The Punchline

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Marlon Maxwell turned the key to the door wedged between the House of Siam Thai Cafe and a comedy club called The Punchline. The building rose like a giant concrete box out of the sidewalk, businesses on the first floor, single room occupancy apartments on the next six, on a corner with the rubble of a demolished half-block to one side. Some of the windows had towels hung in place of blinds, some had squares of cardboard. None of them were ever open. He wasn’t sure who managed the building—or largely neglected to manage it, with its fist-sized holes in the walls, mold spores on the ceilings, and hall bathrooms where every morning was like spinning a roulette wheel of plumbing problems. Only that a man named Alfred had given him his key after a friend of a friend of his former cell mate had given him the number for the building, and he had given Alfred $140 upfront for the first week.

After clinking and stalling his way up an elevator shaft to the fourth floor, Marlon rounded a corner and reached the door to his room. He grabbed the note that was taped to his door, turned his second key, and locked the deadbolt behind him.

Marlon preferred to stay away from the shared kitchen at the end of the hall, instead setting a bag from Wendy’s on his bed (the one piece of furniture, save for a dresser and a little folding chair) and unpacking a burger and fries at the end of each day. Around 7 each evening it started, and he could hear it as he hung up his black leather jacket on a coat hanger around the doorknob. He didn’t wear scrubs like the rest of the staff at the old man’s house. It felt too much like giving in to the old man’s world, a world of sickness and madness. Besides, he didn’t haul out garbage and hermetically-sealed jars of piss or give sponge baths like the rest of them. He’d bleach and disinfect that car day in and day out to the geezer’s germaphobic specifications and drive him wherever he wanted, which was never anywhere interesting, but that jacket kept him who he was: a man doing a job that day. Not the sum of what he did to stay alive or where he came home to. Not the sum of what he couldn’t do or be because of what he’d done before and the time he’d served.

He could hear it rising up again as he laid back on the bed and reached for a handful of fries. It would continue until a little before 9, then it would die down again until the late show at 10. Filling in the cracks between sparring voices of the dubiously originated conflict du jour down the hall or upstairs, each night, every thirty seconds or so, sometimes in longer intervals, sometimes shorter, it swelled and ebbed like waves from below him. He could only ever hear the laughter of the crowd, not the joke. He preferred it that way. It made him feel good in a way he couldn’t explain to hear others give their emotions over to the routine of the hour as he stoically swallowed bites of bacon cheeseburger. Their joy was nothing more, to him, than disembodied voices, a laugh track without a context as he stood high above it, savoring the silent room tone between jokes.

COME TO THE LATE SHOW TONIGHT – POTENTIAL JOB OFFER.

That was all it said. He held it between his left thumb and fingers, small spots of grease staining through. There was no name. No letterhead. It was written in neat print, each letter capitalized. He assumed they meant at The Punchline—there was nothing else for at least 20 blocks with a show, let alone a late one—but who were “they”? How did they know him? Something didn’t sit right about it. No one seeks a man out for a job, particularly a man like him. A felony conviction usually has you on your knees just to be considered for the work most people didn’t even realize had to be done by someone. Unless, of course, something’s not quite above board. After seven years in, two months out, he wasn’t keen on “below board.” But still…if it’s The Punchline, it has to be legit, he reasoned. Then why the note on the door? Why him? He considered it for a minute, then stuffed the note into the Wendy’s bag. He went about his business. The sun went down. He turned on a lamp. He read his book, back against the bare wall. He looked out the window at the world moving below him, stretching out in lights and sounds like the glowing guts of a pinball machine. He considered the walls again, the book. He reached back into the empty bag, pulled out the note.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t the old man’s car. It wasn’t these walls. And whatever, whoever, it potentially was, he could walk away. He could always walk away.

He put on his jacket.

***

“I, uh…I’m not sure who…I got this note-“ he said to the woman at the will call window, passing the note through the little slot where people normally hand over their IDs and credit cards. The woman gave the note a look of instant recognition and smiled warmly at him.

“Yes! Sure, of course. Come on around and wait in the lobby.” The woman disappeared and he headed for the door.

She returned with a man unremarkable—early middle age, looked like he jogged a couple times a week but didn’t kill himself over it, ever-so-slightly receding hairline, jeans and a button-down—except for the alligator shoes on his feet, which shined almost aggressively against the rest of his visage.

