Monday, October 27, 2014
Every time Daniel performed before a crowd (and by his count, tonight would be his 147th performance) he felt just as nervous as he had his first time. By the time he hit the stage with Improv Incorporated, he had been taking their beginners classes for six months. He loved the feeling that he and his classmates were creating moments that had never existed before and would never exist again, but when he faced his first audience that euphoria had been eclipsed by bald terror. His fellow performers realized he had frozen and stopped addressing him. He spent the next fifteen minutes staring into the crowd, unblinking. When the scene was over his teammates dragged him offstage. It was the most humiliating moment of his life, and one that he replayed in his mind as he stood backstage waiting to go on.
He told himself that if he didn't have to partner with Tyler tonight he'd be less anxious. Tyler was, by far, the quickest member of Improv Incorporated, and the only member of the troupe that anybody outside of Cleveland had ever heard of. The summer before he had taken a trip to New York to audition for Saturday Night Live. He didn't make the final cut, but he got close—he even got to meet with Lorne Michaels alone in his office, a tale that grew grander with each drunken retelling. Daniel knew he had to be his best tonight with Tyler next to him soaking in all the audience's love.
"You're on in five minutes," Dave, the scruffy stage manager told him.
"Thanks," Daniel said. "You have haven't seen Tyler anywhere, have you?"
Dave jerked his thumb in the direction of the dressing room. "He's having a lover's quarrel with his piece of the week."
Daniel turned where he'd pointed and there was Tyler, bellowing at a gaunt, stringy-haired teenager with hollow eyes. Daniel couldn't hear the argument, but it seemed one-sided. The girl said nothing, just stared at Tyler with an unsettling intensity. Daniel thought for a moment that he had seen her before, but the last girl he'd seen Tyler with was a stunning red-head full of life.
Tyler noticed Daniel watching him and walked over. He peeked out of the side curtain and watched the audience filing into their seats.
"What's it looking like out there?" he asked Daniel, without a hello.
"Pretty full house tonight. I wish we weren't up first. I'd rather know what kind of crowd we're working with before we get out there."
"Crowds are all the same," Tyler said with professorial disdain, "it's you, my friend, who needs to change."
"You've never felt pressure being the first one out there?"
"Can't say as I have," Tyler said. "Never been afraid to break a cherry." He gave Daniel a sickening wink and guided the girl into the dressing room. Tyler emerged five minutes later, dizzy and irritable. Five minutes after that, they were onstage.
"Good evening ladies, and gentlemen, we are Improv Incorporated," he said to polite applause. "My name is Daniel Smith and this is my partner, Tyler Bettinger."
There was a long applause break after he announced Tyler. Daniel gritted his teeth, but clapped along. Tyler didn't seem to notice. After the applause had died down, Daniel continued.
"You know how this works, I'm sure, all we need is a suggestion. Let's start with a place. It can be any place at all, anywhere, anytime."
Daniel folded his hands together as if in prayer and scanned the faces in front of him. Nobody spoke up. Daniel turned to Tyler for help, Tyler stood at the back of the stage, staring ahead in blank terror. Daniel wondered if he had looked the same the night of his first performance. He turned back to the crowd for their suggestions.
"Anybody?" Daniel probed.
“Golf course!" said a deep voice from the back of the room.
"Submarine!" said another voice.
"The Old West!"
Daniel mimed listening with his hand behind his ear and said "Okay, I heard dentist's office. Here we go!"
He mimed opening and shutting a door and walked to where Tyler stood.
"Good morning, sir. Please have a seat in the chair. I'm Doctor Fang, and I'll be helping you today."
Tyler broke his blank stare to look at Daniel. He uttered a low, menacing grunt like a cavemen in an old B-movie. Daniel picked up the reference and asked, "So, Mister, Ugg, what is it that brings you in today?"
Tyler growled again, turned toward the audience, and bared his teeth. Daniel rolled his eyes. This was typical Tyler—going with his own ideas and leaving no anchor for his partner. All of this ridiculous grandstanding, Daniel thought, and still Tyler was the one that everyone wanted to get drinks with after class.
