Corkle paced the hallway waiting for his cue to take the stage. In was open mike night at Guffaw, a newly opened club in the Brookside district that promised comedy but delivered mostly beer and opportunities to hook up.
Corkle was probably too old to be starting a new career, especially as a stand-up comic. He'd rationalized that he was only testing the waters. It wasn't so much that he longed to stand on stage and make people laugh. It was more that he hated teaching. He just didn't think he could do it any longer. Stand-up seemed like a natural alternate path—one that would utilize the bits of teaching he liked, lecturing and spinning yarns to make a point, and abandon the parts he hated like grading papers and listening to students whine about their marks and the amount of work they had to do just to get by.
He'd scanned his audience on the way backstage—a young, local crowd that came to drink and grab-ass and winnow themselves into brief and casual couplings. They had little interest in comedy, at least not comedy like Corkle's that aspired to more than scatological mental pratfalls. He figured he would relate better to an older crowd. His peers thought he was engaging and witty. His students didn't usually share that opinion, not at first anyway. It took his classes the better part of a semester to warm up to his droll asides. He didn't have a semester to get through to this group. He only had five minutes—the emcee had told him six if it was going well.
He wanted a cigarette even though he'd quit years before. He thought he might like a drink as well, not to steady his nerves, but to loosen his tongue and make him more glib. This young audience didn’t scare him. He got up in front of kids just like them every day of the week at the university satellite campus where he taught freshman composition and creative writing. Their indifference and unassailable hipness frightened him not at all. He did loathe them though, most of them, especially the club-hopping, self-indulgent little bastards he imagined to be in this particular audience.
At age 42, Corkle was working on his own indifference, trying to get out from under the awful weight of it. He thought stand-up might be one way to do it. If he failed, he would be back grading lamentable, angst-laden stories about hormonal vampires and wishing all the while that one of the more violent characters would spring from the page and rip out his throat. It would be a vast improvement over life as he knew it.
When he was finally introduced, Corkle ran through the door and bounded onto the tiny stage with as much animation as he could muster. His effort was not met with a smattering of applause. No one acknowledged his appearance. He had brought no entourage. No one had come out to watch him make a fool of himself. No one cared. Corkle was not deterred. He couldn't afford to be.
He had decided on a nondescript ‘How you guys doin’?’ for an opening line. He was too new at this craft to worry much about a trademark opener. Again, no one acknowledged his presence. He launched into his act.
His bit was a stream-of-consciousness riff on terrorism told from the viewpoint of a young and inexperienced terrorist named Habib. He thought it was funny and edgy—a punk terrorist trying to get noticed, trying to get girls, trying to get respect, but never quite connecting in the way that he wanted.
Corkle saw Habib as the loser in all of us grafted onto a disaffected Middle Eastern geek growing up in America—a kid who would never have fit in anyway. Habib latches onto the Great Satans of Israel and America that he hears about in the mosque as the authors of all his misery. He decides that blowing stuff up is a valid response, only he’s not so good at that either.
He keeps going back to his Imam for guidance and support:
‘Would it be okay to conceal the explosives in a VHS tape case?’
‘No, you idiot. Nobody watches VHS anymore.’
‘Is it necessary to visit the occasional strip club in order to truly appreciate the decadence of the infidel society?'
‘Only if you bring your Imam along to provide spiritual direction.'
'You would accompany me to such a place?'
'Of course, my son, but you must promise to buy me a lap dance.'
Corkle wasn't all that sure of his material. He thought it might be dated. He thought it might seem too sympathetic to terrorists to sit very well with his audience. He thought he might have erred in attempting something vaguely preachy, something instructive, something with an ultimately unpopular message, in an Oklahoma beer hall.
The audience might have agreed, had they been paying any attention at all. They were not. He saw at least two couples making out against the back wall. The clack of balls from several coin operated pool tables punctuated his jokes in odd places. Even the people at the tables right in front of the stage seemed more engaged with their own conversations than his monologue.
Corkle trudged toward his finale. He wanted a big finish, but it depended on winning over the audience before he got there. It didn't seem like that was going to happen. He felt betrayed by circumstances, not unlike young Habib, who finally succeeds in his own explosive conclusion. Habib blows himself into Jihad heaven, and finds himself in a room with gold walls and jeweled fixtures. There is a huge canopied bed covered with silks and damask and brocaded pillows. He is ecstatic. His beatific reward is just as advertised. The door opens and his allotted seventy-two virgins enter.
Habib is aghast. Nooooo! This cannot be. There must be some mistake. The virgins are supposed to be pretty. These are not pretty, although they certainly must be virgins because they all look like Danny DeVito in drag. No burka was ever opaque enough to mollify Habib's disgust.
