His sea legs worked great on the subway; his partner’s legs were useless. Standing in the middle of the car gave them stage presence over an audience roped together, figuratively, on plastic banquettes. The floor jerked and tipped under his feet.
“Seth,” Woody said.
“What is it, Woody?” he said.
“I want to know who farted.”
Seth looked around, gauging faces. “It wasn’t me,” he said.
“I know it wasn’t you,” Woody said. “You are futility with a whiff of despair. This is more like cow manure and tractor pulls.”
Woody looked up and down the car; his head swiveled smoothly left and right in a bit of calculated theater. He’d already chosen a victim for his disarming smile, a nervous woman with two young children, all of them wearing I LOVE NEW YORK polo shirts still creased from the store shelf.
“I bet it was one of them,” he said, shooting them a look.
The woman put her arms protectively around her children. Woody, to his credit, resisted the urge for profanity on account of the little ones.
“Where are you from?” he asked her.
“Ah, Detroit. . .”
“Detroit’s in Michigan.”
“Please forgive my ignorance of irrelevant geography. You must be here for Fleet Week.”
“That’s just a coincidence,” the woman said. “We had no idea.”
Woody turned to Seth. “Let me say something about her and a gang of horny sailors!”
“I can’t do that,” Seth said.
“But it’s perfect!”
“No. Think of the children.”
Woody huffed, looked around, and huffed again.
“Why are you wearing a tuxedo?”
This from a fine-boned, softly goateed young man wearing the uniform of an art house aspirant, vintage thrift-store. His accent, like Seth’s, called to mind lake-effect snowfall, the Canadian border.
“Got a hot date with my lady friend,” Woody said. “I say ‘lady friend’ because of the kids. What I mean to say is ‘skank.’”
“Woody!” Seth said.
“Skank is bad?” Woody said.
Seth wrinkled his lips. “You know, I’m not sure.”
“But why the tuxedo?” goatee said.
“He always wears a tuxedo,” Seth said.
“Yeah, the same one,” Woody said. “This thing’s held together with safety pins.”
“You still look good,” Seth said.
“Better than you,” Woody said.
He looked better than Seth getting off at Union Square, slipping into foot traffic as though deposited from a tributary. In the confines of city streets, shadows bunched up around them as they headed south. To the north, the upper reaches of highrises reflected pink and peach colored rays of a low-angled sun, boldly set off, as though their edges were cut with scissors, against a near sky waning from blue to black. They rode the current, sliding around obstacles; slow walkers, idlers, and pamphleteers. No one noticed them except some sailors in dress whites and a couple of giggling blond arrive. The sailors cracked jokes and the blonds took their picture. They finally came to a four story walkup in a by now thoroughly dim neighborhood, huffing up steep flights—or rather, fat Seth huffed. Stone-faced Libby answered the door.
“I brought Woody,” Seth said.
“How nice,” she said.
“Don’t wet your panties, sweetie,” Woody said.
She stepped aside to let them in.
There was no mistaking the owner of that booming corn-fed baritone as it stilled the room. Carson’s head rose up above a party crowd standing toe to toe in the comfortable manner of city dwellers. He elbowed through and pressed Seth’s hand in both his own.
“Glad you could make it! . . Hi, Woody.”
“Enchante,” Woody said.
Carson pressed Woody’s hand.
“Easy, giganticus. I’m not made of steel.”
“Sorry. Follow me.”
Pushing through the bodies was like swimming through weeds.
“Pardon us,” Woody said. “Excuse us. . .sorry about that. . .pardon us.”
He collided with a woman’s breast.
“Can we do that again?” he said.
The woman turned away.
Carson led them to a couch against the far wall where he evicted a man with a liberal application of white face paint, geisha-like.
“Sit down,” he said to Seth and Woody, and went off to fetch a beer for Seth; Woody never drank.
“Alice is here,” he said when he got back, opening and handing down the beer.
They hadn’t seen Alice. Seth set the beer on an end table and started to finger the buttons of his shirt as though turning knobs.
“You won’t get any skinnier in ten seconds,” Woody said. “Let’s get this out of the way. . .Alice! . . .Aaaaa-lice!”
Alice parted the wall of bodies in front of them like stage curtains.
“You’re kidding,” she said.
“Hi, Alice,” Seth said.
“Wow, you look great,” Woody said.
“You did this,” she said to Carson.
“It’s been over a month,” Seth said. “Why don’t you come by any more?”
“I thought I made that clear when I said I was seeing someone else.”
“So I’m not into you anymore. I never was, actually.”
“He doesn’t want you into him,” Woody said. “He wants you on top of him. I miss you.”
“I bet you do.”
“I get hard just thinking about you,” Woody said.
“Sweet talk won’t work.”
“Go wood, come good,” Woody said.
Woody called after her, “I’d rather you were coming!”
“That went just like I thought,” Carson said.
Seth passed his free hand over his mouth.
“You’re screwing her, aren’t you. . .” Woody said.