“Mr. Maxwell, right?” the man asked, extended his hand. Marlon shook it and nodded politely. “Let’s step into my office,” he said, without introducing himself.

They sat down for a half-second, looking each other over, before the man spoke.

“I’ll cut to the chase. Our late shows are our bread and butter here, and they’ve become quite acclaimed over the past few months. The demand for tickets has just exploded; people buy months in advance now and they sell out just as soon as they go on sale. Line around the block just to see if anyone’s a no-show and a seat opens up.”

Marlon nodded. The increased buzz around the club late at night had not been lost on him. He never recognized any of the names on the marquee, but he figured it was the sort of place that billed itself on recognizing no-names who were about to hit it big and being able to call itself the first to feature them.

“Because of this, we need an extra hand around here. We have a job we’d like to offer you. It’s not difficult, but it’s not a job we’d trust with anyone. We’ve had trouble finding the right person for it, but we think you might be exactly what we’re looking for.”

Marlon waited a beat. The man looked at him expectantly. Marlon tilted his head to the side skeptically. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why am I exactly who you’re looking for? What is the job? And how do you know me?”

“To answer your first question, Mr. Maxwell, you have certain qualities that are hard to find these days. Your experience, for one. Your discipline. Your discretion. Your salesmanship.” He winked. “These qualities are rarer than you might imagine. To answer your second question, our beverage service here is very lucrative; it’s a very important part of our business plan. We want to ensure that our show-goers meet the two-drink pre-show minimum. It’s very important; that’s why we have the lounge area open an hour before the late show, and we ask that ticket holders arrive at 9 for the 10 PM show. It’s an important part of our revenue, and it keeps the laughs flowing, you know.” He smiled, unassumingly. “We need someone to ensure they’ve all met their two-drink minimum.”

“So you want me to serve drinks?”

“Well, occasionally. You’d do a bit of that, sure, as part of the job. But it’s more…liaising with the ticket holders, if you will. Bring them what they need. Make them feel at home. Make them want to order more. I know you’ve proven good at that.” That small flash of a wink again. “You need to make them think they want what we want them to want. It works better when they don’t feel forced about it. And as for your third question, you don’t need to worry about that. We do know you, and what we know, we find promising. And you should know, we pay very well. Triple what you’re making now, at least.”

“All that, just for…liaising, or whatever you said? Bringing drinks and chatting people up?”

“Exactly. You’ll get into the swing of things very quickly, I think.”

“Well…is there an application you want me to fill out or something? A contract?”

“No contract, Mr. Maxwell. Just my word. You’re free to leave, of course, if the job doesn’t suit you. But I doubt that will be the case. If that’s good enough for you, you can start at 8:30 PM tomorrow evening.”

***

Marlon didn’t sleep much that night. It was true, he had always had a knack for people, for finding that one channel into them and into what made them tick, and with that, he could do most anything—and sell them most anything. But he knew the places it had led him to before. He’d knocked on doors similar to the ones that separated him from the world now, in apartments or boarded up houses-come-crack dens whose every inch of decay seemed a physical manifestation, an exoskeleton, of the people in them. And eventually, it had led him to the other side of bars at Lorton.

He found it better these days to carve a path straight from the old man’s house, a job he found through a program for ex-felons re-entering the world, to the bare walls of his apartment, to stay four stories above the sway of people on one another. Absence was calm, isolation was strength, his world was under his control. Yet he couldn’t help but think that he had gotten away from one kind of sickness and madness just to plunge himself into another. Spending all day around the old man and all night in this building was eating at him slowly in many of the same ways, no matter how many of those days he wore that leather jacket and hummed songs like he was somehow a world apart from where he was and what he was doing.

Three times what he was making. He turned the figure over in his mind. How often would someone in his situation be in a position like this? Who was he to say no? The more he thought about it, the more it seemed like being handed a winning lottery ticket and tossing it away because he didn’t like the paper it was printed on. He could handle a few hours a night amongst the living. He’d just be selling drinks. His soul was his to keep.

At 8:15 the next night, he shrugged on his jacket and headed downstairs.