There was little to mark the end of Corkle's act. Certainly no applause. Not even a heckler to voice relief that it was finally over. Corkle sat at the bar and knocked back a gimlet. He got a second one to nurse, and watched the lime oil swirl like smoke around the ice cubes.
“Pretty grim up there, wasn't it, Professor?”
He turned to regard the reality of the girl he had glimpsed in the mirror behind the bar. The two dimensional phantom between stoppered bottles resolved itself into an agreeable mish-mash of disparate parts—neon hair, multiple piercings, a gingham shirt tied in the front under red suspenders that were superfluous to the job of holding up denim shorts no wider than a belt. Fishnet stockings and high-top sneakers finished the ensemble. Corkle forgot why he had turned around.
“Grim…your act was pretty grim.”
Corkle nodded. “I thought it was funnier when I wrote it.”
“God, I hope so.”
“Do I know you?” Corkle asked.
“Yeah, but you prolly don't remember. I took your course year before last. Dropped after the first exam, though.”
“Oh. Did I fail you?”
“Nah. Actually I aced your test. I just thought I had better stuff to do with my time.”
“Oh,” Corkle said.
Her dark, expressive eyes and pointed chin with just a hint of dimple did not make this easier to hear. She climbed onto the bar stool next to his, crossed her legs, and helped herself to a sip of his drink.
“Tasty,” she said. “I'll have one of these.”
Her name was Cheryl. She lived in a rental house with a roommate named Janice and a rottweiler named Zombie. Both she and her roommate skated for a local women's flat track roller derby team called the Pipe Dreams. She worked the copy desk at Staples to pay the rent and buy groceries. She had an on-again-off-again boyfriend named Stang. Currently he was off-again, but it had been two weeks and she expected him to come around any day now looking to hook back up.
“Okay, your turn,” she said.
“I told you about me. Now you tell me about you. That's the way it works.”
“The way what works?”
“Conversation. You married? I don't see a ring.”
“That's kind of personal, don't you think?”
“Then tell me something that isn't. I don't care.”
Corkle drained his glass. He thought about ordering another, but discarded the idea as folly. He stood up.
“I have to go,” he said.
“Take me home.” she said.
“I don't think so.”
“C'mon. I need a ride. My roommate left me stranded.”
“I'm sure there are plenty of young men here who would be happy to give you a lift,” Corkle said.
He thought that would be the end of it.
“I was hoping for somebody who wouldn't try to slip me a roofie.” she said.
She told him more about herself during the ride home. Fortunately, it wasn't far. She'd been raised by her grandparents, she and her sister, Patty. They were twins. Patty still lived at home in Joplin. Patty was the good girl. Their dad was the black sheep of the family, but Cheryl felt she might give him a run for his money. Their mom had died when they were toddlers. No one ever spoke of her. Cheryl thought that was odd. Patty didn't seem to care that much.
When Corkle pulled the car up in front of her house, she wanted him to come in. Corkle declined.
“You have to meet Janice,” she insisted.
“You just do, that's all. Don't make everything so complicated.”
Janice, was a thick girl—ankles, arms, hair, everything—thick and sturdy. Her eyebrows had taken the rest of her features hostage. She was curled up on the sofa next to the dog, loading a bong with leaves and buds from an enameled canister.
Corkle hadn't smoked pot in years. Part of him knew this would be a very bad idea. Another part of him, the part that had got him separated from his wife of ten years, thought it might be okay. Cheryl held the lighter while he took his first hit. As soon as the smoke hurled itself into his lungs in a full body slam, he knew he'd done the right thing. His eyes teared up and he fell into a coughing fit. He tried to hand the bong to Cheryl. She was laughing too hard to take it from him. It was way funnier than his act had been.
Cheryl went to the kitchen for drinks and snacks. The dog lifted its head, cleared its throat in a muffled growl, and went back to sleep. Janice stared at Corkle like she was trying to read his mind.
“She's not going to sleep with you, you know,” she said at last.
“Uh . . . okay.”
“Just sayin', in case you were thinking otherwise. She's not that kind of girl.”
“Neither am I,” Corkle said, and giggled.
Janice was no more easily amused than his audience at Guffaw had been.
Cheryl returned with a bottle of wine and a bag of microwave popcorn. They passed the bottle around. Corkle took a swig and wiped the bottle on his sleeve. Neither Cheryl nor Janice bothered so he quit doing it after the first time. Cheryl decided to continue the narrative of her life. Janice yawned and scratched the dog behind the ears. Corkle guessed that she'd heard it before.