“Not my type,” Carson said.
“Too ugly or too fat?” Woody said.
Seth didn’t like the joke but Woody loved it. “Ack ack ack!” he went. “Ack ack ack!”
Another actor came over to talk to Carson about the play. That’s how Seth and Woody knew him. Seth was a stagehand; Carson played the lead. Convention should have kept them amicably antagonistic, like branches of the military, but when Carson met Woody during rehearsal down-time he befriended them both. No one could explain it.
They worked for a Broadway production that blended popular commercials of the last ten years into a narrative love story cum comedy cum musical. Its producers figured on plenty of corporate backing, and they were right. The beauty was in its flexibility. If a company pulled out another would jump in, needing only a minor rewrite. There were even bidding wars. Critics loathed it, of course, but it survived as a tourist lark. It was so bad that you had to see it for yourself (and they gave out free samples with exclusive labels). But the money was as good as from any other play, and the cast and crew worked as hard for it. Seth’s job involved standing still or running across stage as quickly as his pudgy legs allowed. The set pieces, like the cardboard can of soup on a dolly, were not heavy, but his black, hooded unitard did not breath, and everyone knows how hot stage lights are, so he always worked up a full-body sweat.
Carson took an interest in Seth’s career, not as a stagehand but the other one, the one he aspired to. He went along with Seth and Woody to open mic nights at comedy clubs on Wednesdays, the show’s matinee-only day (today an exception on account of the party). Friends and relatives of some of the comics outnumbered regular patrons; they were the ones laughing.
Their last night out together was typical. Six comics went on before Seth and Woody, and did not do well. One of them, a self-deprecator, said this: “My girlfriend forgot my name so often, I forgot it myself,” and, without a group of his own in the audience to back him up, never recovered from the silence.
Then it was Seth and Woody’s turn. Seth had observed that comics never observe applause, so he worked it into their act. They spent five minutes bantering about applause—real applause, fake applause, applause that hurt the hands, sarcastic applause. The bit didn’t get any applause. Woody, something of an insult comic, took jabs at the preceding acts (to the self-deprecator: “Hey buddy, you should commit suicide onstage. That would really kill!”). The ones with friends and relatives, now with their aspiring stars sitting among them, booed, and the self-deprecator sitting alone reacted by visibly tearing up, chin jerking as though pulled by a hook. So they switched to politics. Woody’s arch-conservative lampoons of liberals, intended as an ironic wink to their liberal New York City audience, didn’t quite play as intended, as Seth’s rather flaccid counterpoints were no match for Woody’s irascible contempt. Their spirited dialectic on the stupidity, duplicity, and sexual immorality of women elicited seething glares. Neither men nor women liked it when Woody said, “God gave women three holes, one for each rapist.” The four or five claps at the end smacked of sarcastic applause.
“You’re improving,” Carson said, up at the bar as the next act took the stage.
“I don’t know. Maybe I should give it more structure,” Seth said.
“Nonsense. Crowd work and improv is the way to go. That guy, he probably doesn’t even know what a eunuch is.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“Sure I’m right. You did just as good as everybody else.”
“That’s true. I did.”
Woody spoke up. “Would it have killed you to laugh a little? I sweat so much up there, my penis warped!”
Cue Carson for the great big laugh he deployed twice a day, once on Wednesdays, in Act II Scene IV of the play, the biggest laugh that night. Heads turned to see what was so funny.
From their low angle on the couch, Seth and Woody’s view of the pressing crowd was limited by a palisade of legs and torsos. No one sat next to them.
“You smell,” Woody said.
“I think it’s the one who never bathes who smells, partner,” Seth said.
“I smell like sex. You smell like futility.”
“That again. . .”
Carson, standing over them, received oblations from sycophants who did their best to ignore the voices issuing from the couch.
“Who’s the hottie?” Woody said.
“That’s a man, Woody.”
“Ugh! I have soiled myself. I have had carnal thoughts about a human male. . .He is pretty, though. If I ever wanted to switch sides. . .”
Carson introduced the man.
“You’re very pretty,” Woody said.
“Um—thank you,” pretty man said.
“You’re prettier than every girl at this hog-fest. You should get a sex change.”
“I’m not gay.”
“Your mouth says no but your eyeliner says yes.”
“I’m not wearing—”
“Don’t mind him,” Seth said. “He gets like this when he’s frustrated.”
“I’m not the one who’s frustrated,” Woody said. “I have an idea. Partner, you should go gay. Think how it would double your failure. Pretty, can you help us out here? Show my partner the ropes?”
Pretty man walked away.
“Tough crowd,” Woody said.
Libby came over to talk to Carson.
“Hello, Labia,” Woody said.
She ignored him and pulled Carson aside.
“So fine, so cold,” Woody said.
“She’s statuesque,” Seth said.
“Right. Try rubbing it on that rock for a while. It’ll fall off.”
“Keep it down. She’s our host.”
