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A blind comedian and a disgruntled writer with a broken arm walk into a dive bar. That's the setup for this darkly comic story from Nick Bertelson, which takes you on a rollicking journey through the back rooms of Vegas comedy clubs, with a twist that's not so much a punchline as a gut punch.
Me and Buzz, we both had something wrong with us, but something wrong was the closest thing we had to something in common. Buzz had glaucoma and I had a broken arm. Those were our most obvious impairments, but even those were astronomically different: his being permanent, mine temporary, yet both our conditions were, in their own ways, detrimental.
Luckily, I had leeway when it came to laying blame for my misfortune. I could blame my arm, for example, on the puke that I slipped on in the Four Queens bathroom where I’d been a janitor for an embarrassingly long time. Being comprised of Bombay Sapphire and Oysters Rockefeller, the puke’s viscosity was ample for slipping. But blaming the puke meant blaming the overweight Texan who deposited it there, and blaming the Texan meant blaming the casino for over-serving him so that he might double-down once more on hard-seventeen. So I didn't know who to blame, really, but I took comfort in my options.
Buzz’s misfortunes were his own doing. For the last two years, he'd been the only blind comedian in Vegas. Problem was: he wasn’t blind. With his Coke-bottle glasses on he saw as much of the world as any man needed to, but like most people in Vegas, he had a "lucrative" loophole that helped him stay ahead. For years, he wrote his own jokes and left crowds reeling in places like Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After a while, his ego grew to seeking newer, more profitable gigs. Where else would he go besides Vegas?
His act went south, so to speak. The sign read "Viva Las Vegas" and he took that to heart. He occupied his hands with cocktails and slot-machine levers instead of a pen and paper. When his booze-money ran dry and everyone heard his jokes a hundred times over, he started asking around for writers. Someone dropped my name: Pauly Paulson. I was the redheaded kid who hung around comedy dives waiting for fate to stumble blindly into the back of my chair and offer to buy me a beer.
"Name's Buzz. You know, like the haircut. Someone told me you write for a living."
"Define write," I said. "And living."
"Can you write jokes for a blind man?"
"That sounds like a joke," I said.
"Then what’s the punchline, Mr. Writer?"
"I'm drawing a blank?"
Buzz put a finger to his lips. "That's pretty good."
Buzz was glamorously unhealthy. Besides being blind, he suffered from gout due to a strict diet of what I liked to call the "Four C's": cured meat, Coors Light, cigarettes, and cocaine. Even during Vegas's one-hundred days of hundred-degree weather, Buzz wore long pants to cover his bulging white legs. I saw them more than once. They looked like bowling pins. He showed them to me often when the two of us started closing down all those similarly named dives: The Knock Knock, The Punchline, Cameos, The Funny Bone. They coalesced in my mind as one big neon blur where I only had to drink and think up ways to make a parody out of a blind man. No women under sixty went to Buzz’s shows. They were prototypical party-grandmas: tall hair, long nails, too much jewelry, and bits of gold in their smiles. They lived off ninety-nine cent margaritas and Kool 100's. These were the type of women Buzz considered to be connoisseurs of his craft. To me, they were part of a larger joke I partook in but commended myself for seeing through.
Each night, Buzz left the stage as laughter poured from those women’s cavernous mouths, and he'd sit down afterwards and order us up some beer and show me how many phone numbers he'd collected while acting like he needed help to his seat. And he’d say, "You ever heard them say no one's hot stuff in Vegas? Well we're hot, buddy. We're going all the way. We're gonna make it. We’ll make it, Pauly!”
Always in those moments I’d think of that Whitman poem, “Oh Captain, My Captain.” I didn’t know a word of it, just the title. But I got a sense of the meaning every time I was in the presence of Buzz. I was his fixer, his go-to, the Bob Zmuda to his Andy Kaufman, the Bernie Taupin to his Elton John, the Teller to his Penn. For some reason I often wished he was actually blind.
At least then something would be as it seemed.
* * *
A joke I wrote for Buzz that gets a good laugh from time to time:
"I asked the doc, I said, 'Doc, what's wrong with me? I can't see shit.' And he said, 'I'm afraid it's glaucoma. Your vitreous humor is deteriorating.' And I looked at him kind of strange and I said, 'Doc, you can diagnose me with whatever you want, but I'll be damned if I'll let you sit there and tell me my act ain’t funny'."
