The King of Pigeon Forge
I pull the Thursday/Friday/Saturday shift at the Giggle Shack on the Parkway by Elvis Emporium and Wayne’s Western Wear (Kid’s Boots 19.95/Ask About Our Spurs) and across from Clearview Baptist, its glittering fifteen-foot cross visible from Sevierville. I’m having a smoke outside, waiting for the seven o’clock, and I see a married couple pull out of Pancake Den. You can tell they’re married. Their faces have each assumed the essence of the other like putty to newsprint. They’re severely obese and in motorized scooters, his and hers Rascals, steering and holding hands at the same time. Before I toss my smoke on the ground, I give it a sensuous little smooch on its filter and think Goddamn, baby, I’m gonna miss you so hard, you’ll be everywhere but you’ll never be mine again. As Bethany informed me that morning, this is day seven on the Seminex. My last as a smoker.
Six fifty-five. Showtime. I plaster on a smile, crank open the door. I hear MC Goofy Gary ask the crowd if they’re ready for some good clean family humor. I’m pretty sure I want to die.
My lead-in at the club tonight is Tonk. Tonk’s new, goes to bible study with Jimmy, the owner’s daughter or something, which is how he got stage time. His preacher came to the set last week. Just sort of hung around the periphery like he was worried someone might see him, then threw a very ministerial fit afterward, brow bent, hands laced together, speaking in tones of shame-inducing quiet. Evidently, the problem lay in Tonk’s toilet humor. Lots of poop jokes, more than a handful of fart gags (and those sounding suspiciously derivative- I always remind myself to go through some old Jeff Foxworthy tapes to see how directly they’ve been lifted). “Lewdness walks a thin line, Brother Baggott,” the minister told him. Tonk argued, dressed in overalls and a John Deere cap- because that’s his thing, wearing farm gear onstage- “Well now, I figger the Lord made the human body sacred. And iddint discussing its intricacies tribute and praise to Him?”
The minister actually looked like Tonk gave him food for thought. What the fuck. This guy’s two steps away from Unitarianism. I felt like saying this to Tonk. But it would have been mean. Not funny-mean. Just mean-mean.
I’m hunched over a Bud Light when Tonk thumps me on the shoulder. “Good one tonight.”
“You look a mite down in the mug, brother.” He sits next to me.
“Ye-ees.” He motions to Danny, the bartender, for a pop. Danny growls at him. “What’s troubling you? Folks cain’t laugh at a sad man, you know.”
“Oh, I know, Tonk. I know.”
He slurps his coke, gives a soft, closed-mouth burp. “Well, come on, then.”
I flick my hand. “Lady problems,” I say finally.
“Oh Lord,” he says. “Brother, I cain’t help ye, but I shore can sympathize with ye.” Claps me on the shoulder again and waddles away. “Pray over it,” he calls to me.
Danny leans in. “You know what I say.”
“Just give er a punch in the cooter.” He heer heers.
“Well, fuck ye if ye don’t like it.” Danny gives me the evil eye until I stand up and take it to the back. “You sucked tonight,” he calls out. The door slams closed.
I’m thirty this year. I can feel my life closing in, loopholes cinching. Before now, I could always see an emergency window of departure, a place from which I could slip out of obligation and into the beyond. Getting up on stage used to be the hope vehicle, something I could count on for some life ventilation. A carefully-crafted dumppool for dreaming, musing, the out-there-Technicolor-border-of-the-mind-shit I’ve always done a secret dance with. Then I was asked to pull it back a little;;some mamaws from Kentucky were offended by a highfalutin joke about Enron some years back. I obliged, thinking somewhere, sometime, when I was finally recognized, I could retell the story in interviews of how I did standup in Jesus’s Republican Disneyland and was actually asked to censor myself, imagine that.
But redemption is no longer a foregone conclusion. I feel milked of something essential up there. Even the reception from the bumpkins is lukewarm. I wouldn’t want to listen to me, either. I have a weeping hunger under my breastbone stronger than ever and sometimes I wonder if anything will ever quiet it. And was it my imagination, or did they seriously sound like they were warming up to that toolbox Tonk tonight?
Bethany and I order Kung Pao Chicken from Leo’s Cluck n Run and eat it off a china set her mamaw left her. “For my wedding,” she says darkly, but perks up when I show her my Seminex refill. “Last day,” I tell her, and she does this happy little squee and scrunches her shoulders.