"Well," Daniel continued, "there seems to be some language barrier here. Let me see if I can tell what your problem is."
He reached for Tyler's mouth. Tyler screamed and smacked his hand away. The audience laughed.
Daniel cradled his hand in a tender, exaggerated gesture, for the audience’s benefit—but the Tyler had surprised him with his strength.
"I've seen this before," he said, "a diet of rocks and mammoth meat is hard on the gums. I promise to be more cautious, but I will have to get in that mouth of yours. If you please, say ah."
Daniel opened his mouth and said "ahhhhhh" in a high tone. He hoped that Tyler would maintain his silence to play up the contrast. He did, and the audience chuckled.
"No, sir, like this—ahhhhh ... ," Daniel said, drawing out the last syllable for several seconds as Tyler stood silent. When he stopped, Tyler let out a menacing hiss, the most terrifying sound Daniel had ever heard. He wasn't sure what kind of avant-garde nonsense Tyler was trying to pull, but it was dying.
He approached Tyler again and lowered his jaw wide. Tyler opened his mouth, too. His breath smelled like the inside of a dumpster. Daniel squinted in disgust. Okay, fine, he thought. You get all the friends, you get all the girls, but you're not going to upstage me like this. Not tonight.
Daniel stared into Tyler's eyes and, as he did, he felt his legs weaken. Soon he was unaware of the crowd or the routine. He was in a long, dark hallway. Running. Something was chasing him—but what?
He heard a scream in the distance, then many screams. He blinked and looked away from Tyler to the horrified audience. Some were hiding their faces, some stared in disbelief, and others fell out of their chairs with laughter. Daniel noticed that the front row patrons were covered in a thick, red fluid. Blood, he supposed, but from where?
He felt a tapping on his side and turned in its direction. There was Tyler, swinging what appeared to be a human arm at him. Funny, Daniel thought, we didn't have any prop work planned for tonight.
Then he looked down at his side and realized that the arm Tyler was beating him with had once been attached to his own body.
Daniel shook his head. He was dizzy. His eyes struggled to focus. He tried to remember if they'd rehearsed this. The crowd was abuzz with shock and laughter, a wave of attention that lapped over Daniel like a gentle surf. They loved it. They loved him.
Tyler turned toward the laughter and roared at the audience, then took Daniel's arm in his mouth and nuzzled at the flesh, tearing into the thin skin of Daniel's wrist with his powerful jaws. When he looked up at the crowd again thin strings of tendon were stuck between his teeth, a sight that set off another wave of laughter.
Daniel waved his remaining hand, and then used it to take a theatrical bow. The crowd gave him a standing ovation as he staggered backstage. Once in the wings he leaned against the wall.
He heard the crowd continue to cheer, then a sound more like screaming. I'll have to thank Tyler once he gets back here, he thought. I've never had a standing ovation before. He looked down at his arm. I should get this checked out first, he thought, but it doesn't feel so bad anymore.
Dave approached him with a grin and said, "Hey, man, they ate that shit up—how did you guys manage—" He trailed off, staring at the blood and tendons pulsating in Daniel's wound. "Jesus Christ,” he said, “that's not fake, is it?"
Daniel tried to answer, but his voice was gone. All that came out was a low hiss. Dave backed away from him.
"I'm going to get a doctor for you, okay?" Dave said, then turned and ran.
Daniel watched as he sped away. The screams behind the curtain grew more frantic. That Dave, he's a great guy, Daniel thought. Super smart, too. Really big brain on that guy.
Matthew Guerruckey is the founding editor of the online literary magazine Drunk Monkeys, and a fiction writer. His short fiction has previously appeared in The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review, Connotation Press, Bartleby Snopes, Cease Cows, and The Weekenders Magazine. Matthew lives in North Hollywood with his wife, poet SC Stuckey, and their cats Lennon and Harrison. He is working on his first novel.
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Photo by Adam Lawrence.
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