1. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Winner, JJ_Max! Short Story Contest 120: Bad Joke

    Discussion in 'Bi-Weekly Short Story Contest Archives' started by Lemex, Oct 28, 2012.

    Well done Max! If you want to pick the theme for the next one just message me. - Lemex

    JJ_Maxx
    "Encore"
    [2,748 Words]

    Jack McNealy sat in his dressing room getting ready for his show at the Flamingo Room. He poured another drink into a small glass and tilted his head back, feeling the alcohol slide down his throat. He took a long drag from his cigar and leaned back in his chair. He could hear the muffled music coming from the front of the club.

    “You drink too much, ya know that, Jack?” A topless woman in a feathery outfit was applying eyeliner in the mirror.

    “Hey, it helps my act, baby. Loosens me up and the audience loves it.”

    “You love it, Jack," She said as she applied her lipstick and blotted it on a cocktail napkin. "I don’t think it matters who’s watching.”

    Jack laughed. “Look, Sally, you aint my momma and I sure as hell aint taking any advice from a broad like you. Now go out and do what you do best and shake those goods for the nice fellas, eh?”

    “You’re a bastard, Jack." Her face flushed and she met his eyes. "Just horrible.”

    Sally put on the rest of her sparkling outfit and moved toward the door. She stopped with her hand on the doorknob and stared down at the floor for a moment. Her breathing slowed.
    “Jack…” She paused.

    Jack turned his head toward her as she continued; "Are you happy?”

    “What are you talking about?” He said, taken off guard by her sudden candor.

    “I mean, your life Jack, are you happy with your life?”

    “Well... What’s not to love, baby? I got enough money for drinks and the audience still claps, that’s all I need.”

    “There’s more to life than comedy, Jack.” She left the room without waiting for a response. Jack poured himself another drink. He took a swig as the phone rang. He picked up the handset.

    “Jack McNealy speaking,” He said matter-of-factly.

    “Jack?” The woman’s voice on the phone was soft and timid, almost scared. “Jack is that you? It’s me…”

    He knew the voice and felt a pit grow in his stomach. He cleared his throat. “Donna, how are you darlin’?” He said, grabbing his wedding ring off the table and slipping it back onto his finger.

    “I’m fine. The kids are fine.” She trailed off, unsure what to say. “I… I haven’t heard from you in so long, Jack, when are you coming home?”

    “I don’t know baby, I've been workin a lot,” he fidgeted with his tie and he began to sweat. “And traveling a lot, too. Been getting some really good gigs and I just know that the big shows are comin', ya know, the real shows. Like Vegas, baby, not these hole-in-the-wall dumps. I deserve to open for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Donna, you know that.”

    “I know Jack, but—“

    “You knew that when you married me! This, this is my life, this is who I am. This…” he fumbled with his words. “…this is what I was born for.” He stood up.

    “…and what about us, Jack? What about me? I haven’t seen you in six months and the kids...” her voice wavered and he could tell she was holding back the tears. “...they need you in their life. I need you, Jack.”

    The door burst open, waves of muffled music wafted into the room. Danny, Jack’s manager was out of breath. He caught his breath. “Jackie, baby, you’re on in two minutes, alright? You good? The crowd is on fire tonight, Jackie boy! Get out there and knock em dead!” He laughed and shut the door behind him as he left.

    Jack turned back to the phone. “Listen, Donna, I gotta go, I’m sorry I can’t talk about this right now.”

    “I’m leaving, Jack…” her voice became firm. “I’m leaving and I’m taking the kids with me. We can’t do this anymore. I need a husband and they need a father. We need to mean more to you than a bottle and a microphone.”

    "Look, baby we can—"

    Danny pounded on the door. "Come on Jackie, they're waiting for you! We gotta go, now!" Danny yelled as Jack put the phone up to his ear again.

    "Baby, I gotta go, we'll talk about this later." He was just about to hang up the phone when he heard her speak softly.

    "No, Jack, we won't. Goodbye..." He didn't respond and hesitated before hanging up the phone.

    Danny was waiting for him just off-stage and Jack could already tell the crowd was getting restless. There was a low murmur coming from the audience. The host, who was trying to stall the crowd, looked over and finally made his announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you've all been waiting for… Comedian Jack McNealy!” The crowd applauded.

    "Go Jackie-boy get the hell out there!" Danny said half whispering, half shouting as he pushed him out onto the stage.

    Jack smiled and straightened his tie as he walked out. The audience cheered. This was where he belonged. He loved the warmth of the spotlight and the clinking of drinks in the crowd. His jokes were always the same. Only the first joke changed, depending on what city he was in. He saw the stool with a glass of whiskey, an ashtray and a lighter with a fresh cigarette…

    …and there was the microphone, sparkling under the lights.