What I liked about Bethany in the beginning was how truly batshit crazy she was below that good girl clogger veneer. Trained at Johnson City from age eight, national circuit performer five times and counting, she is a master of onstage Appalachian ladyhood: humble, not too happy, now, and plenty of chest. But she’s a bona fide beast. Takes all that latent aggression to bed with her. She can ride for hours like nobody’s business, those clogging muscles flexing dark and sweet as she humps, whispering absolute filth in my ear. Once, we started fucking in the middle of a fight. Screeching at each other one minute, and the next, tugging off her panties to take a nibble, her gasping my name into the wall.
I pick up the last Crab Rangoon when she says, “I wanna get married.”
Were this a movie, the Rangoon would shoot out of my fingers and land somewhere hilarious, perched on its little fried legs. But I’m so tired I just let it fall and hit the plate with a clink. “Huh?”
“Let’s get married.”
Her shoulders slump. “Gee. I feel so wanted right now.”
“Come on. That’s not what I mean and you know it. I mean, why now?”
It’s just us,” she says. “We’ve been together six years. Six years is like forever. You know Bryce and Karen? They’re getting married in June. They’ve only been dating two years.”
I’ve met Bryce and Karen. Karen’s a pushy shrew. Owns one of those shops that sells those poofy fuckjob dresses with lace and crinoline for pageant girls. If universal justice exists, a tribe of sociopathic Shirley Temples will hunt her down and put the boots to her. Bryce is an electrician at Dollywood with a dead look in his eyes.
“We’re not Bryce and Karen,” I say. “Do you want to be Bryce and Karen?”
“No. I want to be us. Just engaged like them.”
“You don’t want to be engaged like them.”
“How do you know?”
“Bryce is miserable. He radiates misery.”
“He always looks like that. He’s happy on the inside.”
“No one’s happy on the inside.”
She huffs. I see brown roots at her temples, fingernails chewed to the bloody quick. It feels like this in our house a good seventy percent of the time; I have a toy she wants, and instead of giving it to her like I should, I don’t, can’t. Something sick and satisfying inside me makes itself complete whenever I see her jump and return to the ground empty-handed. I know I’m an asshole. I would change it if I could.
“I’m getting the feeling we’ve had this discussion before.”
“What the hell is your point,” she says.
“Now is not the time. Okay? I can’t provide for us.”
“I provide for me,” she says, “I provide for us.” And it’s true. I just barely throw in for rent. The furniture, the bed, most of the staples in the fridge. Courtesy of those monster calf muscles.
“It doesn’t work like that,” I say. “Enough of that and you will start to resent it. Trust me.”
“ So what are we supposed to do. Wait until you get on Letterman?”
I stiffen. Make myself not look at the Crab Rangoon.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “ I just mean, what’s going to change?”
“I’m working on a new album of stuff,” I tell her. “And I’ll thank you to not tear down what I do. You see me ripping on clogging?”
“You used to have an act about it. You called yourself Clumsy Clogging Claudette and jumped up and down onstage.”
She’s got me there. Almost broke this guy’s toe once and had to quit the routine.
“I’m here,” I say. “Isn’t that enough?”
She picks up the plates. I grab the crab Rangoon before she takes it. “Is that the best you can do?” she says. The kitchen door swings shut.
My dad was also a comedian, but we’re the only two in the family. We are Buckeye-derivative, from Dayton. Grandpop was chief litigator for a coal company that, prior to 1975, enslaved half of East Tennessee. Scrip and gun thugs and secret Communist infiltration and all that. Dad was the fuckup son, the one too distracted for law school. Grandpop was stabbed walking out of his office and Dad made a joke at the wake about Ohio State offering a seminar on hillbilly knifery alongside civil procedure. No one laughed. His career was born.
He met Mom at a bar in Gatlinburg and we stayed after she left for parts unknown. Dollywood had just opened. The place became a boom town. He performed at the city’s first comedy club while managing a souvenir shop during the day. A family-friendly show timed to follow the early bird special at Bob Evans, sprinkled with mother-in-law jokes, light-hearted jabs at politicians. It was the 80s. There was a place for him.
Dad always made me feel better after the really hard nights. To do standup is to endure constant jabs to the groin of your ego, relentless psychic asskickings. You never become used to it; bombing your set never becomes less painful. You simply learn to more easily locate a suite of things to eat, drink, fuck, and mull over that will soothe the sting of a roomful of people hating your guts or, worse, dismissing this thing into which you’ve poured hours of time and thought and heart. This is a job for the unyielding; you won’t survive otherwise.
