“And the cop says….I don’t care what the dog said, I’m giving you a ticket anyway!”
The crowd exploded with laughter. There were snorts, giggles, guffaws, even some whistles. Some people were laughing so hard they had to wipe tears from their eyes. Their applause seemed to rattle the glassware and set forks to clanging. It was a cacophony of approval.
Chickey ran off stage, ecstatically pumping his fist in the air. He punched the next comic on the shoulder in a supposed gesture of camaraderie, but the blow was deliberately hard and the other man cursed. Chickey laughed cruelly.
“Oh man! Oh Man!”, he exclaimed to no one in particular as he ran behind the heavy drapes of the stage. “Did you see that? I was great! Did I say just great? No—I was fan-freakin- tastic! I did it! I killed ’em!”
“Well of course you did. You had great material after all.” A low murmur and throaty chuckle from the darkness caused Chickey to spin around abruptly, nearly losing his footing.
Glancing around, Chickey hissed “Luke?” A faint chuckle was the only reply. “I’m not kidding Luke,” Chickey whispered. “You shouldn’t be here! What if someone saw…”
“No one saw me,” the disembodied voice interjected. “And what if they did?”
In the background Chickey could hear laughter and applause. Usually it bothered him to hear one of his rivals getting such a great response but tonight he was grateful for the blanket of noise that muffled any sound from back stage. He glared at his brother – or rather, in the general direction of where the sound had come from.
“Go home Luke,” Chickey ordered in what he hoped was a convincingly authoritative tone. “Your turn will…”
Chickey paused, distracted by the swell of applause and laughter from the club. Head tilted, he listened, straining to make out words and gauge the crowd’s response. Were they laughing louder? Was the other comic better? Funnier? What kind of jokes was he telling that were getting such big laughs?
He really ought to go check out this guy’s act. Know your enemy, his dad always said. Like dad would know anything about enemies, he scoffed. Rich. Always had been. Prep school, fancy cars, CEO of an already established already – successful company. What could he possibly know about conflict?
Chickey sighed, turning his attention back to the problem at hand.
“C’mon Luke,” he entreated. “Go on home. Work on some new routines for us, okay? I need to scope out the competition, see what the crowds are going for. And make sure I’m available for those camera shots of the crowd. Exposure, right? It isn’t every day we get to be television stars.”
Silence. Chickey closed his eyes and concentrated, holding his breath as he listened for any sound. Turning in a slow circle, arms outstretched, he flexed his fingers as if he could sift the darkness and find pebbles of truth. The air felt empty. Luke had departed as silently as he had come.
After what seemed to have been an eternity Chickey exhaled loudly. Straightening his sequined jacket, he turned and re-entered the club, taking a deliberately circuitous route to his seat. Audience members along his path were rewarded with hand-shakes, back slaps, hugs and kisses. His flamboyant entrance and glittering clothing had caused the expected stir of interest. Heads swiveled in his direction, eyes following as he tip-toed with exaggerated care through the crowd. Ripples of laughter followed in his wake. Finger to his lips, he smiled and winked, shaking a playful finger at the gigglers. It was the loudest ‘silent’ entrance possible and Chickey knew exactly what he was doing.
The comic on the stage paused, and Chickey felt certain he had rattled the man and ruined his flow. Timing, after all, was critical to a comedian. Smiling innocently and pretending to focus his attention on the stage, Chickey sat down.
The two comics let the silence build, an unspoken game of “chicken”. All attention was focused on the two men as they smiled and stared at one another. The darkness seemed to expand until there was no light but the single spotlight. Seconds ticked away as the crowd held its collective breath. Finally, the man on stage leaned forward, addressing his next comment to his rival.
“All settled in finally, Chucky?” the comic asked with mock concern. “Can we go on now?” The audience snickered, the sound unintentionally louder from the whoosh of exhaled breath.
Chickey clasped a hand to his chest and one to his face. Looking around the room, he responded loudly, directing his reply to the audience. “I am so sorry! I thought it was intermission. I mean….no one was laughing…” He gave an exaggerated shrug and let his voice trail off as the crowd chuckled appreciatively.