* * *
The cast on my arm was an obnoxious shade of neon green. It had one name on it: Maggie, with a heart for the dot. She and I sat on the rusty fire escape outside my apartment, night after night, shotgunning bong-hits into each other's mouth. It was her weed, her bong, and she never took cash for it. I assumed she made more money than me, which wasn't hard considering that my workmen’s comp was hardly enough to pay the rent. Whenever I asked what, exactly, she did for a living, she replied, "Public relations," and left it at that.
"There's nothing exact about that," I said.
"Well, what, exactly, do you do?" she asked.
"I told you. I was a janitor."
“What did you do before?”
“I worked on a ranch,” I said. “For my father.”
Like everyone I told this to, she wanted to know what it was like. So I told her about a desolate patch of dirt that my father had inherited from his great uncle: the canted farmhouse, a half-dozen gutted pickups, cattle in the distance like immobile stones. All of it lies. Every last word. I lied for no reason. I lied to everyone all the time. I lied even when the truth worked better.
“You made that up,” Maggie said. “It sounds like something from the Great Depression.”
“It caused me great depression, yes.”
With that, Maggie laughed and the moon sat on her teeth. When I heard that laugh, nothing concerned me. My lack of money, my stupid jokes, my broken arm, my gouty boss: it all took a backseat to Maggie. We both sat naked under a starch-stiff army blanket, the cool city wind tickling our parts. She wrapped her legs around me, squeezing tight, and I felt her against my thigh, prickly and wet. We spent more time outside than in, us and a dozen other smokers who lived in the building all sitting at different heights along the fire escape—people strumming guitars, playing Cribbage, or just watching Vegas do its thing.
Her phone sounded like a gong whenever she got a text, and she always got texts. The gong was always crashing: Blaaang! It made me feel insignificant, as though she had infinitely more going on in her life than just screwing a scrawny janitor with the same color hair as her. It was her exit music often.
Sex with a cast was cumbersome. It exhausted me. I was one tumultuous fuck with that thing. Gauze wasn't especially sexy, either. Made for coarse foreplay and rough caresses. Always, after the spectacle, Maggie laughed and recalled my pained, coital acrobatics:
“You’re about as graceful as an elephant on ice skates,” she liked to say.
Whenever she fell asleep, I stared at the inexplicable tattoo covering her left side. It was a giant wooden clipper with wind-filled masts and birds flying around it—nothing more than little V’s etched deep into her skin. Foamy waves skirted the hulls, and a waxing moon sat right beneath her armpit. It was impeccable, that moon: the shadows, the illuminated dimness, and the freckle next to it. I wondered how any artist could etch such a thing onto human flesh.
"And what ship is that?" I once asked.
"The one we all rode in on, babe."
I knew so little about her, and she seemed to like it that way. Men are supposed to relish in no-strings-attached situations, but I couldn't bask in that sort of thing. Not with Maggie. I liked her, I really did, even though she seemed afraid of investing in me, in us. We’d been having casual sex for two months, remaining in that grey area of most adult relationships. When the gong crashed on her phone, I imagined it was another man more worthy of her affection, a man with muscles and guns and tattoos like hers, those testimonies to withstanding pain.
Buzz had plenty of tattoos—these aged smudges on his arms fading into Rorschach tests. I kept the man away from her at all costs. That's why I refused to tell her I was a writer. Buzz had a certain charm, an alluring machismo, a brash charisma, especially with women. You have to be brave to get onstage, and you have to be a balls-to-the-wall bullshitter to lie about being blind so they'll let you up there in the first place. Who's to say he couldn't win Maggie over, despite being so obviously impaired?
* * *
Buzz on political correctness:
“Everyone says I should be more sensitive about the blind. I should be more P.C. They say blind people are offended by my jokes. Show me one blind person who is mad about what I’m saying. Just one. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Just show him to me. Go get him. Bring him here. Stand him up and show him to me. I can’t see him anyway. So what do I care?”
* * *
I waited on the paper-covered table in the doctor’s office. A nurse looked in many places except my arm — my mouth, nose, ears, eyes. She poked and prodded, velcroed a strap around my good arm, pumped the little ball.