Dad told me comedy was like administering laxative to rock-hard guts. Tight, uncomfortable, the mass does not want to budge, but eventually, there is movement. And once it starts, it doesn’t stop. The achievement of momentum is harder than its maintenance. And where we are, we have to strike a delicate balance between doing the job and doing our actual work. If you want your artistry, you have to be delicate, a real light stepper. It’s the Bible belt. Audiences here want to leave with bland approval. It was a real nice show. Not too blue, you know.
Even in the face of failure, Dad got up onstage every night. Chasing the dragon. Death defying. He was diagnosed with the same kind of cancer Bill Hicks had and kept going onstage until he was too scary to look at. Practice, he maintained, never got old. There was momentum yet to be achieved. A nice way to feel, I imagine.
I’m awakened in the night by the glowing window. Not the condo lot lights, but something brighter that lures me outside in my boxers, my bare feet slimy in the dew. My father occurs to me. He’s close by. The hairs on my arms crackle to life. Something in me cracks open.
I am compelled to run the slope behind the complex, a grand stretch of green tapering off into the woods. I run fast, yelling, feeling my legs work, vaguely aware that I’m high, that something’s happening, and not caring. I run to him. There is no end there is no end there is no
Back inside, sweaty and grass streaked and pretty sure there’s a tick on the back of my neck, I float to the ceiling to watch myself sprawl.
Where were you, says Bethany.
There is no end there is no end there is no
What are you talking about.
The sleepwalking. No more moving through it. Try again.
You’re scaring me. Just stop it.
I watch myself do a little kick. I’m clogging on my back. Tee hee.
Stop, she says, I mean it.
Kick ball heel. Ball heel turn. The light eclipses us both.
Next morning. I get up, throw up, and head to work feeling crappy. A note from Bethany on the counter saying we need to talk, and to call the doctor because the Seminex is doing something to me. Ig-nore.
But in the car, I look at the insert that came with my prescription: insomnia abnormal dreams hallucinations bradyphrenia.
Bradyphrenia, I think. What a beautiful name.
There’s a float to my body now, and I like it. There is no longer a barrier between the tickertape parade in my head and what floats from my mouth, just a place from which the bad feeling is pinched off. My spine stretches, disappears. Think funny and you’ll be funny, my little hombre. Can’t remember the majority of tonight’s show after. No aim, no agenda, just me dicking around onstage: a few choice words on Bethany’s blossoming varicose veins, the essential suckiness of any Ford post 1985, dogs fucking, pizza pie. Vaguely remember using a half-empty water bottle as a pantomime dick and humping the air around the stage, defeated, before it occurs to me that I ripped this bit off Robin Williams. Ever have one of those days where you wake up and a neon glowing pageant Satan is dribbling electric spit into your ear and whispering for you to burn down your apartment complex? Thanks, folks! Enjoy your stay in our own little Sodom and Gomorrah of the Middle South. Try the pancakes!
I get home and Bethany’s in glasses, no makeup, goop on her hair, screeching about something I said last night and about the fact that the sink’s piled with her mamaw’s dirty china, china I have flecked and smeared with Kung Pao Chicken and dried Frosted Flakes and bits of pot pie. I must be the culprit; she does not eat Frosted Flakes, she does not eat pot pie. I have no recollection of this. What are you talking about, she hollers. You aren’t making any sense. You’re not making sense either. You have no respect for my belongings, mamaw gave me those on her deathbed. Well, that’s stunningly manipulative. God you are so mean spirited, that’s all it is from you, all the time. Calling me names. I didn’t call you anything. You called me manipulative. You just did. I wish I had a tape recorder sometimes.
“That’s it,” I tell her. “You want the dishes clean?”
I gather it all up: pots, plates, teacups, the goddamn egg perch, and I put it all in a garbage bag and she says, “What are you doing?”
“Doing the dishes.” And I run out into the yard, her screeching and pulling my sleeve, and I’ve got the lighter fluid and she goes, “No no no don’t you dare,” and I dump the bag and spray it all with lighter fluid and drop a match from a Giggle Shack book and those dishes go up in flames, and I’m on my knees in front of the blaze doing Jimi Hendrix fire-beckoning motions, and for the first time since I quit smoking, I achieve perfect peace.
