"Just give them a good show, sweetie. You never know who'll be in the audience."
Those words are sounding inside me as I stare uncomfortably at the doe-eyed woman I have been conversing with. A petite 5-foot-nothing, she is charmingly pretty, and starting to tear up as she struggles to express herself. Unfortunately, everything has grown awkward quickly, mainly due to my inability to take a hint, be even marginally aware of my surroundings, or have any grace whatsoever when it comes to the verbal ballet necessary when emotions are involved.
I hate being so dense.
* * *
I am in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Sault Saint Marie. It's the tippity-top of America and a stone's throw from the Canadian border. I am performing at a casino, which is always a crapshoot; when people go out to gamble, a comedy show isn't always on their radar. That I am in the casino bar makes things worse. Here you have those who are taking a break from gambling, or even worse, dejected souls who have run through their money and are drinking away their losses. Neither makes for an ideal audience.
REO Speedwagon is playing the main theater, making me realize I went my whole life without knowing that Northern Michigan is where rock goes to die. I am telling my wife of the competition, and she shoots the quote opened this blurb my way. I smile into the phone and tell her that no matter what happens, I'm OK with it. Hell, the night prior only fourteen people showed up, but they were fourteen attentive, laughter-filled folks who came to have a good time. Truth be told, I'd much rather have fourteen happy people at my show than 200 indifferent ones.
As it turns out, the Casino has scheduled the two events back-to-back; comedy is to begin just after the dying echo of Keep on Loving You fades into the air. Somewhere in the hotel I picture a clever manager giving himself a shoulder-chuck a la Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club.
That person knew what he was doing, because a healthy throng of people migrates directly from the theater to the bar, and as the first comic goes up its standing room only. The crowd is large; they are drinking, relaxing, and most importantly, laughing.
Soon it is my turn upon the stage, and without going into details it's just one of those nights. Everything works, everything hits. Laughter, applause, more laughter, more applause...
When I hit my contracted time I'm tempted to linger and extend the show. I admit my ego is weak and screams for more attention on nights like this. I consider basking in the sun of my personal Sally Field moment a bit longer--I've got the material; I could fire off stories for over 90 minutes if I wanted--but decide against doing so. As much fun as I'm having, the major drawback to the world of slot machines and poker-bluffs is: you can still smoke within their walls. Plumes of blue-gray cigarette smoke have been exhaled forth all evening, and over the course of the previous hour I've bathed in it. I can feel it infesting my pores and laying cancerous eggs. I want a shower more than anything else.
With a goodnight wave I leave the stage; better to leave them wanting more than giving too much. Also in the back of my mind is the niggling little fact that many casinos don't like shows to run long. Every minute a person isn't on the gaming floor is, well, another minute they're not on the gaming floor. The logic behind that should be beyond self-evident even to the most Sarah Palin of people.
I stand behind the table I've set my wares upon, and happily enough, folks are coming by with cash in hand. They're a little intoxicated, they've laughed, it's a perfect combination for me to help them part with a portion of their paycheck.
I begin singing The Banana Splits song to myself; each sale becomes another fruit to me: "One banana, two banana, three banana, four..."
Customers come, customers go; smiles, handshakes, transactions. This is repeated until only one woman remains. She has been waiting patiently at the back of the line, and I turn to acknowledge her.
"Hi," I smile. "Did you have fun tonight?"
"Yes," she responds with a sad smile, giving me pause.
She extends her left hand.
I quickly realize my phone is in my right hand, set it down, and smilingly extend a greeting her way.
She extends her right hand, but leaves her left forward.
As I am an idiot, I now take both hands, and shake them heartily. In my mind, I am imagining Buster Keaton and Groucho Marx; this is exactly what they would do in such a situation. It's playful, right?
After a moment, I return her appendages and she looks at me, slightly frustrated.
"No..." she explains, and offers her left hand yet again.
Within a span of seconds I say the word "Oh" twice. First, an upbeat, "Oh, I get it now! You're offering me your left hand for a reason!" exits my mouth. Almost immediately following is an "Oh" of realization. It is the release of air, one combined with a sinking feeling and accompanied by the words "Shit" or "My God."
On her wrist is a small, black metallic band. It looks fused in place, like it is never meant to be removed. Etched upon it is a name.
A name, and a date.
On stage, I am very vocal about my support for the men and women of the United States military. I tell tales of my nine tours overseas to provide laughter to the men and women serving in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not delve into politics; I keep things close to the vest, discussing the human aspect to everything: no matter anyone's feelings on war, government or any political affiliations, behind the uniform is a person. A mother. Father. Wife.
In the case of this woman, husband.
My embarrassed eyes looked away too quickly to remember the name, but I believe the day this woman lost her husband was in 2009.
She begins thanking me for my tours, telling me how much it means to her the troops are remembered and supported.
That humans are selfish is no secret; I was in Iraq in 2009. As she speaks I think back to my time there and wonder if against-all-odds I had stumbled across her husband. I have shaken thousands of hands while on military bases; was his one of them?
The most difficult part of any war-zone comedy tour is honoring gratitude. I have had shows cancelled due to incoming mortars. I have flown over mountaintops in open-door helicopters, the air so frigid I began to turn numb. I have waited countless hours in airports and on planes, done shows in awkward, improvised locations, and slept in the worst of beds with the most-stinky of sleeping bags. It's what I sign up for, and is to be expected. But when a man or woman whose life is on the line every single day, who has been stationed far from home for months or years takes hold of my hand, looks me dead in the eye and thanks me for my little dog and pony show, that's where I stumble.
I do my best to listen to the woman telling me how important it is to the men and women serving that they are remembered, but am torn. I understand I have to respect her words, but part of me wants to scream at the top of my lungs: "Don't thank me, I do nothing! I fly in, strut and fret my hour upon the stage, and am heard no more! You have suffered real loss!"
I remain silent and feel guilty for feeling guilty. Emotions of self-disgust swirl inside me, making me wish I could accept simple thanks without my mind wandering down a path of world injustices and karmic failure.
Maybe she has been drinking, maybe she is truly overcome with emotions too troubling to hold in, but soon she is reduced to a refrain of "Thank you... your words about supporting our troops meant so much. Thank you... thank you..."
A large part of me wants to give her a hug, draw her tightly to me as if my embrace could somehow give her a moment's respite from the pain. I don't for two reasons. One, I don't know this woman. It would be unfair of me to impose my will upon her in response to the current situation. And therein lay my second reason for not reaching out: when I am overcome with emotion I absolutely do not want to be touched. I prefer being left to my own devices to deal with whatever going through, and physical contact repulses me in the moment. What if she holds a somewhat similar disposition?
As I do not know her specific kinks, I do not invade her personal space. In the end, all I can do is offer a free CD, telling her the material she enjoyed is on the disc.
She leaves me by backing away, repeating over and over how much my words meant. Her eyes are watery, but no actual tears flow.
You never know who will be in your audience.
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