    He waved to the crowd and lit the cigarette. Taking a sip of whiskey, he stepped up to the microphone. “Thank you! Thank you, it’s so great to be here in Philadelphia. You’re wonderful!” he said as he looked all around the club. It was hard to see through the screen of smoke. “Ya know, I hear you folks call this the city of brotherly love,” he said as the audience applauded again. “But I’ll tell ya, someone should tell that to the drivers on interstate 95 this morning!” The crowd erupted with laughter. Jack went through his normal routine and the crowd responded exactly the same as they always did. In the middle of his act he even snagged a drink from a pretty woman in the crowd after his on-stage drink was empty. When he was finished, he thanked the crowd and walked off stage to a droning of applause. Danny looked unimpressed.

    “I’ve seen better, Jackie.” Danny said as Jack slumped in a chair. “I think your losing your touch, man!”

    “Just shut your mouth,” Jack growled. “And get me another drink!” He heard the next act being introduced.

    “Relax man, no problem. Ya know I don’t know how this place makes any money paying for your tab. You heading back to the hotel now?” An attractive waitress walked by with a tray of drinks and Jack instinctively slipped off his wedding band, dropping it in his coat pocket.

    “Can’t…” Jack said, forcing a smile at the waitress and grabbing a martini. “I gotta get to Chicago as soon as I can for the big show tomorrow night, so I’ll have to head out now.”

    “Drive to Chicago tonight? That’s crazy man! You’re a wreck, you need some sleep. Look I know this nice little dame named Sofia, I can set you up with her and we can get out all those cobwebs in your head. You really seem off, tonight Jackie-boy.”

    “I’m fine. If I don’t get to Chicago on time you know they’ll give my spot to someone else and this is a big show. Who knows, it might give me my big break.” Jack said.

    “Alright, boss, I’ll see ya around.” Danny said as he walked away, starting a conversation with another red-headed waitress.

    Jack went back to the dressing room and packed up his things. He had snagged a few extra bottles of whiskey for the road. Exiting out the back of the club, he found his Studebaker right where he had left it. He settled down in the driver’s seat and headed out of town.

    Leaving the bright lights of Philadelphia behind, Jack drove into the central Pennsylvania hills. His head was swimming. He had already gone through one of the bottles of whiskey before he reached Pittsburgh. He started on the second bottle as the road twisted through the backwoods and small towns of Ohio. Realizing he hadn't seen a town in over an hour, he leaned over to get a map out of his glove box; he should be close to Toledo by now.

    The oncoming car leaned on its horn as tires screeched to avoid the Studebaker. Jack jerked the wheel to the right, barely missing the other vehicle and fishtailing on the road. Losing control of the car it careened off the road, smashing into a large tree before rolling down an embankment and settling upside down. The wheels were still spinning and black, choking smoke was coming from the engine. Jack crawled across the roof of the car and smashed what was left of the passenger window. He could taste blood in his mouth as he propped himself up against the nearest tree. A drop of warm blood ran down the side of his cheek.

    He blacked out.

    ****

    “Jackie-boy, you’re on, let’s go!” Jack sat up in the chair.

    “Huh? Wha-…” His vision was blurry and his head was foggy. “W-what’s happening?” A figure began to appear in front of him, it looked like Danny.

    “You’re what’s happenin’ man, time for the great Jack McNealy! Now get out there!” Danny said helping Jack to his feet.

    “But… the car…” His memories were like ghosts, not coalescing into anything of substance. “There was a…” He ran his fingers through his hair. There was no blood, and no scars. His suit was clean and pressed.

    “Time to go Jack, they’re waiting for you!” Danny pushed him closer to the brightly lit stage.

    “Danny, where are we?”

    “Chicago, man, and let me tell you there are some sweet broads around here.” Danny’s eyes looked around as if one would come around the corner any minute. Jack reached for his wedding ring and found that it was gone. He checked his pockets and came up empty.

    “Chicago?” Jack’s thoughts still seemed fuzzy and his mind would fade in and out of reality. Things were starting to refocus. “Yeah, Chicago... big break…” He knew he was in Chicago and didn't care how he got there. Jack figured he was too drunk to remember.

    “No big break unless you get out there, Jackie baby!” One last push by Danny and Jack was on stage. The crowd roared with applause.

    The spotlight trained on him as soon as he cleared the curtain. It was bright. In fact it was the brightest lights he’d ever seen. He saw the stool, with the glass of whiskey and cigarette. He saw the microphone stand. He threw on the best smile he could muster and walked across the stage. He lit the cigarette and took a drag, waving to the crowd which was obscured by the bright lights. Picking up the glass, he downed the whole thing in one gulp, turning his attention to the microphone.

    “Hello, Chicago! It’s great to be here in the windy city!” More applause. He continued, “Ya know, I remember the first time I came to Chicago thirty years ago…” The lights were not only bright, they were hotter than usual. “…that was also the last time the Cubs won a world series!” The laughter was sporadic at best; he strained to see the few individuals laughing but still couldn’t see any recognizable shapes in the crowd. Jack began running through his material as the laughter faded and he started to hear scant booing. He couldn't take it anymore and decided to cut his act short.

