Social Distancing with Emo Philips Wynne Hungerford Macro-Fiction

map Social Distancing with Emo Philips

by Wynne Hungerford

Published in Issue No. 279 ~ August, 2020

After decades of stand-up, the comedian sits down to watch the news. What else is there? He practices the clarinet and irons out the details of cancelled shows over the phone, but the days are long. He doesn’t require much sleep. Sometimes he senses the shape of a new joke and mouths the words to see if it might be something, or nothing. The compulsion beats like a second heart. Yesterday, for instance, he stood in the front yard and watched a masked neighbor walking her dog across the street. She looked at him like he was crazy for standing there with his arms outstretched and his head lifted lizard-like, but he was only enjoying the warmth of the sun on his skin. Maybe it was his hair, frizzy like someone who had just received electric shock. He said, in a warbled whisper, “People say to me, ‘Emo, how did you survive the COVID-19 pandemic?’ I say, ‘It was easy. People have stayed over six feet away my entire life.’” These days, being labelled “at risk” is the heckle that haunts him. It’s a designation he’s earned for being sixty-four and having a history of asthma. The mark of a good set used to be when he couldn’t hear the sound of his own wheezing after the punchline, when the wheeze, an intentional part of his act, was buried so far beneath the crowd’s laughter that it disappeared entirely and made him feel as if he had disappeared, too. In the mortal sense. He felt a liquid bliss in those moments of transcendence, achieved only because he’d worked so hard for so long, a dog to the craft. Then the applause would fade, and the sound of his wheezing would return. The microphone, warm and damp. From one joke to the next, it always felt like running blind into the abyss, never being guaranteed another laugh and never knowing if the audience understood the enormity of what he was giving them––himself. They didn’t know. How could they? He would end by saying, “Thank you for being my friend,” and then slip offstage, distancing himself from the crowd of strangers that had held his beating heart in their hands, squeezed it, poked it, prodded it, called it “freaky,” called it “weird,” called it “genius,” laughed with it and laughed at it, and then threw it back, a muscle thrilled in all its depletion. Since his upcoming shows have been postponed, his bliss has hardened to amber. Microphones grow cold. He doesn’t go out, not even to the grocery store. His wife goes instead. Once she rolled toward him in the night and muttered the phrase “precious cargo” in his ear. The next morning, he asked if she’d had any dreams and, with a look of concern, she said, “I remember . . . a Fabergé egg on the Golden Gate bridge. It was going to jump.” He picked up the phone and pretended to call Freud. She said, “I’m totally kidding. You can hang up, that’s going to cost a fortune.” “Right,” he said, smiling. “Talking to the dead really runs up the bill.” “Obviously,” she said. “That’s why we should switch to Reaper Wireless.” “Good prices?” “Great prices.” While watching the news, he learns that the death toll in the United States is projected to surpass 100,000 this summer, but, more importantly, he learns that people are reaching the point in the quarantine when they need a haircut. Bangs are getting caught in eyelashes. Fades are un-fading. Correspondents who are normally clean-cut show how their hair is growing over their ears, curling and creeping, insidious as ivy. Didn’t Bill Gates do a TED Talk in 2015 about how we were unprepared for a pandemic? It’s a waking nightmare. His own hair is a dyed-brown bob, with an inch of silver roots. After watching a tutorial on how to cut hair at home, he goes into the garage with a spirit of determination and lifts the garage door so he can feel the breeze while he works. It’s 77° F, and the cement floor is cool on his feet. He wears a button-down of a pleasant weight, with trousers rolled to reveal ankles pale and comely. His eyes are blue like water. The sky, clear and blue beyond the confines of his garage, stares back at him. Weird Al, a friend of many years, going all the way back to UHF days, sent over a Weird Al Yankovic Chia Pet as a gift not that long ago—before they officially went on sale—and the growth on that little fellow has been impressive. Shocking, even. The accompanying note had said: “Don’t let me die.” He sets to work, trimming the head of grass. All around him, the garage is full of boxes of shoes and wigs. There are racks of costumes and old winter coats. A six-foot cross covered in fake blood leans against the wall. It was used for something, a sketch, or a comedy showcase, although he cannot remember what. If the blood is fake, is it still a cross? Or a crucifix? Maybe it’s a prop from a dream he’s yet to have. He glances up from his work and sees the neighbor from yesterday walking her dog. The dog lunges again and again, at nothing at all, no cat, no squirrel, no paperboy slinging the Los Angeles Times, lunging only for the pleasure of being choked by its collar. Whispering, warbling, he says, “What I recognized, at that moment, was the unabashed perversity of one’s own compulsion toward self-satisfaction.” He enunciates slowly, sticking the vowels. The dog is erect. When his wife comes home from the grocery store, she puts everything away and then comes into the garage to admire Weird Al, their little pet, with hair trimmed and shaped to look like Emo’s bob. She asks, “What gave you the idea?” and he says, “Quarantine haircuts are trending, don’t you know?” Her hands smell of soap, and her fingers are warm from the tap. She says, “It’s good. Really good. Definitely better than Great Clips.” She walks her fingers through his hair, and he imagines the bust of her knuckles as she struts. It’s important to be close to someone. And it helps when they’re real.


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Wynne Hungerford's work has appeared in Epoch, Blackbird, Subtropics, The Brooklyn Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, American Literary Review, The Normal School, The Boiler, Okey-Panky, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Florida. Her website is