The comic smiled thinly. “That’s funny,” he said. Chickey smirked. “You know, I’d heard you were a real wit.” The man paused while Chickey beamed at the audience, nodding and holding his arms out in a half bow.
The performer leaned over again, so he appeared to be addressing just Chickey. From the corner of his eye, Chickey saw the cameras moving in for a close up. The comedian paused, smiling and waiting until there was silence, then added- “I’d say they were half right!”
The crowd roared, their applause drowning out any retort Chickey might have thought to come back with. And just like that the man on the stage regained control. The comic continued with his routine. Smoothly, effortlessly. Who did this guy think he was?
Chickey smiled and applauded, pretending this had all been part of the routine. Surreptitiously, he glanced at the program on the table in front of him. The comic on stage was Rob Tucker. Stage name “Rib Tickler.” Chickey snorted. Rib Tickler indeed! He thought the guy looked familiar! Rob had gotten older. Well they all had. It had been twenty years after all. Rob must be back in town for the competition. Still chasing fame. He would have to talk to Luke about this guy. This was definitely someone they should keep an eye on. Yes sir, Chickey thought, nodding. Know your enemy.
The emcee’s voice brought him back to the present. Chickey shook himself – he hadn’t realized he was daydreaming. He had completely missed Rob’s exit. A wave of fear crashed over him, and his vision went dark for a moment. Stop it, he scolded himself. Can’t afford to drift. Gotta stay sharp, alert. He looked around, making sure there was still at least one camera panning over the audience. Chickey yawned and stretched elaborately, the sequins on his jacket reflecting off the lights. As anticipated, the audience camera swiveled to check out what he might be up to next.
“Looks like our next comic won’t be joining us tonight…” The host paused in his introduction, glancing off stage. “Uh...looks like Gary Cohen was...uh... unexpectedly delayed and isn’t here so… uh… is there a comedian in the house?” the emcee joked weakly. Chickey smiled and began to rise from his seat.
Another quick glance off stage. The emcee’s smile changed to one of relief. “Looks like there is a comedian in the house,” he crowed. “Ladies and gentlemen, you are in for a real treat! Just back from his sold – out performance in Vegas, and only for tonight… I give you James Yellowfish! Give it up for Jimmy the Fish!”
The audience went wild, clapping and whistling as Jimmy ran on stage, his theme music barely audible in the background. Chickey groaned, slumping back into his chair. How the hell had they not only found a replacement, but also come up with the accompanying musical fanfare?
Chickey knew Gary was going to be a no-show and he had a second routine all prepared for a ‘spontaneous’ encore performance. He had carefully positioned himself in the audience so he could rescue the evening with a quick hop onto the stage. He doubted any of his fellow performers had the foresight to always have an encore show prepared. Of course, they also didn’t have his inside information. Or his talent for manipulating events.
Chickey sighed, fixing his smile in place once more as he feigned interest in Jimmy, watching as the man basked in the adoration of the crowd. The comic was everything Chickey longed to be – successful, rich and sought – after. Everything he could have been if only…
No. Stop it, he reminded himself. What’s done is done. Gotta keep moving, make the best of what you have. No use living in the past. No more family act, the Brothers Foster. ‘Bananas Foster’ as they had fondly been referred to on the club circuit. Chickey allowed himself the briefest stroll down memory lane, smiling at the thoughts that still raced through his mind at times like these. Man, they had been something! A family comedy act. Totally unique. Young, popular, handsome.
Chickey forced the memories back where they belonged – locked away in the past. Twenty years had passed since that time in college when the world seemed to be theirs for the taking. Twenty years. A lifetime ago, he sighed. More than half his lifetime ago. There was no one left from that time, no one who even remembered the Foster brothers. Except for Gary Cohen…. and Rob... He sat up straighter. Focus, he told himself sternly. Watch Jimmy – see what you can learn from his routine.
The world is still ours for the taking, Chickey thought. We just might have to work a little harder at taking it, that’s all. So pay attention. Get all the details so we can plan our strategy. He settled comfortably in his chair, stretching once more to set his sequins flashing.
A good comic is always on stage, Chickey reminded himself. But he couldn’t help the small sigh that escaped his lips as he watched Jimmy work the crowd.
“It’s gonna be a long night,” he grumbled.