***

The man was right. Marlon did get into the swing of things very quickly, and the audience for the show each night loved him. The regulars began to recognize him and he began to remember their usual drink orders. A charm, a knack for faces, and that old thrill in his ability to get on anyone’s level, even the toughest ones to crack, came rushing back to him in a matter of days. He was good at his job, and it paid tremendously. After just a couple months, he had enough saved that he was starting to look at apartment listings—though he really couldn’t beat living right upstairs. He quit the job disinfecting the old man’s car and had his days free to do as he pleased, then from 8:15—he always arrived early—to 10 PM he’d help clean and set up, help usher folks from the early show out through the lobby, then work the crowd for the late show in the lounge. He’d stick around until 1 AM, with the rush again for drinks at the 11 PM intermission (they always encouraged them to order more between sets) and then the stray few who’d place another order before the show ended at midnight. Then he’d help close up for the night.

It was, oddly, a little like being upstairs in his apartment, the way the soundproofing worked at the club. The laughter of the crowd was audible, but he could never make out the singular voice of the comedian performing. A shame, really; he was starting to think it might be nice to hear some jokes during the slow hours. And the management was pretty strict about him staying by the bar in the lounge during all working hours. But Marlon was good at his job; not a night went by where even a single customer ordered fewer than two drinks before the show (Marlon kept tabs and made sure of that), and you’d be hard-pressed to hear a single person ever gripe about the policy.

The laughter roared up one night and, after a few seconds, he saw the door to the theater open. A man walked out and jogged his way up to the bar.

“A dirty martini, a gin & tonic, and a sazerac, thanks. Here’s my card, I’m gonna run back in there—this guy is on fire tonight! Can you just bring them in there for us? I want to get back to the show. We’re sitting right by the doors, two tables to the left.” He handed Marlon an extra twenty and smiled gratefully before turning around and jogging back to the theater.

They didn’t offer service in the theater itself (too disruptive, management said), but Marlon knew that going a little out of your way goes a long way in keeping people happy, so he was happy to oblige the guy. All three drinks were going to take a few minutes to make anyhow, since the bartender on duty was in the john. Marlon was sharp, though, and had picked up enough from watching him work in snatches each night to know how to make most cocktails, so he started on them himself.

The bartender worked out of sight, in the back of the house. Management wanted to create an air of luxury, he guessed, and didn’t want people to see the dirty work being done—just wanted their drinks to appear as if conjured. He headed to the back room and started picking out bottles from the well-stocked shelves around him. There were jars filled with some ingredients he didn’t recognize—garnishes that looked like candied flowers, pickled vegetables he didn’t recognize, a multi-gallon jar of something that looked a little like bread flour, but slightly darker and more granular.

He finished up the cocktails quickly and arranged them on a tray to take to the auditorium. He stood outside the door, waiting for the familiar roar of laughter to open up the door, not wanting to interrupt in the middle of a joke. It came, predictably, in about a minute, and he entered the theater.

What he saw, he couldn’t make sense of. He spotted the guy who ordered the drinks, waving him over, but Marlon stood there, puzzled, scanning the room. Something was missing, and what it was, he couldn’t find anywhere. The guy was now whispering for him, trying to flag him over, but Marlon stood there, frozen in astonishment at the faces all looking to the stage, listening raptly in the same direction, smiling in anticipation of the impending punchline. Then, as if on cue, the faces all cracked at once, and laughter spilled out of them like lightning splitting the air. It died down again gradually, and they returned their full attention to the stage.

The stage was empty.

Marlon pulled himself together and dropped the drinks off at the table of the guy who ordered, who was getting more agitated that Marlon wasn’t seeing him. He took the empty tray and returned to the lounge.

As soon as he walked through the doors, Jack, the bartender, walked in from the hallway, spotting him halfway through the doors to the theater. Jack froze, locking eyes with Marlon.

“You were in the theater?”

“Yeah, man. There’s….I mean, did you know—this is going to sound crazy, but there’s no one—” Before he could finish his sentence, Jack said, “Wait here,” and walked out the lounge doors to the lobby. When he returned, the man with the alligator shoes was with him.

“Mr. Maxwell. Step into my office.”

Shit. Marlon didn’t understand what was going on around him, but he had a sure feeling he was about to be fired.

The man sighed with a slight smile as he shut the door. “I knew we’d have this conversation one day. I’m sorry we didn’t have it before, really, but I wanted you to get comfortable here before we discussed it all. You’ve been happy working here, haven’t you Marlon?”