Bethany runs back to the apartment. I hear crashes and screams and she’s destroying the living room- ripping couch cushions, slinging pictures to the floor, crunching Precious Moments figurines with her feet. She squeezes a crystal vase into pieces. Blood runs down her forearms.
Seeing it drip snaps me out of something. “Bethany.” I reach for her. She spits in my face and screams. Runs into the bedroom. Goes for the records. “No,” I say, running for her. She turns to me and snaps a Bob Newhart record in half, and I grab her and she falls into me and this is the us we’ve been destined to become all along.
Jimmy tells me, “Tonight you’re leadin Tonk in.”
“What? He’s my lead-in. What the hell. He’s only been here like two weeks.”
Jimmy holds up his hands. “Relax. We’re just tryin it out. Ain’t nothin wrong with stickin around to see how he operates, though. He’s a crowd pleaser. Real natural.”
This just takes the fuckin beans out of me. So even though the only place to go is back to the apartment, that’s exactly what I do.
Maybe a good boyfriend would stay. But a smart boyfriend bolts. I am nothing if not the cerebral type. While Bethany’s out, I put my standup albums, my laptop, some clothes into a duffle bag. Dad’s watch, the last of my Seminex. Pack of Camels just in case.
She returns with her mom. Her hands are bandaged all to hell. Her mother sees her in, then gives me the evil eye on the way out, stopping only to say, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
“Where’s that lovely mother of yours going,” I ask her.
“Ever consider a twelve-step program yourself?”
She thrusts her weird, boxing-gloved hands at me. “Look what you did.”
“You did that to yourself. You did this whole thing to yourself. I’m tired of fighting.”
She staggers toward me, bandages spotting pink, pawing my jacket sleeve, my shoulders. “Please don’t leave,” she begs. “I’ll quit it, I promise. I’ll let you smoke again. Whatever you want.”
“You won’t. You know you won’t.”
“I’ll do anything,” she says. “I’ll do whatever you want.”
I take her shoulders and gently move her aside.
“Please don’t,” she whispers.
I shut the door.
I’m at the Giggle Shack next night and Jimmy asks me if I’m ready to come back to work. I say yes, sorry, of course. He says, you open for Tonk. I say fine.
And a guy from one of the coasts pulls up in a BMW (little understated for the agent I’ve been envisioning all these years, but whatever, still all shiny and shit). And he makes a beeline for stupid goddamned Tonk, guzzling coke at the bar with his minister, who’s started showing up for every set calling himself Tonk’s advisor. The news makes the rounds before Tonk’s even onstage: he’s been signed and asked aboard the Redneck Doods Comedy Tour, right alongside Unabashed Racist and Flannel-sporting Illiterate Plumber. Tonk, who has no flair, no imagination. Tonk who bleeds whatever is the opposite of panache. Gravy. Probably.
I do a quick accounting of my life: no girlfriend, no family, very nearly no job. But what I do have: a car. A little money. The desire to defy death.
I float to the ceiling and watch myself glide to the stage, mount it like I’m making love to it. This is infinite. This is ditching your shirt and letting the gods feel your boobies. Giving the dead the chance to speak. Try again. My tongue is a bird that flies around the room. The words are a stream, one and unbreakable. Is it the Seminex? Is it Dad?
It is rapture, and it is hope.
I will remember nothing later except nervous titters, then silence. Land on a bestiality joke, nail it. Let the mic drop and give off a wave of feedback so Tonk and the preacher and the agent wince and scrunch their shoulders. A lady at the front table bursts into tears, openly crumpling. Her husband lifts himself from the table and breathes, “Why you little son of a bitch.”
Jimmy is by the door, mouth as straight a line as I’ve ever seen. “Ell aye tar,” I tell him.
Warm outside. The early summer crowd will come soon, those who can take a weekend in May, come with the kids in June, good Christian highschoolers trying to swindle beer out of Danny. Fat families giggling at men are from Mars women are from Venus jokes, you know you’re a redneck when jokes, jokes they laugh at because they are known things with the warmth of the known. The parking lot’s empty in the light of Grace Baptist. The interstate is five minutes away.
I feel the presence in the backseat two minutes too late; the rise of a body on super calves from the bucket set, the looping of the rope across my neck, bandaged hands gripping the ends, and Bethany’s voice in my ear, tightening her grip as she tells me to drive.
BIO: Originally from East Kentucky, Kayla has an MFA in fiction from New York University and is currently at work on a novel about raging alcoholic lady cartoonists.