“Is there anything I should let the doctor know?” she asked. “Troubling symptoms?”
“What’s the deal with glaucoma?” I asked.
“Glaucoma?” she said. “Is this about medicinal pot?”
“Pot? No. I just want to know what it does to your vision.”
The nurse shrugged, thought a moment.
“If I remember right, your vision just gets narrower and narrower until you can’t see anything. Why? Are you having problems?”
“No,” I said. “I can see clear as day.”
“No pot for you, I guess.”
Alone, I studied a diagram of the digestive system. It reminded me just how much work went into making shit. My doctor walked through the door. She was a brusque Vietnamese woman who wore more jewelry than most people owned. Her name was spelled 'Y' and pronounced E.
I said, "What's up, Doc?" like I had so many times.
And she said, "You may sit in the chair," like she had so many times.
I moved to the chair along the wall. Meanwhile, Dr. Y put on gloves. She grabbed the broken arm and held it with two hands.
“We cracking this nut today or what?” I asked.
She looked at me, then the arm, tapped it twice, put her face near it, sniffed briefly, then looked back up.
"Not ready," she said.
"A few weeks."
"Not ready!" I said again. "What do you mean not ready? It's not a cantaloupe. You can't just tap on it and know."
The doctor shook her head as if agreeing that my arm was not a melon, but also reaffirming that it was doomed to another month of confinement. We stared at each other.
That’s when I ripped her stethoscope off from around her neck and threw it at the wall.
"Get out," she said.
* * *
"When I get really bored. I like to give myself goosebumps and read my skin like braille. You know, to see if it has any stories. The other day I found some Faulkner..."
“Who’s Faulkner?” Buzz asks.
“You don’t know Faulkner?” I say. “As I Lay Dying?”
“As I Lay Snoring: the story of the audience during that joke.”
* * *
I texted Maggie about my incident at the hospital. That night she came over with a fifth of Four Roses and hacksaw. It seemed like she slipped her panties out from under her skirt before she even walked in the door. I bent her over the couch's armrest. After that, we drank the bourbon halfway down the label and built a fort out of chairs and blankets. My apartment had far too much furniture for how small it was. I surrounded myself with impulse buys: a cigar store Indian, a Hulk Hogan bean-bag, a huge picture of two clowns golfing.
I never saw the hacksaw once we started the fort. After an hour, it spanned throughout the apartment. We crawled around on the floor like two kids at a sleepover. Maggie's phone kept going off. Needless to say, I didn’t care much for it. Eventually, she found me in the dark and pinned my body to the carpet. Her bourbon-tongue filled my mouth and my pants were off in seconds. She licked her fingers. Then her phone made a sound I hadn't heard before. It was a Steely Dan song: "My Old School."
The voice on the other end was a woman's. I heard her pleading with Maggie about something seemingly dire. Maggie, like always, talked in her eye-rolling, irreverent way. When she hung up, she said she had to go.
"Who was it?" I asked.
"My boss," she said. "There's something wrong at work."
I nodded, even though I felt a tinge of anxiety in my chest. It must have shown on my face because Maggie touched my cheek like a tender mother.
"Don't worry, babe," she said, pouty-lipped. "I'll be back." She flashed a sympathetic smile.
"Tonight?" I asked.
"What about my cast?" I was desperate now.
"We'll get it next time,” she said. “It ain’t going anywhere.”
Once the latch on the door clicked, I looked at my hands. The left was bare and made soft by inactivity. The other was covered with that stupid cast. White, flowery tufts of gauze poked out from under the green molding with bits of grime and dirt clinging to it. I hated to imagine my weak and white skin beneath it, susceptible again to all the world's textures.
* * *
I spitball another bit to Buzz:
“How does a blind man know when to stop wiping his ass?”
Buzz pauses a moment, mulling over the possible punchlines.
Finally, he answers: “He asks the woman in the stall next to him.”
“That’s better than what I had,” I say.
