the suburbs once I can move out of Pop’s place. You should move out here, too.”
“Come on, man. The dream is dead.”
“Believe me. Just get married and have kids. Forget about that bookstore and your acting dream.”
Les broke my heart with that comment.
A week later, he called me again. I hated answering phone calls. But Les had me worried. It sounded glum.
“She dumped me, man.”
“Yeah, the bitch.”
“All right, calm down.”
“She put me in the friend zone. She said she wanted to date younger guys.”
“In those words?”
“So she implied. But I’ve outgrown the friend zone, man.”
“Every man has…”
“I should’ve seen it coming,” he said.
“I saw it coming,” I said.
“You did? You should’ve said something.”
“Dude, you were dating a twenty-three-year-old. At some point, the balloon would pop. You would’ve called me jealous and bitter if I told you that.”
“Well, you are.”
“So I left all my shit in California for her, thinking I was starting new. Now I’m stuck in the same rut that drove me out of California.”
A few months later, he sent me an email, the first email he’d ever sent me:
…I ‘ve moved back to Philly for a reason. God has a plan for us…
Was the plan good? And how did God make the plan? Did he meet the devil every quarter to discuss numbers? Was heaven bringing too many souls? Did hell need more souls to punish? And was the devil punishing the unworthy souls severely enough? They both needed human experiments. What excellent questions to bring up with Tim. Tim said my friend was right. Everything he was doing was in God’s control.
Les wrote about his first show in five years. He may have given up and moved back, but at least he was doing standup in Philadelphia. That inspired me to seek auditions.
Les told mediocre jokes, but he promoted himself wisely. He posted ads online. He stapled fliers at bars and coffee shops. He used to drive a van with his name, face, and website on it. Before he moved to Philly, he’d sold the van and bought an electric car, a Toyota Prius. It looked like a shoe on wheels.
The only crowd was his parents. There’s the bad news. One of them had seen his fliers. After all, they were both retired. They had too much free time. And all his material was about his family. God must’ve planned that, too.
But he said he tested new jokes for gigs in the future. It was hard to gauge whether the jokes were funny with his parents. They were the only ones in the coffee shop. People came to Philadelphia for reasons other than comedy. It would’ve been rare if any comics stole his material, or if they burned his ego. His parents applauded him after every joke. He cut the performance short after six minutes and thanked his parents for coming. They hugged him, kissed him, and praised him. I understood the shame he went through.
“I’m quitting,” Tim said to me. “My time has come.”
“Time for what?” I asked.
“Time to work for God. I’m heading to Isreal, where I’ll live.”
“For what reason?”
“To convert people to Christianity, my friend.”
I wished him good luck, and I hoped he would survive.
The woman who replaced him also praised Jesus. He must’ve planted seeds before his departure. The longer I worked there, the more born-agains appeared. A born-again group held meetings every Wednesday night.
The store carried fewer books than when I’d quit the first time. It looked bare in the store, like the dying tree outside. The erotica section may have lived on and looked as clean as ever, but the Lance Chance books had gone out of print. That was when I knew I’d worked there for too long. I grew tired of life, tired of working for someone else. I’d failed at the auditions, so I gave that up again.
One morning, the new manager made me work the music section. A girl with pink hair and black lipstick showed up. She wore a t-shirt for a rock/rap group called the Insane Clown Posse. Whatever. Maybe she would keep to herself.
“Do you work here?” she asked.
My laminate hung from my neck with my name on it. “I do. The Insane Clown Posse is in the next aisle.”
“What makes you think I’m looking for that? Because I’m wearing the shirt? That’s, like, profiling, dude.”
“And why did you point to the rock section, dude?”
“Stop calling me dude.” I tugged my laminate in front of her. “Call me Paul.”
“Show me the rap section, Paul.”
She followed me as if I were trying to escape her.
The Insane Clown Posse filled a whole row of CDs. I saw them in the rap section. I stood corrected. I hardly worked in that part of the store.
“Just curious,” I said. “What do you like about ICP?”
“I’m looking for the new joker card.”
“The new joker card? So that’s why you listen to them? Because of some card?”
“So, do you care about the music?”
“Only a Juggalo would get it,” she said.
“So you belong with the Juggalos?”
Her gum smelled like foot cream.
“You know. Their fanbase, right?”
“I’m going to the Juggalo convention this week.”
“Where’re they holding the convention?”
“At the palladium. They’re revealing the new joker card.”
“So you’re looking for a card in one of the CDs.”
“Yeah. The special edition.”
“So it’s like you’re hunting for an Easter egg.”
“I don’t have time for this. Can you walk away, Dad?”
I held my anger inside. “I’m just wondering what the importance is,” I said.
“I talked to Shaggy online. He said I could get free merch.”
“Stop with the questions.”
“Don’t cop an attitude,” I said.
“What if Shaggy is lying?” I asked. “What if he’s trying to get you to buy his records?”
“And what if you work this shitty job for the rest of your life?” she asked.
I slapped the CD right out of her hands. It had happened automatically.
“Hey, fuck you, dude. You just, like, assaulted me. Go fix your nose, old man.”
I went straight for the workers’ lounge. I needed to punch a locker, so I punched mine to get my fist to the other side. The metal slats broke the skin on my knuckles. I started washing the blood off in the sink.
The manager stormed in:
“I’m quitting, I swear, I quit.”
“That young woman is yelling for security. What did you do?”
“I’m going on lunch. I need a break. Those angry nerds are taking over the store. We’re dealing with a civil rights group. Oppressed nerds. We have to see them every day.”