    “Thank you everybody and thank you Chicago, you’ve been great! G’night!” Some mild applause. He was sweating profusely as he quickly walked off the stage. He looked around for a drink. “Danny, where are you?” He called out, looking backstage and in the dressing rooms. He didn’t find Danny. In fact, he couldn’t find anybody. There wasn’t a single performer or manager to be found anywhere. He could still hear the low murmur of the crowd and the clinking of glasses and silverware. “Hello? Anybody here? Hello?” His head throbbed.

    Jack decided to head to the hotel and sleep off whatever was wrong with him. He walked toward the exit but tripped over a coil of rope on and fell to the floor, banging his head. Bolts of pain shot through his head and he just curled up on the floor, hands pressed against his temples. His thoughts began to become unconnected. He could feel his thoughts losing their form and slipping away.

    “Hello? Anybody?” Pushing himself to his feet, Jack ran to the exit. Throwing his weight against the door, it burst open and he landed awkwardly on the hardwood floor. His vision blurred, but the pain was easing. He saw a pair of shiny polished shoes walk up to him and help him up into a chair.

    “Jackie-boy, you’re on, let’s go!” Danny said lifting him once again to his feet.

    “Go? Go where?" Jack was dripping with sweat and breathing heavy. Finding it difficult to concentrate, he tried to straighten his tie. "What the hell is going on around here, Danny? I did the show, it's over and I didn't do so hot, man. I just need to lie down and have a few drinks." Jack began to stumble toward the exit when Danny latched onto his arm.

    "Jackie, we got a lot riding on this show, man, I can't have you runnin’ out on me." Danny said with a smile as he pulled him toward the stage.

    "No, Danny," Jack tried to pry the hand from his arm but Danny refused to let go. “Come on man, knock it off!” He brought his free arm up and met Danny’s face with his fist, causing him to fall to the ground in a heap. Jack held his throbbing hand and screamed at the man lying motionless in the floor. "Why'd you make me do that Danny, for God’s sake all I wanted to do was leave! I'm done, ya hear! Done!"

    Danny was motionless. There was no expression on his face. His eyes were open. Jack saw that he wasn’t breathing. Above all else, Jack just wanted to get away. He ran out onto the stage. The spotlight was on him the moment he stepped out, even hotter and more blinding than before. The crowd applauded. He saw the stool and the glass and the cigarette, untouched, waiting for him. He shouted above the crowd, trying to see through the piercing lights. "Please, ladies and gentleman, I need a doctor! I need help! There’s things happening… I don’t know… Anybody!" There was no response except more applause. “Stop it! What is wrong with you!” Jack moved toward the crowd and stepped down off the stage and into the club.

    The spotlight followed him into the darkness. He found a table with seven empty chairs. He stumbled into another table surrounded by empty chairs, and another, and another. He could still hear the clapping surrounding him, but was unable to find the source. He was moving quicker now, soaked with sweat.

    "Is there anyone here?!" He yelled at the emptiness. "Anyone! Please!" The spotlight was now unbearable; an unrelenting heat began scorching his body. He ripped off his jacket and threw it on a table. Grabbing a newspaper off a table he tried desperately to shield himself from the heat. He ran back onto the stage. He dropped in a slump on the floor and looked over to where Danny had been laying. He was gone. Jack tried to stand up but the heat grew stronger and forced him to the floor. Boils began to appear on his skin and his clothing began to smoke and discolor. The nonstop applause was now a deafening roar. His eardrums burst and drops of blood began flowing down onto his neck.

    Tears filled his eyes as he tried to scream. In the last seconds of his consciousness, through the pain and the noise, he saw the newspaper. Burning but still visible was the headline:

    'Comedian Dies in Fiery Car Accident Outside Toledo'

    “No…” He said as his eyes closed for the last time.

    He awoke, sitting on the chair just offstage.

    “Jackie-boy, you’re on, let’s go!” Danny said…
     
  2. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Great story JJ Max! Love the vintage vibe - very Twilight Zone!
     
  3. P.V. Moyer
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    P.V. Moyer Member

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    Congrats. Glad this story won this one. Very well written.
     
  4. crashnburn
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    crashnburn Member

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    Awesome story. Glad it won.
     
  5. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Well written. :)
     
  6. IronPalm
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    IronPalm Banned

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    As peachalalu mentioned, there is an old-school, Rod Serling Twilight Zone vibe to the piece. Which is good; I enjoyed it. The story was set up nicely at the beginning, and then competently executed after the car accident.

    In terms of critique, you rely upon standard, predictable descriptions too often. It's not a major detriment, but it's obvious you probably haven't yet found your "voice" as a writer yet.
     

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