* * *
Nights later, I sat in a back booth at The Orleans, waiting for Buzz to come onstage. It was a classy place. There was a two-drink minimum, but I didn't have to abide by the rules because they knew I worked for Buzz. Since the night of our fort (which I had yet to clean up), Maggie had only been in touch through texts and the occasional call. She vaguely spoke of work and specifically spoke of things we’d do in bed the next time we were together. I was texting her dirty things when a man’s head appeared next to my shoulder. I recognized him but I didn’t know his name. He knew mine.
“Pauly!” he said. “Where’s Buzz? He hasn’t called or anything. We tried him at home. Do you have his cell?”
I snorted. “Buzz doesn’t have a cellphone. Are you kidding me? He thinks people still send faxes.”
“Well what are we supposed to do?”
“He’ll show,” I said.
The man huffed and stalked off through the lounge. I ordered another beer and waited. A prop duo came on and told too many jokes about putting things in their asses. Then another guy, this regular comedian who was supposed to introduce Buzz, he stalled with some new material for ten minutes, hoping Buzz showed up meantime. The worried man from before came back halfway through the set.
“He’s not showing, is he?” the man asked.
I shook my head: “Nah.”
On the sidewalk, immigrants handed out cards with pictures of "dancers" on them. The girls were all naked, except for little stars barely covering their privates. I took the cards to help out the immigrants. I knew that if they didn't get rid of them, they didn't get paid. A supervisor made sure they didn't chuck the cards in the trash. By the time I reached O’Sheas, I had a fistful of the stupid things. O’Sheas was the last place I was willing to walk into. The place reeked of cigarettes and vomit. Not even five minutes after walking in, someone offered me heroin. I was shocked to not find Buzz.
I plopped myself down by the Guiness tap. They were only 99 cents. I had a ten-dollar bill in my pocket and I planned on drinking the whole thing. I pulled out the escort cards, shuffled them a few times, and looked at each one. They all had fake names: Mandi, Candy, Mysti, Gem. I looked at their star-covered parts, their half-open mouths. "Special Rate: $50 off!” I had a lot and before I got through all of them, a drunk guy backed into me, knocking the cards to the carpet.
"Shit, dude," he said. "I'm sorry." He bent down to pick them up. Then he realized what they were. "What the fuck, man!”
"I'm a humanitarian," I said.
He stumbled away. As I picked the cards up, I spotted something strange — a face amidst those suggestive poses. I brought the card close to my nose. I held it at arm's length. I scanned the woman's body. She had two little stars covering her nipples and a hand in her panties. It couldn’t be. A white sheet covered her side, but I didn't need to see her tattoo to know. All I had to do was read the name on the card: Mayflower.
Like the ship we all rode in on.
“I'm in public relations,” I heard her say.
Now there was a joke.
I tossed the card onto the bar, leaving the others on the floor. The bartender came over. I ordered two more beers along with a shot of Jameson. A heavy hand thwacked me on the back just as the bartender lined up my drinks. It was, of course, Buzz.
“Where you been?” I asked.
He pointed to the street where a shiny classic sat illegally parked next to the curb. It wasn’t unusual for him to drive somewhere. He’d owned half a dozen cars, but had never been in an accident, never been pulled over, never, as far as I knew, even cut someone off. I didn't hesitate to take rides from him, especially after a hard night of drinking when a ride and hot food sounded like Godsends.
“Looks like a Barracuda,” I said.
“Plumb-Crazy Purple. I just won that in a poker game in State Line,” Buzz said. “It used to belong to Sinbad!”
I threw back the whiskey and picked up the beers, handing one to Buzz.
“Let’s go for a ride,” I said.
We stopped at the liquor store first, where Buzz bought a large bottle of Monkey Shoulder and promptly threw the cap out the car window. Then we drove until Vegas’ light pollution no longer blocked out the stars, out into the desert.
In the headlights, I watched tiny bugs drag their bodies haplessly across the highway. The scotch did wonders for my mood. The sound of the Barracuda’s motor propelled the car with shocking ease.
Buzz said, “You know they're tearing that place down, don’t you?”
"O'Shea's," he said. “They're tearing the whole block apart. Gonna build the world's largest Ferris Wheel. Gonna be all glass too. Like a giant fucking chandelier on its side. It’ll be beautiful.”