“You can’t help customers if you’re losing your temper, Paul. You should stay home.”
I needed a cigarette, especially with her about to suspend me.
My cell phone began vibrating. Rather than answer it, I went to the bathroom.
I waited at a urinal for something to come out. It was a phobia. I couldn’t pee in public. My phone began to buzz again. Someone in the stall groaned as if he’d sat on nails. I answered the phone with my free hand.
Dan Dupree had called me for the first time ever. It used to be just a text here and there about comedy school before that.
“Are you alone?” he asked.
“Go walk somewhere,” he said.
The person in the stall wasn’t leaving soon.
So I sat in my car, where I thought I could find solitude.” OK, I’m alone.”
“But why? How?”
“He left the car running in the garage.”
“But he drives a Prius.”
“I don’t know, man. They told me at the club.”
I was frozen in my car. Les was the first person close to me besides my parents who’d died. “I just spoke to him yesterday.”
We had no more words to say, so we hung up.
I sat at the lunch table in the workers’ lounge and stared at one of the walls. There was the Escher painting of a bunch of staircases leading to a ceiling. And there was a light socket that appeared to have eyes and a mouth. And to the right of it was the Munch painting of that screaming yellow face. How could I process what Dan had told me?
The manager came in. She began to fill her thermos in the water fountain. She’d managed the store for eight months, and I kept forgetting her name.
“Paul, do you need to go home?”
“My friend died.”
“Oh,” she said.
“I think I’m going to faint.”
“You may go home, but please don’t forget to clock out.”
“You said may.”
“You said may. That’s proper English.”
“Paul, just go home and lie down.”
“And dear, he’s not suffering. He’s gone to a better place.”
“He killed himself,” I said.
“Oh,” she said again. She began to roll the cap on her thermos. “I should go back out.”
The news about his suicide was false. He’d taken his life some other way. My guess was pills because of his addictions. I heard most people overdose by accident. But what did that matter? What mattered was his death.
That same afternoon, Dan was working at the bar. The bartender had left for cigarettes and weed. That left Dan and me alone. He set his broom aside and sat with me at the counter. We shared a pitcher of beer with pigs feet, but I’d lost my appetite. The warm beer burned my throat.
“Are you going to the funeral?” he asked.
“In Philly? I can’t afford that.” I said.
“I could write my condolences to his parents,” I said. “But I would feel too awkward.”
“Because we’d never met.”
Dan pulled his beanie to his eyebrows. He poured himself another round. “I’ll miss him for sure,” he said.
“I miss him already.”
The bar had white tiles, rustic ceiling fans, and wooden walls with pictures of old movie stars who’d come there. They’d set tables for people who wanted to eat. I was yet to see anyone do that.
“This town makes it hard to miss people,” Dan said. “When they leave, I just say, ‘OK, good luck with that.’”
“He always had so much passion,” I said, “but his decisions always got in the way. I should’ve told him to stay here and ditch that girl. But he was always too stubborn.”
“Be honest,” Dan said. “Something deeper than that girl made him do it. But I agree about his passion. He did save my life.”
“That’s right,” I said. “What happened?”
As I’d implied, Dan was almost a stranger to me. I liked his poise, and that mattered. I had to collect as many friends as possible before I got too old. I also needed to leave that bookstore for good. But how could I thrive independently? Look what happened to Les. But he lived with his parents. He’d depended on them, but at least he’d given an effort.
Dan rolled up one of his jacket sleeves and showed me three scars up his wrist. It was the first time I’d ever seen that in real life.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
He looked around himself first, making sure we were alone. “You know The Tonight Show wanted me?”
“The real Tonight Show?”
“Yeah, no other Tonight Show.” He scratched his red beard. Dan wore a couple of gold rings on his right hand. “I crushed my set one night at the Improv. They laughed at my favorite bit about the horse and the school bus. That was my best material. Usually nobody laughs at it.”
That was his worst material.
“Crowds laugh at my bad jokes,” he said. “So I hoped for something to hit. More people showed up to my sets. I saw my name on the marquee. Those big black letters gave me a huge boner: DAN DUPREE. TUESDAY NIGHT. Do you remember that?”
It was bright in Sherman Oaks. The sun shined through the entrance on our faces. I stared at a coaster for the bar. It read The Green Room. A character on it wore a handlebar mustache and a top hat. He looked like a magician. I should’ve learned magic, but it was one of those things you learn at a young age.
“I do,” I said. “You never told me you went on The Tonight Show.”
“Who said I went on it?” he asked.
“Those assholes,” I said. “They passed on you for someone else?”
“Nope. I used to dream about going on Conan. I hated The Tonight Show. I bombed one night when Conan’s people sat in the crowd.”
That poor guy. We both regretted our twenties. Les and I would drink together (back when Les had a drinking problem). Les would call Dan’s material a heap of plastic bottles—whatever that meant. But I knew comedians competed viciously against each other.
“That fucked me up,” Dan said. “But Leno’s people saw me perform a week before that. Paul, I should’ve known better at that age.”
“My twenties. I needed to think about it. That’s what I told them.”
“Think about what?” I said. “It’s the fucking Tonight Show.”
He emptied his pint of beer.
“I turned it down,” he said.
Things like that actually happened. What was going through his head at the time?
“I told them, ‘I’m sorry, but I’d rather go on Conan.’”
“Jesus, Dan,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “I’d stabbed myself in the back. When you have an opportunity, you better make sure it counts. The future really did look far away at that age. Now here we sit. I’ll accept any show that’ll take me. I’m still waiting on them. And waiting.”
Dan got up from his stool and grabbed his broom.