Thomas Paulson was melting onstage. Sweat drew lines from his forehead down through the pancake makeup on his face. The spotlight never used to be this warm, and his head never used to get this wet. He had hair to absorb it, and his straw hat used to have a spongy liner on the parts that rested on his skin. The liner disintegrated years ago—his hair, too.
The club was full tonight, but—save for a few chuckles from the barflies—quiet since he stepped out into the light. Some conversations off the topic of Thomas’s comedy moved in whispers across the room. This was his last night as the headliner, and he could feel it in the air—in the looks. A bead of sweat dripped from his nose. He smiled, expressing every wrinkle on his face.
“Pretzels,” Thomas said. He put a dry laugh here. “Pretzels are just donuts with stomach cramps.” He tugged on his red and white-striped collar, licked his chapped lips, and wiggled his jaw. He made a noise too—a “nyuk.”
This used to kill. This joke would end his set with people out of their seats and in the aisles. Not rolling, but stomping the floor with their loafers and heels. Hooting. Hollering.
Tonight, like last night and a number of years-worth of nights before, the joke perished. It floundered in death throes. Three or four claps took Thomas from the stage to the bar, where he ordered a whisky sour, then another—his two free drinks for the night. He didn’t remove his hat when he sat on the stool. His brim provided him some privacy from onlookers.
“Thomas,” a decent voice said. It was Linda, behind the bar. “You might want to get going.”
She was a little younger than Thomas. She ran the club now—incorrectly, Thomas would say. Not like Rick or Leo or Lang or Greco did before her.
“I haven’t finished my second, Linda,” he said, the second’s glass against his bottom lip. “I’ll leave when I’ve finished my second.” His breath steamed the glass. “That’s how it’s always been.” He had no one to go home to. He would stay there until two most nights.
“Your replacement is up.” Linda pointed back to the stage, where the MC for the evening—a girl in street clothes that Thomas didn’t favor—was announcing exactly that.
“Please welcome Thomas Paulson’s replacement,” she said. The audience came to life.
Thomas put his drink down, and Linda came around the bar, taking the stool next to him. She put her hand on his shoulder.
“Here comes,” the MC finished, “Tommy Paulson.”
Thomas rested his head in his hand, his eyes getting wet. “I don’t know what’s happening, Linda. I was the headliner tonight.” He almost got out of his chair, with eyes on the stage, but Linda kept him seated. She had to force him down.
“Not you,” she said, straight-faced. “It’s Tommy’s night.”
Young upstart Tommy Paulson slid out onstage in polished oxfords and did a soft-shoe routine to start. He was well-built, with broad shoulders and a bleached white grin. His straw hat wasn’t frayed, his shirt collar was ironed and pristine. He had a thick mop of natural blond curls on his head. He held a thin wooden cane across his arms and his bowtie was undone, resting around his neck.
Audience members applauded him. One group of assorted college students in hoodies and graphic tees anticipated a “throwback” performance.
Tommy spun around once and engaged in a little more tap.
“A mustache,” he said, “is a bang over the mouth.” His voice was light and moved at a fine clip.
The audience erupted.
Tommy winked right at a group of women seated up front. “A beard is a toupee.”
Thomas slammed his drink down his gullet, then shoved Linda off his shoulder. “That’s mine, Linda.”
“Hardly,” Linda said. “You never had nothing about beards.” She ordered Thomas another drink from the bartender. On the house.
“No. Nothing as awful as that, certainly.” He took the new whisky sour into both of his hands, holding the stout glass it like it was a warm thermos on a frigid night. “But the rest of it—all mine.” He never received three drinks on the house. He caught himself smiling in the amber reflection of his glass.
Tommy tossed his cane out into the audience, and a group of smiling businessmen caught it. He danced, then continued. The atmosphere was prime.
“Gentleman,” he said. “Where were you all born?”
One of the men spoke for the rest, a little nervous. “Windsor, Ontario, Canada.”
Thomas stood up, kicking his stool to the floor. “Detroit, Tommy. You fuck. You failure—you shill. We were born in Detroit, you and I.” Crowd work was his game.
“Now,” Linda whispered, “you’re just not making sense, Thomas.”
Tommy looked up and glared through Thomas, putting his hand up to block the spotlight. He continued. “So are you gentlemen naturalized Americans?”
Thomas went louder, delivering the next line in his stage voice. “Well naturalized nothin’. They’re petrified.” That’s the punchline. That’s his punchline.
The audience went still, all of them looking around where Thomas stood. Tommy repeated the punchline, and the audience responded well, pulled back into the show.
Linda sighed, picked the stool up and pulled Thomas back to his seat. She ordered him another sour. He slid the drink right back to the bartender.
“You’re upset,” Linda said. “This is just the natural order, Thomas. This is the design of the universe, friend. You need to keep it the hell down, hon.”
Tommy wiped some sweat off his face and thanked his audience. He had one more.
“Pretzels,” he said. Dry laugh here.
Thomas turned back to the bar and pulled his hat lower. Some straw broke off in his hand.
“Pretzels are just donuts doing yoga.”
The aisles—all the spaces between each table—filled.
Thomas picked up a glass. One of his or one of someone else’s close by—he wasn’t sure. He pitched it at Tommy just as he removed his hat and was turning to walk off.
Contact. The glass hit hard and shattered; the kid went down, a spot of red growing on the back of his skull. The announcer popped out onstage and dragged him off by the arms stage left.
Audience members fell silent. Some thought it was part of the show and chuckled.
Linda massaged her eyes with one hand. “What did you think that would do, Thomas? This is an exercise in futility.”
Thomas moved toward the stage. He had one more. Something that used to kill.