Like everything Buzz said, it sounded too good to be true but I was skittish and queasy and didn’t feel like small talk. I waited for each car we met to whip around and take chase. I waited for a copter to appear in the sky, for the saguaro in the distance to suddenly take on human motion and begin chasing after us like something in a cartoon. I took a swig of the scotch.
“There you go, buddy,” Buzz said. “Take a load off. What’s eating you up, anyway?”
I took another hot nip. It tasted like burning mulch smelled. For a while, I just sat there, letting the loud motor answer Buzz’s question. It didn’t take long for the booze to calm my blood though. I poured one more glug down my throat, then I said, “You wanna know the truth?”
“Yeah, what’s the truth, Pauly?”
“The truth with a capital T?”
“The whole truth and nothing but the truth,” he said. He grabbed the bottle from me and took his own long pull.
The truth: I’d not thought about it in a long time and I didn’t know where to begin.
“Have you heard of Leonard Daddario?” I asked.
“The senator? Of course, who hasn’t?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s my father.”
“I don’t care if you believe me,” I said. “I’m not telling this story for shits and grins.”
He handed me the bottle. I took another pull. This time I hissed after I drank, shaking my head to ward off the burn. I couldn’t help myself. It was nasty stuff.
“If Leonard Daddario is your father, then why you down here with a busted arm and a bad attitude?”
“Because,” I said. “His wife is not my mother. It was the maid. He knocked her up, the maid I mean. My real mother.”
Buzz pursed his lips, keeping his eyes on the road.
“Still,” he said. “The guy should take care of his children.”
“That’s not the problem,” I said. “The problem is me. I don’t want his money. See, when he found out the maid was pregnant, he wanted to keep the whole thing hush hush. No abortion, though. Catholic. Know what I mean?” I crossed myself. “And so after I came along, he made her sign a non-disclosure. Then he put us up. For a long time. A long, long time.”
“Where’s she at now, your ma?”
“She’s gone,” I said. That was all I said.
“Damn,” Buzz said. “Now that is a story.”
He grabbed the bottle from between my legs and took another drink.
“So when was the last time you talked to the Senator?” he asked.
I just shrugged. He sniffed and handed me the bottle. I took another painful pull. I was very drunk now and everything felt somehow profound and funny at the same time. Buzz straightened up and cleared his throat. He motioned out the windshield with exaggerated flourish.
“Everything the light touches is our kingdom,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” I asked.
“The sun will set on my time here, and will rise with you as the new king.”
“You don’t say.”
“When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass.”
“What is that?” I asked. “Lion King?”
“Yeah,” he said.
Of course, neither of us was watching the road. We didn’t notice our car edging towards the ditch until it rolled down one side and careened up the other, launching us into the desert. There wasn't even time to scream. We flipped once, pirouetted briefly on the trunk, then landed on the roof, skidding at least fifty feet upside-down.
It sounded like the ocean.
I came to on the ceiling with a mouthful of glass, half in the car, half out. Who knows how long I lay there. I heard Buzz's voice:
"Pauly, wake up!" He scrambled outside the car, shuffling through the sand. He tripped and stumbled up to me, kicking sand in my eyes. The car hissed. I spat blood and looked at Buzz, who seemed unscathed. It wasn’t fair. I was beat to hell and he seemed fine. Then I saw his glasses were gone. He looked like Mr. Magoo. He truly was blind now. He patted around until he found my face with his hands, touching it with reassurance. "I can't see anything, Pauly. You feel all wet."
I shook my head and lifted my broken arm, staring at it. It felt hot, as though it was broken again, but it was just the desert air against my skin. A giant crack ran up the middle of the cast, exposing the white, soggy flesh of my forearm for the first time in months. I poked it.
"Come on, Pauly, say something. Get up. You're all right. You'll be okay. There's a place up there we can get help."
I looked but saw nothing. I tried pulling myself up but my back was broken.
"I don't see anything," I said.
Buzz stood up and squinted at the horizon. "Right there!" he screamed, pointing. "See it? Right there! That light. We can make it. We'll make it, Pauly!"
My body filled with deeply painful laughter.
"Buzz," I said. "That's the moon."
Nick Bertelson works on a farm in Iowa. His essay on Charles Portis will appear in The Arkansas Review. “Blind Buzz” is an excerpt from his novel Eighty-Sixed from Paradise.