Marlon nodded. That was the first time he’d addressed him by his first name. It felt kind, avuncular.

“You’re treated well, you like the work, you have more than enough to meet your needs, financially?”

Marlon nodded again. “Yes. Yeah. Of course. More than enough. I couldn’t ask for more.”

“And you’d like to continue working here?”

“Yes. Definitely, yes. Look, I’m not sure what I’ve done, or what I saw, but I want to keep my job, if—”

“Good, good. Then Marlon, I know you will be discreet about what I’m going to tell you. Surely, you take joy in making other people happy? And surely you know how hard an economic downturn can hit anyone, particularly independent businesses that rely on people spending their disposable income.” Marlon nodded at all of it. “Well, about six months ago, we were faced with the reality of having to close our doors. We just weren’t drawing big enough names to draw customers, and couldn’t draw enough customers to pay the ones we could hire. It wasn’t economically feasible anymore. But we developed a solution. The how and the who of it aren’t important, but we developed an….experience enhancer, if you will. More of an experience generator, really.”

There was a pause. The two men sat in silence. Marlon was not going to say a word until he was finished.

“In small amounts, it’s colorless, orderless, and completely undetectable when diluted in liquid. Liquor is best, but beer, wine, and soda can do the trick. It takes about two drinks to get the threshold amount in the body for it to work; we find that even for the heaviest set folks, two drinks is enough for it to kick in. Then all the audience needs is the power of persuasion. We get on stage, introduce the ‘comic,’ and well…one person laughs a little, and pretty soon they’re all in sync enough to be having the same collective hallucination. It works better than we ever dreamed it would. And it’s incredibly cheap to produce. They all leave happy, having exactly the night they paid for, and we stay in business. It’s win-win, really. We still keep the early show going as we always have; we want to support the artists, we really do. And this late show gives us the means do it.”

Marlon sat there, trying to process what he’d just heard. After a moment, he spoke. “Are there any negative effects?”

The man sighed and smiled again, a tight smile like he had been about to say something but closed his lips to keep it in. “Well…so far as we know, no. I mean, it’s still very early in our experiments with it, not enough time has passed to really know the long-term effects, but as far as its immediate effects on the body, no, nothing like that. It does…” he paused. “…well, it does seem to be somewhat habit-forming. But isn’t laughter itself?”

Marlon had no answer. He could not think of a single thing to say, or even how he felt about it. What the man said made a certain amount of sense. But was this really making sense to him? Who had he turned into that it felt OK? Or who was it that he had been all along?

The idea of it sickened him.

“Why don’t you take the rest of the night off, Marlon? I know you’ll want some time to take in what you’ve seen and heard tonight. Come back in tomorrow, feel the buzz of the crowd again—I know you’ll want to get back to work. I just know you will. And I know—well, I just know, Marlon, that you’ll be discreet about this. After all, you have been in this business with us for several months now. And with your record, you can’t afford any more….mistakes, coming to light.” He smiled. “I know you know who your friends are, Marlon. Who it is that cares about your happiness and satisfaction. Your quality of life. Helping you be all that you can be. Think on it.”

***

It was another mostly sleepless night. He managed to get a few hours in once the sun came up, and then sat thinking in his sparse apartment, back against the wall, as he had done those months ago, until just before 7.

He got up and made the decision to go downstairs. Shrugging on his jacket, he headed for The Punchline. When he walked in, the lounge was emptying into the theater for the early show. The lid to the jar of bread-flour-like granules was still on tight, for now. When the show began—a local comedian he’d seen before, not really very good—it was just him and Jack left there.

Marlon turned to face him.

“Make me a drink, Jack.”

Shenan Hahn
Shenan Hahn is a writer who's life has ping-ponged her between Virginia, DC, Oregon, and Alaska. She spent her formative writing years in Johns Hopkins University's MA in Writing program, and currently slings drinks by night and pretends to be a writer by day. She also paints, re-writes song lyrics to be about her cats, and spends too much gas money on long aimless drives.
Shenan Hahn
Shenan Hahn is a writer who's life has ping-ponged her between Virginia, DC, Oregon, and Alaska. She spent her formative writing years in Johns Hopkins University's MA in Writing program, and currently slings drinks by night and pretends to be a writer by day. She also paints, re-writes song lyrics to be about her cats, and spends too much gas money on long aimless drives.