Cheryl's grandfather, the one who'd raised her, was a preacher. He had a big church in Muscogee. Its principal affiliation had been Southern Baptist when he'd started out, but he'd grown increasingly fundamentalist and intolerant of any ecumenical viewpoints. Eventually they'd had to change the name of the church to avoid any confusion. He was a fire-and-brimstone kind of preacher.
God does not take prisoners, he was fond of saying. God is a slash and burn deity. He might forgive sinners, but He has no truck with those whose faith is not correct. It's not enough to believe Jesus died to save you. You have to believe everything in the Bible without question, and not one thing more. Otherwise you will spend eternity in the fire.
Cheryl thought this was a funny way to preach salvation. She had come to the conclusion, after considerable thought, that God wanted her to be happy. Her grandfather, obviously, did not. He wanted her to be miserable, just like him. Cheryl swore he was the unhappiest man on the face of the earth. That would have been okay if he'd been content to let it rest there. Instead, he wanted everyone else to be just as miserable as he was.
Joy did not come from God. Joy was the outward manifestation of a sinful heart. Even worse, joy was just the tip of the iceberg.
Nothing she had ever done that made her feel like she belonged in the world was correct enough to appease the old man. If she got good grades, she was prideful. If she got mediocre grades, she was lazy. If she wanted to be a cheerleader, she was immodest. If she wanted to go to a dance, she had given herself over to lust. If she wore her skirt too short, she got sent to her room without any supper. When he found out she'd kissed a boy, he came and got her out of school and whipped her with a belt until she'd had no more tears left to cry. Then he made her stand up during Sunday Services while he announced her shame to the congregation. The old ladies who came to church alone and camped out in the pews at the front of the sanctuary clucked their tongues at her.
When she'd turned eighteen, she ran away from home. The first time, he'd found her cowering in a friend's closet. He took her home and locked her in her room for a week. Patty sneaked food to her from the kitchen. The second time, she'd run to her dad's place. He didn't want to have anything to do with her. He let her know straight off that she wasn't welcome. No explanation. She'd shown up in the morning. She was supposed to have been at school. He was hung over, angry that she'd dared to trouble him with her problems.
“Don't be here when I get home,” he said as he got into his truck.
She stuck her thumb out on the highway and got a ride to school, and that was the end of that.
Three months later, she'd tried it again. This time, she went to Tulsa. She'd made her way to the mall at Woodland Hills, and hung out there until she hooked up with some college kids at one of the bookstores. Janice had been among them. Janice let her crash with her, helped her get a fake ID, a job, a new life unburdened by her grandfather's ideas of righteousness or propriety. She'd been gone almost three years now. Life was pretty good. She had friends, she had a job, she had roller derby, and whenever she had a little extra money she took a few courses at the satellite campus where Corkle taught.
She started trying to get Corkle to talk again. The pot had made him more amenable, but he still had reservations about sharing too much. He liked being private.
“C'mon,” she said. “Tell us your first name anyway.”
“Better than Professor, don't you think? Saves a whole syllable.”
“I suppose. You've probably gathered I'm not that thrilled with teaching any more.”
“You mean you were once?”
“Probably not. I wrote a book while I was still an undergrad. It won an award, sold a few thousand copies, and died on the vine. I thought I'd do it again, but it didn't happen. I got married instead. Found out I was going to need an income. Somehow I convinced the faculty advisers to credit my book toward a doctorate. That got me fast-tracked through the program while my wife supported us. After that teaching was pretty much the only thing left to do.”
“So what happened to the wife?”
“You sure are curious about my married life.”
“What I'm curious about is why women leave—on account of my mom.”
“I thought you said she died?”
“If she died, where's her grave? How come nobody will talk about her? She might be dead, but that's not all there is to the story.”
Corkle thought about that. She could be right, but it sure didn't have anything to do with him. And his wives? current or former—there were two of them now—they didn't have anything to do with Cheryl or her mother. He really wanted to be out of this conversation, but he was sitting on the floor in her house, smoking her dope, and drinking her wine. Being civil at least seemed appropriate.
“My first wife finally left when I started seeing the woman I'm separated from now,” he said. “Apparently she didn't think I should be dating a graduate assistant while we were still married, even though she hadn't said a civil word to me in years. The real problem was she had a lot more ambition about my future than I did.”
“And your second wife?”
“Same problem as the first really, although in her case it's just insecurity. She thinks if I cheated with her, I'll cheat with someone else.”
“And would you? Cheat with someone else?”
“I haven't, if that's what you're getting at.”
“You've thought about it though, haven't you?”
Corkle shrugged. He hadn't thought about it. Not really. He had neither the patience nor the inclination for philandering, not anymore, not after the first time. He could have just said that and set her straight, but he was distracted by her smile. He would not have thought it possible, until then, for a girl in fishnet stockings, sneakers, and neon hair to capture sardonic so completely.