“Right. And we’re moochers, ingrates, peons. Wait—that’s just you.”
“I don’t know why I hang around with you.”
Woody’s mouth opened and shut, opened and shut. Carson came back to say goodbye.
“But we just got here,” Seth said.
Carson gestured to his face and said, “Lids like lead weights.”
He shook Woody’s hand. Woody communicated a great deal by not saying anything. They watched Carson leave.
For a while they were at a loss for what to do, the crowd inching closer, filling what little space remained in front of the couch as though a barrier had been lifted.
“Wake up!” Woody said.
Seth blinked. His irises had assumed the flat quality of crudely painted wood. An ugly, pointy-faced woman in black stood over them.
Woody cackled. “It’s not a costume party, Morgana.”
An intense man with an intense tan and a white ponytail, and piercing eyeglasses, lenses the size and shape of dimes, frowned handsomely at what witch-woman said.
“Constipated, buddy?” Woody said. “They got pills for that.”
An odd laugh lifted and died somewhere in the room.
“Jesus,” Woody said. “Sounds like a crow being strangled.”
“Sorry,” Seth said when witch-woman trod on his foot.
“Call 9-1-1!” Woody said.
Libby came forth smiling in front of them. On her, a smile was an affront to nature, like a birth defect.
“Hello, Seth. Sorry we missed you in the park,” she said.
“Me too,” Seth said.
Woody didn’t say anything.
“Everyone had so much fun without you,” Libby said.
“I bet they did,” Seth said.
Libby sank back into the crowd.
“Idiot,” Woody said.
“She was rubbing it in,” Seth said. “She knows I wasn’t invited.”
“She’s a whore,” Woody said.
“Don’t say that.”
“Please. . .You’re a fool. Do you know why they didn’t invite you?”
“I’m sure you’ll tell me.”
“They don’t like you.”
“Oh? Maybe it’s you they don’t like.”
“Dummy! They invited me.”
“Is that so? Then why didn’t you go?”
Woody sighed. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I can’t do anything without your hand up my colon.” He aimed his smile at a man standing over them. “Sir, can you help me? I can’t get away from this loser. Help me, please. Help! Help!”
“Jesus Christ,” the man said and went away.
“Poop,” Woody said.
Pretty man circulated out of the crowd, as though brought round by a current. He bent down close.
“You’re a jackass,” he said to Seth, and drifted off.
Seth colored. He rubbed his face. He stood, leaving dark damp on the couch cushion, and elbowed towards the door.
“Excuse me. . .pardon me. . .sorry.”
Woody’s mouth hung slack. They heard a pulse of derisive laughter from the apartment as Seth shut the door behind them.
The street traffic had thinned out. Fog obscured the lower rims of Seth’s eyeglass lenses where they touched his perspiring cheeks; when struck by lights the fogged patches glowed. None of the other quick-walkers, hunched into their coats, paid any attention to them. Woody tried snoring on the subway, bobbing his chin with the rise and fall, but still no one looked at them. Hardly anyone was around when they got off in Brooklyn. City quiet. Footsteps could be heard, and voices, and music through a closed window—life near and far. They didn’t speak.
They shared an apartment with two other men who remained unseen save for their after effects, their presence surmised as though from footprints in the sand, or in this case from dishes left in the sink, or from a television left on. Or Woody left in bawdy poses for Seth to find when he came home. One time he found the super and two policemen inside responding to a possible suicide, a man hanging by the neck in the window. Woody.
They went into Seth’s room. Woody sat in his chair (his throne, he called it) and Seth stretched out on the bed. He picked up the remote and started to reach for a box of individually wrapped snack cakes on the nightstand. He put down the remote, lifted Woody off his throne, and stretched back out on the bed holding Woody to his chest. Woody quickly began to sniffle.
“Careful, you’ll warp,” Seth said.
Woody kept on sniffling.
“What’s wrong?” Seth said.
“I don’t know,” Woody said. “I don’t know why I’m feeling like this.”
He began to sob.
“Now now,” Seth said, patting him on the head. “Let’s not have any of that.”
His comforting had no effect. Woody’s sobs mounted, though Seth could feel him trying to hold them back. After a while they tailed off into long, gurgling breaths.
“I think I know what your problem is,” Seth said. “You don’t understand why you always fail. You say to yourself that persistence pays off, like everyone says, but it gets so tiring. You think you might be deluding yourself, which goes against your mantra about persistence. And yet mountain climbers will turn back if they don’t think they can make it to the top. Not knowing if you should keep going is worst of all. That’s your problem—you don’t know. Your intentions are good but maybe that’s not enough. All you want is for people to like you. It’s simple as that. People like each other all the time. You see it everywhere you look. Carson, by the way, does not like you. He enjoys annoying people with you. He is part of your problem, too. But, as they say, we have each other. It’s not just a cliché to say that nothing can break us apart. Tomorrow we’ll try again. . . Well partner, what do you say?”
Woody had fallen asleep.